Letter: Regarding MUG and the Democratic Republic

Date: 2024-02-12T05:57:36+00:00

Location: cosmonautmag.com

My thanks to Joseph P. for his intelligent reply to my article “The Struggle for a ‘Democratic Socialist Republic’ and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat,” in which he calls for more members of MUG to engage in our conversation. I will echo that call. It seems especially apt in this case because I believe Joseph captures an important aspect of our difficulty when he writes, in part 1 of his critique: 

Bloom accuses MUG of a sort of ‘schematism’ in regards to our conception of the revolutionary process as a fight for the democratic republic. I would argue what he actually discerns is an under-theorization of this process on our part.” 

My characterization of MUG’s theory of a “democratic republic” as a schema applies most strongly to those versions that conceive of such a republic as “stage one” of a “two-stage process.” (See my previous article titled “A Practical Roadmap for the Workers’ Movement in Taking Political Power.”) There are alternative presentations, however, which acknowledge that the political process of creating a “democratic republic” and the economic process of expropriating the essential elements of a capitalist economy are joined at the hip, the second needing to happen in such a telescoped period of time as to essentially invalidate the idea of “stages”—at least if we want to be theoretically consistent. This seems to be the version of “democratic republic” theory that Joseph favors: 

The lesson there is precisely what Bloom argues: ‘[the revolution] must immediately, or almost immediately, begin the process of “despotic inroads” into capitalist economic power, taking control of at least the most decisive elements if it really wants to exercise political power in any meaningful sense.’ At MUG’s convention, this is what I argued contra Gil during debate concerning the democratic republic, so it seems to me these ideas are already actively shaping the debate within our group. Far from schematism, it seems that we’re engaged in a process of clarification with regards to our theory on this.

The last sentence of the quoted paragraph, to be complete however, needs to include the word “perhaps.” It’s an important “perhaps,” because the outcome of the discussion between Joseph and Gil remains undetermined.  

In addition, I would argue that our theory must expand even more broadly, to include the potential for the expropriation of the expropriators to be what begins the revolutionary process, through a general strike, thus making possible the creation of a “democratic republic,” as well as those historical experiences where military conquest, rather than either a “democratic republic” or a general strike ushered in the proletarian dictatorship. So, some elements of schematic thinking remain even in Joseph’s preferred understanding. Still, I think it’s clear that a further development of MUG’s own theory, as Joseph calls for, is likely to help considerably in terms of at least clarifying what aspects of the question we need to actively consider as our conversation proceeds. 

The exchange between Luke Pickrell, Edward Varda, and Gil Schaeffer is not focused on the issue Joseph correctly identifies as key in the quote above. I will, however, say a few words about that exchange in an appendix to this letter, because an underlying methodological issue unites the conversation between Luke, Edward, and Gil with the one Joseph and I are pursuing.

Let’s move on, at this point, to part 2 of Joseph’s comment. Here he suggests that my fears are misplaced, because MUG’s participation in aspects of the class struggle constitute an antidote to any danger of schematic thinking: 

The one thing we can count on will be crises. Bloom seems to suggest that MUG’s orientation will lock us into strict agitation for a democratic republic regardless of the prevailing social conditions. I personally do not recognize this strategic orientation in MUG’s own ideas; instead, what I see is a necessity of growing our movement through repeated interventions and confrontations against crisis conditions. 

This, too, reflects an important insight in my judgment. If I thought the be-all and end-all of MUG’s existence was the defense of a theoretical schema I wouldn’t be much interested in pursuing a debate in the pages of Cosmonaut. It’s precisely because MUG exhibits two other essential qualities that I have decided this discussion is worth engaging. One is the aspect Joseph cites: an involvement in genuine manifestations of the class struggle. I will mention our mutual interest in the campaign against genocide as developed by the Spirit of Mandela coalition and the Peoples’ Senate as one clear example. The second element is MUG’s openness to an anti-dogmatic exploration of revolutionary theory. 

Both of these things represent countertrends that can help to neutralize any schematic elements of “democratic republic” theory that might be present. But the key word in that sentence is the one I put in italics: “can.” Like the development of the theoretical conversation between Joseph and Gil, these elements guarantee nothing in advance. We still have to see how all of the competing influences work themselves out as political work and theoretical discussions proceed. A contradiction of this nature can be resolved in more than one way, after all. So, a conscious reconsideration/development of “democratic republic” theory does still need to be pursued as a task in its own right. 

Let’s now turn to Joseph’s final section titled “Some words on dual power, the democratic republic, and the dictatorship of the proletariat.” The essence of this is summed up when he writes: “Bloom is seemingly conflating form and content here.”

In this case I will object to the way Joseph frames the question. What Bloom is doing is, rather, properly identifying the discussion we need as a discussion about forms. The problem is summed up in the Engels quote I cite in my article, by way of Luke Pickrell’s “Marxism and the Democratic Republic”: “Marx and I, for forty years, repeated ad nauseum that for us the democratic republic is the only political form in which the struggle between the working class and the capitalist class can first be universalized and then culminate in the decisive victory of the proletariat” (emphasis added). 

MUG, taking off from Marx and Engels, repeats this notion over and over: “the democratic republic is the only political form in which the struggle . . . can first be universalized and then culminate in the decisive victory of the proletariat.” Based on this, MUG presents the struggle for a democratic republic as the most important element in its program. The oft-repeated premise, that there is one and only one possible form, is inaccurate, however. History has, since the time of Marx and Engels, revealed two other forms: the  form of dual power and the form of military conquest of power. This reality – that, unlike Marx and Engels, we should now be able to conceive of at least three forms “in which the struggle . . . can first be universalized and then culminate in the decisive victory of the proletariat” – is the whole point of my article that Joseph is responding to. 

