No Shortcuts

The need to develop a strategy that can cohere the different parts of our movement has never been clearer.

Illustration by Rob Pybus

Both of us have been shaped by years of organizing the young, homeless people, and working-class African Americans and Latinas. After each spending more than a decade building different organizations in San Francisco, we teamed in 2012 up to interview more than 150 organizers and activists in some of the most active social-movement struggles across the country. One of the themes that emerged from our conversations is that although movement activists often use the same words, what we mean by those words can vary from person to person.

No wonder we have a hard time communicating with each other.

Strategy is one of many words with conflicting definitions. The word with which strategy most often gets intertwined is tactics. Sometimes these two words are used interchangeably. Sometimes strategy is seen as little more than the accumulation of tactics. Other times, strategy is seen as one front in a larger campaign. While we are not proposing that Webster’s Dictionary deploy observers in movement spaces to rule on semantic conflicts, any process of developing movement-wide strategy demands a shared agreement on the meaning of the term. For the purpose of this article, we offer the following definition of strategy: a plan to navigate shifting terrain to accomplish defined objectives which create openings to achieve a larger goal.

Effective strategy does not exist in a timeless and placeless void. It must grow out of and relate to the objective conditions in which it is being carried out, and it must respond to basic questions like: What is our vision of a transformed economic and social structure that makes liberation possible? What is our assessment of the dynamics shaping the conditions in communities, workplaces, the environment, the United States, and around the world? What are the scenarios, given those conditions, that allow us to achieve our vision? What are the campaigns and projects that we can undertake now to bring those scenarios into being and develop our capacities while constraining the power of the ruling class?

Once we’ve agreed on a working definition of strategy, there’s the issue of scope. Some talk about strategy at the level of a campaign. Others talk about a strategy to “take back the White House.” Still others see their strategy as “just keep fighting.” All of these are important. In a period that has witnessed a massive worsening of living conditions for working people and communities of color, the commitment to “keep on keeping on” is a necessary orientation. However, all of these partial victories have to be placed within a larger scope.

We enter this discussion of strategy as leftists — another term that suffers from multiple meanings. Due to the rightward jerking of the US political spectrum, progressives and liberals are often lumped together with anarchists, socialists, revolutionary nationalists, feminists, environmentalists and anyone else willing to resist the barbaric state of affairs in a confusing stew called the Left. While we believe that many of these forces should unite when possible, to lump them all together as the Left commits two fatal errors. First, it muddies what can be a useful definition of the Left. Second, it implies that these groups act as a unified political force towards a clearly defined left project, even though that’s clearly not the case.

Chilean political scientist Marta Harnecker offers a useful definition of the Left as those “forces that oppose the capitalist system and its profit motive and which are fighting for an alternative humanist, solidarity-filled society, a socialist society, the building blocks of which are the interests of the working classes. This society would be ‘free from material poverty and the spiritual wretchedness engendered by capitalism.’” Based on this definition, we begin from the standpoint that the objective of any left strategy must be to topple capitalism in order to make way for an economic system that allows for all people around the world to develop their capacities to the greatest extent possible in harmony with the planet.

Still, a strong Left needs to clarify its vision: toward what are we struggling? We all operate amidst the wreckage of a forty-year onslaught in which the neoliberal wing of the capitalist class squawked that capitalism was the end of history. The collapse of the Soviet Union and many of the socialist experiments of the twentieth century rendered much of the Left confused. On TV and in classrooms, capitalists insisted that socialism’s defeat proved capitalism wasn’t just the best way of organizing an economic system, it was the only way (Cuba, of course, being the troublesome counterexample to their free-market fairy tale). There is no alternative, they insisted.

Over time, left movements substituted resistance for principled opposition. In the United States, socialism became a word that few dared to touch. Today, there are new openings. The economic crash of 2008 has left millions of people disillusioned, disaffected, and dispossessed. Still, there is little confidence that anything else is possible, and our inability to describe a compelling alternative to capitalism renders us irrelevant to most. Any anticapitalist strategy in the United States must contend with this reality. We must provide a response to the question: toward what?

Following the leadership of socialist experiments in Latin America, we can refer to our economic system as twenty-first century socialism. Although we understand that others may prefer different terms, what is most important is clarity. The strategy we are developing aims at nothing less that a fundamental break from the logic and institutions of capitalism and the related systems of white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, and imperialism.

