By Yusef El-Baz
What does it mean to build working-class power in our time? As socialism gains traction in the United States, most visibly by the rise of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and the less visible and smaller growth of Marxist collectives around the country, socialists are debating strategies and tactics to build the power of our class and the potential for socialism.
We all agree that workers cannot create socialism if they don’t have the power to make it happen. Power is the ability to influence the course of events in society. Since the capitalist class controls the government, the police and military, and the means of communication, they get to use their power to keep us slaving away for them. When they fire us, close down our schools, cut our healthcare, shoot us and deport us, and evict us from our homes, the capitalist class demonstrates in more acute fashion their social power over the rest of us.
In socialist discussions, we have two general trends with divergent views on how to build proletarian power: the social-democratic trend, as embodied by the DSA, believes that we can achieve a socialist society via a strategy of electing socialist or progressive candidates into the halls of power, who can then implement radical reforms and undo corporate control. Their tactics, from my observations in San Francisco, include gathering signatures, educating tenants on their rights, and building alliances with other pro-Democratic Party organizations in order to form a coalition modeled after the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA), a relatively successful electoralist organization in Richmond, California. The fact that dozens of self-described socialists have won city council and mayoral seats in the last few months provides power to this social-democratic line of argumentation. While I hold strategic differences with DSA as a national organization, I acknowledge the diversity of opinions within DSA and value the work I’ve engaged in with its members. My hope is to continue on this path.
The other trend, what I will call a Marxist approach (and I acknowledge an existing contention over how we define these terms) – and the one I agree with, argues for a different path to power. We believe that achieving socialism will require a revolutionary seizure of power by a working-class that has achieved unity and consciousness through a process of directly, militantly fighting the capitalists and drawing the proper reflections from these experiences. While socialist faces on city councils can be productive, our primary focus is on nurturing workplace councils and unions that can strike, tenant councils that can withhold rent and resist evictions, and neighborhoods that can check the power of the police and ICE while we reorganize our blocks on a communal, democratic basis to meet our needs. These are only a small sample of the kinds of struggles that lay the basis for workers to overcome the gendered and racial divisions through raising demands that empower our entire class, particularly its most oppressed sectors. Throughout this process, we seek to build unity with the workers who demonstrate the greatest level of consciousness and militancy; they are the building blocks of a revolutionary political party that can lead the struggle for state power.
While there may be a place and time for tactical alliances with liberal forces, socialists are in a position of weakness in relation to them unless we have our own base of support which we can leverage to challenge the gradualist and electoralist strategy of pro-Democratic Party organizations. The Richmond Progressive Alliance, social democrats’ best argument for their politics, has achieved important reforms around wages, housing, and taxing the rich. Their success, and that of other ‘socialists’ elected into office, reflects a radicalization in the mood of the working-class that provides leverage for the RPA’s parliamentary maneuvering. As a “corporate-free” coalition, its underlying assumption is that we can achieve a just society through a gradual process of reforms implemented from within the bourgeois state.
I believe this to be unrealistic on two grounds: for one, it mistakes the bourgeois parliament as the locus of actual decision-making in our society; the dominant sectors of the ruling class decide major social decisions in closed corporate boardrooms and then present them to politicians to rubber stamp, as demonstrated by the Republican tax bill. Second, administering a large-scale set of reforms as socialists in office (free healthcare, higher wages, jobs for all, etc.) would require an increase in taxes that depends on the profitability and stability of the capitalist system. Keeping profitability high enough to implement progressive reforms, particularly in times of austerity and low rates of capitalist profit, would mean slashing wages, cutting social services, and laying workers off. Such actions would embroil us in the structural demands of running an unstable and inherently undemocratic political system and potentially make us indistinguishable from capitalist parties themselves. Such a ‘socialist’ party loses the moral and political legitimacy required to lead a militant working-class to defeat the capitalists.