It’s certainly correct to note that the content of the Russian revolution and the content of MUG’s conception of a democratic republic share much in common. How could it be otherwise, with two different “forms in which the struggle . . . can first be universalized and then culminate in the decisive victory of the proletariat”? But if our discussion is about whether, like Marx and Engels, we still conceive of the “democratic republic” as the only form through which this can happen, or we now conceive instead of at least three forms (and this is, it seems to me, what our discussion is about) then an explanation of how all the different forms share much the same content, while true enough, gives us no useful insights whatsoever.   

Finally, I will note that Joseph has nothing to say about my fundamental methodological critique of “democratic republic” theory: It depends for its development on the study of previous theory rather than a study of the class struggle and how it has actually unfolded for us during the 20th century. This is the error that Joseph, Luke, Edward, and Gil all share in common (see appendix below). The core of my argument is that the Russian, Chinese, and Cuban revolutions do not validate “democratic republic” theory, and this fact strongly suggests that the theory itself is an inadequate guide for the development of a revolutionary program for the USA in the year 2024.

Appendix: “Putting the Democratic Republic First”

I am not, in this appendix, going to undertake a detailed assessment of the exchange between Luke, Edward, and Gil. I will, instead, focus on one key element—the one with which I conclude my letter in response to Joseph P. But first, as a useful introduction to that conversation, let’s consider these words from Luke: “The undemocratic Constitution is the issue to solve” (emphasis in the original). 

On its face, this is an idealist approach. Laws and constitutions never represent anything except the codification of actual power relationships between classes in a given society. Thus, to solve the problem of the undemocratic US constitution we must first change the relationship of forces between classes in the USA. That is not going to happen based on an abstract struggle against an undemocratic constitution. It’s going to happen based on more concrete struggles around specific grievances. Gil points to this important truth when he writes: 

“By beginning the study of democracy with the mass movements that first demanded and fought for it, we can see that the struggle for democracy has always been bound up with specific demands and laws that democratic movements wanted but were denied because the power to make the laws was not in their hands.”

Thus, it’s these specific struggles that come first, in a temporal sense, not the demand for a “democratic republic” or a “new constitution.” Developing the movements needed around such concrete struggles, as part of our effort to change the relationship of class forces in the USA, is, therefore, “the issue to solve”. (This is why I think that much of the dismissal of “identity politics” by MUG is misplaced: because many of the specific struggles that are needed around particular injustices will arise as a direct result of people identifying their interests as women, members of oppressed nations, LGBTQ, etc. But this is a discussion for another time.) 

The demand for a “democratic republic” can still come first in a programmatic sense, but even if we hinge our program and propaganda on this idea, it remains essential to remember that it’s not the new constitution that unlocks the potential for resolving specific grievances. It’s the struggle to resolve specific grievances that unlocks the potential for a new constitution. Thus, it’s the struggle to resolve specific grievances that comes first in a political sense as well as in a temporal sense, whatever place we might give the struggle for a new constitution in our program.  

At the same time, Gil fails to follow his own method – of rooting our study of such issues in an appreciation of how history has actually unfolded – when he shifts to the question of what theory we should espouse regarding “the relationship between democracy, socialism, the content of political consciousness, and where our political activity and agitation should be focused,” and here is where we pick up the thread with which my letter in response to Joseph P. concludes. Gil bases his understanding of these relationships not on an actual study of how the class struggle, in particular revolutionary struggle, has unfolded in the last century, but on a study of the theory espoused by Lenin for Russia more than 100 years ago. And the same essentially idealist approach is reflected in his call to “turn DSA into a Kautsky-Lenin reading group. That is exactly what will be required in order to sort through all of the ideological, strategic, and organizational issues that will confront DSA and MUG in the future, the issue of ‘Democracy First’ being at the top of the list.” 

Really? We expect to anticipate the theoretical and practical problems of making revolution in the USA in the 21st century by studying Lenin-Kautsky, without any reference to the actual unfolding of revolutionary history—and therefore the development of revolutionary theory—in the last 100-plus years (i.e., since the time Lenin and Kautsky developed their theoretical approach)? 

Edward Varda goes back even further in theoretical time to lay the basis for his understanding, citing these words from the Communist Manifesto: “the proletariat must first of all acquire political supremacy.” 

The problem, to repeat because it’s the central problem in our conversation, is that these words from the Manifesto simply do not describe what really happened in the process of 20th century revolutions. In Russia, the social supremacy of the workers and peasants came first, months before they acquired political supremacy. In China, military supremacy came first, and there was never anything resembling a “democratic republic.” In Cuba, once again, the military supremacy came first, while institutions that began to resemble a “democratic republic” took decades to develop in their most meaningful sense. 

A materialist approach to theory cannot simply derive theory from previous theory. A materialist approach to theory has to study the relationship between previous theory and subsequent events in the real world, doing its best to reconcile any discrepancies that might become manifest as history itself unfolds. That’s the challenge facing MUG in its presentation of “democratic republic” theory: to not only reconcile your theory with the words of Kautsky and Lenin, but to reconcile it with the collective historical experience of socialist revolution since 1917. This challenge has so far not been addressed—at least not in anything I have seen. I therefore call on Joseph P., Luke, Edward, Gil, and everyone else in MUG to consider and respond to it.

Steve Bloom

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