What Kind of Party Are We Fighting For? A Reply to Comrades in DSA

We recently published an article titled “Building a Mass Socialist Party: Class Independence vs. the ‘Party Surrogate’ Strategy.” We were delighted to receive comradely feedback from an unaffiliated DSA reading group, engaging with the arguments we put forward and requesting further clarification on fundamental questions of socialist strategy. For the benefit of our readers, we publish the correspondence and our reply below.

Our small reading group appreciated reviewing the IMT’s recent article on the party question and thought it was a largely positive intervention into important political debates going on inside the DSA. The group agreed with the basic thrust of the IMT’s arguments particularly as it relates to the political ramifications of adopting the “party surrogate” model. However, there was some hesitancy within the group on whether the DSA should immediately break with the Democrats; i.e. completely forgo using the Democratic ballot line. This uncertainty may be in part due to certain ambiguities within the article that the group picked up on in the course of our discussion. The lack of clarity definitely impacted our reception of the IMTs arguments later in the article regarding the orientation of the DSA to the Democratic Party. Therefore, we submit the following observations and questions in the spirit of comradely discussion and an earnest desire for clarification.

First, It was unclear to the members of the reading group how the authors from the IMT define a “party.” Throughout the article, are the authors referring to a mass labor or social democratic-type party that is primarily focused on the conquest of state power through elections? The narrative in the article seemed to endorse parties of this type operating within bourgeois society to fight for reforms. Is the IMT supportive of labor and social democratic parties? If so, how does their orientation to these parties differ from the major caucuses within the DSA? The reading group is obviously aware of the vanguard party model but is unsure of its suitability to current conditions in the US. Is the IMT arguing for the DSA or sections of the DSA to adopt a vanguard model at this time? If so, can you elaborate on why the IMT feels like this model is most appropriate for advancing class struggle? Won’t adopting a vanguard model with rigid politics just mean the DSA will be relegated to marginality? Can we really break from the Democrats and still remain relevant?

Second, the reading group also felt like the IMT’s conception of the role of the party was somewhat tautological at various points in the article. This was particularly noticeable in the beginning section where the IMT authors asked the readers to engage in a thought experiment about what might have been had a mass party existed during the uprisings this summer. By tautological we mean that our understanding is that ongoing class struggle is the basis for class formation and the creation of lasting working class organization. Therefore, the reading group was uncertain whether a mass party capable of productively intervening in the events of this summer could exist in absence of sustained, high levels of class struggle. What is the IMT’s position on this question? Does the IMT believe that the party precedes and/or serves as the catalyst for class struggle? In short, how should we understand the relationship between the working class and socialists who are part of groups that hope to form a party?

We thank these comrades for their thoughtful comments and enthusiastically welcome this opportunity to continue the discussion on the “party question,” which has critical implications for the growing socialist movement in the US. The comrades’ questions get to the heart of revolutionary strategy by grappling with the interaction of the class, the party, and the leadership—the dynamic component elements or social “mechanics” of revolutionary politics.

We believe a serious discussion of socialist strategy should begin with a clear objective—what is it we’re trying to achieve? How do we define victory? Socialists could elevate the strategic debates to a higher level by first establishing clarity on this question.

The “party question” has critical implications for the growing socialist movement in the United States. / Image: Democratic Socialists of America

In their note, the comrades express agreement with our critique of the “party surrogate” strategy and the political ramifications of class collaboration. We can summarize our argument in favor of class independence along the following lines:

