Party Organizing In The 21st Century

By Alyson Escalante

In my previous article for The Forge, Against Electoralism For Dual Power, I argued that it is necessary to forward a base building strategy over and against the current electoral strategy which dominates the socialist movement in the United States. I recommend reading that article before reading this one, as this is meant to expand on that article.

My emphasis in that article was demonstrating that Lenin’s theory of the state is still relevant to our contemporary concerns. I argued that instead of focusing on electing candidates to official positions within the bourgeois state, we ought to build socialist institutions which can meet the needs of the working class and oppressed masses.

This idea is not particularly novel, and has been forwarded by many thinkers within the broader base building movement in the United States. Tim Horras and Sophia Burns have both written prolifically on this strategy, and their work has helped to popularize the base building tendency. This emerging tendency has adopted a fairly big tent approach. Base building strategy can be found within multiple organizations including the Democratic Socialists of America, portions of the Party for Socialism and Liberation, and within the litany of local and autonomous parties and organizations affiliated with the Marxist Center network.

Because of the eclectic nature of the base building movement, there is an open question as to what sorts of organizational model will come to the forefront of the movement. While base builders can agree on the need for building socialist institutions, there is still room to debate how such institutions should be built.

One of the prominent criticisms of the base building movement forwarded by Marxist-Leninist-Maoist theorists in particular has focused on the lack of party organizing within the movement. These criticisms have largely argued that without a unified party, base building simply creates “red charities” which only meet the needs of the masses, while failing to organize, radicalize, and lead the masses. Furthermore, these criticisms have focused on a failure to publicly emphasize the revolutionary nature of base building. Critics from the left have claimed that the base building movements creates a sort of mutualism which settles for mutual aid as a parallel economy to capitalism, and which lacks a means of transitioning from dual power to unitary socialist power.

My goal here is not to forward a defense of base building tactics in light of these criticisms. Most who are involved with the movement have made it clear that the goal is not a prolonged situation of dual power and parallel economies, but is socialist revolution. Base builders have been clear that dual power is a strategy which has to lead to revolution. The goal is to eventually establish unitary power in the hands of the working class. Sophia Burns, one of the more prominent and prolific theorists in the base building movement, has put forth an important and crucial response to such criticisms in her article Revolution Is Not a Metaphor. I am not going to rehash ideas which have already been forwarded by exceptional theorists.

My goal here is to take these criticisms seriously and to suggest that the base building movement ought to pursue party organizing as a means of avoiding the potential pitfalls of mutualism.

The critics of base building are correct that if base building settles for building socialist institutions which simply function as a cooperative oriented alternative to capitalism, then base building strategy fails to be sufficiently revolutionary. I do not think that this description of base building accurately reflects the work being done within the movement. The individual organizations which constitute the movement often have close working relationships with groups like the Socialist Rifle Association and John Brown Gun Club to ensure that oppressed communities are capable of arming themselves and competently defending themselves. Such work indicates that a serious militant stance exists within the base building movement. Individual organizations have undertaken various strategies to ensure that the dual power organizations they are building are tied to a broader systemic critique of capitalism and an emphasis on revolutionary socialism.

The fact that most base building organizers do not simply enter into coalition work, but rather found their own revolutionary socialist organizations to organize around, demonstrates that base builders have an understanding of the need for revolutionary organizations instead of an unorganized conglomeration of socialist institutions with no broader plan for overcoming capitalism.

It remains, however, somewhat unclear what organizational structures will emerge from the movement . The Marxist Center network remains a loose coalition of organizations, but there have been calls for formal national unity, and unification will be debated at the upcoming Marxist Center conference in December. Base builders within the DSA have been working not only to create dual power institutions at the local level, but also to take positions of power within DSA national to create a national movement. The DSA Refoundation caucus, a group of revolutionary Marxists associated with the base building movement, have explicitly stated that their goal is to produce “ a mass, independent socialist party in the US.”

Debate and theorizing around organizational structure must necessarily occur as talk of unification and establishing a national tendency emerges.

The Need For A Party:

I would argue that within the base building movement, there is a move towards party organizing, but this trend has not always been explicitly theorized or forwarded within the movement.

My goal in this essay is to argue that base building and dual power strategy can be best forwarded through party organizing, and that party organizing can allow this emerging movement to solidify into a powerful revolutionary socialist tendency in the United States.

One of the crucial insights of the base building movement is that the current state of the left in the United States is one in which revolution is not currently possible. There exists very little popular support for socialist politics. A century of anticommunist propaganda has been extremely effective in convincing even the most oppressed and marginalized that communism has nothing to offer them.

The base building emphasis on dual power responds directly to this insight. By building institutions which can meet people’s needs, we are able to concretely demonstrate that communists can offer the oppressed relief from the horrific conditions of capitalism. Base building strategy recognizes that actually doing the work to serve the people does infinitely more to create a socialist base of popular support than electing democratic socialist candidates or holding endless political education classes can ever hope to do. Dual power is about proving that we have something to offer the oppressed.

The question, of course, remains: once we have built a base of popular support, what do we do next? If it turns out that establishing socialist institutions to meet people’s needs does in fact create sympathy towards the cause of communism, how can we mobilize that base?

