During my time with Philly DSA in 2018, I saw organizers use a strategy for socialist practice that I think is worth considering. I call it the local action strategy (LAS).
The basics of the strategy: socialists should create socialist consciousness in local organizing groups, movement groups, and other activist organizations like non-profits, coalitions, volunteer groups, social justice-oriented groups, and other non-socialist and non-union formations. While not new, it bears repeating for our current moment.
These groups have paid and volunteer organizers, some of whom have been working for social change for decades. They exist in a movement ecology where multiple organizations push for singular or sets of goals along differential timelines with uneven amounts of money, skills, and research capabilities. They have small and large targets, use a variety of tactics, and have bases of various sizes. They have differing infrastructures and histories. Some operate in tandem, while others constantly work together. Some have no idea that the others exist.
An example of the LAS from my own limited organizing can be found in the Local Initiative/Local Action Committee (LILAC), which, in its first year of existence, had two main successes. (1) The first accomplishment was trust-building. LILAC-Philly DSA was able to build solidarity and trust with other left groups in Philly to DSA's ideological "right" and "left" as well as groups that work both "inside" institutions or "outside" in the streets with more autonomy. Organizers made connections with a host of groups in the city’s movement ecology including Philly Socialists, Philly Tenants Union, Community Legal Services, Poor People's Campaign, Reclaim Philadelphia, 215PA, PA Student Power, Juntos, the WE Caucus, Socialist Alternative, Party for Socialism and Liberation, Philly Childcare Collective, Coalition Against Death by Incarceration, Bail Watch, Our City Our Schools, and the Tasker-Morris Neighbors Association. We've demonstrated to these groups that we support them, that we can and will follow their lead, and that we're learning.
The second success is acting as a “hinge” or “bridge” between several of these groups when fighting for concrete wins for the working class. The single big win LILAC can at least partially claim from 2018, I think, is helping to end the PARS agreement between the city and ICE. We worked in coalition with other groups to pressure Mayor Jim Kenney to let the contract expire.
From what I saw and heard, we played a very specific, limited — but important — role in creating that pressure. LILAC helped bridge a gap between autonomous groups doing direct actions with the occupation and institutional groups maneuvering within city government to leverage that apparatus for a change. Specifically, LILAC members helped bring together organizers from immigrant justice non-profit groups with groups leading the occupation to ensure that the occupation's demands were informed by the immigrant justice organizing community's demands.
As democratic socialists in Philadelphia, organizers were able to have a foot in the streets and a foot in the institutions, making each kind of force stronger. Organizers helped direct the energy in the street towards a goal that directly protects a fraction of the working class from direct anti-immigrant repression, works to prevent having a captive labor pool driving down wages, and indirectly protecting the entire working class from fears that anti-immigrant repression would terrorize our communities and neighbors, and harnessed those energies towards leveraging change in the city government. LILACers worked with organizers both in the streets and in the institutions and, because of that work, the social force exerted by the coalition grew at least a few clicks stronger.
In these examples, there are two kinds of groups at play. One group, like the immigrant justice group, isn’t explicitly socialist. They’re not “out” socialists fighting for a socialist future. Rather they’re fighting for immigrants’ rights in Philadelphia by base-building in their constituency and pushing for reforms in city government. On the other hand, there are groups with a revolutionary socialist or anarchist (and other) analyses that heavily critique municipal reforms of any kind. LILAC served as a bridge between these organizations. The occupation of ICE property in the city, alongside the concrete demands groups like Juntos made, lead to a concrete victory.
LILAC followed a version of the LAS in this case, using a bridging tactic to implement what I’m calling here a local action strategy—how socialists can work within the movement ecology. However, because movement ecologies differ dramatically from one context to the next, socialist tactics consistent with the LAS can vary. So here are some broad reasons for adopting this strategy across different movement ecologies.
Reasons for a LAS
Socialists need to have a good reputation among everyone trying to make social change on the left (under a reasonable interpretation of that term). If the socialist’s goal is to make structural interventions, then they should get to know and work well with everyone aiming for less than structural interventions. Only through the enhancement of these demands and practices will we achieve something like a socialist formation in the United States, and the existing networks between organizers will be key to pushing for structural interventions. It won’t happen without other organizers and their networks. Unions move people, for example, but movement ecologies of non-union groups also move people. In a negative sense, it will be easier to build power for structural interventions if the people who are the most informed about discrete issues in those fights are central in the process of making those structural interventions. Think about fighting for a housing demand without working alongside or in collaboration with housing activists. There’s no hope of winning in that case.
Socialism is undefined right now. It’s an unstable signifier. In the DSA at least, it can mean everything from social democracy to sewer socialism to the overthrow of capitalism. We can say “ownership of the means of production” or “the end of exploitation” or “free education, healthcare, and housing” or an “end to American empire” but none of these (not even a presidential campaign) comes along with clear operationalizations or tactics for victory.
