The Path to Class Independence

Socialism can neither be won by opportunistic compromises nor retreating into purity, but only by asserting an independent working class politics. DSA Metro Cincinnati & North Kentucky’s Olivia M. takes a critical look at the US left’s path towards class independence by detailing what it will take for us to win and exposing some of the pitfalls that could destroy our movement.

Why Independence?

Socialist organizers often talk about “working-class independence.” But what does this mean? By working-class independence, we mean the ability of working class people to act in their interest, exercise discipline over political actors, and maintain decision-making independent from the bourgeoisie. Class independence has been a core concern throughout the whole history of the socialist movement, but despite the suppression of socialism over the past several decades, this concern is as important as ever. One need only encounter some of the most common words used to critique contemporary organizations to see the topic is alive and well. Co-optation, reformism, “sheep dogging,” and a sense of unease about power are all ways to frame a concern with class independence. However, these frameworks are also limited in their ability to properly formulate working-class independence, due to the idealist and moralist presumptions and conclusions they entail.

Most historic Marxist writing on class independence takes place in a context in which class independence is being maintained, rather than established. Be it the various debates before WWI on how the SPD ought to operate, or the anti-imperialist struggle of the 20th-century socialist states, the existence of the independent working-class party was already confirmed, and the struggle in the party was to ensure the interests of the working class continued to be held. Today, without the existence of such a class independent party, the necessity of such a body is easily dismissed, leading to a passive acceptance of opportunist behavior. At the same time, the application of these texts in a transhistorical fashion by socialists that have not experienced the class independent party leads to ultraleftist behavior that would have been similarly decried by those socialist leaders who struggled against opportunism.

In the modern left, power is often seen as a source of moral corruption, without reference to who exercises power and how they exercise it. Co-optation and reformism come to mean any engagement with the existing society that is deemed unradical. This approach often results in either the complete marginalization of the activists involved or in their co-optation anyway through organizations (such as NGOs or third parties) that have been deemed sufficiently radical based on their stated positions, but direct us away from a class independent structure.

We find ourselves caught between two views of politics, both incapable of advancing a workers’ movement. On the one hand, we face an opportunist embrace of politics as it presently exists, so focused on the advantage of the immediate moment it cannot conceive why precisely class independence is necessary, nor can it see why mass movement and involvement is a necessary aspect of any such organization. On the other hand, the “radical” response to this is a shallow idealism, comprehending class independence and mass movement not through material activity and action, but through symbols and the labels we assign. In this view, class independence is a necessity, but a necessity borne out of a concern for moral purity, to avoid being “tainted” by the realities of capitalist society.

Class independence is not desirable because of its moral character. Rather, class independence is concerned both with the material interests of the people within an organization, as well as who exercises power over the organization. A class independent organization is not simply an organization with the right politics—rather, it is an organization in which the dominant class is the working class, with decision making that is autonomous from the capitalist class. Any such organization must be capable of engaging with its concrete conditions and in genuine political struggles in society—what Liebknecht called the “compromise with reality”—while at the same time keeping in mind the political goal of this movement is socialism and the creation of a working class mass party that can accomplish this.

This article will aim to address contemporary answers to class independence that are unsatisfactory, and what is minimally necessary for a class independent movement in our lifetimes.

Cooperation, not Compromise

Any socialist serious about organizational strategy in the modern period ought to engage with the ideas presented in Bill Fletcher Jr.’s The Modern Tecumseh and the Future of the Left. While it is flawed, it is one of the very few 21st-century socialist essays to engage with strategy in our immediate historic context. The value of a work like this can’t be overestimated, particularly in a context where (to be frank) much socialist writing has been reduced to rhetoric and posturing.

This being said, there is a particular claim in the piece that should be examined further. This is the claim that a socialist organization must be part of an initial “popular democratic bloc” that can push back against the immediate threat of the Neo-Confederacy and gain ground for progressive politics under capitalism, before a meaningful push for socialism can occur.

Fletcher Jr.’s Neo-Confederacy is the bloc of reactionary forces, both within the capitalist class and among the working class, that advances racist, sexist, and undemocratic politics within the United States. The name is an intentional line drawn back to the Civil War, highlighting the struggle across the US’s history against racist hegemony and hierarchy. The popular democratic bloc, by contrast, is composed of those forces which oppose racism and seek social equality in the country. The vision articulated would feature an explicit socialist presence within the bloc, but also feature liberal and progressive movements, and even the presence of small capitalists.

The idea of the popular democratic bloc is an interesting strategic response to the relative weakness of socialism in the United States. However, there are issues worth discussing with this proposal, and how one maintains an explicit socialist lens from within such a formation. 

