The French Turn, the DSA, and Revolutionary Regroupment

In recent years, the threat of Trotskyist entryism has served as a bogeyman for some members of the Democratic Socialists of America — and a stated goal for others. But the history of the French Turn reveals a strategy that is only viable for Trotskyist organizations under very specific conditions. It is always doomed to fail within the DSA, which is essentially an appendix of the capitalist and imperialist Democratic Party. This analysis has important implications for how we approach the united front and revolutionary regroupment.

by | Jan 14, 2024

In March 2020, several longtime members of the Democratic Socialists of America published an essay entitled “The Dangers of Factionalism in DSA,” warning about the dangers of entryism by organizations such as Socialist Alternative. Using the example of the “French Turn” undertaken by US Trotskyists in the 1930s, the authors argue that disciplined revolutionary entry into broader organizations was necessarily destructive. They state that the DSA should not allow any entryists into its ranks: “If the Left is to succeed where past generations have failed, it can’t allow sectarian organizations to operate as ‘parties within a party.’” 

However, these claims have an ironic and deluded whiff of redbaiting. If there was serious Trotskyist entryism, then the DSA’s intimate relationship with the Democratic Party would be fundamentally challenged. While it is nice to imagine, there is no Trotskyist “French Turn” occurring in the DSA. Rather, the threat of imaginary Trotskyists and other “ultra-leftists” in the DSA has led to “ice pick” jokes threatening violence against political opponents; and more seriously, the dissolution of the BDS and Palestine Solidarity Working Group who have opposed Zionist politicians such as Jamaal Bowman. In fact, the 2023 DSA convention reaffirmed the organization’s support for the Democratic Party. As a result, the article’s claims about the dangers of entryism resemble anticommunist paranoia. 

The article’s caricature of Trotskyist entryism obscures the real history and lessons of the French Turn. Trotsky advocated the French Turn as a short-term tactic for revolutionaries to build up their forces by joining reformist organizations. While Trotskyist entry into the Socialist Party of America proved successful in its objectives, this does not mean it applies to the present-day DSA. Unlike the Socialist Party, the DSA is not a site of struggle for leftists, but a wing of the Democratic Party. Entryism into the DSA does not build up the capacity of the revolutionary left but serves as a rationale for opportunism and political liquidation.

The French Turn

The development of the French Turn cannot be separated from the political crossroads faced by Trotskyism in 1933. Until then, the Trotskyist movement had functioned as an external faction in the Communist International, hoping to return it to its original program as a center for world revolution. Yet in Germany, the sectarianism of the Third Period that saw the social democrats condemned as “social fascists” cleared the way for Hitler’s rise to power that ended with the destruction of the once-powerful Communist Party of Germany (KPD). For Trotsky, the German debacle proved beyond any doubt that the Third International was unreformable. Now it was time for revolutionaries to organize a Fourth International to lead the working class against capitalism.

The victory of Nazism immediately raised the stakes for the workers’ movement across the world. In 1934, an abortive fascist coup occurred in France, threatening the stability of the Third Republic. French workers responded with united action that cut across traditional party lines. This joint action by socialists and communists produced a massive impulse for unity from the rank-and-file in both parties. In response, the Communist Party made overtures to the Socialists for broader unity. However, by 1935–36, this unity took the form of class collaborationism with the liberal bourgeoisie —a strategy known as the popular front.

The bankruptcy of the Third Period discredited the Stalinists in the eyes of many left-wing workers internationally. That meant the social democrats were among the main beneficiaries from this upsurge of proletarian militancy. Trotsky believed that the growth of left-wing social democracy and Stalinist moves toward non-revolutionary unity with the liberal bourgeoisie represented both a danger and an opportunity. If the Stalinists succeeded in building unity with the social democrats, then this would sideline the French Trotskyists for the coming period. Therefore, it was necessary to find a way to forestall this development.

While Trotskyist entry into the Socialist Party of America proved successful in its objectives, this does not mean it applies to the present-day DSA. Unlike the Socialist Party, the DSA is not a site of struggle for leftists, but a wing of the Democratic Party. Entryism into the DSA does not build up the capacity of the revolutionary left but serves as a rationale for opportunism and political liquidation.

