Navigating the Crisis: A Study Groups Roundtable

Dan Berger and Chris Dixon

Our moment is marked by both crisis and possibility. Economies are plunging worldwide, and ecosystems are in undeniable danger. State repression is expanding, and the US, Canada, and Israel continue to wag wars of occupation. In this context, the recent US presidential election tapped into a reservoir of popular energy for change. However, mass movements in North America continue to be relatively demobilized. The left itself is in crisis and lacks clearly defined visions and strategies. Although progressive sympathies now run high, progressive options – let alone radical ones – are few.

Radicals thus face urgent questions: How do we understand the current conditions and develop a revolutionary politics appropriate to them? How do we foster mass movements that can exceed “politics as usual” and burst into new fields of action? How do we create strategies that can activate popular sentiments? And how do we build organizations capable of advancing movements and consolidating gains?

One way that activists and organizers wrestle with these issues is through study groups – intentional spaces for critical and collective reflection. Study groups are a hallmark of the left. Previous periods of crisis, like the 1930s and 1970s, compelled radicals to jointly investigate theoretical and practical models of revolutionary struggle. Often, these investigations led to new organizations or campaigns. Similarly, the current crises have generated several formations that intentionally use study to advance political priorities and explore organizational forms. The following roundtable brings together four such groups in the United States:

Another Politics is Possible (APP) is a group of organizers and activists in New York City. Their core values include collective leadership, democratic self-determination, challenging all systems of oppression, and centering the experiences of people most targeted by these intersecting systems.

The Activist Study Circles (ASC) is a multi-tendency socialist study group in the Bay Area. It brings together Marxists, anarchists, and revolutionary nationalists committed to a racial, economic, social, and gender justice anti-imperialist politics and to building power in oppressed and working class communities.

LA Crew (LAC) is a collective that was brought together by a shared commitment to learn lessons from all of the rich traditions of liberatory resistance, and to engage others with their analysis and principles. The LAC studies, analyzes, experiments, and creates community through collectively agreed upon political work and shared principles.

The New York Study Group (NYSG) is a network of activists and organizers, mostly people of color, based in diverse communities and organizations in New York City. Since 2005, NYSG has been studying left organizational forms mainly revolutionary parties and united fronts and strategy.

These groups represent different, if overlapping, political strands. The tensions between their approaches, in turn, point to key unresolved questions concerning leadership, organization, and politics. Regarding leadership: Are leaders elected, established, or developed? Is leadership about exercising authority, manifesting group decisions, or developing collective power? Regarding organization: Should we be oriented toward a revolutionary party or set of parties, or should we discard the party model altogether? Can the party model co-exist with other models of revolutionary organization? Is a revolutionary organization committed to seizing power, redefining it, or something else entirely? And regarding politics: Are there important issues that we neglect by attempting to bridge multiple left tendencies, or do our political differences obscure common ground? These questions are not resolved here. Responses to these questions, meanwhile, expose differences not just of definition but of emphasis. Each group believes in building revolutionary organization(s), developing inter-left unity, and popularizing radical politics, yet they prioritize them differently.

The groups participating in this roundtable attempt to engage the perennial question – what is to be done? – by drawing upon an eclectic set of politics. The commitment to such politics varies: the NYSG draws explicitly from Marxist-Leninist history, APP looks to anti-authoritarian social movements like the Zapatistas, and the ASC and the LAC each work in their own way to bridge the divide. Despite these differences, all four draw from a range of tendencies on the revolutionary left, recognizing that whatever we build must both learn from and be different than what has come before. They suggest that, in responding to today’s conditions, we must try to avoid the mistakes that revolutionaries of all stripes – Marxist and anarchist, revolutionary nationalist and identity-based – made in the past.

At their best, these study groups offer lodestars – orienting concepts rooted in practices – that we can use as we grapple with the pressing questions of our time. This roundtable thus sets a foundation for the kind of non-sectarian and principled debate we so urgently need.

