For a disciplined revolutionary party
Marxist Unity Group founding congress report and perspectives
The September 17-18 founding congress of the Marxist Unity Group was an important step forward for the left in the United States.
A group of comrades connected with Cosmonaut and the Democratic Socialists of America have been working closely together over the last year in order to bring about this event. Their perspectives, which we publish below, aim to “unite the advanced section of the class around a programme for working class rule through a democratic republic (opposed to the present undemocratic liberal-constitutional regime) as a means of achieving socialism.” As they say, this “will require uniting the Marxists in the DSA around programmatic communist politics and pulling in the scattered left groups - all of whose independent efforts to form a direct link to the masses result in their common frustration”.
The first act of the Marxist Unity Group following its congress has been to openly publish its perspectives and invite debate. And there is much there to discuss. The fact that the comrades have put political tasks and “winning the battle for democracy” at the heart of their agenda is very much to be welcomed. It is essential for the working class movement to understand the nature of the state it lives under and the role of the constitution.
The United States is not a democracy, but it does have elections. Those elections can be used to popularise the Marxist programme and get representatives elected who can expose the crimes, hypocrisy and lies of the Republican-Democrat duopoly. Therefore the need for the strict accountability of all elected DSA representatives.
It was clear to me as an observer that a number of political formulations within the perspectives need further debate. The attitude towards leftwing groups and individuals who support the arming of Ukraine is one. The position set out in the perspectives is good, but there were clearly differences that need more airing. Comrades should not be worried about having differences. Indeed it is essential that debates are sharp, in order to reach clarity and achieve a principled position. A regular publication, opening its pages to full debate on the tasks of creating a mass party, is essential to this task.
Comrades in the US who have not yet orientated to this initiative need to take the opportunity to do so now. This is a call to overcome the divisions which have dogged the left and unite on the highest level for the mass party the US working class needs so urgently
1. The triumph of neoliberal capitalism over bureaucratic socialism in 1989-91 ushered in a global period of reaction with unique features. In other historic periods of reaction and counterrevolution, in which the forces of the ruling class gained the upper hand, the consequence was harsh, explicit and violent repression of the forces of the proletariat, especially its political arm in the form of socialist and communist parties. However, in this special period, the main feature has not been overt repression of the socialist and communist movements, but their wholesale dismissal as an irrelevant fringe with no significant role in political life. Communist politics no longer carry the same weight in working class existence as they did, even in a bureaucratised and diminished fashion, during most of the 20th century.
2. The onset of this political climate is related to an earlier and deeper capitulation of much of the left to nationalism, reformism and bureaucratic statism. Other sections fell into fragmentation, with a constellation of sects tailing the spontaneity of the street or strike action du jour, or either the liberal or conservative nationalist wing of the bourgeoisie. However, one source of hope in this period of reaction is that the breakdown of the 20th century left has opened up a new moment of intellectual reflection in Marxism, which allows for a reworking of the whole history of the workers’ movement at a distance from the debates of the previous century. This reworking provides the clarity necessary for the development of a political strategy adequate to the task of proletarian emancipation. This is a broad process that has impacted the entire Marxist milieu, but in the United States the magazine Cosmonaut has dedicated itself to this purpose.
3. This is a highly promising process, but it is occurring within a rump, isolated and divided Marxist left. The class-consciousness of the proletariat in the United States and other imperialist countries remains low overall due to the string of political and economic defeats it has suffered. Nevertheless, there are some signals that conditions are ripe for it to rise again.
4. What is left of Marxism forms one contingent of a new political left that has emerged, since the 2008 financial crisis shattered the illusions of many that 1989-91 constituted the end of history and that neoliberal capitalism had proven itself to be the only possible future mode of organisation for human society. In the United States, this reanimated left has progressed in stages from the disorganised street protests of Occupy Wall Street to the attempt at political intervention through the two Bernie Sanders campaigns for the presidency, to the current iteration of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) - its most advanced form at present. The two major waves of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2014-15 and 2020 also contributed to the development of nascent revolutionary consciousness in this period.
