The emergence of the base-building trend is a very welcome development. It signifies a theoretical and practical advancement for revolutionary praxis in the US, which has been floundering and flailing for decades, unable to keep up with the restructuring of global capitalism or truly face off against its social, political, and military institutions. Much of this has to do with how left-wing strategy has succumbed to the pitfalls of mainstream activism. Sometimes this is in “ambulance chasing”, where activists jump around chasing after the latest hot-button issue, as determined by social media and the news corporation. Other times its in “activist networking”, where activists organize only with one another and fail to expand outside of their existing subcultures and social networks.
In contrast with the short-term and insular nature of mainstream activism, base-building is about long-term strategy and organizing the unorganized. Organizers focus on working with ordinary people in a particular “base”. This involves actually talking to people you don’t know and developing strategic campaigns based on what they are actually interested in or need, and organizing with them in the long term. Whether a campaign is strategic depends not on whether it will necessarily win, but whether it will result in more people becoming organizers, and whether the base will expand and deepen.
The base-building method has much in common with another approach: workers’ inquiry. The long and winding history of workers’ inquiry started with Karl Marx himself, when he had the questionable idea of sending French workers a 101-question survey, asking about everything from the minutiae of their day-to-day work to their thoughts on strikes. Unsurprisingly, he never received any responses, but the fundamental idea behind the project was sound: that communists had to learn from the working-class itself about its existence and needs. This idea was developed particularly far by Italian Marxists in the 1960s and 1970s, who utilized workers’ inquiry to grapple with the rapid changes they were observing in Italian capitalism and the Italian working class. Based on rigorous workers’ inquiry, they analyzed the dynamics of class and social composition: the contemporary nature of work, management techniques, new forms of labor, racial and gender dynamics, the small daily struggles on the shop floor, etc. Today, workers’ inquiry – much like base-building – inverts the logic of liberal activists and left-wing sects, who typically attempt to push their visions and ideas onto the masses. As argued in this essay on the premature nature of current debates about left unity in the US:
Before anything else, we have to forget what we think we know, and figure out what the working class actually is – and it is quite different from the factory workers of Manchester or Billancourt. Inquiry will mean generating a map that includes manufacturing workers and unionized public sector workers alongside low-wage retail workers, domestic caregivers, subcontracted truck drivers, migrant farmworkers, and waitresses with student debt. How is this class divided? Where is it found? What does it do? How is it exploited? How does it struggle? What does it want?
All of this is an excellent supplement to base-building, and a way to ground one of its core arguments – that socialists need to spend time building actual relationships with the unorganized and non-radicalized– into a deep historical lineage.
However, there are some key aspects of base-building and workers’ inquiry that need to be clarified or elaborated. Perhaps the most important of these is the simple question of how to choose a certain “base” or “constituency” to inquire and build with in the first place. The final essay of this dossier on base-building, “Cultivating a Model”, starts to answer this question. Base-building is divided into three phases: 1) Come together with other socialists and commit to base-building, 2) identify a constituency to build with and start engaging in outreach and organizing, the scope of which matches the actual resources and capacity of the initial group of socialists, and 3) carry out in-depth investigations with the constituency (that is, workers’ inquiry) to figure out how to expand the base and start more ambitious projects and campaigns. Key here is the transition to Phase 2:
…the group should reflect on their own relative socio-economic positions, experiences, social connections, and technical knowledge. These should inform where and with whom the work in Phase 2 takes place.
It is absolutely crucial to zero in on this transitory step, and draw out exactly how the group’s self-reflection should inform the process of selecting a base to organize. I would argue that base-building should start where would-be base-builders are already located, with people they are already connected with, and against problems that they themselves are grappling with.
This is a very simple point, but it runs counter to how the radical left tends to talk about organizing. Aside from “Cultivating a Model”, most other descriptions of base-building don’t touch upon the idea of analyzing one’s own life; and in general, base-builders are cast as purely ideological subjects – “socialists”, “radicals”, “revolutionaries” – who need to figure out how they can build up a constituency or base in “the real world” (which rightfully implies that there is some distance between pure ideological space and the real material world). And of course, this demarcation between ourselves and the masses isn’t just present in the base-building tendency, but across most of the radical left; workers’ inquiry, for example, implies a distinction between the inquirer and the inquired.
However, this rhetorical habit over-determines just how separate socialists and other radicals are from “the real world”. We’re not just rootless, abstract entities. All of us (well, most of us) are in fact generally ordinary people — normal human beings living out a very normal human existence. As such, we are all already embedded in various workplaces, neighborhoods, schools, and families – all potential sites for class struggle and base-building, and the first places we should be thinking about organizing.
We can also frame this as an evolution of workers’ inquiry, into workers’ self-inquiry. Whereas workers’ inquiry is about abstract subjects, typically some kind of communist intellectual, studying the working class as if it were an external object totally alien to them, workers’ self-inquiry is about studying ourselves, as members of the working class, in order to better understand how to contribute to the class struggle by waging the battle in our own lives.
Apart from the basic logic of seeing ourselves as part of the masses, the most obvious reason to engage in self-inquiry as the starting point for base-building is because of its efficiency. Building authentic relationships is hard work, especially in the context of revolutionary organizing. If you decide to start the long, drawn-out process of base-building in an area or among a community where you have no prior connection, it could be close to impossible. On the other hand, you already have a whole web of relationships all around you. So why start from scratch by trying to build a base somewhere else? Talk to your coworkers and your neighbors about fighting your bosses and landlords, rather than some other workplace or neighborhood where nobody knows you. Likewise, in terms of carrying out social investigations and workers’ inquiries to expand a base, it’s a lot easier to do this when you can build on top of experiences and intuitions that you already have about your own local context.