Tell us about the origins of your study group.

APP: Another Politics is Possible first came together at the end of 2006 as a New York City-based study group of 15 organizers, activists, educators, dreamers, and revolutionaries committed to a collective process of self-education and political articulation.

We came together because of a shared practice. Many of us were already working in organizing projects and collectives to implement some aspects of the core principles that brought us together as APP. We were doing work on gendered violence, education, queer and youth organizing, childcare and community building primarily as members of immigrant and women of color organizations.

One of our primary intentions was to articulate a practice – a way of doing politics – that values collective leadership, seeks democratic self-determination for all people, and centers the experiences of people most targeted by the intersecting systems of patriarchy, capitalism, and white supremacy and their multiple permutations.

Building on this commitment, we align ourselves with those who argue that engaging state power is not enough. Drawing from the lived experience of decolonized states and from women of color feminist critique, we’ve seen that it’s not just a question of who holds power but also what form that power takes. We’ve learned from history that when seizing state power is the primary strategy, it often ends by confirming Audre Lorde’s sage wisdom that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” We must work to reclaim, reimagine, and rebuild our own home. Creating liberatory forms of social organization beyond the state is a necessity. Attempts to model the society we envision transform our cultures and relationships, and create a guide for our politics and organizing. This prefigurative sensibility, popular in many of today’s movements, has deep historical roots worldwide. These include forms of resistance that are often overlooked by traditional left analysis and range from communities of care to the transformative role of culture and spirituality in larger scale organized movements.

Some of the political questions we believe are fundamental to exploring different possibilities for revolutionary organization are: How do we both transform our interpersonal relationships and build broader cultures of liberation? What does collective leadership and democratic self-determination look like? How do we make sense of the many strategies to engage with the state as we seek liberation? How do we understand the process and significance of rebuilding community? How do we really build a movement that addresses the intersectionality of oppressions?

ASC: In the late 1990s, many longtime Bay Area organizing efforts were coming to fruition. They brought a broad range of people together around radical left politics and practice. September 11 changed the context of our struggle. Over the next few years, many of us brought our organizations and communities into the streets as part of the anti-war movement. During that period, leaders from different parts of the Bay Area left began conversations on building a broader socialist unity drawing from multiple traditions. This included communists developing new approaches to democratic organizing, grassroots power, and strategy, and anarchists developing new approaches to leadership, revolutionary politics, and anti-authoritarian organizing.1

In late 2003, a group of 30 of us from 20 organizations came together to think about what the Bay Area movement lacked and what we thought was needed. Out of that discussion a committee formed to plan a project called Movement Generation that brought together leaders in community-based organizations from different political traditions (Marxist, revolutionary nationalist, feminist, and anarchist) to engage in a nine-month study to develop strategy and guide our struggles. Through this process evolved a multi-trend movement building approach.

From this experience, a group of us decided in 2005 that we needed a study group to foster relationships and political unity in order to build left organization. Our planning committee met for about two years. We developed trust between us and trust in our ability to play a meaningful role in building a dynamic left. We then invited more than 100 people to participate and 80 of these went on to form the ASC program. We meet once a month in large groups, and then once a month in smaller groups to delve deeper into subject matter. We have continued as a group of about 40.

The study group began as, and continues to be, majority people of color, majority women, and a large percentage queer. To help create an intergenerational movement, we invited some older-generation comrades to participate. Most of us are in our late twenties to early 40s, with the majority in our 30s. We are multi-trend socialists (anarchists, Marxists, feminists, revolutionary nationalists, etc.) with demonstrated unity on key issues like anti-racism/anti-imperialism, the need for grassroots peoples’ organizations to build powerful democratic movements, the need for a synthesis of left politics, and a desire to develop new politics and forms of organization.

