My Path to Revolutionary Socialism
Every socialist I have met has a story about how they became one. Perhaps they saw someone lose their farm or job. Perhaps they met some socialists in college and started learning more about it. For some, maybe it was an interest in history combined with involvement in a union. It could have been a book. It could have been a way to be a rebel. It would be interesting to collect these stories and find the themes. While I can’t speak to the stories of others, I want to share my own story of how I became a revolutionary socialist, since well, this isn’t an obvious path in life. I also want to share this story since I am Socialist Action’s Vice Presidential candidate and it seems fitting that I provide a little context about myself so that folks can better understand what we’re about. With that said, this is my path to revolutionary socialism.
My path to socialism started in college. When I graduated high school, I was rather lost in life and ended up attending the college my mother had for no other reason than its familiarity and that they accepted me on short notice. My major was International Studies, and through my courses, I learned many things about the nature of the world. For instance, I took a class about the history of the third world and really had to struggle to memorize the various leaders that the United States orchestrated to overthrow. I was astounded that so many countries had such similar histories. As I poured over notes and flashcards, I realized that the United States was not a benign defender of democracy, but on many occasions destroyed democracy in the interest of profits and power. The problem was not limited to the United States, as I learned that international institutions such as the World Bank, IMF, and WTO enforced brutal austerity, monoculture, export driven economics, and loan dependency that maintained colonial relationships of dependency and under development. I began to realize that there was a reason why there was such a divide between Haves and Have Nots in the world. I connected these patterns in history and global policies which to capitalism. It was through this observation that I became interested in socialism as a solution to global problems such as preventable disease, low wages, hunger, and war. Of course, I didn’t know that socialists existed in the United States outside of a few isolated, Marxist professors. I thought that socialism, as a movement, was something that died off in the United States during the 1920s or perhaps 1940s. While I increasingly sympathized with socialism, I kept this quiet as it was somewhat stigmatized. I didn’t “come out” as a socialist until I was studying abroad in Ireland, since it seemed that socialism was not as unusual there.
The Question of Violence:
At first, my understanding of socialism was amorphous. I had studied enough history to know that there were different kinds of socialists and that all modern socialists were to some degree rooted in the thinking of Karl Marx. There were many things about Marxism that made sense. The thing that made the most sense was how Marx positioned capitalism as just another system in history. Before capitalism, there had been systems such as feudalism, slave based societies, hunter gatherer societies, etc. Each of these societies had different property and class relationships as well as struggles and contradictions which eventually gave rise to new societies. In this long view of history, it seemed unlikely that capitalism could last forever, as it also had contradictions and class antagonisms. Indeed, how could a system that creates so many poor, such horrific wars, environmental destruction, and chaotic economic downturns last forever? So, what then? The answer was that workers should organize and realize their own power by creating a new system that benefits everyone, where poverty and war is ended, and where wealth is redistributed for the social good. After all, all wealth is from the surplus value of labor. Where else would profit come from but the workers themselves? Even early capitalist thinkers posited that labor imbued value into objects, creations, and things in nature. Workers organizing to take back the profits stolen from their labor couldn’t possibly be utopian. The incomplete democracy of capitalism, which ended the power of monarchs and rights by inheritance would have seemed impossible under feudalism. The idea of waged, free laborers would seem absurd to those who only had known a slavery. Marxism offered the promise that things could be different, as things were already different from how they had been. Of course, my limited understanding of the time figured that worker revolution was the inevitable outcome of capitalism, when in actuality, capitalism could very well devolve into greater chaos and destruction.
Marx foretold the possibility of revolution, but beyond that I had little idea how this would occur. I generally knew that some countries had socialist parties and that some countries had been communist. Yet, the distinctions between socialists and communists were hazy. I had read some Karl Marx and other writers, but made no distinction between various sorts of revolutionary socialists such as Maoists or Stalinists. I knew that some socialists were reformists and some were revolutionary. I leaned more towards the reformist camp. After all, I became a socialist because I wanted the world to be a better place. I had no desire for bloodshed or chaos that occurs in revolution as this seemed to contradict the very reasons I had been attracted to socialism. Furthermore, communist countries were never very democratic, so it seemed reasonable to me that revolution does not lend itself to democracy.