This ties into another big advantage of building power in our own lives, which is its sustainability. Burnout is a huge problem across most activist and organizing groups, whether they are radical or liberal, non-profit or political collective. Much of this has to do with how emotionally draining the work can get. Constantly talking to new people, flyering and canvassing, facilitating meetings, researching, attending rallies and marches – this kind of activism can take a lot out of people. It also tends to be incredibly time-consuming, which makes participation a serious challenge for those who have other responsibilities, like childcare. Focusing efforts on a single area of engagement, as posited by the base-building framework, may resolve the issue of ambulance-chasing and protest-hopping, but the self-sacrificial nature of organizing can remain.
But organizing is only draining if it takes more out of you than it puts back in. Organizing for people outside of your own material life, while still inarguably an indispensable part of left-wing strategy, tends to be a drain on capacity. There are hard physical limits on how much you can give to other people, while also taking care of yourself. On the other hand, if your organizing is about battling against the way capitalism exploits and represses you and your friends, coworkers, family members, and neighbors, then it can actually become a source of real material value to you. It becomes more than just something you do out of ideological commitments or altruism. Organizing can actually become regenerative. This is what it should really mean when we talk about sustainable organizing. It isn’t just about checking in with each other and encouraging self-care — it is about creating positive feedback loops where organizing makes the organizer’s life better, where class struggle is increasing rather than decreasing capacity, and where solidarity with others is actually rooted in a shared material interest.
It should be emphasized that none of this should be mistaken as an argument for individualism. This isn’t about building personal power and focusing narrowly on only what benefits you – it’s about how to build collective power where you are already located, for the benefit of not just you but your friends, neighbors, coworkers, classmates, and/or family members. Nor should this be used as an excuse to remain within your subculture – after all, how many of the people you actually live and work alongside are actually in left-wing activist cliques? The vast majority in and around our workplaces and neighborhoods are precisely parts of the larger unorganized masses that base-building must target. The alienated nature of our society means that you probably don’t know them or their struggles very well – which is precisely what must be overcome in order to engage in serious base-building.
There is also the important question of organizing at strategic nodes of capitalism, i.e. focusing radical labor organizing efforts on logistics hubs. Workers’ self-inquiry should not be taken as a rejection of the need for a larger strategic orientation based on system-level analysis of capitalism, but rather, as a means to build a solid foundation for this higher-level strategy. In conventional warfare, if an army wants to take control of a strategic point, they do not rush there immediately. They advance slowly and methodically, shoring up their supply chains, concealing themselves, studying the terrain, analyzing and planning the exact route, and so on. The same must hold true for class war. It is one thing to come up with strategic sectors that must be organized; it is another thing entirely to strategize about how to reach these sectors in the first place. We need to plan out exactly how to get from where we can build class power today, to where we need to build class power tomorrow.
I fear that if militants immediately leap into trying to organize at key strategic points (i.e. warehouses) without already having organic pre-existing connections to such areas, they’ll fall back into the same unsustainable patterns of activism, regardless of how much sheer will or commitment they may have to base-building. A more sustainable approach could be to base-build where you are already at – your workplace, your neighborhood, etc. – with a plan to expand the base toward a key strategic area, one step at a time. For example, if you’re organizing your workplace but you really want to see the logistics sector organized (which is the case for most of us, I imagine), then develop a plan, in concert with other base-builders, to slowly expand organizing and networking down the supply chain, toward the logistics sector. This way, you’re not just parachuting out of the sky to land among warehouse workers to recruit them into an intellectual project – you’re actually reaching out as workers with a genuine shared material interest in building class power.
In addition, a key aspect of workers’ self-inquiry should be to figure out whether base-builders are already in a strategic sector of some sorts. We need to analyze the current class and social composition of radical groups, and reflect on what this tells us about optimal strategy. From my own observations, it seems like most self-identified radicals tend to be rooted in the academic, education, and non-profit industries. The knee-jerk reaction to observing this pattern tends to be either hand-wringing or scorn. But perhaps this indicates a failure of our imagination, more than anything else. In many ways, the education and non-profit industries today are at the center of urban social reproduction – and in the case of the former, a driving force in a resurgent labor movement. Can we really do nothing with the fact that their labor forces are infested with underpaid and overworked malcontents, who are increasingly swarming into radical left-wing spaces?
Ultimately, we need to base our strategy on who we actually are. This is why so many debates within and between so many left-wing groups can often go nowhere. Sometimes there seems to be an endless stream of new organizations and new blogs starting up and fading away, all with a different strategic vision – but all presupposing that there is an amorphous blob of socialist cadre who can be directed or trained into a certain direction by whichever group wins the contests for leadership. There is no analysis about what the class composition of the socialist movement is, and no thought given to how the specific backgrounds, occupations, and experiences of current groups should inform the work they could or should be doing.
We can do much better than this kind of pure idealism. Let us no longer abstract ourselves out of our material context. We may call ourselves socialists, anarchists, Marxists, revolutionaries – but what really matters for class war is the fact that we are students, bartenders, parents, taxi drivers, teachers, engineers, friends, and more. Let us recognize this and plan accordingly.
R.K. Upadhya is an engineer, organizer, and writer in the San Francisco Bay Area.