Sophia Burns argues that opportunism comes not from bad ideas, but from practical and contextual needs.
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 that “of 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.
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.
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.
Why shouldn’t they? Contemporary activism descends directly from the youth and student movements of the 60s, so anything that recalls the glory days inspires activists. It gives them a sense that the US’s long rightward drift might be reversed.
No wonder so many of them cheered for March’s pro-gun-control “March for Our Lives” rallies. In the wake of a school shooting, what could be more uplifting than high schoolers coming together, launching a protest movement, and responding to their experience of violence with political organization? How could any leftist not support that?
Antonio Balmer argues that base-building is just empty populism. He compares it to the Narodnik movement of 19th-century Russia, which saw middle-class anti-monarchists “go to the people” by moving to peasant villages and occasionally assassinating aristocrats. Balmer contrasts them with the Bolsheviks, who built an organized political party capable of leading a revolution, and suggests that base-builders pay too little attention to Marxist theory and revolutionary leadership.
Shamus Cooke takes a different angle. He quotes Lenin’s pamphlet “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder to claim that I reject class struggle in favor of a depoliticized mutualism. (Mutualism is a flavor of anarchism that calls for worker-owned co-ops to peacefully replace capitalism by out-competing traditional firms in the marketplace.) According to Cooke:
Burns’ gradualist approach ignores the fact that revolutionary situations are often brief, requiring a battle for power at all levels of society. Nearly all revolutions begin as massive, mostly-spontaneous mobilizations, so it would behoove a revolutionary to understand the abc’s of organizing mobilizations. Mass mobilization, however, barely registers as an activity that Burns believes a revolutionary should engage in.
The term class war implies there is an open struggle between the classes. Burns wants us to only engage in guerrilla tactics that don’t attract the attention of the establishment. But if ever such tactics actually succeed in challenging power, the ruling class would aggressively respond, since their economic and political power would actually be threatened, at which point Burns’ approach would be rendered useless, requiring a completely different strategy.
The “completely different strategy” he advocates involves combining base-building methods, electoral work, and conventional activism to shift “the balance of forces” against “the establishment.” What does that look like concretely? Cooke repeatedly cites the city-level electoral and lobbying efforts of his own organization, Portland Tenants United.
Balmer and Cooke agree: revolutionary base-builders are anti-theory, anti-political, don’t believe in party-building, don’t believe in class confrontation, and don’t have a vision for socialism or revolution. Base-building means mutual aid, and mutual aid is another word for depoliticized charity work. Base-builders say they want socialism, but don’t have the stomach to fight for it.
Now, if you reduce revolutionary base-building to mutual aid, you’re misrepresenting it. Workplace and tenant organizing (along with community self-defense) account for much more of what base-builders actually do than mutual aid. But, it’s true that “base-building” is itself not a political strategy; it’s a set of techniques.
So, what defines revolutionary base-building? Is it just methods? Are Balmer and Cooke right – do base-builders really expect to win socialism without a strategy, without the bother of class struggle?
Means and Ends
Anyone can base-build.
How does any organization develop a base of support? It organizes previously-unorganized people. It campaigns against their enemies while offering mutual-aid, cultural, and social activities. It puts its own work above networking with the already-converted. Churches, businesses, political parties, and fan clubs all use some variant of the formula. Base-building methods, in that sense, are just how you build an effective organization.
Since revolutionary base-builders use those techniques and most of the activist Left doesn’t, they provide the tendency’s form. They don’t provide its content. Base-building is a tool, nothing more. A hammer can help you make a table; it can also smash a flowerpot. “Youth organizing” can mean the March for Our Lives. It can also mean the Black Panther Party. Without the methodology of base-building, you can’t organize a constituency capable of exercising social power. But who are you organizing? What is that social power for?
That won’t happen by winning elections or voting for socialism. It won’t happen through one-cooperative-at-a-time mutualism, either. Rather, it means building up revolutionary capacity by cultivating a mass base within the working class. When the conditions are right, it will mean launching a revolutionary uprising to establish a monopoly on the legitimate use of force by participatory-democratic organs of the working class. It will mean restructuring the economy according to a democratic, ecological, and scientific plan based on production for human use, not private profit.
Our ideas don’t make us revolutionary. Ideology runs deeper than the things you think. What’s the long-term trajectory implied by what you’re actually doing? That’s your ideology. We build institutions of class confrontation and mutual aid outside of the state, against the state, and in order displace the state. That trajectory makes us revolutionary – what we are, not what we say. Electioneering, lobbying, and waving signs may well involve revolutionary slogans, taking the form of radical politics. But, they lack the content. What happens when activist leftists have a mass movement? They tie it institutionally to the state, cutting off its ability to exercise social power directly, on its own terms. That road doesn’t lead to collective power – just brokerage within the existing order.
We don’t base-build for the sake of base-building. Our practice flows from and, in turn, shapes our revolutionary agenda. We are not cultivating an electorate for “movement” politicians. Revolutionary base-building is a process of preparation for collective self-government, for the seizure of power by the working class. Sure, delivering here-and-now gains does matter, but it’s never the point. Socialism means more than “a chicken in every pot.”
Government socialism can’t end capitalism. Structurally speaking, the capitalist state can’t be separated from its function; it serves the ruling class, bottom to top. Expanding it doesn’t advance socialism. At best, it just rearranges exploitation (while institutionally tying the Left to the survival and success of the state). The impulse to deliver real gains, even if they’re small, make sense, but government socialists squeeze the revolutionary essence, the political content, out of socialism.
Government socialists want tangible benefits and ignore or defer revolutionary ideas. Protest militants treat their ideas as a substitute for mass organization. Revolutionary base-builders, though, synthesize organizing for tangible gains with the long-game commitment to literal revolution. That synthesis doesn’t mean talking like protest militants and behaving like government socialists, though. Rather, it’s built into the process of organizing the unorganized to change their own conditions and confront their enemies themselves, rather than mediating it through the nonprofits or the state. (Indeed, the Marxist Center network takes its name from the course between those two possible distortions.)
Base-building methods aren’t conventional activism. That matters, if only because “base-building” is another word for “organizational techniques that actually work” – but revolutionary base-builders are after more than just a social base. No matter what Bernie Sanders says, political revolution means replacing the government, not reforming it.
The point is to create organizational structures through which power can be transferred from the few to the many, from the ownership class to the dispossessed. That transfer doesn’t happen piecemeal. It isn’t a gradual process where reforms (or mutualist co-ops!) stack on top of each other until one morning, you wake up to find that capitalism is gone. The capitalist state can’t not uphold the rule of the capitalist class. Base-building just to create another electoral or activist constituency, without that revolutionary goal and opposition to the state, has nothing to do with socialism. It doesn’t weaken capitalism. It just creates another avenue for capitalist politics, even if you call it “socialism,” even if it takes the form of base-building.
And for revolutionary base-builders, that will never be enough.
I worked in assisted living. My co-workers would complain about residents who blew up if they got breakfast at 8:10 instead of 8 – never mind that each of us had 8 or 9 other residents also demanding breakfast at 8. Sometimes, they did worse than chew us out. For most people, getting hit by clients from time to time isn’t “just part of the job.” For CNAs, it is.
However, the residents who lashed out had cause to feel isolated and powerless. Social programming for long-term care residents is inadequate in many facilities (if it’s offered at all). Facility life is profoundly lonely; worse, facilities rarely treat their clients as adults with a right to dignity and bodily autonomy. And, of course, plenty of them don’t even meet their residents’ bare physical needs.
Was that the CNAs’ fault? We did the best we could under conditions not of our making. But, frustrated residents still took out their grievances on us, the only representatives of the facility with whom they had any regular contact. It made sense for them to blame us for their situation, just as it made sense for us to blame them for mistreating us.
But management decided how the place was run. They created a situation in which mutual scapegoating was a logical decision for both CNAs and residents. Meanwhile, the company could cut costs and accumulate profit, at the expense of clients and workers both.
Residents and their families were rarely the ones who paid. Assisted living costs thousands of dollars per month; few can afford it out-of-pocket. So, most residents at most facilities are there only because their health insurance covers it. If insurance doesn’t pay, the resident doesn’t stay.
That gives management an incentive to keep residents healthy enough to live for a long time, but never so healthy that they need a less intensive level of care (since that would mean less billable treatment). From a patient’s point of view, the best-case outcome is to recover enough to require less intensive care. But for the facility, the best case is that the resident never stops having more health problems to treat, so insurance never runs out.
In other words, a single-payer program is not the goal. Single-payer on its own cannot be the goal. Single-payer does not solve the biggest sin of commodified health care: that taking care of sick people isn’t profitable, and any profit-driven insurance system thus disregards the most vulnerable.
Single-payer alone does not solve these problems. But it gives us a fighting chance to square up against them.
Further, given that Bernie Sanders made it a key campaign promise, many leftists view M4A as the ideal “winning issue.” What could be better than a “universal public good” that enjoys majority support in the polls and already gets significant media coverage?
So, is there a leftist critique of M4A to be made? What socialist would oppose universal healthcare?
