A minimum-maximum programme
This is the mission statement of the Marxist Unity Slate - a set of proposals for the 2021 convention of the Democratic Socialists of America. The aim is to achieve democratic discipline and principled election campaigns, as well as uniting Marxists around a vision of a mass working class socialist party
While it is hard to envisage the working class coming to power any time soon, the state of the US left is relatively strong today and there is reason for optimism. Prior to the growth of the Democratic Socialists of America it was a constellation of dogmatic microsects, organised under militarised bureaucratic centralism, and based on an ahistoric caricature of early Bolshevik history. Its replacement by the DSA is a positive development.
The recent blooming of the DSA to over 90,000 members is an historic achievement for socialists in the United States. While we should be hesitant to overstate our victories (90,000 people is only a small minority of the 330 million or so US residents), there have been relatively few points in our history when the organised socialist movement was as influential as it is today.
However, there is a significant gap between a force strong enough to influence the culture in a general way, and the ability of that force to win a majority of the population - ie, the working class - to its programme. Beyond that, the organised socialist movement must implement that programme by seizing political power and abolishing the old order. We must not only match the accomplishments of our comrade predecessors in the Knights of Labor, Socialist Party, Industrial Workers of the World, Communist Party, Students for a Democratic Society, etc, but surpass them and succeed where they failed: build a mass working class party capable of casting off the shackles of the juridical rule of the capitalist class, overturn its slaver constitution and institute the complete sovereignty of the only class capable of delivering true democracy: the proletariat.
Simply put, we have a long way to go.
It’s party time
The primary obstacle facing the working class in accomplishing this goal is the absence of a political party. Ideally, we need a democratic, member-based organisation with a coherent political platform that can field candidates in legislative elections, exert discipline over these candidates, and act as a coherent, independent opposition. We believe that the DSA can and must become this party. Kicking the can down the road on this will only see us squander the current historical conjuncture, where class struggle and awareness are sharply on the rise.
DSA members across the country are steeped in activism - whether on the streets, in their unions or otherwise - yet there is no agreed-upon political vision that can serve as a basis for united action. Without an agreed-upon end-goal and strategy for accomplishing it, our efforts can at best result in a few diffuse oases in the desert of capitalism. If the working class is to win the class war, we must gather our forces and devise a plan before going into battle. There is significant debate within the DSA on the party question, and most recognise the need for, at some point, some sort of workers’ party. But what kind of party would this be, and when and how will it come about? These questions are more ambiguous.
A party is nothing more than an organised political movement. And the DSA can become an organised, independent political movement - right now. No other force will step up to do it. We cannot wait for organised labour. For the most part, unions are under the political control of the Democrats. To revive the labour movement and win rank-and-file union members to our cause, socialists must champion a visible political alternative to the leadership of bourgeois parties: that is, a socialist party.
Rather than a Labor Party built through a future merger with Justice Democrats, Our Revolution, Movement for a People’s Party or other left-progressive groups, we believe the party must emerge from an explicitly socialist organisation. Many of these left-progressives can and likely will join this party, but it must be under the condition of accepting our socialist aims, rather than us accepting a ‘kinder, gentler’ capitalism as the limit of our political vision. There are two fundamental actions the DSA can take to become this party.
First, the DSA should adopt a Marxist minimum-maximum programme. The maximum section would be a short elaboration of the free society we envision for humanity - a future without exploitation, oppression and all other nasty and brutish cornerstones of the prehistory of the human race: in a word, communism.
The minimum section would include our immediate demands. Taken one-by-one, some of these may be achievable reforms under the current constitutional regime (for example, Medicare for all, cancellation of personal debt, etc). Winning one or the other of these would build the confidence and experience of the working class, while giving us a foothold to grow our strength further. But, taken all together, the implementation of our minimum programme would spark a qualitative rupture with the current order and require the convening of a constituent assembly to replace the US constitution, as well as the dissolution of the standing army and national security state. It would institute the democratic republic of the working class - or what Marx called the dictatorship of the proletariat.
