This piece is part of a series on issues within DSA, written by members of the Refoundation Caucus during the 2018 campaign for vacant positions on the DSA NPC. For the full platform, see here. To support our candidates and these ideas, please sign our support petition.
If we want to live in a world of roses tomorrow, it is our duty to till the soil today.
For the socialist movement to advance, we need to do more than draw in those who already believe in our cause and are already inclined towards politics. We need to organize the unorganized. Wide swaths of the population are not members in formal political parties, do not vote, are not involved in activist campaigns, and are not members of unions. In order for the socialist movement to achieve victory, we need to reach beyond the confines of the politicized, and recruit from the broader working class. To do this, the Refoundation Caucus advocates a strategy of base-building.
Base-building has been an important conversation on the left for the last several years. Though definitions of base-building and the ideology of its adherents vary, organizations as wide-ranging as the Marxist Center, DSA Praxis, Cooperation Jackson, Black Rose/Rosa Negra, and the Refoundation Caucus have been debating and practicing this approach. What is held in common between these variations is that base-building is fundamentally directed towards action, and it aims to build working class institutions that do not depend on the capitalist class for their power.
Base-building projects begin by bringing socialist organizers in contact with the depoliticized grassroots. They often then have a series of escalating efforts in order to build confidence among a given project’s participants and public support. Crucially, base-building projects use that momentum to solidify their power by building durable, democratic institutions. A few examples of institutions a base-building project might create are Workers Centers, Tenants Unions, and (to reach back into history) the Black Panther’s Free Breakfast and Free Medical Center programs. This approach contrasts with electoral and activist focused campaigns that, win or lose, ultimately either lose contact with their participants or place them in activist networks wholly disconnected from the concerns of most people. Base-building efforts create centers of power that are independent of bourgeois political groupings, such as liberal NGOs or the Democratic Party.
Today, one of the most vital struggles to create these powerful, independent institutions is the tenant movement. Nearly every American city is facing a housing crisis: rents rise, housing capacity falls. Developers and landlords reap the profits of this crisis. Property owners in these cities depend on tenants and communities being unorganized, isolated, and unable to exercise power in the face of their profiteering. However, if united, tenants can use a variety of methods to advance their interests such as rights trainings, direct action, policy initiatives, and rent strikes (to name a few). It would be a mistake for socialists not to organize tenants, who possess both the capacity and interest to resist capitalist exploitation.
Portland Tenants United (PTU), a project independent of but overlapping with the work of Portland DSA, is a great example of this. Through a housing campaign, organizers have politicized thousands of people and won important struggles for their communities. Organizers canvassed low income areas, built Portland Tenants United, and pushed for pro-tenant policies at the city level. Organizers agitated with those facing mass evictions, as well as provided media, Know Your Rights trainings, among others, and contributed to the fight back against exploitation. In the course of these efforts, PTU organized three tenant union locals, presided over by three presidents who had no organizing experience before this campaign. PTU has also thus far won several important electoral and policy efforts at the city level:
- Enacted relocation assistance (paid for by the landlord) for those priced out of their homes or evicted without cause, the most radical pro-tenant measure in the state
- Created an office of Renters Services
- Elected PTU Steering Committee member Chloe Eudaly to City Council on a platform written by PTU
Self-identified base-builders are not the only ones prioritizing housing: projects such as Metro DC DSA’s Stomp out Slumlords and the DSA Communist Caucus’ Tenant and Neighborhood Councils are also important examples of tenant organizing efforts. Outside of DSA, Marxist Center organizations such as Philly Socialists and Kentucky Workers League are also working on tenant organizing projects.
For DSA to organize the unorganized and become a mass organization, we must clearly demonstrate that we can directly improve the lives of the those with whom we are speaking. As demonstrated by the example of Portland Tenants United, successful base-building efforts accomplish that and several other things. First, they create institutions of and for the poor and working class. Second, these efforts build strong ties between the already existing socialist movements and the as-of-yet unorganized poor and working class masses. Third, they allow us to collaborate with other socialist organizations doing similar work.
Institutions like PTU and OCRA will be crucial to a base-building strategy within DSA. DSA’s support for organizing and following the lead of such organizations will be essential if we are to eventually cohere a mass socialist party out of the many currently isolated working class movements. As for the current moment, while individual chapters across the country conduct important base-building work, the DSA as a whole is not coherently committed to this strategy. The Refoundation Caucus has identified three areas that DSA must develop in order to advance a strategy of base-building, and to enable every chapter to undertake base-building projects:
1) Turn DSA into an organization of organizers:
Organizing is different from activism or advocacy, and it’s not just showing up to meetings or protests. Organizing is the skill of action-oriented relationship building. This skill is not the exclusive property of professional organizers or long time socialist militants, it can be taught and practiced by anyone. In order to build a base for a mass organization, the Refoundation Caucus knows DSA must hold accessible organizer trainings far and wide in support of our goals.
2) Immediately put trainings into practice by organizing tenants and unorganized workers:
Organizing is a lot like learning to play an instrument or ride a bike: theoretical discussion only goes so far. We must go out into the world and practice organizing in order to learn. It is no secret that centers of working class power are facing a constant onslaught by the capitalist class, a trend that will only get worse following the Janus decision. In order to rebuild this power and move towards creating a mass socialist organization, the Refoundation Caucus aims to put these trainings into practice immediately in support of ongoing housing and labor organizing efforts, among others.
3) Worker and tenant organizing must be made stable, permanent, and deeply rooted:
A perpetual lack of finances and formal institutions means that informal solidarity networks are often very short lived. In order to move beyond an ad-hoc personal set of relationships into something that can grow, it is necessary for solidarity networks to develop formal decision-making bodies, fundraising organs, and coherent legal structures while still remaining rooted in the everyday life of workers. 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, provide examples of practical paths forward on this front. Uniting these diverse organizations into circuits of resistance, first locally and then nationally, will provide the skeletal structure for a future mass socialist party.
The world is at a crossroads. As capitalism continues to decay, we will encounter ever-worsening systems of oppression and harm. Around the world, more and more people are realizing that the current system must be fought. The only way to resist the capitalist system is through organizing. In our organizing, we must not settle for slow reforms and tweaks to an unjust system. We in Refoundation believe strongly that the goal of our organizing is not to create an affiliation of advocates or a network of activists, but a powerful mass party that can win a socialist future for us all. The choice is clear: socialism or barbarism. We know what the choice must be. Capitalism seeks to divide us in the working class. Capitalism seeks to keep us unaware of the power that we, the people, hold. Through organizing, we will prove that we are many, they are few. Venceremos! We have a world to win.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this post contained discussion of mutual aid as a form of base-building. After further discussion by members of the Caucus, we found there are differences of opinion regarding our orientation towards this work. As such, we have removed that portion of this article, in order to further internal discussion around that issue.