There is a distinction in the Left right now which divides older parts of the US Left from the newer organizations which have grown since the Trump presidency. On the one hand is a conception of politics as a series of line positions and principles held in abstract. This idea reaches its zenith with a view of people and organizations as having “good politics” or “bad politics” absent organizing for them.
On the other hand is a viewpoint of politics as solely procedural, where principles and positions can only be implied from the process. Principles and hard line positions here become a limitation on our actions, at best something to be tabled ad infinitum, at worst something which excludes us from the real working class which doesn’t share our arcane views.
What is missing here is the realization of principles as something which are both helpful in organizing and which can only be truly realized in action. If indeed the nature of socialist politics in our times is turning “socialism into a verb” (Left Wind, ‘Introduction & Self Criticism’), then an overview of these building blocks of our politics is absolutely necessary. In line with the excellent work done by Unity & Struggle in New Tools Needed, this article aims to be the first in a short series which will aim to describe the building blocks of politics, and how we can transform political lines into embodied practices. This will be the beginning of a series of articles examining those building blocks.
To do this, I am first going to give a formulation of what the building blocks of politics are, followed by the levels of analysis which should be used when you are organizing. First, the formula:
Politics = Goals + (Methods + Principles)
Politics in action consists of the Goal (what you are working towards), the method (what tools you use), and your principles (how you use your methods). I have already spoken quite a bit on methods: Organizational Materialism is almost wholly focused on how the methods that a radical organization or movement uses can become dominant as time goes on. While I intend to speak to goals more, principles are the thing which distinguishes radical from liberal politics and which defines what ‘victory’ looks like in each case. We’ve all been in the room of a liberal NGO (or indeed, a reading club-slash-sect) where revolution is spoken to as obviously the end goal with the feeling that this means nothing to the person who said it. How we go about our actions is in many senses as important as the actions themselves.
It is also important, here, to distinguish between the different levels of analysis and the different levels of action that can occur. If the only thing that was required of a political movement was a single action, things would be relatively easy. This is, unfortunately, rarely the case. Campaigns often consist of a series of actions, movements of a series of campaigns, each mediated by the often frustrating administrative work to maintain the cohesion of the organizations committing to these campaigns and actions. Borrowing from the military sciences, I would offer that there are four levels of analysis in political action:
Tactics – Operations – Strategy – Grand Strategy
Tactics comprises the way we approach individual actions and individual events. The goal in a tactic is to get a good turnout, get a meeting with a politician, boost the numbers of workers in a workplace interested in unionizing, etc. Operations in the military sciences requires the administration of engagements within a single theater of warfare towards a strategic end. In political movements operations involve the chaining of individual actions and the intra-organizational work required to maintain a cohesive organization in pursuit of the strategic goal. The goals in operations can be membership retention, leadership development, building a base, or building a coalition. Strategy consists of the whole work of a campaign and the decisions that go into deciding to embark on a new campaign. Strategic goals would be the successful unionization of a workplace, creation of a tenants union, the passing of a bill, or victory in an electoral campaign. Grand strategy is the largest goal, which applies at the level beyond the scope of any one organization and any one campaign to achieve. In military terms, it is not just the defeat of any one enemy, but the total success of your side.
The grand strategic goal of socialism should be the instigation of a revolution towards a socialist society: socialist because we need to overturn every anti-social and anti-democratic institution in our society to build one where humanity can survive and indeed flourish, and revolution because the bourgeoisie is never going to let us do that on our own. The way we do this–our strategic goal–should be to build an accumulation of organized forces which include both groups which can attack capitalism and groups which can help us build the institutions of socialism. These forces do not need to be under the aegis of one organization (indeed this has not been the case in any social revolution (see Create Two, Three Many Parties of Autonomy), but should be coordinated in some capacity. Otherwise what we have is either premature infighting (in the case of uncoordinated forces) or a series of actions which do not build to the goal (in the case of an underdeveloped accumulation of forces).