In that moment, Trotsky believed that his followers were too weak to intervene in events, but there was the possibility of joining this radicalization from within. This raised the question of which organization to join. The bureaucratized internal life of the Communist parties meant that they were closed to the Trotskyists. By contrast, the social-democratic parties — particularly in France — seemed to offer more possibilities for intervention.

At the time, the French Socialist Party (SFIO) was presenting itself as a more democratic party. In late 1933, the party’s “neo-socialist” right wing split away, while the leadership had lurched to the left and was encouraging revolutionaries to join. The party’s left wing, led by Marceau Pivert, had thousands of members and was open to Trotskyism.

As a result, Trotsky encouraged his followers to join the SFIO in June 1934. A year later, Trotskyists had over 20% of the vote in the Seine Federation and their paper, Révolution, had a circulation in the tens of thousands. They also managed to triple their membership to roughly 600. Ultimately, entryism ended in October 1935 when the Trotskyists were expelled for openly repudiating the popular front. Yet in a limited amount of time, the Trotskyists had made some important gains in the SFIO.

At every juncture, however, the French Turn was confronted with major problems. The Trotskyists failed to seize opportunities due to their own internal divisions. The problems came down to a feud between a group led by Pierre Naville and another by Raymond Molinier and Pierre Frank. Naville was a gifted theoretician but was inflexible and opposed to the French Turn. By contrast, Molinier was more enthusiastic about the French Turn but had a tendency toward opportunism. When the Trotskyists entered the SFIO, Naville split from the group. In an ironic turn of events, Naville later joined the SFIO but refused to join the Trotskyist entryists. The fact that there were two separate Trotskyist entryist groups clearly limited their impact. The two groups would only reunify in September 1935 just as the period of entryism ended.

At the end of 1935, Trotsky drew the following conclusions from the French experience:

  1. Entry into a reformist centrist party in itself does not include a long perspective. It is only a stage which, under certain conditions, can be limited to an episode.
  2. The crisis and the threat of war have a double effect. First, they create the conditions in which the entry itself becomes possible in a general way. But, on the other hand, they force the ruling apparatus, after many sharp fluctuations, to resort to expelling the revolutionary elements (just as the ruling class after long vacillations finds itself forced to resort to fascism). 
  3. Entry at the present moment, one year later than in France — and what a year! — could mean that the duration would not be too long. But this by no means decreases the importance of the entry: in a short period an important step forward can also be made. But what is necessary, especially in light of the French experience, is to free ourselves of illusions in time; to recognize in time the bureaucracy’s decisive attack against the left wing, and defend ourselves from it, not by making concessions, adapting, or playing hide-and-seek, but by a revolutionary offensive. 
  4. What has been said above does not at all exclude the task of “adapting” to workers who are in the reformist parties, by teaching them new ideas in the language they understand. On the contrary, this art must be learned as quickly as possible. But one must not, under the pretext of reaching the ranks, make principled concessions to the top centrists and left centrists (like the SAP, which, in the name of the “masses,” prostrates itself before the reformists). 
  5. Devote the most attention to the youth. 
  6. The decisive condition of success during this new chapter is still firm ideological cohesion and perspicacity toward our entire international experience.

For Trotsky, entryism was a strategic turn that had to be done very carefully. To avoid being swamped by the larger reformist leadership, he believed the Trotskyists must maintain their discipline so they could reach a wider audience. Entryism was not meant to support the reformists but to allow the Trotskyists to be in a better position to expose them. This would enable the Trotskyists to regroup the more militant sections of their working-class base around a revolutionary program. Ultimately, Trotsky hoped that when the period of entryism ended that a stronger revolutionary party would emerge.

The United States

While French Trotskyist entryism achieved mixed results, the Americans carried out a much more successful French Turn. By 1934, the Communist League of America (CLA) only numbered 200 members and was dwarfed by the much larger Communist Party (CPUSA). Despite their small size, the CLA possessed a great many strengths that allowed them to break out of their isolation. For one, they were led by capable organizers such as James Cannon and Max Shachtman. Secondly, the CLA played a major role in mass struggles, most notably leading the Minneapolis Teamster Strikes of 1934. This showed that a few well-placed unionists backed by a strong revolutionary organization could lead workers to victory. This led the CLA to fuse with the A.J. Muste-led American Workers Party (AWP), which organized Toledo auto-part workers in militant strikes. Now, with a tested core of working-class organizers behind them, it appeared that the Trotskyists were poised for greater political breakthroughs.

