Why Socialists Need Organization


Preface: To Movement Activists

If you’re an activist in one of the movements, you’ve probably run into one or another socialist organization.  Like many individuals in the movements, you may say to yourself, “I consider myself some sort of socialist.” But you may have also asked yourself, “But why is socialist organization necessary?” If you have asked yourself the question, this pamphlet is addressed to you.

We want to discuss with you why we believe that as an activist in one of the movements you could be more effective in furthering the causes in which you are active, as well as the cause of socialism in which you believe, if you were part of a socialist organization, and particular, if you were a member of Solidarity.  Those of us in Solidarity believe that organization, a socialist organization, should help us to do more effectively many of the things we usually do as individual activists, and to do other things which we simply cannot do as individual activists. However, to do so, we believe it has to be a certain kind of socialist organization.  So we also look at the question, “What kind of socialist organization do we need?”

Those of us who fight for socialism, in Solidarity and in other groups, have learned from our experience of the last two decades, and we can make some general observations before going on to some particular arguments.  First, while we want to be internationalist in outlook, no revolutionary organization in the United States can tie itself to the ruling party of one of the so-called socialist societies.  Nor can we ignore the realities of the most prosperous and powerful capitalist country, a country which, despite its recent economic problems and political changes, is still far from the sort of crisis which will bring about a working class socialist revolution.  And while we want to generalize from the experiences of the past, no socialist organization can simply repeat the political slogans and campaigns of the Communist Party or one or the other socialist organizations of the 1930s. We will need a political analysis and a political strategy based on the international and domestic situation in the l990s.

Second, no socialist group can be built around one leader, no matter how charismatic the personality, brilliant the theoretician or talented the organizer.  The Internationale, the song which has been for a century the anthem of the working class, says: “We want no condescending savior.” We all recognize that some individuals are gifted in one area or another, but it is the cooperation of all on the basis of mutual respect which will make possible an effective socialist movement. Not the cult of the individual, but the collaboration of those dedicated to socialism, is what we need.  “I would not lead you out [of bondage], if I could; for if you could be led out, you could be led back again,” Eugene Debs once observed, and so it is.

While leadership is crucial to the success of a revolutionary socialist party, leadership does not arise in a vacuum.  Creating effective political leadership means, ultimately, organizing a network of cadres who carry out socialist politics in workplaces, in unions, as movement organizers and activists, or as full-time workers for the party.  Those cadre can only be the product of the class struggle itself: in the final analysis, the working class creates its political organizations, not the other way around. Effective socialist politics require collective leadership, always accountable to the rank and file, not the all-seeing wisdom of a Generallisomo issuing orders to a passive base.

Third, any group which hopes to play a role in leading the working-class must be able to learn from that class as well. Marx once observed that the educators themselves must be educated, and so the leaders are from time to time the led.  Socialists, whatever their class of origin, bring to the working class an inspiring vision of freedom, an analysis of the problems of capitalism and the possibilities of socialism, and they often also bring talent as organizers, journalists, speakers, teachers, and writers. However, if they are unable to learn from the experience of working people in the jobs and communities, and the experience of women an people of color, they will be unable to synthesize a socialist strategy for this nation.  The enormous audacity which inspires all of us who wish to overthrow capitalism must be tempered with a little humility based upon the recognition of our limitations. Let’s now outline some reasons that we believe that a socialist organization is a necessity today.

To Save the Lessons of our Experience

We need a revolutionary socialist organization as a way to save and generalize the experience of the left of the last two decades.  A revolutionary left in this country was recreated out of the civil rights movement, the anti-Vietnam War movement, and the women’s and lesbian and gay movements.  The revolutionaries created by the experience of those movements subsequently became active in the working class, in communities and in new social movements such as the anti-nuclear movement.  We need a socialist organization as the means of carrying on a systematic discussion about our past successes, failures and our future prospects. Figuring out the lessons of the last two decades of the American left is, of course, only part of the larger responsibility of any socialist group which is to act as the memory of working class and socialist experience.  We have to pass on the history of the struggle for socialism, the lessons of the past from Spartakus and the slave rebellions to Polish Solidarnosc.  Those of us who do not learn from history will, it is said, be condemned to repeat it.  We have a responsibility to generalize from our experience and draw the lessons and pass on our conclusions to the new generation of activists and revolutionaries being created in the new social movements.  We will save them a good deal of grief and add new allies to our ranks.  Without an organization of the revolutionary left, who will organize such a discussion?  Who will make its conclusions available?

