Easy route to mass base would be a fatal route

Thoughts from afar

Which way for the DSA? There are those who hanker after a Labor Party based on the trade unions, like the Labour Party in Britain. Max Shanly offers some considered words of advice

As far as is possible from this side of the pond, I try to monitor the debates going on inside the Democratic Socialists of America. Its transformation in just under a decade from a small, soft-leftish caucus of the Democratic Party into the largest organisation on the American left - the spearhead of a multi-tendency revival of the socialist movement in that country - is something to marvel at.

Looking from the outside, the most important ongoing discussion currently taking place within the organisation is the debate around whether the DSA should reconstitute itself as a workers’/labour party, either institutionally or at least formally allied with the American labour movement. A motion in support of such a move is on the agenda at the forthcoming convention of the Young Democratic Socialists of America, its youth and student wing. The motion is the product of factionally unaligned members of the organisation.

The main thrust of the motion (titled ‘Towards a workers party’) is that

… socialist and labour parties around the world have built deep connections to the labour movement and created strong institutional ties to labour unions. In many such parties, unions are directly affiliated with parties and are thus entitled to send representatives to the decision-making bodies of the parties. These powerful institutional ties keep socialist and labour parties accountable directly to the working class, while uniting unions behind class struggle and a coherent policy programme.


Whilst this did not occur in the United States, the resulting lack of “ties to a working class party” means that “unions in the country have been vulnerable to attacks by employers, leaving the US with one of the lowest rates of unionisation among industrialised countries”. The resolution goes on to highlight the links the YDSA has built with organised labour at an individual level on university campuses across the country, but that, as a result of the impermanence of studenthood and the individual nature of the relationships built, once YDSA members depart their respective academic institutions, these links quickly fall apart.

It continues by making reference in support of the goals of the DSA’s ‘Rank-and-file strategy’, and the YDSA’s support of it - prioritising in particular “rebuilding the labour movement through shop-floor organisation, advancing democracy and a class-struggle orientation in our unions, and challenging conservative union bureaucracies” - and, making reference to Kautsky’s famous formula, seeks the “merging [of] socialism with this rank-and-file movement”. Stating that “democratic socialism is built upon working class power, and the multiracial working class is the only agent that has the ability to create democratic socialism”, it concludes that “direct accountability to and representation for unions will make YDSA’s connection to the working class stronger”.

The motion then resolves for the YDSA to undertake measures to create a structure for “for direct, chapter-to-local institutional ties between YDSA and unions representing student workers”, for the organisation’s national coordinating committee to be tasked with “holding at least one public forum on creating institutional ties between YDSA and student worker unions per year” and creating “guidelines and provide direct support to chapters with student worker unions on their campus to encourage chapter-to-local affiliation” - with the aim of the national coordinating committee then writing:

a report detailing the successes and failures of the chapter-to-local affiliation process. Based on its findings, the national coordinating committee will draft a plan of action for making the process of chapter-to-local affiliation more effective. The national coordinating committee will also draft a plan for making national-to-national ties/affiliation possible between entire unions and YDSA, not only locals.

It is a laudable aim, but the logic of the motion, and its justification for a formal merger between the American socialist and labour movements, is extremely flawed in substance; based upon a misunderstanding of history, and a misreading of core political concepts. The debate thus far has been centred around the idea of founding a worker/labour party, as if a workers’ party and a labour party are one and the same thing, and the motion follows that very line of thinking, but there is a difference. To understand that difference requires us to go back to basics.

Working class

As the Weekly Worker’s Mike Macnair argued in his book Revolutionary strategy, the working class consists of the whole social class dependent on the wage fund, including the employed, the unemployed, youth, and pensioners, irrespective of race, gender or sex (my emphasis, paraphrasing Marx). To this definition, we must also add the sick and permanently disabled, who are reliant on the welfare state for means of survival. The cash pot for this flows directly from the wage fund itself into state coffers to be redistributed to those unable to engage in productive, paid work due to incapacity.

In common parlance, the workers’ movement and the labour/trade union movement are synonymous with one another. However, if they are not the same thing, then this creates a giant hole in the popular conception of the workers’ movement, and specifically creates a problem, when it comes to the application by socialists of Karl Kautsky’s merger formula.

