Base Building and Socialist Organizing
Base building has become a buzzword within current debates about how to rebuild the radical left in the United States. In the most recent issue of Jacobin magazine, Bhaskar Sunkara and Vivek Chibber each discuss the need to develop a political base for socialist organizing. Philly Socialists and the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement consistently demand socialists and radicals build a base by going out to build and fight in the broader community at the grassroots level. Freedom Road Socialist Organization advocates the same strategy under the name Left Refoundation. When DSA Praxis included base building in their platform at the 2017 DSA National Convention, it signaled both an acknowledgement of this past work and a desire for DSA to take on the role of building a mass movement.
DSA’s Refoundation Caucus draws upon this same history. This position paper will begin to lay out our conception of what base building is and why it is essential to the construction of a mass socialist movement. Just as a home can’t be built without a foundation, we cannot hope to build this movement without building a political base with a deep, strong, socialist foundation among the working class and oppressed.
Let us begin by sketching out what base building is not.
Base Building Opposes Vanguardism
Political leadership is fundamental to any successful political movement. The theory of the “vanguard” or a “vanguard party” was one important way that socialists developed to understand how leadership develops and how it can be fused into a coherent, useful organization. No political movement can be successful without settling the question of how it understands political leadership.
In an attempt to take a shortcut around the question of leadership, many tiny socialist formations have laid claim to the “vanguard” title by proclamation, asserting that their perfectly developed theory of revolution, drawn from the purest legacy of proletarian struggle, entitles them to lead the working class revolution. Organizations of hundreds or even only dozens of people have made a political principle out of barging into meetings to demand their political leadership be recognized, or talking at workers or new activists until their eyes glaze over in an attempt to explain why this particular group’s extremely specific version of socialism is the only true version to take seriously. Leadership has been decided because each sect had discovered, in their eyes, the most perfect and infallible expression of socialist struggle yet produced. Everyone else just needed to bite the bullet and get on board.
Not so, argued Lenin. The concept of the vanguard has less to do with ideological pedigree and more with identifying and working closely with the most active social layer of the working class. The working class exists unevenly in terms of both consciousness and capacity, not as a monolithic, undifferentiated social bloc. According to Lenin, there is an organically existing layer of the proletariat made up of the hardest working, most dedicated, and most self-sacrificing members of the working class. This layer is committed to concrete political activity and the consistent, energetic investigation, study and debate needed to carry it out. Many of these workers are already self-organizing on the job and in their communities, or they want to be but don’t yet know how or where to begin. The role of revolutionaries is to seek out and unite this organic leading layer of the working class in order to bind it into a dependable revolutionary formation capable of weathering the storm of political combat.
Vanguardism is rooted in the drift from Marxist materialism into abstract idealism. After Lenin’s death, there was a scramble to consolidate his ideas into a coherent doctrine. This has given the socialist left a very unhelpful habit of reducing politics to a declared allegiance to a variety of ever more obscure -isms: Trotskyism, Stalinism, Maoism, Hoxhaism, focoismo, etc.
This reflects the fundamental mistake of turning politics into what you think or say instead of what you do. Yes, it is true that without revolutionary ideas, there can be no revolutionary movement, but revolutionary ideas are important only insofar as they facilitate carrying out the practical tasks of class struggle. Vanguardism has come to see itself as carrying the torch of an unblemished legacy of pure thought, of a coherent doctrine that exists separate from and superior to the needs of practical, immediate class combat. This leads to innumerable splits over abstract historical questions that have little practical bearing at all on our contemporary situation.
This is where the strident nature of hyper-sectarian organizations get their characteristics. They use terms like “universal” or “scientific” to mask an unshakeable fealty to a particular abstract tradition. This kind of thinking undercuts our ability to remain flexible and dynamic in the face of ever changing circumstance. It also keeps us from honestly comparing and contrasting the legacies and lessons of the various socialist and communist tradition in order to identify common strengths and particular weaknesses. These organizations have convinced themselves that being the vanguard is not a matter of uniting with the broadest layer of the hardest working, most self-sacrificing workers, but of having the most perfectly elaborated, “pure” doctrinal tradition.
