Andrew Sernatinger (AS): Let’s change gears a little and talk about some of your ideas about socialist politics. A key focus of yours is about how Occupy is an opportunity for the revival of the far left—ideally the socialist left. What do you see in Occupy that creates this possibility? What sorts of things do you think socialists should be doing in the movement?
Pham Binh (PB): Occupy, its offshoots, and the unrelated initiatives it inspired will drive radical politics for the rest of this decade. This on its own ought to make Occupy central to any strategy aimed at making American socialism the political powerhouse it was in the first half of the 20th century. Then there is its political content: Occupy is a revolt against inequality, corruption, and the special oppression of any segment of the 99%. Socialists should feel right at home in Occupy instead of estranged from or confused by it.
We get so caught up in objecting to Occupy’s anarchist-inspired ideology and methods that we seem to forget that anarchism and anarchists have been a very necessary part of the modern movement for a classless, stateless society since the days of the First International, if not before. Occupy emerged in the way that it did to fill the political and organizational void where a healthy mass worker-socialist movement should have been. When only 11% of the American workforce is unionized and there are fewer organized socialists today than in 1898, we should not be surprised that a political explosion would be stamped with an anarchist character.
In terms of the socialist left and the possibilities we face, the wind is finally blowing our way, the tide is moving in our direction, and yet our boat has barely moved in the past year since Occupy began. This can mean one of two things: either something is wrong with the laws of physics, or something is wrong with our boat. If we want to get anywhere, we have to let go of the familiar, time-honored baggage we’ve used to anchor ourselves during the decades of reaction when the wind and the currents were continually moving politics to the right.
Socialists have to seamlessly integrate, fuse, and merge with Occupy and its offshoots (despite our own frustration with its prevailing ideas and methods as well as its current weakness). That is the indispensable precondition for helping Occupy outgrow its comfort zone and expand its active base of participants from thousands to tens of thousands. To do that, we have to push ourselves beyond our comfort zones. Thus far, socialists have almost universally confined ourselves to Occupy’s labor, direct action, and people of color working groups (or worse yet, General Assemblies) and become frustrated when we cannot influence Occupy’s overall direction and political character.
Limiting ourselves in this way is a recipe for tailism and not leadership, a very bad habit we must unlearn in this period.
What we need is full-fledged, well-rounded participation, which means bringing a pro-worker orientation into non-labor working groups, a revolutionary orientation into electoral reform working groups, a Roberts Rules orientation into facilitation working groups, an anti-capitalist orientation into financial reform groups, and an anti-elitist orientation into adventurist Black Bloc milieus for example. And when I say “orientation,” I don’t mean just ideological arguments but concrete proposals, tactics, actions, and slogans that reflect our orientation and facilitate motion in the direction we prefer.
We must engage Occupy on Occupy’s terms if we hope to wield any influence within it.
How all this plays out locally and individually in terms of how comrades choose to spend their political time will vary, especially since Occupy now is so uneven. Since I’ve developed a reputation as a writer, I write and help others write; musically inclined comrades could start Occupy bands and do renditions of classics like “Which Side Are You On?” as the Rude Mechanical Orchestra has; the diplomats among us should facilitate; the comedians among us could do guerilla theatre or political improv. The field for new initiatives is wide open and comrades should pursue their interests and harness their talents for the great aims that we and Occupy have in common.
Whatever we do, we should strive to be creative, comradely, collaborative, open-minded, experimental, ambitious, fun, and funny. Act less like “professional revolutionaries” and more like Wobblies.
The initiatives we launch and the relationships we forge today will form the human infrastructure of future resistance and struggle, just as solidarity work in Egypt with the Palestinian Intifada in the early 2000s paved the way for Mubarak’s downfall and coalition-building for a decade in Greece set up SYRIZA to displace the old parties of the left, PASOK (neoliberal) and KKE (Stalinist).
Now is the time for big ideas, new directions, ambitious aspirations, and the return of socialism from the fringes to the margins, the first way station on the long and difficult path to the mainstream of American politics. The socialist left should be spearheading Occupy-esque locally based campaigns to win rent control, union rights, financial regulation, police reform and accountability, single-payer healthcare, electoral reform, and most importantly, the creation of a popular radical party that fights as intransigently as the Republican Party to fulfill the empty promises the Democratic Party uses to sucker its voting base into staying in the longest-running abusive relationship in world history.
