Building the Road of Rupture
Foreword by Jean R.D. Allen
Whether we liked it or not, over the past few years one of the defining elements of US socialist strategy was the Sanders campaign. The potential of a successful Sanders campaign made electoral strategies imminent in a way few other analyses could challenge. Who else could boast of a strategy which could put social democratic politicians at the center of power both within the formal state and within the Democratic party, all within the space of four years?
But with Bernie Sanders ending his second presidential campaign, we need to pivot. With Sanders too old to run in a third campaign, and no socialist politician with anywhere near the name recognition or network to pull off a Sanders level effort, we are left looking at four to eight years before we can hitch ourselves to another Sanders, at least.
Any strategy will see the world in one lens, will look at every problem as a nail to be hammered. The blinders we placed on ourselves to keep our eyes on the prize of state power thus led to a series of missed opportunities. From 2016 to 2020, there were numerous opportunities to develop new layers of organization which were instead redirected towards the possibility of winning the presidency. From the airport protests to the 2018 hurricane season, to movements within prisons, to the relatively spontaneous if quickly disorganized climate movement, to the Red for Ed wildcat strikes, the Left failed to work within these mini-crises because they did not immediately give us a leg up in the fight for state power. In many cases these moments slipped by, either becoming less immediately cruel or slowly transforming into an accepted new normal.
Strategic choices are not made in a vacuum. Whenever we choose to undertake one set of actions, that precludes another set. Any strategy also locks us into a set of practices that we increasingly see as the real tools of power. While electoral campaigns can be utilized within a variety of socialist strategies, the horizon of a Sanders presidency subordinated all other socialist projects to the contingency of Sanders’ victory. Our inability, as DSA, to meaningfully intervene in the micro-crises listed above was partially a result of the under-development of our chapters, but it was just as much a product of seeing these struggles as add-ons to the real struggle: getting Sanders elected. By giving these fights nominal attention we softened the blow of participating in a defeat, but school privatizations, deportations, police brutality, have continued apace. So let us not mince words. While we focused our energies around what we all knew was a long shot, the white supremacist state, the climate crisis, and disaster capitalism have advanced themselves, and those effects are being felt, every day, by the working class. Furthermore, the 2020 Democratic primary should make it clear that the Democratic Party will not just sit back and allow us to break them in half. Cases of what can only be called voter suppression, with dozens of polling locations closing in poor and non-white areas leading to hour long lines, are too numerous to count. And even if we weren’t expecting Bernie to win, and were solely working in his campaign to increase our membership or change the narrative, even so the Sanders campaign and DSA’s involvement in it have generated less organization than even its biggest supporters could have hoped. Trying the same strategy again after it is clear that pursuing this strategy hurts us in other ways, as the clock on an unsurvivable biosphere continues to count down, after our enemies in the state have shown they will not allow us to try it the same way, is tantamount to running again and again into a concrete wall.
It would seem absolutely obvious that this is the time for a new strategy. But the need for a new strategy still requires us to develop it. We should not assume that new material conditions will give us permission to steer the socialist movement. The failure of the Sanders campaign is our failure whether we cheered for it or not. It means that for four years, we advocated, argued, and analyzed but failed to propose a strategy as compelling as that of the electoralists.
For a strategy to be accepted, it needs an analysis of the present, an end-state it aims for, and a clear narrative of how we can use the tactics available to us to get from the present to the end-state we want. The strategy of trying to win through a Sanders campaign had a clear analysis of the present, split between corporate and progressive or socialist Democrats; an end-state it aimed for, a Sanders presidency which would pass our legislative agenda; and a clear role for nearly every member of the ‘left’ from DSA members to Twitter users to media figures. What opposition rose to meet that strategy rarely rose past the level of sentiment.
Alternatively, we have strategies which are in fact the elevation of a tactic or an organizational tool to the level of strategy. Consider knee-jerk calls to commit to street action or to engage in mutual aid work without a defined end goal. I cannot think of a better example of this than an action which occurred in my school shortly before Occupy Wall Street. We decided first to occupy our administrative building, and then figure out a demand based on that tactic. But we were a state college, so our administrative building could not actually fulfill any demands we raised. We ‘won’ the occupation and commenced dancing, having gained nothing and advanced nothing. I and many others dropped out of politics for years after this failure.
