Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Robert W. Hanson

A Marxist-Leninist looks at social democracy


First Published: The Call, Vol. 10, No. 5, July 1981.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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There’s a new interest in social democracy among U.S. Marxist-Leninists. One focus of this interest has been the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC). Attention has also been paid to the circles of political activists who are competent, militant organizers, who describe themselves as socialists and who do not associate themselves with any of the organized Marxist-Leninist groups.

Part of this interest arises from the fact that although American social democracy does not have the tradition or social impact of its counterparts in Europe, we see today a revival in its public presence, chiefly in the growth and visibility of DSOC.

The breaking out of sectarian thinking that has characterized our movement’s recent history is accompanied by a healthy re-evaluation of other non-M-Ls in the broader American socialist left.

A second factor spurring interest is an equally healthy re-examination by U.S. Marxist-Leninists of the factors that define our trend: the stand, viewpoint, and method of Marxism applied to the conditions and class struggle of our country. In seeking to re-establish a self-definition of U.S. Marxism-Leninism free from some of the superficiality and dogma of the past, many comrades have raised questions about what actually constituted the differences between organized Marxist-Leninists and organized social democrats.

Even without an extended ideological/political critique of social democracy, some ’’clear points of difference in style of work, stated goals and priorities can be seen. I will outline some of these using the recent DSOC convention as a reference point.

1) A major question is who social democracy stands with. The Marxist-Leninists tradition of close ties with the people-both the commitment of communists to share weal and woe with the masses and the emphasis on working among and recruiting from the working class and oppressed minorities–is singularly absent in DSOC.

It is a self-admitted organization of intellectuals and the progressive petty bourgeoisie. While some sentiment to alter this condition was expressed at their recent convention it was more generally expressed that DSOC should not see itself as a socialist organization “of the people” as the M-L movement has sought to identify and build itself.

This is also reflected in the work of its more active members who work in and build important social movements and the trade unions, but generally without the perspective that the key thing is to develop the struggles of the people and train them in the course of battle.

2) In particular, this problem is manifested around the national question. Despite the differences in line and policy among U.S. Marxist-Leninist groups, all unite on the centrality of the struggle of the oppressed nationalities and the forging of a united front with the working class and the nationality movements at the core in order to seize state power from monopoly capital.

Analysis of the national question, organizing among and around the issues of minority people, recruitment and internal policies to enhance the leadership role of minority cadre are all central to the principles and approach of our movement.


Organized social democracy views these concerns with benign neglect at best, and bureaucratic chauvinism more often. Politically this is manifest in an absence of a program of Black political power and special attention and demands for minority peoples. Organizationally it was seen in the participation of only four Blacks among the 400 attending the recent DSOC convention.

At that convention in a workshop on discrimination and affirmative action, a proposal by two of those Blacks, that DSOC adopt a resolution for a more aggressive recruitment and outreach policy among minorities was kept off the agenda for one hour by manipulation of parliamentary procedure. DSOC does not have a strategic orientation of encouraging and aligning itself with the Black liberation struggle in America.

3) For Marxist-Leninists, close ties with the masses go hand in hand with a close relationship between theory and practice. If an M-L organization is oriented and situated so as to be accountable to the people, they can develop line and program through the mass line process, concentrating the best ideas of the people and the policies that best advance the struggle, constantly adjusting the changed conditions through a process of collective summation.

DSOC does not promote a close relationship between theory and practice. Indeed at the DSOC convention there was no discussion of the organization’s work. Activists among the people in the class struggle is not a central element of DSOC membership. By one memberís assessment, only 10% to 15% of the membership are activists. Certainly it is difficult to visualize Victor Gotbaum, William Winpisinger, Gloria Steinem, or Irving Howe submitting their “work” to collective scrutiny or discussion. Rather the positions held by DSOC members are platforms, positions of authority for them to advocate socialist politics as they see fit.

4) Much of DSOC’s attraction is that they are seen as pursuing socialism while staying in tune with American conditions. This picture is in contrast to some aspects of the ultra-left outlook which plagued the M-L movement in the 1970s: a view of catastrophic crisis and insurrection coming just around the corner, a consequent scorn for electoral politics and non-revolutionary mass organizations the M-Ls didn’t dominate, and a lot of dogmatism and reliance on foreign models.


The most fundamental problem with this picture of DSOC is that what they are pursuing is not socialism. They, too, draw inspiration from foreign models. Those models, constantly cited in reverent tones at the DSOC convention, are the parties of the Second International–the British Labor Party, the French Socialist Party, the German Social Democrats, the Israeli Labor Party, and a score of others. Some of these parties have been the ruling parties in the national governments of their countries for decades.

And what do the masses have to show for it? Have there been reforms? In many cases, yes–even significant ones like large scale social welfare programs.

Has exploitation been ended, the enrichment of a few on the labor of the many? Hardly. Poverty? National oppression? The subjugation of women? None of these. Is the economy planned to benefit the people? Have the creative powers of the masses been unleashed? Of course not.

What is more, and this is crucial, DSOC as an organization does not aspire to anything more than this! They are content with class divisions, the dominance of the capitalists, a reform government that does not challenge the existing structures.


These differences–and there are more– in no way mean that we should not continue to try to work with social democracy. Their sectarian and invariably anti-communist approach will pose’ problems, although this is more subdued with DSOC, which was formed in a split with more right-wing social democrats.

In the realm of line and policy, there are examples of unity and disunity with DSOC–the nature of Soviet aggression and the ways to oppose superpower war moves; or the analysis of the current state of the bourgeoisie and whether progressive elements exist to be united with. These and other questions are open for debate and disagreement with our movement as well as between the M-Ls and the social democrats. It would be nit-picking to seek to delineate ourselves from organized social democracy on most of these points today.

Also we could list any number of ideological and strategic points on which our movements have disagreed in the past and will undoubtedly disagree in the future, some of them crucial to the future of the struggle. Such points as the value of electoral work, the degree to which reforms are important and can change society, the strategy for overthrowing the rule of monopoly.

However part of the re-evaluation going on within the M-L movement today includes a new look at these more basic points and an attempt to adopt positions on them which are based on a concrete analysis of American conditions. It would be unproductive to draw sharp lines of demarcation with social democracy on these points at this time.

However, the conclusion should not be that there are no clear distinctions between the two movements. Our movement has a self-definition around key points of method, class stand, and strategic approach to the people and the class struggle. The above points are some of the sharp differences between communists and communist organization and non-communists in the American left.