Is Socialist Unity Really Such a Stupid Idea?

by Saturn Concentric on October 30, 2013

To the snarky, self-conscious Internet Left – and let us be honest that this is what we are – Left Unity seems like the most idiotic idea possible.  Why not take a bunch of irreconcilably opposing and dysfunctional things, throw them together, and hope it works?  It’s a phrase thrown around by people who haven’t thought it through whatsoever.

“Unity” is the slogan of hippie idealists who have not had the pragmatist-realist epiphany that this is an ugly world, where people don’t get along and we can’t have nice things.  It is the rallying cry, as described in The Big Lebowski, of a child who walks into the middle of a movie and starts asking questions.  The rest of us have already been in groups, worked with other groups, collected our theoretical and experiential reasons for hating each other, and already know better than trying to converse.  Seriously, only a complete newbie would ever even bring up some sort of unification.

But what if we’re wrong?

Why is this even a conversation?

First let me be clear that my “unity” is itself a rather specific, perhaps “sectarian” unity.  I don’t want Left Unity; I want socialist unification.

I love and share the anarchist dream of infinite liberation, but in practice most anarchists are completely unworkable, insisting on silly organizational practices that shoot any effort in the foot from the start.  The Greens are, well, nice, but not very realistic in terms of what will actually rally ordinary people to their cause.  They seem more like the classic liberal moralistic progressives than people who are ready to openly say that we need class warfare, which is what people actually want.  Furthermore, no matter how much they focus on inequality and economics (which they do), they will perennially be mistaken for single-issue environmentalists.   When dealing with millions of people, yes, such issues of branding are important and even critical.

So now that I’ve distinguished myself from the sparkle-eyed mouthbreathers who “just want everyone to get together,” why have I suddenly turned specifically socialist unification into my white whale?

actualize the untapped potential

actualize the untapped potential

It probably has something to do with the fact that we experienced an enormous recession and many people’s living standards have been cut by as much as half.  It might have something to do with how Occupy Wall Street rose – and fell – thereby involving, energizing, and smashing the hopes of millions.  I’m not a wonk but Gallup is full of delights these days: as of late 2012 39% of the US likes the word “socialism,” 60% want a third party, 5% approve of Congress, and 24% approve of the Republicans.  And then in 2012 “socialism” and “capitalism” were the most looked-up words, according to Mirriam-Webster.

And what is the Left doing?  Well…I’m not exactly sure how to describe what I’m seeing.  Maybe if I squint I can find a pattern?  I see the British SWP imploding.  I see a lot of arguing about Syria.  There’s a lot of people who use really big words, in gigantic numbers.  A lot of people seem to enjoy writing articles just to write them, too, whereas maybe they should have just taken their clever headline, turned it into a tweet, and saved us the eyestrain.

I see a little bit of motion I guess.  I see positive signs like the Socialist Alternative campaigns popping up, and the EcoSocialist conferences where socialists actually converge to get something done without a convention-floor brawl like the founding of the old Socialist Party.

But mostly?  I see the Left failing to capture the enormous potential – potential which Occupy proved both exists, and can be unleashed by communicating the right way.  No socialist group has significantly grown, and only in very rare cases have any struggles been well-fought.

Given the above statistics pointing to public opinion in our favor, I think we need to pick up where Occupy left off.  A resurgent labor movement would be nice but the union density is almost as dismal as the Left’s membership counts, reflecting many of the same organizational problems.  And, it doesn’t need repeating, that we must use very different methods from Occupy to prevent implosion.  This time we should seek to create some kind of continuing organization rather than a protest or an encampment.

But we already have socialist organizations.  Why aren’t they growing?  It’s true, the Left is toxically dogmatic and undemocratic.  Those problems need special attention, which unification alone does not repair.  But unification would help create the scenario in which those contradictions can be exposed, debated out, and defeated.

More importantly though, it’s the fragmentation itself which prevents any single one of these groups from arising into nationwide visibility and attaining a critical mass of expansion.  You can’t take the Left seriously when there’s so many groups.  It’s just a joke.  So one of the first steps to ceasing to be a joke would at least be merging into the same joke.  This merger would have to be fairly sincere, not in the sense of dissolving all pre-existing group loyalties – they can continue as factions if they like, or we can function as an electoral umbrella – but in the sense that the different groups should eventually converge into shared meetings as their regular meetings, or run the same candidates or publications and debate within them, because it’s the splitting of socialist resources which is one of the biggest problems (and which sadly resembles capitalist competition).

