Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Badili Jones

The Crisis within the Left: Theory, Program, Organization

Written: December 31, 2004.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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Editor’s Note: The following piece was originally written for discussion internal to Freedom Road Socialist Organization. We know that the topic, the crisis in socialism, is one that many organizations and individuals both here and abroad are discussing and trying to come to grips with. We offer this as a contribution to that debate and hope that it will spark some movement-wide dialogue.

* * *

For nearly 15 years, FRSO has recognized the crisis in socialism both here and abroad. Even though this crisis is not new, conditions in the world (for example, war and occupation) and in the US (reflected in the recent Presidential election) make the crisis more markedly acute. The totality of the crisis can be summed up by paraphrasing the Chilean sociologist Marta Harnecker: the Left today is unprepared to confront a chaotic world. It is probably unnecessary to go into detail about the nature of the chaos. Suffice it to say, it is important to understand that the chaos is a result of the vampire-like nature of neoliberalism and imperialism which carries greats costs and setbacks for the working class and oppressed peoples.

People in the U.S., as well as people in the world, are organizing to resist the impact of neoliberalism. The capitalists very well may not be able to rule in the usual way. However, there is no guarantee that the response to neoliberalism will inevitably result in a more just and democratic society in the near future. Honestly, not all of the mobilization of resentment against the impact of corporate globalization is positive.

Notably, right-wing religious fundamentalism, in a myriad of manifestations, sees the solution to the world’s ills to be the establishment of xenophobic, misogynistic, authoritarian societies. In the US, this force has a tenuous alliance with the dominant element within the capitalist class. Marxism helps us understand that not only must the objective factor be ripe to bring about revolutionary social change but the subjective factor must be there as well. We cannot overestimate or underestimate either factor in our work. This is the very nature of a dialectical relationship.

The important issue is the capacity of the Left to confront this chaos and the crisis. More than ever, the Left is faced with the urgent task of providing a coherent alternative to the logic or illogic of neo-liberalism. How is the Left reacting to the urgency of the situation? One way is to act is as if nothing of consequence is happening. Perhaps rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic, for instance. Another is to panic and gaze like paralyzed deer into the headlights of an oncoming car gone out of control. In this scenario we are at the mercy of events. Or we can react without thinking in the hope that any action is better than no action at all. Finally, we can resolve to address the crisis with an understanding of the nature of the crisis and with the steps necessary to bring us out of the crisis.

To accomplish this while beating back authoritarian responses to neoliberalism and imperialism, we need to deepen our understanding of the three elements of the crisis:
* A Crisis in Theory
* A Crisis in Program
* A Crisis in Organization

None of these areas can be taken up separately without addressing the other two. They are intertwined in a Gordian knot that cannot be untied unless all are addressed. One may be primary in order to advance the other two but they are simultaneous issues!

The Crisis in Theory

I addressed this more extensively in a paper titled “Theory–Revisited,” written in 2003 but not circulated publicly. The distinctive characteristic of the crisis in theory here in the US, for the most part, is the continued disdain for theory and the worship of spontaneous action devoid of any analysis. A variant of this is the use of old phrases and formulas derived from past readings of Marxist-Leninist authors without ever grasping the essence of what they were saying. Or holding the belief that all of what was learned is and will always be applicable to every situation, everywhere. Some of this is at best what could be called “hot house” Marxism having no real uses for real and concrete situations.

In “Theory Revisited” I said:

...to build a broad revolutionary movement that will challenge and uproot the current neo-liberal hegemony, we need to be mindful of engaging in new theoretical work. Theorizing about social change logically did not stop with the advent of socialist countries and with the occurrence of the crisis of socialism. New theories about social movements are on the rise and are shedding light on movements that Marx, Lenin and others could not possible visualize. Feminist theory, queer theory, theories of national liberation, ecology etc.

In addition, in order to grasp the discourse, theoreticians are looking at Marxists who have been outside of the pall of “orthodoxy” such as Adorno, Althusser, Lukacs, Luxemburg, and others. Out of our theory and practice, we should begin to articulate a program that makes popular sense and inspires people to act. The reality is that in this country there are tens of thousands of people who in various communities and organizations are engaged in actions of resistance and struggle. In the world, there are countless millions. What is coming into being is the strategic framework that can help put all these into a vision of the different and new world that is possible.

There are two main tasks we have to address in order to confront this theoretical crisis:

1.) Advance the rigorous analysis of the nature of the current situation that we are dealing with, i.e. capitalism and the accompanying conditions of racism, sexism, and homophobia. Also, we must grasp the nature of social movements and key elements of the various social movements.

In the course of this, we must be able to identify the advanced and middle forces in the various movements and their potential for being part of the overall movement against empire and ultimately for socialism. The “mapping,” or analysis, of the various movements in our local areas is a tool for doing on-the-ground reflection that strengthens our base building and help us win and unite the advanced of these various movements.

At Freedom Road’s recent Congress, we pinpointed the need to develop a culture of summation within the organization to advance our work. This is also an essential characteristic of the transformation of our theoretical work. A forthcoming book on white supremacy and our work around patriarchy and queer theory are major steps in this direction.