  1. The goal of the socialist movement should be to achieve socialism in our lifetime—the actual seizure of political power by the working class and the establishment of a workers’ state that would expropriate the big banks and monopolies, starting with the Fortune 500, and bring these economic levers under the democratic control of the working class. Linked up internationally, a socialist planned economy would lay the foundation for achieving the “first phase” of communist society, as Marx described it. This goal can only be attained through class independence and revolutionary class struggle.
  2. The logic of the bourgeois electoral arena has a different goal altogether—getting individuals voted into office, full stop. Playing by the rules of this game means running on the Democratic Party ballot line with “progressive” campaigns limited to liberal reforms and minor budgetary, tax, or legislative initiatives. Such campaigns may lead to electoral wins, but most voters don’t even realize that the candidates consider themselves socialists. When elected, they are virtually indistinguishable from the Democratic Party as a whole, i.e., from one of the main political parties of the ruling class. As a strategic goal, this is clearly a much lower bar than “socialism in our lifetime.” This is justified with ambiguous phrases about “building workers’ power” or “capturing state power” in the abstract.
  3. There is massive potential in the US for revolutionary socialist politics. DSA could help the movement take a leap forward by channeling its forces into campaigns for class-independent socialist candidates who actually make a case for socialism as the center of their activity. DSA could link the idea of a workers’ party to the daily struggles of the workers in which it is already engaged, raising class-struggle demands that make clear the need for the revolutionary transformation of society. It may not be as easy as contesting Democratic primaries and will take more time to yield sweeping electoral victories, but such an approach could build momentum as it taps into the groundswell of discontent. This is the only way to meaningfully advance toward the goal of socialism in our lifetime.

Setting out from the above considerations, we can address the comrades’ questions from a revolutionary socialist understanding of the class struggle and its ultimate aims.

Rep. Ocasio-Cortez and House Speaker Pelosi in 2019
When candidates who consider themselves socialists are elected on the Democratic Party ballot, they are virtually indistinguishable from this capitalist party as a whole. / Image: Public Domain

How do we define a class-independent “party”?

It’s worth noting that Marx and Engels were careful not to place excessive demands or conditions on working-class movements that were striving toward the formation of new class-independent parties. They assumed that this “first great step” in the rise of the proletariat as a contender for political power would inevitably involve mistakes and confusion. But it was still an indispensable step forward, no matter how it happened, as long as it was a step toward class independence.

Above all, this meant forming a distinctly working-class party, perceived by workers as their party as opposed to the parties of the bosses—i.e., it meant breaking from bourgeois liberalism. It also meant forming a mass party that embraces as much of the working population as possible, or at least a significant portion of the organized and politically advanced layers. Aside from the basic requisite of class independence, the founders of Marxism always showed a remarkably flexible approach, taking the real movement of the working class as their starting point:

The Communists do not form a separate party opposed to the other working-class parties. They have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole. They do not set up any sectarian principles of their own by which to shape and mold the proletarian movement.

Engels, in particular, having outlived Marx by a crucial twelve years in which the labor movement was making immense leaps internationally, had a lot to say on this question. He assumed that the workers of each country would take this initial step in their own way:

The first great step of importance for every country newly entering into the movement is always the organization of the workers as an independent political party, no matter how, so long as it is a distinct workers’ party (Letter to Sorge, 1886, our emphasis).

It is far more important that the movement should spread, proceed harmoniously, take root, and embrace as much as possible the whole American proletariat, than that it should start and proceed from the beginning on theoretically perfectly correct lines. There is no better road to theoretical clearness of comprehension than to learn by one’s own mistakes. And for a whole large class, there is no other road, especially for a nation so eminently practical as the Americans. The great thing is to get the working class to move as a class; that once obtained, they will soon find the right direction (Letter to Wischnewetsky, 1886).

The role of Marxists is to patiently explain the tasks facing the labor movement and the need for class independence, and increasing the confidence, unity, and consciousness of the class. / Image: Socialist Revolution

The reason for this open-ended approach by Marx and Engels is that they knew the working class needed to pass through its own experience to arrive at revolutionary conclusions. The mass of the working class cannot be expected to take its first steps toward political independence with a fully formed theoretical understanding of the historic tasks ahead. The role of Marxists is to participate in this process, helping the class draw conclusions from events, patiently explaining the tasks facing the labor movement and the need for class independence, and increasing the confidence, unity, and consciousness of the class:

The Communists, therefore, are on the one hand, practically, the most advanced and resolute section of the working-class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all others; on the other hand, theoretically, they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement.

