What is political party for the Left?
Platypus Review 126 | May 2020
On February 21st, 2020, the Platypus Affiliated Society at University of California: Santa Cruz hosted a panel discussion with Mike Rotkin, Kevin Kearney, Dayton Andrews (Revolutionary United Front), and Bill Anderson. What follows is an edited transcript of the event.
Mike Rotkin: First of all, I am not speaking for the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). I am a founding member of the group, but I am not active in the local group here in Santa Cruz. So nothing that I say can be held against them. If it is good, they do not get the credit either.
If you go back to the 1830s, there were the anarchist and utopian socialist movements. Although quite separate from each other, they both argued that freedom does not come from political parties, governments, or unions across industries. To them, freedom was about small-scale interactions between people engaged in making decisions over things impacting them in their daily lives. During the 1830s to 1840s, these progressive movements, particularly in Southern Europe where industry was not as developed, were remarkably powerful in their time. In 1848, there was a huge revolution that swept across Europe. It made the previous set of anarchist ideas and small-scale socialist experiments seem completely irrelevant.
The national governments came in, smashed these movements, and imprisoned or exiled all the anarchist activists. As these movements were destroyed, people realized that you could not simply implement a utopian socialist vision while ignoring the state. Anarchism took a big turn under the leadership of Bakunin, who argued that the state must be smashed before socialism can be established.
The anarchist ideal is still correct, but questions arose over the methods required to achieve the elimination of the state. Marxism, as a movement, also came out of 1848 and made clear the necessity of a mass political party capable of taking on the national government. Marxists argued that the target of revolution is not your boss in the factory, although he can be a pain in the ass that must be dealt with. The actual targets are all governments as representatives of the entire class of employers across Europe and the entire world.
A political party is required to coordinate all of these local activities. The original idea of the party that comes out of Marx is the mass party—an open democratic institution. Anyone sharing its ideas can join this group and work towards the organization’s goals. Huge socialist parties such as German Social Democracy (SPD) adopted this model and were a serious force during the late 19th century. The SPD was the largest single party in Germany in 1890. The party’s leadership argued for the organization of the entire working class across all the different industries in Germany. Only multiple mass parties like the SPD across all of Europe could build a movement capable of standing up to national governments with proven track records of destroying small-scale, idealistic anarchist experiments.
The movement took a different turn in Russia. Although the Russians shared the same idea of a mass party that represents the economic and social interests of the working class, the despotic Tsarist state presented a major obstacle that shaped future ideas of how Marxist parties would form under conditions of overwhelming censorship and repression. There was no open democracy in Russia. Radicals attempting to exercise free speech or pass out leaflets to people were imprisoned or shot. The Russians formed what would become known as the vanguard party, which ultimately became the Marxist-Leninist party.
Russian Marxist parties consisted of a small group of dedicated revolutionaries ready to lay down their lives for the movement. The idea of democratic centralism was that there would be open democracy within the party, but all members can not oppose measures that receive a majority vote. That degenerated over time into Stalinism. Democratic centralism, which was meant to uphold democracy as a central idea shared across the working class, became despotic top-down control. Democracy itself disappeared out of this movement.
I think we are nowhere near the point of imagining being able to organize an armed struggle against the government of the United States. That is not to say we might not end up in an armed struggle someday, especially with what Trump is doing. However, I do not believe that the Russian party model, formed out of conditions of repression, will attract large numbers of Americans. People must work together, have a vision for the future, and eventually engage in some way with electoral politics. The United States, unlike a parliamentary country, has a winner-take-all system that serves a two-party structure. A third party will never be able to break into mainstream electoral politics in a serious way. A party in a European country may eventually have its members seated in parliament and form coalitions with larger parties. In the United States, you get nothing until it is 50% plus one. You could spend decades in the wilderness trying to outcompete the Democratic or Republican parties. Additionally, the people attracted to your Leftist party are likely coming from your local Democrats, which splits the party and enables the Republicans to win elections in areas formerly controlled by Democrats. Trump happened because the Left drew the energy out of the Democrats. Call it the lesser of two evils if you want.
