“In the eyes of the reformist, “hopes” for revolution seem vague because they do not understand the depth of the contemporary economic and political contradictions.”
— Lenin, “Reformism in the Russian Social-Democratic Movement” (1911)
In the wake of the disastrous 2008 financial crisis, class consciousness has taken hold of elements of the working class in the United States. This has led to the reemergence of explicitly socialist politics among a small but influential strata of young people.
A majority of the socialist movement follows the lead of a revitalized, 21st century social democratic reformism. This broad current, as expressed ideologically by the journal Jacobin and organizationally by the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), holds several political coordinates in common. They include: the centrality of participation in elections; the efficacy of running candidates under the ballot line of the Democratic Party; and the supposedly “revolutionary” character of reforms.
The persuasive power of Jacobin and dominant political position of the DSA within the US Left has been accompanied by a rapid collapse and shakeup of what remains of the revolutionary Left in this country. In desperation, even veteran socialists in the Trump era have become ideologically disoriented and susceptible to the temptations of political opportunism. Most serious among the errors of the socialist movement has been the subtle degradation of the prospects of revolution in North America.
The widespread promotion of this argument has resulted in the dominance of a strategic perspective urging us to, as Vivek Chibber states, “downplay the centrality of a revolutionary rupture and navigate a more gradualist approach.” Chibber argues that, presently, the Left cannot reasonably expect “the emergence of revolutionary conditions where state breakdown is really on the cards.” In other words, the Left needs to pivot to reality and accept the pragmatism of reformism.
It is true that today there are no obvious models for revolution in advanced capitalist regimes. But does it also follow, as our democratic socialist comrades would have it, that “a ruptural break with capitalism is off the agenda?” It certainly seems that way right now. But history delights in playing practical jokes. And revolution has surprised the naysayers more than a few times.
The question of revolution is a practical question
Revolution is never practical – until the hour of the revolution strikes. THEN it alone is practical, and all the efforts of the conservatives, and compromisers become the most futile and visionary of human imaginings.
— James Connolly, “Socialism Made Easy” (1909)
Revolutionaries are often condemned for dealing in abstractions, but proponents of reformism are generally no less abstract when they argue that “the democratic [sic] state commands tremendous legitimacy.”
There are a number of assumptions baked into statements such as this: Which state are we speaking about in particular? Is the capitalist regime actually democratic in any meaningful sense? Does the capitalist state command legitimacy among the working masses? If so, is this legitimacy a permanent feature of working class consciousness? Or is it rather provisional and enforced with periodic bloodshed?
It is inadvisable to attempt to deduce strategy from first principles. Instead, strategy must be rooted in what Lenin referred to as “a concrete analysis of a concrete situation.” That is to say: we have no other alternative than to study each society in its particularities and ask ourselves the question: Can this society follow a parliamentary road to socialism? Or is revolution the only mechanism from which socialism can result in this time and place? Is revolution even possible in these societies? Why or why not?
Just because a reformist strategy may have success in one place, doesn’t mean it will everywhere, and vice versa. However, reformists would have us believe the parliamentary road to socialism is equally applicable in every advanced capitalist economy, with seemingly no regard to the dearth of democratic levers in one state as compared to another.
If anything, an impartial assessment of the settler-colonial regime in the United States indicates that the prospects for reformism here may be perhaps even more limited than in the social democratic welfare states of popular imagination.
Eugene Puryear has provided a brief but relatively comprehensive historical sketch of the establishment of the capitalist regime with a focus on the origins of the United States as a society constructed upon the bodies of the indigenous people, slaves, and women. Puryear rightfully skewers the supposedly uniquely “self-reforming character” of our government.
Even a cursory overview confirms that our supposedly “representative democracy” is neither representative nor a democracy. We live under the rule of a regime which lacks any sort of direct oversight over its judicial branch, eschews proportional representation in favor of a system originally designed to preserve the power of rural slave-owners, sets up a “representative” system in which the number of constituents per elected official is completely out of proportion to the actual population in order to further empower a declining white petty bourgeoisie, allows politicians to gerrymander districts to their liking, and entrusts an arcane entity known as the “electoral college” to choose its chief executive (when indeed the latter is not chosen directly by the Supreme Court). That is when the entire edifice does not for long periods of time, shut down entirely. Worse, the mechanisms for changing our constitution throw up nearly insurmountable hurdles to making any alterations to the rules of the game.
