It’s never easy being a socialist. But the Left has lost some particularly gut-wrenching battles recently. Though Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders succeeded in raising political expectations and reviving a socialist left, in their respective countries and beyond, their losses have left activists shell-shocked and searching for answers.
For those trying to understand how we got here, and where we need to go, The Socialist Challenge Today (Haymarket 2020) is an essential starting point. Rejecting false optimism of any kind, the book is helpful precisely because it explains why it’s so hard to be a socialist. By soberly identifying the obstacles to anti-capitalist transformation, it provides socialists a strategic road map to victory.
The Left’s Rise, Decline, and Rebirth
The book begins with a whirlwind history of the socialist movement. Our current crisis, the authors argue, reflects the limitations of the twentieth century’s two principal Left strategies: social democracy and Leninism.
Leninism had many commendable qualities, including (at its best) a focus on organized struggle against the capitalist class, a commitment to building working-class unity across national borders, and “a recognition that socialist economic planning requires taking capital away from capital.” Much of this was outweighed, however, by the horrors of Stalinism and a tendency to overgeneralize socialist strategy from the specifics of the Russian experience. Democratic socialism today should therefore “encompass all that was positive about the communist vision,” while rejecting its anti-democratic practices as well as the unjustified belief that an insurrection to “smash the state” is feasible in advanced capitalist democracies.
But with the legacy of 1917 on its last legs, the “central challenge” for socialists today is how to avoid a different pitfall that leftists have also fallen into over the last century: “social democratization.”
From the early twentieth century onwards, the labor movement’s successful fight for the vote and other democratic rights produced a paradoxical tendency for mass workers’ organizations — and particularly their leaderships — to become incorporated into the capitalist status quo. This became clear in 1914, when socialist leaders throughout Europe lined up behind their countries’ rulers when world war was declared.
Over the following decades, collaboration with the powers-that-be continued to crowd out class struggle. Inside trade unions and socialist parties across the world, efforts to build up the capacities of rank-and-file workers and organize the broader working class fell by the wayside.
Faced with the impasse of social democracy and communism, political currents emerged in the 1970s that sought to find a new way, one that avoided the weaknesses of both. For these leftists within social-democratic parties, and thinkers such as André Gorz, Tony Benn, Ralph Miliband, and Nicolas Poulantzas, it was necessary and possible to fight against capitalists not only in the streets and workplaces, but also within the state.
Unfortunately, these democratic-socialist challengers did not sufficiently overcome prevailing leaders and traditions in time to effectively confront the international neoliberal offensive begun in the 1980s. The results are well known: unions were busted, the welfare state was rolled back, work became more precarious, and working-class communities became more atomized and demoralized.
Over the past four decades of retreat, social movements have periodically erupted against war, racial and gender oppression, globalization, and environmental degradation. Yet without the power of strong unions or the cohering force of socialist parties, most of these protests have come and gone without either winning their demands or significantly changing the balance of forces between us and the billionaires.
Adapting itself to this movement cycle, much of a marginalized and anarchist-tinged left dropped electoral politics all together. The new mantra — with the exception of the Pink Tide progressive governments in Latin America — was “change the world without taking power.” Ignoring the capitalist state, unfortunately, proved to be an ineffective way to overcome it. With this kind of “movementism” at an impasse, the stage was set for a new approach.
The Greek Tragedy
Following the Great Recession and the subsequent worldwide eruption of anti-austerity street protests, occupations, and upheavals in 2011, radicals finally began to turn “from protest to politics.” The Socialist Challenge Today argues that left politics since 2014 has been defined by the shift in “opposition to capitalist globalization” from “the streets to the state.” Over this remarkably short period, the Left has broken out of decades of social marginalization and in-the-streets-only politics, to become a serious contender for governmental power.
Class politics has returned to the political mainstream — a major historic development likely to pay dividends in the years and decades to come. But as British union leader Andrew Murray notes, “this new politics is generally more class-focused than class-rooted,” since it has not emerged “from the organic institutions of the class-in-itself.” In other words, although today’s Left seeks to polarize workers against capitalists, it still lacks deep links to working-class organizations and community networks.
Building such roots has been particularly difficult because of organized labor’s retreat over the past decades. With union density and strike rates at historic lows in the anglophone world, the democratic-socialist insurgency has been forced to fight the billionaires with one hand tied behind its back.
Faced with this contradictory context, The Socialist Challenge Today focuses on the strengths and limitations of three case studies: Syriza in Greece, Corbyn in the United Kingdom, and Sanders in the United States. The authors’ central thesis is simple: reversing neoliberalism and moving towards socialism requires expanding and transforming working-class organization as well as democratizing the state by encouraging meaningful popular involvement. Without these changes, we can’t win.
