How the Bolshevik Revolution Inspired Americans

The Bolshevik Revolution aimed to inspire workers of all countries to unite for the creation of a world soviet republic. Workers in the United States were no exception. 

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“Nowhere are all the means of political power so shamelessly purchasable as in America: administration, popular representation, courts, police and press; nowhere are they so directly dependent on the great capitalists. And nowhere is it more apparent than there that a proletariat with a Socialist conscience is the only means of saving the nation, which is falling even faster into complete servitude to the great capitalists than they are able to subjugate foreign countries.” – Karl Kautsky, 1902

Today it is hard to imagine the current neo-liberal regime going on as it has for much longer. The rise of populism from both the left and right has shown that the project to de-politicize society in favor of the rule of the market has failed. In both reactionary and progressive ways the masses are entering the stage of politics and rejecting the notion “there is no alternative”.

However, a crisis can simply mean another repeated cycle of barbarism as failed attempts to transcend capitalism are overtaken by reactionary forces, which we saw in the period from 1917-1945. While 1945 ended with a sort of class compromise, the gains that workers have been able to make have only been rolled back according to the imperatives of capitalism. The dream of social-democracy still lingers on however, as well as the dreams of regressing into a “simpler way of life” based on autonomous communes and/or small local communities. There are both right wing and left wing variants of these visions, but both ignore that that the destruction of capitalism can only result in an emancipatory society if it happens on a global scale.

Much of the left has given up on this project, its roots in the defeat of Bolshevism by Stalinism and other factors. The left has instead looked inward to the nation, looking for solutions to the problems of capitalism within the confines of the nation-state. It is of course very difficult to imagine a global communist revolution given the current popularity of nationalism (and the mere difficulty of organizing such a project), so it is no surprise that this vision for most of the left has been disregarded as utopian. Only small sects of Trotskyists and Left-communists still seem to have true internationalism at the core of their beliefs.

Yet in 1917 a section of the left didn’t take the path of least resistance, and launched a revolution that looked beyond national borders. The universalism of the Bolsheviks message was a true universalism meant for all of humanity, so it is little wonder reactionaries like Oswald Spengler saw the Bolshevik Revolution as signalling the death of “white civilization” as revolutionaries in the colonies took up the call to arms as well as in Europe. The message of global revolution resonated throughout the world, far beyond Lenin and company. It even inspired revolutionaries in the United States of America, where sociologist Werner Sombart previously claimed socialism could never get a foothold.

Of course, the Cold War historiography aims to deny this, painting Bolshevism as a sort of foreign contaminant to be rooted out of the real American nation that had no use for such ideas. Bolshevism was presented as completely alien to “real American life” with no real resonance beyond a few immigrants. The direction of this historiography (reflected in the works of Theodore Draper and Harvey Klehr) has been to paint all the activities of the Communist Parties as a sort of “foreign interference in our democratic process”, not a popular movement that attracted actual adherents. For many it could come as a surprise that Bolshevism did inspire many American workers, and it was often the experiences of workers as militants in the USA that attracted them to Bolshevism.

The experiences of John Reed as an American Bolshevik are generally well known; there are many more examples of Americans who were inspired by Bolshevism that are not. While John Reed was a famous intellectual, often forgotten are the mass actions of rank-and-file workers that were inspired by the Bolshevik Revolution, as well as the reactions of lesser known intellectuals and public figures.

While internationalist politics spread like a wildfire due to the Bolshevik Revolution, many American workers already had their own experiences of organizing on internationalist grounds in the syndicalist IWW. The IWW aspired to be One Big Union that would unite all workers regardless of race or gender and was directly influenced by syndicalist movements in France and Italy, as demonstrated by Salvatore Salerno’s Red November, Black November. Some members of the IWW even found themselves fighting alongside Mexican revolutionary Ricardo Flores Magon. The IWW had a vision of workers directly taking over production through industrial unions or syndicates formed in organized direct action against the employers. For members of the IWW, the Bolshevik Revolution’s promise of “soviet power” where workers councils would rule was linked to their own ideas of taking over production through syndicates.

The militancy and universalism of the IWW stood in stark contrast to the Socialist Party USA, which had denounced direct action and had instances of segregated locals. However the SPUSA did have a left wing, best personified by Eugene Debs who supported the IWW and intransigently opposed the First World War. By 1915 the left wing of the party formed the Socialist Propaganda League due to tensions with the reformist right. There was also Daniel DeLeon’s Socialist Labor Party, which was less of a political force but through its combination of industrial unionism and party politics attracted many radical workers. While Socialism in the USA was a divided force, there was no lack of a “vanguard” of workers who would be willing to take up the cause of the world revolution in the footsteps of the Bolsheviks.

Despite the conservatism of much of the Socialist Party, members like John Earl Haynes of the Cleveland Socialist Party issued statements of support for Bolshevik universalism. The Cleveland SP’s statement would praise “the Bolshevik effort to establish peace…without annexations and without indemnities” arguing that the alternative was the utter destruction of human civilization. The statement also pledges allegiance to the Bolshevik cause of wiping out imperialism to establish a world commonwealth without regards to nationality. This shows that almost instantly throughout the US the Bolshevik revolution resonated with certain groups in the left, many of them part of organizations whose conservatism held back the radical views of the rank-and-file. What is present is not an in depth knowledge of Bolshevik ideology and theory, but rather enthusiasm for the universalism of the cause that the revolution stood for.

Even a  preacher like Dr. John Haynes Holme could find inspiration in the October Revolution, who gave a sermon titled “Thank God For The Russian Revolution”. To reduce Holmes to a pastor would of course do disservice to his commitment to democratic freedoms: he was an early member of the NAACP (and white) as well as a founding member of the American Civil Liberties Union. Holmes’ sermon is a Thanksgiving Day prayer that declared a hope that “The spirit of Tolstoy today is ruling Russia” and is “not a thing we can give too much thanksgiving” as the “peasants of Russia have overthrown the Czar, and with him the spirit of autocracy, war, Siberia, and oppression.” The vision set forth by Holmes is one of pacifistic Christianity that has little in common with Marxism except a sense of universal human equality. The sermon is in fact rather naive; the Bolsheviks who saw liberation through heavy industry with the peasants as a historically doomed class couldn’t be further from Tolstoy’s vision. Yet the sermon shows a very key aspect to how the revolution struck a chord in people of all backgrounds and belief systems, resonating with those all around the world to all who identified with the struggle to end exploitation and oppression. One did not have to be Marxist to identify the abolition of Czardom and call to end WWI as historic breaking points in the struggle for a more equitable and free humanity.

While many individual socialists would praise the revolution with words, others would organize specifically to support it. The first pro-Bolshevik group in the United States formed within a month of the October Revolution, the Friends of the Russian Revolution. According to Theodore Draper the organization saw prominent participation from the left-wing of the Socialist Party. The organization’s main goals were to promote a peace without annexations, which saw them lobbying senators to prevent the damage the US would do to the new workers republic in Russia. Their demands were for “friendly relations between American and Russian democracy” which included fair play in commerce with the new Russian State and for a “peace parley” under Russian leadership to develop a peace without annexations worldwide. The demand for peace, as evidenced in the aforementioned examples, seems to have been one of the calls of the Bolsheviks that most clearly resonated to an international base. The Friends of the Russian Revolution also held mass demonstrations, including one in Carnegie Hall where after they changed their name to Friends of the New Russia. While police marshalls intimidated the gathering, ultimately the meeting attracted enough supporters around the cause of recognizing Revolutionary Russia to make police repression fruitless. Future Communist Party leader James Cannon would speak, arguing that international cooperation between nations would be needed to end war, calling on the United States to accumulate no territories or tolerate such from their allies.

These initial outburst of support in the US would eventually take organizational form beyond groups lobbying the Senate for fair play. A group calling themselves Red Guards with support from the Socialist Propaganda League would combine and throw together a group of 500 volunteers called Red Guards (after the institution in Russia) and send a delegation to ask the Wilsonian War Department for permission to go fight in Russia. Of course the venture was a failure, described by Theodore Draper as “inglorious” and “pathetic.” While the actual attempt failed, it did bring Richard Fraina, an idealistic internationalist, to the forefront of the pro-Bolshevik faction of the socialist movement, who would address a mass meeting in support of the Red Guard thats workers of all nations should “refuse to fight against the revolutionary workers and peasants of Russia, whose cause is their cause” and to “sweep aside the infamous, imperialistic socialism of Schneidemann and all the social patriots, and to rally around the standard of Karl Liebneckt and Rosa Luxemburg for the social revolution.” This internationalist call showed how partisans of Bolshevism aimed to spread the view that the success of the Russian Revolution was not a mere Russian matter, but the cause of workers of all nations. While ultimately the attempt to send a division of troops to Russia failed, one wonders whether it was meant to be successful at all or to reveal the real attitude of the US government to the Russian Revolution. Either way it showed a growing support for the revolution that was expressed not just in words but in deeds.

