Base-Building: Activist Networking or Organizing the Unorganized?

Photo by Stephanie Olechowska

Philadelphia Tenants’ Union members confront wealthy slumlord Ajay Raju of Cross Properties, which is behind the mass eviction of Penn Wynn tenants in the Wynnefield section of West Philadelphia.

 

By: Tim Horras

 

The dominant left-wing political forms of our present moment are either amorphous “movements” without formal structures, or nongovernmental organizations (also known as nonprofits or NGOs). Radicals should reject both of these options and form explicitly political organizations (anarchist, Marxist, socialist, communist, whatever).

Socialists should not be afraid to take on organizing work which overlaps with organizing currently being undertaken by the NGOs. But instead of “tailing” the activity of liberal NGOs by providing volunteers for their efforts, we should carry out this work under our own banner: the banner of socialism.

Instead of “subsuming” or “liquidating” our work into the amorphous “movement”, we should found political centers which engage in community and workplace organizing, while simultaneously participating in standard leftist activities such as protests and political education.

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.

One major strategic error of the Left in the past several decades has been using a method of analysis which we might refer to as “issue-ism.” The idea here is that among struggles against imperialist foreign policy, against police brutality, in support of LBGTQ rights or workers rights, etc. we can choose to embrace one while rejecting another. Deeply-rooted social contradictions are treated as though they were consumer choices, which might be mixed and matched based on our personal preferences, as one might put different items from a grocery store into a grocery cart.

Most activists who have engaged in single-issue work come to understand the limitations of this sort of politics. The majority of activists either repudiate active political struggle entirely, or break toward reformism. Among more experienced political actors, there is another path which we also regard as an error: that is to imagine that combining some or all of the issues into a giant progressive coalition will lead to liberation.

Many look to a “movement of movements” strategy, holding out hope that uniting all progressive struggles together will somehow add up to more than the sum of its parts. However, despite its long-standing and generally untheorized popularity on the left, this strategy has produced little in the way of material gains for the working class.

The “movement of movements” strategy has historically been prone to rightist and leftist deviations. The rightist error (and the most common outcome) of a “Rainbow Coalition” is overtly or covertly corralling the social movements into the quagmire of the Democratic Party. The leftist deviation can be called “activist networking.”

Activist networking is what might be called lifestyle activism, in the sense of individuals who form their identity around being an activist and derive the majority of their social life from activism. These are the type of people who do not engage with, are not comfortable around and are not friends with non-activists or non-theory types, and whose weekly and monthly schedules are a busybody itinerary of meetings, discussion groups, protests, and conferences.

These individuals are not particularly concerned with effectiveness, because for then it is more of a hobby, an identity, or a “safe space” for like-minded people to discuss common interests without having to engage with working class people with their warts and all.

In terms of practice, the “activist networking” model is one wherein activists from one organization agree to attend the events put on by activists from another group with the expectation that the latter will reciprocate by attending in return the favor. This often creates a comical scenario 20 different organizations “endorse” an event at which only 40 people show up.

The final outcome of this model is to create an “activist circuit” where the same dozen or so single-issue activists attend each others protests in a round-robin of stagnant or diminishing numbers. Even when political pressure turns up the volume (i.e. an issue is newsworthy or politically salient and therefore drives larger attendance at the events organized by the activists) the lifeless cycle of activist networking eventually brings down the numbers of attendees back to pre-crisis levels.

Both of these are poor substitutes for a genuinely intersectional politics.

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An example of the two contrasting approaches would be as follows:

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.

A political group which takes a “base-building” approach toward organizing a constituency approaches “issue” work a bit differently. The first step involves a canvassing the “base” where the group is attempting to organize: talking to coworkers, knocking on doors in a neighborhood, or chatting with commuters on the train or at the bus stop. Since the vast majority of individuals in our society are not members of a particular political group or even a union, we say that recruiting someone from a working class constituency into a mass organization is an act of “organizing the unorganized.”

Simultaneous to this, research is undertaken to get a sense of where the constituency is situated in the process of capital accumulation and in the “big picture” of the capitalist system.

Through conversations and research, several possible demands or campaigns are sketched out, based around criteria such as winnability, the likelihood that the campaign will build capacity of the organization, help cohere working class forces (rather than promote temporary cross-class alliances), and whether the campaign has the potential to encourage grassroots militancy (rather than transporting the arena of struggle to specialist-only spaces such as the courts through, for instance, pursuing lawsuits as a primary tactic).

When several possible ideas for campaigns are produced, organizers return to the constituency and sound out these ideas in various conversations to find out what demands (if any) attract support and gain interest of the constituency, then tweak and modify these as needed. Around that time, a mass meeting is called, contacts made during the conversation phase are invited in, and a democratic process unfolds where the most active elements of the constituency choose a campaign and begin working on it. This is sometimes referred to as the “mass line” method: from the masses, to the masses.

While engaging in the campaign, smart organizers always keep in mind that the most important end product of the campaign is new and more experienced militants, rather than reforms, laws, or material gains. The latter are welcome and while ostensibly the temporary goal of the group, they serve as fuel for the organization to reach the long-term goal: the production of working class militants, trained to fight and think critically about the capitalist system and their place in it. This may mean taking more time and effort on leadership development and political education than appears immediately practical for the purposes of winning a demand.

To use the Marxist jargon, a common fight is how working people from wildly different backgrounds can cohere around a shared vision. What is needed at the present moment is a politics that is rooted in the working class, forged where disparate elements of the class can find common political ground against a common enemy.

 

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