Socialists Need to Take State Power

Maine DSA’s Rose D. argues that a successful socialist organization is one oriented around the ultimate goal of taking hold of state power to enact socialist policies and that doing so will require specific structures and strategies.

We are fortunate to have an organization like DSA. For all its problems, it is unique in the contemporary American left, at a size and scale unlike anything we have had in well over half a century. While this is itself a major achievement, it cannot remotely begin to satisfy us. Having a growing organization is one thing, accomplishing something with it is another entirely. DSA is not just an organization that influences politics from the sidelines, but represents a real opportunity to act as the vehicle for working class self-emancipation in the United States. It is the only existing organization which has this potential, and such a chance isn’t likely to come around for another generation or more. None of this is to say that DSA and the working class are guaranteed success in the present historical moment. Numerous organizations and apparent moments of rupture have come and gone, while ultimately causing little change. The whole history of the American socialist movement over the course of the 20th century attests to this, being nothing more than a string of defeat after defeat. DSA could easily end up the same, and given the impending climate catastrophe we will face in this century, we simply don’t have time for mistakes. 

Given the importance of the moment we find ourselves in, it’s critical we seriously consider what strategies most effectively advance our goals, and how to structure DSA to reach them. DSA is first and foremost a socialist organization, and so our purpose, above all, is to secure a socialist future. Our aim isn’t merely to reform this or that, or marginally improve people’s lives, but to reshape every aspect of society, politics, and the economy. Suffice to say, this is no simple task ahead of us and the sheer scope of this effort must not be taken lightly. As we have seen with campaigns both locally and nationally, even implementing the most marginal of reforms requires significant political power; winning socialism is going to require something exponentially larger. Only one institution has the degree of power necessary to transform society: the state.

If our goal is socialism, anything less than state power is doomed to fail. Partially, this is a matter of enforcement. Socialism isn’t going to be given to us if we ask nicely, nor will it magically appear, it’s something we have to create by force against hostile institutions and classes. The state is the institution that holds the powers of coercion, and a working class state will be necessary to defend socialism against those who would oppose it. Equally important, however, is the question of resources and administration. Reorganization of society isn’t going to happen through volunteer work or food drives, but with policies, budgets, and civil servants to execute it all. It will require managing taxes, setting laws and all other functions of government. This is doubly important once we consider climate change, which certainly cannot be solved by any means except massive state power.

A brief look at socialist history makes this obvious. When socialists held power they changed the world at a scale larger than anything we can currently dream of doing. Most notable of these was, without question, the Soviet Union. By seizing power the Bolsheviks were able to largely abolish private ownership of the economy and for the first time in any sustained fashion gave the working class power over the state. During its roughly 70 year long history it had many achievements, often forgotten by socialists and the wider public alike. One of its earliest was the literacy programs, which brought the largely illiterate population of the country to nearly full literacy. Likewise, the Soviet system supported its citizens in ways unheard of in the US today, such as providing job security, free healthcare, and public housing. Even issues strongly associated with Western liberal democracies, such as women’s rights, were far more advanced in the communist world than the capitalist, with the Soviet Union being the first country to legalize abortion. All of this was only possible because the Bolsheviks controlled the state apparatus.

DSA should never be content to act as something as lowly as a pressure group, non-profit, or charity. DSA must strive towards being the organizational vehicle for the working class to take power for ourselves.

Looking towards cases of socialists holding power within capitalist states can be equally illustrative. One of the most prominent contemporary examples is MAS (Movement Towards Socialism) which has overseen a total transformation of Bolivia. Among the most significant of its gains was the shift of Bolivia into a “plurinational state,” recognizing the rights and autonomy of indigenous nationals. This decolonial struggle has resulted in a newfound prominence and presence of indigenous people in public life, with Morales himself the country’s first indigenous president. Meanwhile, major social reforms resulted in drastic decreases in both wealth inequality and poverty, even while Morales oversaw an economic boom which tripled GDP. While the November 2019 coup showed some of the limits of socialist governance while still within a capitalist world system, thankfully the election of president Luis Arce returned MAS to political power and resumed the socialist project.