We have a start: one version of Medicare for All. A Green New Deal with a jobs guarantee. But how to move counties and cities and regions towards supporting a Green New Deal? How to get local people on board with Medicare for All? That support should come from existing struggles. It won’t be enough to knock on resident’s doors like one would for a candidate. Candidate campaigns have a simple ask: vote for X. An issue campaign is fundamentally different and will rely on movement ecologies to succeed. When fighting for a Green New Deal, environmentalists are a necessary constituency to move. When fighting for Medicare for All, healthcare justice advocates will need to be on board for these structural interventions. The demands and experiences and positions gained (and lost) by organizers in movement contexts can provide essential understandings of the terrain socialists operate within.
Socialists are new to the scene, in a number of ways. While there are many great labor organizers and organizing trainings available, and there are a ton of organizers with different experiences and lessons out there, we are low-skill socialist organizers for the most part who have a lot to learn. Many of us come from the non-profit industrial complex, business unions, and other non-socialist contexts, disillusioned and craving more. We’re organizers, but are we socialist organizers? The more socialists work with and alongside the movement ecology the more skills we can put in our toolbox as we figure out exactly what it means to be a socialist organizer.
Socialism is a grand theory of society, but lacks information about idiosyncrasies of local contexts. It’s not sewer socialism to point out that power works differently across states, municipalities, industries, and agencies in differential ways. While socialists have big ideas about changing the relations of production, the ways those relations hold and perpetuate are location-specific. Furthermore, the networks of relationships between influencers and decision-makers are obscure and difficult to know without due diligence and direct action within those networks. They often operate with proper names (“do you know Sam?”) and acronyms for organizations, departments, laws, rules, or documents that are esoteric and unknown to the average socialist organizer. These networks come along with specific histories, cultures of communication, dress, style of talking, and other habits that mark people as inside or outside the network. Being involved with the movement ecology provides much needed details, the very material conditions of structural interventions, for socialists interested in making such interventions.
Socialism in the United States lacks a strong recent history of organizing. While we can look to Lenin or Luxemburg, or even Communist Party USA or Socialist Party of America, and while there certainly have been small groups here and there, no socialist group has had any success at the scale of a structural intervention in generations. We need to learn from the nearest sets of elders available to us. Frankly, many people who identify as socialists have not been in any organizing context before our current moment. Reading groups and conventions run with Roberts Rules are not organizing. Socialists are just getting their feet wet. Working with local groups provides crucial education and experiences that socialists will need in the coming years to make structural interventions.
In the beginning of the 21st century, we have to admit that it’s a popular front moment on the Left. Capitalism is deeply entrenched in the United States and it’s world position is just as strong, despite some recent weakness due to friction within the ruling classes. If the left has any hope of making structural interventions for the working class, it will come from the combination of powers rather than the leadership of one or two groups directing masses of people. While many comrades call for “mass politics,” the question is not whether to do mass politics but rather how to do mass politics. One way to do mass politics is to wait for superman or ride a red wave during eruptions, like strikes or federal election cycles or policy initiatives. But that can’t be the only way. Local action—cobbling together coalitions, getting involved with all kinds of groups— is another.
There’s a premise all the above relies on. In education, there’s a distinction teachers make between a “don’t have” approach and an “have” approach. The former thinks of students in terms of what they don’t know, don’t have, don’t think. The latter however finds what students do have and then works from there to get to the next step. Rather than, “why don’t you have X?” the operating thought is more like “okay, I see what you have, let’s work with that.” Socialist practice should take an “have” approach to existing movement organizations in their local areas. The movement ecology in a local context should be seen for what it has, not what it lacks.
When organizers and their networks think of socialists they should think of helpful people who listen, take them seriously, and show up. These organizers in the movement ecology should be able to argue with centrists and liberals and conservatives when these adversaries redbait. They should be able to smell the noxious falsities spoken about socialist interventions because their connections to us obvious belie these smears. And finally, they should come to see a value in working with us on projects where we are strong parts of the planning and coalition. A LAS is one of wholesome, welcoming, and hospitable socialist organizing.
Coalition: Socialists should enter into existing coalitions that fight for less than structural interventions. They should not seek to “control” these coalitions, but rather participate, wait, learn, and find ways to make inroads in the existing movement ecology. (The notion of individualistic “control” of a coalition has roots in liberal thinking about competition rather than collectivity.)
Attendance/showing up: Socialists should attend events, actions, and meetings as observers or guests to see how movement groups work and the extent of their networks. Socialists should offer to provide concrete material support for these events: taking notes, food, childcare, transportation, and other administrative tasks necessary for movement group work.
