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Why LeftRoots?

We need a radical and grounded Left

LeftRoots is a national formation of social movement organizers and activists who want to connect grassroots struggles to a strategy that can win liberation for all people and the planet. Mass organizations must be central features of strong and vibrant social movements, and Left cadre formations are as well. The U.S. Left, due in part to external assaults and in part from internal weaknesses, is at this point unable to cohere these mass struggles into an effective force for revolution. This must change if humanity has any hope of surviving, much less thriving. This is a central task of a rekindled Left, and Leftists engaged in mass organizations and social movements have a unique, yet unfulfilled, role to play in helping to reimagine and give life to a Left that is as radical as it is grounded in mass struggles. Details


No Shortcuts: We Need Strategy

By N’Tanya Lee and Steve Williams

The need to develop a strategy that can cohere the different parts of our movement has never been clearer.

Both of us have been shaped by years of organizing the young, homeless people, and working-class African Americans and Latinas. After each spending more than a decade building different organizations in San Francisco, we teamed in 2012 up to interview more than 150 organizers and activists in some of the most active social-movement struggles across the country. One of the themes that emerged from our conversations is that although movement activists often use the same words, what we mean by those words can vary from person to person. Details


More than We Imagined: Activists’ Assessments of the Moment and the Way Forward

By N’Tanya Lee & Steve Williams

More Than We Imagined is the final report of a year-long project called Ear to the Ground, co-directed by Steve Williams and NTanya Lee. Over nine months, more than 150 social justice organizers in 30 communities across the country were asked to reflect on the nature of this moment of history, their assessment of social justice forces, and what ‘the movement’ should do to respond to the unique challenges and opportunities of this period.

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“Rare in its breadth, candor, and independence, More Than We Imagined provides us with an important opportunity to reflect more deeply on where our movements are headed in the 21st century.” – Gihan Perera

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Gramsci Comes Home

by Spencer Resnick & Jonathan Bix

Originally published in Jacobin Magazine, August 2013

Our long march through the institutions is not to reform them, but to transform the common sense they uphold.

With the 2008 financial crisis, the supposedly sturdy foundation of finance capital shook and nearly crumbled. Millions of working-class Americans saw their wealth, security, and jobs evaporate. Financial institutions got massive bailouts, while a tidal wave of foreclosures and evictions swept the country. The housing crisis in particular flipped the epitome of American stability and middle-class aspiration — the home — into a symbol of predatory financial exploitation. But while the failure of the system did not precipitate a revolt against those responsible, the resulting insecurity, injustice and anger around housing could form the basis for a broader struggle against a new financialized capitalist class.

This struggle can only come to fruition through organization, but the Left’s tactics have been wanting. We publish, we hold panels, we sell newspapers, we put on conferences, we create art. We desperately try to build a left discourse in a hostile environment. This instinct is a reasonable one in an era of neoliberal hegemony where all facets of life are reduced to the market. Meanwhile, our reliance on discourse has obscured the vital understanding that, in order to build a socialist movement, the contradictions of capitalism must be felt and experienced in the fabric of daily life.

As Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward explain, “Workers experience the factory, the speeding rhythm of the assembly line, the foreman, the spies and guards, the owner and the paycheck. They do not experience monopoly capitalism.” Homeowners experience the paperwork, the bank manager, the police and the lawyers, the phone calls, the fear of homelessness, and the eviction. They do not experience finance capital, therefore few of them embrace a critique of finance capital. We can only analyze and transform hegemonic ideology through what Antonio Gramsci calls a “war of position.”  But while we have identified that we are indeed in a war of position, the Left largely fails to grasp what it means to fight that war.

Gramsci understood that challenges to hegemonic ideology must go through common sense — lessons  learned, views adopted, and tools employed to make sense of our world — not around it. Constructing a new ideology means transforming the intimate and up-close structures that reproduce the dominant ideology, creating alternatives by building and winning power, and creating leadership in that struggle.

In our own postmodern times, where nebulous social movements have replaced the powerful working-class parties of distant eras, and where socialist organization rarely leaves the margins of political life and the system is rigged against third party politics, a socialist party is not the vehicle for this work — but the socialist movement, when tied to transformative organizing work can be. Our goal must be to build a durable counter hegemony — not by “present[ing] [ourselves] at the outset in a polemical and critical guise,” but transforming the commonsense by transforming everyday experience, by organizing around the texture of daily life, the part of our lives spent navigating civil society — what Gramsci calls the “simple.” Our long march through the institutions is not to reform them, but to transform the common sense they uphold.

This is precisely what the recent financial crisis represents: a location for this kind of counter hegemonic consciousness transformation. While the critical and polemical approach has largely failed, another model has proven its ability to build working-class power, transform the common sense, and contribute to a durable counter hegemony. Such is the growing anti-foreclosure movement with its model of radical organizing.

This model was pioneered by City Life/Vida Urbana, a grassroots organizing project that began as a socialist community organization in the 1970s and has changed its focus with the shifting needs of its base. While other sectarian groups born of that same era died out, City Life’s brand of non-sectarian, practical, democratic socialist organizing survived and thrived. When the foreclosure crisis hit, City Life quickly shifted to begin organizing homeowners (a group typically viewed as homogeneously white, middle-class, individualistic property owners) and tenants in foreclosed buildings (a group typically viewed as working-class and people of color). Most have imagined these groups pitted against each other rather than fighting side-by-side.

Class, however, isn’t an abstract category, but the product of real people in a real context. And so City Life organizes real people in the context of the foreclosure crisis, making unlikely alliances possible. Their work with this coalition in the working class neighborhoods of Boston has defended hundreds of homeowners and tenants from displacement at the hands of the big banks. Their mass meetings reach hundreds, their mobilizations, thousands — and they have begun spreading their work throughout Massachusetts and beyond. City Life and the radical housing movement are pushing for non-reformist reforms, primarily by building a movement to decommodify housing and delegitimize market ideology.

Threatened and displaced homeowners have fought back not because they embraced an abstract structural critique from the outset, but because City Life’s organizing work has remained in touch with their everyday life needs, practices, and common sense. The combination of concrete victories, the development of a culture of solidarity, and the development of a political analysis are what allow the group to contest hegemony.

City Life has successfully protected hundreds of families from displacement, often with militant eviction blockades. But the depth of its organizing is shown in how many continue to fight for others’ homes even after they have lost their own. For dozens, City Life’s meetings are a routine part of their life, even years after their individual struggle is over.

While broad structural change is the ultimate goal of City Life, it recognizes that such change requires a mass movement and that what builds a mass movement is fighting and winning smaller battles. On the level of everyday experience, winning a “small battle” means something quite big. These victories transform the disempowerment built into the daily life of these communities. Moreover, solidarity isn’t something that is taught — it is lived and built.

Collective affirmation through techniques such as storytelling and call-and-response are continuously present at meetings and actions. Through these and other routine practices of struggle and group formation, City Life creates its own social universe where dominant culture is turned upside down — where collective struggle and continuously fighting for others often becomes more important than one’s own home. The organization uses political education and discussion, which are present in every meeting, to allow homeowners and tenants the moral space to challenge disempowering dominant ideologies. Foreclosure is the first site of education, and it is this initial focus on a “narrow issue” coupled with an accessible yet expansive political education that allows homeowners and tenants to develop a deeper structural awareness.

So much of left analysis is from “scratch” because it is socially and culturally removed from the lived experience of the structures it critiques. Our intellectuals are usually inorganic ones — they speak from a place of cultural and linguistic distance. One of City Life’s primary tasks is fostering organic intellectuals among the people who are best suited to elaborate a structural analysis given their proximity to the foreclosure crisis: homeowners and tenants. They are not just eloquent orators acting as a mouthpiece, but are on the ground and integrated into the affected group. They know about how things actually work, feel, and are accomplished, and they share the structural critique on both practical and intellectual levels. They make the best organizers for advancing a war of position.

City Life’s model has spread throughout Massachusetts, to New York, Washington, and beyond. The socialist left, with waning relevance and few recent successes to speak of, should take note of a growing Gramscian organizing project that is taking the offensive against finance capital. It is not just a matter of replicating City Life’s work, but of replicating the spirit of its organizing model.

We must find new and creative ways to address structural issues at the level of experience and culture. Gramsci may be frequently invoked, but he is practically misunderstood. By building a counter hegemony, he meant more than peddling a pre-fabricated alternative to capitalist ideology. People don’t embrace a counter-hegemony, they build it. Left organization must provide the building tools.

The attempt to wage a war of position by laying out a series of arguments to be expounded and embraced, by attempting to “introduce from scratch a scientific form of thought into everyone’s individual life,” the Left fails to take Gramsci seriously — and in this era, we must all be Gramscians.


Demand Everything: Lessons of the Transformative Organizing Model

By Steve Williams

Published by the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, New York Office, March 2013.

Download PDF in English here »

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When protesters around the world took to the squares and streets beginning in late 2010 from Tunisia to Chile, from Egypt to Spain, from Greece to the United States, leftists around the world strapped on their marching shoes and took hope that this might be the dawning of a new era in the fight against capitalist austerity and imperial savagery. Taken aback by these protests, corporate news outlets cast a blind eye to the years of community organizing, worker strikes, and student take-overs that laid the foundation for the actions that were to come. The only explanation they could offer was that Twitter, Facebook and YouTube made these revolutions. While social media played a role, they were tools that organizers employed to do their work more effectively. In the end, these explanations obscured the critical role of organizing. It was the often invisible work of organizing—in workplaces, communities, and classrooms—that combined with the ripeness of the times and the hunger of the people to break the façade of neoliberal triumphalism.

Two years later, many of these movements have lost their initial momentum, but the hope has not been extinguished. The need for fundamental social change is still there, if not more urgent. Today, radical and left forces need to commit to organizing more than ever. In recent decades, much of what would be called the U.S. Left has not taken on the work of building organization among the popular forces—working people; people of color; low-income people; homeless people; gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender folks; and students. There is a long and rich history of communists, socialists, nationalists, and anarchists in the United States rooting themselves in local communities, workplaces, and classrooms to build the capacity and consciousness of the people. This tradition must be resurrected. The Left must take on the challenge of building organization amongst the forces that are most likely to spearhead a movement to challenge capitalism, imperialism and climate catastrophe.

But even if there is to be a resurgence of organizing, there remains the question of how to organize since not all models of organizing are created equal. One thing is clear: the old models will not do. The collapse of political, economic and ecological structures mean that purely transactional concessions will not address the acute needs of people around the world. New models of organizing are needed, models that combine the audacity of the people who took to the streets with the ripeness for change that this moment demands.

The most obvious choice for organizing model might be the teachings of the man whose name has become synonymous with organizing. Saul Alinsky began organizing in low-income neighborhoods like the Back of the Yards neighborhood of Chicago in the 1930s, and then went on to found the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) in 1940. Through the IAF and his book, Rules for Radicals, Alinsky trained thousands of skilled organizers, and hundreds of organizations cite him as a direct or indirect influence more than forty years after his death. Today, many of those organizations and organizations continue to do important and truly radical work.

