a Praxis for Power
“Millions of people…fall somewhere in the middle of the political spectrum and…do not see themselves as activists, making them open to persuasion by organized forces on the left and the right. This contestable “middle” is key to building a front broad enough to engage the conjuncture and to build power effectively. This raises questions including: What is the level, scale, and quality of organization among competing class and social forces?”We Believe that We Can Win (WBTWCW)
LeftRoots’ basebuilding praxis circle developed two questions as part of our efforts to measure the strength of progressive and left mass organizations in the US: how wide is the circle of people who are building the base of an organization and how wide is the circle of people raising an organization’s money? Our starting point for this piece is that left organizations in the US, rooted in the working class, generally lack a protagonism of scale, what we call mass protagonism. By mass protagonism we mean large-scale organizations and movements where many people take leadership, develop their political clarity, and organize other people in order to become leading actors in the struggle to make history.
Some organizations have achieved a large scale but with a low level of participation and leadership from their base, while others have developed a small core of politically advanced leaders but seem unable to grow much beyond that. How to change this dichotomy was a question the authors of this piece had been obsessed with for some time and we jumped at the opportunity to engage with it among comrades when the basebuilding praxis circle was created within LeftRoots. What follows is the culmination of almost two years of discussion.
Our experience in our praxis circle leads us to believe that because we are anchored in basebuilding organizations across different sectors and geography nationally, LeftRoots is in a unique position to convene movement leaders to synthesize, test out, and further develop a transformative basebuilding praxis. We offer some ideas and questions about how to align our basebuilding praxis with our developing strategy, how to adapt it to the obstacles of our objective conditions, and how, through praxis and training, we can develop the methodology and talent needed to advance on a path to power.
We examine the ways in which racial monopoly capitalism’s latest phases of rising neoliberalism and crises of US imperialism have created objective obstacles to people’s widespread participation in social movement organizations. Subjectively, it is our contention that the lack of a unifying strategy, the underdevelopment of basebuilding methodology, and a general low level of talented conscious organizers in the social movement left contributes to the low level of mass protagonism we see today. We make the case that revolutionary strategy and basebuilding shape and strengthen one another, meaning that in order for our basebuilding to achieve a higher level of mass protagonism we need to develop and integrate strategy and that in order to develop and carry out strategy we need to further develop our basebuilding praxis.
The piece you’re about to read serves as an invitation to you, the reader, to join us in the project we lay out to develop this praxis.
Assessing Today’s Organized Left and Basebuilding Power
Over the course of monthly conversations, we spent a good deal of time reflecting on our common challenge: across different geographies and sectors, we have not been able to build working class bases with both the breadth of scale and the depth of conscious leadership that’s required to shift the balance of forces in society. Given the interlocking ecological, political, and economic crises impacting the vast majority of humanity, why aren’t exploited and oppressed communities flooding into community organizations and committing their lives to overhauling society? Our passion for basebuilding on the one hand and mounting injustice on the other is not adding up to mass protagonism in our organizations and movements. What’s preventing this? We concluded that today’s low level of mass protagonism is a result of both objective factors beyond our control and subjective factors we can and must change, and we’ve made an attempt to codify these factors below.
We’ll start by laying out how aspects of racial monopoly capitalism contribute to the low level of mass protagonism among working class communities. Some of these have specifically occurred in the last few decades due to shifts in capitalism and production, the turn to neoliberalism, and technological advances. And, then, some are generalized systemic challenges that are hallmarks of racialized capitalism and imperialism. While we recognize that all powerful social movements emerge out of conditions of grave exploitation and oppression, our intention here is to explore how our current economic conditions are preventing people from participating more fully in community organizing even though it’s in their interest to do so.
- Financialization, globalization, and people-replacing automation has produced an intensification of poverty in working class communities. Working class people are experiencing heightened levels of instability due to widespread unemployment, a shift to low-wage service jobs, increased debt, and the general trend of downward mobility and precarity. Forced to work multiple low-paid jobs to make ends meet, many people are experiencing a profound loss of free time which means it’s more difficult to join a community organization.
- Working class people are not receiving adequate preventative healthcare and are experiencing heightened levels of health crises across their families. Due to the shift from an industrial to a low-wage service economy that doesn’t offer health benefits and to an increasingly privatized healthcare system, our people are going without the care that they need.