As socialists, we know the power of the ruling class is not absolute. Our past and current struggles also shape the terrain we operate on. SF-DSA members are involved in valuable work in educating tenants, training labor organizers, providing community services, and mobilizing members for marches. I believe a successful socialist movement will need to coordinate these efforts into one coherent revolutionary strategy that aims to build a base of support amongst the working-class. To do this, we need to commit to the long-term work of building organized power over the ruling class’ strategic sources of control – warehouses, ports, hospitals, communications centers, neighborhoods, etc. Such class power gives us the opportunity to contest the worst brutalities of capitalism, implement a revolutionary program which stretches beyond what an organization like the RPA is willing and able to offer, and challenge the existence of the system itself.
The ability of socialists today to carry this out remains limited as of now, but we know the tide is turning. Our class is starting to move in response to the crisis we face and this provides socialists with the opportunity to organize an actual political base. When our co-workers or neighbors demonstrate a desire to speak politics and resist injustice, we should listen and encourage them to become organizers and socialists who participate and lead in the struggle. This is the basic labor involved in building a revolutionary socialist party, which is the conscious political expression of workers seeking their liberation. Without this vital instrument, we will be left defenseless against those who do have a serious orientation towards power: the capitalists, fascists, and myriad reactionary organizations who are prepared to exploit crisis and chaos.
Fascism, world war, and military dictatorships riddle the 20th century. Each example, such as fascist Germany, Spain under Franco, Pinochet’s Chile, among many others, testify to the tragedies we face when we aren’t prepared as a class to defeat the bourgeoisie. In all of these historical cases, social democratic political parties – the German SPD, the Socialist Parties in Spain and Chile – paid homage to workers and socialism in their press while in practice they did everything in their power to halt the revolutionary upsurges of those same workers. The social democratic philosophy of an electoral, gradual approach towards liberation failed on its own terms. When the German capitalists appointed the German Social Democratic Party to run the capitalist government during the revolution of 1918 – a dream come true for these reformist socialists – they lied and manipulated millions of workers who still believed in that party’s ability to fight for socialism. When German workers called on their Socialist leaders to defeat the capitalist class and fulfill its own program, the leaders held them back and blunted their capacity to defeat the capitalists. As workers gained experience and broke ranks with them in the uprisings in the years that followed, the German Social Democrats unleashed the freikorps, the proto-Nazi formation within the German military. These eventually came to destroy the German proletariat, along with the German Social Democratic Party itself, whose counterrevolutionary policy opened the door to fascism. Italy went through a fundamentally similar experience years before. By the time the Spanish Revolution broke out in the mid-1930s, its working class faced off against a Franco military supported by a fascist Germany and Italy on one side, and a liberal bourgeois state propped up by Stalinist Russia on the other. Past defeats in those nations left the Spanish working-class isolated and attacked on multiple fronts. How would it have ended differently if the revolutionary wave that achieved power in Russia in 1917 found success in Germany and Italy? History cannot be rewritten, but its lessons can strengthen our foresight if we are willing to listen.
One current struggle in San Francisco brings to light this historical political division. In San Francisco, the mecca of tech and real estate development, a small but symbolic and long-standing housing struggle is taking place at the Midtown Park Apartments in the city’s Western Addition District. After more than two years, many of its tenants continue to wage a rent strike and organize against the planned demolition of their building by City Hall and its non-profit managers. The socialists from La Voz argue for both the need to deepen organizing within Midtown and to expand the housing struggle by creating a citywide tenants’ union that can wage direct campaigns against landlords and push for rent control and pro-tenant legislation. While DSA members have joined the Midtown Support Committee as committed members, strategic differences remain; their close relationship to Democrat Dean Preston, their petition drive for free legal support for tenants facing eviction, and their tenants rights bootcamps are all elements of a useful and well-intentioned political project that still operates on the same gradualist, electoralist approach that characterizes social democracy . My intention isn’t to equate the German Social Democratic Party with the current DSA membership nor to call all of them social-democrats, but rather to propose a long-term strategy that will prepare our class to challenge those who seek to contain and divide it.
