USA: building a mass socialist party – class independence vs. the “party surrogate” strategy

There is a debate in the US left about building a mass workers' party. Some argue for the so-called dirty break, in which left-wingers within the Democrats split off at some point in the future. Others argue that socialist candidates should remain with the Democrats and establish a surrogate "party within a party". Our US comrades argue that the party of Wall Street is a dead end. Only a mass, independent political party of labour presents any road forward for the working class.

“The first great step of importance for every country newly entering into the movement is always the organization of the workers as an independent political party, no matter how, so long as it is a distinct workers’ party.” — Friedrich Engels, 1886

The debate over “the party question” on the US left has been around since the earliest days of the labor movement. Marx and Engels always considered that the vital task of the American working class was the formation of a distinct party of its own, independent and opposed to the parties of the ruling class. It is not by chance that the debate is picking up steam again several generations later. The creation of a mass working-class party remains the most pressing task for American workers—one that will make or break the prospects for winning socialism in our lifetime. The outcome of all other battles ultimately hinges on the ability of the working class to win state and economic power, something unthinkable without a mass, class-independent political party.

Consider how different 2020 would have been if there had been a mass working-class party in existence intervening in events with a program that transcended the bounds of capitalism. The pandemic exposed the capitalists’ willingness to sacrifice human lives at the altar of profits, provoking a strike wave across numerous industries last spring. A mass socialist party could have given a coordinated expression to these struggles and unified them around a program of demands to defeat the virus and save countless lives.

A mass party of, by, and for the working class would have cut across the rise of Trumpism and its distorted class polarization by tapping into the deep discontent in society and channeling it against capitalism.

And during the historic uprising after the murder of George Floyd last summer, a mass party of labor could have mobilized the immense energy of the masses into an all-out general strike. It could have escalated the movement by calling for and organizing workers’ defense committees to guard against police terror in every city, ushering in genuine dual power from coast to coast. Instead, the Democrats cynically co-opted and derailed the movement into safe channels before unceremoniously betraying it and pretending it never happened.

Jacob Blake Protest BLM Image Ken Fager FlickrDuring the historic BLM uprising last summer, a mass party of labor could have mobilized the immense energy of the masses into an all-out general strike / Image: Ken Fager, Flickr

Every major contradiction in US politics today flows from the fact that the working class has no party of its own. The resulting political vacuum has been filled with every kind of confusion and deception—all of it class-collaborationist in nature. Despite unprecedented support in society for the socialist label and an overwhelming rejection of the two ruling parties, this mass sentiment has no clear reference point on the political landscape, especially after Bernie’s total capitulation. For these reasons, the debate over the “party question” is here to stay and will only grow in relevance in the years to come.

The strategy debate in Democratic Socialists of America

Given that American politics is dominated by two major capitalist parties, most of the debate on the left has centered on how socialists should relate to the Democratic Party. Within DSA, the main tendencies have formulated the question roughly on the following lines:

  1. Should the socialist movement use the Democratic Party ballot line to get its candidates elected and then, at an undefined point in the future, split off to create a new party? This is often referred to as the “dirty break” strategy.
  2. Should socialists use the Democratic Party ballot to get candidates elected and simply give up the demand for a separate party altogether? This has been referred to as a “party surrogate” strategy, although some proponents prefer to call it the “dirty stay” to distinguish themselves from those who propose this as a step toward a “dirty break.”
  3. Should the socialist movement immediately sever its ties with the Democratic Party and establish a mass, class-independent party of its own?
  4. Or should socialists disregard the electoral arena altogether and focus instead on “base building”? Although related, this is ultimately a separate debate in the realm of socialist strategy, which we have taken up elsewhere.

In the above context, two articles have recently appeared that link to or refer explicitly to the IMT as the most prominent representatives of the “clean break” strategy. In a recent article in Jacobin, Eric Blanc takes up the prehistory of the British Labour Party in a lengthy attempt to justify the “dirty break” strategy. And in an article in The Organizer, produced by the Collective Power Network Caucus, Brad C. argues that the road to “socialism in our lifetime” lies in firmly embracing the Democratic Party ballot line and giving up the “harmful obsession with an independent workers’ party.”