- Increased alienation and fragmentation. We’re living in a society where we are increasingly separated from each other in the work that we do — where our social fabric and community networks, public life and institutions have been intentionally weakened. We’re in a period of history that’s deepening individualism and pushing hard against a spirit and culture of collectivity, creating a profound sense of hopelessness and isolation among people as they bear the weight of economic uncertainty. And in the wake of a persistent ruling class project to repress social movements since the 1970s, people have been made to believe that there is no alternative.
- Increased feminization of labor, economic structure of patriarchy, and invisibilized social reproduction. As history shows, the backbone of vibrant social movements has been women, and today, many of our members are women — often moms with children who have a deep desire to be involved in movement organizations, but find it increasingly challenging given their wage-earning responsibilities along with their unpaid home and childcare responsibilities. These women can also find themselves in family systems or relationships that are unsupportive of their desire to protect time to organize.
- Astronomical levels of incarceration. As people have been made obsolete to the economic process of capital accumulation, mechanisms of technological surveillance, the militarization of policing, incarceration and other tools of social control have intensified. Along with this expansion of the prison industrial complex, Black and Brown working class communities were intentionally flooded with drugs as a part of the counter-revolutionary efforts of US imperialism to set back the gains made by social movements of the 1960s and 1970s. While there’s beautiful and fierce organizing happening inside prison walls, it’s critical to note that whole sections of our society are incarcerated instead of able to join our basebuilding organizations.
- Heightened levels of gentrification and displacement. After a long phase of capital divestment in urban centers, we’re now experiencing a moment of large scale reinvestment in cities as the ruling class turns to housing and urban development to solve the structural crisis of capital overaccumulation. We’re seeing members of our base getting pushed out of the cities in which we organize. This means they are no longer able to participate or have less time to organize due to longer commutes. As our communities are increasingly moving outside of cities due to the pressures of neoliberal gentrification, we need to update our basebuilding practices, which have mainly been developed for urban settings.
- Racial monopoly capitalism and heteropatriarchy cause traumatic impact that blocks the agency of working class people. The legacy of slavery, land theft, and genocide that black and indigenous communities have experienced included a profound process of dehumanization and violence that’s had significant traumatic impact over generations. Increased militarization of borders for capital’s interests has intensified the dangers of migration and immigration. Deportation and violent family separation causes trauma. The family separation that results from incarceration, police violence and killings cause trauma. Being made obsolete to an economic system that’s increasingly unstable and precarious causes trauma. Trauma caused by exploitation and oppression creates significant emotional blocks in people’s ability to be agents of change and join basebuilding organizations. This trauma often shows up as a profound sense of worthlessness and powerlessness and is a central obstacle to working class people stepping into movement leadership.
While these conditions impact the entire working class, they hit Black, Latino, and Indigenous communities from the lower and middle layers of the working class the hardest. And women and gender oppressed people from these communities even harder. Precisely because of this these communities, as WBTWCW argues, have the least invested in racial monopoly capitalism and are positioned to be the driving forces that can lead the movement for its alternative.
Our bases are strapped for the time, energy, good health, openness in their schedules, and levels of self-worth required to join and be active members of community organizations. Working two to three jobs to make ends meet, raising children and grandchildren, caring for sick family members, attending to health crisis after health crisis, juggling unwaged reproductive labor, supporting loved ones caught up in the prison industrial complex, studying to get higher educational degrees, and paying down mounting debt takes up most waking hours.
We believe that these aspects of our objective conditions create obstacles to basebuilding in this moment, and we see a silver lining in the possibility of a tipping point leading to increased movement participation. Just as large scale industrial capitalism created a movement opportunity that we saw manifest in the labor movement of the 1930s and 1940s where so many working class people found themselves in one place together at the point of production with common vehicles with which to develop class consciousness, we need to find the opportunities that today’s economy presents to build base. These opportunities, despite the obstacles, will point us to components of a renewed basebuilding praxis.
How can these conditions, if assessed for their opportunities, guide us in growing the mass protagonism of our organizations in this period? What are the important implications for how we update our basebuilding praxis for today’s economic reality in order to maximize working class participation? What new organizational forms, organizational practices, and shifts in the culture at large are needed to meet the challenges of our time?