Being able to carry out this full minimum programme must be our basic condition for taking any responsibility for government, even at the level of a single department, in order to ensure that, when we come to power, the proletariat comes to power along with us. Until the DSA’s platform is accepted by a majority of the population, our electoral efforts should be focused on gaining a foothold within legislatures as a principled opposition to the liberal-constitutional order: this means no horse-trading for committee appointments, joining coalitions as junior partners or accepting the whip or discipline of the capitalist parties. These are things candidates could do even if they ran under the ballot line of a capitalist party, although we believe the time to prioritise independent campaigns has come.
Luckily, the DSA is currently working on a National Platform that might resemble a Marxist minimum-maximum programme, to be adopted at the 2021 convention: this would be a massive step forward for the DSA, and for the US left as a whole. We will enthusiastically participate in the platform drafting process, advocating for a solid minimum programme to the best of our ability. But, no matter what platform reaches the convention floor, we want it to have teeth. Our three convention proposals are an effort to infuse the DSA’s new platform with power and meaning - even when the text includes things we disagree with.
Secondly, the elected DSA leadership must have political influence, and even disciplinary mechanisms, over the politicians we elect. One of these mechanisms is the platform itself. The other mechanism would be the representatives’ political responsibility to the DSA. In the past, mass socialist parties have kept their elected representatives on the ball in a number of ways. They would be openly critiqued in the party media, and party leaders would write their speeches.
More than anything, once elected, socialist politicians would form a subset of the party usually called a ‘parliamentary fraction’ (or in our case, a legislative fraction). They would regularly meet with the party leadership to discuss how to best carry out the programme, act as a unified bloc, and in the best of circumstances produce a radical opposition to the rule of the capitalist class. Any representatives we get elected must constitute themselves as radical oppositionists and tribunes of the people in the legislature, constantly agitating for the platform.
The term, ‘democratic centralism’, rightly makes many socialists squeamish: its use over the course of the 20th century came to describe the organisational model of dogmatic, bureaucratic sects with insulated leaderships, where openly organising factions and communication between branches was banned. All centralism, no democracy.
Prior to the Russian civil war, however, the principle was consistent with genuine internal party democracy. A massive working class alternative culture erupted in Europe prior to World War I, partly due to the success of radical oppositionists in legislatures. The proximity of elected socialists to the bourgeois halls of power can certainly be a compromising influence - as is well known in the case of World War I, where deputies chose patriotism, in the hope of winning elections, over principled working class internationalism.
But this is not the inherent outcome of a socialist legislative fraction - we should not forget that August Bebel and Wilhelm Liebknecht - members of the same German socialist party infamous for backing World War I - had decades before risked everything, even against the advice of Marx and Engels, to oppose the Franco-Prussian War.
Our slate hopes to build support for two ideas within the DSA: first, that the political platform is what unites us in our long-term vision for socialism; and, second, that we use our platform as a way to hold elected DSA members accountable to the socialist movement first and foremost.
Our amendment to the DSA constitution, ‘Defining the role of DSA’s national political platform’, makes acceptance of the national political platform the basis for membership in the DSA. Our first resolution, ‘Tribunes of the people and democratic discipline’, would make the DSA’s national endorsement of candidates contingent on a series of conditions to make the candidate accountable to the DSA. Our last resolution, ‘A socialist slate for the House’, offers an executable strategy for a coordinated DSA campaign to build a principled socialist fraction in the House of Representatives. We hope to receive your support for this slate at this year’s convention.
If we want the working class to rule society, we should focus on quality over quantity in electoral victories. We can go further than building a broad Labor Party: instead, we should forge a mass Socialist Party with a Marxist programme. We must elect members to Congress to agitate for our programme, and struggle to gain a foothold as a principled opposition - an organised beachhead from where we can build a true majority of support and take real power.
Marxist Unity believes our slate is a small step to help the DSA achieve that goal.
The proposals can be read and signed at marxistunity.com. We encourage any Weekly Worker readers who are DSA members to consider signing, to help get these proposals to the floor of the DSA’s convention this summer.