Unfortunately, both of these articles succeed only in adding confusion to this critical debate. Though the authors draw different conclusions—”we should not hurry to break with the Democrats” vs. “we should not ever break with the Democrats”—they both start by accepting the political framework set by the ruling class. Although both authors refer to working-class interests—and even link to texts by Lenin to back up their arguments—their method and outlook is that of empirical, impressionistic pragmatism. They both cede the battlefield to the class enemy, resting on the political assumptions and traditional parameters of the liberal bourgeoisie.

The history of the British Labour Party is undoubtedly rich in lessons and is a topic for a separate article. Here we will take up some of the arguments raised in The Organizer and contrast their method with the revolutionary outlook of Marxism, which sets out from the standpoint of the working class and its historic tasks. We will see that, at root, the “party question” is a variation on the longstanding socialist debate between reformism and revolution.

DSA marchers banner Image DSAEvery major contradiction in US politics today flows from the fact that the working class has no party of its own. That’s why the DSA debate over the “party question” is here to stay / Image: Democratic Socialists of America

Where to begin our discussion

"Those who recognize only the class struggle are not yet Marxists; they may be found to be still within the bounds of bourgeois thinking and bourgeois politics. To confine Marxism to the theory of the class struggle means curtailing Marxism, distorting it, reducing it to something acceptable to the bourgeoisie. Only he is a Marxist who extends the recognition of the class struggle to the recognition of the dictatorship of the proletariat. That is what constitutes the most profound distinction between the Marxist and the ordinary petty (as well as big) bourgeois. This is the touchstone on which the real understanding and recognition of Marxism should be tested." (Lenin, The State and Revolution).

The question of how socialists should relate to the Democratic Party should not be the starting point of a serious discussion on strategy. We should begin by recognizing the central conflict before us: that the workers and capitalists have diametrically opposed interests and are locked in “an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open, fight” over the surplus wealth produced by the working class. For revolutionary socialists, this conflict will not find resolution until the working class collectively takes the reins of society.

The historical “justification” for the rise of capitalism was that it created the material basis for global abundance by developing the productive forces to a hitherto unimaginable degree. However, its progressive role expired long ago. For over a century, humanity has had the technical capacity to begin building a world free from poverty, hunger, and basic material want. It is now the historic task of the working class to unleash the productive potential developed under capitalism on the basis of a worldwide democratically planned economy. This can only be achieved if the workers win both state and economic power.

The establishment of an independent working-class party is, therefore, not an end goal in itself. Rather, it is a crucial instrument required for the more significant task of creating a workers’ state that can establish public ownership of the banks, monopolies, and key industries, to ensure the rational and democratic production and distribution of the necessaries of life.

For Marxists, this is the strategic objective of the socialist movement. Our role is to help the working class gain conscious recognition of its collective potential to transform society. As it happens, life under capitalism is doing most of this work for us. The 2008 crisis and its aftermath shaped the outlook of an entire generation, which is now experiencing the aftershocks of the various crises characterizing the 2020s. There is more class anger in society today, a more glaring realization that the billionaires are profiting obscenely while millions of workers descend into abject misery, than at any time in living memory.

Dump DNC Bernie or Bust Rally Image Adam FagenThe establishment of an independent working-class party is, therefore, not an end goal in itself / Image: Adam Fagen, Flickr

Socialists should intervene in this process in a way that increases working-class unity, confidence, and consciousness of its own central role—as a class—in solving society’s problems. The socialist movement should be a force that patiently and systematically explains that the crises and social deformations of our time result from the impasse of the capitalist system, and that their solution lies in the building of a mass working-class party and a workers’ government. This is a significantly different message from the one currently transmitted in the electoral campaigns of even the most “progressive” of Democratic candidates, which amounts to: “vote for this candidate, they will pass a reform that will make your life better.” Voilà! No class struggle needed!

The class struggle is not an abstract metaphor

In his article, “Breaking Bad: How Obsession with an Independent Workers’ Party Hurts the Socialist Electoral Project,” Brad C. of the Metro DC DSA argues that “There are no shortcuts to organizing the working class, and a clean or dirty break is nothing but a shortcut.”

We strongly agree with the first part of this sentence—that there are no shortcuts to organizing the working class. We also agree that the “dirty break” strategy belongs in the “shortcut” category. But so too does comrade Brad’s no break strategy, which asserts that getting socialist candidates elected—on any ballot line—represent victories for the working class. This claim is made with no indication as to how these elections relate to the broader class struggle or changes in class consciousness—apparently trivial matters which the Collective Power Network summarily waves aside as “abstract, symbolic goals” and “immaterial phenomenological benchmarks.”