Democratic socialists are of course aware of these flaws, but nevertheless prefer to follow a strategy which confines itself to the narrow framework of bourgeois legality and constitutionality. Chris Maisano writes in The Call that “many (but not all) [democratic] demands could be won within the current constitutional framework, and if implemented would mitigate a number of its most anti-democratic aspects” of the regime. Yet Maisano is forced to acknowledge that far-reaching structural changes would be nearly impossible thanks to the effective minority veto — by which, as arch-conservative Antonin Scalia pointed out, less than two percent of the population can block any proposed amendments. Indeed, Maisano goes on to state that, “given the egregiously high barriers to calling a constitutional convention or amending the current constitution, a demand for a wholly new constitution would be utopian.”
Thus the reformists turn back before even reaching the limited horizon of bourgeois legality. Instead, these comrades urge socialists to tinker around the edges while maintaining loyalty to the regime, even when the means of radical change are permissible under the current system. This is likely because Maisano and others recognize that any new constitutional convention — if it weren’t dominated by reactionaries intent on tearing away the few hard-won rights we’ve managed to secure — would most likely result in a full-blown civil war.
To avoid or delay this possibility, democratic socialists posit a “preference for peace.” This is endorsed either on its supposed feasibility (see the above passages) or based on the argument that the working class would never be willing to resort to force of arms in order to defend its rights and livelihood.
But as Marxists and students of history, we recognize “the chronic lag of ideas and relations behind new objective conditions, right up to the moment when the latter crash over people in the form of a catastrophe.” Simply because the working class would prefer to make change peacefully and through pre-approved channels doesn’t mean the ruling class will grant concessions, much less a transfer of power — indeed, certain changes may not even be structurally possible given existing state forms. Nor does this “preference for peace” guarantee that the working class will simply sit still during a time of continuously declining standards of living or political unrest.
After nearly a hundred and fifty years of muddling along following the rapprochement between the federal government and the remnants of the southern aristocracy following the termination of Reconstruction and the end of the Great Sioux War, the constitutional mechanisms of the United States are understood even by many far outside of the socialist movement to be breaking down under the pressure of the continuing profitability crisis in the advanced capitalist economies.
If we extrapolate current economic and political trends into the future, it is fair to ask: is it at all certain that the capitalist regime of the United States will maintain its tenuous hold on legitimacy with the population indefinitely? And if the aspirations of the masses cannot be met through recourse to a democratic, peaceful path, what then?
Our evaluation of the balance of forces and particularities of the American state leads many of us to conclude that rather than undertaking a strategy of “reclaiming the state,” to achieve socialism in North America it will be necessary to smash the old regime and implement a vigorous program of decolonization in order to establish some form of cooperative commonwealth.
Roadblocks and detours on the parliamentary road
The problem of ‘reform or revolution’ is not… in the way in which this is usually posed by the far left: that is, that the traditional social democrats refuse to accept the use of ‘revolutionary means’ in the sense of political strikes, demonstrations and insurrections. Rather, it is that the traditional social democrats insisted that open struggle against the state would produce only repression; hence, that the only way to obtain immediate reforms is to form a government.
Further, the only way to get to form a government (without bringing down the state, which intervenes in its own interests in elections) is to display conspicuous loyalty to the existing state order, both in the form of nationalism and arguing that reforms are in the common ‘national interest’, and in the form of constitutionalism and legalism. The traditional social democrats thus rejected not so much ‘revolutionary’ means as revolutionary ends: ie, radical change in the state order and in ‘who rules’.
— Mike MacNair “Anything but Marxism” (2008)
For our more naive comrades, the US government works much as it’s presented in high school civics class: individual citizens vote for candidates in a free and fair political environment, which results in the advancement of candidates whose views represent the will of the electorate (on average), and who then enter into positions in government and dutifully represent the will of the people.