To Organize the Work

Most of us who consider ourselves socialists are activists involved in one sort of organizing or another.  Socialism isn’t merely an idea which we believe – it’s a goal toward which we are working.  Whether in n a feminist organization, a Black or Chicano group, the labor movement, or one of the social movements, we’re attempting to involve others in the fight against the effects of capitalism, and against capitalism itself.  When a movement has to be built, an organization created, a demonstration organized, it is often organized socialists who first get together, talk on the phone or correspond to get things started and give them a push.  Let’s take an example.  In recent organizing against employers who have been demanding concessions from labor unions, it has often been a few socialists, members or ex-members of some of the smaller groups, who have called the first meetings, and with their collaborators called public meetings, put out literature, organized demonstrations, and organized for the union meeting, The process is all too often haphazard because of the fragmentation of the left.  We believe that the small socialist groups and many independent socialists could carry out this work more effectively if they were in a common socialist organization, developing an analysis and organizing their activities in common.

The more liberal socialists such as the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) have ties, for example, to the officialdom of the United Auto Workers, making it difficult for them to oppose concessions, and in any case are not involved in rank and file workers’ organizations.  The Communist Party and its members may from time to time be drawn into such organizing, but the politics of the Communist Party are really opposed to rank and file power from below, as was demonstrated by its opposition to the Solidarity movement in Poland.

So it’s up to us on the revolutionary left to organize much of the work.  Without a socialist organization, who will get the job done?

To Recruit Workers to the Socialist Movement

The great historical problem of the American left is that socialist ideas are separated from the working class, which is the only force that can give them relevance.  Socialism becomes a possibility only when the working class is prepared to fight consciously to create it.  A combination of prosperity and the persecution of the left have been able to relegate socialism to a small margin of society.

The constant expansion of the U.S. frontier, the expansion of American industry, the victory of the United States in World Wars One and Two (eventually making it after 1915 the hegemonic power in the capitalist half of the world) meant a society which for much of its history has been able to offer an ever higher standard of living to much of the working class.  And particularly from 1938 to 1968 there was a period of prosperity made possible by the dominant position of U.S. imperialism, by Keynesian welfare state policies of the ruling Democratic party, and by the permanent arms economy.  Socialist ideas are not attractive to many when there is prosperity.  At the same time, the powers-that-be have persecuted radicals whenever they became a threat, in the Palmer Raids and the Red scare of the first World War and the ’20s, in the McCarthy period of the ’50s, and most recently in the repression of Black militants and revolutionaries of the ’60s, which saw the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Fred Hampton, and infiltration and provocation in the Black Panthers and other militant Black organizations.

Prosperity and persecution have worked.  Socialists are a small minority in the society with no significant roots in the labor movement, in the Black or Hispanic community, or even in the broader social movements such as the feminist movement or the anti-nuclear movement.

The historic task of socialists is to again make the connection between socialism and the working class.  The way to carry out the jobs a subject of some discussion and disagreement. Taking jobs in industry and service may be one way, living and becoming involved in working class communities another, propaganda aimed at working people yet another.  A large enough group would be able to try various combinations of different approaches.

A broad revolutionary socialist organization, combining the strengths of some of the smaller groups, local collectives, and independent activists, would be in a better position to recruit workers.  It may not succeed, but with no socialist organization we shall surely fail.

To Develop Political Positions

Broadly speaking, many of us on the revolutionary left share some common working premises even when we are in theoretical disagreement.  Even where we disagree on the nature of the two “super-powers”, the United States and the Soviet Union, we find ourselves sin common support of the struggles for freedom everywhere, whether of the Revolutionary Democratic Front in El Salvador, or Solidarnosc in Poland.  We are committed to women’s liberation and the struggle against racism.  We are active in the labor movement because we see the working class as the agent of revolution.

These are views which are not shared by all others on the left.  The Democratic Socialists of America ultimately come down on the side of U.S. foreign policy; the Communist Party subordinates itself to the policies of the Soviet Union.

As politically active people we want to develop our understanding of the world on the basis of the views mentioned above.  To do so, we need an organization which will provide the wherewithal to carry on a systematic discussion of political events both national and international.  When war breaks out in the Middle East, for example, and we support the struggle for Palestinian liberation, the democratic struggles of the people in the area and the long term goal of socialism, we want to be able to think through our ideas, to develop a political position.  We cannot develop that position in common with those who put their allegiance to one of the two superpowers or their allies above the struggles of the liberation movement.  We need our own organization so that we can get our views clear by means of a discussion among our co-thinkers.  Without our own organization, how can we carry on a systematic political discussion so that we can arrive at an understanding and try to influence political vents?

