A socialist moment has sprouted up on the American landscape and is beginning to take firm root, as most recently evidenced by India Walton’s stunning victory in working-class Buffalo. While not yet a trend, Walton’s election continues the spate of left candidates’ victories in Congress, state legislatures, and city councils across the country, reflecting a deep discontent in the body politic.
In a word, America is growing more radical. But what is the meaning of this word that falls so easily from our lips? Radicalization is an objective process born out of the class struggle and capitalist crisis. Yet, like all objective processes, it has subjective ripples. These eddies, while influenced by basic class conflicts, are not limited to them. As a result, different people are radicalized for different reasons. The environment, police violence, sexism, and other forms of gender discrimination, the treatment of animals, in addition to poverty, racism, immigrant rights, voter suppression, unemployment, and discrimination on the job can lead to folks seeking deeper, more radical solutions.
In general, the communist movement welcomes the growing radicalization of the broad public, particularly its working-class majority. It means people are waking up. But after getting out of bed, do folks step to the right or to the left? This is an issue often dismissed as a “war over words,” since the word “radical” literally means “to the root.”
But the roots, indeed, the entire tree of radicalization has many branches. And the winds of change blow them in myriad directions. Today, in bourgeois discourse, anything to the left or right of the political or religious center is often labeled “radical” by the ruling-class hegemony. This war of words should not be dismissed — it’s an important part of the ideological struggle.
For example, in the mainstream media, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is often referred to as “radical,” along with the right-wing “radicals” who attacked the Capitol earlier this year. On the other hand, the Republicans in Congress attack Medicare for All for being a “radical socialist demand” while condemning Black Lives Matter marches as the product of “radical anarchism.”
Here a class analysis is helpful in determining what’s really radical, that is, what actually goes to the root, and what doesn’t.
For us, policies that get to the root of solving the problem of working-class exploitation and promote greater equality and democracy are radical. Simply put, those that don’t are not.
Suppressing the vote isn’t radical — it’s deeply conservative. Neither is opposing marriage equality. On the other hand, proportional representation, a voting method that could greatly expand democracy for minority parties, is a positive, radical democratic demand.
Historically, as capitalism became a world system and grew into imperialism, the radicalization of the broad working-class public led to the creation of what’s called the world revolutionary process. Frustrated and angered by inequality and exploitation, middle- and working-class forces formed unions and political parties to press forward their just demands and interests. The October Revolution was born out of this struggle and brought with it a new stage in the process, the period of the transition from capitalism to socialism.
There is also a worldwide counter-revolutionary process at work that has led to world wars, as well as regional and local armed conflicts. It has promoted repression and the growth of fascism. U.S. imperialism is one of the leading, if not the leading sponsors. The Trump movement and its international counterparts are contemporary examples of these efforts. Notwithstanding important differences on domestic policy, the Biden administration’s policy toward China and Venezuela continues the anti-socialist drive.
Today’s radicalization process is drawing millions . . . some toward revolutionary Marxism.
On the other side of the class and democratic ledger, a deep and thoroughgoing radicalization process is at work today in the U.S. Beginning first with Occupy Wall Street, followed by the movements for Black lives and the mass protests led by women in the initial days of the Trump administration, today’s radicalization process is drawing millions into its various orbits, some of whom are, as if by the very force of gravity itself, drawn toward the working-class and revolutionary Marxism. It has crystallized in what we’ve called the socialist moment.
Communists highly value the growth of these radical democratic trends. Their contributions, new ideas, and victories are very important.
Those trends that gravitate toward the working class and Marxism are adding fresh forces along with new opportunities and challenges. One of the challenges is the growth in the influence of what might be termed “middle-class” or “petty bourgeois radicalism.”
By middle-class radicalism is meant a rather eclectic set of ideas and practices that historically have their origins in this strata’s frustration and primitive rebellion. Pressed on all sides and stuck between capitalism’s two main classes, the petite bourgeoisie’s class aspirations are crushed time and again. Viewing the world from a frog’s perspective — always looking up — they are ever being pushed down into the ranks of the working class.
