The Marxist Center (MC) is a small but growing trend on the U.S. socialist left. Although we do not boast the membership numbers of DSA nor any significant base in the working class, we have made what we hope is a valuable intervention on the left. Against the sects and ambulance chasers, we have emphasized base-building and long-term organizing. Against the center and right of the DSA, we have emphasized revolution. It is the latter debate that has taken center stage recently.
For the MC, the stakes of the debate around revolution are existential. The Regeneration mission statement espouses the importance of “pursuing a revolutionary political line,” a core principle of our network’s political identity. Without a coherent concept of revolution, our raison d’être all but collapses.
In “Goodbye Revolution?”, Tim Horras of Philly Socialists mounted MC’s most coherent defense of revolutionary strategy. Horras argues that the “democratic road” to socialism is an untenable strategy in the United States today, particularly because of the fundamentally undemocratic character of the U.S. government and the likelihood of another economic recession. Thus, Horras contends that “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.” For Horras, this means three things: (1) class independence from the Democratic Party, (2) armed self-defense in the here-and-now, and (3) “base-building”, i.e. the construction of working class institutions of struggle (e.g., tenants’ unions and workplace organizations).
Chris Maisano of the DSA National Political Committee and Jacobin editorial staff wrote a charitable but frustrating reply to Horras in The Call. In his reply, Maisano contends that Horras’s advocacy of armed self-defense will alienate a working-class base. Instead, Maisano advocates a democratic socialist strategy of building towards socialist government through electoral engagement and grassroots activism. Maisano’s strategy conjures Ralph Milliband’s Marxism and Politics, in which Milliband argues for a combination of electoralism and mobilization “from below” to block counter-revolution and consolidate a mass base.
In what follows, we will not argue directly against either Horras or Maisano so much as we will argue for a reframing of the debate and the introduction of other considerations that have as of yet been left unaddressed. We contend that “revolutionary or democratic road?” is not the best question to be asking. The differences between the two positions are often somewhat theoretical and, moreover, better expressed through articulations of short- and medium-term strategy. These important strategic considerations are obscured when we focus on what we think “the revolution” would or should look like.
The distinction between democratic and revolutionary socialism is perhaps not so obvious, even on a theoretical level. Revolution is a deceptively fraught term. In one usage, it means the overthrow of a government through armed insurrection. But revolution can also be defined more abstractly as a rupture with the old order. This notion of rupture is counterposed by gradualism: the idea of a linear, piecemeal transition. While revolution is always articulated as a rupture of some sort, reformism can theoretically be either ruptural or gradualist. In the revolutionary camp, this rupture is sometimes articulated as “smashing the state,” the main reference point for this perspective being Lenin’s State and Revolution. (It is worth noting that it is non-obvious how to define the notion of “smashing the state”; one could even argue that it is something that the Bolsheviks did not actually do.)
If we take revolution to mean “rupture,” then it is unclear where the distinction between the sides of the debate lies at all. Both Horras and Maisano advance the possibility of rupture. Even Vivek Chibber, a major thinker within Maisano’s trend, advocates a “final break” with capitalism. While Horras quotes Chibber as saying that “a ruptural break with capitalism is off the agenda,” Chibber argues as such only “in the middle run.” Chibber makes his argument clearly in favor of rupture earlier in the same piece:
First, and most importantly, [Charlie Post] accepts that a ruptural break with capitalism is not on the agenda. It will be useful to clarify what this means. It does not suggest that a ruptures [sic] are now and forever impossible. For something to not be “on the agenda” means that it is not a realistic possibility in the short to middle run. It could become a live issue down the road, and indeed, I agree with Post that if socialism is to ever be achieved, it will require a final break, probably with a political upsurge of some kind. But political strategy has to be geared toward the world as we find it, and for the foreseeable future, such developments are not in the cards.
When we move to a practical level, the distinction is even more complicated. We are not convinced that any of us know what a transition out of capitalism would actually look like, considering the ambiguous record of 20th century state socialism, especially in industrialized countries. Post-capitalism would likely entail a complex reconfiguration of social relations involving considerations of democratic participation, central planning, and reconfiguration of labor processes to build a more sustainable and non-exploitative metabolism with nature and among ourselves.
These considerations are obscured by the framing of the debate, which essentially focuses on the conquest of political power rather than the actual transformation of social relations. These two cannot be separated. We broadly agree with Horras’s critique of reformism and the roadblocks it can run into, but his thought exercise can just as easily be tailored to the scenario of a socialist party-state generated by force of arms. An armed and organized class may be able to deal more effectively with counterrevolution and the reproduction of working class power (and indeed, it’s unclear whether The Call disagrees theoretically on this point, in their own way), but these are hardly the only issues of a communist transition.