The more sophisticated democratic socialist will grant that capitalist class power deforms the functions of government, but argue that the existing constitutional order is indestructible and/or a neutral, objective tool which can be made use of by any class. Thus, the existing state apparatus could be either used on behalf of the working class and the oppressed, or peacefully transformed from an apparatus of capitalist rule into an instrument of the working-class sovereignty. In other words, the idea is that if the Left wins enough elections to possess a majority in Congress, the capitalist state (with its courts, police, prisons and military) can then implement “full-throated democratic socialism” with the consent of “voters.” Thus, reformists generally posit a scenario whereby the capitalist class and their military and career civil service cede power in a relatively peaceful process to the working class majority.
It is certainly within the realm of possibility that such a “peaceful transition” is possible in some circumstances; even Marx and Engels allowed for the possibility. “If,” Marx writes, “in the United States, the working class were to gain a majority in parliament or Congress, they could, in a legal way, get rid of the laws and institutions blocking their development, though they could only do so insofar as society had reached a sufficiently mature development.”
But do we really think that the most powerful and ruthless ruling class in human history will quietly acquiesce as they find their ill-gotten wealth expropriated? This seems unlikely. To wit, in the very next paragraph, Marx continues: “However the ‘peaceful’ development could quickly change into a ‘violent’ one through a rebellion by those with a stake in the old order; if they (as in the American Civil War and the French Revolution) were crushed by force, then it would be as rebels against the “legal” power.”
A more compelling perspective is perhaps offered by the “centrist” wing of the DSA, whose politics are frequently articulated in Jacobin as well as the factional journal The Call. Following in the footsteps of British academic Ralph Miliband, this current attempts to walk the knife edge between reform and revolution, postulating a so-called “revolutionary reformism.”
What exactly does this mean? Consider the following scenario: a large and growing socialist movement is able to elect a majority to parliamentary bodies (let’s say for the sake of argument, socialists are elected to both houses of Congress and the presidency). Immediately upon winning the election, capitalist resistance to the democratic mandate of the masses begins: this could take the effect of juridical interference, capital strikes, and violent fascist provocation.
However, there are even deeper issues. Even if socialists were allowed to take up elected positions in representative bodies of the capitalist state, reformist strategy must reckon with resistance on the part of the “apolitical” civil service, an enormous and strategically-positioned body consisting of “around 9.1 million employees, about 22.4 percent of which are full-time feds and the rest coming from contractors.” Ralph Miliband reminds us that “by far the larger part of the state personnel at higher levels, and at least a very large number in the lower ones as well, are much more likely to be ideologically, politically, and emotionally on the side of the conservative forces than of the government. In many cases… they will be firmly opposed to programmes and policies which they believe to be utterly detrimental to the ‘national interest.’”
Perhaps more ominously, reformist strategy must provide a mechanism for disarming or otherwise rendering inert the power, organization, capacity for organized violence, and sheer size of the national security state: in addition to the 1.3 million active duty military, there are over 800,000 National Guard and Reserve Forces, in addition to at least another 700,000 civilians working under the aegis of the Department of Defense. At least another 700,000 work for state security agencies such as the FBI, CIA, NSA, Border Patrol, DEA, ATF, ICE, Department of Homeland Security, US Marshals and Bureau of Prisons. These numbers do not include local and state-level police forces. As Kim Moody notes in On New Terrain: “The concept of the state as a coercive apparatus in defense of capitalism as a system at home and abroad is alive and well.”
To their credit, left reformists do not try to minimize these problems. However, given that their sole recourse to counterrevolution is mass mobilization and vague appeals to the ability of “movements” to stymie the bloody tide of reaction. This is wishful thinking.
Mass mobilizations, broad popular support, and the weapon of the general strike certainly ought to be tactics in the arsenal of any socialist movement. But in the face of the ruling class’s trump card — a full-blown military coup d’etat — it is likely even these powerful forces will prove insufficient without an armed and organized resistance. And since these very same democratic socialists reject out of hand the possibility of insurrection (and, presumably, also dispense with the need to make preparations today for the eventuality of armed struggle), we are faced with the ironic prospect that democratic socialists will not prepared to defend their own reforms.
If civil war is likely to be an inevitable component of the transition to socialism, our movement must make every preparation necessary — psychologically and in practice — to ensure that the forces of the working class and oppressed come out on top in such a contest. Trotsky made this same point nearly a hundred years ago:
One cannot lull the masses day in and day out with claptrap about a peaceful, painless transition to socialism and then at the first solid punch on the nose summon the masses to an armed response. This is the surest way of assisting reaction in the rout of the proletariat.
