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Organizations in Movement

“The body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, ‘Because I’m not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.”

 I Corinthians 12:14-26


The Right has over generations built a movement that can starve, brutalize and imprison its enemies. One day, a movement of the Left will exist which can lead the entire working class out onto the streets, bring the Right’s system to a halt, and then rebuild for the benefit of the entire working class. Imagine the length of the picket line, snaking around entire cities, out through suburbs, over state lines, a single cord that chains the machinery of exploitation. Crane your neck a little and look beyond the line itself. You see the people whose hands make that cord so durable: people running programs to exchange necessities without transactions when things stop, experts able to predict, explain and solve technical problems, combatants with the experience and discipline to gather information and confront the powers that be in daylight and in shadows, people on every street to preach, to excite and, when necessary, to cool. These things can only be learned by doing, and people will need to organize themselves in different ways to do them. The movement that will win, beating back the Right, will be made of many parts. 

For a movement to be built, it needs to be self-aware. It needs a major political home that houses the masses of people composing the movement. It needs different kinds of organizations prepared to effectively take on different areas of struggle. So it has to have the confidence of knowing different parts will perform their own functions, which requires communication and collaboration but, just as importantly, some degree of separation. 

For a bird to fly, the wind has to design the wing. To survive and thrive, organizations within movements need to both hold a basic shape, so they do not evolve into something unrecognizable, and adapt to the challenges in front of them. In a way, the terrain has to design the organization. Socialists building a movement to achieve socialism need to think as protagonists actively shaping and essential to a larger movement. As we grow and enter a new phase in our development and the radical change in the terrain of capitalism, we have to act as though our decisions are important. We have to believe we can make long-term commitments and execute long-term strategies. Here I hope to help lay out some of the terrain and strategic and tactical considerations that can guide us.

II. Movements, Organizations, Members

A movement is a loosely tied but collective effort of individuals, organizations and institutions who try to challenge and ultimately defeat the existing authority that keeps a system or systems in place. Movements often have overlap with one another and even within one another. They lack formal structure, because they are defined by their overarching goals, and lack a decision-making system for including or excluding individuals or organizations. There has been plenty of work on social movement theory by academics, but for our purposes it is enough to understand that, in a general sense, it is defined by its objectives and principles. 

Within a movement, an organization is not necessarily a legally but at least formally constituted group of individuals with a defined structure and set of aims as well as tactics and strategies for achieving those aims. Organizations can be active within several movements at once. For an organization, its decision-making, operational, administrative and disciplinary structure is a critical feature because it will determine when and why its members will act and the character of its actions. An organization should shape itself to the challenge it means to take on. While a movement is a generalized phenomenon organized around objectives and principles, organizations serve a movement by specializing to make progress towards goals. 

Members are a particular kind of individual within a movement, who act within and through organizations and institutions and have a meaningful power to influence their direction. Members are drawn from constituencies, the people for whom the movement means to change the world. Members have formal standing: to be a member of an organization is to have certain rights and privileges within it. Those rights and privileges stem from the member making a commitment to join (like dues), and behaving according to basic standards of conduct. An organization with members is accountable to them, even if its goal is to recruit from a larger constituency. Why does this matter? Because historically, organizations that don’t take seriously the power of their members to democratically, deliberatively and collectively govern and direct the organization instead drift towards determining the will of an external constituency: what do “the people” want? But, of course, the people don’t want any one thing or set of things, and they especially aren’t agreed on the way to get those things. This opens the doors to leaders of an organization substituting their own opinions and judgments for that of a population.

Politics are not an identity, but a worldview and practice, and are formed by people in intentional conversation and struggle together. Members of organizations have a meaningful opportunity to develop politics, not merely express opinions.

III. Theories of Change

Having an analysis of the conditions in front of you, and a theory of who can make change and how, is not just an intellectual exercise. The most successful and radical organizations throughout history had particular theories of change that informed how they acted.

In 1902 Vladimir Lenin, responding to certain Russian radicals who he felt had a too-narrow theory of change, warned that a narrow political focus would in turn affect the organizations they built: “The character of an organization of every institution is naturally and inevitably determined by the character of the activity that institution conducts.” This understanding of the relationship between a vision of change and shape of organization would be echoed by Black Panthers Huey P. Newton and Eldridge Cleaver some sixty years later. A movement, and the organizations inside it, need to have some idea of how radical change happens, and the sources and arrangement of power in a society that are preventing that change — a “power map” in organizing lingo. It has to know, and say out loud, both what “victory” looks like and what examples of progress towards that victory look like. Without this, organizations cannot expect members to make productive decisions about the work to do, the strategies to pursue, and the risks and rewards of different compromises and concessions.