We must experiment with how to most effectively counter the individualism, hopelessness, and powerlessness that stops people from joining the struggle to transform our material conditions. We know that the only way people will get the time, energy, and good health they need is if significantly greater numbers become active in collective struggles for an alternative to racial monopoly capitalism. We need to see our basebuilding organizations as people-powered experiments to intervene in the blocks that these objective conditions create, offering collective care and creative interventions to free up time, get our people healthy, and provide shared reproductive labor. Good basebuilding practice will break people out of the fragmentation, alienation, and isolation created by the conditions of racial monopoly capitalism, providing embodied experiences of collective action, ownership, consciousness, and labor.
Now, we’d like to explore how the culture of our community organizing infrastructure in its own right contributes to the low level of scale and protagonism amongst working class communities. We also offer some insight on how to shift our practice to respond to these subjective challenges.
Overcoming the staff protagonist mobilizing model
An honest assessment will reveal that in many of our organizations it’s paid staff organizers who are the primary protagonists. The key role of these staff is too often limited to mobilizing the base and doing things like writing speeches for members to read. With its dearly held turn out equations, this mobilization model reduces would-be leaders to numbers. As McAlevey writes, “Attempts to generate movements are directed by professional highly educated staff who rely on an elite, top down theory of power that treats the masses as audiences of, rather than participants in, their own liberation.”
So where does this tendency come from and what are we going to do about it? Our basebuilding praxis circle had some disagreement on this. Some of us situated the problem inside a critique of the non-profit industrial complex, making the case that the form of the non-profit is inherently oppressive. This line of thinking emphasizes the de-radicalizing effect of foundation funding, arguing that sectors of the ruling class use this strings attached system to co-opt organizations. It suggests that the solution is to do away with the non-profit form altogether and organize all volunteer organizations.
Others in our circle made the case that a bigger factor in these organizations’ reformism stems from the fact that the leadership of these non-profits is often ideologically liberal to begin with. They continued then that the contradictions of the non-profit form can only be taken advantage of if the leadership of those organizations is firmly in the hands of revolutionaries with an unwavering class stand that place their work in a broader strategy for 21st century socialism.
This group did, however, find a different problem with foundation funding: skilled grant writers get organizers their paychecks regardless of whether those organizers are building the mass protagonism of the base. A few mobilizations a year seems to suffice. The capacities of an organizer whose salary comes from a few foundations will tend to be quite different than the capacities of an organizer whose salary depends on money from their base. After all, if the salary is paid by the base the organization literally won’t be able to afford to pay an organizer who can’t build mass protagonism.
The staff protagonist mobilizing model limits not just the protagonism, but ultimately the scale, of the base. Marshall Ganz helps us understand this when he writes, “The test of effective leadership, in turn, is not in how many hats one can wear but in how many others one can get to wear hats. This is how you get to scale.” In this way, if we hope to achieve mass protagonism, our organizing must in fact be driven by leaders who re-organize their existing relational networks, bringing the leaders they are already in relationship with into the organization. This is entirely distinct from the cherry picking of disconnected individuals that are mobilized in the staff protagonist model.
Beyond attending actions, the role of the base in the mobilizing model extends only as far as being a spokesperson. For many of us the process of developing a member into a ‘strong leader’ starts with their consistent attendance to meetings and ends with them sharing their personal testimony in a large rally. They may get better and better at sharing their story but meanwhile this same member can’t organize their neighbor into taking action against their greedy landlord, nor do they have a say in important organizational decisions. Given this, high potential leaders will decide not to bring their bases into the mobilizing organization in the first place. The staff protagonist model takes on an additional oppressive dynamic in organizations where, unlike the base, the staff is overwhelming white, upper middle class and/or male.
We think that Alinskyism overemphasizes the distinction between staff organizer and leader. As WBTWCW points out, “The fight for democracy and protagonism must not be limited to demands on the state, they must also be defining features of our practice. In our work, we must constantly seek to develop the capacities of other people, as well as ourselves.” In order for the base and the leadership to develop their protagonism they must learn from each other through a dynamic relationship where they enter into praxis together, something that is rare with the staff protagonist mobilizing model.
