by David Keil
The Socialist is published by the Socialist Party USA and presents the platform, statements, and candidates of this party. Our readers sometimes compare it to other publications, such as The Nation, Mother Jones, Occupy papers, union newspapers, Democratic Left, Solidarity, Socialist Worker, and Socialist Action.
How does The Socialist relate to other Left publications? How does it relate to the mainstream media?
The Socialist Party’s history goes back over 100 years. It has its distinctive program, political culture, and organizational traditions, which are different from other groups with different programs and traditions.
The Nation is a liberal journal. Liberalism is a political tendency in U.S. two-party politics, which many socialists call “capitalist” politics. Liberals, taking the point of view of the 1%, favor making some concessions to the 99%, to the working people and other oppressed groups.
For example, they favor higher tax rates on the ultra-rich than on working families. They support limiting racial profiling and limiting the deportation of young immigrants. They advocate for women having some control over their reproductive lives and some gender equity in pay. Liberals wage war in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan in the name of liberal democracy, not oil or empire. The framework of liberal politics is capitalist rule and U.S. supremacy in the world.
A point of view often associated with both socialism and liberalism is represented by Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), which publishes Democratic Left. Groups that call themselves ‘democratic socialists’ look back to the history of the Socialist Party of the era of Eugene V. Debs, who received millions of votes in the 1912 to 1920 elections.
The set of groups calling themselves ‘democratic socialist’ has at least two components in the U.S. One trend, consisting of Democratic Socialists of America and Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, consistently supports the left wing of the Democratic Party.
The Socialist Party represents another ‘democratic socialist’ trend, which works strictly for independent political action and looks beyond the liberal reform of capitalism. The SP works for a fundamental change in social relations and the elimination of capitalist relations, which they consider to be exploitative, crisis-prone, and inclined to generate other forms of oppression, such as national, racial, and gender based. These include imperialist wars such as the U.S. wars against Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
Many in the SP and other groups look to the heritage of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels (Germany), Rosa Luxemburg (Germany and Poland), and Eugene V. Debs (U.S.A.), among others.
Marx and Engels wrote the Communist Manifesto and organized socialist groups in Europe in the 19th century. After Marx and Engels died, a division of the socialist movement occurred between those who theorized and emphasized revolution and those who espoused a strategy of reforming capitalism. Many of those on the “reformist” side also supported the capitalist governments in their own countries in World War I.
A broad trend of thinking that broke from the socialist parties that supported World War I calls itself “Leninist,” after Vladimir Lenin, a leader of the Russian Revolution of October 1917. The banner of Lenin is also raised by supporters of his associate, Leon Trotsky. The groups that look to Lenin or Lenin and Trotsky are many and divided. Probably the strongest, organizationally is International Socialist Organization (ISO), which publishes Socialist Worker.
That war, and the civil war that followed the Russian Revolution, greatly embittered the differences over socialist theory and strategy. Those who advocated a revolutionary strategy denounced the crime of supporting imperialist war policies in Germany, France, Britain, Russia, the U.S., and other countries. The differences effectively split the socialist movement into two incompatible parts.
In Russia, it was the Bolshevik Party that led the revolution of October 1917. This party, led by Lenin, emerged from what had been a single socialist party, the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party. “Bolshevik” means “majority,” and at the Second Party Congress in 1903, Lenin’s position had been a majority one.
The Russian socialist movement had developed under the dictatorship of the Czar, an absolute monarch with a brutal secret police. The party that Lenin led had practiced strict centralism and discipline under conditions of secrecy and frequent arrests of activists.
After the Russian Revolution, the Bolshevik leaders together with others organized a new international party, called the Communist International, using the same strict centralism as before, or stricter. The SP of the U.S. supported the Russian Revolution and debated whether to join the CI. The SP split in 1919, with harsh words on both sides.
In the early 1920s, contending U.S. groups sought to join the CI after the split in the SP. In pressing their cases for sole membership in the CI, the U.S. Communist groups used vicious language against each other. On two separate occasions, two CI groups existed in the U.S., both called “Communist Party” and both publishing a magazine called The Communist. Both used the strongest terms to denounce the SP as well as each other.
From here comes the U.S. tradition of Socialists and Communists (“Leninists”) attacking each other or at best ignoring each other, never working together.
Following the pattern of the CI, the Leninist groups structured themselves in centralized ways, using the term “democratic centralism” to describe their structures. They each set a permanent goal of political homogeneity and required that their members accept not only a program but also a theory and an account of the history of their movement. It became routine for such groups to split apart as soon as any serious political differences arose. At best, splits occurred frequently after one side in a debate lost and the other won.
Among the groups that call themselves “revolutionary,” “Communist,” or “Leninist,” the main division has been between those that stayed loyal to Moscow in the period of Stalin and those that followed the leadership of Leon Trotsky, who lived in Mexico in the 1930s and was murdered by an agent of Stalin in 1940.
Unlike the groups that espouse Leninism, the SP organizes itself as a “multi-tendency” group. Members may express their personal views and carry on their political activities mostly as they please, within broad limits. The party decides on its platform, candidates, and public activities by majority vote, with parity in leadership bodies and administrative offices for women and men. It does not require strict discipline of its members or use tight forms of centralism. In that sense, it is different from the groups that call themselves Leninist.
The above may help to explain how The Socialist differs from liberal publications, publications of DSA and similar groups, and publications of groups that identify themselves as Leninist.
DAVID is a Massachusetts SP member who belongs to the Editorial Board of The Socialist. In the past he has belonged to the Socialist Workers Party and Democratic Socialists of America. He is active in Boston-area antiwar groups, including the United National Antiwar Coalition. He teaches computer science and belongs to a National Education Association affiliate.