Put simply: in order to mobilize the base which base builders hope to create, we need to have already done the work of building a communist party. It is not enough to simply meet peoples needs. Rather, we must build the institutions of dual power in the name of communism. We must refuse covert front organizing and instead have a public face as a communist party. When we build tenants unions, serve the people programs, and other dual power projects, we must make it clear that we are organizing as communists, unified around a party, and are not content simply with establishing endless dual power organizations. We must be clear that our strategy is revolutionary and in order to make this clear we must adopt party organizing.

By “party organizing” I mean an organizational strategy which adopts the party model. Such organizing focuses on building a party whose membership is formally unified around a party line determined by democratic centralist decision making. The party model creates internal methods for holding party members accountable, unifying party member action around democratically determined goals, and for educating party members in communist theory and praxis. A communist organization utilizing the party model works to build dual power institutions while simultaneously educating the communities they hope to serve. Organizations which adopt the party model focus on propagandizing around the need for revolutionary socialism. They function as the forefront of political organizing, empowering local communities to theorize their liberation through communist theory while organizing communities to literally fight for their liberation. A party is not simply a group of individuals doing work together, but is a formal organization unified in its fight against capitalism.

Party organizing has much to offer the base building movement. By working in a unified party, base builders can ensure that local struggles are tied to and informed by a unified national and international strategy. While the most horrific manifestations of capitalism take on particular and unique form at the local level, we need to remember that our struggle is against a material base which functions not only at the national but at the international level. The formal structures provided by a democratic centralist party model allow individual locals to have a voice in open debate, but also allow for a unified strategy to emerge from democratic consensus.

Furthermore, party organizing allows for local organizations and individual organizers to be held accountable for their actions. It allows criticism to function not as one independent group criticizing another independent group, but rather as comrades with a formal organizational unity working together to sharpen each others strategies and to help correct chauvinist ideas and actions. In the context of the socialist movement within the United States, such accountability is crucial. As a movement which operates within a settler colonial society, imperialist and colonial ideal frequently infect leftist organizing. Creating formal unity and party procedure for dealing with and correcting these ideas allows us to address these consistent problems within American socialist organizing.

Having a formal party which unifies the various dual power projects being undertaken at the local level also allows for base builders to not simply meet peoples needs, but to pull them into the membership of the party as organizers themselves. The party model creates a means for sustained growth to occur by unifying organizers in a manner that allows for skills, strategies, and ideas to be shared with newer organizers. It also allows community members who have been served by dual power projects to take an active role in organizing by becoming party members and participating in the continued growth of base building strategy. It ensures that there are formal processes for educating communities in communist theory and praxis, and also enables them to act and organize in accordance with their own local conditions.

We also must recognize that the current state of the base building movement precludes the possibility of such a national unified party in the present moment. Since base building strategy is being undertaken in a number of already established organizations, it is not likely that base builders would abandon these organizations in favor of founding a unified party. Additionally, it would not be strategic to immediately undertake such complete unification because it would mean abandoning the organizational contexts in which concrete gains are already being made and in which growth is currently occurring.

What is important for base builders to focus on in the current moment is building dual power on a local level alongside building a national movement. This means aspiring towards the possibility of a unified party, while pursuing continued local growth. The movement within the Marxist Center network towards some form of unification is positive step in the right direction. The independent party emphasis within the Refoundation caucus should also be recognized as a positive approach. It is important for base builders to continue to explore the possibility of unification, and to maintain unification through a party model as a long term goal.

In the meantime, individual base building organizations ought to adopt party models for their local organizing. Local organizations ought to be building dual power alongside recruitment into their organizations, education of community members in communist theory and praxis, and the establishment of armed and militant party cadres capable of defending dual power institutions from state terror. Dual power institutions must be unified openly and transparently around these organizations in order for them to operate as more than “red charities.” Serving the people means meeting their material needs while also educating and propagandizing. It means radicalizing, recruiting, and organizing. The party model remains the most useful method for achieving these ends.

The use of the party model by local organizations allows base builders to gain popular support, and most importantly, to mobilize their base of popular support towards revolutionary ends, not simply towards the construction of a parallel economy which exists as an end in and of itself.

It is my hope that we will see future unification of the various local base building organizations into a national party, but in the meantime we must push for party organizing at the local level. If local organizations adopt party organizing, it ought to become clear that a unified national party will have to be the long term goal of the base building movement.

Many of the already existing organizations within the base building movement already operate according to these principles. I do not mean to suggest otherwise. Rather, my hope is to suggest that we ought to be explicit about the need for party organizing and emphasize the relationship between dual power and the party model. Doing so will make it clear that the base building movement is not pursuing a cooperative economy alongside capitalism, but is pursuing a revolutionary socialist strategy capable of fighting capitalism.

The long term details of base building and dual power organizing will arise organically in response to the conditions the movement finds itself operating within. I hope that I have put forward a useful contribution to the discussion about base building organizing, and have demonstrated the need for party organizing in order to ensure that the base building tendency maintains a revolutionary orientation. The finer details of revolutionary strategy will be worked out over time and are not a good subject for public discussion.

I strongly believe party organizing offers the best path for ensuring that such strategy will succeed. My goal here is not to dictate the only possible path forward but to open a conversation about how the base building movement will organize as it transitions from a loose network of individual organizations into a unified socialist tendency. These discussions and debates will be crucial to ensuring that this rapidly growing movement can succeed.

Alyson Escalante is a Marxist-Leninist, Materialist Feminist and Anti-Imperialist activist.

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