History, program and the “unity of the left”: an exchange of letters

8 October 2003

Posted below is a letter sent by one of our readers, followed by a reply from Jerry Isaacs of the World Socialist Web Site.

To the editor:

There are many things about the left movement in the USA that trouble me, but perhaps the one thing that troubles me more than any other is the proliferation of political parties. By my count, there are five leftist/socialist political parties that are most prominent in the United States: the Communist Party, the Revolutionary Communist Party, the Socialist Party, the Democratic Socialist Party, and the Freedom Socialist Party. The viewpoints espoused by all of these parties and the solutions offered by them are practically identical.

I recognize that historically the socialist-left is viciously split by internal disputes, but I believe that now is the time, especially for political parties, to put aside the minor and petty disputes that so divide us. It seems to make the most sense, if these organizations do not wish to forever be relegated to the political fringes, to combine all socialist-communist parties into a united party/organization. Each one of these parties has different strengths and weaknesses, but if they were all united, I believe they could pose a powerful political force to establish a just and equitable society.

CJ

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Dear CJ,

Thank you for your letter. It reflects the thinking of not a few people who are broadly sympathetic to socialist ideas, but are either unaware of the great political and theoretical issues and struggles that have dominated and shaped the socialist workers’ movement, or are indifferent to them.

Of those who belong to the former category, the most principled and serious will be driven to examine and study the differences in program, strategy and political methods between genuinely revolutionary tendencies and opportunist tendencies in the history of the socialist movement, and will want to know how those differences impacted the struggles of the working class and shaped the present political situation, in the US and internationally.

Those in the latter category will either rid themselves of an unserious attitude toward history and political principles or become, wittingly or not, part of a milieu that is laced with opportunism and pessimism about the revolutionary capacities of the working class and the prospects for the victory of socialism. For them, the political prognosis is not good.

The Socialist Equality Party is setting out to construct a mass political party of the working class. A crucial aspect in building such a party is educating workers, students and intellectuals on the lessons of history and, in particular, the strategic experiences of the working class over the last century.

The 20th century saw no shortage of revolutionary struggles. In the end, however, the international workers movement was unable to overthrow world capitalism. It has long been fashionable among ex-radicals and incurable skeptics to blame the defeats suffered by the working class on the working class itself, and use them to assert that the Marxist conception of the revolutionary role of proletariat is fundamentally flawed.

The Trotskyist movement has always insisted on examining the role of leaders, political parties and programs when investigating the cause of missed opportunities and defeats. An examination from this standpoint reveals that time and again the revolutionary strivings of the working class were blocked by political movements that in one form or another capitulated to the capitalist status quo. The only basis for preventing the repetition of past defeats and setbacks and preparing for future victories is to draw the lessons of these experiences and evaluate the political role of various leaders, parties, trade unions, etc. That is why we take seriously the record of different political tendencies and the role they have played in the class struggle.

Your letter betrays two serious problems. First, it wrongly asserts, without any attempt at substantiation, that the “viewpoints espoused by all of these parties and the solutions offered by them are practically identical.” Even among the five organizations you list as the most prominent on the left, none of which we consider to be genuine exponents of Marxism, there are significant differences.

For example, the Democratic Socialists of America (I assume this is the party you have in mind when you refer to the Democratic Socialist Party) openly supports sections of the Democratic Party and advocates a policy of working within the Democratic Party and attempting to move it to the left. Is support for this perspective “practically identical” to advocating a break with the Democratic Party and the formation of an independent party? Is a difference on this question—which has bedeviled the American workers’ movement since its origins in the 19th century—really “minor” and “petty”?

What would you think if your doctor, after examining you for flu symptoms, told you the cause of your illness was either a virus, a bacterium, some other microscopic thingamajig, or blood poisoning, and your insistence on knowing which was the culprit betrayed a “petty” fixation on “minor” details? You would consider him a quack and go elsewhere. Well, there is such a thing as political quackery!

The second, related, problem revealed by your letter is a lack of concern for history. You suggest a viable socialist movement can be built through an amalgamation of all “left/socialist political parties,” regardless of the role they have played in the past.

Let us examine three of the parties with which you suggest the SEP unite.

The Communist Party is the party of Stalinism, the Moscow Trials and counter-revolution in Spain, Chile and scores of other countries, not to mention the restoration of capitalism in the USSR itself. The Kremlin bureaucracy was responsible for the murder of countless revolutionaries who opposed its betrayal of socialism, including Leon Trotsky. Today, the Communist Party USA functions as a semi-official adviser to sections of the Democratic Party and the AFL-CIO trade union bureaucracy.

The Democratic Socialists of America is part of the Second International, which sent European workers into the slaughter of World War I and then emerged as a central prop of capitalist rule in Western Europe. Its sister parties today include Tony Blair’s Labor Party, which provided crucial backing to Bush’s war in Iraq. The DSA currently counts among its members AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, whose trade union federation, as is well known, collaborates in the counterrevolutionary activities of the CIA.

Then there is the Revolutionary Communist Party, which is based on Maoism, the nationalist and petty-bourgeois outlook that disoriented a whole generation of youth in the backward countries and is responsible for the repressive and pro-capitalist policies of the Chinese Stalinist regime.

If you want to join forces with such organizations, that is your privilege. But it is more than a little presumptuous to ennoble such a project by placing it under the banner of socialism.

A concrete examination of the various positions on just one important and current political issue—the recall election in California—reveals the principled differences that exist between many organizations on the “left” and the SEP.

A whole range of groups openly supports the recall and is indifferent to the threat to the democratic rights of working people posed by the right-wing forces behind the recall effort. These include the Freedom Socialist Party, the Socialist Workers Party, the Spartacist League and the California-based Socialist Action group.

Then there are those, including the Communist Party and the Democratic Socialists of America, who oppose the recall entirely from the standpoint of defending Governor Gray Davis and keeping the working class tied to the Democratic Party.

Finally there are those groups that could not bring themselves to take any position on the recall, and either urged voters to abstain or proposed nothing at all. These include the Socialist Party, the Workers World Party, the Revolutionary Communist Party and the International Socialist Organization.

Green Party candidate Peter Camejo enthusiastically endorsed the recall, jumping on the coattails of the Republican right and then tailoring his gubernatorial campaign to gain respectability in the eyes of bourgeois public opinion and win acceptance of the Green Party as part of the political establishment.

When, 10 days before the election, the polls showed Republican candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger with a substantial lead, Camejo declared that he would “understand” if his supporters voted for Democrat Cruz Bustamante.

The SEP intervened in the California elections in order to expose and fight the attempt by the Republican right to overturn the results of the 2002 gubernatorial election and impose its reactionary agenda. At the same time, we offered no support to Governor Davis, Lt. Governor Cruz Bustamante, or any section of the Democratic Party. The SEP endorsed John Christopher Burton, who advanced a socialist alternative to the two big business parties.

The SEP is not interested in short-term political schemes based on unprincipled and opportunist alliances. We maintain that society is divided into classes, and that by virtue of its position in capitalist society, the working class is in irreconcilable conflict with the present order and will be driven into revolutionary struggle. It is necessary, however, to bring socialist consciousness into the working class. That means, in part, clarifying political questions and calling things by their right names.

We believe that great movements of liberation can be built only on the basis of great ideas and the lessons of history. The working class requires the highest level of political consciousness and developing that consciousness is the task of the SEP and our co-thinkers of the International Committee of the Fourth International.

Jerry Isaacs, for the WSWS editorial board