How Can We Build the Socialist Movement in the 21st Century?

by Dan Dimaggio on January 12, 2013

“It is easy for good to triumph over evil, if only angels will get organized along the lines of the Mafia.” – Kurt Vonnegut

For the past seven-plus years I have devoted much of my life to effort to build a socialist movement in the United States. As a member of one of the many tiny socialist groups on the U.S. left, I have organized dozens of anti-war, labor solidarity, immigrant rights, and other rallies and campaigns. I have toured the country to speak at college campuses about socialism. I have set up numerous study groups and conferences and written and edited hundreds of articles for socialist publications. Most people might say, “Dan, you’re crazy if you think that socialism can be achieved in a country like the United States!” But despite the challenges, I hope to continue doing this for the next 50 or so years.

Lately, though, I’ve started to wonder just how the &*^$ a viable socialist movement can actually be built in the U.S. I’ve been grappling with this question for much of the last year as I attempt to overcome a funk rooted in my sense that the current organizational forms of the socialist movement, to which I and many others have given so much of our time and energy, are a dead end. Recently it seems like every time I try to raise a finger to help the movement, I am overcome by a crippling sense of the futility of it all.

My paralysis does not stem from pessimism about the possibilities for social change in the U.S. Rather, it is rooted in frustrations with the current methods of organization dominant in the socialist movement, methods which make a difficult task even harder – if not impossible. I can’t shake the feeling that despite our best intentions, we are wasting resources by taking roads that lead to nowhere. It doesn’t help that the main form of organization – tiny, competing groups divided by marginal differences – is out of tune with the content of our aims – “the full material and spiritual liberation of the toilers.” I’ve come to feel that all the heroic effort in the world cannot invest inherently barren forms with meaning.

This piece is my attempt to stimulate critical thinking about the way forward for the U.S. socialist movement. I hope that it will be of interest to practicing socialists as well as other progressive activists, because I think that a healthy, attractive socialist movement can help contribute to the rebuilding of a broader and more powerful left. I realize I am not the first person to say what is written below, and there is much that remains unexplored and unanswered. But I hope it will lead to a productive and collaborative discussion that might open new possibilities for anti-capitalist organizing.

The Crisis

Ten years into the 21st century, we face a series of crises – economic, environmental, and beyond – rooted in the capitalist profit system. Yet the real crisis in this country, as Naomi Klein put it, “comes from the fact that there isn’t a real left.” Without a vibrant, powerful left – or even the semblance of one – there seems to be no alternative to what is on offer from our corporate and governing elite.

An outside observer might suppose this should be a historic time for the socialist movement. The global economic crisis has discredited capitalism in the minds of millions. A poll by Rasmussen in April 2009 found that only 53% of Americans favor capitalism over socialism, with the under-30 crowd nearly evenly split in its support. Add to this Glenn Beck’s paranoid ranting about the Obama administration’s cryptosocialism, which makes it seem like there’s a socialist around every corner, and you might get the impression that socialists were gaining some serious traction.

Unfortunately, this atmosphere has translated into few appreciable gains for the socialist movement. Sure, there have been a few national TV appearances and op-eds by socialists in important newspapers (and Beck has even read some socialist groups’ “What We Stand For” programs on his show). But the dirty secret is that there are probably just a few thousand organized socialists in the U.S. today. That number includes people of widely varying levels of commitment and experience. And “organized” is a generous term, as we are divided into dozens of tiny, squabbling organizations. Outside of Beck’s mind, I’m sorry to say, socialists have unfortunately little influence.

This isn’t to demean the important work being done by socialist groups across the country. Socialists have played critical roles in recent movements ranging from LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) rights to the anti-war movement, providing dedicated organizers as well as political leadership. At the same time, they continue publishing socialist literature, organizing meetings and study groups, and trying to educate a new generation of Marxists. The socialists organizing today are some of the most dedicated, self-sacrificing people you will ever meet – people who should be praised by anyone wishing for a better world, rather than laughed at as hopeless dreamers or criticized from the sidelines.

Yet this work is far from enough, as most practicing socialists are all too well aware. The question is whether more can be done, or whether the weakness of the movement today is an inevitable outcome of the period we are in. Despite growing frustrations with capitalism around the globe, this is a difficult period for the left. The past two decades following the collapse of the Soviet Union have seen an accelerated ideological offensive proclaiming socialism impossible. There is no denying that the road ahead for socialists will be an arduous one.

But as U.S. socialist James Cannon once said, “The art of politics is knowing what to do next.” My contention is that we can take steps today to make the socialist movement healthier and more attractive, positioning it to grow and win the best activists to its ranks in the years ahead. Objectively, capitalism’s crisis poses a serious need for a powerful socialist alternative, without which the relentless logic of the system will continue to assert itself. Growing numbers are coming to recognize that the problems facing humanity – from poverty to wars to environmental disaster to sexism and racism – are systemic, even if that does not immediately lead them to join an organization. Our task is to reach these people and show them a movement that is capable of playing a role in changing society. Most importantly, this process will involve critically assessing the organizational forms of today’s socialist movement and launching a deep discussion on how to overcome the sectarian forms of organization and the sectarian thinking to which they give rise.

What we do right now matters. As Hal Draper wrote nearly 40 years ago, “For us American socialists today who look forward to the building of a genuine socialist movement, there is a course we can take which will further this objective and bring it nearer, which will fructify the ground on which it will arise, which will make it easier for its elements to mature from place to place.” Yet Draper also warned, “The course taken now by American socialists can also have the opposite effect: of turning off dispositions toward a genuine movement; of sterilizing the ground on which the seeds of the movement might germinate; of making it harder for workers to find their way to a socialist movement-in-the-making.”

Problems of the Sect Form

It might be useful to first lay out the current terrain of U.S. socialism. What exists today is a variety of tiny groups, often disparagingly referred to as “sects.” I have usually taken offense to the use of this term to refer to almost every group; it makes it sound like they are all distanced from reality and more interested in building their own organizations than a broader movement. Some groups labeled “sects” are much better than others; there is a vast distance between the Spartacist League1 and groups like Socialist Alternative or the International Socialist Organization (as the Sparts always take pains to point out). But increasingly, I feel that it might be a fair term, though I will try to avoid it as much as possible, given that it has entirely negative connotations which are not fair to socialist activists today.2

Nearly all socialist groups today are basically walled off from one another, mutually impermeable in terms of ideas and coordinated work. The limited exceptions to this statement only prove the rule. Each duplicates similar activities, from publishing a newspaper (the be-all and end-all for socialist groups, often drawing on a misreading of Lenin which I will address below), to organizing meetings on the case for socialism, to coordinating study groups, and on and on.

Until very recently, I was a member of one of these tiny socialist groups, Socialist Alternative. Internationally, Socialist Alternative is in solidarity with the Committee for a Workers’ International, which includes groups like us in about forty other countries. Other groups on the socialist left in the U.S. include the International Socialist Organization, Solidarity, the Socialist Party, the Freedom Socialist Party, the Socialist Equality Party, Socialist Appeal, Socialist Action, Socialist Organizer, two versions of the Freedom Road Socialist Organization, the Party for Socialism and Liberation, the Workers’ World Party, Labor’s Militant Voice, the Socialist Workers’ Party, the still existing Communist Party USA, the Revolutionary Communist Party, and plenty of others (my sincere apologies if I left your group out).

The existence of all these groups always comes off as strange to those outside the movement, so it’s worth explaining why someone might join one and not the others. I joined Socialist Alternative nearly eight years ago, immediately after the invasion of Iraq. I had heard a speaker from our Nigerian sister party speak six months earlier and make a
compelling case for international socialism, which was strengthened by the fact that he had been one of the leaders of the massive general strikes against fuel price hikes in Nigeria. So he wasn’t just a talker, but clearly someone who represented an organization with ideas that were actually able to reach people and mobilize them into action. Given
the patronizing attitude of many liberal American activists toward Africans, Asians, Latin Americans, and working people generally – either that they need to be saved, or that their struggles are different than ours and all we can do is cheerlead them rather than have a genuine dialogue about strategies and tactics – I found it immensely attractive to be in an organization that included serious working-class activists from around the globe.

Still, it took months of convincing before I joined. I wasn’t sure why I should join any particular socialist group or what I would get out of it. I had been extremely active in the anti-war and student-labor movements, including the Harvard Living Wage Campaign, which culminated in a sit-in in 2001 that brought the richest university in the world to its knees. Sure, I agreed with everything I read, but I was always asking – “what do you guys do?” It became clearer to me how socialist ideas could help build mass movements after I read books like Farrell Dobbs’ Teamster Rebellion, about the Trotskyist-led Minneapolis Teamsters’ strikes of 1934. And with the start of the war in Iraq, it was clear that this entire system (capitalism) was intolerable, and I needed to get involved in an organization pledged to overthrowing it.

I was attracted to Socialist Alternative in particular because, in contrast to the student activist groups I was involved in, it included workers among its leadership, and emphasized that the working class was the key force in changing society. I also agreed with the decision to support Ralph Nader’s campaign for president in 2000 from a socialist perspective (the first protest I had ever attended was a rally outside the 2000 presidential debates protesting the exclusion of Nader), which seemed like a no-brainer: if you want to build a mass socialist movement, it’s going to first and foremost require a break from the two-party corporate dictatorship over U.S. politics. Further, Socialist Alternative didn’t trace their ideological allegiance back to Stalin or Mao, whose appeal I’ve always struggled to understand (not to mention that the groups that looked to them as leaders always turned me off for other reasons, although I’m open to learning about them in the future with less hostile eyes). And they weren’t crazy (“ultra-left” being the kinder word usually employed), unlike some on the Boston left. Instead, Socialist Alternative’s methods seemed capable of translating socialism into a force that could actually be grasped by millions of workers and youth. That I was joining an organization of just 150 or so people didn’t bother me too much, since every social movement starts small. Besides, what other choice do you have if you want to build the socialist movement today?

In retrospect, I’m glad that I made the decision to join. But with time I’ve grown more and more skeptical that any currently existing socialist group is going about organizing the right way. In fact, I increasingly feel that the socialist movement today has more to do with play-acting out some vision of the past than dealing with the complex questions that face us in the present. The organizational forms the movement takes today do a lot to contribute to this problem, and deserve a critical assessment by anyone considering devoting their life to the struggle for radical transformation.

Visions from the Past

To accuse socialists of “play-acting out some vision of the past” sounds harsh, so it’s worth elaborating on what I mean. I believe that our visions of how the movement was built in the past allow many to accept the puny size of our organizations today. We know – or think we know – from studying history, that tiny, embattled forces have on numerous occasions grown to lead popular, socialist revolutions. To give two commonly drawn upon examples: Didn’t the Bolsheviks start out from a miniscule core of exiles, Plekhanov, Zasulich, and Axelrod? And wasn’t it said that you could fit the entire antiwar, revolutionary socialist left (the Zimmerwaldists) after the outbreak of World War I into two stagecoaches? Yet it was their dogged adherence to the correct program that enabled them to eventually win the allegiance of millions and lead the first successful workers’ revolution in the world, in Russia. But are these comparisons historically correct? The Zimmerwald left, after all, represented figures who had once had the allegiance of millions, and would soon again.3

This type of pioneering attitude has its positive side: it’s the spirit necessary to get movements off the ground and push onward through difficult times. But it shouldn’t be a replacement for serious thinking. While history should be a source of moral support, we also need to scrupulously study it to draw lessons for our struggles today. Socialist groups strive to be the “historical memory of the working class” and spend tremendous amounts of time and effort studying history. Unfortunately, many of our readings of the past are quite flawed.

For a lot of groups, the Bolsheviks still provide a model, and the writings of Lenin are drawn upon to help provide some guidance on questions of revolutionary organization. Others in the movement have rejected “Leninism.” Yet there is a widespread misunderstanding of what “Leninism” (as practiced by Lenin and co.) actually was.

Today, Lenin is often brought out by groups seeking to justify the existence of their own tiny organizations. We often cite his statement that “without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement.” In particular, Lenin warned, a correct revolutionary theory was important for a young movement, one just getting going – while an incorrect theory could weaken the movement for years to come. In many readings by the left, he becomes the original splitter (a reading re-emphasized by a superficial understanding of the Bolshevik-Menshevik rift in 1903).

Referring to these types of quotes is reassuring when you are trying to provide a rationale for your tiny group’s existence. The need to uphold the proper revolutionary theory (or “line”) gives a historic mission to groups of 150 – or 50, or 20, or even 5. But it relies upon a complete misunderstanding of what Lenin wrote. Lenin’s overarching goal was to build a party that was capable of sinking deep roots in the Russian working class, one that would draw together the most active and thinking workers and activists into common action. This is what is meant by the oft disparaged term “vanguard party.” The quote about revolutionary theory is from the polemic What Is To Be Done? in which Lenin was arguing for a mass party along the lines of the German Social Democrats (SPD). It was not written to justify the existence of a tiny sect, as it seems to be routinely used today.4

In fact, Lenin’s key point in writings like “Where to Begin?” and What Is To Be Done? was not about doctrinal purity. Rather, it was about the implications of the political mistakes of the economists, whom he accused of “endeavoring to clip and narrow the work of political organization and agitation.” He felt that the workers of Russia would respond to exposures of all forms of oppression, not just those that affected their immediate economic interests – if only the message would get to them, in the right form. He wanted to reach more people, on more issues, with good material, and thus called for a single national newspaper to unite the many disparate groups and provide a focus for their work.5 He drew bold organizational conclusions, writing, “The immediate task of our Party is . . . to call for the formation of a revolutionary organization capable of uniting all forces and guiding the movement in actual practice and not in name alone, that is, an organization ready at any time to support every protest and every outbreak and use it to build up and consolidate the fighting forces suitable for the decisive struggle.”

It is important to recognize the context in which all this was written: the dramatic advances in the Russian workers’ movement, along with a growing groundswell of society-wide protest against the tsarist regime. The groundwork for such a revolutionary organization (and to some extent for the workers’ protests) had been laid by the local socialist circles that developed in the 1890s, and by the propaganda efforts of Marxists like Plekhanov and co. even earlier – as well as the heroism of the youth of the Russian intelligentsia who sought to find a road to the people in the 1870s and 1880s. We in the United States today are in an entirely different situation from that in which Lenin and other turn-of-the-20th century revolutionaries were writing and organizing, a period that globally featured major working-class struggles and mass socialist political parties. The immediate tasks of American socialists in the 21st century must stem from the specific conditions facing us right now. Nonetheless, since Lenin is drawn on so much, and since I still think he (and other classical Marxists) have a lot to teach us, it is worth understanding what he wrote. It’s also important to recognize that for all his abilities to size up concrete situations and develop tactics flowing from them, he was quite consistent throughout his career as a Marxist in the type of movement he aimed to develop. I will return to this more later to address Lenin’s thoughts on the socialist press.

The question today is how to lay the groundwork for the eventual development of a powerful socialist movement in the U.S. Many who are new to the movement often quickly ask why all the existing socialist groups can’t just get together and build a united organization, or at least work more closely together. The usual answers are that the differences between the groups are too great to justify uniting. Even if a number of groups all came together, it would just result in a still small grouping burdened by even worse infighting than exists today. Plus, each group believes it is the embodiment of the true Marxist program and methods, which it must preserve and defend against other groups. Louis Proyect, moderator of the Marxmail list and a former member of the Socialist Workers’ Party, explains how he was initially impressed with the explanations given to him (back in the late ‘60s) by a more experienced socialist for why so many groups exist: “He said that the experience of observing the left from afar is a little bit like looking at a man in the distance whose image is cloaked by fire and sparks and the violent strikes he is applying to an unseen object that result in harsh clanging sounds. From afar, he looks like a madman engaged in some bizarre activity. But when you come close, you can see that he is the village blacksmith simply doing productive work. This is exactly what polemical struggle looks like to the neophyte.”16 As much as I think that political clarity is key, I’ve come to share Proyect’s conclusion that perhaps the neophytes’ skepticism is correct after all.

The usual response to these concerns is that regroupment efforts will have to await the development of broader struggles, in which groups will have the opportunity to work together more broadly in common action and be able to test out their points of agreement. In the meantime, it’s argued, efforts to force socialists to unite are premature and run the risk of actually setting the movement back. Yet after nearly eight years of socialist activism, I have come, for a variety of reasons that I will outline below, to believe that the most urgent task we face is figuring out how to overcome the divisions that exist within the movement and build a common, united organization of some sort.

How to Advance Revolutionary Theory and Socialist Ideas

This isn’t to say that questions of theory, or the disagreements that exist today, are of minor importance. Lenin was correct when he said that “without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement.” In other words, without a scientific understanding that the crises we face today are an inevitable outcome of the capitalist system, that the contradictions of capitalism cannot be reformed out of existence, and that fundamental, systemic change is necessary, the movement’s focus will be on the deadend of reformism, fruitlessly attempting to patch up the system. The question then is how socialists actually can advance revolutionary theory and support for socialist ideas today.

The current model relies upon each individual socialist group training its members in its version of “revolutionary theory” and attempting to transmit this to the world. “Revolutionary theory,” as far as I can tell, is usually very narrowly defined as the program and methods of a specific tiny group. The key is to develop a core of people who understand these ideas – “cadre.” As Proyect describes it, “This is the ‘nucleus’ theory of party building – develop case-hardened ‘cadre’ like the nucleus of some element, like carbon or uranium. When a catalyst is applied, like heat or the class struggle, the masses will accumulate around the nucleus like electrons. That’s the theory anyhow.” However, this is quite problematic in reality. While it’s better than nothing, walling ourselves off in our own groups and focusing on reading our own limited material is a severely flawed method. Instead, the movement desperately needs more debate, debate which transcends organizational lines, and that will challenge activists and bring a new level of theoretical seriousness, as well as the potential for expected qualitative breakthroughs. This seems a much better idea than smugly sealing ourselves off, content that we have the right ideas – even if they are unlikely to ever really reach anyone.

Lenin wrote that “the role of an advanced fighter can only be fulfilled by a party guided by an advanced theory.” By “advanced theory,” he didn’t just mean a general agreement with the basic principles of socialism. Rather, as he wrote (in a fit of exuberance), “To have some concrete idea of what this means, let the reader recall such forerunners of Russian Social Democracy as Herzen, Belinsky, Chernyshevsky and the brilliant galaxy of revolutionaries of the seventies; let him remember the world significance that Russian literature has now acquired; let him . . . but let that suffice!” I include that quote because it serves to emphasize the wide gap between the pretensions of socialists today to be building off the traditions of the past, and the reality of that history. I think we routinely miss out on the broad scope of what Lenin and others conceived. Of course, we cannot just will such a movement or even theory or literature into existence. But hopefully we can help to create the grounds on which it can develop.

This means more of an effort to promote dialogue, debate, and sharing of ideas within the entire socialist movement, to most effectively train socialist activists, thinkers, and writers. As Engels wrote, “It is the responsibility of the leaders to enlighten themselves more and more in theoretical issues, to liberate themselves more and more from the influence of traditional phrases that belong to the old worldview and to always keep in mind that from the time it became scientific, socialism demands to be treated as a science, that is, that it must be studied.” The advance of this science, and the development of scientific socialists, is limited not just by the period we are in but also by our organizational forms, which impoverish our thought. This doesn’t have to mean reading everything by Slavoj Zizek or burying ourselves in an ultra-academic approach to theory. It means being able to explain the way the world works and to present Marxism in a popular fashion. That involves a lot of hard work, critical thinking, and discussion, which is hard to get inside the currently existing groups, given their limited memberships and resources.

There are some websites that exist to promote this type of discussion, but they are a far cry from what is needed, and have a tendency to attract armchair socialists. The discussion forum appears to be filled with these types, people who are always prepared to hurl accusations of reformism at anyone engaged in real-world activism that goes beyond the pale of sterile socialist propagandizing. Marxmail is a useful mailing list that aims to encourage discussion and debate, but the audience and level of participation there is frustratingly limited. The Kasama Project is a promising website aimed at thinking through questions of “communist reconception and regroupment,” largely from a Maoist or post-Maoist perspective (though with an unrivaled culture of openness and serious debate).

I should point out that the currently existing groups themselves do produce some of the best-informed and talented socialist thinkers and activists out there. Within these organizations, there are quite useful discussions, meetings, conferences, and study groups that greatly help advance their members’ theoretical level and abilities as socialist
activists (this type of education is very difficult to get outside of these groups!). Further, there are debates within socialist organizations that often help to clarify revolutionary theory, but they usually take place solely within the confines of these groups and their tiny memberships. God forbid these positions be expressed openly in publications that can be seen by all activists. Doing so would supposedly violate “democratic centralism,” which is today taken to mean that debates should remain enclosed inside tiny organizations and that only the position that wins a majority within a particular group can be expressed publicly. As Hal Draper mockingly wrote in criticizing this version of “democratic centralism”: “Let us build a ‘Bolshevik’ party by being ‘disciplined’ like good Bolsheviks. So, on the basis of a false notion of ‘Bolshevik’ discipline absorbed from the enemies of Leninism, the sect is ‘Bolshevized’ into a contracting, petrifying coterie, which replaces the bonds of a political cohesion by iron hoops such as are needed to hold together the staves of a crumbling barrel.”

This is completely out of tune with the nature of the period we are in today. First of all, we are faced with the task of rebuilding the socialist movement. This project will require a process of collective discussion that goes far beyond the confines of existing groups today. As the organization Solidarity, which has been raising the issue of regroupment for many years, writes, “We believe that none of the existing revolutionary socialist organizations – not even all of them combined – can synthesize the experience of worker and social movement activists and provide a coherent strategy (known on the left as a ‘program’) for socialist revolution in the U.S. today. Therefore, no one can claim to be the vanguard party or its nucleus. . . . We believe that we have as much to learn as we do to teach from other socialist militants.”

This is not to say that there are not important differences between groups, and that these should be covered up or ignored. We need a rich culture of debate in the socialist movement, not a false quest for unity at any cost. Many of the best works of Marxism have been polemics, which serve to clarify issues and advance Marxist theory. But today,
most of the debates that occur remain contained within tiny groups – a parody of the type of real, broad debate that is necessary. It means that others don’t benefit from seeing this rich culture of debate, or of finding points of agreement. Proyect suggests that a healthy socialist press would “encourage debates over how to interpret [historical and international] questions . . . since they can make us even more attractive to people investigating which group to join. It is natural that you would want to join a group with a lively internal life.” Not only that, but debates challenge activists to think through how to present issues, to clarify their ideas, and to be better prepared in explaining them to the wider world, with its diverse audiences. They are an absolutely vital means of training activists.

If you see your group as the vehicle for revolutionary change, the current operating model makes sense, but if you want to strike beyond this – as every group claims they do – then it really doesn’t. It means that to participate in these debates, which can be extremely enlightening, you must first join one of these sects and agree to their positions on every issue under the sun (or at least pretend to). This is an impossibly high bar to set, especially given the low level of consciousness prevailing in the U.S. today, even among those attracted to the socialist movement.

Further, given the nature of these organizations, in place of a healthy internal debate, what is often generated is a tendency to smother any concerns. Once they begin to have doubts about the positions of the organizations they belong to, many members of socialist groups find little opportunity and see very little hope in expressing them. When their concerns become too much, they are liable to just quit the movement, often without ever even trying to express their reservations. Not only are the individuals thereby deprived of an outlet for socialist organizing, but these organizations are deprived of the internal criticism that might help, in some way, to revitalize them.

Nor is this idea of “democratic centralism” historically accurate. It mimics the form practiced by the socialist movement in the past, yet misses the content and essence. It is grossly out of tune with how consciousness actually develops, and with how a 21st century socialist movement might be built in the U.S.

“Small Business Mentality”

The model of organization today generates what Marxmail moderator Louis Proyect terms a “small business mentality.” Each group operates like a “small business that competes for market share with other small businesses, except that we are selling revolution rather than air conditioners or aluminum siding.” This results both in an inferior product as well as a weakened marketing ability. The world might be able to live with inferior air conditioners and aluminum siding – but ending capitalism is a life-or-death question. We’re not just aiming to stay afloat and send our kids to college – we’re aiming to transform the world. The fact that most socialists understand this and yet remain committed to “small business” forms of organization is disheartening.6

Within the confines of the socialist movement, you will almost never hear a competing group’s activities praised – the focus must always be on how your particular group has the best analysis and methods. Often, other organizations’ materials are picked over with a fine-tooth comb in a search for any flaw in their argumentation that reflects their mistaken political positions and methods. Whenever I sent out articles by other groups over my own group’s internal e-mail lists, for example, I was pressured to preface them with a short critique or risk being accused of the unpardonable sin of opportunism.

One result of this pressure is that each group has to produce its own materials and duplicate many of the same tasks. They each need their own website, articles, pamphlets, and books, no matter if they’re redundant with others already in existence. It’s okay to use classic Marxist material from the past, but almost never literature put out by competitors.7

It’s as if the currently existing groups hope that potential recruits won’t notice that there are other groups out there, which would complicate recruiting them. After all, even drawing attention to any worthwhile material from other socialist organizations might lead to inconvenient questions or even worse, someone joining a rival organization. Small businesses can’t afford to acknowledge, let alone advertise, their competition.

When good speakers from other socialist groups come to town, competing organizations usually refuse to publicize their events. For example, I was told I could not advertise a talk by Sherry Wolf of the ISO on “Sexuality and Socialism” – she is one of the few individuals on earth who has written at length on this topic – over the Socialist Alternative public e-mail list. The fact that I even raised the idea came as a shock to some. As if it’s a bad thing if more people hear a leading socialist activist, who wrote a 400-page book on the subject, make the case for the links between sexuality and socialism. Apparently, the danger that people might be recruited to the nefarious ISO is too great. In defense of my own comrades, I doubt the ISO behaves much better. At best, most groups will allow their leading activists to go to other groups’ events, in part to make sure that if any of their newer members go they don’t get “confused,” as well as to monitor another group’s development (and potentially recruit some of their members). This method is like trying to build a socialist movement behind people’s backs, hoping to trick activists into being satisfied with what is provided by individual tiny groups today. It can work for a time with the freshest activists, but eventually most will catch on.

As far as I can tell, Lenin, on the other hand, was willing to use whatever means necessary to popularize Marxism. In the 1890s, he and others willingly allied themselves with the bourgeois democrats who were espousing a form of bastardized Marxism (this was the period of so-called “legal Marxism”). To those who criticized this move and blamed it for the problems of economism and opportunism that began to creep into the movement in later years, he wrote, “The only ones who fear temporary alliances even with unreliable people are those with no confidence in themselves, and not a single political party could exist without such alliances.” “Thanks to this alliance,” he wrote, “a strikingly quick victory was achieved over populism as well as a huge dissemination of the ideas of Marxism (even though in a vulgarized form).” This didn’t mean that he abandoned the need to put forward a clear, revolutionary line. But he recognized the opportunities to broadcast it to more Russians through such methods.

In a situation where consciousness about socialism is extremely low – even among those people who are joining the movement today – as many resources as possible need to be utilized to educate people. Instead, groups today encourage activists to get their education mainly via their own meager resources. This has an impact: for example, with each group trying to organize its own speaking tours on limited resources, this leads to lower attendance, more mediocre talks (which help encourage the lower attendance and make it hard for people to take socialists seriously), and greater frustrations. While it’s questionable whether more people would show up if there were fewer and better talks, I think they could encourage an upward spiral, with success breeding success, rather than the downward spiral outlined above, which is all too common today.

Newspapers and Publications

A similar problem occurs with the publications of today’s socialist movement. Under the current form of organization, each tiny group feels compelled to put out its own newspaper. These range in quality and usefulness, with most tending toward mediocrity since they are produced with scarce resources. Despite their mediocrity, they swallow a tremendous amount of the scant resources available in the U.S. socialist movement today.8

It might be argued that it makes sense for each group to publish its own paper since the papers clearly lay out their distinct positions on issues. However, while they are “line” publications put out by organizations with a specific program, it’s rare that you actually find that “line” expressed in any detail. In fact, articles and arguments are often redundant and repetitive both across papers put out by different groups as well as even within issues of an individual group’s paper. It’s sad to say, but I don’t imagine many workers or students out there anxiously await the next issue of hardly any of them.