Like all other theories, Alinsky’s model of organizing was developed in a particular time in an effort to respond to other—in this case competing—theories of organizing. Alinsky began organizing low-income communities during a period where leftists of various trends were actively engaged in dozens of active and vibrant community action projects—from anti-lynching campaigns to eviction defense work to food relief. After the McCarthy witch-hunts of the 1950s, most leftists had been killed, jailed, deported, or scared off so that most of those community action projects withered away. Contrasting his model with that of the 1930s Left and with that of the emerging movements in the 1960s, Alinsky framed his as a pragmatic and anti-ideological model of organizing “rooted in the whys and wherefores of life as it is lived,” and not in “our wished for fantasy of the world as it should be.”[1] Opportunistically, he posed his approach as a way of neutralizing more explicitly left social movements:

[I]n order to involve the Catholic priests in Back of the Yards, I didn’t give them any stuff about Christian ethics, I just appealed to their self-interest. I’d say, “Look, you’re telling your people to stay out of the Communist-dominated unions and action groups, right?” He’d nod. So I’d go on: “And what do they do? They say, ‘Yes, Father,’ and walk out of the church and join the C.I.O. Why? Because it’s their bread and butter, because the C.I.O. is doing something about their problems while you’re sitting here on your tail in the sacristy.” That stirred ’em up, which is just what I wanted to do, and then I’d say, “Look, if you go on like that you’re gonna alienate your parishioners, turn them from the Church, maybe drive them into the arms of the Reds. Your only hope is to move first, to beat the Communists at their own game, to show the people you’re more interested in their living conditions than the contents of your collection plate. And not only will you get them back again by supporting their struggle, but when they win they’ll be more prosperous and your donations will go up and the welfare of the Church will be enhanced.” Now I’m talking their language and we can sit down and hammer out a deal.[2]

Alinsky’s attempt to strip the organizing model of ideology manifests in various concrete practices. For example, the Alinsky model of organizing insists that organizations should only wage winnable fights and that the organizer should refrain from bringing her political views into the organization’s discourse. Though this decision is understandable given the state-sponsored repression brought down on left and radical movements in the United States throughout history, the ramifications of this decision render the Alinsky model of organizing impotent relative to contemporary challenges because ideology is a central front on which Left and progressive forces must struggle.

The ideological assault mounted by the neoliberal camp for the past fours decades means that success depends on the Left’s ability to articulate an alternative vision of the economy and society. The absence of ideological struggle and the current balance of forces have produced conditions where structural change is deemed politically unwinnable. As a result, progressive forces exert most of our energy simply trying to make bad policy and practices less bad, never addressing the systems and structures causing this inequity. Alinsky’s insistence that the organizer silence her ideas lest they weaken the organization is both unrealistic and counter-productive. We need all hands on deck, and organizers have a unique opportunity to bring out the best of our dreams and aspirations to inspire a movement. Radical and progressive forces must find and develop approaches to social change that allow us to unite ideology with day-to-day campaigns.

The building blocks of these new organizing models do exist. Without discarding the contributions of Alinsky’s model of organizing, radical and progressive forces must seek inspiration and guidance from a wide array of expertise. Combining the tactical audacity of the Alinsky model with the grassroots democracy of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNNC), the participatory structures of the Piquetero movement, and the analysis of the South African Anti-Privatization Forum, we have the basic ingredients of an organizing model that will allow us to confront the scale of the challenges facing the planet and humanity. In recent years, there has been a growing effort to codify and articulate a model of organizing that can build the power necessary to confront and counter the problems we face today while building for tomorrow. This new model, which is the accumulation of practices past and present, has come to be called transformative organizing.

If organizing is the attempt to bring people together to take collective action to resolve a commonly identified problem, then transformative organizing is a particular approach to organizing that situates individual campaigns within a conscious analysis of the underlying systems of exploitation and oppression. Transformative organizing is defined by its explicit intention to transform both those systems and the individuals engaged in those campaigns in an effort to win genuine liberation for all. The model is still in development, but the practice that it is based on is strong and growing in the United States and around the globe. Of course, transformative organizing looks very different based on the place and conditions in which that work is happening. Transformative organizing looks different in Grahamstown, South Africa than it does in San Francisco, United States, but there are core principles that are shared by transformative organizations. The core principles of the transformative organizing model include:

  1. Walk with Vision
  2. Reach Out to Listen and Learn
  3. Revolutionary Edge of Reform
  4. Democracy Is Power
  5. Cultivate Leaders
  6. Build Strategic Alliances
  7. Commit to Movement
  8. Extract Every Lesson
  9. Personal Is Political

What follows is a brief description of each of the components of the transformative organizing model. In these descriptions, I draw on the experiences that I had founding and working at POWER (People Organized to Win Employment Rights), a community-based organization in San Francisco.[3] It’s not that POWER’s approach was always the correct approach. The organizations that are attempting to shape the transformative organizing model all deal with similar challenges and often take different approaches to addressing those challenges. While I could have drawn examples from the practice of a variety of transformative organizations, I use POWER as an example, not because this work was without shortcomings, but because that’s where my practice and my lessons have been rooted for the last decade and a half. I offer these lessons in a spirit of openness with the intention of helping to advance our struggles.


1. Walk with Vision

Virtually all organizing begins with a problem. People, agitated by a particular problem in their community or workplace, make the bold decision to come together with others to try to fix that problem.

It’s tempting to believe that the elimination of that problem is a sufficiently clear vision. During a period of neoliberal austerity, state-sanctioned violence, and social hostility, winning even the most modest reform can require an illusive combination of skill, timing, and luck. At their best, these victories produce concessions from ruling elites, but they do not alter the fundamental balance of power. For some organizing models, this has been enough.

However, the transformative organizing model takes the long-view of success. This model begins with the assessment that social problems all have structural, global, and historical roots, so even if we are successful in our campaign to address one particular problem, the transformative organizer must recognize that the structural inequities that prompted this problem will continue to create other problems—unless the root cause of those problems is eradicated for good. That’s why the transformative organizing model aims at nothing less than to eradicate the root causes of the problems that we experience. This means that the transformative organization must walk on two legs. Because we do not yet have the power necessary to shift the balance of power, the transformative organization must wage campaigns with the larger objective in mind. The transformative organization must fight and walk with vision.

This means that the transformative organization must devote resources to identifying and clarifying its shared vision of the social transformations it is trying to achieve. This is obviously no small task, and it requires taking time to discuss that which is not obviously connected to day-to-day struggles. Ultimately, the responsibility of articulating such a vision goes beyond individual organizations. The larger movement must take up the task of articulating a broader vision. The absence of such a clearly articulated vision is one of the central weaknesses that has plagued the Left in the United States and in many parts of the world, especially since the collapse of the 20th century socialist experiments. But until such time that the movement crafts such a vision, it is up to individual organizations to shape their visions. Clarity of vision can sharpen much of an organization’s work, from identifying core constituencies, potential allies, and targets to shaping campaign demands and coalitions.

POWER did this beginning in 2010. After a series of stinging defeats and hard-fought stalemates and in the midst of ongoing outreach and campaign work, POWER’s staff and members engaged in a series of conversations where we tried to answer the question: “What might victory look like?” From those conversations, we identified rising costs for lower levels of public service as a general problem confronting various sectors of society in San Francisco. In the realm of public transportation, this meant higher fares for rides on overcrowded buses that came less frequently. This trend flew in the face of what we identified as a core part of our vision: that public transportation is a vital common good which should be free for everyone. That is true not only because it allows people to travel to various parts of the city for work, education, and recreation, but because it also provides a vital intervention in the effort to reduce carbon emissions and fight climate change.

Our development of an even rudimentary vision, along with the city’s recent decision to eliminate school bus service, led POWER to launch a campaign calling for the city to provide free public transportation for all young people. This demand was a departure from how the organization would have framed this campaign in previous years. Before refining our vision, we would have called for the provision of free public transportation only for low-income young people. This new demand helped to position POWER not as an organization seeking to win charitable concessions for only low-income people but as a force aiming to expand the commons of San Francisco. This framing of the demand allowed POWER to build relationships with a new set of organizations and social forces, and it pushed us to explain why using public funds to provide free public transportation to wealthy young people was a prudent use of those funds.

In December 2012, POWER members and our coalition partners successfully forced the city to provide free transit only to low-income, young people, but the organization is now positioned to engage in other debates and has a broader grouping of allies that will allow us to up the ante on our future campaigns.

For the transformative organization, vision is an integral component of the organizing work; it’s more than a slogan used on organizational communications. It must be a dynamic presence, informing all the organization’s decisions in the same way that the North Star provided constant inspiration and guidance to those people of African descent escaping slavery in the treacherous terrain of the antebellum United States. Vision is the foundation of an organization’s effectiveness.


2. Reach Out to Listen and Learn

One of the most fundamental aspects of all organizing models is the commitment to reaching out and talking to members of the target constituency. After all, organizing—at its core—is simply the process of bringing people together to take collective action. For every constituency or community, this outreach might look different. Organizing residents of public housing might involve going door-to-door. Organizing workers might involve going to their workplace or to a popular bar. For us, at the beginning of POWER’s history, outreach meant sneaking into the local welfare office to talk to workfare workers.

Outreach is seldom easy, especially at the beginning. Do it long enough, and you’ll meet someone who doesn’t want to talk. You might be harassed (This can be especially challenging for women organizers or for organizers reaching out to constituencies different from themselves). You’ll get commitments from people, only to have them not show up at the meeting or action to which you’d invited them. In contemporary, Western societies that have become extremely individualized and where some corporations attempt to hide workers out of view, the organizer is breaking through social and political barriers which discourage going up and talking to someone that you don’t know.

This was certainly my experience with POWER. In 1996, I began doing outreach in San Francisco welfare offices in an attempt to form a community-based union of workfare workers, whom the City then required to do work in exchange for a monthly welfare grant. The work that workfare workers were required to do had previously been performed by unionized, civil service employees who earned $2,409 – $4,644 per month plus benefits. This was fair compensation at the time. Workfare workers though earned only $345 per month with no benefits and no opportunity to apply for the permanent positions were they to open up.

Not knowing that there was a policy against it, I walked into the welfare office and began passing out flyers and having conversations with people about the idea of forming an organization of workfare workers. I had a decent first week. I’d had some good conversations. I’d only been ignored a couple of times, but in the second week, the building security came up to ask what I was doing. When I told them, they told me that I had to leave, that the office was only for people applying for assistance. I left, but I would not be deterred. Over the next few weeks, I re-entered the welfare office with various disguises. I’d cut my hair, grow my facial hair, wear a hat— anything to get in twenty to thirty minutes of outreach. In time, these guerrilla outreach efforts produced a core group of members who shared the responsibility of reaching out to the people. A good organizer will always find a way to overcome the obstacles to reaching out to the targeted constituency, even if it means doing something that she’ll have to ask forgiveness for later on.

It’s critical that the organizer remember that outreach is the most fundamental ingredient of organizing. Outreach is the lifeblood of any organization. Rarely will people seek out an organization to join. The organizer’s first task is to give people permission to join with others in an effort to change the world. Outreach can be intimidating, but it can also be magical. All it takes is having one animated conversation with someone who has been yearning for a constructive outlet for their hope and rage. Those moments are the constant reminder of the transformative capacity of person-to-person interactions.

The issue of how the outreach is done is of central importance to the transformative organization. Many people’s experience with being approached by a stranger is not pleasant—whether it’s being accosted by someone trying to sell something or someone making unwanted sexual advances. Too many people in the United States have had the experience of being approached by a young militant trying to sell a newspaper from their revolutionary organization. The newspaper is merely a prop in those instances. The purpose of the interaction seems to be for the newspaper vendor to rave about the newspaper’s positions and to ridicule any dissenting views. This is not an example of transformative organizing’s approach to outreach. Transformative organizing’s commitment is to reaching out for the purpose of listening and learning.

Transformative organizing views its constituency as a strategic source of information and insight. For this reason, transformative organizations do not do outreach just to give information. Transformative organizing is not about proselytizing. Transformative organizing understands that effective outreach is an exchange. The transformative organizer offers an invitation to participate in the work of the organization and updates on this work; meanwhile, the organizer receives vital information about the conditions in the community or workplace, reflections on the organization’s campaign, and suggestions about what might strengthen the struggle.

The organizer reaches out as much, if not more, in order to learn as she does to inform. In fact, in all POWER’s training, new—and senior—organizers are pushed to speak no more than 30% of an interaction. The skill of asking provocative and engaging questions not only invites new and revealing information from the people, it also engages them so that they see themselves as a part of the organization and, as a result, are more likely to attend actions and meetings. This can take many different forms, from the posing of engaging questions to soliciting feedback on what different members of the community see as the most pressing issues. Based on this input, the members and leaders of the transformative organization might synthesize these ideas with their own research in order to develop radical and progressive initiatives that grow organically from the community’s aspirations and experiences. Those synthesized proposals might, then, be brought back to the community for feedback or ratification. This is not outreach as a perfunctory task. It is a part of the transformative organization’s process of developing genuine and lasting relationships to ensure that the transformative organization is rooted in and accountable to a constituency which is seen as a political force.