To prove equal to a revolutionary repulse, the masses must be ideologically, organizationally and materially prepared for it. They must understand the inevitability of a sharpening of the class struggle and of its turning at a certain stage into a civil war.
Writing on the tragedy of the Finnish revolution, in which a democratically-elected socialist government was overwhelmed by counterrevolutionary violence, Eric Blanc, a leading DSA theorist and frequent contributor to Jacobin and The Call, concludes that it is “a mistake to throw out the strategic lessons learned from a successful workers’ revolution on the grounds of its later military defeat.” But given that nearly every democratic socialist government has been overthrown by force in those cases it hasn’t immediately sold out, a cursory glance at this balance sheet should at very least give us pause. Without a viable military strategy, even the most duly-elected socialist government is likely to go down in bloody defeat.
The mentality of the revolutionary is not to expect history to follow prescribed paths, but to leap into political openings when they present themselves. As such, we do not reject a tactical engagement with elections, nor do we dismiss out of hand the prospect of a parliamentary road to power. However, for a variety of reasons we believe the likelihood of such a turn of events is exaggerated by reformists.
But as the economic and political contradictions sharpen over the coming years, our movement must begin planning for any number of unexpected occurrences. Lenin writes: “Marxism does not reject any form of struggle.” Given the manifold stumbling blocks on the parliamentary road to socialism, it is clear that the question of armed struggle must not be an afterthought. We must begin readying ourselves now — not in the individualist fashion of the modern-day “prepper” — but by building up and creating institutions of community self-defense.
Kali Akuno of Cooperation Jackson usefully sums up the role of self-defense under present conditions:
“In our present era romantic and often hyper-masculine notions of self-defense centered on militaristic images, practices, and traditions can be very problematic. They can sometimes be a deterrent or a turn-off to large sectors of our people seeking to avoid unwarranted confrontations with the state.
They invite an influx of agent provocateurs into our organizations and communities, and give the state an easy target and excuse for intensified repression before we have built the movement we need to defend ourselves. Their often-undemocratic practices have historically fostered hierarchy, patriarchy, and heterosexism.
Rather, we must have a broad and dynamic understanding of self-defense that addresses the material and social needs of our people first and foremost and intentionally incorporates the positive and negative lessons of our historic legacy of struggle against white supremacy and genocide.
Today, the foundations of our self-defense organizing must first and foremost be about building community, by intentionally and systematically struggling to forge “common unity” amongst our people on questions relating to our survival and overall well-being.”
Akuno correctly emphasizes the need for a host of mutual aid initiatives, including but not limited to: legal defense formations, emergency response corps, childcare cooperatives, food pantries, etc. But paramilitary organization necessarily must play a critical role as well. As Donald Parkinson notes, based upon historical precedent, “defensive and paramilitary organizations… must be successfully organized before the appearance of revolutionary situations, at which point a mass party becomes a major social influence and thus subject to police and fascist violence”
Organizations of self-defense not only have long-term strategic importance, but can immediately protect our oppressed and working class communities who are becoming more frequent targets of right-wing violence. Nothing says that democratic socialists needn’t take seriously the danger of fascist violence, especially the latter has already struck out at our movement from Charlottesville to Louisville and beyond.
The rise of left-wing militias in the manner of Redneck Revolt, John Brown Gun Club and the Socialist Rifle Association are welcome developments in this direction. However, the link between the socialist political forces and the militia movement today is weak, with the latter element functioning in a completely autonomous manner.
Despite the best of intentions, a lack of political leadership over the militia movement by socialist political formations has led these formations to be rocked by repeated crises of accountability. Ultimately, in order for such bodies to function as effective nuclei for the defense of the revolution rather than mere recreational clubs for hobbyists, stronger relationships must be developed in which the militias directly subordinate themselves to civilian leadership of the movement in accordance with the principle that “the Party commands the gun, and the gun must never be allowed to command the Party.”
