A number of organizations are presently working toward building an effective progressive electoral movement, especially in order to stymie the growth of Trumpism which poses an existential danger to democracy in our country. These organizations include, for example, the Working Families Party, Our Revolution, Justice Democrats, numerous state-based groups, and Democratic Socialists of America. The purpose of this paper is to contribute to discussions among progressives and socialists toward achieving this goal, without any suggestion that it is the way to do this. Hopefully at least some of these ideas will be found to be useful by people actively involved in building the needed progressive electoral movement.
Furthermore, this essay only touches on some basic questions with which the Left is presently concerned, such as the role of the middle class (and implicitly who is in it), how to determine who is a genuine socialist, and the nature of the progressive party that is needed today, include its name and main organizing slogan. Also, specific stances on vaccinations (implicitly on vaccine mandates), use of terms like “imperialism” and “struggle”, and attitude toward the “defund the police” slogan. Such questions deserve a much more complete analysis which includes reference to others’ views. However, the purpose of the present essay is simply to lay out my own views on these controversial matters in a coherent way which shows how they all fit together.
As he has done a number of times in the past, Max Elbaum has provided invaluable help in identifying the scope of this essay, what it contains and what it doesn’t contain; I have incorporated his comments into this Introduction section. The remainder of this lengthy essay consists solely of my own political views.
I have previous written that, contrary to traditional Marxism doctrine, the amorphous middle class will necessarily play an active role in our desired “Socialist Revolution”, as effective as the working class in this transformation of society. That is, it will not be the case, as still envisioned by many adherents of classical Marxist theory, that the most ideologically advanced elements of the working class will lead this class in overthrowing capitalism with the middle class playing but a subsidiary role in this process. To be sure, class-conscious workers will still play a crucial role in this transformation because (as Marxism has always emphasized) of their immersion in the relations of production of capitalism, of their potential to bring the economy to a halt by withholding their labor. But the struggle for a socialist transformation will be many-faceted, with many social forces playing their own role, and not simply the manifestation of the class struggle led by the most advanced workers. It thus is imperative to disabuse ourselves of this obsolete Marxist outlook, and instead to ground ourselves in an understanding of what really is possible and necessary. The purpose of this paper is to clarify what all this entails, in particular the role of the middle class in effecting the “Socialist Revolution”.
But first, some choices of words. In this essay, we now speak of “socialist transformation of society” rather than “socialist revolution”. The two terms may mean the same thing to us socialists, as seeking a society in which everyone’s basic needs are met and in which everyone is able to develop to the full extent of their own capabilities, but “revolution” unnecessarily harks back to the traditional Marxist conflict between capital and labor, rather than to the far more accurate concept of a multi-faceted struggle for “socialism” with certain middle-class struggles at its core as well as those of the working class.
How about the use of the term “socialism” in identifying our goal? Nothing wrong with that, particularly since this term has become in so widespread but not sharply defined use. In general, socialists should not shy away from presenting their politics clearly, so long as this is not done in a way which demands that others adopt our political outlook hook, line, and sinker in order to work with us. Just as we respect the progressive politics of others, so do we demand respect for our own political views.
“Socialist activist”? In this paper we refer to those activists working for what we have termed “socialism”, but who in addition recognize the critical (but not overriding) importance of the capitalism-labor struggle; this accords with Marxist outlook. Socialist activists may be functioning more-or-less independently, or they may constitute themselves into a “socialist organization”, which again has the restricted Marxist meaning of giving special emphasis to political work consciously directed toward the overthrow of capital by the working class.
3. The Middle Class
The “Middle Class” is not a real class with real or potential class consciousness, of course; this term is used for the fairly large proportion of the American populace which – economically – is positioned between the working class and the top elite who own or manage for a living, thereby amassing great wealth. Even those at the top of the middle class are very well off economically; of these people, those who are most concerned with money will tend to vote for and financially support Republicans, in order to avoid wealth redistribution policies such as Medicare for All, while those who are most concerned with cultural issues such as LGBT rights will tend to vote for and financially support Democrats. At the bottom of the middle class is the lower middle class, which because of its often precarious economic condition has historically been the mainstay of fascism. But there is a whole spectrum of concerns, and one cannot politically pigeon-hole various segments of it.
In the middle class, what most interests socialist activists, of course, is those persons who feel compelled to overcome various impediments to a humanly decent society. Such persons will often concentrate on particular social issues, without linking together ideologically all these necessary struggles. This in itself is not a problem, for progressive activists all have their own contributions to make, and they all should have their own say in helping to determine the contours of the new society. In this situation, socialist activists should have the following responsibilities:
- To promote the progressive struggle as actively as possible, without attempting to take leadership of it.
- To promote, within the progressive struggle, the leadership role of activists of color.
- As appropriate, to try to link together (ideologically) various progressive struggles, without being overbearing.