M4A, though, isn’t universal healthcare access in the abstract. Medicare is a specific program. M4A calls for it to be expanded in specific ways. M4A is not the general principle of a right to healthcare. It’s a concrete policy proposal and should be evaluated as such, just as criticizing a particular play doesn’t mean condemning the theatre in general. In critiquing M4A, I am not attacking the principle of universal healthcare. Rather, I am arguing that this particular reform campaign is flawed to the point that socialists shouldn’t take part in it.
Neither lack of access nor commodification is US healthcare’s deepest problem.
It’s more than how it’s paid for or to whom it belongs. The issue is in its bones: how people get diagnosed, how treatments get prescribed, and how care gets delivered. US healthcare serves two primary purposes: it keeps workers healthy enough to go to work, and it warehouses disabled people as cheaply and expeditiously as possible. Those imperatives aren’t simply imposed by individual corporations. After all, the process of diagnosis, prescription, and treatment works no differently in a state-owned or nonprofit clinic than in a private one. When the process itself artificially pits patients and workers against each other, neither more comprehensive insurance nor nationalization deals with the root cause. It’s not about who gets healthcare. It’s not even about who owns healthcare. It’s about what healthcare is for.
Why else is long-term eldercare is so often institutionalized neglect (or worse), even if it’s state-run – especially if it’s state-run? Why else is inpatient psychiatric care rife with organized physical, emotional, and chemical violence? M4A demands greater access to something that, in certain situations, is actively harmful. For instance, a former EMT in Washington recently told me:
Many of the psychiatric facilities our ambulance visited were understaffed, filthy, and frequently spared little regard for patients’ wellbeing. Staff members often referred to patients with contempt and disgust (sometimes within their hearing). I observed that patients’ medical needs were often neglected for days at a time, which was frequently the reason for our visits. On multiple occasions I had reason to suspect that facilities were manipulating their documentation in order to maintain patients’ involuntary commitment status. (I only had limited interactions in my capacity as an EMT because we were only there when they called us.)
In those cases, the only way out of institutional abuse is for someone’s insurance to run out. What happens when M4A guarantees it never will?
Now, DSA’s fifth M4A demand – “job training/placement assistance for people currently employed by the private health insurance industry” – already looks beyond simply expanding insurance access. However, nothing in the campaign even implicitly critiques the process of healthcare provision itself.
Shouldn’t M4A call for healthcare workers and patients to exercise control over their facilities, rather than bureaucratic managers (either private or state-sector)?
Instead, M4A demands universal healthcare without those reforms. Sure, some individual supporters of M4A support them as well. But, M4A the campaign does not make reference to them. Neither DSA nor any other M4A organization is pushing for them, even in a non-M4A context. They aren’t part of the M4A package. Even if M4A is the first step on the road to a national healthcare system, that doesn’t address the issue – every one of these problems is embedded in government-run and nonprofit healthcare facilities, not just for-profit ones.
Is a “winning issue” so worth pursuing that there’s no need to address the key contradictions it contains (except with a jobs guarantee)? Socialism depends on leadership across differences, not lowest-common-denominator single-issue coalitions.
Every state belongs to a class. In medieval Europe, the state belonged to aristocratic landowners. In ancient Rome, it belonged to slave-owning patricians.
The US government belongs to the capitalists – that is, the owners of the physical and organizational machinery that workers use to create goods and services.
It doesn’t belong to them because politicians are corrupt. This isn’t a matter of “money in politics” – it’s the way the state itself is set up. No matter who holds office, the structure of the state means that it can’t help but enforce capitalist class rule. From the day-to-day activities of municipal civil servants to the highest levels of the Executive Branch, everything the government does in some way contributes to that task. It makes sure that contracts are enforced, infrastructure carries goods and services, markets operate smoothly, threats to private property are neutralized, and – above all – that workers keep going to work every day. The state uses force to defend the “public order” of capitalism; in practice, that also means white supremacy, empire, and patriarchy. It regulates businesses to protect the business class’s long-term stability. It runs social services to keep the working class healthy enough to be exploited. It allows radicals to participate in elections to pre-empt their inclination to build revolutionary institutions of their own. It grants concessions to movement demands to de-fang their revolutionary potential and coax them into patronage politics.
This is an inherently capitalist state. Changing that would mean completely redesigning and restructuring it, bottom to top, from the Constitution to common law to the bureaucracy. In other words, it would have to be smashed. A new system would have to be built in its place.
Revolutionary socialism, both Marxist and anarchist, begins by recognizing that. Government socialism begins by denying it. Government socialists, like conservatives and liberals, treat the government as a “public sphere.” Supposedly, it does (or at least could) belong to “the people” in general, not just the ruling class. It can act in the “general interest.” Socialism, therefore, just means more government! State universities are socialist. Roads and sewers are socialist. Parks are socialist. According to a few government socialists, the NSA, the NYPD, and the United States Marines are, too. And “universal public good” redistributive programs – like an expanded Medicare – are the most socialist things of all.
The problem, of course, is that the institutional machinery of the US government can’t be divorced from its role in defending white supremacy, imperialism, and the ruling class. To expand that machinery, even if it does some good in some people’s lives, necessarily strengthens those things.
It is one thing to set up a day care centre the way we want it, and demand that the State pay for it. It is quite another thing to deliver our children to the State and ask the State to control them, discipline them, teach them to honour the American flag not for five hours, but for fifteen or twenty-four hours. It is one thing to organise communally the way we want to eat (by ourselves, in groups, etc.) and then ask the State to pay for it, and it is the opposite thing to ask the State to organise our meals. In one case we regain some control over our lives, in the other we extend the State’s control over us.
Until the government disbanded it in 1954, the Communist Party ran a group called the International Workers Order. The IWO provided its nearly 200,000 members with health, dental, and life insurance, and its 19,000 branches ran clinics and summer camps of their own (all in addition to a wealth of cultural and educational activities). The Communists built it all during the Great Depression, when working-class people had far fewer resources than they do now. A generation later, the Black Panther Party and its allies followed the IWO’s lead, establishing clinics and social services of their own.
The state didn’t establish the IWO. It didn’t run the Panthers’ clinics. Revolutionaries created those services themselves. They operated them on their own terms, under their own control.
The point of socialism is mass power, in every sphere of life. It’s not a bigger federal government.
Therefore, we repeat, state ownership and control is not necessarily Socialism – if it were, then the Army, the Navy, the Police, the Judges, the Gaolers, the Informers, and the Hangmen, all would all be Socialist functionaries, as they are State officials – but the ownership by the State of all the land and materials for labour, combined with the co-operative control by the workers of such land and materials, would be Socialism.
Schemes of state and municipal ownership, if unaccompanied by this co-operative principle, are but schemes for the perfectioning of the mechanism of capitalist government-schemes to make the capitalist regime respectable and efficient for the purposes of the capitalist …
Address healthcare like any other issue: organize the workers in that industry. Use mutual-aid programs to grow revolutionary capacity. Government socialists claim that for something on the scale of healthcare, mutual aid just isn’t a workable approach. But even setting aside the IWO and other counter-examples, mutual aid is still more workable than M4A.
DSA has the numbers (if not the will) to launch an IWO-style mutual-aid health program. But do they think they’ll be able to win over the federal leadership of the Democratic Party – the same people who made sure that the most popular politician in the country lost his primary fight to one of the least popular, who couldn’t even stomach Keith Ellison as DNC chair, and who just spent eight years in office administering war and neoliberalism? What do they think the Democratic Party is?
Shortly after Trump’s election, I’m in a mass meeting. Several hundred people have gathered to establish a new organization meant to channel outrage into sustainable direct action, mutual aid, and radical municipalist politics. People are talking – expressing not only their fears about ICE and healthcare, but also their hope that our work can create something better. Several of them say it’s important to acknowledge “the people who’ve been doing this good and important work all along” (that is, established activists and nonprofit staffers).
No one asks why, if their work is so good, it didn’t keep Donald Trump out of office. No one asks what, exactly, that work is meant to accomplish – or, if its goals are worth supporting, how it envisions achieving them.
If you start nailing boards together without a plan, will that get you a house?
When you build a house, there’s a very specific goal: the physical structure needs to match the architect’s blueprint. The design’s details, in turn, depend on the concrete conditions, both current (e.g. available land and budget) and future (e.g. the number of people meant to live there). Then, the construction process itself is structured by clearly-defined intermediate goals and benchmarks. You first lay a foundation, then erect a frame, then install plumbing and wiring, and so on.
That’s strategy. You don’t begin with the notion that you want some vague, indeterminate kind of house. You have a concrete ultimate goal in the blueprint, with definite intermediate goals along the way. Now, unexpected disruptions might make you change your plan; what if you lose half your budget, say, or find an archeological site? But, that doesn’t mean you throw the blueprint away. It means you revise it in response to changing conditions, because without the plan you can’t carry out the work. Strategizing means figuring out not only where you want to go, but how, precisely, you intend to get there.
First, you set your ultimate goal, whether it’s building a house or social revolution. Once you’ve analyzed your conditions and resources, you put together a series of intermediate goals. You don’t pick them haphazardly – each of them has to set you up to advance to the next while, simultaneously, making you more capable of eventually reaching the end goal. Particular tactical decisions work the same way, but on a smaller scale. Is a tactic good? Well, is it the best way to achieve your next intermediate goal (while building up your overall capacity)?
