I always thoroughly enjoy reading in-depth reflections and critiques of radical left-wing strategy rooted in practical experience, and this critical essay on Socialist Alternative by a comrade in Austin, Texas is no different. I’m not sure about the general context of the essay — seems mainly about some issue about how the core organizers in Seattle weren’t taking into account the local conditions of members in the South — but there were some notes on issues that I think are relevant to radical leftists in general. In particular, a section about the idea of “intervening” against liberal politics in spaces of labor organizing was interesting:
When I talk to people in our Party around the country about their relationship to the Fight for 15, they invariably say they have an awful experience with organizers, or, as they are sometimes referred, bureaucrats. When I investigate the manner of the intervention, it is always at a single, discrete point in time. They attempt to talk to workers at a meeting or at a strike, but when I ask if anyone has gone to try to speak to fast food workers before these events ever happen, I get blank responses. The very idea of speaking to workers outside those single moments has never occurred to them.
But let’s consider it, no? Let’s look through the eyes of the organizer. This person has spent likely somewhere around 60 or more hours a week grinding through the field, talking to workers, driving them to their shifts, helping them get their groceries home, breaking bread with workers’ family members. They have suffered emotional disappointment when workers seem fired up and then vanished, when worker leaders suffer family hardships or when those worker leaders find better jobs and leave a vacuum in the local movement and on the shop floor.
The workers that go out on these strikes have seen these organizers many, many times. They have learned to trust these organizers and have faith that they have their best interests at heart. That relationship has been built over time.
What reaction would you expect when, at the moment of spectacle, some stranger comes up, having made no attempt to get to know the worker ahead of time, and says, “Hey, that organizer is actually just using to you to get Hillary elected and they don’t really care about you. Come join us because we actually know the way forward. We have the Winning Ideas. Just look at our newspaper.”
The organizer is going to treat you like an asshole and the worker is going to think you’re a weirdo. Period. Interventions are not moments. They take place over time and respect has to be earned by using building as intervention itself. The “intervention” must be spread over time, building the base necessary to launch a successful intervention. The War of Position and War of Maneuver must interrelate organically and develop dialectically. Going to a meeting and forcefully arguing a good point alone will not succeed in and of itself.
These arguments make a lot of sense to me. Too many of us radicals are impatient about social change (not surprising, we’re radicals after all), and let our frustrations get in the way of doing the gritty work of long-term organizing, base-building, and network development. And oddly enough, it often seems like too many of us also take a fundamentally idealistic approach to social change (emphasizing the role of spreading ideas through discussion and speeches and so on) instead of a more materialist approach (recognizing the way radicalization proceeds from personal experience and concrete engagement with struggle, like the sort described above in Fight For Fifteen). All of this touches on what I observed in the International Socialist Organization (as a fellow traveler, not a member); specifically, the dynamic of socialists popping in and out of various local social movements, but not sticking around long enough to be a serious part of the movement and taken seriously as a committed militant.