How you can organize for socialism today

August 29, 2017

To be a socialist, you need to be part of an organization that advances socialist ideas. Dorian B. and Danny Katch make the case for what you can do today.

IF YOU'RE a regular reader of, you're probably pretty receptive to the idea that the society we live in today--the society of capitalism--is a crisis-ridden, miserable train wreck. Likewise, the notion that we need an alternative society where all people decide together how to address all of our wants and needs may strike you as sound logic.

Say you agree with these premises. Great, you're ready to call yourself a socialist.

So what now? What, concretely, can we do to fight for a socialist world? What would the path toward this goal--and the goal itself, for that matter--really look like?

The first point to make is that it's impossible to move toward a socialist world in which everyone works for the common good without confronting the depressing fact that, as of now, a minority ruling class has the power to block progress toward such a goal.

According to a study by political science professors Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page:

Americans do enjoy many features central to democratic governance, such as regular elections, freedom of speech and association, and a widespread (if still contested) franchise. But we believe that if policymaking is dominated by powerful business organizations and a small number of affluent Americans, then America's claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened.

Socialists march against hate in San Francisco
Socialists march against hate in San Francisco (Josh On | SW)

Gilens and Page document how an elite group of big business executives and owners, along with top political leaders, control "policymaking" and a lot more about society. And this elite--to put it mildly--isn't all that concerned with the common good. Their primary object is to defend and extend their own interests.

This has always been true about the 1 Percent of capitalist society, but now that Donald Trump is in power, the greed and hatred of their society has become even more blatant and threatening.

Being a socialist is about organizing to stand up to the many daily injustices of capitalism--fighting for universal health care, abortion rights and an end to deportations, for example. But it also entails providing a vision for a different way that society can and must be arranged--and winning more people to the idea it that can only come about with a different class in power.

THE WORKING class has the potential to lead the struggle for a different kind of society, firstly because it is the vast majority of society--it is comprised of the many millions of people who have to work for a paycheck to survive, rather than owning or controlling the businesses and services that employ labor.

Socialists also look to the working class because it has tremendous potential power because it produces almost all of the wealth in society--and it can realize that power because of the way capitalism organizes us to work collectively. As the union song "Solidarity Forever" puts it:

They have taken untold millions that they never toiled to earn
But without our brain and muscle not a single wheel can turn
We can break their haughty power gain our freedom when we learn
That the union makes us strong

Most workers don't think of themselves as being part of a class with collective social power. They feel isolated and in competition with other workers--and sometimes even see them as their enemies because of their skin color, religion, national origin and so on.

How can workers gain freedom inside a system that works so hard to keep us divided and oppressed?

The success of Bernie Sanders in the U.S. and Jeremy Corbyn in Britain in elections and primaries that they lost only very narrowly has provided amazing inspiration to a new generation--and put radical demands for economic equality and even socialism back on the agenda.

But while socialists should engage with this mood--both in elections and protests--we have to maintain a clear understanding: Socialism won't be brought about through elections inside of capitalism.

More generally, any strategy of grouping together socialist activists and politicians, taking hold of the institutions of government and society--by winning elections or any other means--and then implementing socialism from those new positions is a dead end.

The institutions of government were designed to uphold capitalism--to help a small minority control the large majority. Those who try to use such institutions to defy the system will crash headfirst into innumerable and insurmountable obstacles.

Plenty of movements have tried this route before. The Social Democrats in Germany in the early 20th century, Salvador Allende's Popular Front in Chile, and the radical left party SYRIZA in contemporary Greece all, in their various ways, tried to carry out such a project, and all were defeated.

Other so-called socialist formations--like the regimes presided over by Joseph Stalin in Russia and Mao Zedong in China--had full control of the state and the economy, and claimed to operate in the interests of workers. But they proved to be just as repressive and authoritarian--and directed toward advancing the power of a small minority--as the capitalist system we are fighting against in our own time.