One justification for publishing a newspaper, in addition to putting forth a group’s distinct views, is that a newspaper also acts as a “collective organizer.” As Lenin explained, “With the aid of the newspaper, and through it, a permanent organization will naturally take shape that will engage, not only in local activities, but in regular general work, and will train its members to follow political events carefully, to appraise their significance and their effect on the various strata of the population, and develop effective means for the revolutionary party to influence those events.” However, Lenin’s vision for a newspaper was one along the lines of Vorwarts, the daily newspaper published by the German Social Democrats around the turn of the 20th century. This was a paper of such prominence and quality that even people wanting to leak state secrets would contact it. Picture Wikileaks releasing its cables through a mass left wing paper and you might get a sense of a 21st-century version of what Lenin was aiming at.9

Here’s what Lenin had to say in What Is to Be Done? about the role of the type of paper he envisioned:

In order to become a Social Democrat, a worker must have a clear conception of the economic nature and the social/political profile of the landowner and the priest, the bureaucrat and the peasant, the student and the homeless tramp – know their strong sides and their weak ones, be able to analyze the catchwords and the sophisms of all possible kinds by which each class and each stratum conceals its selfish desires and its actual essence – a worker must be able to analyze how various institutions and laws reflect this or that interest and how they do so. And this “clear conception” cannot be taken from any book: it can be given only by living pictures and up-to-the-minute indictments of what is happening at any given time around us – the things about which everybody has something to say or at least about which people whisper among themselves. A “clear conception” comes when people realize what is expressed in such and such an event, in such and such statistics, in such and such a judicial decision, and so on and so on and so on. These all-sided political indictments are a necessary and fundamental condition of the education of the masses in revolutionary activities.

A newspaper or publication of any kind can act as a collective organizer, but a miniaturized version is of an entirely different character than what Lenin was advocating in the pieces usually quoted out of context to justify today’s publications.10 Lenin actually insisted that local organizations cease trying to publish their own papers, because the
movement did not have the resources to do so.11 Today, in a painful irony, we allow ourselves the luxury of printing dozens of mediocre newspapers and then quote Lenin to justify it. Then we fall back on the claim that these are just “propaganda” papers (when usually they are characterized by weak efforts at agitation – “Workers should fight back and build mass movements yadda yadda yadda”) – while quoting from Lenin’s writings on mass publications.12

In contrast, Lenin envisioned a paper from which workers and activists would learn “how to live and how to die” (as one worker wrote to Iskra). That was the animating force behind his efforts to develop the socialist press. According to Lih, the goals of a newspaper for Lenin were to give activist workers “the big picture and teach them to be effective political leaders. . . . Effective leader-guides ‘are cultivated exclusively by systematic, on-going assessments of all sides of our political life, of all attempts at protest and of struggle by a variety of classes and for a variety of reasons.’” In addition, he wanted to “help local activists get out of ‘the pit’ that condemns them to ignorance of what is going on in the rest of the movement: ‘The sweep of organization work would immediately become many times broader, and the success of one locality would be a constant encouragement to further perfection, to a desire to utilize the experience of a comrade at the other end of the country without having to discover it oneself.’” Finally, “working together on a common task would lead to practical coordination between different local organizations and eventually to the efficient transfer of forces, a corps of full-time roving revolutionaries by trade, and so on.”

We too need publications and media that are eagerly awaited and a must-have for activists, workers, and students today. These will reflect the resources and state of the socialist movement today – but I think they should be animated by the same force that drove Lenin. In my opinion, this cannot be accomplished without a serious rethinking of the impact of sectarian forms of organization.

Most promisingly, we should imagine ways to harness the potential of the Internet to develop new socialist publications. One idea would be to develop a website compiling the best articles and analysis from a socialist perspective, as well as links to key articles from all types of sources. It could also be a place for debate, allowing a free exchange of ideas between activists across the country and the world. It could solicit reports from workers and youth on situations in their workplaces, schools, and communities, encouraging them to develop a voice, as well as providing examples of successful organizing to others. Radical writers’ groups or tendencies could focus more on developing original and insightful bodies of literature and on popularizing them, rather than devoting themselves to trying to produce a redundant “literature” literature that deep down reflects some sort of conception that their own specific newspaper or website is or could be a “mass organ.”

Unfortunately, much of the socialist movement seems to be stuck in a time warp. It’s striking that, to my knowledge, the Internet has not produced much creative rethinking by socialists on organization or publications. There has been a proliferation of left-liberal websites like Truthout, Alternet, DailyKos, Huffington Post, and others, which group a wide variety of voices together and reach many millions of readers each month. Yet despite the immense focus of the socialist movement on the importance of publications and literature, no comparable website with a distinctly socialist voice has emerged. Some claim that the “space” for such a site doesn’t exist. Of course, the same people who make this argument never question whether the “space” exists to justify dozens of socialist groups devoting so much of their resources to publishing their own newspapers and website. The success of sites like Counterpunch and ZNet, which are farther to the left of those listed above, ought to give us encouragement. A lot of things would be possible if more resources and creative thinking were devoted to brainstorming broader, more creative, and higher quality projects, rather than focused on the inner lives of the currently existing groups. Unfortunately, it’s not even clear whether the idea of a broader socialist website – or even e-mail list – has been seriously considered. If there are people who think this way inside of existing socialist groups, one would never know it, since debates usually are confined within their own membership. But it doesn’t even seem like many socialists have made much of an attempt to get published on the sites mentioned above. Instead, the tendency is to plow all your resources into developing your own group’s site, which just reproduces most of the problems associated with producing your own newspaper.

Finally, I should note that there are many positive sides to all the current socialist newspapers. First and foremost, they give new activists experience in writing and editing articles. I can say that I have benefited personally from these opportunities, though there is no reason they couldn’t be improved. Second, while many people see the main problem with “sects” in the fact that they are “annoying” because they try to sell their newspapers on demonstrations, this too has its positives, as these groups actually promote socialist ideas among workers and activists, even if the sheer number is an irritant. This is not something that should be given up, but rather improved, with an effort to rethink and devise more creative ways to get our ideas across. Also, for all their limitations, these newspapers can also be a decent basic introduction to a socialist analysis of current events. The problem is that so much more is not only necessary, but actually possible if we put our heads on straight.

Current Divisive Forms of Organization Weakens All Campaigns

“Every step of real movement is more important than a dozen programs”Karl Marx

All of the above is focused on writing, reading, and thinking – what about actually campaigning, the heart and soul of the movement and the key to building a real left in this country? There’s already too much talking in the socialist movement that is not in any clear way linked to practice. Right now, to me, the top task is to build campaigns that can fight against budget cuts, wars, poverty, sexism, racism, environmental catastrophe, etc. Unfortunately, we have not seen major movements of this type develop despite the economic crisis and the growing disillusionment with the Obama administration. Some on the socialist left seem to take solace in the fact that major mass movements during the Great Depression did not develop until several years after it hit, particularly around 1934.

Yet I can’t help but think that the current form of organization on the left is playing a role in holding things back (and will in the future), despite the well-meaning efforts of activists. It’s fairly simple to politically recognize and argue that movements “from below” are the key to change society, but it requires much more sophisticated thinking to actually put these ideas into practice. Organizing a successful campaign on any issue usually means establishing roots in a particular community or group of communities, as well as relying on leadership by a core of dedicated and experienced activists who can bring their collective knowledge and skills to bear in a united struggle, in alliance with broadening sectors of workers, youth, and community members. Currently, each little group’s effort to recruit to its own banner too often leaves different organizations attempting to stake out their own territory by launching campaigns on different issues at the same time. This isn’t to say that there aren’t dozens of issues that need campaigning around, but the result is that good activists are routinely isolated from each other and working at cross purposes, weakening all of our campaigns. This means that all meetings and demonstrations have lower turnout, our leaflets and websites are worse, we are less able to break into the mainstream press, less able to attract new activists, and on and on.

This is not just an issue of “socialists are more interested in selling their paper than building campaigns,” a common and largely false charge (except for the truly sectarian groups). We all want to build winning campaigns, both to improve working people’s lives and to develop the capacity to struggle and show that it is possible to change society. Socialists are quite often the most energetic and self-sacrificing activists around. But that is also why our (often unintentional) sectarianism is a severe limitation, because we really do have a crucial role to play.

This is of vital importance right now because the left is at a stage where it desperately needs some wins. Victories in united campaigns can help raise the confidence of broader sections of youth and workers, inspiring them to become activists themselves. Through this activism they might even be inspired and convinced to become socialists. Additionally, by bringing more talented activists together, there could be better training of newer activists, a critical task (and a difficult one, given the paucity of experienced activists able to provide mentorship and training). Instead, the ongoing ineffectiveness of our campaigns reinforces the isolation and despair that many people with progressive ideas feel in this country. Our protests are reduced to expressions of moral outrage which, while important in their own right, are far from a strategy for changing the world. Contrast them to – just to give one example – the actions that helped detonate the civil rights movement such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott or the first of the student sit-ins at restaurants, which were often meticulously planned.

Within each group, there are discussions about where best to focus resources and what campaigns or projects to take up (that is, when groups feel they have enough resources to move beyond pure “propaganda”). Should we focus on fighting cuts to education, or rebuilding the anti-war movement, or organizing to stop foreclosures? Should we organize conferences or study groups to promote socialist ideas? Each group recognizes that its resources are limited and it’s only realistic to campaign on a few issues, at most.

But imagine if we could have these discussions together, in a broader forum, and then orient the resources of more of the socialist movement and more of the left to a few strategic, united projects? These discussions could happen at conferences, strategy sessions, retreats, or other venues. They would not have to be limited to members of current socialist groups, but could seek to bring together all the best activists on the radical left in different areas. The fact that I can confidently assert that these types of discussions are not happening is a testament to just how sectarian and lacking in common sense the left is today. If socialists play an important role in these struggles, it will help overcome the stereotype that we are just a bunch of insular talkers, and show that we are capable of participating in and leading broad-based victorious campaigns.

One might ask who will decide which issues are important? What method of selection should be employed? What about all the issues that get left out? These will be important questions to resolve, but I think we should acknowledge that, regardless, there are better opportunities for addressing them in the type of venue I am proposing above. Also, there is no shortage of issues to take up. Indeed, as socialists, opposed to all forms of oppression and exploitation, we often feel an obligation to campaign on every one of them at once. But if we can strategically decide where to orient more of our limited resources, and this leads to effective campaigns, this will raise the confidence of people to struggle around many different issues. Just think about how the inspiring victories of the civil rights movement spurred on the women’s movement, LGBT movement, Chicano movement, anti-war movement, and labor movement in the 1960s and 1970s.

None of this is to deny the enormous obstacles that exist today, one of which is the willingness to struggle among the American people. But the situation appears to be changing, with growing frustration at the lack of change under the Obama administration providing an opening for organizing struggles from below. And the impact of the events of the “Arab Spring” on the consciousness of Americans should not be underestimated, as we have already seen to some degree in Madison, Wisconsin. It’s quite possible that successful campaigns could have a wide impact and show people that there is an alternative to griping and despair – that it actually is possible to struggle and win.

No Division of Labor

A similar logic can be applied to the socialist movement as a whole. The isolation of activists with often quite similar views results in a misuse of resources and a replication of labor, which impoverishes the movement as a whole. Instead of having a real division of labor, we have people in different groups doing the same exact things, from trying to gather reading lists to writing and editing similar newspapers to organizing speaking tours and more. Given the very small number of socialists around today, this means that our precious, scarce resources are being misused when it comes to the crucial task of popularizing socialist ideas.13

This isn’t to say that every group has enough areas of agreement to work together. But couldn’t those of us who do – those of us who are interested in building a broader socialist movement – agree to pool our resources? Couldn’t we find enough areas of agreement to pool our resources to develop good material for study groups, to develop reading lists, to train excellent speakers and organize speaking tours, and to put out highquality leaflets, newspapers and magazines? Couldn’t we devote some people to focus on developing a strategy of breaking into the mass media? Yet with so many of the existing socialist activists caught up in the day-to-day tasks, this means there is very little opportunity for a division of labor.

Instead, socialist activists are constantly teetering near the edge of burnout, because they are burdened with doing nearly every task under the sun. In the absence of any ability to have a strategic discussion about where to orient resources, the only solution seems to be for them to work harder and do more. Strategic thinking is replaced by constant appeals for “Audacity, audacity, audacity!” Burnout is always going to be a danger – but it is heightened when activists feel ineffective and isolated, especially if this persists over periods of years. If you are left to feel as if the fate of the world depends on the success of your group of 150 or so largely inexperienced activists, and that it’s on your shoulders to train new activists, to educate people, to write – the pressure can be overwhelming.

This also leads to a disproportionate focus on the internal workings of your tiny organization – because, if its ideas are the key vehicle to transform the world, then it must be built up as much as possible. Hal Draper noted this tendency, writing, “The internal life of the sect becomes not a necessary evil keyed to its outside activities, but rather a substitute gratification.” “Gratification” might be the wrong word – as this internal life is often a painful routine of endless meetings, phone conferences, national conferences, meetings to plan meetings, and my personal favorite, meetings to plan meetings to plan meetings. In part, this is a necessary feature of activist life in general, but it is taken to absurd extremes within many existing socialist groups today, swallowing up valuable resources and often becoming a substitute for mass work (or reading or writing or thinking). It means you have to spend tremendous amounts of time on internal debates, dues collection (both to finance your activities and as a measure of your members’ commitment), micro-managing political education, and more. All of these activities have an important place in any socialist movement, but I question the amount of time spent on them today.

Narrowing of Vision

The form of organization dominant on the socialist left also lends itself to a narrowing of vision. In place of a movement attempting to draw together the various movements around the world and draw lessons from them, there is a tendency to define the boundaries of the socialist movement as beginning and ending with your own group. Almost every socialist group will issue the caveat that they don’t consider themselves to be the vanguard party, or the mass party, that they recognize their forces are modest and the creation of such a party is going to require broader forces and struggles. But this type of talk is cheap, and far outweighed by the actual mentality within the movement.

I have seen this mentality at work when, in response to big events, I have heard members of my own group immediately respond, “Do we have a group there?” I’ve heard this so often that it feels like no matter the issue, from an earthquake in Haiti to a hurricane in New Orleans – all at times elicit a similar response: “Do we have a group there?” It’s as if without that, things are doomed from the start. My only conclusion, based on how universal this response is (and how long it remained in my own mind) is that this thinking is engendered by the narrow forms of organization in the movement – and yet more evidence of the way our thinking is impoverished by this form of organization. The assumption created by our current form of organization lends itself to the unfortunate idea that all knowledge must be concentrated in our ranks.

If we do not have a group there, that will not prevent us from issuing some sort of proclamation about what is to be done. There is nothing wrong with this in theory – the movement can benefit from informed debate about tactics and the sharing of experiences across borders. But in practice, these types of proclamations are often embarrassingly shallow analyses, reflecting the low theoretical level characteristic of many groups and the misunderstanding that Marxism is some sort of formula to be applied in every situation rather than a method of analysis requiring first and foremost a thorough understanding of your subject matter. This type of thinking makes it seem as if the question of revolution is an easy one, which will in the end redound to the detriment of building a socialist movement in the U.S., able to tackle all the complex issues we will face.

To understand just how far from Marxism these types of shallow proclamations are, just look at all the time Marx and Engels spent in libraries engaged in serious study on a multitude of topics. They did this not because of some quaint academic curiosity, but because their historical materialist analysis meant delving deep into their subject matter.14 Unfortunately this same devotion to serious study is not shared by many of us who claim to be following in Marx’s tradition today.

I was struck by a thought while watching the World Cup with some of my comrades. After a few beers increased their already higher-than-normal confidence to comment on seemingly every topic under the sun, several of them screamed repeatedly at the TV, “Why are they passing the ball backwards??? What a bunch of fools!!!” Of course, in soccer, passing the ball backwards is often critical for opening up space, gaining time, surveying openings on the field, and maintaining possession, all important parts of the game, but which can’t be understood without a thorough understanding of the sport. To be fair, anyone unfamiliar with soccer and under the influence of alcohol can easily make the same mistake – but it struck me as a frightening metaphor for a method of thinking all too common among socialists.

One might excuse this type of thinking as more characteristic of people newer to the socialist movement. Perhaps it’s just the schematic thought that is a symptom of the “infantile disorder” of left-wing communism diagnosed by Lenin. The question is how this form of thinking can be overcome. There is a real pressure to be able to issue these types of shallow proclamations on every issue (including the World Cup), because, it often seems, if you can’t provide your own independent answer to every question under the sun then your group’s need to exist independently of everyone else might be suspect. Once you join one of the existing socialist groups, you feel immense pressure to defend your group’s position on all sorts of questions that you most likely have not studied thoroughly, from Cuba to Israel/Palestine to the permanent revolution and beyond. But we need to realize there is nothing wrong with saying, “I don’t know enough about that” when questioned about a topic you have not studied in depth.

Marx was not afraid to do this. When young Russian activists continually asked for his views about the role of the Russian peasant commune in the revolutionary struggle he told them that he was not sure. Instead of just issuing an off-the-cuff proclamation, as so many of us youthful socialists are prone to do, Marx spent years at the end of his life learning Russian and immersing himself in studies of Russian society and the commune. What humility! Yet for those supposedly following in his tradition today, it’s often enough to just scan the news, do a quick Google search, and then apply a formula. This isn’t Marxism, and the sooner we learn that, the better.

To be fair, these problems aren’t because of a lack of trying on the part of socialists today, who spend an immense amount of time reading and trying to understand revolutionary theory. I do not mean to imply any bad faith – I am merely trying to explain the mindset that seems to be produced by current forms of organization.

I also don’t intend to suggest that we should take an agnostic position on issues, nor do I want to reinforce the liberal idea that people in each particular area should just work out their own forms of resistance, and we have no right to comment on them or debate with them. But I do mean to suggest that we should all be more humble, cautious, and meticulous in our studies, not just out of a sense of respect for those fighting for social justice in other countries, but also because by really understanding the problems facing activists elsewhere we can learn a lot about how to change our own societies. And we should be dissatisfied with half-answers or anything that relies too heavily upon a certain formula.

The point is how to get people to think, and how to most effectively create the independent thinkers who will be crucial to the development of the socialist movement. As German socialist Wilhelm Liebknecht, one of Marx’s closest contemporaries, explained, “Marx went to the British Museum daily and urged us to go too. Study! Study! That was the categoric injunction that we heard often enough from him and that he gave us by his example and the continual work of his mighty brain. . . . We spent our time in the British Museum and tried to educate ourselves and prepare arms and ammunition for the future fight.” The currently existing socialist groups undoubtedly play a role in this – don’t get me wrong. But there is a certain smug satisfaction created by today’s organizational forms, at the expense of the desire to independently – and deeply – study phenomena. That has to change, because Marxism offers the most advanced and sophisticated (and correct) way of analyzing the world (and changing it).

Tunnel Vision

Another unfortunate product of the sect form is that it leads to an overemphasis on the history of your own group, diverting attention from the rich history of the socialist movement. It’s bad enough when socialists commit the sin of “Russian Revolutionism,” the tendency to use the Bolshevik Revolution as a frame of reference in nearly every discussion even though it is an unfamiliar topic for most young activists.15 This trend gets taken to even worse extremes within the tiny groups that exist today.

For example, if you have run across Socialist Alternative, you have probably been told that our British organization played a key role in the struggle against the poll tax in Britain which brought down Margaret Thatcher. Never mind whether anyone in the U.S. knows about this struggle – it’s essential in explaining and justifying our existence. Or, else you’ll hear from other groups about how their analysis of the character of the Soviet Union or other similar regimes distinguishes them – in the ISO’s case, it has traditionally been their understanding that these countries were “state capitalist,” while in the case of other groups it’s their understanding that they were “deformed workers’ states” that gives them an edge in their analysis of the world. There are important lessons to learn from the poll tax movement, and even better ones to learn from the Russian Revolution, one of the greatest events in world history (and even important methodological ones involved in understanding the character of the Soviet Union), but the tendency to discuss these issues regardless of your audience reinforces the sense that too many socialists are out of touch with current reality. A lot of this has to do with bumps along the road in learning the art of explaining your ideas, but it also is related to deeper issues.

This is the logic that Marx and Engels criticized so thoroughly – that sectarianism leads to a focus on the issues that are central in the life and dogma of the sect, rather than those that come from existing reality and the struggles to change it.16 To be fair, we study and make reference to these struggles because we think they help us understand the dynamic of movements and revolutions and tactics and strategies for changing the world. In this sense, we are acting in the tradition of Marx and Engels, who studied the French Revolution (and routinely employed metaphors and lessons drawn from it), as well as Lenin and others who drew upon the Paris Commune of 1871. I would never, ever, ever advocate that people stop studying or discussing the Russian Revolution.

But the necessity of constantly focusing on the history of our group, or your historical differences with other groups, is too often a diversion from focusing on the big questions of our time. In addition, as Proyect writes, “To my knowledge, Lenin never asked people to become Bolsheviks on the basis of how they understood the Jacobins.” The entire point of studying the past, for Marxists, is to help us understand how to answer the big questions of our time, which involves relating to consciousness today.

It might be fair to ask whether blaming the sect form for diverting attention from the big questions is correct. After all, it could have more to do with the youthfulness of the movement and certain difficulties inherent in educating people. For example, Lenin’s wife Krupskaya wrote about how in the early days of Russian socialist activity, it was more common for intellectuals to lecture at the workers on issues that were not at the forefront of their minds. Often, for example, they would read them Engels’ Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (curiously enough, still being overused today), a work she implies they had trouble relating to. Meanwhile, she describes Lenin’s method: “Vladimir Ilyich was interested in every little detail that could help him to piece together a picture of the life and conditions of the workers, to find some sort of avenue of approach to them in the matter of revolutionary propaganda. . . . Vladimir Ilyich read Marx’s Capital to the workers and explained it to them. He devoted the second half of the lesson to questioning the workers about their work and conditions of labor, showing them the bearing which their life had on the whole structure of society, and telling them in what way the existing order could be changed. This linking of theory with practice was a feature of Vladimir Ilyich’s work in the study-circles. Gradually other members of our circle adopted the same method.” This method, of asking questions and listening to the experiences of workers and communities in order to be able to “patiently explain” the ideas of socialism (and, crucially, to understand the concrete conditions and consciousness of the American working class today), is vital to cultivate in the socialist movement today.

But the problem is this: How are we supposed to focus on these questions when we have to focus attention on making sure whether workers and activists agree with us on our position on Cuba or that the Soviet Union was a deformed workers’ state? Or, if not on those issues, than on any of a number of others “crucial” to distinguishing one socialist group from another? Focusing so much mental energy on relatively minor historical questions obscures the big picture, and hampers the movement’s organic growth.

In his recent posthumously published memoir North Star, Peter Camejo outlined how, in his view, these issues were rooted in the organizational methods of Trotskyism, “This concept of the ‘program’ was a defining aspect of Trotskyism. Born as a faction opposing the Stalinist degradation of socialism, the Trotskyist movement defended the founders of the socialist movement while at the same time rejecting the cult-like deification of Marx and Lenin. Thus the Trotskyists became caught in a framework that focused not only on the correct interpretation of Marx and Lenin but also on the correct interpretation of events within Russia. This led to the rapid development of rigidity in how they viewed and approached the world around them. Groups of Trotskyists across the globe focused on the internal debate over the degeneration of the Soviet Communist Party and its worldwide influence, rather than on the expressions of the living struggles of their own country. As an instrument to revive the mass world movement for social justice, I think that Trotskyism had historical, internal, sectarian limitations that blocked it from being able to become a critical force for social change.”17

What is necessary, in my opinion, is something that encourages thinking along the lines of what Bert Cochran said was achieved by the Detroit Labor Forum in the 1950s: “Because it is genuinely non-partisan, attempts to address itself to the independent radical, and seeks solutions to the great problems of our times rather than devoting itself to the intra-mural bickerings of small sects, it has won a position and attracts larger audiences than Detroit has seen in the past decade.” Whatever the fate of these Labor Forums and other similar projects, that remains precisely what we need today – a socialist movement that can be an attractive force, one where radicals and developing activists will feel at home. One that, instead of narrowing its vision and focusing on questions that arise from a “small business” mentality, is devoted to truly addressing “the great problems of our times,” stemming from “the expressions of the living struggles.” This will be crucially informed by a critical study of the movement’s past, but not swallowed up by that same history.

Why the Sect Form Persists

“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” – Karl Marx, 18th Brumaire

Given all the issues raised above, why does the current narrow form of organization persist? Most importantly, why does there seem to be no real organized expression of the ideas I’m raising, since I’m sure there are plenty of people out there who feel similarly?

My guess is that it has a lot to do with the often-underestimated force of inertia. Despite all the frustrations, it’s still easier to work inside one of the existing socialist organizations than outside of one. Any of the socialist organizations today provides activists with a structure, a group of co-thinkers, and an already existing organization with a momentum and mission of its own. Being a member of one of these groups gives you an innumerable number of tasks to do, tasks that could keep many people busy for a lifetime. You have to produce a newspaper, write for and publish a website, organize regular meetings, discuss your ideas with new members, design leaflets, hold paper sales, organize campaigns on as many issues as possible, design t-shirts and buttons, hold fundraising parties, prepare reports, and on and on and on, ad infinitum. This leaves very little time to think about bigger picture questions, such as whether your group should even exist. Like Albert Camus’ existentialist Sisyphus, we just keep rolling the rock up the hill, taking comfort in the knowledge that we are at least doing something, even if it might turn out to be a relatively futile gesture. (Never mind that Camus was extremely hostile to Marxism and ruled out the possibility of revolutionary change.)

In essence, despite all the claims to the contrary, building your own tiny group becomes an end in itself. This is true even though every group sees its role as helping to build a mass movement of workers in this country and around the world. While there is no doubt that socialist groups today play and will continue to play an important role in this process, ultimately, the sect form becomes a hindrance. Instead of helping develop and expand relations with activists throughout the left, it has a tendency to cut you off from real, deep connections with people outside of your own group, and not just other socialists, either. This might seem contradictory, since many socialist groups do maintain and develop broader relations with others on the left. But ultimately, they spend much less time cultivating these relationships than they do on internal political issues. Others on the left have to always be considered from the standpoint of potential recruits to your tiny organization.

The force of inertia is compounded by the fact that many of the most experienced socialist activists are to be found in the various sects in existence. For anyone new to the movement, their knowledge can be quite impressive – and intimidating. There is a natural tendency to defer to those who seem to have more experience. Newer activists might not even know what are the right questions to ask, and might be prone to just accept the wisdom of those who brought them into the movement. When they start having questions about the organizational model, these are more likely to manifest themselves as feelings of self-doubt or a lack of self-confidence.

Whenever people start to question the logic of building a sect, where can they turn? What organized force is out there for socialists not interested in joining one of the many existing groups? The landscape is all but barren. The most common experience, therefore, seems to be for people to drop out of the organized socialist movement altogether, leaving those of us with doubts inside the movement even more isolated – and more likely to just give up on the whole project, or to continue to begrudgingly build our tiny groups. There are also severe limitations to raising these types of issues within the existing groups. Despite the democratic formalities that exist within organizations today, they are actually severely limited. As Proyect explains, “The real threat to party democracy in [existing “Leninist” formations today] is not ham-fisted bureaucratic interventions. It is instead self-censorship by the rank-and-file all the way up to key leaders who are very wary of challenging adopted party positions out of fear of being tarnished as ‘petty bourgeois,’ not ‘understanding Marxism,’” or of “becoming ostracized.” And an even bigger obstacle is the fact that the space to raise big questions is extremely limited within these types of organizations, since they are predicated on such a high level of agreement on very specific questions.