The immediate aim of the Communists is the same as that of all other proletarian parties: formation of the proletariat into a class, overthrow of the bourgeois supremacy, conquest of political power by the proletariat.

…The Communists fight for the attainment of the immediate aims, for the enforcement of the momentary interests of the working class; but in the movement of the present, they also represent and take care of the future of that movement.

In short, whatever form it may take, a mass party with a distinct, working-class character, whether or not it is initially based on the trade unions or founded as an explicitly socialist party, would be a welcome development as a genuine step toward class independence.

Should we support social-democratic and labor parties?

The above considerations should by no means be interpreted as an agnostic attitude toward the political program of a mass workers’ party. Marxists not only believe that the working class needs its own party but that this party must set itself the task of expropriating the capitalists and replacing their state with a new kind of state altogether. Our ultimate aim is a mass revolutionary party that can overthrow capitalism. But we also acknowledge that this is an advanced goal—one which the mass of the working class will come to share only after the experience of a serious escalation of the class struggle. It will not be a linear process and there will be many contradictory, intermediate stages. Therefore, we support any serious step toward this goal, any step toward class independence, while doing whatever we can to help workers draw even more advanced conclusions.

In this respect, the development of a mass workers’ party—even with a reformist leadership—would be unquestionably progressive in that it would help the workers see themselves as a class with its own interests and party. If an initiative for a labor party in the US—or even a large social-democratic party with a working-class base—began to gather momentum, we would enthusiastically join this effort and encourage all revolutionary socialists to help build the party, despite the remaining illusions in capitalism and its political system among most of its ranks.

At the same time, we would patiently explain that for this party to successfully tackle the problems facing the working class, it must have a class-struggle approach and a program for forming a workers’ government on a socialist basis. We would explain that any attempt to manage the capitalist system would lead to a dead-end, as the long history of reformism shows. We would argue against forming coalitions with the capitalist parties and fight against any illusions in the bourgeois state. The idea would be to transform the party into a revolutionary party, which could come about in various ways.

The emergence of a party of this sort would transform the political landscape in the US and usher in a convulsive and tumultuous period. It would be immediately accompanied by battles within the party to define its outlook, methods, and aims. The revolutionary socialists would form one of many currents within that party and would develop a dialogue with the broader ranks to make the case for a revolutionary socialist program.

Historically, this was the approach of Marx and Engels, as well as the most farsighted revolutionary socialists who fought to build the mass parties of the working class based on a revolutionary program. This is not the place to get into the rich history of the rise and fall of the First, Second, and Third Internationals, which saw revolutionary socialist ideas carried from small propaganda groups to the multi-millioned ranks of the working class. The fact that these parties failed to bring the workers to power despite favorable revolutionary opportunities at various points during the last century is a result of the disastrous mistakes and betrayals of the Social Democratic and Stalinist leaderships, who failed to pursue a class-independent policy and betrayed the working class outright on many occasions.

The rise and fall of the First, Second, and Third Internationals saw revolutionary socialist ideas carried from small propaganda groups to the multi-millioned ranks of the working class. / Image: Public Domain

How should the party operate within the context of capitalism?

In contrast to the ambiguous political implications of amassing votes on a ruling-class ballot line, the votes won by a workers’ party would be a more effective measure of class consciousness in society, albeit distorted by the limitations of the bourgeois electoral system. We would also measure working-class victories, not only in terms of absolute votes received but in the context of the class struggle as a whole. Rather than use the yardstick of the electoral arena as our primary guiding logic, socialists should approach electoral tactics by asking: Does this help prepare the working class to take power? Does it inspire confidence in its collective ability to transform society? Does it help workers recognize their own strength as a social force with its own interests? Does it expose the class nature of the bourgeois state and help working people draw the conclusion that we need a different kind of state altogether?