Clearly, this model of the organizer as a skilled interviewer and listener is very different than the macho image of the organizer as the charismatic savior of a community able to inspire the masses and strike fear into the hearts of the wicked. Too often people come into organizing work thinking that they will either be good or will not be good depending on their interest in public speaking. Depending on the situation, an organizer might be called upon to deliver a compelling oration, but transformative organizing is not about speechifying; transformative organizing is about developing the capacity of people to raise their own voices. Especially since the first interactions can be so formative, it is critical that transformative organizations develop organizers’ orientation and capacity to reach out for the purpose of listening.


3. Revolutionary Edge of Reform

In San Francisco, the unemployment rate among African Americans and Latinos is roughly 25%—more than double the national average. The incarceration rate is skyrocketing, and the housing crisis has stolen more than 40% of the African American community’s pre-2008 wealth. Funding for the public education, public transit, and public heath systems—which overwhelmingly serve African American, Latino, Asian American, and Pacific Islander communities—have been slashed dramatically over the past ten years. Meanwhile, corporations like Twitter, GenenTech, and large developers receive tens of millions of dollars in public subsidies. San Francisco is in no way unique in this respect. Communities all over the globe are experiencing similar levels of cutbacks and crackdowns while the one percent are living the gated lives of robber barons. In this context, there’s no shortage of meaningful campaigns that an organization might take up.

Certainly, resistance is critical. It is important to fight back against bad policies and practices; in an era of never-ending neoliberal assault, any and all resistance is noble. While resistance is necessary, it is not sufficient if we aim to achieve true liberation and the elimination of overlapping systems of exploitation and oppression. Our resistance must move us towards achieving our larger objectives, and some campaigns are simply more strategic to helping us reach our goals than others. The task of the transformative organization is to seek out those campaigns and activities that have the greatest potential to improve the lives of the constituency and of the working class and also to unleash new opportunities to engage and win future fights that move us towards our long-term vision.

The transformative organization must not fall into the trap of reformism, but at the same time, it must not cling to extreme demands that have offer no opportunity for social struggle. The question is how to find the revolutionary edge of reform fights.

In attempting to balance these concerns, transformative organizing is guided by the ideas of hegemony and counter-hegemony developed by the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci. The ruling class, Gramsci observed, has not only the coercive power of the state apparatus but is also able to exert moral and intellectual leadership. This moral and intellectual leadership allows the ruling class to win the consent of dominated classes to their continued domination by convincing the those classes that the interests of the ruling class are the interests of all. Gramsci poses that the task for revolutionaries in these contexts is not vainly calling for the most radical demands; rather, he advocates political struggle in which the popular and exploited classes struggle for hegemony. Those classes do that by engaging in campaigns and advancing demands that bring various sectors of society together in fights that begin to shift the terrain of struggle, thereby making struggles for more radical demands possible. This orientation, of course, requires clarity around vision, assessment of forces, and strategy.

The process of identifying new campaigns for POWER always begins by surveying members and constituents. That information is combined with a revised assessment of the organization’s vision. All this is then placed in the particular context of San Francisco’s economic, social, and political conditions. Using the power analysis tools developed by Anthony Thigpen, POWER attempts to assess which constituencies and organizations might be aligned with our objectives and which we might be able to win over. This information begins to give shape to the organization’s campaign work. To assist us in finding the revolutionary edge of reform struggles, POWER members and staff assess the degree to which a campaign provides opportunities to:

  • Improve the living and working conditions for POWER’s membership, for POWER’s constituency, and for the broader working class.
  • Establish building blocks of the organization’s long-term vision.
  • Build the power of and deepen the solidarity among various sectors of the working-class, of low-income people, and of people of color.
  • Undermine the power of the ruling class and its institutions.
  • Shift public discourse to make larger victories possible by undermining the logic oppression (i.e., capitalism, imperialism, white supremacy, patriarchy, etc.).
  • Develop the leadership of the organization’s members and staff.
  • Expand and deepen strategic and tactical alliances with key forces.
  • Grow the membership and strengthen the organization.

Perhaps the greatest danger to the transformative organization attempting to find the revolutionary edge of reform fights is dressing a reformist fight in revolutionary rhetoric. These criteria, along with regular reflection and evaluation of the organization’s work, help our assessment be as sober and grounded as possible.

While the criteria are not a mathematical formula, they do provide a set of parameters for the transformative organization to evaluate potential campaign work. A campaign may not score well on all the criteria, but we can use these factors to evaluate which campaigns offer the most potential. They also help determine how the organization shapes the campaign strategy. Transformative organizing, at its best, seeks the revolutionary potential of campaign struggles and then wages those campaigns with tenacity and finesse.


4. Democracy is Power

Democracy is in crisis in the United States. There are notable attempts to disenfranchise working-class people and communities of color—from voter suppression campaigns to the institutional prohibition against those who have been convicted of a felony and those who live in this country without legal residency papers. But the practice of democratic participation is also eroding for residents who have the right to cast a ballot. Democratic participation is more fairy tale than a lot of people would care to admit.

Democracy must be a defining practice of transformative organizing. This is not a matter of moralism. Democratic engagement can build the skills and consciousness necessary to building a strong organization, movement, or society. In POWER’s early days, we were engaged in a campaign that targeted a public sector union that refused to allow workfare workers to speak for themselves. That union had included a provision in its new contract with the city that called for the formation of a committee to discuss any future changes that were proposed to the workfare program. The committee, as stipulated by the contract, would have been made up of six representatives of the union and six representatives from the city—and zero workfare workers.

When we heard about this workfare committee, the members of POWER were initially pleased since we had been trying unsuccessfully to get the issue of workfare on the union’s agenda for months. It seemed like we had finally made a breakthrough. As for the exclusion of workfare workers from the committee, we thought that was merely an oversight. That is until our repeated calls to union officials went unanswered. As days passed and the contract moved to the City Council for ratification, POWER members decided to stage a protest. Since the contract called for a committee made up of twelve people who were not workfare workers, we demanded that the committee be expanded to include thirteen workfare workers and that until then, the council members should reject the contract.

POWER mobilized 100 workfare workers and allies for that first demonstration, and we convinced the City Council to table the matter for further investigation. Satisfied with our initial stand, we returned to a mountain of phone messages from several of the most powerful labor leaders in San Francisco. All the messages urged me to call them immediately. Everyone I spoke to expressed the same message: if POWER did not stop these protests, then the labor movement would cast us as anti-union and they would never work with us again.

I was shaken. After all, I saw POWER as a progressive voice in a re-invigorating labor movement. The organization’s founding strategy revolved around organizing workers in the informal sectors so that we could ally with organized workers in the formal sectors in order to mount a counter-offensive against the tyranny of capital. A part of me that thought we should stop the protests. But POWER had developed democratic structures of decision-making, so I knew that the decision was not mine alone to make; that decision fell under the purview of the Steering Committee, an elected body of leaders charged with making the strategic and tactical decisions about all aspects of the organization’s work.

When I reported back on the labor leaders’ threats, POWER’s members seemed unimpressed, so I stressed how serious the threats seemed. Garth Ferguson, one of the members of the Steering Committee, raised his hand and said that he had a couple of clarifying questions, “So you’re telling us that they’re going to call us names?”

“They’ll label us anti-union,” I responded.

“Well, I’ve been called lots of names before, and as a gay man who’s worked blue collar jobs my whole life, I don’t think ‘anti-union’ would be the worst name I’ve ever been called,” Garth answered. The rest of the Steering Committee laughed in agreement. He then continued, “You also said that they told you that if we continue that they’d never work with us again. My question is when have they ever stood by us in one of our campaigns?” The second round of laughter made the position of the Steering Committee members obvious. We voted unanimously to continue our protests to win a seat for workfare workers at the table.

After two more protests, each of which drew more people than the last, and just as the City Council was about to take a final vote on the proposed contract, the president of the Labor Council ran up to us and said the union was willing to give in to our demands. This victory was made possible because of the organization’s commitment to democracy, to ensuring that decisions be made by those who are most impacted by those decisions. In this case, the members made a better decision than I might have made by myself, and in my experience, groups tend to make better decisions than isolated individuals, especially if those groups are able to cultivate a culture of respectful engagement. However, this is not to romanticize the wisdom of collective decision-making. Groups of people are certainly capable of making bad decisions. History is not short of examples of this, but in the context of an organization, a group’s bad decisions can strengthen an organization over the long term. Engaging people increases their commitment to the project.

One of the most difficult features to cultivate in an organization is a sense of ownership. So often, prospective members would approach POWER and ask us to “fix” a problem that they were experiencing. Even after we explained that we operated on a basis of collective action where “we” all work to resolve the problem, new members would often refer to POWER in the second- or third-person. “What I think you should do is…” or “When I told POWER about my problems, they helped us confront my boss…” Until a member began referring to the organization in the first-person, we knew that they had not fully integrated into the organization’s work and practices, but when that same member began saying, “I think that we should…”, it was clear that they had taken the organization on as an extension of themselves. While this is the desired outcome, for most people, it is a process that can take weeks, months, or even years, and it requires a supportive environment. Clear and deliberate organizational structures and practices can greatly accelerate this process. Members see that they have the opportunity and are expected to make key decisions and to carry them out. When that happens, they are willing to take on more and more responsibility to ensure that the organization succeeds. In some ways, this is compounded when a group makes what some might consider a bad decision. In those moments, members see that there is no hidden committee waiting to veto the group’s decision. The organization’s practice matches its rhetoric, and more often than not, members work doubly hard to make the best of the decision that they participated in making, and with evaluation, the group is likely to make better decisions in the future. In both cases, the organization is strengthened.

This is a critical lesson for any organizer, but an especially critical one for organizers who come from different life experiences that the constituents he or she is attempting to organize. POWER’s approach builds on the insights of Paulo Freire when he wrote:

Certain members of the oppressor class join the oppressed in their struggle for liberation, thus moving from one pole of the contradiction to the other. Theirs is a fundamental role, and has been so throughout the history of this struggle. It happens, however, that as they cease to be exploiters or indifferent spectators… and move to the side of the exploited, they almost always bring with them the marks of their origin: their prejudices and their deformations, which include a lack of confidence in the peoples ability to think, to want, and to know. Accordingly, these adherents to the people’s cause constantly run the risk of falling into a type of generosity as malefic as that of the oppressors… They believe that they must be the executors of the transformation. They talk about the people, but they do not trust them; and trusting the people is the indispensable precondition for revolutionary change. A real humanist can be identified more by his trust in the people, which engages him in their struggle, than by a thousand actions in their favor without that trust.[4]

In a society where the opportunity for democratic participation is usurped, organizational structures and practices give people the opportunity to develop a vital set of skills that might otherwise go under-developed. Through engagement and collective decision-making, members learn how to build solidarity with people different from themselves. This can transform an individual’s expectations. After seeing genuine and thoughtful democratic participation, the benefits seem obvious, and members are unwilling to do without it in any aspect of their lives. We’ve seen this happen time and time again.

Democratic practice is a critical part of the transformative organizing model both because it tends to produce better decisions and because it deepens our capacity for and insistence on democracy in all aspects of our lives.


5. Cultivate Leaders

In order to achieve truly democratic practice, a transformative organization has to devote time and energy to growing leaders who can take up and share a diverse set of roles and responsibilities within the organization.

Leadership is a controversial topic in progressive circles. Much of this controversy grows out of the long and sordid history of unaccountable leaders, who have withheld critical information, who have exploited their positions to usurp uncommon privilege, and who have squashed debate in order to secure their positions—and not only from the ruling elite, but also leaders in progressive and left movements. The weight of that legacy represents a challenge that radicals must confront.

