Some thoughts on Movement Strategy

by Joel Jordan

March 19, 2012

The period we have entered – one of prolonged economic and political crisis and growing mass resistance to austerity and repression – poses the greatest challenge to Left organizations since the 1930s. On the one side, capitalism can no longer even promise, much less deliver, a rising standard of living in the US or other advanced capitalist countries. On the contrary, the capitalist class and its political representatives – from hard Right to social democratic – offer only one solution to the crisis: indeterminate deepening of austerity. On the other side, the growing worldwide movement against austerity and repression, expressed through general strikes, occupations, demonstrations, and other forms of mass struggle, has been unable, thus far, to stem the capitalist onslaught. Clearly, this is a period when the struggle for reforms must increasingly be waged by revolutionary means. Only organized revolutionaries can consciously create the conditions for those struggles.

In the US, spurred by the onset of the banking crisis, the dramatic appearance of Occupy this past year has sharpened public consciousness of income inequality and corporate power, but also inspired, deepened, and given more visibility to ongoing struggles around various issues, including immigration rights, college and university fee hikes, cuts to public schools and social services, foreclosures, prisoner rights, and single-payer healthcare. Just as important, Occupy has encouraged cross-fertilization of these movements that have traditionally developed independently and in isolation from one another.

For socialists, these developments are welcome and needed. Not only are they based on movement building tactics such as direct action, occupations, strikes, and mass demonstrations, as opposed to the passivity of electoral politics, their target is increasingly the U. S. ruling class – the 1%. At the same time, these movements and struggles lack a clear strategic direction and leadership. So, not surprisingly, they are not yet able to coalesce even as a coalition, much less under a single banner. If this continues to be the case, the movements will be unable to sink deeper roots in the broad disorganized working-class devastated by growing unemployment and poverty. These weaknesses could not be otherwise, given the miniscule size and political timidity of the nonsectarian Left, the newness of the Occupy movement, and the political and social heterogeneity of the movement itself.

Whatever our weaknesses, socialist organizations can and must attempt to influence the direction of the movements in ways that strengthen their ability to challenge capitalist priorities and ultimately pose an alternative to capitalism itself. We have a lot to learn, but we also have a lot to say. One contribution socialists can make is to formulate a general “roadmap” for the movements that can serve as a strategic guide, including a critique of current trends in the movements. Second, socialists, to the extent we are organized to do so, should offer specific strategic proposals for the movements that incorporate elements of the roadmap (the key role of socialist propaganda, education, and organization needs to be taken up separately).

We have enough experiences as socialist activists to make some generalizations about what strategic steps are necessary to build the movement. This roadmap might include a fuller elaboration of the following:

1) Multi-issue coalitions and organizations. The deepening capitalist crisis and austerity drive is multifaceted, affecting the broad working-class in various ways. Movements around particular issues can no longer afford the luxury of working in isolation from one another. Efforts should be made, beginning locally, to bring together diverse movement forces around demands that address both corporate attacks on the working class as a whole, as well as racist, sexist, xenophobic, and homophobic attacks on sections of the working-class.

2) Anti-corporate messaging. Over the past 30 years, the right wing has successfully branded public sector workers, unions, the poor, and big government as the enemies of progress. By targeting the 1%, Occupy has begun to reverse this narrative, which must be deepened to explain the system nature of the crisis.

3) Identifiable, vulnerable targets. While the ruling class appears invulnerable at the present time, it is not monolithic. The movement must look for its weakest, most vulnerable points to target in order to win partial victories and build confidence. To do this requires making a power analysis of the political terrain. Targets should also be visible enough to give the movement a public face for its demands.

4) Deep organizing and leadership development. Too often, movements rely on continuous demonstrations and other mobilizations without seriously undertaking the organizing and education work necessary to expand and deepen the movement. Too often, they rely on the leadership of mass organizations, such as unions, that do not organize their own members. Similarly, Community-Based Organizations (CBOs) and other nonprofits tend to rely on staff to provide leadership. How to organize, educate, and develop leadership in working-class communities and workplaces should be a central task of the movements.

