As we enter 2023, it would help to better understand the political context in which we are organizing. A critical part of the context is understanding how movements and organizations are born, how they help each other, how they influence each other, and how they reshape the politics of the masses. The better we understand our current context, the bigger and more successfully we can plan our struggles so that, win/lose, we have the biggest impact and rise to a new plateau in the class struggle.
The following is an analysis based on the experience of organizing in Chicago from 2018-2022, combining lessons and observations.
In any given locale, there is more or less struggle. Struggle can take on various forms: workplace organizing, mutual aid, protests, elections, etc. Struggle can be left-wing or right-wing. The political default for any given locale is right-wing because the dominant ideas are always the ideas of the ruling class. The degree and persistence of left-wing struggle determines how much this default can be pushed back to make space for the left. You can think of left-wing struggle as having to pull out the weeds in order to set up a garden.
Generally speaking, the individuals that decide to engage in struggle become the seeds of any given ecosystem. Their ability to persevere, whether or not they are successful in their objectives, lays foundations for movements and organizations because struggle itself activates and attracts new organizers.
The people that initiate and join struggles form the social networks that hold the potential to coalesce into organizations. Whether or not struggles result in the founding of an organization, those social networks retain a shared trust and experience that can be tapped into in the future.
Proximity + Infrastructure
The organizations that do emerge from these struggles tend to reflect the struggle itself. For example, the need for workers to unite in a given workplace in order to defend themselves against management could coalesce into a union. The need to win an elected office in a given ward could coalesce into a ward organization. The need to provide community members with things like food and household products could coalesce into a mutual aid group. These are organizations that have a close proximity to the goal or target.
Other organizations are more distant from the goal or target. Struggles to win back or expand reproductive rights, to abolish the police, or overthrow capitalism require long term vision and patience. They also tend to become more ideological, going from reproductive rights to feminism, police abolition to Black liberation, and capitalist overthrow to socialism. So whereas a union will always have to resist the boss and a ward organization can expect regular elections, the struggle for Black liberation will ebb and flow as well as morph.
For example, Black Lives Matter protests erupted between 2012 and 2020. In those years, the duration and intensity of protests would vary, and most of the time they were dormant. You can imagine the explosion of protests after the murder of Trayvon Martin, followed by quiet, then the huge explosion in Ferguson, followed by quiet, then the 2020 Uprising, and back to quiet. But they would also evolve over time from focusing exclusively on holding the police accountable, to bail reform, to prison abolition, to abolitionism as a total restructuring of society.
Whatever the group’s proximity to the goal, they can begin the long process of building out the infrastructure of call lists to tap/recruit supporters, social media accounts, phone trees, establishing offices, printing signs and literature, starting fundraising accounts, hosting various types of meetings, finding new struggles to relate to, etc. They can also develop their ideological perspectives as they learn from the wins and losses, ebbs and flows, of struggle.
But none of these groups are capable of winning on their own. When workers go on strike, whether or not they are formally in a union, they will need support. Even the mighty Chicago Teachers Union still needs other groups to organize fundraising for their strike funds, solidarity at the picket lines, mobilizations to their strike marches, etc.
Similarly, the struggle for aldermanic seats can’t be won by a ward group alone. Ward organizations require endorsements from other groups in order to raise money, draw in more volunteers, and bring the campaign to the attention of the organized and unorganized masses.
In other words, the success of a given struggle is always dependent on the ability of the core organization to pull others outside of itself into struggle. No struggle, no organization, is an island. Collectively, our struggles and organizations are more like an interdependent ecosystem.
The inter-personal and inter-organizational relationships that form this ecosystem hold the potential to be tapped into again in the future. They could even coalesce into broader organizations: like political parties.
The political ecosystem isn’t just about solidarity: struggles and organizations also influence each other. Think of how the 2020 uprising mainstreamed abolitionist politics. Those abolitionist ideas are now infused in teachers unions pushing out School Resource Officers, feminist groups moving away from carceral feminism and towards abolitionist feminism, and politicians championing ordinances like alderwoman Rossana Rodriguez’s #TreatmentNotTrauma.