Some movement activists have decided to confront this challenge by proclaiming that leaders don’t exist. The position often begins with an analysis that views power imbalances as the root cause of problems in the world. The intervention, then, is to declare the absence of leaders, but this intervention though often misses its mark. Those interventions didn’t abolish leadership. What they abolished was the naming of leaders and the articulation of how anyone can become a leader. The result was that those people who filled leadership functions could not be held accountable—which they themselves often wanted—and it was exceedingly difficult for new members to step into leadership roles.

The approach that we took at POWER was, and continues to be, to expect that people will bring their best and that with appropriate support and accountability, we can all do more than we believe possible. The transformative organizing promotes accountable leadership by cultivating leadership skills among a diverse group of individuals and institutionalizing leadership in ways that makes explicit the leadership that is being exerted and that promotes lots of people to leadership roles at different times. As with all other interventions, this approach has had successes and its share of challenges, but on the whole, this approach has demonstrated its effectiveness.

Over the course of more than ten years, POWER worked on three levels to become more efficient in nurturing people’s leadership capacity. One level was institutional; the next was collective trainings; and the third, individual practice.

Institutionally, we came to learn that for most people, POWER was the first membership organization that they had joined as an adult. Many members came into the organization after years of interacting with service providers, case workers, and lawyers where the dominant mode of interaction was one where that person came in to request assistance and then waited. After some time, that person would be notified of the decision that had been made— by some nameless, unresponsive force.[5] As a result, the workings of organization—when meetings happened, how decisions were made, where those decision were made, and who made them—all seemed mystical experiences that happened behind a secret curtain. In order to facilitate members’ integration into active engagement, POWER members and staff created structures and then made explicit the roles that those structures were designed to play. One of those new structures, for example, was a new member orientation which serves as an in-person user manual to the organization. We developed this orientation when we heard from new members that they spend much of their first months in the organization confused about what was happening and why. Creating structures like the new member orientation and communicating their functions helped to demystify the organization and what it means to be an active member of POWER. Another of the structures is the steering committee, which is now an elected body that serves as the organization’s primary decision-making body. All members are invited to attend steering committee meetings to observe and offer comment on the group’s deliberations. This has increased members’ appreciation for the amount of work required to play a leadership role and has given steering committee members opportunities to get ongoing and honest feedback on their performance and their decisions.

In addition to institutionalizing leadership, POWER has created several political education and leadership development training programs whose purpose is to cultivate a broad set of leadership skills among a wide range of the membership. Rather than defining leadership as a very narrow set of skills, we have defined leadership as the contributions that people make to strengthen and further the work of the organization and the movement. We see the ability to inspire others with a rousing speech as one aspect of leadership, but we also see as leadership the ability to gracefully facilitate a meeting so that the group can make a difficult decision. Leadership is the ability to listen and build trusting relationships with others so that they are willing to share with you their deepest concerns and aspirations. Leadership is organizing food to sustain participants in a long protest. Leadership is the ability to devise cunning tactics and strategies that advance the campaign’s demands. Leadership takes many different forms. Some are more easily observed, but all are important and all need to be appreciated and cultivated.

Leaders are the foundation upon which organization can be built. Corporations hire in order to provide the requisite incentives to compel people take up a wide array of tasks. From the outset, we knew that neither the movement nor the organization would ever have enough money to hire all the people that we would need in order to topple the status quo; the movement would need to develop leaders from the constituencies that have the most to gain by challenging and eradicating the systems of oppression and exploitation. This was the impetus behind the initiation of POWER University. POWER University is now a two-tiered, political education and leadership development program designed to move members into various leadership positions in the organization and to move organizational leaders into various leadership roles in broader social movements. The pedagogy of all POWER’s leadership development draws from the teachings of Paulo Friere and Myles Horton.[6] The central premise behind both these educators’ work is that ordinary people amass a tremendous amount of wisdom moving through the world. Where most educational models presume to dump new knowledge into the heads of empty vessels, this approach seeks to draw from and build on the knowledge that people have cultivated through their experience. Guided by this perspective, POWER University covers Marxist theoretical concepts and advanced skills but does so by rooting those concepts in the members’ own lived experiences.

For POWER, leadership is a collective responsibility. Often multiple people take on leadership roles, but even when only one person takes on this role, we recognize that the people not assuming these roles can greatly influence the organization’s success or failure. For example, there might be one person facilitating a meeting, a role that might traditionally be classified as a leadership role. But it is also true that the person taking minutes of the meeting, the person welcoming and orienting new members, and the person asking questions in a way that moves the process forward are all contributing to the facilitation of the meeting and to the success of the organization. They are all leaders. POWER’s leadership development program cultivates what we refer to as followship skills as well because blind and passive obedience is incompatible with accountable leadership.

Some have criticized POWER for spending so much time and energy offering political education trainings for members and staff. Others have said that their organization simply doesn’t have the time to do such extensive leadership development. It is true that by doing this work, we were deciding not to take on some other work, but our experience has been that by investing in the development of new leaders, the organization is strengthened. Members are able to take up work they might not otherwise feel comfortable doing, and members remain active in the organization’s work for longer periods of time because, according to their evaluations, they do not see where else they can receive this level of leadership development and political education.

POWER’s approach to growing and nurturing leadership does not happen only in trainings. Activists learn to lead by doing, so POWER places a premium on supporting and encouraging people to take on new roles, often roles that they themselves would have thought themselves incapable of. But rather than simply throwing people into roles that they are unprepared for—which can have a demoralizing impact—organizers and other leaders spend much of their time having one-on-one meetings with members and prospective leaders. In these meetings, members and organizers work together to develop plans to develop and sharpen the member’s leadership skills. Whether it’s facilitating a meeting, presenting a testimony at a legislative hearing, or speaking at a rally, members take on leading roles in many of the organization’s activities, and after each of those activities, the leader has an opportunity to evaluate the experience—to analyze what went well and what might have gone better and to think about what to change in the future. Hundreds of leaders at POWER have emerged out of this process. Many of those leaders are still active with POWER, but even for those who aren’t, the skills and perspectives that they learn and cultivate through POWER’s leadership development program equip them to take a proactive role in addressing any challenge they experience in their personal lives, in their workplaces, and in their communities.


6. Build Strategic Alliances

Most community-based organizations build coalitions to give them a better chance of winning their campaign demands. The basis of the unity that brings those organizations and individuals together is their support for the demand that the coalition is calling for—whether it’s an increased minimum wage, the prosecution of a murderous police officer, or the passage of legislation to establish labor protections for domestic workers.

Building strong coalitions is not anything that should be taken lightly. It requires a high level of attention, skill, and flexibility. Each organization involved in the coalition comes with its own unique customs, procedures, and interests. Every organization must be willing to adjust its practice in order to maintain unity with the other organizations. Ultimately, organizations take these steps because they are committed to achieving the coalition’s goals.

A transformative organization must see that unity as tactical. The organizations participating in a coalition likely have differing visions and strategic orientations. This difference need not be a point of contention although remembering that can be difficult. It was for POWER. In its early days, POWER looked to build unity around questions of long-term vision and strategy with coalitional allies. This was important to us because we saw how our long-term vision influenced the immediate decisions we chose in our campaign work, and we didn’t have another outlet to have these conversations with other organizers. But attempting to build this long-term unity with organizations and individuals who had different visions was a distraction to the coalition. After long, contentious debates, we would often return to our office complaining about how problematic our coalition members were being, but after some reflection, the members and organizers of POWER realized that we were a part of the problem. We were seeking a level of political unity that was unrealistic. Coalitions are forged by the tactical unity of shared work and a shared commitment to achieving the campaign’s demands, but we wanted more.

This realization prompted POWER to couple our tactical alliance-building work with work to build strategic alliances with organizations that shared our long-term vision and strategic orientation. Some of those organizations worked with very different constituencies. Some worked on different issues. And others were based in far away cities, but the relationships that POWER was able to build with organizations like Causa Justa :: Just Cause, the Chinese Progressive Association, Coleman Advocates, the Miami Workers Center, CAAAV, and the Labor Community Strategy Center, among others helped to refine and sharpen POWER’s vision and practice as much, if not more, than work with tactical allies.

Many of the exchanges among our strategic partners were informal—ongoing conversations between organizers, directors, and leaders. Instead of trying to find work to do together, we would reflect on the minutiae of how we do the work—how to craft demands, how to develop leaders, how to recruit new members into the organization, how to provide childcare and interpretation, how to compensate staff? The totality of these small, seemingly insignificant, discussions helped to refine and sharpen POWER’s vision and practice as a transformative organization and allowed POWER members and staff to broaden our perspective by engaging with comrades working in very different contexts.

A good example of this comes from POWER’s alliance with the Miami Workers Center. Beginning in 1999, POWER members had a series of monthly conference calls with members of the Miami Worker Center. Because of the regularity of the conversations, the organizations had a deep appreciation for the work of each other, and the members had developed trusting relationships with one another, even though many had never met in person. In May 2000, just after Elián González was returned to his father and his homeland of Cuba,[7] the members decided to discuss this saga. The U.S. corporate media had broadcast nightly programs questioning the wisdom of sending the young man back to what they classified as a socialist dictatorship. On the call, the members of both organizations quickly dismissed that perspective. The corporate media line was ludicrous. The young man belonged with his father. The conversation then switched to the issue of the police. POWER members—who had participated in protests calling for accountability after the 1995 police murder of Aaron Williams, an African American man in San Francisco—condemned the use of the police. Their central concern was that the police have historically played the role of occupying, harassing, and violently repressing low-income people, especially in African American and Latino communities. If that level of police violence was tolerated, even in this instance where we agreed with the outcome, then that level of repression would eventually target our communities. This comment was greeted by an uncharacteristically long silence on the other end of the line. At first, we all thought that our comrades in Miami had lost their phone connection. Then a voice spoke up. One of the members of the Miami Workers Center explained that most of their members were pleased not only by the outcome but also by how the incident was resolved. She continued to explain that the right-wing, expatriate Cuban community had a stranglehold on political and economic power in their city; that more times than they could remember, this part of the Cuban community had disregarded law and decency—often at the expense of low-income African Americans and Latinos from other countries. She reasoned that the reactionary Cubans would have never voluntarily allowed the father and son to reunite, and they were happy to see their city’s ruling elite finally be taken to task. For this reason, they supported the federal government sending in armed officers to rescue Elián González. The rest of the agenda was trashed, and the members had a more than hour-long conversation discussing the different conditions in each community. At the end, all the members said that they were opposed to police violence and to one group using power to subjugate another, but we also all left with a new appreciation for the specificity of local politics. For transformative organizations, strategic alliances can serve to deepen the organization’s practice.

Strategic alliances can also lead to concrete work. After a series of exchanges, shared political education sessions, and joint contingents in larger marches, POWER joined together with eight other community organizations rooted in working-class communities of color in San Francisco in 2007 to found San Francisco Rising. San Francisco Rising is an independent project which allows for member alliances to come together to make endorsements of candidates and propositions in San Francisco elections. Shared work was not necessarily the objective at the beginning of these exchanges. Most of the organizations work on different issues in different communities. We had a long history of supporting one another’s work and marching together at large rallies, but that was on an ad hoc basis. The initial objective that brought us together was to share experiences in an effort to accelerate our learning from those experiences. But over time, the commitment to develop shared work became apparent to all.

Electoral work is traditionally contentious since organizations often enter the electoral arena with divergent goals and objectives, but the experience with San Francisco Rising has been exactly the opposite. The bonds of solidarity seemed to strengthen after each campaign, and the work is having greater and greater impact. In a city where the difference between a winning and losing campaign is around 20,000 votes and where there are close to 35,000 people in working-class African American, Latino, Chinese, Filipino, and Pacific Islander communities who regularly sit out elections, San Francisco Rising has the potential to shift the outcome of key city-wide elections. In its first two electoral campaigns, San Francisco Rising has mobilized upwards of 20,000 voters traditionally ignored by the Democratic Party, and all this work is being done with a high level of political and strategic unity between partners. This has allowed the work to move forward faster and more boldly than we would have ever imagined.


