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You are here: Platypus /The dead end and how we got here: A response to D. L. Jacobs

The dead end and how we got here: A response to D. L. Jacobs

Tim Horras

Platypus Review 145 | April 2022

Given this general prosperity, wherein the productive forces of bourgeois society are developing as luxuriantly as it is possible for them to do within bourgeois relationships, a real revolution is out of the question. Such a revolution is possible only in periods when both of these factors — the modern forces of production and the bourgeois forms of production — come into opposition with each other [...] A new revolution is only a consequence of a new crisis. The one, however, is as sure to come as the other.

— Karl Marx, The Class Struggles in France, 1848 to 1850 (1850)

HAS BASE-BUILDING FAILED as a strategy for the socialist movement?[1] What is our movement’s vision for a reconstituted socialist society? In regards to these questions, I’ve been thinking about a recent essay by D. L. Jacobs, after a comrade helpfully pointed it out to me.[2] I disagree with a lot of what Jacobs wrote, but the piece also highlighted some points I’d been neglecting.

The article opens with the author in conversation with an imaginary interlocutor (essentially an anarchist) representing the base-building trend within the socialist Left. This caricature of base-building does an injustice to the rich thought undertaken around the concept in the 2016-2018 period,[3] but it is very much in accord with the consensus movement assessment among socialists today, which, having once seriously grappled with the ideas of base-building (and, indeed, incorporated many concepts into their practice since that time), now declares the trend dead.[4]

For a brief moment, base-building became something of a fad among the socialist Left. Many proposed base-building as the way forward, but fewer actually attempted to engage in the sort of deep organizing projects which base-building actually advocated for. As such, summations based on concrete real-world experience (rather than abstract rhetorical arguments or speculation) are few and far between, although there is a handful that chronicle both successes[5] and failures.[6] Without a fuller picture of the actual trajectory of these projects, it is difficult to know whether the inability to achieve stated goals was the result of incorrect analysis and strategy or simply due to a lack of execution.

Nonetheless, we have to address the ideological critique of base-building as well.[7] This latter critique of base-building claims that the strategy possesses, it is said, a rudimentary ideology, or even no ideology at all. In other words, critics might argue, “Yes, base-building is necessary for any organization or movement to build power, but you haven’t answered what you are building power for!”

While this is correct insofar as it goes, it fails to acknowledge that the question of politics was always up for grabs. The truth is that base-building (as implied above) was in fact adopted by some sections of the Left, but it was adopted in the service of an explicitly reformist politics: specifically with efforts to utilize protest and organizing as a means to win a share of power within the Democratic Party (or “utilizing its ballot line” in the preferred nomenclature of the purists) in pursuit of the agenda condensed in the conventional wisdom articulated by the popular website Daily Kos in the pre-Bernie era as “More and better Democrats, not necessarily in that order.”[8]

That we have collectively ended up here is less of a fault of base-building — whose main proponents argued passionately for a revolutionary politics — than it is an indictment of the decision of the movement as a whole to pursue a reformist politics. That is to say, the decision of thousands of socialist activists (perhaps including more than a few of our readers) to hold their noses and participate in reformist politics as “the only game in town.” In fairness, it should be expressed that these decisions have appeared more rational in the context of an overall context of political demobilization, demoralization, and reversal.

The setback of the socialist movement after November 2020 is not yet universally acknowledged, although the effects of the setback have been universally felt.[9] It has not only been small revolutionary collectives such as the Marxist Center which have run aground on the shores of the current political juncture — even the movement’s mainstay, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) has had to lower their expectations. Bernie Sanders lost the Democratic presidential primary, twice. There has been no progress made on key demands such as Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, or Abolish ICE. Previously giddy predictions of DSA becoming an organization a hundred thousand strong have had to be quietly revised downward.

There are several objective causes for the “strategic impasse” we find ourselves in today.[10] The election of Joe Biden (which large numbers of young people celebrated by literally dancing in the streets), the receding tide of fascism represented by the conclusion of the Trump administration, and the failure of the January 2021 coup attempt[11] have lessened the immediate threat of the Washington regime on large numbers of middle-class Americans. Of course, the threat of fascism, while now much subdued, still looms ominously in the long term.