The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), arguably the most radical workers organization in the USA at the time, had no lack of members who were inspired or influenced by the Bolshevik Revolution. Many pamphlets were produced and distributed by IWW members praising the revolution, particularly in Tacoma. On January 26th, 1918, the IWW paper Industrial Worker would print “The trend of events in Russia sustains the IWW contention that power of the workers lies in industry and in their unions on the economic field.” While there was a contradiction between the emphasis the Bolsheviks had regarding the centrality of the revolutionary party and the focus on pure industrial action that the IWW espoused, this did little to prevent the IWW from showing strong solidarity with the Bolshevik Revolution. A pamphlet written by Harold Lord Varney, a proletarian militant with experience as acting secretary of the IWW, would write a pamphlet called Industrial Communism which aimed to prove Bolshevism had applied the principles of the IWW in Russia, would express this contradiction. For Varney “the communist proletariat are Bolshevists in Europe….in America, they are the Industrial Workers of the World”. He makes a direct comparison between the Soviets in Russia, that aimed to represent the entire working class in a given region and the Industrial Unionism of the IWW that aimed to build “one big union of all workers”. This idea of Soviet Power is seen as uniting the IWW and Bolshevism, which Varney admits come from different traditions of struggle, with the IWW a “spontaneous product of capitalist despotism” and Bolshevism “a sprout of political Socialism” with roots in the 2nd international He continues to argue that the IWW, as opposed to other global trade unions, is a thoroughly Marxist and Communist organization at the core.  

This document is very revealing for understanding how the October Revolution and Bolshevik Party were initially understood by militant American workers. While not ignoring their differences, Industrial Communism essentially projects onto Bolshevism the ideas of the IWW, seeing Soviet Power as the essence of Bolshevism and Soviet Power as essentially the same as the IWW. For Varney the two merely differ due to national circumstances, with Bolshevism more suited for Russia while the IWW was more suited for the United States. “All power the soviets” is translated to “all power to the IWW” for Varney, showing that he is looking at the revolution through the lens of his own radical tradition, almost seeing the Bolshevik Revolution as the dream of the IWW being put into practice.

Yet for Varney, the revolution that the IWW will usher forth is different from the Bolshevik Revolution in another key way – it will develop from the IWW forming the “new society” in the shell of the old and then coming to state power through mass strikes, not needing any kind of red terror in order to govern. For Varney the Bolsheviks were forced to terror because they came to power in a country where capitalism had yet to exhaust itself, while the American IWW will not make this mistake and see that capitalism evolves into socialism as peacefully as possible. Yet Varney does not make this argument to propose some form of American exceptionalism, claiming the red terror in Russia also could have been averted by learning from the Industrial Unionism of the IWW. These differences are less important for Varney than the practical task of unity between the IWW and Revolutionary Russia:  “The Russian Bolsheviki have given to the I. W. W. the thrill of success. They have given to the I. W. W. a great historic example of tactics….as the proletariat of America rally to the IWW they build an organization which shall rise in victory beyond Bolshevism to INDUSTRIAL COMMUNISM.” While the pamphlet can’t seem to decide whether to portray the IWW as American Bolsheviks or argue for the superiority of the IWW over the Bolsheviks, the point that workers in the IWW should rally for the cause of the Russian Revolution makes it clear he sees their struggles as intertwined and in solidarity. Varney also makes it clear the Bolshevik revolution provided an impetus for militancy, providing the “thrill of success” that has made the goal of a workers society not a mere abstraction but a reality to actively fight for in the now.

Labor movement support for the Bolsheviks went beyond the radical IWW, though often pushing against conservative labor leader. The general view of Bolshevism by union bureaucrats like Samuel Gompers was negative, trying to hold back worker militancy. Gompers initial reaction to the Bolshevik Revolution was condemnation. Yet this came up against opposition from the rank and file, with delegates at the AFL convention on 1919 in Atlantic City making resolutions that called for an end to US intervention in Russia, with a delegation from Seattle claiming “The workers of Russia are endeavoring to establish in their country a government of and by the workers; and the capitalist of the world are seeking to annul their efforts.” The resolutions weren’t passed, but the AFL leadership eventually compromised with a resolution that called for the withdrawal of US “at the earliest possible moment.” On the other hand the ILGWU were able to pass resolutions that condemned the US blockade and a reestablishment with trade with Russia. The Amalgamated Clothing Workers (ACA) was even more supportive of the revolution, denouncing the American blockade and calling for solidarity with the Soviet Republic. Yet the AWC was not affiliated with the AFL and therefore not responsible to Gompers, who would criticize their position. The labor bureaucracy, as capitals last line of defense, was quick to denounce Bolshevism. However, according to Philip Foner, the rank-and-file of the AFL was supportive of the Bolshevik Revolution and campaigns to stop US intervention. Lenin himself would note that “In the United States, the strongest and youngest capitalist country, workers have tremendous sympathy with the Soviets.”

The rise of Soviet Power and Bolshevism in Russia most importantly impacted the labor movement in the Seattle General Strike. In 1919 workers in Seattle essentially attempted to take power over the city in a mass strike led by the AFL Metal Trades Council and IWW that shut down the city. The strike erupted out of a series of labor disputes that developed to the point where workers across industries agreed to strike. A strike committee composed of delegates elected from each local was put in control of the city once all major industry was shut down, a situation similar to the idea of workers councils running society. According to Jeremy Brecher, the lead up to the strike saw distribution of massive amounts of propaganda about how workers had taken power in the Bolshevik Revolution with even the more conservative members of the Seattle Labor Movement supporting the revolution and US intervention. There can be little doubt that the militancy of the strike action was spurred not only by the strike wave hitting the nation as a whole that year but also by example of the Bolshevik Revolution. One leaflet stated quite clearly that “The Russians have shown the way out,” urging workers to take full control over industry and begin establishing a socialist society. Yet the Seattle General Strike could only last for so long without a national plan to take power, something the Bolsheviks had that the Seattle strikers didn’t. Eventually the delegates elected to the strike committee in charge decided to end the strike. However without the precedent set by the Bolshevik Revolution, it is hard to imagine workers going as far as they did.


The Seattle General Strike can be seen as an attempt of American workers trying to create a version of “soviet power” in their own city. What was inspirational to workers was not so much the sophisticated Marxism of the Bolsheviks but their rhetoric of workers control and soviet power, which seemed amenable to the syndicalist ideology of the IWW. Also inspiring was the internationalism of the Bolsheviks, which told workers across the ocean that they were essentially engaged in the same struggle. This appealed to workers across political divisions who thought that the American Socialist movement was too nationalist and narrow in its concerns. The Seattle General Strike showed the militancy that American workers were capable of, yet whether they were able to organize into a force able to take state power was another question. Bolshevism, with its emphasis on the proletarian party, would provide an answer for workers who wanted the militancy of syndicalism but the benefits of party organization.

The Seattle General Strike was not the only workers revolt inspired by Soviet Power however. In 1919 Local 25 of International Lady Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) saw female insurgents organize “workers councils” like the Soviets of Russia in a rebellion against the male leadership which they deemed as conservative. This uprising was linked to a general factional conflict in the ILGWU that reached an apogee in the 1920 between communists and more conservative leaders. Local 25 was considered a “girls local” by the conservative leadership, but in the period of 1909-1919 the union saw major growth. Yet women wanted more of a voice in the union, and looked to the model of the Russian workers councils as a means to challenge this lack of democracy. In this case women workers took the ideas of “soviet power” to challenge the sexism within their union, within a male dominated labor movement that often simply cared about “pure and simple” trade unionism. The victory for women’s rights in the Bolshevik Revolution, which saw female suffrage introduced before the US, acted as inspiration for proletarian women to challenge the male dominated labor movement.

Black radicals were also driven to militancy by the Bolshevik Revolution with its call for an end to colonialism and freedom for the oppressed in all nations. Black Americans were often sidelined and ignored by the US Left, with Socialist Party locals in the South often being segregated. As noted by Mark Solomon, the outbreak of the Bolshevik Revolution saw independent socialist currents emerging in black Harlem such as the 21st AD Socialist Club and the Peoples Education Forum. Intellectuals such as Hubert Harrison, Cyril Briggs and Claude McKay were all inspired by both the Irish Struggle for independence and the Russian Revolution and would go on to form the African Blood Brotherhood, which “sought to draw together the themes of race patriotism, anti-capitalism, anti-colonialism, and organized defense against racist assault.” The African Blood  Brotherhood would work in alliance with the early Communist Party, aiming to apply a politics that reflected the influence of Bolshevik class struggle and its broader anti-colonial call with the experiences of Black proletarians in Harlem. Claude McKay would also speak to the Comintern on the specific topic of racial oppression in the US in 1921, and was inspired by the fight in Russia against anti-semitism to link the struggle against racism with the organization of the working class. He stated that: 

“Every Negro…should make a study of Bolshevism and explain its meaning for the colored masses. It is the greatest idea afloat in the world today. 

Bolshevism has made Russia safe for the Jew…it might make these United States safe for the Negro. If the Russian idea should take hold on the white masses of the western world then the black toilers will automatically be free.” 

Like the Wobblies who applied the idea of Soviet Power to their own ideas on Industrial Unionism, groups like the African Blood Brotherhood would apply the rhetoric of international revolution and self-determination associated with the Bolsheviks to their experiences as oppressed black Americans. The African Black Brotherhood, while coming from a black nationalist background, would come to communist positions and in their manifesto call for alliances with “the class conscious white workers who have spoken out in favor of African liberation and have a willingness to back with action their expressed sentiments.”