At the same time, I also knew that there were revolutionary struggles against colonization. These struggles were often violent, so violence could not be entirely off the table, as sometimes it was necessary to throw off oppression. It seemed obscene to tell people who are colonized, enslaved, or impoverished not to shed blood in the interest of their liberation. Finally, there was a contradictory nature of reformist socialists. Avoiding revolution does not mean that violence does not occur. Violence continues under the watch of democratic socialists as they engage in war (as they did in World War I). War is often normalized so long as it is multilateral or through the UN. But, war is war, whether or not it is the United States, the UN, or a coalition of progressive countries. Finally, reformism itself seemed to lead away from internationalism, since reform begins at home within an individual nation station. Building democratic socialism in Norway or Sweden is great for the people of Norway or Sweden, but it does very little for the people of Malawi, Malaysia, or any other “developing” country. The deep global problems of poverty and disease seemed to warrant something more than democratic socialism in one country. I wrestled with these questions, but felt that I was pitting the systems built in China and the Soviet Union against the democratic socialism of Sweden or Finland. I was not aware of alternatives.
After I returned from a semester in Ireland, I became involved in the local anti-war movement. This involved protesting the Iraq war at weekly pickets held at the entrance of my college. I met a few people at the pickets, but I was unaware that they were socialists. Unrelated to the pickets, it happened that I google searched for opportunities to play soccer locally and found an NPR article about a “commie soccer” league. The participants in the commie soccer league were some of the contacts that had been coming to my college to protest the war. It also happened that Adam from the group was hosting an intro to socialism class at UWS. I attended this class and later attended the same class again when it was hosted at my college. This was how I became connected with Socialist Action. Of course, I was overzealous at the time and elated to join fellow socialists. They were not quite as elated to have me join, since it is unusual to find an excited, unaffiliated socialist who happened to be searching for other socialists. Eventually, I had enough political education and demonstrated that I wasn’t disruptively abnormal and was invited into the group.
Through Socialist Action, I learned about Trotskyism. For me, that helped to create an alternative to the failures of the Soviet Union and China, but also the more slow paced, nationally oriented, and war supporting democratic socialists. Trotsky put the outcomes of the Russian revolution into the historical context. The Soviet Union was a product of attempting to build socialism on a foundation destroyed by war and civil war in an isolating and hostile world that made every effort to see the project fail. The revolution in Russia survived these impossible odds, but at great cost. This affirmed the need for internationalism to successfully make socialism work. We also had continued conversations about the nature of violence. Our movement did not idealize violence and tactically, in the cases of guerrilla warfare and terrorism, workers can become disengaged and isolated from such tactics. Revolution did not mean embracing violence, as success would stem from winning over large swaths of society and not by the force of weapons. The state tends to react violently to movements which threaten their power, hence the need to be prepared to fight back.
Learning about Trotskyism also helped me to balance questions such as reform versus revolution, since the Transitional Program put forth by Leon Trotsky sought to bridge demands for reform with building revolution. Revolutionary socialists can certainly make demands that reform capitalism, but in doing so, should always try to push the envelope by questioning how capitalism functions and how various oppression will never be resolved under capitalism. These transitional demands can pose an immediate challenge to the power and profits of the ruling class but also look towards overthrowing the built in mechanisms of this power within capitalism. Another aspect of Trotskyism that I supported was its focus on addressing the needs of and building movements of oppressed groups and forming united fronts with these movements and like minded parties. National liberation, women’s rights, LGBT rights, and the rights of other oppressed groups are essential to building revolution. These movements are important in their own right as they educate, organize, and empower these groups as they put forth demands that challenge the functioning of capitalism.