Because of the opposition they face and the power they’re challenging, radicals will often engage in blends of “drastic” — imposing steep, sudden costs on power — tactics and “chronic” — consistently applying stress to the system — strategies. Drastic tactics, such as riots, property destruction, occupations, and physical confrontation are hard to sustain. They bring down acute state repression, are high-risk, and require hardened, experienced people, of which there will be a limited pool. Chronic strategies — rolling strikes, work slowdowns, boycotts, street demonstrations — can be sustained only with large numbers and robust infrastructure. As we’ll see, the ability of an organization to conduct these activities depends in part on its structure. Whether an organization decides to use one tactic or another will relate back ultimately to the theory of change.

IV. Organizations in Movements, in Movement

There are four movements with a lot of overlap that we are really concerned with: the progressive movement, the socialist movement, the labor movement and national liberation movements. Here we’ll consider some major organization types that are common and necessary in a broad movement. This isn’t a comprehensive list, in particular it leaves out labor organizations, but it looks at common historical and current organizational forms and categorizes them by their structures and focus. Keep in mind as you read, a movement can incorporate different theories of change and areas of focus. Trying to understand the reasons for, and advantages or disadvantages of, different organization types is always healthy. Keep in your mind our vision: a movement that can move millions onto a picket line, and all the different work going on behind that line to bind it.

Vanguard Organizations. Vanguard organizations are revolutionary leadership organizations. They see themselves as responsible for leading the masses, particularly at times of sharp struggle, based on an ideological “mass line.” The vanguard party goes back to Karl Kautsy and Vladimir Lenin and is characterized by discipline, ideological consistency, selective membership and a combative tactical orientation. The most relatable, and in the U.S., most commonly cited as an example for current organizing, is the Black Panther Party for Self Defense.

The Black Panther Party was self-consciously organized as a vanguard party which, though small in size (never more than 5,000 or so in membership), had an immense impact on the Black Liberation movement and U.S. Left generally. 

In (very) short, the Black Panther Party had an objective of organizing the “underclass,” in Marxist terms the “lumpen,” who, because they lack institutional power, had to be organized “on the street” through direct action, self-protection and radical self-reliance, or mutual aid. 

In 1967, a year or so after its founding in Oakland, BPP co-founder Huey P. Newton argued in an article subtitled “The Correct Handling of Revolution” that the people needed a Party to raise class and race consciousness and teach them how to fight: “the main function of the Party is to awaken the people and to teach them the strategic method of resisting the power structure.” This was, according to Newton, a “secondary relationship.” The Party’s relationship to the people happened through its tightly-knit members, meaning that the Party is meant to lead the people while being deeply situated in the community but “the masses” were not openly invited to join.

Newton defined The Party’s relationship between its members as “primary”: 

“The relationship between members of the vanguard party is a primary relationship. It is important that the members of the vanguard group maintain a face-to-face relationship with each other. This is important if the party machinery is to be effective. It is impossible to put together a functional party machinery or programs without this direct relationship. The members of the vanguard group should be tested revolutionaries.” 

Newton dismissed the idea that an organization hoping to do the intense work required to organize the most oppressed could survive without strict discipline and leadership, using anarchists as a negative example: “in this country the anarchists seem to feel that…without leadership and without discipline, they can oppose the very disciplined, organized reactionary state. This is not true.”

About two years later, Eldridge Cleaver argued that the “lumpen” segment of the working class were the “left wing” of the working class in part because they had not been compromised by participation in the “mainstream” of the economy. Being “lumpen,” their site of exploitation was not the workplace or the campus but the streets which, therefore, was the proper location for struggle, in the form of confrontation with the state and radical self-reliance. 

Here’s Cleaver: “The students focus their rebellions on the campuses, and the Working Class focuses its rebellions on the factories and picket lines. But the Lumpen finds itself in the peculiar position of being unable to find a job and therefore is unable to attend the Universities. The Lumpen has no choice but to manifest its rebellion in the University of the Streets.” 

For Cleaver, the non-lumpen portion of the proletariat was actually counter-revolutionary. His words: “In both the Mother Country [i.e., the white majority] and the Black Colony, the Working Class is the Right Wing of the Proletariat, and the Lumpenproletariat is the Left Wing….As a matter of fact, the Working Class of our time has become a new industrial elite, resembling more the [chauvinistic] elites of the selfish craft and trade guilds of Marx’s time than the toiling masses ground down in abject poverty.” (This was at a time of much higher union membership, but the rate of Black and brown unionization is actually higher now than then–Black workers have the highest unionization rate in the U.S.)

The obvious conclusion was that the vanguard organization needed to be prepared to engage in intense acts of disruption and even direct conflict with the state and, in turn, to create programs for radical self-reliance. Conflict with the state meant that the community had to be ready to provide for itself and to sustain itself through times of acute conflict. This was part of Newton’s “radical intercommunalism,” also called “survival programs,” pending political revolution. (Newton and Cleaver were certainly prescient in this sense; their activity brought down intense state repression, COINTELPRO and state murder, and self-reliance was therefore critical).

