Response to Alex Callinicos: Preparing for the Upturn

Against the Current, No. 8, March/April 1987

David Finkel

ALEX CALLINICOS’ essay on socialist organization in the 1980s (Against the Current #6) represents a helpful contribution to an ongoing discussion of revolutionary perspectives, politics and organization. Alex’s direct and clear style of argument adds to the usefulness of his piece as a starting point for debate.

As Alex observes, socialist perspectives today must be rooted in an analysis that takes into account such factors as the political shifts throughout the advanced capitalist world in favor of capital at the expense of labor (although there may be signs in the recent student rebellions in France and Spain, and now Mexico, of a potential rise in social struggles); the conservatizing roles of trade union bureaucracies and Social Democratic politics; the multiple crises of the revolutionary left; the rise of new working class movements and political convulsions in the capitalist “periphery;” and the certainty “that a future upturn (in class struggle) will develop … the crucial question is how revolutionary socialists prepare for that upturn.” (Callinicos, ATC #6, 39)

Alex’s argument is that the new U.S. socialist organization, Solidarity, lacks the “theoretical framework involving a set of shared, and mutually consistent assumptions” (42) sufficient to make possible coherent socialist propaganda and practice. A full discussion of all the issues Alex raises is certainly not possible here; however, focusing on a few of them will give us a better idea of Solidarity’s project of revolutionary socialist regroupment — in particular, the kinds of political choices and emphases that underlay our option of regroupment, instead of that of a single-tendency propaganda group.

Strategic Emphasis

The first thing to stress is that there are no fundamental issues of political principle that separate Alex or his U.S. co-thinkers (the International Socialist Organization, the ISO) from Solidarity. All the bottom-line issues of revolutionary democratic socialism — working class self-emancipation, opposition to the trade union bureaucracy, liberation of the oppressed, rank-and-file orientation, anti-imperialism, solidarity with the struggles of the working class against bureaucratic state power in Eastern Europe — are equally crucial to both.

Alex’s political tendency has not been part of the U.S. regroupment process, not because its politics are “clearer” or for that matter different in any principled sense, but rather because of what they choose to emphasize and de-emphasize.

Summed up briefly, and therefore at the risk of oversimplifying the views of both sides of the argument, Alex emphasizes what is sometimes called “the hard group for hard times” to prepare for the upturn, as opposed to a group with clear basic principles but more politically diverse with a movement-building priority. It is a difference of strategic emphasis, not of principle-but nonetheless crucial.

What Alex chooses to emphasize as the “problem which lies at the root of what I can only describe as my friendly skepticism about the project represented by Solidarity … [is] quite simply the theoretical divergencies between the different elements of this regroupment.”

In particular, says Alex, “unfortunately, Solidarity embraces adherents of two mutually inconsistent analyses of Russia and its like as degenerated or deformed workers states and as bureaucratic collectivist … an organization which embraces very different views of the eastern bloc as Solidarity is likely to be pulled in very different directions by concrete political issues that arise.” (41)

According to this view-which I see as symptomatic of a general method, not simply an emphasis on the “Russian Question” per se — it is insufficient for an organization to agree on support for all workers’ struggles against the oppressive bureaucratic states, solidarity with the independent peace movements of Eastern Europe, or firm opposition to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. No, it is essential that there be unity around every aspect of the theory of the nature of the Soviet Union, of the precise historical interpretation of the Russian Revolution and its degeneration, etc.

It would take us too far afield to show that such a conception of politics is far narrower than the kind conceived by Lenin, who would certainly have insisted on sharply debating theoretical differences but considered it irresponsible if not criminal to split over them in the absence of fundamental and immediate conflicts over questions of political practice.

For our present purposes, I will note simply that Alex’s own party, the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP) is capable of a far less rigid stance than it appears to advocate for the U.S.

The British SWP for a considerable period in the 1980s publicly urged unification with the other major tendency in the British revolutionary left, the Militant Tendency, known for its very “orthodox” Trotskyism, a decades-long policy of very deep entry into the British Labor Party on which the British SWP has long heaped considerable ridicule, and ambiguous if not conservative views on such fundamental issues as Ireland and the struggles of the Black and Asian communities in Britain.