To build a house’s frame, you first have to lay a foundation. To install the wiring and plumbing, you first have to build the frame. You might be excited about the carpentry and unhappy about mixing concrete and waiting for it to set, but if you skip the foundation the frame won’t survive. Does that make carpentry ineffective? Of course not – as long as you use it in the right context.
What makes Nazi-punching, Black Blocs, or mutual aid any different? Is your immediate goal to disrupt an alt-right event? If so, a Black Bloc might be a sensible tactic, but showing up with bags of groceries probably isn’t. But if you’re trying to establish a positive presence in a neighborhood with high food insecurity, groceries are going to work a lot better than hanging out on the sidewalk waiting for Richard Spencer to walk by.
When the Left debates tactics in the abstract, it sacrifices evaluating them strategically. You might decide that having plenty of outlets is what you want most in a house. Does that mean you can go ahead and install them before you’ve built the walls? When radicals draw lines of demarcation based on individual tactics, then supporting mutual aid (or antifa, or union work, etc) effectively stands in for a more holistic strategic analysis.
But what tactic is effective outside the right strategic context? Mutual aid without a larger political project is charity; it doesn’t build power. Antifa separated from mass work is self-isolating catharsis politics. Outlets only work when they’re wired into a wall.
US leftists tend to think in moralistic, rather than strategic, terms. To be clear, “moralistic” doesn’t mean wanting to be ethical. Rather, it’s the impulse to reduce every political question to an abstract, absolute, and non-contextual value judgment. Is it Good or is it Problematic to smash a Starbucks window or change people’s brake lights for free?
But when you isolate a tactic from its strategic context, it loses its meaning. No tactic is good or bad in itself. What counts is its ability to accomplish a particular goal in a particular situation.
Counter-strategic moralizing generally comes in three flavors:
Inherent good. Every group has a limited number of person-hours and a finite amount of money. How should it choose what to do with them? “Inherent good” moralizers don’t ask what is most likely to bring a social revolution closer – instead, they look at whatever idea is in front of them and try to evaluate it in a vacuum. If it seems good in the short term, they’ll do it, whether or not it builds towards a long-term goal. Often, they’re “pragmatic” reformers, social democrats/Berniecrats, or Alinsky-style “community organizers” (for whom organizing is itself the point, never mind towards what end!).
Representation. This means asking not “how does this fit into our strategy,” but “who is getting credit for it?” Whether in the form of identity liberalism or straightforward sectarianism, it reflects the career aspirations of media figures, academics, and professional-activist NGO staffers who need political credibility to enhance their personal brands.
Catharsis. “Catharsis moralizers” chase the feeling of mass politics (whether it’s real or not). They’re drawn to emotionally-intense peak experiences, street demonstrations above all. Often, they’re “alphabet soup” sect-Marxists, riot-porn anarchists, or the protest scene’s radical fringe in general.
Communist theory discusses objective conditions and subjective conditions. A political group can’t control the objective conditions – is the economy in a boom or a bust? What’s the relative strength of other social forces? Objective conditions are the environment within which a political actor moves.
Subjective conditions, though, are under the group’s control – how good is its strategy? How effective are its tactics? Is it correctly analyzing the objective conditions and acting accordingly?
When both objective and subjective conditions are good, a movement can succeed. Otherwise, it fails.
But, the subjective conditions are caught in a negative feedback loop. Because of counter-strategic moralizing, revolutionaries aren’t able to strategize how to make their movement a meaningful presence in working-class life. That, in turn, keeps socialists disconnected from the working class at large – and without that living connection, there’s nothing to force revolutionaries away from moralizing. It’s like having the supplies and equipment to build a house, but never having learned how to use the tools.
If capitalist realism is so seamless, and if current forms of resistance are so hopeless and impotent, where can an effective challenge come from? A moral critique of capitalism, emphasizing the ways in which it leads to suffering, only reinforces capitalist realism. Poverty, famine and war can be presented as an inevitable part of reality, while the hope that these forms of suffering could be eliminated easily painted as naive utopianism. Capitalist realism can only be threatened if it is shown to be in some way inconsistent or untenable; if, that is to say, capitalism’s ostensible ‘realism’ turns out to be nothing of the sort.
Mark Fisher talks about “capitalist realism” – the sneaking sense that even if socialism would be a better system than capitalism, it’s never actually going to happen. Not here. Not really. Capitalism seems like it’s built into the real world, as natural as the rhythm of the seasons, not like something contingent, fragile, and temporary. Mass socialism (rather than hobbyist socialism, fringe socialism) does not currently exist in the US. So, the prospect of a revolution – a literal, overthrow-the-government working-class uprising – holds a place in the radical psyche similar to that of the Second Coming for mainline Protestants. It may be an article of faith, but it’s comfortably hypothetical. It isn’t actually meant to leave the indeterminate but distant future (and “after the revolution…” is how you start a joke).
So, why strategize for revolution? Capitalism is not, of course, a law of nature. It’s loose and limited in ways that “capitalist realism” can’t admit. Socialist revolution is possible; it’s happened before and it will happen again. But, contemporary leftists haven’t gotten to learn through practice that the working class can organize towards a revolutionary goal, creating institutions, parties, and a culture of solidarity and struggle. And without that, socialism is just an idea in their heads, not a living reality straining to come into being.
Before 2008, socialism was marginal because the objective conditions prevented a revival of the mass revolutionary movement. That was true for decades – and from that context, there emerged the subjective conditions that still define the Left. Why is organized leftism so disproportionately academic and middle-class? Well, academics manipulate ideas for a living, but don’t have to translate them into social realities. Of course they and their students gravitated towards Marxism. Before 2008, who else would have? Since then, though, the objective conditions have changed. Mass socialism is possible again.
So, how can the Left break out of its self-isolating feedback loop? It begins with dropping conventional activism and finding ways to build institutions that can weave into working and unemployed people’s daily lives. It begins with taking on small projects that win credibility and expand capacity (then using that expanded credibility and capacity to take on larger and more daring projects, repeating the cycle and growing a base). It begins with strategy.
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.
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.
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.
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.
At first, my friend didn’t realize he was a professional Democrat. When he got a job canvassing for “progressive causes,” he took them at their word: they raised money for nonprofits so they could do community work.
During his last week there, we got coffee during his lunch break. He told me how once a year, they received a list of candidates to fundraise for – not from the NGOs they contracted with, but from the Democratic National Committee. The “DNC push” meant higher quotas and heavier pressure from field managers. Now, most new hires couldn’t take the extra heat. Those who could, though, would have a chance to rise through the ranks, eventually becoming Democratic Party “bundlers” (functionaries responsible for persuading wealthy Democrats to write checks for thousands of dollars). Officially, the canvassing firm was independent. In reality, it was integrated into the Democratic Party, following the Party’s directives and funneling its most promising employees into Party careers.
If you listened to political common sense, you’d get the feeling that the Democrats are hapless, incompetent, and disorganized in the face of Republican discipline. Supposedly, they’re a loose coalition, with little in common besides opposing the GOP.
That’s false. On the ground, the Democrats are a tightly organized party with strong central discipline – much stronger than either their critics or most of their supporters realize. And unless US leftists learn how the Democratic Party actually works, their organizing will continue to fail.
Two concepts undergird this analysis. The first, drawn from Marxist-Leninist theory, is the cadre party. High school civics is wrong. Neither major US party is actually a heterogenous coalition. The tight-knit Leninist vanguard model describes them much more usefully.
The second concept here is the social and political base. Now, journalists often say “Democratic base” when they mean “Democratic voters.” However, a base is both more specific and more expansive than that. It isn’t simply the individuals who happen to support something. A base is a durable, organized community, capable of directing itself in a coordinated way. It’s brought into being by the set of social institutions whose day-to-day activities structure their constituents’ collective life.
What Is a Cadre Party?
According to Leninism, working-class revolution doesn’t happen spontaneously. It requires years of careful preparation, carried out by revolutionary leadership – dedicated Marxists who organize political struggles, spread revolutionary ideas, and (above all) establish a disciplined and militant organization capable of fighting and defeating the capitalist government.
That organization is the cadre, or vanguard, party. This party pursues the long-term interests of the entire working class, agitating for revolution while leading day-to-day struggles. It doesn’t let just anyone join – party members must not only commit substantial time and effort to the party, but also adhere to line discipline, enacting and defending all of the party’s positions (even those they privately disagree with). They become professional revolutionaries (also called cadres), completely dedicated to making revolution. Sometimes, that means literally working for the party full-time.
Now, there’s a contradiction emerging here. On one hand, the party has to inspire the support of as much of the working class as possible. To effectively engage in class struggle, it needs to bring as much of the class into its orbit as it can. But, it restricts membership to those who meet very high standards. So, most of the people it wants to win over aren’t actually eligible to join.
Leninism solves that by creating a second level of organization. The party proper forms a hard core of committed revolutionaries. At the same time, it directs a network of mass organizations (or, less charitably, front groups). While they follow the party’s lead, they have a much lower barrier to entry. So, the party can incorporate a large number of people without watering down its membership requirements.
