It looks like my recent piece on Freire and Horton prompted some comment, particularly among other tendencies. 

In particular, Meagan Day put forward an interesting critique that speaks to a more general response. I appreciate the thoughtfulness in her post and subsequent responses to me on her Facebook wall. I thought I would bring these out into the open and respond to them as representative of other critiques of the essay. 

It looks like there’s agreement about the merits of Freire and Horton's work, and about the importance of listening and learning to socialist strategizing right now. As always in these DSA partisan debates, I think we agree much more than disagree. 

But it looks like there’s disagreement about knowing answers, or what I mean by humility as an aversion to being the-one-who-knows. Day’s specific comments in this regard are helpful to look at, and provide an opportunity to draw together a few strands of thinking on this question about Build’s general approach.


Meagan Day interprets my claims about the importance not having answers and refusing to be the-one-who-knows as "shying away from concrete political analysis," and not wanting to figure out "how to build those movements and those parties" for socialism in the US. Day implies that I'm "resigned to this particularity of U.S. politics" and that I would disagree that "our job is to strategize to change it." 

After listing a number of different (and excellent!) questions about approaches to DSA strategy, she takes me as being "uninterested in these debates because each position listed here constitutes 'having answers' or positing 'a clear, pre-defined vision for The Way To Socialism,' which lacks humility."

Day then associates my position with a "post-structuralist" one, as characterized by Ellen Meiskins Wood, which sees "politics, like history in general, is random and contingent", a position where there are no "determinate conditions, possibilities, relations, limits, pressures" in politics. 

So while she agrees that listening and learning is essential for socialist organizers, she disagrees that it is better to organize as a socialist from a position of not having all the answers and thinking with humility. This is because Day understands this approach as entailing a resigned, relativistic position that is uninterested in having strategic debates and making clear, determinate decisions. Others have characterized this concept of humility via Freire and Horton as being “apolitical.”

If I am reading this critique correctly, I do not understand how proponents of it get from the humility premise to the resigned premise. There is nothing about humility in one's strategic thinking that implies resignation (or relativism, poststructuralism, or inaction). 

The position I'm advocating is that the strategic decisions we make should come out of dialogue in Freire's sense, or Horton's story circle model. I’d call it humble strategy, which means producing and implementing a strategy with a respect for the unevenness of material conditions and current organizer experience. 

Respect for unevenness means paying attention to the differences in how organizers exert forces successfully and unsuccessfully, and— before even posing a question about what a strategy should be— asking about current conditions, successes, and failures first. The questions we ask about strategy should be the end result of investigation, inquiry, and reflection into our conditions and capacities. 

I’d contrast humble strategy with brazen, or arrogant strategy. A brazen strategy would skip the investigation and jump right into strategic questions, answers, and debate. This strategy comes from a sense that one knows the conditions well enough to think without dialogue, to pronounce without a rigorous attention to current conditions and capacities. 

Brazen strategists announce to the world that they know the questions, they know the answers, and the only work left to do is argue with others who are similarly arrogant to see who will win in a floor fight. 

Myles Horton once said of organizing that you have run with the speed of a train to jump and ride it. Humble strategy pays close attention to the speed of current conditions so it can match that rhythm and support its movement. Brazen strategy has so much confidence in its own rhythm that it presumes the train must match the runner’s pace, not the other way around. 


I’ve tried to exemplify humble strategy in my own work for Build. As an example, in the What We're Building Report, I led a team of Build DSAers interested in what DSA chapters are actually working on. Our idea was to ask DSA organizers what they do, because these responses would give a clearer picture about what DSA's capacity, experience, and interests are rather than just guessing or relying on our own preferences. 

In that study, we found that, in terms of issues, DSA chapters work on housing (43%) nearly as much as healthcare justice (45%), outpacing labor (38.5%) and criminal justice (33%). Tactically, chapters use electoral work (57%) and mutual aid (48%) almost equally when organizing. Almost as many chapters run brake light clinics (25%) as advocate for Medicare for All (M4A) federal legislation (34%).

For us, this lead to a number of questions we thought would be best to ask about DSA strategy moving forward. Two of the most pressing were: 

(1) What should we make of DSA’s fusion of movement and electoral work? What does it say about the kind of organization that DSA is? How should that inform DSA’s next steps? 

(2) What is a national priority in DSA—is it what delegates vote on at convention, or is it what chapter organizers choose to do in their local contexts? How could (or should) DSA’s leadership relate to these different kinds of priorities, given our resources?

This process of research is an example of humble strategy. Not having the answers means that, before even asking questions about strategy, engaging in a form of inquiry or dialogue to understand conditions and capacities. The questions should come from this dialogue with existing conditions and capacities, rather than be given to them and answered for them. 

The second example I want to point to is my essay on Local Action Strategy. In that essay, particularly in the last section, I argue that it is important for socialists to engage with movement ecologies, even if the organizations composing them are non-socialists organizing for less-than-structural change, because the groups composing these ecologies are associative ideological state apparatuses that exert an important reproductive forces in social formations like Philadelphia. 

Philosophically, while I disagree with Wood, I do not consider myself part of the poststructuralist tradition. I do my professional research and identify more with a postwar structuralist tradition of Marxism that created the conditions for post-Marxism, but didn’t go as far as the post-Marxists or poststructuralists. I’m referring specifically to the tradition of Louis Althusser, Nicos Poulanztas, Stuart Hall, Michele Barrett and others. 

These structuralists see society as a social formation, composed of articulations of relatively autonomous levels. This means that any historical development, or change in society over time, is uneven, staggered, and idiosyncratic rather than linear or transitive. The tradition carefully maintains the economic base as a point of determination, but understands that (a) the economic base is a contingent mix of modes of production where one is dominant and (b) the superstructures are relatively autonomous and do not reflect or correspond to the base. 

Rather than a billiard ball theory of causality, the postwar structuralist tradition takes a more geological view, understanding any social change as resulting from multiple, differential lines of force that are both autonomous and relative to one another.

I think this postwar structuralism is a good theory of humble strategy. To appreciate those specific, uneven kinds of causal relationships in an uneven social formation, I think it is essential to remain humble and listen, just as Freire and Horton do in their organizing. (Ultimately that postwar structuralist tradition was providing a corrective to the brazen theory/strategy of the USSR between 1930-1960.)

The report and the essay on local action further illustrate the humble strategy to which I gestured in the first essay. Socialists should investigate before asking questions, and treat society generally (and DSA specifically) like an uneven formation with differential conditions and capacities. That’s what I meant by humility.

David Backer was a coordinator of LILAC-Philly DSA in 2018. He sells his labor as a professor of education theory. To learn more about Philly DSA, visit their website and follow them on Twitter.