These longstanding differences be&tween the British SWP and the Militant Tendency far exceed in practice any of those found inside Solidarity. Indeed, to judge from Sheila McGregor’s trenchant polemic “The History and Politics of Militant” in the British SWP’s journal International Socialism #33, the politics of Militant represent a complete departure from socialism-from-below.

Yet the British SWP had argued that it was obligatory for these two tendencies to seek unity in the situation created by the miners’ strike, the terminal decline of the British Communist Party and the necessity of a credible alternative to the Labor Party.

Although the chance of such unification may have been remote, I have no reason to condemn the idea-but it does make hash of Alex’s argument that the pull to the right can only be resisted by an organization with tightly-defined theoretical agreement.(1)

The Regroupment Experience

While more could be said about some of Alex’s theoretical arguments,(2) we can perhaps learn more from some of the concrete experiences of regroupment. We in Solidarity see our political and organizational tasks as closely connected to the crisis of the U.S. left.

For example, as Alex quite rightly notes, “the collapse of much of the American left into the Democratic Party based on the illusion that it is or can become a social-democratic organization indicates that the pressure on revolutionaries to capitulate to reformism is at least as strong in the U.S. and in Britain.” (41) Precisely so!

In politics, such pressures are most effectively resisted by the power of a good example. During the past electoral season, such an example actually existed in the real world — the independent socialist candidacy of Bernie Sanders, the three-term socialist mayor of Burlington, Vermont for governor of that state.

Despite running with very limited finances and organizational resources, Sanders campaigned vigorously in working class and rural areas of the state, focusing on issues of taxation, utility ripoffs and the war in Central America, and received a highly-respectable 15% of the vote in a three-way race.

What does this have to do with regroupment? Several things: it showed how popularly-presented socialist politics can make sense to ordinary working people; it helped expose the ultimate political loyalties of the Rainbow Coalition, which backed Sanders’ campaign from the outset but withdrew its resources when Sanders failed to attract liberal money; and it pointed up the divisions in the left, which argued over whether the Sanders’ candidacy was positive or “divisive” of the progressive vote.

Finally, the Sanders campaign was very positive for Solidarity, which was one of the very few U.S. left organizations — perhaps the only one on a national scale, although I am not certain of this – to fully support Sanders’ campaign.

Several of our branches, either on their own or in cooperation with other groups (North Star Network, for example), built fund-raising events for Sanders which raised several thousand dollars. This is not much, to be sure, but it was a meaningful act of support to a campaign into which liberal money was notably not flowing.

This effort, modest as it was, could hardly have been mounted by any of the groupings which merged along with independents into the new organization Solidarity. Our hearts would have been with Bernie, but we would simply have lacked the capacity to actively support him. It is our hope that we can do much more the next time such an opportunity arises.

The Practical Difference

In particular, the notion of independent political action must be at the core of revolutionary socialist perspectives on a national scale if we are to have anything convincing to say to the huge numbers of radical activists, unionists, anti-intervention movement and community people who look hopefully to Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition to challenge the Democratic nomination in 1988. Solidarity will seek to do everything we can to convince Rainbow Coalition activists that the aspirations of their own movement cannot be realized within ruling class politics but require a break from them — politically and organizationally.

How successfully we can argue the case remains to be seen, but at least with the theoretical perspective of independent political action and a tiny bit of practical experience to back it up, we have a case to make beyond pure revolutionary propaganda.

For example, the fact that we do support Bernie Sanders or other local independent political expressions such as the Wisconsin Labor-Farm Party, demonstrates that we are not electoral “abstentionists”-so that when we do not support the Democratic mayor of Chicago, Harold Washington (a highly unpopular stance within the left), it is clear that we do so for reasons of principle rather than some abstract purism.