When Leninist parties have historically been most successful, those mass organizations would lead to something greater than just a pool of supporters. They’d create a base.
In the 1970s, very few people were out as gay. Gay Liberation was a fringe movement, even in places with comparatively large gay communities. However, where gays were concentrated, they began to exercise influence – they sent Harvey Milk to the San Francisco city council, and over the years gay and countercultural values came to define the city’s image. But, San Francisco has always had an overwhelmingly straight majority – how did gay people get their influence?
In the 1800s, Irish immigrants were economically and politically marginal, even in cities with large Irish communities. But, they came to exercise not just electoral power via urban political machines, but also social and cultural clout – Boston has never been majority-Irish, but St. Patrick’s Day and Irish Catholicism have become integral to its identity. How did that happen?
Even in their core areas, each of these groups has always been outnumbered. In the latter two cases, they started out categorically excluded from social and political power. Yet, they all became highly-organized forces, dedicated to pursuing their interests with vigor and discipline. That let them grow powerful.
Each of them became a base. Conservative Christians aren’t simply individuals with private beliefs. They’re constituted into a base by a network of institutions: churches, charities, para-church groups, media outlets, and even businesses (anyone who’s been to the small-town South has seen the Jesus fish on everything from auto parts stores to restaurants). Those institutions then coordinate the community’s overall activities and goals, allowing it to act in a unified way. Because they’re integrated into the day-to-day lives of their participants, to opt out of them is to opt out of the collective life they facilitate. The same analysis holds for San Francisco’s gay bars, bathhouses, publications, and activist organizations, and for Boston’s Irish churches, mutual aid societies, labor unions, and social clubs.
With a coherent infrastructure of institutions, a disjointed population can become an organized and powerful base.
On paper, the Democratic Party is a broad coalition. In practice, it is a cadre party.
It is controlled by professional Democrats – activist NGO managers, politicians’ staffers, “political operatives,” etc. These cadres set the Party’s priorities, oversee its day-to-day work, and keep any potential leftist competition under control. Some of them work for the Democratic Party proper, but most don’t. Officially, their “progressive nonprofit” employers aren’t Democrat-affiliated. Materially, they are the Democratic Party’s front groups. The small, self-selecting core uses them to bring in supporters. It’s not coincidence that the same person grant-writing for Greenpeace one year is working for Emily’s List the next. It’s the same people. They are their Party’s cadre structure, and they keep their front groups in line.
Sure, they align with different internal factions. Their competition is important enough to keep plenty of political reporters employed. But the drama of Bernie vs. Hillary obscures a deeper, more important reality. The faction fights and power struggles never step outside the overarching ideological boundaries of the Democratic “party line.” Sure, Berniecrats want comparatively more social programs, and Hillary supporters comparatively fewer. However, none of them deviates from the Party’s core program:
A capitalist economy with some regulation, but very little state ownership;
Collaboration between the government and businesses for “job creation” and social services provision;
Social liberalism, expressed through moderate affirmative action, anti-discrimination laws, official statements of support for oppressed demographics, and a few changes to police codes of conduct;
An expansive military through which the US enforces its global hegemony;
Nominal support for immigrants’ rights, but without full amnesty or open borders;
Opposition to expanding ballot access for minor parties;
A day-to-day political practice of lobbying, running campaigns for office, and symbolic “expressive protest.”
No member of the Democratic cadre structure would dare deviate from that framework. If they did, they’d risk losing their job; certainly, their career prospects would vanish. Do they always interpret the core program the same way? Of course not. But they do always uphold it.
Why does that matter, though? What, concretely, does their discipline mean? Well, nearly every activist organization in the US is a Democratic front group. After all, even if they didn’t want to be, their commitment to “conventional activism” demands it. When you spend your time waving signs and, perhaps, lobbying officials or supporting candidates, what’s your mechanism for enacting change? The only way you can bridge the gap between protest and power is through the support of Democratic politicians – and you can’t get that support if you won’t align with their Party. And, of course, activist groups don’t typically want to be independent in the first place. After all, their leaders and staffers are Democratic cadres. Their careers will take them across the whole extended Party structure.
The Democratic Party and its fronts don’t just have passive supporters. They’ve grown an entire community and social scene around their institutions. Because of that, they shape the social and cultural fabric of the places where they’re strong, wielding influence disproportionate to their numbers. In other words, the Democratic Party has a base, constituted through its fronts.
That base doesn’t overlap with the activist subculture – it is the activist subculture. There is no distinction. The activist scene exists because the day-to-day activities of the Democratic Party’s fronts bring it into being, providing an anchor for the informal activities and social networks that surround it. To participate in the activist subculture is to join the Democratic Party’s base.
That doesn’t just go for consciously Democratic liberals. Anarchist affinity groups form out of protest-based social scenes; concretely, they need protests in which to operate, and large protests only happen when the Democratic Party uses its fronts to mobilize people. The anarchist scene emerges from the Democratic base and relies on the Democrats’ institutional infrastructure.
Leninist organizations run fronts of their own, attempting to imitate the more successful Democratic ones. However, they also depend on the Democratic base. They draw on the same pool of activists, advocate for the same causes, and usually show up at the same demonstrations. So, they only attract support when they hide their Leninist affiliation and follow the Democrats’ lead – as Refuse Fascism (a Revolutionary Communist Party front) discovered in November, when it called for protests without Democratic support and nobody came.
Of course, occasionally radicals do start an organization with the potential to break away from Democratic control. When that happens, Democratic cadres work very hard (and sometimes very ruthlessly) to co-opt it. Because of its institutional position, the Democratic machine can recuperate nearly anything that emerges from the activist subculture. Just look at the Greater Seattle Neighborhood Action Coalition. Founded after Trump’s election by an ad hoc left-liberal coalition, GSNAC explicitly took inspiration from the Rojava revolution. Officially, it committed to practicing direct action and mutual aid while abstaining from electoral politics. With that program on offer, GSNAC initially attracted several thousand participants. However, within a few months, a clique of professional Democrats seized control of the organization by undemocratic means. Without consulting other members, they not only began committing to liberal lobbying campaigns in GSNAC’s name, but also unilaterally filed incorporation papers, naming themselves as GSNAC’s officers. Within a couple of months, the overwhelming majority of participants left. They’d been promised something different than conventional activism, but the Democrats made sure GSNAC didn’t deliver that.
The US Left may not realize it, but nearly all of it is part of the Democratic Party’s extended machinery. However, leftists are excluded from the Democratic cadre structure; they can’t actually direct its course. That leaves them with two options: embrace the Democratic line, or marginalize themselves.
Do you support leftist politics? Leave the activist subculture.
The task of radicals, at present must be digging in deep to the class, going “to the masses,” building long-term relationships with layers of oppressed and working class people, and organizing in our neighborhoods and workplaces. This is the punishing, demoralizing grind work that activists prefer to avoid, but it constitutes the only way forward.
The Left shouldn’t take part in conventional activism. But what should it do?
Well, what does the Left want? Strategy follows goals; tactics follow strategy. For revolutionaries, the goal is to literally overthrow the government. Revolution means replacing the existing political and economic system with a better one, based on the mass cooperative control of economic, cultural, and political life. The working class carries out all the activities that sustain human life and society. However, it’s excluded from power and subjected to oppression by the capitalist class of business owners and investors. So, it has the ability to carry out a revolution – the capitalists need it, but it doesn’t need them. Further, because of its position of exploitation, it stands to benefit from the abolition of class distinctions.
But how, exactly, can it go about that? If revolution isn’t on the menu yet, what’s the path from here to there? Well, the working-class must become a well-organized social force – so well organized that it can exercise power and assert its interests, even when the the ruling class uses violence to try to stop it. So, carrying out a revolution means first developing an institutional infrastructure capable of directly combatting the capitalist state. In communist lingo, a structure like that competing with the government is called “dual power.”
Now, obviously, a dual power situation can’t be willed into being overnight. Its constituent institutions must be built, piece by piece, however long that takes. Since the process of doing so means organizing the entire working class to act for itself in a coherent way, the working class must become a base. So, the “dual power strategy” for revolution is fairly straightforward: you develop autonomous institutions of class confrontation and mutual aid, through a process of base-building. Eventually, you reach a “critical mass” and can challenge the government directly.
When leftists engage in conventional activism, they pre-empt their ability to do that. Do you go to protests and wave signs? You’re competing with the Democratic Party on its home territory. You’re going to the Democratic base and telling it to stop being pro-Democrat. But it can’t stop. It only exists in the first place through the Democratic Party’s fronts. You have to go somewhere else and build a revolutionary base, instead.
Now, base-building is slow. It’s a grind. It’s not sexy and it’s rarely cathartic. You don’t get the high of being one of thousands of people in a big demonstration, chanting and raising energy. You don’t get the quick gratification of networking with established activists and feeling like you’re part of an “authentic social movement.” Instead, you spend your time serving the people: creating constituencies by creating institutions and knitting them together, struggle by struggle, project by project.
The dual power strategy is not for the impatient. This work is too important to rush. There are no shortcuts. The activist subculture may look like one. And sure, taking over a ready-made base looks appealing, next to the difficulty of creating your own. However, it’s a pipe dream. The Democratic base can’t be separated from its Party. It only exists through that Party’s institutions.