TO REALLY move toward socialism requires an approach of a profoundly different kind. The working class has to build entirely new institutions of government, controlled by and comprised of all workers democratically, rather than a faction of the class or a group of socialists trying to take over the existing state structure.

Working-class people have to organize themselves in workplaces, campuses and communities everywhere, bring those organizations together into one unified body, and sweep aside the old state to install this new body as the next form of government.

Compared to the idea of socialists entering the government, this more sweeping conception of socialism from below seems like it involves enormous challenges. And, truth be told, it does.

But while we should never minimize the challenges, we also shouldn't forget the many moments in history when workers showed themselves capable of organizing on the scale needed for socialism.

At different times during the 20th century, workers in the U.S. organized general strikes in dozens of cities; factory occupations that swept across the country and established union rights; and radical labor and social movements that posed a serious threat to the bosses' power. All this was before the decades of working-class defeats that most of us have grown up in since the late 1970s and 1980s.

In other countries, workers have come even closer to revolution. In France in 1968, Chile in 1973, Iran in 1979 and Poland in 1981, millions of people organized themselves into councils and committees that contained the potential to challenge for power, though of these were ultimately beaten back.

During the Russian Revolution of 1917, the self-organized councils of the working class actually did come to power and replace the existing state with its own decision-making bodies, providing an inspiring example of direct democracy in action. The crushing of their movement during the Russian civil war and the counterrevolution led by Stalin and his henchmen is one of history's greatest tragedies.

All of these experiences have to be studied with fresh eyes by today's activists to cull the many lessons they have for us.

Many of you moving toward socialist politics will likely be intrigued, but still skeptical about this vision of socialism from below. That's understandable, and there are branches of the International Socialist Organization (ISO)--the publisher of this website--all around the country where you can bring your questions and differences to discuss with other socialists.

LET'S SAY you're on board with the project of working-class revolution. Clearly this is a long-term project, with the goal of the socialism well in the future. But how do we advance that struggle forward today?

The ISO views itself as having three broad tasks.

First, we want to organize the largest possible struggles for democracy, social justice and economic equality, and defend our freedoms from government attacks and right-wing creeps. This means being involved in movements and organizing in many corners of society, from workplaces to campuses to communities, to achieve gains and defend previous victories that improve the situation of the whole working class.

Second, we want to persuade as many people as possible within these struggles and beyond to the importance of the project of revolutionary socialism. We need to build organizations of socialists capable of education, discussion and action, and the networks and ideas of the broader left that socialists are part of.

Third, the ISO wants to develop all these socialists, in our own organization and in the broader left, into more experienced and effective activists and intellectual leaders, who can be leaders among their co-workers and in their communities in putting forward socialist strategies in the struggles of today and a socialist vision of a different society.

These activities need one another to be successful. We can't build the capacity of our fellow workers and students to fight back without also building socialist organization, and we can't build socialist organization without continuously engaging in the struggle to organize our workplaces, campuses and communities.

None of these tasks happen in a vacuum either, but in response to events in the world and the ups and downs of the movements that impact all of us.

If a war breaks out or far-right racists decide to target our city, if one of us finds ourselves in a union drive or facing deportation, we need organization to discuss and debate our priorities and strategies, and later assess what happened and why.

Equally important to discussing our organizing is the work of analyzing and explaining the world around us. Without an accurate explanation of the reality we have to confront, we won't find the right course of action for our side. Often, the most important step in understanding the present is understanding the past experience of socialists and other radicals, which is why the ISO places a great stress on education.

This is the week-to-week work of being a socialist that hopefully can ground emerging movements in consistent, purposeful activity and lay the foundations for greater struggles in the years to come.

If you feel even partially swayed by these arguments, please attend an ISO meeting and talk to ISO organizers about any and all of the questions you can think of. If you find yourself more fully persuaded, join us.

The situation of the world today is dire, but there is a massive yearning for something better. We have a world to win.

Further Reading

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