5. From a partyist perspective - as a common organisation with a relatively democratic political culture, the DSA represents a step above the movement that formed around Bernie Sanders as an individual presidential candidate. Its explosive growth and repudiation of the Harringtonite legacy in the form of its exit from the scab Socialist International, its support for the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel, and other examples, leave its future undetermined. Many of the leftwing organisations have escaped their isolation by regrouping within the DSA.
6. The trade union movement in the United States and most of the world is weak. Union density is closer to the early 20th century than at any time in the post-1945 era of capital-labour compromise, which formed part of US imperialism’s containment strategy, aimed at curtailing the influence of the USSR. We live in the aftermath of the subsequent rollback strategy executed to break this compromise after it had outlived its utility for the capitalist class. The labour bureaucracy in what is left of the trade unions does not stand for the organisation of the class for itself, but primarily for its own privileged position as mediators between the companies and their unions. The US labour movement’s leadership is unflinchingly tied to the capitalist Democratic Party, despite this party’s repeated betrayals and loyalty to finance capital.
7. However, gains are at present being made by young workers forming unions at major private-sector workplaces, such as Starbucks, Amazon, Trader Joe’s and others. There is promise of multiple large-scale strikes in already unionised parts of the transportation and logistics industries in the near future.
8. The DSA has been successful in building a presence in the leftwing and ‘reform’ elements of the US labour movement, but avoids pursuing a higher merger of socialism and the workers’ movement by fighting for its socialist political programme within the unions, in order to transform them into schools of communism - instead limiting itself to reform agitation. Socialists should openly fight on capping bureaucrat salaries at the average wage, instituting a right to recall officers, and welding the fractured labour movement together to fight for all workers, employed and unemployed. The Democratic Socialist Labor Commission should seek to play the role of the Trade Union Educational League, built by the Workers (Communist) Party of America in the 1920s, whose mission was to develop labour organisations into organs of militant struggle against capitalism, expose the reactionary labour bureaucrats and educate the workers to militant unionism, including by creating a worker-orientated publication that is explicitly socialist. The publication would provide agitation and propaganda as a forum for socialist labour organisers to study militant union strategy and democratic union reforms.
9. What is needed to qualitatively alter the position of the working class movement, to give coherence to these budding developments, is the forging of a genuine mass Communist Party. Such a party would unite the advanced section of the class around a programme for working class rule through a democratic republic (as opposed to the present undemocratic liberal-constitutional regime) as a means of achieving socialism, and to structure an effective unity in action for all communists, while its press would be open to debate the important strategic and tactical questions that face our class.
10. Achieving such a party will require uniting the Marxists in the DSA around programmatic communist politics and pulling in the scattered left groups - all of whose independent efforts to form a direct link to the masses result in their common frustration.
11. One conception of the path forward for socialists that has purchase in the DSA is the necessity of forming a (bourgeois) Labour Party or an equivalent ‘new mass organisation’. This sort of party is meant to capture the political base of Bernie Sanders and the ‘Squad’ without being programmatically committed to socialism or a break with the constitutional order through which the capitalist class rules. An organisation like this would not fulfil the essential purpose of a working class political party to represent the interests of the class on questions of high politics and constitutional issues and to present a comprehensive and desirable alternative to capitalist class rule in the form of working class leadership of the society.
12. The argument for this organisation is a combination of economism - by drawing the Bernie base into struggle for ‘bread and butter’ economic demands, they can be led by the nose into supporting socialism - and a supposition that the only sort of party worth building is one that could be an immediate party of government - since Bernie is the most popular politician in the United States and wins presidential matchup polls, he could create a new party with as much support as the established bourgeois parties. Of course, such a party in government would behave exactly as its British equivalent has, every time it has captured Number 10. A working class party without a clear minimum programme for the dictatorship of the proletariat, which seeks to be an immediate party of government, is doomed to demonstrate its safety for the capitalist class. In this way the logic of Jeremy Corbyn’s insistence that he could lead Labour into government concluded with Starmer’s purge of leftwingers and anti-Zionists. A genuine Communist Party would seek to act as a principled party of opposition, until it was able to win a majority for its programme of radical democracy in a political crisis. However, it would be sectarian to oppose the formation of a bourgeois Labour Party if there were organic elements of the class moving in that direction, and socialists should seek full affiliation to it in that event in order to fight for the adoption of socialist politics.