Here’s Cleaver on why this conflict/self-reliance approach was necessary: “The Lumpen has no institutionalized focus in Capitalist society, It has no immediate oppressor except perhaps the Pig Police with which it is confronted daily….because the Lumpen is in this extremely oppressed condition, it therefore has an extreme reaction against the system as a whole.”

This analysis was not universally shared in different parts of the movement. In fact Cleaver and Newton would eventually split, with Newton feeling it was important to be more active in organizing with what some considered to be “bourgeois” elements like Black business owners and Black churches, because of their importance to local communities. While warmly praising the Party’s successes, Assata Shakur also criticized Newton’s “radical intercommunalism” and failure to engage the masses in her autobiography. Ultimately, the repression and split in the BPP culminated in a focus on local electoralism starting in 1972.

A movement of Black workers, starting as the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (which grew into the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, LRBW), had a different analysis altogether. Some in the League argued that the BPP’s organizing focus on the lumpen was strategically incorrect because the steps towards liberation were too vague and insurmountable–the point being that to win for the entire class the strategic organizing focus should be elsewhere. 

Per Muhammad Ahmad, the League believed that “Black workers were the most promising base for a successful Black movement because of the potential power derived from ability to disrupt industrial production.” The LRBW had competing internal factions, but the main thrust of their organizing was that radical community organizing was accomplished up and out “from the plant floor,” meaning that strong workers’ organizations were best positioned to engage in organizing at the local level. At the same time, according to Ahmad, this process sapped the League’s “industrial base,” as workers came to feel separated from the running of the organization. As a result of the LRBW’s industrial actions, Black workers won important concessions in key industries and more control of their unions, but eventually suffered splits. 

Whatever your opinion of this analysis, the key takeaway is that the BPP developed its structure and organizing focus out of its analysis of class forces and their racial dimensions. They understood how a particular organizational shape was necessary for particular types of organizing. 

The BPP originally identified the lumpen as the sole social actor in society that could truly bring change, and concluded that a certain set of tactics and type organization was therefore necessary: If you want to organize and activate the lumpen then you need a tightly disciplined vanguard formation, because without a relationship to the forces of production, the way this segment of the proletariat makes change is by taking the streets. The lumpen don’t have the numbers or money to influence electoral politics at scale. They don’t have a relationship to the means of production that allows them to interfere with production. They’re in conflict with the rest of the working class. As such, street action and radical self-reliance are the modes of change. 

Again, these are Cleaver’s words: “The contradiction between the Lumpen and the Working Class is very serious because it even dictates a different strategy and set of tactics.” Newton and Cleaver, as we’ve seen, were aware that such a Party could never be an open mass membership organization; its relationship to the masses was essentially different. 

In short, the Black Panther Party applied an analysis to determine which segment of society was best situated to win actual revolutionary change towards liberation and socialism, and made a strategic and organizational plan to activate that segment. The plan did not include mass membership. The plan was not a moral argument (“let’s help the least fortunate”) or an aesthetic one (“by being seen as the most radical group, we’ll win the hearts and minds of the oppressed”). Neither of these are full theories of change. What happens after you help the least fortunate? What happens after you win the hearts and minds? Once people are organized, what should they actually do, based on what power they have? Rather, the BPP’s plan was an analytical understanding of the path to true change, and a sophisticated approach to organization building meant to serve that analysis.

The BPP and like organizations, like the Young Lords, understood that these things simply would not be possible if there was not a very high degree of organizational loyalty and intense discipline, something expressly laid out in their rules and guidelines. Members had to recognize a chain of command. To demonstrate commitment, they needed to be well versed in organizational ideology. They were forbidden from speaking about or for the organization without permission or instruction from leadership. Their personal habits, including drug and alcohol use, were constrained. How could 5,000 people have such an outsized impact on the history of a nation? Well, they did it through membership selection that required intense commitment and discipline.

The Black Panther Party’s vanguard structure, and the tactics they chose, were not a one-size-fits-all approach to social change. They were conscious choices based on their analysis of the path to change. Another tactic, mutual aid or cooperative economics, was related to this, and similarly required a tightly-disciplined organization of basically full-time committed revolutionaries, but this will be discussed in a separate section. In the final analysis, the vanguard structure allowed the Party to conduct high-intensity work: sending out armed patrols to protect neighborhoods, seeding and creating mutual aid “survival programs,” and organizing a segment of the working class that lacks the type institutional power that would otherwise make self organization more feasible.

Neighborhood and Community Organizations. In many ways, the Left after the early 1970s to today has been defined by the shift towards community organizing, which adopted some of the analysis of groups like the Black Panther Party. As with the section on vanguard organizations, it will be useful to look to the most notable and impactful example of community organizing on the U.S. left — ACORN, who a founder of the group, Gary Delgado, described as having “neighborhood organizing” as “the heart of [its] work.” 