Both MAS and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, through holding institutional power, achieved far more for the working class than any kind of movement politics that operate outside the state have been able to. It is only through wielding state power from a position of governance that MAS and the CPSU were able to implement such wide reaching transformations. Obviously this degree of power remains strictly aspirational for DSA, but we must keep this aim front and center at all times. This goal should guide our entire political project and all of the work we do. Even limited power has advantages, allowing material benefits to be won for the working class, something we have already seen from victories in New York, DC, and Maryland. This is only possible by contesting for power, and not simply yielding institutions to our political opponents. Our aim isn’t to influence power from the sidelines, it is to take it. DSA should never be content to act as something as lowly as a pressure group, non-profit, or charity. DSA must strive towards being the organizational vehicle for the working class to take power for ourselves. Governing is certainly not the end-all, as the coup in Bolivia and the restoration of capitalism in the former Soviet Union make clear, but the achievements of socialist governments speak for themselves. We can only hope that we are as successful.

None of this is to say that socialist governments have been perfect. Errors were made, some small and some egregious. Certainly, the carceral state established by Stalin was unforgivable. However, we should also recognize that there is a major difference between these kinds of crimes and lesser errors. Flattening any and all missteps into claims of “authoritarianism” is an analytic failure that keeps us from accomplishing anything. If we permanently fear a recreation of the worst excesses of twentieth-century socialism, we destroy our ability to act. While some on the “left” might join the ruling class in hand-wringing about the dangers of authoritarianism in both socialist governments abroad and in DSA, such claims only serve the interests of the CIA. No government, socialist or not, can avoid all mistakes or actions that upset anyone, and should we be so lucky as to take power DSA will make plenty. To think otherwise is unserious, and those seeking perfection have no place in politics.

Taking Power

To take power, the working class must be organized. Claims that the working class can somehow spontaneously come into power without prior organization, have been time and time again shown to be total fantasy. This does not mean that any organization, with any structure, will do. Only an organization which is specifically political can take power, and herein lies the centrality of DSA. Other organizations can play important roles in the socialist project, but they are ultimately limited. Unions, while crucial, lack the organizational structure required and are unable to confront the capitalist system outside of advancing the interests of the workers they represent. Nonprofits are highly constrained by their structure, who funds them, and (what should be even more glaring), that they aren’t socialist ideologically. Certainly, we need to work with other organizations, particularly unions. However, nothing can establish socialism except the working class itself, organized into a socialist party (or in our case a party surrogate).

It is equally important that the organization is national in scope. While municipal and state level presence is nothing to scoff at, ultimately socialism can only be implemented at the national (and international) level. Likewise, climate change and anti-imperialism, two of our greatest political challenges, can really only be handled nationally, the former due to the practical reality of carbon emissions, the latter because only the federal government has a say over foreign policy. Whether we desire socialization of the economy or an end to US aid to Israel, without socialist power at a federal level we are inevitably going to be limited.

Too often it is claimed the interests of local chapters are in tension with national. This is a claim we should treat with suspicion. All experience of the past few years suggests chapter autonomy results in not only a far less effective national org, but stagnation and failure at the local level as well. Countless chapters across the country, especially small ones, are struggling and the solution is not vague claims of “support” but integrating them into a national, uniform, centralized structure. DSA is at its best and member morale is at its peak when we come together, across different states and chapters, to work towards a common goal. The Bernie campaign, 100k drive and PRO Act campaign are all illustrative of this.

On top of this, despite claims of local autonomy being more democratic, it is across the board far less so, by preventing the democratic bodies of the organization from making decisive decisions or setting strategies, as those who disagree can simply ignore them, choosing to go their own way in their local chapter, national working group or committee. Without the ability to decide and then execute strategies, we are both hampering our capacity for action, as well as giving up collective politics in favor of individual whims. The DSA that presently exists, is far less a democratic, coherent force for socialism, and more so an archipelago of independent fiefdoms. To actually take on the force of capital, we are going to need to centralize and democratize DSA by bringing an end to the unnecessary and incoherent autonomy that is holding us back, and build the structural capacity to carry out national campaigns.

Ultraleftism and Mutual Aid

Standing in opposition to all these necessary structural reforms are various ultraleft factions in the org, whose strategies will keep us marginalized and weak. While claiming to be the true standard bearers of socialism and “the left” within DSA, their outlook is more accurately described as defeatist and apolitical, one that easily accommodates itself within the existing neoliberal order. Rather than seeking to take power, the ultraleft is actively repelled by it. An overview of their tactics make this clear.