Those of us who express skepticism about the usefulness of building these tiny groups are often accused of a “loss of confidence in the revolutionary capacity of the U.S. working class,” or something to that effect. We are charged with “looking for shortcuts,” as if we are just not tough enough to face the long, hard slog required by any struggle for serious transformation. My impression is that these types of accusations have been leveled repeatedly over time at anyone look for a way out of the sectarian wilderness. For example, those who left the SWP to found of the American Socialist Union in the 1950s were said to have “become bought off by post-WWII prosperity and lost their militancy.” It all seems so simple when you can just confidently build your tiny group – just toughen up!

I strongly disagree with this accusation. Still, it seems to have a certain validity when those who give up on the sect form offer no alternative model and too often seem to give in to demoralization.18 There are plenty of reasons why this happens, foremost among them the difficulties of starting a new organization. They also might legitimately be burnt out, leading to feelings of inadequacy, and even fear of disrupting the organizing being done by people who are their close friends. Instead of healthily raising legitimate concerns, it’s more common to suppress them and feel shame, guilt, anger, or other similar emotions. On top of this, there are of course also the pressures of reality, of needing to earn a living in this society, to support yourself and your family. If socialist activists become demoralized or burnt out, and see neither an alternative model, nor a means to transform their own organizations, they can be lost to graduate school, to jobs in the union bureaucracy, to non-profit organization, or other accommodations to the system.19

But this demoralization is the product not just of doubts about the prospects for socialism or social change in the U.S., but also doubts about an organizational model that seems destined to fail. There is too often a shallow understanding of human psychology operative in our groups, one that implies that it’s solely political pessimism that drives people out of the movement. But it’s not just political pessimism; it can also be a sense that the road you are going on is a dead-end. When you’re driving down a dead end, you don’t just keep going, hoping that eventually it will lead you in the right direction. Instead, you usually turn around and look at the map, or ask for directions at the nearest gas station, or any number of other means. If the driver refuses to turn around and insists on keeping going, it’s understandable if some people might jump out of the car.

It doesn’t have to be this way. I would argue that it is up to those of us who see the sect road as a dead-end to fight to develop an alternative, whatever that may look like. This is of crucial importance because often the best people attracted to the socialist movement are first and foremost activists. They want to transform the world, and they want practical answers on how to effectively do it. In my view, those of us with experience inside existing socialist groups – both those who still belong and those who have been burnt out by them – have an important role to play in this process.

Building an Alternative

“It is a serious matter to destroy a man’s faith without replacing it.” – Victor Serge, Birth of Our Power

As a friend recently told me, “I’m prepared to dedicate my life to this movement – I’d just like it to have some chance of succeeding.”

We absolutely do have a chance of succeeding. I am fully convinced of the revolutionary potential in this country and around the world. I am convinced there are thousands of people out there who right now want to join a socialist movement of some kind, but whose resources and talents are being wasted, because they aren’t organized, or they don’t see existing organizational forms as having a “chance of succeeding.” I’m convinced there are many others who are not yet socialists but want to build a powerful, progressive left. As the crisis of capitalism worsens the living conditions for many, further polarizing the gap between the rich few and the poorer majority, these camps of prospective progressives, radicals, and socialists are likely to grow.

The challenge facing socialists today is to build a credible movement that can productively utilize the resources of all those who want to fight for revolutionary change. A major issue right now is that though there are no doubt millions of people in this country who have come to the conclusion capitalism is unjust, or that it just doesn’t work, many seem to feel that the effort to fight for a systemic alternative is hopeless; therefore they either work hard within the system to patch it up, or else fall into cynicism and passivity. There’s only so long that you can futilely hurl yourself against it (though there’s a lot to be said for the nobility of those who do this). And considering how tough it is to just survive under this system, why should working people and others devote energies to hurling themselves against an enemy that they don’t believe we can actually overpower?

I’m convinced this potential will only be harnessed – and this widespread cynicism overcome – if we ask the big questions. I am also absolutely convinced that continued existence of many tiny competing organizations is a bad idea, one that needs to be challenged and broken up, or somehow transcended. I’m convinced that, no matter how ideologically committed they are, most people are not going to give themselves to a movement that doesn’t seem to stand a chance of winning, or that routinely wastes the precious resources of its members.

Those of us in the socialist movement right now, or on its periphery, have a crucial role to play. While most of the best forces for socialism in this country will come from new, freshly radicalizing layers, a socialist movement is not going to just drop from the sky. Therefore, what those of us in the movement do right now matters a great deal. Typically we take that to mean that we have to work harder to build our existing groups. But if we are building on a foundation of sand, all of our increased efforts will lead to very little. There is a lot to be said for Joe Ramsey’s words in the introduction to this issue of Cultural Logic: “Perhaps the most important thing that we can be doing now is surveying the terrain upon which we stand, discerning what is soil and what sand, marking off what we know are the dead ends, in an attempt to find new and fresh paths to open and more fertile ground.”

Sometimes the criticisms directed at the socialist movement make it seem as if it would be best if the existing groups just fell apart and disappeared, in part because they are seen as an obstacle to such a process of rethinking. This is not my attitude. Despite all of what I’ve written above, I have much more respect for those members of (many of) today’s “micro-sects” who are actually trying to go out and argue for socialist ideas than for the armchair critics who always seem to know better. For all their weaknesses, the existing socialist groups give new activists experience and training – in writing articles and leaflets, postering, petitioning, organizing – as well as a basic socialist education. You can’t get these things from a blog or a website or almost anywhere else. Even selling mediocre newspapers has its positive side: it’s good that at rallies somebody promotes socialist ideas and tries to organize the attendees and get them involved in long-term activism. As one friend, a serious activist who is considering joining the socialist movement, recently told me, “I would rather be building a micro-sect than nothing.” And he has a point.20 The problem is that so much of building a micro-sect involves differentiating yourself from other groups and justifying the existence of your own particular organization that the horizon of possibilities is much reduced.

In place of a dismissive approach that just writes off members of existing “microsects,” we need a critical engagement with (and among!) them. This doesn’t mean that I believe the key question is “regroupment” by uniting the currently existing socialist left into one common organization. Anyone who looks around at the existing left with a sober eye will reasonably ask: “You mean you think bringing these people together is the key?” I don’t. Many current socialist activists are stuck in their ways, too invested in their own groups, and unable to creatively think through the complex problems we face. Many others are sectarians by acquired nature and appear incapable of interacting with real-life human beings. I agree with Mike Ely of the Kasama Project, who writes, “I’m sure there are pockets of creativity within the organized left. But I also believe that much of the organized left is, in how it imagines and defines itself, both exhausted and relatively clueless. Most left projects are running on routine, self-delusion and sheer vapor. And I don’t think that the new revolutionary movement will mainly emerge out of those current organized left silos.” Instead, the key forces are going to come primarily from people who are outside the movement today, particularly from among younger generations, who lack the baggage of the existing groups and are instilled with the energy, optimism, and creativity necessary to take on the arduous task of building a viable socialist movement.

These younger forces, however, will not just automatically find their way to Marxism or socialism – they have to be introduced to it somehow. We are working with finite human material, and those currently active in the various tiny groups have important accumulated experience and knowledge. That is why I think it is absolutely essential to try to start a process of discussion among members of existing organizations, in the hopes of building something that can actually be an attractive force that reaches younger activists and potential activists. If enough of those people could be won over and convinced to spend as much time thinking through how to build a broader socialist movement as they currently spend trying to expand their own tiny organizations, that would be a significant step forward. Perhaps I’m being naive, but the fact that the socialist movement is now made up of largely younger generations for whom a lot of the questions dividing groups are mainly of historical interest means there may be more opportunities for this to happen.

Some might argue that “micro-sects” are all that can be produced under the current conditions of overall weakness on the left, minimal levels of mass struggle, and low consciousness. As Marx wrote in 1871, “So long as the sects are (historically) justified, the working class is not yet ripe for an independent historic movement”; the converse is also true. According to this argument, attempting to force the issue and form broader organizations is a “voluntarist” mistake that threatens to dissolve the core of revolutionaries in search of a non-existent broader left. Instead, it’s better to wait it out and focus on building your own organization until struggles pick up.

That is always a possibility, but it is also an evasion. In place of critical thinking, it is a way of naturalizing the current forms of organization, which are not just reflections of current conditions but instead represent very specific products of a tortured history. Further, it assumes that once these conditions change, and struggles pick up, our current forms of organization will be able to change along with them. I am pessimistic about such prospects. And finally, there are absurd forms of “voluntarism” inherent in accepting the currently existing organization of the socialist left: it generates a hyperactivity in building your own group along with the idea that somehow a viable socialist movement will be built even though you essentially write off the rest of the existing socialist left. Socialists are all immensely motivated by the immense injustices we see in the world around us, and the even worse nightmares that we can see capitalism giving rise to in the future. We usually feel like we are in a constant race against time, and must build the movement (our groups) as urgently as possible. But what if we are constantly falling back in that race against time because we are losing people by virtue of our own self-imposed organizational limitations?

Even if it is the case that “micro-sects” are all that can be built now, then let them be less pretentious, less sectarian, more open to working with one another, and more aware of their own inherent weaknesses (not to demoralize them but rather to help better understand the role they might play). Let them critically evaluate all their methods, search out more effective forms, and really ask if they are preparing the way toward something better in the future. I don’t think this is asking too much, nor do I believe I am naïve to think that there are many people in today’s socialist groups open to such an approach.

The ideas I am putting forward appear to assume the existence of a broader layer of people who would be open to joining socialist groups, if only they were of a different form than what exists today. Is this the case or am I just daydreaming? I think that a substantial number of these people do exist, but having struggled for many years to build both the socialist movement, as well as other activist organizations, I’m also skeptical. The radical left is tiny, and no organizational schema is going to change that in the immediate future. But I’m also convinced that the numbers of people open to anticapitalist and socialist ideas are growing under the impact of the economic crisis and the mounting frustrations with the Obama administration’s policies. Meanwhile, “the various sects have no attractive power.”

These people need a home, an organization where they can politically develop, share their experiences and ideas with others, learn the ropes of activism, get involved in campaigns, and promote socialist ideas (or even just broad anti-capitalist ones) in creative ways. The tiny socialist organizations in existence today provide some of this, but ultimately they are fulfilling semi-contradictory roles, recruiting people fresh to activism (let alone socialism) and yet trying to convince them of a very specific “line.” This is in part a necessary evil, owing to the lack of mass organizations, particularly the lack of a mass left-wing political party. But ultimately, these roles are at odds with one another, and everyone suffers as a result. Those who are newly recruited to the socialist movement join groups with a full program that they cannot possibly understand. Meanwhile, the leading members (“cadre”) in existing groups focus an inordinate amount of effort on “educating” these newer members, most of whom will leave for any number of reasons, foremost among them the difficulty of the political period we are in today and the overall weakness of the left. But they also leave because they understandably develop doubts about the particular organization they are building. The “education” process is unfortunately too often a top-down one, which may keep young people from feeling like they can make new and creative, qualitative contributions. Young activists or workers arrive in groups in which all the major decisions have already been made, and then feel compelled to defend them. It’s like being handed a whole new, ill-fitting wardrobe – “Here, put this on” – and being expected to immediately grow into it. Some might, but most will feel uncomfortable and eventually discard it, and even get pissed off at whoever forced them to dress that way, or ashamed that they couldn’t get themselves into shape for it. Since there is no alternative for them to join (aside from other tiny socialist groups who often have similar problems), this process can alienate them from the socialist movement altogether and thus cause the movement to lose even more precious resources.

Is the solution to this problem to do as some groups do and set a much higher bar for recruitment? Some groups have discussions with potential members that go on for a year before they are approved for membership. And yet, these are often the same groups who end up burying themselves in mass movements, rarely raising the banner of socialism. The problem with this method is that, assuming there are many people out there right now who are interested in joining and becoming active in building the socialist movement, it would be good to get them involved right away, not to make them jump through hoops before they are authorized to help do it. And ideological appeals to socialism have an important place, particularly given the crisis of world capitalism today. That’s not to say we need to be screaming “socialism” from the rooftops and thinking that’s the best way to build the movement; rather, it will in large part arise organically out of mass struggles. Yet for a lot of people, the biggest problem with (some of) the “sects,” more than any of the points I’ve raised above, is the fact that they are bold about raising the banner of socialism. I disagree: we need to continue to boldly raise that banner – but in new and creative ways, and in organizations that are broader than those that exist today!

Hal Draper argued in the early 1970s that the whole strategy of attempting to formmembership organizations right now in the socialist movement was a mistake. This might seem counter-intuitive – what kind of organization doesn’t have members? Who makes decisions? But his point was that the current membership organizations are inherently distorted by all the contradictions outlined above. You can recruit people to an organization, sure, but on what basis are they being recruited? And how does the emphasis on building a membership organization impact your relationship with those who are close to you politically, but might not be open to joining your group?

Instead of membership organizations, Draper called for the formation of political centers, which would focus on publishing socialist political literature. According to Draper, “A political center has an enormous advantage over the sect’s National Committee or Central Committee which issues directives, theses, disciplinary cases, etc. to its micro-empire of mini-branches. That is: the former’s relations with local clubs, socialist groups, trade-union groups, workers’ groups, and individual activists can be infinitely varied and flexible. Meanwhile, the latter’s relations are dichotomized into two types: with members, the relation rigidified by the by-laws; with non-members, a relation hampered by an organizational barrier.” In other words, a political center would be more capable of educating people about socialism, and actually putting forward and campaigning for a political line – which is the exact aim that most “sects” claim to have today, but which their organizational methods often prevent them from achieving.

It’s clearly not enough to just publish literature though. The essential question is: How do we best attract, organize, and train activists today? There has to be an attractive and healthy form of organization that people not only can join, but are actively encouraged to join. You can’t join a journal or a website or a blog. This is one of the advantages that the “sects” have on all their critics – and it’s an important one. At the very least, you can join them and try to build something, working closely with others. We need organizations, but of a different character. Too often, it feels like those who reject the “micro-sect” form go too far in the opposite direction, albeit for a variety of different reasons.

In place of national membership organizations, Draper’s position was that socialists should form local circles, in their workplaces, schools, or cities. Draper drew this conclusion from his own activism, as well as his study of the history of the Bolsheviks. Summarizing this history, he wrote, “In the preceding period, the preliminaries for a mass party had taken shape in Russia in the form not of sects but of local workers’ circles, which remained loose, and founded loose regional associations. They had not developed as branches of a central organization but autonomously, in response to social struggles – loosely.” This makes a lot of sense, since the basis of all organizing is local (even in the age of the Internet, although the example of Russia also reflected the difficulties of establishing national links owing to police repression). Still, you are going to be building campaigns primarily with other local (and mainly nonsocialist) activists, co-workers, community members, etc. Can you imagine the local circles that made up the Russian Social-Democratic movement in the 1890s (under conditions of police repression, where to even hold a meeting was a heroic task) splitting over the point at which the French Revolution turned repressive, or their position on Israel-Palestine (forgive my anachronism)? How can it possibly be correct that the best socialist activists and thinkers today are separated from one another because of similar obstacles created by the current form of organization?

Draper argued that these circles should establish loose national connections. In his opinion, they should:

make contact with a political center that makes sense from your own point of view, for help in literature, advice, and outside linkups, and work with it to whatever extent you find useful. But there is no reason against having this relationship with more than one political center, if they suit your own political views. Such a political center may even be a sect; but if you do not join it, it relates to you only as one political center among others. This relationship is a hang-loose relationship: if you do not have a vote in deciding its affairs, it is likewise true that it cannot tell you what to do by exerting its sect ‘discipline’ over your own judgment. You do not erect an organizational barrier between you as the adherent of one sect and someone else who cleaves to another sect or none. In your work, you use whatever literature you wish, whatever their source. . . . If enough take this course to break up the sect system, that would be a good thing for the future potentialities of an American socialist movement. There is a better chance of a genuine socialist movement arising out of such a hang-loose complex of relationships than out of the fossilized world of sects.

I tend to think he’s right, though such local circles would always have their own problems. What trends will dominate? How broad should they be? How to avoid a lowest common denominator approach that stifles debates? How to avoid them descending into a swamp, a place where anything goes and the theoretical level of the movement is lowered? How to avoid a state of paralysis, if no one can agree on what the circles should do? These are serious questions, showing how there is no simple path to a more effective socialist movement. However, they are problems that stem from the state of the left in the U.S. today. They can’t just be wished out of existence. “Political centers” should, as Draper argued, continue to exist, with the aim of providing guidance and political material for these local circles. Further, the local circles should be composed of people with at least some minimal points of agreement that allow them to work together.

I think there is a better chance of the movement not descending into a swamp under this approach than the current organizations, for many of the reasons I have outlined throughout this essay. It would help make clear what are the essential questions in the movement, which would arise out of discussions and debates on living struggles, rather than being accelerated by pre-defined differences between different sects. It would ideally help raise the theoretical level, rather than lowering it, and it would allow more good activists to work together, learning from one another, rather than being separated and all fighting separate battles.

The Road to a Socialist Movement

“All one can do is push in a direction in which one’s efforts will not be wasted, no matter what the outcome” – Hal Draper

Am I trying to dream something into existence? Perhaps. In my defense, according to Lenin “a Bolshevik who does not dream is a bad Bolshevik.” He cited the Russian writer Pisarev, who said, “The rift between dreams and reality causes no harm if only the person dreaming believes seriously in his dream, if he attentively observes life, compares his observations with his castles in the air, and if, generally speaking, he works conscientiously for the achievement of his fantasies. If there is some connection between dreams and life then all is well.” In Lenin’s opinion, “Of this kind of dreaming there is unfortunately too little in our movement.” Amen to that. We urgently need to build a movement that challenges leading activists in the socialist movement today to work together and think more critically; that welcomes new activists into the project and helps educate them and find their place; that attracts some of the best activists from a variety of movements and allows them to participate; and that effectively deploys the movement’s resources in common struggles.

How do we get there? I realize that most of this essay has focused on criticizing the weaknesses of the currently existing forms of organization. This is not meant to demoralize those currently active in the socialist movement, but rather to encourage critical thinking. As I’ve stated though, mere criticism is not enough – one also has to put forward an alternative, which is quite difficult. I don’t have a blueprint for what a different socialist movement would look like, and I think it will require a creative exchange of ideas involving people who are much more gifted organizers and thinkers than I. I merely hope to catalyze such a discussion by making it clear that what exists is, in my opinion, both unacceptable and not inevitable. Finding new forms will also take concrete experimentation and critical evaluation, alongside ongoing developments in society. One of the most promising recently was the Dan LaBotz’s socialist campaign for Senate in Ohio, which brought together activists from a number of different groups and has now led to the formation of the Buckeye Socialist Network.

Nevertheless, here are some ideas for potential forms a new socialist movement could take21:

  • A common website, newspaper, and/or journal, with the aim of posting important news, reports on struggles, socialist and radical analysis, and serving as a forum for debate and organizing ideas
  • A collaboration to organize a roster of talented speakers on a variety of issues and work together on building big events for them around the country. Instead of poorly organized, poorly attended events with poor presentations, these could be big forums which inspire people to activism. The roster of speakers could include people like Dahr Jamail, Chris Hedges, Cindy Sheehan, Glenn Greenwald (who is speaking at the ISO’s Socialism 2011 conference in Chicago) important figures from struggles internationally, etc.
  • Big regional and nationwide socialist conferences, along the lines of the ISO’s Socialism Conference in Chicago (and the Bay Area) but even bigger and better. These could be geared not only toward socialist education but also toward developing action proposals and ideas. The fact that no initiative like this has developed in recent years is somewhat disturbing, though understandable given the logic that I’ve outlined.
  • Joint study groups and classes in local areas (or via the Internet), socialist education centers, etc.
  • Local groups of activists who join together to work on common campaigns, or report on all the different work they’re involved in, even if they are from different political trends

There is no magic formula for the constitution of a more effective American socialist movement. It will likely involve a variety of different types of organizational efforts, combined with a growth in struggles by workers and youth on any number of issues. I am putting forward all these ideas because I think they hold potential for building a sounder foundation for this process.22

On what political basis might this all come together? It might seem ridiculous that I am only bringing that point up now, since in many ways it is the central one. Have I abandoned politics in search of organizational shortcuts? Have I jettisoned any concept of a shared program or perspectives as the basis for working together?23 I haven’t, but I felt that the most essential questions to focus on in this piece were organizational. As should be clear from all of the above, I think there have to be better vehicles for the discussion of a program and perspectives than what currently exist.

Imagine if several of the currently existing groups, along with unaffiliated socialists, agreed to approach the questions we face from a fresh perspective, without bringing their organizational baggage with them. Wouldn’t it be possible to take a fresh look at the situation we face in the U.S., clarify our tasks, and find common points of agreement on which we could build some type of united organization or project? Isn’t it at least worth a shot, as an experiment?

Besides, what do we really have to lose?

I am hopeful that this piece will help generate discussion of the sort necessary to developing a healthy, attractive socialist movement. As Bert Cochran put it back in 1956, “If we can find the inner resources to unravel this knotty riddle of our lifetime, then we have the chance to reconstruct the movement on sturdier foundations and along more mature lines, and the challenge of democratic socialism, compelling and clear, can again be flung into the market place – where it has unnecessarily been absent far too long.”

The task remains, and it’s time we set ourselves to work.

1. The Spartacist League is the publisher of the newspaper Workers’ Vanguard, which is mainly filled with vitriolic attacks on other socialist organizations. One of my friends in Socialist Alternative asked a Spart why they keep showing up at our events to deliver long-winded speeches denouncing, for example, our German sister organization’s bad position on Michael Jackson’s sex trial, even if they never recruit any of our members. Their response: “At least we can try to demoralize you and make you drop out of the movement.” The government couldn’t set up an organization that would make the socialist movement look less attractive.

2. As Hal Draper wrote, “To Marx, any organization was a sect if it set up any special set of views (including Marx’s views) as its organizational boundary; if it made this special set of views the determinant of its organizational form.”

3. A friend who heard these same examples when he was a member of Socialist Action confirms my suspicion that these examples are used widely, in many different groups.

4. For example, here is a quote from Alan Woods, the leader of the International Marxist Tendency, and author of a generally excellent book on the Bolshevik Party, Bolshevism: The Road to Revolution: “The central task facing the US Marxists is the building of a revolutionary party. And it is impossible to build a revolutionary party without revolutionary theory. Many groups exist in the USA and internationally that claim to stand for Marxism in one way or another, but they fail on two basic questions: 1) the need to fight for theoretical clarity and 2) the need to link up with the mass movement of the working class. A notable exception is the WIL, which shares the ideas, program and traditions of the International Marxist Tendency.” Search the website of any socialist group, and you will find similarly shallow justifications for their separate existence.

5. In the early 1910s, Lenin would reject calls by Trotsky and others for a “non-factional newspaper,” which he deemed impossible and in fact harmful given the fundamental disagreements between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks over revolutionary strategy. See, for example, “How P.B. Axelrod Exposes the Liquidators”. The point is to understand Lenin’s flexible tactics in their proper context.

6. It’s interesting to see Lenin’s thoughts on the problems created by the small business mentality of his time, under conditions of severe police repression where leading activists were often rapidly arrested: “A circle that is not working yet but only looking for work would not then have to start off like an artisan in one separate small workshop who does not know anything about the development of the ‘industry’ prior to him, nor the general condition of the given production methods of this industry, but, rather, starts off as a participant in a broad enterprise that reflects the whole nation-wide revolutionary assault on the autocracy. And as the working of each cog becomes perfected, and as the number of detail workers for the common cause grows, the denser our network becomes and the less confusion in the ranks is caused by the inevitable provably [police raid].” (What Is to Be Done?, Lih’s translation, 827).

7. This leads to absurd questions like, “Does our organization have anything on the Big Bang?” (Yes, in fact, we do.)

8. Draper recognized this same dynamic, criticizing the publication of socialist newspapers (“mass organs”) for the way they drained resources away from producing other literature: “The publication of literature is thought of by a sect as one activity among others, and not one with a high priority. With one exception, it tends to be pushed to the bottom of the agenda. The exception is the publication of a ‘mass’ organ, which tends to take so much precedence over everything else that nothing else can be done. From our point of view, this is a grave mistake in priorities. The creation (publication and distribution) of a basic body of literature is the accomplishment of a political center on which everything else depends. It is the key means to the end. The first task of this basic body of literature is to make possible the formation of the cadres – to provide the political nourishment on which cadres can be raised. Without it, no healthy cadre formation is possible.”

9. As Lars Lih writes, “Uncovering abuses, often with the help of sympathetic whistle-blowers who passed on incriminating documents, was a major activity of the socialist press.” Lih, 73.

10. As Draper writes, “There is a fundamental fallacy in the notion that the road of miniaturization (aping a mass party in miniature) is the road to a mass revolutionary party. Science proves that the scale on which a living organism exists cannot be arbitrarily changed: human beings cannot exist either on the scale of the Lilliputians or of the Brobdingagians; their life mechanisms could not function on either scale. Ants can lift 200 times their own weight, but a six foot ant could not lift 20 tons even if it could exist in some monstrous fashion. In organizational life too, this is true: If you try to miniaturize a mass party, you do not get a mass party in miniature, but only a monster.” This is true also of all the elements of a mass party, including the newspaper.

11. One reason he urged this was because of the lack of freedom of the press in tsarist Russia, meaning the publication of newspapers entailed the risk of arrest of activists. Nevertheless, he was also deeply concerned about the quality and narrow focus of these local papers. Lih, for example, summarizes one of his articles making this point: “Lenin states that the reader will search local Russian underground newspapers in vain for lively and interesting articles with indictments covering a wide range of abuses: diplomacy, military, church, city, financial, and so on. . . .” Thus the conclusion that one single central newspaper would be far preferable, rather than the thin gruel offered by local papers (sound familiar?).

12. Lenin summarized the difference between propaganda and agitation in What Is to Be Done?: “The propagandist, dealing with, say, the question of unemployment, must explain the capitalistic nature of crises, the cause of their inevitability in modern society, the necessity for the transformation of this society into a socialist society, etc. In a word, he must present “many ideas,” so many, indeed, that they will be understood as an integral whole only by a (comparatively) few persons. The agitator, however, speaking on the same subject, will take as an illustration a fact that is most glaring and most widely known to his audience, say, the death of an unemployed worker’s family from starvation, the growing impoverishment, etc., and, utilising this fact, known to all, will direct his efforts to presenting a single idea to the “masses,” e.g., the senselessness of the contradiction between the increase of wealth and the increase of poverty; he will strive to rouse discontent and indignation among the masses against this crying injustice, leaving a more complete explanation of this contradiction to the propagandist.”

13. A fascinating point by Lenin in What is to be Done?: “In the mass of cases, these forces are now bled white by narrow local work, whereas then it would be possible to transfer an agitator or organizer with any= sort of talent from one end of the country to another and there would be constant occasions for doing so. Beginning with a small journey on party business at the expense of the Party, people would get used to being fully supported by the Party, would become revolutionaries by trade, would make of themselves genuine political leaders.”