To Provide a National and International Overview

The fragmented state of the socialist movement in the U.S. today means that most of us conduct our work in a vacuum. As political people, of course, we are aware of what’s going on in the world and the U.S. But the ability to put together an analysis that reflects reality requires the exchange of ideas with people from all over the country who are involved in a variety of political activities.  The view from one shop floor, one movement organization, or one community organization is never enough to tell us if our efforts are moving in unison with others in a direction that will bear fruit, or if we are simply isolated and working against the tide.  Socialist political work requires a context, an analysis of overall trends to be successful in the long run. And that kind of analysis requires organization.

Different people not only derive different experiences from their specific work, but none of us alone has the talent to put together such an overview on our own.  Even experienced political people have to draw on the talents and knowledge of many people in order to put together an overview of domestic or international events and trends.  Just as organization allows us to develop a more effective division of labor in our actual work so too an organized division of labor is needed to put together a realistic picture of what is going on in U.S. politics, industry, unions, and the many social movements.

The need for analyses and perspectives on a national and even international scale hold not only on the general level, but in our specific areas of political work as well.  Socialists working in a specific union, for example, need more than good local work if they are to help move that union and its members. Understanding the politics of a union requires an understanding of the industry and companies which it has organized, the ideas and methods of that union’s leaders, the consciousness of workers throughout the union, etc.  Activists isolated from workers in other areas are less likely to have a realistic picture of their union or industry.  Higher levels of understanding come with organized discussion and exchange.  Socialist organization is not just something that tries to bring greater consciousness to others, it also provides the vehicle for the growth of the consciousness and political understanding of its own members.

To Educate and Train Members

As political people and organizers, we are constantly involved in political education and teaching and learning organizational skills.  This work often goes on informally; we have a political discussion over supper, we help a friend write a leaflet.  However, as individuals none of us possesses all such knowledge and skills. One person is an expert on the history of the labor movement, another is a first-class orator, and a third is a cracker-jack organizer.  The talents seldom come together in one renaissance man or woman.

Such skills and information can only be systematically taught to others through an organization.  We believe that ends and means are related, that organizational skills can’t be separated from the politics which inspire them.  The organizing techniques of the Teamster bureaucracy and the former Daley machine in Chicago, to take two extreme examples, are not methods we would use.  However effective tho may be, strong-arm intimidation and voting-the-dead are not techniques we want to see taught.  It is only those who believe in democracy and mass movements from below who can teach skills in conjunction with politics, and that is the outlook of socialists.  In order to systematically pass on our political outlook and our skills, we need an organization.  How will we pass them on without an organization?

To Preserve the Socialists

Capitalism works in insidious ways to eliminate its opponents.  Poverty is one way.  This is a time of economic hardship, of layoffs, of high prices.  These problems affect socialists just as they do others.  Unemployment is demoralizing and degrading; it takes away one’s income and cuts one off from friends at work. It removes the labor activists from the arena of his or her political activity.  It’s hard to remain active socialist when one is unemployed. Prosperity is another.  Some socialists have good-paying jobs, they are able to enjoy some comforts.  Capitalism, making people comfortable, often co-opts them.  A few are fortunate enough to have organizational and political talents which the capitalist society wants to exploit.  So a radical intellectual becomes a corporate attorney, a labor journalist becomes a big-time reporter, a community organizer becomes a consultant, a rank and file militant becomes part of the labor bureaucracy, a feminist activist is offered a political position with the government.

In order to remain committed to socialism and not to be crushed or co-opted by capitalism, all of us need peer pressure, sympathy and support of our fellow socialists.  Without a socialist organization, where will we find that support?

To Be a Symbol of the Future

No socialist organization can be a utopian model of future socialist relationships.  However, we think that a socialist organization has to give some expression to the ideas we want to see in a future society.  First and foremost, is a commitment to democracy.  Democracy in a socialist organization means that the majority rules.  Decisions are made by voting.  Leaders are elected and responsible to those who elected them.  Power flows up from the bottom of the organization to the top.  Leaders do have a responsibility to lead, but on the basis of the democratic decisions passed by the organization or its delegates at regular conventions.

Part and parcel of democracy is the representation of minorities.  That means both political minorities and fractions of the organization with particular problems or interests.  Political minorities have to be represented in leadership bodies, have access to the internal and external publications of the organization, be able to recruit people not only to the larger organization but also to their own unique viewpoint.