However, I do not want to limit politics to simple electoralism. The struggle is going to take place in an electoral form, but people have to conduct educational outreach and grassroots organizing in between elections so that Americans understand that anarchism and socialism are viable alternatives. This organizing will give people a sense of democracy and empowerment in their workplace, neighborhoods, and their daily lives. Most people in the United States have never experienced what it is like to take ownership of their lives. Their control is what they can buy on the weekends to enjoy themselves. It is not about reorganizing production or the way society functions.
We are bereft of a good Left organization. The DSA is the biggest one but still inadequately represents people of color and blue-collar or pink-collar workers across industries. This is not 1880. We have to think about how to form an organization that includes college-educated people with people who have never gone to college, with people who have different religious views. We must have an organization that can properly strategize how to connect work outside of and between the electoral processes so that candidates like Donald Trump do not have the chance to drag our country down.
Dayton Andrews: I want to begin my comments with a quotation from Amílcar Cabral, a leading force within the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde: “A party represents all those that share a given idea, a given aim, on a given path.” In Guinea-Bissau, during much of the 20th century, the primary struggle in society was gaining independence and ejecting foreign colonizers. After they won independence, this party shifted. It still exists but is very different from how it existed in 1963.
So the party represents a political unity or a set of ideas and common goals. Many types of parties can exist and have existed in the past. Take for instance the Democratic National Committee. This is a party that is united behind the idea that U.S. imperialism should continue. We can look at the actions of the party as a whole in terms of what actions they supported, what policies they put forth. Look at the concrete nature of the system that the two-party system maintains.
Democrats and Republicans are on the same side. This includes every single candidate running for office, and even Bernie Sanders has been quite clear that he supports foreign intervention if he feels it is within U.S. interests. He supports capitalism even if he talks about wanting to decrease its ills. So if there is going to be a political party for the Left, what is its unity? Does it seek to end capitalism? Does it seek to end imperialism? Will it work to smash patriarchy and white supremacy? How will it wage this struggle and what does it envision instead of capitalism, instead of imperialism? Is this going to be a communist party united around a single ideology of how to remake society? Is it going to be a more broad party with more general ideas of social equality? These are questions we have to ask.
For my organization, the Revolutionary United Front, a party of the Left represents a tool to combat these forces and build a better world for all. We need larger, more sophisticated organizations to combat systems of oppression. The prompt mentions the collapse of international socialist organizations, and, in my view, calls into question whether these organizations are feasible. I will not discuss at length how the International Socialist Organization (ISO) supported certain capitalist politicians or multiple instances of U.S. military intervention abroad. The ISO collapsed because leadership hid incidents of sexual harassment within the organization. And then when it came out, they voted themselves out of existence. This incident was the final nail in the ISO's coffin but the collapse cannot be reduced to a single scandal. In reality, there were many nails in the coffin of the ISO. If this is the best a socialist party can do in this country, I do not want it and neither do my comrades.
Look at the Black Panther Party, an organization that was much smaller than the ISO but more historically significant. The statements of their members, the policies, the briefs they put forward all explicitly indicate that it was a Marxist-Leninist organization that ultimately split into two factions. There was Eldridge Cleaver's East Coast branch that decided the only way to advance revolution was to take up guerilla warfare inspired by Che Guevara. The West Coast Panthers led by Huey P. Newton dissolved the Panthers nationwide to begin a mayoral campaign for Bobby Seale. There was a split, they couldn't push forward, and the organization collapsed.
I do not think that you can study this history and what was possible in this country just 50 years ago under a two-party system and say there cannot be other parties and mass organizations. So if this party for the Left is fighting for socialism, then what kind of socialism is it fighting for? Is it fighting for social democracy for a larger welfare state? Does it simply intend to participate in the corrupt capitalist political system? Or does it seek to overthrow the ruling capitalist class? And if so, how? How does it want to go about that struggle? That is a very serious question. How will this party dismantle white supremacy? How would it confront patriarchy or organize against imperialism? These are all serious questions, basic questions that we have to answer, not just on the national level, but in our day-to-day work because these situations play themselves out at both the micro and macro levels.
In the San Francisco Bay Area, our work has revolved dominantly around the question of housing. The Bay Area has at least 50,000 people sleeping on the streets every night. It's our view that we must not only confront the growing homelessness of the working masses but unite these struggles with tenants and workers in the surrounding areas.
