What Strategy for the US Left?

The capitalist state’s dependence on profitability and its institutional structure make the strategy of successive, partial breaks through “non-reformist reforms” unrealistic.

Protest against Donald Trump in Chicago, November 9, 2016. Albertoaldana / Wikimedia

The US socialist left is experiencing a revival. The exponential growth of the Democratic Socialists of America has created the potential for socialism to become a significant current here for the first time in over forty years. Not surprisingly, this renewal has again put organizational, strategic, and programmatic questions back on the agenda. Vivek Chibber’s “Our Road to Power” is a serious contribution to these discussions.

What Kind of Organization?

Chibber’s call for a “cadre party” rooted in the working class is most welcome. If we are to transform society in a radical, anticapitalist manner we need an organization of organizers and activists that democratically decides and collectively carries out political activity. Such an organization must be rooted in an increasingly diverse working class. It is only this class that has the power to disrupt the production of goods and services and carry out a break with capitalism.

It must also be democratic, an organization where, as Chibber states, “criticizing the leadership is taken a right, basic part of what it means to be a member,” and where “the leadership are committed to these values.” Only a democratic cadre party rooted among working people can effectively provide direction to the episodic upsurges of struggles from below that challenge capital.

Chibber’s call to critically examine the history of socialist organization in the twentieth century is also welcome. On the one hand, the Communist Parties, while highly effective at mobilizing their militants in workplaces and social movements, were profoundly undemocratic. The lack of democracy facilitated these parties’ subordination to the politics of the ruling bureaucracies of “actually existing socialism,” undermining the ability of its members to make it into an effective instrument for anticapitalist struggle.

But the ostensibly democratic structures of the mass social-democratic parties were no alternative. The vast majority of the membership of these parties and their affiliated unions were passive dues-payers, not activists. They were effectively instruments of the parliamentary politicians and union officials who led them. The overriding interest of these social layers is in the preservation of their own distinctive lifestyles (closer to those of self-directed professionals than highly supervised wage workers). This requires them prioritizing the institutional survival of the parties and unions they lead at any cost — including the interests of the workers they represent.

Put simply, the party and union officialdom will attempt to avoid the disruptive and often illegal action that is necessary to win reforms, build radical consciousness, and eventually pose a challenge to the rule of capital. In most cases, the social-democratic leadership — including those who have proclaimed a commitment to radical reforms — have derailed episodic mass struggles of working people. This requires, in practice, an internal organization that is as undemocratic as those of the Communist Parties in order to prevent militants from hijacking the parties and unions and leading them into a potentially disastrous confrontation with capital.

Strategy and Program

The heart of Chibber’s vision is his strategy for an anticapitalist transition. Chibber attempts to find an alternative to what he argues are the failed strategic models of the twentieth-century socialist left. His main target is what he calls the “ruptural” strategy associated with the early Communist International and the revolutionary left. The notion that there will be a revolutionary crisis leading to a frontal assault on the existing capitalist state and its replacement with an alternative form of working-class power, he asserts, is simply unrealistic. Since the Second World War, the capitalist state in the Global North has exhibited enduring stability, legitimacy, and institutional strength.

Chibber also wants to avoid replicating the dilemmas of social democracy in the late twentieth century. By the 1950s, most of these parties explicitly renounced the goal of transcending capitalism. Instead, social democracy sought to regulate the system. Independent working-class struggles and postwar prosperity allowed social democracy to take credit for the massive expansion of social welfare and regulation of the labor market. However, the construction of top-down run trade unions and winning elections were incapable of sustaining the welfare state as capitalism suffered one of its periodic crises of profitability in the late 1960s and 1970s, and working-class struggles declined in the 1980s.

By the mid-1980s, the social-democratic parties had become advocates of “reformism without reform” — implementing austerity and a neoliberal deregulation of capitalism.