Now, the human cost of capitalism grows every day. And thanks to climate change, there’s an ecological clock ticking. Slow and patient, on the face of it, hardly feels appropriate. The need for change is urgent; can we afford such a protracted approach? The dual power strategy is an uphill fight, sure, but at this point it’s the only possible shot. There’s no more time to waste on dead ends.
I’m sitting in a punk bar in April with an out-of-town socialist. He gets passionate, telling me how disappointing he finds May Day rallies back home – how the local AFL-CIO plays it safe by stumping for Democrats, while other activists demonstrate about immigration, feminism, and “anything besides class.”
“Why can’t this one day be for workers?” he sighs.
Overall, they both claim that US progressivism must pick one of their two competing orientations: liberal centrism or social democracy. Identity politics or universalism – which way forward?
Should workers have a holiday to themselves?
But there’s a flaw underlying the clashing-visions narrative. Both worldviews fundamentally misunderstand the nature of race, gender, class, and capitalism – and they do so in precisely the same way.
But in pre-capitalist society the work of each member of the community of serfs was seen to be directed to a purpose: either to the prosperity of the feudal lord or to our survival. To this extent the whole community of serfs was compelled to be co-operative in a unity of unfreedom that involved to the same degree women, children and men, which capitalism had to break. In this sense the unfree individual, the democracy of unfreedom entered into a crisis. The passage from serfdom to free labor power separated the male from the female proletarian and both of them from their children. The unfree patriarch was transformed into the “free” wage earner, and upon the contradictory experience of the sexes and the generations was built a more profound estrangement and therefore a more subversive relation.
Liberals say that opposing identity oppression means letting class politics go. Social democrats respond that they can walk and chew gum – class-based organizing can and should coexist with a strong anti-discrimination program.
But does either stance square with what race, gender, and privilege materially are?
Under capitalism, most people take part in the work that keeps society running and produces all goods and services. Sometimes that work is paid; sometimes it isn’t. In either case, though, it isn’t controlled by the people who do it. Rather, economic activity is governed by a ruling class of investors and business owners, called capitalists. They accumulate wealth by exploiting the paid and unpaid work carried out by everyone else: the working class, broadly defined. The capitalist class holds power by owning capital (productive property, the objects that workers use to produce goods and services).
The capitalist economy is enormously complex. It requires an elaborate, worldwide division of labor. The ruling class dictates the terms on which that happens. Further, the capitalists know that they don’t actually contribute to the work. Their role boils down to accumulating capital and keeping themselves in charge.
So, when dividing up labor, they hit two targets at once.
But the ruling class has figured out that it can associate different social categories with the expectation and/or requirement that their members will engage in certain types of work. When they do that, the working class itself begins to organically adapt to the capitalist division of labor. The gender role of womanhood, for instance, has unpaid gendered labor built into it. The capitalist class doesn’t send a memo to every individual woman each morning that reads, “Today we need you to clean the kitchen and comfort you boyfriend when he’s upset.” But on the ground, women, not men, are almost always the ones who do that type of work. How does that happen? Well, men have learned a social role that includes having that done for them, and women have learned one that includes doing it. Every time they re-enact those roles, they re-create them; the repeated experience of behaving the way others expect based on gender causes people to internalize those expectations, which then leads them to project them back onto others. The division of labor happens through identity categories, and it plays out in a way that keeps reinforcing them.
Of course, capitalists don’t rely on the working class to keep doing that entirely on its own. They actively intervene in daily life to keep the categories strong. While that does involve the mass media, religious doctrine, and the education system promoting stereotypes and unequal expectations, propaganda is only part of the story. Rather, the ruling class sustains and reinforces identity groups by treating some of them much worse than others. By punishing (legally or socially) those who cross category lines, it keeps the distinctions clear. Racial profiling by police helps keep certain neighborhoods white. When a church excommunicates gays, it ensures that its parishioners’ households are headed by men and produce lots of children.
Additionally, by granting cultural, legal, and material benefits to some identity groups but not others, the ruling class shores up its power. After all, when part of the working class does comparatively better as a result of the division of labor, it’s less likely to unite with the rest of the class to challenge the system overall. That’s how privilege works: it simultaneously emerges from and contributes to the capitalist division of labor, and does so in a way that pits privileged workers against the rest of their class.
Activists must understand the ways that the particular historical experiences of the United States wove race and class together that makes fighting white supremacy central to any revolutionary project. In other words, those who wish to fight against all forms of authoritarianism must understand one crucial fact of American politics—in America authority is colored white.
Race and gender don’t hover out there in the aether, independent of economic reality. If something exists, it exists in the material world. Nothing within the class system is outside the class system. Economics is more than dollars and class is more than tax brackets. Patriarchy, white supremacy, and empire aren’t extraneous features of capitalism. They’re as fundamental to it as selling products on the market. They exist because every day, people make goods and services, keeping society alive according to the division of labor embodied by identity divisions. Combined with unequal treatment, that makes sure the division of labor will still be up and running the next day. Without such a division of labor and disparity of benefits, the working class would not be as productive as the ruling class needs it to be. Without privilege to undermine the basis for class unity, the capitalists would have a revolution on their hands.
My acquaintance in the punk bar, however, didn’t view gender and race as indispensable ingredients of the class system. He wasn’t a bigot, and he supported anti-racism and feminism on moral grounds. Even so, his understanding didn’t root them in the everyday, material life of capitalism. He knew that women workers and immigrant workers are workers, no less than their white male counterparts. But, he still operated with the implicit assumption that capitalism, in general, tries to make workers as interchangeable as possible.
Apart from the skilled trades, the only jobs in which individual qualifications make a substantial difference are professional and white-collar work. Now, it’s true in principle that a less-diverse and less-qualified administrative workforce operates less effectively than one that rewards talent, rather than whiteness and maleness. But a big-box retailer doesn’t need a stocker to have an unusual talent for stacking boxes. The nature of the work is such that most any worker can do it as well as another. For most jobs, unique individual qualifications don’t really make much difference.
As more and more jobs get de-skilled, employers lose the incentive to hire based on applicants’ distinctive qualifications. Over time, specialist knowledge declines as a factor in assigning work. Patriarchy, white supremacy, and imperialism don’t. Maintaining those divisions of labor allows companies to exploit non-white, non-Western, and non-male workers at extra-high rates. That then creates downward pressure on privileged workers’ pay. De-skilling doesn’t make the working class less differentiated. It makes it more so.
And every corporation knows that whatever it loses by discriminating against qualified administrators, it makes up a thousandfold by keeping the overall division of labor intact.
Capitalism is a totalizing social system. It’s not just fiscal. Race, nation, and gender are among its components. Without them, it could not function. Had it not imposed them, it would not have been able to come into being. But social democrats and liberals don’t quite grasp that. Instead, they view gender, class, and race as more-or-less independent “vectors of oppression” that might inflect each other when they intersect, but still don’t reduce to any shared underlying cause.
And so, liberals and social democrats end up holding in common the view that class, in principle, is ultimately raceless and genderless. They agree that capitalism and privilege exist, but that opposing one doesn’t require opposing the other. They differ on only one point: social democrats say “both/and” to identity and class, while liberals say “either/or.”
Neither view is adequate. Their shared assumption isn’t true.
White supremacy is a system that grants those defined as “white” special privileges in American society, such as preferred access to the best schools, neighborhoods, jobs, and health care; greater advantages in accumulating wealth; a lesser likelihood of imprisonment; and better treatment by the police and the criminal justice system. In exchange for these privileges, whites agree to police the rest of the population through such means as slavery and segregation in the past and through formally “colorblind” policies and practices today that still serve to maintain white advantage. White supremacy, then, unites one section of the working class with the ruling class against the rest of the working class. This cross-class alliance represents the principle obstacle, strategically speaking, to revolution in the United States. Given the United States’ imperial power, this alliance has global implications.
The central task of a new organization should be to break up this unholy alliance between the ruling class and the white working class by attacking the system of white privilege and the subordination of people of color.
But what difference does this make on the ground? Doesn’t good socialist practice still mean pro-worker economics plus anti-racist, feminist social politics? Whether or not it’s all a unitary system, what is concretely at stake?
If race, gender, and empire are inherent to capitalism, the meaning of “good socialist practice” starts to shift.
If a socialist revolution is to happen, the working class must unite. If the class is to unite, revolutionaries must challenge the material and cultural basis of its disunity. So, every political project the Left undertakes needs to specifically challenge privilege within the working class, not sweep it under the rug to avoid “divisiveness.” If your organizing doesn’t meet that standard, you’re not building class unity. You’re tearing it down. There is no raceless and genderless class politics because there is no raceless and genderless class. So, trying to compartmentalize anti-privilege and anti-capitalist work is implicitly chauvinistic (except when it’s explicitly so!). The Left must reject all politics that doesn’t break down intra-class privilege, even when it comes from “our side.”
