A recent salvo of polemics has renewed discussion around the question of unity throughout the emergent US socialist movement. With the DSA convention in August serving as a point of departure, several analyses explain the underlying contradictions of this political moment and offer a way forward. I argue that while these interventions successfully identify certain fundamental challenges currently facing socialists, they still leave us chasing our tails, debating abstract notions of unity and basebuilding without an analysis of their utility and application as tools of class struggle. While these abstractions result in part from the polemical form of these exchanges, they tend to muddy the waters rather than bring clarity to the situation.
I suggest that the way out of this quagmire is through the widespread pursuit of strategic declassment, through which socialist and communist cadre of all tendencies embed themselves within social movements through the embrace of basebuilding re-theorized as “mass work.” Mass work retains the practical kernel of the “basebuilding” paradigm and its concern with rooting socialist politics in the working class while transcending its theoretical limitations as an inherently class-neutral tactic (any effective political group might basebuild, after all). A return to the revolutionary concept of ‘mass work’ reasserts the historical role of revolutionary cadre, especially in pre-party contexts, as agitators, educators and organizers, tasked with building new structures of autonomous power capable of locating and enlisting the advanced and class-conscious segments of the working class, while simultaneously opening up points of contact and solidarity with the wider masses. A shared strategic orientation towards cadre formation through mass work would lay the foundation for meaningful socialist unity, and further the road towards dual power. To situate declassment through “mass work” as key to building proletarian autonomy, however, we must first give an account of the current conditions of the movement, cutting through the prevailing confusion which has recently dominated socialist discourse.
Socialist Unity: An Elusive Mirage
The US socialist movement, experiencing a groundswell of participation from disaffected and proletarianized middle class intellectuals (here we understand the disillusioned individuals of petty bourgeois backgrounds, educated for and capable of intellectual labor but precariously or under-employed), is showing signs of strain against the organizational configurations which have hitherto contained it. Constructive manifestations of this shift are embodied in the success of new socialist formations like Philly Socialists as well as the 2018 regroupment push that resulted in the Marxist Center network. However, more chaotic articulations of this tension erupted as well. In March 2019, the one-time largest revolutionary US socialist group, the International Socialist Organization (ISO), imploded around a toxic bureaucratic-centralist structure which failed to address misogynistic violence perpetrated by leadership. To many, the group’s dissolution was unexpected but not altogether unsurprising, in light of heightening contradictions between a dogmatic, ossified leadership and an agitated, increasingly heterodox cadre. The organizational void in its wake leaves this socialist cohort looking for a new political home. It is too early to say what concrete effects this rearrangement will have on the wider movement, but the surge of cadre turned-loose is sure to disrupt the existing balance in unpredictable ways at the very least.
A parallel contradiction is playing out within the country’s largest socialist mass-organization, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), as revealed in the latest analyses of the recent 2019 conference. As the “big tent” organization struggles to consolidate around a common orientation, confusion around its countless factions, caucuses, and tendencies have resulted in clashing prognoses. Is the primary divide between reformists and revolutionaries? Between centralizers and decentralizers? Or between “basebuilders” and “government socialists?” On what basis, or around which strategy, might productive unity be established? While this disorder is to be expected of a young and eclectic mass organization, it can occasionally be difficult to see the significance of these semantic battles for those of us not involved in DSA. Regardless of one’s ideological commitment, by examining the fault-lines exposed by these latest exchanges within DSA and the ensuing debate reverberating throughout the wider socialist milieu, we can begin to tease out the essential contradictions which define our current moment.