This is relatively obvious, but this is where principles come in. The question of how we are to build towards this goal is anything but. Many see principles as a straightforward limitation (i.e., ‘we will not do this’), and view this as either a good manifestation of their moral viewpoints, or see this as a useless exercise in hand-tying. These twinned viewpoints arise from a misconception about the usefulness of democratically decided principles which are expansive enough to be applied at every level from individual actions to the workings of the entire organization. In their place what we have are informal principles, assumed points of unity: what we get are principles applied at the wrong level, or useless and repeated conversations. To explain what I mean I will detail two arguments that occurred in the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) in the last three years, arguments which could have been streamlined by the adoption of expansive principles.
One of the first crises the post-Trump DSA went through was the controversy that came out of the election of Fetonte to the National Political Committee, the highest body of the organization. Fetonte had been a union organizer in Austin, and had sold himself as an NPC candidate in those terms. What he did not say was that he had represented prison guards. He resigned, but this event cast a shadow over the whole 2017-2019 NPC. It spawned an extended argument as to whether police should be allowed as members, an argument that continues to this day. To those who oppose such a restriction, socialism has nothing to do with policing: police and prison guards are members of the working class just as much as a factory worker. An arbitrary restriction on socialist organizations only serves to separate us from the working class in the name of some subcultural shibboleth. To those who support this restriction, the Left has spent the last decade fighting against or coming up against police brutality, and opposition to the police is not a subcultural desire; it is a rational understanding of the role the police have played in suppressing our movements.
A second case: during the 2019 national convention a resolution calling the DSA to begin coordinating a campaign towards the decriminalization of sex work. While this was so overwhelmingly supported that it appeared in the consent agenda (being passed alongside a series of other resolutions with overwhelming support). It was, however, controversial within a group of ‘sex worker exclusionary feminists’, who fear that sex work decriminalization supports human trafficking and argue for a Nordic model wherein the consumption of sex work would be illegalized. This argument was not persuasive at the convention and the move to take it off the consent agenda was immediately voted down, but the argument about whether it should be on the consent agenda took up a lot of discursive space in DSA before the convention, with numerous posts arguing for and against it and a 200+ post thread on the DSA forums similarly arguing about it.
The DSA should work to decriminalize sex work, and police do not really have a place in socialist organizations. But often these conversations are frustratingly self-contained, with the assumption that making a statement is in and of itself a political point. Good positions can be motivated by a variety of politics. Furthermore, talking about these as issues separately elides the fact that they are intimately connected: who enforces the criminalization of sex work besides the police? What could make these conversations more useful while winnowing out potentially useless conversations would be to connect them to a broader principle, which would structure the way we act at every level not just through what campaigns some segments of our organization fight for, but also by defining what the whole organization cannot do.
An example of a broader politics that we can connect these issues to would be police and prison abolition. This ideological position calls for society to decrease and eventually eliminate its reliance on carceral solutions to its problems, and while this broader position may seem limiting, it actually reveals the connections between different and seemingly disparate struggles, from border policy to prison labor to decriminalization of drugs and sex work. Furthermore, while these limitations might seem to be a bit much, they make our organizations into safe spaces for overpoliced populations.
Here is how the principle of police and prison abolition could look in practice:
|Principle: Police/Prison Abolition|
|Grand Strategy||Do not engage in campaigns that further carceralize people/activities (‘legal to own but not to buy’ drug decriminalization, nordic model for sex work, increased border policing)|
|Strategy||Do not allow collaborate with police or position oneself with the police or prison industrial complex over the course of campaigns.|
|Operations||Do not recruit from/allow cops to become members of our organizations|
|Tactics||Do not use police to deal with issues within actions or organizations|
What is important here is conceptualizing politics as more than a set of identities; seeing principles not as something that motivates a single campaign but as something which should motivate the whole of one’s work. When combined with a clearly thought out set of goals, we have now created an organization which is consistent through all the campaigns and struggles it fights.