After Trump’s election, some socialists tried to overcome these limited tactics by focusing on “base building.” These “base builders” viewed our primary goal as building a proletarian base for socialism through a combination of mutual aid and militant tenants / workers’ unions. Prominent base building advocates like Tim Horras of Philly Socialists and Sophia Burns of Seattle Communists argued against involvement in elections or even in protests and traditional activism, urging socialists instead to take up the task of “organizing the unorganized.”
This line of thinking was unquestionably a development over what had existed before. Base building gave us a vision of socialists as the builders of the basis of their own politics rather than a group destined to tail the work of others. It gave us the idea of organizing autonomous tenant unions rather than exclusively showing up to protests with signs and pamphlets. And base builders’ rejection of existing sectarian divisions made sense in the context of a left exclusively divided along obsolete and arcane histories.
But base building’s advocates failed to link their tactics to a more developed, long term strategy. In the absence of such a strategy, base building became an end in itself for many of its proponents. Sophia Burns urged complete separation from existing socialist or working class organizations, which she said were all already compromised by the capitalist state:
“Creating [socialism] will take a full-blown revolution, not a gradual build-up of legislative reforms, because the liberal-democratic political process will never allow socialism. It never has and it never will because it was designed from the get-go to make that impossible. It does that not by banning dissent but by giving it a venue to express itself and lobby the government (or protest it!), thereby taming it into a perpetual loyal opposition.
To put her argument simply, what is required of socialists is to build our own base wholly disconnected from other groups and break with our enemies, from formal activist organizations, to the Democratic Party, to the capitalist state. In breaking from these groups and rejecting the “middle class” politics of the rest of the socialist movement, we are then freed to…well, she is never clear about this. It seems that simply building tenant unions and organizing the working class without a requirement to connect those immediate actions to a long term goal is enough. That is, we never have to do politics.
Burns’ abstentionism and the rejection of existing political struggles by some base builders allowed a strategic hole to persist, even as “base building” became an exciting watchword in parts of the DSA. DSA members who opposed some or all of the organization’s work on the Sanders campaign took up base building as a guiding principle, but this only squared the lack of a strategy that could be a compelling alternative to an all-in approach to the Sanders campaign. As a result, the 2019 DSA national convention became about a “yes, and” to the Sanders campaign, which was able to coexist with base building work, which would after all presumably build an electoral base for Sanders., No other strategic horizon, nor alternative vision for the role of electoral work, was on offer.
But now we are in completely different terrain. Sanders was defeated in his primary, and won’t be running again. DSA once more requires a strategic horizon towards which to orient itself. The following article by our comrade Teresa Kalisz proposes something we have been grasping towards for years: a ruptural strategy that can fit the form of base building into the content of a revolutionary strategy.
Comrade Teresa’s first development is to take our idea of rupture and crisis away from massive unpredictable events and towards the constant crises that beset working class life. By orienting ourselves towards and building within these ‘everyday ruptures’, we can start to build out our organizations in such a way that we can try to continually build on successive struggles. This requires organizations of a different type than what many DSA chapters have built. Chapters need to be built in a diverse way, both in terms of the practices they work on and in terms of the communities they reach into. This should not be done just because the DSA should reflect the diversity of the working class or a diversity of tactics, but because it allows us to be aware of and intervene into the lives of the communities we work in. This is the heart of the ruptural strategy comrade Teresa proposes.
No revolution happens in a moment. By seeing the two possibilities we can move towards as “electing a socialist” or “storming the Winter Palace,” we erase the path which can lead us to either reform or revolution. The successful election of Allende, the Rebel Army descending upon Havana, or the October Revolution, did not occur of their own. They were merely one in a series of moments. To get to a period like a revolution we cannot start with the tactics required at the point of revolution, with the slogans relevant at the point of revolution, with the organizations which only work at the point of revolution. We need to start here and now and build towards that moment. Building towards that moment does not just require base building or mutual aid. It requires that we use all the tools available to us. To infuse these tools with our politics, to work on mutual aid, on direct action or reform campaigns, on unionization and tenant unionization work, and even on electoral work, while working to inform people that it is only through the effort of the exploited and marginalized that we can shape society.