Community organizing sees the strategic location of peoples’ experienced oppression as the neighborhood, or community.  Its constituency focus is on the most marginalized segment of the working class: very low wage workers and the frictionally unemployed or in shorthand, the poor. It brings people into struggle at the level of the neighborhood, making individuals’ primary organizing relationship to a local group. This has advantages for recruitment, focus, and measurable wins (particularly compared to a mass organization), but significant drawbacks for movement building (a fact community organizers themselves recognize) as well as important structural limits.

This type of organizational form and focus developed to address a certain theory and experience: that explicitly political and ideological organizations have less appeal and relevance at the local site of struggle; that mass organizations are too difficult to build and maintain; and that (along the lines of the Black Panther Party’s analysis) the poor and underclass require a devoted organizational form due to the unique challenges of organizing there and the lack of institutional power of that segment of the working class, as opposed to the more plain institutional power of the rest of the class (e.g.., in the workplace, or campus, etc.).

Community organizing grew out of the collapse of efforts to build openly ideological mass organizations in the late 60s. ACORN was founded in 1970 by figures like Wade Rathke, George Wiley and Gary Delgado, refugees from the decline of the Students for Democratic Society and National Welfare Rights Organization. It started in Arkansas with a specific purpose of connecting the most marginalized to benefits and then building on that to sharpen their political involvement.

ACORN’s organizers understood the challenges to organizing the most marginalized segment of the working class. They have little money and are small in number, so politicians ignore them. They have little money and time, so cannot self-fund. The issues are diffuse, so intensive commitment is needed. ACORN’s model was to side-step open political debate and democratic process and instead focus on organizing direct action and disruption at the street level to win specific demands. Additionally, where possible, they aimed to compose a meaningful voting bloc to elect a friendly politician (in Chicago at least two Aldermen were elected who emerged in part from ACORN’s work: 15th Ward Alderman Ted Thomas 1999-2007 and 16th ward Alderwoman Toni Foulkes, 2015-2019). 

Gary Delgado lamented in 1986 that networks of community organizations were “less than the sum of [their] parts” when it came to movement-building. They simply could not scale up from networked neighborhood groups to a movement with unity of action. The enemy doesn’t live in the neighborhood; he is transnational. ACORN, as we’ll see, attempted to address this, but as late as 2010 in Social Policy, ACORN’s in-house policy journal, the head of the Ohio Organizing Collaborative asked “When will the parts equal the whole?” as these groups continued to grapple with the problem of turf wars, collective decision-making, and projecting on a broad scale.

Acting in concert on an immense scale became an obvious need for community organizers with accelerated neoliberalization of the economy. In the 1990s, as ACORN decided to target national-sized actors like predatory banks, more centralization was needed. But how? In practice, each local chapter decided their own organizing targets and priorities. Each chapter had their own immediately important campaigns and challenges. So ACORN took steps to more tightly coordinate their neighborhood chapters. This required less local autonomy and more staff, as well as more money. 

As they centralized, ACORN’s impact grew. By 2010, after forty years of growth, they boasted membership around 175,000 low-income families. They registered millions of voters and took on banks and lenders, winning reforms and payouts. ACORN was key in creating the idea of “living wage” campaigns in cities. They set up a housing counseling service that helped around 35,000 families a year, getting low-wage workers into homes, and were key in the reinvigoration of the Community Reinvestment Act. They assisted tens of thousands of people in getting Earned Income Tax Credit refunds. In the 1980s, they attempted to launch a new labor federation, the United Labor Unions (ULU), focused on organizing low wage workers (including homecare and child care workers). One of ULU’s locals was in Chicago, later known as Local 880. Local 880 eventually affiliated with SEIU and further consolidated to become Health Care Illinois-Indiana, known as HCII, familiar to Chicago leftists as one of the most important progressive institutions in the city.  

Delgado revised his estimation of the sum of ACORN’s parts in 2008. At the same time, he recognized that ACORN’s lack of appropriate internal structures was an obstacle to movement building. As of 2008, the “core” of the organization’s leadership were still people who had been personally recruited by Wade Rathke in the 1970s. These personal relationships between staff, these “primary” relationships, were what smoothed the organization’s increasingly top-down approach. Between 1998 and 2001, when newer members and staff attempted to initiate caucuses to reform the organization, they were met with interference and suppression by management, a tactic that was repeated during various attempts by overworked staff (the required workweek was 54 hours) to organize staff unions in Philadelphia, Dallas, New York, Seattle, New Orleans, and California.

ACORN collapsed in 2010 as a result of a fabricated, racist controversy over their housing services. A Democrat-controlled Congress in 2009 passed amendments collectively known as the “Defund ACORN Act” which pulled government funding for their work. While this represented only 10% of their total funding, the public fallout led private foundations to pull their funding and major chapters to disaffiliate. No single institution or organization has stepped into the vacuum ACORN left, particularly its unique place as a political institution dedicated to organizing and mobilizing poor Black and brown people. 