Leaving important decisions to a few senior staff, the mobilizing model deprives the base of human development, or as Paulo Freire writes “apart from the praxis, individuals cannot be truly human.” The impact of this separation of thinking and doing mirrors a greater separation of thinking and doing and its denial of full human development that is inherent in the relations of production of racial capitalism, where workers produce and capitalists plan. Michael Lebowitz says we must “recognize that without practice, you cannot have the full development of human capacities. Without the protagonism that transforms people, you cannot produce the people who belong in the good society.”
WBTWCW shows that human development is the true goal of socialism and that the three sides of the socialist triangle work together to make it possible: 1) social ownership of the means of production, 2) production to meet the needs of the people and planet and, crucially, 3) protagonistic participation of the people. As we clarify that developing our capacities to a higher level will be necessary to advance our strategy for socialism, we see that human development must run through the center of our basebuilding efforts. Myles Horton taught us this: “I’d say if you were working with an organization and there’s a choice between the goal of that organization, or the particular program they’re working on, and educating people, developing people, helping them grow, helping them become able to analyze — if there’s a choice, we’d sacrifice the goal of the organization for helping people to grow, because in the long run we think its a bigger contribution.” In this lesson we can see that if we want to build mass protagonism we need to go far beyond the transactional approach of mobilizing and build transformative relationships that develop all of our capacities.
Finally, Jane McAlevey also helps us better understand the connections between praxis, leadership development and mass protagonism when she writes, “The chief factor in whether or not organizational efforts grow organically into local and national movements capable of effecting major change is where and with whom the agency for change rests.”
Speaking truth to praxis
“Hide nothing from the masses of our people. Tell no lies. Expose lies whenever they are told. Mask no difficulties, mistakes, failures. Claim no easy victories.” Here Amilcar Cabral brings our attention to another weakness in left organizations that is at least partially responsible for our generally weak basebuilding methodology. We have an aversion to making accurate assessments of our work, which impedes our ability to truly learn from failure and success.
The pressure we feel to impress our bosses, funders, enemies and Facebook friends is part of a dominant culture that discourages us from telling the truth, especially painful truth. Failure is seen as something to be ashamed of rather than as a necessary component of success. The property relations of racial capitalism teach us to lie to ourselves by measuring our self worth by what we produce. In turn, we seek relief in others perception of us as unproductive by inflating our accomplishments. All of these aspects of the culture at large are compounded by a movement culture that is both particularly reputation-driven and that has somehow become a kind of lefter than thou contest where the losers are often deemed disposable or worse, the enemy. All of this leads us to lie not just to our comrades but to ourselves.
All this makes collective assessments next to impossible and creates all kinds of serious problems for us: we don’t refine methodologies as conditions change; we become liberal with incompetence; we make the essential skill of leader identification much more difficult as we pretend people are who they aren’t; alienation from our peers deepens because investing in one another’s growth becomes more difficult. While there is much in the objective conditions beyond our control, a capacity for honest assessments is one that we can and must develop.
Beyond Alinsky: Making the Impossible Possible
Saul Alinsky’s rules for radicals held sway in US community organizing for close to 50 years and continues to hold back the development of a transformative, revolutionary community organizing tendency. As the Black, Chicano, Indigenous and Asian American liberation movements and the anti-war movement of the previous period receded In the 1970s and 1980’s, movement veterans – many of whom were actual or previous cadre of socialist organizations – began to reconstitute organizing efforts, shaping what has come to be called transformative organizing. They had clear differences with several Alinsky-influenced efforts and networks; key among these was their perspective regarding capitalism and US imperialism in the Third World.
Alinskyism is a product of the social and economic conditions it grew out of. Its initial ability to win concessions can be attributed to the super profits of the post-war period, made possible by the US ascent into the leadership of the world imperialist system. The social movements of the late ‘50s gained access to government resources; Alinskyism hitched a ride to this train. When Black and Brown urban rebellions became an ongoing reality, Alinskyism offered the system an alternative “radicalism” to that of the liberation movements growing at home and abroad. As Becky Bond writes, “Alinsky believed that that the purpose of building power was not to put the people in power, but to compel negotiation. He wanted to win a seat at the 1950’s and 1960’s establishment tables for the poor and disenfranchised. Part of why this seemed like a reasonable strategy to so many good people was that, at the time, the table was overflowing.”
