The Trouble with Winning: A Series of Five Essays on the Democratic Socialist Idea
Ontario Ginger Project
Never has this been truer than in the history of the socialist left. Our decades of grasping failure from the jaws of victory have left us, as a movement, in a weaker position than ever, despite the reality that at the dawn of the last century, and with the coming of the economic crisis in this one, many felt that the future was and is ours to inherit.
And yet, somehow, we repeat the errors of our forebears. Errors compounded by the fact that they have been repeated so often.
This essay, which is broken down into five parts, is, at its base, a criticism of the traditional idea of what constitutes “victory” for both the socialist left and those that the socialist left claims to represent, the broad mass of humanity that can be shown to, to one degree of wealth or another, be outside of the structural power and social elite.
This mass is not simply the traditional industrial working class, but also must be said to include the hundreds of millions of the underprivileged in the Third World, the members of what Marx described, increasingly inaccurately, as the “Lumpenproletariat”, the wide strata of “white-collar” workers who often work longer hours for less reward than the few factory workers left that they sought not to be, and the permanent near underclass that we have created with our untenable civilization of tremendous productive capacity and wealth generation and a bizarre social unwillingness to include the vast bulk in this progress, rendering them open, at any moment, to impoverishment.
To those who would seek to solve the issues addressed herein through traditional democratic capitalist methods, I would suggest that you need read no further.
This is not an attempt to justify democratic socialism, it is, rather, a suggestion as to how to secure its future.
While, and I feel that this is tremendously important, it is absolutely necessary and reasonable to debate whether or not democratic socialism is the path to be pursued to resolve the social questions that confront us, these essays are not meant as a defense of socialism per se.
Instead they are an attempt, both tactically and morally, to suggest why socialism, in both its revolutionary and parliamentary forms, has failed, as well as to suggest how we might, as a broad movement, go about attempting to reverse this history.
The fact is, like-it-or-not, that the socialist movement in either of its broad incarnations, while successfully forcing the creation of a more broadly inclusive civilization in the developed west, and to a degree elsewhere, has also either failed to have any lasting structural effect where democratically elected, or has, in every single case, become tyrannical and has debased its alleged lofty goals where “successful” through revolutionary methods elsewhere.
I will argue, as I have before (1), that the moral imperative of socialism is undeniable. But I will also argue, and I believe, that the basic error that we have made as socialists, that we have made as people who wish to see a successful transformative social movement actually succeed in attaining a lasting effect, is in our basic misunderstanding of what constitutes “winning”.
What unites the revolutionary and parliamentary left, and what unites them with their opponents on the right, is the fixation on power as a constructive end. “Winning” is assumed to be the assumption of power.
The thesis of this set of essays, and the very real need for a shift in tactics that it implies, is that the socialist movement should not directly, as an aim, attempt to take power at all.
I realize that this is a difficult thesis to accept, but only if the thesis is misunderstood, deliberately or otherwise.
The immediate charges will be those of “defeatism” or “utopianism”. Oddly, and this is worth noting, these exact same charges will be leveled from both the “hard” and “soft” left. The reason is simple. They have the same overwhelming desire to be in power.
(In fact, as I will discuss at length later, the entire purpose of the Communist and revolutionary Left movement and its imitators, is the attaining and maintenance of power.)
I can only beg the reader’s indulgence. I will deal with these ideas all in turn.
Broadly speaking, however, this is not so much an argument against the idea of forming a government as it is an argument against the immediate utility of such a goal.
In fact, as I will seek to explain in the last of the essays, I wholeheartedly support continued efforts to democratically attempt to attain and to hold power where possible. I simply feel that this parliamentary aspect of the struggle for a democratic socialist social transformation must be a secondary goal. I also feel, as I will expand upon in the third of the essays, that those who seek a rapid revolutionary or violent (and all rapid social transformations are of necessity violent) social transformation are doomed to failure even in the rare cases that they do take power, due to their subservience to a deeply reactionary and elitist idea that a government of revolutionary vanguardists can force the ideological and cultural victory of humanity over its “baser” instincts.
The primary battle, very simplistically put for now, must be a battle for people’s hearts and minds, for their consciousness, in a long-term sense, and not for their votes come election time or, more perversely, for their temporary participation in some “revolutionary moment”. The struggle is an ideological one, not a tactical one.
“Victory”, in any meaningful sense of the term can only come after this laborious battle for the consciousness of people and not before. Winning power in elections or in a grasp at power during some revolutionary moment when the system is in a temporary state of objective collapse or weakness will not accomplish this end. While the democratic triumph of socialist governments can help in the process, they can only help. The true battle remains outside of the structure of government.(2)
And, as a result, it is winning itself that is often the first defeat.
The series of essays will be as follows.
Part One: On Trying
Part Two: The Failures of Evolutionary Socialism
Part Three: The Revolutionary Impulse & the Futility of Anarchism
Part Four: The Trouble with Winning
Part Five: Winning
(2) In the case of revolutionary “victories”, as I will discuss later, the self-defeating problem is the overwhelming preoccupation with the maintenance of revolutionary power, which must be virtually the sole basic focus of a revolutionary government due to the fact that the government itself becomes an island under siege very quickly after assuming power. Violence as a structural arm of governance becomes a necessary component of revolutionary government directly due to the reality that a truly revolutionary government, and I will address what that is in essay three as it is not always a government that comes to power due to a “revolution”, is by definition attempting to force consciousness forward. In this they cannot succeed.