At the same time, in addition to a program for the revolutionary transformation of society, a mass party must also offer a way forward in the day-to-day struggles that arise. It must serve as a bridge between the pressing demands of the moment and the need for a socialist planned economy. These are transitional demands—a method for linking short-term battles and the fight for reforms to the tasks of establishing workers’ control over society.

This method is fundamentally different from the reformist approach taken by the electoral campaigns on the Democratic ballot, which limit themselves to proposing minor legislation, tax reforms, or budgetary proposals. These are initiatives that can be pursued through horse-trading between lawmakers and lawyers, and are acceptable within the limits of capitalism. Those efforts might be supplemented by pressure campaigns to “call your senator” or informational campaigns to drum up support for a ballot initiative—but they do not involve mobilizing the working class to struggle against the bosses or any class-struggle action that helps workers see themselves as the agents of fundamental change.

Transitional demands should serve to raise the horizons of the class struggle in two fundamental ways:

  1. They should expose the limits of capitalism by showing how the interests of private property and the market are at odds with the workers’ most basic and reasonable demands.
  2. They should place the working class at the center of resolving that contradiction through its own class-independent action, rather than fostering illusions in the mechanisms of Congress, state legislatures, the courts, city councils, etc.
BLM and International Workers day demonstrations in Minneapolis, MN
The party of the working class must serve as a bridge between the pressing demands of the moment and the need for a socialist planned economy.  / Image: Fibonacci Blue, Flickr

An example of the transitional method

When the Democrats recently betrayed the $15/hour minimum wage—in itself an insufficient measure—the self-described socialists in Congress failed to expose this maneuver, instead giving it a left cover and excusing its demise over a technicality. A class-independent socialist party would have seized the opportunity to expose the bourgeois parties and mobilize a fight beyond the limits of Congress.

A transitional approach could begin by demanding a genuine living wage, for example, a minimum weekly income of $1,000 tied strictly to inflation. Socialists could explain that the wealth exists in society for this demand to be satisfied while warning the workers that we can’t place our hopes in the legislative mechanisms of Washington, which are under the control of the bosses. Rather than frame it as a legislative project, it must be framed as a fight to be waged above all in the workplace and the street, starting by targeting the biggest low-wage employers—Amazon, Walmart, Home Depot, Kroger, Target, Walgreens, Starbucks, etc.

Along with speeches and press conferences by independent-socialist elected officials, this demand could be popularized via nationwide rallies of these workers, agitation and resolutions across union locals, campaigns to form workplace committees in every store, warehouse, and company yard, and coordinated strike action in conjunction with the broader labor movement.

The bosses would respond with scabs and a ferocious media blitz, aided by top Democrats and Republicans, who would argue that socialists are going too far, that business will suffer, etc. The workers’ party would counter these slanders, not only with a well-prepared media campaign to win the broadest possible solidarity but by calling on the companies to open their books to the public. The workers of each company could demand access to the accounting to expose the parasitic profits that the bosses have raked in for decades at the expense of the workers.

All of this would further advance public opinion on the need for the socialist transformation of society. This experience would help the workers to draw the conclusion that the only way to safeguard their livelihoods and well-being is through the nationalization of the Fortune 500 monopolies, to be run by elected bodies of the workers themselves.

It would be a concrete way of raising the need for a workers’ government—a transitional demand for a class-independent workers’ state. A mass workers’ party would decide the specific campaigns, demands, or initiatives on the basis of events and the most pressing concerns of the workers themselves.

This is just one example of how a transitional program could help elevate the class struggle by building the confidence of the working class in its collective strength, and showing a way forward at each turn of events, rather than backing down and accepting the limits imposed by the profit system.