Key among Alinsky’s “rules” that continues to hold us back today is a professed “non-ideological” character that either explicitly or implicitly ends up re-enforcing the dominant ideology. Steve Williams points out Alinsky was never non-ideological given that he started his career by competing with the organizers of the CIO, nearly all of whom were Communists and Socialists. This was not an attempt by Alinsky to shun ideology, rather a step in the direction of efforts to improve the conditions of people without challenging racial capitalism and US Imperialism. In Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundation, mass meetings were initiated by the pledge to the flag.
Another key Alinsky precept our movement continues to struggle with is: only fight for what is winnable in the short term. Alinskyism is not a revolutionary project and so, free from any long-term objectives, the Alinskyist can focus exclusively on building the power of their organization, even when that is at the expense of the broader movement. Additionally, while issues of racism where sometimes taken up a more global analysis of white supremacy – which could call into question the very nature of capitalism – has historically been eschewed by the IAF and other formations.
The rise of neoliberalism and the crises of US imperialism has meant a diminished ability of the ruling class to buy off sections of the working class at home. Said differently the table is no longer overflowing and as a result Alinskyism is less able to compel negotiation. The multiple crises we face today have led more and more people to question the system but the community organizing model that has been dominant for decades doesn’t have the answers people are looking for. Today people are increasingly open to both left and right populisms but if we don’t overcome Alinsky’s legacy of “pragmatism” we’ll miss the opportunity to shift the balance of forces in our favor. In this way, developing a transformative and strategically informed basebuilding praxis that becomes hegemonic in our social movement culture, is part of leadership we need to take advantage of this period of crisis. Alinsky’s sectarianism, short term, “pragmatic,” and “non-ideological” approach must be replaced with a praxis that builds mass protagonist organization and movement infrastructure, that listens and wages the battle of ideas, that “build[s] on our practice of fighting for non-reformist reforms in an effort to reshape the terrain on which we struggle…a balance of both the practical and the aspirational.”
Developing revolutionary strategy anchored in the base
Basebuilding practice will be strengthened when anchored in strategy and strategy needs to be anchored in working class communities organized in strategically aligned mass protagonist organizations in order to bring that strategy to life. We’re lacking a shared revolutionary strategy that can cohere our basebuilding efforts. A revolutionary strategy starts with a class analysis rooted in an understanding of the key contradictions driving the development of society. This shared class analysis allows us to hypothesize and test out what sectors of society are driving forces who will be most able to organize and lead others towards a new system. It also allows us to determine what campaigns will get to the heart of different sector’s contradictions with capital. When we have a clear class analysis and have a strong enough praxis to organize around it, the mass protagonism of our organizations can grow to the full extent conditions allow for. A shared strategy then allows us to align previously distinct bases as they carry out different parts of a common strategic plan.
That said, underdeveloped basebuilding praxis also holds back strategy development. For example strategy must be informed by revolutionary leaders (also known as cadre) who, because of their skill and practice of basebuilding, have their ear to the ground in the key sectors of society. These cadre will be able to further advance strategy development by stimulating and tapping into the creative capacities of the base, and later testing and refining strategy in their practice. While the staff mobilizing model struggles to develop the kinds of leaders and strategists we need, many of the best cadre are formed in mass protagonist organizations of the working class.
In order to effectively do their work of developing and carrying out a shared strategy across a movement ecosystem of different kinds of organizations, cadre will need a broader organizational form that can give millions of people a single will, what Marta Harnecker calls a political instrument. Harnecker explains, “The history of triumphant revolutions clearly demonstrates what can be achieved when there is a political instrument capable of raising an alternative national program that unifies the struggles of diverse social actors behind a common goal; that helps to cohere them and elaborate a path forward for these actors based on an analysis of the existent balance of forces. Only in this manner can actions be carried out at the right place and right time, always seeking out the weakest link in the enemy’s chain.”
