I'm thinking out loud here. Feel free to tell me where I'm off my rocker. I'm interested in working some things out and I welcome debate and disagreement about what I say below.
The organized socialist left in the United States is quite small. Despite the profound, far-reaching social and economic turbulence caused by the financial meltdown, the US left did not experienced a massive swell in its ranks over the past 5 years. To be sure, the left has grown both qualitatively and quantitatively. Important struggles such as occupy, the Wisconsin capitol occupation, the Chicago Teachers strike, the ongoing Fight for 15 and Our Walmart struggle have all brought new layers of people into the orbit of the socialist left, on the one hand, and have provided socialist activists with valuable movement experience.
But although some growth certainly occurred, it was not nearly as substantial as I and many other leftists imagined it would be. Relative to the tasks we face, the socialist left is nowhere near the size it needs to be.
Despite the fact that polls consistently show that majorities of young people (ages 18-30) look more favorably on socialism than capitalism, socialist organizations in the US are largely invisible. I would wager that 19 out of 20 US workers have never even heard of any of the organized socialist groups in the US. It's not that they're inveterate right-wingers. The problem is worse than that: most workers don't even know we exist. We presently lack the public visibility and membership numbers that would enable us to break into public conversations on a mass scale. In an important sense, our ideas have yet to even get a hearing among the vast majority of workers.
Worse still, the socialist left is arguably more isolated from the working class than it has been in recent memory—the only historical analogy I can think of is the 1950s following McCarthyism. There are encouraging counter-examples to this overall trend, but the big picture here is not a pretty one: most workers---even most union workers—do not regularly encounter organized socialists or their ideas.
Now, I don't need to tell you that it's not all our fault that this is the case. Objective obstacles to the growth of the left abound. It's important to be clear about what those obstacles are and analyze them carefully. But all I want to do here is focus on the subjective side—in particular on one way that we, socialists, can try to change this frustrating state of affairs. I don't purport to have lighted upon a magic bullet that will end our relative isolation from workers. But in what follows I hope my reflections might prove useful in stimulating broader discussion.
It's not for nothing that ideas of "re-groupment" and "left unity" have begun to surface among a number of disparate left groups in the last year (e.g. here, here, here, here.) This trend, I take it, is directly tied to the problem we identified above: the scale of attacks on our class continues to escalate and large sections of the population say they're open to left ideas, but yet socialist organizations remain marginalized and largely invisible to the majority of the working class population. The basic argument for any form of re-groupment or left unity is simple: in an effort to overcome its marginalization the socialist left should cooperate and combine efforts.
At this level of generality, I find it hard to see how anyone could possibly reject this argument. The devil, however, is in the details: what would left cooperation or unity mean in practice? And exactly what should left groups collaborate to do, practically speaking? These are important questions that don't get solved by regroupment or unity—they must be worked out before any kind of regroupment or unity would make sense. Although it's a touch artificial, let us divide practical action into two categories: political and economic.
On the question of political/electoral action, there are profoundly different ideas among existing groups. Groups like CPUSA, Committees of Correspondence, DSA, "soft" FRSO and others (at present) seem to think that the goal should be to try to push the Democratic Party leftward through entryism or primary challenges. All of these groups are, to varying degrees, committed to building social movements, but when the question of the Democratic Party arises they have all traditionally showed a strong tendency to opt for the "lesser evil" when it comes down to it.
On the other hand, there's a large number of groups with very different politics (ranging from Stalinist and Maoist to varieties of Trotskyism) that all oppose the Democratic Party and argue that some sort of independent left political action is needed to carry the struggle forward. The largest and most well-known among these groups in the US is without doubt the ISO. These organizations also support building movements (although they differ about how to do that), but what sets them apart from the CPUSA cluster is that they are unwilling to accept the logic of "lesser evilism". In one way or another, they think that a break with the Democrats is a starting point for building the left.