While it is true that what is here identified as the Neo-Confederate wing of capital and that those progressive organizations and small businesses which are within the “forces of democracy” often stand on either side of this fight for democracy, it is noteworthy that these forces will cede political authority, and even cooperate, when it comes to the matter of governance in power. This stands in harsh contrast to what happens to a socialist organization advancing proletarian interest, which ultimately becomes assaulted on all sides by reactionaries, progressives, and small businesses alike.

The Marxists of the pre-WWI SPD frequently argued that while cooperation with liberal parties was a necessary part of politics, a compromise of socialist politics was never acceptable.

One doesn’t have to look far for examples: contrast how the liberal wing of the Democratic party engaged with Republican candidates (including Donald Trump!) and socialists who run within their party. We could note how fiercely conservatives, liberals, and small businesses came together to attempt to recall Kshama Sawant for being “too extreme”. Or, we can examine how the liberal establishment responded to the refusal of leftwing congresspeople to vote for the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework without Build Back Better having been past, in strong contrast to the way such media handles the waffling of Democratic politicians like Joe Manchin or Krystin Sinema.

Tellingly, this goes back to a classic issue of the social democratic parties of the pre-WWI era: that is, how and when social democrats should cooperate with liberals. The Marxists of the pre-WWI SPD frequently argued that while cooperation with liberal parties was a necessary part of politics, a compromise of socialist politics was never acceptable—not out of fear of moral corruption or a loss of the plot, but out of concern for a cessation of working-class struggle due to its political inconvenience.

To quote Liebknecht here:

“The harm of a compromise does not consist in the danger of a formal selling out or side-tracking of party principles…It lies in giving up, keeping in the background or forgetting the class struggle basis, for this is the source of the whole modern labor movement.”

For these Marxists, the socialist party needed to avoid alliances that would require restraining class struggle in favor of a political alliance. The popular democratic bloc articulated here threatens this very sort of compromise, by the presence of capitalist interests in the bloc. We can support policies and cooperate with liberal groups and parties when we share a common goal, but a semi-permanent alliance with liberal forces, even against the forces of reaction, threatens class struggle, the basis of class independence for a working-class organization. After the past century of defeats and betrayals, this is a risk that cannot be taken lightly, and is the real basis for the historic Marxist concern of “opportunism.” It is not about “traitors in our midst,” or an accusation of intentional desire to make socialism subservient to the bourgeoisie. It is an issue of losing our base in the class struggle, and losing the particular relationship the socialist party must have with the working class—that of its agent and answer to the class struggle it experiences.

Perceptions and Reality

This said, bourgeois interests and politics are not a moral corruption, a dark curse that spreads based on proximity to it. Bourgeois power is a structure, a series of consistent, enforced human relationships designed in such a way that bourgeois interest is served by them, bourgeois norms are encouraged, and bourgeois law is enforced. Contrary to the ultraleftist concept, proximity to bourgeois power is necessary to fight it. The workplace is a site of struggle precisely because it is where capitalists derive their power, and where workers are best situated to subvert it. After all, workers are the source of bourgeois profit. One cannot avoid any institution that includes capitalists—one must make the strategic judgment of which institutions can be contested by the working class, struggled for control of, and which must be ceded to the enemy.

This is the primary characteristic that defines the class independent organization—that is, what we call the socialist party. It is not the presence of a ballot line, the presence of politicians, participation in mutual aid, strikes, or insurrection in particular. Each of these things can be strategic or not for the party to engage in based on its context. Rather, it is the commitment to class struggle, to act as the engine for the proletariat to fight for itself, win, and realize itself, in all areas in which it struggles against the bourgeoisie.

The primary way by which a socialist candidate is “co-opted” by the establishment is not by the existence of a D rather than an I (or perhaps S for socialist?) next to their name, but the political, financial, and social pressures they encounter as a politician.

Many familiar arguments regarding the corrupting influence of particular offices or the Democratic ballot line have continued. Most of these have been critical responses to the increasing popularity of the “party surrogate model” in Democratic Socialists of America, seeing such a strategy to be nothing more than an entry into the Democratic party. Two that highlight the idealist character of these arguments are Socialist Alternative’s Fresh Paint on a Failed Strategy and Tempest’s Strange Alchemy, both responses to the party surrogate article Breaking Bad.

“Fresh Paint” offers a peculiar combination of assertions and misreadings of the original article to make its case—at no point, for example, does Breaking Bad claim that a US ballot line is a “politically neutral” institution (on the contrary, by identifying ballot lines as “state institutions,” it rules out the possibility of a politically neutral ballot line). Similarly, that 62% of Americans say in polls they desire a third party doesn’t mean these Americans will arrive at the ballot box and vote third party, to say nothing of the political divides that necessarily exist within that 62%. Both these make for strangely hollow rhetorical assertions.