How could conflicting ideas possibly coexist?

There have been failed unity attempts in the past.  One of the worst is when a group says “sure we can all unify…everyone join us.”  Even if a group is multi-tendency and says this, they are failing to recognize that they are now just one particle in the sea of competition, and not The Obvious Place to Unify.

However what really happens that destroys most unity attempts is when groups begin wrangling over what to do, failing to understand that this wrangling is often not necessary.  We need a party model where united action is not necessary at all times.  Perhaps a revolutionary faction of a party needs greater internal cohesion – for the rare instance of when they carry out insurrection – but for a broad-tent party it would lead to instant destruction, and isn’t even needed.

Many groups who claim to be multi-tendency end up drifting toward an implicit party line.  This is out of a belief, often unconscious, that a group cannot possibly survive if its members do two different things on occasion.

I disagree with this logic.  Any socialist party would have tremendous majorities agreeing with all of the following: protect and expand unions, increase wages, socialized healthcare, retirement rights, alternative energy, public-sector jobs programs, fighting for oppressed groups, tax the rich, and differing-but-highly-related visions of transforming society altogether.  This is unlike the Democratic Party where actually many of these things are open to question or not even fought for at all.  For 99% of socialists these things are obvious and non-debatable.

Now there may be different ideas about union tactics; the SP of Debs’ time sure had big disagreements on this.  And of course some socialists are very divided about Syria.  Some are divided on oppressed groups – not so much whether or not to be anti-oppression, but the precise way to analyze and work with it.

I think it is possible for a party to coexist on the basis of its massive areas of agreement, while even having members take separate, even opposing actions on the areas of disagreement, with the bulk of agreement being sufficient to keep the party united and healthy.

For the Future Party, I recommend a policy of encouraging, but not requiring, united action.  For example, the Future Party could vote to sponsor a march on an obvious issue like universal healthcare.  Everyone should show up, but if someone somehow disagrees I don’t think that is grounds for expulsion or even an infraction.  Some protests may be more contentious, or simply invoke less enthusiasm.  Sometimes the party may have to realize it will actually have members on opposing sides of a demonstration, shrug it off, and realize that most of the time this isn’t the case.  Democratic centralism can be useful, sometimes.   Circumstances often demand that a thing simply be one way or another – for example, should a statement be considered an official Party statement, or just one statement from one member?  Should members be allowed to dissent from official statements?  (I think they definitely should be allowed.)

People may be concerned that without a strict interpretation of democratic centralism, groups will devolve into the inactivity of paper membership.  But in truth, it’s not strict rules which encourage people to be active.  It’s simply in having a culture of activity that an organization stays lively.  You can encourage a concept of membership in a group that requires participation, without requiring a membership model that demands lock-step belief in the entire party line.

Many of the reasons democratic centralism was even created was not to attain an iron-fisted control over the ordinary members of the organization.  It was actually to control the leadership and parliamentary members of the party, who were constantly tempted by their privileged position to shift perspectives and moderate their stances.  Democratic centralism was not meant to turn every communist into a member of a Borg cube, but to chain the vacillating parliamentarians to the proletarian membership.

Will different groups try to abuse the process, to hijack the party or unfairly dominate it?  Of course they will!  That is why the world needs people like you and me, to be involved in the thick of it and stand vigilant against all possible forms of bullshit, while we ourselves advocate but do not impose our own views.  Yes – everything imaginable can go wrong.  But doesn’t that apply to everything?

Isn’t reform versus revolution a huge issue?  Isn’t electoralism a horrible dead end?

File that first one under “problems I wish we had.”  If we follow the model of unifying the party on its basis of huge agreement on common demands and loosely-related social visions, this isn’t a problem until an actual revolutionary upsurge.  Of course various factions can argue whatever they like until then, so that people are actually prepared for the upsurge when it comes.

