Sectarians, Sheepdogs, and the Center

Sectarians, Sheepdogs, and the Center

By Nate W.

Something is changing in this country. Millions of Americans, for the first time, have found themselves drawn away from the liberal mainstream ideologies that dominate the Republican and Democratic parties and are looking towards socialism for answers to the problems that plague the United States. From online spheres to grassroots organizing and established political circles, there has been increased traction for socialist ideas and policies. Some of the most popular young media figures in the country were elevated because they could articulate a socialist vision that truly challenged people to build something better than liberalism Despite this, the American political system has resisted the attempts at socialist reform, and many on the left – including in DSA – are still debating the basics of how to bring these changes about.

One path that many choose is joining a socialist party. But which socialist party to join? There are countless existing socialist parties and organizations active in America, some with long and storied traditions and others that have sprung up since Sanders’ failed 2016 campaign. As prospective socialists sift through the existing parties looking for the One True Party, possibly something akin to the Bolshevik party of 1917 ready to seize power and bring relief to the American working class, they are faced with the task of reading through dozens of different party platforms, discussing on internet forums, and attending meetings looking for this party. Through this process, some come to the conclusion that all of the existing parties are no good. Each one is too revisionist, too orthodox, plagued with harassment and abuse, infiltrated by the feds, or has an unfortunate stance on a specific issue. So, they decide to form their own party with their like-minded friends and effectively seal themselves off from the rest of the socialists in America and, more importantly, the working class.

Despite the upswell of interest in socialism and a plethora of movements, a socialist movement has yet to develop. Instead, several major trends have emerged in socialist groups across the country that have led to their general ineffectiveness. These trends are the primary dangers that all socialist groups and socialists must watch out for when building their party and trying to bring about socialist changes in the United States; in order for a group to be effective they must navigate the center path between them. These dangers are sectarianism and irrelevancy, and co-optation and tactical freeze.

The danger of fragmentation and sectarianism, encapsulated above, is not a new issue that socialists in America are faced with. Hal Draper outlined a similar circumstance in his 1973 piece “Anatomy of the Micro-Sect”[1]. In this piece Draper identified that “there are socialists in America but no socialist movement”, an observation that is as true today as it was then. Whether a socialist joins an existing sect or forms their own, they take as given that the organization’s program is the one that will eventually be vindicated by history. Belief in the party line at some point takes precedence over belief in the working class. Whatever good intentions they might have, they doom themselves to irrelevance and countless cold nights handing out flyers on street corners or at busy demonstrations, making no clear progress to a socialist America.

While I am not trying to discredit all existing American socialist parties – many are doing commendable work in specific areas – the problem still remains that the American socialist project is full of splinter groups who are more concerned with articulating “correct” positions and denouncing the faults and failures of other groups than they are with building an actual base of power in America. The general thought process is that through the process of accretion, they will eventually grow to prominence and then be anointed the true party of the American working class. While this seems like a logical progression, history proves it false — in the last two hundred years of socialist history, this has never happened.

The primary cause of sectarianism and fragmentation among the socialists is ego. This often manifests in idealism: believing that you can change the world by changing your or others’ ideas about the world. As ridiculous as this sounds, it is a similar belief that leads socialists to believe that the reason we have not achieved socialism in America is that the perfect political platform has not yet been crafted or, if it has, the workers have not yet seen it.

Various sects have waxed and waned and split over the history of America, but since the 1930s there has not been a mass socialist movement. There have been attempts to abolish sectarianism by a call for unity and a broadening of the perspective of an organization to something that all the sects can agree on. While this has led to some merging of parties and increased membership rolls, it has not sparked a socialist movement. This is because no matter how many sects merge together or how large they become they are always faced with the same issues: they are caught up in their inter- and intra-sect politics, they confuse the form of past revolutionary parties for their function in context, and they are both isolated from and alienating to the working class.

In an attempt to avoid this first danger of sectarianism, many have found themselves plunging head first into the second one – that is, immobilization by the capitalist structure by co-optation or tactical freeze. Rather than playing the sectarian game, leftist organizations – or vaguely anti-capitalist movements – have sometimes cast such a broad net of ideological inclusivity that the organization itself has no sense of distinction at all and instead becomes a mess of vague radicalism and contradictory viewpoints. The only effect that these organizations have is forcing the ruling class to make a symbolic concession to them, which tends to be enough to weaken their loose bond and prepare them for a shattering blow.

The Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011 was the most extreme recent example of this phenomena. Though it tapped into a very real expression of broad anger against the ruling class and capitalism, it never manifested into a real basis of power for socialists nor did it achieve any meaningful reform. By labeling themselves as the 99% and bringing in anyone with a displeasure with the current systems, they were able to draw large initial crowds. However, because of its extreme emphasis on horizontal and leaderless organization it was never able to organize past maintaining the occupation, let alone present a list of demands. This led to a tactical freeze where, despite having mustered the forces possible to demand changes, the movement was unable to move. Then, despite the initial promise, the occupation quickly dwindled until the most dedicated protestors were swept up easily by the police.