To that end, we should try to get occupiers to run for (and win) local offices, so put Scott Olson on the Green Party ballot against Mayor Jean Quan in Oakland or Sergeant Shamar Thomas on the Green Party ballot against Christine Quinn in the 2013 New York City mayoral race (or for a city council seat depending on who his opponent would be). That would give us a way rally occupiers, liberals, progressives, nonprofits, nongovernmental organizations, union members, and oppressed groups behind a candidate (and a party) of our own instead of being stuck with whatever dimwit the Democratic Party decides to choose to lose as in Wisconsin. Socialists should champion political action as a form of and complement to direct action within and through Occupy. That’s how Eugene Debs and his comrades built the mighty Socialist Party that provided the later foundation for the Communist Party and that’s how SYRIZA in Greece was built as well – one foot in the streets, one foot in the halls of government, both marching forward to fight the 1%.
If we don’t find a way to occupy elections, and with them, the levers of state power, independently of the two capitalist parties, we will throw away a historic opportunity to entrench resistance to the 1% just as our predecessors did in the 1960s. This mistake made it comparatively easy for the ruling class to turn the tide and take back the ground they conceded to the feminist, civil rights, gay liberation, anti-war, and environmentalist movements. They faced no institutional obstacles or concerted resistance to the offensive they launched in the 1970s.
AS: One reference that you seem to make a lot is to the work of the academic Lars Lih, who wrote a series of books about Lenin and the Bolsheviks, reframing the history and trying to investigate some of the mythology around these giant figures. Can you explain this some? What do you think are the implications of this writing politically?
PB: My interest in Lenin, the Bolsheviks, and the Russian revolution stem from my political background. I was a member of a “Leninist” organization for seven years, the International Socialist Organization (ISO). In summer of 2011, I had a dispute with someone in the ISO that led me to take a closer look at how the Bolsheviks organized, their expectations of members, how they elected leadership bodies, and their rules to enforce transparency and accountability. (At that point I had not read any of Lars Lih’s work.)
What I discovered (to my surprise) were drastic differences between what I thought were practices and traditions based on the Bolshevik experience and the actual methods Lenin and the Bolsheviks used.
I stumbled into the contradiction at the heart of “Leninism” – neither Lenin nor the Bolsheviks organized in a “Leninist” manner. The Bolsheviks were always part of a broader multi-tendency party, the very model “Leninists” today reject as bankrupt and doomed to failure. Efforts to create exclusively revolutionary parties and movements after 1917 have all ended in failure without exception, including the Communist International, which moved in an opportunist direction from the mid-1920s onward.
Every mass movement, including the socialist movement, develops revolutionary and opportunist wings the larger, more powerful, and more popular it becomes. The reality is that we can’t get Luxemburg without Bernstein, Lenin without Dan, Debs without Berger. Trying to exclude opportunists or reformists a priori prohibits the development of these tendencies and their dynamic conflict. Without conflict, there is no change; without change, there is no development, which means no revolutionary and no opportunist wings, no leftist or rightist mistakes and therefore no corrections nor learning from those errors.
These were conclusions I came to before reading Lih’s work in fall of 2011, right before OWS broke out in front of my eyes.
By putting Lenin back into his proper social-democratic context, Lih definitively undermined the idea that the Bolsheviks were a “party of a new type” or somehow special, superior to, or doing something fundamentally different from the German Social Democratic Party that pioneered the model Lenin and the Bolsheviks copied. Recently, Lih discovered that the Bolsheviks never became a party. That was news to me but is indisputable once you study the facts, the history, and Lenin’s writings closely.
To sum up: the problem with trying to copy the model of the Bolshevik Party is that there was no such thing as the Bolshevik Party!
The organizational implications of Lih’s work and, from a different direction, my writing is the same: revolutionaries should build thoroughly inclusive, multi-tendency parties that use every available means to agitate, to stir people into action, to permanently and effectively campaign for reforms, and spread the good news. In other words, we should follow in Lenin’s footsteps rather than use a model named after him that bears no similarity to his actions, aims, and accomplishments.
