Can US Socialists Organize? (No)

Dan DiMaggio discussed the question at some length in his article “How Can We Build the Socialist Movement in the 21st Century?,” which appeared in Louis Proyect’s blog The Unrepentant Marxist on January 6, 2012,

I am reposting my reply to this question (comments #4 and #12 at the web page cited), updated slightly for clarity. Why? The readers who comment at The Unrepentant Marxist are generally enthusiastically indoctrinated Marxists, while those who read this blog are unlikely to be so politically specialized, so my analysis of the question should be of more interest here.


Working people, especially in times past, were used to forming teams on an ad hoc basis to get their joint projects done, whether farm work, shop work and even industrial work. An essential aspect of such practice is a succinctness and speed of communication. A group of three or four carpenters on a house project do not waste much time deciding who’s carrying up the plywood, who’s nailing down the roofing shingles and who’s going to the taqueria to get the lunch orders. Management types call this “work flow.”

Experience merging your work flow trains you to communicate much, quickly and with little said, with others similarly experienced. This becomes less efficient with office work (staring at a computer screen eight hours a day), and the skill is less developed among people who work in parallel isolation. This skill would have been highly developed in the types of workers Karl Marx would have been familiar with, but it is not as common among today’s workers in the United States because a smaller fraction of the population does 19th century type work.

Construction work today, even with power tools, is not so different from how it was performed in the 19th century, and even earlier. But the nature of work has changed so much over the last century (even the last thirty years) that far fewer people have learned how to mesh their work flows efficiently. That is the skill essential to the effectiveness of a political organization. The big questions, “what are we fighting for?” and “how do we proceed?” are resolved quickly because everyone “just knows” the answers. The only issues to discuss are those of the moment: who’s hammering?, who’s carrying?, who’s fetching?, and who’s in charge for now? There are a few (only a few) regular meetings to go over the job, iron out problems and reassign tasks and leadership roles in an agreeable manner. The less friction generated and smoother work flow merging carried on, the greater the percentage of the collective effort that goes into achieving results.

The other socializing influence on 19th and 20th century industrial workers was the process of industrialization itself. The use of human beings as repetitive motion machines in an organized structure of work flow that ingested raw material and produced manufactured products. The “assembly line” and “efficiency” had their baneful psychological effects, but they also had their reflection in the “efficiency of scale” mentality and meshing of efforts that industrial workers brought to their unions, and the socialist political parties they supported (as with Eugene V. Debs in the U.S.). The craftsmen’s skill and discipline of autonomously meshing work flows was compressed into assembly line factory work, and the shaping and distortions of the psyche from these occupational activities was naturally carried over to the workers own collective enterprises. Collective work attuned them to collective awareness, the process of industrialization compressed them into organized assemblages, and the continuous pressures for efficiency and production stamped socialism into them.

This mentality has died away because the nature of work that formed it has died away — here. To find it today, go to China, where the officially Communist government is just as severe as Andrew Carnegie was to throttle independent socialism in the form of labor unions. American socialists today are people who pick up books, or read from computer screens, and choose to associate in clubs that discuss specialized topics in history, and try to relate them to events of the present day, and in the best instances to contribute to the analysis and resolution of current social and economic problems. These sound like sociology professors, not sheet metal workers pounding out Ferrari car bodies by hand (in the 1950s and 1960s) and then riding home on bicycles.

The perceived problem with organizing socialists today may be that you really don’t have a collection of industrially pre-socialized workers seeking to ensure their economic survival though collective action, but a symposium of college junior faculty determined to have their theories persevere against rivals. I was once the president of a unionization group for scientists and engineers (physicists, chemists, engineers with graduate degrees); it didn’t work, they were all so smart individually that they were determined to be collectively stupid (with a tiny minority that was quite effective).

I think the reason organizing a 21st century American socialist party is difficult is because those enthused about socialism have little connection to the concerns of most Americans (quaintly called “workers”), and they in turn are fixated on the conditions (and distractions) in which they live out their lives, and have no interest in “socialism” or anything theoretical, and are only interested in what specific solutions you have for their problems in the here-and-now.

People will follow those leaders who spell out concrete solutions that work. They will not care if that leader looks into a crystal ball or Das Kapital to tingle his brain so it spits out workable solutions, like Midas’ goose laying golden eggs. As long as the ideas are golden and steadily produced, the public will follow, but few people will ever care to know about the inspiration that tingled the sorcerer’s brain. You have to lead with results.

Even worse, you don’t necessarily gain power and glory by putting out those concrete golden ideas, because others may be far better qualified to translate “your” ideas into social reality. If an idea is really good, it will be stolen. But for these socio-political situations you shouldn’t care so long as the ideas improve society. If you want anything more out of the process, personally, then you’re just a careerist and the hell with you.

In summary, if your goal is to organize a party that draws in people to join in your enthusiasm for socialism (adopting a socialist canon to interpret their observations of life), you will not find overwhelming public interest. If instead, you wish to organize a political party that produces workable solutions to popular problems, then you will gain public support commensurate with your degree of concrete achievement (from the public’s perspective) but you would have to be willing to keep your socialism private.