This does not mean opposing all electoral work, but recontextualizing it within a strategy focused on these imminent crises of working class life. In a Tribune article in 2020, Andrew Murray notes that “the core of the problem, politically, is that the labour movement has ceased to exist in many of these communities”, and this speaks to the fundamental weakness of our current strategy. If we take the crises of working class life and tell our comrades that this will be fixed through voting for some candidate, they will look to their own lives, and having seen no such instance of that occurring, will view us (perhaps rightfully) as wishful idealists. This problem cannot be fixed by developing some other policy program. It needs to be fixed by politicizing the crises of working class life, by building up political institutions of the working class. It requires taking ‘working class politics’ seriously.
When a rupture comes we move to the offensive, escalating our campaigns when our enemy is weakest. When a rupture abates we go back to base building, back to infusing politics into our base building and to preparing for the next rupture. By chaining these moments of preparation and offensives together and connecting socialist goals and working class power, we can not only create the road towards a viable socialist politics in the United States, but to a revolution. It is a lot of work, but if we choose not to make this road, if we choose to tread the paths we have already gone down, we will end up at the same point as we are now. We will be left asking, yet again, what do we do now?
Excerpts from Everyday Ruptures: Putting Basebuilding on a Revolutionary Path
By Teresa Kalisz
The Terrain of the State
The question of the state is often tricky. Beyond the debates that began to spring up in the latter half of the 20th century, Marxists have not placed much emphasis on analyzing the state. Through specific interpretations of Lenin’s State and Revolution, Marxists have arrived at positions on the capitalist state that are fairly similar to those held by anarchists. The conclusions usually read that the capitalist state is a tool of class dictatorship over the working class, with a monopoly on legitimate force developed for the purpose of ensuring capital accumulation. This short definition captures many aspects of the state, especially emblematic in the violence of the police, military, and the courts,and the lengths gone to maintain capitalist property rights and the white supremacist and settler colonial structure of American capitalist society. This definition of the state can also be evidenced in the frequent corporate bailouts during capitalist crises, and the close personal relationships between state officials and capitalists (in many cases they are the same people!).
But this definition alone doesn’t help us explain why the state functions this way, nor does it tell us how it maintains this legitimacy. This is why we must move beyond the definition offered by State and Revolution and into a deeper understanding of the state. A solution to the question of how the state maintains legitimacy is offered by French communist Louis Althusser. In his analysis, the state does not just consist of repressive institutions but also Ideological State Apparatuses. Where Repressive State Apparatuses function by violence, Ideological State Apparatus reproduce capitalist social relations by ideology. Ideological State Apparatuses can be clearly seen in the examples of school, state media, religious institutions, etc. However, the state doesn’t merely engage in repression and ideology, nor is it only concerned purely with capital accumulation. It also engages in the reproduction of the working class, not just in terms of class relations and ideology, but in the continued physical existence of the working class, and in the infrastructure required for this social reproduction of the working class.
This is where models of the state for the revolutionary left start to feel disjointed. On the one hand, it is argued that reforms to capitalism are products of class struggle, not given to us nicely by the capitalist class, nor won just through electoral projects. In this way, reforms and the extension of state-run social welfare are seen as the weaknesses of capitalist power. On the other hand, the lived reality of working class people in the welfare system is one of racism and repression. From physical violence, threatened or otherwise, faced by people of color and people with disabilities in the healthcare systems, to alienating and restrictive food and unemployment support, the violence of the state permeates the entire welfare apparatus. In view of this, some Marxists conclude that while for some workers state-run social welfare is better than relying on capitalists, it is still an aspect of the repressive functions of the state used to control the working class and reproduce oppressive class relations. However, if this were the case, then why are capitalist governments so quick to cut or jettison these programs? Are the reactionary roles played by these institutions inherent to them, or they an incidental byproduct of the deeper nature of the state?