When the Democrats betrayed the demand for a $15/hour minimum wage, a class-independent socialist party would have seized the opportunity to expose the bourgeois parties and mobilize a fight beyond the limits of Congress. / Image: Fibonacci Blue, Flickr

The dialectical interrelation between the party and the class struggle

The comrades ask an excellent question about the relationship between the mass struggles and the rise of a fighting workers’ party—does one precede or serve as a catalyst for the other? We would argue that this works in both directions. Mass struggles can prepare the way for the explosive rise of a mass party, and a mass party—depending on its program—can help mass struggles escalate into a revolutionary situation by providing leadership and showing how to respond to capitalist attacks.

Great events and spontaneous movements can also transform smaller organizations into massive forces, especially during periods of crisis and instability. The objective situation during the post–WWII boom from 1945 to the mid-1970s made it extremely difficult to build a mass workers’ party, but since the end of that exceptional period, and particularly since 2008, the objective conditions have become immensely more favorable for class-independent politics.

The comrades might ask, could a mass party have emerged in advance of mass movements like the 2020 Black Lives Matter uprising? We believe the answer is yes—if previous opportunities had been seized upon correctly.

For example, there was growing momentum for a labor party in the 1990s, in the context of Bill Clinton’s anti-worker policies under a Democratic-controlled government. Tony Mazzocchi, then Secretary-Treasurer of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International Union (OCAW), launched the Labor Party Advocates to build support for a new party. In 1996, the Labor Party held its founding congress with the endorsement of several major unions representing hundreds of thousands of members.

However, these efforts were not guided by a class-struggle outlook. Rather than use the campaign to rally for class demands and galvanize the labor movement in favor of a break with the Democrats and Republicans, Mazzocchi sought to avoid rocking the boat or posing a threat to the conservative labor leaders. Instead of running candidates as a platform for gaining support and amplifying their call for a labor party, they timidly sat out elections for fear of splitting the “anti-Republican” vote. Instead, it focused its energy and resources on a “Just Healthcare” campaign. As a result, this potential step toward a class-independent political expression withered on the vine.

If the party had patiently built support, gradually gaining members and momentum by running candidates and participating in labor and social struggles—such as the massive antiwar and immigrants’ rights movements—it could have met a dramatic change of public opinion in the wake of the 2008 crisis and bailouts. In the 2010 midterms, when dissatisfaction with Obama was on the rise, it could have prepared an electoral intervention to counter the reactionary Tea Party with a class-based opposition. Instead, most of the left, including DSA, supported Obama, and the discontent was channeled almost exclusively toward the right, eventually paving the way for Trumpism.

Even if such a party had fewer members than DSA has today, it could have been in a position to pick up steam when the Occupy movement hit, followed by the first wave of the Black Lives Matter movement under Obama. A growing independent party could have called on Bernie Sanders to run as an independent socialist to the left of the Democrats—which is what he claimed to be—channeling all the energy of that campaign against the two-party system. If this had happened, it would have been a more significant force, if not a mass force, and certainly could have played a role in the events of 2020.

Would such a party have intervened with transitional demands or a class-struggle program? That would depend on another factor: the presence and weight of a revolutionary socialist current within it—how organized it was, how well it had made its case in the preceding years, and how far its activists had succeeded in sinking roots in the working class. This is precisely the role of a cadre organization—a political backbone built in advance as an anticipation of a larger revolutionary force. In any case, the far-left wing of such a party could have surely gained influence in the context of the botched response to the pandemic, the wave of wildcat strikes, and the historic George Floyd movement.

All of this is speculation, to be sure, and counterfactual “what ifs” are of limited utility. Nonetheless, this hypothetical scenario shows that, although the potential for such developments existed, it was not actualized due to the mistakes of the labor and left leaders. It is also a graphic reminder that mistakes in theory lead inevitably to mistakes in practice. The false idea that the workers and capitalists can peacefully coexist within the Democratic Party led directly to the rise of Trumpism in the form it exists today—and this was by no means inevitable.

If the Labor Party had patiently built support by running candidates and participating in labor and social struggles, it could have met a dramatic change of public opinion in the wake of the 2008 crisis. / Image: Public Domain

Would a class-independent DSA be relegated to marginality?