At the time ACORN collapsed, they were an organization capable of mobilizing in 700 neighborhoods. The day-to-day work of door-knocking and organizing at the neighborhood level across 700 neighborhoods and dozens of states both (1) cannot fund itself and (2) requires full-time commitment, if not from the individual organizers, then at a minimum from a stable leadership. This required a serious administrative system; at the end, ACORN had as many as 600 employees. ACORN member families paid dues, around $5 a month, but even if all 175,000 families were up to date, this represented only a small minority of their revenue. A huge source of revenues were private foundations and wealthy individuals. Why would ACORN take this money? Not because the leadership was unsophisticated, or greedy, or venal — they were famously austere, even near the end. It was because the nature of this organizing required it.

This is what made them susceptible to scandal and a quick collapse. Reliance on funding at that scale left them vulnerable; Gary Delgado said as much in a talk in 2012. What’s more, the process of centralization by imposing coordination through staff created intense internal strife, questionable local projects, and scandal. Even before the collapse, leadership factions fought over resources and organizational direction. Revolts by staff and members over workloads and policy were frequent.

Why did ACORN take this path? Neighborhood organizing inverts the mass organization’s model, where large numbers of politically empowered members can contribute small amounts of time on a rotating basis, and the large base can fund basic necessities. Rather, it requires stable leadership to marshal resources to fund intensive commitment, even more so when neighborhood groups form networks. Plus, once it goes beyond the neighborhood level, the internal democracy of each unit has to be limited. Why?

For one thing, community organizing invites individuals to participate at the level of the neighborhood first. The dues they pay, the work they do, the knowledge they have, goes into their local group. The local is the operational unit. This ends up keeping the larger organization outside of the local. Members (if there are true members) have only a secondary relationship with the larger organization, or network. The result is that the larger organization may benefit, as ACORN clearly did as it became more effective, but it does so by undercutting members’ ownership in the larger organization. This in turn makes broader movement building even tougher, as people become alienated from democratic control of their political lives. 

This challenge of course applies to any organization that focuses on a particular location of struggle: whether a neighborhood, campus, or workplace. For example, a very similar challenge arises in labor unions where workers can identify first with their workplace local and feel a sense of ownership and loyalty there primarily. Unions have struggled with how locally-situated internal democracy can undermine the need to act on a broad collective basis. At around the same time ACORN was centralizing, major unions undertook similar initiatives, causing similar friction while also increasing their unity of action. The consolidation of certain unions, as with ACORN, resulted in organizational membership growth and political clout, but smothered democracy and these larger organizations were unable to reverse the sickly state of the movement.

After all, why should a local group defer to the mass, or the “network,” on how they should conduct their work, when they’re the ones on the ground? To borrow a phrase, “workers in general do not easily break with the party that awakens them.” The result is a collective action problem. The fact that the unit with which people identify is the local conflicts with the fact that capital acts without borders and at a mass scale. Strategy and unified action must be taken at the same level as capital and the local on its own is not capable of that. At the same time, imposing central control on a large number of local units just depoliticizes members who find themselves without political control over their work.

This will pit the democracy of the local, or the decisions of local leaders, against the democratic control of the mass. Rather than democratic decisions being made with input from the broad membership and applied to the local, they are made at the local level and the mass is expected to defer to the local (or else very reasonably be considered as undemocratically overriding the local democracy or leadership). The resource-intensive, but non-self sustaining nature of neighborhood organizing deepens this problem.

The lesson of now fifty years of community organizing as the focal point of left organization has laid bare its limits. Fifty years and billions of dollars in smaller-dollar dues, foundation grants, union funding later, and communities have less power than they ever have in the face of capital. 

No political movement or mass organization can hope to thrive without some rooting in the local, where significant forms of oppression are primarily felt, and where peoples’ lived issues are identified. It just isn’t possible. What general strike (for example) could survive without a community to rally to its support? Unlike community organizing organizations, a self-consciously mass organization has to encourage the point of entry to be at the large scale. To avoid the collective action problem, individual members should have a primary relationship with the highest possible level of decision-making. 

What would this look like? It will require experimentation and balance; “big” vision can have “local focus.” As a matter of fact, this was something the labor movement looked to experiment with, blending unionism, community organizing and mutual aid. For another thing, taking on work at the neighborhood level does not require the community to be treated as the primary site of struggle or organizational focus, and can happen side-by-side with community organizing groups, as part of broader efforts. This bears repeating again and again: a movement has to accommodate different organizations engaging at different points in the terrain. What’s more, socialists can and should engage within these different organizational forms, ideally spawning worker self-activity. 

