In his memoir Fragments of the Century, DSA founding chair Michael Harrington outlined the challenge facing democratic radicals in the United States:
The vocation of a radical in America…is to walk a perilous tightrope. [They] must be true to the socialist vision of a new society and constantly develop and extend its content; and [they] must bring that vision into contact with the actual movements fighting not to transform the system, but to gain some little increment of dignity or even just a piece of bread. If the radical becomes totally obsessed with [their] vision, [they] will fall off that tightrope into a righteous irrelevance; if [they] adapt too well to the movement [they] hope to inspire, [they] will fall into a pragmatic irrelevance. [Their] task is to balance vision and practicality, to fight not simply for the next step, but for the next step in a voyage of ten thousand miles. (gender neutral language added – eds.)
This is the basic dilemma confronting democratic socialists not just here in the US, but anywhere the immediate needs and interests of the people exist in some tension with a long-term project of social transformation. It is not an easy path to walk, as the mass socialist parties of the twentieth century found out – often the hard way. Today’s DSA is still a far cry from those parties, but we are grappling in our own ways with similar kinds of problems and challenges. The question I address here slightly rephrases the dilemma: how best to balance our two main strategic imperatives – the need to be a “party of opposition” and a “party of government” – at the same time? We have no choice but to do both, but this is far easier said than done. As democratic socialist theorist Ralph Miliband observed, “reconciliation of these two roles is however an exceedingly difficult exercise; and it can easily turn into an impossible one.”
In this essay, I will support this contention by demonstrating three main points. First, the pursuit of socialist goals does not entail a one-size-fits-all strategy regardless of political or social context. In making this point, I will discuss the views of Marx and Engels on questions of political strategy, which in a general sense are still useful today. Second, I will discuss the experiences of Second International socialists, particularly the revolutionary social democrats of the Tsarist Empire and Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD), to show that socialist strategy has to be adapted to the political conditions prevailing in a given country for practical action to bear any fruit. This may seem like an obvious point, but socialists have often struggled to heed this imperative in practice – particularly here in the United States, where the left has often sought to import models of socialist politics instead of developing one of its own. Finally, I will apply these historical considerations to a broad assessment of the strategic questions facing DSA and the broader left in the US today, particularly in light of right-wing efforts to undermine basic liberal-democratic political freedoms.
No One Size
Marxist politics has a not-unfair reputation for being rigid and doctrinaire. While this may be true of many of their self-proclaimed followers, it was not necessarily true of Marx and Engels themselves. They were often willing to change their minds on strategic and tactical questions according to changing circumstances, and did not advocate an inflexible set of prescriptions to be followed by socialists at every time and in every place. More to the point, they allowed that socialists could pursue either reformist or revolutionary strategies depending on the political circumstances they faced, and had a tremendous faith in the power of universal suffrage as an instrument of emancipation.
Marx and Engels close the Communist Manifesto with a famous peroration which includes the claim that socialist “ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions.” After the violent suppression of the 1848 revolutions and a period in the political wilderness, however, Marx and Engels modulated their views on such questions. This does not mean that they had reconciled themselves to the existing order, seeking only modest improvements in working peoples’ lives. They still recognized that workers needed political power to break down the old order and change social relations, but they recognized that the process by which this might happen cannot and will not be the same everywhere. In an 1872 speech on the goals of the First International he delivered in Amsterdam, Marx stressed that:
we have not asserted that the ways to achieve that goal are everywhere the same. You know that the institutions, mores, and traditions of various countries must be taken into consideration, and we do not deny that there are countries – such as America, England, and if I were more familiar with your institutions, I would perhaps also add Holland – where the workers can attain their goal by peaceful means. This being the case, we must also recognize the fact that in most countries on the Continent the lever of our revolution must be force; it is force to which we must some day appeal in order to erect the rule of labor.
