No substitute needed
American socialists in rapture over Enough is Enough want to avoid the hard work and clear political lines necessary to establish a revolutionary party, says Daniel Lazare
The Weekly Worker is open to diverse viewpoints, but it is not often that it publishes articles saying one thing and the opposite in a single issue. But that is what occurred two weeks ago when regular contributor James Harvey and Shuvu Bhattarai, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America from New York, held forth on ‘Enough is Enough’ - the anti-austerity movement that Mick Lynch and Eddy Dempsey of Britain’s RMT transport union have kicked off, along with Dave Ward of the Communication Workers Union, Greater Manchester mayor Andrew Burnham and left Labour MP Zarah Sultana.
One account was sceptical, the other adulatory. Here is what Harvey had to say about Enough is Enough in the issue’s lead article:
… to imagine that such a top-down, lowest common denominator campaign represents a new dawn, a step in the direction of breaking with the Labour Party, that would be foolish in the extreme. On the contrary, Enough is Enough will deliver masses of people into the hands of the Labour Party, albeit with the hope that Sir Keir [Starmer] can be replaced at some point by Andy Burnham - a consummate New Labour careerist under Tony Blair and then Gordon Brown, who is now busily reinventing himself as the leader of the acceptable Labour Party left.1
Now here is how Bhattarai described the same group:
While the demands of Enough is Enough do not cover the growing threat of nuclear war, the issue of police violence or the undemocratic structure of the UK government and constitution, it is an excellent starting point for a mass, democratic, workers’ organisation, which can take the initiative to grow and develop its political direction through debate and discussion among its membership.2
So which is it - an “excellent starting point” or a “top-down, lowest common denominator” outfit whose ultimate aim is to increase “the acceptable Labour Party left”? Whose assessment of Enough is Enough is correct, Harvey’s or Bhattarai’s?
The answer is the former. Harvey is entirely right to be wary of a protest movement that concentrates on economics, so as to steer clear of the major political questions of the day, while Bhattarai’s misconceived approach is a sterling example of what is wrong with the self-deluded, class-collaborationist politics of the American ‘left’. On paper, Bhattarai’s DSA is huge, with membership somewhere around 100,000. But it is so politically and ideologically weak that it is liable to crumble at the first sign of danger - much as Syriza, Podemos and Jeremy Corbyn did in 2015-20. If it manages to keep itself afloat, it will only be because the Democrat establishment has no problem with a fringe milieu that does not cause trouble and whose only function is to shore up its leftwing flank.
The important thing about the DSA is that it is not a socialist organisation that happened to fall victim to the sin of class collaborationism. Rather, it is a quasi-socialist group whose raison d’être is to prove that leftists can find a place for themselves in the Democratic ‘big tent’.
The strategy goes back to the Popular Front of the 1930s; to the Trotskyist-turned-cold warrior, Max Shachtman, DSA direct progenitor, whose ‘third camp’ Independent Socialist League began endorsing Democratic candidates in the late 1940s, and to the ex-Catholic Michael Harrington, who argued in the 1960s and 70s that the Democrats represented the “left wing of realism” and that social democrats should make it their home to avoid turning into yet more sectarian leftists - ie, what Woody Allen described as “one of those guys with saliva dribbling out of his mouth who wanders into a cafeteria with a shopping bag screaming about socialism”.
Besides, everyone knew, according to Harrington, that a “new class” of university graduates was moving to the fore, one whose opposition to racism, sexism and the war was moralistic rather than class-based.3 So why not drop all that Marxist guff about workers of the world and align oneself with people who really count at academic conferences, Washington think tanks and TV news shows?
Such was the DSA strategy, when Harrington helped form it in 1982. But what has the effect been since? Has all that Democratic ‘entryism’ won the party over to socialism or some left-liberal equivalent?
The answer is no. DSA’s impact has been nil. In 1984, it endorsed the candidacy of Walter Mondale, vice-president under the Carter administration, whose goal was to turn the Persian Gulf into an American lake, while channelling guns and money to the Afghan mujahideen. In 1988, it endorsed Democrat Mike Dukakis - a man so desperate to demonstrate his macho credentials that he distributed a campaign photo of his helmeted head popping out of a 68-ton M1 Abrams tank.
DSA was cool to Bill Clinton, to its credit, although it is unclear whether it officially endorsed him or not. It took no stance with regard to the ineffably bland Al Gore, when he ran against George W Bush in 2000. But it backed John Kerry four years later, on the grounds that doing so would allow “progressives [to] aggressively pressur[e] an administration that owed its victory to democratic mobilization from below” - this despite the fact that Kerry had voted for the invasion of Iraq just two years earlier.4
The DSA also backed Barack Obama, even though his limited and partial anti-Iraq stance contained more than a few hints of trouble to come. (While rejecting the upcoming invasion as “dumb” and “rash” at a Chicago anti-war rally in October 2002, he also said that Saddam Hussein had “thwarted UN inspection teams, developed chemical and biological weapons, and coveted nuclear capacity”, all of which was untrue.)5
The result was to neutralise the left, while making it all the easier for US imperialism to engage in violence every bit as extreme as anything unleashed by Dubya. This included the Nato air war on Libya in March 2011, the jihadi invasion of Syria a few months later, and then the US-backed Saudi air war against Yemen in 2015. In his final year in office, Obama dropped more than 26,000 bombs on seven countries - all of them Muslim, needless to say - while establishing special-forces bases in 138 nations, which is more than double the number during the final years of the preceding Bush administration.6
This is what “critical support” has wrought: a dramatic increase in US aggression. But, instead of pausing to reconsider, the DSA has continued down the same path. This is why Bhattarai celebrates Enough is Enough: because its purely economistic approach - its demands are limited to raising wages, reducing energy bills, ending food poverty, providing decent homes for all, and so on - allows it and its American admirers to continue steering clear of painful and difficult issues, such as Starmer’s Stalinesque purge of anti-Zionists, the Ukrainian war or the role of the Supreme Court in the US.