What is most important from the point of view of movement building, is that socialists should always strive to grow connective tissue between members and constituencies of groups to move them to see themselves as protagonists in a larger movement, and therefore democratically push their local organization to act as part of a broader movement. Pushing for organizations to open up and have their memberships work together, struggle together, and make decisions together is how a movement can sustain itself across organizations. A “table” of leaders is unlikely or unable to do this.

We return to the two essential points we’re making throughout: a movement needs various organizational forms, and our theory of change should determine specific organizational shapes. Neighborhood organizing has unique advantages, and socialists can bring an essential analysis to that work. At the same time, a movement will not arise as the sum of neighborhood parts. Local organizing can uniquely inform and ground a mass organization, yet a mass organization will be inhibited, not built up, from a coalition of hyperlocal groups. In short, a mass movement needs hyperlocal organization in some form, and a mass organization needs capacity to organize locally.

Mass Organizations. Unless there is a set number or proportion of the population that defines when an organization tips into being “mass,” we have to figure out what we mean when we use that word. Is an organization of two million people who signed up for an email list a “mass” organization? Is an organization open only to employees in certain industries or who live in particular geographies “mass”? Can an organization limited to a single issue or policy area become “mass”? I think it is intuitively understood that these are not what people mean when they say an organization is (or aims to be) a “mass” organization. So what do we mean? 

Up top, we have to state that it is challenging to dissect a historical model, sufficiently recent or with a similar enough terrain to use as we did above. Organizational models from nearly a century ago, before the explosion of social justice philanthropy and the transformation of the US economy — indeed, before the US became the unrivalled imperial master of the world — are of little use. Similarly, organizations in societies without an advanced capitalist system, sickly labor movement, or highly concentrated urban proletariat, can offer guidance and inspiration but not as much practical application. 

It should come down to an analysis or theory of change based on the conditions we’re facing. A U.S. socialist organization faces a unique terrain. Employers are intensely concentrated and “financialized.” Capital moves easily across state borders, lured by state governments with lower and lower regulation. The working class is divided between a permanent and heavily racialized underclass, between “coordinator” and service/production workers, which especially in big cities are also racialized divisions. White supremacy and anti-Blackness are entwined in the exploitation of the working class in the United States. 

A socialist movement strives for a classless society without exploitation. An organization committing itself to a “mass” orientation is tied with that result, a theory of change that the broad working class is the sole agent of change. This is not because of “having it worst” or “knowing what’s best” but because the working class is the class who both produce everything and whose exploitation is necessary for capitalism to persist (one of the contradictions of capitalism). In turn, the working class has to become a self-aware and self-moving political force. It has to think of itself as a single political force, albeit with different parts with differing needs, understanding that each individual’s self-interest ultimately lies in the self-interest of the class as a whole. 

Once self-aware and self-moving, the class has to take control of the institutions of society for its collective self interest. If this is the theory of change, then what we mean by “mass” must be related to achieving this goal. If the entirety of the working class has to see itself as a single political actor whose liberation needs the end of capitalism and nothing less, victory requires that segments of the class tie their fates together. 

Why? Because a structurally divided class is not a class taking power for itself. It is merely a group of working class people taking power for themselves

The mass organization must take as a given that there are segments (racial, religious, gendered, socioeconomic) of the working class that are at times in conflict and have differing interests. The mass organization is meant to serve as the intentional political space, the connective tissue, where, by discussing and struggling together, the currently divided segments of the working class learn by “showing, not telling” that they win lasting victories when they stick together and refuse to let any one segment of the class suffer harm either at the hands of the ruling class, or at one another’s hands.

To win, there can be no patriarchy or white supremacy or unemployed underclass which, while it may benefit some segments of the working class, injures the interests of the class as a whole. This important truth only makes sense when we understand that the interest of a united working class is not just the sum total of each individual’s interest, but a class interest. For example, the white segment of the working class obviously benefits, in an immediate sense, from white supremacy. But the working class as a whole suffers for it, because it prevents the class from acting in its collective self-interest to do the only thing it can do to be free: end capitalist exploitation. 

Okay, so a mass organization must have something to do with the project of the working class taking power for itself as a whole. The working class is divided, often has adverse incentives, and working class people may see themselves as “middle class” rather than working class, or as “working people” but not necessarily part of a class with exclusive political interests. So a mass organization must take on forging this class as a project — but how? 

What does seem to already be in evidence is that the mass organization must be held widely open to working class people and run democratically by working class people. How else can it expect to develop an analysis of the actual political terrain and actually move the class? 

If a mass organization is tasked with the project of creating a politically self-aware, unified class “for itself,” and this requires working class people from all segments of the class to come together in numbers to debate, discuss, cooperate in struggle, and lead the class, it stands to reason that such an organization needs to, first of all, speak to the material self interest of people in the class (not appeals to peoples’ selflessness, but their self-interest), have low barriers to entry, be democratically controlled (not just through elections and votes but by its actual operation), encourage a robust culture of good faith debate and discussion, educate and politicize its members, and keep as its north star the basic requirement that the working class as a whole must be united to act for itself as a whole.