Despite the significant continuities between the Trump and Biden regime — on immigration,[12] on foreign policy,[13] on tax policy,[14] as well as in the continuation of key personnel in critical positions such as pandemic response[15] and monetary policy[16] — it is clear to any observer that a great deal of energy has dissipated from the mass movement following the change of guard. This isn’t, perhaps, so different from the situation we faced in a similar lull period of 2008–2010 when a mass-based antiwar movement shrunk dramatically after the election of, successively, a Democratic legislative majority and a Democratic president.[17]

As Marxists, we don’t primarily identify the prime mover of events as being driven by political events, but rather seek to discover how changes in the economic mode of production occasion shifts in social consciousness and, sooner or later, in political life.[18] In this regard, the coronavirus pandemic has unsettled global economic life in ways unprecedented in modern history. Massive unemployment, fiscal and monetary stimulus, labor shortages, supply chain crises, etc. The dramatic upheavals in the U.S. and global economy deserve scrupulous analyses from a Marxist perspective, which, I am reluctant to admit, this author is not qualified to expound upon.

Unfortunately, the socialist press, in general, has been loath to attempt an analysis of the present economic conditions, and when they have warranted to opine, the analysis and perspective has been uniformly Keynesian and liberal in nature. This failure of theory is related to the practical problem that the present political base for socialist politics overlaps with, indeed is sometimes indistinguishable with, progressive liberalism.[19]

Given all of this, the fact that revolutionary politics has become disoriented, diffused, and co-opted should not be incredibly surprising. If we accept the general outline of the argument above and situate the socialist movement’s strategic impasse in the context of objective economic and political conditions, as well as strategic errors, this still leaves open the question of ideology broached earlier by our critics.

What is the vision for society offered up by the socialist movement? And, crucially, how is socialist politics distinct and distinguishable from garden variety progressive liberalism, if at all? It is here that the Jacobs essay is most illuminating. In the beginning sections of “What was the Millennial Left?,” Jacobs artfully traces the arc of the socialist movement in the United States over the past twenty years.[20] His characterization of the Left as tailing the Democratic Party is spot on: “even activists who don’t formally participate in the Democratic Party can be the most intransigent and militant Democrats. They tail after the ideas and trends of the Democratic Party and compete over the voting bloc that the Democrats usually organize.”[21] This point is not so different from the argument of Sophia Burns several years earlier,[22] and could conceivably be reconciled with an argument for base-building; the crucial issue remains how to find an exit from the dead end of Democratic Party politics.

However, while his initial hypotheses are sound, Jacobs soon loses his way. Seeking a way out of the deadlock, Jacobs sets his sights on “wokeness.” The implication of his argument is that by “taking a side in the culture war,” the Left cuts itself off from the working class, who presumably can’t be bothered to stand up for abortion, or the rights of LGBTQ+ people or oppressed nationalities. One cringes when he shades into standard GOP critiques of “cancel culture,” as though the possibility of a Twitter pile-on is a more serious threat to the working class than a policeman’s bullet.

It is true that much of the U.S. Left has developed a toxic culture, but we must not mistake the effect for the cause.[23] This toxicity, often called “radical liberalism” within movement spaces (or, simply, “radlib”), emerges from the composition of the movement itself, i.e., the class background of the human beings who compose it. Today we might call this layer, which composes the most active element of the socialist movement, “professional managerial,”[24] or (even less helpfully) “middle class.” In the old days, we might have referred to “alien class and hostile elements” of the petty bourgeoisie,[25] but the idea is the same: we cannot address the toxicity of Left culture until we first address who identifies as “the Left.”

Indeed, this demographic conundrum was the main contributor to the development of a base-building strategy for the socialist movement — a strategy that urged socialists to engage in activity that would be not only the realization of political demands, but would also embed the movement within the most numerous, most strategic, and most oppressed strata of the working class, developing “stewards of the class,”[26] or, as I wrote several years ago, “preparing a layer of working-class leaders who are ideologically committed to overthrowing the state and can impart to the working class that its interests lay in running society itself.”[27]

Yet as the preceding passage indicates, the problem is not only demographic, but political as well. Socialists are indistinguishable from liberals because we possess no coherent and independent political vision to promote: we simply offer a more extreme version of liberal proposals (thus, “radical liberalism”). As Parker McQueeney puts it, “Without a political program, we have no way of seriously posing an alternative to the established parties of capital, and articulating a vision of society for the democratic class rule of workers.”[28] And without such a vision, the socialist movement risks foundering, disoriented and directionless, as we see all too well today.

