The summer of 2020 saw more than fifteen-million people hit the streets. Fifteen-million people fed up with the legally-sanctioned murder of Black people, fed up with monuments to slavers, fed up with 400 years of white supremacy. They faced the police, the National Guard, and racist vigilantes. They endured vehicular attacks, beatings and shootings and gassings. By June 2020, these demonstrators won the support of two-thirds of Americans. Police abolition, a demand once restricted to the country’s tiny leftist subculture, became a visible slogan and a hotly-debated issue. Many, including some in Richmond, assumed that a revolution—the revolution—was at hand.
After this long, hot summer we’ve settled into a cold winter for the progressive movement. Support for Black Lives Matter has dropped, lifelong conservative Joe Biden has become the president, and demonstrations have become fewer and smaller. In Richmond, Levar Stoney and right-wing City Councillors have won reelection. Meanwhile, the conspiratorial reactionary right has been whipped into a frenzy. What went wrong, and can we get back on course?
To answer these questions, we will criticize two paths —one outwardly conservative, the other seemingly left-wing— that are leading the movement into a blind alley.
ELECTORALISM AND REFORMISM
From People’s Movements to Loyal Opposition
“This is the most important election of our lives!” Can you recall the first year you heard this proclamation — 2020? 2016? 2012? 2000? Maybe even earlier. Even midterm contests are sometimes awarded this distinction, only to be uncrowned two years later when a new “most important election of our lives!” emerges like clockwork.
Advocates of electoralism like Noam Chomsky have assured us that voting only takes a few minutes once every few years. After casting our ballot, we’ll continue the real work of movement building, they tell us. Just get Trump out of office, and then the radical movement will continue — never mind that Obama’s election in 2008 saw nearly complete demobilization of the once-massive anti-war movement.
These arguments seldom sustain strong, independent, and effective movements. What they are good for is shepherding would-be radicals and liberals alike into the camp of some seriously odious politicians. How many of last summer’s fifteen million demonstrators were among the eighty million to vote for Biden this fall? Sure, the Black Lives Matter movement hasn’t achieved any of its major goals, but at least Joe Biden got to ride the wave of protest all the way to the White House, winning more votes than any other candidate in American history. But who exactly is Joe Biden? Does he deserve such support, even the reluctant “critical support” of BLM advocates who voted for him as “harm reduction” of the movement?
Biden is a lifelong reactionary, whose ignominious record includes fealty to credit card companies, support for the Iraq War, and humiliating Anita Hill to help greenlight Clarence Thomas. His solution to racist police violence? Encourage the cops to focus on “shooting them in the leg,” instead of outright murdering people of color. But we really shouldn’t expect too much from Biden in terms of race. In the mid-70s, he allied with ardent segregationists like Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms to halt the process of school integration. Biden sponsored bills that struck down the practice of bussing and allowed segregated schools to continue to receive federal funding. Our schools are still de-facto segregated, and Biden deserves a large share of the blame. Later in his “illustrious” career, he helped author the monstrous 1994 Crime Bill that intensified the process of mass incarceration, encouraging states to adopt longer and harsher sentences for increasingly petty offenses. It goes without saying that those sentenced were and are mostly people of color. Biden’s efforts helped ensure that, to this day, Black children attend grossly underfunded schools, while their fathers languish in prison or are shot down in the street. How can we expect him to fix the injustices he himself helped create?
Joe Biden is not the only Democrat who has garnered the support of ostensibly radical movements. At the first Women’s March in Richmond, protestors gleefully expressed support for Abigail Spanberger. Spanberger was a CIA operative and proudly trumpeted the fact during her campaign. The CIA exists to maintain America’s imperialist stranglehold on the globe. They do this by any means necessary. They engineer the overthrow of democratically-elected governments, and help pro-American dictators maintain power. They fund and train death squads that are responsible for the murder of literally millions of people. During the Bush administration, the agency admitted its involvement in extraordinary rendition and torture. As if her CIA affiliation were not enough, Spanberger also supports further militarizing the border and opposes substantial environmental policies like the Green New Deal. How on earth did Spanberger gain the support of progressives?
Part of the answer lies in the fact that the supposed left-wing of the Democratic party has been content to serve the role of a “loyal opposition” which ultimately mobilizes their base to support their supposed rivals like Biden and Spanberger. Consider how Bernie Sanders responded to this summer’s uprising. First, he opposed defunding the police, advocating that they be paid even more. Later, he campaigned for Biden, not only as a lesser evil, but as a positive good. Now it seems like Bernie and his supporters are likely to be completely excluded from Biden’s cabinet. Sanders’ movement didn’t push Biden to the left or “realign” the Democrats — it merely pushed those questioning the Democratic Party back into the fold.