An organization as we’ve just described needs certain structural features. It must have members, political actors with rights and privileges in the organization, who identify with the organization as a whole. It has to be transparent, so members can see the inner workings. It must have low barriers to entry so that it can grow at scale and not become selective. It must allow for some ideological diversity so that its analysis can adapt and sharpen. It must allow for ready access to leadership so that a broad population generates the organizing and political skills to lead the class. And, importantly, it has to have an all-consuming need to bring in more and more members from the working class who are politicized and struggle together, in order to make sure that the organization leads but never outpaces the class.

But a mass organization is not a debate club. So people come together to run the organization — but to do what? Well if the purpose is to bind the segments of the class together through struggle, it has to engage in, make progress in, and eventually win in struggles that build solidarity across the class at a large scale. How to choose? Well, the process of choosing has to matter. Knowledge of the conditions people face must be brought into the organization, and discussion, debate, experience, and the theory of change should inform how those conditions are addressed. Sometimes, that will be winning a critical or high profile election. Sometimes it will be supporting or initiating labor activity. Sometimes it will be picking a target in capital and overwhelming them through a multi-pronged campaign. What is important is that whatever the campaign, whatever the project, it is undertaken and designed to meet a theory of change and, in turn, the organization’s shape.

A reader would be right to say this description is missing things a movement needs,  because an organization is not a movement. Even a mass organization cannot house an entire movement. 

Instead, the mass organization has the unique ability to act as the political home for its own members as well as the members and constituencies of the different and disparate organizations and groupings within a movement. Only the mass organization can provide the kind of political development and politicization needed to ensure that the movement’s different parts all sail in the same direction, while its mass membership character undercuts the ability of “grasstops” and professional leadership to dominate a movement. It creates the wake. It standardizes the analysis and sets the general program. 

Notably, the mass socialist organization presents a challenge to coalition building. A mass organization moves slowly; it has structural constraints and less incentive to compromise its principles. NGO leaders, grasstops, and academics will be frustrated to be one voice of many. The mass organization encourages leaders to engage with the body of the organization, incentivizes bringing constituencies into the mass organization to influence it, rather than leveraging leader-to-leader relationships to exert top-down pressure. This itself sharpens the political skills of the class as a whole; an overemphasis on coalitions between leaders is counter-productive, as it creates no incentive to bring constituencies together. A mass organization cannot merely be a coalition table; it has to reach around leaders and bring constituencies and members together in one place to learn how to cooperate and struggle together. It builds the common culture, vocabulary, and political experiences necessary for a movement to knit itself more and more closely together and resist the pull of collaboration with and co-opting by the ruling class, something our forebears ultimately failed to avoid. 

Broker and Technical Organizations. Broker and technical organizations deal with a different terrain: that of immediately interacting with the state and economy as it exists to develop expertise and advance concessionary demands or provide needed services to the movement. 

Radicals need among them experts who understand how the machinery of state, the economy, and various industrial, social and scientific processes work. They need people with relationships to the institutions and individuals who work in and operate these processes, to stay current in developments and communicate information back and forth. Developing these relationships is not a matter of making an introduction and showing up; it requires consistent and mutually beneficial contact and fluency in technical language.

Developing this expertise will therefore require organizations limited in their composition to people with a particular technical expertise, or people who will focus on developing transactional relationships with formal institutions, or even entering these institutions. Examples of these types of organizations are professional associations (for example of doctors, engineers, lawyers, or journalists, or those aspiring to these positions), media, and policy or legislative organizations. Developing this expertise requires individuals to work full time in particular fields. So these organizations are selective, small, require funding, and need some degree of independence from larger political struggle to be effective in their niche. 

It’s true that a mass organization or party needs internal policy shops, media outlets, and other varieties of experts (like doctors, attorneys or engineers). But there is a practical limit to what an internal policy shop or media outlet can do since internal bodies need to be under the discipline of the political will of the membership. Mass organization needs to be democratically run and radically oriented. If the mass organization becomes too bogged down in technical limitations, this can undercut enthusiasm and alienate typical organization members as the language of technical expertise consumes open political debate. 

Cooperative Economics and Mutual Aid. A frequent topic of tense debate on the left is the value and strategic value of providing services, with all different tactical ways of doing this conflated together. As we’ve seen is often the case, there is no right or wrong answer; it relates back to both a theory of change and the given terrain of struggle. Cooperative economics/grassroots service/mutual aid programs are an important part of any movement that expects to move millions of people into conflict with the ruling class. They provide life-sustaining triage, develop and experiment with non-market forms of exchange, and can uniquely build political community while directly addressing peoples’ material needs. 