Their political practices and outlook are largely shaped by these conflicted conditions of life. Absent the experience of working in large groups and being forced to collectively bargain, they tend to seek basic change along narrow, individual paths as opposed to seeing the need for moving masses in struggle, an outlook that lends itself to anarchism, individual acts of terrorism, and an unfounded confidence in the actions of small groups and self-styled “vanguards.” Some tend to be anti-corporate but not yet anti-capitalist, “anti-establishment” but out of touch with working-class needs, modalities, and political imperatives.
Middle-class radicalism is a mass concept and political trend.
As a result, these trends run up against and counter to the realities of struggle, a reality that is framed today by the broad democratic fight against the fascist danger. Mass electoral movements of both right and left are defining characteristics of these days and times, but the need to build political majorities for real change, particularly in the electoral arena, is largely lost on this trend, disdained in favor of allegedly more militant, revolutionary action such as abstract calls for general strikes regardless of whether or not the conditions for such important actions exist.
Middle-class radicalism should be treated not so much as the expression of this or that individual or organization but rather as a mass concept and political trend, one that rises and falls in tempo with the class, democratic, and anti-imperialist struggles both domestically and worldwide. Needless to say, each episode brings with it the unique features of the political terrain on which it’s born.
For example, after the defeat of the McCarthy period in the 1960s, the labor left was confronted with the growing influence of radical middle-class strata who were approaching but had not yet reached consistent working-class positions. These forces viewed Marxism-Leninism as old hat, the communist parties as outmoded, the working class as no longer revolutionary, unity an unrealistic watchword, and the class struggle a pipe dream. Inspired by the likes of Régis Debray, Herbert Marcuse, and others, they sought to forge a New Left, with new sources of revolutionary activity.
Regarding their class backgrounds, CPUSA leader James E. Jackson wrote, “They have come to the party out of the non-proletarian classes … from the poor workers in agriculture and the urban petite-bourgeoisie — the students, the intellectuals, the professionals.”
Applauding this development, Jackson also warned of potential conflicts:
It is a welcome sign of the times that the petty-bourgeois militants — from the cities or countryside — enroll in movements of mass actions and the best among them come to the party. At the same time, they generate mass pressure and constitute the primary source for the current attacks upon vital features of the Communist Party’s policies in the spheres of ideology, organization and tactics.
Today a new wave of radicalism is presenting itself in a climate quite different from the one that was confronted by Jackson and his comrades. Importantly, a new, New Left is once again emerging. The difference is that its roots now are closer to the working class and people’s movements. This is due, in part, to the class’s changing composition. Sections of the population once considered middle class have become “proletarianized,” that is, pushed into the working class. At the same time, a wider section of the working class have access to higher education and have become politically literate. Add to this the increase in women, people of color, and of course the growth in the service sector, and you have a very different situation indeed.
Thus the problem today is not so much the influx of middle-class elements but the remaining influence, that is, the residue of petty-bourgeois ideology, a problem exacerbated by the relative weakness of the Marxist left and the growth of the internet.
The impact of this residue should not be underestimated. With respect to ideological trends it reflects the ongoing impact of remnants of Maoism, Trotskyism, and to varying degrees strands of anarchism.
What, then, are the main challenges presented by middle-class radicalism?
It’s inevitable that each generation’s initial imbibing of Marxism not only is shaped by the conditions and influences of the times but also is necessarily incomplete due to newness itself. During the wave of radicalization that swept Russia at the beginning of the 20th century, for example, Lenin complained of Marx and Engels’ doctrine being learned in an “extremely one-sided and mutilated form.” In the U.S. during the radical ’60s, one-sided interpretations repeated themselves, this time influenced not only by the New Left but also by a middle-class radicalism of a special type in the form practiced by the Mao leadership in China.
On the other hand, the problem is exacerbated by the relative state of the communist movement itself. After the collapse of what was called “really existing socialism” due to right pressures, a serious ideological crisis and disintegration occurred within the communist movement. In response, there were manifest tendencies to over-correct to the left. These right and left opportunist swings exist to this day, in response to conditions on the ground and the communist’s relative maturity in addressing them. As Gus Hall pointed out, middle-class radical leftist errors cannot be effectively addressed unless right mistakes are corrected as well.