During this period, the once massive, now largely moribund Socialist Party of America (SPA) experienced a rapid regrowth in membership. Like the French Socialist Party, the SPA was confronted with growing working-class militancy and calls by the Communist Party for unity. From 9,500 members in 1929, the SPA grew to over 20,000 by 1934. Many of these new recruits considered themselves to be revolutionary Marxists and filled the ranks of the Young People’s Socialist League (YPSL). This influx of leftist members had the effect of increasing the amount of factionalism within the party.

The Trotskyists were watching all of these developments and wondering how they would be resolved. Even though the SPA was a spent force on the revolutionary left, it still attracted radicalizing workers to its ranks. Looking back at this situation in 1944, Cannon believed that the SPA’s internal situation was unstable and would not last long. As he wrote in The History of American Trotskyism 1928–1938:

The party itself was not viable. It was already in the stage of violent ferment and disintegration in 1936 at the time of our entry. The Socialist Party was destined, in any case, to be torn apart. The only question was how and along what lines the disintegration and eventual destruction of the historically unviable party would take place.

It was possible that the leftists in the SPA would be silenced or expelled. Then the party would likely tail Roosevelt and the Democrats. Alternatively, the party could be taken over by these uneducated new militants, who as Cannon said were “philistines to the marrow of their bones, without tradition, without serious knowledge, without anything at all…” Finally, considering the “strong sentiments of conciliation with Stalinism” that existed within its ranks, it was possible that the Socialist Party would be captured by the Communist Party.

For Cannon, entryism into the Socialist Party could forestall all these developments. If the Trotskyists used this limited window, then they could gain forces for the revolution:

The question was: Would the potentially revolutionary element of the centrist party — the worker activists and rebellious youth — be engulfed by these forces? Or, would they be fused with the cadres of Trotskyism and brought over to the road of the proletarian revolution? This could be tested only by our entry into the Socialist Party.

However, Cannon faced opposition to an “American French Turn” from two quarters. The first was from Muste, who was partly opposed to entryism since he believed it was an accommodation to the reformists. Another reason for his opposition was an attachment to the Workers Party. As Cannon said: “Muste couldn’t bear the thought that after we had founded a party and proclaimed it the one and only party, we should then pay any attention to any other party. We should go on in our own way, keep our heads up, and see what happens. If they failed to join us, well, that would be their own fault. Muste’s position was not sufficiently thought out, not reasoned with the necessary objectivity. It would not do in the situation.”

A second and more volatile source of opposition came from Hugo Oehler. A CLA veteran, Oehler was a talented mass worker and union activist, but was opposed to any entryism into non-revolutionary organizations based on principle. For Oehler, entry into a party affiliated with the Second International represented an abject betrayal of Marxism.

Inside the Workers Party, Oehler’s opposition proved disruptive as he engaged in factionalism — including physical confrontations — and continually violated party discipline. While Oehler fought with blunt instruments, Cannon used a more surgical approach to win over the party: “Medicinal treatment is the more important and must always come first in any case. Ours consisted of sound education on Marxist principles and their sectarian caricatures; thorough discussion, patient explanation.” This enabled Cannon to isolate Oehler and win over a majority to his side.

Once these obstacles were dealt with, the way was clear for the Workers Party to join the SPA in 1936. To enter the SPA, the Trotskyists had to make many organizational concessions which included dissolving their party organization and ceasing all publications. As Cannon recalled, these compromises were a bitter pill that the Trotskyists were willing to swallow:

Our problem was to make an agreement with this rabble to admit us to the Socialist Party. In order to do that we had to negotiate. It was a difficult and sticky job, very disagreeable. But that did not deter us. A Trotskyist will do anything for the party, even if he has to crawl on his belly in the mud.

However, the Trotskyists did not lose their political identity inside the Socialist Party. They managed to gain control over the Chicago-based Socialist Appeal and used that to spread their message.

During the period of entryism from 1936–37, the Trotskyists accumulated invaluable political experience. For one, they were the main force organizing the Dewey Commission to defend Leon Trotsky and expose the Moscow Trials. Second, the Trotskyists organized support for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. The war in Spain was an acid test for the wider left. Revolutionaries defended anarchists and other radicals who were leading a social revolution in the Loyalist Zone. On the other side, the Communist Party and other reformists backed forces that defended capitalist property and engaged in the repression of revolutionary workers. Finally, the Trotskyists were involved in the maritime strikes occurring in California.