14. August Nimtz, Marx and Engels and the Democratic Breakthrough, 154-5. “What clearly distinguished the Marx party from any other revolutionary current of the 19th century was exactly the importance it attached to ‘swotting’ – research and study based on what Engels termed at this stage, ‘the materialist conception.’ … This included distillation of the lessons of the previous revolutionary wave, its causes, course, and outcome.” Nimtz also quotes Liebknecht: “Wilhelm Liebknecht, recruit to the Marx party in early 1850s, spent much time with the Marx household: ‘Marx went to the British Museum daily and urged us to go too. Study! Study! That was the categoric injunction that we heard often enough from him and that he gave us by his example and the continual work of his mighty brain. While the other emigrants were daily planning a world revolution and day after day, night after night intoxicating themselves with the opium-like motto: ‘Tomorrow it will begin!,’ we the ‘brimstone band,’ the ‘bandits,’ the ‘dregs of mankind,’ [some of the epithets hurled at the Marx party by opponents] spent our time in the British Museum and tried to educate ourselves and prepare arms and ammunition for the future fight. . . . Marx was a stern teacher: he not only urged us to study, he made sure that we did so” (Nimtz, 153). Nevertheless, “An essential trait of Marx’s modus operandi was to combine daily organizational activism in the most detailed way – what today would be called ‘licking the stamps’ or doing the ‘s—t work’ – with theoretical leadership. The effectiveness of the latter, in fact, was enhanced by that of the former; it made Marx a more credible leader. Marx epitomized the middle-class thinker who subordinated his life to the revolutionary cause of the proletariat. Being a doer as well as a thinker had the added advantage of rendering class baiting ineffective” (Nimtz, 194).

15. Or as the band The Minutemen put it in their song “Paranoid Chant”: “I keep thinking of Russia, of Russia!” Please forgive me if I’ve committed this same sin throughout this essay by constantly quoting Lenin.

16. Marx’s spirit is perhaps best captured in this quote from a letter he wrote to Arnold Ruge early in his career, “As Marx wrote to Ruge, “We do not confront the world in a doctrinaire way with a new principle: Here is the truth, kneel down before it! We develop new principles for the world out of the world’s own principles. We do not say to the world: Cease your struggles, they are foolish; we will give you the true slogan of struggle.”

17. Peter Camejo, North Star. I can anticipate the objection to these points: “Camejo left Trotskyism and lost his way,” going to work as a high-paid money manager and later “opportunistically” joining the Green Party, for the most part jettisoning his socialist program (in reality he seems to have been trying to figure out how to present it in fresh ways). And besides, the argument will go, he had a bad experience in the Socialist Workers’ Party during its period of degeneration – if only he had been in a healthier Trotskyist organization, he would not have reached these conclusions. In my opinion these are fairly shallow criticisms that avoid engaging with the substance of Camejo’s criticisms. For more of Camejo’s thinking (not to say I necessarily agree with all of it), see his “Return to Materialism”.

18. The American Socialist Union, for example, closed up shop in 1959, and other projects have also not succeeded in creating anything long-lasting.

19. To be clear: I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with working for a union or non-profit or going to grad school – but in the absence of revolutionary organization, it can be hard to resist the powerful reformist pressures they can exert.

20. Even Hal Draper conceded this point: “Unquestionably, sometimes a sect may be better than nothing, but that piece of wisdom does not point to a line.” He added, “It does not follow, even from Marx’s all-out abhorrence of the sect-form, that all sects are always equally harmful.”

21. For more concrete solutions, and an idea of what a healthy socialist organization might look like, I like the ideas outlined in Proyect’s essay, “What type of party do we need?”.

22. Inevitably, the objection will be raised that similar projects to what I’m proposing have been tried around the globe, thus far with limited success. In the late 1990s, the founding of the Scottish Socialist Party was seen as a hugely promising development by many on the left, but it has failed to live up to its potential. In Australia, the Democratic Socialist Party has dissolved itself into the Socialist Alliance, partly to exert “moral pressure” on the rest of the left to do similarly, after reaching many of the same conclusions I have. Yet the Socialist Alliance also seems to be struggling to develop. In France, the LCR dissolved itself into the New Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA). All these developments are still playing themselves out, and we will have to see where they go. Honestly, I personally am not in a position to give much of an assessment of them at this point, though I plan to write about them in the very near future. However, independent of these developments, I have come to the conclusion that the current forms of organization of the socialist movement in the U.S. cannot continue. That point is not dependent on the success of efforts to build a broader party elsewhere, though it can be informed by them. In my opinion, even if these new efforts don’t succeed, that should not be taken as a vindication of the current forms of organization, or of those who seek to hold back from efforts to build a broader organization.

23. Regardless, the current forms of organization actually hinder the development of groupings with clear, agreed upon political perspectives. If someone leaves over a relatively minor disagreement, which may be primarily organizational rather than political, it’s as if they’ve been launched into another galaxy. Discussions with them usually cease, owing to a number of factors ranging from guilt to the hyper-focus of all resources on building your organization. You end up left with a much smaller pool of people – those who you can convince to stick around inside your organization – thus making you ask yourself, “Why don’t more people agree with us?” It makes building support for your politics seem even more difficult (if not hopeless) than it should be! Meanwhile, you’re stuck in your own group with people who you might have more disagreements with, and who might be much less capable or influential activists than those who agree with you on most questions but are not willing to join your organization. You end up focusing an inordinate amount of time on debating with them and working with them, since at least they agree on building your organization. This is the perverse logic of the current organizational forms.

(Originally published in Cultural Logic)

{ 100 comments… read them below or add one }

Manuel Barrera, PhD January 12, 2013 at 2:28 pm

Exactly, Dan. Now Issue A CALL and let’s get started! Oh, and in case anyone thinks I am just jumping on Dan about this, I am talking to all of US.

Everybody has good reasons why we should unite, but no one seems to want actually to do it.

Here’s how to do it:
1. Contact and meet with people like Binh, Ben Campbell, Louis P., Glen Ford, Mike Ely (Kasama, right?) and some representatives of Syriza, the Syrian revolutionary movement, revolutionaries in the Occupy movement, The Chicago Teachers Union (there at least 3 different revolutionaries in that union who would be good–I’ll supply the damn names if you don’t already know them) . . .others I am sure.
2. Find at least 2 of these to sit and have coffee with you and figure out a) a date, b) a place, c) notes for an announcement
3. Run the idea by all the groups named above (yes, ISO, SA-s, etc are good, too, but NEVER essential because by your own estimation, the potential for their deraling it is high)
4. Get agreement from at least 2 others besides the people you met for coffee
5. Publish the announcement on Kasama, North Star, OWS, Marxmail, CTU’s newsletter (if possible), and Black Agenda Report
6. Meet to create an agenda–KEEP IT SIMPLE (stupid:) )
7. Send a second even broader announcement with the agenda (make sure to indicate the democratic nature of the event)
8. Hold the meeting.
See? Not even 10 easy steps (yeah, you can add or break down further, though)
Issue A Call! Now!


Brian S. January 30, 2013 at 7:35 am

I’ve no objection to this sort of approach (perhaps with a more realistic ambit) – but ultimately you don’t build political unity by talking together but by WORKING together. Until you’ ve done some of that the talk will have limited value.


Arthur January 13, 2013 at 10:57 am

Here’s a response I wrote to something related in 1985 (more than a quarter century ago):


If you want to maintain some sort of ‘viable’ propaganda sect in an advanced capitalist society, there are various ‘niches’ available (some, but not all, of which require allegiance to the offspring of some other country’s revolution). All these niches can be filled by groups that have a reasonable degree of self-confidence in the correctness of their ‘line’ even though that confidence rests entirely on self-delusion and social pressures for conformity. They can distribute their newspapers, hold their meetings, dispute with each other and generally lead happy and fulilling lives without making the slightest difference to the real world.

But to actually promote revolution, you have to start from looking at the facts of the non-revolutionary society you are living in, which quickly leads to a far-reaching critique of your own ideas, as well as others, and requires you to come to grips with the fact that there simply isn’t a ready-made line to follow in any advanced capitalis society, and never has been. Developing one is rather daunting prospect (though much more attractive than the ‘living death’ of pretending).

Most groups do naturally prefer to remain ‘viable’ and it can take years or even decades for long-defunct grouplets to actually disappear. (… As soon as a substantial number of members realize that [a group] has had it, they leave to putrefy within [a mainstream centre-left party] instead, so that a process of natural selection leads to ‘survival of the survivors’ and the organization lingers on). Groups of zombies, vampires and other ‘undead’ creatures are the inevitable result when people who have given up on life and struggle pretend that they are still alive.

The left in Australia and other advanced capitalist countries now has very little credibility at all. As for ‘Marxism’, every previously discredited alternative from anarchism to romanticism to feminism currently has more support (though still without much vitality). The few groups that still feel smug and self-satisfied about their line are achieving all the success they deserve. The ecumenical movement among the various ex-communist parties is a recognition of this, but will of course not resolve it. Christian unity will not prevent the decline of Christianity in a secular age.

I am not pessimistic about the present state of the Left, but fairly optimistic that we shall be well rid of it by the time the next major upheavals begin — and there will be plenty of room to establish some real understanding of the world we live in and how to change it. …

While agreeing that ‘the more forums thebetter’, I do not endorse [an] opinion that ‘the conditions of the Australian Left calls for wider discussion and debate: an opening up of minds as well as ranks’. The condition of the Australian Left calls for a decent burial, with a critical stake through its heart, alongside its counterparts abroad. Then we shall see….

[From the Australian magazine “Arena” Number 71, 1985]


Pham Binh January 13, 2013 at 9:17 pm

So we need to develop one.


Radical Party January 22, 2014 at 11:24 pm

Hello, check this out, if you’re so inclined:


Dan D. January 13, 2013 at 7:21 pm

I pretty much agree with Arthur at this point.


anitah January 13, 2013 at 11:33 pm

Need to develop one? One what – one elaborate plan? These one-liners are too cryptic at times – think that ought to be avoided by a thorough and model ‘Editor.’ I think Dan D is right, Arthur put a convincing case as to why contributing to this rumour-mongering is smelly in other ways and a misdirection of energy.


Ben Campbell January 14, 2013 at 12:18 am

I take issue with the characterization of The North Star as “rumour-mongering”. I don’t know whether you are referring to the recent SWP crisis, or the ISO/SA dispute, but in either case The North Star is merely providing a non-sectarian space for pre-existing disputes to be discussed. The hope is that such a space will help contribute to a culture of open discussion, which is the precise opposite of the type of secrecy that leads to “rumor-mongering”.

As to the other point, as much as one might like to, one cannot simply wish away the existing left in favor of a blank slate or a fresh start. The pathologies of the existing left (and there are many) must be adequately understood if there is to be any hope of overcoming them – just as capital itself must be adequately understood if it is to be overcome – because the pathologies of the existing left are not simply strategic mistakes, but are forms of organization/positions that exist precisely because they give the illusion of challenging capital, and hence actually support capital. As Camejo understood, the extreme sectarian left is a form of capitulation to capital. So too is the delusion of reforming the Democratic Party, and so too is the “mutual aid” anarchism that has taken hold of Occupy. All of these pathologies are not just strategic mistakes, but are forms of behavior that arise in service of capital – thus, even if we could be rid of them tomorrow, they would eventually reappear. And that is why they must constantly be combated, rather than simply ignored.


Arthur January 14, 2013 at 3:18 am

I basically agree (with the need to adequately understand and hence to discuss the pathologies).

Also discussion of rumor-mongering should be confined to threads in which it occurs. This wasn’t one of them.

At the same time, it really is a quarter of a century since I came to the conclusion that what passed for “the Left” then needed to be buried and I haven’t made or seen much progress on the daunting task of developing an appropriate line for revolutionary work in advanced capitalist countries (which I hope was what Pham was referring to as “the need to develop one”). BTW I omitted a section in which I wrongly predicted a revival of Marxism-Leninism in the 1990s. Its been far too many decades for an easy fix.

The date is interesting in itself as it was 5 years before the collapse of the East European police states, which many people see as associated with the decline of the Left. (Also of course long before the total degeneration into outright defence of fascist dictatorships and overt hostility to working class living standards and progress in general).

Discussing the pathologies should be used to assist rather than distract from a primary focus on gaining an adequate understanding of the world we live in and how to change it.


Pham Binh January 14, 2013 at 11:19 am

From Arthur’s 1985 piece: “But to actually promote revolution, you have to start from looking at the facts of the non-revolutionary society you are living in, which quickly leads to a far-reaching critique of your own ideas, as well as others, and requires you to come to grips with the fact that there simply isn’t a ready-made line to follow in any advanced capitalis society, and never has been. Developing one is rather daunting prospect.”

I think I contributed a small bit to this with my examination of the shape of U.S. left politics after the 2012 elections. There is a lot that is implicit there that is worth making explicit at some point but I think Dan’s piece here has a lot to contribute to the topic as well. The central point he makes is that existing socialist groups need to see and treat their own existence as historically transitory, a necessary ingredient for creating something bigger, better, and more effective rather than seeing themselves as either 1) the final product in miniature or 2) the only or main necessary ingredient. Creating a political center in the online world is another necessary ingredient, a way of undermining the party-line/liberal monopolies over left thought and discussion, but it too is just one small ingredient, a small catalyst or facilitator.


Arthur January 15, 2013 at 4:55 am

But the existing socialist groups are not just historically transitory. They are moribund. How can rotting corpses be a “necessary ingredient”?

Manuel think for a moment about the implications of it being 25 years since I wrote what I did. I don’t need vindication but you do need to understand that simply issuing a call isn’t going to easily fix 25 years of decay.


Pham Binh January 15, 2013 at 9:35 am

As long as they continue to recruit fresh forces and young radicals, they will not be moribund, unfortunately.


Manuel Barrera, PhD January 15, 2013 at 1:42 pm

thank you, Arthur. I replied more generally to Ben’s reply below, but I do understand that issuing a call will not “fix” anything and the decay, in truth, is more than 25 years in passing. Indeed, the fact that capitalism has long outlived its stay on the earth is of course the root of the entire problem with its chronic ability to keep going based on its success in disinforming populations and inculcating societies into its version of “the best of all possible worlds” all of which have their effects on even the most conscious layers. We can’t seem to get past the idea of “heroes” and “vanguards” and such. Please don’t mistake my (rather frustrated) reply to mean that I did not actually appreciate the history you reminded us about. I just wonder whether knowing this history is enough and what else we ought to do.


Manuel Barrera January 14, 2013 at 12:34 pm

Is there really no other point to this discussion than to “discuss” these problems? Arthur seems to want vindication of what he wrote in 1985 and Ben seems more concerned with how North Star is perceived, Binh wants to put this post into context and Dan, well, Dan, is nowhere to be found in follow up?

I don’t know, was my earlier post simply too off the mark here? Is the point of this discussion to engage in the ad nauseum discussions so many other left groups have engaged and continued to engage? Is that our lot; to whine and complain about the state of the left, state of society, the capitalist state?

May I once again suggest (I know it may seem dogmatic) that perhaps, maybe, d’ya think, we might just have all this discussion toward some kind of gathering where we can meet and think these through with some modicum of, you know, action?

Why Is This So Difficult!!??!!


Ben Campbell January 14, 2013 at 12:48 pm

Manuel, actually I found your first comment quite refreshing, and am also disappointed nobody responded to it. I suppose my questions are, what would be discussed at such a physical gathering, and could/shouldn’t initial discussions on these topics be engaged online? Secondly, what lessons could Marxists learn from the experience of ACI in Britain if attempting a similar “regroupment” in the US?

I’m not interested in mere discussion for discussion’s sake, but discussion for clarification such that any such attempts at “regroupment” might be more likely to succeed.


Pham Binh January 14, 2013 at 1:41 pm

Many of us have met each other and held meetings along the lines you’ve described. The difficulty is in creating a more permanent forum/space/formation that is not simply a talk shop; all of the people you’ve named are pretty busy in their respective political arenas and have little material or practical incentive to meet for meeting’s sake. The negative experience of Revolutionary Work In Our Time (which was FRSO, Solidarity, the New York Study Group, LRNA [I think]) which fizzled out in 2011 before Occupy weighs like a nightmare on the players who might otherwise be interested in such things.

Let’s remember that it took Iskra three years of organizing and agitation to get together a party congress, and they had the virtue of trying to import/copy an existing model (the German SPD) among a milieu of people who were already won in principle to this vision. We are at a much more primitive starting point, have fewer means, and the next steps are much less obvious.

I hope to have a panel organized at this year’s Left Forum, and hopefully some “North Star people” will be invited to other panels as well. That’s where we’re at right now. Eventually, I think a more formal network is in order, so that the threads (read: individuals) who agree with the project of left unity/convergence can stay in contact and begin to pull in a common direction in whatever arena/tendency they work in. Barring a decision by Hugo Chavez and the PSUV to form an international and force all the little national grouplets to merge the way the early Comintern did, that’s what’s on the cards for the time being. Progress may be slow as a snail, but it sure beats the existing far left’s dead ends and circular loops where no progress is ever made.


Manuel Barrera January 14, 2013 at 3:03 pm

Thank you, Ben and Binh for the replies; it is heartening, Binh, that (a) there have been earlier attempts despite seemingly dismal results and (b) that there is at least a “long view” about future events; a “snail’s pace” is probably frustrating but still promising in that “we” are not interested in “talk shops”. No one should ever say taking on this task is easy.

Ben, you are correct also that we shouldn’t engage in “discussion for discussion’s sake”. I also believe that it would be helpful to learn from previous and current initiatives like the ACI in Britain. I believe Simon Hardy (among others I am sure) would be helpful in thinking through this kind of effort.

Here are my initial thoughts:
1: regarding the “gathering” of people
I still believe the idea of joint gatherings is useful and although we are all “scholars” in one form or another, we are primarily action-oriented and it is always most helpful to have the backdrop of the extant struggle as a framework for motivating us for what I know we all believe: that above all we–as revolutionaries–need to find a way to coordinate our efforts and build as well as learn to be a leadership with others. Hence, I like Binh’s idea of a panel at the Left Forum (though I really don’t know the details of this Forum and will appreciate where to find out about it). But I also believe that as Binh has observed that this kind of work is likely to be slow and deliberate–that’s not a bad thing necessarily because of the potential groups that may be involved. Thus, I believe that there should be several such events that ought to take place at strategic actions or dates and that it would be desirable that at least a few of “us” would be present as a continuity. For example, in addition to the Left Forum, why not see if we can create a gathering at the Occupy DOE in April or some other national actions that may come about? Because, again as Binh points out, many of the people who should play a role here are involved in their own work, perhaps it might be strategic to identify key events where more limited events could take place but that we could hold for purposes of checking in with each other on how much closer we are to a united framework?

2. regarding the nature of what to discuss:

On this, I believe there is wide possibility, so, my thoughts may not be the best except perhaps to spur others’?
Nevertheless, here are some initial thoughts:
–why can’t we notify each other and coordinate our efforts at any national or regional actions and build “socialist” or “revolutionary left” contingents around strategic demands upon which we all would generally agree? For example, using the Occupy the DOE action in April, we could organize a left contingent (doesn’t have to be that name, of course) with the demand “Money For Schools Not For Wars”. We could agree that we would at least gather together and then, if desired, join and mix with other contingents. I know this example is a bit mechanical because I do not really know the nature of this action, but I hope the idea comes through: a) discuss and coordinate, b) gather and be visible as a united force, c) show we can come to agreement despite many disagreements.
–Discuss the potential for a united campaign against austerity and what would be the points of agreement as well as ways to disseminate? I make this point because of the potential for reaching out to oppressed communities as well as unions that this kind campaign might create. Certainly such a campaign would resonate with people like Glenn Ford and his comrades at BAR who have been calling for this campaign for some time.
–Discuss the potential for a united campaign for democratic rights in response to the ongoing fight against specific attacks like the FBI’s harassment of the antiwar movement, the fight to free Bradley Manning and around Wikileaks, the harassment and disruption of the Occupy movement, the ongoing deterioration of civil and electoral rights that affect the African-American community in particular, and the reformulation of the struggle for immigrant rights (e.g., for legalization) as a fight for civil rights–the right to citizenship and the right to vote, etc. All of these–among others–are important fights for revolutionaries who have an intense interest in maintaining and extending democratic rights in the workplace and in public spaces.
–Discuss the potential for defense of women’s rights and to educate on the nature of women’s oppression as part and parcel of the fights for democratic rights, for education for all, and the role that socialists play in defending and extending the goals of feminism as well as the rights of Gay/Lesbian/Transgendered people (apologies to those of us who may bristle at my combining this issue with women’s issues). For example, the recent events around rape in India and elsewhere and the events surrounding the UK SWP behoove revolutionaries to discuss, debate, and unite to adopt a viable perspective–if not a position–on this issue is likely an important area that I believe women revolutionaries should expect male comrades to engage and develop together.
–This last point could also be discussed toward the development of a united and “21st century” perspective on the role of specifically oppressed peoples in the context of a worldwide socialist and working class revolution. This, of course, is likely a difficult and contentious point, but what good would it do “just” to find agreement on key demands? Revolutionaries need a way to build our thinking and stretch our understandings.

3. regarding the nature of the individuals and groups involved:
It is important for us to recognize that the organized left groups have an almost inherent lack of motivation to engage in left unity, so, focusing on their involvement is important, but I believe it will take the largely unaffiliated cadres among us to provide the “glue” that we can hope to use to bind us over time. We should not simply be on the attack with the organized groups hoping we can find one or two to “come to their senses” although I believe such a critique of the pseudo-Leninist movements is essential. I believe that the greatest impetus for left unity is likely to come from unaffiliated comrades who recognize the need for a much broader form of revolutionary leadership than the current organized left groups are capable of understanding, at least immediately. If we truly believe that the “Leninist” (i.e., pseudo-Leninist) conception is untenable, then it behooves to act differently and to find ways to demonstrate both the utility and wisdom of returning to the true traditions of “Leninism” and “Bolshevism” that so many of us have researched and written about.

As Binh, Ben, Dan, and Arthur, as well as comrades like Louis have pointed to we need to find a new democratic and open tradition for revolutionaries to work within. Such a tradition is the surest way to build a revolutionary party that incorporates debate, disagreement, and united action despite ongoing dissension that we can provide the working class and the oppressed as an example for how to struggle and fight together.

I do not pretend to believe that what I’ve shared above is “the” answer or even the best approximation. But I do hope we can make more headway with a little more focus and strategic thought to building a united left initiative.


Ben Campbell January 15, 2013 at 6:03 am

Manuel, in general I can’t say I disagree with you, but I think we may have a different sense of the time-scale involved here. Even if the people you mentioned were to put out a “call” for some sort of “socialist unity”, I think we would be lucky to get together a group of a few dozen dedicated individuals. Indeed, we have already had two such calls put out (both by Binh, publicized by Louis). In the first case, 25 or so “multi-tendency” socialists convened at last year’s Left Forum (most of whom were attached to another group they had no interest in ‘liquidating’). Nothing really came of it. For the second call, May Day, the turnout was significantly lower.

Thus, even if we were somewhat successful in herding together non-aligned Marxists, we would have a group smaller than, say, Solidarity – which raises the question, why not simply join Solidarity if we wanted to be active in these sorts of campaigns?

Your comment deserves more of a response, and perhaps I will add more later, but for now let me simply say that I am more skeptical of political “activism” than you and Dan. Let me put it this way – why do you want to engage in these political campaigns you propose? Is it because you think that we (the radical left) could make much of a difference in them? If so, then I think that’s problematic – again, I don’t think we are as strong as you seem to think we are. If, however, you envision political campaigns as a form of consciousness raising, then I would be more sympathetic. This would require, however, careful choice of which campaigns to be involved in, so that Marxists were not merely tailing a seeming hodge-podge of single-issue causes, but were in some sense “leading the class”. Unfortunately, once you get into some ill-defined “non-sectarian” “pluralistic” organization, that becomes a real danger of chasing after every issue. This is a danger faced by all those who are abandoning “Leninism” in favor of the yet-to-be-defined “non-sectarian” Marxism – that in the desire to avoid “sectarianism” the opposite error is made, of embracing a pluralism that lacks necessary clarity of either ideology or purpose. So we would need to have a better sense of what we are rallying around.


Manuel Barrera, PhD January 15, 2013 at 1:30 pm

Thank you, Ben as well as Binh and Arthur who have all commented so far. Here are my replies:

First, it seems perhaps I am starting at a different point on this issue as some of you, so, I am sure that you all may share more frustration and history regarding the futility you have encountered in trying to “move the rock”, especially if that rock is on a hill that some of our pseudo-Leninist groups believe they have already begun climbing “all by themselves”. To that, I can only say that I understand the pain and “welcome to the NFL” :)

My eyes, while not “fresh” remain rooted in the belief that it is better to work the problem more than to admire it. . .but before you think me arrogant and petulant, I don’t mean to say you are simply sitting on your hands and bemoaning, I know that is not the case. Simply, I am unwilling to think that there is nothing we can do in this period toward making the case for realignment and regrouping of revolutionary forces and that doing so would not have a positive effect.

Well, I was going to answer some of the questions you mentioned with an “activist” perspective, but it seems pointless to state the obvious with the record of activism most of you already possess and perhaps you are all correct and the best thing we can do now is to discuss and analyze. And wait.

In truth, the North Star and this kind of ongoing discussion as well as the continuing crisis of capitalist plunder and war along with the rather obvious failed promise of the “vanguardist” groups means that perhaps the only real hope is the emergence of a more politically mature generation of new activists who may actually have to go through the pain of being recruited and dismayed by the pretensions of dated and obsolete models of revolutionary organization (Perhaps, Dan, this is where you “are”?). It’s going to be painful to watch indeed. But you all may be correct and that is all with which we are “left” (no pun intended).

I might make one suggestion, however, flowing from Binh’s rather excellent, but periodic analyses of the “left” and “Leninism”. Perhaps there should be a way to chronicle the small but progressive steps that are being made toward a realignment of the revolutionary forces and to create a sort of periodic reporting of events and potential opportunities? For example, the recent “flap” over whether ISO should or should not have supported the Sawant campaign in Seattle during the elections produced what I thought were fruitful discussions on the issues of independent political action. The main problem, of course, was that much of it occurred after the election when very little could be done to effect a positive outcome. Perhaps it was all ISO’s “fault” (I doubt it) or all a result of S-Alt’s late effort (I doubt that, too), but I believe that had there been more of a discussion and generation of effort during the election, perhaps a limited objective–to get leftists to support each other more than they did–might have been achieved, or, at least both the groups in question might have been “moved” to do better. It certainly would have been at least an equally fruitful point of discussion than whether some pretend-radical was so outrageously capitulating to vote for Obama.

Now, I know some of this discussion did occur. My point is rather that a more organized effort, by the small number of those of us already committed to a united left, would provide a new(er) voice rather than so many individual efforts.

The same point applies now to so many different issues where the need for left regroupment (realignment, unity?) is a potential for discussion (e.g., Syria, feminism, the crisis of the UK-SWP). Some of this kind of discussion is currently happening organically but I wonder if more could be done more consciously. Binh’s reply to Arthur about the still big influence on emerging new leftists by the sectarian grouplets as the only groups “around” is important to note. The paradox that such a model is indeed moribund but still fueled by the radicalization is of real concern because if there were a different pole of attraction–the idea of truly democratic left unity–more headway could be made toward what we know is really needed. Indeed, groups like the ISO and others might be forced to adopt less sectarian approaches if they knew that the radicalizing new activists in various movements were becoming more sophisticated in their expectations of an organized and democratic Left. In this vein, it will be interesting to see how people like Seymour and others in the UK-SWP affect that Party and how they and their party learn from their recent crisis. I wonder how the ACI in Britain might play a role and be affected as well.

Ok, that was me trying to be patient. I hope you can take my suggestions and thoughts in a comradely way. But, if we here–probably the most conscious of the problem–are only able to see this issue as too premature as yet, then who am I to doubt it?


Patrick A. January 16, 2013 at 11:03 am

Hey all, I just wanted to add some two cents. I think Dan raises some important issues. I’ve always appreciated his perspective. But, I don’t agree with him on many things and I just wanted to focus on one thing here: that the problem is the “form” of the movement. I don’t agree with this, and that does not mean that I do not support more effective forms. But, I think putting the emphasis on “the form” of the socialist movement – as the main problem – is a recipe for inaction.