We know that the millions of people who knocked on doors, phone banked, and spent hours trying to persuade friends, co-workers, and strangers to vote for candidates like Bernie Sanders did so with the best of intentions, supporting laudable policies like healthcare for all, an end to the barbaric system that cages immigrants, and bold measures to effectively address climate change. Unfortunately, the very candidates they support prefer to gin up enthusiasm for the enemies of those policies, rather than engage in the sort of independent, militant campaign necessary to see those initiatives through. We believe that the movement that has coalesced around Bernie deserves better than the betrayals and platitudes of their misleaders. We believe that these activists deserve a movement worthy of their passion and hard work — a movement that dares to struggle and dares to win. This movement needs to be focused on organizing in neighborhoods and workplaces, and it needs to be in it for the long haul. Winning in the next election cycle (and victory is always seen as just one election cycle away) seems like a great shortcut to a better society. Unfortunately, this particular “shortcut” leads absolutely nowhere.
Richmond for All & Vanity Campaigns
The Fruits of Electoralism
Richmond for All, a relatively new organization, has fallen into the same rut on a local level that the Bernie movement has on a national level. RfA’s candidates for mayor and city council have been seriously trounced, with none of the latter getting within 1,000 votes of right-wing candidates, and with Rodgers barely surpassing Gray and losing to Stoney by 12,000 votes. Can any activists who performed legwork for Richmond for All really say that their time wouldn’t have been better spent organizing the working class in its neighborhoods and workplaces rather than investing their blood, sweat, and tears for such lackluster candidates?
Apologists for this organization will surely say that such an investment is worthwhile because next time they’ll win. Even if that’s true —and it almost certainly isn’t— will such a victory translate into change the activists who volunteered with these campaigns hope to see? As CLR noted during the campaign, Alexsis Rodgers, supposedly a “radical” candidate, has a background almost identical to Stoney’s — both began as political operatives for conservative Democrat officeholders (Northam and McAuliffe, respectively), both have sought to ride popular movements for political gain (Black Lives Matter and Fight for 15), and both are so thoroughly embedded within the Democratic Party machine that anyone expecting real change from these opportunists will surely be disappointed.
If the Democrats and Democrat front groups like Richmond for All cannot transform society, what about independent candidates and third parties?
The record is grim. The engine behind positive changes in society isn’t powerful individuals but collective groups of people — especially classes. Independent candidates virtually never win and even the most successful independent candidate in modern US history, Bernie Sanders, has consistently had to rely on the Democrats.
Electoral third parties like the Green Party are no better. While we share their belief in the bankruptcy of the Democrats, these groups still see the electoral arena as the main site of social change and put electoral campaigning above building energized, robust, and democratic working class organizations. When revolutionaries talk about building a party, we don’t mean the sort of boutique vanity party of the electoral third party advocates.
Just as the Greens run quixotic campaigns without building a mass base, Lee Carter has entered the campaign to secure the Democratic nomination for governor. Carter proudly claims to be a socialist, and indeed has a platform to the left of many of his opponents. But he is not a member of any party or organization that can hold him accountable to his program or that can carry out non-electoral work to secure it.
Carter has become close to members of the Rose Caucus, a splinter group of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), which appears to consist solely of endorsed elected officials and their campaign volunteers, and is in no way a democratic, member-driven organization. Joshua Collins’ badly bungled campaign in Washington’s Tenth District illustrates the bankruptcy of this mode of politics. Collins and Rose Caucus accumulated followers on Twitter, views on Tik Tok, and raised more than $200,000, but ultimately won only one percent of the vote, failing to even finish in the top ten candidates.
Even when progressive politicians get into office, there are severe limits of what they can do — look at the European “socialist”, “labor”, or even “communist” parties that have overseen austerity programs. Or look to the radical left Greek party SYRIZA, who have found themselves totally helpless to resist austerity imposed by the European Union and its financial institutions. Why did these parties make such flagrant capitulations?
For the simple reason that the state is not a neutral institution; rather, it serves the interest of one or another ruling class. Even when self-declared socialists sincerely push to use the capitalist state to make socialism, their domestic bourgeoisies and outside imperialist actors can easily crush them. Recall how the United States and the Chilean right overthrew Allende and repressed that country’s working class movement almost without breaking a sweat.
AUTONOMISM AND ANARCHISM
Marching in Circles to Nowhere
In addition to this conservative dead-end of electoralism, there is another trend that has loomed large in recent months: anarchism and its various related ideologies, which dogmatically promote an ideal of a fractured, hyper-local “autonomous” movement.
