Which Way to Socialism?

“Railroad at Murnau,” Wassily Kandinsky

In his recent article “Goodbye Revolution?” Tim Horras criticizes the main tendencies of the resurgent socialist movement for encouraging “the subtle degradation of the prospects of revolution in North America” and sowing electoral illusions among a new generation of radicals. As one of the leading figures in the “base-building” tendency associated with the Marxist Center network, Horras makes a welcome intervention into political and strategic debates currently happening on the socialist left. His article represents one of the clearest arguments yet to be made in favor of his tendency’s strategic perspective. It raises a number of important issues that anyone committed to democratic socialist politics needs to reckon with.

But Horras’s article ultimately fails to advance a compelling alternative to the politics of democratic socialism. Instead of the clear-eyed expression of revolutionary realism it purports to be, it is a recipe for self-imposed isolation from the very base Horras wants to build.

By questioning the notion that there is a democratic road to socialism, Horras seeks to vindicate a classically Leninist conception of revolution: “to achieve socialism in North America it will be necessary to smash the old regime” to establish “some form of cooperative commonwealth” that replaces the existing state with entirely new institutions.

Horras’s argument rests on two propositions. The first proposition is that “if we extrapolate current economic and political trends into the future” we will see that the current order is quite possibly heading toward terminal crisis (these trends, however, are left unexamined). The second is that since “every democratic socialist government has been overthrown by force in those cases it hasn’t immediately sold out,” socialists should downplay elections and other modes of political activity that ostensibly accept the legitimacy of the capitalist state.

Horras then makes his wager. The mission of socialist revolutionaries today is “to prepare ourselves and our class for the emergence of a revolutionary crisis,” which “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” to avoid reintegration into a capitalist regime.

As we wait for the crisis to come, socialists should “begin planning for any number of unexpected occurrences” by building up “institutions of community self-defense,” particularly mutual aid programs and armed paramilitary organizations. The latter are needed today, according to Horras, because we must begin now to prepare ourselves for “the all-or-nothing struggle for power” — in other words, for civil war — “or else face utter annihilation.”

This is not a politics of revolutionary realism but rather catastrophic expectation. While Horras talks about the need for mass organization as well, it’s difficult to see how his approach will result in anything but political and social isolation from the millions of working people we want to attract to our movement. The fatal irony of his position is that the strategic orientation he advocates would keep the socialist movement too small and too isolated to successfully take advantage of the kind of crisis situation it depends upon.

No Illusions

Horras invokes Lenin’s dictum that strategy must be grounded in a concrete analysis of a concrete situation. I couldn’t agree more, and a concrete analysis of the political context we operate in today leads necessarily to the politics of democratic socialism.

Horras doesn’t explicitly advance a theory of the capitalist state in the article, but one is clearly implied. The state appears in Horras’s accounting as a fortress that is basically immune to popular influence or control. In the specific case of the U.S. state, the counter-majoritarian bias of the constitution is backed up by a vast apparatus of military, police, and security forces that employ millions of people, uniformed and civilian alike. Without a strategy capable of facing down such a powerful force, Horras contends, any democratic socialist government serious about implementing its program is doomed to an early grave.

Democratic socialists should have no illusions concerning the repressive power the ruling class possesses, nor its willingness to use it through the state and private channels. Our movement has been subjected to political repression since its beginning, and in every country regardless of the nature of its political regime. In this sense, Horras is absolutely correct to remind us that the road to power in even the most formally democratic countries will be met with strong resistance at every step.

But in emphasizing the staggering military and repressive capacities of the contemporary capitalist state, Horras undermines his own case for arming up. First, and most obviously, any leftist political organization that engages in open paramilitary activity will quickly subject itself to a level of surveillance, infiltration, and harassment that will drive many people away while attracting provocateurs and adventurers. If the goal is to build a base for socialist politics, this seems like one of the least effective means of achieving it.