4. The Working Class
In this paper, let’s use “Party” in the restricted sense of a political organization which systematically engages in electoral work, and ask which party represents the working class. To the extent that any single party can properly lay claim to this role, it is definitely not the Democratic Party, which for decades has abandoned the working class and its legitimate interests, to serve as the (more-or-less) liberal wing of the bourgeoisie (especially, of liberal professionals). For various reasons, socialist parties have yet to obtain and maintain traction within the working class in spite of their spirited defense of workers’ interests. No, the party which has political hegemony over a large section of the working class is none other than … the Republican Party, which under Donald Trump’s leadership has become explicitly the party of white supremacy.
Some one-third of the working class vociferously supports the Republican Party in spite of its functioning in a fantasy world; this can easily become the basis of fascism in our country, if and when the bourgeoisie figures out that it will be necessary to discard the increasing failure of neoliberalism. In combatting this threat, it is not sufficient to simply rebuild labor unions, which have a strong tendency to concentrate on maintaining the livelihoods of its members. For example, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, the politically very powerful union for the state’s 31,000 prison guards, has supported campaigns for the state’s tough-on-crime measures of the 1990’s, including the 1994 three-strikes ballot initiative which resulted in the explosion of the state’s prison population. Many other such examples of unions’ striving to keep prison guards’ employment safeguarded by increasing the prison population abound, as given in Prisons Make Us Safer by Victoria Law.
On the other hand, there have recently been very inspiring stories of workers’ striking and taking other job actions to protect their livelihoods. Since the 1930’s the bourgeoisie have learned how to effectively contain challenges to their ideological hegemony, but the class struggle continues nonetheless! Let us define “Socialist Organization” in a restricted sense, as an organization of socialists which concentrates on supporting working class struggles taking place at the point of production, indeed emphasizing in such struggles the incompatibility of capitalism and a humanly decent society; this is the usual Marxist outlook, of the necessity of broadening working class struggles to the overall struggle against capitalism. Here is another facet of the working class, conscious engagement in the overthrow of capitalism, which although presently subdued is the critical activity of socialist organizations. Our point here is that there are various competing facets of working class life (white supremacy, individualism, class-conscious struggle, etc.); the early Marxist vision of that class’s rising up en masse to overthrow capitalism is but a chimera which tends to keep us from working effectively with progressive elements of both the working class and the middle class to bring about this transformation.
So how should socialists react to “socialist organizations” which are imbued with this delusion of a general rising up of the working class to overthrow capitalism and therefore concentrate on point-of-production political activity? First, although it isn’t useful to try to judge the activity of various strands of “socialists”, we do need to clarify who is definitely not a socialist in spite of their protests to the contrary. This usually involves what they actually advocate rather than what they fail to advocate. For example, if they come out against reproductive rights or LGBT rights, they definitely aren’t on our side and should be shunned. For a “socialist organization” with its highly developed political platform, it is imperative that it be clearly on the side of internationalism in opposing all manifestations of imperialism. Otherwise, our attitude toward self-proclaimed socialists should be as supportive as much as feasible even though we think that they may be out of their minds on some issues (for example, in vigorously running a Presidential candidate in 2020 in a swing state with the possibility of throwing the election to Trump). We are all in this together, and we all have our own contribution to make.
5. A Progressive Party
The electoral sphere is a vital one right now for socialists. First, it is absolutely essential to combat Trumpism and thwart its promotion of fascism in our country; a crucial battleground for such activity is coming state and federal elections. Second, given that the working class is not going to rise up to overthrow capitalism, we need to systematically build up our experience and influence in the institutions of bourgeois democracy, as providing the (long-term) security of the victories won in self-organized struggles for decent living conditions.
Thus, as is widely agreed, we need a progressive party of some sort to support, in the electoral sphere, the many progressive struggles carried out by working class and middle class activists. I don’t mean some sort of overarching organization coordinating all these struggles, but rather to be more of a coalition of autonomous groups assisting each other as well as they can (such as by running candidates promoting all these relevant struggles) as well as by providing pertinent information concerning the activities of other progressive struggles. By facilitating such cooperation, this new party will strengthen all of our progressive struggles without in any way dominating them. It will systematically build up our experience and influence in the institutions of bourgeois democracy, as providing the (long-term) security of the victories won in self-organized struggles for decent living conditions. Thus the progressive party will strengthen all of our progressive struggles without in any way dominating them.
Special attention needs to be given to the activities of socialists within this new organization:
- First, as is deemed appropriate to the audience, socialists should disavow the longstanding Marxist tenet of the “dictatorship of the proletariat”. We should be clear that if we lose the election (legitimately), we intend to intend to vacate the office and come back again another day
- Indeed, we should emphasize that we are dedicated to the attainment of full democracy and to the rule of law. This is strongly in accord with the claimed strength of the American political system, and may cause mindless Trumpists to rethink what they really are supporting.
- We should be clear that we eagerly accept the involvement of middle-class activists as equals, judging everyone on the basis of their actual political activity and not on how closely they agree with our own political line.
- Should we hold back on expressing our political opinions in order not to interfere with elections and perhaps not to alienate people we work with within the progressive party? NO, we should never hold back our political opinions regardless of the political repercussions, although we should choose the right time and place to express them in order to minimize disruption. If we aren’t at the leading edge in promoting socialist politics, we’re never going to get anywhere.