The social-democratic revival waxes nostalgic for the postwar welfare state, calling for “universal social goods” with anti-discrimination laws tacked on. Its proponents posit a revival of Scandinavian-style social programs as a bulwark against the populist Right and a viable “long game” anti-capitalist strategy. But welfare nostalgia doesn’t naturally lead towards revolutionary socialism. Due to its backwards-looking frame of reference, it fits more intuitively with welfare chauvinism: the tactic used by far-right leaders, from Marine Le Pen to Richard Spencer, of promising to restore not only the social-democratic redistribution, but also the much harsher identity hierarchies of the pre-70s years. And in practice, even avowedly left-wing social democrats are not immune to welfare-chauvinist temptations. Jeremy Corbyn and Sahra Wagenknecht‘s stated anti-racism hasn’t kept them from demanding immigration restrictions. Angela Nagle‘s claimed feminism doesn’t stop her from scapegoating trans people for the sins of online call-out culture.
The social-democratic “both/and” doesn’t work. Why should it? It attempts to sidestep the question of privilege within the class, not attack it. Opposing privilege as a matter of class-neutral morality rather than working-class strategy leans, over time, towards chauvinism.
For the consequences of the ending of white supremacy, which can only be ended by mobilizing and raising the consciousness of the entire working class, would extend far beyond the point of spreading out the misery more equitably. The result of such a struggle would be a working class that was class conscious, highly organized, experienced and militant – in short, united – and ready to confront the ruling class as a solid block. The ending of white supremacy does not pose the slightest peril to the real interests of the white workers; it definitely poses a peril to their fancied interests, their counterfeit interest, their white-skin privileges.
Does this mean radicals should take a two-stage approach: anti-discrimination now, socialism later?
Both privileged and specially-oppressed parts of the working class have two sets of interests: long-term and short-term. For non-privileged workers, there’s a long-term interest in abolishing capitalism and a short-term interest in eliminating privilege. Privilege is part of capitalism and specially-oppressed workers stand to benefit straightforwardly from getting rid of the system and all of its parts. Privileged workers, though, are in a bind. They share other workers’ long-term interest in ending capitalism. But in the short term, privilege makes their lives better. So, their long-term and short-term interests contradict each other; they share the former with their entire class, but the latter keeps them from recognizing it. Strategically, the trick is to organize privileged workers around their long-term interests – even though that means opposing their own short-term interests.
Liberal anti-discrimination, however, doesn’t do that. It doesn’t want to. There’s a reason it focuses on academia, middle-class professions, and the coverage of media stars with oppressed backgrounds. That flows naturally from its class basis. It aims to remove the barriers that keep middle-class and upper-class members of oppressed identity groups from enjoying full middle/upper-class success. However, that success consists of exploiting working-class people, including those who share their identities.
Privilege and class aren’t separate. The Left’s work against them can’t afford to be, either.
If May Day is about immigrants and feminism, doesn’t that mean it’s about workers?
So how should the Left proceed?
If the unitary view of class and privilege rejects liberal anti-discrimination, it also leads away from standard welfare-statist anti-austerity. Should leftists oppose austerity? They shouldn’t support it, since its implementation (like the welfare state’s before it) is done in a way that strengthens capitalist rule (including by shoring up privilege). But the Left’s goal can’t be a return to the postwar “golden years.” Revolutionaries can’t afford nostalgia.
Rather, directly tackling the basis of class rule (including privilege) can best happen outside the framework of state services and legislation. You can conceptualize it through an anarchist, Marxist, municipalist, or whatever other lens, but in the end, only the dual power strategy‘s institution-building approach allows radicals to confront the capitalist class while challenging the division of labor it imposes.
What does that look like in practice?
Q-Patrol in Seattle, WA claims that gentrification in the gay district is behind the past several years’ sharply-rising hate violence. The influx of wealthy software engineers drives up rent and displaces LGBTQ people (replacing them with sometimes-homophobic tech yuppies). Consequently, the neighborhood’s ability to function as a safe haven declines. Losing that “critical mass” of LGBTQ people makes the area more attractive to straight college students looking for nightlife. So, with more drunk, conservative straight people in the district, increased hate violence isn’t exactly a surprise.
Gay business owners, though, have called for more police in the area to quell attacks. But a greater police presence actually accelerates the process. The people most targeted by homophobic and transphobic assaults are often people of color, unhoused people, and/or sex workers. The police themselves harass and sometimes attack members of those groups. Meanwhile, their ambient presence emboldens the same well-off bigots who are behind the violence in the first place.
Q-Patrol’s solution is a community safety patrol, preventing and intervening in attacks while monitoring the police, Copwatch-style. Q-Patrol therefore resists gentrification (which threatens all working-class people in the area, LGBTQ or straight) by displacing an ostensible function of the police (protecting the community). The institution-building strategy hinges on this kind of function displacement. Capitalist institutions organize different aspects of life in ways that reinforce privilege and the division of labor. If leftists build counter-institutions, people can use them organize those same parts of life in ways that don’t do that.
Because its basic work is preventing hate violence and its roots are directly in the LGBTQ community, Q-Patrol directly challenges straight privilege. However, it does so in a way that simultaneously furthers the interests of the neighborhood’s entire working class, straights included. There’s no “both/and”-ism – it doesn’t artificially pin anti-discrimination onto supposedly raceless and gender-free “class issues.” Instead, its work intrinsically and organically does both at once.
That’s the approach the Left needs. The conflict between social democracy and “identity politics” is a red herring. They share a worldview in which privilege and class exist independently of each other. Because of that, both end up supporting capitalism and privilege, since materially, they are the same system. Neither liberals nor social democrats, though, are interested in attacking that system as the coherent, integrated whole that it actually is. Revolutionaries can’t afford that limited perspective. If May Day isn’t about women and immigrants, then it’s not about class.
The Left must confront the class system itself, challenging the ruling class and its division of labor. Radicals shouldn’t fight one limb of the system in a way that strengthens another. Autonomous working-class politics, based on the dual power strategy of institution-building, has a chance of breaking out of that trap.
Always bear in mind that the people are not fighting for ideas, for the things in anyone’s head. They are fighting to win material benefits, to live better and in peace, to see their lives go forward, to guarantee the future of their children.
Now, some of that can’t yet be helped. After barely existing for decades, the Left has re-emerged into an environment dominated by neoliberalism. But ultimately, external conditions don’t excuse its failure. Yes, the rules of the game are stacked against it. You can curse that fact all day and all night, but in the end, leftists have not adapted to a situation that they know will remain hostile. Sure, they’re hampered by unfriendly conditions – but the Left’s internal problems are what prevent it from meeting that challenge. Unless revolutionaries change their political practice, they will remain what they are now: visible and ineffective.
But what can radicals do differently?
Your ideas do not entitle you to be taken seriously.
Socialists know their theory and they know their Russian history. So what? That by itself does no one any good. Nobody owes you a hearing – the people you want to organize don’t owe you a single thing.
This isn’t about branding. Should radicals say “communism,” “socialism,” or a euphemism like “economic democracy?” Should they drop 20th-century leftist iconography? Who cares? The issue isn’t which symbols the Left uses. Rather, it’s the way radical organizing so rarely commits to specific communities, stays for the long haul, builds up useful institutions, and lays the groundwork to expand them.
Sure, it’s better to have compelling rhetoric than not; neither talking down to people nor academic obscurantism does leftists any favors. The dichotomy between impenetrable theory-speak and over-simplified sloganeering both proceeds from and reinforces the distance between most socialists and the constituencies they seek. Those are bad habits not only of speech, but also of thought. If you don’t talk like a human being to people, it doesn’t matter if what you’re saying is true. It ends up irrelevant to real life, and it makes you sound like a jackass.
In the end, though, language and presentation aren’t the root issues. Your ideology isn’t necessarily what you believe. It’s what you’ve internalized through practice. If that mostly consists of debating on Facebook and reading articles, then your language and thought patterns will reflect that. Intentionally or not, you learn to think and speak in the way that works best for what you’re actually doing. Similarly, if most of your activism involves going to protests with liberals, then you’ll learn to be concerned with how to make radical ideas sound good to moderate ears. Why wouldn’t you bend over backwards to avoid scary words like “communism?” (Of course, that does mean other activists will think you’ve got something to hide. They aren’t fools – if you aren’t quite saying what you mean, then people will treat you accordingly. Trying to dodge the stigma attached to radicalism rather than confronting it just comes off as dishonest.)
That said, though, revolutionary leftism does still carry a lot of stigma. Most people’s default attitude towards it is skepticism. But if innovative rhetoric isn’t enough to push past that, what is?
What does get taken seriously?
You have to deliver results. You have to prove that when you act on your ideas, your community’s life gets better. You have credibility only to the extent that when you organize a project, it gives people more power and a better conditions in a concrete, tangible, material way. If you put that off until after the revolution (or after your socialist candidate wins), your revolution will never arrive. No one will support you besides a few political hobbyists – and why should they?
Are your ideas insightful and true? Prove it. If you can’t deliver, your ideas are wrong. No one will or should listen to your arguments unless you show, in practice, that they mean something (no matter how hostile the external conditions).