7. Commit to Movement

POWER’s mission is to eliminate poverty and oppression—once and for all. We have been clear since the founding that this is not an objective that POWER will be ever able to achieve alone as a solitary community-based organization. The causes of these problems are global; achieving this outcome will require nothing less than the building of a global social movement willing and capable of confronting capitalism, imperialism, white supremacy, and patriarchy with a commitment to global justice. For this reason, POWER, like other transformative organizations, holds solidarity as a foundational principle of the organization’s work.

Samora Machel once said: “Solidarity is not an act of charity. It is an act of unity between allies fighting on different terrains toward the same objective.”[8] This perfectly captures POWER’s understanding of solidarity, and for us it’s important that Machel’s definition rests on the assumption that both allies have clarity about the objective for which they are struggling, echoing the first component of the transformative organizing model.

Transformative organizations have to be willing and prepared to allocate time, energy, and resources to support the struggles of comrades fighting on different issues and in different places. The preparation to allocate these resources is one of the key aspects of this. Given the frequency of abuses that befall so many communities, it is easy for an organization to expend all its capacity responding to these assaults. This, then, makes it challenging for organizations to act in solidarity even if there is a genuine desire to do so. In our best moments, POWER has incorporated the actions and demonstrations of our allies into our own organizational calendar so that we can mobilize our communities to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with other struggling organizations, even if we didn’t see those actions as contributing directly to the campaigns that we were working on. We also use political education as an opportunity to prepare the groundwork since members and staff are more willing to act in solidarity if they understand the connections between our fights and struggles. These actions often paid unexpected benefits.

In 1999, POWER decided to send two representatives—a staff person and a member—to join the Seattle protests against the World Trade Organization (WTO). We had little idea of what to expect. We thought it would likely be just another demonstration, but we hoped it would provide an opportunity to broaden the experiences of an emerging leader and a young organizer. Little did we know what they would experience on the rainy streets of Seattle. When Emma Harris, a leader who had emerged from the campaign for labor protections for workfare workers, left for Seattle, she had attended many of POWER’s demonstrations but was unsettled whenever the police would instruct us to cease our non-violent protests. She came back from the WTO protests a changed person. She spoke about the power of the people turning back the police. She became a voice calling for cross-sectoral unity after seeing indigenous communities leading trade unionists who formed alliances with environmentalists and direct action activists. Back in San Francisco to this day, Ms. Harris insists on escalating the militancy of our tactics since, as she says, “We’ll only win with struggle. We’ve got to keep the pressure on them.”

Although a transformative organization might focus the majority of its energy and activities on one particular issue, it must remain vigilant in looking for opportunities to offer support. Sitting back and waiting for an invitation serves no one. We have to examine the situation so that we see where our interests lie. Once in the struggle, the transformative organization follows the leadership of those leading that campaign.

These actions are critical not only because they serve to strengthen the struggles of popular forces, but they also provide an opportunity to forge class consciousness as the participants see allies from different sectors and of different races, ethnicities, national origins, genders, and sexual orientations standing together in the quest for justice and equity.


8. Extract Every Lesson

Rooted in the sober assessment that for the foreseeable future our opposition will be able to outspend us, the transformative organizing model rests firmly in the belief that in order to be successful popular forces must be more cunning, more efficient, and more strategic with the resources we do have. As Willie Baptist, a transformative organizer of homeless and low-income people, points out, “Nowhere in world history can anyone find where a dumb force rose up and defeated a smart force.”[9]

As previously mentioned, the transformative organizing model aims to develop the capacity of members and staff. Political education and leadership development prepares the ground for the development of skilled organizers and committed leaders, but action forges this development.

Organizing generates lots of action—from confronting exploitative bosses and controlling police, to testifying before hostile governmental officials, to meeting with potential allies, to recruiting new members. Every one of these experiences has dual product—the outcome of the action itself and a more experienced activists who has access to the lessons of what went well and what might be improved in the future. Left unexplored, those lessons go to waste. The individual and the organization lose an opportunity to improve future work.

While there is nothing particularly innovative about the method of evaluation in the transformative organizing model, it is the steadfast commitment to evaluating all our work that is characteristic. Evaluation can take many different forms. Some is individual, some collective. Some is done immediately after an action, and some is done to assess a period of the organization or individual’s work. Some evaluations happen in a quiet space, conducive to reflection, and others happen on the streets after a rousing demonstration. But the point is always the same: to extract all the lessons that might lead to more effective action in the future.

After POWER concluded an action in which we occupied the office of a local bureaucrat, members and staff assembled in a circle on a nearby sidewalk to do a quick evaluation of the action. Everyone took a turn offering perspectives on what the group did well and what we might improve in the future. Later on, organizers would meet with the members who took on particular roles to assess their individual performance. Like brushing one’s teeth, these evaluations are an assumed part of the organization’s work. Then, every six months, the organization does a more comprehensive assessment of the previous period’s work, and every year, members of the staff participate in a process of criticism and self-criticism where individuals assess their own work and receive feedback from comrades. The planning for future actions then draws from past evaluations of similar work.

The transformative organizing model places a heavy emphasis on evaluation because relentless and sober assessment allows the transformative organization to extract all the lessons that our experiences have to teach. Transformative organizations look to develop our skills and ability to make accurate assessments through constant, thorough, and honest reflection so that we never have to rely solely on luck.


9. Personal is Political

Building on the insights of the feminist movement, transformative organizing connects the transformation of society to the transformation of the individual in order to achieve genuine and lasting liberation for all. Transformative organizing aims at nothing less than changing the world. Firmly rooted in an understanding of the interaction between society and the individual, transformative organizing seeks to transform not only the policies, structures, and systems of society but also seeks to shape the transformation of the individual and of our relationships.

Capitalism, poverty, sexual violence, police repression, discrimination, and social exclusion all produce social inequity, and they also scar the individuals who experience and who perpetrate those ills. As the organizer Tómas Garduño points out, “We are living in a period of social disintegration.”[10] Struggling to realize a society based on solidarity, equality, and freedom allows us all to explore and expand the best parts of ourselves. As Ng’ethe Maina reveals, the transformative organization adopts individual and collective practices to promote collective and individual “liberation from suffering.”[11]

Organization is a social form that brings individuals together in order to achieve a collectively identified goal. Those individuals who come to the organization—whether as staff, members, or volunteers—all bring the complexity of their experiences with them, and these experiences can shape, for better and for worse, how that individual views and moves in the world. Like it or not, focusing solely on the structures of social and political oppression and exploitation while ignoring the suffering and trauma that individuals carry with them can be toxic to the attempts to build a strong organization.

From the outset, POWER has seen the challenge of breaking down the alienation that people feel as key to our ability to develop a strong organization of people who believe that they deserve a better future. POWER membership meetings routinely begin with a go-around where participants share their names, how they are doing, and one thing that they’d like to share with the group. Sometimes, people announce upcoming events. Other times they cheer for local sports teams. Eventually, someone will share a problem they are having. A bank is threatening to foreclose on their family’s home. They just got laid off from their job. They were harassed by police while walking home from the store. This brave act of sharing is often done timidly, with shame and isolation hanging from every word. Then someone else in the circle will reach out a hand, sharing that they too are going through a similar challenge. And then someone else. Soon, social alchemy has transformed shame and isolation into outrage and solidarity. This sharing takes time out of organizational meetings, time that could be spent on other business, but our experience is that by opening meetings in this way, we allow people to see through the hypocrisy that would suggest that they alone are to blame for their problems and that they are the only ones facing such problems. Once people develop genuine relationships with each other with a deeper recognition of the systems that perpetuate the proliferation of these problems, then people are more inclined to see themselves and those around them as subjects capable of making change, rather than as objects of life’s cold cruelty.

Organization can also support an individual in her process of transformation. In 2006, POWER opened an unused room in the office to a somatics practioner who meets with members and staff who would like support in addressing the impacts of past trauma. The staff and members who have worked with the practioner are now more consistent and capable in their roles.

The task of the transformative organization cannot be limited to transforming how individuals relate to the economy, to the state and to society. We must also transform how individuals relate to one another and how we all relate to ourselves.



As the reader has likely observed already, the components of the transformative organizing model form an organic system in that each component interacts with and supports the others. While the specific implementation of the nine components may vary from organization to organization, the intentionality around the nine components is essential. The transformative organizing model is not a mix-and-match approach to building power. I’ll share one final story to illustrate this point.

POWER was founded as a multi-racial organization and quickly developed a membership with strong roots in the African American and Latino communities. These racial groupings are often at odds with each other in communities across the United States, but because the founders saw the strategic necessity of uniting various working-class communities of color, the organization was an experiment in multi-racial, working-class unity. In some important ways, this unity was maintained by the slogan “We have more in common than we do that’s different. Divided, we will eventually all be defeated, but united, we can win.”

POWER was able to maintain a level of racial tolerance. There were moments of tension—occasional derogatory comments, disrespectful behavior, and social snubs—and when these events happened, the staff would hold one-on-one meetings with members to explain why this was unacceptable in the organization and why it was counter-productive to our shared work for liberation. All in all, we were able to develop an air of tentative tolerance. Even this was no small achievement given the state of relations between these communities in the outside world, but it was also a far cry from the level of multi-racial solidarity to which we aspired.

Because there was always so much other work to do, we chose not to intervene. That is until the spring of 2004, when tensions began to boil over. African Americans were angry about the interpretation of the meetings in Spanish. Latinas were angry about how some African American members seemed to judge their parenting styles. Everyone felt that the organization’s campaigns were privileging the other racial group. Tensions were high, and some members were openly suggesting that the organization should split into two separate organizations—one for African Americans and one for Latinos.

The staff realized that this had become an organizational priority. We also knew that to truly resolve this issue the members had to be the body to make this decision, rather than the staff issuing a decree. It also seemed that if there were a simple election in this heated environment that the decision might actually lead to the rupturing of the organization on hostile terms such that the organizations might never even partner in the future. In response, the staff proposed a member vote on the issue after a political education process to explore the context of the decision. At the conclusion of that process, the democratic will of the members would decide the matter. The members agreed, and the staff set to work developing the political education process.

The process to contextualize the members’ decision was a ten-week-long process where the organization’s leaders and any other interested members came together once a week. After an introduction to the process and the decision that we would be making at the end, the first session began with small groups where the African Americans and the Latinas each named the biggest problems facing their communities. Then, they named what they saw as the biggest problems in the other racial group. That first session ended with each group reporting back on what they saw as the biggest problems in their communities.

Using a wide variety of pedagogical approaches and materials—from film clips drawn from the tele-documentary Roots to statistical information to member testimonials—the next four sessions examined the history of African Americans in the United States from the trans-Atlantic slave trade to current period. Throughout these first sessions, it was apparent that many of the Latinas were learning this information for the very first time. Living in the racist culture of the United States, many of the Latinas found it difficult to understand the miserable conditions in the African American community. Before this political education, many of the Latinas saw African Americans as just another immigrant community—but one that speaks English and that has its citizenship papers—so they couldn’t understand what the problem could be, other than what they hear everyday through the political hegemony of the United States: that African Americans are the cause of their own problems.

Next, the sessions turned to examine the history of U.S. intervention in Latin America—from the first New World colonies to the 19th century westward expansion to the military and economic assaults on the people of Mexico and Central America. We then looked at the impact that these attacks had on the push-and-pull factors influencing various waves of immigration to the United States. As we focused our attention on the history of the United States’ brutal role in undermining the Sandinista movement, many of the African American members made instantaneous breaks from the ahistorical and hypocritical discourse on immigration in the United States. All of a sudden, many of the African American members saw their own experience as tied together with the immigrant experience.