To dive more deeply into a housing strategy as a case study in social-democracy and Marxism, let’s look at the DSA’s drive for free lawyers for any tenant who faces evictions in San Francisco. For one, the DSA’s push to include all evictions – including owner buyout and late/non-payment of rent – rather than only “unfair evictions”, as the original bill states, is important and valuable. We need to take on demands that uplift our entire class, particularly the most vulnerable; leaving out those evicted due to an owner buyout or late/non-payment of rent leaves out huge swaths of tenants and plays into the hands of the landlords, who look to justify their rampant dispossession and robbery of tenants by pursuing “fair” evictions. No such eviction exists for a socialist.
On the other hand, I think there are ways in which that campaign and the petitioning tactic can be broadened in a way that increases the collective unity among tenants and the visibility of the DSA and other socialist currents among those tenants. If I am a tenant who receives free legal advice to address an eviction, I’ll value the support. But how does that actually build up my ability to organize my fellow tenants to stage rent strikes and stop police from evicting our families? How does it develop my knowledge of socialism, history, revolution? To do this – in other words, to build a political base among tenants – we need to research the problem, conduct inquiries into what tenants want to fight for and then organize alongside them, & carry out political education – which the DSA is beginning to do with their tenants’ rights bootcamps – and unite tenants from the various districts into one combative tenants union. Building a socialist lawyers’ caucus would be useful in this regard as well. In this context of socialist base-building and mass organizing, a petition drive can also tap tenants into assemblies, marches, blockades, and strikes with the potential to force the state and landlords to concede to our demands. Not only do we get the signatures we want, but we activate the person as an organizer. Some on the left call this “organizing the unorganized.”
One starting point for collaboration involves both deepening our involvement at Midtown. A victory in this campaign would provide a powerful moral boost to a demoralized and scattered tenant population. In addition, we can begin building a solidarity network where an initial team of organizers supports tenants against landlords in order to lay the ground for a future tenants’ union where tenants themselves carry out the work in a coordinated fashion across the City and the Bay. The work of the Philadelphia Tenants’ Union, and the role of the Philly Socialists organization, might provide valuable clues to inform this labor.
The newest layer of DSAers who joined during the Bernie moment bring energy and numbers to the broadly-defined socialist movement, but do not yet constitute an opposition to the strength of the decades-old national leadership of the DSA, whom are firmly entrenched in their subordination to the Democratic Party. We can expect the political division in the DSA between those who want to take a revolutionary base-building approach and those who want to continue the DSA’s electoralist history to sharpen around the 2018 elections. While the dominant leadership within the DSA remains committed to working with Democrats, the DSA’s massive growth has produced a variety of political currents within it, including revolutionary ones, such as its Refoundation Caucus. Revolutionary parties have historically formed through the political articulation of revolutionary currents that ran through various organizational forms, as opposed to one small sect mushrooming into prominence.
While it will take many years of consistent political labor through cycles of working-class resistance to forge a mass revolutionary party, our practical work and programmatic interventions we conduct today should prepare us to play a leadership role for the time when millions of Americans reach revolutionary conclusions. But we have to be willing to remain principled and strategic while we lay the groundwork for such ruptural moments, no matter how small our beginnings are or how long the march to power may be. The tendency to abandon a long-term revolutionary perspective for short-term reforms or socialist faces on city councils can be very attractive. But without a strategic revolutionary program and a mass base, this tendency can reduce us to crabs in the capitalist barrel and eventually make us indistinguishable from capitalist parties. When our class does radicalize, our association with the oppressor would destroy the credibility we need to lead a revolutionary struggle.
It is a life and death struggle between two opposing forces. For our side to win, we must build up our class power through unions, strike committees, tenants’ councils, self-defense organizations, and educational and cultural institutions. This is the ground upon which a revolutionary party can emerge and nurture these mass organs through the peaks and valleys of struggle, in preparation for the class war’s most acute stages.
How do We Build Working Class Power?
By Yusef El-Baz