At a deeper, more primal level, Lih grasps the emotional, quasi-religious appeal of the early social democratic movement as well as Lenin’s understanding that leadership is emotional rather than ideological.
Few socialists have commented on Lih’s short biography of Lenin (buy it if you have not); and those that have have not said much about the inspired/inspiring leadership dynamic that underpinned what Lih calls Lenin’s “heroic scenario” that defined his political outlook and dominated his life. I too would have ignored Lih’s discussion of these issues had I not seen and felt what he (following Lenin) was talking about for myself through Occupy Wall Street (OWS).
Lenin constantly referred to the heroism of earlier generations of Russian revolutionaries as well as to the German SPD, which heroically built a mass worker-socialist movement under the oppressive jack boot of the Anti-Socialist Law. He did this to inspire his readers and instill in them a sense of their great, even exalted, mission to help carry out Russia’s democratic revolution to the end despite the many hardships, sacrifices, and disappointments along the way. He himself was inspired by the heroism of his brother to take up that fight.
In Left-Wing Communism, Lenin listed heroism as the first of three conditions necessary for developing the discipline needed to win the war on the bourgeoisie. In State and Revolution, an abstract discussion of the finer points of Marxist theory, we find a section of the book entitled, “What Made the Communards’ Attempt Heroic?” The heroism of revolutionaries inspired even his theoretical attacks on doubters, delayers, usurpers, and other haters of the heroic scenario.
Heroic, inspirational leadership is what anarchists call “propaganda of the deed,” an act that inspires greater numbers to take action themselves. It was the heroism of a small number of people in Zuccotti Park that inspired tens of thousands to occupy. Heroism by four students sitting-in at a segregated lunch counter inspired thousands to launch sit-ins all over the south in the 1960s. Heroism by the Bolsheviks against all odds inspired tens of thousands of workers to abandon their old socialist parties for new communist parties.
OWS is the most successful, inspirational example of “propaganda of the deed” in recent American history and explains why Occupy has persisted despite its many defeats, setbacks, and flawed practices. The inspiration is still there. Lih’s discussion of heroism and inspiring/inspired leadership helps us see that, which is absolutely critical for us to absorb now that an era of revolution is upon us.
AS: One of your more provocative perspectives has been about socialist organization. It seems like you suggest a kind of unique or “unorthodox” route to building a socialist left in the United States. Can you paint in this picture somewhat? What about your ideas on a building the left are similar and different from the classic “party-building” perspective?
PB: The classic party-building model, the one Lenin inherited from German social democracy (which put into practice Karl Marx’s merger formula), is unfortunately not the model used by the American socialist left. The only model we know and have any experience with is recruiting people one by one to a series of detailed positions on the Democratic Party, reformism, when things in Russia went wrong (1919, 1929, 1989), what constitutes the genuine revolutionary tradition (other people’s revolutionary traditions of course are not genuine), and a tacit understanding that your group is mostly right while everyone else’s is mostly wrong or wrong on some basic, fundamental, non-negotiable “matter of principle.” Those recruits, in turn, recruit other recruiters on the same basis.
In business terms, our model resembles a pyramid scheme which explains our inability to grow at a faster rate than one by one or become influential even when objective circumstances become favorable and mass movements break out as they did in 1999 (global justice), 2002-2003 (anti-war), 2006 (immigrants’ rights), and 2011-present (Occupy and other initiatives).
This is the basic problem with our boat and why it barely moves no matter how hard the wind blows our way.
As the pessimists like to endlessly repeat, engineering a merger of two or three of the existing groups in and of itself would not change much. The pessimists are right on this point but for the wrong reasons. Adding small forces together to create a slightly bigger small force is not meaningless; the successful regroupment initiatives overseas (particularly the Left Bloc in Portugal) began this way and took the better part of a decade to grow and mature. The reason a merger would not necessarily lead to anything new is because the underlying model of the merged formation would remain the same in its essentials. Continuing to build on this basis is going to lead us to the same impasse we are in now.