With a working definition of strategy and clarity on the strategy’s objective, many will leap to the question of what is to be done. This will be an error if the first task is not to answer the question of who will be doing it. The question of who are the social forces that have the potential power and the interests of fighting to bring another world into being is central to any strategy. After all, Marx did not call for anyone who harbored a grievance against capitalism to come together; no, he implored the workers of the world to unite. Leftists too often gloss over this issue. Terms like “the Left,” “the movement,” or “we” are thrown around in a way that projects a level of unity and coherence that simply doesn’t exist and overlooks deep fragmentation and institutional deficiencies.

The project of building and cohering the social forces capable of carrying out a socialist strategy must distinguish between left ideas, leftists (people who hold left ideas), left organizations (organized explicitly on the basis of unity around left ideas), and left projects (campaigns and other efforts to challenge and move beyond capitalism). While lots of forces — both leftist and non-leftist — will have to play important roles in carrying out a strategy to challenge capitalism, leftists bear a special responsibility to operate as a conscious force because of the resilience of the system and the power of the capitalist class, and the truth is that we are not yet a “we.” Any effective strategy for socialism must address the need to build and cohere the organizational and political strength of the Left and the popular forces that will play key roles in carrying out this anticapitalist strategy.

Although further social investigation needs to be conducted and analyzed, it is painfully clear that the actually existing array of left forces in the United States is insufficiently connected to and rooted amongst the very social forces that are most likely to play a key role challenging capitalism, white supremacy, and heteropatriarchy. This is not just a problem of representation. The integration of historically oppressed and exploited communities into the core leadership and participation of a rejuvenated US left promises to transform the outlook, practices, and demands of that Left. The reality is that left forces in the United States do not currently have the capacity that will be necessary to successfully execute a strategy for socialism. But we’re also not as far off as it might seem.

There are thousands of organizers and activists who have spent years building organic connections in many of the sectors from which an anticapitalist project will need to grow. These activists are embedded in some of the most vibrant struggles happening today. They are organizing undocumented immigrants to confront the Obama government for deporting record numbers of people. They are organizing workers at Walmart and various fast-food chains. They are organizing against police brutality and the further expansion of the prison industrial complex. They are fighting for the expansion of public education and public transportation. They are fighting against the commodification and surveillance of the Internet. They are building up communities’ capacities to confront climate change in Richmond, California; Black Mesa, Arizona; Detroit, Michigan; and the Far Rockaways in New York City. Organizations like National People’s Action and Climate Justice Alliance are taking important steps to outline what a break from capitalism might look like. The work of the Evergreen Cooperatives in Cleveland and the People’s Assemblies and worker co-ops being built in Jackson, Mississippi are examples of concrete experiments that will build popular capacities and give shape to our evolving vision of an alternative to capitalism. These organizations and projects are rooted in the very sectors that will need to play key roles in a left project.

Most of these organizations and projects are not explicitly leftist. Many of the organizers and activists anchoring them nevertheless do consider themselves leftists, though few of them are members of existing left organizations. 65 percent of the organizers and activists that we interviewed in 2012 identified their politics as anticapitalist. Some of these organizers have been working for more than twenty years building working-class institutions. Others became active during the Occupy movement and have made a lifelong commitment to social transformation. They are out there, and together, this constellation of would-be cadre is positioned to revitalize the next Left in the United States.

Despite — or quite possibly because of — all of this work, an overwhelming number of organizers do this work with the sober realization that what we are doing is not enough. That in the face of an increasingly audacious and coordinated capitalist class, all of this powerful work is, at its best, merely slowing the relentless march of neoliberal onslaught and climate catastrophe. So many of these activists have expressed a hunger to have their work break out of the archipelago of issue-based silos to establish a larger left project.

If this were to happen, if the thousands of organizers across the United States were to position themselves and their work in the context of a rejuvenated Left along with existing radical individuals, organizations, and institutions, the balance of forces would be fundamentally altered. The who of socialist strategy would begin to take shape, and the Left would be in a position to craft strategy that grows from a vision of what we’re struggling toward, and with whom (and against whom) we’re struggling. For these reasons, building linkages between existing left formations and existing social movements must be the central preparatory task of any effective left strategy. We need the who.

Luckily, we do not take up this task without precedents or guidance. As Marta Harnecker has documented, Latin American leftists faced a similar challenge as they sought to mount a more unified resistance to the neoliberal assault of the 1990s. Harnecker’s analysis points to the critical role played by leftists who engaged themselves in the day-to-day struggles of various social sectors, including workers, women, indigenous communities, and communities of Afro-descendant peoples. By organizing; developing the leadership capacities of rank-and-file members; studying the relationship of their struggles to the exploitative and oppressive systems of capitalism, white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, and imperialism; and connecting their own struggles to the struggles of other popular forces, they built a movement that was able to take bold steps forward.