Rather than looking at the state from the perspective of a tool, we should shift our perspective to begin to see the state as a social relation between the capitalist and working classes which is rooted in the capitalist division of labor. So while, absolutely, the state is concerned about continued capital accumulation and the reproduction of the division of labor, once we view the state as a social relation, the state ceases to be a monolithic set of institutions which the working class confront externally on the terrain of class struggle. Rather, the state is itself constituted by class struggle, wherein class contradictions permeate its institutions. It is by adding this layer of understanding that we can account for why welfare institutions have this dual character. It is not that welfare institutions are products of working class victory or tools of capitalist domination, but it is the manifestation of class struggle within those institutions.
To return to the classical view, if we view the state as purely a tool of the capitalist class, how do we account for the historic ability for democratic socialists to establish governments and enact reforms and policies within the state that aren’t coherent with the concept of the state as a mere tool of capitalist class? It should be noted that these democratic socialist governments have faced large backlashes and have almost all been defeated by capitalist reaction within the state itself. These experiences are not just limited to the imperial core where theories of imperialism and labor aristocracy might account for the flexibility. We can look to the Bolivarian revolution and other Pink Tide governments to which the revolutionary, or at least Leninist, left has provided support to see evidence that the classical formulas break down. The relational view for which we argue allows for us to see the relative autonomy of state institutions from the capitalist class. As class struggle traverses the state, socialists might be able to gain control of specific institutions, but this is often limited as the class struggle continues and capitalist power regroups and launches counter offensive measures.
Furthermore, in seeing the state as a social relation, a relation of power between the capitalist and working classes, we see that the state extends beyond the reach of its formal institutions, not just into now formally independent religious institutions but also into NGOs which take over the social reproductive roles of the state. This is important to our analysis because it shows that reductions in state-run social welfare during periods of austerity do not indicate a weakening or shrinking of the state. Instead, the state is in actuality much larger and permeates so many aspects of working class life, through its tendrils of control in religious institutions, NGOs, and other such “civil society” institutions.
The state is not something the working class or communists can avoid or meet purely from the outside. The idea that we can avoid the effects of the state by organizing away from it is an illusion. Whether we like it or not, the state defines the terrain on which we wage social struggles and, in many ways, workplace struggles. This does not mean we must accept or join the social democratic march through the institutions. On the contrary, this understanding of the state as a social relation allows for the development of a strategic orientation towards revolution, a foundation which extends beyond the limitations of the various insurrectionary and prefigurative conceptions of dual power and electoral roads to socialism.
Which Way to Socialism?
In the debate on how we get to socialism, two sides generally appear. First is “the democratic road to socialism,” which can take different forms. On one end of the spectrum there are social democratic visions of this road, which emphasize socialist parties utilizing the state as a neutral tool in order to enact a series of progressive reforms which would transition capitalist society, gradually, to socialism. On the other end of the spectrum you have the democratic road of the (left) eurocommunist traditions, which seek to unite socialist electoral projects with a robust labor movement, with the goal of forming a government and, through an inside/outside strategy, work to transform and democratize the state, thereby carrying out the transition to socialism. This latter version has been increasingly popular among democratic socialists.
The second side of the debate over how we get to socialism is often represented by the dual power strategies. Dual power strategies may vary in their visions, but they share the idea that socialists cannot transform the existing state, seeing it as a tool of capitalist domination. Therefore, the working class must build up a power that could stand in opposition to the existing state, and which, at a point of great crisis and rupture, can overthrow the existing state and reorganize society. The two main forms of dual power strategy that this piece will focus on are the insurrectionary and prefigurative forms. These are the two major tendencies that have arisen within the Marxist Center, as well as in the DSA, in traditional Leninist groups like the Party for Socialism and Liberation, or in anarchist trends like Symbiosis.
Both democratic road and dual power strategies face serious obstacles. The democratic road is by its nature a strategic long game. While the electoral insurgencies that we have seen can build the energy needed to initiate a serious socialist electoral project, such a project would need to win thousands of electoral races from the municipal to the federal level in order to achieve an electoral road to socialism. This requires time and a lot of sustained energy and organization. This isn’t inherently a negative, but we also don’t know what the future may hold as the scale of the environmental crisis progresses. Even now, Hungary, a consistent canary in the coal mine with respect to the ascendance of the far right and an EU member, has experienced a parliamentary coup during the COVID-19 crisis. Its prime minister, Victor Orban, has gained the ability to rule by decree indefinitely with parliament suspended. Any claims about the stability of bourgeois democracy should be taken with a grain of salt.