While this model worked to preserve the socialist left from disintegrating over the past three decades (and may have been entirely appropriate), it is without a doubt a barrier to us reaching our full potential now. These days, for every player we have “in the field” of organized socialists we have three or four “on the bench,” meaning they are not members of any group and will remain independent until we get our act together and forge a party worthy of the name that inspires their loyalty, confidence, and trust, as SYRIZA has inspired Greek independent socialists. What would inspire our benchwarmers to get up and jump into the game is a single, united team worth playing for with a fighting chance to win real gains.
Anyone who is serious about revolutionary politics has to wrestle with how to inspire people to mobilize, to act. The old social democratic model that inspired Lenin and the Bolsheviks that Lih brought to light can and should be updated and inform our practice today. Like Lenin, we should be hell-bent on uniting our disparate forces and creating an effective national organization in order to replace the ineffective, local, parochial division of labor we have now that consumes our meager resources in order to produce mostly identical publications of mediocre quality.
A real campaign for unity that excludes no group, trend, or tendency would inspire our independent comrades to at least give the organized socialist left a second, serious look. The socialist left in this country is like a piece of shattered glass; each little fragment has something to offer, something it is good at, and we have to begin trying to piece those fragments together if we want to become relevant once more.
Web 2.0 has largely superseded newspapers and is inherently interactive and conversational across its multiple mediums (video, visual, text, audio). The socialist left is struggling to adjust itself to this new reality and has not even come close to exploiting the technology to its full potential. The relative ease of publishing, broadcasting, communicating, and publishing means that the old organizational norms of the socialist left need to be modified to be less vertical, more horizontal.
On the political side, fully adjusting our organizational forms to match the new material conditions we operate in requires breaking with the single-tendency model where a “line” comes from a leadership body, where there is very little horizontal communication between locals or branches unmediated by a miniature “revolutionary” bureaucracy, and where rank-and-file initiative is continually dampened under the weight of existing routines and formalities.
AS: You make reference to some contemporary experiments on the far left: Britain’s Anti-Capitalist Initiative (ACI) and SYRIZA in Greece. What about these projects, which are very different, are worth emulating?
PB: What isn’t worth emulating about these initiatives?
The left and the fight against austerity are most advanced in places where there are the kind of pluralistic multi-tendency radical political formations that the American socialist movement has stubbornly refused to create. In Greece, it’s SYRIZA; in France, it’s the Left Front; in Quebec, Canada, it’s Quebec Solidaire; in Germany, it’s Die Linke; in Portugal, it’s the Left Bloc; in Britain, it’s ACI (which is only a few months old and tiny in terms of numbers and influence as a result).
“Conditions here are totally different here,” is the usual response I hear, as if I wasn’t aware that we don’t have mass workers’ parties here or a parliamentary democracy. The fact is these initiatives are more like the classic party-building model and far more effective than our recruit-recruiters model. Whatever their flaws, these initiatives are relevant to the shape of their national political landscape and capable of real qualitative change, development, and growth. We have yet to achieve even marginal relevance, so we should try to learn something from them instead of one-sidedly focusing on their shortcomings.
To say that we cannot replicate in some form what they are doing here, in our circumstances, would be extremely reductionist and, in the final analysis, is a weak excuse to continue practices that don’t work, haven’t worked, and can’t work.
The failed recall effort in Wisconsin is the bitter fruit of our long-standing failure to create an alternative political vehicle to the Democratic Party. We should stop hiding our refusal to do anything different behind the Democratic Party’s refusal to do anything different. We cannot control what they do, but we can control what we do. If we want something other than a perpetually divided socialist left that is too weak to even significantly influence the direction of a weakened Occupy (much less wrest political hegemony over the political action of our unions from the Democratic Party), then we have to start doing something different.
Prior to the May 6 election in Greece, SYRIZA was something between a full-blown political party and what is usually called a “united front,” a sort of proto-party formation that evidently used consensus to keep its Trotskyist, Maoist, Eurocommunist, and non-ideological movement elements together instead of forcibly binding them in a “democratic centralist” fashion. If America’s socialist groups ever make a good-faith effort along similar lines, I think some type of “soft” or consensus-based decision-making process would be the way to go since all too often a 50%-plus-1 vote leads to 50%-minus-1 quitting and leaving due to trickery, fraud, overly acrimonious disputes, or all three. We are so small, weak, and marginal that we cannot afford or tolerate things like that, especially in the embryo stage of a unity initiative.