Once major industries are nationalized, assets seized, and capitalists expropriated (with or without compensation), what then? How is a revolutionary government to deal with global supply chains, multinational corporations, violent resource extraction, international trade, and currency regulation? It is altogether possible that a socialist state in the United States would have no choice but to leave imperialist value chains intact: production is global, and so too must be socialization. These problems will not go away with an attempted U.S. exit from global capitalism, which actually would likely result in total global economic collapse (and not the good kind). The insurrectionary road is no more equipped to deal with the problems of a socialist island within a capitalist sea than the democratic road is.
The Bolivarian movement in Venezuela is the closest modern example to the “revolutionary reformism” that Maisano advocates (an historical example being Allende in Chile). The movement, featuring communes and working-class organizing “from below” alongside electoral wins for the PSUV “from above,” has run into serious problems and roadblocks along the way. This is not to say that the process is doomed to fail or has not had its successes, but that it may be a fruitful case study for further evaluation of the “democratic road.”
Since the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, the closest thing to Horras’s insurrectionary strategy is the Leninist guerilla movements in Nepal, India, the Philippines, and Colombia. While the latter three have been on the decline for quite some time, the Nepalese Communists now enjoy a great deal of state power. While Nepal lacks the acute crisis that Venezuela finds itself in, the fact remains that both the bullet and the ballot box have got these countries in similar places: socialist-led governments trying to survive in a global capitalist economy.
The conditions in Nepal and Venezuela could not be more different than those we find ourselves within here in the United States. Nepal was a largely agrarian monarchy into the 2000s, while Venezuela features an almost entirely oil-based economy (and thus reliant on extractivism) and a decades-long movement beginning with the Caracazo in 1989. But the point stands that both paths have faced challenges and limitations. Neither Horras nor Maisano is naive enough to think that there is a clear-cut, ready-made strategy for socialist transition. The danger lies, rather, in failing to see the points of convergence between each side and the thorny labyrinth that is social transformation. The idea is not that we can solve these questions in advance, but rather to highlight the difficulties presented by both strategies.
But most importantly, it is readily apparent that we currently do not have the capacity to build the kind of power necessary for such a conquest of political power. While we find it necessary to highlight the long-term limitations of both electoralism and insurrection, these questions amount to little more than idle speculation without a sober appraisal of our current situation and prospects for building power. It is with this in mind that we turn towards the short- and medium-term stakes of the debate.
If this debate is not really “about” reformism and revolution, then what is it about? We would claim that this is not about end goals, nor even necessarily about the “democratic road” vs. “insurrection.” Rather, we believe that the disagreement is primarily about short- and medium-term strategy and tactics.
The real immediate strategic and tactical differences are fairly obscured in the theoretical debate, particularly in Maisano’s case. But if we examine The Call’s political strategy, a core component is supporting the Bernie Sanders campaign. While Maisano & co. decidedly do not believe that Sanders shares their goal of a full transition to socialism, they see his campaign as a strategic opportunity to build a long-term socialist movement.
Horras, on the other hand, only advocates for “tactical” engagement with elections. From this disagreement emerges two distinctions between the sides of the argument. First, Horras advocates for independence from the Democratic Party in a sense that Maisano decidedly does not. Second, Horras implicitly does not see governance within the capitalist state as a component for a long-term strategy. He quite reasonably sees a danger of an electoral strategy leading to absorption into the capitalist regime. However, Maisano notes that electoralism is not necessarily unique in its ability to be co-opted:
All forms of oppositional political activity are subject to numerous pressures that threaten to de-radicalize and incorporate movements back into existing frameworks. The network of fully independent mutual aid initiatives that Horras advocates, for example, will have trouble achieving any kind of scale, effectiveness, or longevity without significant financial resources. Without state support or foundation funding, where will the money come from to fund “legal defense formations, emergency response corps, childcare cooperatives, food pantries, etc.” at a high level of service over an indefinite period of time? If intensive participation in electoral politics runs the risk of opportunism, an emphasis on service provision runs right into a problem we might call “NGO-ism with red flags.”
On this point, Maisano is absolutely right. There is no organizational form immune to degeneration. As Nick Driedger states:
It’s not so much that unions aren’t bounded, limited, reformist organizations; it’s that any organization under capitalism that fails to topple capitalism runs the risk of collapsing into a bounded, compromised, reformist project. That is no different for a tenant’s union, a political party, a theory group, a leftwing think tank, or anything else. This is just the nature of struggle and power.