This does not mean that a socialist electoral project is unviable, but rather it means that we should take seriously the potential reality that we might be blocked from gaining major footholds in the institutions of representative democracy yet again. This did, in fact, happen at the municipal scale in the aftermath of the last major crisis. In the state of Michigan, state-appointed emergency financial managers took over powers from multiple city councils and, in one case, locked the city council out entirely.
Another limit of the electoral road in the United States is the U.S. Constitution. This is a place where advocates of both strategies fundamentally agree. In his article “Constitution and Class Struggle”, Chris Maisano highlights how the architects of the U.S. Constitution designed it explicitly to hinder the ability of majoritarian movements to transform society. This was accomplished through a separation of powers between a powerful executive branch, a judiciary branch which was given the power to strike down laws on the basis of their constitutionality (or lack thereof), and a divided legislative branch which checks the potential of popular movements to form majorities in the lower house with a more aristocratic upper house, as well as the enshrinement of property rights. For an electoral road to be successful, it must either radically reform or get rid of the existing constitution. In order to accomplish either of these, a socialist electoral project would have to not only win a supermajority of seats in Congress at the federal level, but also in the state governments. A simple majority is not enough political power to radically change the Constitution, and it is unrealistic to assume that even a widely popular socialist movement would manage to build and sustain such state-level victories over the length of time required to achieve them. In his piece, Chris Maisano recognizes this problem:
Given the egregiously high barriers to calling a constitutional convention or amending the current constitution, a demand for a wholly new constitution would be utopian.
Does all this mean that electoral participation is not useful for the working class struggle for socialism? Absolutely not; a dual power strategy is compatible with engaging in electoral activity. However, it does mean that the democratic road is not viable as a road to socialism.
Projections for the dual power strategy don’t fare any better. In the insurrectionary model, a crisis of authority develops between the existing capitalist state and an external working class power that results in an insurrectionary overthrow of the capitalist state to be replaced by new institutions of working class rule. These new institutions are either present in the build up to the crisis (potentially aiding and giving form to the working class power), or are established after the victory of the revolutionary forces. The problem with this model is that it places too much emphasis on massive systemic crises in capitalist society and the prediction of the formation of workers councils/soviets during these times of crisis. Certainly, systemic crises do occur, and we shouldn’t overestimate the power and stability of the legitimacy of the capitalist state. But crises of this size are both hard to predict and beyond our control. They also don’t necessarily develop into moments of revolutionary rupture. If we are depending on the occurrence of a potentially far off systemic crisis, and on specific organizational forms that might come into existence in the lead up to this crisis, there is not a path for us to tread to go from here to there.. We can only prepare for that moment by trying to radicalize the workers’ movement. Consciousness-raising and organizing within unions for more space for radical activity, or even for building new, more radical worker organizations are important activities for socialists, but they have their limits. At best, they provide us with a way to develop in parts the prerequisite working class militancy needed for a left of any size to exist.
Because of these contradictions, the prefigurative model seems on the surface more preferable. It recognizes the importance of organizing, and understands that mass unrest doesn’t necessarily translate into organization. The prefigurative model asserts that we must build working class institutions of counterpower and alternative power. Institutions of counterpower are organizations such as revolutionary unions or tenants unions that fight the boss, landlords, or state, or provide protection from them. Institutions of alternative power are organizations which provide alternatives to the state in the form of mutual aid, workers and buyers cooperatives, community clinics, etc. Organizing in the prefigurative model is conducted at a distance from the state, understood as something external to the working class. But this strategy underestimates the state’s ability to co-opt radical projects. These organizations of counter- and alternative power can just as easily be co-opted, as they prove inefficient in competing with the resources of the state and so seek funding grants from liberal funds in order to survive. Or else, the state may integrate them into the social welfare system. We only need to look at the movement history of the 1930s and 1970s, how various radical alternative institutions and grassroots movements became agents of distribution of services for the state. Advocates of the prefigurative model promote the development of our own healthcare clinics as an alternative to medicare for all. But consider the recent example of the Culinary Workers Union in Las Vegas, who used the defense of their medical clinics to support centrist candidates against Bernie Sanders because of his advocacy for a universal healthcare system. While the CWU has long been allied with capitalist politicians, this example does show how our own alternative institutions can be co-opted not just to become agents of welfare distribution for the state, but also as a defense for capitalist austerity.