Every single one of these sects remains lost in the political wilderness.
DSA Refoundation bases itself on the understanding that communism is a tradition built not by the ideas of great thinkers alone, but from the practical struggle of millions of people over the course of our history. Of course, the ideas produced throughout this tradition have been critical to the victories that working class and oppressed people have achieved. However, these ideas must be subordinated to the needs of practical struggle.
DSA Refoundation rejects any claim that it is a vanguard formation in and of itself. As a practical reality, we must acknowledge that we are currently separate from this organically existing layer of the class. However, we do not exist above this layer of the class, seeking to educate it up to our ideas. We exist below it and must challenge ourselves to grow until we meet the needs and the standards of these organic worker-leaders. We are a formation that is seeking out the vanguard layer of the working class by finding concrete fights we can win together, patiently explaining our political ideas as best we can after earning respect on the ground, and remaining flexible in learning together as we build.
Base Building Opposes “Unity at All Costs”
Where vanguardism places overwhelming emphasis on difference and division, the strategy of Unity at All Costs takes the opposite course, calling on all those on the left to uncritically unite together. It sneers at purity politics, and makes demands to “do the work.”
This, however, only raises more questions. Which work deserves our focus? To what ends do we do it? Digging a hole and filling it up is “doing work,” but it’s not exactly the most useful work to be done. These questions lead to serious, often fundamental political disagreements. Socialist base building cannot be used as a magical slogan deployed to paper over critical disagreements. How then are we to demarcate between the petty disagreements of the vanguardists and genuine, fundamental political differences?
The answer, again, is practice. Sometimes, the gap between political traditions cannot be bridged. The difference between liberalism and socialism involves more than minor disagreements over historical questions. Liberals and socialists don’t just think differently about history; each demands dramatically different ways to go about putting ideas into practice.
Liberalism is built around the understanding of abstractly equal individuals relating to one another through the market, more or less regulated. The state stands above society as a neutral arbiter. When capitalism experiences “excesses” or “injustices,” liberalism’s answer is to use the neutral state to pass reformist policies to mitigate them. Struggle, then, is incidental to capitalism, not intrinsic.
Communists argue that individuals are all a part of classes. The two central classes, workers and capitalists, each have mutually opposing interests. Struggle is not something that happens because of capitalist excess, but is instead a fundamental part of the capitalist mode of production. The state doesn’t exist as a neutral arbiter but as a powerful tool of the dominant class. Reforms, then, aren’t important only for their own sake but because the struggle to win them builds the confidence and organization of the working class. Since these two classes have mutually exclusive and antagonistic interests, they cannot share a political party. The working class needs an independent party to fight for its own interests in order to secure itself as the dominant class.
Trying to find unity between these two world views inevitably produces incoherent, hypocritical politics. Ultimately, there can be no unity between them because even if both sides agree that everyone has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, the practical methods needed to secure it will remain permanently elusive.
Thus, Refoundation will oppose any attempt to separate socialist, working class politics from the task of base building. We will struggle every step of the way to maintain the political independence of this working-class base from all forms of liberalism, whether electoral, organizational, or ideological. This does not mean we reject united fronts around specific fights, or that we oppose elections outright, but we will stand against any attempts to sacrifice working class political independence for short term gains.
Base Building as Praxis
Vanguardism and Unity at all Costs are two sides of the same coin. They separate their ideas from practice, the former idealizing abstract differences, and the latter idealizing an abstract unity. Base building unites socialist theory with an unshakeable commitment to practical struggle; thus, it is the most critical task the Left faces today. Without a base, we are unable to exert social power in a concrete way. It doesn’t matter if you have the “winning ideas” if those ideas are circumscribed to less than 1% of the population and, therefore, cannot be translated into revolutionary praxis; likewise, the only possibility of building unity on the left is if we can build a practical unity, rather than as an empty slogan.