Strange Alchemy similarly asserts that Breaking Bad considers the Democratic party a “politically hollow” institution, or “only” a ballot line (neither are claims made in the article), and that to remain on the Democratic ballot line with no dirty break necessarily constitutes a capitulation of the class struggle, that: “Reforms that benefit the working class are seen as a product of electoral organizing rather than class forces.” Strange Alchemy also oddly suggests the claim that the American electoral system requires the use of existing ballot lines is a sort of American exceptionalism, a claim that seems more associative than genuinely substantive.

What both these articles have in common is a view of class independence that is based on symbolic association rather than material activity and struggle. The primary way by which a socialist candidate is “co-opted” by the establishment is not by the existence of a D rather than an I (or perhaps S for socialist?) next to their name, but the political, financial, and social pressures they encounter as a politician. It is one thing to assert that the state and capitalists may force changes in laws that will make this strategy unrealistic or impossible. It is another entirely to assert that to run on this ballot line is to run within the Democratic party. Are such candidates uniquely obligated to hold party lines or follow Democratic caucus decisions?

Any political candidate, regardless of the party label attached to their name, will face the difficult question of when to cooperate or caucus with liberal politicians, and when to reject such cooperation. These pressures do not in and of themselves increase or decrease based on party affiliation—Bernie Sanders must still negotiate with and caucus with Democrats in the US Senate, despite his independent status.

This question gets at how such viewpoints understand the class independent organization in an idealist way, in which there are strict categories of activity set in the abstract. Strange Alchemy draws a contrast between seeing our wins as derived from “electoral organizing rather than class forces,” but the entire approach of socialist candidates since Bernie has been to engage in electoral campaigns that emphasize the mass working-class nature of their base. The $27 small donation model, the language of “Not Me, Us,” and the intense focus of DSA electoral campaigns on mass volunteer canvassing are all forms of electoral organizing meant to activate broad swathes of the class. What we see here is the placement of abstract categories of “electoral organizing” and “class forces,” rather than a material assessment of class activity. These things are not in contradiction, as they put the class in motion and identify the ruling class as a primary enemy to organize against.

The Link in the Chain

Opportunist and ultraleftist streaks in socialist politics today have a common unifying ground—the pervasive idealism of our period. Perception and awareness is considered the primary foundation by which to create and judge our politics and organizations. For ultra-leftism, a given campaign or action’s success is judged by its ability to present the most radical message to the public, not by its ability to accomplish any of its stated goals. For opportunism, because public opinion and party politics are not yet in the right place to push for socialist politics, socialist politics is closed off to us. Neither of these addresses the material reality and experience of working-class people and how they interact with and define their perceptions.

There is an erroneous belief that must be corrected if we are going to make any ground. This error is the belief that people are unaware of the injustice of our society. This is not the central issue. Rather, the problem is that people believe our society cannot be changed, and that there is nothing they can do to make it change.

People do not need to be reminded that our world is terrible—they must be convinced it can be better, and that only by their activity can it be made better.

This is not an abstract distinction. It is at the heart of why, as is often noted, the Bernie Sanders campaign was able to activate huge swathes of the working class in a way socialist organizations have been incapable of for decades. It is not just that Bernie Sanders articulated socialist politics and the vision of a better future, it is that people genuinely believed he could win and make this future happen. Those socialists who smugly suggest that it was always obvious he would lose, that the whole effort for “smart socialists” was simply a front for recruitment, miss the dynamic of action and belief that mobilized working class people in this country to support the Sanders campaign.

For a socialist movement to grow in the United States, this dynamic is key, and we must hold on to it the whole way through. All of our efforts, all of our campaigns, must appear winnable by being winnable, and make clear along the way how the larger project of a socialist society is also winnable. People do not need to be reminded that our world is terrible—they must be convinced it can be better, and that only by their activity can it be made better.

Again, to quote Liebknecht:

“All who are weary and heavy laden; all who suffer under injustice; all who suffer from the outrages of the existing bourgeois society; all who have in them the feeling of the worth of humanity, look to us, turn hopefully to us, as the only party that can bring rescue and deliverance. And if we, the opponents of this unjust world of violence, suddenly reach out the hand of brotherhood to it, conclude alliances with its representatives, invite our comrades to go hand in hand with the enemy whose misdeeds have driven the masses into our camp, what confusion must result in their minds!

Just in this fact lies our strength, that we are not like the others, and that we are not only not like the others, and that we are not simply different from the others, but that we are their deadly enemy, who have sworn to storm and demolish the Bastille of Capitalism, whose defenders all those others are. Therefore we are only strong when we are alone.”

Olivia M is a member of DSA Metro Cincinnati & North Kentucky.