How Socialists Can Win Over the Working Class

Editorial for issue 14 of Socialist Revolution. Today, there is a veritable “super bloom” of self-identified socialists. It is more important than ever that we understand the difference between opportunism and sectarianism.

As the crisis of US capitalism deepens, it seems we are in perpetual election mode as the ruling class desperately seeks the next gimmick to keep the simmering discontent within manageable limits. In the absence of a mass working-class alternative, the vacuum on the left is being filled in the most wild and distorted ways through the main parties of the ruling class. Hoping for a “gimme” crack at what they think will be easy pickings in 2020, the Democrats have presented their most superficially diverse field ever: from Bernie to Booker to Beto to Buttigieg and probably Biden; from Kamala to Warren to Gillibrand and Gabbard—and maybe even Oprah.

However, while they may differ somewhat on this or that social or economic policy, every one of these candidates is committed to the continuation of capitalism. Despite the occasional “anti-elite” rhetoric, vague left populism, and right reformism as they seek to counter Trump’s populist appeal, there is not a shred of genuine class politics in their platforms. Their demagogic appeals to the exploited and oppressed notwithstanding, the real “base” of the Democratic Party is big capital—no amount of window dressing can change that.

Two-Party SystemThe real “base” of the Democratic Party is big capital—no amount of window dressing can change that. / Image: Socialist Revolution

The “bombshell” Mueller report, which so many Democratic Party politicians hung their hopes on, has so far turned out to be a giant dud. The liberals and their media have been preaching to the converted when it comes to collusion with the Russians in 2016. This line of argument simply doesn’t resonate with the millions who want higher wages, better jobs, healthcare, housing, and less stress in their lives—none of which the Democrats offer. The DNC still hasn’t understood the real reasons for Clinton’s defeat. They still blame Putin, Sanders, and the “basket of deplorables.” They haven’t realized the eight years without hope or change under Obama is what led to Trump. They can’t accept that Hillary was called “Crooked” for a reason. They are organically and institutionally unable and incapable of offering a way out as they cannot see beyond the limits of capitalism.

The US’s peculiar political paradox is simple: there is no mass workers’ party, and the forces of revolutionary Marxism are—for the moment—extremely small. Resolving this contradiction is the main task of revolutionaries in the coming historical period. But this is easier said than done.

For decades, the American left was thrown back—way back. The collapse of the Soviet Union led to the virtually untrammeled domination of capitalism on a world scale. But it also laid the basis for the eventual resurgence of socialism. For nearly three decades, capitalism’s economic and political forest fire burned down the rotten trunks of the mass social-democratic and Stalinist parties and wiped out dozens of sectarian organizations—the noxious weeds of the labor movement.

After such a conflagration, it takes time for the plants that survive to reestablish themselves. However, without healthy DNA, even these will never grow into strong and healthy trees able to stand the storms and stresses of time. The IMT weathered that inferno and preserved the healthy DNA of revolutionary Marxism in its program, methods, ideas, and traditions. From a single seed, planted on American shores in 1998, we have managed to spread across the country and have sunk modest roots in cities large and small.

Today, there is a veritable “super bloom” of self-identified socialists. It is more important than ever that we understand the difference between opportunism and sectarianism, as these pressures bear down on us like never before. Opportunism is the search for shortcuts by watering down your program and drifting into class collaboration. Sectarian ultraleftism is a rigid, ahistorical approach to the working class, a utopian desire for “purity” in a world that is far from that.

To continue growing on a firm foundation, Marxists must maintain the balance that has allowed us to navigate the complicated waters of the recent past. First, we must remember that there are no shortcuts. Political clarity and a principled approach to class independence must be combined with patience and tactical flexibility. This is not always an easy balance to maintain. Second, our ideas, program, and perspectives are our magnetic north. Only by grounding ourselves in Marxist theory in general, and dialectical materialism in particular, will we be able to keep our bearings in the even more convulsive times yet to come.

Sanders’s 2016 run was a historical accident that expressed a historical necessity—the need for a mass, independent working-class socialist party and movement. However, most of the left interpreted “Sanders as a Democrat” as a necessity—not an accident. Under this pressure, they have veered in an openly opportunist direction, whether grudgingly or enthusiastically. Either way, when they advocate working within the Democratic Party in any way, shape, or form, they cross a class line and sow illusions in the possibility of fundamental change through one of the main pillars of capitalist rule. Like moths attracted to a flame, reformist socialists are drawn by the supposedly “easy path” of class collaboration and the Democratic Party ballot line. However, history shows over and over that this is merely a shortcut into the swamp of confusion and betrayal. “Anyone but Trump” is merely “lesser evilism” in a new guise and we must resist this pressure. We said it in 2016, and we say it again: only socialism beats Trump and the system he personifies!

Bernie Sanders Iowa RallySanders’s 2016 run was a historical accident, but most of the left interpreted “Sanders as a Democrat” as a necessity, veering in an openly opportunist direction. / Image: Benjamin Kerensa via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The spectacle of the Democrats falling over themselves to take over from Trump naturally leads to revulsion. The fact that the most prominent socialist current at present is right-reformist at best, and that opportunism has consumed the largest organizations on the left is also repulsive to those with a genuine desire to see a revolutionary change in our lifetime. Several of these groups are currently embroiled in high-profile crises that threaten to wipe them off the political map. Years of political and organizational mistakes and zig-zags have led them to a dead end. Many of their members are pushing back in the hopes of righting the sinking ships, or are jumping overboard altogether.