Here we see that Marx clearly allowed for different strategic approaches depending on the prevailing political context in a given country. Yes, he still argued that “the lever of our revolution must be force” in places where political freedoms were limited or non-existent. He doesn’t explicitly name any here, but it is safe to assume he would have included Russia and Germany in this category. By contrast, socialists in countries with relatively high levels of political freedom and parliamentary sovereignty – including the United States, according to Marx – might achieve their goals through “peaceful means” such as electoral and parliamentary politics, trade union organization, a working-class press, and the like. Marx further elaborated on these views in an interview with the New York World on the activities of the First International:
In every part of the world special aspects of the general problem emerge; the workers take these into consideration and work to solve them in their own way. The associations of the workers cannot be identical to the last detail in Newcastle and Barcelona, in London and in Berlin. In England for example the worker class has a choice as to how it will develop its political strength. An uprising would be a stupidity in a country where the goal can be reached more quickly and surely through peaceful means. In France the numerous repressive laws and the deadly antagonism between the classes seem to make a violent solution to social divisions necessary. Whether such a solution will be chosen is a matter to be decided by the working class of that country.
Engels further elaborated on these views in what has come to be known as his political “testament,” his introduction to the 1895 edition of Marx’s Class Struggles in France. Here, he flatly asserted that “The rebellion of the old style, the street fight behind the barricades, which up to 1848 gave the final decision, has become antiquated.” Instead, socialists should do their best to follow the SPD’s “German example,” which was predicated on the “utilization of the franchise and of the conquest of all possible positions” in representative bodies. By the end of the nineteenth century, the SPD had steadily grown from a beleaguered, semi-legal outfit into one of the leading powers in Germany, potentially capable of providing leadership to the country as a whole:
If this goes on, we shall at the close of the century win over the greater part of the middle social layers, petty bourgeoisie as well as small peasants, and we shall come to be the decisive power in the land, before which all other powers must bow whether they like it or not. To keep going this growth without interruption until it swamps the ruling governmental system, that is our main task…The irony of history turns everything upside down. We, the ‘revolutionists,’ the ‘upsetters,’ we thrive much better with legal than with illegal means in forcing an overthrow. The parties of order, as they call themselves, perish because of the legal conditions set up by themselves…if we are not insane enough to favor them by letting them drive us into street battles, nothing will in the end be left to them but themselves to break through the legality that is so fatal to them.
One must note that Engels’s introduction was edited by SPD leaders to avoid references to violent revolution as much as possible, because they were worried about giving the state excuses to initiate a new wave of anti-socialist repression. Even so, it’s clear from both the published and edited passages that Engels thought force should not be used in an offensive mode but to defend a legal political majority from counter-revolution by reactionary rebels. The US Civil War, in which Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party used military means to crush the slaveholders’ rebellion, is perhaps the clearest historical example of the political dynamic that Engels had in mind in this regard.
Socialist politics, then, does not entail an inflexible devotion to any one mode of action. Strategies and tactics need to be adapted to prevailing conditions if they are to be successful, and that requires a concrete analysis of the particular political context we have to operate in. Looking back at the writings and practice of Marx and Engels on this topic, one is struck by just how much faith they had in what is today scornfully labeled as “electoralism” in many quarters of the left. If anything, as Michael Harrington notes in his book Socialism, they “might be reproached for having been somewhat too naïve about the potential of universal suffrage,” perhaps owing to their limited personal experience with conservative adaptations to mass politics and parliamentary democracy.
Will It Play in Bavaria?
We turn now from Marxology to history, namely the history of the two most influential currents of Second International Marxism: the revolutionary social democrats of the Tsarist Empire and Germany’s SPD. The latter was the Second International’s flagship party, and in recent times the classical SPD’s example – particularly that of its Kautskyist or “centrist” wing – has become very influential among some socialists. And of course, the former inspired countless revolutionaries around the world to adopt the strategies and tactics of the Bolsheviks in their own countries. It is not difficult to understand why others would want to emulate them. The classical SPD amassed a following of millions in a leading capitalist country and pioneered many of the tactics of modern mass politics, while the Bolsheviks made the first socialist revolution in history. If it worked in Germany or Russia, why not try it at home?