LAC: Those of us who first began studying together had come to the conclusion that no single political trend had found the answer to creating the change we are fighting for. We concluded that every trend had lessons for us, both in their victories and in their failures. We came together to look at these trends and to determine what principles and strategies felt useful for leftists today.

The question of leadership has been central to our growth. Drawing from anarchist and horizontalist models, we hold each other accountable to the principle of non-hierarchy by “throwing power back.” When we “throw power back,” we commit to being “leaders” that inspire others to see themselves as agents capable of making social change, and to see their most important role as developing others to participate in making that change. We believe that everyone has the ability to learn from history and to participate in creating collective visions for the future.

Like Ella Baker said, “strong people don’t need strong leaders.” We see our group as a location to build strong people so they can in turn develop others to do the same. People have different levels of experience when it comes to reading, engaging with political ideas, and organizing. Because we want to create a space that’s not dominated by the most “experienced” people, we aim for an equitable distribution and rotation of tasks and responsibilities. We encourage each other to take on roles that challenge us to grow in areas where we don’t have much experience, and have a buddy system for supporting each other’s development outside of meetings. We consciously challenge all the societal messages that tell us that “someone else is the leader.”

NYSG: After a March 2006 discussion at the Brecht Forum on the need for a left party, five young activists and organizers from New York City came together to initiate a study group around the question of left organization. That first year of study brought together about 20 or 30 folks from diverse sectors of the social justice movement. Most of us were people of color in our 30s, politically active for more than a decade in a range of community-based organizations, and not ideologically fixed – some influenced by Marxism, some by anarchism, many agnostic or still figuring it out.

We started by studying the theories of the “united front” and the “revolutionary party,” and by looking at the history of struggles in South Africa and the United States, and at new organizational models in Mexico and Brazil. During this first round, we found that we had some significant differences about the “revolutionary party” model. These tended to arise between autonomists, who wanted to discuss alternative organizational forms, and people from a range of ideological positions (Marxist, revolutionary nationalist, and “agnostic”) who believed that revolutionary parties were necessary.

The participants who were compelled by the idea of a revolutionary party decided to initiate a second round of study. About 30 people came together to explore different historical models of revolutionary parties, learn from their contributions, and engage with their historical errors without abandoning them. This round of study was guided by two questions. First, what is our vision for a left organization/party that will help build a successful liberation movement in the United States? Second, how do we most effectively advance movement-building and left-building: by joining an existing left organization, initiating a new one, or something else?

At the end of this round of study, no individual from our study group chose to join an existing socialist organization, and no one argued for starting a new party. However, we all agreed that it was important to continue working with existing left organizations and invest in transitional projects that would lay a stronger groundwork for the re-emergence of a more relevant left organization in New York City.

In framing the objectives of our study, we skipped over a crucial step. We found that we couldn’t figure out what kind of left organization we needed or how we might build one without a clear assessment of our political conditions and a strategic vision for the development of a successful revolutionary movement. We realized that we needed to re-open our study process and engage questions of strategy. That is the focus of our studies and dialogues over the next year.

What texts and movements have been instrumental to your study group?

APP: When we came together, we sought to locate our group in a historical and theoretical trajectory. Given what was happening in the world, we also sought to articulate what form our politics would take at a mass level.

Some of the texts we’ve read have focused on movements like the Adivasi of India, the Unemployed Workers Movement in Argentina, the Movimento Sem Terra in Brazil, the Zapatistas in Mexico, and the Black Freedom Movement in the United States. The critique of the not-for-profit industrial complex promoted by INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence provided an important lens through which to think about the weakened state of social justice movements in the US.

We have prioritized politics that are prefigurative, horizontal, autonomous, and based on the development of new social relations. Each of the movements we studied has also addressed the non-material dimensions of oppression, which include the ways it impacts our individual and collective emotional lives and the damage we inflict on each other and on ourselves. Frantz Fanon, Paulo Freire, and Audre Lorde have reflected extensively upon the ways that the oppressor’s tactics permeate our interpersonal relationships and psyches. They have thus served as important examples of the need to integrate healing and self-care within a collective framework into our broader movement work.