In this regard, slowness in recognizing and responding to new circumstances contributes to the problem. One of the criticisms of the Communist Party from emerging young revolutionary forces is its approach to united front policy, electoral politics, and fighting the extreme right. Here, an understanding of the party’s correct policy with respect to fighting the fascist danger was somewhat confounded by its not taking initiative and fielding its own candidates. As a result, the CPUSA was accused of tailing the Democratic Party. In this regard, a long overdue decision to run communist candidates for office was taken recently by the CPUSA National Committee.
With respect to tactics, it is vitally important to have an accurate assessment of where the struggle is at any given point in time. Tactics, as Gus Hall used to say, is timing. Take for example the issue of prison abolition and defunding the police, two important slogans that emerged in the fight against racist police murder. The key question is when and how these end goals can be obtained.
Communists understand that the prison-industrial complex and the police force are institutions of the capitalist state. Our long-term vision anticipates the “withering away,” to use Marx’s phrase, of the state. This includes the socialist state as well. That’s what communism is all about: human freedom.
How, then, is it possible to build a mass movement powerful enough to bring this about? The end goal has been established — are there way stations along the route, radical reforms that will take us, a quarter or one-half the way there?
Of course there are.
An approach advanced by ourselves and others, most notably the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, believes that the election of civilian control boards is one such step. We believe that the fight for such institutions is an important part of the fight for democracy and working-class empowerment. Think about it: These community boards would control hiring, firing, funding, the whole nine yards. They would help create conditions where alternatives to policing could be enacted, including the allocation of money to do so.
This approach was often attacked by those who do not believe defunding the police is a “radical” enough step at this point in time. But why pit one goal against a step in the direction of achieving it?
This relationship between means and ends is an ongoing tension in almost every arena. Maximum goals are placed over and against partial means for achieving them. In the fight for health care, a national health service is prioritized over Medicare for All; in the fight to end the Afghan war the demand to “Bring the troops home now” is placed against setting a date; and in the battle to end racist policing, abolition is posed as more revolutionary than the “reformist” position of community control.
Mastering the relationship between reform and revolution.
At bottom, what’s at stake here is mastering the relationship between reform and revolution. The issue is always how does the working-class and people’s movement marshal the forces necessary to achieve its goals. The promised land is over there on the hill, right across that river. How do we build a bridge to get there? Today the struggle for advanced democracy, that is, advanced democratic reforms, is that bridge.
This raises the issue of what Marxist-Leninists regard as the fight for “consistent democracy” — the need to take consistent working-class positions with respect to the interests of the class as a whole. Because our working class is multi-racial and multi-gendered, a revolutionary party must champion the special measures necessary to address the demands of each section of the class, the racially and sexually oppressed in particular, including advanced democratic ones, like community control. A failure to do so weakens the fight for class unity with potentially devastating consequences.
The middle-class radical chafing at community control steps away from taking consistent working-class positions. Objectively, it weakens the ability of people of color to have control over their lives.
Another example of the failure to take consistent democratic positions is the Trotskyist critique of the 1619 Project, which locates racism at the very founding of colonial America. They claim 1619 is a disunifying Democratic Party capitulation to “identity politics.” But disunifying to whom? What kind of unity can be built on denying the slave trade and the genocide against Native Americans and their presence in the very DNA of the colonial republic? To paraphrase Marx here, labor in white skin cannot be free while labor in the black skin is bound and branded by historical cover-ups and lies.
These questions over and again raise the issue of what it’s going to take to bring about “radical” change to this country. Where and when will the tipping point be reached? As dialectical materialists, we cannot be too speculative about how deep the capitalist crisis can get. We do know that it’s going to take a broad working-class and people’s unity to bring about real change.
“Unity, united front” as Gus Hall writes, “are class-mass concepts.” In the past, middle-class radicals did not, he argued, “see themselves as being exploited or oppressed as a class. They do not react to oppression as a class.”
The good news as we’ve argued above is that this is changing. Today there’s a greater recognition of common class and democratic interests. And on the slopes of that momentous change lives hope. Let’s build bridges to the future together, keeping ever present our cherished goals while collectively exploring how to get there. While doing so, the role of our revolutionary party is to help drive the radicalization process towards unity and socialist consciousness, that is, towards the working class and working-class power.
Joe Sims is co-chair of the Communist Party USA (2019-). He is also a senior editor of People's World and loves biking.
This article was republished from CPUSA.