For one thing, as we’ve seen Marx and Engels cautioned against emulating modes of action that may be appropriate for socialists in a particular political context, but perhaps not in yours. Of course, an appeal to the scriptural authority of the ancestors is not enough to prove this point. Fortunately, the social democratic movement’s history in the Tsarist Empire and imperial Germany supports the case. Socialists in the Tsarist Empire wanted to emulate the SPD because it was so successful, but realized that the political conditions they lived under made this extremely difficult. Moreover, the empire was so extensive and varied that different political conditions could prevail from place to place, particularly between central Russia and its borderlands. At the same time, not even the SPD followed a uniform strategic approach across the Reich. Imperial Germany was an authoritarian monarchy, but it was also a federal state with notable regional divergences in political and economic development. North German states were generally more repressive than their counterparts in the south, which had a higher degree of political freedom and more liberal electoral systems. The party’s internal rifts between reformists and revolutionaries closely mapped onto this pattern of political-economic geography, with the former concentrated in states like Bavaria and the latter concentrated in states like Prussia. This suggests that leaders on either side of the split were responding to political conditions as they experienced them as much as they chose their strategies based on abstract theoretical concerns.
Socialist historian Eric Blanc’s book Revolutionary Social Democracy: Working Class Politics across the Russian Empire (1882-1917) does an excellent job of documenting how social democratic movements in the empire often diverged from one another on the ground despite a common commitment to Marxist politics. The tsar was an absolute monarch, but the mode of tsarist rule was different in different parts of the empire. Central Russia, for example, had a different political system, economic profile, labor movement, and degree of political freedom from Finland. In the context of Russian autocracy a strategy of intransigent opposition to tsarist rule made sense, and was the only potentially effective one available, despite the dangers associated with it.
As Blanc shows, such an approach crossed ideological and organizational lines within the revolutionary social democratic movement, at least until the revolution of 1905. Until then, “each of these currents (including the Mensheviks) engaged in violent armed revolutionary struggle; each broke from the organizational model of Western socialist parties; and each rejected blocs with liberals and argued that only an independent working-class movement could lead the democratic revolution to victory. For the autocratic context of Russia, such stances were explicitly sanctioned by orthodox social democracy, which made a sharp distinction between strategy for countries with or without political freedom.” Social democrats in the Tsarist Empire couldn’t replicate the SPD’s mode of action because of the highly repressive political conditions they faced, but the emphasis Kautsky in particular placed on intransigent opposition to the state was very appealing to them.
Even so, like Marx and Engels themselves, Second International Marxists made distinctions between countries with and without political freedom and advocated different strategic approaches for different political contexts. “In countries with civil liberties and parliaments,” Blanc observes, “revolutionary Marxists argued that social democratic parties should focus on patient and peaceful activities such as promoting socialist ideas through the press, building strong party organizations, running in elections to further spread the message, and building trade unions.” But tsarist Russia was a reactionary police state and all social democrats there “agreed that the most pressing political task was to win political freedom,” which they could do only through mass action tactics like strikes and demonstrations. This hindered the development of reformist social democratic currents in the empire, unlike the relatively more liberal countries of Western Europe. As such, Blanc concludes, “Russian absolutism facilitated the growth of proletarian radicalism to an unparalleled degree, creating exceptionally favorable conditions for promoting revolutionary socialism.”
As noted above, however, there were meaningful variations in the level of political freedom in different parts of the Tsarist Empire. Blanc notes that “the form and weight of Tsarist repression varied significantly over time and place. What worked at one point might not work later, and what failed in Moscow might succeed in Riga.” Finland, for example, was allowed to keep its constitution and parliament and retained a relatively high degree of autonomy after Tsar Alexander I forcibly annexed it from Sweden in 1809. Social democrats in central Russia could not directly emulate the SPD’s example, but the Finnish social democrats could because political conditions there were roughly similar to those in Germany. Both places had parliamentary systems that socialist parties could participate in, but their regimes were still more authoritarian than those in Western Europe or the Americas. In Finland and Germany, Blanc observes, “civil liberties were sufficient to allow for a legal labor movement, but censorship restrictions were strong, and selective state repression of workers’ leaders was consistent enough to impress upon workers and especially labor leaders a legitimate fear that their organizations would be disbanded at any moment were they to transgress the bounds allowed by the regime.” Socialists could wage election campaigns, participate in parliamentary debates, organize trade unions, and publish newspapers, but “the policy making powers of legislative bodies were seriously constrained by the imperial state.” This last point is crucial. In both Finland and Germany, parliament ultimately did not have the power to introduce legislation, and could be disbanded by the monarch. They were literally talk shops. In this context it made sense for socialists to use electoral and parliamentary politics primarily for propaganda and agitation, according to the SPD slogan Durch das Fenster reden – “Speak through the Window” of the parliamentary chamber to the masses outside. The Finns adopted the SPD strategy in a context that made it possible for them to do so and launched their own “red revolution” in January 1918, shortly after the Bolsheviks took power in Russia.
