Demonstrators flooded streets across the globe in public protests on Saturday, calling for action against gun violence. Hundreds of thousands of marchers turned out, in the most ambitious show of force yet from a student-driven movement that emerged after the recent massacre at a South Florida high school.
The student activists emphasized that they would soon have access to the ballot box as they hope to build support for candidates who support universal background checks and bans on assault-style weapons.
[Source: New York Times]
How should leftists have engaged with this weekend’s March for Our Lives?
Over a million people attended nationally-coordinated rallies calling for federal laws restricting the sale of firearms. Students who survived the recent school shooting in Parkland, FL headlined the main Washington, DC march (alongside performances by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Miley Cyrus, and other celebrities). Meanwhile, more than 800 satellite events featured Democratic office-holders, from Senators Elizabeth Warren and Sherrod Brown to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. Plenty of socialists showed up as well, hoping to “put forward an alternative to this system that is built on violence at its core.”
Similarly, the recent teachers’ strike in West Virginia inspired enthusiastic leftist support, with radicals “stand[ing] in solidarity with the teachers of the state in their fight for better pay and better healthcare and offer[ing] our full support.” However, few of the leftist groups either attending the marches or urging solidarity with the teachers had done any prior work to speak of among either anti-gun high schoolers or West Virginian teachers. So what did “fully supporting” or “putting forward an alternative” concretely mean?
Any time a protest event receives significant media coverage, radical groups put out similar statements. Where does that impulse to endorse come from? Does responding in the same way every time obscure deeper differences between one self-declared “movement” and another?
What place should this “support” have in revolutionary strategy?
A political group employing an activist-networking approach is looking for a new campaign. They read the news to find “hot issues” that are being reported on in the media. Once they’ve determined the issue they want to agitate around, they look for an NGO they can “partner” with, providing warm bodies to show up at the NGO’s events and to help actuate the already-existing strategy of the NGO. Often this looks like showing up to City Hall or the state capitol, as part of a coalition of “the usual suspects,” to lobby legislators to support or oppose a particular bill, or showing up at a rally put on by the NGO in command of the campaign. Usually the passage of a law is the primary goal of these campaigns.
Maybe the group might try to recruit one or two participants from the action, but since most of these people are already organized and are members of one of the larger groups, only a handful of people are brought into the organization. As enthusiasm inevitably drains from the campaign in the face of setbacks, participation bleeds away, so the group ends up back at square one, or worse, end up with fewer people involved than they started with. At this point, groups usually cut their losses and look for the new “hot issue” of the day, thus repeating the cycle.
While their desire to support popular movements is well-meaning, activist leftists are basically ambulance chasers. When they see the media cover something politically exciting, their instinct is to show up offering “leadership” and “the socialist perspective.” Generally, no one takes them particularly seriously when they do. Why should they? The radicals have no pre-existing relationship with them and haven’t shown why they deserve anyone’s attention. So, the socialists’ efforts go nowhere. They lose a few people, pick up a few more, rinse, and repeat. They come to exist for the sake of existing rather than serving a particularly useful role. If an organization’s practice boils down to providing “boots on the ground” for “movement” nonprofits’ campaigns and rallies, why bother with the organization at all? Isn’t it easier to just work with the nonprofits directly? That’s why so few people in a given movement join any of the socialist organizations that try to involve themselves. When a group has made itself superfluous, people can tell. So, leftists continue to exist on the margins of the activist subculture, never realizing that they’ve no one but themselves to blame for their irrelevance.
Your ideology is not the beliefs you affirm. It’s what your actions show that you value. If your practice consists of listening to podcasts and arguing on Facebook, then that’s the substance of your ideology, not the particular ideas you agree with. If you mostly wave signs at protests and issue calls for things you can’t deliver, then your ideology is about bearing moral witness within the activist scene (which, don’t forget, is just the organized infrastructure of the Democratic Party).
You are always promoting your ideology to the people around you. That doesn’t mean you’re telling them your opinions. Ideology isn’t made of opinions. Rather, you’re teaching them through example what you actually consider important – and that’s what will determine their perception of radical politics. Ambulance chasing teaches that leftists are basically flaky: they make promises they can’t keep and don’t stick around after the news cycle moves on. People learn that socialism offers them nothing because your actions have taught them that it means talking big and not following through.
The March for Our Lives and the West Virginia teachers’ strike were fundamentally different phenomena.
The former was a choreographed, slickly-branded rally organized and promoted by Democratic Party front groups, especially Everytown for Gun Safety and Giffords (named after a retired Democratic member of Congress). The teenagers from Florida weren’t actually calling the shots; the whole thing was run by a nonprofit called the March for Our Lives Action Fund, whose decisions were made by a board of professional Democrats (albeit in consultation with a powerless “student advisory board”), and the satellite marches prominently featured sitting Democratic politicians. That’s why they so heavily emphasized voting in the midterms for candidates who support the Democratic Party’s legislative priorities around gun control, and why explicitly left-wing and anti-police demands from student groups without the official March for Our Lives franchise (such as those in Chicago and Philadelphia) were generally ignored. The Democratic platform, after all, is more amenable to outright reactionary policies like the expansion of police presence in poor, working-class, and non-white schools and the abolition of basic legal rights for people with psychiatric diagnoses.
Conversely, the teachers’ strike was collective action, not media spectacle. West Virginia’s unionized teachers, not Democratic fronts or politicians, organized it themselves. It was a non-symbolic, illegal strike. The point was not media coverage or Democratic voter turnout. The teachers wanted better pay and benefits, so they withheld their labor until they got it. They used their access to meaningful social and economic power to improve their lives. They didn’t have to trust Democratic candidates to keep their campaign promises. Collective action works because class struggle defines class society. But high-profile Democratic Party rallies, like the March for Our Lives and the Women’s March, ultimately only benefit the Party itself.