Let’s assume for a moment that the upcoming DSA convention resolves to commit to class-independent politics and calls on its elected officials to break with the Democratic Party. This could be accompanied by an energetic campaign in every major city, in which DSA members explain their position to the public in the following terms:

The Democrats have betrayed the working class countless times, and we have had enough! This party of Wall Street is unwilling to take action to raise wages or address the housing crisis. Even a global pandemic couldn’t get them to move toward genuine universal healthcare, and their symbolic posturing on the climate crisis is far from sufficient to avert the coming catastrophe.

The working class desperately needs a job guarantee for all, a $25/hour minimum wage, free universal healthcare and education, a national cap on rents of no more than 10% of household income, and an immediate transition to clean energy under democratic workers’ control. We believe the working class has the collective power to achieve this, provided we take public ownership of the banks and monopolies. We’re fighting to mobilize the full strength of the working class against Wall Street and the billionaires. Our goal is to establish a government of, by, and for the working class. Will you help us build a party that not only “talks the talk” but “walks the walk” and fights for a brighter future for all working people and the poor?

If run effectively, a campaign like this could quickly turn American politics upside down. It amounts to a fighting proposal for the class struggle and could lead millions of people to see DSA in a new light.

On the one hand, the organization could catch the attention of the large layer of leftist youth who are not interested in reformist electoral politics but would gladly step up for a militant fight against the capitalists. On the other hand, DSA could become a genuine point of reference for the working class as a fighting force that offers a way forward, instead of being seen as an appendage of the pro-capitalist “progressives” in power. It would be a way for DSA to present itself as “the most advanced and resolute section” of the US labor movement, “that section which pushes forward all others.”

It could also galvanize the current DSA membership by uniting the efforts of the disparate tendencies, including those more focused on base-building, as well as those more engaged in electoral work. The comrades who have shown their willingness to put in the work for various electoral campaigns and ballot initiatives in the hopes of strengthening the influence and relevance of socialism could do just that—by channeling their energy into a socialist program and helping bring this message into every corner of the movement. The DSA comrades who are unsatisfied with the electoral orientation to the Democratic Party and have opted to focus on local base-building efforts could be enlisted for a struggle to sink genuine roots in the working class—on the basis of a socialist program and working-class demands.

The call for class independence could allow the DSA to become a genuine point of reference for the working class as a fighting force that offers a way forward, instead of being seen as an appendage of the “progressives” in power. / Image: DSA St. Louis

A note on revolutionary optimism

In the background of the debate over the party question, electoral politics, and socialist strategy in general, there is a growing tension between two attitudes, or outlooks, that have been in a continual clash since socialism made its reappearance in the US political landscape. On the one hand, we see the rising revolutionary aspirations of a new generation fed up with multiple “once-in-a-lifetime” crises, who strongly favor the overthrow of capitalism. On the other hand, we see the attitude of left-liberal academics, tenured university professors, electoral, and trade-union staffers who snub their noses at revolutionary politics and want to get down to the “pragmatic” work of “real-world” politics—with strictly reformist horizons.

Much of today’s “party question” is, in reality, a reflection of this broader clash between revolutionary optimism and reformist pessimism. We reject the defeated outlook of those on the left who have written off the possibility of a workers’ revolution as some long-gone feature of a previous era. When we look at the mass movements, revolutions, insurrections, and general strikes that have shaken the world in the last few years, it’s clear that we are, in fact, living in a revolutionary epoch today.

The goal of overthrowing capitalism is what separates revolutionary socialists from the reformists who, in Lenin’s words, “may be found to be still within the bounds of bourgeois thinking and bourgeois politics.” To the Washington insider mentality, convinced of the everlasting stability of capitalism, this goal appears so unbearably far-fetched that it belongs to another dimension altogether. Yet these revolutionary aspirations are second nature to millions of radicalized youth who freely identify as communists and Marxists and use these terms without wincing.