In the course of his article, Brad uses the words “material” or “immaterial” nine times, as if to say: “We’re winning elections, and this vindicates our strategy.” As he writes:

"The socialist electoral project is the most successful it has been in nearly a century because socialists are contesting for power using the Democratic ballot line … When we engage in electoral politics on any level, our goal must be victory. Not symbolic victories, not moral victories, but material victories for the working class. The branding exercise of which ballot line is used to achieve those victories is immaterial. An insistence on a new ballot line is an individual vanity project that accomplishes nothing for anyone. We do not have the time, resources, and energy to spend on such a project."

Throughout the article, there are fully 30 references to “victory” and “power”—but not one of these instances refers to the overthrow of capitalism, the establishment of a workers’ government, or even an escalation of the class struggle. In each and every case, it’s clear that “victory” refers to one thing and one thing alone: getting candidates elected to office—as Democrats—full stop. Never mind that none of these self-labeled socialists put forward a single class-struggle demand, or even a serious mention of socialist goals such as expropriating the capitalists—let alone ending capitalism. Most of their campaign websites don’t even contain a single word about socialism—or any mention of DSA for that matter—beyond a logo indicating endorsement.

Rashida Tlaib Democratic Party Candidate Image Rashida Tlaib for CongressNone of the self-labeled socialist candidates put forward a single class-struggle demand, and most of their campaign websites don’t even mention socialism or DSA / Image: Rashida Tlaib for Congress

On the other hand, comrade Brad makes a single reference to the capitalist system in his article, to argue that: “socialists can exercise power even in a capitalist system, from capping the costs of insulin to building affordable housing to diverting money away from police and toward public goods.” Not only has socialism vanished from this horizon, so too have modest demands like universal healthcare! Such are the woeful, truncated aspirations of those who have accommodated themselves entirely to capitalism—yet insist on calling themselves socialists.

For Marxists, the struggle for reforms under capitalism cannot be separated from the underlying conflict in society over the surplus value created collectively by the labor of the working class. Far from being an “immaterial” theoretical matter, the issue is starkly illustrated in the fact that the world’s billionaires grew $3.9 trillion richer in 2020, while the world’s working class lost $3.7 trillion in earnings. In a society in which one class lives off the labor of others, substantial material victories would be reforms that cut directly into the profits of the ruling class and increase the standard of living of the working class.

Take the question of universal public healthcare—a reform that has overwhelming public support, but can never seem to get any legislative traction. In addition to saving countless lives and billions of dollars, socialized healthcare would also liquidate one of the largest and most profitable capitalist sectors. After health insurance profits soared 66% to nearly hit one trillion dollars in 2019, many insurance companies saw their income double again in 2020. The US insurance sector, which includes around 6,000 companies and combined assets over $10 trillion, spent $150 billion last year in lobbying and election contributions.

The sheer scale of this monstrous obstacle in the way of something as basic as a quality universal healthcare system should give us an idea of the scope of the class struggle that will be required to defeat it. The lopping off of this massive capitalist market and the expropriation of those assets will demand a ferocious and resolute battle—and may only be possible in the context of an outright revolutionary situation in the US. No amount of “public pressure” or legislative horse-trading can deliver this reform.

When the question of reforms is divorced from the class struggle, we’re left with the kind of “reforms” that the Democrats have on offer: programs funded by placing the burden on the working class, such as Social Security and Medicare. Far from being concessions by the capitalist class, these programs are sustained by regressive FICA taxes, which apply only to wages—and do not affect capitalist profits or income sources such as interest or capital gains. This arrangement, in turn, divides the working class and paves the way for the right wing to pit higher-paid workers against the rest of the class.

History shows that to the extent that the working class does win real victories—higher wages, better benefits and working conditions, unemployment compensation, universal healthcare, etc.—it is a byproduct of mass struggle in the workplaces and the streets. One of the most essential weapons in the arsenal of working-class struggle—alongside others like the general strike and the creation of workplace committees—is the political act of building a mass workers’ party.