ASC: Initially, the planning committee studied Martha Harnecker’s essay “Forging a Union of the Party Left and the Social Left.” Harnecker convincingly describes the need for anti-capitalists from the Party Left and social movements to come together and develop a new socialist politics together. For us, the Party Left includes traditional Left Party organizations as well as cadre organizations of various political stripes, like the Love and Rage Revolutionary Anarchist Federation, Standing Together to Organize a Revolutionary Movement (STORM), and the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement. Most of us come from the grassroots organizations, campaigns, and struggles of the social movement left.

We developed our study by voting on various case studies and themes. As a multi-trend group, it was important to us to select a set of case studies and readings that would help us to learn what we could take from each tradition. We began with an examination of the current moment. Studying the state of US imperialism, we took stock of our role as first-world leftists and discussed our visions of socialist politics for this century. From that grounding, we began looking at case studies of revolutionary organizations in various historic periods. We studied Guinea-Bissuea’s national liberation struggle, which was very important to revolutionaries of previous generations but not so well known to radicals of our generation. We studied the Zapatistas’ historical development and their contributions to current movements. This launched a larger discussion about Zapatismo and its applicability to the US. We explored the complex organizing strategies of the Communist Party in the US South during the Great Depression and the roles of the left in united fronts.

Our final case study focused on STORM in the Bay Area and the national Love and Rage Revolutionary Anarchist Federation. This allowed us to look at organizations from the 1990s in which some of us had been involved and brought us to a rich discussion on the role of contemporary third-world Marxist and anti-authoritarian/anarchist organizations. Through all of these studies, we’ve tried to highlight both the successes and shortcomings of social movements in order to draw lessons for today.

LAC: We want to understand the diverse history of revolutionary movements – not just to develop our own theoretical foundation but to understand what other folks are drawing from and to develop our own critiques of different political trends. As the history of the 20th century shows, we don’t think that any one trend “got it right.” Nevertheless, many have something to contribute to a revolutionary politics for the 21st century. In our study, we try to grapple with the tension between useful insights, and limitations, obstacles, and contradictions. Within that framework, we study texts from the classical marxist tradition (Marx, Engels, Lenin, Luxemburg, Trotsky, Gramsci, etc.), third world marxism and revolutionary nationalism, Maoism, and the New Communist Movement, anarchist and autonomista movements, US people of color liberation movements, feminist and queer liberation movements, the Earth liberation movement, and others.

We also try to look at everything through the lens of what we call “unbreakapartability.” Because oppressions are intersectional and affect all of us in complex and overlapping ways, the many forms of struggle for human liberation cannot be broken apart. An unbreakapartable approach aims to reveal that, as whole people, our struggles must reflect our whole selves. As well, unbreakapartability calls on us to learn from the vision and organizational forms of multiple struggles so we can build a truly integrated liberation movement.

NYSG: We studied the “classics” of Marxist thinking on the revolutionary party and united front (Lenin’s What is to be Done?, Gramsci’s political writings, and Mao’s speeches on the United Front), looking to draw out the often-ignored dynamism and democratic thinking underlying these texts. We felt that Lenin and Gramsci demonstrated the important role of parties, the need to root those parties in popular struggles, and the possibility for a deeply democratic orientation.

Among the contemporary analytical pieces that we read, Harnecker’s “Forging a Union of the Party Left and the Social Left” stands out. Harnecker distinguishes between the “party left,” who are organized into explicitly socialist left organizations and parties, and the “social left” (which we have re-termed the “social movement left”), who are rooted in mass movements rather than socialist parties or organizations. She points out that both “lefts” have their own assets and challenges. She argues that we will only be able to build an effective left rooted in powerful social movements if we forge a “union” of these two “lefts.” This approach helped us to identify the central role of building vibrant social movements that can help to reinvigorate the “party left” in the United States.