The experience of Greece is case in point. A wave of explosive strikes, occupations, and protests from 2010 onwards set the stage for Syriza’s victory at the polls. Elected in January 2015 with a popular mandate to stop the devastating austerity imposed by the Troika (the European Central Bank, the European Commission, and International Monetary Fund), the party dramatically raised the expectations of Greek workers and the international left. Yet by July of that year, Syriza’s top leaders were signing a “third memorandum” entrenching the very same policies that they had been elected to reverse.
Panitch, Gindin, and Maher argue that framing this simply as a capitulation and betrayal by Alexis Tsipras leadership misses the defeat’s deeper political roots. Nor was the problem only that Syriza leaders failed to seriously consider a “Plan B” in which they would reject all austerity measures, leave the eurozone, and adopt an alternate currency. Well before coming to power, the leadership had in practice abandoned its formal commitment to building up working-class capacities:
Little attention was paid to who would be left in the party to act as an organizing cadre in society. The increase in party membership was not at all proportionate to the extent of the electoral breakthrough. Even when new radical activists did join, the leadership generally did very little to support those in the party apparatus who wanted to develop these activists’ capacities to turn party branches into centers of working-class life and strategically engage with them, preferably in conjunction with the solidarity networks, in planning for alternative forms of production and consumption. All this spoke to how far Syriza still was from having discovered how to escape the limits of social democracy.
Missed opportunities for stimulating and leaning on working-class organizing became particularly acute once Syriza took office. The authors quote Syriza militant Andreas Karitzis, who argued that neither the party’s leadership nor, just as importantly, its radical critics delivered concrete plans to mobilize popular energies for the implementation of progressive policies.
Overcoming anti-democratic institutional obstacles required transforming the state by linking it up with, and bolstering, popular initiatives: “the dozens of committees that had been formed reproduced vague political confrontations instead of outlining specific implementation plans by sector to overcome obstacles and restructure state functions and institutions with a democratic orientation.” Of many such possibilities, the Ministry of Education for instance could have turned schools into “community hubs” to bolster local activist efforts and provide education or technical training for neighbors as well as parents.
With Greece’s mass movements and workers’ organizations relatively demobilized — and with the government isolated internationally due to a significantly weaker relationship of forces abroad — it is not surprising that Tsipras eventually bowed to the Troika. Noting this context does not excuse the Syriza leadership’s decisions. But it does point us toward a relevant strategic lesson. Winning elections is not enough: to implement its agenda, a Left government has to lean on and encourage mass workers’ movements. And it has to fight to democratize the state.
The Corbyn and Sanders Movements
There is only so far that socialists can go without militant labor organizations capable of inspiring millions of workers and building a new political common sense on the ground. As The Socialist Challenge Today illustrates, socialists in the United Kingdom were arguing this well before Corbyn’s 2019 defeat made it abundantly clear.
Though radicals won the top Labour Party leadership in 2015, much of Labour’s parliamentary wing, local officials, and trade union base remained untransformed. In fact, a recently leaked 850-page report documents how right-wing Labour leaders spent much of the last five years actively seeking to undermine Corbyn from within.
An influx of young members, organized principally around Momentum, admirably pushed in new directions. But the task was a formidable one for relatively inexperienced and unrooted activists. As Salford party member Tom Blackburn argued in 2017, the challenge was “to actively cultivate popular support for a radical political alternative, rather than assuming that there is sufficient support already latent, just waiting to be tapped into.” Since the commitment to Corbynism was so uneven by generation and region, it would take a lot of patient organizing work to win over the working-class majority.
Initiatives from below and from the Corbyn leadership above were needed to advance this daunting project, likely resulting in a collision with entrenched party officials and moderate Labour MPs. Highlighting the need for “clarity and honesty about the scale of the task facing Labour’s new left, and the nature of that task as well,” Blackburn called for reestablishing “the Labour Party as a campaigning force in working-class communities, to democratise its policymaking structures, and to bring through the next generation of Labour left cadres, candidates, and activists.”
Of the various overlapping reasons why Corbyn lost in late 2019, the absence of a robust workers’ movement perhaps looms largest. Particularly in the post-industrial regions, decades of defeats and the disappearance of robust Labour Party or union structures left working people too resigned and atomized for Corbyn’s ambitious message to sufficiently resonate. When knocking on voters’ doors, volunteers were met with an understandable skepticism that Labour could deliver on its promises. A few short years of internal and external campaigning had proven insufficient to demonstrate a viable alternative:
Labour’s defeat in 2019 underlined the limits of what could be done without fundamental changes in the party itself, very little of which had been accomplished during the Corbyn years, especially in terms of engaging directly in struggles and activities at the level of the community as well as the workplace, and fostering the social as well as political networks to create links across diverse working class communities and workplaces. Most of the vast increase in membership during the Corbyn years occurred through affiliations at the national level rather than through a local constituency party. And very few of them, including Momentum activists, attended regular local party meetings.
Even had Corbyn won the election, the labor movement’s weakness and the internal opposition of moderate Labour MPs would have remained daunting hurdles to overcome while battling an immensely powerful capitalist class. As the Greek experience demonstrated, one thing worse than losing an election is winning and being pushed to implement the policies of your opponents.
