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(What a dodgy exchange. Jacobin editor Micah Uetricht can't simply come out and ask whether Elbaum endorses working in the Democratic Party. He certainly does, of course. What this has to do with Lenin is anybody's guess.)
Jacobin: In the book, you quote Vladimir Lenin: “Politics begin where the masses are, not where there are thousands, but where there are millions.” Then you write that revolutionaries must not “accept marginal status as a permanent fact of life — much less a mindset that glorifies marginality as a sign of true revolutionary faith. … Planting the banners and waiting in a left-wing stronghold for people to come to us will not cut it.”
When I read that, I think of the critiques of mass campaigns like Medicare for All or for politicians like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, which have shown that they can bring the idea of socialism to mass numbers of people who have never heard this term before. Some of those critiques are valid, like the worry that engaging too heavily in electoral politics will water down DSA’s radical politics to the point that the organization ceases to advance a bold socialist vision. But most of them seem more rooted in people clinging to that “pure” marginality — at a moment when socialism has an opportunity to become a truly mass movement. The opportunity to reach the “millions” that Lenin references is here, but orienting a leftist organization in that direction involves ditching some of the habits of glorifying marginality.
Max Elbaum: I think the Bernie campaign, the insurgent campaigns, the way people are learning to speak to large numbers who are envisioning moving the country as a whole — all of that is extremely positive. Politics is a matter of looking at the balance of forces and where the masses are at and intervening in a way that moves the needle. We have to speak to the majority and build a majoritarian movement.
We’re obviously a long way from a majority of the United States not just supporting fundamental change and an alternative to capitalism but taking steps and risks to make that happen. That’s not going to come about by offering only a maximalist program and trying to move in one leap from where we are now to that maximalist program.
It’s certainly legitimate and necessary to realize there’s uneven development in society — you’re going to have an advanced guard, what Lenin called the “conscious element.” That’s the point of having a socialist organization where people are united on the long-range goal. But it works in different layers. It has its immediate base and its periphery, and it works in coalition with outside forces.
So, I think that the purist tendencies, the ones that are critical of anything that is less than their total vision of what a revolutionary socialist program would be, are self-defeating. Because you never break out of the margins.
The idea that you just plant the flag and everyone will come to you if you have the correct line has never worked. That’s not how politics works. Politics is addition — you need to get more people on your team.
The Left has been marginal for a long time in the United States. For some people, that’s their comfort zone. When you mix it up in broad mass politics, there’s always a danger that you compromise some key principle and fall down a slippery slope. Those are real dangers. But every successful movement for radical reform or revolution has to engage in those broad mass politics. There’s no other way to build a majoritarian movement from where we are now to a majoritarian movement for socialism.
Throughout the book, you criticize the “voluntarism” of the NCM, especially in Maoist groups. What is voluntarism, how did it play out in these groups, and why it was such a problem?
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