Success brings challenges
There is a need to struggle against peaceful co-existence between factions, insists Anne McShane - an observer at last weekend’s Marxist Unity Group congress
We were invited to send two CPGB online observers to the Marxist Unity Group congress in the USA on November 11‑12. It was an interesting experience, and we learned a lot about the US left, and the Democratic Socialists of America in particular, over the weekend.
The event began with a presentation by the CPGB’s Mike Macnair on unity with the right wing of the workers’ movement. He stressed that disagreement is normal in human society, and that the key problem with the sects is training their comrades to act like disciples, rather than skilled thinkers able to connect programme with practice. Homogeneity produces sects, whose members can only spout the line. Instead we need both unity and diversity to develop a political party which is a voice for the working class in all its diversity.
In the discussion which followed, a recurring theme was how to criticise and raise differences within the DSA. The founders of MUG now find themselves in a very different position to a year ago. Following a dynamic intervention at the DSA national convention in August, MUG now has two representatives on the National Political Committee. Its arguments on winning the battle for democracy have proven to be effective and influential - in particular its focus on opposing the current US constitution and taking political questions seriously.
But success brings new challenges. And to me there seemed to be a tension around how to fight for its programme in this new context. They are now in a situation where close working relationships have been built with members of other left factions, such as Red Star and Reform and Revolution. Comrades have thrashed out joint resolutions with R&R, which were presented to the August DSA convention. More recently a statement on the ongoing Israeli genocide was issued by MUG and the Red Star faction. It seems that these initiatives have been important and principled moves. However, operating in a multi-tendency organisation like the DSA can push you towards continual compromise in an effort to increase your forces and to ‘get things done’. This is particularly a pressure for the comrades on the NPC, who are operating alongside representatives from the other factions. It is something that comrades need to be keenly aware of and consciously fight against.
There was much discussion around what kind of unity the comrades want to build. It did seem to me that there was far too much emphasis on cooperation with the other left groups in the DSA - with one participant arguing that there was a need to work with other factions without necessarily trying to win them to MUG politics. A resolution entitled ‘Protecting the big tent’ included a sentence, which read: “In order to function as a multi-tendency organization, we must seek unity in diversity.” This is true, of course, but your political criticisms should not be minimised in order to do so. You need to struggle against peaceful coexistence.
Concern about an orientation to broad leftism was expressed by one comrade, who argued that there appeared to be a tendency to water down principles in order to fit in with the ‘big tent’ perspective. Instead the comrades should “aim to win, not just try to coexist with other factions”. The comrade was concerned that some of the language was “pulling back” on that commitment.
One of the representatives on the NPC argued that it was necessary to block with others like Red Star to get resolutions through. The MUG faction on the leadership body puts forward proposed amendments and resolutions, rather than engaging in “friendly chatter”. Differences should not be considered from a ‘left v right’ framework, but needed a deeper analysis. The same comrade who had expressed concern about the ‘big tent’ perspective also raised a problem with rejecting the left v right framework and argued that, although it may seem demonising, the distinction is useful. The right are loyal to the bourgeois state, while wanting it reformed, and rightwing tendencies need to be identified clearly as such, in order to combat opportunism.
Connected with this debate was how to deal with the paid staff of the DSA, who continually obstruct action and undermine the left. It was believed that officials were needed, but had to be accountable. This was countered by a representative of Reform and Revolution (there as an observer), who argued that Maria Svart, the national director of the DSA, should be replaced.
An amendment was proposed by a number of members to replace all references to “democratic socialist republic” in the 2023 perspectives document with just “democratic republic”. The comrade moving it argued that the democratic republic is the form of the workers’ state and therefore should be described in that manner. Adding ‘socialist’ to it creates confusion and removes it from immediate demands. He was opposed by some and one argument was that there was a tendency to deemphasise socialism and stress democracy. The resolution was lost, which is in my view a step backwards. I actually cannot understand the reason for opposing it, particularly given the emphasis of MUG on the need to extend democracy and fight the constitution. That has been what has distinguished it from the other factions.
The discussion then moved on to the question of intervention in the 2024 presidential elections. A resolution had been put forward for the DSA to call for a vote for Cornel West, who has announced his intention to stand. West is a populist academic and political maverick, who describes himself as a socialist and intends to stand as an independent. The proposal to campaign in a similar way to the previous Bernie Sanders contest was countered by an amendment to drop this commitment. Cornel West has apparently shown himself to be so deeply problematic that giving him any kind of support would do the DSA and the MUG a good deal of harm. Instead the DSA should not support any candidate, but instead intervene to expose the undemocratic nature of the elections and focus on campaigns such as bodily autonomy and trans rights. Contributions in the debate included assertions that elections only represent passive voting, as compared to trade union and base building projects - tenants’ rights, unemployed organising and other such campaigns.
The amendment was carried. As an outsider, it seems to me that this gives the MUG a problem. It means that it does not call for the DSA to put forward a political alternative in the election. The proposers of the original motion were correct that, even within the US system, elections are an important time of political engagement. Surely a critical vote for West would create more space for a debate about replacing the two-party system with a democratic republic? Running single-issue campaigns as an alternative just does not address these questions.
The final question which seemed to me to be an important one was the recruitment and education of MUG members. Since 2022 the number of members has grown significantly, and the group has a wider geographical reach. While still small, it has become a significant force within the DSA. But growth has brought organisational and political problems. A resolution was passed to pause the “onboarding and recruitment process” for six months. This involved the launch of a campaign for new forces to join the group, mostly online.
It was recognised that there is a need for the group to organise these new members more effectively and to educate them more comprehensively. And all but a couple of members agreed that this is necessary in order to consolidate MUG’s achievements. The newly elected central committee will develop training methods for members to utilise in their DSA chapters. It will review previous recruitment methods, and ensure that greater emphasis is given going forward to interviewing applicants, educating new recruits and coordinating their work.
This is all a huge challenge for the group - stretched as it is across such a gigantic country. The decision to have a pause (and hopefully review) of the onboarding process is definitely a good one, especially as it gives an opportunity to deepen the education of newer members. Something which is very necessary, to ensure that tendencies towards broad leftism, base building and identity politics are countered.
A number of other initiatives were agreed, including establishing a programme commission to discuss devising a minimum-maximum programme for the DSA. There was a healthy, sharp exchange of views and a comradely atmosphere.
The perspectives are to be published, which will provide another opportunity - both for comrades in the US and abroad - to examine and debate the current very welcome development of US Marxism.