Listening: Socialists should listen carefully for the analysis, dynamics, and goals of movement groups. They should pay close attention to the experiences and histories and habits of organizers and participants in these groups. This may be the most important activity of the LAS, as socialists must learn, lend energy to, and fall into rhythm with the movement groups to secure trust and information. It will also increase the credibility of socialism if socialists listen. One of our greatest strengths and greatest weaknesses is the scope of our analysis. It contains ideas that can lead to structural interventions that make gains for the working class, but because they are big ideas they create an inequality between those familiar and unfamiliar with them. An organizer who has worked for decades in a movement ecology to secure less than structural interventions will not take kindly to a young student of Marx speechifying about the ruling class. The student of Marx must become a student of the movement ecology.
Humility: Despite our grand analysis—perhaps because of it—we must remain humble before the specific determinate circumstances of our local context. Humility comes both in action and speech. Socialists shouldn’t speak in finalized, official ways that close off interpretation and possibility. We don’t have answers. Socialists should be looking for the whole story, ask questions, and be generous with others while remaining committed to our analysis. If a socialist truly believes and understands their analysis, they should have no problem dialoguing with progressives and liberals and conservatives about positions while respecting the force other positions have. Liberals and progressives have more power than socialists. Remaining humble means keeping that in mind.
Weaving in socialist thinking and proposals: Yet humility means remaining firm with commitments to a socialist analysis in conversation and meetings. There are ways to phrase proposals, kinds of suggestions to make when deciding on targets or tactics or messaging, and perspectives to take on issues or questions or current events relevant to organization that will make socialists stand out. The analysis should be applied to every given circumstance and used to nudge, suggest, and in some cases demand certain things from a movement group.
Collaboration, not competition: Finally, socialists should not be in competition with movement groups for all the reasons mentioned above. We lack credibility, skills, networks, and concrete information about the formation. While movement groups may be proximate to capital, and capitalism is the target of our work, movement groups are not our adversaries as well. Just as business unions are proximate to capital but must be engaged with as if on a terrain, so to must movement groups.
Of course there are concerns and drawbacks to this LAS. What about co-optation? What about complicity with forces we seek to change? How do you maintain a socialist commitment in non- or anti-socialist contexts?
Most of these concerns fall under a single larger concern, which is proximity to capital. A group may be vulnerable to the influence of practices that maintain capitalist relations of production, individuals who have stated or unstated interests in maintaining those relations of production, or actually have and receive resources that originate in capitalist relations of production. In all these cases, groups in the movement ecology are proximate to capital.
At first glance, socialists should stay away from any non-zero proximity to capital. Any practice, individual, or resource that exerts influence on behalf of capitalist relations of production should be kept at a distance. This argument is sometimes unfairly called “purity politics”: socialist practice should be pure of influence from capital. I say unfair because it comes from real, not imagined or overly idealistic concerns. Capital’s influence is powerful. It shouldn’t be underestimated and can easily taint the goals, energies, and direction of socialist groups.
But underlying these concerns are a priori judgements about specific groups substantiated largely without concrete material assessments of the balance of forces a socialist group enters, as well as a skewed sense of socialist power in a local context. When it comes to a particular group that socialists might work alongside, exactly what is the extent of capital’s influence? What are the costs and benefits of association and collaboration with the group given the strength of the socialist group?
If a socialist group’s base of movable people is 50 and commands $1,000 of resources, and a movement group’s base is 150 and commands $30,000 of resources, the socialist group should ask: where did the money come from? What has the movement group accomplished in the last year? If the money came from small donations and the group has launched successful campaigns for stated goals with which socialists do not reasonably disagree and are arguably part of a structural intervention, then the calculation must be to collaborate. If the movement group has fewer resources in terms of money and people but a good reputation among organizers in the local area, then the decision should be to collaborate. Beggars can’t be choosers and, while we’re more powerful than we have been in generations, socialists are still beggars when it comes to power.
Whatever the case, there should be an open, concrete assessment of the forces at play when it comes to deciding whether to work with movement groups. Further, that assessment should happen with firsthand experience and data rather than speculation. The firsthand experience can really only come with participation in events, meetings, and actions with the groups in question. We cannot know the character of a group just looking at tax returns or funding streams or relying on hearsay. Some groups deliberately take money from institutions they actively seek to undermine, for example.
The LAS, given socialists’ weak force in any given balance, would therefore recommend erring on the side of collaboration. Labor unions are also proximate to capital and feel the force of capitals’ influence in their bargaining. The threat of union complicity with capitalist relations of production is just as great as the threat of a movement group’s proximity. Perhaps even more tragically so, as unions are supposed to protect workers and, in their concessions to management (which Kim Moody details at great length) threaten working class power just as much if not more than movement groups whose practices, organizers, and resources come under capitalist influence.