In our studies, reading history was just as important as theory. We found the history of the US Communist Party in the 1930s to be particularly helpful. The mass scale and revolutionary orientation of the CPUSA during that period inspired us to think bigger. We saw that revolutionaries need to be deeply rooted in mass struggle and guided by a clear strategy. We learned that revolutionary parties played an instrumental role in almost every serious revolutionary movement over the past century and that many of those parties made serious anti-democratic errors. We saw that revolutionaries needed to be deeply rooted in working class communities of color but that we also needed to build functional unity with broader social forces in order to contend for real power. Finally, we learned that cross-class and multi-racial alliances encounter serious pitfalls.

Has your group worked together politically beyond study? How has your study process affected your political practice?

APP: In the summer of 2007, we organized a delegation called “Another Politics is Possible: Living the Vision from Below and to the Left” to travel from NYC to Atlanta to attend the first US Social Forum (USSF). This delegation was the first time we worked together on a larger scale. We sought to embody the politics we had been articulating together through the journey itself. Instead of choosing a few individuals to travel by plane and renting hotel rooms for them alone, we raised funds for so that more than 70 women of color, mothers, children, youth, and childcare volunteers could attend the USSF. Ground transportation enabled more participants to attend, particularly immigrants and families with children.

We also used the USSF to collaborate with groups from around the country that had been exploring similar politics. Together, we created a 25-session track of workshops addressing topics like collective and non-hierarchical approaches to organizing, addressing violence against women of color through transformative justice, alternatives to institutional schooling, solidarity work, and community-generated visions and practices of autonomy. Several of the people we worked with on this track were beginning to form or were already participating in local study groups. Since the USSF, APP has teamed up with these study groups to engage in continued collaboration and dialogue.

ASC: Although we have moved away from the goal of forming an organization, we remain focused on building relationships and shared understandings to build the left. We put organization building on the back burner because of the need to bring together a large group of people engaged in many different areas of work. While we have unity on the political principles of the group, the level of experience working together varies widely.

We want to create space for discussions about larger questions of strategy and left organization. For example, many of us believe in the need to both build new forms of liberatory power and win existing power. However, what that means for organizational strategy is a question we want to explore. We are looking at various organizational forms because we believe there is much to be learned from both the Zapatista fight against neo-liberalism and the Communist Party campaigns during the Great Depression.

The ASC is not currently designed to take collective action. However, as individuals involved in other struggles, we have come together though long-term alliances, new campaigns, electoral work, fundraisers and cultural events, and new friendships. We hope the ASC will continue to foster a healthy left culture and allow us to find creative and meaningful ways to share common vision, analysis, and strategy so that we can move more effectively together.

LAC: After studying together for a few years, we formed a new collective, instead of joining an existing one. This was because we didn’t see an organization that was drawing on multiple movements and deeply incorporating lessons from different trends. Our priority is building grassroots movements that can give masses of people the skills and vision required to transform the world. It is critical for us to find others who are committed to long-term movement building so that we can deepen our consciousness together. We believe in doing this within collective organization, where we can practice accountability and cross-sector coordination. Ultimately, this coordination should happen nationally and internationally as we have begun to see with the emergence of collectives that demonstrate how “another politics is possible” in the 21st century.

Within the LA Crew, we organize in education, healthcare, immigration, and the garment industry. We discuss our individual work collectively and look for opportunities to work across sectors. We are guided by six core principles: unbreakapartability, non-hierarchy, self-determination, experimentation, acknowledgement of our whole humanity – what we call “mind/body/spirit” – and dual power. This last concept flows from the history of popular movements creating alternative institutions that pose a revolutionary challenge to the system and lay the groundwork for a new society.