In Washington State, Tacoma Clinic Defense believes that anti-abortion fundamentalists should not be allowed to picket in front of clinics. Its participants began claiming that when anti-choicers are marginalized and isolated, life improves for the whole community. So, they went out to prove it: they physically placed themselves in front of the protesters at reproductive health clinics. By providing a calm, positive, and visible pro-choice presence, they functioned as a “lightning rod,” drawing the anti-choicers’ attention away from their intended targets. They did so every time the fundamentalists showed up – and, over time, the picketers got demoralized. Fewer and fewer of them turned out, and those who did became less bold. Now, after several years of attrition, the fundamentalists no longer come to the clinics at all. They’ve been reduced to holding small, silent prayer circles several blocks away, out of sight of the patients. People respect Tacoma Clinic Defense and its ideas – it got results. It went into the field and proved its ideas true.
How many socialist groups can say the same?
And a lot of people will tell you, by the way, Well, the people don’t have any theory, they need some theory. They need some theory even if they don’t have any practice. And the Black Panther Party tells you that if a man tells you that he’s the type of man who has you buying candy bars and eating the wrapping and throwing the candy away, he’d have you walking East when you’re supposed to be walking West. Its true. If you listen to what the pig says, you be walkin’ outside when the sun is shining with your umbrella over your head. And when it’s raining you’ll be goin’ outside leaving your umbrella inside. That’s right. You gotta get it together. I’m saying that’s what they have you doing.
Now, what do WE do? We say that the Breakfast For Children program is a socialistic program. It teaches the people basically that by practice, we thought up and let them practice that theory and inspect that theory. What’s more important? You learn something just like everybody else.
Why do so many working-class people align with Protestant fundamentalism?
Christian Right churches give them reasons to join. Their safety net often out-competes the government’s; they offer food and clothing and shelter, community, existential purpose, social support, help with childcare and elder care, and even mental health services (through pastoral counseling and 12-step groups). That’s how the Christian Right has gotten such a massive and well-organized base. Its network of parallel institutions allows it to wield disproportionate power. In Texas, for instance, the Christian Right dominates state politics – but only 31% of Texans are evangelical Protestants! There is power in a base of autonomous institutions.
The revolutionary Left doesn’t offer much competition. Why not learn from the enemy? Radicals can prove through practice that they can build programs that not only improve people’s material conditions, but also operate according to participatory democracy (which Christian Right churches do not). If that alternative was there, how many more poor and working people might become radical? Most people don’t choose to become socialists because socialism isn’t offering them anything they need. It’s perfectly reasonable to reject an ideology that talks big but isn’t actually improving your life.
If you want support, build something that works.
Nothing better defines Trump’s appeal, nor Obama’s before it, than a feeling of finally being heard. Though Trump made some memorable campaign promises (the wall, the travel ban, etc.), he offered participation in an affect — despair where Obama once offered “hope” — more than he appealed with plausible political proposals. And the liberal reaction to the Trump presidency continues in this political mode. When liberals insist that the point of protest is to “have your voice be heard,” they are actually describing the fascist mode of political participation. To be satisfied with “feeling heard” in and of itself, as the goal of political activity, without pointing that expression toward building real material power, is to be a contented fascist subject.
Ideas come from social practice. Whether or not you’re conscious of it, your worldview is made of the lessons your practice has taught you. For instance, most working-class people reject electoral politics not due to revolutionary theory, but because it’s shown itself to be useless – no matter which politicians win, things keep getting worse. Until revolutionaries start delivering actual results, the class they want to organize will not embrace their ideas, either. All the rhetoric in the world means nothing if it can’t help feed your kids.
The approach most US leftists take isn’t working. However, a few groups have found success by taking a different approach:
The nondenominational radicals of Philly Socialists have brought hundreds into their organization and its larger projects. Their free food service, ESL classes, and tenants union materially improve people’s lives and offer the experience of participatory democracy, albeit on a restricted scale.
In the 60s and 70s, the communists of the Black Panther Party and its counterparts (the Young Lords, the Young Patriots, Rising Up Angry, and others) attracted thousands of participants. Their Breakfast for Schoolchildren programs, Freedom Schools, health clinics, and armed patrols against police racism fed people, treated people, educated their children, and reduced the danger of police brutality.
Don’t believe it when people say that there could never be a mass revolutionary movement in the US. It won’t be easy to create one. The Left will be struggling every step of the way, since larger political conditions do make a difference. But so do conditions within the Left. The US Left may not succeed. But, if it adopts a strategy of institution-building through confrontation, construction, and deep organizing, then it will, at least, stand a chance.
I’M SITTING IN a gay bar in Austin. We’ve just ended a planning session for an LGBT rights action by a group that claims to be independent, non-partisan, and strictly focused on queer and trans equality. Someone there is from the soft-Trotskyist International Socialist Organization. They commit the ISO as an co-endorser on the spot. Someone else talks about how they just paid their first month’s ISO dues. The website for the LGBT organization has bios for many of the leaders; most of them just happen to contain the phrase “…is a member of the International Socialist Organization.”
Not everyone in the set of organizational networks and social scenes we call “the US activist community” calls themselves revolutionary. However, those that do have a rainbow of radical organizations to join, with more shades of anarchism, socialism, and communism than most people will ever hear of. Given the radical population’s limited size, competition is fierce, both for already-converted leftists and the as-yet-uninitiated.
However, these organizations are faced with a problem. Few people get involved with activism because they want to be recruited by an ideological formation; issue-based work is what draws the crowds. So what is an ambitious, forward-looking sect to do?
I’m sitting in a meeting with the leaders of a left-wing transgender group I’ve been working with for months. In theory, it welcomes adherents of any philosophy, so long as they’re for socialism. However, I’ve noticed that the group seems to be focusing an enormous amount of time on projects initiated by a tiny Maoist sect. A few weeks earlier, the trans organization had denounced an anarchist bookstore (and anarchism in general) when the bookstore told the Maoists they couldn’t recruit there. The Maoist group and the trans group seem to be co-sponsoring all of each other’s events, too. I ask what’s up with that – aren’t we supposed to be non-sectarian? I’m told that any trans radical, Maoist or not, can join and “struggle their line” (Maoist jargon for “advocate for a political position”). However, they claim, anarchists who join “tend to stop being anarchists,” and they admit they’d sanction any member who publicly disagreed with their official positions for being “unprincipled.”
The nature of a sect is to treat its own existence as self-justifying. The opinions of its members are uniquely true, and that qualifies them to lead the people. It doesn’t matter whether the ideology is vanguardist or anarchist, communist or liberal. A sect is a sociological phenomenon, regardless of the particular jargon it uses. Instead of emerging from the real-life struggles of working-class communities against business and government oppression, sects work out in advance how things are “supposed” to go. When real life doesn’t cooperate, they become marginal. Sometimes that’s self-imposed: they might ignore causes they deem impure. More often, though, it’s because most people can smell bullshit. They don’t appreciate the self-appointed “leadership” of a groupuscule with a messiah complex. By themselves, few sects would be able to attract enough support to sustain themselves for any length of time. At the same time, they’re often astute enough to notice the radical potential of movements not of their own making (not to mention those movements’ often-substantial popular support).
So, a solution begins to present itself.
It’s 2005 and I’m talking with someone who wants to organize a high school walkout. The call is from what’s ostensibly a big-tent movement to “drive out the Bush regime.” Of course, the anti-Bush flyers and walkout information aren’t all this person has – they’re also passing out materials that explain that to really beat the Bush agenda, the only solution is revolution. And serious revolutionaries know, of course, that we need serious revolutionary leadership. Luckily, the organizer has found that leader: a dorky-looking white guy from Berkeley who likes it when you call him “the Chairman.”
Most activists get involved in the scene because they want to do work on one or another specific cause. The bulk of that work happens under the auspices of narrowly-focused, single-issue nonprofits. Logically enough, it’s therefore to those that activists generally look. Tight-knit ideological sects can rarely fill a room. So, they imitate the NGOs that can. A front group is independent in form and subordinate in practice. Because of that subordination, it necessarily has little internal democracy. Luckily for their parent groups, though, neither do other nonprofits – a well-organized front looks at first glance like any other activist campaign. From a rank-and-file activist’s perspective, there are only a few meaningful differences.
Every nonprofit is, in practice, a profit-generating capitalist company. Sectarian fronts are no exception. However, their parent organizations’ ostensible commitment to revolution (not reform) creates a unique internal contradiction: where most NGOs pay lip service to “deep and systemic change” and try to sell you the notion that their work is directly contributing to that, for the front group “radical change” comes from joining the parent organization. They simultaneously hawk reform and the belief that reform is, at best, inadequate. Of course, if they said that too openly, they wouldn’t be able to do their job. Imagine if Refuse Fascism were to say outright: “to really oppose Trump, you need to join the Revolutionary Communist Party”—how long do you think the flow of recruits and foot soldiers would last?
And so, these groups end up in a position where their purpose (recruiting for the parent organization) and their methods (agitating, liberal-style, for specific reforms) are ultimately at odds. If one should join the Party (or anarchist anti-party) and reject reformism, then why get involved with a single-issue reform project? If reform campaigns are correct political practice, why sign up with the would-be revolutionary leaders?
Clearly, something has to give. Usually, it’s honesty.
“Hide nothing from the masses of our people. Tell no lies. Expose lies whenever they are told.”