Blanc’s analysis of social democratic politics in the Tsarist Empire can fruitfully be extended to imperial Germany itself, where different SPD currents adopted different strategies and tactics in different parts of the country. The Wilhelmine state was an odd contraption that provided space for both revolutionary and reformist strategies. It had a hereditary monarchy invested with real executive power, including the power to appoint the chancellor and cabinet. The left and the workers’ movement were subjected to extensive legal repression, including a series of anti-Socialist laws that banned public social democratic meetings, newspapers, and associations. Reichstag elections had universal male suffrage, but the electoral system systematically advantaged parties with a conservative, aristocratic, and agrarian bent. At the same time, however, the Reichstag was not just a fig leaf despite its lack of sovereignty and inability to introduce legislation. The state was not unitary but federal, and a number of German states (länder), particularly in the south, had more liberal political conditions conducive to building social-democratic and working-class power. Even the anti-Socialist laws were strangely permissive in certain respects. Despite their extensive strictures, they did not actually ban the SPD and allowed social democrats to run for the Reichstag as nominal independents. This meant that strategic approaches could and did vary across the Reich, a situation that consistently generated internal controversy in the SPD.
After the expiration of the anti-Socialist laws in 1890, the SPD threw itself into electoral mobilization and parliamentary agitation across the Reich. As historian Gary Steenson observes in Not One Man! Not One Penny!, “the political emphasis of the SPD was dictated by circumstance,” which varied from the Reich level to the individual states and from one state to the next. States had more or less restrictive franchises based on property ownership and other qualifications. The Reichstag electoral system provided for universal male suffrage, but representation was not very equitable and it systematically disadvantaged the SPD as a largely urban party. The size of election districts varied widely, and, as Steenson notes, “the SPD routinely had to double or triple the national average of votes per mandate in order to win seats in the Reichstag.” Because of this, local party organizations – particularly those in more authoritarian northern states like Prussia, where Berlin was located – tended to be more interested in the propaganda and educational value of election campaigns than in electing their candidates to parliament and passing legislation.
But this attitude was not uniform across the party, and social democrats’ views tended to vary according to the level of political freedom and parliamentary responsibility that prevailed in a given state. For example, Prussian state elections were not conducted in secret, and representation was apportioned according to the infamous three-class franchise that systematically discriminated against working-class representation. By contrast, the big south German states of Baden, Bavaria, and Wurttemberg all had direct, secret elections by 1906. After the shape of the local economy, Steenson concludes, “the most important factor acting upon the SPD was the political environment within which it operated. This factor was not important in determining whether or not the party could win a following in a particular region; rather, it shaped the character of the local party, giving it radical or moderate qualities depending on conditions” (emphasis added).
The biggest flashpoint between south and north Germans was state-level budget votes, a question that went to the core of the SPD’s political identity. There was broad agreement that SPD deputies in the Reichstag should not vote for Reich budgets under the intransigent slogan “Not One Man! Not One Penny!” But south German social democrats often voted in favor of state budgets beginning in the 1890s. These state budgets typically did not include military expenditures for the central state, and south German social democrats were sometimes able to win concessions and reforms in budget negotiations when they held the deciding votes. More fundamentally, as Steenson observes “the freer atmosphere of south Germany, where various left-liberal parties were more open to cooperation with the SPD, made voting for hard-won budgets part of the process of political give and take; voting against a budget, elements of which had involved the socialists in compromise with these liberals, would endanger future cooperation of all sorts.” National party congresses consistently passed resolutions rejecting social democratic support for state budgets but SPD deputies in south German legislatures simply kept doing it, leading to a major clash at the 1910 party congress that nearly resulted in their expulsion.
South German social democrats, like non-Prussian Germans in general, had a certain resentment of Prussia because of its status as the largest and most powerful state in the Reich. They feared Prussian domination of their local party organizations, a fear that was compounded, in Steenson’s words, “by the fact that Prussia was also the least open, most repressive state in Germany, and thus its socialists tended to be the most radical in the party.” Attempts to mandate a Prussia-style strategic orientation through resolutions at the party congress consistently failed, less because of commitments to abstract theoretical principles and more because of the need to adapt to local political conditions in a regionally fragmented state.
