Marxist theory

What Happened to Revolutionary Socialism?

Alexandria Ocasio Cortez with right winger Margaret Hoover on “Firing Line”

Unemployment is low because everyone is working two jobs.” So spoke probable future US Congresswoman and self-proclaimed democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. This confused statement reflects the general state of affairs on the socialist left. Unlike in the past, it matters because “socialism” is almost a household word nowadays. 

How has this developed, why is it important and how can it change?

Historical background
First and foremost is the absence of the US working class as an independent force in society. This has combined with the role of the Soviet Union’s bureaucracy in days long passed – in fact now so far in the past that a whole generation of young socialists aren’t even aware of what those ideas were nor of its influence.

On the one side, the role of the bureaucracy of the Soviet Union turned millions of US workers off to anything that even hinted of socialism. This weakened the union rank and file because it was always socialists who played a key role in building the US workers’ movement – the unions – and it was socialists who best kept alive the fighting traditions of that movement. The fact that they lost almost any influence helped enable the union bureaucracy to largely stamp out those fighting traditions.

1980’s
As a result of the near eradication of the fighting traditions and the further turn towards corporate unionism by the leadership, the membership became increasingly disillusioned with and alienated from their own organizations. Then, under Reagan in the 1980s, a propaganda tsunami washed over society. “Don’t even think about changing conditions. Go for yourself!” was the mantra. This affected all layers. This writer remembers trying to give a socialist newspaper to a young man hanging out at a local community college. “I ain’t interested in that shit,” he said. “I sell drugs. I’m an entrepreneur.”

This propaganda offensive even further isolated socialists from the working class.

Unions
Rank and file attendance at union meetings plummeted. Those who did attend were mainly the bureaucrats and their supporters. Trying to get more independent rank and file members involved was basically swimming against the stream, so most socialists increasingly oriented towards the union bureaucrats and the bureaucracy’s base in the unions.

At the same time, socialists increasingly oriented simply towards each other, meaning, by and large, outside the working class.

Where they were active in a union, most socialists used that activity to get a layer of the union bureaucracy to agree to pass some resolution on issues that did not seriously disrupt the bureaucracy’s chummy relationship with the employers – for example on some foreign policy issue or a paper endorsement of some protest or rally. Then, they used that to increase their prestige among other socialists. That this same union leadership did little or nothing to get the membership involved was ignored. Also ignored was the fact that these same bureaucrats would support the same politicians against whose policies the protests were often aimed.

Worst of all, socialists tended to ignore the leadership’s pro-employer policies in order to get these paper resolutions passed. That was the trade-off.

New Left” and colonial revolution
Something else also was at work: In the 1970s, the “New Left” had arisen. Among other things, it had the idea that it could escape the old debates of the 1930s, the debates that arose as the bureaucracy seized control in the home of the socialist revolution – the Soviet Union. These debates included the question of whether the capitalist class in the former colonial world could play the same role it had in the imperialist world when capitalism was first developing.

Stalin with Churchill and Truman. As much as his having been the “gravedigger of the revolution”, he was also the gravedigger of the ideas of the Russian Revolution.

Stalin advanced the “two stages” theory of revolution in the colonial world. This theory held that the “national” capitalists in that part of the world would lead the struggle for independence and capitalist democracy. Only at a later stage would the issue of capitalism vs. socialism be on the agenda. Only later would the working class play an independent role.

This view contradicted what had actually happened in the Russian Revolution, as Trotsky pointed out. The capitalist class in the colonial and ex-colonial world was tied by a thousand threads to both the imperialists and to the old landlord class. They would betray the revolution every time. Therefore, it fell to the working class to take an independent role and lead the revolution. But once in power, it could not stop; it would have to combine the revolution against imperialism and against landlordism with the socialist revolution. This was exactly what had happened in the Russian Revolution of 1917. (See this article.) This was Trotsky’s theory of permanent (or uninterrupted) revolution. The practical consequence of this theory was that the working class had to play the leading role, independent of any wing of the capitalist class.

From Zimbabwe and South Africa to Nicaragua to Syria to India and Pakistan, this issue is directly relevant to the situation in the former colonial world today.

By being largely unwilling to look at such debates, the New Left ended up more or less accepting the ideas of the victors in practice – the Soviet bureaucracy. This included acceptance in practice of the “stages” theory. As time passed, even those who formally opposed this view – the self-proclaimed Trotskyists – put their differences over these issues in their back pocket. They tended to ignore the issue. And where they took the issues up, they raised them as some dry debate dusted off from the back rooms of a history that was irrelevant to the present day battles.