Socialist Revolution Connecticut Image Socialist Revolution ConnecticutSocialists should intervene in the labor movement putting forward a program of class struggle and class-independent politics / Image: Socialist Revolution Connecticut

We can see a clear example of this in Canada, which also has a “first past the post” electoral system, dominated by the familiar two-party arrangement of Liberals and Conservatives for the first half-century after Confederation. During the Great Depression, the socialist Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) was organized as a working-class party aimed at eradicating capitalism. Upon winning the 1944 provincial elections in Saskatchewan, the CCF set up a public healthcare system in that province. In 1961, the CCF united with the Canadian Labour Congress (their AFL-CIO) to form the New Democratic Party (NDP). Within five years of the new party’s founding, the capitalists were forced to implement a socialized healthcare system nationally. The US has no such workers’ party, and the results speak for themselves.

It is important to note that the ruling-class parties had far more deputies than the NDP in many elections, but they still had to make concessions to cut across the NDP’s potential for growth. Although there has never been a national NDP government, the very existence of the new party, and the threat that it could win power, changed the balance of forces on the political landscape.

During the post-WWII boom, the capitalists could afford to give larger crumbs to the working class. In the current period of protracted decline and instability, the capitalists will put up a more bitter resistance before making any concessions. These conditions make it all the more urgent for socialists to link day-to-day struggles to the impasse of the capitalist system itself. It is through the cumulative effect of these experiences that the workers will sooner or later draw the conclusion that they can and must transform society.

Is it really a “proven strategy”?

Brad C. claims that there is no need to break with the Democrats in the electoral arena, as long as the left sets up a “party within the party,” which is the central argument of the “party surrogate” strategy:

"The party surrogate is a membership organization, like DSA, which behaves the way a workers’ party would and should, operating organizationally independent of either of the major parties. This surrogate would conduct electoral campaigns every step of the way: finding and recruiting candidates, leading and forming local coalitions, and doing the everyday blocking and tackling of elections from messaging to canvassing to data. This surrogate would, through intentional growth and development, become large and powerful enough to free our candidates from the network of donors, consultants, think tanks, and elites that control the Democratic Party. This organization would operate using the Democratic ballot line where it is strategic, as well as run candidates for nonpartisan seats like school boards or city councils."

Comrade Brad argues that DSA is on the right course by remaining agnostic on the ballot line question, and “playing to win the game,” as he put it during a recent debate on the party question in DSA. His case for a pragmatic approach was couched in the following terms:

"If we’re electing good principled socialists who are going to turn state power to our ends, then it doesn’t matter if we elect them on the Democratic Party ballot line, on the Green Party ballot line, on an independent workers’ party, or on the Whig Party ballot line. What matters is that we have shown what democratic socialists intend to do with power when we gain it."

Leaving aside his confusion and conflation when it comes to the terms “strategic” and “state power,” his logic begs the following question. Since his range of possible ballot lines includes a party that dissolved in 1856, why not include the Republican Party in the list? If sharing a party ballot with Joe Biden is not a problem, why not do the same with the party of Donald Trump? Maybe because Brad—who introduced himself as a professional electoral organizer in Washington—realizes that the Republican Party “brand” carries certain associations in the minds of millions of people, which are, in fact, more than an “immaterial” concern. The same goes for socialists associating themselves with the main party of Wall Street.

Wall Street President Biden Money Image Socialist RevolutionIt is more than an “immaterial” concern for socialists to be associated with the main party of Wall Street / Image: Socialist Revolution

“The true power of the Democratic Party doesn’t lie with the ballot line or even the formal party apparatus,” Brad argues, drawing on his insight as a Washington insider. “The true power of the Democratic Party lies in the complex web of consultants, donors, lobbyists, and institutions that cooperatively constitute the party establishment.”

The reality is that those DSA-endorsed candidates who have taken their seats in Congress are more under the sway of Nancy Pelosi than they are accountable to any DSA structure—and are light years away from “turning state power to our ends.”

“Intentional growth and development” of DSA’s independent resources is an unconvincing plan for overcoming the weight of the “party establishment”—which at the end of the day is not just a handful of wealthy donors, but encompasses the primary ranks of the US bourgeoisie itself.

In fact, the strategy Brad C. is advocating is nothing new. The labor leaders have long behaved as just another pressure group on the Democrats. Organized labor has PACs and political consultants. They hit the streets and work the phones for the candidates they endorse. Despite the massive resources of the AFL-CIO and its nearly 13 million members, its political influence in the Democratic Party has failed to secure even the most modest concessions for the working class. The strategy of hitching labor’s wagon to the main party of big business is to blame for the fact that so many union members are starting to view the Republican Party as a viable alternative!