The combination of an opposition to protesting and a focus on developing institutions that act as an alternative to state- or capitalist-provided services can lead to a drift of resources from organizations of counterpower to the alternative institutions. The gradual expansion of the alternative institutions can start increasing in priority as the organizations of counterpower run into the limits of a strategy which doesn’t engage the state and opposes reforms. Since the alternative institutions are already conceived as a replacement for the existing capitalist, this can easily morph into a vision of building a new society in the shell of the old. Rather than a revolution, a new reformism is born that sees a gradual disengagement from capitalism through workers’ associations, cooperatives, and community gardens as means to supplant capitalism regardless of the revolutionary pretenses of the organizations.
Beyond just the threat of a new reformism, this strategy will still lead us to a similar problem as in the ‘insurrectionary’ model: there is still a gap between the work that happens right now and the future revolutionary crisis. At what point do our organizations of dual power constitute actual dual power? What even guarantees that the organizations that we build will become the organizations of dual power? Before WW1, the German Social Democrats had an intensive infrastructure of alternative institutions and unions and, when push came to shove, it was not these gymnasiums, pioneer clubs, party schools, or affiliated unions that lead to the German Revolution, it was the networks and new organizations born during the war years and the mutinying sailors which launched and carried out the revolution. The German Social Democrats’ alternative institutions played an important role in building and developing the movement, but they did not constitute the infrastructure of the dual power situation. Rather than elevating a series of organizational or tactical tools to the throne of ‘strategy,’ or surrendering the question of revolution to far off systemic crises, we need to develop an adaptable strategy for revolution that builds on the organizing we are currently engaged in while also providing a bridge to the moment of revolution.
Towards a Strategy of Everyday Ruptures
In Envisioning Real Utopias, Erik Olin Wright describes what he called the ruptural transformation of capitalism. The approach of ruptural transformation is to radically break with existing social institutions and structures, destroy them, and then build new ones in their place. While he allows for the potential of limited ruptural moments within institutions, Wright argues that the strength and robustness of the state in capitalist democracies makes these systemic ruptural moments improbable. By limiting our understanding of ruptures outside of state institutions to large systemic ruptures, we lose sight of smaller and more immediate weak points in capitalist hegemony and legitimacy. We need to see ruptures in a broader sense. Mass protests and social movements present moments of ruptural potential. Meanwhile, longer crisis events born of class antagonism, racism, and non-human causes such as disease or natural disaster may also cause temporary radical breaks or breakdowns of hegemonic politics and social functions. We see this occur during riots, environmental crises, and the current COVID-19 crisis.
Critics of insurrectionary models of revolution that depend on a large systemic rupture, like Erik Olin Wright and Eric Blanc, argue that any revolutionary force pursuing such a model will be opposed by the majority of the population and won’t be able to compete with the legitimacy of the capitalist state, as evidenced by the lack of any successful insurrectionary movement in the West. Because of this, according to Wright and Blanc, we must abandon our hope for an all-out attack on the capitalist state, and instead make use of institutions of representative democracy united with an external labor movement to transform society. By taking advantage of a broader vision of ruptures, we can press the fractures in the state and erode the legitimacy of state institutions in small bursts of direct conflict during these limited ruptural moments.
But we can’t immediately engage in direct conflict with state institutions or even with capitalists. We need organization to build trust among and mobilize workers, to plan and focus our attack, and to defend ourselves and the class against reprisals.