Rather, I believe the main problem is the content. Last summer, I raised this issue on Dan’s facebook page in a debate and it later became the concept for “Imagine 200 Occupy Candidates This Year” which I wrote ( I said if the issue really was just the “form” and not the content WHY WERE THERE NOT 200 Occupy Candidates in 2012???

If we draw the conclusion that there were not 200 Occupy activists because of “the form”, that relieves us of responsibility. We can just blame the left. But, if it’s the content, then each of us has a responsibility to go build and prepare the way for new forms.

Our basic task today is not to create some magic bullet “form” that will transform the situation for us. Our basic task IS TO TRAIN A NEW GENERATION OF SOCIALIST ACTIVISTS – regardless of the forms we have to use. That’s why I would strongly recommend that socialist activists not get discouraged and draw cynical conclusions about the reach, resources, and effectiveness (or seeming ineffectiveness) of the socialist movement today.

The irony is that it was the ISO that provided the basic training for Binh and Socialist Alternative that provided socialist education and training for Dan. They didn’t just read Marx in these organizations and have academic discussions. They learned about building organization,organizing protests and campaigns, arguing the case for socialism, and other necessary skills for building a socialist movement. These are skills that are indispensable and we have a duty to train others in these skills to prepare the basic forces that will actually build a socialist movement on the ground and in the trenches.

This is especially important if people are as serious about building new forms for the socialist movement. If we want new forms, we have to ask: who is going to build them? People here seem pretty certain that the existing left is not going to do it. I don’t completely share this view as a member of Socialist Alternative. Yet, I STRONGLY sympathize. The overwhelming majority of the existing socialist movement is not prepared to seize the opportunities opening up. I’ve felt for a very long time it is going to be a fresh layer of activists that will have to the heavy lifting to rebuild the socialist movement.

That’s why our key task is training a new generation of socialist activists in the best possible traditions – no matter the form used – is the key task that will help prepare the way for larger and more effective forms.


Pham Binh January 16, 2013 at 8:34 pm

It’s unclear to me what you are getting at re: form and content.

The reason there weren’t 200 Occupy candidates gunning for Ds and Rs at the ballot box is because of the predominance of anarchist tendencies, not because the “content” of the existing socialist organizations was wrong, faulty, or mistaken. Anarchism dominated Occupy largely because the existing left (from liberals tied to the Democratic Party to the “revolutionary” left) failed to capture and channel the mass discontent that grew out of the economic crisis of 2008. Obama rode that wave to office, and then after that, the left basically did nothing. No bold initiatives, no united fronts, not even a single all-encompassing meet up by all the NGOs, unions, and interested progressive organizations to begin a conversation about how to coordinate resistance to the austerity sledgehammer we all saw heading towards us at 300 mph.

By and large the organized socialist left was unable to merge with and lead Occupy in any direction, positive or negative. I understand that in Seattle Socialist Alternative spearheaded a successful action (500 tents) that repulsed an eviction. This was the commendable exception. More common was what happened with Occupy Boston, where organized socialists self-isolated and then got frustrated when they exerted zero influence in the broader movement (see: or other places comrades wasted many, many hours trying and failing to get proposals passed by their local General Assembly not realizing that their purpose was to inhibit rather than facilitate action. And full-throated multi-tendency coordination and cooperation was exceedingly rare.

Why did this happen, almost across the board, with the three and two-letter groups? Because they all function in practice in a similar manner, their formal political differences over the USSR and PRC notwithstanding. These groups were designed to put forward lines and particular arguments and recruit people on that basis; they were not flexible nor open-minded enough for something as multi-faceted, complex, and rapidly shifting as Occupy.

Does that mean that the existing groups are useless bankrupts? Of course not. But that doesn’t mean they are particularly good training grounds for socialist activists either.

My experience with the ISO was mostly positive. I’m not one of these comrades who came to reject “Leninism” because I was on the receiving end of some so-called democratic centralism. My experience was not traumatic in the slightest. Yes, I learned useful skills, but I had to unlearn a lot more when the Arab Spring and Occupy came along in order to fully appreciate the meaning, depth, breadth, potential, and actual of both. I also had to unlearn most of what I thought I knew about Lenin and the Bolsheviks the more I studied their experience.

Training a new cadre of activists with revolutionary Marxist politics is very important. Absolutely. The problem is that the existing “Leninist” groups train people in ways that are good and bad, productive and counterproductive.

Talk to an ISO member about Socialist Alternative and you’re likely to hear about the glorious struggle of Tony Cliff and state capitalism (or that Socialist Alternative is electoralist unserious Menshevist reformism); talk to Socialist Alternative about RCP, and you’ll hear about the evils of Maoism; talk to RCP about anything or anyone and you’ll hear about Bob Avakian’s latest and greatest book/article/idea. I fail to see how training revolutionaries to respond in this way is productive in terms of our common struggle for common ends. We almost always put our differences first; we tend to belittle and minimize our comrades’ achievements (usually we think of them as “the competition,” which is a half step away from “the enemy”); we then exaggerate what differences there are and sometimes even cross the line into falsehoods; and lastly, we try might and main to recruit you joining the fight for the correct brand of socialism, as embodied in our newspaper (please buy). This is not useful. We also teach people that 1) “party building” comes first, which means a branch meeting a week, plus a paper sale, plus a contact meeting, plus a new member meeting, which all together adds up to 6 hours 2 nights a week 2) a struggle erupts that we want to partake in (and “party build” out of), so in addition to all the stuff that comes with #1, we go to coalition meetings and events, which is another 4 hours, 2 nights a week 3) to plan our disciplined, at times robotic, behavior in the coalition events, we have pre-meetings, adding another 2 hours over those 2 nights. And I won’t get into 4) being on a branch committee.

By doing all this and recruiting others who recruit others into this model, we teach people that socialist activism is practically an unpaid second job in a period where the level of actual struggle and militancy is exceedingly low. This produces burnout, fatigue, and the revolving door problem because it is unsustainable for anyone but young ‘uns and students; the level of struggle is low, but our turnover rate is high — too high. No single mom who can barely afford day care and bus fare can participate in a meaningful way in this type of set up. So we nestle ourselves permanently on a campus because our form of organizing is not readily accessible to working people, the unemployed, project kids, and welfare recipients, the very people we’re trying to help liberate (or help them liberate themselves, more accurately). We teach people that this is the norm for a socialist movement, it is to be expected, it is the result of objective conditions that we have no control over, and in doing so we abdicate our responsibility to find, discover, evolve, and create new forms of organization more readily accessible to the people we’re making so many sacrifices on behalf of. It’s the world’s fault that we’re small, capitalism’s fault that we struggle to keep our (competing) groups alive, Obama’s fault we don’t have a meaningful third party in America.

I think we can do so much better than this. We have to do better than this if we’re ever going to stop things from getting worse and worse for us as they have been since the 1970s. The first step in fixing a problem is admitting that there is a problem, and the second step is coming to grips with the scale, the depth, the dynamics, and the origins of that problem. To me, North Star is a small contribution to steps 1 and 2, a tiny part of a bigger puzzle we all have to have a hand in putting together.

I don’t want to train a new generation of activists to sell newspapers, to talk at people instead of listening to them, to look down on “other” political traditions, to spend inordinate amounts of time micromanaging and controlling members’ political work, or to recruit recruiters. I want to train new activists to think for themselves, to apply Marxism on their own, to boldly experiment, to unite the many against the few regardless of ideology, and to never mix up who our friends and enemies are in the name of “beating the competition.”

If I find a socialist group that does that, I’ll be the first to sign up, and perhaps if North Star and other efforts are successful, someday we’ll have a party worthy of that term that performs those functions.


Patrick A. January 28, 2013 at 3:09 pm

Hey Binh, here’s my long awaited response!

By “content” I simply mean the conscious forces need to bring a development like 200 candidates into existence. I agree a more concrete reason that there were not 200 candidates in 2012 was anarchist influence in Occupy. More generally, after years of setbacks, defeats, and a historic decline of working class and left organization there is massive confusion about how to organize effectively in terms of effective strategies, methods and tactics. So, while there was an opening for 200 candidates in the sense that there was a mood of anger at both parties, the lack of the conscious forces that are needed to crystallize that mood and give it wide expression – and give it a visible form – was the fundamental weakness.

I’m not going to defend the existing left here. My original intention was to add my thoughts about what the essential tasks for rebuilding the socialist movement. I agree there are all sorts of problems. Those have to be worked out in practice. I want to see new effective forms, and I’m all form new models of organizing.

But, the problem of problems is not the form, it’s the lack of conscious socialist activists with the political understanding needed to effectively build in the conditions of today’s world. If we had thousands of socialist activists with the experience and the necessary political understanding to see through the “small business” mentally as Dan puts it, then we could burst through the limits of the current forms and create new ones. If you look at the 1930s when there were mass developments of radical working class organization, when the CP grew to like 70,000 members in a couple years, and millions of workers went into the CIO, there was already an existing layer of hundreds of thousands of workers who believed in the revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist system. They had been through the experience of 1917, the IWW, Debs, Sacco and Vancetti,, etc — before the depression.

Today, you don’t have that. You have hundreds of thousands of people who are angry at corporations and are confused about the need for organization. This complicates our task and makes it harder to rapidly establish new massive, effective, solid organizations.

But, nevertheless, things are changing and opportunities are growing and there are huge opportunities and the need for building a movement that can bring an alternative to capitalism into existence is becoming more clear to many people. The question is: who is going to do it?

In a new thread (Phil the very public sociologist), the question has been posed quite well in relation to how a mass socialist voice for the UK working class will be built: will the existing left be the force that builds a new socialist movement? Or will it be fresh layers? The U.S. situation is different. But, the question we can ask in this discussion is: will a new socialist voice for working people in the U.S. be built through the existing socialist left? Or will it be built mainly among the fresh layers? Will it be built by first reforming the existing socialist left? Or by first “recruiting” a new generation to socialism regardless of the existing form?

But, in my opinion, I have serious doubts that the existing socialist left (both those in organizations and those who have no organization) is prepared. Regardless of the form, they lack the political understanding — your article on Occupy and the Tasks of Socialists adds to that idea for me. And in the post above you said, “By and large the organized socialist left was unable to merge with and lead Occupy in any direction, positive or negative.” Why should we focus our time on trying to reform the existing socialist left when a whole new generation outside the existing left is trying to find a way forward?

Of course, I think there should be more discussion on concrete lessons as the movement goes forward. But, the main thrust of our activity should be toward fresh layers.

So, my advice to other socialists is to turn toward fresh layers of radicalizing workers and youth. Produce material that is interesting to them. Build new circles of socialist groups. And, have confidence that as a new generation comes into the movement, problems will be worked out in practice, and the question of effective forms of the movement will become more practical and concrete. And don’t be discouraged by the problems. Focus on the historic opportunities.


Pham Binh January 29, 2013 at 1:31 pm

“But, the problem of problems is not the form, it’s the lack of conscious socialist activists with the political understanding needed to effectively build in the conditions of today’s world. If we had thousands of socialist activists with the experience and the necessary political understanding to see through the ‘small business’ mentally as Dan puts it, then we could burst through the limits of the current forms and create new ones. If you look at the 1930s when there were mass developments of radical working class organization, when the CP grew to like 70,000 members in a couple years, and millions of workers went into the CIO, there was already an existing layer of hundreds of thousands of workers who believed in the revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist system. They had been through the experience of 1917, the IWW, Debs, Sacco and Vancetti,, etc — before the depression.

“Today, you don’t have that. You have hundreds of thousands of people who are angry at corporations and are confused about the need for organization. This complicates our task and makes it harder to rapidly establish new massive, effective, solid organizations. ”

I cannot agree with this. The organized socialist left in the U.S. in numerical terms may be less than what it was in 1898 (6,000) when the Socialist Party was formed out of a split in DeLeon’s Socialist Party Party along with a merger of independent collectives and Social Democracy of America, but we have thousands. The ISO’s 1,200, SA’s 200-300, PSL’s hundreds, WWP’s hundreds, Solidarity’s hundreds, FRSO’s hundreds, all together add up to a few thousand people.

We do not lack numbers. We lack the will to do something other than spend so much time recruiting and building small, competing groups. Our socialist left groups function as revolving doors, absorbing fresh layers and spitting most of them back out again over the course of a decade. All the ex-members of these groups combined with existing members would easily add up to 10,000 or more, and a lot of them are experienced activists and card-carrying union members, a vanguard-in-waiting almost. Putting them together under one roof would alter the face of radical politics in this country.

A new socialist left with 70,000 cannot be wished into being and it will not magically appear out of nowhere. Without the Communist Party’s relentless efforts — reaching out to broader forces, petty-bourgeois groups, church associations, and what have you — what you’re referring to never would have happened. And without the split in the old Socialist Labor Party and a bold decision to unify with (rather than compete with) the Social Democrats of America in 1901, there would have been no Socialist Party to give birth to that Communist Party. We need more mergers, less splits.

As it stands now, each group locally works separately and independently of the other. The ISO has become (in)famous for its sectarian hostility towards the Sawant campaign. That is now water under the bridge. It looks like they are going to sit on the sidelines for SA’s local elections campaign in Seattle as well. Instead of going along with SA’s idea, they have made a fight against standardized testing their priority. Fine. Has SA or Kshama Sawant reached out to the ISO to cooperate with them on that effort? (Part of rolling back standardized test is doing things like running for and winning elections for local school boards like the SP’s Pat Noble in Jersey, so there’s an opportunity for SA to make its electoral effort relevant to this.) Has SA offered to bring Jesse Hagopian to wherever it has strong campus bases to speak and build support for that fight among students, faculty, and union members? Has the ISO called up Black Orchid Collective for support? What about Seattle Solidarity Network? Or Red Spark? And whatever is left of Occupy? How about the Industrial Workers of the World?

I suspect the answer to all those questions is “no.” I would love to be wrong. And until that modus operandi on the left changes, we are going nowhere fast.


Patrick A. January 29, 2013 at 4:10 pm

I don’t know much about the early pioneering socialist movement. Would love to learn more. Can you recommend any good books?

Just to restate my disagreement: I don’t think it’s just a question of the numbers and the right form. Of course, the socialist movement could be doing more if it was better organized. The whole question comes down to political understanding. With just a few people and a distinct political approach in 2012, Socialist Alternative mobilized 20,000 votes for socialism. Even a small group, with the correct political understanding, can have a bigger impact that a large group with a bad — or confused — political understanding.

I think you misunderstood my point on the difference between the 1930s and today. In the 1930s, you had a massive socialist consciousness beyond the organized left. You had a massive BASE for the socialist movement. Debs got 1 million votes, and that helped spread socialist political understanding long before the 1930s among a wide layer of the population. Today, you don’t have THAT. You have an anti-corporate consciousnesses. Just look at Occupy. It was not a socialist movement. It did not have a socialist leadership. It did not lead to a massive growth in socialist organizations. It was a populist movement. It’s a product of both the capitalist crisis, but also the previous period of historic defeats and setbacks for the working class and socialist movement.

How the existing socialist movement, regardless of form, intervenes in the living process today, is the decisive question. That is a function of political understanding, not form. The few thousands socialists you have today have a completely different political understanding than the 6,000 socialists in 1898, who developed their understanding in a completely different historic period.

And the problem is not just the groups. It’s also the hundreds of unorganized socialists who are not demonstrating in practice a better way forward. The existing left is not some insurmountable obstacle!

We all have a responsibility to rebuild the socialist movement. Focusing on how other socialist choose to organize does not absolve anyone of their responsibility for then coming up with positive case for how to build the movement, and then to put the rubber to the road.

I support a new form for the movement. But, I don’t think the priority a new form for the “moribund” (the word used by people on this site) existing socialist left with it’s current political understanding. I support a new form for the real movement of workers and youth. In Socialist Alternative we have called this a “mass workers party” (which would be a “multi-tendency” party). But, we also have a perspective of a whole variety of experiences, campaigns and pre-formations coming into existence first. Still the decisive issue of any campaign or attempt to build a new united formation, is whether it brings a fresh layer into activity.

But bringing new forms into existence requires a political struggle to develop the political understanding of a whole layer of activists. You must win agreement among thousands. Without agreement, you have nothing. But, winning agreement for a vision that very few people agree with means organizing a small group of supporters and then trying to win agreement with other people, not just through arguments, but by putting the rubber to the road and showing a way forward in practice.

By focusing on the opportunities, coming up with plans of action to engage fresh layers, we can bring a new generation into the movement who will be a tremendous weight against sectarian trends of political thought — literally nobody joins the socialist movement because they are happy with the status quo.

Lastly, I invite you to call all those groups you mention. It will be an opportunity to test out your approach. I am not in favor of running candidates on the basis of a primary orientation to the existing left, many of whom we have worked with on appropriate issues that we could actually work together on. We worked with BOC, Red Spark, and others on the direct action – the Night of 500 Tents, which we initiated. We worked together to win agreement for the action, to organize it, to mobilize for it, and we worked together to plan the defense of the camp. We initiated the “Radical Caucus” with BOC and others. We worked with them on moving the occupation from Westlake to SCCC. But, once there was a stable base of operations, we were not able to work together anymore because of political differences and different conceptions of how to build movements. We wanted to turn the movement outward on the basis of taking up concrete issues important to the wider layers of people looking to Occupy for leadership. They disagreed with our approach and wanted to radicalize the movement, defeat the liberals, etc.

But again, our approach in Occupy, in our election and going forward is to unite with fresh layers moving into struggle, to engage their interest, their consciousnesses. In the upcoming election campaign, we primarily want to unite with the 20,000 people who expressed their desire for a political alternative and those people who are actually interested in working with us to mobilize another 20,000 people. To me, that is the non-sectarian POLITICAL approach: an approach that helps give an independent voice to the anger of working people. After, sectarianism is not just a form.

Again, my perspective is that a revitalized mass movement will be the best way to transform the socialist movement, and we should turn our attention to the issues that interest fresh layers.

I hope we can have more comradely discussion on these issues in time and after fresh experiences. I appreciate your willingness to engage with me on these issues. I do not expect we will make much more progress on these issues at this moment. Essentially, we have two different perspectives on how to rebuild the socialist movement. We need to test those in practice and go forward. Comradely, Patrick


Pham Binh January 29, 2013 at 4:39 pm

No. We do have mass socialist consciousness. Fully 30% of the population has a more favorable opinion of socialism than capitalism. This fact was often highlighted in Sawant campaign literature.

I recommend reading American Socialist Movement by Ira Kipnis. The reason I refer back to the history is because the notion that we have to figure out some brand spankin’ new way to make socialism relevant in the U.S. again is false to the core. It’s been done. The lessons are there for anyone who cares to learn. There is no need to reinvent the wheel (which isn’t to say conditions are different, but the strategy and tactics that worked then to confront similar problems will work, with some adjustments, now). Merging some of their existing groups into a common formation is how they got the ball rolling. Rejecting that approach has led nowhere over the past half century or so.

It makes no sense for me to call groups in the Seattle area given that I live in New York City. I cannot substitute myself for the job the Seattle left should be doing. The suggestion that me randomly making phone calls to people and groups I don’t even know in Seattle to foment the kind of left unity that can only grow organically over the long term is absurd.

A non-sectarian approach is one where you approach any and every group on the same side of the barricades whenever new initiatives and opportunities arise and where you are open to being approached by other groups and their initiatives regardless of past disagreements. I’m disappointed that neither Socialist Alternative nor the ISO have reached out to one another over either the fight against standardized testing or the local left slate initiative (both of which are attracting fresh layers of activists) but I can’t say I’m surprised. Once these fresh layers begin to discover the alphabet soup of dysfunction, they won’t be so fresh anymore, and we’ll be back to square zero, waiting for the next Occupy.


Patrick A January 29, 2013 at 5:04 pm

“The reason I refer back to the history is because the notion that we have to figure out some brand spankin’ new way to make socialism relevant in the U.S. again is false to the core.”

I agree history provides an important guide, but it also is not enough. It is not currently 1898 or 1903. It is a new situation. We have to make socialism relevent to a completely new generation who went through completely different experiences. Treating lessons of history as ready-made formulas for today is not an effective approach.


Patrick A January 29, 2013 at 5:25 pm

We approached the Green Party, Justice Party, Matt Gonzalez, Dorli Rainey, and mamy others we have disagreements with. It seems you see left unity as a end in itself not a means to an end.


Pham Binh January 29, 2013 at 11:15 pm

That’s good to hear. Why not the others? Why not the ISO on the fight it is involved with against standardized tests? SA’s ends are not served by casting a narrow net and working with the select few.


Arthur January 16, 2013 at 9:57 pm

1. The fact that moribund sects are still recruiting young radicals does immense harm both to the people they recruit and in reinforcing a general perception that “left” and especially “Marxist” politics is stultifying reactionary gibberish as espoused by the most visible organizations spouting it. That certainly doesn’t make them a “necessary ingredient” in a solution. Nor are they the central obstacle to a solution. They are a symptom, not the cause of the fundamental problem.

2. I certainly agree that the issue is content not just form. But in response to the article advocating 200 occupy candidates I posted a link to this May Day leaflet from 3 decades ago:

3. It is highly unfortunate that for many of the people here the moribund sects are where:

“They learned about building organization,organizing protests and campaigns, arguing the case for socialism, and other necessary skills for building a socialist movement.”

Negative experiences can be valuable but that is a legacy that needs to be overcome.

4. When there is another mass movement, new forces and new organizations will arise and they will learn how to organize and fight themselves just as people did when there was an actual (small) left mass movement in the 1960s.

5, We can’t create those conditions but should be able to do far more than has been done over the past 30 years to contribute to the future.

6. Meanwhile “activity” goes on – both in activist campaigns (which are usually much healthier WITHOUT the sects) and in blog discussions like this one. Its frustrating that there isn’t any higher form of organization but no “call” will change that until we actually DO have some plausible understanding of the way our society works and how to change it.

7. For me the central aspect is still to draw a sharp line of demarcation between actual left politics and the stultifying reactionary gibberish spouted by the sects. One positive note is that there is far less tolerance for the mush among potential young radicals these days. Unfortunately they will consciously identify as “right-wing” in hostility to the “left” and “green” sects – but they have a fundamentally healthy revulsion from the openly reactionary stuff peddled by the sects.


Manuel Barrera, PhD January 30, 2013 at 11:21 am

You know, I was just going to give up on this point and say, “gee, I guess y’all know best. After all, you’ve been trying for so long and y’all collectively really have a handle on the problem, so, perhaps I should just wait and be patient until ‘somebody’ gets it right”. But then I realized that y’all are just like the automatic bureaucrats that ultimately presided over the demise of the American SWP just like the British one is doing to itself now. “Everybody” wants to be the astute theoretician, the guy (usually it’s a guy) who really has a finger on the pulse of the “state of the left” and the prospects for revolutionary “party”, “leadership”, “tendency”, “force”, whatever. Everybody wants to do that, but all “we” seem to want to do with that “pulse” is to keep his/her finger; like some metaphorical finger in a dike.

I get that everyone here is, let’s say, ambivalent about a unified left; some people (Ben) feel like they’ve “been there, done that” with no motion, others like Arthur don’t believe a “call” is enough and the problem is much deeper than the “ambit”ious idea that we can get together and start “working together”, and still others believe we can’t just talk together but we have to “work together” thereby having experience with each other. In short, everybody seems to want to wait “and see”? Wait and have more experience “working together”. Wait and “do stuff” locally. In even MORE short, just wait.

Then, there is of course the predilections sectarian groups like S-Alt and ISO (yeah, I know you don’t think you are sectarian, after all, you all did “reach out” or y’all have been involved in union actions like CTU and Occupy; as if that makes you not sectarians–get a clue, it’s not what you have but what you do with it). And (!), just to make sure the shop is completely locked and inaccessible, we have the charges that the “independent lefties” aren’t going to do it either because, you know, they (we) were trained in “bad” groups with flawed notions of party-building and, therefore, we haven’t really moved on–you know, like the S-Alts, ISOs, British SWP, or the curmudgeons who like to opine but feel all too comfortable waiting for “objective conditions” to get better. No, a united left is, therefore, not possible with the existing left, it–the revolution and revolutionary party, I presume–will just have to wait for a “new” radicalization of “fresh layers” to get “it” all by themselves. . .

wow, if I thought I was in a dystopia of capitalist hopelessness and alienation before, this discussion sure confirms it. Hell, I thought ivory tower academia was the only place where problems are admired and then left on a proverbial shelf to gather dust…until the next high-powered “discussion” comes along when we can whine and cry about the lack of “objective conditions”.

THERE IS NOBODY BUT US! At least not right now and right now is the time for us to break the cycle; not for some future proletarian revolution–that WILL truly come from the “fresh layers”–but for us to correct the mistakes WE made. How else are we going to win the trust–nay, how else are the fresh layers of proletarian fighters going to have something to give them a better perspective and a better example for the kind of revolutionary leadership WE know THEY need. Do we really want a new vanguard of revolutionary fighters to have to sweep away US as they fulfill the historic mission WE along with THEY have set to do? Do we really need for an emerging revolutionary leadership to have to do that extra work and thereby run the risk of continuing a cycle that benefits the capitalist class in continuing its putrescent existence; all so that the masses of society can continue to limp along to the oblivion that will be the downfall of yet another species that once had so much promise on this earth (yeah, I wonder if there is “Hitler” youtube in my little rant here, too)?

In my own short version, yes, we have tried before and yes, a “call” is not enough and, yes, the problem is much deeper than “getting together”. Hell, yes, having our forums to discuss the problem are a good thing.

Why can’t we be a little better organized about it and why can’t we stop naysaying just so we can congratulate ourselves that we “have a finger on the ‘real’ pulse” of things?

I offered my ideas, admittedly with little knowledge about earlier attempts (I was pretty much out of this loop for about 20 years), but not because somehow I was naive in making them. I made them to show that anybody with an “objective” analysis, but not so “anointed with experience” would conclude that if we believe there should be unity, maybe we should strive to do it rather than just talk about it? And, I DO NOT pretend to know the best way or the right way to get it done, which is meant to say building a force in the mass movements that can act with purpose in a) building effective mass campaigns and b) winning new radicals to a proper socialist movement that actually has a democratic vision of actual socialism. I only believe that if you really want to make such a cause happen, it takes actually doing it, which, of course, means “working together” to do it.

Finally, y’all can have fun making fun of me and my rant, you can just ignore it as unhelpful, or find some other way and reason to dismiss the point. I am done with the level of this current discussion. I recognize that at my age, there is precious little time and energy despite my grandiose projections to be “the guiding force”. I am one person who does NOT want to be Lenin–resurrected or in the Tomb. I just hope we can find our way and I will do what I can.


Pham Binh January 30, 2013 at 11:41 pm

I share your frustration and appreciate the tone of your “rant” because it’s how normal, working people talk when they are pissed off at needless idiocy and bullshit excuses — it’s a tone often absent from these discussions precisely because of the PC, leftier-than-thou posturing people fall into when confronted with pressing questions that demand answers in the here and now. Pie-in-the-sky-when-we-die won’t cut it.

I agree with all of your points.

I think Patrick’s reaction to my pointed, concrete questions revealed the narrow, limited framework that Socialist Alternative (SA) seems to have in mind re: left unity and laying the basis for a new radical party-bulding effort in the U.S. The ISO was supposed to endorse the Sawant campaign, but SA does not appear to be interested in lending the ISO and its allies a hand in fighting standardized testing in Seattle. This is exactly why the ISO feels justified in withholding its endorsement and will continue to boycott other left unity initiatives in the future.