The larger issue is that in the eyes of millions, these self-declared socialist candidates are indistinguishable from the rest of the Democratic Party as a ruling force. As a result, they are incapable of acting as a serious pole of attraction to usefully channel and mobilize the discontent now boiling to the surface of society. As such, it is a strategy that can achieve only Pyrrhic “victories” at the expense of preparing the working class to overthrow capitalism.

DSA and the IMT

Brad C. also wrote the following about the IMT and DSA:

"Perhaps the most extreme example of the clean break strategy to gain any amount of relevance within DSA is the Resolution: For a Genuinely Class-Independent Strategy in the 2020 Presidential Elections introduced to Phoenix DSA by self-described entryists from the Trotskyist sect International Marxist Tendency, seeking to eschew so-called ‘lesser evilism’ in elections."

For the sake of clarity, and for the record, the US section of the IMT is neither a sect nor “entryist”—whether self-described or otherwise. We are an established and legitimate part of the socialist left, part of a Marxist international with a growing presence in over 40 countries and 70 cities across the US. We believe that political and organizational class-independence is the only way forward for the working class and that fighting for clarity on this point is the duty of every socialist and Marxist.

Contrary to the slanders against us, the IMT is extremely happy to see the growth of DSA and, in particular, the development of a left wing within it, which seeks to move the organization away from the stale anticommunist, left-liberal politics of the followers of the late Michael Harrington. Frankly, Brad C. seems to be returning to the Harrington formula, under the guise of a so-called “surrogate” organization.

The IMT has co-sponsored, participated in, and led several Marxist study groups, which have been very popular and helped introduce many DSA comrades to the classics of Marxist theory. A few years ago, a small number of IMT members decided to join DSA as individuals as they saw this as the best way to work together with comrades who share the goals of revolutionary socialism. Many DSA members who agreed with the ideas we put forward have reached out to join the IMT, leading to a growing presence of Marxists in DSA—which takes pride in being a “big tent” multi-tendency organization.

NYC Marxist School 2019 Socialism or Barbarism Image Socialist Revolution NYCNYC Marxist School 2019 Socialism or Barbarism / Image: Socialist Revolution NYC

Some individuals on the right wing of DSA—who do not want to deal with the ideas of Marxism—claim that the IMT “poaches DSA members.” However, not once have we encouraged any DSA member to leave that organization. Rather, we want to help build DSA, on the basis of ideas that will strengthen the fight for socialism in our lifetime. And unlike the proponents of the “dirty” or “no break” strategy, we do not encourage DSA to funnel its members’ money, energy, and resources into a party whose only reason to exist is to defend and perpetuate capitalism.

How we can advance the fight for socialism

Rather than blur the class line by sowing illusions in a party of, by, and for our class enemies, socialists should fight to clarify the class division in society. Given the vast resources of the labor movement, there is no reason to equate class independence with the “permanent marginalization of the socialist electoral project.” What is needed is a fundamental change in approach: away from what is permissible to the bourgeois and their electoral system, and toward militant class struggle.

Contrary to Brad’s assertion, it is not the “obsession with an independent workers’ party” that is holding back the class struggle, but rather, the obsession with adapting to the narrow electoral calculus of the two-party system. If we look beyond these narrow parameters, we can see that there is a powerful social force that currently has no electoral expression of its own—yet can turn the whole of politics upside down once it achieves it: the tens of millions who flooded the streets against police terror last summer; the tens of millions who reject both major parties and aspire for a mass third-party alternative; and the tens of millions who are already convinced that capitalism must be eliminated.

It is up to socialists to win these millions to a party and a program for transforming society. Not only must we sever any association with a party which, more than any other on the face of the planet, represents the interests of the capitalist class, we must raise a class-independent banner in its place. The membership, resources, and visibility of DSA give it the potential to contribute immensely to this cause.

Instead of pursuing campaigns that foster illusions in class collaboration and milquetoast reformism, DSA could systematically make a case for a mass party of the working class. We could bring this message to every picket line, organizing campaign, and labor struggle, every workplace, campus, and union hall where there are young people and workers fed up with the status quo. At every demonstration against the endless injustices of capitalism, socialists could explain that the fight against racism, sexism, police brutality, and all forms of oppression—not to mention the fight against the climate catastrophe—must be linked to the fight for the working class to establish democratic control over the economy and society as a whole.

The road to a mass class-independent party will not be quick, easy, or linear, but if we’re going to succeed in actually winning socialism in our lifetime, this is precisely the challenge we must accept.

Originally published 5 April by |

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