Perhaps this is a useful place to touch briefly on another aspect of regroupment — its open theoretical heterodoxy and heterogeneity. An essential premise of both Solidarity and Against the Current (which the group sponsors and supports) is that clear politics are possible on life-and-death issues of principle without an attempt to be monolithic.

Readers of ATC #7 (our special issue on Nicaragua) know that we feel it is possible to extend active solidarity to that revolution without having one unified “correct line” on the Sandinistas’ policies. Readers of the current issue, and of #4-5 and 6, where we have presented an exchange between Tim Wohlforth and Alan Wald, Michael Lowy’s appeal for a Marxist revolutionary-utopianism and other viewpoints, know that we feel a shared passionate commitment to socialist democracy is possible without a need for a single ”correct interpretation” of Leninism.

The questions of the Democratic Party and of socialist democracy are life-and-death issues for revolutionary socialists in the U.S. today. The question of the nature of a revolutionary party is not, and in the absence of a significant socialist current in the working class, is not about to become so. Our chances of getting the long-range questions right are enhanced by debating them fully now, instead of pretending that a full “programmatic agreement” is some kind of safeguard against future political crises

Alex may argue that the clarity of Solidarity’s politics on issues like the Democratic Party is blurred by our theoretical pluralism. I maintain the opposite –that our multi-tendencied character can be an asset in highlighting our key principled basis of unity.

Politics and the Movements

I will also briefly touch on two issues that are of central concern to Solidarity, but which Alex mentions either briefly or not at all. Both, I think, shed light on the consequences of the choice between “centrality of propaganda” and “movementist” approaches.

The first of these issues is feminism, or women’s liberation, which Alex does not take up. For Solidarity, the attempt to “integrate Marxism and feminism,” as it is commonly phrased or more precisely in my view, to develop a Marxism that brings the issues of reproduction of labor power, the problems of domestic labor and the special oppression of women from the margins to the center of Marxist analysis and practice-is of central importance.(3)

It is striking that for much of the 1970s, this concern was shared by the British International Socialists (now the SWP), at a time when the organization was deeply involved in the women’s movement and had even launched a women’s paper and section of the party called Women’s Voice. As the broad women’s movement in Britain declined and moved into the orbit of reformist politics, the SWP found that the viability of the Women’s Voice project and especially its ability to attract working-class women had shriveled, leading to the decision to dissolve WV.

This decision may very well have been perfectly correct in practical and organizational terms. Tragically, it seems that the central SWP leadership found it necessary to provide a grand theoretical motivation. It did so by offering a new theory, or rather by reviving a very old one which had long been marginalized in the group, that feminism and socialism are fundamentally counterposed, that feminism elevates the interests of middle-class and bourgeois women above working-class women, that it is the feminism of the British women’s movement that led it into fragmented and reformist politics.(4)

The regroupment strategy which led to the formation of Solidarity views feminism in a different light. Certainly, the feminist movement today is weak and not very coherent — but this seems to us as a very poor excuse for abandoning it, particularly as the socialist movement is hardly in better shape.

Marxist theory needs to take a hard, critical look at itself. This is part of what feminist theorists (Marxists and others) have been doing for the past twenty years or so, with results that are by far more ex­ citing than virtually any other recent areas of Marxist inquiry.

What is needed is not an eclectic or uncritical blurring together of the Holy Writ of classical Marxism with contemporary feminism, but a careful analysis of how changes in the economy, the workforce and the family have changed women’s roles and (therefore) their consciousness, creating the basis for women’s movements which in tum (finally) penetrated the thinking of the traditional left.

Solidarity does not view the feminist critique of society and of the failures of traditional socialist politics as coming from “outside” our political framework and therefore as a threat to it, but rather as an integral part of the politics we are constructing. To be sure, feminist politics are as diverse as those which carry the label “socialist:” there are (implicitly or explicitly) authoritarian, bureaucratic and reformist variants, just as there are among brands of socialisms. That is no reason for socialists to tum their backs on the debates among feminists, or vice versa -­ exactly the opposite.