This proposes that social democracy is the merger of the socialist movement and the workers’ movement. Together, this combination makes the party. Historically, this has been conceived by many as a merger between socialist organisations and trade unions, as was the case in Britain, hence the creation of labour parties. But, since the working class does not consist solely of those who are or can be organised at the point of production into trade unions, the workers’ movement and the labour/trade union movement cannot be synonymous with one another. And if they are not one and the same thing, then what exactly is the workers’ movement, and how should we define it?

Be in no doubt: the labour/trade union movement forms the core constituent part of the workers’ movement, and is a representation of the overwhelming mass of the organised working class in the workplace. The workers’ movement is also made up of a wide range of auxiliary organisations - namely cooperatives, workers’ mutual aid organisations, credit unions, workers education associations, etc. Additionally, it is also constituted by the working class fractions of other social movements (but not the movements themselves), and the otherwise unorganised section of society reliant upon the wage fund that cannot be organised at the point of production. The ‘working class fractions of other social movements’ here refers to those members of the class who participate in social movements that are otherwise broad, cross-class collaborations, who may or may not be unionised, with varying degrees of political consciousness.

It is through this definition where a line in the sand begins to develop between a socialist workers’ party - a party built upon the fusion of socialism and the movement of the whole working class, as a class, in and for itself - and an inevitably bourgeois labour/trade union party.


Why is a labour/trade union party inevitably bourgeois? The unions are made up of the proletariat - what can be bourgeois about that? Well, dear reader, we must have a full and frank discussion about the real role trade unions play within the present society, not the highly idealised version we have in our heads.

The trade union movement is the primary expression of worker opposition to exploitation at the point of production. It is rooted in workplace organisation in the form of trade unions. Trade unions, in the industrial sense, are nominally organs of class struggle, but in practice are bodies for class negotiation. They struggle and negotiate for transient concessions and ameliorative measures from and within the capitalist system.

They are organised on a sectoral basis, not as a whole class. Unions compete with one another for members and the pursuit of their respective industrial interests. The resulting expression of this as a political tendency, trade unionism, is one characterised by the pursuit of social reform within the existing socioeconomic and legal framework - the capitalist state - so, whilst it has proletarian characteristics, and originates in proletarian organisation, trade unionism as a political tendency is fundamentally bourgeois in nature. It cannot see beyond the present state of things, in fact, it is loyal to it and to its institutions - it is, after all, one of them itself.

These factors, when combined, constitute the limits and horizons of what is known as trade union consciousness. It is a reformist tendency, both in the industrial and political sense, and will find it difficult to be anything more if solely left to its own devices.

It follows from this that, by sheer weight of numbers alone, any party formed upon the basis of an institutional merger between socialist organisations and trade unions would, particularly at the present state of development within organised labour in the United States, fundamentally make trade unionism as a political tendency, and trade unionist consciousness in general, the dominant factor in such a party. Everything the party does would be shaped by it. And, since as a political tendency trade unionism is bourgeois in nature, so would be the party.

What does the merger between socialist organisations and the trade union movement really mean in party terms?


Firstly, it means that the Democratic Socialists of America would no longer exist in its present form. It would, at best, be reduced to a socialist faction within a bourgeois labour party and, since the DSA is already a multi-tendency organisation, the likeliness of it remaining as such is limited, with it more likely splintering off into separate organisations. Socialists in the United States would be a minority within the party, based upon the institutionalised union of an organisation of thousands with a movement of millions. In effect, it would be no different to the DSA’s current position as a faction in the Democratic Party - except by providing the DSA with an artificial mass character.

Furthermore, in practical terms, such an alliance would not be with the union members themselves. It might be that at a local-chapter level, if you are lucky, there exists a democratic culture and strong tradition of autonomy, but at a national level you will find yourself in alliance with the workers’ permanent representatives - the trade union bureaucracy. This limits the scope of action socialists can take within the trade union movement itself.