My individual political beliefs are revolutionist.  I think the American state is irreconcilably capitalist and undemocratic, and must be overthrown.  However I also understand that most people aren’t going to understand this automatically.  If I insisted on only being in a party which was revolutionist, it would be a great way to isolate myself.  I don’t need to isolate myself any more than I already have; living in rural-suburbia achieves that excellently.

If you’re a revolutionist, you want to go where the masses are to spread your message, and right now the masses are “socialist” without having any idea what that actually means.  So we should be getting the neophyte-socialists together, consolidating them into an organization to break their demoralizing atomization.  And then once we accomplish this feat, we can all have our classic sectarian arguments about what socialism is, except in a mass forum where these arguments truly matter, instead of bickering in the void as factions of nothing.

kicking down the door to mainstream visibility

kicking down the door to mainstream visibility

Because I can’t say it better myself, I’ll just quote Pham Binh: “All means other than revolution must be exhausted first before tens and hundreds of millions will feel the burning desire and possess the necessary political consciousness and organization to storm the Winter Palace and inaugurate a socialist order.”  Or as I heard Carl Davidson say at a Left Forum panel, “I don’t believe we’ll achieve socialism through elections; I believe we’ll achieve socialism through elections, by exhausting them in the eyes of the public.”

Then there is a lot of griping that we “simply cannot” break into the electoral system, because the laws are rigged against third parties or whatever.  Well, this misses the point entirely.

If you are a revolutionist like me, and your entire goal is to demonstrate to the public that the USA’s “democracy” is a lie, then wouldn’t the best way to prove it be attempting to build an electoral party and giving people a concrete illustration of all the roadblocks we face?  Yes, there are many examples of failure, but many of those examples deserved to fail because they organized poorly.  We must give people an example of a party which organizes well, which consolidates a mass following, and then, through no fault of our own, still encounters total stonewalling.  That’s when we start the street fighting, or have it started for us through state repression – and with a whole party at our back, we’d actually have the social influence and organization to win.

When it comes to the naysayers, there is nothing more contemptible than someone saying from the sidelines, “it won’t work,” when they have never tried.  Do you have experience with the electoral system?  Try working in the Green Party to learn the ropes.  Work the voting machines on election day.  Research the structure of your local government.  Watch the Green Party’s public videos about election science.  Talk to PSL members about their efforts.  Read Victory Lab.  Ask Tim Horras what else to read.  Or better, sneak into a Democratic campaign, or even a Republican one; it doesn’t matter as long as you learn campaign science.  (I’m serious, do it.)  Refusing to attempt always results in a perspective of pessimism, because your imagination is filled with nothing but your unfamiliarity with the process.  Try things, learn things, gain knowledge, and soon you will gain confidence.

Fortuna audentes iuvat

I’m sure this didn’t address absolutely everything.  And that’s the point – this sort of party should not have predetermined content from the beginning, but should instead an open-ended process of mass-learning.  As Jodi Dean said in The Communist Horizon, we should view the “non-knowledge of the Party” as an asset.  The way that can be named is not the eternal way: only those who admit they don’t have the truth can discover something close to it.  But it only works if you try things.  For those who counsel a retreat from activity in favor of study, practical involvement is the best form of self-education there is.

Can any of this possibly work?  I don’t know.  I would have thought we’ve surpassed such questions.  Hope is for Democrats.  Maybe everything is hopeless.  I don’t base my life decisions on what is possible but on what is necessary.  We will find that by living this way, we redefine what is possible.  But ultimately to me it doesn’t matter.  I try to make the resistance work because that’s the only way to actually be alive.  All I can tell people is that, even if things are not fixable (who can know?), this is the best way I have found to try. Do not hope. Act.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Donald Parkinson October 30, 2013 at 7:35 pm

I swear, If I read another call for left-unity/mass socialist party, I’m going to hammer a nail into my head…..


sartesian October 30, 2013 at 8:06 pm

Don’t do that, please. Painful, messy, and the risk of infection is just astronomical.


Donald Parkinson October 30, 2013 at 8:13 pm

I’m joking of course. But these articles annoy me. They always assume that forming an organization around some platform of lowest-common-denominator leftism is going to somehow will a movement into existence by spreading consciousness to the public. It’s like conceiving communism as a public relations campaign.