We must continue to organize against imperialism and eventually unite these domestic struggles against the injustices of capitalism. These systems of oppression we are fighting are not anomalies under capitalism. There is always going to be mass homelessness, gender violence, and the oppression of ethnic minorities under capitalism until all capitalist states are smashed.
More pressing than forming a party, we need mass organizations. These are organizations based in particular fronts of struggle — open organizations that regular people can join. Currently we have to realize the low level of political organization in our society compared to even 50 years ago. We talked about big organizations like the DSA. The DSA has almost 50,000 members nationwide. That is very large in this society, but they do not have 50,000 members worth of mass campaigns going on in any city they are in. There is a real hesitancy to go out among working people and address their issues.
It is going to take many struggles and the formation of many more organizations until we directly confront what a party for the Left will look like. But if we are unable to go out among working people, we will never get anywhere.
Bill Anderson: As mentioned in the introduction, from 1974 until the early 1990s, I was active in the Libertarian Party. The big two political parties are, of necessity, coalitions of interest groups. Historically, the smaller parties have either been the vehicles of a particular individual, a single issue, or an ideological party.
Whatever you may think of the Libertarian Party, it is an example of a recent attempt to establish a mass ideological party. When it was founded in the early 1970s, there were some who thought it was going to win because inflation was over 10%. People were dissatisfied in the wake of the Vietnam War, so the Libertarians believed they could become a major party. They quickly realized that was not going to happen. The next objective was to become as large as the historical Socialist Party under Debs. If we got that large, the mainstream parties would have to start stealing our positions and we would gradually spread out ideology through a Fabian strategy.
We were never truly successful. The Socialist Party under Debs had more than a thousand people in local offices. At our peak, we had around two dozen people in state legislatures and a couple of state congressmen. The Libertarian Party usually has 200 to 300 people in local offices. We have had a little more than a dozen people in state legislatures over the course of 40 years but we have never elected anyone to Congress. So it did not look like we could replicate the success of the Socialist Party a century ago.
The third idea was to continue the political party to spread our ideas. The only way to spread your ideas in America in the 1970s and 80s was to have a political party because people only paid attention to political issues around election time. The way to spread the word, in the days before the internet, was through newspapers, magazines, and television. Your manifesto will be ignored but a candidate will get a few soundbites on television or an interview in the local paper.
Another function of the Libertarian Party, or any ideological third party, was to create a grassroots membership that would periodically convene for face-to-face meetings. However, one danger of political parties is that they are open organizations that anyone can join. Someone who gets their friends to sign a petition can officially file as a candidate under your party name and go on to say that the earth is flat. Suddenly, the headlines report that your party believes the earth is flat and you have no control over that.
Another problem with political parties is that some people hunt for patronages. We used to get together once a year and one guy came to our meeting saying he wanted to be an election observer, which in those days paid a small amount of money. We only had enough money to dispense for that single patronage. As the party grows, its patronage component will also expand.
Ambitious outsiders want to join and use your party as a vehicle for their agendas. Nowadays, the Libertarian Party often goes for washed-up Republican politicians instead of principled people.
However, I believe the internet has made ideological political parties obsolete. You can now get your message out over social media without the need for elections or formal media attention. You can disseminate unlimited literature online.
So why not forget the political party? Build a network of scholarly organizations, public policy organizations, and educational organizations to get your message out. The only thing you would be lacking is the grassroots face-to-face contact, so you would have to find some other way to provide that.
If anarchism is your ideology, you should not be following electoral strategy. For one thing, your candidate will have to compromise your anarchist views to win and will almost certainly betray them once in office.
This country has gone beyond the point where elections will reform anything. The strategy for anarchists is to decentralize, decentralize, and decentralize. The question arises: who is capable of resisting centralized authority? Communitarian conservatives tend to say families and churches can resist tyranny, but, while these organizations can serve as alternatives, they are only speed bumps when it comes to slowing the state. What has impressed me lately is the way the states have succeeded in nullifying the marijuana laws and the way people have established sanctuaries for issues such as immigration and gun rights. I think that sort of resistance by states is something the federal government would hesitate to oppose with force.