While the conditions in the United States are clearly distinct, the experiences of leftists in Latin America do hold important lessons for those here looking to strengthen resistance struggles and to build the capacities to execute a larger strategy that directly confronts the capitalist system. Two imperatives grow from this assessment.

First, all leftists not currently engaged with social-movement organizations should develop relationships with organizations, especially those that cultivate a protagonistic role for working-class communities, communities of color, and women. As we’ve discussed, simply having left ideas is insufficient; we must engage organizational vehicles through which we can put those politics into motion. In these relationships, leftists must avoid the corrosive practice of treating movement organizations — especially grassroots organizations — as mere instruments which carry out left ideas. They are not front-groups to be led. This support must be guided by a respectful mutuality that recognizes that social-movement organizations often innovate unique contributions to left theory and practice, as the women’s movement did in the 1970s.

Leftists should support them to develop their capacities to continue their fights against the worst ravages of the new world order. This might take different forms. Some leftists may volunteer as organizers. Others may provide administrative and logistical support. Still others might align their academic or professional work in such a way to provide institutional support to these organizations. Whatever the forms, the resistance organizations will have additional capacity, and more leftists will be able to learn from front-line struggles. The end result will be a greater and broader openness to socialism.

Second, leftists who are already engaged in social-movement struggles should make time and space to engage in broader discussions that break out of the archipelago of issue-based silos that organizations so often operate within. This is not a small task. Resistance is critical, and the demands of building and managing campaigns are relentless. Taking time to read, reflect, and theorize can feel like an indulgence if not completely irrelevant, especially if it’s not clear that you won’t be alone. The interviews that we did with organizers and activists across the country made it clear that others are hungry for this type of reflection and coordination. The project that we have taken up, LeftRoots, is an attempt to provide just such a space to support the ideological and practical development of social-movement activists, and there are other initiatives emerging too. Efforts such as these will be critical to cultivating a new generation of ideologically sharp and practically skilled leftists who can help cohere a social force in itself and for itself that demands a break from the capitalist system.

These two imperatives are complementary. As renowned labor organizer General Baker once said, “We have to turn thinkers into fighters and fighters into thinkers.” Steps like these will encourage more people to join and revitalize the US left. With a broader array of anticapitalist activists rooted in different movements, constituencies, and regions, the Left will be better positioned to craft a dynamic strategy that allows us to mount a concerted challenge to the capitalist system.

Such a strategy will be an active and present component of all of our struggles. Organizations and movements will feel ownership over it and use it to inform the actions that they take. Some activists will be inspired to take on new roles of leadership and responsibility. Organizations will experiment with innovative tactics with the goal of realizing a larger objective. Movements and organizations will see one another as partners in a larger struggle for liberation that crosses issue, identity, and geography. Such a strategy will make possible those things that currently seem impossible.

This is no quixotic search for a unicorn. As was the case in many of the most vibrant social movements throughout history, such a strategy guided the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. Documents like The Path to Power and the Freedom Charter provided a strategic outlook that gave independence to different movements and also linked them. As an example of their impact, when students in Soweto went on strike in 1976 to protest the apartheid regime’s attempt to impose the language of Afrikaans in the classroom, the workers’ movement, the women’s movement, and the movement of civic organizations all saw that strike as a part of their own struggles. Their strategy was not “Everyone, come work on the issue that I’m working on.” With a guiding vision and a clear analysis of social forces, different organizations were positioned to play distinct yet complementary roles in toppling the apartheid regime. This is the type of strategy that a growing US left must aspire to.

We are living in dire times, and the need to develop a strategy to challenge capitalism, white supremacy, and heteropatriarchy is becoming more and more clear. We must nevertheless avoid the temptation to cobble together an incomplete strategy in a desperate attempt to match the urgency of the moment. The US Left has a unique opportunity to forge a strategy that coheres different parts of our movement and expands our capacities to match the scale of the crisis and the tyranny of the 1%, but to do this, we must clarify our vision and deepen our roots in those sectors that have the deepest interest in transcending capitalism.

If leftists believe that such a strategy to confront and transcend capitalism is essential, then we have no choice but to do all of the patient and deliberate work necessary for such a strategy to come into being. We can do it, but there are no shortcuts.

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