Thoughts on “Socialist Unity”

by Greg Pason

Workers of All Countries Unite! is a revolutionary call that all socialists can support. It is the idea that working people — no matter where they live, no matter their nationality, race or gender — have more in common with each other than with those who rule the countries they live in and the workplaces they work at. It’s a basic idea of Karl Marx’s slogan of many socialist movements, as well as non-Marxist movements.

For some, the call for class unity is not just a call for solidarity against capitalism, but for organizational unity. The IWW calls for “One Big Union” and many Communist organizations call for a workers “vanguard” party. Some socialists have called for a Labor Party, or at least an electoral coalition or alliance of parties. All of these are different takes on “unity.” In some of these instances, the call for unity is actually a call for workers to follow the “line” of a specific organization; in others, it’s a call to unite against a “lesser evil” (as in trade union politics). For democratic socialists, it’s about building a broad-based movement in which there is a common goal to transform society but one in which following a specific “line” does not apply.

Democratic Socialist Unity

The Socialist Party USA has a vision that fits in the large ideological space between authoritarian “Leninism” and reformist “liberalism.” In a world of polarization where liberalism and Leninism have dominated politically, our ideology has been pushed aside, even though it probably better represents a truly socialist position. The struggle, therefore, has been finding ways to promote this broad ideology, while not being drowned out by the “socialist” failures of the past. During the Cold War, we were constantly pointing out the differences between democratic socialism and the Leninist states, as well as the social welfare economies. While many of our ideals helped to promote the radical democratic movements that brought down Leninism, and which serves as a core of many social movements in the US, we got swept into the same “dustbin” by media and history books.

As the talk of socialist unity becomes popular again, it is important to continue our commitment to our vision and not allow Leninist and social democratic positions to dominate the agenda. This is an important time to not just put forward a “new socialism” (as in we never agree with the old “state-socialist” ideology), but to take this opportunity to put forward the democratic socialist ideals we’ve supported for decades. Grassroots democratic worker-community ownership and control, a multi-party political system and a rejection of the centralist ideology, which has caused there to seem to be more Leninist groups than there are Leninists. We must work on reaching out to the many working people who do not affiliate with the left because their only knowledge of the left are reformist “liberal Democrats” or cartoonish Trotskyist organizations.

Calls for Left Unity

Recently, there have been calls for “left unity” by Leninist and social democratic organizations. Trotskyist organizations have been calling for unity for decades, while splitting into smaller and smaller factions, so this is not new. The assumption here is that somehow the failure of these political ideologies was somehow a mistake and that regrouping around ideas that have been a proven failure will somehow work this time. While that section of the “left” have every right to regroup, democratic socialists need to find a way to build our base. It’s time to reject the idea that somehow regrouping organizations that have little in common ideologically is the best way to build the left. We can look to our own Party history on this: the SDUSA’s merger into the Democratic Party led to three separate organizations, not a larger Socialist Party.

Unity Comes in Many Different Flavors

Democratic socialists should applaud any efforts to unify among folks on the left. The US left sometimes seems to have more organizations than people, but when unity is being discussed, there needs to be a solid core of principles, which organizations can agree upon and with strategies they can support. In my opinion, and based on Socialist Party policy, there are some clear points where a larger coalition can be built, which reject backward Leninist and liberal reformist polices and history:

1. Focus on a radical reform platform. The focus of any socialist coalition is to promote a socialist alternative and not get lost within reformist policies, which do not address capitalism as the problem. This strategy can be put forward in a way that is clear but not dogmatic. We can use this opportunity to promote serious reforms that help bring about worker ownership and control, and economic and social change that will empower change from below — not from the top. The key here is advancing democratic grassroots alternatives.

2. Independent political action. There needs to be an agreement that the Democratic and Republican parties are dead ends, and a new political movement needs to work outside those parties. This doesn’t mean the creation of one party, but the commitment to promote and support a multi-party system through ideas like proportional representation and increased democracy in our political system.

3. Rejection of “Democratic Centralism.” We reject the idea of winner-takes-all elections, which silences minority opinions. Simultaneously, we must work to build consensus rather than find ways to win votes and run strategies and positions down the throats of activists. Democratic Centralism, while promoted by Leninist organizations as “unity of action,” has historically led to disunity and split after split. We can build toward broad agreement while disagreeing on some strategic questions.

4. Rejection of Vanguardism. Movements build from the grassroots, not from above. This means that any organizations committed to this sort of unified movement is focused on building momentum and not controlling or “taking leadership.”

5. Focus on Education. Instead of focusing on a new Syriza, we should look to create think tanks, social organizations and grassroots educational outreach. Stop focusing on models that do not apply!

The U.S. does not have a parliamentary system. While we work to democratize our electoral system (i.e. proportional representation, etc.) and contest elections in order to promote alternatives, we need to acknowledge that our electoral system is structured to discourage and isolate alternative political parties and candidates. The “huge” wins of many of these new left coalitions have been based on percentages and vote totals, which are mostly dismissed. Many left organizations discuss the gains of electing members of parliament with as little as 5% of the vote (a percentage which  wouldn’t even get our candidates in debates) in order to set them up as “king makers/breakers” in coalition governments, which also brings with it huge state and media subsidies.

Building Democratic Socialist Unity

Socialism is a contested idea and the so-called idea of “really existing socialism” is a horror for those of us who reject the Leninist model. There is absolutely no positive benefit for compromising with organizations that continue to see the Leninist project as a model. There is also no positive benefit for compromising with organizations that see socialism as welfare state programs. We need to take a different approach.

1. Find ways to work cooperatively with a broad grouping of the US “Left” on clear movement projects (i.e. eco-socialism, anti-war work, etc.).

2. Build dialogue with organizations that share our “neither liberalism nor Leninism” ideology.

3. Cooperate to work on projects that directly effect people’s lives while developing connections to democratic socialist ideals.

We can build a democratic socialist movement — but not without a commitment to democratic socialism.


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