I too was unaware of the most recent unity initiative known as “Revolutionary Work In Our Time” which included FRSO (don’t ask me which one), Solidarity to its credit, LNPA (I think), and the New York Study Group, a dozens-strong collective of independents. RWIOT petered out in 2011, ironically before Occupy, and long before my Tasks piece that eventually led to North Star. I had been out of the loop since 2007 but I hadn’t missed much either, unfortunately. When I wrote that piece, I knew the existing groups would ignore it, just as they did tried to do with Occupy, but I also knew that the arguments I made were sound and that I was looking at a many-years long investment to begin turning what I called for into reality. The left has a terrible habit of calling for things and not following through, or quitting at the first stumble or two, as the socialist left did when it withdrew wholesale from Occupy shortly after the evictions and as CWI has by leaving the ULA in Ireland. I try not to do that myself, not always successfully, but if I fail or I was wrong, I’ll explain the whats and the whys so hopefully other people can learn and profit from whatever I screwed up. Reinventing the wheel is a fool’s errand and a waste of precious of everyone’s time. None of us are getting any younger.

Since you like unorthodox comments, I’ll close with this. The ISO is as big as all the three and two-letter groups put together and has exponentially greater resources with profit-makers like Haymarket books and their nonprofit CERSC which brings in a cool million dollars a year. If it wanted to, it could spearhead, lead, and positively dominate politically any radical regroupment formation. It has the resources. It has the people power. It could (and should) come up with a five-year plan to campaign for such a formation. Take Andrew Gorman’s Excel sheet of all the local red groups’ contact info as the starting point. Open negotiations, with no preconditions, with any and all comers; livestream ’em for all I care. The idea being to break down the isolation of all the groups, meet face to face, prove to everyone that the Stalin fans don’t have icepicks growing out of their heads, that the Mao fans are not looking to re-enact Tianenmen Square in America, and that the Trotskyists can stop ice-picking each other over who would have the old man’s Red Army seal of approval today.

This would take a lot of patience and a lot of good-faith effort to prove there’s no hidden agenda or “gotcha” gimmick in the pipeline for all participants. Trust-building, if you will. Once all the scars of sectarianism and backstabbing over two decades begin to heal, you can start talking common action. A campaign for a local rent control ordinance. Electing Pat Noble mayor of Red Bank, NJ. Raising a city’s minimum wage. Shit that matters to the 99% of the 99% who don’t care about Lenin and couldn’t give a rat’s ass about some Brit named Callinicos. You know, regular people.

With a strings of good wins under our belts in local areas and growing popular support as a result, the idea of uniting these locals into statewide and a nationwide formation to do the same things on a bigger scale would make sense to people. That’s how we get out of pee-wee league and onto the JV team, but even then we have a long, long road ahead before we’re ready for prime time and the majors.

What the ISO lacks to begin the above process is the will, the ambition, and the daring to try, fail, learn, try again, and do better. Why? Because of what the Black Orchid Collective termed the “dinosaur sponge” school of party building ( They, like their counterparts, are too inflexible, too dogmatic, too conservative to make this bold, outward turn where every question is on the table and no idea is ruled out out of hand.

So we, the independents, the unorganized, who outnumber all the groups put together, have to nit ourselves together, person by person, brick by brick, so that we’ll have the leverage to force the issues that need to be forced and create unity where there is none. It’s much easier to launch a sect; I’m sure I could find some suckers who’d pay dues to peddle Pham Binh Thought in newspaper form, but I’m more interested in doing what I can to change the left into what it needs to be to stop losing and start winning. If I don’t, by the time I’m Lou’s age I’ll be starting the next phase of my career as a greeter at Wal Mart because what’s left of the New Deal won’t pay the rent. No thanks.


Jess Spear January 31, 2013 at 2:31 pm

“SA does not appear to be interested in lending the ISO and its allies a hand in fighting standardized testing in Seattle.”

This is just not true. Are you suggesting that because we haven’t gone about supporting their fight against the MAP in the manner you deem most helpful that we are not interested in lending a hand? We attended their rally, encouraged others to come, spoke in favor of it to people with whom we come in contact, discussed it at our meetings, and plan to do more to help build support.

It appears as if you make sweeping accusations when it helps your argument that the socialist sects are the problem.

I find it ironic that the people in this discussion pointing the finger at the socialists groups and claiming the “sect form” is the reason there isn’t a bigger socialist movement are themselves splintering off and proposing a new group. You are essentially saying that you are a different group because you have a different idea of what needs to be done. How is this any different than what the socialist groups put forward to explain their existence? We are supposedly sectarian for putting forward a different strategy and convincing others to help implement that strategy. But, how is that any different from what you are suggesting? In fact, Binh says “we…have to nit ourselves together, person by person, brick by brick, so that we’ll have the leverage to force the issues that need to be forced and create unity where there is none.” How is that any different than a “sect?” In my humble opinion it’s not.

A sect is defined as – a group adhering to a distinctive doctrine. In your case, the “doctrine” is left unity.

It’s fine if you don’t agree with the current forms of organizing and building the socialist movement, but your conclusion that the current socialists groups are the main problem isn’t supported by your arguments. Other conclusions could be derived, for example the different consciousness that exists now versus the late 19th and early 20th century. Like Patrick mentioned above, the most effective strategy for building the movement will be decided by “test[ing] those [different perspectives on how to rebuild the socialist movement] in practice,” not by arguments on a left forum.

Jess Spear


Pham Binh January 31, 2013 at 4:36 pm

I said that based on Patrick’s response. I asked a few questions about what if anything S.A. had done to promote that fight (which isn’t strictly speaking the ISO’s) and Patrick never mentioned anything about a rally.

I’m happy to be proven wrong re: a divided left. However, my point that the ISO and S.A. are not cooperating closely in that fight nor in the fight to oust Democrats from local office stands.

No one here is proposing a new sect. I work with any and everyone regardless of their formal politics or ideology. That is very different from starting a group where all must publicly defend state capitalism/deformed workers’ state, Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution and not Lenin’s policy of an uninterrupted two-stage revolution, a particular line on the Syrian revolution, and who was right/wrong in the split between CWI and the International Marxist Tendency. The North Star is a reflection of this anti-sect(arian) orientation.

The fact remains that, as of 2009, 30% of the U.S. population has a more positive view of socialism than capitalism and yet the largest socialist group (the ISO) is only 1,200 people and not one of the existing groups is growing except by ones and twos over the course of years. That more than anything else shows that the existing socialist groups individually and collectively are simply not capable of seizing the enormous opportunities that exist now.


Jess Spear January 31, 2013 at 7:03 pm

Patrick responded by posting a video showing Kshama (and myself) present at the rally to support the boycott. Should he have provided a more thorough report to *prove* to you that we support them?!

Of course it would be better if we could work more closely. It’s not like we are saying, oh it’s the ISO, so we can’t support them. On the contrary! We are publicly supporting their campaign and encouraging the people around us to do so as well *without* the ISO asking for this support. This is not the same thing as SA asking for the ISO’s support of our electoral campaign and they refused to acknowledge or support it. Please don’t equate the two just to strengthen your argument.

Furthermore, you undermine your credibility when you put forward straw man arguments:
‘[socialist groups are] where all [members] must publicly defend state capitalism/deformed workers’ state, Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution and not Lenin’s policy of an uninterrupted two-stage revolution, a particular line on the Syrian revolution, and who was right/wrong in the split between CWI and the International Marxist Tendency.”

How do you know that is how ALL socialist organizations operate? You don’t. It certainly does not apply to SA. Any new member, including myself, can attest to this.

“The fact remains that, as of 2009, 30% of the U.S. population has a more positive view of socialism than capitalism…”

The fact that 30% of the population has a more favorable view of socialism than capitalism AND that we don’t yet have a socialist movement does not automatically point to the socialist sect form of organization as the problem. As I said before, other conclusions could be derived. This is why I said you’re unlikely to persuade people purely on the basis of your argument. If you disagree with the current form of organizing, then put *your* ideas into action so they can be tested and we can all learn from it.

“not one of the existing groups is growing except by ones and twos over the course of years. That more than anything else shows that the existing socialist groups individually and collectively are simply not capable of seizing the enormous opportunities that exist now.”

Pham, with all due respect, you don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m not going to report to you on our success in building our organization. I’ll just ask you this – did SA not seize on the opportunities opening on the left to run independent candidates?


Pham Binh February 1, 2013 at 11:12 am

“Patrick responded by posting a video showing Kshama (and myself) present at the rally to support the boycott.

He posted that video two days after our initial exchange which you were responding to.

“Furthermore, you undermine your credibility when you put forward straw man arguments:
‘[socialist groups are] where all [members] must publicly defend state capitalism/deformed workers’ state, Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution and not Lenin’s policy of an uninterrupted two-stage revolution, a particular line on the Syrian revolution, and who was right/wrong in the split between CWI and the International Marxist Tendency.’

How do you know that is how ALL socialist organizations operate? You don’t. It certainly does not apply to SA. Any new member, including myself, can attest to this. “

I never claimed that was how all socialist organizations operate. I’ve written extensively on how the RSDLP operated, for example. There are strawmen in this thread, but I have not created one of them.

If someone can be a member of Socialist Alternative and publicly advocate that Trotsky was dead wrong on permanent revolution, that its stated position on Syria is wrong, that the CWI’s departure from the ULA in Ireland was a mistake, that would be great.

“The fact that 30% of the population has a more favorable view of socialism than capitalism AND that we don’t yet have a socialist movement does not automatically point to the socialist sect form of organization as the problem. As I said before, other conclusions could be derived. This is why I said you’re unlikely to persuade people purely on the basis of your argument. If you disagree with the current form of organizing, then put *your* ideas into action so they can be tested and we can all learn from it.”

It is part of the problem. A big part of the problem.

The only reason we ever had a mass socialist movement to begin with from the 1890s onward is because the then-existing groups (sects) merged into something bigger and better — a broad, inclusive party. Without them doing so, we would’ve never gotten the likes of Eugene Debs, Big Bill Haywood, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Hellen Keller, and James Cannon. The fact that we have to go back 100 years or so to find U.S. socialist leaders of this stature shows that we’ve been wandering around in the wilderness of sects for far too long.

“’not one of the existing groups is growing except by ones and twos over the course of years. That more than anything else shows that the existing socialist groups individually and collectively are simply not capable of seizing the enormous opportunities that exist now.’”

Pham, with all due respect, you don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m not going to report to you on our success in building our organization. I’ll just ask you this – did SA not seize on the opportunities opening on the left to run independent candidates?”

You don’t need to report to me about Socialist Alternative’s recruitment rate. If I was wrong, I’m sure you’d be quoting the numbers to prove it. And if Socialist Alternative manages to become a mass party, I’m sure I’ll know about it.

Socialist Alternative seized an opportunity to deliver Frank Chopp a black eye. Bravo. The Socialist Workers Party of the 1960s and 1970s seized the opportunity to mobilize tens and hundreds of thousands of people to march against the Viet Nam war despite numbering not more than 2,000. Neither was/is capable of becoming the mass-based party we need.

Socialist Alternative’s organizing model is not unique nor new, and the ultimate results of this organizing model will be the same now as they were then.


Jess Spear February 1, 2013 at 1:44 pm

“He posted that video two days after our initial exchange which you were responding to.”

Does that equate to “SA does not appear to be interested in lending the ISO and its allies a hand in fighting standardized testing in Seattle?” Apparently if we take more than a day to respond that means you are right.

When I pointed out that Patrick did respond, we do support the MAP boycott, and it’s wrong to equate how we are supporting the boycott with the ISO’s refusal to support our campaign, you essentially ignored it. This makes me think that this forum is used to argue against the current socialist groups and that any straw man argument that can be built to that end is justified.

“I never claimed that was how all socialist organizations operate. I’ve written extensively on how the RSDLP operated, for example. There are strawmen in this thread, but I have not created one of them.”

What do you think this is – “a group where all must publicly defend state capitalism/deformed workers’ state, Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution and not Lenin’s policy of an uninterrupted two-stage revolution, a particular line on the Syrian revolution, and who was right/wrong in the split between CWI and the International Marxist Tendency. ”

I just told you that isn’t true of SA and so you backtracked and said you didn’t claim ALL socialist groups were like that and linked to your writing on the RSDLP. All I’m suggesting is that you reconsider the sweeping generalizations you are making, in error, that are used to back up your arguments. When I point out your errors I would appreciate if you did not misrepresent what I said or suggest I am lying as you did here:

“You don’t need to report to me about Socialist Alternative’s recruitment rate. If I was wrong, I’m sure you’d be quoting the numbers to prove it. ”

We have had whole groups of people join recently. That is not recruitment “by ones and twos over the course of years.”

“Socialist Alternative seized an opportunity to deliver Frank Chopp a black eye. Bravo”

I would argue we achieved more than giving Frank Chopp a black eye. But, my point is that this contradicts your earlier statement – “existing socialist groups individually and collectively are simply not capable of seizing the enormous opportunities that exist now”

Here is another straw man argument:
“Neither was/is capable of becoming the mass-based party we need.”

SA is not trying to be a mass party. We call for the formation of a mass worker’s party, in which we would operate and argue for our ideas.

“It [existing socialist groups] is part of the problem. A big part of the problem.”

That is not persuasive. Just because you say it, over and over again, does not mean you are right. I wasn’t saying that your conclusion is wrong, just that it is not supported by your arguments. You can’t persuade people on the basis of argument alone. You need to put your ideas into action and the results will speak for itself.

“The only reason we ever had a mass socialist movement to begin with from the 1890s onward…”

I would reconsider saying things like “the only reason.” I doubt the ONLY reason we had a mass socialist movement was because socialist groups merged. Maybe I’m wrong. But, that doesn’t change the fact that the conditions in the 1890s to early 20th century were very different from today. You can’t ignore the different subjective and objective conditions and just highlight what the socialist groups were doing to prop up your argument. It’s not persuasive.


Pham Binh February 1, 2013 at 2:31 pm

“When I pointed out that Patrick did respond, we do support the MAP boycott, and it’s wrong to equate how we are supporting the boycott with the ISO’s refusal to support our campaign, you essentially ignored it. This makes me think that this forum is used to argue against the current socialist groups and that any straw man argument that can be built to that end is justified.”

I didn’t ignore it. I said I’m happy to be proven wrong.

Seizing an opportunity like running against Frank Chopp is not the same as realizing the potential to create a mass socialist movement.

Objective conditions today are actually much more favorable to a mass socialist movement than they were in the 1890s. We don’t have Jim Crow. Women can vote. Reactionary institutions like the Catholic Church are clinging for dear life. Strikers are not being gunned down in the streets by the state, Pinkertons, or right-wing vigilante outfits like the American Legion. There is broad support for unions, taxing the rich, regulating the banks as well as legalizing gay marriage and all manner of progressive social measures.

The socialist movement back then made better choices and got better results. We cannot blame objective conditions for our own poor choices and habits.


Jess Spear February 1, 2013 at 3:23 pm

“Seizing an opportunity like running against Frank Chopp is not the same as realizing the potential to create a mass socialist movement.”

I disagree. Crawl, walk, run. You can’t build a sky scraper by starting on the 10th floor. Furthermore, this still shows you were wrong to say that NONE of the socialist organizations are capable of seizing the opportunities. If you meant something specific by “enormous opportunities” then it would help your argument to explain exactly what you mean.

I am not blaming objective conditions – again with the straw man arguments. You are correct to point that we have more democratic rights. But, we have the whole history of Stalinism to explain, post-WWII economic boom, and mass illusion in the Democratic Party (among many other factors). The consciousness that exists now is affected by all of that to some extent. Therefore, socialist consciousness is very different than what existed previously and is a major factor in the attempt at building the socialist movement TODAY. It’s not as easy as you make it sound. I agree that the opportunity to build a socialist movement is growing and we should do all that we can to help. We obviously have different ideas on how best to do that. We are putting our ideas into action to the best of our ability. Will you?


Pham Binh February 1, 2013 at 4:27 pm

Yes, crawl, walk, run. The problem is the existing socialist groups can only do 1 of 3 because if their design flaws. I’ll change my mind when I see one of them walk or run. It’s only been half a century or so. Maybe another half century and we’ll get there.

And the only reason there is a comment section embedded in this Web site for us to argue these issues out is because I’m put my ideas into action.

Jess Spear February 1, 2013 at 4:58 pm

“The problem is the existing socialist groups can only do 1 of 3 because if their design flaws. I’ll change my mind when I see one of them walk or run.”

Maybe you misunderstood what I was saying or I wasn’t clear. You can’t walk before you learn to crawl and you can’t run before you learn to walk. I don’t understand what you mean when you say existing socialist groups can only do 1 of the 3 or that you’ll change your mind when we are walking or running.

“It’s only been half a century.” Yes, and you are ignoring the objective and subjective conditions that affected the decline in the socialist movement and are a barrier (not an insurmountable one!) to building one now. Your arguments are simplistic when in fact the reality is much more complex.

Ben Campbell January 31, 2013 at 11:19 am

While I understand your frustration, I don’t know what to say here Manuel. If there is “nobody but us”, then the task at present should be to greatly increase the number of “us” — otherwise we are just another “sect” with delusions of grandeur about our historic mission to lead the class. We are doing our best here with this small (but growing) online forum. And in case it has to be said, the purpose of this site isn’t simply to grow so that we can talk about things indefinitely — it is to aid in the reconstitution of a powerful left. I am sorry this process will take longer than any of us would really like, but unfortunately I don’t see any possibilities for fast-forwarding this.


Manuel Barrera January 31, 2013 at 5:30 pm

Thank you, Binh and Ben (and, for that matter, Jess) for your honest remarks. I do appreciate the problems of getting started, or hiding as in Jess’ case. The slowness of a process should always be a source of frustration for anyone truly cognizant of the weight that is pressing on the world while conscious layers as well as the revolutionary class as a whole try to get into a position that will rid of us the bondage we yet endure. Frustration and impatience–at least I have learned–is a source of strength to prevent us from the complacency that a mentality of “long road” thinking produces; as opposed to the reality that a revolutionary process will occur on its own time regardless of our desires. We all think we have more time than we actually have and that because we can find “our niche”, the pain and suffering of the masses as a whole, can become tolerable or at least our personal pain may be assuaged “in context” of the rest of the world.

The S-Alts and the ISOs tend to believe they are being “attacked” when their obvious flaws as a “vanguard” are exposed. For, as Binh points out, a group like ISO “big” as it believes itself to be alternatively counterpoises its activity with others as somehow superior because it is involved in union work and struggles like the fight against standardized testing while at the same time complaining that it can’t spread itself too thin by expressing solidarity with an electoral campaign not only because it didn’t “have enough time” but also because, well, electoral politics are a sham. And, Jess, plaints how they “so too” are supporting other struggles but the problem is that “we” just don’t like how they do it. However, the true nature of Jess’ concern is belied by the “argument” that in reality the “real” way to build a socialist movement is to have all that healthy (sic) competition so that different perspectives are “tested”. Curious how such a rationale so well fits the current state of the quite Un-healthy sectarianism rampant on the U.S. left. I guess we just need to let all this “testing” play itself out and the class will soon find a viable outcome.

It’s “just not true” that left unity is the same thing as building a “sect”. Unless, of course, such attempts at unity are false or disingenuous–you know, like calling on one group to endorse your campaign, but then simply using the occasion of THEIR sectarian non-response to engage in your own sectarian posturing for how “correct” you were; I guess it was just another “test” and a group like ISO “failed”. Left unity is not a dogma, but a responsibility of any revolutionary socialist worthy of the name. Socialism is nothing if it is not democratic and unifying. “Testing” each other’s transitional programs and then polemicizing against them is a caricature of truly democratic debate among actual comrades in the struggle–regardless whether comrades are in one group or another. At bottom, I joined the Socialist Workers Party (USA) lo, so many decades ago precisely because I saw its promise in making good on Marx’s statement that “Thank you, Binh and Ben (and, for that matter, Jess) for your honest remarks. I do appreciate the problems of getting started, or hiding as in Jess’ case. The slowness of a process should always be a source of frustration for anyone truly cognizant of the weight that is pressing on the world while conscious layers as well as the revolutionary class as a whole try to get into a position that will rid of us the bondage we yet endure. Frustration and impatience–at least I have learned–is a source of strength to prevent us from the complacency that a mentality of “long road” thinking produces; as opposed to the reality that a revolutionary process will occur on its own time regardless of our desires. We all think we have more time than we actually have and that because we can find “our niche”, the pain and suffering of the masses as a whole, can become tolerable or at least our personal pain may be assuaged “in context” of the rest of the world.

The S-Alts and the ISOs tend to believe they are being “attacked” when their obvious flaws as a “vanguard” are exposed. For, as Binh points out, a group like ISO “big” as it believes itself to be alternatively counterpoises its activity with others as somehow superior because it is involved in union work and struggles like the fight against standardized testing while at the same time complaining that it can’t spread itself too thin by expressing solidarity with an electoral campaign not only because it didn’t “have enough time” but also because, well, electoral politics are a sham. And, Jess, plaints how they “so too” are supporting other struggles but the problem is that “we” just don’t like how they do it. However, the true nature of Jess’ concern is belied by the “argument” that in reality the “real” way to build a socialist movement is to have all that healthy (sic) competition so that different perspectives are “tested”. Curious how such a rationale so well fits the current state of the quite Un-healthy sectarianism rampant on the U.S. left. I guess we just need to let all this “testing” play itself out and the class will soon find a viable outcome.

It’s “just not true” that left unity is the same thing as building a “sect”. Unless, of course, such attempts at unity are false or disingenuous–you know, like calling on one group to endorse your campaign, but then simply using the occasion of THEIR sectarian non-response to engage in your own sectarian posturing for how “correct” you were; I guess it was just another “test” and a group like ISO “failed”.

I state that not as a “snipe” at either S-Alt or ISO, but to point up the degree to which it is so easy for people “in groups” to counter each other and think “correctness” comes at the barrel of a “pointed remark”. Left unity is not a dogma, but a responsibility of any revolutionary socialist worthy of the name. Socialism is nothing if it is not democratic and unifying. “Testing” each other’s transitional programs and then polemicizing against them is a caricature of truly democratic debate among actual comrades in the struggle–regardless whether comrades are in one group or another.

At bottom, I joined the Socialist Workers Party (USA) lo, so many decades ago precisely because I saw its promise in making good on Marx’s statement that “The Communists do not form a separate party opposed to the other working-class parties. They have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole.” In truth, I only realized that was why I joined until much later when it was already too late, but that was ultimately why I have chosen the path of revolutionary socialism; because it is the only road to a veritable democratic society of All for All (yeah, I’m a romantic, what can I say?).

So, for me, left unity is not a religion but a task. It is not just one more group to join the cacophony and “test perspectives” as a “separate party opposed to the other working class parties”. It is a necessary objective without which the rising proletariat will suffer through a longer period of ebbs and flows on the road to freedom from capitalism.

Of course, there is no guarantee that the time it takes for working class victory will be shorter or longer by our actions. But, I have to believe that the international working class is better served and a path to real democracy in the wake of a successful struggle for power will be better built by unity rather than “testing” and competition for who gets to lead. I think that if there is one lesson those of us revolutionaries who struggled this long have learned is that world revolution and a socialist world will not be a “there can be only one” mentality. We are, after all, Communists!

Let’s start acting like it.


Jess Spear February 1, 2013 at 8:47 pm

Sweeping generalizations and straw man arguments about socialist organizations and/or their positions are not persuasive arguments in favor of left unity. I don’t think I can get any clearer than that. I would appreciate if my position and words were not mischaracterized if you respond.

“And, Jess, plaints how they “so too” are supporting other struggles but the problem is that “we” just don’t like how they do it.

When did I say that you all just don’t like the way we do it? I was responding to Pham Binh, not everyone on this forum who agrees with his ideas about left unity. I was correcting Pham’s statement that “SA does not appear to be interested in lending the ISO and its allies a hand in fighting standardized testing in Seattle.” What end is served by Pham making assumptions/accusations about our organization? That’s why I said the constant generalizing of the situation to provide evidence that socialist organizations are unable to build the socialist movement undermines his argument and credibility when it’s obvious the generalizations are wrong and his arguments are straw men.

“However, the true nature of Jess’ concern is belied by the “argument” that in reality the “real” way to build a socialist movement is to have all that healthy (sic) competition so that different perspectives are “tested”.”

What are you talking about? The “true nature of my concern is belied”? I have no idea what makes you skeptical that what I write is what I mean. I suppose you think you understand the motives behind what I write better than I do. But, perhaps I am not being clear enough. Or, perhaps you are engaging in the same straw man-argument style of polemics as Pham Binh.

I said that Binh’s arguments are not persuasive, and if he wanted to convince others that left unity is the most effective thing we can do to help build a socialist movement then he should “put [his] ideas into action so they can be tested and we can all learn from it.” I’m not convinced by his arguments. That is what I mean.

“It’s “just not true” that left unity is the same thing as building a “sect”.”

Okay, but what would you call it when you are discussing forming a group that has a particular set of ideas or idea to which everyone in the group adheres? I totally support you all forming a group and putting your ideas into action so that, like I said, we (the working class – socialists, workers, students, etc.) can all learn from the results. Maybe we’re wrong and you’re right. But, for now, arguing on a left forum is unlikely to get you any closer to convincing the majority of socialists that you are right.


Manuel Barrera, PhD February 2, 2013 at 12:07 pm

“Okay, but what would you call it when you are discussing forming a group that has a particular set of ideas or idea to which everyone in the group adheres? I totally support you all forming a group and putting your ideas into action so that, like I said, we (the working class – socialists, workers, students, etc.) can all learn from the results. Maybe we’re wrong and you’re right. But, for now, arguing on a left forum is unlikely to get you any closer to convincing the majority of socialists that you are right.”

Indeed, those are the points, Jess. So, either “we”‘re right or your right? Is that it, Jess, or is that to sweeping of a generalization?

I didn’t misconstrue your points–read them pretty carefully as I would expect a serious revolutionary would–I simply paraphrased them as I read them. Perhaps it is not what you intend to mean, but it is what you seem to convey. Mind you, I do understand this impulse, I’ve been right where you are in a much bigger organization and believed “serious” people would just “come around” once they saw the validity of “our program” and how we were the “best builders” of the movement. It’s a terrible place to be, Jess. No one “body” gets it right, “our” consciousness and revolutionary perspective is still too far away from the masses of people, no matter how well we feel the “pulse” of the movement or of the masses. In this period, every organization–in the U.S. especially–is “growing” by ones and twos, which is to say we–in toto–are not appealing even to the most radicalized of the mass ferment that is “out there”. That is what Binh means when he says that “30%” of the population is attracted to socialism–in all that such a statement means or does not mean to any of us actual socialists in particular. The 20,000+ votes by Sawant are a clear example even if the basis of that success (it was a genuine success) occurred in a relatively non-competitive political campaign where the choices were well defined.

Incidentally, just in case you don’t think I “know what I’m talking about” here, I was the SWP candidate for Sheriff of Los Angeles County in 1977 running against the incumbent–forget his name–where I/we ran on a 1-point program to abolish the Sheriff’s Department (yes, we had an alternative–not the place to discuss here yet). I ran in the heart of East LA, toured LA County Jail seeking the votes of ostensible “criminals” many of whom were in jail without charge, and leafleted our campaign in the heart of the “Barrio”, like the famous Garfield High (site of the “Stand and Deliver” movie) where such radical formations as CASA-Hermandad General de Los Trabajadores, and various left groups did much work. I received over 77,000 votes. Indeed, it was a paltry sum, but many including our party were surprised that the simple act of a Latino name and a clear anti-police brutality campaign with a tacit “down with State” program (the Sheriff was the one who presided over the infamous police riot of the Chicano Moratorium many years earlier that resulted in the murder Rubén Salazar–comrades in FRSO may note the connection with Carlos Montes here). Earlier in 1972, I ran a socialist campaign in Houston for U.S. House against Barbara Jordan in her inaugural campaign, debated her on television, and received a comparable number of votes as Sawant. My campaigns (there were several more) were always actually of lesser focus than many of our SWP campaigns, so, these results were based upon even a lesser degree of the relatively meager resources our larger party had to devote.