By conceptualizing each piece of them, the concept of being a police abolitionist becomes a real thing that manifests through what we do rather than an empty identity. Since they are the product of an ongoing democratic process, they are understood by and supported throughout the membership. Due to that process, future conversations about what we should do will be marked by a comprehensive understanding of our organization’s politics. This means that we can more swiftly accept or deny proposals which are obviously in or out of line with our politics, and allows us to analyze edge cases with far more clarity.
This process is all the more relevant now. As our organizations stretch themselves between more and more campaigns and practices, we have seen the proliferation of sub-units, organizations within organizations, which often insist on a level of autonomy. We see this in the working groups of the DSA, the sub-committees of Alinksy influenced activist organizations, or the mass organizations of anarchist or Marxist groups. In a Left dominated by a handful of organizations, this structure is understandable and commendable: it allows our organizations to reach into multiple struggles in multiple ways and prevents groups formed to fight one struggle from disappearing in a downturn or at the end of a campaign. In the best case scenario this model allows us to synthesize particular struggles into the universal struggle for a socialist society.
But this model is not without its dangers: it creates a natural pressure between two kinds of accountability: accountability to the part and accountability to the whole. Autonomy is a positive goal, but if it is applied without clear rules, sub-units can operate democratically within themselves, while compromising the democracy of the larger organization. For example, an instance where one sub-unit is working towards prison abolition and another is supporting a candidate who among other things wanted to expand a prison. Here the lack of organization-wide, democratically decided principles in the name of the democratic ideal of sub-unit autonomy has created a situation where the organization as a whole is compromised: accountability to the whole is lost, and it increasingly does not make sense for the sub-units to operate within the same organization.
In addition, there is a danger that in segregating our practical arms we are confining the strategic questions and conclusions one sub-unit faces within itself. In the worst case scenario, these sub-units retreat entirely within themselves, giving up on the idea of influencing even their local organization. This threatens the cohesion of our local organizations if the constant danger of sub-units transforming into single issue groups is not fought against through a constant struggle to, on the one hand, allow them a degree of tactical autonomy, and on the other, to connect their struggle to the fight that others have both within and without our organization.
Often issues like this are resolved through the efforts of the leadership, but relying too heavily on having a set of leaders with both the correct line and the diplomatic acumen to manage different semi-autonomous groups is not a long term solution. Any number of things could jeopardize an organization which relies too heavily on its leadership to manage the politics of its sub-units: personal life happens, people drift away from an organization, and relying on a handful of people to manage the variety of implicit principles an organization might have is both undemocratic and ineffective. Such a set-up could easily create an organization whose principles are relevant only to the handful of people in leadership, which infantilizes the membership.
This could lead to rapid change in an organization’s politics as new leaders come in, an old leadership that has to ever-more precariously maintain its power as new leaders are seen as potential ideological rivals, or, worst of all, a membership which is incapable of thinking of politics past the level of tautology, that is, an organization which is incapable of producing new leaders. Even if this is avoided, it would inherently push towards a conflict between the organizational leadership, who necessarily have to consider the concerns of the whole, and the leadership of sub-units, who do not. This is suboptimal even when the leadership is capable of threading such a needle; it is far more likely that attempts by the leadership to assert political lines will be seen as autocratic by the membership which could immediately lead to a crisis.
A lack of principles determined by the whole organization is neither more democratic nor more effective, and that rather than creating red tape the creation of organizational principles allows the whole of the membership to understand the politics of the organization that they are in. They allow us to move from a conglomeration of single-issue or single-practice sub-units into coherent organizations whose politics mark every aspect of their organizing, where those politics are not the products of the individual sentiments of the leadership but are created by and engage the whole of the membership. Starting conversations within even our local organizations about not just what we are fighting for but how we can let what we’re fighting for more deeply define us is important. Even if no organization is ever going to get to this ideal between cohesion and autonomy, starting on a process of clarifying what our politics mean at every level gives us a better understanding of what we are fighting for and how we fight for it, and will allow us to create more cohesive, democratic, and effective organizations.
As always I would like to thank the membership of Rochester DSA and of Red Bloom.