The resurgent democratic-socialist movement in the United States has reflected the same basic strengths and limitations as its counterparts abroad. Bernie Sanders’s runs in 2016 and 2020 have been game-changers for the country’s political culture, marking a dramatic departure from the centrist, pro-corporate liberalism of figures like Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden. Panitch, Gindin, and Maher note that by making “class inequality the central theme of a political campaign in a manner designed to span and penetrate race and gender divisions to the end of building a more coherent class force,” Bernie has performed a inestimable service to a beleaguered American left.
An elderly Vermont Senator has re-legitimized socialism and reintroduced class politics on a mass scale: “Sanders has led the way in creating an opening for the new socialist discourse, as well as in working through his presidential campaign to not just win the election, but also to build a lasting working-class movement.” One notable gain has been the explosive growth of Democratic Socialists of America. New DSAers have taken up the task of fighting to transform organized labor, notably by playing key leadership and support roles in many of the teachers’ strikes since 2018.
To be sure, Bernie’s campaigns have had significant limitations. The authors, for example, point to Bernie’s quixotic effort to “take back” the Democratic Party, which has absorbed energy and resources better used for building up a lasting independent political apparatus. Maintaining our independence from the Democratic establishment, and keeping volunteers organized beyond the electoral cycle, requires strong democratic membership organizations — and eventually a party of our own.
Gone to press in January 2020, The Socialist Challenge Today does not directly analyze the reasons for Bernie’s recent defeat. But its analysis points clearly to the big lesson: absent a revitalized workers’ movement, it was exceedingly difficult for Bernie to win a national election — let alone implement his program if elected. Like in the United Kingdom, too many regions and layers of the working class remain resigned to politics as usual.
Claims that Bernie would have won had he avoided this or that tactical mistake vastly underestimate the strength of our opponents and the need for our side to get much better organized to defeat them. The authors conclude that there is no quick fix for overcoming the sociological unevenness of the current radicalization or for rebuilding a powerful workers’ movement:
Escaping this crisis of the working class is not primarily a matter of better policies or better tactics. It is primarily an organizational challenge to facilitate new processes of class formation rooted in the multiple dimensions of workers’ lives that encompass so many identities and communities.
What could this look like going forward? Imagine transforming our unions so that they can lead strikes across the country, successfully organize millions of Amazon, Walmart, and Whole Foods workers, and anchor battles around racial justice, climate change, and housing rights. A revitalized workers’ movement would be able to actively support, and lean on, hundreds of new elected democratic socialists in local, state, and national offices committed to making tangible improvements in the lives of the working class. Not only would we raise our collective expectations — we would finally have the organizational capacity to start turning our dreams into reality.
The Left is caught in an unfortunate catch-22 right now. Though we’re back in the political mainstream, we aren’t strong enough yet to win national elections in the United States or the United Kingdom. And as the Greek experience demonstrates, even when sufficiently powerful to get elected, we haven’t had the capacity to reverse neoliberalism.
These electoral defeats and dashed hopes, in turn, rebound back upon us by demoralizing volunteers, undercutting our momentum, and hindering the project of building a strong left rooted in a revitalized workers’ movement. There’s a real danger that the limitations of the turn from “protest to politics” will lead activists to give up hope or look for strategic shortcuts.
Fortunately, there’s a way out of this vicious cycle. Adopting the long-view strategy articulated in The Socialist Challenge Today would enable our movement to weather its inevitable ups and downs. Instead of succumbing to despair or throwing the baby out with the bath water after every setback, democratic socialists can continue to build up power by combining class-struggle electoral work — and struggles to democratize the state — with efforts to expand and transform the labor movement. It’s our only viable path to power.
This approach, what the authors call a “long war of position in the twenty-first century,” is a necessary condition for victory — but it’s certainly not sufficient. Reversing neoliberalism and eventually eliminating capitalism requires more than good ideas and willpower. All sorts of factors outside our control include economic crises, spontaneous strike waves, mass upheavals, and inspiring examples from abroad. Making the most of these openings when they arise, however, requires a clear strategic horizon and a sufficiently strong left to shape the course of events.
Being a socialist is not going to stop being hard anytime soon. Our opponents are too powerful for there to be any surefire recipes for short-term success. But victory is possible if we arm ourselves with the lessons of the past — plus a healthy dose of patience and determination.
In the meantime, learn to love the struggle itself. Faced with so much unnecessary suffering and injustice, there’s no more meaningful way to spend your time than organizing for radical social transformation. As a young Karl Marx wrote in 1835,
If we have chosen the position in life in which we can most of all work for mankind, no burdens can bow us down, because they are sacrifices for the benefit of all; then we shall experience no petty, limited, selfish joy, but our happiness will belong to millions, our deeds will live on quietly but perpetually at work, and over our ashes will be shed the hot tears of noble people.