13. A major defect of the DSA at present is its lack of control over its elected politicians by the membership as a whole and its relationship to the Democratic Party. There are many flaws with the DSA’s national political platform, but also much in it of great merit. Unfortunately, the DSA’s coalitionist approach to the Democratic Party makes discussion of the platform’s merits and flaws moot, since it is not the DSA’s platform, but the limits of what is acceptable to the Democratic leadership, that determines what DSA candidates can campaign on.
14. Relatedly, in spite of the bold stance the DSA has taken as an organisation in total opposition to the United States’ alliance with Israel, its client apartheid state in the Middle East, and to US arms shipments and the proxy war in Ukraine, DSA members in Congress are free to signal that they are ‘safe’ for US imperialism by voting in its interests. Thus, late last year the DSA’s national political committee congratulated itself on preserving its relationship with representative Jamaal Bowman of New York after members called for him to be disciplined for voting in favour of billions of dollars of funding for Israel’s ‘iron dome’. Bowman repaid their leniency by announcing afterward that he would gladly vote the same way again, and the DSA’s reputation as an opponent of Zionist oppression of Palestinians has suffered. Likewise, every DSA member in Congress has shamefully sided with militarism in voting for tens of billions of dollars in arms shipments for the US proxy war in Ukraine.
15. The United States/Nato proxy war in Ukraine represents the continuation of a decades-long project of attempting to encircle Russia and eliminate it as a military threat. The United States courted Ukraine with illusory west European standards of living and the allure of Nato membership to entice it into the imperialist geopolitical camp. It stoked the far-right Ukrainian nationalist movement, which imposed chauvinist language and nationality policies on the Russian ethnic and language minority. All of this was in the service of completing the process of the subordination of the Russian economy to US interests that began with the ‘shock therapy’ applied after the collapse of the USSR. In a wider perspective, the aim is to deprive China, the main threat to US global domination, of an important ally. Those on the left who back arms shipments and line up behind the American proxy are social-imperialists. They mask practical support for their own government’s interests in seductive phraseology. Those who support the Russian invasion of Ukraine are similarly deluded, but far less prominent. Communists ought to stand against arms shipments, against the existence of Nato, against the presence of Russian troops, and for the right of self-determination of both the Ukrainian nation and the Russian speakers of the Donbas - with an understanding that the main enemy lies at home.
16. We are witnessing an overall escalation of the rivalry between China and the United States, particularly with the emergence of a ‘new cold war’ mentality in sections of the US ruling class. This has manifested itself in protectionist economic policies around intellectual property and signals from the United States that it is willing to challenge the long-standing ‘One China’ policy in relation to Taiwan, which formed the basis of US-China detente starting in 1972. As in the case of Ukraine, there are those on the left who cover for the interests of US imperialism in relation to Taiwan, casting the question as one of national self-determination rather than cold war political division.
17. In domestic US politics, as in other English-speaking countries, there is an ‘official’ anti-racism, anti-sexism, and pro-LGBT ideology, with backing from elements of the capitalist class and the state - particularly in the Democratic Party and the institutions of the bourgeois academy. These ideologies are ultimately pro-capitalist and individualist. They reject the revolutionary and progressive role of the working class and emphasise a fragmentary politics of representation and state recognition within an imperial project, over and above the role of unity through struggle in pursuit of collective emancipation and the liberation of the global south. There has also spawned a pseudo-radical and easily cooptable variant of identity politics, which sheds the overt pro-capitalism but is bound at the hip to the State through the same politics of recognition.
18. This does not mean that the oppression of women, black Americans and other people of colour, indigenous people or gay and transgender people has ended in US society. In fact, there has been a rightwing reaction to the real gains these groups have made over the past half century - stoked by an insecurity related to the relative decline of US imperialism and the decline of the welfare state, and mobilised in support of the racism that kills at home and abroad. Especially in Republican-controlled states, there is a renewed campaign against gay and transgender rights, abortion rights, any sort of progressive education, and for greater arbitrary power for the police to carry out racist terror.
19. The inability of both official and radical identity politics to counter this reactionary tide and advance the freedom and sovereignty of all the oppressed and exploited increases the urgency of developing a Marxist approach to black, indigenous, women’s and LGBT emancipation. We recognise the working class as the vanguard and tribune of the oppressed, while emphasising the vitality and validity of these struggles for self-determination. We recognise the historical role these movements have had in shaping and steering collective struggle and their future role in building an oppositional, unifying Communist Party.