2.) We must bring socialist ideas anew to the advanced forces that come forth in the various social movements. In this regard, a socialist organization must have more than recruitment studies. We must have publications and socialist schools that address concrete issues as well as giving folks the tools to analyze their own situation.

We must develop a critique of various theoretical currents in the social movements. We need to particularly address anarchism in its various forms, NGOism (the view that Non-Governmental Organizations are the leading organizations to bring about fundamental change), and base-ism which overestimates the power of social movements. This can lead to situations where racism, sexism and homophobia are allowed to flourish because the base is putting forward these ideas.

The Crisis in Program

The crisis in program is linked to the crisis in theory. In the face of the crisis in socialism the Left has been unable to present an alternative program that will unite the advanced of the various movements into a single political body.

Our crisis has unique US elements. Empiricist thinking leads people to propose organizational solutions for political problems. This is not to say that we in Freedom Road and other socialist groups don’t have elements of a program, but concern has been raised that we dwell a lot on what we are against and not enough on what we are for. We can be clear that the revolutionary program will not be something that is written in the abstract but will develop in the heat of the struggle.

Many socialist groups currently have strategies with strong alternative programmatic elements. We can enrich this development by engaging comrades inside and outside of our organizations in ongoing discussion around these strategy documents, particularly in how they apply to our actual work. It would be a waste not to use these strategy documents as tools for organizing and consciousness-raising.

The Left must especially put forward an alternative strategy in the labor movement. The “Unite to Win” document put forward by Andy Stern of SEIU is a good example of an organizational solution to a political problem. Ironically, there are elements of program put forward as well, but rather than trying to unite organized labor around program, he is trying to impose a bureaucratic, organizational solution. The program is secondary.

While organization is important, organization serves to implement the program. The essential characteristic of the program we need is one that will destabilize and erode the current hegemony. We must construct a revolutionary hegemony that will contend for power. The revolutionary program must be able to move millions.

The crisis in program is also apparent in the fact that we have few, if any, models to show people the possibility of a new society. It seems that we need to learn to organize and construct projects that can expand the control of the political terrain on the local level. On the local level, there is the possibility of demonstration projects and experiments of participatory power on the part of the people.

In this vein, we can also learn to assert important political reforms in a revolutionary way. We can continue to organize workers and people of color in the work to save the commonwealth of our urban centers. Finance capital covets these public institutions and is seeking to dismantle and parcel them out to various capitalists.

This commonwealth – the infrastructure that provides the water, the light, the transit, etc. that rightly belongs to the people – was created by the labor and struggle of the working (“free” and enslaved) people. We must continue to discuss and debate program because it is essential to challenging the prevailing “common sense” of the bourgeoisie and to the construction of a new revolutionary, socialist, and democratic hegemony.

Given the current capacity of the Left, it may be appropriate to focus on particular localities, municipalities, or counties to do the work of creating grassroots political power. The Workers’ Party in Brazil for example was able to use the practice of participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre to demonstrate to the entire nation the value and efficacy of participatory democracy at the local level. The Left can educate and inspire the people through strategic breakthroughs in these local struggles, i.e. advance the local political work in a revolutionary way. The Left can move beyond reacting with demonstrations and rallies and on a minor scale exercise real political power with an eye on the prize of greater things in due time.

The Crisis in Organization

We in Freedom Road are acutely aware of the crisis in organization. We may focus on various elements but this is an issue that we confront regularly. A major aspect of the crisis is that various forces on the left don’t agree on the need for organization. Some forces see their small, marginalized faction as the Party. These forces are mostly white and isolated from the working class of which they claim to be the “vanguard.” Other forces are loose-knit, socialist groups that basically do not have the kind of unity and cohesion to carry out much work for all of their talk of “socialism from below.”

Many of our revolutionary youth are under the organizational sway of various anarchist tendencies. Some are strongly influenced by what they believe is Zapatismo. They have also, perhaps rightly, been soured by what they have learned of the bureaucratic centralism and vanguardism practiced by various Marxist-Leninist parties historically.

The question of organization is a political question in the final analysis. To obtain the type of political organization we need, we know we cannot resort to a bureaucratic solution of simply merging existing organizations or, as one comrade often puts it, “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.”

Left Refoundation has never simply been about organization but profoundly impacts the potential that we have to establish a revolutionary organization for the 21st Century. It has never been about uniting our existing socialist organizations, which currently tend to be predominantly white and not based strongly in the potentially revolutionary social movements, i.e. the movements of the working class and the movements of people of color. Nor are these organizations sufficiently influential in the other social movements that are potentially part of a new revolutionary socialist and democratic hegemony.

The organization that can effectively unite a significant force around the revolutionary program may not necessarily have the biggest numbers but must be able to assert that program in such a way that it can articulate the various social movements and constitute what Rifondazione Comunista calls the “Movement of the movements.”