The Vanguard Party
Joining Socialist Action changed my life in many ways. For one, it provided me with a political education that even my various college experiences have not provided. I certainly have some brilliant and dedicated comrades. Their political knowledge and education will always surpass my own, but, in connecting with them through the party I am always learning, thinking, and growing. It also connected me with comrades. It is great to know that there are like minded people all over the country, who generally share the same beliefs and similar experiences. Locally, I have a core of comrades with whom I collaborate on various local activist projects. We often strategize and discuss how to build our party, local movements, or local events. This is the experience of trying to build a vanguard party. A vanguard party sounds like an intimidating and undemocratic organization. But, there is strategic practicality in it all. The idea behind it is that for a revolution to be successful, revolutionaries must be well organized. Workers may self-organize or may rise up on their own, but the odds of successfully making a revolution are increased if some of the workers possess a template of historical lessons, political discipline, and a vision that pushes for the dismantling of the system. A vanguard party seeks to create the structure and program necessary for making revolution. In my own party, this is modeled through discipline (democratic centralism) and education. There are many revolutionary socialist groups and hopefully a future vanguard party is an amalgam of some of these revolutionaries and new elements that emerge in struggle, but in the meantime, we attempt to model what this could look like by maintaining party lines and norms and developing party lines that can speak to workers, are historically tested, push for advanced demands, and provide sharp analysis of the current conditions of capitalism. Being a part of a revolutionary socialist party is serious business. If we are serious about making revolution, then each member has to put some time into building the party, engaging in the labor movement, building social movements. I attend between 100-150 political events a year, and I would consider myself a slacker comrade since I don’t put enough time into party building such as writing for the newspaper or engagement in national discussions. Of course, not everyone has to be this engaged, but to some degree belief in the need for revolution necessitates a higher level of engagement.
That is my basic path for becoming a socialist. I was drawn to socialism through internationalism, opposition to war, and a desire for a better world. I had the fortune of a college education that helped me view history and capitalism with a critical eye. It was also fortunate that there was a local and active socialist party in Duluth, which I was able to join. This furthered my education and connected me to Trotskyism. Since then, I have been engaged in various social struggles in my community. I am always learning new things and seeing socialism differently. For instance, I didn’t come to socialism because of my own experiences of oppression, but because of the conditions of the world outside of the United States. However, my income was under the poverty line until about five years ago, I lacked health insurance for over a decade, did not visit the doctor for many years, often work multiple jobs, have massive student loan debt, experienced significant mental health issues in my 20s, and other adverse experiences. Growing up, my father was seriously injured at his job at least twice and worked very hard. My mother was a teenager when she had me and money was stressful for my family. Yet, the oppressed, to me, were always “the other.” The poorest of the poor, the hardest worker of all the workers, the sickest, the hungriest, etc. are the most oppressed. I think one area of growth is seeing myself as oppressed as well. In this way, oppression is normalized. If we always look to those who have it worse, we never really see the systems of oppression all around us. Of course, I am privileged compared to many on account of my education, travel, freedom, ability, whiteness, etc. But, I am a worker, will always be limited, and the horizons of my humanity are narrowed by capitalism. I am privileged, but I am also oppressed. I want the liberation of the most oppressed, but also the least oppressed, because I want to end all oppression under capitalism.
With that said, Socialist Action does not have a monopoly on socialism. There are many socialist groups. For me, a core concern that started me on this path was internationalism and war. That is why I am often critical of democratic socialists, as I feel that their particular analysis does not seek to end war or U.S. power. Because it is centered on reform, it orients towards working with the U.S. government. But, the United States is a brutal destroyer of democracy built upon genocide and slavery. These were my earliest conclusions as a socialist. U.S. power is grotesque. There should be no U.S., or at least not a U.S. as we have known it. There should be no country on the planet with trillions of dollars in military spending, 1,000 military bases, or nearly seven million people in prisons, probation, and parole. Yes, of course we must seek reforms, but the goal is not kinder imperialism, it is an end all of this. An end to borders. An end to the fossil fuel industry. An end to the military spending. An end to making the world unsafe for democracy and the charade of democracy at home. This end will only be made through socialist revolution. We need more people building our capacity for socialist revolution. I have shared my path. I hope you find yours.