Attempting a critical perspective from within the organization, Pierre and Simone frame the 2019 conference as a debate over internal structural questions, predominantly defined by the conflict between “centralizers” – the tightly-organized social-democratic core, supported by Jacobin magazine and prioritizing an electoral strategy – and “decentralizers,” from smaller and newer chapters and largely represented in the Build and Libertarian Socialist Caucuses. While the bulk of their analysis relates to internal and procedural decisions (which dominated the weekend, as many attendees observed), the authors note with approval the steady growth of the “decentralizer” camp and look forward expectantly to its ascendance: “if the elections to the National Political Committee are any indication, the DSA is moving in a broadly leftward direction, with around half of the incoming NPC placed somewhere left of the DSA center.” In this paradigm, the primary contradiction within the socialist movement is confined to DSA’s internal politics, specifically in the conflict between a consolidating “government socialist” pole, and a progressive opposition seeking to build a socialist base among the working-class. Pierre and Simone are optimistic, suggesting that the organization’s reformist elements will be gradually won over as “‘decentralizers’ or basebuilders continue their growth on the frontier of the working classes.” From this sentiment, we can already identify three underlying assumptions: 1) that the pursuit of basebuilding, as a self-contained strategy, represents an intrinsically progressive tendency capable of reversing opportunist drift, 2) that decentralizers embody this basebuilding approach in practice, and 3) that the DSA, were it only to build a working-class base “to more closely mirror the composition of the class as a whole,” could feasibly become a “radical organizing center.”
For a rejoinder to this analysis, we turn to Janis and McQueeney, who aptly critique the shortcomings of this simplistic narrative. First off, they complicate the reductive picture of decentralizers (LSC and Build) as a cohesive left opposition bloc, noting discrepancies in which “the decentralist coalition found itself sharply to the right of its opponents.” Merely reacting against organizational centralization, even if the national core is indeed firmly electoralist, will be not enough to counter reformism. More critically, they assert, we cannot put blind faith in basebuilding as a productive development in socialist strategy: “for all the pretenses of [basebuilding] being a meaningful strategy for the left, it has no real strategy. basebuilders do not lay out a path for taking power but focus on what is essentially community organizing because they are desperate to avoid the real ideological differences among them.” On its surface, this is a point well-made. It is true that, stripped of a political vision, basebuilding refers only to the tactic of expanding a movement’s support throughout a given population. Pursued as a strategic end in itself, basebuilding falls short, collapsing into a pseudo-spontaneism: just keep organizing the unorganized into new structures of power, and wait for the day these institutions will at some point acquire critical mass to challenge state power of their own accord.
Janis and McQueeney justifiably highlight the tempting slide into movementism that can arise from elevating basebuilding to a strategic horizon, an error undoubtedly exhibited in Pierre and Simone’s analysis as well as numerous DSA manifestos declaring their fidelity to “mass action” or “mass mobilization.” Rather than take seriously the real contradiction that basebuilding aspires to resolve, we lose this important political context. In search of lost political coherency, Janis and McQueeney instead fall back upon a tired slogan retrofitted with new theoretical packaging: even if it is presented here in contradistinction to brands of fetishized theoretical or organizational unity, a turn towards “programmatic unity” amounts to a return to the blind-alley sectarianism they simultaneously claim to transcend. After all, who stands to deliver on this political program? Furthermore, who is even watching? Shared consensuses between Marxists around a “clear set of demands” have been formed before, trotted out by dozens of committed revolutionary groups over the decades – our revolutionary tradition bears no shortage of demands. We demand the world, but this road leaves us in the cold, shouting into the void. For a socialist intelligentsia largely cut off from the wider working class and lacking meaningful structures of counter-power, programmatic unity puts the cart before the horse.
Circling like vultures over a carcass, we’re left feverishly vacillating between autopsies of our movement, coping with a mounting unease by reverting to old habits. On the one hand, a navel-gazing fascination with fragmentation, obsessed with numbering, naming, and cataloguing the factions which divide us, and on the other, a sentimental fetishization of socialist unity, that elusive mirage which might just finally materialize if we could only ever agree on where we want to go. Both analytical tendencies – each the other’s photographic negative – articulate mirror images of the same pervasive anxiety which currently haunts the socialist left. Experienced positively as fracture and fragmentation, or negatively as an absent, ineffable unity, this malaise ultimately derives from the persistent inability to adequately address a fundamental problem: the socialist movement remains a resolutely “middle-class” phenomenon, while the working class remains dishearteningly disorganized. Resolving this primary contradiction is of utmost importance and key to any strategy for class independence.
