Hillary and Barack had Saul Alinsky with his “Rules for Radicals,” but the Democratic Socialists of America’s Maine chapter have someone altogether more serious to whom they now look for guidance: Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. In a groundbreaking essay just published on the DSA Maine website Pine & Roses, Aaron Berger suggests that the answers to the current malaise on the Left lie in Lenin’s seminal What Is To Be Done, which the Soviet founding father penned in 1901 and printed in comrade Josef Stalin’s Iskra (The Spark).
“Yes, we are all pointed towards a revolution, but what is the next step?” Berger asks at the outset of his essay. Unlike the wishy-washy compromises of the more transactional Leftists, he argues, the DSA needs a bolder vision. “Having won seats of power both nationally and locally, DSA has had to deal with the slow parliamentary process of legislating, and as a result has encountered an increasing amount of concessions.”
Before flashing back to Monty Python’s Life of Brian, in which the Peoples’ Front of Judea was beset with rival demands from “splitter” groups, pause for a moment to consider that, in Portland at least, the DSA are actual players in the political ecosystem. They’ve won and held seats on the city council, and even proposed a broad raft of changes to how Maine’s largest city is governed which became referendum questions on last November’s ballot.
According to Berger, DSA Maine today faces questions of unity and purpose no less significant than those which vexed the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks at the time of Russia’s 1917 revolution. Without the grandfatherly pater familias persona Bernie Sanders provided the movement during his runs for the U.S. presidency in 2016 and 2020, some new, big idea is urgently needed in order to get the band back together.
Fortunately, Berger is an astute reader of the tealeaves. Democracy itself is at risk, and only the pure of heart can save it:
“One huge benefit of claiming the mantle of defenders of democracy is that it can be used as agitation across almost all classes,” Berger writes. Like Lenin, Berger is thinking big. Nevermind that this was the rallying cry Joe Biden applied to the midterm elections. The totality of DSA’s mission calls for something powerful and all encompassing.
“In 1905 for Lenin this demand was to enact democracy and end the Tsar’s autocracy,” Berger recalls, before later drawing the connections between Tsarist autocracy and the Right in America today. There is one small problem with this reasoning. After the 1917 revolution, Lenin and his cohort did not deliver anything close to democracy to Russia. But that didn’t stop Soviets from using the word liberally in their double-speak right up until the collapse in 1991.
When Biden and the Democrats tried to make last fall’s mid-term about “democracy,” it was really just a dog-whistle for abortion rights. Having effectively blunted the impact of what Republicans had hoped would be a massive red wave, they’ve now just shuffled along to the next imbroglio. But Berger and DSA stalwarts are more committed to the cause, and to the totality of the movement. Lenin’s distinction between the narrow economic goals of the trade unionists versus the transformational ones of the social democrats is not lost on Berger.
Politics, he too argues, cannot be compartmentalized. It must account for a totality of things, including the way in which society is ordered and how we as comrades interact with one another in our daily lives. Perhaps this is what historians really meant with the term “totalitarianism.”
Later this month, the DSA Maine chapter will convene for its annual conference to address the big questions of identity, purpose, and the way forward. That is why Berger’s essay is perhaps so timely. When they do put their collective heads together, there is one more thing they might consider: Context.
Every survivor of Soviet brutality knows that What Is To Be Done does not exist in isolation, but rather as a companion piece to Lenin’s other great work Who Is To Blame. If you’re reading this piece, chances are you, like me, are to blame. To blame for the Terrors of Trump, for police brutality, and for capitalist excesses. Worry not, dear comrade, the revolution has plans for us too.