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Perspectives for socialists today

A Tempest NYC Marxism day school talk

In this talk delivered in June 2023 at the Tempest NYC Marxism day school, Natalia Tylim explains the importance of revolutionary organization and suggests directions for Tempest today. This is the second in an ongoing series of articles from our regional Marxism schools that took place earlier this summer. It has been lightly edited for publication. The first essay by Tim Goulet focused on socialists in the labor movement.

Questions of organization are important, and, in my experience on the U.S. Left, underappreciated. The organization question is the fundamental reason why we launched Tempest in 2020.

Framing the problem

There are two related problems that need to be stated to understand how Tempest has approached the organization question:

The first is the historic problem of the forced separation of the socialist movement from the working class and with it the connected erosion of working class institutions of struggle and education; the second is the legacy of that separation on the revolutionary organizations—including the organizations which some Tempest members come from—that grew up in political conditions marked by the ascendancy of neo-liberal assault on living standards.

Any successful rebuilding of the revolutionary movement relies on a mobilized and self-conscious working class; a movement where there are live questions of strategy debated and applied in the context of democratic forces that can carry those decisions out. While, no doubt, we are experiencing an uptick in organizing, we are still at the very beginning stages of constructing the types of democratic organizations and forces that could even come close to the level of the radical movements that were part and parcel of working class life in the last century. When we talk about an impasse, that is the impasse we are referring to.

The fact that significant revolutionary advance can only be made in the context of a connection and rootedness inside the broader class informs our tasks and our approach to broader, non-revolutionary formations. We must both commit ourselves to the rebuilding of working-class organizations, institutions, and spaces and to simultaneously rebuild revolutionary organizations that are centered around overcoming this historic problem.

There is a new possibility for healing this wound between socialists and broader working-class organizations today because of the struggles that have been unleashed by the crises of the neo-liberal era: climate catastrophe, racism, the privatization of care in the sphere of social reproduction, and more. This isn’t a dynamic only in the U.S.; it’s part of an international landscape.

We are largely starting from scratch because the revolutionary organizations that grew up in a period where the potentials were not present developed habits and patterns that ultimately proved incapable of relating to these new possibilities. In those years, it was necessary for revolutionaries to sustain small groups when struggle and revolutionary politics were marginal.

The groups that Tempest members mostly come from had two diametrically opposed approaches to navigating those waters. The International Socialist Organization was a propaganda group with a high level of political agreement but too-often characterized by sterility and an over-focus on ideological agreement and preserving the group. Solidarity was a loose network that asked members to identify as socialists without forefronting that identity, as members threw themselves into workplace organizing. We want to take the best of both experiences as we work  to build something fit for the present.

How we understand the impasse and our assessments of what to take and what to leave behind from previous organizational practices directly impacts how we approach organization today. We believe that there are new opportunities for rebuilding institutions of working class self-activity and revolutionary organizations whose members are integral and connected to those institutions.

The biggest test of an organization is how it responds when conditions shift. In country after country, revolutionary organizations have split, the forces of the revolutionary Left have weakened, and organizational crisis has been a dynamic in groups around the world. Again, this isn’t just a U.S. problem; in many places internationally the smaller revolutionary groups that grew up in a previous moment have struggled in the face of social democratic electoral phenomena. In the U.S., those crises developed quickly, revealing the urgent need to build a pole to prepare for the impasses those social democratic politics lead to.

The resurgence of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) in 2016 was an example of the new terrain. It was an important moment when new forces and projects had the potential to come together. Revolutionaries, like myself, initially struggled to relate to the phenomenon. DSA grew in the wake of the undercutting of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders at the Democratic National Convention and the subsequent victory of Donald Trump.

Thousands of activists flooded into a socialist organization for the first time in a generation, and the broad tent developed a movement-like quality. Different ideas and initiatives were taken up, and there was a general confidence about projecting the need for an independent alternative to the Democrats and an ultimate socialist horizon.

Some revolutionaries stayed outside the phenomenon, wanting to maintain revolutionary purity and simplicity. Others liquidated into the broader phenomenon. Still others deferred the task of organization until later. We may be encouraged by the movements around us. But organizations, coordination, goals, and tactics never simply come together magically through the process of struggle.