A brief suggestion as to what, at a bare minimum, would be necessary in a genuine socialist political platform which would separate the movement from vague progressivism: economically, it would mean the rational organization of production; politically, the democratic governance of society by a council republic. The communist intellectual Cornelius Castoriadis put it equally succinctly: “Concretely to define the socialist organization of society is amongst other things to draw all the possible conclusions from two basic ideas: workers’ management of production, and the rule of the Councils.”[29]

This would logically entail the rejection of class collaboration in the political arena — immediately: the refusal to enter into coalition with, much less join the same political party as, the capitalist class, in the long term, rejecting administration of the capitalist state, dismembering it, and establishing instead a commune or council republic. Until the socialist moves decisively away from welfarist and redistributionist politics,[30] and places front and center a vision of society moving toward a communist horizon, we can never serve as anything other than the tail-end of the liberal wing of the ruling class.

This suggests that there is a way out of the cul-de-sac our movement has arrived at: to combat the structural tendency toward liberal degeneration, we would need to combine the formulation of a genuinely communist political program with efforts to make this program relevant to the working class and oppressed. But making the political program relevant cannot be done by education, propaganda, and agitation alone: the program must be encoded into the struggle at the very sites of oppression and exploitation themselves: the workplaces, the neighborhoods, and the communities. For this reason, one expects that the ideas of base-building will retain their salie[31]nce for the next generation of activists. |P


[1] This article was originally published in Cosmonaut, February 18, 2022, available online at <https://cosmonautmag.com/2022/02/the-dead-end-and-how-we-got-here/>.

[2] D. L. Jacobs, “What was the Millennial Left?,” Platypus Review 137 (June 2021), available online at <https://platypus1917.org/2021/06/01/what-was-the-millennial-left/>.

[3] “It’s All About That Base: A Dossier on the Base-Building Trend,” ed. D. B. Cooper, The Left Wind, March 16, 2018, available online at <https://theleftwind.org/2018/03/16/its-all-about-that-base-a-dossier-on-the-base-building-trend/>.

[4] Cf. Aaron Amaral, “Four distinct approaches to revolutionary organization,” Tempest, November 30, 2021, available online at <https://www.tempestmag.org/2021/11/four-distinct-approaches-to-revolutionary-organization/>.

[5] Cf. Stomp Out Slumlords and Metro DC DSA, “No Job, No Rent: Ten months of organizing the tenant struggle” (February 2021), available online at <https://www.stompoutslumlords.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/No-Job-No-Rent-Stomp-Out-Slumlords-Feb-2021-Report-1.pdf>.

[6] Cf. Akio, “Lessons from Beyond the Grave: A Case Study of Opportunism and a Summation of Efforts by Renters Together in Lawrence, Kansas” Kites Journal 5–6 (January 2022), available online at <https://kites-journal.org/2021/10/03/lessons-from-beyond-the-grave/>.

[7] Cf. From Tide to Wave: Base Building and Communist Politics, vol. 1, eds. Jean RD Allen & Teresa Kalisz (The Left Wind, 2021), available online at <https://theleftwind.org/2021/03/14/from-tide-to-wave/>.

[8] “DailyKos FAQ,” available online at <https://www.dkosopedia.com/static/d/a/i/DailyKos_FAQ_a071.html#What_is_the_purpose_of_this_site.3F>.

[9] Cf. Tim Horras, “Among the Ruins of Victory,” Regeneration, November 7, 2020, available online at <https://regenerationmag.org/among-the-ruins-of-victory/>.

[10] Ashley Smith and Charlie Post, “The U.S. left at a strategic impasse: The case for reorientation on struggle and political independence,” Tempest, January 10, 2022, available online at <https://www.tempestmag.org/2022/01/the-u-s-left-at-a-strategic-impasse/>.