One of the central tent poles of ultraleftist politics in DSA is mutual aid. Mutual aid can be an effective part of a chapter’s arsenal, particularly as a component of a wider plan or campaign. For example, Maine DSA used a vaccine clinic that it hosted as a way to not only distribute booster shots to the local community, but also to collect signatures to put its Public Power campaign on the ballot. This event cost the chapter nothing, got it good publicity, directly helped the public, but most importantly was also a component of an active campaign and directly advanced the chapter’s electoral goals. Divorced from this context, such an event wouldn’t be useful for a chapter to carry out. If a chapter is only doing mutual aid, or devoting a large degree of its time and resources at the exclusion of other projects, it isn’t doing anything to grow working class power. There is nothing bad per se about doing charity, but there is little reason, especially when we have limited money and volunteer hours, for a socialist organization to be doing it, when countless nonprofits are already involved. We need to focus on efforts that advance working class power because no one else will.

Its proponents argue that mutual aid does in fact challenge the status quo and build socialist power, but mutual aid challenges nothing. Rather than forcing anything onto the ruling class, it retreats into a private solution to our ailments. It is not an advance forward, but a resignation; a replacement for what could be under socialism, and a deeply shoddy one at that. While Maine’s vaccine clinic was an effective event for gaining signatures, there is no reason an organization like DSA should have to be hosting one. The US state and economy has trillions of dollars at its disposal, all of which is created by our labor. Why should we be content to fall back on mutual aid? Poverty fell to record lows in 2021 due to policies like the stimulus checks and child tax credit, imagine how much more a socialist government could do.

Its proponents argue that mutual aid does in fact challenge the status quo and build socialist power, but mutual aid challenges nothing. Rather than forcing anything onto the ruling class, it retreats into a private solution to our ailments.

One counter argument might be that a socialist government is not here yet, or that one is unrealistic or impossible, and that the working class must do what it can to survive. This is unconvincing. Socialist politics isn’t about accepting the existing order for what it is, but seeing the world for what it could and must be. Certainly we should be realistic, but that means contesting for power in a pragmatic way and pursuing winnable goals, not giving up on the possibility of socialism entirely. Here lies the central concession in how ultraleftists approach mutual aid: it is dominated by the sense that not only is socialism impossible, but that it isn’t worth fighting for. Electoral politics, labor organizing and tenant organizing are all very hard and come up against stiff resistance from the forces of capital. Often finding support even among non-socialist politicians or local businesses alike, mutual aid is an easy way out of the challenging work of actual politics. It trades the wealth of the world, which rightfully belongs to the working class, for the pittance we can raise in a GoFundMe, rocking no boats and causing no discomfort for the ruling class. Despite ultraleft rhetoric about “militancy” or “revolution,” these are always empty buzzwords for a Twitter bio. The reality is that the supposed ultraleft have far more in common with liberals than any real socialists. Furthermore, what can mutual aid actually accomplish? What can it do to stop the abuses of workers by their bosses, raise wages or improve working conditions? How can it end police violence, allow women to have safe freely available abortions or provide healthcare to trans people? What will it do to bring a full and total stop to American imperialism or prevent our climate from collapsing? The answer is simple: it cannot, only power can.

Gaining political power is by no means an easy process. It can take decades, and at, effectively, six years old, DSA has only just started. Yet due to climate change and the other crises we face, we don’t have the luxury of time. Organizational reform to make a more effective fighting machine is therefore of the highest importance and must happen as soon as possible. By restructuring so as to contest state power, DSA will turn itself into an organization that can win that struggle. As we enter the post-Trump and post-Bernie era, should we successfully create the kind of rigorous and disciplined organization required, DSA will be able to act as a national, mass member organization, and more readily take advantage of the numerous opportunities that we have so often missed. We have a heavy burden on our shoulders, and adopting the kind of serious and responsible organizing required to surmount it is central. The world depends on us. If we meet this challenge, and transform DSA into what it could be, nothing can stop us. History is at our fingertips, let us reach out and seize it.

Rose D. is a member of Maine DSA and Chief Editor of Mass.