Another similar approach – more doomed and destructive to movement-building — is the attempt to reform, co-opt, subvert, or push left the existing established political parties. This is where we find the likes of the Squad and would-be Squad members, along with a large chunk of what remains of the Bernie Sanders movement. These reformers believe that by working within the existing power structures of the Democratic party, they will be able to win badly-needed reforms for the working class. They may even aim to subvert the Democrats completely into a party for the People of America, or the 99%, or some other formulation of the masses. But the logic of capitalist democracy means that even the most ideologically-committed people must choose conformity with existing structural injustice to continue their quest. With each choice to continue the opportunist game, they become closer to what they intended to fight.

We have seen countless cases of progressive Democrat candidates running on promises for the working class. The promises consist of reform to the US political and economic system and range from healthcare, to green energy, and police reform. These promises have enticed many people to the ballot box with the belief that the current system could be tweaked into something more humane and beneficial to the working class. However once the votes are secured, we find ourselves with ballooning police budgets and a sprawling scope of enforcement, health care costs higher than ever with a pandemic unresolved, and fracking permits being approved as fast as they are submitted.

Where are the progressive heroes now? They are giving $1.2 billion to the capitol police, $1 billion to Israel for the Iron Dome, $1.4 billion in military aid to Ukraine, while failing to deliver single-payer healthcare, COVID-19 relief, any raise in the federal minimum wage, or viable alternatives to oil and gas as prices skyrocket. At the end of the day capitalist parties will always find money for war, corporate welfare, and oppression and violence waged at home and abroad. Socialists are left to debate whether these betrayals of our principles are worth whatever crumbs might be left for the working class.

Advocating from within an existing party only serves to strengthen that party and subvert the socialists’ energies into supporting the ruling class. These attempts at co-opting the Democratic party serve only to sheep dog for them, keeping the left voting for them no matter how opposed to their interests they are. This was seen clearly during the 2020 election when self proclaimed socialists openly advocated for electing Joe Biden and voting “blue no matter who”. What’s more, the sloganeering that these party-reformers used to get into office has been assimilated by the party, through campaign consultancies and think tanks. They are then defanged through marginalization, with the blame placed on a handful of “moderates” who can take the fall for a failed agenda, but in the final analysis represent the party’s true colors. Though some small changes may come from time to time, the agenda remains the same, and “loyal opposition” proves to be plenty of the former and little of the latter. The process of co-optation is complete.

While co-optation and tactical freeze may seem at first to be distinct phenomena, they frequently coexist and are in fact deeply related. Ultimately, they both result from being confined to neutralizable and acceptable modes of registering dissent, and not being connected to direct conflict with capital. Consider the contemporary movement for single-payer healthcare: activists may utilize both electoralist (through any number of progressive political caucuses) and lobbying tactics (such as demanding floor votes and threatening accountability) to try to get legislation passed, but neither has led to a bill that is anywhere near passing. Ultimately the lack of an organization capable of coordinating these tactics and rooted in the industrial workforce’s ability to drive this change makes these other tactics doubly ineffective: “accountability” is an empty threat because the opposition is controlled.

These are the dangers faced by socialist groups in the American political arena: sectarian irrelevance driven by ideological purity, ineffectuality resulting from the lack of a political vision, or co-optation and support of the ruling class through compromise with one of the capitalist parties. Between these dangers lies the political center. The goal of a political center is to crystalize organized militant opposition within existing sites of working-class struggle. This is not done by methods of co-opting or attempting to lead these movements, but by fighting alongside them and developing a loyal solidarity with them. This means engaging with the various working-class movements that already exist – Black liberation, trade-unionism, tenant struggle, etc. – while advocating for broad politicization of these movements by taking positions that favor decisive action backed by scientific analysis.

This is Red Star’s motivation in continuing to organize within DSA. Despite all the issues that DSA has, as a nexus of many different kinds of political work it is a prime candidate for forming a political center. It is a place where people who care about making radical changes in this country, and understand socialism as the driving ideology behind that change, are getting involved with working-class struggles. By working within DSA, Red Star is able to foster militancy at a junction of many working-class movements. This allows Red Star to make contact with people involved in many different struggles, and potentially win them to our way of thinking through militancy, education, and agitation. Rather than running off to form a splinter where we can feel safe and be surrounded by people who agree with us, or simply trying to fix the Democratic Party from the inside, we have decided to build a home for working-class militancy in DSA, so that we can participate in it and learn from the working class as it fights for liberation.