Winning white workers, even communists, to the struggle against racism would prove no easy task. Communists in the US were not free of race prejudice, and the anti-colonial clarion call of the Bolshevik revolution would not cleanse the US communist left of its racism. In his 1921 speech to the Comintern, Claude McKay would say “the Socialists and Communists have fought very shy of it because there is a great element of prejudice among the Socialists and Communists of America. They are not willing to face the Negro question,” leaving the task to the “reformist bourgeoisie.” It would take Comintern intervention to get the US Communist Party to actively fight for civil rights rather than simply treating race as a subsidiary of the labor question. This entailed a struggle within the US labor and communist movement against white supremacy, one which would see the Communist Party eventually become a strident crusader for black rights. Ultimately the fears of white supremacists like Oswald Spengler were correct about the Bolshevik Revolution being a threat to global white supremacy.

Attempts to actually form a Communist Party aligned with the Comintern that came out of the Russian revolution would of course prove to be no easy task, and many IWW militants who were initially attracted to Bolshevism would become alienated by the bureaucracy of the Comintern who chose to work within the AFL instead of the IWW. While a functioning Communist Party would eventually form, it was not because of a lack of support from the militant working class for the mission of the Bolsheviks to spread worldwide communism. With the consolidation of a military dictatorship in the USSR, many workers probably saw the ideals of “soviet power” once embraced by the Bolsheviks as having been betrayed.  While John Reed would claim in 1918 that “Nothing is farther from the normal desires of the American Socialist party than a Revolution. It is really the refuge of almost all intelligent humble people who believe in the principles on which the American Republic was founded” events like the Seattle General Strike showed that a growing revolutionary trend inspired by the Bolshevik Revolution was picking up steam. Where the US left may have been behind the European left in radicalism, lacking a militant movement like those that existed in Germany, Italy, or Finland, a tradition of radicalism that existed in the US working class was certainly invigorated by the Bolshevik Revolution to pursue a more militant and radical course. Ultimately it was the example of Internationalism in action as pursued by the Bolsheviks in the October Revolution that showed the possibilities of socialist internationalism as a possibility and not simply an empty slogan. Why revolution never broke out is another question that requires further investigation.


Why Communism?

Communism doesn’t aim to negate democracy but fulfill its promises of universal human emancipation. 

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Why communism?

I told a friend of my cousin that I was a communist. The response was a reflexive chuckle and an incredulous “Really? Why?” I think this sums up ‘communism’ for most people in the U.S. To American conservatives communism is the ideology of the state. The state infringes upon the rights of the individual, most importantly the right to private property, on behalf of some collectivity. While American liberals will often justify state coercion as in the best interest of the nation, most American conservatives doubt the usefulness of state intervention or existence at all.

Most people look at communism as a discredited worldview, an archaic and random quirk. It’s an internet meme or utopian thinking. It’s not like it has any relevance today. But contrary to what American conservatives and liberals think, communists stand in opposition to the capitalist state. We don’t want to “make the state bigger”. And communists are indeed opposed to private property (this is distinct from personal property – your home, your toothbrush, your clothes). But what I’d like to emphasize to my American audience is this; Communists are the inheritors of the fight for republican democracy.

Republicanism vs Liberalism

Communists don’t believe in permanent rulers. This is also the guiding principle behind republicanism. Democracy is the idea that republican government requires not just legal equality in the abstract,  but social independence. America is a Federal Republic, with key government positions being democratically elected. But America’s is a compromised form of government, whose essential guiding political philosophy is liberalism, as opposed to democratic republicanism. Communists argue that capitalism has betrayed and undermined republican democracy, and that social independence for the working class requires the abolition of classes.

Liberalism emphasizes the liberty of the individual with respect to society and government. It’s an interesting paradox that liberal philosophy came about at a point in human history where society was becoming more and more interdependent. Liberal theorists stressed that political and social independence of citizens was foundational to the establishment of a functioning republic. But as the republican experiment in the U.S. was developing, the urban working classes and poor farmers were fighting losing battles to maintain access to what liberal theorists argued granted that independence; property! So, the poor began pressing for democratic rights. Liberals were content to limit voting rights by property ownership, but the emerging working class pressed on for suffrage. This is one illustration of the divergence between liberalism and democracy. Look around today; American Conservatives and Liberals (both philosophically liberal) completely ignore the question of social independence. What changed in America (And all over the world) was that private property was consolidated in the hands of a small class. Again, I’m not talking about your PS4 or your shirts. Private property is property used in a business enterprise; where you hire workers and sell the product for profit.

The connection between America’s compromised republicanism and it’s infatuation with philosophical liberalism is the lack of social independence for most of the population. What do I mean by social independence? For much of human history, there was no such thing as functional individual independence. Before the rise of states and forms of tradeable property (in humans or resources), human beings lived in communities where no individual was likely to survive “on their own.” This hasn’t changed, but there is today an illusion of independence. This argument can be reduced to property ownership being a condition of social independence, as a result of it allowing the individual control over the production of his or her necessities; food, shelter, clothes, and so on. Hence the initial restrictions on voting rights in the U.S. to those with certain amounts of private property. The idea was that independent property holders had a material stake and the capability to participate in self-government. Slaves and laborers were not considered capable, because they were dependent on their masters for their subsistence, and liable to be manipulated as a result of their vulnerable position.

In 18th and 19th century Europe and U.S., changing social relations and technology were driving political change. By social relations, we mean the long term relationships between people in a society. For example, before the 1600’s, almost all of Europe was organized around feudal social relations. The average person was a serf – they did agricultural work on land that belonged to a lord (think landlord). The lord took what was grown for himself, and allowed the serfs to grow some of their own food. But the serfs were forced to remain on the land. They were not allowed to move where they wanted, and if the lord sold the land, the person buying the land would also get the serfs. These social relations were, in a word, exploitative. From the liberal perspective, serfs (And slaves in the U.S. south) were dependent. The serfs were exploited by the lords; they were forced to produce more than they needed, kept ignorant and disorganized, in order to keep the lords wealthy and powerful. There’s more to feudalism than this relation, but the serf-lord relationship is perhaps the core social relation defining feudalism.

Feudalism eventually evolved into capitalism. As you might expect, serfs didn’t generally like to work for free. Their fights for freedom often took the form of the struggle for private property in the form of land; the main way they could be socially independent and take care of themselves and their families. Once serfs broke free of the landlords’ restrictions on movements, they also gained the right to own their own land, or pay the lord a fee – rent – for using the lord’s land and selling or keeping the product. Enterprising manufacturers and freed serfs in England, began to realize that they could amass fortunes by paying workers to work on land that they rented, with the tools and raw materials they purchased. These were some of the first capitalist businesses. These farmers, would rent land, purchase raw materials and tools, and hire workers.

The Nature of Dependence in Capitalism

As this accumulation of property in the hands of a small class took place, the connection of social independence to private property was quietly left behind. It is still factually true that anybody without social independence is at the mercy of his or her ‘benefactors’ (read: exploiters). But the political discourse of today assumes the vantage point of the socially independent, the wealthy, the property owners.

Who could be said to be independent in our contemporary society? The free property owner is the starting point for both contemporary economic theory and much of our political discourse. But the idea of social independence as the basis of political participation ultimately collapsed behind the broader and more vague agenda of individual liberty. Any imposition on my personal freedom is a violation of my liberty as an American citizen.  This is philosophical liberalism distilled. Core among these individual liberties is the right to private property.

In contrast to the liberal conception of freedom as the lack of constraint on the individual, republican conceptions of freedom often stress that individual freedoms derive from collective interdependence. Historically, this took the form of the small group of enfranchised citizens in republican societies being obligated to ‘act with virtue’ in an effort to guide the community to it’s best outcome through collective decision making. The small group of enfranchised were often (as in Rome) granted rights on the condition of property ownership and status of citizen.

What’s interesting for us is the point that republican liberty does not see the individual constrained by the alien society, but created by it. Certainly, we can understand the freedom generated from the division of labor in society. Because people work to produce food, clothes, houses and so on, others are free to pursue history, science and writing. The less work it takes to produce a fixed amount of food, the freer we are to pursue other interests. But I should stress here that the individual is constrained; by what is necessary to sustain humanity in it’s current (or any future, improved) social arrangements. That is, we do have mutual obligations, if we wish to have individual freedoms. These aren’t abstract moral obligations, but concrete, material facts about how we produce what we want or need and how we distribute it.

Put more concretely; did slaves need their masters? Not to produce their own food, or clothes or tools or anything else. They were already doing the work. The idea of the independent property holder is a myth through and through; the master, just like the boss, needs you, you don’t need him!

The most important aspect of the capitalist economy and the most important thing to a capitalist is profit. It’s not because the individual capitalists or business owners are themselves particularly greedy, but a result of the social relations. Managers are mandated by law to pursue the bottom line. While feudalism had lords and serfs, capitalism has workers and capitalists. Capitalists exploit workers just as much as lords exploited serfs. The emerging capitalist farmers used new technologies in order to increase productivity. This allowed them to reduce the price of what they were selling, and beat their competition. This process spread outside of farming and into manufacturing and services over the 19th and 20th century. Trade preceded the emergence of capitalist production relations, but it has come do define our “free market” society.

How do businesses exploit their workers? By exploitation, we don’t mean work without pay; workers are able to get paid a living wage and still be exploited. As with feudalism, exploitation is when you’re forced to work or produce more than you need to. Anyone who’s worked a day in their life can see that what they produce in a day is far more than make in wages for a week or sometimes a month of work. Capitalists chalk this increase of output to the ‘productivity of capital’ – the machines and tools. But machines cannot produce on their own; they simply make the one who works more productive. And what of the people who made the machines to start with? The workers are the ones that produce! Tools and machinery can’t do a hell of a lot without human beings to use them.