As far as I can tell, ACI is a much different animal because it’s 100-200 people, the organized socialist components within it number a few dozen at most, and only a few months old. It’s a loose network rather than a coalition or proto-party. ACI has the added difficulties of dealing with the Labour Party, RESPECT, three “competing” national anti-cuts groups, and the ossified cynicism at unity efforts that comes with being a veteran of a divided left, so they have their work cut out for them. We in the United States, on the other hand, have yet to even begin that work and work through the difficulties that come with it.
AS: Lastly, tell us about the North Star. What is the project and what are you aiming to do? What makes it different from past efforts are left unity or regroupment?
PB: The North Star is an attempt to facilitate unity on the anti-capitalist left through debate, discussion, and collaboration. The socialist left lacks a common forum, which is why much of our debates happen on an Australian Web site (Links) or on personal blogs like Unrepentant Marxist.
Our groups generally do not engage their “competitors” politically, to say nothing of trends “outside” socialism like anarchism. Therefore differences of opinion become polemics filled with dishonest cheap shots, misrepresentations, sweeping condemnations, and other forms of idiocy that do nothing clarify the issues and, as a result, end up reinforcing the existing divisions, making cooperation for common ends impossible to our mutual detriment.
Lots of socialist groups hail the Russian newspaper Iskra Lenin started but refuse to follow its example. For starters, it wasn’t sold, it was free. More importantly, over the course of a three-year campaign, Iskra fought to weld all trends within Russian Marxism into a single party, including the economists, who were often the targets of Iskra’s polemics. When people disagreed with Iskra, their letters were published in full so readers could make up their own minds in debates over who was right. Iskra combined irreconcilable ideological struggle with a struggle to create practical unity in spite of those disagreements, something The North Star hopes to emulate. The first fruits of this orientation will ripen with The North Star’s online roundtable discussion of SYRIZA and what it means for us in America. Participants include Louis Proyect, Chris Maisano of Democratic Socialists of America and the Jacobin editorial board, anti-authoritarian Richard Estes, and possibly an autonomist.
All of this is a means to an end. We have more than enough talk shops on the left. The North Star’s goal is to engender enduring multi-tendency relationships where none exist and thereby create the basis for a broad-based united radical or anti-capitalist organization down the road.
To answer the second part of your question, I don’t know enough about past regroupment or unity efforts to say definitively what went wrong in each case or what makes The North Star different (it may fail).
All I know is that various elements of the socialist left have occasionally discussed and arranged joint meetings to explore the possibility. That these past efforts did not get far is testament to a few things:
1) We need a radically different, more flexible and accessible organizing model.
2) Regroupment is something that has to happen as the result of a years-long campaign at both the rank and file and national levels.
3) A regroupment/unity campaign must win the trust and buy-in from groups that today see each other “competitors” at best and enemies at worst (as Trotskyists tend to view Stalinists and Maoists and vice versa). Given their history of backstabbing one another in behind-the-scenes maneuvers, this is no easy task.
4) Elevating irreconcilable political differences of opinion to the level of irreconcilable class antagonisms is the quickest way to abort a unity effort.
5) The programmatic basis of such an effort will have to be very simple to begin with and remain so for some time since the socialist movement today is extremely weak, uninfluential, and underdeveloped in every conceivable way.
Fighting over what the precise path to socialism is or what socialism should look like when the 1% is readying to plunder Social Security, crush the few unions that are left, and consign public education and even the Post Office to the dustbin of history is like fighting over your what college your future kid will attend when you’re still in fourth grade struggling to remember your multiplication tables. We have yet to grow up, get through school ourselves, find a partner, and pick a baby name but we let divides that lie decades down the road block us from creating unity today. Our default tendency is to find reasons not to unite, and when they don’t exist, we make them up and say “it can’t be done.”
Anyone interested in collaborating on The North Star project should email [email protected]. No one can do everything but everyone can do something. The socialist left desperately needs multimedia content, especially videos and memes, and I hope The North Star can be a place where we begin to develop those elements as well.