In order to conceptualize the process better and how it relates to struggles under moments of rupture, we need to borrow two related concepts from Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci: war of position and war of maneuver. Gramsci took these terms from the military theory of his time. The war of maneuver is when an army engages in direct assaults on its enemy. The war of position takes place when direct assaults are not possible and the army must bunker down in trenches. This metaphor was used to explain the difference between revolutions in the east (i.e. Russia) and in the west. In the east, the capitalist state was weak and could be fought directly, whereas, in the west, the capitalist state was too strong to be fought directly. So for that reason, in the west, revolutionaries had to take on a war of position in the trenches that run through the state and civil society.
In this analysis, one can see hints of Wright’s argument against ruptural transformation. In fact, others before him made this argument, too. It was not just that revolutionaries should engage in a war of position, but that war of position was the only means possible. And this war of position involved a struggle within institutions of representative democracy via elections, but also on the level of cultural hegemony. But if we look deeper into the metaphor in Gramsci’s writings, the war of position isn’t about a slow slog through the institutions, but of building up a military machine and developing supply lines. Nor was it meant to be a permanent state of revolutionary struggle. Instead, the war of position is what makes the war of maneuver possible. They are a part of the same process. In this way, the war of position is the same base building that the Marxist Center has strongly emphasized in its strategy to date. By locating potentials for rupture, we can engage in fluid transitions from war of position to limited periods of war of maneuver and back.
During periods of war of position, revolutionaries must build up both our defensive and offensive structures. This will take the form of developing new working class organizations, such as new grassroots unions and radical tenants unions, as well as mutual aid organizations and cooperatives. They are also the time to secure our positions. This is done through building radical nucleuses in workplaces, communities, within existing working class organizations, and politicizing the informal networks in the working class in which we find ourselves working, living, and organizing. This work builds up our forces, deepens our roots, and furthers the politicization of the working class in the places we live and beyond in anticipation of the next ruptural wave.
It is when the next ruptural moment comes that we shift into a war of maneuver. In this, we mobilize the organizations and the working class communities in which we have been working, living, and organizing and fight to win more ground. This “ground” can mean sets of reforms that improve the lives of workers and weaken the state or the power of capitalists, advancing popular working class democracy, or shifting more power to workers. Beyond gaining ground, it also provides us with opportunities to press the fractures and faultlines within the state. Each period of rupture will be different and what is possible during these moments will vary.
As the moment of rupture begins to ebb, rather than fighting to prolong the rupture beyond what is sustainable (this should be seen as different from fighting repression meant to pacify the class), we start to shift back into the war of position to secure what gains we have made: solidify any increase in membership through political education and development, rebuild from any losses suffered during the period of rupture, and reflect on the experiences of the ruptural period. By having this cyclical understanding of periods of ruptures and lulls, we can connect our base building work to a political and strategic context. In this context, base building must be political. Without a clear political component, base building can just as easily operate by creating service provision organizations without increasing the political power and organization of the working class as a whole, and leaves those efforts open to be co-opted by liberal sentiments of civic participation.
While these moments of rupture are hard to predict or even notice until they have broken out, base building and the use of tools like the mass line and workers inquiry can train our organizational fingers on the pulse of the working class. As our organizations grow stronger and more entrenched in the class, we will become more aware of pressing issues in the communities we work within, which will allow us to start pressing contradictions and arrive at an increasing awareness of the points of politicization existing within emerging ruptures. By engaging in a protracted war of position, in which we engage in base building as our primary organizing mode, we can develop the needed capacity, organization, and deep roots to sufficiently merge with the class to accomplish this in ways that a war of position predicated primarily on elections with extra-electoral work as secondary cannot. Electoral campaigns are too ephemeral, with extended periods of time in between, to create long-term infrastructure and to consistently assess the state of the working class. At best, during periods of crisis like the one we are in now, electoral campaigns can broadcast work being done outside of the electoral sphere and, outside of crises, engage in limited social investigation.
This ruptural view has two other strengths. First, it allows space for working class initiative outside of the communist political organization, either via rupture caused by spontaneous initiative of the class in response to actions of capitalists or the state (i.e. protesting), or by other working class organizations and networks. While communist organizations are still small, it is unlikely that we will be at the leading edge of actions that open moments of rupture or, at most, we will be a small component of it. A sectarian approach would reject social movements or initiatives beyond our control. But limiting our political activity to that which directly derives from our base building provides us with little way to make sense of or engage moments of rupture or social movements. By anticipating the need to respond to moments of rupture beyond our control and connecting that anticipation to our revolutionary base building, we maintain strategic flexibility while not devolving into protest chasers or movementism. As our strength grows, we can begin to take more initiative and open up moments of rupture of our own.