The final session began with a review of the problems that each of the racial groups had named at the beginning of the process. Then, we discussed what struck them in looking at those lists. It was an amazing moment. In their own words, people talked about the destructive impacts of white supremacy and colonialism. They talked about the ways in which people of color have been subjugated, terrorized, and de-humanized throughout the history of this country that speaks of itself as a bastion of freedom and democracy. They talked about the fact that the listed problems grew out of capitalism and that while the conditions in our communities may look different, they are all the rotten fruit of imperialist domination. We then posed the question that had launched this process: should POWER remain a multi-racial organization or should it split into separate organizations?

At various points in the process, members came to different staff members to ask how this decision was going to be made. Many couldn’t believe that the staff, the director, and a co-founder would allow a group of low-income people to sever something that had taken years to build. We all responded with one simple point: “This is your organization, so this is your decision. We trust that you’ll do what you consider to be in the best interests of you, your community, and the working class as a whole.” Members left these one-on-one meetings more committed to engaging the sessions and the process. When it came time to make the decision, the discussion made it clear that the organization was likely to remain one multi-racial organization, but it was so one-sided that the staff made an impromptu decision to argue the other side—in favor of splitting into two racially-specific organizations—if only to ensure that the view had a fair hearing. The members quickly argued this position down and then went on to vote unanimously to remain a multi-racial organization. Through the process, POWER members came to see more the white supremacist roots of the United State, and they saw their organization as a vital instrument in building a new and liberatory future.

There were so many lessons from this experience—including that the staff had not engaged in explicitly political conversations about the nature of our work out of fear of alienating some members. This experience showed us that working-class people are hungry for challenging and complex conversations, but it also showed us how each of the components of the transformative organizing model—from member democracy to leadership development to evaluation and minimizing egoism in our approach to the work—all depend and build on each other.

Organizing will continue to be a central approach that activists around the globe will employ to address problems from economic inequality to unbridled militarism, from the subjugation of women to the catastrophes of global warming. As more organizers are forced to grapple with the ways that these issues overlap and intersect, approaches to organizing will and must identify practices that allow organizations to go beyond transactional campaigns. Our task is to transform social relations in order to liberate the planet and humanity. This will require the cohesion of the strengths and insights learned on the frontlines of struggles in workplaces and communities around the world. Drawing from the experiences of historical and contemporary social movements, the transformative organizing model demands everything. It sets out audaciously revolutionary objectives because we deserve nothing less.



[1] Saul Alinsky, Rules for Radicals (Vintage Books Edition, 1989), p. 26.

[2] Eric Norden, “Interview with Saul Alinsky” (Playboy Magazine, 1972;

[3] These are my reflections on my tenure as organizer, Executive Director and Co-Executive Director at POWER (People Organized to Win Employment Rights), a community based, working-class organization in San Francisco, California. While the reflections are mine, the victories, successes and innovations that POWER has accumulated over the years are the shared products of hundreds of people who have served on POWER’s staff, membership, leadership bodies, and Board of Directors. They are too many to mention by name, but I do want to extend special appreciations to Alicia Garza, Jaron Browne, Jason Negrón-Gonzáles, Marisa Franco, Aspen Dominguez, Cindy Wiesner, Ilana Berger, Nora Calderon, Larry Lattimore, Emma Harris, Gloria Esteva, Manuela Esteva, Donají Lona, Juana Tello, Ernest Stokes, Beatriz Herrera, Karen Gibson, Lorren Dangerfield, Jesse Tello, Regina Douglass, Garth Ferguson, Brian Russell, Patty Snitzler, Thabiti Hayes, Khalil Abdul Samad, Jane Martin.

[4] Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (Continuum Books, 2000), p. 60.

[5] Clearly, not all service provision, case management, or lawyering follows this model, but in San Francisco, where POWER is based, this model was and is dominant.

[6] Paulo Freire (1921–1997) was a Brazilian educator and influential theorist of critical pedagogy. His book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, laid the foundation for much of the current theory and practice of popular education. Myles Horton (1905–1990) was a U.S.-based educator. He was one of the founders of the Highlander Folk School in southern Tennessee. Highlander became famous for its role as a training and strategizing center for the Civil Rights Movement and continues to be an important resource for the social justice movement in the United States.

[7] Elían Gonzalez became the center of a heated controversy in late 1999 and early 2000. In November 1999, González’s mother drowned while attempting to leave Cuba for the United States with the then-five year-old Elián. The mother had left without notifying Elián’s father, Juan Miguel González Quintana, of her intentions to take Elián with her. Rescued off the coast of Florida, the U.S. government placed Elián in the custody of relatives who sought to keep him in the United States against the demands of his father that his son be returned to Cuba. The legal case moved through the high courts where it was eventually ruled that Elián should be returned to his father in Cuba. Many right-wing, expatriate Cubans in Miami rallied, vowing to turn back any attempt by federal authorities to return Elián. After a very public showdown, armed federal agents stormed into his relatives’ home and returned Elián to Cuba in June 2000.

[8] Samora Machel (1933–1986) was a revolutionary leader from Mozambique who led the national liberation struggle against the Portuguese. After independence in 1975, Machel was elected Mozambique’s President until his death when his presidential airplane crashed in the mountainous terrain near the borders of Mozambique, Swaziland, and South Africa.

[9] Willie Baptist, “The Cockroach vs. The Dinosaur.” (Economic Human Rights Education Series, 2000) p. 6.

[10] Interview by the author with Tómas Garduño on October 18, 2012.

[11] Ng’ethe Maina, “Transformative Organizing: Towards Liberation of Self and Society, Part 1” (


Puno en Alto! Libro Abrierto! / Fists, up! Books, open! On Anti-Intellectualism, Literacy Brigades, and Revolutionary Consciousness

By Maria Poblet

Originally published by Organizing Upgrade, July 2012.

I’m pretty sure the first time I heard the word “Anti-Intellectualism,” I said “that word is so elitist!” Luckily, I was in the company of one of my greatest teachers, June Jordan. After giggling uncontrollably (her giggle-fests were legendary), she asked me what I thought the word meant. Little did I know we were beginning a dialogue that would last more than a decade, and shape my view of the world.

I explained my logic to her “If I label something as inaccessible because of it’s advanced vocabulary, then I’m defending the working class, right? I mean, even if I know what the word means, that’s just because I had the privilege of education. And we’re all responsible for building a movement culture that doesn’t exclude people!”

June did not giggle. She peered over her glasses, ashed that Nat Sherman she was smoking, and cocked her head “Really? Have you ever asked a working class teenager if she would rather be fed easier words or get an education that allows her to read any word she wants?”

It was such a powerful example of the problem with anti-intellectualism (hostility towards intellectuals or intellectual work), that I still remember it, 15 years later. Well… that and the fact that she was calling out my paternalistic view in no uncertain terms. Here I was, getting excellent grades at a fancy university, claiming the real problem in society was big words. I worked 3 jobs and accumulated a huge debt to attend the school where she taught. If education that important to me, why would it be less important to anyone else? Lucky for me, she was patient with my contradictions, and her passion was contagious.

“Come sit over here.” she continued, “Did I ever tell you about the Sandinistas?” June started to tell me of her experiences in Nicaragua in the 1980s. The Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (Sandinista Front for National Liberation, known by it’s Spanish acronym FSLN), a left wing political organization, led the 1979 overthrow of dictator Anastasio Somoza, ending his families’ right wing political dynasty in the country, and ushering in an era of profoundly progressive social and economic change. June was so proud to be the first black journalist to travel to Nicaragua, and document the success of that movement. Following Sandinistas around with a steno notebook from a meeting in Managua to a school in Estelí changed her life forever. “The feeling,” she said, “was like falling in love.” She described the wave of enthusiasm; the desire to give your best self to this joyful, complicated, collective process. The feeling that everyone you met was a cousin that just arrived at some kind of revolutionary family reunion.

sandanista-literacy-campaignShe had arrived shortly after the FSLN began implementing Carlos Fonseca Amador’s vision of a strong relationship between literacy and militancy. Fonseca Amador was a librarian, teacher, and founder of the FSLN. Years after his death, his ideas lived on, and took the shape of literacy brigades. This visionary project sent 100,000 volunteers into peasant communities to end illiteracy. Drawing from the example set by the Cuban Literacy Campaign, which literally eliminated illiteracy in that country, they adapted the concept to their own unique conditions. Jesuit priest Fernando Cardenal coordinated the effort, and described it this way: “not only would we teach people letters and what those letters mean, we would also make it possible for peasant farmers and urban workers to learn about their own situation and the economic, social, and political context in which they lived. We were going to teach them to answer questions like, why am I poor? We wanted them to learn to distinguish between a tragedy like a drought or an earthquake and a tragedy like poverty. We wanted them to learn that nature provokes hurricanes while human beings create poverty. Making this distinction is what conscientización is all about.” [1]

Their consciousness-raising was deeply influenced by the methods and theory of Brazilian educator and militant Paulo Friere. Friere’s theory (Pedagogy of the Oppressed) and methods (Popular Education) had the goal of “conscientização.” Originally coined in Brazilian Portuguese, and common in Spanish (“conscientización”), the term refers to the process of developing critical consciousness. Which is to say, learning to read the contradictions in social, political and economic life, and learning to take action against the oppressive aspects of reality.

Illiteracy, the brigades said, was not an individual problem. It was a social problem that everyone had responsibility for, and it required a community-based solution. And, this community-based solution would not only eradicate illiteracy, it would also raise consciousness. Volunteer Brigadístas learned as much as they taught. They returned from their work with peasant communities humbled and inspired by the resilience of the families they lived and worked with, and ready to support the struggle for economic justice that the peasant organizations were leading inside a broader progressive front. Rural communities learned too.

Not only how to write a number or read directions, but also about the relationship between their often isolated experiences of struggle, and the political system the society was only just starting to cast off after an electoral victory by the FSLN. Education was flowing in all directions. And, as the poetic Sandinistas tended to do, they gave their project a beautiful slogan “Turn our country into a school!”

Here in the United States, the right wing has been so successful in tying working class identity to anti-intellectualism, that we can hardly tell the two apart. And that confusion shows up inside our movement as well. We often critique intellectual work as if it has a class nature in itself, instead of recognizing that, like artistic, scientific, or therapeutic work, it can be put to the service of any class. If intellectual work is associated with the capitalist class and with class privilege, it’s simply because the capitalist class has control over it.

And it’s a powerful thing when intellectual tools are in the hands of oppressed people who know they are oppressed. June knew that when she started Poetry for the People, which supported young people in finding their voice, and required that students teach in the community, giving classes at Glide church, FCI Dublin Women’s Prison, Berkeley High School, and Mission Cultural Center. The right wing in Arizona knows that too, and it’s why they have so viciously attacked Chicano Studies. They saw the danger of a growing level of organization connected to a pipeline that trained and educated movement builders.

Our social movement needs to claim the power of intellectual work, now more than ever. Community organizing, direct action, and mobilization are powerful tools. But divorced from political education and critical engagement in the world of ideas, they are not enough to win the scale of change we need in our communities and in our world.

Instead of letting anti-intellectualism narrow our view, lets turn our movement into a school! As the Sandinistas said “Fists up! Books open!”



[1] It must be noted that these days we see plenty of man-made disasters in nature, like those related to climate change!


From the Base: Revolutionary Left Community Organizing in the U.S.

By Josh Warren-White, September 2006

This paper, written in 2006, studies what was then a relatively new model of community organizing that is Left and revolutionary. The study looks at what the main tenants of this organizing model are; what historical organizing traditions and models it evolved out of or drew from; and what this model’s implications are for building a strong Left political movement rooted in working class communities of color in the United States.

The research for this study draws from a review of the academic work in the field of community organizing, a historical survey of community organizing in the United States, and a series of interviews with lead organizers who were pioneering this new organizing model. The paper examines the growth of a number of leading organizations in the field, studying their influences, their contributions to a national and international Left movement, and their impacts on both their membership and the political economy of their regions.

You can download a PDF of the paper here, or read below.