In her response “For the Unity of Marxists, or the Unity of the Dispossessed?” Sophia Burns re-centers this contradiction in polemic fashion. The US socialist movement at its current stage of development remains one geared towards protest within the liberal-democratic paradigm, not building effective counter-hegemony to challenge it. This tendency emerges not from its ideological failings, but from its class composition: “class is thicker than ideology, so any movement based in the middle classes will always bend back towards the political process.” Until we can bridge the gap between intellectuals (“professionals, technicians, and all those whose specialized training and knowledge gives them a uniquely strong position in the labor market”) and the proletariat proper, any socialist project (regardless of any sort internal unity, programmatic or otherwise) is doomed to either marginalization or opportunist cooptation. The turn to basebuilding aspires to address this primary contradiction, creating situations where “socialist intellectuals can engage with proletarian tenants and workers in a mutually-transformative process” and “gradually cultivate a base among the dispossessed.”
To take Burns’ program seriously is to acknowledge the inescapability of basebuilding as a prerequisite for creating a truly revolutionary movement. Nevertheless, we can still recognize that “basebuilding” itself is only a signpost which, while indicating the nature of the challenge that confronts us, provides no blueprint for implementation. As a slogan, “basebuilding” literally expresses only a need: a base must be built. To theorize how exactly social revolutionaries can build bases among the masses, we will need a more robust conceptual framework that incorporates the lessons of past movements, takes into account the particularities of the current moment, and remains open to future advances to be discovered through the laboratory of class struggle. Where does this leave us, and what does this mean for our current efforts? To this, Burns offers no easy answers. It’s tempting to walk away from her intervention with a pessimistic interpretation – your organizing efforts with other socialists are in vain, strike out on your own or give up. At this crossroads between adventurism and nihilism, socialists should seriously embrace a “new return” to the organizational form which has undergirded generations of successful revolutionary struggle: the cadre model.
The Task Before Us
It is not enough to set tasks, we must also solve the problem of the methods for carrying them out. If our task is to cross a river, we cannot cross it without a bridge or a boat. Unless the bridge or boat problem is solved, it is idle to speak of crossing the river. Unless the problem of method is solved, talk about the task is useless.”– Mao Zedong, Be Concerned with The Well-Being of the Masses, Pay Attention to Methods of Work (January 27, 1934)
Before there is a revolutionary party, there are committed cadre patiently organizing in the liminal spaces where class struggle is at its most acute and alternative institutions are most needed. Deeply integrated and working steadily in their community, the cadre formation serves two purposes: building proletarian power through education, agitation, and organization, and fostering the growth and development of the cadre themselves. Through the dialectical, transformative nature of mass work, communists become cadre, continuously radicalized through shared praxis and analysis. They facilitate in turn the transformation of those with whom they organize and empower organic leaders to take active roles in their community.
When communists organize as cadre, they associate based on commitment to a shared political vision and radical practice, endeavoring to establish structures of real working-class power: tenant unions, neighborhood associations, cop-watching collectives, community self-defense trainings, youth programs. Through rigorous social investigation, cadre members identify the needs and desires of the community, building alternatives not to grandstand and proselytize but out of service in solidarity – not to propagandize but to empower. The end is not to drive recruitment towards a party, or to explain to community members that what they really want is called socialism. Instead, communist cadre prioritize, as an end in itself, the creation of autonomous mass organizations capable of collective action to further class power. The cadre understand that the most oppressed and marginalized of the working class – those with nothing to lose but their chains – engage in collective action not when persuaded by subcultural appeals to values, principles and promises, but when action has proven capable of addressing deep-seated needs, providing a path to reclaim the basic dignity and agency that they’ve been denied. Appreciating the radical power of collective action to develop critical consciousness, cadre empower individuals to re-center themselves as revolutionary subjects, through self-managed struggle and autonomous organization.
Widespread organizing on the granular, micro-political scale opens the door to new strategic questions, possibilities, contingencies: Which mass organizational forms will best nurture the radical consciousness of its members? Along which fronts will we deploy our forces, and what kinds of training can we facilitate among them to ensure their success? How will we coordinate with dozens of other independent cadre formations that emerge, and what opportunities for collaboration might present themselves? What might a densely organized, nodular, and militant working-class look like? Considering the increasingly networked and interconnected nature of the socialist left, we stand on the threshold of a potential rupture, an opening towards new strategic terrain. Only cadre formations, declassed and engaged alongside the dispossessed in building new, autonomous mass organizations stand to resolve the primary class contradiction of our moment. Rather than wait for a single mass party to present itself, to build up an autonomous network of socialist proletarian power requires that we begin to construct its framework today ourselves.