As Cannon observed, the Trotskyists simply carried out their work and waited for the political issues to inevitably arise: “Our plan was to let the political issues develop normally, as we were sure they would. We didn’t have to force discussion or to initiate the faction struggle artificially. We could well afford to let the political issues unfold under the impact of world events. And we didn’t have long to wait.”

For Trotsky, entryism was a strategic turn that had to be done very carefully. To avoid being swamped by the larger reformist leadership, he believed the Trotskyists must maintain their discipline so they could reach a wider audience. Entryism was not meant to support the reformists but to allow the Trotskyists to be in a better position to expose them.

Indeed, it seemed that the Socialist Party leadership wanted to drive out the Trotskyists almost as soon as they joined. On March 26, 1937, a national convention was held in Chicago to contain the Trotskyists. In a move targeting Socialist Appeal, factional publications were banned. In another move, the SPA leadership introduced a gag law to stop discussion of disputed questions inside party branches. However, the Trotskyists were not yet formally expelled from the party. In addition, forces in the SPA wanted to endorse New Deal-aligned politicians like Fiorello La Guardia while the Trotskyists opposed this move. 

In August 1937, little more than a year after they had entered the Socialist Party, the Trotskyists were expelled. At the beginning of 1938, the Trotskyists reconstituted themselves as the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). Based on sheer numbers, the Trotskyists measurably gained from the French Turn. They had entered the SPA with only a few hundred and now counted at least 1,000 members and supporters. They also won over the bulk of the YPSL to revolutionary politics. As a result, a solid revolutionary party had been created in the United States. In addition, the Socialist Party was no longer a serious competitor on the left. As Cannon said: “Since then the SP has progressively disintegrated until it has virtually lost any semblance of influence in any party of the labor movement. Our work in the Socialist Party contributed to that.”

What was the overall balance sheet on the French Turn? For one, entryism required a disciplined organization and an adherence to principled politics to succeed. Secondly, Trotsky observed, entryism was — at best — merely a short-term tactic: “I will not say that the entry into the Socialist Party [of America] was a mistake in itself, but the weakness and bad composition of the party gave very limited possibilities to this maneuver and demand from us a new orientation and a new policy.” 

Moreover, entryism over the long term raised the danger of revolutionaries adapting to opportunist politics. As Cannon noted, this opportunist deviation appeared among the American Trotskyists:  

There is no doubt at all that the leaders of our movement adapted themselves a little too much to the centrist officialdom of the Socialist Party. A certain amount of formal adaptation was absolutely necessary in order to gain the possibilities of normal work in the organization. But this adaptation undoubtedly was carried too far in some cases and led to illusions and fostered deviations on the part of some members of our movement.

As a short-term tactic, entryism needed a clear goal and exit strategy. If pursued for the long-term, then the entryists would see their task not as building a revolutionary party but “capturing” a majority in the reformist party. This effectively amounted to political liquidation. 

Contrary to anticommunist claims, the “American French Turn” was not a sectarian wrecking operation that destroyed an otherwise healthy Socialist Party. This retelling overlooks many crucial elements of history. First, the Socialist Party leadership were not innocent victims of “sectarian” Trotskyists, rather they were aggressive agents who wanted to remove their political critics. Secondly, Cannon and the Trotskyists did not so much split the Socialist Party as they were driven out. Third, entryism showed that the Socialist Party could not honestly answer leftist critics without silencing them. Fourth, the Socialist Party’s “big tent” approach that included revolutionaries, centrists, and reformists under one umbrella was not a workable idea in reality. As the historian Bryan Palmer noted, “an all-inclusive party of the left” that would “transcend the strategic differences separating distinct strands adhering to counter-posed politics of revolution and social democratic reform has historically been an attractive panacea.” To function, a “big tent” organization must avoid confronting major political questions. What Cannon and the Trotskyists did was clarify how unworkable the “big tent” approach was in practice. 

Finally, Cannon and the Trotskyists did not set out to destroy the Socialist Party. Rather, they wanted to build something new and better. They looked for arenas where it was possible to merge principled party building with mass work. Hundreds inside the Socialist Party were convinced that a Marxist program provided the needed answers. In the end, this tactic allowed the Trotskyists to build a small, but valuable, beachhead for revolutionary politics in the United States.