The development of our theory cannot be undertaken in isolation from the currents of debate within feminism. We need not accept the assumptions of the anti-Marxist wings of that movement, such as the nonsense that women are “by nature” peaceful and nurturing as against aggressive and warlike male behavior, in order to learn from the movement’s practice and insights.(5)

My second and final observation can be read as a generalization of the preceding one. Our comrades in the British SWP and U.S. ISO seem to regard Solidarity’s political orientation as having the deviation (as they see it) of “movementism”– that our concern with building movements, even small and local ones, equals and sometimes even exceeds our concern with solidifying our own group.

It is my view that our orientation is precisely the right one for a period in which revolutionary socialists must be concerned with “preparing for the upturn” in social struggle. That is, a movement–
building emphasis is essential to building “a revolutionary current” that will mean anything today or in the upturn.

In such a period as today, social movements-with the partial exception in recent years of the Central America anti-intervention movement — tend to be weak, poorly organized, sporadic and localized. In Alex’s view, at such a time “the politics of clarity” is the top priority for revolutionary socialists. Movement — building must be subordinated to clear theoretical understanding if we are to resist the pull to the right.

For most of us in Solidarity, a period in which the protracted capitalist crisis coincides with an ebb tide in the social movements is exactly the moment at which our role in movement-building is the most critical, both for the movement’s well-being and for our own political survival. When mass struggles are at the high tide of their power, numbers and self-confidence, that is the time when revolutionary socialists must most urgently present the argument for solid revolutionary organization and emphasize building such an organization out of the struggles of the movement. At those times, the success or failure of major social struggles, mass strikes, anti-war movements and the like may depend on whether revolutionary socialists can provide intelligent organization and leadership.

For Socialist Organization

Today, of course, we must also seek to recruit activists to our politics and organization. That is not in dispute. However, it seems to me that proving our politics and organization are relevant to-day depends on our contribution to the hard task of building up rank-and-file movements, anti-intervention and solidarity committees, unemployed or other local organizations from the base.

The revolutionary leadership we pledge to offer for the future upturn is a promise we will have no hope of keeping if our organization today is not rooted in the activism of movements small or large, wherever we find them.

The question, then, is not whether to have revolutionary socialist organization today. We came together because we regard socialist organization-one that works-as essential.

We also decided to gamble that diversity can be an asset. Our premise is that basic revolutionary-democratic socialist principles-opposition to the Democratic Party, support for the liberation of the oppressed and the commitment to working-class self-emancipation-define a politics of sufficient clarity that diverse theoretical views and an experimental approach can safely live within its boundaries.

Such a program would not hold together a hard ideological sect-and isn’t meant to. Our regroupment program is the best approximation we can formulate of the politics that can most effectively facilitate the work of socialists today in “preparing for the upturn.”

Ultimately, therefore, the multi-tendencied regroupment process that gave rise to Solidarity is rooted in a strong bias toward “movementism.” We seek to broaden the process further with the same orientation. If we did not share that general strategic view, we could have remained in our separate compartments seeking to construct our water-tight, ideologically-correct groups.

In that case, it is less likely that our common politics would have as much to offer in “preparing for the upturn,” and less likely still that very many people would be interested in what we have to say when it comes along.


  1. For a summary of the theoretical views on the USSR which exist within the regroupment process that led to the formation of Solidarity, see Alan Wald’s essay “Transitional and Bureaucratic Collectivist Societies: The Case for Co-existence and Cross-fertilization of the Two Theories in a Unified Organization,” Regroupment Bulletin #14, February 1986, available from Solidarity to anyone interested for $2.50. Alan, who writes from the perspective of the theory of “transitional” or “post capitalist societies,” argues that the differences between this theory and that of “bureaucratic collectivism” have narrowed and that, more importantly, all existing theories of the Stalinist states have major shortcomings. Accordingly, the coexistence of these theories within a common regroupment process can help to bring together the best elements of each as a starting point toward a more adequate theory.