Our commitment to these principles shapes what we study and what we study shapes our practice. Our interest in dual power led us to study the Zapatista movement, which sparked questions about state power and the limits and benefits of dual power institutions. This impacted our thinking on the healthcare sector. Is it better to create small, model institutions or make demands on the state to provide universal access? How do we encourage people to think about the healthcare system they want while also taking advantage of opportunities to make system-wide changes?

NYSG: At the end of our second round of study, we were invited to help plan the Revolutionary Work in Our Times Summer School. Co-sponsored by Solidarity, Freedom Road Socialist Organization, the League of Revolutionaries for a New America, the LA Crew, and the NYSG, this four-day gathering brought together almost 200 revolutionaries and radicals from across the US (along with small delegations from Puerto Rico and Canada) in August 2008.

Helping plan the summer school reflected our conclusion that we need to overcome the history of sectarianism on the left and build unity among those committed to radical transformation of society. Based on the assessment that the “social movement left” has an important role to play in building a stronger left, we worked hard to recruit our comrades from social movement organizations to be participants and presenters. We hope the relationships people built through the school will provide a groundwork for developing the broad-based, movement-rooted, and ideologically diverse left organization we need today.

How has your group changed based on the challenges you’ve encountered while studying together?

APP: The successes, challenges, and limitations of our delegation to the USSF have greatly informed our second cycle of study and the ways we organize ourselves today. The experience of large-scale participatory democracy allowed us to engage our principles in practice. Our commitment to praxis left us with a series of new questions. Central themes that emerged included coordination, leadership, structure, organization, and transformative community building.

At the level of coordination, we’ve found it necessary to clarify that non-hierarchical-organizing doesn’t mean a free-for-all or a disavowal of power dynamics. On the contrary, horizontal organizing requires intentional structure and coordination to directly address the different experiences and knowledge that people bring with them. While many of us have addressed these issues in our own collectives, we realized the need to develop a tighter and more transparent structure for APP.

Coming together for our initial round of study, many of us shared critiques concerning the patriarchal nature of the “charismatic” and individualized styles of leadership that have dominated many traditional forms of left organizing. As we grew, the need for a pro-active definition of leadership became increasingly clear. One of our current goals is to articulate an alternative leadership that emphasizes deep listening, actively nurturing a culture of participation in which everyone feels that their voice is valuable, and being cognizant of how power dynamics impact participation and emotional well-being.

ASC: It’s difficult to create a space where our different socialisms can grow like flowers instead of like weeds choking the life out of each other. However, through the years of practice in our various organizations, through Movement Generation, and now through the ASC, we are developing left culture and practice that draws from our different strengths. As the ASC, we changed our goals on organization building as many of us had little experience collaborating with one another. We quickly learned that there was much to be done in terms of building our theoretical foundation and our capacity for political study. Despite these challenges, our primary goals of relationship building and bringing together larger segments of the left continued.

We struggle to simultaneously comprehend what we are studying and to draw meaningful lessons. While trying to see shortcomings in past experiences, it’s important that we understand the conditions that impacted the decisions made in order to avoid sloppy and simplistic conclusions. We need to develop methods to understand our own conditions and possibilities. We need to remain humble and grounded when learning from the past and assessing political work today.

At times, people have critiqued the material we’ve read as being from one tradition or another. This has led the planning committee to ongoing solicitation of input from the membership. We’ve also struggled to maintain momentum and participation. In particular, while the ASC remained majority people of color, most of the people dropping off were people of color. Many have said that it was due to time pressures with their other work. We were also told that more follow up and reminder calls would help. The challenge remains creating participatory democratic processes when so many have so little time to participate. The planning committee of five recently expanded to eleven. We did this to build more leadership and increase participation, as we work to find a good balance between the planning committee moving the group forward and the larger group providing direction and focus.

How we work together is a critical part of the learning process. It’s where we can experiment with the kinds of leadership and organization we need.

