Charting a difficult course
How to move the DSA away from the Democratic Party’s left fringes? The answer lies in democratic centralism. Parker McQueeney answers Red Labor
Comrades Kent Kiser and Awi Blanc of the Red Labor Caucus are correct when they charge that the debates within the Democratic Socialists of America around the ‘party question’ are couched in abstract and vague terms (‘Party, unions and programme’ Weekly Worker May 11). Unfortunately, the rest of their article - supposedly a response to my ‘Principled partyist strategy’ (December 8 2022) - does not say much at all, at least in terms of a critique of the Marxist Unity Group’s position. It is almost entirely a straw man.
Each DSA tendency seemingly has its own description of party strategy - from ‘dirty break’ to ‘dirty stay’, ‘party surrogate’, ‘realignment’, etc. Even worse, each of these ‘strategies’ has its own varying meanings that seemingly change from individual to individual. We in the MUG have mainly stayed aloof from promoting a vague title, and instead have been arguing for the necessity of genuine democratic centralism (ie, revolutionary parliamentarism - not the sect version inherited from the 1921 militarisation of the Soviet Communist Party) and a vision of party work based on the revolutionary social democracy outlined in Lenin’s What is to be done? and Kautsky’s The road to power.
These debates are usually formalistic, but I suppose one could call MUG’s strategy ‘party surrogate in form, clean break in content’ (which itself could be described as a variant form of the ‘dirty break’). The Red Labor comrades charge us with wanting to break with the Democratic Party, but not yet. Not so. This misunderstanding comes from their formalistic reading of the ‘party question’, and a confusion of strategy with tactics - both things that nearly the entire US left is guilty of.
The DSA is essentially already a political party in the Marxist sense. It has a mass (though still small), dues-paying membership, a platform (even if it is mostly ignored), an elected leadership body, varying levels of bureaucracy, etc. What it lacks is a separate legal shell. This is important: we want to stand under our own flag as much as possible. But the bigger question is, what class do you operate under the discipline of? It is theoretically possible for the DSA to have legislative fractions across the country operating in the same manner that the RSDLP’s duma representatives did without a DSA ballot line. In other words, under genuine democratic centralism, as a pure opposition, there to conduct mass agitation against the constitutional order and for the establishment of a democratic republic. They could refuse to join the Democratic Party (and Progressive) caucuses once elected and instead only caucus with other socialists, foregoing committee assignments, contracts for their constituents, etc in order to be an effective people’s tribune and organ of mass revolutionary agitation modelled after Wilhelm Liebknecht, as described by Lenin and in What is to be done? The crux of the issue is not the legal shell we operate under, but rather the strategy pursued, once elected.
It is possible - actually inevitable - that a legally separate bourgeois labour party would operate under the same toothless popular front strategy pursued by DSA electeds. That is why the MUG stands for a Marxist party rather than a labour party (the socialist lawyer, Louis Boudin, made this argument excellently in 19101). What usually fails to get mentioned is that DSA members elected in municipal elections often do so not as Democrats, because many local elections are non-partisan.
I do not mean to suggest that we should not put effort into building ballot lines or running legally independent campaigns, or that there would not eventually need to be a total legal separation. But the ballot line is a secondary, (mostly) tactical issue, compared to that of operational discipline and parliamentary strategy. The popular front strategy entails the suspension of criticism of liberals in order to fight the far right. On a rhetorical level, only the fringe, rightwing North Star caucus of the DSA is willing to openly argue for this. Yet not many tendencies are willing to require that electeds use their position to constantly indict both capitalist parties.
While the ‘squad’ will occasionally do something they are not supposed to that makes the Biden regime squeamish, like their recent and very late defence of Julian Assange and Wikileaks, for the most part they operate as the left edge of the Democratic Party, and even as the ‘strongest fighters’ for Biden’s agenda (Build Back Better, etc). This is not a problem of the legal shell they are elected under, but rather the class under whose discipline they operate.
I am not sure that the Red Labor comrades closely read my article. Their digression on trade union politics and the rank-and-file strategy is not at odds with what I reported or the MUG’s position paper on labour strategy.2 In fact, I strongly criticised Jonah Furman - a star representative of the post-Shachtmanite left labour reform movement - for running left cover on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s rail vote. It is true that many DSA leftists and champions of the rank-and-file strategy take an over-optimistic and uncritical view of Teamster president Sean O’Brien and other reformers that sometimes verges on ‘trade union liberalism’. Yet the union reporting of Cosmonaut, including some by MUG members, has been explicitly critical of this.3
The sections of my article on the fight for expulsion is another tactical question. However, how Marxists relate to the state-loyalist wing of the workers’ movement is strategic. My view is that this was best theorised by champions of the Comintern’s united front strategy, including Trotsky, who advocated it in the 1930s, as Stalinism was swinging wildly between third periodism and the popular front.4
The tactics I argued for in my article are downstream from this strategy. If Marxists in the US are going to be successful in putting forward a pro-party and revolutionary vision in the DSA, we must have the ability to distinguish form from content and tactics from strategy. Unfortunately the article from the Red Labor comrades falls far short of doing this.
See Edgar Esquivel’s piece on the Teamsters (cosmonautmag.com/tag/edgar-esquivel) and MUG member Shuvu Bhattarai’s article on the railworkers fiasco (cosmonautmag.com/2022/12/how-the-rail-carriers-wall-street-and-the-us-government-crushed-class-i-freight-rail-workers).↩︎
A good interpretation of Trotsky’s united front policy is Ian Donovan’s 1998 article for Revolution and Truth, ‘Trotskyism, the united front and the popular front: against class collaboration and sterile sectarianism’. Ian republished the article here: socialistfight.com/2018/10/25/from-the-archives-spartacism-vs-trotskyism-on-the-popular-front. John Riddell’s writings on the united front are also useful - see, for example, J Riddell, ‘Birth of a tactic’ Weekly Worker September 24 2020 (weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1316/birth-of-a-tactic).↩︎