For example, in the 1980s, many socialists took up international issues like the guerrilla wars in Central America and the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. What they largely failed to do, though, was to try to relate these struggles to the issues that US workers were dealing with. These struggles were largely seen as a moral matter – for “justice” or “independence” for example. Again, the debates about the “stages” theory vs. the theory of permanent revolution was not raised as being relevant to these struggles.

Class issue
If socialists didn’t relate it to the class struggle here in the US, they also didn’t relate it to the class struggle in those particular countries. For example, the issue of the racist apartheid system in South Africa was almost never raised in the context of questioning South African capitalism itself, just as it was largely left out of the debate within the African National Congress (ANC). The reason was that the South African Communist Party, which had a powerful influence in the ANC, was wedded to the idea of the “stages” theory – that the struggle must be confined to the stage of ending apartheid.

Relevant today
For the working class masses in the underdeveloped world, this was and remains a matter of life and death. In South Africa today, for example, the top 1% today own 70.9% of the wealth while the bottom 60% own a mere 7%. This makes it the most unequal country in the world. As for the ANC government, its slaughter of

Striking miners killed in cold blood at Marikana

the striking miners in Marikana in 2012 has been widely compared with the apartheid regime’s Sharpeville massacre of 1960. Nor is the ANC is an exception: In neighboring Zimbabwe, the former freedom fighter Mobutu was transformed into a repressive, corrupt autocrat, and his capitalist regime proved itself incapable of the most elementary tasks of capitalism, including the redistribution of the land.

Did it matter?
In the bigger scheme of things, it might seem that these failings of the socialist left hardly matter. After all, it was largely isolated and with almost no influence among workers or in US politics as a whole. But it did matter. It mattered because a method had been established. That method included:

  • Largely failing to relate the struggles outside the US to the class struggle here at home; and
  • Largely trying to escape the old debates that had wracked the socialist movement of a past era.

Where “theory” was taken up, it was largely done in abstract terms. It was almost a moral question. In fact, theory is simply compressed history, so a knowledge of the actual history is essential. As a result, when theory becomes abstract or unimportant, so do facts and history. It’s just a matter of superficial impressions or academic musings. Serious investigation is unnecessary.

And whereas yesterday socialism was largely either reviled or ignored, today a near majority of young adults favor “socialism” and it is being openly discussed in even the mass media. And now, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) is growing by leaps and bounds – up to a claimed 40,000+ members. This is why a serious attitude towards facts, history and ideas is necessary.

Revolution and counter-revolution in Syria today
Take the issue of international working class solidarity: Today, with attacks on economic and political refugees going on throughout the world – from Greece and Italy to the US to Nicaragua and Brazil – such solidarity is more important than ever. And since Syrian refugees have borne the brunt of these attacks more than any others, it’s also necessary to understand what’s happening inside Syria. Yet what is the attitude of many socialists?

The Putin/Assad attack on the Syrian people. Some “socialists” support this counter revolution.

Rather than seeing that what’s happened in Syria is a counter-revolution, all too many socialists combine the failure to see the role and the experiences of the working class of Syria and a failure to simply investigate the facts. Instead, they hold the simplistic view that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”. They either overtly or covertly support the counter revolution orchestrated by Assad, Putin and Rouhani. If they’d bother to actually investigate, they’d have discovered that, in actuality, US imperialism has been supporting Assad for years now! (See, for example, mkaradjis@wordpress.com) But actually investigating the facts isn’t necessary for them. Who needs facts when we have our world view, is their attitude.

Crisis of US capitalism and Trump
Domestically, they tend to take the same approach when it comes to the crisis of US capitalism in terms of its mainstream having lost control over its presidency. This loss of control is reflected in the unrelenting attacks on Trump in the capitalist media. “Treason” says John Brennan, former CIA director of Trump. “Enemy of the people,” says long time top Republican strategist Max Boot of Trump. On and on it goes in unprecedented attacks not from the left, but from the capitalist mainstream.

And what is the response from socialists?

“We don’t doubt that (Trump and Putin) may have collaborated,” comments one such socialist. “We just don’t care”. “All our elections are hacked by our enemies. Nothing different happened,” commented another. “What does it matter if America lost control of it’s president,” asked another. “You’re suggesting that collusion amongst oligarchs is going to lead to anything different than we’ve had for 200 years?” asks still another.

It’s hard to know even where to begin with such an attitude. On the one side, it shows the same mistaken approach as the “New Left” of the 1970s. How do revolutions develop if not often from a crisis at the top? But also, how do counter-revolutions develop? What was the forewarning of the counter revolutions like that in Chile in 1973 that led Pinochet to power or that in Iran in 1979 that led the mullahs to power?

