by Alex F.
Posted June 24, 2013
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The U.S. is a settler-colonial society founded on genocide, slavery, and other forms of racial subjugation. These forms of domination and economic control preceded the hegemony or even the firm establishment of capitalism here, and remain central pillars of the contemporary power structure. National oppression helps sustain capitalism, but it also exists independently of capitalism as a distinct form of division, exploitation, and social control.
Any serious, liberatory, revolutionary project in the U.S. must come to terms with this reality and seek to end national oppression (and racism in all its forms) just as centrally as it seeks to end capitalism. National liberation as a political project is not reducible to simply a derivation of anti-capitalism: rather, it is just as central to the socialist project as opposition to capitalism.
A political organization hoping to bring about a revolutionary transformation of society must be rooted in the struggles of oppressed nationalities. It must not only relate to these groups, but include them among its ranks, or else it cannot be a true representation of the working class and can have no legitimacy as an instrument of political power. Of course, we do not imagine that Solidarity or any other existing socialist organization in the U.S. will ultimately be the force that leads a revolution, but clearly a major part of our project is to help build that force. As such, we should take it as an imperative to do everything we can to move our actually existing organization in the direction of what we’d eventually like to see, and build our capacity to contribute to the formation of an adequate revolutionary political instrument.
Needless to say, our organization at present is very far from where we need to be. Like most other groups emerging from the traditional Marxist Left, we are an overwhelmingly white organization. Most of the activists and political forces that we closely relate to are similarly white. We are poorly rooted in oppressed nationality struggles, and have a poor track record on placing issues of racial justice at the center of areas of work (particularly labor, but also student and anti-war organizing) where we do have relatively strong roots. If Solidarity is to have a real future, we have to make dealing with these problems a major organization priority.
Tasks for Solidarity
There are at least six major aspects to this project.
1. Changing our composition.
Solidarity is a majority white organization by a large margin. Everyone seems to recognize in the abstract that this is a problem, but it is worth elaborating on some of the practical reasons that this is a problem:
- We are poorly positioned to engage in vital struggles. Social movements with explicitly anti-racist character–e.g. immigrant rights work, opposition to the prison industrial complex, and certain international solidarity campaigns—are and always have been at the forefront of resistance to capitalism and its power structures. It’s not impossible for white people to be active or effective in these movements, but it can be very difficult for individuals, and for a group like Solidarity results in a significant barrier to organizational presence in those movements. Even where we have members with strong roots in these movements, they are typically unable to do much to build bridges between that work and the rest of our organization.
- We have impoverished internal intellectual life. There is virtually no major political question that can be adequately discussed without an understanding of race and national oppression. One of the benefits of having a group like Solidarity is that, at our best, the whole is greater than the sum of our parts for purposes of developing analysis and political perspectives. But there is a gaping hole in our capacity to do this when it comes to race and national liberation struggles. This weakness is painfully obvious at our summer schools and other gatherings where panels of only white members struggle to tackle these questions and we have no one present who is able to speak to them from personal experience and deep understanding, or we have to invite someone from outside our organization to give a panel legitimacy.
- We have an alienating internal culture. Many of the people we would like to relate to or even recruit are turned off by the whiteness of our group, both in terms of demographics and of culture. This is true not just of people of color: young radicals in general are keenly sensitive to these issues and justifiably uncomfortable in such white spaces. Our whiteness limits our ability to build relationships and recruit.
With the above being said, it would be a terrible mistake to think of our demographics as the only or even the primary piece of this puzzle. Our demographics are problematic in their own right, and we need to take seriously the task of altering them and not just assume it will somehow happen automatically if we do good work: this will require significant changes in our recruitment and relationship building practice as well as changes in our activist work. But demographics are a symptom as much as a root problem, and there are other tasks which are at least as important if not more so.
2. Changing our culture and theoretical orientation.
Solidarity is an unacceptably white organization not just in terms of our membership, but in terms of our organizational culture and intellectual life. Generally, we are theoretically oriented toward European intellectual traditions. Our members are likely to be familiar with Marx and Lenin and Luxemburg, but less so with Fanon or Cabral or Harnecker. We talk often about the labor movement and the reasons for economic crisis, but rarely about theories of national oppression or revolutionary traditions in the Global South.