One major failure of this strategy is that it is premised on continuous mass mobilizations, a constantly intensifying conflict with the state that leads, by virtue of nothing but its intensity and noble aims, to a spontaneous, unorganized revolution. The current ebb in the mass movement demonstrates the folly of this viewpoint. The originators of autonomism in post-WWII Italy made similar errors, which left them totally unprepared for a decline in strikes and deindustrialization. This adventuristic road map didn’t lead to working class power — instead its failure left the door open to a rightward shift in Italy. Why this unfortunate history would be seen as a model to be emulated is a mystery.
CLR shares certain viewpoints with this camp — for instance, an aversion to reformism; a need to end capitalism, white supremacy, and patriarchy; and irreconcilable hostility towards the capitalist state. However, it is important to note that autonomism has never in the recorded history of humanity succeeded in achieving any of its laudable ambitions. It has never led to a successful revolution, never toppled a capitalist or imperialist state, and has seldom even led to significant concessions from powers that be.
We would like it known that while we intend to criticize anarchism ruthlessly, we do believe that most anarchists share noble intentions. They want the same world that we do; a world without exploitation, a world where the oppressed are lifted up, and the powerful toppled. Several of us began our journey into leftism as anarchists, and all of us have been out on the streets, marching side by side with them. Obviously, because of the clandestine, illegal nature of much anarchist activity (at least here in Richmond), it would be unconscionable to be as specific about them as we were about electoral candidates, who put themselves in the spotlight. We can, however, give a general outline of the events of summer 2020.
All of us were out on the streets during the George Floyd protests. Some of us were gassed by the Richmond Police Department, or faced the National Guard. Others applauded while Columbus was ripped from his pedestal and dragged into Shields Lake, or encamped themselves outside city hall. These were moments of incredible catharsis, of shared triumph or tragedy. This is what anarchism thrives on: these moments which make us all feel that what we’re doing is something real…that we truly can fight the bourgeois state and win. And in these moments, we must admit that anarchists are among the first to charge the barricades, and the most willing to be arrested for the cause. When the working class spontaneously erupts into direct antagonism to the system —and let’s not forget that they are who made last summer happen at all— anarchists exhibit significant tactical skill.
But a movement cannot thrive on tactics alone. It needs strategy, and anarchism offers nothing of the sort. As we’ve said, these mobilizations make us feel like we’re taking on the state and winning. But are we really? What did these mobilizations achieve concretely? What’s changed in Richmond? The monuments have been taken down, and guns are now banned in public parks. One good for the revolutionary left, one bad. The police are not defunded, prisons are not abolished, and capitalism and white supremacy seem to be chugging along just fine, despite the ongoing mass-death event.
We’re not saying we expect one summer of mobilizations to accomplish all that. From their public pronouncements, however, it appears that anarchists do. We can recall several anarchist-led calls for a general strike. They’re loudly trumpeted on social media and the city is blanketed in stickers promoting them. But that seems to be about it. It would be funny were it not such a waste of anarchist energy. A general strike takes years of planning, and an obvious precondition for a general strike is robust and militant unions spread across all industries. We have nothing like that in America yet, and particularly not in Virginia, a right-to-work state.
We wish this was not the case. We ardently wish that a successful revolution would happen tomorrow, but we rationally know that that is not the situation we find ourselves in. Mass mobilizations against the bourgeois state will undoubtedly continue to happen and will likely intensify, as the internal contradictions of capitalism sharpen. Anarchists seem to believe that this is enough. For the most part, they do not see the need to —and in fact are actively opposed to— forming stable organs of the working class to provide leadership to these mobilizations. This work is slow, painstaking, and often dull. It doesn’t feel as revolutionary as occupying the area outside city hall, but it’s the only way we’ll achieve the revolution. We cannot restrict this work to the comfort of our social milieu or “affinity group.” As revolutionaries, we need a party, an organized party of the working class in place before mobilizations happen, and that lasts after they ebb. Without this party, we end up marching in circles, getting nowhere, both literally and figuratively.
WHAT WE ARE PROPOSING
Communism for the 21st Century
The Communist League of Richmond believes there is a way forward. Rather than marching in circles every four years or waiting for tiny, disconnected initiatives to magically cohere into a revolution, we find a more productive roadmap in Leninism.
Compare autonomism’s miserable record of weakness and defeat to the actual history of revolutions in the 20th century. The Bolsheviks surely made errors, but their historic revolution overthrew the old ruling classes, persisted against domestic proto-fascist movements, spurned landlords and capitalists, beat back the dozen countries that invaded after the revolution, and even prevailed over Hitler’s Operation Barbarossa, the largest military invasion in human history. Furthermore, the October Revolution lit a fuse that led to massive revolutionary movements consisting of tens of millions of people all around the world, many of which won impressive victories. Some of these movements fell short of the democratic organizational norms put forth by Lenin and the Bolsheviks, but even in their imperfect forms parties like the Communist Party of Vietnam fought the U.S. war machine and won.