Profit is what the business has after it’s costs. The formula for profit is commonly understood; Revenue (the money they get from selling your product) minus Costs (wages for workers, cost of raw materials, tools, rent, etc.) equals profit. But all of the output produced was produced by workers. Why do capitalists get any of it? The answer is private property. The right to private property is in reality the right of the few to exploit the many. The few with enough private property (in the form of money) to start a business where they can live off of the profit they exploit from the many workers they employ.

Most people think private property is ok, because there is a chance that they could one day strike it rich. Frankly, this is the logic of a gambling addict. Forbes estimates that 8 out of 10 startup businesses fail. The Small Business Administration, a government body that collects data on small businesses, puts the estimate at 50% of small businesses failing after 5 years. According to Forbes, citing government data, around 75% of all businesses don’t have employees and their average revenue (before costs) is $44,000. Most ‘entrepreneurial’’ get rich-quick schemes are ways for employers to circumvent labor regulations and exploit their workers more effectively – think of Uber and the new “gig economy”. The self employed ‘independent contractor’ is just another worker, except divided and alone, making the boss’s bargaining position much stronger, and allowing them to drive wages down.

Capitalism is a social system based on these classes. The numerous working class works, and the capitalist class exploits. This isn’t to deny that capitalism has been fantastically progressive in many ways; whether technologically or in terms of social organization. But it is still a system of exploitation. Higher wages for workers mean higher costs for capitalists, which they will resist. Those higher costs will cut into their profit. So there is an irreconcilable difference between workers and capitalists. Why do the workers put up with it?

The main reason is that workers have no choice but to put up with it. If they don’t work, they don’t get the money they need for rent and groceries. The other reason is that they’re often kept ignorant of exploitation. American Conservatives and Liberals both support the right of private property, and point to Silicon Valley Tech gurus and rags-to-riches personalities as their representative big winners. But not everyone can win this lotto. By definition very few ever will.  This irreconcilable differences between capitalists and workers manifests in class struggle.

Because the communist movement has failed so immensely in the past century, workers aren’t regularly confronted with our arguments. It’s on us to fix that. It’s worth pointing out though, that workers do fight back in individualistic ways. They quit their job, they punch their shitty boss, they slack off at work.

Many workers form unions – organizations of workers in workplaces or industries which fight for better pay and working conditions. Unions are the first step to workers gaining social and political independence because they push back against capitalists at the exact place where the exploitation takes place. But it’s not enough. If workers want to get rid of capitalism then they have to unite politically and fight it out with the slugging committee of the capitalist class; the state.

From Democratic-Republicanism to Communism

This brings us back to the principles of democracy and republicanism – or equality and self-government. At work the boss is a dictator. It’s often humiliating. If a worker wants time off or needs anything like a raise, they have to go hat in hand as an inferior. The worker who day in and day out slices the steaks, or loads and unloads the trucks; the worker who through their labor creates the revenue of the whole society, is subject to the dictates of business; and what’s good for business is profit. What’s lacking in the workplace is partly what’s lacking in our society – the full realization of self-government and equality.

These principles inform how we organize the working class to fight for emancipation. Workers don’t have time to fuss with recalcitrant and secretive political cliques. They require a democratic, self-governed unions and political parties. That means recallable officers and organizational transparency. Decision making in a democratic way requires transparency and ease of access to the decision making process. But there is a more fundamental point about political unity for the working class.

Workers need a program. Think of a program as a guide or plan of action. The political program is a way to keep workers on the same page about what we’re fighting for, and also a way to evaluate our elected leaders and keep them accountable. How many times have American workers supported a Democratic party or union reform candidate only to be burned when they don’t make good on campaign promises? The Democratic party doesn’t have a program. The “platform” that it sometimes uses is also not functional because the members of the Democratic party have no means to hold their representatives accountable.

What would this plan look like? Well, we’d have to continually re-evaluate aspects of the program, but its core elements would remain the same. In the past, communists/socialists had divided the party program into two sections; the maximum program is the long term; basically communism. The minimum program consists of economic and political demands which are more immediate.

The minimum program might be thought in terms of democratic rights. That is, universal rights necessary for democracy (equal participation in the political process) to be realized. For example, freedom of speech, the right to bear arms, and the right to assemble are all democratic rights. Sometimes these are called civil rights or civil liberties as well. In the past, communists, especially of the Stalinist and Maoist varieties, have been ambivalent about democratic rights. This was a terrific mistake. Democratic rights are not the end of the fight for communism, but it’s beginning. Any communist party should defend democratic rights from capitalists and their state. For example, we could extend democracy in the United States, by fighting against felon disenfranchisement, gerrymandering, legal and illegal political corruption, limits to freedom of speech and assembly, the host of violations of democratic rights associated with the so-called war on drugs; unreasonable search and seizure, excessive bail, and long jail times without convictions. There are plenty of other examples of problems which can be better understood as violations of basic democratic rights. Not only can these fights be most effectively won by understanding the class struggle nature of the fight, but by winning them we gain power for the working class. If we fought for drug legalization and an income adjusted bail, we’d get the police officer’s boot off of the neck of much of the American working class.

Fights for democratic rights lay the foundation for working class political and social independence. The whole class must become independent of the capitalists class. Through unions, we can fight to impose our vision of the future in the workplace, and through the formation of democratic-republican – communist – party, we can build our vision for a new form of society.

The American state is unresponsive to the needs of the working class. It’s designed to be bought off by the rich. Both parties are essentially fundraising machines for candidates, courted by factions of the capitalist class. Workers need their own political party – a communist party – to fight for the the political conditions which would bring that class to power. It is fundamental for us that the working class cannot rule through bureaucracy or a military clique. This is why we argue for republican democracy. In power, the working class can work to solve the problems of production and distribution on the basis of need, not profit. This would be a revolution, and it would have to be an international revolution for it to last.

The idea of nationality is a tool of the capitalists. Initially, it allowed them to counterpose a ‘public’ to the exploitative landlord whom they sought to replace. It also allowed them to craft an identity that could endear the worker to their exploiter, at the expense of the workers uniting with each other. This happened at the same time that the parties of the capitalist class dropped the ideas about independence and shifted to different ideas about national unity and their own, moralistic form of nationalist obligation.  This same idea of a ‘public’ as distinct from classes, is used by capitalists to scapegoat unions, foreign workers, and so on. Why fight the wars of the rich?

Part of fighting for international republican democracy is fighting for equality for oppressed groups in the working class. Historically, oppressed ethnicities and nationalities need support where the capitalist state takes special aim.The rights we fight for are universal. The reality is not. Similarly, sexual oppression and the gendered division of labor, alongside their political concomitants, have to be eviscerated; we fight for concrete, explicit demands. (Full and free healthcare, covering abortions and birth control, collectivization of housework and so on). Liberal ‘identity politics’ is useless for the working class because it offers no way to end the root of oppression and exploitation; dependence. Hillary Clinton’s political campaign showed that it is a tool for one section of the capitalist class to unite against workers as a whole, using race-baiting and liberal forms of segregationist politics (in addition to outright corruption) to frustrate working class interests in the Democratic Party.

Communists fight for the emancipation of the working class. Our first step then is to build the political independence of the working class. Capitalism has made our society interdependent on a global level, but the capitalists have kept workers divided and dependent on their employers, whether directly at work or through employer-run political parties. The most pressing need then is to unite the divided working class. It is only through organization and unity that the working class can become independent. Working class independence is the basis for fulfilling America’s dead promise of democratic republicanism not simply for our nation, but as part of an international movement founded on the principles of self-government and universal equality – or in a word, communism.

Statement on war with Syria

This statement reflects the general views and positions of the Communist League of Tampa. 

“Death to Imperialism!”

We, the Communist League of Tampa, resolutely oppose the recent attacks on Syria that have united the Democratic and Republican war-machine. An attack on the people of Syria is an attack on our fellow citizens of the world and must be opposed for that reason alone. US intervention has always increased civilian deaths and instability, as it will be done on the terms of the financiers and industrialists who rule our government and carve the world into spheres to plunder for financial profits. The capitalist class has decided once and for all that Trump is fit to rule the US now that he has given up his isolationist pretensions. In their sick eyes this has made him truly “presidential.” Yet Trump is merely falling in line with the needs of the ruling capitalist class, staying true to the legacy of US dominance and hegemony over less developed nations. This is of course no surprise; Trump never once represented the interests of working people.

Of course the recent attacks in Syria are not a break in US foreign policy, as intervention through proxies has been the norm for quite some time. The ideology of American exceptionalism tells the public our bombs are for democracy, giving consistent US presence in the Middle East a “humanitarian guise”. However, the very notion that one nation has an inherent right to rule another is anti-democratic at the core. While US crimes against the people of Syria are nothing new, a full on attack against Assad escalates this conflict to a new level and shows increased imperialist tensions that are against the interests of humanity.

Imperialism is inherent to the global system of capital accumulation, based on the competitiveness of firms and military rivalries of nation-states. For the sake of commerce the bourgeoisie wants to maintain a relative peace, but the permanent crisis of capitalism drives nation-states into military competitions that can explode into all out war. Capitalist overproduction has led to a lack of profitable markets, and nothing works better for businesses interests than war. This conflict is not a mere matter of politician’s decisions but a symptom of an inhumane economic system.

Therefore imperialism, a crisis of capitalism, cannot be opposed by supporting one capitalist state against another. Hence, while the main enemy is at home, we reject any position that grants Assad political support of any kind. We call for a ‘third front’ of the democratic working class to develop an opposition to the Assadist regime, US Imperialism, and reactionary Jihadists. We support any efforts that promote the development of such a front.