Further, the massive expansion of the capitalist state’s military, policing, and infrastructural power since the world wars means that we must rely even more heavily on all of the democratic means of organization and action that are available to us. Engels — no advocate of legality at any price — recognized this dynamic over a century ago, well before the emergence of nuclear-armed national security states. Huge innovations in technology, military tactics, and urban planning have all strengthened the hand of the state and its armed forces against any potential insurrection. Standing armies have grown dramatically, the development of national transportation networks makes it much easier for governments to move troops and quickly suppress rebellions, and the development of ever more deadly weapons means that armed rebels will always be outgunned.

Instead of fighting on the terrain most favorable to opponents, socialists should take full advantage of the political rights and freedoms that have been won through decades of bitter struggle — and fight for the furthest expansion of these rights and freedoms possible.

Political Action is Key

Together with the organized labor movement, political parties and electoral politics are the most important weapons in this regard. For better or worse, elections are the political arena that ordinary Americans engage with the most. In a formal democracy like the U.S., electoral campaigning and representation is perceived as the normal form of political activity by the vast majority, despite the fact that popular enthusiasm for the system is typically quite low. Any political project aspiring to mass status needs to maintain an ongoing electoral expression if it wants to persist and become a common reference point for popular struggles outside the electoral arena.

This is especially true in the current period, when unions and mass-membership organizations have declined in size and strength. We should therefore be skeptical of the schematic and stagist conception of political organization associated with the base-building tendency: first the social base, then the political party. With the level of social organization at historic lows despite the exciting upsurge in teachers’ strikes, electoral insurgencies like the Bernie Sanders campaign will continue to play a key role in building that base and promoting the renewal of social organization on a mass scale.

Election campaigns and public offices provide socialists with important opportunities to build our forces and advance our movement. They provide regular opportunities to measure our strength against our rivals, thereby offering a guide to the proper course of action between elections. They give us a reason to talk to as many people as possible, force our opponents to defend their views in the public arena, and provide successful socialist candidates a platform from which to counter opponents and speak to millions. Finally, winning public offices allows the working class to fight its opponents inside the state, and to partially level the field of class struggle on the outside. The value of having even a handful of self-described socialists in public office, particularly at the national level, has been decisively proven by Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Rashida Tlaib. It is simply impossible to make sense of DSA’s dramatic growth or the increasing popularity of socialist politics without reference to these dynamics.

Perhaps most importantly, elections and participation in representative institutions plays a crucial role in constituting classes as collective political subjects. As Carmen Sirianni has argued, parliaments “have been the major national forums for representing class-wide political and economic interests of workers… there was no pristine proletarian public prior to parliament, and the working class did not have a prior existence as a national political class.”

Representative institutions and universal suffrage — almost everywhere won through struggles from below — have allowed workers to form political parties, participate in election campaigns that facilitate organization and communication on a mass scale, and win legislation to encourage and protect working-class institutions. While it would be a mistake to overemphasize the electoral and parliamentary aspects of socialist strategy, making advances in our political context requires a significant degree of electoral legitimization and institutional representation. As such, we need to view the electoral arena as something more than just a space for “tactical engagement” and propaganda campaigns.

I take most of the constraints and limitations of electoral politics Horras enumerates as a given. Socialists have grappled with these problems for well over a century, and there is no clear formula or method for effectively dealing with them — particularly in the U.S., where we still lack membership-based parties that can meaningfully discipline or expel wayward officeholders.

But electoral politics is not unique in this regard. 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.”

What’s more, advocacy of a democratic road to socialism does not entail disavowing actions that break unjust and undemocratic laws or that challenge the premises of the constitutional order. Whatever legal rights the labor movement enjoys today were won, to a significant extent, through activity that was once considered to be illegal. West Virginia teachers still don’t have the legal right to strike, but they did it anyway and won a number of major victories in the process. The strikers explicitly drew on the language and philosophy of the Civil Rights Movement, which mobilized mass action against the legalized brutality of Jim Crow. And of course, the abolitionist movement was often compelled to breach legality to fight enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law and other measures intended to prop up slavery. Mass defiance of unjust laws is often needed to win the rights and freedoms which are a precondition of democratic political activity.