Of course, it does not follow automatically that all political activity is equally prone to co-option; it may be (and is likely) the case that some forms of activity are more easily co-opted than others. We do not have any arguments for a strict hierarchy of which activities are superior to others, but we are somewhat sympathetic to Horras’s impulse that electoralism presents dangers that perhaps something like tenants organizing would not. (Though the point is limited, since even if Maisano granted it, he might still argue that the potential reward outweighed the risk.)
Beyond electoralism, the main point of departure for Maisano and Horras is the role of self-defense, particularly via arms. There is a tendency in Maisano’s camp to paint anyone to the left of their Bernie/M4A strategy as reckless adventurists. Maisano seemingly overstates the importance of paramilitary organizing in Horras’s argument. However, it is worth noting that this question is a primary one that separates the two sides, because otherwise it is not all that clear where the disagreement lies.
Horras claims that “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.” Does this not apply tenfold to the prospects of revolution? Maisano argues that “in emphasizing the staggering military and repressive capacities of the contemporary capitalist state, Horras undermines his own case for arming up.” This is absolutely true. Anyone serious about building armed forces has to confront the sheer power of the policing and surveillance apparatuses of the United States government (not to mention the armed “patriots” and fascists of the exurbs and rural areas). Furthermore, an insurrectionary strategy would be a foregone failure without serious organizing within the U.S. military, which is not being done right now, nor is it clear that such organizing would even be possible in a voluntary army.
Armed self-defense would be a much more modest pursuit than an insurrectionary strategy, but even this does not currently seem in the cards. While Horras may be theoretically committed to armed self-defense, this work has not been prioritized within Philly Socialists or the Marxist Center. It seems even less likely that something like a tenants’ union would ever take up such work. Very few socialist organizations in the U.S. have ever had an armed wing: even the Communist Party USA never had a paramilitary. The Black Panther Party is famous for arming up, but while the BPP was inspirational and in some ways very successful, it was a very short-lived organization and a far cry from a viable model for any kind of armed self-defense strategy. At any rate, it was an exception rather than the rule.
Although there is always a possibility of a civil war, we think Horras overstates the case of its likelihood in the near future. We also worry that the idea that we may need to “quickly pivot toward an all-or-nothing struggle for power or else face utter annihilation” could engender an organizational culture of paranoia, sectarianism, and delusions of grandeur. This kind of catastrophizing has historically resulted in overcommitment and burnout, though to be fair, preferable alternatives don’t seem obvious in historical example nor in our intuition.
Both Horras and Maisano argue that the primary point of various reforms and political organizing is to build working-class power. Both sides are united in the recognition of the need to amass forces, but their methods differ on how best to do so in this period. We are inclined to be skeptical of both “all-in for Bernie” and “start stockpiling weapons now” strategies, putting more importance on, for instance, tenant and workplace organizing, with an aim toward cohering an “historical bloc” (Gramsci) of the working class and dispossessed. But the question remains, what are these forces to do, once amassed?
May, 1968: French students and workers have taken to the streets in one of the greatest upheavals the imperialist core has ever seen. Rioters erect barricades by tearing up street pavement stone, only to find that the stones had been placed on top of sand. Thus, the slogan “Sous les pavés, la plage!” (“Under the paving stones, the beach!”).
The question that both Horras and Maisano have attempted to answer is: how do we get to socialism? This is the most difficult, abstract strategic question that socialists can pose. It is a utopian question insofar as it posits a distant future where everything is different and attempts to work backwards from there. Perhaps the more pertinent question is, what do we do in this juncture? In other words, the concrete analysis of a concrete situation.
It would be easy for one to argue as follows: “as socialists, we must advocate socialism. Especially considering the impending ecological collapse, we must act now. Only socialism can save us.” It may very well be true that only socialism is capable of preventing climate catastrophe. However, even if we accept this claim, a normative commitment to socialist transition (via insurrection or otherwise) does not automatically imply its historical possibility or strategic viability. We would counter that a conjunctural analysis rather than utopian endgoal is a more effective and realistic starting point for developing socialist strategy today.