I’m sorry for the short digression–there is much more to draw about lessons for socialist movement building there–but I make it to illustrate the hidden aspect of our successes as a “vanguard” party. We did all that with quite a sectarian, “holier than thou” attitude toward our “opponents” in the radical movement including much bigger players like the CP and the, then, still quite influential Maoist sects and groups like the Black Panthers. We recruited some of the “best builders” of our time and, indeed, we conducted mergings with other socialist groups, though in retrospect those efforts were likely conducted for “our” (i.e., Barnes’ leadership) sectarian purposes. All of that is to illustrate that it is possible to get “bigger” with the notion of “testing hypotheses” in the mass movement. And, indeed, Jess, you all may have some relative success in justifying such a strategy. But just as UK SWP is experiencing now and the U.S. SWP has already experienced, something inevitably “goes wrong”. Hubris in one’s “correctness” is insidious and very powerful because it is likely to strike at the time one least expects it and, more important, when the insurgent masses may need “us” the most.

Objective conditions come and go–I find it interesting that the term “objective conditions” always seems to convey to socialist groups that the masses aren’t “ready” and when the masses seem poised to be ready, we get all giddy because all of a sudden people are listening to socialists-any socialists–so, “we” get ahead of ourselves and want to test our theories “so that we . . . can all learn from the results”. After all, isn’t that the game; to see who gets biggest faster when the masses are, what, “ripe for the pickings”? To see who was wrong or right?

It’s a terrible place to be, but more so, a treacherous path to walk when the “game” really isn’t about which of “us” is right or wrong, but how can the working class move toward power and have a truly reflective mass revolutionary leadership that lead our class not just to take power, but to hold it, not just to abolish capitalism, but to build socialism. Isn’t that supposed to be the goal? Wouldn’t it make better sense to recognize each of our relative organizational and political strengths and agree–just enough–to present the united front that workers, revolutionary youth, and the oppressed will need if we are in actuality to achieve our “historic mission”?

I submit that this “forum” is not about “forming a group that has a particular set of ideas or idea to which everyone in the group adheres”. Rather, it is what we are at least beginning to do; to learn from each other and construct a unity–yes, in action but also in words–not simply win each other over to the “right” position. Don’t fight that aspect of this discussion, Jess. Trust me, S-Alt will come and it will go as will ISO. It/They will either morph into something different or it will die on its vine of trenchant belief “in itself”. You, as S-Alt, can’t do without the ISO and the ISO can’t do without S-Alt, neither can do without the vast majority of independent leftists will not buy either of your holy water, and NONE of us will ever do without the emerging radicalizing masses out there who, right now, see Nothing in their revolutionary future, never mind “us” as a part of it. Our tasks are substantially more massive than any of us can ever imagine. Remember, we ALL have a “world to win” as we lose our chains.

Ever in struggle and comradeship,
Manuel T. Barrera (formerly known as “Tank”)–that’s just a note to any lurkers for the state out there who may, once we actually begin to make a difference, want to go after those of us who stand against you. Don’t waste your time with databases, I’m right here and I declare my right to be a revolutionary, to be respected as a revolutionary, for democracy and socialism in this society, on this earth, in this day, in which all we revolutionaries intend “to bring into existence by any means necessary.”


Jess Spear February 2, 2013 at 2:19 pm

“so that we . . . can all learn from the results”. After all, isn’t that the game; to see who gets biggest faster when the masses are, what, “ripe for the pickings”? To see who was wrong or right?”

When did I ever state that results mean recruitment? You all don’t know how to stop building these straw men. It’s become clear to me that the reason you read what I say as meaning that SA has a different form or that results mean recruitment is that you have a serious bias against socialist organizations stemming from your experience. Recruitment was discussed because Pham Binh claimed that NONE of the socialist groups are growing by more than ones and twos over years. He used that to support his conclusion that none of the existing groups are capable of seizing the enormous opportunities. So, I told him he was wrong by saying we are recruiting more than that. That doesn’t automatically mean that I think we are right because we are recruiting. It just means that his conclusion is unsupported by his straw man argument. If you stopped reading INTO what I say and interpreting my thoughts in the context of your own biases, you might see that.

“I submit that this “forum” is not about “forming a group that has a particular set of ideas or idea to which everyone in the group adheres”. Rather, it is what we are at least beginning to do; to learn from each other and construct a unity–yes, in action but also in words–not simply win each other over to the “right” position. Don’t fight that aspect of this discussion, Jess.”

Are you not trying to win over socialists with your arguments? I’m not fighting that aspect. That’s why I am critical of the way you all are going about it. Arguments, especially those hurled at straw men, are not persuasive. I can’t spell it out any clearer than that. Never have I said that I am right and you are wrong. I am not that arrogant. I’ve only said that since I can reveal some of Binh’s arguments to be straw men, then perhaps he or you might want to think about putting your ideas into action rather than relying on gross mischaracterizations of socialist organizations. And, yes I find it ironic that those of you who claim the current form of organizing is the problem are also talking about forming a group, finding others who agree, etc.. I don’t recall ever saying this forum was a place for the group to develop.

“the “game” really isn’t about which of “us” is right or wrong, but how can the working class move toward power and have a truly reflective mass revolutionary leadership that lead our class not just to take power, but to hold it, not just to abolish capitalism, but to build socialism.”

I totally agree.

“Trust me, S-Alt will come and it will go as will ISO.”

I didn’t realize I was dealing with someone who could read the future.

The whole uncomradely tone from you and Pham Binh in addition to the constant constructing of straw man arguments is completely unhelpful. You can write all day long about how “the form” is the problem and talk about what the Bolsheviks did in the RSDLP, but none of it is persuasive. I’ve read Dan’s account of SA, and from my experience I find some of interesting and thought-provoking, but most of it reads like someone who is just frustrated with the lack of a socialist movement after 3 years of an economic crisis. I think everyone who reads his document should consider that Dan is just ONE person, ONE member of SA. Someone who was a member during what was probably a very difficult time to build (2004-2011). Interpreting Dan’s arguments as proof positive that ALL existing socialist organizations are THE barrier to building a socialist movement is cherry picking. How did that same organization seize the opening on the left and decide to run a successful electoral campaign if their form is a barrier to seizing enormous opportunities? It’s just not that black and white. And the more you and Pham Binh and everyone else who claims that all socialist groups are a problem because they have the same form try to argue your point without acknowledging this, the more you undermine yourself. All those who are saying left unity is THE WAY strike me as those who have a conclusion to support and go after any bit of “evidence” that fulfills that role, rather than looking at the situation in all its complexity and then determining what is needed and what is not.


Ben Campbell February 2, 2013 at 4:29 pm

I would just like to interject here to emphasize that The North Star does not have a party line, even on questions of “form”. Pham Binh speaks only for himself, as does anyone else who has ever contributed to this website. The entire premise is that we do not have a blueprint, and that the way forward will only be determined through open discussion and debate (and eventually action).

The editors of this website do not share a position on these issues. Of these editors I imagine I am most sympathetic to the arguments advanced by Jess and other Socialist Alternative comrades who have made valuable contributions to these debates. This is perhaps because unlike some others (e.g. Binh, Manuel, Louis, Dan, Peter Camejo) I have never been a member of a “Leninist” political organization, and have thus never soured on the whole thing (although I have my concerns). Anyways, I agree with Jess that it is not helpful to lump all of these Trotskyist groupings together and use personal experiences from one to write off the others. The (relative) success of the Sawant campaign should give SA’s critics some pause— surely they are doing something right?

I further agree with Jess that while Dan Dimaggio’s piece contains some insights, it is far from perfect. Despite the fact that I posted that piece for discussion, and despite the fact that it references Camejo’s The North Star, that should not be taken as an uncritical endorsement, or as some sort of manifesto for this site. Indeed, when I see Dan championing the DSA-ism of Jacobin magazine, that gives me enormous pause. The onus is on the “liquidationists” to explain their vision in more detail. They cannot simply point uncritically to some combination of SYRIZA, NPA, ACI, and the Green Party and say “that’s what we want to do.” What are the negative experiences to be learned from those? What are the positive experiences to be learned from “The Trotskyist Experience” of the likes of Socialist Alternative?

If The North Star is to develop a coherent critique of the existing left (1) it will be an emergent critique from the contributions of members with diverse perspective (hopefully including many new to the radical left!), and (2) it will not be a purely negative critique, but it will necessarily be a dialectical critique, in the best of the Marxist tradition!


Patrick A. February 2, 2013 at 4:41 pm

Thanks Ben for clarifying. I have spent many months reading from this website because the discussion was fascinating. I do not agree with everything here. But, there are a lot of questions on this website that are worth exploring. What I’ve learned is that blogs like this can definitely contribute to a revitalized culture of comradely debate on the left. It’s another tool to enrich the discussion, although not a substitute for other important tools of discussion: conferences, etc.

Unfortunately, there is also a tendency for discussions to devolve into fights. I wonder if there is some way to politically moderate discussions so they stay on track, don’t get nasty, and in that way are more helpful.

I would like to also clarify, that on this blog, I speak for myself only.


Ben Campbell February 2, 2013 at 6:09 pm

Thanks Patrick. It’s a fine line—we definitely don’t want to moderate the comments too much, but at the same time it would be nice to maintain a certain level of comradely discourse. We do have a commenting policy, and try to enforce it, although it’s possible comments have slipped by that shouldn’t have.

Ultimately it has to start with us, and especially the editors, to demonstrate a commitment to critique that does not descend into either of the extremes: uncritical praise / back-patting, or destructive “trolling”. In the past I don’t think we’ve all navigated these extremes as best we could, with my own writings now seeming regrettably negative at times. Perhaps some of us could use a re-read of this from time to time: . There is still a time for vitriolic polemic, but we could certainly use more of that against our actual opponents, instead of each other.

That is one thing that all of the editors of this site agree on: thus far it has been excessively focused on intra-left disputes (“inside baseball”) and insufficiently focused on the issues and struggles that must serve as the basis for mass struggle, and hence the precondition for any “unity”. Part of the problem is that our audience is mainly seasoned Marxists. It would help to draw in some new voices around here, and I can’t help but think that our in-fighting might seem intimidating and/or off-putting to many of them.


Pham Binh February 2, 2013 at 9:44 pm

Neither Dimaggio nor I believe the existing groups are worthless/useless — no one would join them if that were the case. The basic problem is that they refuse and are incapable of evolving into anything else other than what they are; they’ll grow quantitatively but not qualitatively.

Most people who filter in and out of the groups in the U.S. who don’t quit politics fall into economism or movementism, figuring it’s best to focus on bread and butter issues, winnable fights, and tangible gains. They act as Marxists within their union local or community group. And that’s not a bad thing, but then the political level of the socialist movement and the country as a whole remains exceedingly low. Every 2-4 years millions of people vote between the guy who doesn’t believe in evolution/rape and the other guy who wants to compromise with the first guy, while the socialists and radicals complain about objective conditions, as if the enemy will ever make it easy for us.

A SYRIZA/multi-tendency formation will have to emerge out of the existing fragments, although they are highly resistant to such a notion. On the other hand, if 10 more independent socialist collectives like Philly Socialists link up with North Star, that’ll speed things up quite a bit.


Manuel Barrera February 2, 2013 at 11:03 pm

Yeah, Ben, not really writing off any groups. But, if you truly have more of a connection with what Jess has opined, it would really be helpful, maybe you could help Jess (?), if we could hear an actual explication of “different perspectives” and different “political understandings”. So far, all I’ve heard is the complaint that disagreeing with focus of groups like S-Alt or ISO (at least what passes for a focus–activism for S-Alt and, well, not really clear about what ISO focuses upon except to go whereever the action might be in unions or elsewhere) is “lumping” them together and rejecting them altogether, which has not really been said. Don’t be so defensive and I think others will not either.
Oh, and in case you really are interested in “diverse perspectives”, it might be helpful not to dismiss the experiences of people on the left, your comrades, simply because they haven’t bought a group’s “kool-aid”. There really are “strawman” arguments here and the biggest is the one you just created that former members of earlier parties somehow think that the current parties are all bad and that they are the “problem”. The problem is capitalism, we’re all trying to find a solution.

Having said that, let’s try to get to some substance, though I actually tried to do that by the friendly reminder that electoral successes are not something new and that the lessons of the Sawant campaign are much better understood in the context of earlier electoral strategies and campaigns. I really did not bring forward my personal experiences to “write off” current ones, but simply to show that an electoral strategy should not really be about party-building, but about actual left unity. The connection with the example of Syriza and other such initiatives that have emerged really are a good example how bourgeois elections, because of the circumstances where working people become much more politically engaged during those periods–for now, can be a golden opportunity to do real coalition work in the relatively “safer” environment of potential political activity. For me, this is why the appeal by S-Alt to ISO was such a positive development and ISO’s finding a way to reject that appeal so disappointing. What a great opportunity it would have been had there been “just enough” unity for the two organizations to support that campaign and raise additional opportunities both to speak to larger audiences in a united way and to provide additional support for movement action going on at the time. One example of powerful independent political during the last election was the fact of the CTU strike, led by quite radicalized African-American leaders (among others) in the heart of Obama’s base in Chicago and specifically in the unions of the area. I submit that the political power of that strike was duly-enhanced by the fact that the CTU challenged Obama’s designs for privatizing education right in the middle of his re-election. What an opportunity for socialist growth would have occurred had their been concomitant with the strike a socialist campaign for any number of offices (e.g., running against Jesse Jackson, Jr.). What a great precursor to the struggle in Seattle had their been real solidarity with the Sawant campaign emanating for socialists nationwide including within Chicago and among elements in the CTU.

The lessons of the Sawant campaign or not so one-dimensional as being “a great success” because S-Alt got lots of votes–yes, the votes were a success and yes, ISO missed the opportunity by not rising above the perhaps untimely approach of S-Alt (though I really don’t know that it was all that untimely). Why are we not discussing how we should be more “timely” and how we can think more proactively about future electoral campaigns. No, ISO doesn’t have to sign on any dotted line, but if ISO is not the only group or set of people important to this discussion, why are we not taking the opportunity to advance a more sophisticated electoral strategy that would lead us to that Syriza-style model? It’s actually quite timely do so now given Obama’s final term and the upcoming House and Senate elections where his policies will once again come under scrutiny on arguably a more local level. And, no, having such a discussion and making such plans does not mean other work will go by the wayside. It just means we may actually start being more strategic about politics and the needs of our class and not just organizational “growth”.

Some may argue against the whole idea or have different ways to think about those events. It’s simply my perspective from my own previous experiences in both Chicago politics and electoral campaigns. Of course, being an “independent” socialist making these suggestions may seem a bit intrusive to Ben, Jess, or Patrick, but, hey, isn’t this what this forum is for; to hear “diverse perspectives”? Or, is that simply for the peanut gallery?

Finally, I have yet to see any conversations here rising to some “nasty” “off-track” level. The discussions have indeed become circular, but I believe that is because of the often too-defensive tone of those “speaking for oneself” but staying within their respective organizations’ line (if indeed there is one). I don’t expect people in organizations to go “off-line”, but I do expect that they actually know a line and can defend it politically rather than just deflecting with a trite phrase that others “don’t know what they’re saying” or are “creating strawmen”. You really can’t have a discussion if only one sides discusses the substance and the rest back themselves into a corner afraid to stray too far from some self-determined comfort zone. I suggest that others with “diverse perspectives” will be put off because of that sort of stridency than an honest debate.

I really hate those “erudite sayings” people often put at the end of the email messages, but one that one of my friends uses seems quite apt here “change is wonderful as long somebody else has to do it”.


Ben Campbell February 3, 2013 at 12:35 am

Manuel, I have never “dismissed” you, or taken your comments as “intrusive”. As someone who has been around here a while, you should know that I have sympathy for many of the critiques of “Leninism”, emanating from you and others around here. If I was convinced that the strategy of the Socialist Alternative comrades was sufficient, then I imagine that I would be a member of Socialist Alternative. But I am not. That does not prevent me from agreeing with some points they have made.

For example, one key area where I agree with Jess is that this argument will not be resolved in an online forum, but rather through practice. Those arguing for a more open atmosphere of debate and discussion will have to prove that this form of organizing is more effective! Perhaps this forum (and others like it, e.g. Kasama) can be seen as somewhat of a test of this hypothesis (although naturally any real test will have to move “off-line”). If such open fora lead to productive debate and discussion, attracting new members to the socialist movement, and eventually activities involving coalitions, “regroupment” or “unity”, then that I think that would go some way to establishing the importance of open debate to the socialist movement. If such a model demonstrated its success in practice, then I imagine the Socialist Alternative comrades would be more receptive to these arguments.

If, however, such fora become mired in petty squabbling, well in that case the “democratic centralists” would have fairly good reason to say “look, non-stop open debate can be counter-productive, as it prevents us from getting anything done.” And they would have a good argument! So again, if the goal is to demonstrate the value of debate, then I urge everyone to make it productive. Which brings me to my second area where I agree with Jess…

There seems to be some reification of Leninism here, or perhaps less charitably “the sect form”. As I have stated previously, all of these groupings are different, and they have each adapted historically. I urge people to be more specific about what exactly they disagree with. Binh and others have done so in their articles, and I urge this specificity in the comments. One might discover that members of these groups are more receptive to specific comradely criticisms, rather than broadsides leveled against their entire organization, or worse all organizational forms. And if one of the criticisms is a lack of public debate, we must at least give credit to the Socialist Alternative comrades for engaging—but I imagine they would not be particularly interested in engaging if the message they’re receiving is “good work on the Sawant campaign, but you’re doing it all wrong!”

As I said previously, the onus is on the “liquidationists” (as I recently heard Todd Chretien refer to Louis Proyect) to express their vision in more detail, and then follow through with it and demonstrate its viability. This is not an argument that is going to be won with an increasingly heated back and forth. If people like Pham Binh and Dan Dimaggio succeed in bringing together “independent” socialists into a some sort of formidable force, then I am sure the Socialist Alternative comrades would be more receptive then they might be to a half-dozen people lecturing them online.


Patrick A. January 31, 2013 at 4:11 am
Brian S. January 31, 2013 at 10:32 am

I used to be a regular visitor to Vancouver, whose labour movment has strong ties with that of Seattle and it always struck me how much left and labour cultural traditions (and some of the associated values) had lived on there – more so than Britain, and even other parts of Europe.


Patrick A February 1, 2013 at 4:30 pm

Im originally from Boston and was a Teamster there. I’m a member of a transit union here and some differences between the culture and traditions in the two labor movements really struck me. An ILWU membet out here made a joke that contains a kernel of truth: “The unions on the East Coast are run by the mob. The unions on the West Coast are run by Communists.”


Michael Pugliese January 31, 2013 at 1:55 pm

“This past August, two hundred self-identified revolutionaries gathered in Chicago for the Revolutionary Work In Our Times (RWIOT) Strategic Dialogue.” Which petered out in 2011? Sad, it collapsed. Sadder still, is exchanges like this, “Kasama, FRSO/OSCL, Solidarity, and opportunism,” , wherein , at least from my perspective, outside these groups, the characterizations are inaccurate and invidious. Say what you like about the ISO, but, they do not recruit liberals. DSA does. PDA does. FRSO Left Refoundation “merging into the DP,” ? What is there to merge into? In the East Bay, Tim Wohlforth yrs. ago helped to found a Paul Wellstone Club for left Democrats. The core was old DSA’ers and CCDS’ers. They are/were open about where they are coming from …and unlike whatever FRSO did in ’08 and ’12 to mobilize a vote for Obama, actually do get involved in the Democratic Party in Berkeley and Oakland. That can be called merging into the DP, in a concrete fashion. Calling for voting for Obama should certainly be argued against, on the ideological plane, as it does represent a certain shift rightwards away from revolutionary socialism. But, I do doubt the FRSO will ever get involved inside the DP the way that the Wellstone Club is.


Pham Binh February 2, 2013 at 9:39 am

Jess: you continually claim that Socialist Alternative’s organizing model is not like the ISO or other U.S. socialist groups but you haven’t fleshed out what is so radically different (in your view, better). Furthermore, Dimaggio’s entire essay is about his experience in Socialist Alternative and its narrow, self-limiting nature.

If you could elucidate at length responding to both those issues, then the discussion could advance instead of being circular.


Jess Spear February 2, 2013 at 2:23 pm

I’ve never claimed that SA’s organizing model is different than the ISO. How you can say that I “continually claim” that is beyond me. I will claim that we have different perspectives, which was made obvious by the different tactics used in the 2012 elections. The form is not what is different. What IS different is the perspectives and the program, strategy, and tactics that flow from that.


Pham Binh February 2, 2013 at 3:07 pm

So it’s the same form.

Whether we have fresh or rotten milk in a given bottle doesn’t change the fact that the bottle form itself is not useful for smashing capitalist social relations or the state that protects them. We can argue about whose milk is tastier but the fact of the matter is the bottle form is limited in its utility.


Patrick A. February 2, 2013 at 4:27 pm

The key difference between the ISO and Socialist Alternative is political understanding, not form. And because of our different political understanding, we indeed do have a different approach to organization. But, that does not fit into your theory, because political understanding is secondary or not that important.


Patrick A. February 2, 2013 at 5:11 pm

I’m not in favor of putting a movement — the milk — in a bottle. But also, your metaphor is problematic from a scientific point of view (based on my 8th grade science understanding, anyway). The milk can in fact smash through the bottle on it’s own under certain conditions that causes changes in the molecules of the milk. Experiment idea!


Pham Binh February 2, 2013 at 9:19 pm

The milk — the socialist movement — is already in bottles such as the ISO, Socialist Alternative, Solidarity, PSL, WWP, RCP, Socialist Action. You don’t have put anything where it already is.

And a broken bottle is of less use than one that is intact. Really you’re just proving my point here.


Patrick A. February 2, 2013 at 10:12 pm

First of all, most of the movement is not in bottles. But maybe your point is to focus on the existing bottles.

Second of all, not every bottle of milk is going to be smashed from within by molecular changes to the milk – especially those bottles of milk that have gone cold. In fact, milk can also completely dry out. Only the milk that has the right properties in the right conditions will smash through the bottle.

The metaphor is a problem. And I understand your point that the problem has something to do with the bottle, not the milk. Basically you are restating the basic point of difference in this discussion, but in a milk and bottle form. I have to admit, that really opens up avenues for fun in this discussion. How would we approach our basic differences in the chicken sandwich metaphor, for example? I’m sure we could come up with a whole number of metaphors to restate our basic differences. I don’t think it gets us anywhere in terms of coming to agreement. But, maybe it might be a way to joke with each other about our differences and establish some comradery. BTW, have you seen that Stalin is back with more rainbow?


Pham Binh February 2, 2013 at 11:21 pm

Given that you’ve shifted from arguing that the existing forms of the U.S. socialist movement are not a/the problem to admitting that while Socialist Alternative, the ISO, and many others have the same form but claiming that Socialist Alternative’s “content” is qualitatively better than every “competing” groups’, I consider this discussion closed.

I don’t see any need to joke around or play games to “establish comradery.” Principled political debate is a form of comradery. If we could draw the rest of the alphabet soup out of their party-line echo chambers to take part in it, then we’d really be getting somewhere.


Patrick A. February 3, 2013 at 12:05 am

Translation: Given that Patrick is wrong and Binh is right, Binh’s job is done. Victory.

But hold on, the whole premise of your victory is entirely false.

First, my so-called “shift” as you describe it could only be true if I was not a member of Socialist Alternative at the beginning of the discussion. Why else would I be a member of Socialist Alternative, except that I believe the political basis is “qualitatively better”?

Second, I never admitted that “Socialist Alternative, the ISO, and many others have the same form.” You invented that part. I said the key difference between the ISO and SA was on the level of political understanding. From there inevitably flows different conceptions of organization.


Patrick A. February 2, 2013 at 4:24 pm

This discussion has covered a lot of ground only to return right back to where it started. Binh and others maintain the fundamental problem is the “flaws in the design” of the left today -i.e., the form. Yet a whole number of “Secondary” issues and disagreements came up in the discussion on perspectives, consciousness, strategy, and other issues. I maintain these are issues that are vital for clarifying the political understanding needed to effectively build at this given moment in history with the actual conditions we face.

The masthead of this website has a quote from Malcom X: “I’m for whatever gets results.” Let’s discuss this: what got results in the 2012 election in Seattle? Form? Just posing the question shows how ridiculous it is. The key to the result in Seattle was political understanding. Furthermore, if it was not for this result we would not be having this discussion.

But, now that we are going around in circles — because you cannot force through agreements — perhaps it’s time to get back to the laboratory. Lets do some experiments and get some results that might shed some more light on the questions that have come up in the discussion. All we have are theories until the rubber hits the road. Anybody who claims they know exactly what will get results – or not get results – in the unwritten future is full of it. In other words: “The proof of the pudding is int he eating.”

Last thing: the Bolsheviks did not carry through a successful revolution simply because they were part of a multi-tendency party — i.e. simply because they had the right form. First and foremost, they had the political understanding to carry out the political struggle (i.e. the struggle to win political agreement) through all the different forms, stages and experiences involved in the complex process of historical development. But, the political understanding was primary — not the form. If it was only that easy!


Manuel Barrera February 2, 2013 at 8:12 pm

Well, Patrick, you are correct about one thing, it–i.e., making a working class socialist revolution–is not easy. And, if it were as easy as getting “back to the laboratory” and doing some experiments then you might be right we could let events just show us (you know, clichés and metaphors are really not as annoying as play-acting like you know “science”). However, I have heard neither a clear detailing from S-Alt or from ISO about what they mean by such terms as “political understanding” and “different perspectives”, which, of course, without such a dialogue would make such terms mere epithets or, to delve into metaphors, cloaks or shields, but certainly no “understanding”. Going to the lab will not help because, well, a) the real world is by definition not a controlled or confined space and b) it is a bit problematic to create “experimental” conditions; I mean, how would one even approach establish a control group, never mind defining and manipulating independent variables and, especially the dependent variables: hmmm? a socialist election against a Democrat in the Northwest vs. a movement by teachers who stand up to standardized tests and their differential effects on, what, recruitment to a group with two different “political understandings” or the quality of either group’s “influence” in the masses, mass movement . . .hits on their websites? You can see the problem, right (and, no, it’s not just that the IVs occur in different times and political contexts)?

Instead, the call to go back to the laboratory is just a deflection to avoid the true nature of the problem; that different groups believe that just doing what they’ve always done can be absolved and justified as “different strokes for different folks”. I suspect neither you nor Jess even have a clue what the “political understandings” of the ISO and S-Alt really are else they would have been much better defined by now if only to “prove” each other superior to the other. And, no, it won’t work to say, “go to our newspaper”, “go to our website” because all that would do is show that you are both simply parrots and hacks for some grand line that whomever writes for those organs sends out so that the peddlers can do the peddling. Hence, we are truly left where we began–with Dan’s critique and its apparent veracity, given the lackluster response.

Now, please do “understand”, I actually believe ISO and S-Alt are good groups and I bear them no real animosity as they strive to “do their thing” and come up with their versions–“understandings”–of success. Indeed, every victory should be celebrated as much as it should be analyzed for what to do next. It just seems that the both of you are too content with what passes for your success, especially if you can point to them in a debate, but not so strongly scrutinizing of how such successes, and their faults, help to bring the class–not revolutionaries–forward.

Those are the kinds of discussions that I hope we can have here in the “laboratory of ideas”. Doing so, Patrick, requires actual political discussion which, of course, requires actual political ideas not defensive posturing over whether one or another group was wrong or mischaracterized in their request for an endorsement or their intervention in a movement.
However, I believe Patrick and Jess are correct to think that left unity will not just come about by committing to “work together” when in fact most of what passes for working together in most movement activities amounts to pushing for alternative proposals and getting “compromise” with any united front coalitions and events; witness what I consider the disaster that the United National Antiwar Coalition has been, especially in its botching of its relationship with the Arab Spring. What is required remains engaging in real behaviors–talking to rather than against each other, “patiently” explaining positions, and actual real time, face-to-face interactions with an attitude of suspended disbelief, if only for a few short hours. But, of course, that requires a commitment and if we cannot get past our differences or our jaundice, then it just means we’re not ready regardless what the masses may require.