However, leftist conversations about the strike and the march mirrored each other closely. Are their demands sufficiently radical? How much criticism is too much? How can leftists help? In both cases, the Left offered its support reflexively because “organizing is good.” But there was a category difference between the events. Where was the corresponding category difference between left-wing responses to them?
Well, when you’re an ambulance chaser, you lack a meaningful social base. You act as a club for hobbyists within the protest scene who happen to prefer a socialist or anarchist brand to a liberal one. So, whether it’s a Democratic media event or an actual instance of class struggle, you find yourself on the outside looking in. In either case, your “support” consists of waving placards at demonstrations and publishing official statements until the news cycle moves on. Ideology is practice and for you, there is no practical difference. So, your ideology considers them equivalent. Anything that feels like mass politics is equally attractive, whether that feeling is just PR (as with the March for Our Lives or the Women’s March) or has a basis in something real (as with the West Virginia strike).
A crisis will only catalyze a well-formed communications network. If such networks are embryonically developed or only partially co-optable, the potentially active individuals in them must be linked together by someone . . . In other words, people must be organized. Social movements do not simply occur.
When a constituency mobilizes (whether it’s for a strike, a march, or a show at a nightclub), it’s not because all of the individuals involved just happened to show up at the same time. Just as a venue, sound equipment, etc have to be acquired and set up beforehand, attendance and participation have to be deliberately organized. When the West Virginia teachers struck, they did so through preexisting organizing networks: their union and a private Facebook group. When people attended the March for Our Lives, that was also done through preexisting networks: activist, religious, and campus-based groups went together as groups, and the march’s sponsors hired publicists to reach out to the unaffiliated. Similarly, the crowd at a show mobilizes through friendship networks of clubgoers, performers’ fan bases, and promoters’ advertising efforts.
The importance of organizing networks doesn’t mean that a constituency can’t act for itself on its own initiative, “from below.” Rather, an infrastructure of organizing networks is the means by which it’s able to do so. Leadership doesn’t impose itself from outside. It happens when people within those networks persuade others to act collectively. Distinct from leadership, organizing means constructing those networks in the first place.
Leftists often want to be leaders. They should instead prioritize being organizers. After all, by the time a strike or a rally is on TV, the participants don’t need radicals. They already have their organizing networks and their leadership within them. At that point, revolutionaries can express support in words, but from the point of view of the people mobilizing, they’re unnecessary. It makes perfect sense to ignore them. Then, when the leftists realize their efforts are getting no traction, why wouldn’t they move on to something else? So, radicals are always moving on. They never develop long-term political relationships or a stable base. That keeps them extraneous, marginal, and ineffective.
That’s the ambulance-chasing cycle. It needs to be broken.
Do you want to spread revolutionary ideas?
Remember what ideology is. It isn’t words – it’s a living, physical thing. It’s practice and what practice teaches. Don’t take words at face value, not even your own. The ideology you spread is the ideology you practice (whether you realize you’re practicing it or not).
Is a teachers’ strike important and exciting? Sure. Does that mean most leftists can participate in a meaningful way? By and large, no. They aren’t needed, so why should the strikers care what they have to say? Trying to piggyback on someone else’s organizing and leadership is opportunistic, and people can tell. So, they quite reasonably conclude that radicals are opportunists, not long-haul organizers. The same goes for events like the March for Our Lives (although the weakness of socialists at Democratic media spectacles is probably a good thing on balance. Leftists have no business supporting reactionary goals in the first place).
Being a revolutionary should mean, before anything else, building a revolutionary base. That means identifying a constituency in a neighborhood or industry and making a long-term commitment. Do you have even a small group of friends or fellow radicals interested in doing political work together? That’s enough to start! Go out and talk to people in your target constituency. Find out what their lives are like. What are their needs and aspirations? Then, come up with ideas for programs that tangibly address their lives, have a low barrier to entry (so that as many people as possible can participate), and that can grow your group’s membership and organizational capacity. Reach out – canvass, hold cookouts and potlucks, have public meetings for people to express their needs and views. Build organizing networks. Make promises and follow through. Win credibility. Then, in five or ten years, you’ll have a base of your own. You’ll have created the networks and you’ll have earned enough respect to provide leadership within them. You’ll be the ones putting together exciting mobilizations, and other groups will be the opportunists trying to tag along.
Working and unemployed people don’t need to be told they’re oppressed. They live it out every day – those from specially-oppressed demographics, even more so. But that doesn’t mean revolutionaries don’t have a central role to play! As feminist writer Jo Freeman says, “[P]eople must be organized. Social movements do not simply occur.”
No constituency automatically becomes a revolutionary base. Because liberalism and conservatism enjoy cultural hegemony – they’re so widely accepted that most people don’t realize there are alternatives – social movements tend to become conservative or liberal by default. But, if socialists, communists, and anarchists create the organizing networks through which a constituency can act collectively, then provide effective leadership within them, a movement can be revolutionary instead. Revolutionaries are just as capable of proving, through practice, the value of their ideology as conservatives and liberals. If that’s what your actions teach, that’s what people will learn.
But that means being more than “boots on the ground.” It means taking on the slow, patient work of knitting together a base, year by year, project by project. It means earning the ability to lead, not claiming to have it already.
And no amount of external “support” for the teachers’ strike, the March for Our Lives, or anything else can replace that.