These are important elements of changing our organization in the long run. It’s unlikely we could carry out the other tasks outlined in this document without also carrying out a great deal of self-education and expansion of our theoretical horizons. Of course, the traditions and ideas in questions have more than incidental value, as we have a great deal to learn from them that we have failed to learn from the sacred European Marxist canon.
3. Changing our periphery and political relationships.
Changing our orientation is not just a matter of changing who is in our group, but also of changing whom we relate to. If we are to be a serious part of an effort to rebuild a broader organized Left, then the array of forces we are able to relate to and bring to the table for organization discussion will likely be just as important as who is actually in our group. If we believe that the oppressed will bring about their own liberation, then it follows that a group which relates most frequently and strongly to layers of white trade union activists and staffers and to white college students will essentially be on the sidelines of most major political developments.
Whom we relate to outside of our organization is also a main factor in determining the limits of thinking inside our organization. Much of what we know and think is determined by our experiences and the experiences of the people we know, and we urgently need to learn from the experiences of many people and groups that we don’t presently relate to much if at all.
4. Building our involvement with oppressed nationality struggles.
The forces of economic and racial oppression are so closely related and complexly intertwined that determining what counts as an “anti-racist” or “national liberation” struggle can be somewhat artificial. Nonetheless, it’s pretty clear that in our actual political reality, there is a significant disconnect between the trade union and student activist forces where we mostly have our roots and the struggles that represent the focus of resistance to power by oppressed nationalities. Even where the latter are oriented toward workplace issues, as in struggles against wage theft or restaurant working conditions by undocumented immigrants, they are frequently distinct from traditional union organizing.
There are a variety of important movements led by people of color and/or focused on issues of national oppression which have significant openings for activists to get involved, including even white activists from privileged backgrounds. The recent wave of organizing among undocumented Latino youth presents a space for engage with immigration struggles where there is virtually no cultural or language barrier (although we should emphasize the importance of second language acquisition among our members where this is possible, and not accept language barriers as an excuse in the long run). Work following from Occupy has opened spaces for doing anti-foreclosure work and opposing police brutality and the prison industrial complex. International solidarity campaigns, including for example BDS campaigns in opposition to the occupation of Palestine, remain important. And so on.
Various forms of immigration justice work are notable as particularly energetic and active projects that exist in most geographical areas, and are often particularly independent from the Democratic Party and other bureaucratic forces that social movements traditionally struggle against. For these reasons and others, this work seems strategic and important to be involved with, and has understandably been at the center of many discussions about Solidarity’s political orientation. However, we should be aware that engagement with these movements cannot and should not substitute for engagement with Black and First Nations communities and struggles, which is also essential.
It is also important to recognize the trend among young comrades toward an increased involvement in community and neighborhood based organizing, including at times working within nonprofit organizations in ways that traditionally would have been discouraged. These areas of work aren’t necessarily “anti-racist” by definition but they do offer new opportunities for engaging layers of people we have not traditionally interacted with. Solidarity should revisit the report and workplan on “Organizing in Communities of Color” developed in 2008-2009 and use those documents as a reference point while pursuing these discussions.
This document will not recommend that Solidarity adopt a specific orientation toward a particular area of work, nor necessarily advise against it: to adopt such an orientation at the national level without a plan for local implementation could be a somewhat hollow statement for an organization that is really functional primarily at the branch level. We simply note, therefore, that it is useful to have these conversations at the national level, but that adoption and implementation of very specific strategic orientations will necessarily have to happen in coordination with branches, and likely will vary somewhat on a branch to branch basis.
5. Building the anti-racist character of our existing work.
As outlined in the last section, it is good and important to expand our activist horizons with an eye toward developing our roots in oppressed nationality struggles and communities. Realistically, though, many of our comrades have long established areas of political work which they can’t simply abandon overnight to develop new priorities. In some cases it might be possible and strategic for comrades to reorient to new areas of work even when they’ve put many years into a different project, but in many other cases it would be ridiculous even to want people to do something like that. We are not “rally hoppers” who opportunistically jump from one project to another as the political winds shift; we are talking about a long term development of our orientation, not an overnight abandonment of important work.