One-man rule in US?
Is it irrelevant to what is happening in the US? What do we make of the opinion piece in the New York Times of July 18, 2018, that said we are about to see “martial law” here? Where, after all, is Trump headed but towards one-man rule? No, it’s not already determined. Not by far, but don’t these outlines have to be understood?

Not according to some socialists. “I think maybe instead of being concerned for the fate of bourgeois democracy you should be looking at ways to use this crisis to catapult the working class into power,” wrote one would-be revolutionary. As if the grounds on which we tread – the actual conditions in which we live and organize – don’t matter!

Support Syrian counter-revolution?
This is the same method which is used for overt or covert support for the counter revolution in Syria, starting with the refusal to investigate simple fact. Because the former and the present US presidents have criticized Assad, it is accepted without question that what’s happening there is an attempt at US-inspired “regime change”. In actual fact, US imperialism has been supporting Assad for years. (See this article and this web site.) Those who adopt that position also in effect operate on the principle that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Therefore, they think, we should support Russian imperialism in its rivalry with US imperialism. But in the context of the Syrian revolution, this amounts to reversion to the old Stalinist view that the working class in countries like Syria are not the subjects of history; instead they are just pawns in the game of geopolitics, according to this view.

Unions: Support rank-and-file vs. bureaucracy
Socialists should also take a more in-depth look at what has happened in the unions here. For one thing, we should look at what’s happened with the only mass organizations that US workers have built – the unions. We of course totally oppose the attacks of big business on the unions. This includes the recent Supreme Court decision that public sector workers cannot vote to require all workers in a work place to either join the union or pay the amount equal to union dues. But this kind of union busting can’t be fought successfully just in the courts. It can only be stopped by a mass movement from below. And such a mass movement can’t be built until the rank and file members in their millions see their unions really fighting for them. This means a break with the employer-friendly policies of the union leadership. It means that the struggle to transform the unions is part and parcel of the fight to defend the unions.

Need for mass working class party
We also need to take a more in-depth look at the history of the relationship between the workers’ movement and the Democratic Party. Most socialists today agree that workers need their own party, a mass working class party. For many, many years, a layer of the union bureaucracy “agreed” with this in the abstract. Meanwhile, they did everything they could to maintain the unions’ ties with the big business Democrats. Never once did they move to build a real alternative, one that ran its own candidates, while they also supported the liberal “progressive” Democrats.

How could they, after all?

How can you explain that this wing of the Democratic Party is the bait for the trap, that it never will control the party as a whole (except maybe in a crisis, when workers are starting to build their own party) and that workers need their own party… while you are supporting this exact wing? The fact that the two have never been done before is evidence that it cannot be done.

We understand that there are many who don’t agree. Fine. That’s something that needs to be resolved through an open discussion and even debate. But to ignore this question is a sure road to losing our way in a swamp of confusion.

Racism and sexism
This issue directly impacts the issue of racism and sexism in the United States. These forms of oppression have historically been used not only to increase the rate of exploitation of these sectors of the working class, but also to confuse and divide workers. Today, both are alive and growing. Like with all other issues, socialists should see these forms of oppression (and all other forms of oppression) as a task for the working class to resolve. Special oppression cannot be successfully fought outside the struggle against capitalism, just as the struggle against capitalism cannot be successful outside the struggle against these forms of special oppression.

Environmental crisis
There is one other issue that urgently needs addressing: The environmental crisis, most particularly global climate disruption/global warming. All predictions of the speed at which this will happen have proven to underestimate the emergency. For example, the Arctic ice caps are melting far faster than any scientists had predicted. In the face of this climate emergency, the proposals of even the most left of the Democrats – Bernie Sanders – are totally inadequate. The profit-driven capitalist “free” market can no more be regulated to stop and reverse global warming than can a wolf be convinced to become a vegetarian. It is simply not in its nature.

These are just a few of the issues that need serious, in-depth discussion. To summarize, they include:

  • What happened to the socialist movement with the rise of Stalinism?
  • How do the debates around “socialism in one country” and the “stages” theory of revolution vs. the theory of permanent or uninterrupted revolution in the underdeveloped world affect our understanding of events in that part of the world today?
  • Related to that, what is the role of the capitalist class and the working class in those revolutions?
  • What has been the historic approach of socialists regarding the Democratic Party?
  • What is the real situation inside the unions today and why do so many millions of rank and file union members feel so alienated from their own unions?
  • Can solutions to any of the issues we face be found inside the profit-driven “free” market?

A serious look at history and the facts needs to be revived.

Protester in Ferguson, August, 2014

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