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The Purpose of a Movement Is What It Does

Sophia Burns argues that opportunism comes not from bad ideas, but from practical and contextual needs.

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Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Three weeks ago, DSA member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won a primary against a high-ranking Democratic congressman, earning her widespread popularity among leftists around the country.

Last week, many of those same leftists were horrified to see her walk back her previous criticism of Israel’s occupation of Palestine. During an interview, a PBS journalist brought up the killing of dozens of protesters by Israeli soldiers in May, which Ocasio-Cortez had called “a massacre” with “no justification.” When the interviewer claimed thatof course the dynamic there in terms of geopolitics and the Middle East is very different from people expressing their First Amendment right to protest,” Ocasio-Cortez answered, “Well, yes,” and promised to “learn and evolve” on the issue.

Why did Ocasio-Cortez’s unequivocal stance soften, bringing it in line with the standard Democratic position? After all, her district is so overwhelmingly Democratic that whoever wins the primary, wins the office – she has no need to moderate for the general election. So, why the shift in her position?

Where do opportunistic ideas come from?


According to the cybernetician, the purpose of a system is what it does. This is a basic dictum. It stands for bald fact, which makes a better starting point in seeking understanding than the familiar attributions of good intention, prejudices about expectations, moral judgment, or sheer ignorance of circumstances.

Stafford Beer

Bernie Sanders made his name winning against a series of Democrats in Burlington, VT in the 80s. So why did he become a Democrat in all but name, supported by the Vermont Democratic Party and supporting it in return, starting in 1990?

SYRIZA, the Greek socialist party, came to power in 2015 on an anti-austerity platform. Why did it go on to implement those same austerity policies once in office?

The purpose of a system is what it does. A political organization is a complex system. To understand it, you can’t take its stated goals at face value. Its choices don’t simply follow from its ideas.

Instead, its internal dynamics interact with the demands of its external circumstances to create its strategic attitude – the general stance it takes towards other political actors, the framework within which it makes decisions. That doesn’t exist at the level of conscious ideology. Instead, it forms the taken-for-granted assumptions about what doing politics entails. Whatever ideology it follows in words matters less than the guiding assumptions embodied in a strategic attitude. By and large, a party’s official philosophy is just the particular language it uses to justify its choices post hoc – ideas are not the basis on which organizations make decisions. The internal and external pressures and feedback loops that do form that basis all operate regardless of its claimed ideology. Blue Dog Democrats and Green Party members might wave different protest signs, but politics means voting and going to rallies for them both.

So, why did Sanders become a Democrat?

His “movement” was centered around his career as an individual politician. During the 80s, being an independent allowed him to defeat city-level Democratic competitors. But then, when he ran first for governor and then for Congress in ’86 and ’88, the experience of losing taught him that he needed the Party’s support to advance beyond local office. So, he formed a “special working relationship” with the Vermont Democrats because he needed to. However, he never recanted his third-partyist ideas. Rather, he used them to justify his choices by continuing to nominally self-identify as an independent.

SYRIZA, on the other hand, arose in the midst of a years-long recession, during which the European Union forced Greece to implement harsh cuts to social services in exchange for needed cash bailouts. But, that provoked a massive protest response – young Greeks, with heavy anarchist and Marxist participation, took to the public squares of Athens, camping out and fighting the police. SYRIZA successfully channeled their anger into electoral politics, but that tied them to the viability of the Greek state and its institutions. After all, what other mechanism did they have for exercising social power? SYRIZA didn’t have the option of sacrificing the Greek state’s well-being, even at the cost of its core principles.

When a pro-Palestine democratic socialist finds herself bound for Congress, she must accommodate herself to the program of the Democratic Party. Otherwise, without the Party’s support, where would she find the allies she’ll need to effectively push for her list of reforms? So, unable to deliver on her voters’ priorities, she’d risk being punished by them, just like her predecessor.

Opportunistic ideas come from practice.


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Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras of SYRIZA. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Where does that leave revolutionaries?

Understanding why you shouldn’t be an opportunist isn’t enough. Bernie Sanders understands the bankruptcy of the two-party system – he’s built an entire personal brand around opposing it. That hasn’t kept him from taking part. Politics is made of something deeper than beliefs.

When opportunism is a viable option in terms of an organization’s internal dynamics and a useful option in terms of its external situation, then revolutionary ideas won’t fend it off. Opportunism is born from practice. Ideas play catch-up.

So, you can’t fight it just with ideas. If you don’t practice the alternative before you argue for it, then winning the debate just means you get to choose how opportunism will be justified. To win, a revolutionary orientation has to show itself, on the ground, to be at least as useful as an opportunistic one.

Ideology matters, but it lives in what you do, not in the words you say. So, you can’t win opportunists over by educating them. You have to develop a revolutionary practice. You have to show that building institutions outside of the state and against it offers a more effective road to social power than protests and elections.

Otherwise, the opportunists will have proven you wrong, instead.


Sophia Burns

is a Communist and polytheist in the US Pacific Northwest. Support her on Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/marxism_lesbianism


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2 Comments »

  1. I have noticed that the Democrats, more so than the Republicans are able to get their members to tow the party line. You need only look at votes in Congress to see that. Behavior supports your contention – and your conclusions – to a point. If you look at the evolution of political parties, the appearance of a new party meant the death of another. While the Democrats have been around since Jefferson, the Republicans only since Lincoln (a long time, admittedly). However, the face of the Democratic Party changed significantly twice in my lifetime. The first was prior to the McGovern nomination, when anti-war youth joined the party en masse. It changed the party significantly. The second was during the Reagan years when the Dixie-crats defected to the Republican Party. Because of these two events, the Democrats have become a left of center party rather than the umbrella organization they used to be. The Republicans, with the Southern Democrat defections, became significantly more right-wing, with the exception of what today, the right wings calls RINOS.

    Looking into my crystal ball, I don’t see another major change on the horizon that would move one party or another either to the left (as you would like) or to the center (as I would like). Therefore, I advocate taking assumed rights away from the federal government (where they are subject to the whims of the ruling party at the time) and giving them back to the states, where the people have more influence. And that would be working against the Federal State in a way that has achievable goals.

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  2. Appreciate this. I’m not sure that “Blue Dog Democrats” wave protest signs. Progressive Democrats certainly do. And in the practice of protest, this is what makes the latter different from the former (and more like the Greens).

    Beyond this, Greens do something else, as a matter of common practice, that rightwing and progressive Dems don’t generally do: radical direct action (not talking about CD). Another practical distinction.

    Finally, for Greens in general and for some Democrats (and for folks in lots of left organizations besides), the practice is arguably largely about party building. Important, because functionally to build an independent political party is a radically different project than to build a party that is incorporated into the political system; there is not much opportunistic about building the Green Party.

    For all these reasons, I think you might reconsider your analysis of the practice of Green politics in the U.S. today.

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