Patrick A. February 2, 2013 at 10:33 pm

Manuel, there is no need for drawing swords. Can we please stop, comrade? I would love to have a beer with you sometime and learn all about your campaigns.

If you want more explanation for the different political approach between the ISO and SA, I would be happy to provide. I see how that might be helpful for this discussion, at least to establish that there are political differences and that our separate organizations are not some cynical conspiracy to build separate “pyramid schemes”. It could of course take a whole pamphlet (and there are a couple produced by other sections of the CWI in relation to the SWP).

But, one of the key differences between Socialist Alternative and the ISO (and their SWP counterparts in other parts of the world) is our support and practice of the Transitional Method: i.e. Trotsky’s label for the Marxist tradition of “building a bridge” from the existing consciousnesses of workers and left-wing thinking workers through a series of concrete policies and “transitional” demands to the need for independent working class action and socialism.

Peter Hadden explains this political difference here in relation to the SWP in Ireland (the ISO”s former sister organization):

Hadden explains “The SWP up to now have rejected Trotsky’s advice on the need for transitional demands. Examine your programme set out in the ‘Where we stand’ column of your paper. This does not begin with demands relating to today’s consciousness and pointing forward to the need for socialist change. Rather it has generally opened with a call for ‘revolution not reform.'”….

This was written about the SWP in Ireland over a decade ago, but if you check the ISO’s “Where we Stand” column, you see it also holds true for the ISO: Their “Where we Stand” column calls for things like “Socialism, No Capitalism”, “Workers Power”, and other general positions.

Statements in the ISO “Where We Stand” column like “The working class needs an entirely different kind of state–a democratic workers’ state based on councils of workers’ delegates,” as Hadden points out, are “a theoretical position, not a programme.” Calling for workers councils, “when not even the faintest outline of these exist in reality, is abstract propaganda, ultra-left musing, nothing more, nothing less.”

We on the other hand don’t think general statements of principle are enough and call for more concrete policies in our “What we Stand for Column” and combine immediate demands with transitional demands as a bridge to the doorstep of socialist revolution:

It’s not just we have different approach to how we draft our “what we stand for” column. But, it is a different method for how we engage movements and consciousness more generally. The ISO website is one of the best on the U.S. left – you can quote me n that. I have said it before. But, they often fail to put forward a concrete strategy or specific tactics or demands for how to concretely take movements forward in relation to the need for mass independent working class action and socialism. Or they limit what they say to what is already agreed upon by the rest of the left. Or they put forward ultra left demands aimed at a narrow layer of the population. Or they often zig zag from one position to another. In the anti-war movement “unconditional support for the Iraqi resistance” was the key issue facing the anti-war movement for the ISO (dealt with here by SA: until the emergence of the IVAW and then the key demands for the movement were just the demands the IVAW was raising, which did not include unconditional support for the Iraqi resistance! In Wisconsin, we put forward the call and campaigned to win support for a “one day public sector strike”. As far as I know, Labor Notes was the only other group with this position. The ISO shied away from posing the need for a general strike in the form of concrete demand. We have dealt with this here:

The CWI’S political understanding and our thinking on the transitional method is elaborated more in this pamphlet from Lynn Walsh in response to the ultra lefts who say the key thing is to not water down are call for smashing the state and proletarian revolution:

I share all this just to establish that there are differences in our political approaches. I don’t think we are going to make any more headway in reaching agreement on the basic differences aired in this discussion. I do hope we can salvage some comradery out of this and can continue to have comradely discussion in the future as new developments arise. I would also love to hear more about your experiences campaigning and working with the SWP.


Pham Binh February 3, 2013 at 2:44 pm

The ISO and the International Socialist Tendency in general are infamous for prioritizing being abstractly correct over providing real, practical leadership of struggles — Occupy being the most obvious example of this. “Where We Stand” is just a bunch of unchanging generalities that serve as the minimum basis for recruitment and individual conversion, hence why IST groups meander and zig-zag all over the place, supporting the Iraqi (but not the Afghan) resistance one day and not the next, supporting Morsi in Egypt one moment as a “reformist” and then opposing him the next, and so on. The worst part is that they elevate this eclecticism to the level of method — Tony Cliff, who turned this politically incoherent impressionism into a fine art, termed it “bending the stick” in his ridiculous Lenin biography.

Compared to this, transitional demands appears to be a logical and coherent method. My problem with them is that 1) it reflects Trotsky’s idealist approach to party politics in that transitional demands have some sort of independent power and can make or break whether a struggle for socialism occurs 2) it is a shortcut, and a manipulative one at that, to socialism which can only be the result of a fully class-conscious working class (in other words, it is the degree of workers’ consciousness, organization, and militancy that is the bridge to socialism not a specially designed set of demands 3) it is manipulative in the sense that transitional demands are an attempt to turn every struggle into a struggle to overthrow capitalist rule even when the working class or other oppressed sectors are not ready, willing, able, nor even interested in doing so. The manipulative nature of transitional demands was captured well in the linked CWI pamphlet: “The demand implies a socialist society, without spelling it out.” ( So thanks to our clever demands, the masses will be fighting for socialism without being fully aware of it.

This brings to mind an old Debs quote: “I would not lead you into the promised land if I could, because if I led you in, some one else would lead you out.”


Patrick A. February 3, 2013 at 3:43 pm

Binh – please make substantive arguments and not just pot-shots about “idealism”, “shot cuts”, and “manipulation”. Those arguments have been made by all sorts of opponents against Marxism throughout history. I can easily make those same arguments about you. It’s not helpful.

I’ve seen your accusation about idealism before. But, your argument is based on a selection of quotes from Cannon and Trotsky, just like your accusations about our pamphlet above are based on a lazy-man search for quotes you selected our of context. It’s not a very convincing approach.

Lenin had an idea about a party too. Did ideas play no role in it’s creation? Lenin had an idea about a revolution. Did ideas play no role in the revolution? Marx had an idea about the “dictatorship of the proletariat”. They were all ideas first. The difference between Marxism and idealism, is in Marxism ideas have to be grounded, tested, proven, and updated. Idealism is Idealism because they smash against reality.

The transitional approach is not about coming up with a blueprint or ready-made formulas. In fact, I think your idea for “fixing the left” is more an idealistic blueprint. You do not really propose any convincing plan for how to develop the actual material need to bring a mass socialist movement into existence as a material reality. You only say “if the left was not what left actually is, then we would have a mass socialist movement.”

The transitional approach is not about “manipulating” anybody. Need I remind you that Socialist Alternative sued the State of Washington so we could honestly be called “socialists” on the ballot. We could have easily gotten cheap votes by dropping socialism from the ballot line and putting some populist demagogy there instead. Nobody seriously accused us of manipulating anyone in the election.

The transitional approach is first and foremost about orienting socialist activists to the actual development of the class struggle, it’s actual consciousness and “building a bridge” to socialism. Rather than calling for “workers councils” we should put forward demands that can actually bring workers into activity, raise consciousness, and prepare the struggle for the next stage of development.

A transitional approach is about connecting those immediate demands, that bring people into struggle, to demands that point the way forward, and bring movements up against the logic and limitations of capitalism.

Here is how Marx, who shortly after publishing one set of demands in the Communist Manifesto published a new set of demands for the Communist movement in Germany. Was that manipulation? Here is how Marx explained what Trotsky later labeled the “transitional” approach: “We do not say to the world: Cease your struggles, they are foolish; we will give you the true slogan of struggle. We merely show the world what it is really fighting for, and consciousness is something that it has to acquire, even if it does not want to.”


Pham Binh February 4, 2013 at 1:04 am

This is idealism:

“Lenin had an idea about a party too. Did ideas play no role in it’s creation? Lenin had an idea about a revolution. Did ideas play no role in the revolution? Marx had an idea about the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’. They were all ideas first.”

No, they were not ideas first.

Lenin’s party-building ideas came directly from the German SPD.

Lenin’s ideas about revolution came from the Paris Commune of 1871, the French revolution of 1789, and the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917.

Marx had an idea about the dictatorship of the proletariat based on the French revolution of 1789 and later the Paris Commune of 1871.

Ideas don’t come first in Marxism.

Also, don’t put words in my mouth or falsely quote me. I never said, “if the left was not what left actually is, then we would have a mass socialist movement.” Talk about a misleading pot-shot.


Manuel Barrera, PhD February 3, 2013 at 12:55 pm

Hello, Patrick
sheathing now :). I was pleased to read a good description from someone’s actual “mouth” in S-Alt regarding their conception of the “Transitional Method” although I did find it a bit cumbersome to have to be referred to website columns for some examples of key ideas, but, no matter, the points seemed clear and do provide a framework from a militant’s perspective on what one reads in your paper and website. My critique (as opposed to criticism–it seems one always has to qualify such terms in sites like these) is that what I read and “hear” from you and indirectly from Jess is quite logical in statement, but prone to being all too formulaic and mechanistic in practice.

I do apologize for the appearance of being critical here because my interest in contribution here is not to “tell you what to do” or how you are “doing it all wrong”; I actually respect S-Alt’s commitment to activism and the attempt to participate seriously in what pass for mass movements at the moment. I will get to the nub of my point, but to do so, I have to explain what I mean by such terms as “formulaic” and “mechanistic” based on what I read and what I have experienced in my interactions with your comrades in Minnesota–the only experience I directly have with S-Alt.

So, my critique is basically that adherence to a transitional method is not simply about figuring out good transitional demands with which to “intervene” in the mass movement. There also has to be a transitional method to participation in the mass movement that is always focused on how to take the movement forward not just to be seen as “good builders” or “leaders” and then when a movement dissipates below some unseen level to leave and then go on to the next thing. When I said to Jess that I have “been there”, I meant that I do understand the problem; an organization can only spread its resources–activists and time–so much. Hence, if a movement begins to dissipate it seems logical to move on–that is the method of “interventionism”, see if there is a “there” there and if or when it is not, let’s find another venue to “educate, agitate, and organize”. I see much of this kind of activity taking place by several groups not just yours, but certainly yours. I know it is not intended to be disingenuous, but I am sure that if you were an independent unaligned and new activist, you might consider such behavior a little differently.

By example, when the Occupy movement begin in earnest in Minneapolis, S-Alt activists were greatly involved and by dint of their experience and activist approach ensconced themselves in “good places” within the occupation; leaders of several important action, outreach, and programmatic committees. S-Alt activists appeared to work within the framework “allowed” by the quite influential, at the time, anarchistic-minded force so that such committees were essentially quite autonomous. So, S-Alt and FRSO (another group who “intervened” quite well in Mn Occupy at the start) took this loosely structured framework to engage in predictable directions that inevitably abrogated their responsibility to intervene politically and help to take this movement from a loosely structured “anti-hegemonic hegemony”–where it stayed–to a much more democratically-oriented movement where initial structures of the General Assemblies could provide real education to newly radicalizing participants about how to form democratic councils for determining what to do next. Instead, well, we all know what happened next, miasma and disillusionment at “losing” occupations and dissipation of much energy. It is a testament to the power of the Occupy movement that some degrees of structures still exist and good work remains possible though with less potential of just 18 months ago.

Now, please do not mistake me to think that S-Alt is solely at fault for “conditions” changing (the Obama election machine and the Democratic Party are more responsible than most). However, what I observed was that S-Alt (and groups like FRSO) were “there” for the big events and then gone to focus on the “next big thing” or, in the case of FRSO, their defense against FBI repression (there is much to be said about that failure, but it’s not the point here).

Since then, I have seen S-Alt engage in new “big things” including the one ongoing success of Occupy, the Occupy Homes movement in the Twin Cities. Despite the patently ultra-leftist approach of elements in that struggle, I have seen S-Alt play an activist role in areas such as getting a “comprehensive” resolution on foreclosure moratorium through the Minneapolis City Council, oddly enough though politically predictable.

In that event, I got the impression that activists in MN Occupy Homes thought they had a “coup” in garnering the endorsements of a progressive city council member and the active participation of at least a wing of AFL-CIO bureaucracy through one of their action arms (Take Action Minnesota). They, the S-Alt activists, seem to spend a lot of time engaging the political maneuvering. The result as far as I can tell was a meeting with Mpls Police Chief, the city councilwoman and Occupy Homes MN to discuss ways “to balance the need for law enforcement while respecting the First Amendment.” (from a photo of the meeting published on Occupy Homes MN 1-24-2013).

Tactically, this work was viewed this way ” As the Foreclosure and Eviction Free Zone takes off, and we get dozens, then hundreds, of homeowners to stand together in resistance, this initial meeting will hopefully be seen as an opening round of negotiations in the struggle for a movement-imposed moratorium on foreclosures and evictions.” (T. Moore on the same post).

To be sure, Occupy Homes may gather some “resistance” to hard-hit homeowners, especially people of color and achieve great publicity, especially for the “leaders”. I just wonder if getting “dozens, then hundreds, of homeowners to stand together in resistance” is either a strong “intervention” or a “transitional method” whose political meaning seems to be setting the stage for “an opening round of negotiations” with whom, the police, the city council, the 1%?

Again, I am not “criticizing” the work, but making a critique, an inquiry, a consideration for looking at the strategic and political objectives for working within a portion of a movement with the greatest likelihood toward ending in an ultra-left morass. The mostly White Occupy Homes MN activists with a mostly ultra-left notion of resistance do not, for example, equate to the Freedom Riders or activists in SCLC in the 60’s.

Questions that are raised include: a)is engaging in presaging “negotiations” with the police state a truly political objective born of a transitional method or is it simply “what one can get away with” in context of ultra-lefts, well, on the left and union bureacrats and the Democrats on the right? and, b) How is this kind of activity truly “transitional” in method or demands? I should say here that the last iteration of that council resolution was primarily based on a resolution that had already passed in that council and was being “elaborated” upon with additional language about solutions to the home crisis and making the council to make the banks do better and change their policies (yeah, if that sounds a bit confusing, don’t blame me, it’s what was being discussed). So, perhaps “setting up” later “negotiations” with the state for a future “resistance” of “dozens, then hundreds” was an example of the transitional method in action? I wonder who is trying to predict the future now?

Ok, those are enough examples. The nub of my point regarding mechanistic and formulaic applications of a transitional method is that such a method is not just based on good transitional demands “from which all things flow”, but also on the necessary hard work of thinking through what to do “next” with those demands, which do require “thinking on your feet” but not necessarily “off the cuff”. Else, you can find yourself making “transitional” decisions from the a relatively weak position when the pressure of reformism and ultra-leftism inevitably come to bear. Such a method requires not just “expertise” and experience, it really does require deliberation with political analysis so that what one does “on one’s feet” may seem “off the cuff” but actually has some collective political intellect involved.

Yes, I know it’s hard to do “all that work” when “top people” with lots of experience can “just do it” or at least appear to do so. And, I also know not every such action can be undertaken with so much aforethought. However, the stakes, right now are not that high, people (in the case of Homes) are at risk, however, when they put their lives in the hands of a movement, and it seems prudent to build one’s ability now to act with proaction for the times when stakes become higher and decisions must indeed come more quickly. The essence (morality if you will) of the transitional method is in how it helps revolutionaries do right by the working class and help it/us come to power through mobilization and building the political will to fight for our liberation from capitalism.

A second aspect to this issue is the oft-stated aphorism “educate, agitate, organize”. In truth, this chronology seems to indicate that one must first learn what s/he believes, then speak out for it, and THEN get all who agree together. It’s a formula that too many have taken for a recipe. I, rather, believe that agitating really should follow from organization and education–which includes not just learning about something new, but also deliberation with others to get the best possible view of problems and political issues that can hope to be resolved. Agitating because you have a great transitional demand has been the stock-in-trade of so many sectarian projects; as if being “right” were all that is needed to rally the people. I do realize that many here know better, but I wonder if fighting the fight sometimes gets us into a state where decision are hurried and made with the exasperation that “there’s nobody else to do it”. When I stated in an earlier post that there is “nobody but us”, it was meant to convey that the conscious revolutionary activists are finite and we shouldn’t wait for “objective conditions” to do what we ought to do now prepare the way. But, that does not mean each group of us should think of ourselves as finite when there are many, if we can find a way to build trust, upon which we can come to rely.

Nevertheless, I really do believe–have to believe–that militants in organizations like S-Alt or ISO are earnest and dedicated to the same goals as the rest of us. I welcome their/your willingness to engage in dialogue. We cannot do all “this” alone. That is what I meant by whether ISO or S-Alt will “come and go”. I would hope both organizations will cede the hubris that they are “the one” and recognize that it will actually take a much more comprehensive, greater encompassing party to win the fight against the capitalist system in the end.

Finally, I was heartened to see the recent agreement by Philly Socialists to enter into “fraternal [sic] correspondence” with the North Star network. I look forward to the broad engagement of as many of us as are possible to engage in fruitful work. I believe that work should start with an electoral strategy in the House/Senate elections of 2014 on a local level; it seems much easier to agree to engage in “critical support” with each other on a broad anti-austerity, anti-war, pro-education and universal healthcare type of platform. However, maybe there are only more limited dialogues or activities that will make sense to the majority of us. In any case, I believe prospects for let’s say, “united work” rather than “left unity are much more possible today than even a month ago.

PS: I’ll look forward to a beer (though I may insist on a brandy) with you; hope it will be one where you, Jess, Ben, and Binh (and any and all others) are present.


Patrick A. February 3, 2013 at 4:24 pm

Hey Manuel. I think you raise some valid points here. I can’t comment much on what our comrades are doing in Minn. But, I do know they also have proposed a strategy in some articles on our website that I think reflect our approach, at least in writing.

And I think you make a very fair point when you say our arguments are “quite logical in statement, but prone to being all too formulaic and mechanistic in practice.” What you do is more important than what you say.

I apologize I can’t comment more at the moment. But, I’d be happy to discuss more when I have time.



Pham Binh February 6, 2013 at 3:24 pm

Is the goal of the negotiations some type of legislation or ordinance that will have actual legal force to stop the foreclosures? It’s unclear to me exactly what your critique is, but it sounds a bit like militant lobbying instead of “direct action”? (These questions were not directly addressed in this article either:

I think this discussion makes it very clear that it is difficult to substantively engage people in the existing groups because their view of the outside world from inside their groups is so markedly different from the view of independents on the outside looking in, so to speak.


Matt February 6, 2013 at 5:40 pm

Right, which is why the task is to create a pole of attraction for the people thrown off by inevitable splits, blowups, etc. , endemic to the bureaucratic sect form.

Returning for a moment to the example: “Last thing: the Bolsheviks did not carry through a successful revolution simply because they were part of a multi-tendency party — i.e. simply because they had the right form. First and foremost, they had the political understanding to carry out the political struggle (i.e. the struggle to win political agreement) through all the different forms, stages and experiences involved in the complex process of historical development. But, the political understanding was primary — not the form. If it was only that easy!”

This presupposes that individuals somehow “first and foremost” spontaneously come to a common political perspective or understanding that would then unite them in a common party. But how can anybody arrive at a common, collectively coherent understanding *outside* a common party form.

The conception of party building is entirely idealist. The revolutionary party is conceived of outside the real historical-material process, rather than as moving within it from the beginning. That is true despite the invocation of “all the different forms, stages and experiences involved in the complex process of historical development” since it “first and foremost” gives causative, determinate priority to an understanding that must precede history. But we must eat before we can think.

In addition, a multi-tendency party is not to be seen or fetishized simply as a good in itself. IMO, it is a matter of present historical necessity dictated by a political landscape littered with the flotsam of the bureaucratic sect milleu. We forget how much revolutionaries 100+ years ago shared a common conception of what was “Marxism”, for better or worse. Today that conception is highly fragmented. That, and not an idealist concept of “democracy,” is what dictates a multi-tendental party.


Pham Binh February 6, 2013 at 7:12 pm

I agree, it is ahistorical idealism, or worse yet, a kind of weird bastardized Marxism where form and content have no relationship to each another.

No matter which way you look at it, trying to defend the status quo on the U.S. socialist left is not a good look. It’s an argument that simply cannot be won.


Manuel Barrera February 6, 2013 at 6:27 pm

Your question, Binh, is a good one; one that was running through my mind at the time of both meetings I attended where this issue was reported or discussed. But my critique is a much more strategic one, that it seems all too labor-intensive to be spending hours in developing resolutions, meeting with one city council member, and “collaborating” with AFL-CIO representatives to craft a resolution that a) whose primary motion had already been endorsed by the same city council–an ineffectual statement in favor, but mandating the City to promote a moratorium and b) calling on the City to tell the banks what to do in mitigating bank foreclosures. All for the sake of what amounted to a “political statement”, to the banks no less. I got the distinct impression that the organizers, including our comrades in S-Alt were just making it up as the went along to see how far they could go in moving the City Council forward. My concern is that there did not seem really to be any well-developed objective for this kind of intervention, which in effect would be doomed to, as you say, “militant lobbying”. It seemed like the worst sort of “grassroots organizing” leading essentially to opportunism.

I could concur objectively with your observation about the way the “outside world” looks to people in many of our comrades in the organized left groups. However, I still consider it important to appeal to all comrades and their intellect on issues of politics, organizing, and the seemingly nebulous–to them–notion of “left unity”. Our comrades may think it a matter of “teams” in some competition to “test their theories” and see who “wins” (yeah, whatever that means), but we know different and, I think, ultimately they know different, too. But, mostly I believe we never leave anyone behind despite their own self-induced myopia and what I would call “nervous activism” that generates much work for so little gain. I say we know different because we have both been part of “large” organizations and felt the pull of groupthink and the self-righteousness that comes with it. Our comrades in S-Alt, ISO, and elsewhere are still going to be comrades at the end of the day. I agree that it is not best to beat dead horses in debate, however, so unless there is more “substantive” political discussion on the issues of building an actual alternative to the capitalist parties and their class, I have to agree this conversation is pretty much at a close–though, ya never know :)

In any case, Louis’ new post on the history of misleadership in promoting true independent electoral politics seems a great place to discuss what I consider a more pressing issue; how we as a left movement can become bigger in an arena that has the potential for educating the oppressed in class politics. I continue to believe that finding a way to forge an alliance with strategically key forces like those around the Black Agenda Report. The latest issue focusing on Obama and the “Black misleadership class” is amazing in its courage and forthrightness in countering the stranglehold of lesser-evil politics on the Black community (see this week’s front page I also believe the best way to discuss the demise of the UKSWP is the upcoming special forum we are organizing on feminism and the revolutionary movement. In many respects, the crisis of the UK SWP is of substantial promise more so than the one that eventually brought down our U.S. SWP over workerism. The issue of feminism, women’s rights–especially with the recent events of India and rape as well as the ongoing examples of misogyny by the Arab despots and political Islam–and its strategic role in both building a revolutionary party and in making socialism is of crucial importance that revolutionaries must get right if we are ever to be relevant enough to help our class to take and then hold power.


Manuel Barrera February 6, 2013 at 6:31 pm

PS: I apologize but I omitted a crucial word in my previous post: when I wrote about the Occupy MN homes resolution feeding off a previous city council resolution, I should have included the word “not”, hence, “an ineffectual statement in favor, but NOT mandating the City to promote a moratorium”
Apologies for the extra work here


Pham Binh February 6, 2013 at 7:04 pm

I agree with you — no comrades left behind. Even the Sparts have something they are good at that could be of use to our side.

Maybe you should submit something about the evolution of BAR’s politics over the years? Would be a good follow up re: America’s radical history in the making. :)


Neil in Chicago February 13, 2013 at 10:04 pm

I’m a native of Chicago.
When the G-8/NATO dual summit was announced, I (like many other people!) knew that meant signs and puppets, militarized cops, adolescents in black ski masks, and re-runs of “news” scripts. I spent a year looking for any group doing anything that didn’t look like a movie of their parents. And never found one.
I would like to suggest a vital change to your perspective, however. You say “socialism”, and then you say “Lenin, Lenin” . . . Marxism is the authoritarian right wing of socialism, and Leninism is the authoritarian right wing of Marxism. Please note that “sects” tends to refer to Marxists.


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Omega January 22, 2014 at 6:48 pm

I wish I had more time to delve into this in more depth, since I only skimmed the article and I can’t take the time right now to read the undoubtedly fine conversations below.
#1) In the case of Russia, Cuba, and elsewhere the communists and socialists had military factions on their side.
#2) The subject of your inquiry here is how socialists can, for the first time in history, effect a socialist revolution without the support of any militia.
#3) The frustration over factionalism arises from the seeming absurdity of various doctrinal disputes debilitating the movement. However, documents such as The Communist Manifesto are readily understood and available to the general public. They are sufficient to form the basis of a mass-interest in socialism which will then in turn result in a discourse which puts the development of doctrine in the service of a general if rough consensus.
#4) Socialist theory can no longer afford to be strictly Marxian. It must incorporate ideas from diverse sources while also criticizing them. For example, the science of ecology can resolve or obviate many doctrinal disputes simply by constraining the socialist vision to a material basis rooted in pragmatism.
#5) Anarchist theory also helps obviate doctrinal disputes by subjecting them to democratic processes. For example, the factory takeovers in Argentina resulted in many different forms of organizing. Each form is essentially democratic, allowing a means for a transition to another form if the worker-councils decide to do so.
#6) Because central planning is a bugaboo, some sort of representative democratic process must be embraced as a means of effecting democratic centralism in the larger social sphere where political institutions, such as legislative bodies and bureaucracies, develop regulatory and developmental schemes which redistribute wealth at an optimum rate for assuring the general prosperity and individual economic freedom.
#7) Among “progressives”, the idea of “democracy at the workplace” is quickly gaining hold. Take advantage of that to develop momentum towards a revolutionary redistribution of wealth which takes power out of the hands of “the 1%” and provides a “bailout for the people”.


Omega January 22, 2014 at 7:45 pm

What I have often seen is that when some socialists sponsor or endorse a particular campaign or protest they do so with the justification that it progresses a revolutionary agenda. One can assume that where one finds socialists’ involvement in such activities sponsored by others who are not socialist (such as a union’s efforts) there has been some degree of agreement or co-operation amongst the various organizers and activists. When there is not a socialist endorsement, the argument is usually that the strategy does not advance a revolutionary agenda.
What I think is critical here, what needs to be applied generally, is the assessment of intent. Where the organizers and activists can agree on enough to forward a particular political agenda item, the intention to strengthen workers’ and citizens’ political and economic power is there. How exactly the accomplishment of that particular agenda item further advances a general revolutionary movement can be assessed separately, and probably at a later date, and probably without being able to determine a specific causal link. Where this consensus between organizers and activists is weaker or non-existent, it should not be forgotten that the intent of those driving the particular action is important to assess in terms of whether the political clout gained by the organizers who are not socialist in their perspective, or even anti-socialist, outweighs in the view of socialists who would otherwise endorse the benefits of achieving the specific goal advanced by the organizers. This is a touchy area for dealing with the public in terms of gaining support, because even when socialists non-endorsement can be so justified it is often seen by members of the general public as a form of self-righteous factionalism not just within the socialist movement but within society at large. In other words it serves to reinforce the perception that socialists are subject to the same negative power dynamics, internally and while operating within society at large, as anyone else. This works against socialists due to the bias against socialism as being particularly susceptible to the problems of concentration of power.


Radical Party January 23, 2014 at 3:01 am

Yes, new actions and organizational forms are needed: ARadicalParty.Wordpress.Com


Carl Davidson January 23, 2014 at 12:47 pm

Yes, you did leave my group out, the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism. We have many dual members with other groups. From the beginning, our goal has been to put ourselves out of business by joining with other groups in all of us subordinating ourselves to something new, with more critical mass, around a left platform of, say, 5 to 10 points. We have one ‘left unity project’ for radical education that all are welcome to join and make use of, the Online University of the Left. The only condition is that you want the project to succeed. Go to


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