Chibber’s alternative strategy envisions a socialist movement capable of struggle both inside and outside the existing capitalist state. Mass mobilizations, centered in the workplace, will be crucial to creating the social power that can compel the state to grant substantial reforms. At the same time, the Left will need to “gain power within” the existing state in order to implement “non-reformist” reforms that will effect multiple breaks in the logic and power of capital.

In the immediate future, the main task of the Left will be to reestablish the gains associated with postwar social democracy: extensive social-welfare provisioning, labor market regulation, national collective bargaining, and the like. The ultimate goal will not, according to Chibber, be the abolition of commodity production — a democratically planned economy. The experience of the bureaucratic societies has demonstrated that goal is utopian. Instead, socialists should advocate some form of “market socialism” whereby market mechanisms will be combined with democratic planning to insure political pluralism, efficient use of resources, and “putting people before profits.”

Chibber’s vision is provocative, attempting to grapple with the failures and defeats of the socialist left in the long twentieth century. However, this strategic vision will likely, despite his desires, reproduce many of the dilemmas of the last century’s left — a strategy that will neither lead to a break with capitalism, nor be able to win and defend pro-working-class reforms within capitalism. While I will not address his call for “market socialism,” in this essay, his vision of a postcapitalist future is also flawed.

The Realities of the Capitalist State

Chibber’s strategy of “gaining power within” the existing state and initiating a series of partial breaks in the logic of capitalism is fundamentally unrealistic. The strategy does not grasp how the “rules of reproduction” of capitalism and the place of the state in capitalism create profound structural limitations on what any party — no matter how programmatically radical — can accomplish through the existing state.

Capitalist growth is driven by competition and profitability. Competition forces every capitalist, on pain of bankruptcy, to specialize output, introduce labor-saving technology, and accumulate surpluses. Competition ensures that capitalists put profits before any and all considerations when making production decisions. If profits are high, capitalist will invest, expand output, and hire workers; when profits are low, capitalists will not invest, output will stagnate or fall, and unemployment and poverty will rise.

Capitalism is also inherently unstable — the same mechanisms that propel periods of high profits and growth inevitably lead to falling profits and stagnation. For capitalists, especially during periods of economic crisis, anything that raises the costs of production — higher wages, shorter hours, restrictions on their ability to reorganize work, obstacles to easily hiring and firing workers, social benefits like health care, housing, and parental leave — lower profits and will be fought tooth and nail.

The capitalist state depends on profitability for both its tax base and its political legitimacy. Without rising profits and “economic growth,” tax revenues will fall and wide segments of the population, suffering from rising unemployment and falling living standards, will question the legitimacy of leading state personnel. This places profound limits on the ability of state personnel, whatever their political and ideological commitments, to implement pro-working-class reforms, especially in a period of stagnant or falling profitability and labor quiescence.

Even the most radical government officials committed to “non-reformist reforms” will face the reality that as long as capitalism exists, any and all improvements for workers depend on the ability of the state to collect taxes. In other words, the ability of socialist governments to deliver higher wages, more social spending, and effective regulation of labor and capital markets requires tax revenues — which are dependent on profitability. The failure of left governments, from Swedish social democracy’s Meidner Plan proposals in the 1970s, through Mitterrand’s socialist government in France in 1981-1983 to Syriza in Greece in 2016, is not the result of a failure of will or tactics, but of a strategy that is not committed to a radical rupture with the logic of capital.

The capitalist state is also a bureaucratic institution, structurally separated from the private sphere of exploitation and accumulation, appearing as an impersonal “public power.” While most contemporary capitalist states are parliamentary democracies, real political power resides in the unelected permanent officialdom — the civil service / executive agencies, judiciary and, ultimately, the military. These institutions, popularly referred to the “deep state,” have historically been the center of resistance to attempts by the socialist left to “use” elected positions within the capitalist state to implement meaningful reforms, much less to break with the logic of capital.