By “conjunctural analysis,” we mean an evaluation of the balance of forces within a given political moment. We find it fruitful to conceive of history in terms of cycles of struggle rather than necessarily building towards a final confrontation between classes. Political moments thus can be viewed as “chaotic processes in which many different actors have to take sides in relation to political upheavals, the collapse of the economic order, and the various new forces that arise amid all this.” When cycles of struggle come to a head, previously unimagined numbers of people may be set into motion, and social and political blocs shift in unpredictable ways. It was in this way that, for instance, the U.S. Civil War (a political crisis in many ways instigated by intransigent militant minorities on both sides) transformed from a war to keep the South in the Union into a revolutionary war to end slavery, in which the Black proletariat played the decisive role. Similar crises unfolded in the U.S. in the 1930s and late ‘60s. When shifting landscapes open new possibilities, we organize for 1) the most progressive “left exit” from the crisis, and 2) the greatest conservation of forces leading into inevitable demobilizations and the genesis of new cycles of struggle. In this way, we can view social revolution (whether achieved by insurrectionary or democratic road) as a resolution, usually the most decisively progressive, to a cycle of struggle; but it is not, alas, the end of the road.
At the same time, it is important that we acknowledge both that very little about this political moment is under our control, and that we should not underestimate the creativity and fighting capacity of the working class, which often catches us off guard. (Who could have predicted the Ferguson and Baltimore riots?) Neither side of the debate seems to take much stock in what is happening outside of the organized left. While Maisano notes teachers’ strikes and “electoral insurgency,” Horras only appeals to an ill-defined “class consciousness.” Both sides fail to interpret the wave of riots in the last decade and other instances of “spontaneous” self-activity.
To focus on a small layer of activists is a dangerous game. All sides of this debate can be prone to an inflated sense of self-importance, as if sheer organizing effort or simply possessing Correct Ideas gives us a mandate to be “leaders” of the struggle. This is crucial: we cannot understand our situation without looking to the class itself. As this political moment unfolds, it is imperative that we look not just to what “the left” or the activist scene is doing, but more importantly what the working class is doing. Where is it in motion? Where is it most unified, where is it most fragmented? Who is engaged in militant struggles?
The racial character of U.S. capitalism is crucial to understanding the dynamics of the class: historically the working class in the United States has not functioned in a unified fashion. Even while white workers were not participating in race riots, pogroms, and hate-strikes, the progressive white movements were largely detached from their oppressed nationality counterparts. It is deeply problematic to refer to an undifferentiated “working class” in the United States where race is a fundamental division within society, both in terms of generalized social segregation and in terms of white chauvinism among the class. We favor an integrated approach to class and socialism that takes account of the contours of race, gender, and nation. This is especially crucial in the United States in 2019, given the importance of border regimes and global value chains in maintaining the capitalist world order.
In short, we advocate moving this debate from long- to short- and medium-term goals, or at least integrating the latter into any discussion of the former. We believe debates on our relationship to the Democratic Party, elections, progressive elected officials, the labor bureaucracy, and the nonprofit industrial complex would clarify points of departure and agreement. A new State debate may also benefit this discussion, since both sides largely base their arguments on an analysis of the U.S. state apparatus and the prospects for utilizing its democratic institutions. And there remains much work to be done in theorizing how to overcome the demobilization of popular forces even after a rupture, including pushing beyond the ossification of socialist State forces and restructuring the relationship between socialist governments, parties, and movements.
To paraphrase Karl Marx: what we have to deal with here is a socialist movement, not as it has developed on its own foundations, but, on the contrary, just as it emerges from the defeat of 20th century Communism. It is not obvious where this movement is headed, whether it has the potential to transform society, or even whether it will cohere into anything beyond a footnote in a 21st century of political, economic, and ecological degradation. We must “drill down” to the self-activity of the working class itself, rather than overstating the role of socialist ideologues. Let’s hope that as battle lines are drawn and barricades erected, we will find our own beach beneath the paving stones of these carefully laid roads to power.
One might divide those interested in Socialism into two distinct camps: On the one hand, those farsighted thinkers who are seeking to determine from the facts of modern industrial organization just what the outcome is going to be; on the other hand, those who suffer from the present industrial situation and who are anxious that, whatever the broad outcome may be, at any rate the present suffering which they know so well shall be stopped.— W.E.B. DuBois, “Socialism and the Negro Problem” (1913)
Avery Minnelli is a member of Philly Socialists. El Levin
is a member of Red Bloom Communist Collective. Together, they run The
 As a point of information, Philly Socialists actually has a resolution that prevents the organization from supporting any electoral campaigns, socialist or otherwise.
 Phil A. Neel, Hinterland: America’s New Landscape of Class and Conflict (2018)