Jon Liss

Seize the Moment: Paving the Road for a Mass Left

Seize the Moment: Paving the Road for a Mass Left
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by Jon Liss

I’m old, but a little too young to have lived through the New Communist Movement of the 1970’s and it’s battles to form revolutionary parties and pre-parties, that is, to build a disciplined band of professional revolutionaries to carry out a political line.  That’s another article for another author.  On the other hand, there is a unique, maybe even historic opportunity to build a political-strategic space to carry out electoral organizing.  This space could create the opportunity for a longer term more strategic relationship, but we need to start with where we are.

Increasingly there is a sector of radical organizations who believe that electoral work is a key area of struggle.  That is a huge shift from the last few decades: credit Bernie and his campaign for revitalizing the notion of socialism and the importance of elections, credit many immigrant rights, Occupy and Movement for Black Lives leaders for recognizing the need for mass action AND an electoral strategy. 

It’s time to create a ‘general command’ or a place where all organized groups of people who view elections as key area of struggle and who view growing a base of radical ‘new majority’ Democratic voters as a central task. To be explicit, new majority Democrats refers to women, especially women of color, Black and immigrant voters, and sectors of young and working-class voters.

For too long, left unity has been seen as the result of a process that begins and ends with an exchange of position papers on a wide range of issues.  Let’s start with one thing that many leftists in many organizations agree on at this point in history: the Democratic Party primary elections are an important place of struggle and we should be encouraging and building a base of participants within and around it.  Second, most of these same organizations would probably agree that a key task for leftists is to both build independent political organizations and organize a growing proportion of our natural constituency: the 108 million eligible voters who didn’t vote in 2016, some of the hundreds of thousands of eligible voters who didn’t register to vote, and some portion of the several million formerly incarcerated people who have had their voting rights stripped away. I addressed the issue of organizing our natural constituency elsewhere. Here I will focus on the independent political organization we need to build.

Our task is to build an organizational vehicle, what I call a “party-like space” (a term I will explain below), around the following points: a) build a stronger, larger base of voters of color, younger voters and women voters (in Virginia, for example, Black women voters have been the motor for all progressive change), b) support existing state power organizations that is ,some of the dozens of social movement organizations contending for state level governing power, or at least organizations that are outside of the Democratic Party structures c) agree to support the Democratic candidate who emerges to take on Trump in the general election. 

Why a party-like space and not a radical party or just throwing down with your favorite Democratic candidate?  Over the last thirty years there have been annual or at least regular efforts to either create a new party organized along Leninist lines, or if not an actual organization, then a “federation of the willing” who will operate along similar lines.  That’s not going to happen. Standard left practice has been to try to start forming an organization with unity around a set broad of ideas and then move on to figuring out what to do.  I propose the opposite.  For a wide range of reasons many organizations and individuals agree on the importance of building a left pole of work within the Democratic Party. Instead of starting with where we disagree let’s start with what we agree on.  Let’s create a dynamic which builds trust and collaborative practice.  Let’s not get ahead of ourselves and let’s humbly acknowledge our weakness.  And let’s also acknowledge the power of uniting our leading organizations and individuals around a singular strategy.  If we act in principal and unity we can have a disproportionate impact and move portions of the millions of missing voters.

What would this party-like structure do? Let’s start with the tactical and practical.  Even on their own terms, this would be a valuable step toward a coherent approach for building a socialist movement.

On a strategic level, this party-like space would exist in order to build the foundations for a mass left organization capable of challenging elites in the two dominant parties, leveraging the strengths and demands of multiple movements, and making possible a struggle for life beyond Trump and Trumpism. Practical next steps should include:

  1. Agree to these or similar points of unity (can’t get away from the exchange of papers)
  2. Coordinate electoral plans.
  3. Do real world work both together and apart, regularly and collectively assess progress, learn lessons and adjust strategies.
  4. Recruit other projects and organizations to join this political space. 
  5. Develop working relationships to funnel members and volunteers to state power organizations, DSA, or the Working Families Party who are building independently of the Democratic Party while also expanding the electorate and building the broadest front against Trump and Trumpism.

There may be additional more strategic benefits to this kind of effort.  There is likely to be some intergenerational relationship building and learning.  There will be back and forth conversation and struggle with groups who have difference.  This will be hard.  Yet our current moment of resurgent white nationalism and international belligerence puts the lives of many and in fact the planet at risk.

We can look around the world and see numerous examples where left organizations have found ways to work together despite differences because of the threats and opportunities they faced.  In El Salvador, 5 organizations under life-threatening duress managed to unite to create the FMLN.  They started with very different strategic positions but created a process for collaboration and coordination.  Over time, many of the differences were not nearly as important as the need to work together.  Again, while longer term strategic considerations may develop over time, getting this real work started for 2020 is the way to start. 

Conveniently, there are three current projects that fit will with this orientation.

First, under Maurice Mitchell’s leadership the Working Families Party is working to expand its geography, move beyond an exclusively union base to bring together racial and gender justice organizations and innovate to create a relevant people’s party.  

Second, the Inside-Outside Project brings together representatives from the Communist Party, Democratic Socialists of America, Left Roots, the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, and Liberation Road.  Together they have created a space for discussion and strategizing.  We are still a year and a half out from the next Presidential election.  Usually these kinds of efforts come together in the last couple of months of a campaign.  Leaning into this path, it is possible to imagine a shared party­-like space actually leading to joint work in the streets. 

Third, over twenty organizations from 15 states have come together to form the State-Power Caucus.  These organizations come from a variety of traditions: there are former ACORN groups, and groups that grew out of the workers center movement or the Right to the City Alliance.  They are generally left: pro-Black, pro-immigrant, pro-women and pro-worker.  Most work on voter mobilization and deep community organizing.  Most would welcome dozens of members of left organizations supporting their work.  Most are creating a constituency that often votes for Democrats but is also committed to radical democracy and deep transformational change.  There are, of course other ways this can be done.  The important thing is to get it done.  Bringing together left organizations has value and begins to move the needle.  Moving cadre into a positive role of building state power organizations brings together a left that is often isolated and aloof from popular organizations into relationship with organizations that have real capacity, but suffer from the absence of the conscious left. 

(photo credit: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News)

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