The twin realities of the capitalist state’s dependence on profitability and its bureaucratic institutional structure make the strategy of successive, partial breaks through “non-reformist reforms” unrealistic. This strategy tends to underestimate what Ralph Miliband (one of the leading advocates of this strategy) called “the struggle waged by the dominant class, and the state acting on its behalf, against the workers and subordinate classes.” Each attempt to impose reforms that undermine the power of capital, and with it profitability, will be met by sustained capitalist resistance. Only a decisive rupture in the institutional structure of the state — the dismantling of the old state and the construction of a working-class counterpower — can allow working people to win significant reforms and begin the construction of socialism.

Any decisive break with the logic of capitalism requires the “expropriation of the expropriators.” No matter what the possible balance between planning and markets in a socialist society, private ownership of the means of production must be abolished — and this requires democratic, working-class political power. Whatever the process that builds working-class capacity to the point where taking power is possible, the expropriation of capital will certainly be a political rupture of historic proportions. This cannot be achieved piecemeal — the need to take political power and rapidly consolidate democratic, working-class power flows from the need to expropriate the expropriators and break the logic of capital.

Evoking mass mobilizations outside of the existing state as a compliment to gaining power within the state will not resolve this dilemma. As we will see, even in the struggle for reforms, the logics of building mass movements and winning office through elections are often in conflict. The logic of building mass struggles and new organizations of working-class power (councils in workplaces and communities) and that of administering the capitalist state are even more incongruous.

Ultimately, socialists will have to choose between one or the other as the dominant method of struggle when faced with capitalist resistance to any left government. Put simply, these governments will have to choose between “playing by the rules” of the capitalist state (respecting “constitutional legality,” etc.) or mobilizing working people and building a counterpower to the existing state.

Finally, Chibber argues that the capitalist state today not only has reservoirs of political legitimacy, but has become more institutionally powerful and coherent since the crisis of the 1930s. This fact alone would make a “ruptural” strategy illusory. However, if the state has become so powerful and stable, a strategy of “multiple ruptures” is also rendered utopian. How would an organized socialist left gain power within such a state and turn it against the logic of capital, even in a piecemeal fashion?

The Struggle for Reforms Today

Chibber is, of course, correct that a revolutionary crisis of the sort described above has not occurred in the Global North since at least the Portuguese Revolution of 1974-75. Today — and probably up to any revolutionary situation — the main struggle will be for the immediate demands of working people, for reforms. As Robert Brenner argued, “both Revolutionaries and Reformists try to win reforms. In fact, as socialists, we see the fight for reforms as our main business.” However, the division between revolutionaries — consistent advocates of a “ruptural” strategy — and reformists are about how to struggle for reforms. The same structural constraints — capitalist “rules of reproduction,” crises of profitability, and the place and structure of the state under capitalism — make the reformist strategy of winning reforms through electoral politics and legalized collective bargaining unrealistic.

Chibber’s strategy for struggle today calls for the socialist left to combine building powerful social movements with winning power in the state through elections. Unfortunately, the logics of movement building and electoral and legislative politics are often in contradiction to one another. On the one hand, election campaigns whose primary goal is winning office prioritize getting 50 percent plus one votes on the lowest possible political basis. Legislative politics involves coalition building that leads to continual concessions on policy. Neither requires the mass of voters to be active participants in democratically setting program or strategy, and generally discourages confrontation and political radicalism.

By contrast, disruptive social movements — in particular those rooted in the workplace — require building solidarity across the racial and gender divisions capitalism constantly creates and recreates, and taking risks in confronting capital and the state to win the movement’s demands. This requires active participation in a democratic process of crafting demands and deciding tactics. Successful movements always involve rising levels of confrontation with the established political and economic order, and tend to radicalize many of their participants.

Clearly, those committed to the primary task of building mass, disruptive movements have and should engage in electoral politics. However, the goals and forms of this sort of electoral activity are qualitatively different from most election campaigns. As Chris Maisano and Jessie Mannisto recently argued, a socialist electoral strategy must be primarily oppositional rather than ameliorative. Our primary goal should not be winning office, but building our movements — giving them broader resonance, linking them together, and pointing to an alternative to capitalist “politics as usual.”