20. The Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization is an acute expression of the reactionary agenda. The decision reverses the 1973 Roe v Wade decision that established the right to choose to have an abortion as a constitutionally protected privacy right nationwide and allows the bans or extreme restrictions on abortion contained in the laws of 22 states to come into effect, with more likely to follow soon. This is a grave attack on the freedom of working class women and others capable of becoming pregnant in the United States.
21. The Dobbs decision is an outgrowth of our undemocratic constitutional order, particularly the institution of Supreme Court judicial review and the federalist system, which allows for reactionary, anti-abortion state fiefdoms. As a whole, the United States constitution was designed to be a block on democratic representation with the Senate, judiciary and presidency, not to mention the world-historic, massive military-police state bureaucracy that has grown since World War II. There is an objective tendency toward constitutional breakdown that will continue to empower the most reactionary minority of the population. Without propagandising our vision of high politics on constitutional questions for a democratic republic, constitutional crises will break to the far right, with no countervailing narratives to compete. A left that refuses to articulate a vision outside of the reactionary liberal-constitutional framework is doomed to tail the failed politics of liberalism.
22. The national political platform adopted by the DSA in 2021 contains rudiments of a radical democratic programme for working class rule, but also has serious shortcomings, when compared to the programmes of classical Marxism. There is a contradiction between a section named ‘Deepening and strengthening democracy’ and its description, calling the US “no democracy at all”. Rather, we should frame this as ‘Winning the battle for democracy’. By this we mean the combination of all government powers into the hands of the people’s representatives: this should include the abolition of the elected monarchy of the presidency, the end of judicial review and the replacement of Congress with a single, truly democratic, directly elected, proportional, recallable and accountable assembly, with delegates to be paid the average wage of a skilled worker. The section dealing with militarism should also be explicit about the goal of replacing the standing, professional armed forces and police with a democratic militia system.
23. Despite many issues with the DSA, it is the most promising organisation on the American left in over a generation. While the culture of the organisation is under-experienced and under-educated in Marxism, compared to the 20th century sects, there is also a genuine tendency, though not absolute, of openness and commitment to democratic decision-making over bureaucratic control, which makes the fight for Marxist politics possible, particularly in its tolerance of factions. A truly independent and revolutionary mass socialist party-movement is necessary for the seizure of power by the working class and the real flourishing of the human species, but history shows that this can only be built by uniting the existing ‘raw material’ of the small socialist sects and circles and fighting for Marxist politics within a formal party organisation.
24. Since 2020 saw the failure of the second Sanders campaign and the onset of Covid-19, the DSA lacks unity on a coherent strategy. Future presidential elections offer a unique opportunity to back a socialist presidential campaign and present hundreds of millions of people with socialist propaganda and agitation. Squandering the opportunity would be a mistake.
25. It would also be a mistake to sow illusions in a left or ‘workers’ government’ without fundamentally altering the constitutional regime and bureaucratic state apparatus. Marxist support for a left presidential campaign should be given ‘without illusions’ in both the idea of a ‘liberal workers’ government’ in general and the specific policy compromises a left candidate would undoubtedly make with US imperialism, petty-bourgeois radicalism, and constitutional cretinism.
26. The role of the Marxist Unity Group is to work with all elements who can be united on the US left around programmatic Marxist politics. Specifically, this means moving away from the strategy of building ambiguous relationships with national, state and municipal politicians, who use the plausible deniability of the term ‘democratic socialism’ to act as loyal Democrats, even if ‘left-progressive’ ones.
27. Instead, a majority must be built inside the DSA to implement a strategy of putting forward campaigns for representatives to act as people’s tribunes and build disciplined blocs of DSA fractions in legislatures accountable to the DSA’s platform and elected leadership rather than the Democratic caucus whip and their donors. DSA members must build unity not on least-common-denominator politics, nor develop a sectarian unity around theoretical lines, but rather unity around its political platform and its ‘final goals’. It must build towards a merger with the existing elements of working class organisations and develop the class as the vanguard fighter for democracy.