Let me continue with some specific ideas about the form that such a progressive party might take, with the caveat that these ideas are just for possible discussion rather than suggesting that they are what necessarily should be implemented.
6. Name of the Progressive Party
My suggestion is to create an electoral party with the name “American Progressive Party”. Its purpose will be to support progressive struggles throughout our society, with special emphasis on building a coalition to combat Trumpism in the electoral sphere. “Progressive” is, of course, a politically broad term, and it refers to various activities meant to convert our society to a decent one providing basic human rights to everyone and allowing persons to develop to the full extent of their capabilities. It includes a wide range of political outlooks including those of socialists who emphasize the class struggle between the working class and the bourgeoisie (capitalists and managers of their economic enterprises).
Socialists and others may be aghast at the apparent nationalism of using American in our name, especially since this is the language of Trumpism, but in fact we can turn it around and make it its opposite. For the fact is that the great majority of Americans, regardless of the extent to which they are aware of the terrible things that have been done and are still being done in the name of our country, want “America” to be something which we can all look up to. We can in fact define “America” as constituting our concept of the progressive new society rather than leaving this term to be appropriated by the Trumpists, as we shall see in the next section of this paper. Socialists may hope (and steadfastly work toward) the Revolution by which the most politically advanced sections of the working class lead their class to rise up and abolish capitalism, but we have to realize that this simply isn’t going to happen in this way, that the transition to a truly progressive society is going to have to be a lot more complicated, involving many social forces.
7. “Make America Great”
I am further suggesting that the slogan of the American Progressive Party be “Make America Great”. No, not “Make America Great Again”, for it never was “great”, and we have to make this fact absolutely clear. From and even before its inception, America was based on the slavery of Black people and on the genocide of the indigenous population, and this legacy continues today with the prevalence of the ideology and reality of white supremacy. A fundamental requirement for making America “great” will be our recognition of the white supremacy which pervades our society and our working toward overcoming all these manifestations of white supremacy. This, and only this, constitutes the path towards making America great.
But given our recognition of white supremacy and our activity to overcome it, what is it that will make America great? What it will be, as we choose to define it, is our success toward instituting “progressive social change” (as we have defined such). Why should we not use this terminology as constituting realization of our political goals? Why leave the concept of “greatness” to the MAGA people with their perverse celebration of America’s greatness? We should appropriate for our own use this understanding of America’s greatness which we are striving for. (Think, for example, how disconcerting it will be for MAGA people to be confronted by a whole slew of people wearing “MAG” caps!)
8. Progressive Struggles
Realizing how broad a term “progressive” is, we would be fairly lax in defining whom to support with the American Progressive Party. We obviously can’t support an organization or a candidate which is opposed to reproductive rights or to LGBT rights, or which is supportive of various manifestations of U.S. imperialism (such as economic blockades). On the other hand, we don’t want to get into defining narrowly what are acceptable politics, for such determinations must be carried out by the participants themselves in light of the political conditions in which they find themselves. Some examples may help to clarify this:
(a.) “Defund the Police”. This is a bad slogan to start with, for some police presence is surely needed. Rather than having such a demand in the forefront, we would look toward calling for shifting of funds from the police to social workers and others who are expert at resolving disputes without falling back on using armed force.
(b.) Defending Second Amendment rights. Sure, we’re all for the legitimate use of gun rights, but there are restrictions which must be imposed, such as gun registration and no ownership of military assault weapons.
(c.) Opposition to U.S. imperialism. Rather than using such loaded phrases, it would be better to call for concrete objectives which have the same function, such as drastic cuts in military expenditures (with the money saved used to finance socially benefitting programs), withdrawal from our active wars, ending economic boycotts, etc.
(d.) Covid-19 vaccinations. There’s no good reason to get into berating people for not getting vaccinated. Instead, we should be pushing public health programs such as Medicare for All.
(e.) Overthrowing capitalism. We of course welcome the participation of socialists who are intimately involved in strengthening the working class’s struggle against capitalist oppression. However, it must be clear – regardless of what such persons are convinced of – that this struggle is just one of many contributing to the progressive transformation of society. Rather than emphasizing “down with capitalism!”, it would be more productive for them within the American Progressive Party to be calling for concrete reforms in labor relations, such as against the Taft-Hartley act.
(f.) Rural struggles. We must be careful not to neglect rural struggles, such as for broadband internet access, against the domination of agribusiness, and against the destruction of the environment (removing the tops of mountains through mining, for example).
Many more examples of useful progressive political positions could be cited. The point is that we are not trying to demarcate strictly against “incorrect” political lines, but rather is to develop a highly diverse coalition of progressive activists for the critical purpose of combatting Trumpism in the electoral arena. These activists may well have divergent positions on pursuing a progressive agenda, and we wouldn’t want to unnecessarily encourage rejection of our whole project because of language which may turn people off (such as “revolutionary” or “radical” in characterizing our new party). Furthermore, we should not using be “struggle”, which can be viewed as the same old Marxist jargon. We have used that word in the paper because it is familiar and meaningful to us, but in more public presentations we should call for “progressive campaigns”, which is a more neutral formulation.