Base building requires leaving political subcultures and engaging with people who have never had any real interaction with socialist politics. We must go out as organized socialists among fast food workers, warehouse workers, community college students, day laborers, low-wage tenants and all other sectors of the working class in order to seek out those who are willing to stand up to the boss regarding wage theft or sexual harassment. We have to meet these workers where they are and to help move them forward in their fights. This means more than simple recruitment: this means systematic leadership development, providing the tools to support the organic leaders of the working class in taking ever increasing responsibility for their own fights. By doing so, we too will learn and develop, squarely facing our own inevitable mistakes and unavoidable limits.
Base building means constructing stable institutions that can bind our base together. It means building roots in the day-to-day fights of the broadest layer of the working class and oppressed and transforming loose, informal relationships into institutions. Through the course of practical class combat, people new to the left will come up against new questions and problems they wouldn’t have encountered had they never engaged in the struggle in the first place. These relationships establish the spaces where we can discuss the practical benefits of our vision for a socialist future: our ideas help us recognize our enemies; they help us see how to build unity; they help us develop clear, long-term goals; they help us understand the way the world works.
By uniting a deeply rooted political base with a clear socialist vision, we can begin to build institutions capable of waging class struggle, thereby laying the foundation for more developed and ambitious fights for class power. This means far more than just being able to move people to the polls. It means being able to move entire workplaces, neighborhoods, and campuses into fights on a day-to-day basis, developing new leadership out of these fights, and then being able to run these accountable, tested leaders for office to reinforce our strength on the ground, all completely independent of both the Democratic Party and corporate money. This is the foundation necessary to build a mass, socialist-led Workers Party.
Base building is not a discrete event; it is a process that is continuous throughout the revolutionary struggle and past the revolutionary event itself. The point is not that we do base building now and stop to do other things later, but that all political victories at whatever stage of struggle are dependent on the presence of a strong political base. We need to build this working class base so it can fight back and win. We need more than moral victories. We need material victories and we need them now.
A few disparate wins aren’t enough though. The working class needs more than a few victories here and there; the working class needs power. The victories that come as we build our base in the working class must be developed beyond piecemeal concessions and into the capacity for workers to make decisions on their own terms, whether at a particular workplace or for society as a whole. This style of work will give impulse to developing vibrant, fighting ideas rooted in real life, not sectarian clubs.
Se Hace Camino al Andar – We Make the Road by Walking
We cannot know exactly every twist and turn on the road that lies before us. The world is too dynamic to be able to work out each and every step, as though we can draft out a fully developed formula before we take our first step on the path ahead. Trying to capture every possible scenario leads to political paralysis. It is the perpetual crisis of the armchair revolutionary.
We must nevertheless use our analytical tools to come as near as possible to mapping out our direction—then, we must have the courage to take the first step. We must balance theoretical analysis with our practical work.
At this time, Refoundation identifies three specific areas that DSA must develop in order to carry out a base building strategy:
1) Build DSA into an organization of organizers:
Organizing is more than showing up to meetings and protests. Organizing is the skill of action-oriented relationship building. Countless people have invested much blood, sweat and tears in pioneering and developing the skill set needed to make organizing successful.
With the rise of liberal NGOs and business unionism, these skills have been transformed into “expertise.” They have become the restricted terrain of the salaried and educated staffers. While all large, modern social organizations need professionals and staff to be successful, if organizing skills remain theirs exclusively, a new base can never be built.
Recently, DSA North Texas organized a successful organizer training based on Labor Notes’ “Secrets of a Successful Organizer” book. Around 60 participants were walked through the process of developing organizing relationships through thoughtful one-on-one conversations, turning those conversations into an organizing committee, and then crafting a comprehensive campaign to be led by the OC. Fuerza de Valle, a worker center in the Rio Grande Valley, holds “know your rights” trainings for workers on a weekly basis, while also helping them file legal paperwork and organizing direct actions against wage theft.
