Editorial Note: The Question of Political Revolution

The rapid growth of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) over the last two years and its character as a “big-tent” organization has made it all the more important that we have more venues for serious, thorough, and non-sectarian political debates and discussions. Much has also been written about the meaning of “democratic socialism” in the present. Yet our organization has until now lacked a space where these ideas could be discussed in such a fashion.

Socialist Forum is a revival of an old DSA journal of the same name. It is meant to complement other DSA venues, including Democratic Left and the DSA blog, and to contribute to the broader theoretical and political discussions on the Left. Unlike those venues, Socialist Forum has consciously been designed as a space for more theoretical reflection, intended to help develop a theory and practice of democratic socialism appropriate for the twenty-first century.

Socialist Forum will appear quarterly, and feature long-form essays that address a specific question, topic, or theme in depth. Published contributions will represent as wide a range of views in DSA as possible. The editorial board of Socialist Forum is composed of members with various points of view on important political questions, and it does not adhere to a single theoretical or strategic perspective. As a result, the essays published in the journal reflect the views of the specific contributors, and are not intended to establish a DSA “party line” on any given issue.

Our goal is not simply to publish a new issue of Socialist Forum every few months, but to integrate the publication into DSA’s ongoing political education work as much as possible. Our hope is that the essays that appear in the journal become the subjects of robust debate and discussion, that they generate constructive feedback and criticism, and that they act as the initial steps for an ongoing conversation about our common political project.  

The Question of “Political Revolution”

DSA’s explosive growth is inextricably linked to Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign. Bernie popularized the concept of democratic socialism, and his call for a “political revolution” against the billionaire class resonated with millions of Americans. Bernie, however, tended to employ these concepts as floating signifiers and neglected to fill them with much in the way of specific political content. This inaugural issue of the new Socialist Forum focuses on the question of political revolution – what it means, what its place is in the wider socialist project, and what role DSA might play in bringing it to fruition.

Two articles address the question of the political revolution in practice. In an interview with Socialist Forum, Gayle McLaughlin reflects on the work of the Richmond Progressive Alliance, her tenure as mayor of Richmond and her recent independent campaign for California Lieutenant Governor, and the role that electoral politics might play in building a broader movement for political revolution. Veteran labor activist/journalist Jane Slaughter argues that the political revolution isn’t just about elections for public office; it must be brought into our workplaces and our unions as well. In her view, socialists must link election campaigns and labor fights in order to broaden the political questions each raise, and to build consciousness of the need for a fundamentally different kind of society – the need for democratic socialism.

Democratic socialists often speak of the need to extend democracy from the electoral-representative system to the rest of society. It is quite clear, however, that the realm of formal politics in the U.S. is itself in dire need of a thoroughgoing program of democratization. Jamal Abed-Rabbo surveys the various strategic approaches to electoral politics that are common on the left and finds them lacking, because they do not directly confront the uniquely undemocratic nature of the U.S. electoral system. He identifies the “first past the post” (FPTP) voting method as the main barrier to the formation of a mass socialist or workers’ party in the U.S., and calls on DSA to campaign for the elimination of FPTP and other constraints that maintain our bankrupt two-party system.

These considerations of the undemocratic nature of the U.S. political system raises further questions about the nature of the capitalist state. The last major round of socialist theorizing on these questions took place during the 1960s and 1970s. The two leading intellectual figures of this period were Ralph Miliband and Nicos Poulantzas, whose famous debate on the capitalist state addressed a number of crucial questions of socialist strategy. Two of our contributors draw on Miliband and Poulantzas as starting points for thinking about socialist strategy and political revolution today. Following Miliband, Ben Beckett argues for a “democratic road to socialism” that avoids what he sees as the pitfalls of sectarian isolation on one hand and subordination to interest-group pressure politics on the other. He argues for a merger of the labor and socialist movements, participation in mass reform struggles that can both improve people’s lives, encourage the further development of working-class organizational capacities, and the eventual election of a Left government that will change government policies and the structure of the state itself. Taking his cues from Poulantzas, Ben Tarnoff argues that the state is neither a neutral instrument that any group can use for its own purposes, nor a capitalist fortress immune to advances by socialist and popular forces. Instead, the state is a “field of struggle” that should be engaged through a two-pronged strategic approach: one struggle waged inside the state and its structures and one waged outside it.

Another major theorist of socialist strategy in the advanced capitalist countries was André Gorz. In a seminal 1968 essay, Gorz proposed a socialist strategy of reforms that might avoid the limitations and pitfalls of reformism. In his view, this would not entail “the installation of islands of socialism in a capitalist ocean” but rather the establishment of new centers of direct democracy, the winning of positions of strength and influence in representative institutions, and taking the provision of key goods and services out of the market. Meagan Day draws on Gorz’s strategic proposals to argue for a political revolution grounded in the struggle for structural reforms. Instead of a sharp distinction between “reform” and “revolution,” such reforms could strengthen popular forces and erode the foundations of market discipline, laying the foundation for even further gains. In her view, the fight for Medicare for All should play a leading role in this process.

Two contributions provide an outline of what a struggle waged outside the formal structures of the state might look like. Mason Herson-Hord argues that political revolution should be thought of not as a moment but as a process, one that fundamentally transforms the structure of governance in the realm of politics and across the whole society. Drawing inspiration from the Paris Commune, the Russian soviets, the urban and rural collectives that formed during the Spanish Civil War, and contemporary experiments in radical “municipalism,” Herson-Hord sketches out a possible scenario for a bottom-up political revolution in the U.S. In a similar vein, Nathaniel Owen discusses the potential role that grassroots participatory institutions could play in a political revolution that goes beyond the realm of formal politics. In his view, worker-owned cooperatives, community land trusts, and participatory budgeting processes to create an alternative economic base for the socialist project and build people’s capacities to run a free society.

Dan La Botz considers the history of the New Deal and questions whether the demand for a new New Deal today would advance the cause of political revolution and democratic socialism. La Botz argues that the New Deal political coalition was based primarily on the support that specific sectors of the capitalist class gave to President Roosevelt’s reform program, and that economic recovery and postwar boom were driven primarily by a vast program of “military Keynesianism,” not New Deal and Great Society social programs. While socialists should fight for reform programs that redistribute income and wealth, any potential political revolution must be part of a larger process that brings the central institutions of the economy under social and democratic control, and which directly confronts the power of capital.

Finally, Josh Lown considers the ways in which capitalism has traumatized many of the people and communities democratic socialists want to engage with as we build a movement for political revolution in the U.S. As Lown argues, as we work together in pursuit of our collective political project, “We have to take care of ourselves, with the support from our communities, as difficult as that can be. Ultimately, the revolution, political or otherwise, begins at home.”

Future issues of this publication will address a range of issues and problems, from the labor movement to climate politics to socialist feminism and beyond. But we anticipate that the question of political revolution will emerge as a persistent theme in forthcoming issues of Socialist Forum.