Far from evincing a “preference for peace,” as Horras argues, democratic socialists recognize that none of our goals will be possible without extra-electoral militancy on a mass scale, sometimes in defiance of the law. But we should always prioritize purposeful use of the full repertoire of contentious collective action — election campaigns, strikes, demonstrations, civil disobedience — over armed preparations that invite repression from a state we cannot hope to face down with armed force. Our task is to win as many rights and freedoms as we can to build our movement’s strength to the point that the establishment cannot defeat us on the terrain of democratic politics.

Unavoidable Dilemmas

Faced with this proposition, Horras is certainly right to raise the question of “what then?” Democratic socialists should be humble enough to answer “we don’t quite know” how exactly a victorious outcome — one that overcomes resistance while socializing the economy and preserving political freedom — might be achieved in these circumstances. The problem of reactionary violence cannot be wished away or avoided. We have to reckon with the history of violence that has been visited upon our movement whenever it has seriously contended for power.

But blithe talk about actively preparing for armed struggle and civil war right now, when the socialist movement is still small, fledgling, and vulnerable to all kinds of disruption, is a solution worse than the problem. As Göran Therborn put it, “the experience of Chile hammered home [that] the worst possible course” in dealing with these questions “is to issue violent verbiage from the roof-tops when it cannot be supported by material force.”

Therborn’s examination of the problems of socialist transition provides a useful starting point for thinking through these issues today. As he argues, “the best defense against bourgeois violence, where an unarmed population faces a vigilant repressive apparatus, is undoubtedly a broad and firm popular alliance.” Therborn is perceptive enough, however, to recognize that this correct emphasis on building a popular majority through open and democratic methods tends to preclude practical preparations to deal with the possibility of reactionary violence.

Advanced capitalist states with formally democratic political systems pose particularly formidable strategic dilemmas. In his classic essay on Antonio Gramsci, Perry Anderson identifies the potent combination that makes these states much stronger than feudal autocracies: deterrence plus (limited) democracy. Capitalist industry and technology gives them a more effective means of repression on one hand, and representative institutions give them a higher level of popular legitimacy (or at least acceptance) on the other. This means that they are far less likely to incubate an insurrectionary challenge than feudal-autocratic states like Russia under the tsars. It also means that paramilitary organization will not be seen as legitimate or desirable by the vast majority. So long as people have recourse to some degree of participation in political decision-making, no matter how limited or circumscribed, they will tend to take the path of least resistance. As Jeff Goodwin reminds us in his comprehensive study of twentieth century revolutions, “no popular revolutionary movement, it bears emphasizing, has ever overthrown a consolidated democratic regime” (emphasis his). Ralph Miliband elaborates on why this is the case:

“It is of course possible to attribute this to poverty of leadership, to opportunism, or to treachery, or whatever. But this is to put far too much weight upon leadership and much too little upon the structures and circumstances in which leadership operates. Lenin was possible (though not inevitable) in Russia but not in Germany. It is no good saying that the German revolution would have been successful in 1918 if only there had been a well-organised German Bolshevik/Communist Party in existence, with proper leadership. This may well be so. But there are reasons why there was no such party or leadership, which have very little to do with will and persons and a great deal with structures and circumstances. There is a dialectic between leadership and organisation on the one hand, and structures on the other; but that dialectic cannot possibly produce positive results unless there is a minimal ‘fit’ between them. There has been no such ‘fit’ between revolutionary organisation and leadership and the structures and circumstances of advanced capitalism and bourgeois democracy. Another way of saying this is that advanced capitalism and bourgeois democracy have produced a working class politics which has been non-insurrectionary and indeed anti-insurrectionary; and that this is the rock on which revolutionary organisation and politics have been broken.”