    From my own highly-biased viewpoint as a partisan of the theory of bureaucratic collectivism, the narrowing of the political differences is due to several factors. First, the politics associated with the classic “orthodox Trotskyist” formula of “the unconditional defense of the Soviet Union” have largely collapsed. Second, one aspect of the general crisis of the bureaucratic system is that classic Stalinist parties are much less frequently contenders for power-the last one having been the Vietnamese CP, not counting the debacle of Afghanistan.

    Third, we have seen the emergence of such revolutionary movements as the FSLN in Nicaragua, and FMLN in El Salvador, or the New Peoples’ Army in the Philippines, which reflect varying degrees of Stalinist influence but clearly cannot be viewed as parties unambiguously aiming at bureaucratic class power. Understanding these movements will require theoretical analysis which is not reducible to our political attitudes toward the USSR, China or Cuba.

    Further and perhaps most important, the post-Mao struggles in China and the Gorbachev reforms in the USSR certainly do require original theoretical analysis which (here Alan is undoubtedly correct) will force us to transcend existing frameworks.

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  2. Alex seems to regard the coexistence in a common organization of supporters and non-supporters of the Fourth International (FI) as a hopelessly unprincipled bloc. This would probably be the case it Fl supporters within the group held the view which Alex attributes to all “orthodox Trotskyists,” which views “the USSR as the representative of the revolutionary forces on a world scale.” (ATC #6, 41) It is extremely unlikely that any FI supporters in Solidarity hold such a view-many of whom were in fact purged from the American SWP for opposing that party’s increasing theoretical and political adaptations to Stalinism.

    Alex’s own view of the FI seems rather schizophrenic. On the one hand the entire operation is viewed as Deutscherites with whom no principled regroupment is possible. On the other, Alex takes to task the mainstream FI leadership for not waging an intransigent struggle against the American SWP’s abandonment “of such key items of the Trotskyist tradition as the theory of permanent revolution,” which implies at least a preference on Alex’s part for mainstream FI politics over the American SWP’s.

    For those of us in Solidarity who are not FI supporters, none of this presents major problems. We have no interest either in any political association with the American SWP, nor in a factional struggle against it. The theories espoused by the American SWP are basically irrelevant to our concerns. The involvement of Fl sections in or in solidarity with struggles in Eastern Europe or Latin America are of considerable interest to us, as they should be to all revolutionary socialists, and we are entirely in favor of developing contacts with such FI groups as well as with other revolutionary curents. At the same time, we don’t participate in debates which are of interest only inside the Fl, such as the longstanding “workers and farmers government” dispute.
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  3. An extremely valuable and careful study of the analysis of the oppression of women in classical Marxism, and of the weaknesses that must be overcome in Marxist theory, is Marxism and the Oppression of Women: Toward A Unitary Theory, by Lise Vogel (Rutgers University Press).

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  4. In the past several years, articles in the SWP’s journal International Socialism have amount to little more than repetitions of the same socialism-versus-feminism formula. The most thorough exposition of this viewpoint is Chris Harman, “Women’s Liberation and Revolutionary Socialism,” #24 (Summer 1984). A dissenting article by John Molyneaux, “Do Working Class Men Benefit From Women’s Oppression?” in #25, provoked the following response:

    “The history of the Women’s Liberation Movement is a salutary warning to anyone who thinks it possible to incorporate the ideas of patriarchy into Marxism. If we are to have an adequate theory of women’s oppression and how to fight it, we need to base ourselves on the Marxist tradition. John’s position, that working-class men do benefit from women’s oppression, is the first step toward departing from that tradition. It is a step we should not take. We can’t say we haven’t been warned. We have a women’s movement to prove it.” (Sheila McGregor, International Socialism, #30, 105)

    A further exchange between John Molyneaux and Lindsey German appears in #32.
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  5. Two articles in Against the Current 1 (new series) offer examples of critical Marxist-feminist perspectives: “Women and the Peace Movement” by Johanna Brenner, and “Pornography: How Feminists Oppose Censorship” by several feminist activists in Madison, Wisconsin. These contributions take up important issues of principle and strategy from a viewpoint that is clearly within both the revolutionary socialist and the feminist movements.

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March-April 1987, ATC 8

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