LAC: One challenge we’ve faced is getting people to feel comfortable reading and understanding difficult, primary source material – reading Lenin as opposed to reading a book about Lenin. People are sometimes challenged by the language and the references to people, groups, and events they don’t know about. We also face the challenge of making such study accessible to non-English speakers, people with children, and people not accustomed to study and reading as a form of learning.

We’ve tried addressing these challenges by reading “easier,” newer things first, by creating activities that encourage drawing as a way of exploring ideas, and by using visuals for the material we cover. We also check in with people one-on-one as they are reading, before the group actually meets, to offer support and an opportunity to ask questions. Within the study group sessions, we use smaller break out groups to give people a chance to ask questions and “warm up” before large group discussion.

We’ve also found it important to incorporate our principle of mind/body/spirit into the study group process. This has meant giving people an opportunity to hear each other’s stories, and creating a space where feelings have as much value as intellect. This seems to allow people to feel more comfortable. They take more risks in the statements they make and the questions they ask.

NYSG: We’ve struggled with the fact that our participants come with very different degrees of theoretical and historical knowledge. This is somewhat, though not absolutely, related to differences in educational background and pre-existing familiarity with explicitly left theory. It was difficult to find methods that would ensure that people were clear on the fundamentals and also challenge everyone to go deeper. We’ve worked hard to make our group accessible by combining training on fundamentals with critical engagement using both popular education and presentation-discussion formats. We’ve also invited people from different socialist organizations to help us unpack certain histories and theories. We’ve encouraged all participants to help plan at least one session, and have shared childcare costs.

Our study group has struggled with the tension between our ambition to build a stronger left and the fact that the many demands we face keep our level of capacity low. We also struggle to ensure that our study remains connected with the organizing work of our members. To deal with these tensions, we are currently working to develop a new structure that will alternate between smaller study groups (or “grupitos”) based in our members’ mass work and large group studies.

In light of the deepening economic crisis and the election of Barack Obama, how is your study group thinking about the organizational and strategic demands of the current moment?

APP: In other regions of the world, we are able to identify truly transformative movements coordinated across issues, sectors, and communities. In Latin America, we take inspiration from the Zapatista-initiated Other Campaign, the powerful movements transforming Bolivia with and beyond the Morales government, and the Landless Workers’ Movement of Brazil as it moves toward creating alliances with urban movements in response to the neoliberal policies of the Lula administration.

As of yet, there is no radical movement with such broad and deep roots here in the US that is either positing or building viable alternatives in the face of a worsening world-economic crisis. This is what we want to create. Today, there are more possibilities for democracy, justice, economic equality, and ecological sustainability than ever before. The deepening economic crisis has led to a generalized understanding that we need a new system. The Obama administration’s response to some early mobilizations against the crisis suggests that more concessions can be won. The risk of cooptation, on the other hand, is much higher now than it was under the previous administration. The problems we face are global, however, and it is at this scale that we must ultimately be able to coordinate ourselves, both to fight back and to create new social relations.

ASC: We need a new kind of politics. This involves learning from the past but also looking at the moment in which we live. Socialisms of various sorts are in power again in Latin America. Anarchism and horizontalism are alive and well from occupied factories in Argentina to collectivized workplaces to Zapatista struggles. It’s important to take direction from many quarters – from Freedom Road Socialist Organization, to community-based organizing in the Right to the City Alliance, to the Zapatistas – and try to draw together important lessons and insights that are relevant to our struggles.

Through our experience, we’ve come to face the question of how can we build a left that deserves to lead – a left that provides space for people to grow, study, heal, and get trained to build healthy self-governing communities that can transform society. This is happening throughout the country in thousands of organizations and projects. However, there is a tremendous need to create formal spaces to push to the next level. Many of us lack tools to make sense of the world around us. Many of us lack historical knowledge of our movements. We are struggling to move beyond comfortable left positions and place our revolutionary goals in the conditions we face. Our goal is not to be a marginal radical pole but to radically transform society.