The Democratic Socialists of America

Since the first Bernie Sanders campaign and the election of Donald Trump, the DSA has jumped in membership from nearly 6,000 in 2016 to 94,000 in 2021, albeit falling to 58,000 members in good standing by 2023. This makes it the largest nominally socialist organization in the United States since the 1940s. On the surface, it appears the DSA has shed a great deal of its longtime conservative social-democratic outlook by adopting left-sounding resolutions at various conventions. As a result, many leftists and others without a political home have flocked to the DSA, seeing it as a vehicle for socialism.

This raises the question of whether Trotskyists should enter organizations like the DSA. Currently, no socialist organization proposes a strategy that is completely analogous to the French Turn. Yet there are “soft” entryist efforts adopted by various groups. For example, in 2020, Socialist Alternative (SAlt) proposed dual membership for its cadre inside the DSA. They claim that the DSA’s “big tent” offers opportunities to expand the horizon of socialist politics: “While Socialist Alternative is an ideologically and politically cohesive organization, we also see the need for broader, ‘big tent’ organizations like DSA to help bring together wider forces in campaigns, movements, and ongoing united fronts.”

SAlt claims they are an “explicitly revolutionary Marxist organization,” who will help “build [the DSA] while engaging in comradely debates about how to advance socialist politics and struggles of workers and the oppressed.” In addition, SAlt argues that the DSA could make a major contribution to building the socialist movement if they broke from the Democrats:

We think that DSA will be best positioned to grow and develop both the organization and the wider socialist movement by popularizing the need for a new party, running exemplary viable campaigns outside of the Democratic Party, and focusing its energy on building mass movements. This approach would require DSA decisively breaking from the Democrats and helping lay the basis for a new mass party.

In judging SAlt’s strategy, we should ask if it meets two of the criteria for entryism established by Trotsky and Cannon. The first is that an entryist organization is a disciplined group with a revolutionary program. Is this true about SAlt? In both 2016 and 2020, SAlt supported Bernie Sanders and registered people to vote in the Democratic Party. Despite his claims to be a socialist, Bernie Sanders is a New Deal Democrat with a long history of supporting imperialist wars. Kshama Sawant, a SAlt member elected to the Seattle City Council, was an active campaigner for Sanders and has a history of supporting police unions. Thus, Sawant acts more like a careerist politician than a revolutionary tribune.

At times, Socialist Alternative has criticized the DSA for giving left cover to the Squad and “progressive” Democrats who in turn back the Biden administration. However, SAlt has never questioned their previous record of backing Bernie Sanders and has never given an account for this incoherence. Like the DSA, SAlt has fostered illusions that the Democratic Party can become an instrument for socialist politics. Compared to the DSA, SAlt is inconsistent; they seem to promote a revolutionary line but they are advocating reformism in practice. We can conclude that based on the Trotsky-Cannon criteria for entryism that SAlt does not satisfy that revolutionary standard.

Based on sheer numbers, the Trotskyists measurably gained from the French Turn. They had entered the SPA with only a few hundred and now counted at least 1,000 members and supporters. They also won over the bulk of the Young People’s Socialist League to revolutionary politics. As a result, a solid revolutionary party had been created in the United States.

A second criteria for entryism is the class character of the organization that one enters. Clarifying this point requires understanding the nature of the “class line.” It is necessary for Marxists to recognize the line separating working-class organizations from those of the bourgeoisie on the other side of the line. Moreover, it is imperative to educate workers to break from bourgeois organizations. Blurring the class line confuses issues and only aids those who want to channel workers back into support for capitalist politics, which can only damage the struggle for socialism.

When it comes to the class line, the Socialist Party of America, for all its faults, was a reformist working-class party. By contrast, the DSA functions as a pressure group inside the Democratic Party, a bourgeois-imperialist party.

While many DSA members claim that their chapters do “good work” and are not connected with the national organization, the local and national are not separate. For one, dues money from members goes to the national organization which uses that to fund Democratic Party election campaigns. While it may be true that some local members do good work, we can also say the same about Democrats and Republicans who do good work on a local level. Should we then support the Democrats or Republicans because we like “good work” done by their local members? Ultimately, talk about “good work” by local DSA members serves as an excuse to channel people into an organization that materially supports the Democratic Party.

