Work now, Party later

by Sophia Burns on March 1, 2016

gods and radicals

If a leftwing group doesn’t make a practical difference in people’s lives, can you blame anybody for not taking them seriously when they claim to “fight for the interests of the working class?”

Conversely, if a radical organization brings about concrete, real-world improvements in the lives of those whom it purports to represent, it accomplishes two things. Firstly, it actually demonstrates to oppressed communities that socialists are on their side (instead of assuming that ideas, instead of actions, win respect). Secondly, it builds support for socialism (and for itself as an organization!) by showing that when socialists show up, people benefit.

Every advertisement, every public school, every TV show, and nearly every other accessible source of information serves as propaganda for the ruling ownership class. That’s partly why we have such a difficult task ahead of us–and why we have such an overwhelming temptation to focus on other people’s bad ideas. So, we spend our time and resources polemicizing against others while perfecting our own analysis. But you don’t beat false consciousness with words. We lack the access to media we’d need for our messages to drown out capitalist ones. You beat false consciousness with the only thing that trumps belief systems: material results.

So, we can observe two competing orientations within the US far left. On the one hand, we have the defenders of ideological orthodoxy (whether their analysis is Marxist, anarchist, or democratic socialist, the behavior remains basically the same). To an extent, that’s just natural; who hasn’t had a profound but unpopular insight? Who hasn’t felt the impulse to hold tight to it and worry about people who just don’t get it watering down the truth? After all, Roman Catholics and Baptists have historically felt far more threatened by each other than by atheism. We all get frustrated when people so nearly get it right, but then fall short on one or two crucial points.. I certainly have a couple of personal bugbears under the socialist umbrella. And tension, debate, and disagreement are healthy–right up to the point that differences in analysis of the old USSR, or the Spanish Civil War, or the Cultural Revolution become an impediment to respectful on-the-ground collaboration. It’s easy to find specific projects that would, in their own right, easily attract the support of Trotskyists, Maoists, and anarcho-syndicalists. If we won’t movement-build with people we’re dead certain are wrong, then our movements ­ and ideas–mean nothing.

The counter-trend, though, behaves quite differently. Recognizing that perfection or bust thinking kills practical leftism, we can find examples of socialists across tendencies putting the work over their pet organization or theorist. Whether that’s Socialist Alternative working to raise the minimum wage (including directly collaborating with organized labor), United Against Systemic Racism shutting down Seattle streets to force policy change recognizing that #BlackLivesMatter, #BlackWomenMatter, and #BlackTransLivesMatter, #Not1More directly disrupting mass deportation, Iraq Veterans Against the War helping prevent military recruiters from preying on youth of color and impoverished teens, or the Sacramento Women’s Council setting standards among activists against sexual assault, another way to organize is already here. And sure, these groups are hardly uniformly free of petty sectarianism themselves; none of us has yet internalized the collaborative spirit the way we’ll need to, but the gradations between “everything” and “nothing” still matter more than anything. The two trends I describe are neither absolute nor mutually exclusive. We all exist under the ownership class’s hegemony, so none of us lacks sectarian habits.

Do the members of any given one of these groups agree on everything important? Of course not, but they do all know better than to let disagreement sabotage helpful work. Will any of these projects, by themselves, create a revolution or a truly powerful revolutionary party? Of course not ­ and each one of them is worth doing anyway. Strong rhetoric won’t raise anyone’s consciousness, but positive behavior will.

Whether you want to build a new political party or reform an existing one, without a living, vibrant, philosophically-diverse and action-oriented movement of working, disabled, and oppressed people, parties mean nothing (or at least nothing good). No party is the movement, and no party is the people. A party may play an important role in developing a radical movement, but in the end, it’s the people that make it. What distinguishes a good party is the embrace of its ancillary role. And if socialism isn’t practical, what’s the point?

And remember: jealously guarded theoretical truths and relentless polemic against rival radicals do not a revolution make. Politics is difficult, dirty work, and thinking accurate thoughts from an armchair (or a Facebook account) is easy and clean. However, if we embrace the heterogeneity of ideology, organization, and tactics that our situation demands, then we still have a shot at a free and equal socialist society.

If you want a revolution, don’t be right. Be useful.

Sophia Burns is a member of the central committee of the Revolutionary Alliance of Trans People Against Capitalism, an officer in the Communist Labor Party, a member of The North Star’s editorial board, and a radical transfeminist. She lives in the Pacific Northwest and also writes for Gods&Radicals, a site for Pagan and polytheist anticapitalism.

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