Socialist Strategy and the Capitalist Democratic State

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A Socialist Project e-bulletin ... No. 1835 ... May 28, 2019

Socialist Strategy and the Capitalist Democratic State

Stephen Maher and Rafael Khachaturian

The democratic socialist movement in the United States today is emerging from a central impasse: the dual failure of both social democratic and Leninist politics. Though social democratic parties could once plausibly claim to be pursuing incremental reforms as a path to something better, the contemporary collapse of parties formed from this tradition across the core capitalist countries following their retreat into ‘Third Way’ politics suggests otherwise. Beginning in the 1980s, this retreat included abandoning even rhetorical commitments to class struggle in favor of seeking ‘inclusion’ for marginalized groups within the structures of neoliberal corporate capitalism.

On the other hand, the embeddedness of the contemporary capitalist state within civil society -- definitively... unlike the situation in Tsarist Russia -- makes it hard to imagine a socialist transition taking place through ‘smashing’ the state from outside and organizing a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, even leaving aside the dangers of political authoritarianism that come with such an approach. Nor are there any forces on the horizon that could possibly begin to carry out such a program. For these and other reasons, the Leninist call to insurrection does not today appear to offer a viable path forward for the left. So how then should the blossoming socialist movement approach the capitalist state and the question of political power?

Yet there is another way. Running socialist candidates for office, mobilizing social struggles from below, and building the institutional infrastructure of working class power can be mutually reinforcing. We believe that breaking the power of the capitalist class by democratizing the economy and transitioning to a social system organized for the common good rather than private accumulation -- in other words, democratic socialism -- is possible only by waging a struggle on the terrain of the state linked with a broader ‘political ecology of movements and forces’. Developing such a strategic view requires a theory that clarifies the antagonisms and contradictions within the state, and between the state and social classes.

In what follows, we lay out some essential theoretical and strategic guideposts on the contemporary capitalist democratic state. Though certainly not exhaustive, we believe these serve as crucial analytical foundations for debates within the emerging socialist left. While there is today the potential to develop a genuinely mass socialist politics, this will depend on building organizational forms and strategies that transcend the limits of the models of the past -- moving beyond a narrow insurrectionary view of politics and engaging in a struggle on the terrain of the state, while avoiding the trap of a social democratization that serves to simply accommodate workers to capitalism.

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