Were you not great only so long as the masses and the revolution were great? And when the force of the masses declined, did not your revolutionary spirit equally decline, decline even more?
—Ante Ciliga, The Russian Enigma
We call not to reject marxism or the merger formula but to consider them soberly. This can only be done by seeing them in context.
We hold that the “merger formula” — M + S where M = the workers’ movement and S = socialism — is essentially correct for realizing an internally-democratic mass socialist movement. We hold also, however, that such a merger requires that the terms M and S are actually available. Where unions and nominally socialist parties still exist the formula seems to make intuitive sense, but the limits suggested by twentieth century social democracy should fill any thinking communist with nausea. We therefore intend to examine the formula in light of the context that produced it, and the (different) context in which we find ourselves in now. We concern ourselves in particular by the curious absence of M and its implications for S.
The merger formula is a product of a time when M was assumed to be a given and unions could plausibly serve as the base for class politics. Yet one can’t paper over the grim reality which was the likely cause of our radicalization: both M and electoral participation in general have been in continual decline for decades. Only the very devout would deny that both pillars of the merger formula have been structurally undermined by the winds of capital. The death of the workers’ movement and the erosion of organized labor has left a vacuum where no alternative institution of proletarian class power has been able to emerge. The left’s adventures over the last half century searching for new sources of revolutionary agency — lumpen guerilla groups, student movements, returning to Gaia and the like — can be seen in some sense as an attempt to circumvent this problem. Its failure to fill the void is instructive: there is as of yet no plausible communist alternative to the merger formula, and yet this does nothing to wish M back into existence.
Without M, politics can be nothing but an exhaustively bourgeois enterprise more or less synonymous with constitutional loyalty. The basis for the center strategy has collapsed not on the level of political will but by structural necessity — participation in representative institutions and collaborating with the bourgeoisie become two halves of self-reinforcing whole. If the merger formula failed to produce communism at the height of workers’ power, of what use could it be now in the age of surplus population? Without M, any attempt at left organization inevitably has to tail developments in bourgeois politics: a center strategy of class-independent organization gives way to trying to split off elements of class-collaborationist mass parties.
Given how toxic the left as a subcultural milieu is — too burdened with “recovering” and not-so-recovering bureaucratic centralists — the good faith criticism necessary for rethinking our strategy is not tolerated. The sects that result seem to predominantly be the ass end of a grotesque selection mechanism, where only the most domineering megalomaniacs and sheepish lost souls are willing to stay involved. Without a mass movement, there appears to be no way or incentive to screen out or ignore cranks, opportunists or anti-democratic cultists and still have any numbers — so milieu groups scrape the bottom of the barrel to keep on existing.
When Marx wrote “the development of the system of socialist sects and that of the real workers’ movement always stand in inverse ratio to each other,” he was in the process of attempting to “replace the socialist or semi-socialist sects by a real organization of the working class for struggle.” Not only do we face the yawning absence of a real movement, but we also appear to lack the ability to muster competent sects out of the déclassé academics and hobbyists that comprise the socialist left. Attributing the last several decades of failure to a coincidence of leftist incompetence inverts the likely causality of the situation and keeps serious consideration of M’s decline off the table.
To aim for party formation without a base is simply putting the cart before the horse, or, really, the S before the M. We are skeptical that party-building can even accomplish things of minimal good, like building better sects (meaning actually adhering to some form of internal democracy and accountability). If initiatives like Labour Party Marxists and the Democratic Socialists of America continue to orient themselves this way, and continue to chase after the arena of bourgeois politics, the results will be predictable. In the United Kingdom, a Labour Party victory would likely result in marxists aligning with the Corbyn government without the capacity to pivot from austerity. In the United States, it is hard — but not impossible — to imagine the DSA breaking away from the very Democratic Party that has been the reason for its existence for decades; even if it does, without capturing a previously disengaged base, this effort is doomed to remain little more than political theater.
The exact mechanism by which such M might hypothetically be built or re-engaged is not a problem that we consider here — but we hold that it is a necessary precondition of a successful S. Without it, socialism cannot rise above its utopian form, and is at best simply ideological evangelism. S is meaningless without M. Sucking energy from hapless students was no substitute fifty years ago, and continues to be no substitute now.
emancipation is a marxist research collective and media project. It is not a party organ, although some of its members are part of one group or another. We espouse no formal tendency, but we have some ideas in common. We hope to help make radical education accessible outside the academy, compiling and disseminating materials to further marxism as viable inquiry and action. Without a grasp of the break from yesterday to today, we will not be able to break from today to tomorrow; thus it is only through an historical understanding of M that the politics of S can be meaningful.