Another sort of resistance that has potential is nullification by juries. It has been well-established law since back in 1695 that a juror cannot be punished for a decision except if there is outright bribery of the jury. As far as political action is concerned, I am mainly interested in the work of the 10th Amendment Center and the Fully Informed Jury Association which are for state and jury nullification, respectively.
The country is too big to accommodate everybody's views. The future is secession and nullification.
Kevin Kearney: The perspective reflected on the World Socialist Website is a perspective that I still hold. I am a Trotskyist. What that means is that Trotsky was a Leninist, a Marxist, and represented the highest point of the development of Marxism. He and Vladimir Lenin carried out the first successful socialist revolution that gave workers, for some time, control over one-ninth of the Earth's surface. They effectively stopped World War I by withdrawing from the war. Leninism proved itself not only as an effective ideology in practice for seizing power but also for ending the imperialist war.
The countries involved in World War I were not going to let this socialist revolution just exist. There was a pronounced civil war period and a famine where the country was put under great stress, but it succeeded in sustaining itself. There was great hope in 1918 and 1923 that the German party would succeed in its revolution. They had an internationalist perspective. There was an influential Trotskyist party in China with the loyalty of 800,000 workers led by Chen Duxiu.
Those things did not come to pass. The Russian Revolution became isolated. A bureaucracy led by Stalin developed within the leading ranks of the party shortly after the death of Lenin. Stalin did not outmaneuver Trotsky and the Bolsheviks due to their political naivety. The people in Russia were struggling. After the failure of the German Revolution, the Soviet Union had to withdraw and focus on its survival — a situation which Stalin manipulated to his advantage.
Saying Bolshevism is the equivalent of Stalinism is wrong. This notion is part of an anti-socialist ideology that has been spread in this country since at least the 1960s. Anyone serious about building a Left party must study the differences between Trotskyism and Stalinism as the fundamental last point of the development of Marx’s theory.
What is the Left party? When I hear “Left party,” what I hear is a party that is going to be susceptible to the influence of the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party is a right-wing, imperialist, pro-war, pro-bourgeois, pro-capitalist party that is anti-working class in every sense of the term. Knowing that the real danger for the Left party is that there will inevitably be elements that desire “practical” cooperation with the Democrats and disregard Marxist theory. The key work on this is Lenin's What is to be Done? Many people try to separate Lenin from Marx and say that this book was purely Lenin’s innovation. In reality, the most controversial element of the book is that the working class is the only revolutionary class.
The working class is the big tent that should be the focus of any serious socialist group. Many of these people do not have access to high-level education, let alone bonafide Marxist theory. Revolutionary theory is necessary to carry out a revolution that can end capitalism and wage slavery. However, the tricky part is that this theory is a product of the bourgeois intelligentsia. This issue deserves close study and expertise.
The party needs to be made up of people who are seriously studying Marxism, who understand its basic principles, who are carrying out reading groups. A lot of people question the relevance of reading groups. “It’s a waste of time, a bunch of dorks reading books. Just go outside and start talking to people.” Well, what are you going to say to them? That is the problem. And are they even going to listen to you?
MR: I hope that I did not imply that the Russian vanguard party had to inevitably degenerate. However, in a country like the United States with a well-developed democracy, workers are still committed to the idea of expanding democracy rather than forming a small group that will make decisions for them. Vanguard parties may be appropriate for Third World situations but are unlikely to be attractive to the people we are trying to recruit in the United States.
We need to work on three different levels that can, unfortunately, be divided. Firstly, we need education about the nature of the capitalist system. People need education about how capital functions and how it is controlled by 1% of the population. I have taught night classes on Marxism which were attended by working people in Oakland. Workers need access to this resource.
Secondly, we need a real organizing presence in neighborhoods and workplaces that addresses the issues workers face in their daily lives. Most people spend their time engaged in passive consumption and have never thought about exerting control over their lives. These issues are not necessarily going to be explicitly communist in form. The graduate struggle at UCSC is not socialist but indicates real problems with wages, housing, and costs of living at the university — issues that workers face in the here and now.