The political environment most conducive to the kind of movement Horras’s would seem to prefer — “societies in which especially repressive and disorganized states possess geographically and socially delimited power” (Goodwin again) — simply does not pertain to our situation today. Unless political and social conditions in the U.S. deteriorate to this level, an eventuality that Horras seems to be expecting and planning for, his approach will not resonate much beyond the already converted. There’s no reason to think that the advocates of “base-building” are not serious about mass organizing, but reconciling this commitment with an emphasis on paramilitary activity will prove impossible to sustain in practice. Preparing now for civil war will render any group which pursues it a small and beleaguered camp regardless of its intentions.

Horras argues that democratic socialists reject the possibility of a rupture with the capitalist system. This might be the case in some instances, but certainly not all. Nicos Poulantzas, for example, accepted the necessity of a rupture (or a series of ruptures, to be precise) but rejected the conception of dual power inherited from the October Revolution. State breakdown or brutal and indiscriminate political repression are the essential ingredients for making insurrection seem feasible and desirable to enough people. In the absence of these circumstances, the two-pronged strategic approach outlined by Poulantzas still emerges as the most viable option: election of a left government (likely over multiple contested elections) mandated to carry out a fundamental transformation of the political economy, coordinated with a movement from below to build new institutions and organizations of popular power in society.

Such a process would not entail smashing the entirety of the existing state apparatus — something Lenin and the Bolsheviks didn’t even try to do after taking power — and replacing it with a counterstate, but deepening democratic participation in politics and the economy and making radical changes to the state’s bureaucratic and administrative structures. Is this vague? Yes. Easier said than done? Absolutely! But this is the set of strategic and tactical problems that socialists living and working in our political context should focus on, think through, and debate — not Mao’s reflections on military strategy. And in focusing on the concrete problems we are likely to face, we will likely find that drawing hard and fast distinctions between “reformists” and “revolutionaries” at this point in our movement’s development does more to cloud our strategic thinking than it does to sharpen it.

A Choice of Wagers

In The Road to Power, Karl Kautsky argued that “there is no such thing as politics without prophesying.” He was right, and any strategy we adopt ultimately comes down to a gamble informed by our analysis of history and the current situation. As Poulantzas recognized, democratic socialism contains “the obvious risk — and everyone is aware of it — that the great majority of the repressive state apparatuses will polarize to the right, and therefore crush the popular movement.” This formulation doesn’t even take into account capital’s main weapon, the economic resistance and sabotage that a democratic socialist movement will face if a break with capitalism is even remotely on the cards. There has never been a dual power or insurrectionary situation in an established formal democracy, but there’s never been a successful democratic transition to socialism either.

Democratic socialism is certainly a wager, but gambling on collapse seems like an even longer shot. Capitalism is a remarkably resilient and adaptive system. People have been predicting its collapse since its earliest days, but it has never been a winning bet. In the 1840s Marx and Engels thought that capitalism was already on its last legs, ready for overthrow by proletarian insurrection. But it survived the revolutionary crisis of 1848 and the many economic crises of the late nineteenth century — as well as the two world wars, the Great Depression, the crisis of the 1970s, and the global financial crash of 2008.

Of course, there is always the gambler’s hope that this time is different. Perhaps climate change or some other shock will play the role of revolutionary midwife that earlier generations assigned to the final crisis of capitalist collapse. This seems like precisely the kind of scenario that Horras is banking on. Who knows — he could turn out to be right! But strategies that hinge on a total collapse of the existing order face extraordinarily long odds, and run the risk of encouraging actions that squander whatever political and organizational resources we manage to build in the meantime. Instead of a strategy predicated on a general breakdown of capitalism, a situation that would likely benefit the most reactionary forces at least as much as the Left, we need a strategy that is capable of making advances in the actual circumstances that we face.

If democratic socialism doesn’t provide a fully satisfying answer to the question of transition, it at least holds the possibility of getting us to the point where asking it will be something more than an academic exercise. Unless and until there is a fundamental change in the context we are compelled to operate in — an advanced capitalist country with representative government and elections — there is no truly viable alternative to the politics of democratic socialism. Any other path will lose contact with the direction of events, isolate us from working people, and bring us back to a place we should never return to — the margins of political life.