In the context of a revolutionary situation, defensive measures will need to quickly pivot toward an all-or-nothing struggle for power or else face utter annihilation. Halfway measures and equivocation will lead us straight to the graveyard. This is why the core constituencies of the revolutionary movement — the “base” — must have no illusions about the likelihood of a peaceful transition and must prepare to extirpate the old regime root and branch.
Conclusion: Base-building for what?
“I know you always laughed at me behind my back, but you’re not always right about everything. You puzzle over the problem as if revolution was a plan of battle, and society a diagram, and in Paris you told us there was no sign of a revolution just before it broke out. And now you’re saying it won’t happen here either.
Maybe it won’t. But when it comes it will come against all odds, against calculation and common sense, out of nowhere like an epidemic, because revolution is spirit set free, the body is only keeping up.”
— Tom Stoppard, “The Coast of Utopia” (2002)
To sum up, in order to posit a plausible “democratic” (read: parliamentary) strategy to achieve socialism, reformists must answer several objections, reflecting contradictions which cast doubt on the viability of their central theses:
Parliamentary roaders must establish how class independence, which will be necessary to pursue revolutionary transformation of society, is achieved while operating for any length of time in a capitalist or cross-class electoral bloc. The perspective of left reformists tends to downplay the pressures of systemic co-option on socialist leaders (especially those occupying posts in government) and fails to offer a compelling countermeasure to hold elected officials accountable — for instance, democratic centralism, a mechanism initially intended as a check on the independent power of wayward elected officials.
Further, they must explain how the masses and their leaders will be prepared to overthrow the government — a prerequisite for implementing socialism — without a clear orientation on the need to prepare such action in advance and without prior arming and training of the working class. And finally, reformists must posit a compelling theory of defense against the counterrevolution — a particularly thorny point when many advocates of the parliamentary road seemingly disavow the willingness to make use of revolutionary violence.
While we can never know with scientific certainty when or if revolution will come, it is this very uncertainty which compels us to retain at least some forces within the socialist movement to act as a contingency plan in this eventuality, so that we’re not caught completely flat-footed if revolution does break out. Far from being an abstract or irrelevant concern, we can begin preparing for revolution today.
The past two hundred years of working class history provides ample evidence that the path to socialism is anything but linear. The parliamentary road and the peaceful transition to socialism may be one possible future, but it is not the only one, and it may not even be the most likely. Comrades in DSA display welcome humility when they write that they “do not pretend to know exactly how a transition from capitalism to socialism will ultimately play out.” Open-mindedness and a willingness to amend mistaken points of view in light of new evidence are surely qualities lacking in our movement today, especially within what passes for the revolutionary left. Ironically, it is the left reformist strategy which posits a universal and relatively straightforward path to power, when the history of the class struggle itself proceeds in zigs and zags.
While revolutionaries don’t “make” revolution (i.e. revolutions are not consciously plotted and diagrammed by revolutionaries), it is nonetheless also true that human beings are the raw material out of which revolutions are constructed. One of our primary tasks in constructing this oppositional current to the status quo is the creation of “stewards of the class” or experienced, competent and politically-astute working class fighters: ”The institutions we help build won’t substitute for working class upsurges, and they won’t create new objective realities. But they will develop “stewards of the class” who can help lead, not moderate, those inevitable surges. And they will create frameworks that serve as vessels for those surges.”
Revolutionaries then — even when operating in a non-revolutionary situation — still have an important mission: to prepare ourselves and our class for the emergence of a revolutionary crisis. Today, this entails formulating a political program to exit the crisis, fashioning powerful mass organizations which the working class can mobilize and deploy in such a crisis to direct the movement away from state-sanctioned channels, organizing community self-defense, and preparing a layer of working class leaders who are ideologically committed to overthrowing the state and can impart to the working class that its interests lay in running society itself.
Whatever future scenario comes to pass, base-building remains the defining responsibility of the socialist left today. But a socialist base must be self-consciously piloting toward a revolutionary rupture with the capitalist regime, or reintegration with capitalism is a sure bet.
This is, ultimately, the worst disservice the reformists do to our movement. By foreclosing the possibility of revolution, they fail to psychologically and practically prepare the tens of thousands of socialists who are coming up in our movement for the eventuality of a ruptural break, denigrate fidelity to revolutionary change, and underestimate the sacrifices which would be necessary to see through this break to its final conclusion.