The approach is popular because it is easy. Bhattarai informs us that Enough is Enough shows that “an organisation gaining the support of hundreds of thousands or even millions can be built in a short period of time if it is able to tap into the general needs and desires of working people through a concrete plan and has the pre-existing activist forces necessary to spread news of this far and wide”. It is proof, he goes on, that “all that it takes is a militant minority coalition with an already existing activist base and mass media ties to build such a movement” (original emphasis).
Overthrowing the ruling class is just a matter of enlisting a sufficient number of activist groups and media contacts - there is no need for a revolutionary party, for political theory, for constitutional critiques, for cultural criticism, or for any of those other measures leading to ‘the paralysis of analysis’. All it takes is gathering signatures on a petition. Thus, Bhattarai reports that Enough is Enough “has gained over 450,000 supporters” in a matter of weeks:
This bears repeating - over 450,000 in 16 days since its launch. Furthermore, its gravity is attracting several unions and other organisations, MPs and even celebrities to offer support. The campaign is planning over 50 rallies over the next month.
Hence his idea for a US version built around “a working people’s bill of rights” that calls for
increasing the minimum wage and tying it to inflation, repealing Taft Hartley and passing the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, concretising abortion rights into federal law, passing Medicare for All and a Green New Deal, instituting rent caps, cutting taxes on the working people, while increasing taxes on the rich, community control of policing, etc.
Except that repealing the Taft Hartley reactionary anti-labour legislation dating from 1947 does not stand a chance in a legislative body as unrepresentative and undemocratic as the US Congress, while any attempt to restore abortion rights following the repeal of Roe v Wade will almost certainly run foul of an increasingly reactionary Supreme Court.
Bhattarai also calls for a “socialist constitution” - something that a bill of rights will supposedly help popularise. But, while this also sounds nice, it completely ignores how revolutionary such a step would be. And “revolutionary” in this sense does not refer to a new iPhone or ice-cream flavour, but to the real thing: ie, a world-transformative event on the scale of the French or Russian Revolution - but even greater, thanks to America’s hegemonic role. The idea that it would come about merely as a result of “various progressive forces in the country - socialist organisations like the DSA, labour unions, progressive parties, etc” - gathering together in what Bhattarai describes as a “working peoples’ union” is ludicrous. Numbers alone do not add up to fundamental political change. Rather, it takes mobilisation, sustained propaganda, a revolutionary leadership, and the construction of a strong and cohesive movement. Has anyone out there so much as dipped into Lenin’s What is to be done?
Finally, there is Bhattarai’s characterisation of the Democrats as a party “held captive by pro-corporate and capitalist interests” - one that, as a result, is “repeatedly proving itself as an ineffective vehicle”, when it comes to “represent[ing] the interests of the country’s working people at the national level”.
This suggests that the Dems are capable of doing better and that the DSA’s job is to set them free from all those evil corporate forces holding them back. The implication is that the Democrats are “a bourgeois workers’ party”, to quote Harvey’s (and Lenin’s) description of Labour. But they are not - they are a bourgeois party through and through: one whose roots go all the way back to the Democratic-Republican Party founded by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison in 1792. While Jeffersonians claimed to fight on behalf of farmers and labourers against Alexander Hamilton and his fellow upper-class Federalists, their real goal was to mobilise such forces in support of the southern plantocracy. Democratic-Republicans gave rise to the ferociously racist “Jacksonian democracy” of the 1820s and 30s, to northern “Copperhead” opposition to the Civil War, and then to the New York City draft riots in July 1863, in which Irish Democrats lynched, beat and hacked to death more than 100 black people.
Indeed, ‘Jefferson-Jackson dinners’ were a feature of the Democratic fundraising circuit until around 2012, when the Dems decided that the name was embarrassing and started calling them ‘unity dinners’ instead. Since jettisoning their old ‘Dixiecrat’ wing, the party now consists of academics, feminists, labour bureaucrats, black political bosses, ‘community activists’ (ie, political bosses in the making), plus huge numbers of neocons who are more powerful than ever. The society they have helped create is one marked by economic polarisation, hysterical, ‘woke’ liberalism and a ceaseless march to war - first in Ukraine and now in the western Pacific.
Turning a motley crew like this into even the mildest sort of labour party is akin to turning the Catholic church into an outpost of Sunni Islam - not completely impossible, perhaps, but unlikely in the extreme.
That is the hard truth that the DSA was created to ignore and that people like Bhattarai persist in treating as if it did not exist. But how long can the DSA go on ignoring the obvious?
‘Expect broken promises’ Weekly Worker September 1: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1408/expect-broken-promises.↩︎
‘Follow the UK example’ Weekly Worker September 1: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1408/follow-the-uk-example.↩︎
‘Max Shachtman and his legacy’ Workers’ Liberty August 30 2012: www.workersliberty.org/story/2012/08/30/max-shachtman-and-his-legacy.↩︎
See N Turse, ‘The year of the commando’, January 5 2017: www.commondreams.org/views/2017/01/05/year-commando; and M Zenko and J Wilson, ‘How many bombs did the United States drop in 2016?’, Council on Foreign Relations, January 5 2017: www.cfr.org/blog/how-many-bombs-did-united-states-drop-2016.↩︎