[11] Cf. “2021 United States Capitol attack,” Wikipedia, available at <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2021_United_States_Capitol_attack>.

[12] Cf. Anita Kumar, “Biden railed against Trump’s immigration policies, now defends them in courts,” Politico, August 10, 2021, available online at <https://www.politico.com/news/2021/08/10/biden-trump-immigration-policies-503108>.

[13] Cf. Eugene Kiely and Robert Farley, “Timeline of U.S. Withdrawal from Afghanistan,” FactCheck.org, August 17, 2021, available online at <https://www.factcheck.org/2021/08/timeline-of-u-s-withdrawal-from-afghanistan/>.

[14] Cf. Laura Davison, “Trump Tax Cuts Set to Win Staying Power as Democrats Drop Plans,” Bloomberg, October 26, 2021, available online at <https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-10-26/trump-tax-cuts-set-to-win-staying-power-as-democrats-drop-plans>.

[15] Cf. Matthew Choi, “Biden asks Fauci to stay on Covid team, become chief medical adviser,” Politico, December 3, 2020, available online at <https://www.politico.com/news/2020/12/03/biden-fauci-covid-team-442739>.

[16] Cf. Jeff Cox and Thomas Franck, “Biden picks Jerome Powell to lead the Fed for a second term as the U.S. battles Covid and inflation,” CNBC, November 22, 2021, available online at <https://www.cnbc.com/2021/11/22/biden-picks-jerome-powell-to-lead-the-fed-for-a-second-term-as-the-us-battles-covid-and-inflation.html>.

[17] Cf. Fabio Rojas, “Who Killed the Antiwar Movement?,” Jacobin, May 2, 2018, available online at <https://jacobinmag.com/2018/05/anti-war-movement-democratic-party-iraq>.

[18] Cf. Karl Marx, “Preface,” in A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859), available online at <https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1859/critique-pol-economy/preface.htm>.

[19] Cf. Nisha Stickles and Barbara Corbellini Duarte, “Exclusive: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez explains what democratic socialism means to her,” Business Insider, March 4, 2019, available online at <https://www.businessinsider.com/alexandria-ocasio-cortez-explains-what-democratic-socialism-means-2019-3>.

[20] Jacobs, “What was the Millennial Left?”

[21] Ibid.

[22] Cf. Sophia Burns, “Chasing Ambulances,” Gods & Radicals, March 29, 2018, available online at <https://godsandradicals.org/2018/03/29/chasing-ambulances/>.

[23] Cf. Mara Henao, “No, you can’t speak to the manager,” Regeneration, September 29, 2020, available online at <https://regenerationmag.org/no-you-cant-speak-to-the-manager/>.

[24] Cf. Alex Press, “On the Origins of the Professional-Managerial Class: An Interview with Barbara Ehrenreich,” Dissent, October 22, 2019, available online at <https://www.dissentmagazine.org/online_articles/on-the-origins-of-the-professional-managerial-class-an-interview-with-barbara-ehrenreich>.

[25] Cf. Liu Shaoqi, “Attitudes Toward Wrong Ideology in the Party and Towards Inner-Party Struggle,” in How to be a Good Communist (1939), available online at <https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/liu-shaoqi/1939/how-to-be/ch09.htm>.

[26] David Thompson, “DSA’s Left and Right Both Miss the Point: We Need to Build the Left and the Working-Class Together,” The Left Wind, January 26, 2019, available online at <https://theleftwind.org/2019/01/26/dsas-left-and-right-both-miss-the-point/>.

[27] Tim Horras, “Goodbye Revolution?,” Regeneration, April 15, 2019, available online at <https://regenerationmag.org/goodbye-revolution/>.

[28] Parker McQueeney, “Why Have a Political Program?,” Cosmonaut, September 3, 2018, available online at <https://cosmonaut.blog/2018/09/03/why-have-a-political-program/>.

[29] Cornelius Castoriadis, Workers’ Councils and the Economics of a Self-Managed Society (1972), available online at <https://www.marxists.org/archive/castoriadis/1972/workers-councils.htm>.

[30] Cf. Brandon Turner, “Marxism vs Welfarism” (April 12, 2017), available online at <https://new.learnliberty.org/videos/marxism-vs-welfarism/>.