What autonomists can make a similar claim? Even Northern Syria, anarchists’ and autonomists’ latest claim of success, barely resembles the political line attributed to it. The movement in Northern Syria is led by a party (the PYD) that determines its program and elects its chairpersons and central committee at its party congresses, and it defends its territory by a hierarchically organized army, with more than a little help from the US imperial war machine.
We can see the success of centralization and the feebleness of autonomism by looking at the liberation struggle in the Portuguese colony that became Guinea Bissau. The armed struggle initially involved small local units with a high degree of autonomy and very little in the way of central command and virtually no discipline instituted by a central authority. This arrangement resulted in too many local commanders becoming warlords who abused their troops and ordinary people in the local communities in which they operated. Only after the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC) held its first congress at Cassaca and reorganized along centralized lines could the movement fight a “clean war” that was gentle towards civilians but phenomenally efficient on the field of battle. The PAIGC struck Portuguese colonialism so hard they not only secured independence, they rattled the fascist regime in Lisbon to its very core, providing the opportunity for the Portuguese people to overthrow it and institute a liberal democracy. (Amílcar Cabral: Nationalist and Pan-Africanist Revolutionary, 132—37. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2019.)
Leninism (or what we might call revolutionary Marxism) sees the state not as a blank canvas over which any interest group or party can paint whatever it pleases. A state necessarily has a particular class character — it is an instrument with which one class dominates others. The old absolutist monarchies of Europe sat atop a system of domination by nobles and landlords over serfs and peasants. The modern states which replaced it are means by which the capitalist class dominates the modern working class, which we call the proletariat. This explains why those seeking change by winning elections seldom enjoy much success, even when their candidate wins. You cannot use the tool the capitalists have shaped to maintain their rule to undermine that rule. To do so would be like using an oven to make ice. Small reforms are possible and often worth fighting for, but if we want to change society fundamentally we have to overthrow the capitalist class, smash their state machine, and build a proletarian state to expropriate the expropriators.
Isn’t this unrealistic or utopian? It may be difficult (revolution is never a sure thing!) but it is far from impossible. We know this not only because of the long historical record of successful revolutions, but also because no social system yet devised has lasted forever. The internal contradictions inherent to capitalism lead it from crisis to crisis, most recently seen in the 2008 Great Recession and the current, severe downturn brought on by capitalism’s inability to face the current pandemic. Revolution is inevitable; its success is not. Capitalism will not last forever, and it is the duty of revolutionaries to ensure that it falls as fast as possible and that the system that replaces it is a far better one.
Furthermore, that electoralism and reformism have failed so miserably, leaving their well-meaning adherents with nothing to show, should strongly suggest that these “reasonable” and “moderate” routes are in fact less realistic. Just as a firefighter may take the drastic action, kicking down a door rather than politely knocking, revolution is a more realistic solution to capitalism than slowly entering the capitalist state, expecting it to somehow transform into a workers’ state. This is why Leninism, in contrast to electoralism, insists upon organizing towards revolution.
How can we achieve this daunting goal? Our most immediate tasks may align with some of the more serious and savvy autonomists or anarchists — organizing with the working class in workspaces or neighborhoods and exposing the bankruptcy of electoral reformism. However only Leninism provides a time-tested road map for how these diffuse efforts can cohere into a united force capable of revolution. As we have demonstrated above, history confirms the soundness of Leninism. Adopting the fundamentals of revolutionary Marxism is no guarantee of success, but abandoning Marxism for academic fads like autonomism is a guarantee of failure.
The medium- and long-range priorities of the movement must be to create the sorts of well-organized mass movements which are independent of capitalist parties like the Democrats and Democrat-affiliated non-profits, but which are not independent of other sections of the working class. To be successful the working class movement may begin as a smattering of separate tenant or workplace organizations, but it must aim to be a movement which brings together the whole class. Because our enemy is centralized, well-organized, and well-funded, we cannot afford to create a balkanized movement or balkanized organizations working at cross purposes — we must build towards movements and organizations which are both democratic and centralized. This is why Leninism, in contrast to autonomism and anarchism, insists upon a democratic centralism.
The Communist League of Richmond is starting small, and we are still a long way from forging the sort of organization we need to win, but our lodestar, Leninism, remains the most effective and most coherent guide to ending capitalism. Join us!