IF MOST revolutionary groups could successfully appeal to the general public under their own banner, they would not bother creating front groups. While front groups do attract many more people than their sponsors, simple membership in a front is not generally enough to get most people comfortable with the “leadership” of (say) Maoists or Trotskyists. Were the front’s leaders to entirely conceal their affiliation with the sponsor, however, they wouldn’t be able to use the front for recruiting. So, what do they do?
When one asks, it’s always an innocent coincidence that the front’s officers all just happen to be members of whichever party—there’s nothing dishonest or undemocratic if members of that party, by chance, are the same ones who are doing the front’s wonderful work, because they’re just so selflessly committed to the cause. Without that ambient mendacity, the entire sect/front scheme would collapse. Deniability only works if it seems plausible.
And that has a broader effect on the organized Left. Why should revolutionary politics mean zero transparency, no public dissent from within a group, and general evasiveness when asked for too many details (like what the actual membership numbers are for any of the self-described “largest revolutionary organizations in the US”)? The use of front groups helps normalize the sects’ loose attitude towards the truth.
Through their fronts, supposedly anti-capitalist organizations enter the fundamentally capitalist NGO world. They compete in a literal marketplace, selling their political work to consumers in exchange for donations and volunteer hours. Why does everyone pay lip service to “left unity,” then split and squabble in practice? Well, how much unity would you expect between Pepsi and Coke? They’re fighting for each other’s customers. Sure, this disrupts the movement the sects all claim to want. But as any socialist should know, material interests have a way of edging out subjective beliefs. For instance, working-class people have a material interest in collective empowerment through solidarity. Because that inherently puts them into conflict with capitalist businesses, business and the state must spend astronomical sums each year on propaganda, miseducation, union-busting, and advertising to convince them otherwise. Since Left sects operate as businesses in spite of their intentions, reality pits them against their own stated goals.
Actually-existing revolutionary activism is profoundly counter-revolutionary.
“For them the sect is not an unfortunate necessity due to the absence of a real movement: it is their movement…they are not inhibited by the prejudice that a ‘party’ needs much of a rank and file.”
It won’t be controversial to admit that the activist subculture is not very appealing for most people outside of it. Even those of us in it know how deeply off-putting it is when the newspaper-hawkers or urban guerrilla wannabes show up. Now, there’s plenty going on there – the “movement’s” subculturalism and middle-class, anti-worker orientation have many sources. Most of those were not caused by the behavior of revolutionaries. After all, it’s not socialists who invented the politics of insularity and performance, or who put academia at the activist world’s center (although they’ve certainly come to embrace those phenomena).
But that’s not good enough. Revolutionaries need a higher standard than being only second-tier offenders. If conduct across the activist community turns people away from progressive politics in general, then bad revolutionary behavior not only contributes to the overall problem, but also undermines socialism in particular. The self-serving dishonesty of front groups provides one particular example. Others follow from the culture of dissimulation and sectarianism that the front group model helps create and reproduce.
The consequences of sectism extend beyond the sects themselves, too. Currently, the sects maintain a functional monopoly on the ideas of socialism, communism, and anarchism. When they drive away people who should be natural comrades (and everyone who’s ever been screwed over by the boss should be a natural comrade), they don’t just discredit themselves. They discredit revolution. They make it even harder than it needs to be to create a mass socialist movement. And while plenty of them will agree that the organized Left is rife with bad behavior, few of them see the problem as sectism and frontism per se. Rather, they blame it on all those other sects, whose particular shibboleths about Russia, China, and the best forms of socialist heraldry are just so wrong. As David Rovics sings:
“I am not sectarian. It’s all the rest who are. I work fine in coalitions – as long as I’m the shining star.”
So what’s the way out? Should revolutionaries just sit mass movements out? Should we quit organizing?
THERE ARE healthy, helpful, and honest ways to do revolutionary organizing. You don’t have to be an inward-looking, deceptive sect to do radical work. Instead, we can do things to build institutions that empower the people without hurting our cause more than we hurt capitalism:
Tell the truth. If a supposedly independent organization is actually a front, say so! Don’t humor its leaders (and sponsor). If a group is acting badly, acknowledge it, even if you’re a member. Don’t go along to get along. Organizational secrecy isn’t always a matter of security culture. Don’t pretend it is. Lying and tolerating lying are never radical. Sure, most groups that fetishize their own lack of transparency likely don’t have skeletons quite as horrific as the rape scandals that have torn through the Socialist Workers Party (UK), the International Socialist Organization, and Freedom Road Socialist Organization (Fight Back). Even so, the underlying logic of deception is the same, and there are many shades of destructive misconduct.
Don’t confuse ideology, identity, morality, and class. What’s the point of being a revolutionary? It’s to build up power and freedom for the exploited through participatory democracy, in the economy and everywhere else. The point isn’t to get your ideas perfectly right and denigrate anyone who disagrees. If someone’s ideas are the same as yours, it doesn’t automatically mean their conduct isn’t harmful. If someone has a marginalized identity, it doesn’t mean their ideas are necessarily correct. If someone disagrees with you, they may still be a good and ethical person. And class—one’s position within the economy, in which only those who own businesses have real power and exploit everyone else—is something else entirely. We can’t afford to try for a movement of the insightful and correct. Instead, we need to organize the working class (broadly defined) because that’s what has the structural ability to change the system. Now, if that is to happen, then all types of bigotry and oppression within the class must be challenged and uprooted, or else the revolution will never succeed. Working to break down racism, patriarchy, ableism, and homophobia/transphobia are central forms of class struggle. However, you don’t have to understand that to be part of the working class. You just have to be someone who does waged (and/or unwaged) labor and lacks the structural power of business ownership. The basic question is always: “Do you have power over business, or does business have power over you?”
Class beats subculture. The ability to challenge the ruling class does not come from suffering or being marginalized. It comes from collectively doing the work that creates everything. (That includes not just goods and services sold on the market, but also the everyday work of reproducing the social fabric. Even unemployed and unemployable people do that. You don’t have to have a job to be a worker.) Conversely, the ruling class – the business owners – has power over that work and the people who do it. Therefore, the working class has a material stake in changing the system (it currently does everything and controls nothing). Further, it has the ability to actually do so if it acts collectively: by starting to do that work in a democratically self-determined way, ignoring the ruling class’s orders, and defending itself when the ruling class tries to force it to obey. We should be in this to win, not to perform righteousness. That means we must be ethically upright, but without confusing morality with anything but itself. That also means that while organized revolutionary groups may or may not serve a useful purpose in a given situation, they’re never the point. They aren’t inherently valuable (and what matters is whether you treat them as ends in themselves in practice, not whether you affirm it in words). Frontism, naturally, implies the latter. That helps kill movements before they can be properly born (or worse, twists them into something actively dangerous). After all, the activist subculture fixates on correctness of ideas rather than working-class power for a reason. It’s dominated by professors, students, and nonprofits. Academia is capitalism’s idea factory, and obsessing over rightness makes perfect sense for professional academics. After all, their job is literally to prove themselves right and their competitors wrong! Their market share, their career success, depends on it. So, it’s only natural that they act as if staking out your one and only truth and trying to exile everyone else is a sensible strategy. But in real life, it’s not. Don’t buy it when someone claims it is.
Participatory democracy beats being right. Don’t mistake radical words for authentic radicalism. A shibboleth is never helpful. A sect is just a shibboleth with an organization as its body. A project is useful only to the extent that it’s controlled by the people who benefit from it and by the rank-and-file people who do the ground-level work. Sure, express your revolutionary beliefs while you build institutions like that. You can even (if the circumstances warrant) establish a formal group with others. But you’re one participant among many, not a vanguard. Your ideas don’t give you the right to take over.
Don’t tolerate entryism. What is entryism? A working definition is the way some ideological sects infiltrate larger organizations with an eye towards taking them over. Entryism means turning a pre-existing campaign into a front group, instead of starting one from scratch. It’s rampant – the entire socialist, communist, and anarchist spectrum is rife with it. It’s also inherently dishonest and antidemocratic. Those who engage in it are revolutionary in words and reactionary in deeds. And seeing it happen without publicly naming it and working to stop makes you complicit.
Pluralism is revolutionary. When everyone working on something agrees with each other, or shares a limited personal background, the project is weaker for lack of dissent and experimentation. Front groups and sectarianism inherently incline towards that weakness, as does the toleration of racism, sexism, and chauvinism in general. Don’t engage in those. Don’t accept them. And conversely, don’t turn your particular ways of opposing them into shibboleths that lead to exclusionary moralism, either. As Pagans, we know how sterile narrow orthodoxy is. The Left needs to learn it too.
Do you want a revolution?
Be honest. Be ethical. Be pluralist and democratic. Don’t put up with front groups or sectarian nonsense – unless you’re fine with an insular, hostile, and elitist subculture. As we can see, that state of affairs is only good for perpetuating itself. Of course, that suits the ruling class just fine. They want an opposition that undermines itself.
We can do better. After all, we have a duty to win. So let’s get our act together – the coming years under President Trump will give us much less leeway to screw around than we’re used to.
We can’t afford to wait.
Sophia Burns is a polytheist, Kybele devotee, and communist organizer in the US Pacific Northwest.
Sopia Burns was published in the second issue of A Beautiful Resistance. That issue is available here.
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