Table of Contents

  1. Table of Contents
  2. Introduction
  3. Central Tenants of Revolutionary Left Community Organizing
    • Sharp understanding of the political economy
    • A strong membership base of working class people of color
    • Rooted in Left ideology
    • Political education and leadership development
    • A strong organization to contest for power
    • Militancy
    • Meticulous organizing methodology
    • Reforms toward revolution
  4. Anti-Imperialism and Third World Marxism
    • Lenin’s Imperialism
    • The Revolutionary Subject — The Class to Which the Future Belongs
    • Marx’s Theory of Primitive Accumulation
    • National Oppression and Self-Determination
    • What is Third World Marxism?
    • Mass Line
    • Leadership and Revolutionary Democracy
  5. Historical Traditions and Influences
    • Early Industrial Unionism
    • Unemployed Councils of the 1930s and Communist Organizing
    • Alinsky and Populist Community Organizing
    • The New Left
    • Third World National Liberation Movements
  6. Strategic Implications for Building the Left
    • The Current Stage of History
      • Neoliberalism, Neocolonialism, & Imperial Aggression in the Third World
      • Imperialism & the Underdevelopment of Oppressed Nations in the First World
      • The Growing Power of the Right
    • What the Left Needs and What This New Organizing Model Provides
      • A Mass Base
      • A Material Assessment
      • A Strategy
      • Working Class Immigrant & Oppressed Nationality Leadership
      • A Feminist Praxis
      • An International Movement
    • Current Failings
      • Lacking the Numbers
      • Reliance on the Non-Profit Structure
      • Lacking the Resources
      • Lacking the Development
  1. Conclusion
    • Our Historical Memory: Learning from the Past, Looking Towards the Future
  2. Cited Works

3. Introduction

Community organizing is the act of bringing together a sector of society or a neighborhood to fight for change. In short, it is about a struggle for power by people who ordinarily hold little formal power (Staples xiii). This paper traces the emergence, not of the practice of community organizing in general, but of a specific model of community based organizing; that of contemporary revolutionary Left community organizing. It is important to make this distinction, because there are many community organizing models that differ from each other in practice, politics and ideology.

Community organizing is by no means inherently radical, revolutionary, or even ideologically “Leftist”. Community organizing has been used to build power for both the Left and the Right. It has been used for revolutionary purposes and for reactionary purposes alike. Community organizing has as much potential to build radical consciousness and fight for progressive social change as it does to maintain the status quo and further the entrenchment of oppressive institutions. The form that it takes largely depends on the type of conditions the community faces, its class and racial makeup, the motives and politics of the organizers, and the national and international political-economic situation at the time. As Robert Fisher points out in his book Let the People Decide: Neighborhood Organizing in America, communities are groups “whose values, goals, and activities are not inherent but rather mirror the class and racial conflicts of the larger system” (xxii). Community organizations based in rich communities most often express the conservative and protective interests of those people. Hence in these communities you often see neighborhood police watches and other methods of protecting real estate value and property. This is largely because it is in their class interests to do so.

Working class communities, and more acutely working class communities of color, facing problems of unemployment, lack of affordable housing, police violence, and deportation have little to gain from using community organizations as a vehicle to maintain the status quo, as they are not benefiting from the existing power structure. It is generally in their material interest to fight for progressive change. It is because of this material interest that historically many Leftists have maintained that revolutionary movements must be rooted in the working class, because their class position demands social change. This doesn’t mean that working class communities are by nature progressive. There are many reactionary tendencies that express themselves among the American working class, (such as varying levels of patriotism, individualism, distrust of politics, and frequent anti- radicalism), and thus just like any other social grouping, they should not be romanticized.

The model of community organizing whose major tenants, historical roots, and strategic implications are addressed in this paper is that of today’s revolutionary Left community organizing. This is a very specific tendency, though it is not the only form of Left community organizing being carried out today, and these are not the only organizations engaged in it. None-the-less, for the sake of specificity and depth we will look at this specific model, in part, through the work of a handful of organizations: POWER (People Organized to Win Employment Rights) in San Francisco, California; Just Cause Oakland in Oakland, California; The Labor/Community Strategy Center in Los Angeles; St Peters Housing Committee in San Francisco’s Mission district; and the Miami Workers Center in Florida. This model sees community organizing as a strategic way to build the power and radical consciousness of working class communities. They aim to do this by building independent fighting organizations within oppressed communities that, through winning strategic campaigns, raise people’s hopes in the possibilities of change and better the material conditions of oppressed people’s lives. They simultaneously develop the organizing skills, political analysis, and experience of members so that they can fight for their own liberation.

4. Central Tenants of Revolutionary Left Community Organizing

4.1 Sharp Understanding of the Global & Regional Political Economy

Contemporary Left Community Organizing prioritizes the development of a sharp understanding of the political economy and the role of different forces within it. Utilizing a materialist understanding of the world and social change Left community organizers believe that fundamental power shifts happen in society when a specific historic moment comes about. That is, when the material conditions create the opportunities for change and when the social groups in whose interests it is to make that change are prepared to carry it out and overcome their opponents. As POWER’s Amandala Project states, “the window of opportunity to make change opens and closes over time. Not all moments are like every other moment. In order to make change we must be able to assess when the window of opportunity is more open, and we prepare ourselves to jump through the window when the opportunity presents itself” (16-17).

POWER has taken a leading role in developing this understanding of the need for organizers to build assessments of the political economy. After a lengthy study of US-led imperialism, and its relationship to the political economy of San Francisco, a wing of the organization named the Amandala Project wrote a book called, Towards Land, Work, and Power: Charting a Path of Resistance to US-Led Imperialism. In it they state:

A lot rides on the skill of the organizer. However, the organizer needs more than just skills if she hopes to contribute to the building of a larger movement. Skills alone are not enough. An effective organizer must also have a sharp analysis of how power operates and of how change might happen within a particular system. We call those organizers who combine skill and analysis ‘conscious organizers’. (14)

As they state, developing this sharp material analysis enables the organization to understand the terrain they are operating on and to make strategic assessments of when to take up specific fights in specific areas. It enables the organization to also understand how different power groups will relate to the organization and its campaigns with respect to their interests and priorities.

Most organizers in this tendency find it especially pertinent to have a thorough analytical understanding of the systems of capitalism, imperialism, white supremacy, patriarchy, and the State. Understanding how each of these systems came into being, and how they operate, provide the organizer with the analytical capabilities to contextualize working class people’s daily struggles for survival into a systemic understanding of power. Such an understanding is important in helping organizers to determine where to begin discussions about what strategic interventions have the potential to fundamentally alter power relations.

This model also prioritizes thoroughly understanding the political economy on a regional and local level. Amandala Project organizers point out,

All of us are working, living and struggling within the context of globalized capitalism… But as organizers, we are also rooted in a particular community which has its own unique history and dynamics… Although each local community is closely connected to the same global political economy, each city plays a unique role to keep the system going. Imperialism has a geography. Different cities and regions fit together in the world economy like pieces in a puzzle… It would be really difficult to make sense of each of these economies taken by themselves…

For POWER and our work here in San Francisco, having an understanding of how our city and the Bay Area relate to the global context is an important grounding to our work… U.S.-led imperialism exists and impacts people throughout the world, but we all live it and fight it in its specific and local embodiments. By better understanding the context of our experience and com- munity and how they are impacted and shaped by imperialism, we are in a better position to bring about change. (81-82)

Understanding what role within the political economy a specific locality plays partially enables the organizer to be what POWER calls a “skillful tactician”. By understanding how local power structures function, developing a clear picture of the balance of forces, and assessing the role working class communities of color play, can inform the organizer about what strategic leverage they have to apply in campaign fights. In the long term, understanding the role of a specific region in the global political economy enables organizers to make assessments about what the broad strategic implications are of building a local power-base for working class people of color.

For example, POWER organizers have come to understand San Francisco as a “command post” in the world economy, largely because of its dominance in the area of technology. They see a crisis of economic stagnation currently plaguing the global system of US-led imperialism, which is also threatening the ruling elite of San Francisco. In response to this crisis SF’s ruling elite has crafted an agenda for how the city can be transformed to enable profit growth during a period of overall economic decline. This agenda of urban development threatens to eliminate the working class communities of color in the city. Understanding San Francisco’s role in the global economy has enabled POWER organizers to gain a complex understanding of the agenda of the local ruling class, and pin-point how exactly they are carrying out this removal; in this case through a dual strategy of state actions and market forces (Amandala Project 83). Understanding this strategy and how it is being carried out enables POWER to make strategic interventions to defend their members’ communities. They do this, for example, by taking up campaigns such as their current fight to halt the passage of a city redevelopment zone in Hunter’s Point, one of the last remaining working class African American neighborhoods in San Francisco. Organizers and neighborhood residents fear that the city will fund a redevelopment zone that would create the conditions for further economic displacement in a city that has already lost 30% of it African American population over the last 10 years.


4.2 Building a Strong Membership Base of Working Class People of Color

In order to solve the problems working class communities are facing, oppressed people need to gain a level of control over the material aspects of their daily lives. This is fundamentally the role of the community organization. As veteran organizer Lee Staples points out, “Those who struggle to gain more control over their lives need to generate as much power as possible. Their strength lies in their numbers and ability to take collective action” (1). There are three different forms of power groups can wield to defend their interests. One is monetary, the second is electoral, and the third is “People’s Power”. An organization is as strong as its membership, and must grow in order to be able to wield the kind of power necessary to secure gains in the material conditions of working class people’s lives.

A strong tenant of Left community organizing is that in order to build local power for working class communities, the organization must be a base-building organization. By base-building, organizers are referring to building the numerical base of the organization. The vast majority of Left community organizing projects are membership-based organizations where individuals join as active members and normally pay some sort of regular dues. This structure helps people feel a sense of ownership and responsibility to the maintenance, growth, and ultimately victory of the organization—deepening people’s commitment.

Concretely, the base-building work is done through what organizers call “contact work”, which is any type of activity that brings the organizer into direct contact with the base—normally through some form of outreach. Often times contact work takes the form of door knocking campaigns, house meetings, doing outreach on buses, at peoples’ place of employment, or at social service centers. For example, Just Cause Oakland recently led a fight against the construction of a Wal-Mart that members assessed would have a devastating impact on the local economy and would create the kind of exploitative jobs that people are forced to take out of economic desperation. In the previous year voters in the city had passed an anti-big-box ordinance that banned stores like Wal-Mart from setting up shop. The Wal-Mart developers had found a loophole in the law, and started construction on leased Port of Oakland land, inside the city limits but not technically under city jurisdiction. Just Cause organizers spent months going door-to-door talking to neighborhood residents about the incoming super-store, and recruiting members to participate in the campaign, which lead up to a community town hall condemning the actions of the developers and pressuring them for a community benefits agreement.

Some Left community organizations actually provide social services in-house as a mechanism to both meet people’s material needs and providing a concrete avenue for people to enter the organizing work. The Black Panther Party, in the 60s and 70s, dubbed such programs “Survival Pending Revolution”. For example St Peter’s Housing Committee does tenant and immigrant rights organizing with Latino residents of San Francisco’s Mission district. They provide ongoing tenant rights clinics and case management helping residents file legal complaints against abusive landlords, fight evictions, do lead abatement, and defend themselves in front of the rent board. These services are vital to family’s ability to remain in the city. They build in their members a high degree of trust and loyalty to the organization as well as enabling them to get involved in the organization’s broader fights for immigrant rights.

The membership is the foundation of any community organization and much of the time and resources of the organization end up going towards building the membership and deepening existing members’ involvement in the movement.