In his article, Dan DiMaggio expresses his frustration over the failure of socialism to take root, politically, in today’s United States:

“Lately, though, I’ve started to wonder just how the &*^$ a viable socialist movement can actually be built in the U.S. I’ve been grappling with this question for much of the last year as I attempt to overcome a funk rooted in my sense that the current organizational forms of the socialist movement, to which I and many others have given so much of our time and energy, are a dead end. Recently it seems like every time I try to raise a finger to help the movement, I am overcome by a crippling sense of the futility of it all.”

A psychological disorder is: “Any personal construction which is used repeatedly in spite of consistent invalidation.” — George Alexander Kelly (1905-1967),

Kelly’s definition is the oldest likely source of the several quotes that have been blended into the well-known saying attributed to Albert Einstein (1879-1955):

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.”

I would say that what Dan DiMaggio is complaining about is the fatigue that follows from persisting with a personal construction that is resolutely invalidated by reality. He and others like him are missionaries in a faith that is consistently rejected by the American public, and not much popular elsewhere (without compulsion).

DiMaggio expresses a desire to be involved in a popular political movement that implements socialist ideas, because he is convinced they would help make society better. I, too, happen to think that many socialist ideas would make society better. I am also sure that never in a thousand years will self-avowed Marxists succeed in forming a popular mass movement, let alone a government, in the United States. In the last half century they have not demonstrated anything of practical benefit to society (except perhaps as individuals), and they aren’t even capable of organizing themselves beyond micro-sects. Politically organized American socialism died with Eugene V. Debs (1855-1926).

21st century Americans cannot be organized with 19th century conceptualizations of “workers” and “movements.” However, persisting in such efforts is the avid hobby of a dedicated group of enthusiasts, similar to the people who restore, maintain and run steam locomotives. This only becomes dysfunctional when your expectations are grandiose.

I have observed that when a man’s house is on fire, he is quite grateful to anyone who rushes over with a hose to put out the flames. Such help usually opens the homeowner to the idea of companionship with his helpers, and from there real friendship and a receptivity to new ideas and joint projects might develop. Now, it could happen that the homeowner finds that some of these helpers were fundamentalist Christians seeking recruits door-to-door, or redneck Republican neighbors, or some other type disfavored by the homeowner’s belief system, so he remains cordial and grateful but never merges his activities with theirs.

Wouldn’t it have been more convenient to stop his helpers as they were rushing in, to interview them first to ascertain their acceptability before allowing them to enter his property with hoses and ladders? It is unlikely he’d have a house left if he had.

I simply apply this basic fact of human psychology to make a suggestion to DiMaggio, and comrades like him, as regards the desire to be involved in a popular political movement that improves American society by applying socialist ideas. Bluntly said: give up the proselytizing mission and just develop — in reality, not in talk — helpful solutions to people’s problems. After people experience the benefit of your work, some of them will be receptive to learning more about your belief system. This is the basis of charity relief work whether carried on by Catholic relief agencies, or as the Black Panther food programs (today the Uhuru Movement), or by Cuban Communist medical missionaries. The goal is social change, not religious conversion.

In thinking about how to solve social problems in the here-and-now (e.g., empty food banks, foreclosures, student loan debt, unemployment, homelessness in a country with excess housing inventory, the opportunities today are limitless) you may find that the strictures of your faith, your belief system, are too narrow, even outmoded for the times, and you may have to move beyond them. The socialism of the past may help you visualize ideals for the immediate future, but it cannot be assumed to contain all the answers needed to achieve those near futures: you must move from “faith” to “atheism,” and work with existing reality.

The goal is to inspire people to form closer community, to care for and share “the commons” of natural resources, to participate in a socialism that expresses equality as a sense of solidarity and mutual help and not of forced standardization and regimentation, to liberate rather then enslave human potential as broadly as possible (read about the “human development index”). If instead, you seek to convert the heathens to your denomination of socialist worship, then you are wasting your efforts and their time. Don’t confuse your menu with their meal.

If you expect to change “them” into what you are now, forget it.

To change “them,” you accept becoming one of them, so “we change.”

What we change into is never entirely known, or fixed.

“Ours is never a struggle between good and evil, but between the preferable and the detestable.”

2 thoughts on “Can US Socialists Organize? (No)

  1. Very interesting look at why socialism, as an ideology, will not work for the USA. I agree that some socialist ideas would make the world a better place for all. The trick is getting the masses convinced of that. There is too much of the false, as in it never really was, “individualism” here in this country for a socialist party to ever gain real power nationally. Maybe during the life of Debs, but no longer.
    As for good ideas being stolen, that has never bothered me. If my ideas were ever good enough to be ripped off, well, that just was a source of personal pride for a short time. As long as the end result was good for the many, it never bothered me. Maybe my ego isn’t all that large.
    I prefer being an atheist regards religion and politics.

  2. Pingback: Social Democracy: Political Movement from Personal Fulfillment | manuelgarciajr

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