We believe that cadre engaged in basebuilding are the glue that hold this relationship between revolutionary strategy, a rich movement ecosystem, and the political instrument together. Our current political instrument-less movement ecosystem confuses this issue for us, tempting those of us in basebuilding organizations to try and play all the roles instead of appreciating the relationship between distinct organizational forms and functions.
Towards a Strategic Basebuilding Praxis
We see three mutually reinforcing objectives of strategic basebuilding practice:
- Build mass protagonist organizations of the driving forces of the working class
- Begin to develop cadre that emerge from these mass organizations who then
- Orient these organizations towards a broader strategic alignment
To help us answer the question of how a shared strategy would change our basebuilding we need to experiment with taking our praxis out of Alinsky’s short-term framework and put it into Gramsci’s long-term conception of war of position and war of maneuver. WBTWCW writes “The war of position aims simultaneously to weaken capitalist hegemony and to pave the cultural ground on which socialism can take hold. It is a long-term battle over ideas across civil society that both shifts the terrain and expedites the development of self-aware oppressed classes, who then become bases for the historic bloc. It must develop the capacities that the working class will need to lead other classes and the entire nation in the fight for socialist liberation.”
One of the key implications of this framework for our basebuilding practice is that our members must move beyond the narrow self-interest of issue campaigns, beyond individual and organizational consciousness, and into class and societal consciousness. This kind of consciousness can develop in mass protagonist organizations where members collectively decide to lead their communities into battle and then have the opportunity to reflect on their action as part of a systematic political education program. This kind of class consciousness serves as a foundation for the driving forces, who WBTWCW names as Black, Latino, Indigenous people from the lower and middle layers of the working class, women and gender oppressed people in particular, to build their capacity to lead all of society — to project their struggles as one’s that move all of society forward, winning middle forces over in the battle of ideas and aligning forces toward a vision of a new economic and political system in the interest of all.
Praxis Makes Perfect
Strategy must be tested in practice and refined into a synthesis of the two towards praxis. Through basebuilding praxis, we, ourselves, are developing and transforming through the process of 1) putting theory into practice and 2) organizing among the people. We develop in relationship to those who we organize with as they develop through becoming agents of history.
Experimentation and Testing Ideas
So, to ask ourselves the organizer’s quintessential question: What are we going to do about it? We plan to bring together organizers and leaders who share our burning desire to develop basebuilding praxis in order to, 1.) Stimulate and synthesize the fragmented knowledge of strategic basebuilding that exists. 2) Systematically test our ideas in practice, then honestly evaluate and refine them.
Concretely, we plan to do this by launching a LeftRoots project where, over the course of a year, we will investigate who are the most advanced organizers in the country and internationally, study their work, and ask them to publicly dialog with us and one another. At the same time, organizers and leaders from the social movement left will develop their basebuilding praxis through a dialectical process of sharing written reflections and plans, then testing out and evaluating those ideas in their mass work. We aim for this process to happen in a circle of trusting and mutually invested comrades that is further enriched by criticism/self criticism and agitation.
There is much to be experimented with when it comes to building mass protagonism, aligning basebuilding praxis with our developing strategy, and sharpening our methodologies and talent through praxis. It is our hypothesis that working together in a team to do this while we build our capacity to make accurate and honest assessments will lead to a demonstrable increase in the mass protagonism of the organizations connected to the lab and that new revolutionary leaders and cadre will emerge from these bases. It is our aim to synthesize the knowledge that emerges from this body of practice in a way that helps to develop and carry out our strategy. If you’re interested in joining us in this experiment email us at: basebuildingpc@LeftRoots.net.
Towards Principles and a School for Transformative Organizing
We hope that the work of this project, as one part of LeftRoots broader strategy development process, contributes to the development of principles that can inform and spread a transformative basebuilding model rooted in today’s concrete conditions. In order to do this, training institutions will need to be built, and we see this lab as a first iteration of the kind of school of praxis we hope to help build in the future.
This is our attempt to, as General Baker said, “turn thinkers into fighters and fighters into thinkers.” We hope this offering has inspired a more rigorous engagement with strategy development among those of us who’ve made basebuilding our life’s work. We’re grateful to have had the opportunity to do this reflection within LeftRoots, which has brought us together as basebuilders from across geography, issue sector, and constituency.