On the "economic" question of building the labor movement, there is also disagreement. There are radically different ideas among socialists about how to rebuild a fighting labor movement. The ISO and Solidarity stand for the "rank-and-file strategy" of building democratic, militant caucuses of workers in the unions who can organize against the boss on the job and, when necessary, catch the existing union leadership in the cross fire of the class struggle and force them to fight or out themselves as sell-outs. Other groups stand for a more "permeationist" strategy of simply finding a way to get more socialists in staff positions, the better to steer unions in a progressive direction from above. Others take the "lesser-evilist" logic into the economic sphere and defend existing union leadership come what may, on the grounds that they are better than the bosses and that the labor movement is too embattled for internal criticism to be productive. Still others abstractly reject all of the existing trade unions and argue for exclusively building separate, radical unions. One also finds uneven and mixed combinations of all the above.
Now, that's a lot of practical, strategic heterogeneity and it's unclear how it could provide the basis for unified action among leftists. I don't mean to suggest that this renders the goal of left unity worthless. But it does show that every socialist group in the US could combine into one party tomorrow and we would be no closer to answering the question of what to do next. There are no shortcuts here.
What this suggests to me is that talk of left unity must be as concrete as possible if it is to be useful. Instead of jumping right to the question of combining organizations, we need to first of all discuss concrete practical collaboration among organizations on a case-by-case basis. This isn't easy to pull off, and there are certainly no short cuts.
Nonetheless, it seems to me that there's some low-hanging fruit to be snagged here. There's space in movement work for more collaboration, coordination and pooling of experience and resources. If different left groups always aim to carve out separate spheres of influence by staking out "turf" in different movements, that might benefit them in terms of competing with other left groups but it makes it far less likely that we'll start winning any of these struggles.
There is also, it seems to me, no defensible reason why politically similar Trotskyist organizations should be running candidates against one another in local elections. Instead of using elections as a straight-forward sectarian party-building maneuver, these organizations should work together to field left candidates that might actually get a hearing and project socialist demands to a wider audience. We can't just will into existence an American SYRIZA, but we can take steps toward building something like it if we reject the kind of sectarianism that leads groups to compete and attack one another for non-political reasons that ultimately benefit no one.
Unity, it seems to me, should be sought on the electoral front on the basis of shared commitments to practical platforms, not consensus on the class nature of the USSR or one's analysis of the Cuban Revolution. Elections are expensive and require a lot of time and energy. By and large, it doesn't make sense for any socialist organization to go it alone here, unless they are comfortable with being irrelevant for all time.
There are bigger questions lurking here about how wide a net independent left candidates should cast, how broad their demands should be, etc. But I see no principled reason why we couldn't figure out those questions together on the basis of a political commitment to the idea that it is mutually advantageous for socialists to cooperate on campaigns to overcome their marginalization. Again, we won't ever achieve this until it is identified publicly as a valuable goal.
A key to unity is that there must be trust built up among organizations who, for too long, have related to on another in a purely competitive, mutually suspicious way. We would also be naive to think that these fraught relationships are purely political—there are likely many personal reasons why certain people and the organizations they represent dislike and distrust one another. Careful, patient work will need to be done to change the dynamic here, and unfortunately it won't be entirely political—some of it will require building trust by creating less shrill, more friendly habits of communication among different groups.
A challenge here is that often the relation between different socialist groups is mediated by the leaderships of those groups. There are, in some ways, good reasons for this, and in a genuinely democratic group there isn't, in principle, any reason why inter-organization collaboration shouldn't be mainly facilitated by communication among leaders. Still, be that as it may, the sorry state of the US left and the scale of the challenges we face require dynamic and creative new approaches here. Members of socialist groups can't sit around and wait for unity to be brokered from above by the elected leaders of their organization. In many cases, leaders have more reason (because of their extensive experience interacting with other groups in ways that involved conflict, etc.) to hold grudges and resist cooperation than do most rank-and-file members. And it is no doubt true that some small sects probably have self-important leaders whose position as big fish in a small pond would be threatened by unity with other organizations.
