To the Next Link in the Chain

The most important question for any revolutionary is “what to do next.” E. Reed looks at the criteria we should consider to make that decision.

At its heart, Marxism is the politics of working class revolution.

Capitalism produces two main classes: the rulers of this world, the capitalists, and its gravediggers, the working class. The working class isn’t just the means to get to socialism. A working-class revolution, like the capitalist revolutions against feudalism, is the assumption of that class into power.

In the words of Engels, whoever says proletariat says socialism. Socialism expresses the class-rule of the proletariat, a class that can only operate the factories, the schools, the transit systems collectively and democratically.

For socialists, our strategies and tactics are centered on advancing the goal of working-class revolution. We fight to form unions, to create an independent workers’ political movement, to win reforms, and to build revolutionary political parties not just as goals in themselves, but to move the working class forward towards revolution.

Such a revolution isn’t an event but a historical process, emerging out of the contradictions of capitalism itself. Just as capitalism creates its gravedigger class, its internal problems create the political and social crises that lead to revolutionary periods. The working class is driven to fight because of its position in society. Through these struggles, the class transforms. It has the potential to shed ruling ideas and become fit for revolution.

Socialists can’t make a revolution without the working class. We can’t bring a revolutionary period into being. We can’t organize and initiate strikes absent of conditions beyond our control. Still, we do play a critical role in the revolutionary process and whether or not a revolution succeeds.

Socialist Consciousness

Lenin wrote in What Is to Be Done?, the foundational document of the revolutionary Bolshevik Party, socialist consciousness cannot be created from struggle alone. Workers’ activity leads only to trade union, or movement, consciousness. In other words, given the domination of capitalist media, propaganda, etc., workers don’t spontaneously reach socialist conclusions.

Though consciousness changes through struggle, there’s a mix of different ideas throughout the class and in the heads of many workers. What kinds of politics dominate, what organized forces exist, and thus whether the movement advances towards power, all take the active intervention of a revolutionary socialist party, starting with workers closest to drawing socialist conclusions.

But in order for that socialist current to intervene, it needs more than ideas. It needs people.

A perspective for future action, an answer to “what do we do next?”, has to be based on the context we’re living in. What is the level of consciousness and organization of the working class? How is the broader economic reality shaping the working class and the capitalist class? How organized and strong are our enemies? Who do we have on our side, and how numerous are we socialists? Activities that are unrealistic in one moment might be too cautious in another.

We need to organize. But we need to be smart about where we can best utilize our limited resources. Where can we find a vibrant audience for socialist politics? Where can we organize with less threat of retribution? Where can we train and educate a new generation of revolutionaries, not just to project socialist ideas but to lead struggles and contend with adversaries? And what can we realistically do based on the resources we have? 

This is not a discussion that can be reduced to a moral quest for justice, who are the most oppressed, or who needs our help the most. That is not Marxism. That is liberal sentimentality masquerading as Marxism.

Instead, we need to be very concrete. We have to look at an analysis of the conditions we face. And that has to include not only an analysis of the workplace, or just working-class communities, but the entire structure of society. And from there, find the next key link in our organizing.

As Lenin writes in What Is to Be Done?:

We must take upon ourselves the task of organising an all-round political struggle under the leadership of our Party in such a manner as to make it possible for all oppositional strata to render their fullest support to the struggle and to our Party. We must train our Social-Democratic practical workers to become political leaders, able to guide all the manifestations of this all-round struggle, able at the right time to “dictate a positive programme of action” for the aroused students, the discontented Zemstvo people, the incensed religious sects, the offended elementary schoolteachers, etc., etc.”

This approach to politics has nothing to do with wholesale denying opportunities ahead of time, waving our hands and saying, “we’ll never do x,” or “we’ll never do y.”

Campus: One Locale Among Many

Considering this, the campus remains one — not the sole, but one — key locale today.

Campuses have not always been the best places for revolutionaries to organize. Most White American colleges and universities from the nation’s founding through the early 1930s were institutions reserved for the elite and middle class.

“As a general rule,” Socialist Party leader Eugene Debs wrote in 1896, “universities are aristocratic institutions… The graduates of universities with their diplomas and degrees, boasting of their alma maters, as a rule regard themselves, as compared with the ‘common people,’ of superior mold.”

But that has absolutely shifted since Debs’s time. Let’s look at the conditions on campus today.

  • 70 percent of those who had graduated high school in spring 2016 were enrolled in colleges or universities by fall 2016.
  • 40 percent of the entire population of 18 to 24-year-olds are enrolled in college. Compare this to the 12.7 percent of the university-age population in college in France in 1967, or the 26 percent enrolled in college in the U.S. in 1970.
  • 40 percent of undergrads work thirty or more hours a week.
  • Between 1989 and 2008, 70 to 80 percent of college students (of all ages) have been “working learners” — both enrolled in higher education and active in the labor market.
  • Nearly twenty-five percent of those working learners today are both full-time workers and full-time students.
  • Among young working learners (16-29 years old), 34 percent work in sales and office support and 26 percent work in food and personal services.

Even at Harvard, we can see a radicalization among youth. More of this year’s incoming freshman class supported Green Party’s Howie Hawkins than Trump. 82 percent of them support BLM protests. 61 percent of class of 2024 (last year’s freshman class) supported defunding the police.

This is but one example of how we should analyze the world in its concreteness and then act from there.

Mass Radicalization, But Patient Steps

We are living in a period of mass radicalization. But we ourselves are very small. So how should we handle this situation?

We are not in a position to lead mass struggle. Not right now.

We are not in a position to orient on a particular industry and recruit mass numbers of workers to a socialist project.

What we can do is find and train the next layer of revolutionary socialist militants — wherever we can find them.

That means building our numbers using patient methods. That means continuing our internal education. That means going to protests and actions and standing in solidarity. That means calling speakouts. That means meeting people on street corners — whether in Lynn, at UMass Boston, or yes, maybe even Harvard.

It also means being willing to have debates and discussions about what we should do — to carry on the sometimes difficult conversations, even when we sharply disagree. Because to sweep these conversations under the rug, to step away from them, means to fail at both training ourselves as hardened revolutionary militants and putting our heads together to build the biggest revolutionary socialist movement possible.