It is just as important, therefore, to analyze the work we’re already doing and consider how we might introduce or expand “anti-racist” elements of that work. Comrades doing trade union work, for example, can consider how they might better relate to people of color in their workplaces, or place demands for racial justice at the forefront of their organizing. Anyone who has done even a little union work knows that this is easier said than done, but it is a goal worth hard work and sacrifice. Building relationships with certain forces in a union, or fighting to prioritize certain demands, might be worth losing votes in an election or alienating white workers with backward views.
Of course, these various goals need not be at odds, and the Chicago Teachers Union fight gives one example of how an orientation toward race and community organizing can actually seriously strengthen all aspects of our labor work and result in stronger, fighting coalitions. This document will not give a specific analysis of Solidarity’s labor work, but it does broadly suggest that that work, and other areas of work, ought to be revisited through the lens of an analysis of national oppression.
6. Supporting the work and leadership of our existing comrades of color.
We often speak as though we are an entirely white organization that needs to develop a special approach to these issues suitable for white people. But while we have good reason to be dissatisfied with our demographics, it is important to recognize that we do already have members of color who have important contributions to make both to our theoretical perspectives and to our efforts to engage in new areas of work. Often we don’t sufficiently support these comrades or their work, and at times we have even been guilty of tokenizing comrades of color.
We need to support and encourage the leadership of comrades of color in general, but especially on theoretical and practical questions around race and national oppression. At the same time, we need to recognize that white people bear the brunt of responsibility for many of the problems we’re discussing, and it would be completely inappropriate to treat it as the responsibility of comrades of color to correct these problems.
Beginning the Process
It is important to be realistic and recognize that merely adopting a perspective like the one outlined above, even if we had 100% approval from membership, would not bring about the changes we’re talking about. Declaring our desire to be involved in new areas of work or to change our internal culture does not magically bring about that involvement or effect those changes. If we are to actually do the things this document suggests we do, it will be difficult and will take time, and it will require concrete steps to get started.
We begin with the recognition that for better or worse Solidarity operates largely on the branch level, and that real changes in our organization will have to be implemented largely on that level, at least initially. We might build our capacity for collective functioning on the national level as we move forward, but the process must start by engaging the branches (as well as members at large).
We propose, therefore, a process to begin implementation of this orientation at the local level through interaction between branches and a national body. The incoming leadership from the 2013 convention should be tasked to implement this process.
Initial Process for Engaging Branches
The leadership (or an appointed body including some members of leadership) should initiate a dialogue with each branch (as well as with MALs to the extent it’s practical) to do the following:
- Survey existing organizations or projects with a significant focus on race or national oppression, and analyze strategic prospects for comrades to get involved. It may be that the branch is able to identify a strategic orientation toward one area of work that comrades want to engage with, or it may be necessary to explore possibilities over time and revisit the discussion.
- Discuss and analyze the work our members are already doing and explore possibilities for introducing or developing orientations around racial justice in these projects, including ways that comrades can build relationships with POC in movement organizations or that the movement organizations themselves can better engage and promote the leadership of POC.
- Discuss and analyze our relationship building and recruitment practices. These practices clearly vary greatly from branch to branch, and realistically they are usually developed on the fly and not based in any kind of intentional approach. Branches (and potentially the entire organization) ought to work toward developing such an approach.
- Identify at least some modest goals and commitments for the branch and for individual comrades that would bring us closer to the goals outlined in this document. These should have a rough time frame so that progress can be concretely analyzed in some way.
After some period of time—six months perhaps—the conversation would be revisited to take stock of any progress or account for any new developments and so on. This should be a living process that continues over time, and not a one time effort to develop a plan that makes us feel good about ourselves and is then abandoned when we encounter difficulties in reaching some goals. The point is not to mathematize political priorities or point fingers when goals aren’t reached, but to make sure as many comrades as possible are actively thinking about ways to implement this perspective, and consistently returning to the conversation to create some element of accountability and forward motion.
Evaluating Past Efforts
The above process is meant to be a starting point to get something going, not the solution to all of our problems. These issues have been with our group throughout its existence and this would not be the first attempt to deal with some of them. The failures or very limited successes of those past attempts arguably contribute to our hesitation to keep trying. Another task of the incoming leadership, therefore, should be to appoint a few comrades to research these previous efforts and develop a report on what was tried, what wasn’t, what worked, what didn’t, etc. The findings of that report should then be used to guide our current efforts.