Building a Workers’ Party and the Issue of Left Populism

The current blockage of the trade union route to a mass working-class party means that the movement toward independent political action will most likely take a different and more complicated course. We have explained previously that it will most likely come from activists from a number of different movements involving left populists, youth activists, anti-war activists, labor activists, socialists, and other forces. The explosive emergence of the Occupy movement introduces a new and powerful force that can be a catalyst for a new left political party. We should also identity activists fighting against cuts in education and social services as a new force that can play an important role.

Unfortunately, at present there is no organized force on the left or in the unions that has the authority and strength to initiate the development of a new left party. Also, there is enormous confusion on the left over the need to do this and how to do it. Even the socialist left is very confused on the need to build a mass workers’ party.

As a result, the most likely prospect is for political development to be on the lines of what Marxists describe as “left populism.” Populist movements, both left and right, have occurred repeatedly in U.S. history. They are a reflection of a new, emerging political movement that has not yet differentiated itself based on class. The predominant political character of Occupy is that of a left populist movement, since it has not yet developed a distinctly working-class character.

This means we can expect to see left populist candidates who are against the excesses of capitalism and its political elites. Such candidates will campaign for progressive – and sometimes radical – reforms. But they often will have illusions that these reforms can be delivered by more enlightened representatives being elected, and they will not understand the need to mobilize the mass of the working class to achieve fundamental changes. Historically in the U.S., populist movements have often been the first political expression of an emerging class consciousness. We should remember that at the end of the 19th Century, Eugene Debs and a whole layer of radicalizing workers first entered politics through the populist movement, and on the basis of their experience came to see the limitations of populism and the need for clear working-class and socialist policies and went on to found the Socialist Party.

The words of Marx’s collaborator, Frederick Engels, on political development in the U.S. are still very relevant: “There is no better road to theoretical clearness of comprehension than to learn by one’s own mistakes. … And for a whole large class, there is no other road, especially for a nation so eminently practical and so contemptuous of theory as Americans.” (Marx and Engels on the United States, Progress Publishers, 1979, p. 314) “That it should proceed gropingly, in a clumsy, uncertain, inexperienced manner, is unavoidable. All that will be cleared up; the movement will and must develop through its own mistakes. Theoretical ignorance is a characteristic of young nations, but so is also rapid practical development.” (ibid., p. 305)

Many might question whether Marxists should be looking to build a mass workers’ or left party when the ultimate goal is socialism. Marxists would enthusiastically embrace building a mass socialist party if that was the best way at this stage for a mass radical working-class political party to be built, and that would clearly be preferably from our point of view. However, the political consciousness of U.S. workers is not yet at a stage where a sizeable section of workers and youth would embrace a mass socialist party. There is, though, a huge section of workers and young people who would embrace a political party that is clearly anti-corporate, pro-worker, and willing to fight for the interests of workers against the power of Wall Street; in other words, a broad left-wing party that represents a decisive step forward by breaking from the Democrats as a big business party and begins to attempt to articulate the interests of workers and ordinary people.

Taking into account current consciousness and the concrete forces that exist (or do not) currently, it is necessary for U.S. workers to pass through the experiences of left populism and reformism in order to gain the political experience to understand the limitations of capitalism and the need to embrace a clear socialist alternative.

To quote Engels again: “Unless I am greatly mistaken, the Americans will astonish us all by the magnitude of their movement, and also by their enormous blunders, which will help them achieve clarity in the end. As regards practical matters they are ahead of everyone else, and still in swaddling clothes in theory – that’s the position and one cannot expect it to be different. … The movement will by no means follow the classic straight line, but will zigzag and at times seem to be moving backward.” (“Letter of Engels to Friedrich Adolph Sorge,” 8/8/1887, ibid., p. 319)

“The masses must have time and opportunity to develop, and they have the opportunity only when they have a movement of their own – no matter in what form so long as it is their own movement – in which they are driven further by their own mistakes and learn from their experience.” (“Letter of Engels to Friedrich Adolph Sorge,” 11/29/1886, ibid., p. 312)

In the last four election cycles, Socialist Alternative has critically supported Ralph Nader’s left-populist campaigns as the strongest left-wing independent presidential candidacy. At the same time, we have been very open about our politics, criticizing Nader’s reformism and mistaken methods and bringing forward our calls for a new independent party of workers and the poor and for socialism. In this way, we have been able to participate in the overall political debate with the broadest layer of activists and individuals, support a left-wing independent challenge to the two corporate parties, and also build the socialist movement.