Milton Fisk

Socialism From Below in the United States



There were great moments in the history of socialism-from-below in the US – the early TUEL, the Minneapolis strike, the fusion with the Musteites, the decision not to support the USSR in the war and to support the international working class instead, the Rank and File Caucus of the UAW, the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, aspects of IS’s rank and file work, and the CLUW intervention. The worst moments have sprung from a degeneration of principle that produced expulsions and splits. These explusions and splits were made the transmission mechanism for the tradition of socialism-from-below. Among those worst moments were the Comintern’s fostering of factionalism, the illusion of a Fourth International, the liquidation into Reuther’s caucus, Shachtman’s realignment with the Democratic Party, the failure to orient to the SDS before it split, and the economism of IS mass work.

The great moments were an expression of principles that are still relevant and that the ISO makes the foundation of its work. These principles include: first the primacy of the working class in a revolutionary perspective, second the necessity of building a revolutionary party on a non-sectarian basis, third the importance of active intervention in both economic and political struggle by revolutionary socialists, fourth the right of oppressed people to organize autonomously, and fifth the need for socialists to base their actions on support for the international working class.

The worst moments are not simply explained. But in the background the strength of US capitalism has played a prominent role, The WP’s drift to the right began in response to the ability of capitalism to buy off the working class politically during the war. The tradition of mass work, that was designed to unite people on a minimal program but not to build a socialist current, became entrenched in the ISC during the student movement period; during this period the pessimism of the earlier Cold War period about socialist prospects still limited people’s vision. The triumphalism and commandism of the IS was a last desperate resort of leaders who found that US capitalism had resources for preventing militancy even during economic stagnation.

Revolutionary socialists understand that their organizations are subjected to destructive internal contradictions by their existence within a strong capitalist society. They Then see the failures of the organizations in their tradition, not as a failure of the perspective of socialism-from-below itself, but as, in the main, understandable consequences of the way the surrounding capitalist society affects those organizations. Capitalism itself has internal contradictions and when those contradictions weaken it – as they are once again doing after the post-war boom – socialism-from-below has the possibility of growing in a healthier way. It will eventually become a current that capitalism can no longer resist.


Last updated on 5.2.2002