A deeper strategic question emerges here though about the efficacy of collaborating with movement groups who have some proximity to capital. While a labor union controlled by a business unionist leadership is also proximate to capital, the reward is potentially high: workers, when they withhold their labor, can shut down the productive forces of a social formation. Strikes create a significant force and extract concessions from dominant groups. As such they’re regularly held up as the gold standard of tactics for achieving the right kind of force to shift relations of production.
This assessment is largely responsible for the labor metaphysic of old socialist groups: win the unions, shut down business as usual, and make a structural intervention. What value could a movement ecology of social justice groups, reliant on donations and grants, have in making structural interventions? Even if socialists work with and alongside these groups, even if those networks of organizers come to trust and even rely on socialist practice, what use are they in the wider terrain when making structural interventions? The risk of their proximity to capital, goes this argument, isn’t worth the reward (if any).
Deep strategic questions call for deeper responses. A theory in the Western Marxist tradition, largely flowing from the prison notebooks of the Italian communist Antonio Gramsci, holds that society is a terrain of class struggle. I have been using language of this theory throughout the above. The geological metaphor of terrain—which we find in Moody in his most recent work, On New Terrain— points to a significant feature of this stream of communist thinking: class struggle happens in a balance of forces where unique and exceptional circumstances, like the idiosyncratic features of actual landscapes, must be considered when maneuvering or even moving to make interventions that gain ground for subordinate classes against dominant classes.
Gramsci carved out some basic features of social terrain. A formation of social forces fell for him along the lines of economy (base), civil society and the state (superstructures). It was the French communist philosopher Louis Althusser who specified that organizations and institutions in civil society are ideological state apparatuses (ISAs) that reproduce relations of production. Unions, movement groups, and organizing non-profits are all associative ideological state apparatuses, or places where people get together to move the rest of the formation. The movement ecology is itself an ISA, which exerts a non-trivial social force.
Althusser also reminded us of a comment by Engels that, on this theory of society as a terrain, the apparatuses of a social formation are relatively autonomous. Civil society, as an ensemble of ideological state apparatuses, exert a reproductive force when leveraged to maintain the continuity of dominant relations of production.
A social formation has at least three regions, each of which contain fronts of multiple fronts of the class struggle. Each region exerts its forces in the context of the others, but with a relative autonomy. The magnitude of the force each exerts is specific to historical circumstances (namely the magnitude and situation of forces in the other regions).
All this basically means that a shift in one front could in principle have the potential to cause a quake through the whole formation.
The relations of production are the target for socialists. But these relations are maintained and ensured by other forces like the state and civil society which, if intervened with, can also make differences in the formation. They also have ancillary power in baffling, recuperating, and rejuvenating capitalist relations of production when those relations are under threat or weakened. The ISAs are not only non-trivial, but an important site and stake of the class struggle.
Again, our targets are capitalist relations of production. We want relations of production that aren’t capitalist exploitative relations. We want socialist relations of production. But socialists have to consider all fronts when assessing their local and regional balance of forces when deciding how and when to intervene to change those relations.
It was an old socialism that imagined the productive forces were the only place to intervene. A new socialism has to consider every force, the reproductive and repressive, since they are relatively autonomous and support forces for our target. Our strategies for achieving the kinds of structural interventions we want will have to consider a movement ecology of non-socialist organizations because this ecology works largely to create changes in civil society and the state. Since these regions of a social formation are relatively autonomous and support the economy, socialists—as part of our project to make structural interventions— should work with and alongside their local movement ecologies, across different groups aiming for less than structural interventions. These groups will be necessary (but insufficient) for mobilizing to make structural interventions. That’s the possible reward for the LAS.
A New Socialism
It was an old socialism that thought interventions in the economy were the only kind of interventions in the project of changing society. That old socialism focused with laser intensity on labor. But there’s no single magic intervention, no one essential strategy that will make the difference that will make a difference. There is no socialist Luke Skywalker who, after finding the map of the Death Star, navigates a plane and fires a single shot that blows up the system. Rather there will be many fronts, multiple interventions, each working on different timelines requiring different maneuvers.
The LAS targets a subset of those multiple fronts by recommending collaboration with the movement ecology of organizations working for less than structural interventions. In so doing it increases socialist networks among organizers, gives socialism much needed credibility in local contexts, provides content for the largely empty vessel of socialism, increases understanding of how political, cultural, and economic systems work in their various regional idiosyncrasies, and finally targets necessary forces in a social formation for unseating capitalist relations of production from their dominant position.
(1) LILAC, once a committee of Philly DSA, recently voted to close its business as a committee of the chapter. This account was written during the group’s phase as a committee of Philly DSA.