To make concrete action against the war we must challenge the very system that props up imperialism. Those in the armed forces should take whatever action is possible to resist the war, up to and including mutiny against officers. We also demand unconditional support and citizenship for Syrian refugees. Workers in war production should do what they can to sabotage the military industrial complex. Nationalism and militarism can only be defeated with proletarian internationalism.
No War Between Nations, No Peace Between Classes!


Letter to the City Council of Tampa

This speech was delivered to Tampa City Council in the morning of Thursday February 23rd under the unanimous approval of CLT regarding the concrete needs of the houseless proletariat. 

Dear Council members,

Every morning, our neighbors wake up sore and fatigued on the sidewalk. Among them are perfectly able workers: plumbers, builders, electricians, teachers, and more who cannot find work due to bogus felony convictions and lack of permanent address. Also among them are the disabled, the elderly, the children, and those bearing children. We have more empty houses than houseless people, and yet our neighbors still sleep on the street. Not plagued enough by the hardships of poverty and houselessness, these folks are hounded and harassed daily by the Mayor’s thugs in the Tampa Police Department. Despite the fact that Tampa remains a haven for human trafficking with a violent crime rate higher than almost 70% of the nation, TPD chooses to bully our most vulnerable neighbors for holding signs and carrying open bottles.

To address the crushing weight of all these problems facing the houseless community, you in the City Council have proposed a new program akin to slapping a bandaid on a gunshot wound. It would provide a few hours’ work for meagre pay, one meal, and a place to sleep for a night. For those who cannot work due to disability and other factors, it would provide nothing. This is the typical bureaucratic response to life-and-death matters: offer the minimum relief necessary to placate the public.

The only acceptable solution to our neighbors’ suffering is a housing-first initiative of Panelák quantity and modern quality. There is no excuse for prioritizing the profits of absentee landlords over the lives of our houseless brothers, sisters, and siblings. While we in the Communist League have no confidence that the City Council will do what is morally just or materially efficient, we will be happy to build an alternative.

Know that with each passing day, you give validity to our assertion the working-class must organize independently from the bourgeoisie and its puppets in the state machinery. We look forward to building power with our houseless comrades, and pledge our solidarity in the struggle against City Council-legislated, police-enforced poverty.


Cliff Connolly, Donald Parkinson, Wilhelm Reich, Sarah Rose, Lukas Goldsmith, Blake Nemo, Jake Verso, Shallah Baso, Anton Johannsen, Ferris Rocker, and Clarin Mayor, the Communist League of Tampa. 

The Recuperation of Authentic Outrage

By Ian Hinson and Aydin Jang. Originally posted here

The victory of the Trump campaign, and the catapultic rise of the alt-right movement from the shadows of the internet into the mainstream political paradigm, has stimulated a mobilization of opposition, and an immediate call to action. However, the specter of performative activism and pseudo-outrage continues to blur the lines between genuine action and specious placation.

As noted in Internationale Situationniste #9, the S.I. appropriately identified the neutralization of revolutionary strategies, concepts, and images, for the purpose of emptying them of their subversive content, thus making them compatible with mainstream, bourgeois culture. They formulated this process under the concept of recuperation. Media culture absorbs and diffuses radical ideas as a way to create a homogeneous plane of discourse, in which even the most mutinous of societal critiques are brought under the dominant space of acceptable discussion. In doing so, not only are the proponents of these revolutionary concepts forced to struggle for control over their own definitions, but the revolutionaries themselves are effectively dragged into the realm of their own repurposed concepts, in an attempt to retain coherency and an ideological relation to the general public. The S.I. go on to point out a few notable examples of this process of recuperation:

From Khrushchev to the priests, socialism as a concept has been given the richest variety of contradictory meanings ever consolidated in one single word. Unions have undergone such transformations that at this point the most effective strikes are those organized by the members of the privileged classes, as evidenced by the Belgian doctors this year. Not even anarchy has been spared, as one can tell from the “anarchist opinions” of the pro-Chinese Mr Siné and, even more so, by the anarchist opinions of Le Monde libertaire

Acting in accordance with capital’s need to exert its dominion over nature, it also extends its domination over the domain of language, and over the realm of acceptable expressions of outrage. One needn’t look any further than the outpouring of protests and demonstrations which have materialized over the past few weeks for an example of this subsumption of the limits of radical outrage, with millions participating across the globe in a show of solidarity to those affronted over the inauguration of President Donald J. Trump. Multiple sources have stated that the “Women’s March” in particular, was the largest demonstration in Washington DC’s history, and while the ability to organize such a massive gathering of bodies is quite impressive, one must ask how effective this demonstration actually was at conveying its message. Moreover, what exactly is the praxis of these types of demonstrations, and why were the small glimpses of authentic outrage so universally condemned by the media, and similarly by the liberal stratum who made up the majority of the protest’s population? To put it simply, liberal activism can be described as that of an empty signifier, that is to say, it acts as an imitation of the radical activism in which it seeks to replace. It creates a stage for the general public to try on the mask of the political radical, while at the same time allowing for the members of the privileged classes to direct this performance by redefining what radical action actually looks like.The political radical in the sphere of mainstream discourse is no longer the black bloc creating a cacophony of kindled police mobiles and broken windows. The political radical has been recodified as the football star who kneels during the national anthem, or the movie star who gives an apathetic, detached speech during an awards show. The political radical no longer sees action as an instrument to realize systematic change, action is reduced down to means with no end, where the demonstration is a statement and nothing more.

Herbert Marcuse discusses the disarming of political action in his essay Repressive Tolerance:

Thus, within a repressive society, even progressive movements threaten to turn into their opposite to the degree to which they accept the rules of the game. To take a most controversial case: the exercise of political rights (such as voting, letter-writing to the press, to Senators, etc., protest-demonstrations with a priori renunciation of counter-violence) in a society of total administration serves to strengthen this administration by testifying to the existence of democratic liberties which, in reality, have changed their content and lost their effectiveness. In such a case, freedom (of opinion, of assembly, of speech) becomes an instrument for absolving servitude.²

What Marcuse sets out to illuminate in this analysis is not only the ineffectiveness of bourgeois activism to actualize systemic change, but also how this type of activism is metamorphosed into action which exculpates the oppressive class for their exploitation. Opposition via political activity reconciles itself with the status quo through its own existence. It contains itself within the limitations of the very system it seems to resist. “It is the people who tolerate the government, which in turn tolerates opposition within the framework determined by the constituted authorities.” It is thus apparent that the dominant forms of activism represent not a subversive expression of dissent, but as an implicit consent to be governed.

Engagement in activism constitutes an intervention within the space where politics and everyday life intersect. In this way it reflects the totalitarian nature of a democratic society, which controls the totality of life by appearing as the controlled object. In reality, of course, it is the individual whose life becomes co-opted by the machinery of the state through their own supposed participation in its process. This is the principal contradiction that the modern activist continuously and quixotically struggles to overcome. The politicization of human affairs is a component of the greater social phenomenon of alienation, as people act to strip themselves of autonomy through ritualized self-exploitation.

Politics function to a great extent on an abstract level, an intangible expression of the tangible violence of the state. It is a representational system, distorting images of the world by design. The public discourse that arises from this system is a reflection of a reflection, a second degree of non-reality. The rupture of this elaborate funhouse is seen through an act of physical violence, a refusal to engage in the maddening “dialogues” that form the basis of the mainstream consensus. With continued complacency, and an acceptance of this image of reality, that image becomes actualized. This series of relationships and social processes that constitute this spectacular construction becomes the manifestation of reality itself because it is understood that it is the totality of observable reality. The mystification of these spectacular aspects place them at the center of the social world. Guy Debord examined this phenomenon in his Society of the Spectacle:

The spectacle presents itself simultaneously as all of society, as part of society, and as instrument of unification. As a part of society it is specifically the sector which concentrates all gazing and all consciousness. Due to the very fact that this sector is separate, it is the common ground of the deceived gaze and of false consciousness, and the unification it achieves is nothing but an official language of generalized separation.³

We can see that this mask obstructs a clear view of the reality of society. The “politeness” of modern governance works to produce a societal consensus, one which inverts the truth of objective conditions by presenting helplessness as autonomy, coercion as accord. The maintenance of this phenomenological project is one of the most pressing issues of late capitalist modernity, as the intensification of crisis creates fissures in the objectified worldview.

It is this consensus which the activist, consciously or unconsciously, seeks to reproduce and perpetuate. Activism, as a by-product of capitalist democracy, is the art of manufacturing appearances. What is more important is to display anger, to compress it into a viewable form, rather than to actually act upon it. In the age of social media, this spectacular method can be virtualized and magnified, further diluting whatever emotional message was originally embedded. Activism is both an asocial and social affair, generating crowds that perform mechanistic demonstrations of indignation, brought together by an empty non-message. The deception of such crowds is that they are not so much crowds, but collections of individuals who are more focused on transmitting expressions of false personal investment to each other. The protester does not march towards any specific goal, but to engage in the act of marching itself. Expressive activism (protest politics) is the realization of the theater-form within our social world.