In order to get people to accept the legitimacy of a policy even if they lose a vote, they must have an opportunity to win the vote.  That is why they must be able to organize for their political tendency or faction within the organization, and the leadership of the organization has no right to dictate whether or not that organization is temporary or permanent.  Politics has in this respect something in common with love relationships – those are most loyal who are most independent and who most freely choose their commitment.

Women and racial minorities must have the right to organize within any larger organization to deal with the particular kind of oppression which they suffer – discrimination which is sometimes repeated even within socialist organizations.  Gays and lesbians need those same rights to protect them from discrimination. The organization also has to have a commitment to the development and promotion of women, radical minorities and gay and lesbian members.  Carrying out that commitment may entail some sort of proportional representation on leadership bodies.  There are a number of other goals of a future society which one would like to see in any extant socialist organization which are much more difficult to achieve.  Victor Serge once observed that the degeneration of the Bolshevik Party, first expressed itself in rudeness.  Posturing and bluster are usually symptoms not only of egomania, but also a lack of political substance.  The acrimonious and vitriolic debate and the acerbic and sometimes vicious personalities of some of the socialist sects and their members only make one wonder what sort of society they might create if only they had the power. All socialist will not be nice, but they might at least be courteous.

To Propagandize for Socialism

Many independent socialist activists feel that the various movement organizations, coalitions and networks, are sufficient, and that a socialist organization is unnecessary.  “The networks are all we need for the time being,” they argue.  It’s true that the movement organizations, networks and coalitions do play a very important role.  They bring together those concerned about a particular issue in order to carry out their organizing.  They also define a certain level of politics.  For example, Labor Notes, a monthly labor publication sometimes organizes meetings, or even conferences which bring together labor activists working in rank and file movements and concerned about union reform.

It develops politics appropriate to those issues.  Similarly, the anti-apartheid, anti-intervention, and student, women’s and lesbian and gay organizations bring together activists to deal with those issues.

None of these organizations, however, raises the issue of socialism.  None of those organizations sees its task as propagandizing for the idea that the means of production ought to be owned and controlled by the working class or that the working class must destroy the capitalist state and create its own kind of state (already beginning to die even as it is born).  Only revolutionary socialists believe in those things.  And even though there may be many socialists active in the Labor Notes network or the Progressive Student Network, the networks don’t see socialist propaganda as their responsibility.  And it isn’t. They play a legitimate role in organizing many who aren’t socialists to become involved in fight over narrower issues.

But as socialists, we believe that the working class must consciously fight for socialism.  Socialism isn’t inevitable, it is a possibility.  The crises which periodically afflict the capitalist society, even the catastrophic crises such as those which shook Europe in 1948 and 1918, don’t necessarily mean that the working class will see and accept its responsibility to reorganize economic and political life.  There must be a conscious effort to put forward the notions of the democratic control of the working class over the state and over production.  How that should be done is a matter of great controversy no doubt, but that it has to be done no socialist can deny.  And if there is no socialist organization, then who will do it?

To Contribute to the Building of a Party

A socialist organization built in the United States in the next several years will not be able to call itself a party. A revolutionary party of the working class in the U.S. will be an organization of tens or hundreds of thousands or even millions. It will have a leadership and cadre made up of the leaders of the labor movement, of the most militant Black and Hispanic organizations, of the strongest feminist groups, of the gay and lesbian organizations, of young people’s organizations.  It’s leaders will have many years of experience in their particular realms and in politics in general.  It will be multi-racial in character and national in extent.  It will conduct national political electoral campaigns to further its propaganda and organization even though it has no hope of changing the society through elections.  It will be part of a real international socialist movement and perhaps part of a new international socialist organization.  No group in the U.S. today can pretend to call itself a party.  Any group which does is only fooling itself.  We have no belief and unfortunately no hope that such a party can be organized in the near future.

We can nonetheless contribute to the building of such a party by creating in the next couple of years a socialist organization which attempts to develop socialist theory and participate in the practical tasks of the day.  If we cannot build such an organization then how can we ever hope to build a revolutionary party?

We believe there are reasons to hope that a revolutionary socialist organization can be created in the U.S. today.

Among many leftists we find a sincere desire to discuss and debate political points of view with the understanding that none of our small organizations has all the answers.

The economic and political situation in the U.S. today also creates a desire among leftists to cooperate.  The United States is experiencing the longest period of economic stagnation in its post-war history.  The employers have launched an economic offensive against the standard of living and the working conditions of the working class and the power of its unions.  The new right has challenged the political gains achieved by Blacks, Latinos, women, gays and lesbians.  All of us on the left feel a terrific need to develop some coherent response to these issues.  None of us feels we can do it by ourselves.