There seems to me an important role that rank-and-file members can play in helping to build more left unity and cooperation on a political basis. First of all, members of different organizations can try to interact with one another in movements directly and help to change the culture of distrust and sectarianism. Second, I think it could be positive to simply have members of different groups (who, nonetheless, have similar politics and a shared strategic orientation around certain struggles) speaking to one another and talking politics more often. I myself have considered trying to reach out to members of other organizations with similar politics just to pick their brains about why there isn't more collaboration. In a sense, I feel that this sort of thing is implicitly, unintentionally discouraged, but it shouldn't be.
The importance of this kind of interaction shouldn't be overstated, but neither should it be dismissed as irrelevant. Building trust and rapport is a key part of overcoming unprincipled sectarianism rooted in personalistic conflicts and histories of competition.
Another thing that we can do to build more practically-minded unity among socialists would be to try harder to adhere to the following principle: the sectarianism of others is not an excuse for being sectarian oneself. It's tempting to take any sectarian swipe at one's organization as a license to respond in kind, but this is not always sound politics. The tit-for-tat just reproduces a dynamic the left has internalized from decades of decline. It's not that there shouldn't be sharp debates among us—but more often than not these debates are needlessly polemical and uncomradely.
Sectarianism isn't simply a subjective problem, of course. The current state of the left is such that sectarianism can appear both rational and strategically prudent for many small groups. The situation is such that many small groups don't want to be the one to opt out of sectarianism completely because they can't be assured that others will do the same.
But this can't go on forever. It bears repeating: the left is marginal and this sort of unprincipled, unnecessary competition perpetuates this state of affairs. In this context, larger, more influential groups have an obligation to rise above some of the squabbling initiated by small sects who seem to stake their entire existence on trolling other socialists. They have the power and influence to set a better example that could lay the groundwork for increased collaboration.
In this same vein, socialist groups—especially the biggest, most influential among them, such as the ISO—could help this process along by talking about the political value of left collaboration and unity more often. As it stands, it is not obvious enough that this is a goal that most groups share. But we can't expect much progress on something if it isn't explicitly identified as an objective.
There have been some encouraging developments worth noting that we should build on and try to generalize more intentionally. For example, the ISO worked with others to form a socialist contingent at the 2009 AFL-CIO march in Washington. The Eco-Socialist events on the East and West Coasts have drawn the support and participation of a number of groups. There seems to be growing willingness among left organizations to coalesce around the inspiring local campaigns being led by Socialist Alternative in Minneapolis, Boston and Seattle—e.g. it seems that Socialist Action, a small Trotskyist formation, has agreed to formally endorse all of the SA candidates. There needs to be more of this in the short run. And in the long run, even more collaborative efforts should be pursued that involve cooperation beforehand about what campaigns to run, etc.
If there's to be any left unity or regroupment, it seems to me that it should occur on two different levels. First, there is space for groups with similar politics, practices, and traditions to combine efforts into single organizations. On the face of it, for instance, there is far more shared ground between ex-IS groups like the ISO and Solidarity than there is disagreement. Of course, unity can't be forged abstractly---it will have to be built up gradually through positive experiences of collaborating on practical projects. Nonetheless, it seems crucial that a discussion about the desire for unity be opened up so that the groups can, at least, be clear about where they'd like to be and why. This is but one example and I'm sure there are others.
Aside from more specific regroupments, as above, there is also room for increased collaboration and unity among groups with very different politics in movements, electoral efforts and, perhaps, for certain sorts of propagandizing as well (I know this violates the strictures of the "united front" strategy, but I don't think it should be off the table when we're talking about the organized socialist left, provided that propaganda is broad and demands-based, e.g. "tax the rich", "no to austerity", etc.). Why not, for example, a slate of left candidates who run at the state or local level on a platform that could secure the assent of wide layers of the socialist left? This won't ever become a possibility until we start talking about it and why it might be desirable in principle. To dismiss it out of hand as a pipe dream is not hard-headed materialist analysis but idealism, for it denies that our present sense of what's possible is, in fact, one of the material/practical obstacles to such an endeavor.