The other strength is that it provides a bridge from now to revolution. Without a conception of how we get from here to socialism, our base building work can just as easily become a constituency building effort for an electoral project. In other dual power strategies that have appeared in Marxist Center or around us, the revolution takes on this mythical quality, becoming this messianic moment where everything comes into play. But by organizing around cycles of periodic rupture and lulls, with each cycle our power and organizational strength will expand and the balance of power will shift; the moment of revolutionary rupture is now only unique in the sense that it’s the cycle where the balance of power has decisively shifted and the capitalist forces are routed. Each cycle, even in situations where we experience defeat, provides a link to this moment of revolutionary rupture. It is important to note that the ruptural strategy that has been outlined here also allows us to confront the realities of historical revolutions. Revolutions are hardly singular events or moments of rupture. During the Russian Revolution, in 1917 there were several major moments of revolutionary ruptures. The Chinese Revolution also consisted of periods of rupture, such as the revolutionary period of 1927, followed by protracted periods of base building and combat before the victory of communist forces in 1949.
The two general trends previously touched on in this piece both had definitive statements on the question of what to do with the capitalist state. For the electoral road, the existing state institutions are something to be taken over and transformed. In this process of transformation, they become more democratic and adapted to meeting the needs of society rather than the interests of capitalists and capital accumulation. In the case of dual power strategies, the state is seen as irreformable, capitalist to its core. It must be smashed and replaced by a new workers state, which will itself fade away as capitalism and the residue of its class order are done away with. Both of these, as we have seen, have clear limits.
The ruptural strategy for socialism takes a more flexible approach. Rather than focusing on eventually smashing or transformation of the state, its emphasis is on breaking the relations of power that run through the state, taking advantage of the non-monolithic nature of the state, and the faultlines that run through it. So rather than wait for a final battle in which the working class forces with its alternative state/power will smash the capitalist state, the ruptural strategy chips away at the state and the power expressed through it. The build up of working class power becomes inextricably linked to the processes of eroding the power of capitalists and the capitalist state.
The ruptural strategy also doesn’t surrender the need to transform the state. This shouldn’t be taken to mean the wholesale transformation of the existing state institutions, but rather a recognition that certain institutions are unlikely to disappear, or at least it is infeasible to create a wholesale replacement. These particular institutions — schools, public transportation, public healthcare — already have the working class embedded in them. It is the struggles of the working class, as workers, students, patients, or transit riders, against those who run those institutions which are the backbone of the transformation of these institutions. Each moment of rupture ignites new opportunities to push forward with the transformation and democratization of these institutions. As working class power expands and the power of the capitalist class and its control over society are increasingly under threat, each cycle of rupture provides the working class and revolutionaries all the more space to experiment with new forms organizing society. Rather than creating a prepackaged new system of governance, or waiting for these forms to magically appear, we forge them through cycles and ruptures: stress testing them, developing new ones as previous forms prove insufficient or as new struggles provide new opportunities.
Finding Our Footing
Previous dual power strategies have left us with organizations that struggle to engage in non-revolutionary times, in hope that a future major systemic crisis or rupture will launch the left into a final battle with the state. These crises are always seemingly beyond the horizon. If we stick to our previous strategies, we are either forced to accept the social democratic consensus on the impossibility of revolution, or the marginality of revolutionaries. We are left feeling lost, and our practical work has no clear direction.
But by locating the small moments of rupture outside of systemic crises, we are able to work to erode capitalist power and, in the process, build working class power. It is in navigating the related cycles of war of position and war of maneuver that we are able to give base building its revolutionary content. This strategy will allow us, finally, to begin to think in the long term, to go past a belief in the possibility of revolution and to begin practicing towards its reality.
These are excerpts from ‘Everyday Ruptures: Putting Basebuilding on a Revolutionary Path’. You can read the full-length versions originally printed in The Left Wind 2020 and Regeneration Magazine 2020.