The spread of new struggles and organizations also creates fertile soil for existing organizations to grow. Again, think of the radicalizing effect of the 2020 uprising on the masses. This quickly brought tens of thousands of people to abolitionist politics. In the process, it also created fertile soil for many of those same people to explore socialist politics, leading many to join groups like DSA.
Similarly, the growth of ward organizations or unions can also radicalize people in new directions. For many people, local organizing in their ward or workplace might be their first taste of politics. The experience can create a mutually beneficial conveyor belt of recruitment. For example, when 33rd Ward Working Families (33WF) ran Rossana for alderperson in 2018, it attracted DSA members and non-DSA members to the campaign. In the process, some DSA members joined 33WF, while some 33WF members joined DSA, and still other non-affiliated organizers joined both.
When struggles erupt or new organizations emerge: they quickly make space for radicalization in a way that can’t be manufactured. It is in the interest of all political organizations to join those movements, and influence them as well as be influenced by them, which can result in both new recruits and new politics for a given organization. It is then on the organizations to help shape the politics of those recruits, while also letting those new recruits reshape the politics of the organization.
Likewise, it is important for organizations to support each other in struggle because having larger socialist organizations creates fertile ground for more unions and ward organizations, just as having larger unions and ward groups creates fertile ground for creating more socialists.
Bottom-lining Without Siloing
If the organizations in a political ecosystem can operate with solidarity and mutual benefit, it also means that they can specialize in order to bottom-line particular types of work.
For example, 33WF is primarily an electoral organization. It bottom-lines electoral work in our ward. However, within our ward, other types of struggles also occur. Instead of bottom-lining struggles around tenant or immigrant defense, we defer to local organizations that specialize in tenant organizing or immigrants’ rights. With them bottom-lining the work, we can play a supportive role without ignoring the struggle, which would silo us off.
Similarly, while there might be members of the ecosystem that wouldn’t bottom-line certain work because of practical or political reasons, that shouldn’t be a barrier to asking for help. For example, a ward organization that took the time to intentionally do solidarity work with tenant organizers could reasonably ask for some sort of help on an electoral campaign, even if that wasn’t a formal endorsement. For example, tenant organizers could spearhead opposition research, or explicitly let their members know how they can plug into our campaign.
The health of the ecosystem depends on every group’s ability to do specialized work without siloing, by leaning ont solidarity and mutual benefit.
To organize the entire working class
If nurturing the ecosystem is to everyone’s benefit, then strictly focusing on one’s own organization can be unintentionally detrimental. Various socialist groups across history have hoped to become “an organization of the entire working class”. While some meant that they wanted an organization that is multiracial and representative of the actual working class, others meant they wanted to build an organization that single-handedly recruits the majority of the workers.
This perspective can inadvertently lead those comrades to view the political ecosystem as a competition where “either we grow or they grow”. More realistically, most workers will probably not become organized socialists outside of a revolutionary situation. However, most workers could become organized across the political ecosystem. Whether it is across unions, ward groups, feminist groups, religious groups, or socialist groups: the totality of these spaces could become the organized working class.
Looked at from this perspective, it becomes clearer that the role of socialist groups is to help expand, support, influence, and learn from the political ecosystem rather than compete with it. In the process, the socialist groups will also grow.
Acknowledging and working within an ecosystem doesn’t mean there won’t be political disagreements, rivalries, and competitions. What it does mean is that we will better understand our current political moment and how to move forward based on who else is on the field of struggle and how we interact together. Otherwise we risk either charging into struggles alone, crashing into allies engaged in the same struggle, or avoiding struggles because we don’t realize that their outcome will impact us.
Failure to understand the ecosystem and expand it risks undercutting each other, while giving space to the far-right, which is capable of overtaking our gardens and re-asserting the weeds.
If we will successfully build a socialist society, a society by and for the working class, we will need to recognize, analyze, support, and navigate the political ecosystem because it represents the most likely way of organizing the entire working class.