In her book on cooperative economics, Jessica Gordon Nembhard argues that cooperative economics addressed the problem of dependency on exploitative and often external institutions for production and social reproduction while also creating the space within communities for free political and social development. By eliminating the material connection to outside (often hostile) institutions, groups could build social cohesion and make freer political decisions. For one thing, they required individuals to become politicized as they made collective decisions about the creation and distribution of resources. It stands to reason that if cooperative economic programs aren’t designed to achieve these ends, they are not properly designed.

This type of work cannot be undertaken lightly, and requires dedicated organizational forms. It’s a little beyond the scope of this discussion, so I have separated these out here for further reading.

V. Organizational Shape and Function

In the previous section, we looked at various essential organizations that exist within a movement. The list is not exhaustive and there are broader types of movements and organizations that require their own treatment, in particular national liberation movements and industrial unions. Hopefully though, this brief survey helps to clarify some essential points.

An organization has values that determine where it sits in relation to movements. More importantly, it needs a theory of change. It has to have a vision of how it will act to force change, and this should determine its organizational shape. It has to trust that other organizations in the movement can fill in gaps where it cannot, because if it tries to adapt itself to all different varieties of activity, it will lose its shape and become ineffectual. An organization cannot be a movement. 

A mass organization in particular should strive to be the “political home” of the movement. It should play an active role in building the movement, but understand it cannot be the movement itself. To try to do so harms the work. It can be a place where radicals are made, honed, and where action on a large scale is planned and undertaken. It is where analysis is developed and where socialists from all different parts of the movement come together to build and direct the movement. That requires its members to be present in different organizations, to help move those organizations as much as possible from the bottom up.

In considering its composition, the mass organization in particular needs to focus on individuals composing “broader constituencies” becoming members. It has to grow adept at politicizing through education and struggle. It should have a conscious understanding that “grasstops” or leaders of other organizations have specific pressures and sometimes conflicting incentives, and a strategy that builds a mass organization through a coalition of leaders will struggle to become more than the sum of its parts or true political home. This isn’t a moral point, or a comment about the “goodness” of organizations, just a plain statement of the fact that people with organizational responsibility for other entities have constraints. To be a true political home, an organization cannot have its vision mediated to the class through leaders’ constraints before it reaches the masses of people. If a mass organization has to speak to the broader working class through people who run other organizations, it will be less effective than if it can move those people directly. Better to have a community organization’s constituents and workers than its directors and managers; better to have union members; better to have clients than service providers. A mass organization has to strive to be a place where constituencies come together to do the work of forging a class for itself. 

To appeal to and build a class “for itself” the mass organization should be democratic at the highest possible level so strategy can be made, and action taken, at the broadest possible scale. This requires a primary relationship between members and this high level. That degree of democratic participation requires openness, transparency, minimal imposition of ideological orthodoxy, broad leadership function and direct control over administrative functions by volunteers. 

This level of openness limits the range of available actions when it comes to imposing costs on the ruling class to weaken it. In general, its tactics must be assumed to be easily discoverable and even surveilled. While it can take measures to have some degree of secrecy around sensitive activity, too much of this activity undercuts the transparency that democracy requires. Therefore “drastic and quick” imposition of costs will be less often used vis a vis chronic applying of stress. Since part of its function is to democratize knowledge, democratize leadership, and sharpen the political skills of a large layer of the class, professionalization of leadership should be limited as much as possible. This limits the amount of technical, brokering, and service-providing the organization can do on its own but does not impair the body of the movement. To the contrary, it holds it together, allowing each part to serve the whole. 

Further Reading/Works Consulted

  • Ahmad, Muhammad, We Will Return in the Whirlwind: Black Radical Organizations 1960-1975
  • Bush, Rod We Are Not What We Seem: Class Struggle and Black Nationalism
  • Cleaver, Eldridge, “Ideology of the Black Panther Party”
  • Eck-Wanzer, Darrell (Ed), A Young Lords Reader
  • Delgado, Gary “Reflections on Movement Building and Community Organizing” (2008)
  • Delgado, Gary “Organizing the Movement” (1986)
  • Gornick, Vivian The Romance of American Communism
  • Jarley, Paul “Unions as Social Capital: Renewal Through a Logic of Mutual Aid?” (2005)
  • Kelley, Robin D.G. Hammer and Hoe
  • Lenin, Vladimir Illich, What is to Be Done?
  • Nembhard, Jessica Gordon Cooperative Courage
  • Newton, Huey P. “In Defense of Self-Protection: The Correct Handling of Revolution”
  • Nimitz, August The Ballot, the Streets, or Both?
  • Oyakawa, Michelle, “Building a Movement in the Non-Profit Industrial Complex
  • Parker, Mike “SDS: Copping Out of American Life
  • Sankara, Thomas Thomas Sankara Speaks