The third level is to take the conflict between the Right and the Left in this country seriously. I believe people like Donald Trump will destroy our democratic opportunities. The people who say that there is no difference between Democrats and Republicans have not looked at how Trump has negatively impacted working people, immigrants, people of color, and women in this society. We must defend the minimal democratic institutions that allow us to speak to each other about politics.
KK: After the economic boom following World War II, unions could fight and make the economic situation more comfortable for working people. The equilibrium between capitalists and unions rapidly deteriorated from 1970 to 1990. What currently exists is Democratic Party politics as minimal demands firmly entrenched within the capitalist, pro-war, two-party system.
However, I think that consciousness has changed due to the Iraq War and the 2008 financial collapse. Following 2008, the situation has become much more intense for the working class. Leon Trotsky once said, "Everyone responds differently to a political argument but everyone responds the same way to a hot poker." The capitalist economy breaking down is like a hot poker on everybody who is not part of the ruling class. I think the hot poker is responsible for the popularity with people under the age of 50 of Bernie Sanders’s rhetoric about democratic socialism and abolishing the billionaires.
DA: Donald Trump is a distraction. As a commercial truck driver who interacts with working people every day, I can tell you that Donald Trump's worst policies are extensions of Barack Obama's best policies in terms of deportation, foreign imperialism, and the ongoing stagnation of the U.S. economy due to rising inter-imperialist competition. The 2008 financial crash ruined millions of lives and Barack Obama pardoned all the bankers. Not one motherfucker went to jail. I refuse to give in to this narrative that we have to sacrifice our principles to get rid of Donald Trump. That is how we get a second term of Donald Trump.
There is a difference between electoralism and the basic nature of reforms. That is not to say that we should not be involved in these reformist struggles, but what is the nature of these struggles? How are we involved in them?
MR: There is a difference between the party concepts that are mostly shared up here. A party is a group of people who have a shared vision of the future and are forming a strategy of how to get there. Electoral parties in the United States are instruments of the state. The Democratic Party is determined by whoever declares themselves to be a Democrat. Because of cross-party voting in the primary, there may be people from other Californian parties filling the Democratic State Central Committee.
The Democratic State Central Committee, ultimately, has no control of its organization. There is no disciplined agreement like in a Leninist party model. In that sense, you can have a party inside of the Democratic Party of the kind that has been discussed. DSA is not a party but is an organization inside of the Democratic Party pushing them in a particular direction.
DA: At the same time, there's a difference between creating pressure, creating grassroots activism that pushes reforms, and investing grassroots movements into the electoral system.
KK: Incremental change is fine but that is not what people want. People want a system that operates in the interest of all of society. If we are all workers, the working class is a sleeping giant. If the farmworkers and the Bay Area longshoremen were to stop working tomorrow under the influence of an organized socialist party and its education, the state would grind to a halt. But the reason they do not do that is that there is no party with advanced socialist theory. We only have the default setting of bourgeois consciousness until we adopt a socialist ideology.
BA: If Bernie Sanders is elected President and the Democrats gain control of the house in the Senate, I predict that the next day the federal writ will no longer run in most counties in this country. If we had a banking crisis and Trump tried to freeze our accounts and seize our money, half of the country would be in open revolt against Donald Trump. There is a good chance of one of these things happening in the next few years. There will be no class-conscious revolts. There is going to be an anti-federal government revolt. Just a blind, angry revolt over how the federal government has failed us. Fiat money has failed us. The U.S. Empire has failed us. We are in the end game of these rackets and the government will continue to grow until we puke it up.
Capital is the highest ideological expression of the workers' movement in Marx's time because it is a critique of political economy. Socialism is the highest expression of radical bourgeois thought in Marx's time. If workers were reading Capital in the middle of the 19th century and are unable to understand it today, would that point to some regression of the ability of the working class movement to define the goals of a political party?
DA: The development of the Marxist tradition, or the international communist tradition, has treatises of further clarification. There is a reason it is called Marxism-Leninism. Lenin further clarified some of the universal elements of Marxism. Additionally, Lenin grew up in a time of imperialism, a phenomenon that hadn't fully come into its own during the time of Marx. At the same time, you had the accomplishments of the Chinese Community Party in 1949 onwards. That was the clarification of what it meant to wage a revolutionary struggle.