One might be tempted to dismiss all of this because of the SPD’s actions in 1914 and 1918-1919. Perhaps adapting to one’s political context is a problem, in this view, because doing so will tend to reconcile the movement to the state and the existing order. The failures and shortcomings of the German social democrats, however, cannot be explained by this. Views on German participation in World War I did not map neatly on to the reformist-revolutionary divide. The “Lensch-Cunow-Haenisch” group, for example, went from war opponents to vociferous champions of a German victory, a trajectory inspired by the revolutionary theoretician Alexander Parvus. Eduard Bernstein, the father of reformist “revisionism” himself, went from voting for war credits to joining the anti-war Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD) along with Karl Kautsky, Karl Liebknecht, and Rosa Luxemburg. As did Kurt Eisner, an arch-revisionist and militant anti-Prussian who ended up leading the revolutionary Bavarian Soviet Republic until his assassination in February 1919.
Despite the emergence of a council movement amid the democratic revolution of 1918, the bulk of German workers did not support the replacement of the new Weimar Republic with workers’ and soldiers’ councils. As the political sociologist Carmen Sirianni observes, most councils “did not move to consolidate power in their own hands and displace or destroy the old organs. Most councils viewed themselves as interim organs for re-establishing order and democratizing the old apparatuses” in the new parliamentary republic. The problem with the SPD leadership in 1918-1919 was not that it failed to support a council republic, a goal supported only by a minority of workers. It failed to live up to its program to vigorously democratize the state and economy; instead it forcibly suppressed the Left. For that reason, many of the leaders and activists of the pre-war SPD broke with their party to found the UPSD, which fought to implement the movement’s traditional democratic-socialist program. While it’s true that socialists can excessively adapt to the existing order, falling off the tightrope is an unavoidable risk of doing mass politics. The alternative of upholding a one-size-fits-all “revolutionary” approach regardless of prevailing conditions is no alternative at all.
Socialism in the USA
What does any of this have to do with the tasks facing democratic socialists in the United States in 2023? Of course, there is no historical blueprint that can be mechanically applied to the specific conditions we face in this country today. But the history recounted above can offer some hints as to the limitations and possibilities for democratic socialist politics in the US today.
In 1847, Engels wrote a text called The Principles of Communism that is worth consulting to get a general sense of what he and Marx thought about political strategy in countries like the US. According to Engels, the movement’s first step is to “establish a democratic constitution, and through this, the direct or indirect dominance of the proletariat.” “Direct,” in this framework, means the election of a parliamentary majority grounded in a common interest “with the various democratic parties, an interest which is all the greater the more closely the socialistic measures they champion approach the aims of the communists – that is, the more clearly and definitely they represent the interests of the proletariat and the more they depend on the proletariat for support.”
In the US – where, in Engels’s view, “a democratic constitution has already been established” – this would entail an alliance “with the party which will turn this constitution against the bourgeoisie and use it in the interests of the proletariat – that is, with the agrarian National Reformers.” Here Engels uses the word “party” in its most general sense, as the National Reform Association (NRA) was a civil society organization devoted primarily to the cause of land reform, not a political party that stood candidates for election. Its leading founder was George Henry Evans, a New York reformer who, according to the historian Jonathan Earle, led the remnants of the collapsed Working Men’s Party “slowly and carefully into the radical wing of the Democratic Party” in the 1830s. It pressured major party candidates to adopt their platform as their own, particularly the demand to distribute public land to individual homesteaders – a demand eventually enshrined with the passage of the 1862 Homestead Act during the Civil War. This focus on land reform persisted in radical circles after the war, finding new expression in the “single tax” movement led by Henry George, author of the wildly popular book Progress and Poverty. George ran for mayor of New York City in 1886 on the United Labor ticket, finishing second behind the victorious Republican, one Theodore Roosevelt. Engels thought George a representative crank of the Yankee type – in an 1886 letter to a German comrade in New Jersey, he wrote that the “Henry George boom has of course brought to light a colossal mass of fraud” – but nonetheless regarded his candidacy as a signal advance for the US workers’ movement. Many German-American socialists held themselves aloof from George’s campaign because of its fundamentally petty bourgeois program, and Engels thought this was a serious mistake reflecting a broader doctrinaire inflexibility. “The Germans have not understood how to use their theory as a lever which could set the American masses in motion; they do not understand the theory themselves for the most part and treat it in a doctrinaire and dogmatic way, as something which has got to be learnt of by heart but which will then supply all needs without more ado. To them it is a credo and not a guide to action.”
