There is a metaphor described by Leon Trotsky of a socialist organization being one cog in a much larger machine and how it must fit into an appropriately larger (but not too much larger) cog in order to be affective. He described it this way in The History of the Russian Revolution:
The party set the soviets in motion, the soviets set in motion the workers, soldiers, and to some extent the peasantry. What was gained in mass was lost in speed. If you represent this conducting apparatus as a system of cog-wheels – a comparison to which Lenin had recourse at another period on another theme – you may say that the impatient attempt to connect the party wheel directly with the gigantic wheel of the masses – omitting the medium-sized wheel of the soviets – would have given rise to the danger of breaking the teeth of the party wheel, and nevertheless not setting sufficiently large masses in motion.
Like many of Trotsky’s insights, it is perfectly valid and useful as far as it goes but it has been an utter disaster when fetishized by his followers. For example, Trotsky follows this statement by saying: “The opposite danger was, however, no less real – the danger of letting slip a favourable situation as a result of inner frictions in the soviet system.”
The problem is that this is not the opposite danger, in non-revolutionary times anyway. Rather, the opposite danger is setting up the cog-wheels and levers and then having the machinery of the revolution thrown into reverse by the biggest cog-wheel on top.
Imagine, for just a moment, a hypothetical contemporary example. A small socialist group attempts to have an influential and positive role in developing class struggle. They build a base in a union and even have some influence over the decisions in that union, either through the leadership or directly with the rank-and-file. Let’s say they have organized a vibrant caucus in their union in which they play an important role, and that caucus can sway the rank-and-file, which can sway the leadership (or make decisions in spite of the leadership) which can have an impact on whether or not the workers take action or not. Sounds great.
But what happens when a Democratic Party politician inserts themselves as an intermediary in the class struggle? While the union, and the caucus, and the socialists, may play a role on pressuring this individual, this individual may play a role in pressuring them in reverse.
The Democrat tells the bosses they can cut them a deal–if you keep the jobs here, we will give you a tax break. The bosses tell this to the union leaders, who tell this to the caucus, who tell this to the socialist grouping within the caucus. Because the Democrat is relatively well liked and supported by the workers inside and outside the union, they are swayed by the messenger. But let’s say the bosses insert a poison pill–sure, we will keep jobs here, but only if we can get some concessions.
In this hypothetical scenario (actually, other than the involvement of the Left, this is precisely what happened at Boeing in Washington recently) the socialists then have to decide whether or not they are going to accept concessions or fight them. But what if the concessions are popular, considering the alternative (layoffs)? A principled socialist grouping will not accept the concessions. They may realize that this is a losing battle, it may alienate all of their allies, from elected leaders to their fellow co-workers, but they don’t want to be on the “winning” side of the issue. They want to be on the fighting side.
But imagine the socialists accepting the logic of the concession because, within the context of the economics of the factory, it is simply the best deal on order at the moment. Or, more likely, because there is nothing we can do to stop it short of destroying our credibility, so we might as well play along. Suddenly, the revolutionaries are going around and advocating concessions. How could this possibly happen?
The problem, in our hypothetical scenario, is that the socialists do not want to forsake their position as the little cog-wheel in a much larger machine. If everybody wants something, from the workers to the boss to the Democrats, then being a lone voice of opposition will possibly result in red-baiting, ostracism and an assumption that you simply do not care about people’s jobs. Even worse, removing your position as a cog in this machine means that you can no longer play a role in attempting to move the machine at all. In fact, if you want people to respect you, you have to advocate concessions. Or so it seems.
This is a problem that Trotsky and his followers never considered, or rarely considered, as the real danger to the cog-wheel metaphor. If the little cog-wheel of the socialist group attaches itself to the bigger cog-wheel of the union caucus, which attaches itself to the bigger cog-wheel of the union appartus, which attaches itself to the very large cog-wheel of the Democratic Party, which happens when the biggest cog-wheel throws itself into reverse?
What happens is left opportunism. If you are not willing to remove yourself from the machine–a once-valuable alliance now moving to the right–you will play a role in carrying out the agenda of the ruling class. It matters not that you may or may not have some precious opportunity to take advantage of down the road. The real opportunity is to break the hold of the Democratic Party over labor right now. Playing the game does not empower you to take advantage of the future opportunity, it merely helps to grease the wheels of the system that are stacked against working people in every single way.
This is the difference between a police state and a liberal democracy. In a police state, being a socialist or even a union member will get you thrown in jail. In a liberal democracy, this is all legal–so long as you play the game in a responsible manner. And so long as you are responsible–you do not rock the boat too much, advocate illegal strikes, etc.–you can continue doing this indefinitely. In fact, the cog-wheel system of liberal democracy is far more effective at weakening dissent than police state methods.
After all, every time a socialist is thrown in jail and exiled in a police state, a liberal is outraged by the attacks on free speech. But every time a revolutionary advocates illegal labor action, a liberal is outraged by the disruptive and irresponsible nature of the protest. Rather than imprisoning and exiling revolutionaries, the liberal democracy just needs to assure them a comfortable position in the cog-wheel system. It is far more effective to convince the revolutionaries to carry out the concessions for them. Of course, every liberal democracy reserves the right to unleash the police state if necessary, but they generally prefer the far more effective “non-violent” option.
This is not a call to never make an alliance with liberals, never get involved in a union caucus or never to “sully” oneself with the workings of the political machine, as will be assumed by unprincipled opportunists who refuse to learn anything from history, much less current events. This is merely a call to realize the genuine dangers that making these alliances can have. They are not merely opportunities to gain an audience–they are also opportunities for the actual enemies of the working-class to pose as allies of the working-class, and opportunities to drag the Left in to provide cover for austerity. That this needs to be said ought to show what a dismal situation we find ourselves in today, as the Left needs to be rebuilt virtually from the ground up.
Rather than assuming that the entire machine will simply bend to the desires of the little cog-wheel, and not vice-versa, we should keep in mind a completely different take on this problem. As Walter Benjamin wrote:
Marx says that revolutions are the locomotives of world history. But the situation may be quite different. Perhaps revolutions are not the train ride, but the human race grabbing for the emergency brake.
Or Mario Savio for that matter:
There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part; you can’t even passively take part, and you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!
Sometimes an alliance is a valuable tool of resistance, but sometimes it’s more effective to simply be a monkey wrench in the machinery of the political and economic system.