There is a low level of struggle in our society, and organizations do not want to do the work to synthesize these ideas. My party has its quarterly publication that tries to synthesize revolutionary ideas and mass campaigns for a broad audience.
BA: My point of view is that the relationships at work are voluntary. The relationships that are exploitative are coercive relationships. A good society is a network of voluntary relationships.
KK: I would say that is why I consider our society a bad society. The majority of us are not voluntarily going out and working. You will starve if you do not work. Everybody is coerced in our society. Nobody has freedom.
How would a Left party differ from the current mainstream political parties? How would the way it organizes, how it relates to its base, and how it participates in politics differ from the parties that we are more familiar with?
MR: Basically, it would be direct about its interest in supporting the class needs of working people. The Democratic Party is a coalition of class forces that operates in contradictory ways. Sometimes it is a defense against some of the worst possibilities of capital. It can soften the blows of capitalism, which gives people some space to think about the bigger picture. But it is certainly not a working class institution.
DA: We have to think about the basis for a revolutionary party in this country and what it has to do to overthrow the capitalist ruling class. That is the primary contradiction of society we have to unite to address or else we are all going extinct.
BA: I would say the idea that the country will unite behind a party is a delusion. I think the country is too large and diverse to hold together.
KK: Trump in his disgusting way appealed to workers. In his victory, the billionaire from Wall Street danced around in a hard hat. Workers were so disgusted with the Democratic Party that they voted for Trump just to prove a point. The key here was that he had to talk to the workers. Who was doing that on the Democratic Party side? Nobody. The only person who was doing it was Sanders and look at the success he is having. His message unifies a diverse base. People who are calling for class unity are getting a hearing. So I think, again, the hot poker is bringing people together again.
Formalized political organization would appear indispensable for a long-term viewpoint beyond the ebb and flow of movements. The idea of political parties as a means for the Left as opposed to an end in itself is difficult to envision both theoretically and practically. Why is this the case?
BA: The early liberals thought that, once people could all vote, there would never be another war. Once people can vote, there will be no more taxes. They were very naive about the future of democracy, and they realized that there is a problem with collective decision-making that produces such results as the 20th century, with millions of people dying in wars and genocide.
Herbert Spencer, Henry David Thoreau, Lysander Spooner, Gustave de Molinari, and Auberon Herbert all eventually realized that classical liberalism was untenable unless one embraced a form of anarchism. The connection between classical liberalism and anarchism is not always appreciated.
Anarchists that I am familiar with tend to think that class rule is the result of having a monopoly provider of law. So we should look into polycentric legal systems and decentralization. The nationalist liberals said, of course, Ruritanians will not exploit fellow Ruritanians. Once we kicked the Waldavians out of our country, everything is going to be great. Well, they were wrong about that too. You kicked the Waldavians out and the Ruritanians started exploiting each other. So the liberals started naively and ended up pessimistic and profound, how about that?
MR: There needs to be coordination in our political and social activities. So whether it is a socialist party or some organization, it must be able to unify these different levels of activities that are often very contradictory.
We have to bring theory into our practical daily work. How do we integrate Marx’s ideas into work at a grassroots level where you will never mention Marx’s name? We have to somehow stop Donald Trump, educate people about the nature of capitalism, and make advances in terms of people's daily life experiences in between elections. A Left party has to be capable of doing all these things simultaneously.
KK: If you are against war, the conditions of workers, and the destruction of the environment, the Democratic Party will not seriously change any of these things. Lesser-evilism is a trap for the working class that perpetuates the status quo in every election cycle. It shuts down discussions about politics and principles. A Left party would be instrumental in preventing working people from falling into this trap.
DA: I'll just make a brief comment. We would lose a lot of momentum if we told workers that elections are shams while still investing energy into the electoral cycle. There is no contradiction between organizing against imperialism, for the environment, and for workers’ rights. Organizing for elected candidates and then organizing workers' rights are in direct contradiction. You spend six months a year talking about supporting the capitalist class and a desirable capitalist candidate, and the other six months of the year trying to educate the working people about how capitalism is bad. They are going to call you unprincipled or, even better, just stop showing up.| P
Transcribed by Daniel Rudin and Duyminh Tran