In fact, successful “oppositional” election campaigns that build, strengthen, and unify social movements and workplace struggles are much more likely to win reforms than an “ameliorative” strategy that seeks to simply win positions in the state. Such election campaigns cannot be pursued through the Democratic Party and will require an independent party based in the labor and social movements whose elected representatives are subject to the collective decision-making of party activists.

The relationship of the US labor movement to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) provides us with an example of how non-electoral attempts to use the existing state institutions to promote pro-worker reforms in a non-revolutionary period lead to a dead ends. Since 1937, the biggest unions in the US have relied on the NLRB to regulate relations with employers — organizing elections for union recognition and compelling employers to bargain in good faith.

This reliance makes perfect sense for the full-time officials of the unions — the NLRB guarantees the institutional stability of the union: its ability to collect dues and maintain a substantial paid staff. However, reliance on the NLRB has undermined the ability of unions to act as fighting organizations of rank-and-file workers. As Joe Burns points out in Reviving the Strike, the NLRB framework has progressively weakened workplace organization and militancy through the ban on strikes during the life of a contract; prohibited solidarity strikes and secondary boycotts; and fragmented industrial unions through the establishment of multiple bargaining units within a single industry or firm.

Since the 1950s, the NLRB has been an obstacle to new union organization, as employers are given more and more power to block labor’s efforts to win representational elections.

Again, I agree with Chibber that a rupture with capitalism is not on the immediate agenda. While the current economic crisis is rooted in the “rules of reproduction” of capitalism, the movements that have arisen in the past decades have challenged the legitimacy of neoliberal policies, not capitalism itself. Clearly, the struggle to restore and expand social-democratic policies — universal welfare provisioning, labor market regulation, etc. — will be the main battles today.

However, we should never forget that the establishment of the welfare state was capital’s response to tumultuous, often near-revolutionary, working-class struggles in the immediate postwar period (Greece, Italy, France); and to the renewed working-class and social militancy of the “long 1960s.” Even more limited reforms that actually improve the lives of working people — a substantial tax reform that allows for a single-payer health care system — will require massive, disruptive movements. Unfortunately, a strategy that gives equal weight to the contradictory tactics of “winning power within” the capitalist state and building mass, disruptive movements, will not build the social power we need, in the workplaces and our communities, to even win reforms.

Some social-democratic policies brought real benefits to those workers (citizens of the nation-state) who were covered by “universal” entitlements (health care, pensions, housing, education) and regulation (protection against arbitrary firings, etc.). However, many of the more “radical” social-democratic plans for breaking with capitalism, like the Meidner Plan, tied labor movements to the competitiveness of capitals located in their nation-states.

Building a Base

Chibber correctly argues that the socialist left must reestablish the organic connection it had before the 1940s with the working class. His analysis of the impact on the Left of a predominantly middle-class constituency and its reliance on a nonprofit model of organizing are spot on. However, Chibber does not address what socialists should be doing in the workplace and labor movement.

Should we become union staffers and supporters of “progressive” labor officials — the ones who support single-payer health care and other social-democratic demands? Or should we be encouraging socialists looking for jobs to become rank-and-file organizers in both organized and unorganized workplaces — with all the difficult issues this raises about our relationship to the union bureaucracy and state agencies like the NLRB? How do we balance organizing around universal demands (higher wages, universal health care, etc.) and demands that address the racial and gender divisions (affirmative action, workplace-industry-wide seniority, childcare, paid parental leave) capitalism creates within the working class? These are the real issues any socialist involved in the labor movement and workplace organization will face.

Chibber’s essay, for all of our disagreements, is a welcome opening of the strategic discussions the new socialist left needs today. We share his goal of a socialist party made up of activists and organizers rooted in the increasingly racially and gender-diverse workplaces. However, the ability of such a party to help generalize and radicalize the necessarily periodic upsurges — mass demonstrations, occupations and strikes — will require clarity on the dynamics of capitalist accumulation and the structure of the capitalist state.