Post-USSF: More Questions than Answers

Posted June 30, 2010

The US Social Forum left me feeling, more than anything else, overwhelmed and confused. I don’t mean to be overly negative—of course, it was also inspiring to see so many radicals come together and to feel the energy that was present. But I was really struck the urgency of several questions for the left, none of which I have answers to.

One question is that of the relationship of the revolutionary left to the social movement or NGO left. Just from observing the contingents at the opening march and the forces responsible for most of the workshops at the USSF, it became clear to me that the left NGOs—workers’ centers, community organizations, etc.—are pretty big deal, much more important, in terms of their day-to-day work, than the Marxist left. While many socialists from other traditions as well as radicals who follow a horizontalist or intersectional analysis have made work in the so-called NGO world a priority, socialists in the Trotskyist tradition, including Solidarity, have often dismissed such organizations out of hand. I think we need to figure out a way of relating to this sector of the left that is critical but constructive. And, to the extent that the division between the social movement left and the socialist left is artificial (I’m not sure whether it is or not), we need to think about why it arose and how we can break it down.

Another, even more overwhelming question that the USSF brought out is that of strategy. Right now, this is a pretty crucial question—the economic, environmental, and political crises make the situation more urgent than ever and make many people are open to the message of revolutionary change, and yet left organizations and movements are disorganized and scattered. Determining the appropriate strategy or strategies for the revolutionary left is far too great a task for one person or group to accomplish singlehandedly. For this reason, I was disappointed that there was so little space for strategic discussion at the US Social Forum. It seemed to me that much of it was devoted to discussion of specific movements or organizations without much reference to the political situation in which we are immersed, or how our work relates to a long-term project. It would have been great if some people who saw the need for strategy had gotten together beforehand and thought about how to start discussion at the USSF about left strategy.

A good discussion that suggested what could have been occurred at FRSO/OSCL’s workshop “Presente!” featuring several venerable leftists debating the role and future of the left. The debate was wide-ranging, including discussion of the relationship between the left and Obama, what the movements of the last ten years indicate about the current political situation, whether the working class remains central to liberation, and what kind of left organization is necessary for rebuilding socialism as a political force, and the panelists often clashed. Although I didn’t always agree with the views that were being expressed, the discussion was refreshing and productive since it dealt with concrete strategic questions. I think this sort of discussion ought to happen more across groups within the broader left, as well as within Solidarity. How can we on the far left work together to promote strategic discussions that are both deep enough to seriously contribute to the struggle, and broad enough to engage new people?


2 responses to “Post-USSF: More Questions than Answers”

  1. RonB Avatar

    Hi Johanna,
    Would you kindly provide references / links on how to access the article and report that you mention, both of will help others to further explore the very important strategic questions raised by Nick in his much appreciated post-USSF observations.

  2. Johanna Avatar

    Hey Nick,
    As a member of Solidarity who has spent many years working with grass-roots, community-based organizing projects, I would like to offer another point of view on Solidarity’s history and attitude toward what you have called “left NGO’s.” [Also, just parenthetically, as a founding member of Solidarity, I’d like to clarify that from my experience, I would say that some of the groups that came together to form Solidarity were from the Trotskyist left, but some (the majority of members early on, I think) did not. I would name the political tradition that I came out of as “anti-Stalinist” revolutionary democratic socialist rather than Trotskyist.] There have been numbers of people in Solidarity all along working in community-based organizing.

    I think it is true that our “rank and file” perspective toward organizing in labor unions has been a signature project for Solidarity; work in community-based organizations has not been as central. However, for at least some of us, working in rank and file struggles to democratize labor unions and to fight back against capitalist employers has also meant connecting with community-based organizations—forming labor/community alliances.

    I agree with you that it is important to distinguish among non-profit/non-governmental organizations. I’m not quite sure how you’re defining a “left” NGO. I’ve participated in radical grass-roots projects (reproductive rights organizations in Los Angeles and Portland, OR) that were completely volunteer run. I’ve also been a volunteer organizer in projects (a welfare rights group, a feminist bookstore and resource center) that receive foundation funding. These organizations were all very aware of the pressures that foundation funding confers, and were actively organized to counter those pressures. For example we were careful about where we applied for money (primarily “progressive” foundations, e.g.). The organizations had small staffs and strove to empower the membership so that the organization could be member driven, not staff driven. There is much debate (see, e.g., The Revolution Will Not be Funded) about the possibilities of maintaining thorough democratic functioning and radical activism in an organization supported primarily by foundations rather than primarily by grass-roots fundraising. Still, there is a lot of awesome community-based organizing in the US that was represented at the USSF.

    Two years ago, Solidarity carried out a study where we interviewed many members who had engaged in community-based organizing to gather our collective experience.

    The report I think succinctly defined a “left” grass-roots non-profit organization. This organization would:
    • Have a strategic orientation toward building “social power”
    • Base themselves in democratic control and participation by members
    • Have a long-term social movement vision
    • Engage members in developing broader social/political analysis