Essential to Left Refoundation is the need to constitute ourselves as the principal cohesive element. (following Gramsci’s description)

... which centralises nationally and renders effective and powerful a complex of forces which left to themselves would count for little or nothing. This element is endowed with great cohesive, centralising and disciplinary powers; also – and indeed this is perhaps the basis for the others – with the power of innovation (innovation, be it understood, in a certain direction, according to certain lines of force, certain perspectives, even certain premises). It is also true that neither could this element form the party alone; however, it could do so more than the first element considered. One speaks of generals without an army, but in reality it is easier to form an army than to form generals. So much is this true that an already existing army is destroyed if it loses its generals, while the existence of a united group of generals who agree among themselves and have common aims soon creates an army even where none exists.

I don’t think it is elitist or delusional to think that Freedom Road has experienced some aspects of such a process. For example, because Freedom Road has proposed and acted around the LR thesis, it has intrigued and engaged many elements on the Left. To advance, we assume our responsibility to persevere in the task of transforming our own organization to become darker, younger, more women, and more working class in its composition, culture, consciousness and practice.

We must be serious about developing a culture of transformation. We must be more assertive in putting forth this thesis. We must be critical of the kind of business-as-usual “mountain strongholdism” of many of our socialist organizations have adopted at various times. We can not be paralyzed like deer in front of the headlights of the runaway car of right-wing authoritarianism. Unity will not be achieved by sitting around a table discussing ideology. An organization constructed in this type of “hot house” could not survive the reality of the struggle for power.

We have the opportunity to be foundational to the formation of a political organization as a “community of values with a concrete program.” (Marta Harnecker)

I believe that Freedom Road must uphold and demonstrate to the Left at large the value of the organizational principle of democratic centralism. It must be clear that we do reject bureaucratic centralism. Democratic centralism has become the bogeyman for many on the Left. This is because the practice has been perverted and misunderstood historically. The dogmatic implementation of the Bolshevik model of organization has been detrimental to advancing the type of organization we need. I would say that organizational principles are implemented according to time, place, and conditions.

Lenin himself said, “There are no immutable forms of organization that is universally applicable to all communist parties. The conditions for the proletarians are in a constant state of flux and because of this the proletarian vanguard must constantly seek new formulas... The historical particularities of each country determine, then, the organizational forms of the different parties.” We can learn lessons from the various parties around the world but we must determine the form which is best for us.

Democratic centralism is not simply leading bodies of an organization giving “marching orders.” We promote democratic centralism because we are not simply “affinity groups” or a “consciousness-raising society.” We must be able to act in unity. This is contrary to the organizational principle of consensus that some Left forces raise. This model has been attractive because it allows for discussion but trying to reach absolute consensus becomes so bogged down that a minority can hijack and paralyze the process.

Within Freedom Road, we also must organize around common work and campaigns on both the national and municipal level. Some socialist groups with which we’ve had contact are so loose that they are unable to advance any work. Their members are dispersed in all kinds of work without a common strategy or program to implement. Their meetings end up as rap sessions and consciousness-raising groups, at best. For this reason, I believe that more education and discussion around democratic centralism and its implementation by organizations that have attempted to practice it would be useful for the revolutionary movement at large.

Our theoretical, political and organizational work should have this objective in this period: to unite with what Gramsci called the “intermediate element”

...which articulates the first element with the second and maintains contact between them, not only physically but also morally and intellectually. In reality, for every party there exist “fixed proportions” between these three elements, and the greatest effectiveness is achieved when these “fixed proportions” are realised. (Modern Prince)

In Freedom Road, we have traditionally called this intermediate element “the advanced.” One of the outcomes of mapping the social movements and socialist/anti-capitalist groups in our localities should be to identify this intermediate element. This has also been one objective of Freedom Road’s participation in left pole projects such as the Black Radical Congress and of various study groups occurring in different cities. This “intermediate element” is composed of revolutionary youth, people of color, workers, feminist, GLBTQ folks, etc. Many are individuals working around single issues, in small collectives, workers centers, and NGOs. The pressing need for a political instrument to articulate the social movement Left and the organizational Left begins here. This is the core that can be the focus of our educational work and dialogue. The aim is to win these activists more fully to socialist ideas and to seeing the need for a revolutionary organization.

There is truth today in the essence of what Lenin said in What Is To Be Done. Socialist propaganda is important to bringing about the kind of milieu that we need to constitute the revolutionary party for the 21st century. On the other hand we cannot succeed by dogmatically copying Lenin. We live in a society with different concrete conditions and different technology. The key is organizing ourselves and this intermediate – in Freedom Road’s terms, “the advanced” – element that Gramsci speaks of around common work and common summation. There is a new hunger for a new vision.

The aftermath of November 2, 2004 provides an opening for debate and discussion. More people realize in a deep way the pitfalls of bourgeois democracy. The true standard bearers of democracy in the 21st Century must and should be the socialists. We must be able to put forward a program that will expand and assert the political power of the people as well as prepare the people to defend by any means necessary the democratic gains made in the struggle. We need Left Refoundation!

Badili Jones
for the Party Building Commission
Freedom Road Socialist Organization