We believe it is time for leftists, whether or not they are now part of some organization, to begin talking about developing a political organization of the revolutionary left for the 1990s.  We believe that such an organization would have to be multi-tendency, coming as we do from all different political traditions, but with a commitment to a democratic, revolutionary, and internationalist perspective.  We think such a group would be an immense step forward for the left.

Solidarity is a small socialist organization of a few hundred members, and even if you’re attracted to our politics and to our ideas about socialist organization, you may ask, “How do you expect to grow and become a revolutionary socialist party?”

We think this is a reasonable question, and an important one, but one for which there are no easy answers.  First, we are anxious to recruit those who agree with our politics and want to work with us.  However, we think that the recruitment of individual members is only one part of the process.

Second, we look forward to opportunities to talk and to work with those in other socialist groups.  Solidarity itself is the product of the merger of three separate socialist organizations and a few local collectives.  We believe that other such mergers are possible and important.

Third, history tells us that capitalism is a system of crises, and that in those crises new social movements are thrown up, new organizations formed, new political programs developed. The economic crisis of the 1930s created the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO); institutional racism in the 1950s created the Civil Rights Movement; and a war in the 1960s created the and-war movement and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS); the oppression of women, gays and lesbians led to women’s liberation and gay liberation in the l970s, and the economic situation of the 1980s led to the fights against plant closings and concessions. Within all of these movements there developed groups, some large, some small, interested in socialism.  We foresee the development of indigenous socialist currents out of mass social movements. The most important such experience in U.S. history was probably that of Eugene V. Debs and the American Railway Union (ARU) out of the defeat of which arose the Socialist Party.  We want to be involved in such developments as they take place in the future.

Fourth, we have also had the experience of the development of socialist currents out of oppressed national minorities such as Blacks or Latinos.  Blacks and Latinos are oppressed both as people of color and as workers, and frequently it has happened that nationalist organizations have evolved in a socialist direction. This took place most recently in the “Black Power” movement of the 1960s when sections of groups such as the Black Panthers developed socialist ideas.  Similarly the Latino political party of the ’60s and ’70s, La Raza Unida, developed in a socialist direction.  We have to be aware of and involved in these developments among national groups as they take place.  And similarly women’s and gay organizations in dealing with their specific forms of oppression have also sometimes evolved in a socialist direction.

All of these are potential sources of a broader regroupment of socialist radicals, and as such developments take place, those of us in Solidarity will advocate our international, democratic and revolutionary politics within these movements.

The task of the revolutionary socialist left is, while retaining its ideas, to overcome its isolation.  We don’t think that can be done in either of the two larger groups, the Communist Party or the Democratic Socialists of America, in both of which one would have to forget one’s ideas and perhaps still be doomed to obscurity.  It certainly can’t be done in the tiny groups which pride themselves on their isolation and their idiosyncrasies.

Think what it would have meant for us over the past few years to have had a broad revolutionary socialist organization of several hundred or perhaps a few thousand members.  How much more could we have done to build support for U.F.C.W.  Local P-9 strike?  How much more might we have been able to accomplish in building support for Polish Solidarnosc?  Couldn’t we have been more successful in building labor and public support for struggles for self-determination in El Salvador, South Africa, and Palestine? Wouldn’t our work in the labor rank and file reform movements, in the Progressive Student Network, in the gay and lesbian movement, in the Black and Hispanic communities be that much further along?

There is one final point to be made.  Those with whom we work often ask us, “Why can’t you leftists get together? After all, you all want the same thing, socialism.”

There are some good reasons why we can’t all get together.  We think it’s pretty easy to explain why we don’t belong in the Communist Party, which supports the crushing of Polish Solidarity, or the Democratic Socialists of America, some of whose members negotiate the labor concessions with the employers.  But it is awfully hard to explain why many of the rest of us can’t get together on the same basis, despite our differences.  Whatever we call ourselves, many of us believe in the same things: socialism from below, the organization of mass movements for social change, solidarity with liberation struggles around the world from Poland to El Salvador, and the goal of as democratic socialist society. We stand for workers’ revolution, and for an end to racism and sexism, for freedom.  Why can’t we get together?

We have no illusion that we have all the answers, though we are sure that no answers can be found without some of the political principles we hold to guide us in the search. If you agree with our basic views, we invite you to join us, because we think we would be more successful with your help.