A Left That Matters

Our still small but growing socialist movement now has a chance to make a real impact.

The 2019 National Convention of the Democratic Socialists of America. (Steve Eberhardt)

In 2015, Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) held its biennial national convention at a small Christian retreat center in Western Pennsylvania. The organization’s entire activist core was there, but the total attendance, including staff, official delegates, and observers, couldn’t have been more than two hundred. The most controversial topics were a floor vote on DSA’s affiliation with the Socialist International and reports that someone at the convention was pestering the center’s nuns about atheism. Media coverage was nearly nonexistent.

Five years later, DSA and the broader left have grown into a meaningful presence in American political life. Politicians who call themselves democratic socialists command international media attention. Socialists have been elected to hundreds of offices around the country, and the organization is nearly a hundred thousand strong. For better or worse, you can now watch live coverage of DSA’s national conventions on C-SPAN.

With Joe Biden likely to preside over a weak and ineffective administration, our still small but growing socialist movement has a chance to make a real impact. But what have we learned from our brief period on the national stage to help inform our organizing in this new environment?

Elections Matter

Class formation — the process of creating a collective identity among a mass of individual people — is the bedrock of any effective socialist movement. All socialists, regardless of their ideological background, agree on the pressing need for class formation in the United States. The question is how best to go about facilitating that process. Recent experience leads to the conclusion that large-scale class formation will, for the foreseeable future, run largely (though not exclusively) through electoral politics.

Election campaigns — and presidential elections above all — are the form of political activity that ordinary Americans engage with most. This has long been the case in advanced capitalist countries with representative government and universal suffrage. But the salience of electoral politics in democratic socialist strategy has only increased as the size and strength of mass-membership organizations in general, and unions in particular, have declined, and as the obstacles to work-place organizing have increased since the 1980s.

The decline of organized labor, coupled with the widespread disintegration of working-class community life, means that only a relatively small minority of workers are currently situated to take part in effective forms of collective action on the job or in their communities. There are, consequently, few channels outside of election campaigns to engage and politicize a mass audience on a regular basis, and the ones that are potentially available are typically defensive in nature and limited to radical expressions of interest-group pressure politics. In this context, electoral activity and public policy must play an important role in reconstituting the working class as a political subject, and in creating a more favorable environment for workers to participate in class struggle outside the electoral arena.

Of course, this does not negate the necessity for socialists to continue working to transform the existing labor movement today. As the 2018 teachers’ strikes demonstrated, significant steps toward class formation can be taken even today through non-electoral means. Labor and electoral organizing can and should be mutually reinforcing, as evidenced in formations like Union Members for Bernie and Educators for Jabari, a rank-and-file group that worked to elect their fellow teacher and DSA member Jabari Brisport to the New York State Senate. But rank-and-file labor efforts, for the time being at least, generally impact a smaller number of workers and will ultimately flourish in conjunction with continued class formation at the level of electoral politics.

The debate over whether such electoral action should be waged on Democratic Party ballot lines is perhaps the most persistent controversy on the US left. I, like most Jacobin writers, was more sympathetic to arguments against tactical use of the Democratic line before the catalytic effects of the Bernie Sanders campaign became clear. But the political developments of the last few years have effectively settled the Democratic Party question, at least for now. Whether we like it or not, working-class organizers will continue to use major party primaries so long as they exist and bear fruit.

Though the Democratic Party establishment proved to be cohesive enough on a national level to defeat Sanders’s 2020 primary campaign, traditional party organizations at the state and local levels are, to a significant extent, moribund and hollowed out. In many cases, they cannot effectively defend themselves and their incumbents, and they can’t depose insurgents after they win office through election on the Democratic Party’s ballot line.

Any viable path to a transformation of the party system and the new party of the working class will run through conflict in the Democratic Party. Contemporary American politics is nationalized and polarized, which means that the political-ideological space for state- and local-level independent parties has, with the partial exception of localities with nonpartisan elections, been closed off.

Revolution After the Age of Revolutions

At this point, it should be clear that the only feasible political-strategic orientation for US socialists is what Ralph Miliband called Marxist or left reformism. While the DSA has soared, political currents that flow from the Leninist and Trotskyist traditions are exhausted. They cannot break out of their debilitating marginality because their strategic orientation is fundamentally incompatible with the political and social conditions of advanced, welfare-state capitalism and bourgeois democracy. In the US context, they are further constrained by an aversion to electoral action, as well as a dogmatic sectarianism regarding the Democratic Party.

To its credit, the emergent “base building” tendency on the US left seeks to avoid many of the problems and limitations of the older Leninist left. Individuals and organizations associated with this tendency are also involved in useful attempts at organizing workers and tenants around the country. But in all likelihood, it, too, will remain marginal because of its de facto anti-electoralism, its insistence on “dual power” strategies, and its inclination toward catastrophism.

Base builders do not reject the need for a political party or electoral action, but they tend to postpone active contestation of elections to the indefinite future, until the time when the unorganized, in their millions, have been organized. The problem with this formulation is that, in the absence of electoral action, such a time may well never come. Posing an abstract sequence that these forms of activity should follow — build the base first, then enter the electoral arena — overlooks the crucial role that electoral politics and state policy play in the process of class formation, particularly in the current period.

In the end, the base builders will likely find themselves trapped in what the Welsh Marxist Raymond Williams called “militant particularism”: a localized and narrow pattern of action that, whatever the tactical or rhetorical radicalism of its practitioners, cannot be generalized into a broader political movement. In that sense, it faces the same limits as most nonideological expressions of trade unionism and community organizing.

Even if we witness state breakdown or systemic collapse in the coming years, an eventuality many base builders take as given, it’s likely they won’t be able to take advantage of the situation because their strategy will keep them too small and isolated beforehand. Why should the desperate masses turn to organizations they’ve never heard of for salvation?

The failure of revolutionary socialism to grow even in the midst of major capitalist crises underscores its lapse into futility. But just because “Marxist reformism” is the only road available to us doesn’t mean it won’t be filled with potholes, switchbacks, and other drivers trying to run us off a cliff.

It has become commonplace to characterize the incoming Joe Biden administration as the third term of the Barack Obama presidency. While establishment Democrats would love to just get the band back together to play the old hits, too much has changed since 2016 to allow for a simple restoration of the status quo ante.

Four years of Donald Trump further radicalized the Right, and now, for the first time in decades, the United States has a Left that matters. We have the opportunity and responsibility to help shape the contours of the post-pandemic world. But we will not succeed unless we learn lessons from the last half-decade and act accordingly.