As we begin our second round of study, we are focusing on national politics and strategy in this period of economic crisis and an Obama presidency. We are focusing on struggles for health care, immigrant rights, ecological sustainability, peace, and economic justice with the following questions: What is our vision and what are our transitional demands toward socialism? What should we be fighting for in this period? And what should left strategy be to both win immediate demands and build the power of working class and oppressed peoples? We are excited to step up to the challenges and opportunities before us, and the ASC is one space to help us do that.

LAC: We need to be flexible and encourage organizing and experimentation in many different spaces. The work we do today is like planting chamise, a brush plant native to California. When exposed to open flame, the chamise releases combustible gasses that accelerate the spread of wildfires. We can’t predict exactly when and where these fires will start, but history shows us that people do rise up. Whether these uprisings can become movements powerful enough to transform society has a lot to do with the ideas that have been put out there and the organizing that has been done ahead of time.

The widespread energy created by Obama’s election has ignited hope and inspired many people to believe in the possibility for change. We see this as an opportunity to encourage folks to engage in collective action to achieve broader changes instead of waiting for it to come from “above.” The radical left’s weak response to the economic crisis also teaches us that we need to break with old paradigms and experiment with new strategies for change.

Although we don’t think it’s particularly useful at this stage to develop a rigid view of which communities or sectors will be “in the lead” of future movements, our principles do guide how we prioritize where to work. Specifically, we try to make connections between different struggles. In our education organizing, we push for a vision in which the experiences and demands of teachers, students, and parents are seen as unbreakapartable. As we prepare for this year’s May 1st actions, we are emphasizing cross-sector demands that point toward a broad popular response to the economic crisis. This means moving beyond a narrow focus on immigrant rights to include demands for housing, healthcare, education, access to food, and dismantling the security state.

NYSG: We find hope in several developments on the social movement left. In the last couple of years, social movements have consolidated into national formations such as Grassroots Global Justice, the Right to the City Alliance, and the National Domestic Workers’ Alliance, and – in a different vein – the US Social Forum. But while the social movement left is the site of some of the most dynamic struggles, it remains limited by its relatively small scale and lack of strategic vision. We are also limited by the weakness of the explicitly socialist left and the disunity between left organizations. We find hope, however, in the unity built through the Revolutionary Work in Our Times Summer School.

We need strong revolutionary organizations that can bring together the social movement left with the membership of already existing left organizations. In order to lay the groundwork for that level of revolutionary organization, we identified four priorities: First, community-based organizing work in oppressed communities is the most important work that revolutionaries can be doing today. More revolutionaries need to be engaged in the work to build the power of oppressed people. Second, we have to promote the broadest possible development of revolutionary leadership rooted in oppressed communities, particularly in working class communities of color. Third, we need to continuously develop and refine a systematic understanding of the world we live in and what it will take to bring about the revolutionary transformation of society. We need spaces to develop and debate revolutionary theory and strategy, and forums to coordinate their implementation. Fourth, the constitution of a revolutionary left organization for the 21st century depends on the unification of the emergent left forces from social movements with socialist organizations (which need to build a higher level of inter-group unity in order to overcome past divisions).

We recently launched a new phase of study focused on developing left strategies to address the challenges and opportunities of the economic crisis and the “Obama era.” This new focus has produced an overwhelming response and brought together more than 150 activists and organizers from around the city. We are combining both historical reflections on the high tide of resistance in New York during the Great Depression and assessments of our current conditions. This is a unique historical moment, and we hope these strategic dialogues will help us to develop the clarity we need to step up to the historic plate. We believe that if we can get more coordinated and strategic, our movements will look radically different ten years from now.

Note

1 These include the Catalyst Project and the School of Unity and Liberation (SOUL), two grassroots groups that run organizer training programs on anti-racist feminist practice, histories of organizing in communities of color, introduction to anti-capitalist politics, and strategies for contemporary revolutionary work.