Marxists are occasionally compelled to “bend the stick” in one direction or another to reestablish political equilibrium when things have wobbled off balance. Through a process of successive approximations, and with a sense of proportion, humor, and humility, we can learn from mistakes and improve our work going forward. However, there are those who know how to bend the stick in only one direction—ever further to the left. And while being “as left as possible” may sound like a good thing, in practice, ultraleft sectarians end up with a stick that is bent irreparably out of shape. Their arrogant, caricatured, lifeless, and schematic understanding of Marxism and the class struggle leads them to adopt objectively reactionary positions. This dooms them to an irrelevant existence as talking shops on the margins of the real working-class movement. In reality, sectarians are opportunists afraid of their own opportunism—because the surest way to avoid temptation is not to tempt it!

Leon Trotsky succinctly summed up the essence of sectarianism in 1935:

Every working class party, every faction passes during its initial stages through a period of pure propaganda, i.e., the training of its cadres. The period of existence as a Marxist circle engrafts invariably habits of an abstract approach to the problems of the workers’ movement. He who is unable to step in time over the confines of this circumscribed existence becomes transformed into a conservative sectarian. The sectarian looks upon the life of society as a great school, with himself as a teacher there. In his opinion the working class should put aside its less important matters, and assemble in solid rank around his rostrum: then the task would be solved.

Though he swears by Marxism in every sentence, the sectarian is the direct negation of dialectical materialism which takes experience as its point of departure, and always returns to it. A sectarian does not understand the dialectical action and reaction between a finished program and a living, that is to say, imperfect and unfinished mass struggle. The sectarian’s method of thinking is that of a rationalist, a formalist, and an enlightener . . . Sectarianism is hostile to dialectics (not in words but in action) in the sense that it turns its back upon the actual development of the working class.

The sectarian lives in a sphere of ready-made formulas. As a rule, life passes him by without noticing him . . . Discord with reality engenders in the sectarian the need to constantly render his formulas more precise. This goes under the name of discussion. To a Marxist, discussion is an important but functional instrument of the class struggle. To the sectarian, discussion is a goal in itself. However, the more that he discusses all, the more do the actual tasks escape him . . . The sectarian sees an enemy in everyone who attempts to explain to him that an active participation in the workers’ movement demands a constant study of objective conditions, and not haughty bulldozing from the sectarian rostrum. For analysis of reality the sectarian substitutes intrigue, gossip, and hysteria.

Leon Trotsky Public Domain“A sectarian does not understand the dialectical action and reaction between a finished program and a living, that is to say, imperfect and unfinished mass struggle.” / Image: Public Domain

It is often said that developing political perspectives is a science, while building a revolutionary organization is an art. Even the most “pure” and “perfect” program is useless if it doesn’t connect with the only force capable of making a revolution—the working class. The masses don’t understand small organizations. Revolutionaries cannot merely wave a banner and hope that millions of people will magically find us. For better or worse, that’s just the way things are. If we want to connect with people moving to the left and looking for revolutionary ideas, we need to connect with them on the basis of issues and events that get them thinking about the need for real change. Through a series of transitional demands we can engage with people where they are and raise their horizons as to the need for socialist revolution. These demands serve as a bridge from today’s consciousness and our small forces to the advanced layers, and eventually, the masses.

Marxists clearly recognize the class line that divides those who exploit from those who are exploited. But the reality is that most people do not even see that line yet, and when they do, it is incredibly blurry. Given the lack of a lead by the labor leaders or anyone else with social weight, most people have wandered over it without even realizing it exists. This is why we must point it out and explain its significance through patient explanation. Without crossing the line ourselves, we appeal to those who have crossed it with honest illusions but who are open to a revolutionary perspective. On the basis of events and experience, we are confident our friendly persistence will pay off. Otherwise, we would be guilty of abandoning the workers and youth to tender mercies of the committed capitalists and reformists.

Instead of resisting the pressure of alien class ideas and organizations on the working class, opportunists look for shortcuts and succumb to liberal “public opinion,” adapting their demands to what is “realistic” within the bounds of capitalism. And instead of combining principled politics and tactical flexibility to connect the small forces of Marxism with the living, contradictory struggles of the workers, sectarians fester on the sidelines, lecturing and denouncing in a bubble, cut off forever from the road to mass influence. In reality, sectarianism and opportunism are two sides of the same coin: neither has confidence in the working class and neither has a dialectical understanding of how it moves.

The IMT is dedicated to building a mass revolutionary party capable of guiding the working class to socialist victory. The only way to do this is through a non-opportunist, non-sectarian approach. This means patiently explaining our revolutionary program while fighting alongside the millions of workers and youth who are being radicalized by life under capitalism, starting with the “ones and twos.” Our determination and confidence come from having a long view of history. On the basis of events, a relatively small cadre of committed and trained Bolsheviks can be transformed into tens of thousands and then tens of millions—if we build up our forces sufficiently in advance. If you are committed to fighting for a socialist future but are dissatisfied with the opportunism and sectarianism that permeates the left, we invite you to join us!