How do you propose that a DSA labour/trade union party based upon direct affiliation would intervene in union affairs? It would not be able to. How can you intervene from without in something you are formally within? What about intervening in unions that are not part of the party? Can you even do that without risking strained relations between individual unions? Of course not, nor would you ever be able to. You could potentially as a socialist faction, but, if that is the case, then what is the point of merging at all? Your hands would be tied. It takes grand delusions to believe the union bureaucracy would not bring pressure to bear upon anyone who steps out of line in the name of party unity.

You would be giving up your independence in return for greater resources, but what is the point of greater resources if you cannot use them effectively? By committing to control by the trade union bureaucracy, the DSA would in fact be risking a repeat of the mistakes of the US Labor Party of the mid-90s to early 2000s. Trade union officials within that body argued against electoral work in favour of “base-building activity” - in reality, a move to preserve trade union officialdom’s relationships with the Democrats. You would not be taking a short cut along the road to socialism, but a march down a path that does not end up with a decisive break with the party of American liberalism.

Trade unionism and its logic would infect the independence of socialist politics. It would cripple any attempt to go beyond social reformism and the present state of consciousness within the labour/trade union movement. The language of priorities would be based on that of trade unionism: transient concessions expressed as social reform, the primacy of relations with ‘friendly’ elected representatives within the existing state and legislature, and the formation of local, state and federal administrations to leverage the state as a vehicle for amelioration.

Permanent class

And, since a permanent class of representatives has arisen within the trade unions itself, it would only be natural for a trade union party to develop a class of permanent representatives of its own. You will never convince, or even be allowed to discuss, the idea of term limits for, or the recallability of, political representatives inside the trade union party. The union bureaucracy simply would not have it, would organise both bureaucratically and seemingly democratically against it. I say ‘seemingly democratically’, because they would not be afraid to mobilise their members from on high in defence of trade union politics, and would not for one second be unwilling to use union discipline to enforce it. If that does not work, they would not be afraid to shut down all debate by force if necessary.

It might seem here as though I am being pedantic or pessimistic, but the above is entirely based on the experiences of the Labour left in Britain. Its leading organisation during the Corbyn years was Momentum. Aping the structures of the Labour Party, and in dire need of access to financial and practical resources, it opened itself up to direct affiliation with trade unions at a national level. Not with the left groupings inside the unions affiliated to the party themselves, no: the unions as a whole. The cause and concerns of the trade union bureaucracy as a whole, not just its progressive elements, vis-à-vis the Labour Party became Momentum’s own and, whilst it provided great financial and practical resources to the organisation, it severely crippled its political development and ability to act.

The Labour left entered the Corbyn era with ambitious aims for party reform, and left it having achieved none of them, although it did successfully tinker around the edges - only for Keir Starmer to get elected leader and roll all those minor changes back (and more).

In the name of party unity Momentum gave up its role as a vehicle for socialist transformation - change enforced in part by its clientele-like relationship with the unions and the party leadership. Its alliance with the unions was in fact a negative step in its development, not a positive one. It could not advance a programme or strategy to achieve party democratisation, because to do so would require intervening in union affairs directly to win concrete support for the left’s agenda, and if union members start thinking about democratising the party, then you can guarantee they are going to start thinking about democratising their own unions too, and that weakens the union bureaucracy. So why would the bureaucracy ever agree to that? Everything Momentum did became centred around getting Labour elected, even if it meant giving up the fight for socialism, in the name of unity with opportunists.

Political independence for socialist organisations is important because it prefigures the political independence of the working class. Whilst merging the socialist movement with the labour/trade union movement might result in a trade union-based party orientated towards socialist principles, the reality of the forces at play and the effects of trade union consciousness upon the party would prevent this from being anything more than a token gesture.

For decades the Labour Party nominally pursued a socialist course, Clause four of the constitution declared that the party would “secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service”. A Lassallean formulation designed to head off the potential of mass Marxist organisation in the wake of the October revolution and the impending repatriation of millions of armed workers from the frontiers of war.

Despite numerous periods in office, sometimes with large parliamentary majorities, the reforms Labour has brought about have proved to be nothing more than transient concessions to be whittled away by successive governments (some of them even bearing the Labour brand), while Britain remains a capitalist country par excellence.