While the analogy is not exact, Trotsky exposed similar opportunist arguments of those who differentiated between the “good” rank-and-file versus the “bad” leadership in bourgeois organizations such as the Kuomintang:

To consider the Kuomintang not as a bourgeois party, but as a neutral arena of struggle for the masses, to play with words about nine-tenths of the Left rank and file in order to mask the question as to who is the real master, meant to add to the strength and power of the summit, to assist the latter to convert ever broader masses into “cattle,” and, under conditions most favorable to it to prepare the Shanghai coup d’etat.

Even though the DSA has passed a number of left-sounding resolutions at its conventions, this has done nothing to change their fundamental orientation toward the Democratic Party and imperialism. In 2016 and 2020, the DSA supported Bernie Sanders despite his record. Currently, there are nearly 200 elected members of the DSA including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, and Jamaal Bowman. Every one of them are members of the Democratic Party. As Democrats, these DSA electeds support Joe Biden, strikebreaking, apartheid Israel, NATO, and imperialist war. Despite materially supporting the bourgeoisie, the DSA has made no moves to discipline or expel any of these electeds.

Finally, DSA’s membership is not being taught to fight these adaptations to imperialism, but as judged by their enthusiasm to campaign for AOC and other electeds, they are being drawn ever deeper into the Democratic Party.

When it comes to the class line, the Socialist Party of America, for all its faults, was a reformist working-class party. By contrast, the DSA functions as a pressure group inside the Democratic Party, a bourgeois-imperialist party.

Despite the election of a “left” leadership at its 2023 Convention, the DSA reconfirmed its relationship with the Democratic Party. For example, one (ironically named) resolution, “Act Like an Independent Party,” declared: “It is not advisable for us to form an independent political party with its own ballot line at this moment.” Based on this, “DSA commits to making electoral politics a priority for the next two years… [and] that DSA will continue to pursue an approach of tactically contesting partisan elections on the Democratic ballot line and other lines where viable.” This resolution merely recommits the DSA to what has been called the “dirty break” strategy and not political independence. The “dirty break” means that socialists should use the Democratic Party ballot line before eventually breaking off to create their own party. The rhetoric of the “dirty break” promises a future break from the Democrats, but in practice that always proves to be an unreachable horizon. In effect, the “dirty break” amounts to a “dirty stay” inside the Democratic Party.

Achieving working-class political independence requires acting on it now and drawing organizational conclusions. For example, the Comintern demanded communist parties adopt 21 Conditions that necessitated removing open opportunists and reformists from their ranks. Even though there are caucuses in the DSA such as Red Labor that advocate a “clean break” with the Democrats, they have not been able to achieve this. At the 2023 DSA Convention, they proposed a “Clean Break Resolution” that would “immediately pursue a clean, irrefutable, and permanent break from the capitalist Democratic Party…” However, it is worth noting that this resolution did not make it to the convention floor since it did not gather the required 300 signatures (no doubt a sign of the DSA’s organizational consensus on the Democrats). But even if the resolution was adopted, its effective implementation would require removing AOC and every elected from the DSA along with all others who work for the Democratic Party. Red Labor and other “clean breakers” do not fully work out the practical implications of their approach.

Has Israel’s recent war on Gaza changed the DSA’s relationship with the Democratic Party? The DSA has made some tepid statements opposing Israel and some of its members have taken to the streets to protest the war. This has angered longtime members associated with the reformist politics of DSA founder Michael Harrington. For example, Maurice Isserman (Harrington’s biographer) resigned and claimed that the DSA had been “captured by left sectarian ‘entryists.’” Other founding members state that the DSA is now “beyond redemption” and that their positions on Palestine “lack basic human empathy and solidarity.”

Perhaps the DSA’s rhetoric does not please Isserman and others, but their practice is fully in line with support for apartheid Israel and the genocidal war in Gaza. Shortly after October 7, AOC condemned protests against Israel’s war as “antisemitic.” Later, in an October 16 interview, AOC  walked back her half-hearted opposition to Israel’s Iron Dome and stated that she would now vote for it:

PHILLIP: So, you would vote yes today if it came to the United States Congress, additional funding for the Iron Dome?

OCASIO-CORTEZ: I think if it was explicitly around that. I have concerns about white phosphorus. I have concerns about the respect for humanitarian — about human rights and ensuring that we have humanitarian aid going through. But on the sole principle of Iron Dome and defense, I absolutely think there’s an openness, for sure.

