Trot, Maoist, anarchist, social democrat, Leninist, Stalinist, Marxist-Leninist, sewer socialist, Alinskyite. Labels are a mixed bag on the American socialist scene now. They’re as helpful as they are annoying.
Everyone on the left comes from somewhere, holds certain texts or figures or historical periods near and dear to their hearts, which is inevitable and maybe even necessary. Maybe most importantly, labels clarify the fundamental differences between positions.
Let’s say you want to change your society’s relations of production from capitalist to socialist. How do you do that? There are a bunch of different answers to this question, and these differences fall along the lines of the labels like the ones I listed at the start. Social democrats might want reforms to the state. Anarchists would target state power and fight it, etc.
Identifying as a certain kind of leftist can clarify your strategy, situate you in a history, and also make you scrutable to other leftists. Rather than a long explanation about dialectics and cadre or whatever, it can be easier to say “I’m a Trotskyist.” It’s shorthand for how socialists think about changing society.
But the very thing that makes labels helpful is what makes them not so helpful. They’re reductive. Everyone’s heritage on the left is different: we come from radically different places on the radical spectrum, including people who end up with identical labels. No two anarchists are the same, just as municipalists or Leninists or socdems will mean different things by those terms. Labels also get deployed in partisan disagreements to mischaracterize a person, policy, or group to delegitimize. All’s fair in love and left debates.
The other issue with labels on the left is that they don’t include some streams that never metastasized into a line or party formation. There are traditions beyond the list I started with, outside the buffet of options we typically see thrown around in the productive food fights of partisan debate.
Rather than further classify and define options you’ve probably already heard of, I’d like to introduce you to one that you haven’t. It’s the tradition with which I identify most strongly, but doesn’t have a ready-to-hand label. And since I helped put together Build as a project, drafting its values and getting it off the ground the last year and a half (with a number of comrades), I can say that this largely undiscussed stream of thinking has something that might help shed light on what Build’s all about.
The label is Freirian-Hortonian (FH). Here’s what I think that means.
Freirian-Hortonian is a combination of two last names: Paulo Freire and Myles Horton. You should read up on them. The best book if you’re just encountering them is We Make the Road by Walking.
Paulo Freire grew up poor in northeastern Brazil and rose to the rank of Education Minister until he was exiled by the CIA-backed dictatorship in 1964. His educational campaigns increased literacy rates among the poor across Brazil, and simultaneously raised political consciousness. His writings on education are some of the most influential on the subject in leftist circles: his ability to talk the talk and walk the walk when it comes to movement is amazing. For main theoretical and political stuff, read Education for Critical Consciousness and Pedagogy of the Oppressed.
Myles Horton also talked the talk and walked the walk. He grew up poor in Appalachia, and had a knack for creating situations that brought contradictions out into the light and then organizing people to get social forces moving in better directions. He’s best known for being a co-founder of the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, a hub for organizing training used by unions, community organizations, and civil rights groups that runs to this day. Horton helped left-facing unions in the Congress of Industrial Organizations do wildcat strikes, made space for women organizing around community health, and ran trainings where people like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. attended. For further reading watch this two-part interview with him or read the text version The Long Haul.
The thing about Freire and Horton’s history is that they’re not affiliated with more obvious left tendencies like anarchism or social democracy or communism. This is a strength and a weakness. FH, or the label that bears their names, doesn’t tell you immediately what kind of thing you’re working for or against. Because they didn’t have explicit visions for the best kind of social formation — and neither are well-known for their membership in any particular party or group — it’s harder to locate them on the spectrum of differences.
Yet there are historical explanations for this that make their lack of clear affiliation both understandable and, I’d say, a strength. Horton and Freire are uniquely American marxists. Both of them consider Marx’s critiques of capitalism undoubtable. Yet their own circumstances led them to see the unviability of more European and Third World kinds of formations. Freire was in exile from a dictatorship after pushing for democracy and socialism in Brazil. Horton pushed on all the contradictions of United States formation, unhappy with the more closed model of the Communist Party and unhappy with the racism of the early Socialists.
I consider this lack of clear tendency a strength. The conditions in the Americas are specific, and Freire and Horton adapted to those conditions in doing their organizing. Whether literacy or union organizing, they saw the balance of forces around them and responded to that balance rather than getting caught up in an idealist set of principles that made them miss something in their moment.
And it’s just a fact that, in the United States in particular, there’s never been the kind of worker-led movements that formed into parties that could wield state power like there have been elsewhere. It happened in Brazil, but very late, and Freire was there when it did.
In any case, Freire and Horton are partial figures in the sense that they fought among the best to win some of the most impactful changes in their American social formations. Because the United States never had a Labor party, never had a significant socialist presence nationally that, for any period of time, wielded significant power, looking to these partial figures — whose careers are ultimately indecisive with respect to ultimate vision but not strategy — is more fruitful than following precedents irrelevant to our present circumstance.
FHism is more historically appropriate for our moment than our anarchist, socialist, communist, and other forbears. What is FHism all about?
1. American Marxists without answers. Just from the observation above, it’s clear that a tendency taking after Freire and Horton wouldn’t have a clear, pre-defined vision for The Way To Socialism. Historically, neither Freire nor Horton espoused any particular party line. At the same time, they were both students of Marxist and revolutionary thinking, and they valued both theoretical language that articulates difficult insights and everyday language comprehensible to anyone. They maintained a studied humility, always reading and learning, but all to strengthen that powerfully informed aversion to being the one-who-knows — while simultaneously honing and following their instincts for how to intervene, to engage unjust adversaries, and change things at massive scales in the Americas (by ‘America’ I mean the continent not just the USA).
2. Respect for existing energies, and disrespect for unjust structures, before all else. Freire and Horton’s organizing valued those affected by unjust social structures and anyone who had the energy and interest to get rid of them. Rather than seeing organizers first and foremost as belonging to certain tendencies with which they agree or disagree, both Freire and Horton saw activists and organizers as people harnessing the energy at their disposal to revolutionize their circumstances. They worked with academics, peasants, lawyers, miners, politicians, the disabled...the list is endless. They had an instinct to engage everyone with an interest and reasonable enough to work with others, and include them in the fight.
3. Equality between organizer and organized. Both Freire and Horton identified as educators, but not in the limited sense of being involved with schooling. Rather, they put education front and center when it comes to revolutionary organizing. For Freire, that meant a literacy campaign among Brazil’s poor using their own environments as the text, through radical dialogue. It meant weakening the distinction between organizer and organized to the point where there was little difference there. It meant a participatory model of organizing to achieve big, massive victories against repression. The same goes for Horton. His story circle method prioritized the knowledge that organizers of any stripe already have, the questions those organizers generate, and the ideas those organizers have about achieving their goals. Of course expertise is important, but should only be used when the organizers ask for it and it should be oriented to a specific question. Both of them valued listening as an internal organizing tactic.
These three ideas, and Freire and Horton’s histories, were a central inspiration for me when drafting and editing the Build values, helping put together Build’s zine project, the What We’re Building Report, and the first Buildfest in Philadelphia. Maybe some of my comrades would argue with me, but if you want to know more about where Build comes from, you could do worse than read about Freire and Horton.
They’re not anarchists, but they valued equality and participation among organizers before all else. They’re not social democrats, but they fought for reforms that would benefit communities who sought them. They worked with the people, but they weren’t populists. They organized communities but they weren’t community organizers. They’re not exactly socialists, but they retained a deep critique of capital and the necessity of its defeat.
That’s why I identify as a Freirian-Hortonian, I think it’s the best shot to put our combined energies together in DSA and make the social forces move the way we want.