Every worker knows that every victory against the bosses is not a permanent one. It might last for a long time, but it is still temporary - nothing more than a plaster on an open wound incapable of healing. Every attempt at advance quickly transforms into one of defence: you end up having to give something up to gain something else. Trade unionism and social reform go hand in hand, because they are the same thing: one from below, the other from above. A bourgeois labour/trade union party sits in the middle, managing expectations and achieving little. A party of acceptance of the existing social order, not of extreme opposition towards it.

As socialists, we believe in the necessity for mass organisation. Not because we want to be the most popular kid in school, but because we believe that the emancipation of the working class is the act of the working class itself. A socialist workers’ party engages in a permanent tripartite exercise, referred to as education, agitation and organisation.


It educates the working class - not telling it what to think, but helping it learn how to think: to position itself within the world and to understand its historic role as the great liberator of humanity as a whole. It does not look down on the workers: it recognises their own agency and aids and abets them in achieving it to the full.

It agitates, or propagandises, to raise consciousness amongst the great mass of people, giving them the confidence to fight back against the indignity of capitalist life. It exposes the world for what it is, why it is, and that it can be more - and not only that it can be more, but that it must be more.

And it organises, both for the struggle in the here and now, but also for those at a destination not yet sighted. It does not consider the workers a mere appendage, to be mobilised from on high as and when beneficial to the party, but moves along with their struggles, fighting side by side, walking the long road to freedom hand in hand, pointing towards the signposts along the side of the road which help to chart the correct route to the destination.

And it does so organically, because it knows the struggle for freedom is not an easy task, that these things take time. The party builds relationships with workers individually, and with the working class collectively. It merges with it: it both leads the class and subordinates itself to it. It does so democratically, because it believes that only through a democratic party can the movement of the class advance. It becomes the working class’s own best friend. Its champion. It seeks serious electoral representation, just as the parties of the Second International, including the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, did. But it does so to represent the working class as its tribunes - a form of representation wholly unlike that which is practised by parties based upon trade unionism, one of class negotiation. Instead it elects representatives to the institutions of bourgeois democracy to help further the advance of the class struggle.

Forgive me for the rhetorical flurish, even we materialists must sound romantic now and then, but there is a point to what I have just said. The socialist workers’ party does not aim to be the most popular kid in school. Since a bourgeois labour party is by its very nature primarily an electoral party, it tries to be the most popular kid in school (you might like him, but you know deep down you cannot rely on him). Its links to the masses are superficial at best, artificial at worst. Such a party, like the popular kid, thinks that by inviting everyone over to their place they will have loads of friends. The kid might have hundreds of friends on Facebook, while dozens liked his last post on Instagram. He only knows about five of them in real life, but that does not really matter: it’s appearances that count.

This is what the debate around direct affiliation is really all about. It is a short-term substitute for long-term mass work and organisation. It is taking the easy route - a short cut through the bushes - rather than the long trek down the road. It is a mechanistic application of the merger formula, based on a partial misreading of the equation. You might be able to come up with an answer, but it is the wrong one. The numbers do not add up.

So what makes a socialist workers’ party so different from a bourgeois labour party?

The socialist workers’ party represents the working class as a whole - the entirety of the social class dependent on the wage fund, including the employed, the unemployed, youth, the permanently disabled, and pensioners, irrespective of race, gender or sex. It does not put one element of the workers’ movement on a pedestal and forget about the rest. It organises the class - as a class in and for itself.

The socialist workers’ party is not short-sighted. It knows the unlikeliness of turning the world upside-down in a single electoral cycle. Like the bourgeois labour party, the socialist workers’ party stands in elections, but it does not centre its life around them. It is united around a long-term programme, not an ever-changing electoral platform. The socialist workers’ party fights for reforms, but it is not reformist. It knows concessions by capital are transient. It thinks clever, the reforms it fights for are designed to create space for the movement to advance, not to spend its life on the defence. It is the party of extreme opposition to the status quo.