Despite nominal calls for a ceasefire, AOC and the Squad have previously voted to fund the IDF with the weapons that are now carrying out genocide in Gaza. In addition, on November 28, AOC and other members of the Squad also voted in favor of recognizing Israel as a “Jewish state.” All of these actions by the DSA’s “electeds” that materially support Israel make their token opposition to the Gaza war completely meaningless.

The simple truth is that entryism in the DSA resembles an opportunist version of Inception with two dream levels. On the first level, there is the DSA which is itself an entryist organization inside the Democratic Party. Whether utilizing the language of “realignment,” “dirty break”, “inside/outside”, or “party surrogate,” they are attempting to transform the Democrats from a bourgeois party into a social-democratic party. In other words, they are trying to transform the Democrats into something they are fundamentally not and never will be.

On the second level, entryists in the DSA are pursuing the same effort to transform it from an adjunct of the Democrats into an independent socialist party. Falling that deep into the entryist dream logic ensures that one will never wake up but forever remain trapped in the political limbo of the Democratic Party. 

Revolutionary Regroupment

There was never a moment when a French Turn in the DSA was either principled or feasible. The DSA is not an arena of struggle for revolutionaries, but a safety valve for the Democratic Party. A clean break with the Democrats requires a clean break with DSA. While many well-meaning DSA members acknowledge this, they still claim that they have nowhere else to go.

Instead of advocating half-hearted entryism or encouraging a “left” caucus in the DSA, communists and socialists should build our own organizations. That way, there will be a place for disillusioned DSA members and other unaffiliated communists to join.

Entryism in the DSA resembles an opportunist version of Inception with two dream levels. On the first level, there is the DSA which is itself an entryist organization inside the Democratic Party, trying to transform the Democrats into something they are fundamentally not and never will be. On the second level, entryists in the DSA are pursuing the same effort to transform it from an adjunct of the Democrats into an independent socialist party.

There are existing groups in which leftists can find a home, such as Left Voice and Firebrand, among others. However, small organizations, even if they are rooted in the class struggle, are not enough. Rather, a process of revolutionary regroupment is needed. 

Regroupment cannot be achieved by uniting on the basis of the lowest common denominator or a “big tent” which papers over genuine differences. Genuine revolutionary regroupment requires bringing together workers and cadre from different organizations around the program of revolutionary Marxism, leading to the formation of a real communist party.

In the meantime, there are opportunities for revolutionaries to conduct principled work together around the united front. From the threats of rising inflation, transphobic reactionaries, fascist irrationalism, and nuclear war, capitalism is slouching toward barbarism. To fight back, united-front action is necessary. Trotsky laid out the basic approach for communist participation in a united front:

We participate in a united front but do not for a single moment become dissolved in it. We function in the united front as an independent detachment. It is precisely in the course of struggle that broad masses must learn from experience that we fight better than the others, that we see more clearly than the others, that we are more audacious and resolute. In this way, we shall bring closer the hour of the united revolutionary front under the undisputed Communist leadership.

As opposed to a popular front which includes an alliance with parties of the bourgeoisie, a united front is based on the mobilization of working class organizations independent from those of the ruling class. Organizations that adhere to a united front would rally around certain common points such as no support for the Democrats or imperialism. However, a united front does not mean organizations would need to bury political disagreements. Instead, they would look for the areas where they can come together to achieve practical results. A united front would build the fighting capacity of workers and allow them to successfully challenge the ruling class. Not only does the united front strengthen the immediate struggle of workers, but it opens them to the vision of going further and overthrowing capitalism.

The French Turn and entryism into the DSA are not on the agenda for today’s revolutionary left. However, we possess the same goal as Trotsky and Cannon in the 1930s: the creation of a vanguard organization of revolutionaries. This will not be achieved by pseudo-entryism or adapting to opportunism. Rather, the path forward requires the principled work of revolutionary regroupment and the united front.

Image: Diego Rivera, “Man, Controller of the Universe,” 1934, detail with Trotsky, Engels, and Marx

Doug Enaa Greene
(he/him) is an independent communist historian from the Boston area. He has written biographies of the communist insurgent Louis Auguste Blanqui and DSA founder Michael Harrington. His forthcoming book, The Dialectics of Saturn, examines Marxist debates about Stalinism.
Categories: articles, guest posts

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