5) Combining electoral and non-electoral tactics. Movements ultimately owe their success to the extent they are massive and collectively confront institutions of power through strikes, demonstrations, direct action, etc. At the same time, while movement skepticism and caution around engaging in electoral work is healthy, it should never be raised to the level of principle. Under certain circumstances, electoral campaigns (such as initiatives to tax the rich, running local candidates on an anti-austerity program, etc.) can and should be used to further the goals of the movement as long as they are used to supplement, not substitute for, non-electoral movement building work.

6) Democratically-determined issues and demands. No movement can develop without clear demands, arrived at through democratic discussion and debate. While some on the Left extol the virtues of lack of program, counterpoising this to sectarian demand fetishism, socialists understand that there is and must be a “third way.”

7) Democratic, collective leadership and culture. No movement can develop without recognizable and democratically accountable leadership. Leaderlessness is no alternative to top down leadership styles and structures. Movements also need to find a balance between efficient decision-making and building a welcoming, nurturing, participatory culture that supports the building of a broad leadership.

8) Developing short and long-term strategic plans. Too often, movements move from one event to the next without embedding them in a longer-term strategy. Strategic planning must itself be embedded in the movement’s organizational structure

9) A national movement strategy. The nature of the US capitalist state and its austerity drive, despite its decentralized tendencies, requires national solutions, such as a massive federal jobs program, aid to insolvent states, significant reductions in military spending, progressive changes in the tax structure, single payer healthcare, etc. While the movements are not yet strong enough locally and regionally, they must soon begin to pose such demands and coalitions to fight for them.

The above suggestions are by no means meant to be exhaustive. In subsequent discussions, in Solidarity and with other Left organizations, these and others should be expanded upon, elaborated on, debated, etc. This is only meant to start a general discussion of how our politics can contribute to building the movements “on the ground.”

Addendum: Thinking about California Strategy

The situation in California makes it possible to formulate a strategic orientation incorporating many of the above elements that is actually actionable. In the past year, the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE), formerly ACORN, initiated and anchors a multi-issue coalition named ReFund California comprised of community-based organizations (CBOs), public sector unions, student-based organizations, California Courage ( California equivalent), and others. Its focus is on “making Wall Street banks pay” for the economic crisis, though it is more generally anti-corporate.

This emphasis on the banks flows from the work ACCE has been doing primarily in communities of color against foreclosures, including supporting those who have been re-occupying homes that have been foreclosed upon. When Occupy emerged in California and throughout the country, ACCE and its equivalents in other states were able to channel some of that energy into work against foreclosures.

ReFund California also flows from ACCEs education and other public sector work which has centered on funding issues. It has been able to recruit into the coalition the student organizations organizing against fee hikes as well as public sector unions concerned about budget cuts and the need for funding. It has attempted to link foreclosures with funding by demanding that banks and other lenders pay a “foreclosure tax” into the state’s general fund for every foreclosure in California. It supports the “millionaires’ tax” November ballot initiative sponsored by the California Federation of Teachers (CFT) to fund public education and social services.

What makes the ReFund California coalition unique is that it is movement, not electorally, centered, even though it supports electoral and legislative initiatives. It has and continues to sponsor weeks of action around college and university student demands, around cuts to public education social services, and around holding banks accountable for foreclosures. It wants to make the millionaire’s tax initiative a centerpiece of its strategy, at the same time understanding that the campaign around it must be movement based, especially since the big unions with the financial resources to run an initiative campaign – SEIU and the California Teachers Association (CTA) – have chosen to support Gov. Brown’s tax initiative, which includes raising California’s already high regressive sales tax. It has just come up with a list of California millionaires which can be used as movement targets in the run-up to the November election.