Consider the broken window, universally condemned as a product of “senseless violence”. Destroying a window attacks an ideological barrier as well as a physical one. The normative discourse of our society is one of simulated inaction, concealing brutality within pacifistic rhetoric. To subvert this false language and reveal its true nature is to speak the more “primitive” tongue of physicality. The burning limo and the smashed shopfront are not de-rationalized because they accomplish nothing, in fact the very opposite is true. They symbolize a death of passivity, posing an existential threat to the political mindset. This is why the puppets of the old order must denounce them as acts of insanity.

The limits of rational activity within a sphere of society are set according to the dominant narrative at play. For this reason, riots are depicted as the wrong way to dissent, that is to say, actualized resistance is an improper form of resistance. Violence is not sophisticated, they proclaim, the-pen-is-mightier-than-the-sword and so on. Once again, this returns to the very simple contradiction of democratic governance, that of representation versus content. Such a system can only survive by embracing its own contradiction, pursuing violence with greater theatrical flair, the imposition of a terroristic peace. Activism is only an expression of helplessness in the face of this terrible force. The ideological constraints reproduced by the activist are a consequence of state power, and only reinforce it, despite appearances.. As such, political performance is an expression of the cyclical nature of society’s administration. The perpetuation of the democratic ideology allows exploitative relations to produce the conditions for such an ideology to take root.

To point out the danger explicit violence poses to this system is not to say that the fracturing of a sheet of glass is such a momentous occasion. Breaking a window does not blow away the millions of police and soldiers and all their guns. Such an act does not practically undermine the state any more than a peaceful march does. Political violence faces the same problem that political debate does. The attempt to exert pressure and to force demands onto such a powerful entity is like screaming into a deaf ear.

It is violence as a form of action, in its movement beyond structure and symbolism, that threatens the present order. It bypasses the activist’s struggle to overcome the contradiction of their own work, and lays bare the foundations of the capitalist state. Beyond the political, lies the potential for a reconstitution of the human, if only we can cease to reproduce the conditions of our own oppression. It is only when it tries to overcome the state, rather than shape it, that any sort of resistance transforms itself into revolution.


[1] “Words and Those Who Use Them” Situationist International Online. Web. 09 Feb. 2017.

[2] Marcuse, Herbert, and Wolff, Robert Paul. Repressive Tolerance. Berkeley, Callif.: Printed by the Berkeley Commune, 1968. Print.

[3] Debord, Guy. Society of the Spectacle. Detroit: Black & Red, 1977. Print.

Fight to Bring Socialism to The Labor Movement

Anton Johannsen argues that we need an independent marxist party in order to revitalize the labor movement, not the other way around. 


William ‘Big Bill’ Haywood was an experienced union organizer and leader, as well as prominent member of the Socialist Party of America.

Jacobin recently published an issue completely devoted to exploring the history and future of socialist political organization in the United States. In a follow up article on January 28th, Editor Bhaskar Sunkara almost argues for working class political independence – for a working class political party separate from the Democrats. However, he stops short and supports a confused and muddled ‘fusion’ strategy set out by Seth Ackerman in the above mentioned issue.

Sunkara’s support for running socialists as Democrats cites Ackerman’s “Blueprint for a Party.” Ackerman looks at the attempt to form a U.S. Labor Party in the 1990’s and argues it’s reasons for failure were two: 1) the weakening of the labor movement overall, and 2) the failure to attract the support of major national unions. The reason that unions didn’t want to support a labor candidate is because they didn’t want to run Labor Party candidates against Democrats, and subsequently lose to Republicans. Ackerman also argues that the ruling class in the United States restricts ballot access of third parties to the point of making it too difficult to run third party candidates, but does offer that some alternatives of form might show a way forward. Primarily though, Ackerman’s argument is that we need a semi-independent socialist party formation which can either run socialist candidates as Democrats, or run against Democrats entirely when a completely undefined “critical mass” is reached. This is also reflected in Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) strategy documents which obviate programmatic politics for pursuing election campaigns as means to win “reforms.”

In their response to Ackerman, Labor Party founding participants Mark Dudzic and Adolph Reed Jr. fall into this same ‘critical mass’ trap that effectively inverts the question at hand. They do indicate that part of the problem of forming a viable socialist party might be the labor leadership, but appeal to the need for a ‘revitalized labor movement’ as the solution to this problem. Just about every socialist wants a revitalized labor movement, and has wanted one for the past sixty years. This line of thinking moves in circles; the labor leadership has wandered astray, and as a result, the unions are flagging. Revitalized unions could set the labor movement back on course, but how can we revitalize unions that are failing?

The reality is that the labor bureaucracy in the United States has relied, since before World War II, on a “transactional politics” both within their own unions and regarding the Democratic Party. Dudzic and Reed are correct on this score. However, this “transactional politics” is based on a self-serving and liberal political outlook: that bureaucratic collective bargaining equals industrial democracy and that union leaders are “labor statesmen” representing the interests of workers in the state. It is this political outlook, or better yet, program, which has set the labor movement on a disastrous course.

Reed, Dudzic, and Ackerman agree that a revitalization of the labor movement is a necessary precondition to the formation of a mass socialist party. I would like to argue that this is wrong. The party must come first in order to revitalize the labor movement. Sam Gindin has basically called for the necessity of forming a socialist party to revitalize flagging unions, but fails to articulate what kind of party. Marxists must unite in a political party around a minimum/maximum program. The minimum program must be aimed at revitalizing the labor movement (thereby expanding our base) as well as fighting for the kinds of democratic rights that bring the working class political and social power.

Restrictive Ballot Access?

Ackerman spends a considerable amount of time discussing the challenges of ballot access in the United States. Most of the restrictive legislation on ballot access he cites is from the 1920-1940’s. For example, a law from Florida in the 1930’s required candidates of a party to get 30% of the vote for two consecutive elections in order to get ballot access. Current Florida Statute 99.096 states:

“Minor political party candidates; names on ballot.—Each person seeking to qualify for election as a candidate of a minor political party shall file his or her qualifying papers with, and pay the qualifying fee and, if one has been levied, the party assessment, or qualify by the petition process pursuant to s. 99.095, with the officer and at the times and under the circumstances provided in s. 99.061.”

The cost, according to the Florida Department of State, for a state legislative candidate to get ballot access is $1,781.82. Is that enough of an excuse to not run our own candidates? To not put forward the idea of the politically independent working class? Ackerman cites the recent sabotage efforts of Arizona Republicans against the Libertarian party. Where before they needed 134 signatures to appear on their party’s primary ballot they now need 3,023. Make no mistake, these are brazen attempts by the ruling parties to protect their own dominance and are categorically anti-democratic. However, is 3,000 signatures really an insurmountable hurdle for aspiring mass political parties? Does this justify running our candidates under the same party banner as those who would engage in the same types of sabotage?

The Union Bureaucracy Problem

Ackerman argues that most third parties end up either embroiled in ballot access lawsuits or forced to acquire thousands of petitions as opposed to educating about their party or organizing constituents. These are all problems of tactic in response to what we ought to take as given; the ruling parties will try and sabotage our efforts. Fighting against this is the meat and potatoes of socialist electoral struggle.

In the 1990s, in spite of ballot access challenges, left political activists and union leaders attempted to form a Labor Party in the U.S. It failed. Ackerman cites some of those involved and concludes that it failed because not enough unions supported it. The reason not enough unions supported it?

“…the problem arose from the oldest dilemma of America’s two-party system: running candidates against Democrats risked electing anti-labor Republicans. For unions whose members had a lot to lose, that risk was considered too high.”

Ackerman fails to discuss why the unions don’t want to lose to the Republicans; business unions rely on Democrats for their power more than their own membership. He simply accepts that the failure of the Labor Party effort stems from union membership reliance on the Democratic party. The Labor Party attempt basically took unions as given – dominated by liberal bureaucrats routinely bargaining away strengths for palliatives.

The liberal tradition of union politics sees collective bargaining as the emancipation of the working class. It is assuredly not. Liberals see the workers’ freedom of association and democratic rights to combine as the consummation of Industrial Democracy; workers, free of restrictive court injunctions, government repression and hired guns, became free to join unions and have a voice in the workplace. Industrial Democracy was conquered thanks to the NLRA, and the last vestiges of feudal work relations were rooted out; law came to govern the workplace, so long as workers labored under a contract, as opposed to the unmitigated tyranny of the boss.

Collective bargaining became the favored terrain of the liberal bureaucrat. Over the past 80 or so years, socialists have been critiquing this trend. The main form of this critique has been that collective bargaining as such is inherently reformist and bureaucratic. Unions monopolize the skills of dealing with management in the hands of a professional staff and grievance procedures prioritize a smooth working day over workers rights, militancy, or organization. The standard line is that workers must get active and reclaim their own unions. This is partly true but it misses a crucial set of obstacles.

Most leftists treat bureaucracy as purely a problem of position. Even the most dedicated socialist and democrat becomes authoritarian by virtue of their position in an organization. This is false. Bureaucratic treachery is not merely a function of social position. The social position of the labor bureaucracy encourages a particular ideological outlook on the basis of waging day-to-day struggles for partial gains. In the old social democratic movement, this took the form of ‘Bernsteinism’. Eduard Bernstein was a socialist theorist who argued we could reform our way to socialism bit by bit. He famously said “the movement is everything; the goal is nothing.” Many credit the triumph of his ideas for the betrayal of the socialist parties during World War I.

But in order for the labor bureaucracy to take control they have to articulate and organize support for a set of political positions. This political outlook of the labor bureaucracy is as crucial to their success as their more concrete sources of power. The logical conclusion here is that there must be an organized force which both argues and organizes for democratic unions where the bureaucrats are thoroughly subordinated to the the membership.