Engels regarded Americans as theoretically backward and prone to fads like the Georgist single tax movement, and he was fairly condescending in expressing this view. He thought that German socialists in the US had to save the workers from their backwardness and guide them toward the “final aim” of the “destruction of the wage system,” and away from distractions like bimetallism that were so popular at the end of the nineteenth century. At the same time, however, he reproached the Germans for their lack of adaptation to US society – “they learn no English in principle,” he complained – and thought they should go about their tasks “in the English way, the specific German character must be cut out” to make socialist politics compatible with US political and social conditions.
Among these conditions was the lack of a working-class party independent of the Democrats and Republicans. In an 1892 letter to the same German-American correspondent, Engels surveyed the American scene in terms that will sound familiar to US socialists today:
There is no place yet in America for a third party, I believe. The divergence of interests even in the same class group is so great in that tremendous area that wholly different groups and interests are represented in each of the two big parties, depending on the locality, and almost each particular section of the possessing class has its representatives in each of the two parties to a very large degree.
The land question, in Engels’s view, was key to maintaining the two party system in the US. “Only when the land – the public lands – is completely in the hands of the speculators, and settlement on the land becomes more difficult or falls prey to gouging – only then, I think, will the time come, with peaceful development, for a third party.” (emphasis in original)
Of course, this forecast did not come to pass. If anything, the two party system only became more entrenched since the 1890s, particularly after the split and collapse of the Socialist Party in the late 1910s. Since then there has been a general increase in ballot restrictions on minor parties, and the spread of direct primary elections at all levels has given electoral insurgents an easier path to winning elections than challenging the two major parties in general elections. The Communist Party sought to emulate the Bolshevik example in the US, but aside from a few local pockets of strength it failed to implant itself as a mass political movement (anti-Communist repression was important, but it is not the whole story). It came closest to doing so when it dropped its “Third Period” ultra-leftism and adopted the Popular Front strategy of setting itself up on the left wing of the New Deal coalition. Since then, the socialist left has made headway largely by allying itself, to borrow a phrase from Engels, “with the various democratic parties” that have worked through the left wing of the Democratic Party in local and national politics.
In his final book, Socialism for a Skeptical Age, Ralph Miliband argued that the fight for socialism in capitalist democracies like the US “has mostly been of an emphatically non-revolutionary and strictly ‘reformist’ character.” He attributed this to a variety of economic, political, social, and cultural factors, but “above all, the existence of democratic forms and of the mechanisms which they provide for reform.” Since DSA’s revival in 2016-2017, our organization has made its biggest gains where members have recognized these realities and acted accordingly. We have elected democratic socialists by running them in Democratic Party primaries, worked in coalition with labor, progressive, and community-based organizations to pass legislation benefiting working-class people, helped to organize workers through projects like the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee, and spread the good news of democratic socialism through an array of media outlets. It makes sense to stick with this general approach because it has proven itself to be successful in practice.