To quote Bordiga:
“There are no fixed recipes for accelerating the class resurgence. There are no “manoeuvres” or “expedients” that can make the proletariat listen to its class voice. Such methods cannot make the party appear for what it truly is, but instead deform its function, undermining and compromising the effective resurgence of the revolutionary movement, since the latter is based on the real maturation of the situation and on the ability of the party to respond adequately, an ability that it can acquire only through doctrinal and political inflexibility. The Italian Left has always combated the method of resorting to tactical expedients to stay afloat, denouncing it as a deviation from principles and incompatible with Marxist determinism.”


Carl Davidson October 31, 2013 at 12:04 pm

And you’re quoting Bordiga here positively? First of all, Marx was no ‘determinist.’ As for doctrinal inflexibility of the Bordiga type, we have an example closer to home, the SLP of Daniel DeLeon. Whatever few insights and moments of glory they may have had, strategically they failed miserably.


sartesian October 31, 2013 at 7:20 pm

Nor was Bordiga a “determinist.” Unlike Gramsci, who first flirted, actually more than flirts, with “national defense” during WW1, and then became the chosen vector for Stalinist penetration, disruption, and takeover of the communist movement, Bordiga realized that doctrinal flexibility required, was based upon, class opposition to the bourgeoisie as a class.


Jason S. November 1, 2013 at 7:00 am

I don’t think that Gramsci began to consider himself a Marxist until after WWI had already begun. And yes, he screwed up badly by allying himself with Stalin against Bordiga. I think he lived to regret that. The question is whether or not Bordiga’s left communism makes any sense as a political orientation. I fail to see how it does.


Carl Davidson October 31, 2013 at 12:30 pm

Generally, post 1968 left politics can be placed in two baskets–politics as strategy (uniting the many to defeat the few) and politics as self-expression (giving voice to a militant minority). In the latter, there’s also a subset, politics as maintenance of shrines.

‘Left Unity’ is indeed useless to those only concerned with politics as self expression. In fact the more groupings there are, the more pure voices, or the great chance that the one true pure voice, yours, might get heard. In the longer run both the audacity of politics as self-expression and the ability to unite millions of politics as strategy are going to be needed.

But to combine the two, which is what is required of us, we need ‘critical mass’ in socialist organizations that can unite around a program and platform, but still contain multiple political and even ‘ideological’ trends. (I put the scare quotes around ‘ideology’ because, like Marx, I use the term as a pejorative, meaning the ossified ideas of the old order. But many of these, especially in religious form, can and will co-exist in socialist organizations.

Opposing ‘left unity’ today has a subtext. It’s partnered with an apocalyptic view that thinks changes just over the horizon are going to catapult your little grouping into a hegemonic position over millions. I call it the ‘Waiting for Lefty’ syndrome, with apologies to Odets. It’s a position for lazy bones and also wanna-be actors. You get a brief moment of a small stage, burn out quickly, then retire into private life or the academy. I’ve seen it too many times, and it’s not helpful at all. The more complex and difficult task of uniting socialists, as best as we can, and bringing our movement to scale, is the better one.


Aaron Aarons November 3, 2013 at 3:26 am

The reason that electoralism is a dead end — actually worse than just a dead end — in an imperialist country is that it is a form of majoritarianism, i.e., trying to win the support of the majority of the (voting) population, a population that benefits to a great extent from imperialist inequality, is that the temptation to cater to that electorate by watering down the subversive elements of a genuine socialist program is often overwhelming. For example, even without left electoralism being embodied in a left party, how many of those on the left agitating or propagandizing over issues of healthcare deal with the needs of undocumented workers, who are unlikely to even be considered for coverage in a ‘single-payer’ system?

I certainly have no objection to socialists running electoral propaganda campaigns, but running to win office, except in a rare radical district where a majority might support sending a subversive agitator to a legislative body, is a prescription for co-optation into the swamp of patriotic politics. Note, by the way, my use of the term ‘subversive’ to describe the label our candidates should wear. That’s because, in an imperialist country, ‘subversive’, rather than ‘revolutionary’, is the best description of the role of a genuine left.


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