Of course, as Daniel Gaido has pointed out, what actually drove the knife into the back of the Second International was the conservative labor bureaucracy. Kautsky, having defeated the ideological manifestation of labor-bureaucrat reformism within the Social Democratic Party of Germany, could not contend with it’s basis in society. As the German labor bureaucracy began courting American Federation of Labor president Samuel Gompers, committing itself to support for German colonialism, and in general professing an anti-revolutionary politics, the Center and Left of the SPD were outmaneuvered. The unions controlled vastly more money and members than the party on it’s own steam.

This parallels greatly the attempt by Michael Harrington, Bayard Rustin, and other leftists to reform the Democratic Party in the 1960-1970’s. They were ultimately betrayed by the conservative union bureaucracy which could not stomach forgoing their personal positions, their strategy of back-room deals and negotiation politics via labor statesmen, and their commitment to supporting the narrow ‘interests’ of their members best exemplified by their support for the war in Vietnam.

Solutions on Offer

Many leftists and marxists agree on the diagnosis; The labor bureaucracy in the United States has long been wedded to a strategy that restricts membership activity, direct action, and quick solution of problems by workers themselves in favor of byzantine grievance procedures that emphasize uninterruption of the production process, staff heavy organizing drives rooted in media pressure and sub contracted PR games and in general giving up the basis of union power; the strike.

For some the solution is ‘social movement unionism.’ The SEIU’s “Fight For 15$” was executed in this vein. But it was not an organizing drive; it was a Democratic Party campaign plot and it failed. As they pull their organizers out of middle-sized cities across the U.S. South, workers will be left without contracts or institutions of self-defense on the job. The basis of power in these unions isn’t a well educated, organized and active membership ready to strike, but a relationship with the democratic party and the levers of the labor-regulation apparatus. Former I.W.W. member Erik Forman has advanced a similar critique; the bureaucrats result from the reality of the capitalist division of labor in society. But Forman proposes a sort of silver-bullet solution; we need more salts.

The I.W.W.’s problems with growth show why this isn’t a solution. The I.W.W. has member activists in droves. The solidarity-union organizing model of salt-led campaigns doesn’t work because it is molecular in a one-sided sense. The aim is to get supporters to salt into a few shops and build committees, and just continue to build that up in a linear fashion. While this is a necessary part of any union organizing campaign, it is hamstrung by a set of misconceptions.

The first is a belief in linear growth. While we need to apply the tactic of salts, we need to fit it into a broader strategy of growth that begins day one with our target in mind. We cannot simply continue to add salts to an existing campaign, we need to have a strategy in place to secure workers in their gains and coordinate across large groups. I.W.W. campaigns have been very small because they’ve relied on organizer-salts with free time rather than paying people to do the work. This is tied to the problem of bureaucracy and the division of labor in our society; workers need to work to eat. They may go above and beyond and volunteer, but that will always be severely limited.

The second and third problems are linked. The I.W.W. wants a union based on militant direct action and membership involvement, which is a fine goal. But the dominant critique of business unions in the I.W.W. is simplistically anti-bureaucratic; they link paying people for work and contract unionism as the source of bureaucracy. Their solution is to simply lop off the bureaucratic limb and be done with it, by eliminating virtually all paid staff and refusing to sign contracts.

This way of thinking is somewhat reactionary-utopian; it wants to wind back the clock of history to a point when the workplace wasn’t directly in the legal realm and remained the almost-feudal fiefdom of the employer. In reality the salt-organizers all get fired and everybody goes home with no lasting union, in large part because of a principled refusal to sign contracts. Whether a union signs a contract or not, it’s always engaged in some form of collective bargaining with employers. Workers enter into contracts everyday with their employers whether they have a union or not. Rather than try and bring back the wild west syndicalism of the the 1910’s, we need to ask ourselves; what workplace rights will put power into the hands of union members at work?

Social movement unionism doesn’t fare much better. As Sam Gindin has pointed out, ‘social movement’ unionism fails because it is incoherent and divided;

“Yet there are few (if any) mass social movements in North America, and their resource base pales in comparison to that which unions enjoy. Though movements raise the banner of participatory democracy, their institutional weaknesses often result in less-than-democratic internal procedures.

Where they focus on particular identities or single issues, their political outlook is often just as narrow (sometimes even narrower) than those of unions. Their anticapitalist élan often entails radical protest tactics, but they rarely consider what it would actually take to confront the capitalist state and overcome the inertial power, resiliency, and resoluteness of the capitalist class.”

Gindin argues correctly that we need a united socialist party to effectively pursue our aims in the labor movement, but defines both this party and these union reform aims somewhat vaguely.

Marxists understand that the basis for working class politics is the political independence of the working class. The working class can build its political power only on the firm basis of its political and social independence. Bureaucrat led unions ingratiate their employees to their employers, refuse to organize the unorganized, and link up with political parties that unite workers and capitalists. Workers become dependent on unions that pit their members against each other and support individual employers over unity among workers in the labor movement.

This is because the labor bureaucrats and their narrow vision have beaten back the socialists, who remain divided and working at cross purposes. This makes working with subsections of the petit-bourgeoisie seem inviting; perhaps we can work with some democrats. Perhaps we’ll have to compromise with some union bureaucrats in order to get our numbers up, attain an audience, or even just fight off attacks. What appear to be pragmatic compromises for the sake of growth are in reality compromises with building independent class power.

Party Problems

Ackerman argues that the Labor Party’s position to maintain an independent ballot line was a mistake. Dudzic agrees that the party “coalesced” too soon- that there wasn’t a “critical mass” present to ensure a victory over Republicans and Democrats. However, Ackerman’s blueprint, once he gets to it, has problems. He writes:

“[A socialist party] project probably wouldn’t have been feasible in the past, due to campaign-finance laws. For most of the last four decades, the Federal Elections Campaign Act (FECA), along with similar laws in many states, would have left any such organization with little alternative but to fundraise through a political action committee (PAC). That PAC would have been limited to giving a maximum of $5,000 (the current threshold) to each of its candidates per election, and barred from taking money from unions or collecting donations larger than $5,000 from individuals. That kind of fundraising could never support a national organization.

…All of these restrictions would be waived if, like the DNC or RNC, the group registered as a “party committee.” But there’s a catch: a group can only register as a party committee if it runs the ballot-access gauntlet at the state level (a requirement from which Democrats and Republicans are exempt), then wins a ballot line and runs its candidates on it. (Here we find one of the many reasons scholars have described the FECA as a “major-party protection act.”)”

As already stated, Ackerman thinks that ballot access for an aspiring mass party is too restrictive. His preferred option is the “Carey Model,” which has been vindicated in a post-citizens united court case. The idea here is to incorporate as a social welfare organization which does not have limits on spending in exchange for explicit support for political candidates and political education. However, these candidates still need ballot access and will ultimately face state repression if they succeed. Ackerman mentions in passing a key point – this organization would require self-imposed financial disclosures.

This model has some merit. It does clean up some of the funding restrictions, but the strategic problems remain – the old social democratic parties were eventually compromised by the labor bureaucracy’s monopolization on finances. We have to break the union bureaucracy’s control over their organizations and restrict their donations in such a way as to limit their de facto control of the party; party decisions need to be made democratically through party channels and party money needs to come from members, not large outside donations. We can’t wait for the labor movement to reform itself, we have to start the work of forming a party now.

We don’t just want working class political independence in the abstract. Marxists argue that the end goal of working class politics is putting the working class in political control of society. Thus, the party we need is a Marxist one, which recognizes that the fight for socialism requires bringing the working class to political power. This is reflected by the minimum/maximum idea of a program advanced by Engels and Marx and adopted at Erfurt. The minimum program outlines mostly economic and democratic reforms that taken together amount to the conquest of political power by the working class through extreme democracy while the maximum program is communism. Founding a Marxist party right now is crucial for us to have any coherent and revitalizing project in the labor movement. The demands of the minimum program must include democratic ones with respect to political power in society, especially with respect to the uneven realization of basic rights among gender and racial minorities. However, we also need to press for economic demands that guide our fight in the unions for building workers’ power at work.

With regard to the fear of splitting the liberals when we run our own candidates, what Marx argued in his 1850 Address to the Communist League is as true today as ever:

“Even where there is no prospect of achieving their election the workers must put up their own candidates to preserve their independence, to gauge their own strength and to bring their revolutionary position and party standpoint to public attention. They must not be led astray by the empty phrases of the democrats, who will maintain that the workers’ candidates will split the democratic party and offer the forces of reaction the chance of victory. All such talk means, in the final analysis, that the proletariat is to be swindled. The progress which the proletarian party will make by operating independently in this way is infinitely more important than the disadvantages resulting from the presence of a few reactionaries in the representative body.”

It is to Jacobin and the DSA’s merit that they have a publication with such wide readership willing to discuss these pressing issues. It is also to their very severe deficit that they continue to waver on the need for an independent socialist party with a clear program. Perhaps at this point some DSA members could propose a Draft Program, to at least begin charting the discussion of uniting the Marxist left. I suspect there would be much to debate about the draft program, but it would put us on the path toward unification as opposed to wandering in the swamp of movementism dominated by the Democratic party and the current union bureaucracy.