As of 2020, 60% of Millennials (ages 24–39) and 57% of Gen Z (ages 16–23) support a “complete change of our economic system away from capitalism.” The ideas of Marxism are viewed favorably by 27% of Millennials, and 30% of Gen Z. Translated into hard numbers, these statistics suggest that some 80 million young people want to break with capitalism, and approximately half of them are open to the ideas of Marxism.

From the standpoint of revolutionary socialism, the primary strategic question is the following: how do we organize those tens of millions into a political force that can, in turn, win over the whole of the working class to a socialist program?

Even if we account for the fact that most of the people reflected in these figures support Marxism only passively, we could aim our sights at the most serious and committed single percentile and work towards assembling a force of around 400,000. These are, of course, only statistical approximations, but they illustrate the fact that revolutionary politics should not be automatically dismissed as a fringe current on the margins of politics. However, organizing that layer requires that socialists boldly put forward their ideas and distinguish themselves from the milquetoast “progressive” liberalism of the Democrats.

We see the rising revolutionary aspirations of a new generation fed up with multiple “once-in-a-lifetime” crises, who strongly favor the overthrow of capitalism. /Image: Joe Piette, Flickr

The class, the party, and the leadership

When Lenin and Trotsky used the term “vanguard,” they were not referring to the ranks of the organized Marxists as such, but to the politically advanced, most class-conscious layer of the working class. If armed with a correct revolutionary program, this layer of society could act as a lever to win over the rest of the class in its overwhelming majority. They understood that the working class would have to pass through the experience of great events, crises, and defeats before it was prepared to adopt the revolutionary program of Marxism.

If we look back at the mass labor and social-democratic parties of the Second International, that history clearly shows the conservative side of the so-called traditional mass organizations. Their political degeneration into class collaboration was the result of ideological concessions to reformism. This political process had an organizational expression. By their very form, mass parties tend to elevate a bureaucratic layer divorced from the outlook and conditions of those they represent. But the grip of the reformist leadership over these organizations is never absolute. As Trotsky explained:

Having once arisen, the leadership invariably rises above its class and thereby becomes predisposed to the pressure and influence of other classes. The proletariat may “tolerate” for a long time a leadership that has already suffered a complete inner degeneration but has not as yet had the opportunity to express this degeneration amid great events. A great historic shock is necessary to reveal sharply the contradiction between the leadership and the class. The mightiest historical shocks are wars and revolutions.

In the context of a revolutionary crisis, when the workers suffer an exceptional betrayal by their reformist leadership, the burning question then becomes who can step forward and replace that leadership? Who can show a way out of the impasse? This revolutionary leadership cannot be improvised in the spur of the moment. It depends on the preparation in advance of a well-organized and tempered cadre organization with roots in the working class and a grounding in Marxist ideas capable of resisting all alien class pressures.

This method is the essence of Bolshevism, which Lenin advocated in What Is To Be Done? in 1902, and which bore fruit just fifteen years later. The Bolshevik cadres numbered a mere 8,000 at the beginning of 1917. They experienced a thirty-fold growth to reach a quarter-million members in the eight months from February to October. Beyond the party ranks, they won the support of millions more as the working class came to share the viewpoint of revolutionary socialism. The skeletal framework of a mass revolutionary party was in place, and the working class found the tool it needed when it was ready to reach for it. This extraordinary feat was possible thanks to the decades of preparation that preceded the revolution—patient years of propaganda and agitation, the political education of the cadres, and the sinking of roots in the working class.

The changes in the US political landscape are accelerating as interest in revolutionary politics grows. Just as the rise of “democratic socialism” was an advance over the more vague slogans of the Occupy days, the rise of revolutionary socialism as a major current will represent a new phase in the process, as more socialists draw conclusions about the limits of the current strategies. In our view, the best way to prepare for the tasks ahead lies in the training of revolutionary cadres educated in the ideas of Marxism, imbued with a consistent class-independent outlook, and rooted in the working class.


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