Think of the backlash to the George Floyd uprising that we are living through now or the roadblocks faced by, for example, the Starbucks workers. For coordination and politics, the revolutionary Left needs to be a factor in future moments like these. We–not just Tempest, but all of those who believe that this type of organization is necessary–need to be doing that building and preparation now.

Relatedly, movements in the U.S. have always been led by the oppressed and are strongest when movements against oppression merge with the radical Left. There is a strong argument to be made that the most visible section of the socialist movement has been organizationally absent, or more sympathetically operating on a parallel track to the most important antiracist struggles of the day. This needs to be overcome.

Thousands of people, mostly men in hats, are gathered in a public setting to listen to a speaker. They carry signs reading "Agitate, Educate, Organize," "One big union," and other slogans. The image is in black and white.
Socialists in Union Square, May 1, 1912. Photo credit: Bain News Service.

Tasks for Tempest today

I want to talk more explicitly about Tempest, where we are now, and what we should do in the next year.

From our first editorial:

If there is a single imperative which drives this project it is not letting this opportunity be lost. The Left must lay the foundations for independent and democratic organizations of self-activity and struggle, and must ensure that these organizations are deep-rooted and organically reflect and represent the working class. To do this also requires us helping recohere a resurgent revolutionary current.

There are possibilities for this to happen today in ways that were not present in the period of our previous organizations. With hindsight, we’ve been given the chance to learn from our past experiences.

I think the vast majority of Tempest members, including myself, want Tempest to be and act like more of a national organization. What does that process look like? And what are the defining features of “an organization”? Here, again, many people’s previous experience in small revolutionary organizations informs–in negative and positive senses–what an organization should–and should not–look like. The possibilities open if we can work together to discuss strategy, bring more people into the organization, and develop clarity together about what we are trying to accomplish.

Across the board, I sense different expressions of uncertainty in what this new project is, a question of what such a small group with such lofty goals should contribute, and also  frustration at why we aren’t further ahead than we are.

Here are some actions I think we should take, given these circumstances:

  1. First and foremost, we need to build democratic institutions of working-class organization, struggle, and debate. By working-class, I mean the class in all its diversity and issues. We should build around not just workplace concerns but also anti-racist struggles, fighting the anti-trans backlash, defending abortion rights and reproductive justice, and confronting fascism.  In all of our areas of activism, we should advocate the building of rank-and-file and activist networks across union lines and trades. We need to create political spaces where the strategic and tactical challenges that we all face can be discussed and hashed out.
  2. For that to be possible, we also urgently need more organized democratic spaces that bring together comrades (among both Tempest members and fellow travelers) who share a general base set of politics so that we can debate perspectives, strategy, and tactics. Such spaces are necessary to win people to those foundational politics and also to develop collective perspectives and strategies in all of our political work. We believe that such organizing is the most effective way to strengthen–both politically and organizationally–the broader political work in labor unions, community organizations, and movement struggles. We need to continue developing our local, in-person work to bring people around us to engage in political discussion.
  3. To facilitate this process, we also need to use our website, our events, and our resources to put forward a clear and understandable revolutionary outlook. A clear perspective gives a basis for political clarity with other forces on what we are trying to do and lays a marker for where we think movements and struggles must go (even when the impasse persists). It allows us to build something greater than the sum of its parts by bringing the different pieces of what our members are doing into a larger framework and knitting this activity together through our politics.
  4. We need to continue to be patient with one another and talk through the live questions and debates of the day–not to be won in a sitting, but as part of the process of building and developing ourselves into a more clear and confident organization.
  5. We must develop policies to address grievances and approaches to sexual assault.
  6. We should continue to analyze and discuss the state of the Left, our membership, and our commitments.

I encourage everyone to attend the Socialism Conference in Chicago over Labor Day weekend for the opportunities to educate ourselves and discuss politics with Tempest members and many others.

I’m proud of the progress we’ve made and hope others who have been with us from the outset agree.

For those who are newer, this isn’t a finished project, and it can only become what we collectively commit to making it–bringing the best of the past with us in order to better understand what we are trying to do together.

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Natalia Tylim View All

Natalia Tylim is based in New York and is a founding member of the Tempest Collective.