We can see that on the one hand, socialists interested in building a political party chalk up their own limitations to a decaying labor movement; and argue for a vague and ill-defined revitalization. On the other hand, contemporary syndicalists and anti-party socialists argue for a similarly rudderless revitalization effort, though based on a mirage of linear growth and dedicated volunteer hyper activism. Often these positions intermingle, but rarely do they take the form of a systematic or programmatic approach to the U.S. labor movement. What’s needed is for socialists to agree on a program for organized labor in the United States, and pursue a united policy to implement it. That includes a strategy for labor movement revitalization on the basis of socialist principles.

Further Reading

Nelson Lichtenstein: Labor’s War At Home – Details the rise of the Labor Bureaucracy during WWII
Christopher Tomlins: The State and the Unions – Details the legal history of Unions in the U.S. in the 20th century.
Marty Glaberman: Wartime Strikes – Writings of a marxist worker-organizer on strikes during WWII and the post-war strike wave.
Stan Weir: Singlejack Solidarity – Similar to the above, marxist worker who recounts among other things, 1930’s strikes and the 1946 Oakland General Strike.
Melvyn Dubofsky: The State and Labor in Modern America – Argues that unions and workers benefited greatly at different points in history by having sympathetic figures in government positions.
Daniel Gaido: Marxism and the Union Bureaucracy: Karl Kautsky on Samuel Gompers and the German Free Trade Unions

Anton Johannsen: On Paid Staff and Policy in the I.W.W. and The I.W.W. and Paid Staff
Mike ‘Pudd’nhead’: Wages So Low, You’ll Freak – Details the I.W.W. experience at Jimmy Johns

Seth Ackerman: A Blueprint for a New Party 
Mark Dudzic and Adolph Reed jr.: No Easy Solutions: A reply to Seth Ackerman
Bhaskar Sunkara: Our Alternative
Erik Forman: Let’s Get to Work
Sam Gindin: Beyond Social Movement Unionism
Paul Heideman: It’s Their Party 

Communism and the national question

Communists must move beyond the same old phrase mongering and critically look at the national question. 


US imperialism must be defeated through global communist revolution for national oppression to be abolished.

The national question is one of the most controversial debates within the field of marxism. Whether one agrees with the Austro-Marxists, Kautsky and Lenin, or Bukharin and Luxemburg, it is undeniably a complex question. One could say that we need a better framework for understanding the national question in an era of decolonization of global US imperialism. In this piece I’ll attempt to sketch out an outline as to how to best approach the spectre of nationalism.

The national question refers to a series of arguments, all which generally seek to address the question: What is the best way to end the inequalities between nations? As Communists, we ultimately aim for the abolition of the nation-state in favor of a worldwide community of humanity, where the social conflicts that create national oppression have been eradicated. This is a vision that pretty much all actual communists accept. Yet the aspect of “how we get there” has often meant either making concessions to nationalism (like the Marxist-Leninists) or essentially ignoring the problem of national oppression completely as if communist revolution will make the political reality of national oppression take care of itself (various left communists).

The position I am arguing for is not going to base itself on the principle of “self-determination for nations”. While sometimes self-determination is appropriate to take up as a slogan, it entails that nations as such have an inherent right to a vague notion of self-determination. What defines a nation is a product of collectivities that are cross-class in nature, as national identities are socially constructed in a way that calls for a unity that transcends class conflict. In other words nations are bourgeois projects, and saying that they have an inherent right to self-determination (which can be defined in a way making it open to abuse) is not feasible to uphold as a principle if one wishes to do away with the bourgeois order.

This is not an argument that the revolutions of national liberation were not historically progressive and that the world wouldn’t be better without colonialism. Colonial oppression itself made proletarian organization very difficult with its attacks on democratic rights and enforced economic backwardness. While it is true that the national liberation revolutions were not proletarian movements that led to socialism of any kind, they did establish important democratic rights for many nationalities. However what resulted however was not an equality of nations, but what some have called “neo-colonialism”. I prefer to call it simple what it is, which is capitalist imperialism, based on the hegemonic military power of the USA and its allies in the world which allows it to regulate the rules of global capital to their benefit.

As long as the world is organized in a hierarchy of competing nation states where some are more powerful than others and able to dictate their interests upon weaker states through sanctions, trade deals, proxy wars, etc. there will be an inequality of nations. While many national liberation revolutionaries were aware of the problems of the the national bourgeoisie, they sought the Stalinist plan of “socialism in one country” as an answer to this problem. By existing as autarkies in the capitalist system nations could opt out and produce a system where the state “served the people”. Yet the promise of autarky can hardly live up to realities of the global imperialist system, especially after the collapse of the soviet bloc. Hence attempts at socialism in one country as a form of national liberation have been returning to market systems and cooperating with US imperialism (Cuba, China, Vietnam).

Therefore one cannot separate the problem of abolishing capitalism from the problem of abolishing the world system of nation-states. This entails going beyond the form of the nation state, which is not accomplished by national-liberation revolutions or socialism-in-one-country. We aim for the worldwide cooperative commonwealth, where all of the world’s people are able to fully flourish as individuals to the maximum capacity. This means ending the “war of all against all” that results from the competition for resources between humans, hence a central world government that can make economic and political decisions at the world level. We want a system where as much of humanity as possible is united in a common process of planning its social reproduction. Therefore it makes sense to prefer larger, centralized bodies as opposed to secession and balkanization. Continental, and then World, republics that unite as many nationalities as possible should be our aim. And of course we should build Communist Parties that prefigure this vision.

The “right to self-determination” essentially is promising something communists don’t actually want to ultimately deliver on, because our aim is not national independence but internationalist cooperation. Yet what if a national grouping, with a historic legacy of oppression from a state undergoing revolution, aims to secede from a broader socialist republic? Can they simply be invaded and annexed by the workers state?

My initial answer to this is no, as it would simply be a form of “red imperialism” where communists are complicit in furthering a historical legacy of national oppression. While some secessionist movements are clearly reactionary and should be ruthlessly crushed (like if white nationalists tried to form their own state in the Pacific Northwest) we have to deal with each movement according to its specific historical and immediate circumstances. For example, if revolution happened in the USA and Puerto Rico chose to secede, would invading the population be ok? As Communists we believe in basic republican equality – that no one group has an intrinsic right to rule over another group. Because of this we aim to destroy the world hierarchy of imperialist states and end all forms of national oppression, an action like annexing Puerto Rico would go against these basic principles. One does not need to believe in the “right to self-determination” as a principle to agree with this but simply the principle of national equality between peoples.

Yet if we do believe (like all marxists should) that class contradiction in the end will be more decisive than national antagonisms then it would expected that workers in a state seceding from a workers republic will eventually revolt against the national bourgeoisie. As Communists our job would be to aid these workers and agitate for international communism, essentially pursuing a “foreign policy” of promoting international revolution in the workers movement, arguing for class independence from the bourgeois nationalists and pushing for world-wide cooperation through communism as a solution to the problems of class society. This could go as far as arming and sending in international brigades to help workers overthrow a corrupt government, which would not be some equivalent to imperialist interventionism but an express of class solidarity beyond national borders.

To promote co-operation, Communists must recognize the democratic rights of oppressed nationalities and fight for them, for example the right to participate in civil society in your own language. We must prove that communism is not only economically superior, but also politically, that people will not lose their rights and culture if they are a part of the workers republic. While obviously this shouldn’t mean conceding any basic rights seen as universal, the historic oppression of national groups needs to be addressed in a way that doesn’t reproduce great-nation chauvinism like the Stalinist USSR.

Ultimately it will be through a process of cultural exchange that is unprecedented in history that a new world culture that whithers away nations will be developed by worldwide social revolution. Cultural exchange where all are equals in a human community that wouldn’t be tainted by xenophobia would would see a world where national distinctions become more and more irrelevant, a world without borders where humans do not own land but are ensured to have access to housing and basic needs. Communism can provide this; nationalism cannot except perhaps in undesirable forms of “barracks socialism” which have their own class distinctions. A world party, where communists of all nationalities coordinate the revolution, will act as a preparation for the kind of international cooperation needed for communism.

My aim here is not to find a one size fits all solution to the national question, but rather to provide an alternative way of thinking about national rights that does not rely on the notion of “right to self-determination” which is often simply means “the right for the bourgeois to rule”. Communists must push for class independence from nationalists of all kinds, first and foremost those of their own nation. As Karl Liebknecht said, “the main enemy is at home”. It is important to promote the notion that the workers movement in all parts of the world must pursue class independence from the national bourgeoisie and not get caught in promoting anti-imperialist fronts with various military dictators and bonapartists. Yet as revolutionaries in the USA, the main hegemon of imperialism, our primary aim is to promote the defeat and removal of US forces in all cases of intervention. We must uncompromisingly take this position, especially in an era where imperialist agendas are presented under a “humanitarian guise”. The historical track record shows US imperialism is not progressive in any way but rather contributes to the scale and deadliness of global conflicts. So even if the idea of “exporting democracy” were morally justifiable, it would fail regardless. Democracy today (the real kind that puts power in the hands of the proletariat as opposed to the liberal-constitutionalism of the US gov) can only come through the organization of the proletariat regardless of nationality.

Hopefully I have brought clarity to some of the issues at stake in the national question rather than just indulging in the same old phraseology common among marxists. The 20th Century showed the difficulties that nationalism of many varieties posed to the communist movement and the role they played in its failure. So addressing nationalism is no small task. My hope here is to spark some debate and polemic with comrades on the topic that can help us move into a more programmatic approach from the typical leftist phrase mongering and displays of moral righteousness.