These factors make ReFund California the most promising location for movement activity in the state. It is multi-issue, anticorporate, movement based, tactically sophisticated, and media savvy. As such, it should be a priority arena for the Left, including Solidarity (the ISO is already heavily involved in the Los Angeles work). It is an open question, however, whether it can transcend the influence of the more conservative unions (SEIU and CTA) and CBO’s (PICO) which belong to it and partially fund it for the moment. This will be difficult for organizations like ACCE that, despite its clear movement perspective, depend, to a great extent, on funding from reformist organizations more interested in orienting toward politicians than movement building. It will be the task of the Left inside ReFund to explore ways to expand the coalition and even transform it, to the extent possible, into a mass organization, as opposed to a coalition driven by the staff of the anchor organizations that fund it.


2 responses to “Some thoughts on Movement Strategy”

  1. Nick Avatar

    Hi Alex,
    I agree with your strategic point about highlighting the ways in which capitalism negatively impacts communities of color and other particularly oppressed communities. However, I’m not sure I agree with the analysis that capitalism and racial/national oppression are separate institutions. We’ve long recognized, for example, that the development of world capitalism was inextricably tied to slavery, colonialism, and the genocide of native peoples in the Americas. Also, racism is clearly tied to imperialism, and imperialism is of course integral to capitalism. Saying racism and capitalism are intertwined isn’t necessarily reducing racism to economic determination, since capitalism is a social and political as well as economic system.

    I do agree that racism, patriarchy, and wage-labor exploitation are distinct forms of oppression, are experienced differently and play out differently in political life, and that the oppression of women and black people (and other oppressed groups) is not simply a question of intensified exploitation. Also, racism isn’t simply a ruling-class ploy to divide the working class (although that is certainly a large part of it). I think there needs to be more robust and accessible Marxist thinking on the relationship of racism/national oppression to capitalism today and particularly in the US. Does anyone have recommendations? I found David Roediger’s “The Wages of Whiteness” very compelling, although it’s an academic history rather than a political text.
    -Nick D., Baltimore

  2. Alex Avatar

    Joel, thank you for taking the time (and having the courage) to write one of the very few public documents on socialist movement strategy in the era of Occupy that I’ve seen so far. I think we ought to be taking these discussions outside of our groups’ internal discussions far more often, and must do so if we’re serious about left refoundation and regroupment.

    That said, on first glance there are a couple of additions I would make to your list of facets of a broad strategy:

    First, we as radicals (including but not limited to socialists) are positioned to bring an intersectional analysis to our movement work. You mention responding to “racist, sexist, xenophobic, and homophobic attacks” in our demands, and of course I agree with that, but I also think it’s important to recognize that ALL austerity measures and all negative effects of capitalism in general, not just those that are deliberately targeted at specific groups, affect people differently based on their class, race, gender, sexual identification, etc., and we ought to bring attention to that plurality, especially in situations where we’re working within somewhat homogenous organizations and institutions. But I would go further and say that we ought to recognize patriarchy and race- or nation-based oppression as separate institutions from capitalism, which are taken advantage of by capitalism to be sure but which aren’t reducible to economic determination. When possible, we ought to identify those other institutions as targets that are equally as important as capitalism, and given that we don’t have the capacity to fight every battle we’re presented with, we ought to strategically choose points of struggle which bring together resistance to capitalism, patriarchy, and racism in the fullest possible way.

    Second, we need to make it a central tenet of all our political work that the leadership of members of oppressed communities should be made central in their own struggles. White people should not assume leadership of struggles for self-determination and national liberation, nor should men assume leadership of struggles for reproductive rights, etc. Leadership of struggle in general should reflect the demographics of the community in question as much as possible–whether that community be a workplace or a neighborhood or a university or whatever. I would go further and say that the leadership of women, queer people, people of color, etc., should be supported in all struggles generally, for if we want to build a world without racism and patriarchy and so on, we must start by allowing for and encouraging the self-determination and self-liberation of the people and communities targeted by those institutions.

    -Alex F, Knoxville