Some have argued that left unity and/or regroupment could help the left break into public debates more because it would pool financial resources. Now, what I've said above should make clear that things are not quite as simple as how to find the most efficient technical means of building the left. There are disagreements about what the left should do and how it should act in the world on a number of fronts. We can't very well pool resources if it's unclear what those resources would be used to do.
Nonetheless, this argument shouldn't be dismissed out of hand. We have to keep in mind that in capitalist society, money matters and opens many doors. With more money, left organizations could hire more paid organizers, promote their online presence, revamp their websites, print publications and pamphlets, produce video content, finance electoral campaigns, purchase advertisement space, get TV and radio airtime, etc. etc.
This isn't a silver-bullet for political success, but these things could make a huge difference in terms of getting the ideas out there. It's therefore worth keeping in mind that left unity carries a potentially important reward. This doesn't make the practical task of building cooperation easier, but it does sweeten the deal for all parties involved and could, if more openly praised as a potential benefit, be a good motivator get to groups to talk to one another in good faith. When someone says that left unity is too much trouble to be worth it, the costs need to be weighed against the potential benefits which include much larger financial power.
Nothing would be gained by rolling groups as different as CPUSA and the ISO into one organization. The results would likely be disastrous and utterly incoherent practically. But we socialists can't be comfortable with how things are. The status quo sucks and we can't sit around and wait with the expectation that it will gradually improve and our small organization will end up winning the "race" and becoming the next Bolshevik party.
We need to have principled networks of activists who participate in sharp debates about socialist theory and practice—that needn't be discarded in favor of some left unity melting pot. But socialist organizations of every stripe must become more serious, more vocal, and more committed to the non-sectarian goal of re-building the left in general in the US. Because right now we're all suffering from the fact that the left is largely invisible.
I think we also need to acknowledge that what kept the left alive in dark times—I'm thinking especially of the Reagan years—is definitely not going to be what carries it forward to new heights. Necessary though those routines and habits may have been at that time, they aren't going to be what catapults us into garnering a mass following. We'll need to be creative, dynamic, and willing to take risks if we're going to grow and overcome marginalization.
The patient, methodical work of building movements and recruiting key militants to the long-term goal of revolutionary change should remain a key part of the work that socialist organizations undertake. But, at the same time, we need to be able to step back and ask the big questions with courage. I'm sick and tired of how marginal the left is in the United States. Part of that is beyond our control. But surely there is no fundamental reason why big groups like the ISO as well as smaller organizations like, say, Solidarity, Socialist Action and Socialist Alternative should be isolated from one another, divided, and competing. I'm interested in thinking about what it would mean to build a serious, tightly organized socialist organization that could include all of these comrades, sustain certain differences of opinion, and nonetheless still act in the world in a unified way.
I'm also interested in thinking about how socialist organizations with little in common politically could collaborate more in movements and in electoral efforts. There is surely some kind of platform—e.g. tax the rich, end the wars—which could win the assent of virtually all socialist organizations. What about some sort of public campaign to project those demands into the public realm and mark them as socialist to stimulate interest and debate around left-wing ideas and organizations? I'm no idealist—I don't think that joint propaganda is fundamentally what causes societies (or consciousness, for that matter) to change. But it matters. One of the biggest challenges is that socialist ideas don't even get a hearing.
To be sure, for left ideas to really grip people, it must seem to them that it is possible to put them into practice successfully—hence the need to build the movements as a way of creating a larger sea in which the left can swim and grow. Consciousness primarily changes through struggle. But I don't think we want to endorse some kind of wooden, un-dialectical stagism about how things must proceed. There is clearly a role that wider dissemination of socialist ideas and demands can play in radicalizing people and building the movements and the left in general.
To sum up: abstract unity is clearly neither possible nor useful. But there is way more space for collaboration and unity than there is actual collaboration and unity on the US left. If I had to reduce my argument to a slogan, it would be: collaboration and unity wherever and whenever it makes sense. It can and must happen on a variety of fronts: in movements, on electoral campaigns, organizational reroupment, propaganda, etc. There is no shortcut, but we can't move things forward until it is explicitly identified as a goal by the most important, influential socialist groups in the US.