Its elected representatives use their positions as platforms for the education, agitation and organisation of the great mass of the working class. They are the people’s tribunes. The party refuses to take power without winning an outright majority share of the popular vote - not because it mistrusts the organs of elected representation, but because it stands one hundred percent behind the concept of absolute democracy and has no illusions of the limitations that would be imposed on it taking power on the basis of the prevailing liberal-constitutional order.


The socialist workers’ party fights to be the very centre of working class life. It organises on the basis of territorial locality - the places where people really live, not artificial electoral districts. It organises the unorganised, and fights injustice in the here and now. It builds a state within the state, not as a substitute for the one that already exists, but as an example of the one soon to be born. The workers’ party gives the workers’ confidence, and the workers give confidence to it - confidence to throw off their chains and achieve freedom. The workers’ party is both patient and ready for action at a moment’s notice. It is both old and young, at the same time, wise beyond its years and full of life. When you need it, the workers’ party is there for you. It serves the working class and has no other master. It struggles against the old world and fights for the new. It is a party of revolution, not because it wants to tear the world apart for the sake of it, but because it is honest enough to admit freedom cannot come without doing so.

The bourgeois labour party, on the other hand, does none of that. It is an electoral vehicle and an electoral vehicle alone. It is based on the politics of compromise, of negotiation. It tries to convince people that their best interests can be served within the framework prescribed by the present mode of production. It does not intentionally aim to delude workers into thinking things cannot change: it just genuinely believes they cannot. It is beholden to all the trappings of the present state of things, because it is a by-product of it. Deep down it does not want to turn the world on its head: it will benefit from the present one, so long as some minor changes are made to make things a little bit more equal. It had big ambitions in its youth, but, now it has got older and had more experience inside the institutions of the state, it has become a bit more conservative in its aims. Some say it has been coopted, and that the basis for its organisation and politics made cooption an inevitability. Everyone but the party can see it, and they hold it in contempt for failing to do so.


Fundamentally what all of this is about is whether the Democratic Socialists of America wants to be a mass party or not, and what price it is willing to pay to get there. The calls for a party based on direct affiliation with the trade union movement are an attempt to achieve a mass character and diplomatic unity with a certain, fairly well organised, section of the workers’ movement - or rather their permanent representatives. It is not an attempt to merge with the workers’ movement as a whole, because its conception of such a movement is flawed by its understanding of what that movement actually is. Rather than seeking to transform the existing consciousness of the working class, its present aim would result in it being overwhelmed by it.

The motion on the agenda at the forthcoming convention of the YDSA would, if passed unamended, and if its proposals were adopted in similar form by its parent organisation, represent a real tragedy for the socialist movement in the United States. The struggle for socialism/communism in America would be subsumed into the politics of trade unionism and all the associated baggage that comes alongside it. The DSA would no longer be an organ of class struggle, but one aiming to negotiate with the oppressor rather than seek its abolition. Its mass character would be imaginative, and the role of the masses within it limited.

I am reliably informed that several caucuses have filed amendments to the proposed motion. However, at the time of writing the only one I have been able to get hold of is that of the Marxist Unity Group. It is a pro-party amendment, but it strips the original motion of its assumptions about a worker/labour party and clarifies the role a real socialist workers’ party has to play in the world - not the idealised version based on a flawed premise of artificial unity.

The amendment recognises the need to organise within trade unions to transform them from bodies of class negotiation with capital into organs of struggle against it and for socialism. That the union movement in the United States can only become stronger through a prolonged campaign of education, agitation and organisation to build a socialist presence and a socialist majority within it.

A mass DSA is a must, and the merger between the American socialist and workers’ movements a necessity. But patience is a virtue: there can be no short cuts on the road to working class emancipation. You need to think long and hard about how you are going to achieve this, and think every move you intend to make through to both its logical and illogical conclusions. As far as is humanly possible, you have to attempt to gain foresight by using hindsight as a guide.

The motion on the agenda at the forthcoming YDSA convention lacks this, as does much of the debate on the issue within the Democratic Socialists of America as a whole. A corrective course is needed, and I hope I have helped spell out what form that should take.

Don’t get ahead of yourselves, comrades! You’ll only live to regret it.