Refoundation will work to help organize trainings such as these in order to raise the technical capacity of every member to become a successful organizer. If politics are not just what you think, but what you do, then political education becomes more than just theoretical development inside study groups. Theoretical and technical education taken together make up a comprehensive, practical understanding of “political education.” Since the former has been overemphasized at the expense of the latter, we will work to reestablish balance by focusing on technical education at this time.
2) Trainings must be put to practice immediately by organizing tenants and unorganized workers:
The most challenging part of learning to organize is learning to actually organize. There is no single training that can turn someone into a confident, skilled organizer. Only by going out and organizing in the real world, in a systematic way, can we hone these skills. Just like you aren’t a writer if you don’t write, or you aren’t a musician if you don’t play music, you simply aren’t an organizer until you get out and organize.
Official labor is under tremendous pressure right now. Decades of malaise and a bureaucratic style of work have pushed the officialized portions of labor into a corner, where they are now fighting for their very lives. This fight is critical and we must support organized labor in its fight for survival.
We cannot, however, build our base in the roughly 11% of the workforce that is already organized. We are at a crossroads in the future of the working class. Fundamental transformations in our economy have shifted the terrain under the feet of the old labor bureaucracy. Manufacturing jobs have been replaced with automation in overwhelming swaths of production, a trend that will only speed up with technological development. The CIO of the 1930s was forced to organize outside the AFL when production shifted from skilled trades to industrial mass production and the AFL was unwilling to keep pace. We must do the same today.
In addition to organizing at the point of production, we must also be flexible to the need to organize at the point of social reproduction as well. The working class is facing an affordable housing crisis across the country. The section of the working class most affected by this development are those unorganized workers who cannot afford to own their homes and thus are usually devastated by economic displacement. Workers-as-tenants must be organized to fight unlawful evictions, substandard conditions, housing discrimination, and all the other day to day oppressions renters must face.
Solidarity networks have shown a practical method of beginning to organize the working class broadly but in a way that allows organizers to take up specific, winnable shop floor and tenant fights. They begin from the the assumption of extremely limited resources, with only perhaps three to four dedicated volunteers willing and able to put in consistent part-time work, though these factors may vary greatly. Volunteers set up a hotline where workers can call to report wage theft or illegal evictions. Organizers are then able to set up organizing meetings in order to assess the winnability of the fight based on the organization’s resources and the conditions at the specific shop or housing complex. By starting small and focusing on issues that are small enough to win but big enough to matter, organizers develop both the skills and confidence to take up bigger fights, and the organization also begins to develop a reputation with workers and tenants in the city.
3) Worker and tenant organizing must be made stable, permanent, and deeply rooted:
Solidarity networks are in no way a panacea to the problems facing the working class. Their protracted lack of finances and formal institutions give them a relatively short lifespan. Eventually, this lack of resources constrains growth and informal organizing relationships break down as people move away or move on when the solidarity network hits an inevitable plateau.
The informal relationships of solidarity networks must be turned into stable, permanent, and deeply rooted institutions. This means each solidarity network must eventually develop a formal leadership body, bylaws, and a legal structure that allows them to exist and grow beyond the handful of the people who began it. Fundraising must be tackled head on, not shunted to the side as an unimportant inconvenience or source of political impurity.
Worker centers like Fuerza del Valle and the newly-formed Fast Food Justice in New York City, as well as tenant unions like the Philly Tenant Union in Philadelphia provide examples of practical ways forward. Once we are able to turn training into practice and practice into institutions, then we will be in a new phase of base building, with new problems and new opportunities. These worker centers and tenant unions can be united locally into a circuit of resistance, rooting class struggle in the day to day lives of workers both on the job and in the neighborhood. These institutions can also be linked together across each state, forming the skeleton of a Workers Party, complete with a humble but authentic base connected to nascent class struggle institutions.
DSA Refoundation is excited to unite with all those who want to build a working-class base capable of fighting until the final victory. It won’t be easy and will require historic levels of grit, sacrifice, and perseverance to be successful, but without this base, there can be no future victory.
If we want to live in a world of roses tomorrow, it is our duty to till the soil today.