At the same time, however, it is clear that our political system disadvantages and constrains working-class, left-wing, and popular forces in a number of ways. Marx and Engels were somewhat naïve about the power of universal suffrage, and they were overly sanguine about the democratic content of the US constitutional order too. For one thing, Engels declared the US constitution “democratic” at a time when women couldn’t vote and the enslavement of millions of southern Blacks magnified the political power of their oppressors through the perverse three-fifths clause – to say nothing of the anti-democratic aspects of the various state constitutions. Slavery was abolished, Blacks and women fought for and won the right to vote. But from the Electoral College, to the Senate, to the power of the judiciary, to the high cost of elections, to the structural advantages rural areas enjoy over cities, to the lack of enforcement of labor law – this by no means exhausts the list – our political system still leaves much to be desired from a democratic perspective. In this respect, the old Socialist Party’s proposals for constitutional reform are worth reviving and incorporating into our agenda today. As the leftist legal scholar Aziz Rana has shown, the Socialists sought to link economic and constitutional demands to demonstrate the practical and material value of democratic reform to working people. Instead of abstractly propagandizing for a more democratic constitution, they addressed these questions through the lens of increasing the bargaining power of the working class in the political system. They eventually wanted a constitutional convention, but as Rana notes they understood that “actually having one—given the power of reactionary forces in society during the Gilded Age—may not be a good idea. They thus focused on strategic interventions that if implemented could begin to improvise a new social order out of the hierarchy and authoritarianism of the old.” Given the balance of forces in US politics today, as well as the fact that the right currently has a major head start on the road to a convention, our advocacy of constitutional renovation has to be pragmatic and realistic to have any appeal beyond our own ranks.
Still, despite our country’s major democratic shortcomings, this is not tsarist Russia nor is it Prussia under Kaiser Wilhelm II. Our legislatures are elected by universal suffrage and have the power to make laws. The US has a major problem with police violence, but it is not a police state. We have the right to organize, demonstrate, communicate our views openly, run for public office, and vote. Under these circumstances, it makes no sense to emulate the example of the Bolsheviks, as a long line of defunct Leninist sects can attest. Nor does it make sense to follow the SPD of imperial Germany and its official strategy of avoiding coalitions with non-socialist progressives – major currents in the party, particularly those operating in political contexts most similar to ours, didn’t even follow it themselves. The political conditions we operate under allow for and demand an approach that attempts to balance the two strategic imperatives – the need to be a “party of opposition” and a “party of government” – introduced at the beginning of this article.
The rise of the domestic far right, supercharged by the election of Donald Trump to the presidency in 2016, is a development that could potentially alter this strategic assessment. The attempt to overthrow the election results on January 6, 2021 failed, but it was only the most extreme example of the ongoing right-wing attack on the democratic forms that exist in the US. Republican governments in a number of states have sought to entrench themselves in power no matter how their electorates vote, undermined labor unions and other organizations they have deemed political enemies, banned abortion procedures and attacked LGBTQ people, and sought to restrict the ability of Black people, immigrants, and others to effectively exercise their right to vote. In these places, a greater emphasis on opposition than government may be warranted by the prevailing conditions. At the same time, however, these situations increase the necessity of alliances with Democrats and non-socialist progressives in order to defeat as many Republicans as possible and reverse their anti-democratic legislation. Like it or not, we are not capable of leading and winning those fights on our own.
In other places, a rough balance between government and opposition – including a more conflictual relationship with the local Democratic Party leadership – may be more appropriate. Where I live in New York, for example, our organization has done a good job of balancing these two imperatives. We have elected a group of democratic socialist legislators who have used their offices to help pass legislation that strengthened tenant protections, raised taxes on millionaires and billionaires, and won debt relief for immigrant taxi drivers. DSA members in the state legislature recently played a key role in blocking the appointment of Hector LaSalle, Democratic governor Kathy Hochul’s conservative nominee to the state supreme court. This was a major defeat not just for the governor, but for Democratic House Majority leader Hakeem Jeffries, who personally stumped for LaSalle’s appointment, too. As of this writing, DSA members in New York are waging a Tax the Rich 2.0 campaign, a “Union Power” campaign aimed at boosting worker organizing and banning at-will employment in New York City, and are potentially on the verge of passing the Build Public Renewables Act, which would be a landmark piece of climate justice legislation. We are doing our best to walk the tightrope of mass politics without falling too far on one side or the other.
As our organization approaches another national convention, DSA members would do well to learn from the history of our movement and refrain from imposing one-size-fits all approaches on chapters regardless of the political conditions that prevail in their region or state. We must maintain nationwide commitments to our basic principles and goals, but allow for as much flexibility as possible within the framework of those commitments. If Marx knew that First International affiliates in Newcastle, Barcelona, London, and Berlin could not effectively pursue the same modes of action, we should recognize that this also holds for DSA chapters in New York, Tampa, Milwaukee, and Las Vegas. This has been the practice of the socialist movement at its best, and we should strive to heed this example in our own work today.