4.3. Rooted in Left Ideology

One of the most central and unique aspects of this model of organizing is that it is explicitly ideological. Most modern progressive organizing models adopt a fairly populist approach[i] and are most often aligned with the highly influential organizing model established by Saul Alinsky. Alinsky’s model argues for community organizations to be non-ideological, and focused on an ultra-pragmatism that aims to bring together the broadest possible formation of community members and leaders to win small material victories (Boyte 50). It cautions against taking up issues seen as divisive. As Robert Fisher points out, “Most neo-Alinskyites… avoided politically divisive issues related to class, racism, sexism, and nativism, and saw a program of conscious political education around an anti-capitalist vision as more of a hindrance than a help” (155).[ii]

Revolutionary Left community organizing departs from this position; advocating the need to build community organizations which are explicitly Left and that can weigh in on the battle of ideas within society, putting out counter-hegemonic politics and demands. The Miami Workers Center—a Florida-based organization that organizes around welfare reform, affordable housing, tenants and voter rights—sees counter-hegemonic media work as “tilling the soil”, providing what they call an “air war” to clear the way for the “ground troops” (their contact work on the ground). Through this “air war” strategy, they engage in the media putting out Left analysis and vision that counters the hegemonic capitalist discourse, thus laying some of the groundwork for their organizers to build a membership base around material reform fights. As Robert Fisher points out, “…in poor and working class neighborhoods, people get involved to defend their neighborhood, and participation usually produces increased frustration and anger. But what becomes the object of the group’s anger depends on its politics, ideology, and the extent of political education around issues of class, race, and gender” (155). Many less ideologically based organizations that start out waging progressive campaigns, over time, shift rightward, and often even take on a racist position in relation to economic troubles within the community.

Left community organizations have an ideological framework that is flexible and changes over time based on changing conditions, but provides organizers with an analytical tool to understand society and how oppressed people can intervene to change it. Organizers have a maximum program that understands capitalism[iii], imperialism[iv], white supremacy[v], and patriarchy[vi] to be the key contradictions that need to be shifted in order to move towards a just society. This world-view necessitates a protracted struggle to overthrow the current power structure and build a new society.

This world-view also necessitates that organizers root their organizing amongst those communities in whose material interests it is to change society (STORM 53). They advocate the importance of working class people of color’s leadership, and specifically prioritizing the leadership of working class women of color — what some call “Sisters at the Center”. The importance that Left community organizations place on working class, and specifically working class people of color, is based on their analysis that given the material interests of the different social classes this is the social class that is most invested in overthrowing capitalist society and establishing a classless society. As Adam Gold, co-director of Just Cause Oakland, puts it,

In whose interests is it to fight in the first place? It’s in poor people’s interest to change the situation, but it’s not in middle class and rich people’s interests. So if you’re interested in changing the way society works, then you have to think about whose interests its in to change it. And I think within the US, working class communities of color are the ones who stand the most to gain from changing things. They actually have an interest in fighting. The communities we organize are going to fight all the way because they are going to be better off when things change.

Being rooted in Left ideology, while avoiding the pitfalls of dogmatism and sectarianism, allow community organizations to develop long-term strategy that can help guide them from today’s world of rampant inequality toward their visions of a free society. Without ideology and vision there would be no guiding light helping them to contextualize oppressed people’s daily struggles within an understanding of power and how to overcome it.


4.4. Political Education & Leadership Development

Political education and leadership development with members is of primary importance to Left community organizers. The long-term goal is not simply to win reforms to slowly shift conditions in oppressed communities. The goal is to bring people into a lifelong struggle for full liberation. In order to do this, Left organizers work to develop peoples’ consciousness along the lines of race, class, and gender—in order for them to more fully contextualize their place in the struggle. The Labor/Community Strategy Center in LA talks about this as the “role of the conscious organizer.” They say, “the organizer at the Strategy Center cultivates her base by contextualizing the experiences of oppressed people in an analysis that recognizes that the vast majority of people’s sufferings are systemic manifestations of U.S.-led imperialism. Therefore, paramount to our base building is the political education of oppressed people” (7). One of the ways organizers at the Strategy Center carry out this work is through the building of one of their mass organizations called the Bus Riders Union. The Bus Riders Union (BRU) fights the transit racism reflected in the policies of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA). In doing outreach on the buses of L.A., BRU organizers contextualize people’s daily experience of oppression into a coherent anti-imperialist vision and strategy. This is done through taking the daily problems that people are facing, talking about their origins within a global system of economic and political inequality; talking about the common cause this gives them with other oppressed people; and welcoming them to join together with a working class organization that can help fight against this inequality in material ways.

Along with consciousness, Left community organizations prioritize helping people develop the analytical abilities necessary to understand the world and how to intervene in it to make change. And since in this model, it is the people themselves that carry out that change, they need to develop their organizing skills. Fisher contends,

Political education must be an integral part of neighborhood organizing… [it] should help people develop the confidence necessary to rely on themselves, win the personal dignity and self-respect basic to participation, and challenge existing authority when necessary. It… must also reveal the roots of people’s problems in the workings of the economic and political system… The role of political education, which is an analysis that grows out of people’s political experience, is to broaden people’s perspective and to give them more information on which they can make more reasoned assessments of the conditions, problems, and alternative solutions they face. (227)

Most Left community organizations have political education and leadership development programs built into their organizational structures. POWER has a wing of the organization called POWER University, and Just Cause Oakland has a wing called ASSATA (Assata Shakur School of Analysis Theory and Action)—both of which conduct regular classes in both political analysis and organizing skills to help advance their membership’s ability to engage in broad social justice organizing. Most organizations also see campaign work as the practical school in which people learn those skills. As Dawn Phillips, organizing director at Just Cause Oakland related in an interview,

Building skills relates a lot to the campaign work. Its really building the skills for people to be able to know, for example, how you take on the state; how do you take on a big private developer; or how do you take on corporate interests. Those come down to very specific things, whether its knowing how to testify at city council meetings; knowing how to do an action; knowing how to talk to the media; or knowing how to talk to your neighbors, even, about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. For me its part of that skill development that provides people with the ability to advance what they want to see changed.

Political education and leadership development are one of the most central elements of Left community organizing. Prioritizing this area of work sets this model apart from many other models of organizing. For the revolutionary Left, political education and experience in struggle is really the context through which members become leaders, and a though this development, a revolutionary movement is built from the ground up.

4.5. Contest for Power

Left community organizers develop organizations in order to build the power of working class people to determine the future of their communities. Organizers see building working class fighting organizations as one of the only ways that oppressed people can fundamentally alter their conditions. Left organizers hold strong to the notion that power and fundamental change grow from organization. It is only through organization that people under attack can gain any kind of leverage and strength. Poor people don’t have the financial ability to hire teams of lobbyists to push through their agendas on Capital Hill, and even if they did, their interests are in such clear opposition to those who are running this country that their needs would still not be met. For example, no matter how many lobbyists poor people had, or how good their media strategy was, the ruling class would never turn over all the urban housing stock to being tenant owned and controlled. It would be too fundamental of a threat to their power. Therefore Left organizers see their responsibility as building strong enough organizations that eventually they can go head to head with the ruling class and compete for power. As Willie Baptist, Education Director at the Kensington Welfare Rights Union said, “The fight, as we see it, is not a fight for pity, it’s necessarily a fight for power… Unless we can generate the necessary kind of strength, through organization and building a movement, there’s nothing in the history of this country that suggests that we can rearrange the priorities of this nation” (2).

These community organizations become the voice through which working class people weigh-in on, and attempt to fundamentally shift the conditions of their communities. They become the backbone of working class people’s struggles for dignity and justice. In his classic book on com- munity organizing, Reveille for Radicals, Saul Alinsky wrote,

The power of the people is transmitted through the gears of their own organizations… By their own organizations, we mean those organizations in which they participate, which they own, and through which they express their interests, hopes, sentiments, and dreams. These are the organizations that are genuinely of the people, by the people, and for the people—organizations that by their very character formulate and articulate a dynamic democratic philosophy. (53)

The establishment of community organizations as alternative institutions through which working class people build and exercise their power is a fundamental act in the process of shifting inequality on a world scale. Without these organizations—these vehicles for change—oppressed people would be left to ineffectually beg for crumbs from the bread that they baked.


4.6. Militancy

The American Heritage Dictionary defines militancy as: “Having a combative character; aggressive, especially in the service of a cause.” Organizing in a militant fashion is considered by most Left community organizers to be an essential element. Confrontation, militancy and direct action have a number of results that organizers see as key. As Adam Gold, from Just Cause Oakland said in an interview,

We believe in fighting to win. The actual act of fighting does a number of important things. We engage in campaigns both to build people’s understanding and consciousness around what it means to fight; why we need to fight; what you can get out of fighting; and who the real enemy is. These are things that you can’t really learn in a classroom. As many workshops as you go through, you will never really understand it until you’re staring a CEO, or the Mayor, or whoever your target is, right in the face, confronting that power and getting results from it.

This approach to organizing often initiates a process of radicalization amongst the organization, by having people go up directly against their targets. As well as giving people a sense of their own power over their lives. One of the means by which organizers often assess potential campaigns is around whether or not it will emphasize direct action and confrontation with a target. Often campaigns that don’t emphasize militancy, confrontation, and direct action can rely too heavily on the use of lawyers and other experts to produce reforms. While using the services of these experts is sometimes necessary, an over-reliance on them can limit both the effectiveness of the fight and the development of the base of the organization. As Lee Staples relates in Roots to Power: A Manual for Grassroots Organizing, “ The best victories will be those achieved through direct action on the part of large numbers of people. Campaigns featuring a high level of direct action enable leaders and members to experience their own collective power. The organizational lesson is, “We won because lots of us stuck together and fought like hell” (65).

Left organizers maintain that people develop their skills and consciousness through struggle. As Rosa Luxemburg pointed out in her classic essay, “The Mass Strike”, “…in order to be able to overthrow [the system], the proletariat is required a high degree of political education, of class consciousness and organization. All these conditions cannot be fulfilled by pamphlets and leaflets, but only by the living political school, by the fight and in the fight, in the continuous course of revolution” (182).


4.7. Meticulous Organizing Methodology

Different organizations within the emerging model of contemporary Left community organizing have different organizing methods, though they have commonalities. One of the clearest shared approaches is the use of a meticulous organizing methodology. By this I mean that the method used to find, recruit, develop, engage, and retain members—and the method used to wage campaigns—is very specific, deep, and intentional. Basic methods range from meticulous door knocking, member visits and house meetings, like Just Cause Oakland; to intensive daily service provision like St Peters Housing Committee; to recruitment and agitation on the buses like the Bus Riders Union; amongst many others that the organizations use to bring new people into the struggle and engage them in campaigns. Organizers are thoroughly trained and developed over a long period of time in the skills needed to build effective organizations.


4.8. Reforms Toward Revolution

Left community organizations have a particular orientation towards carrying out reform-based campaign work that fits within a long-term strategy to reach a broader revolutionary goal, sometimes referred to as a “maximum program”. Left community organizers see strategic reform fights as important in a number of regards. First, they have the potential to better the material conditions of people’s lives who are usually struggling just to get by. Second, they are an entry point for people to come into long-term social movements. Third, in a way, they are like scrimmages for the big game where people learn the necessary skills of how to struggle for freedom (Poblet). And finally, winning reform fights gives people a sense of hope and a sense of their own power—which also helps build organizations.

Maria Poblet of St Peters Housing Committee put it like this, “Nobody is going to just go fight imperialism. It has to be attached to their material interests.” And as Adam Gold of Just Cause Oakland puts it,

We believe in fighting to win. In changing the material conditions, you are actually winning things that make people’s daily lives manageable. This is important for several reasons: First, for purely humanitarian reasons, we care about people, they deserve decent lives, and we want them to survive; secondly winning is important because it builds movements. When you fight and win, more people want to be a part of your movement, because they want to win too.

An example of a strategic reform fight is the campaign that Just Cause Oakland used to found the organization: their fight for a “Just Cause for Eviction” city ordinance. Oakland was without rent control or any type of eviction protections. The city, majority of which is working class people of color, was also undergoing a huge wave of gentrification. These populations were rapidly being displaced when landlords were evicting people left and right without cause and tripling the rents. Just Cause Oakland fought for a number of years and eventually passed a very stringent eviction protection law that greatly slowed down the displacement process. This campaign was seen as a way to shift the material conditions and make the city a place where working class people could afford to remain living.

In discussing the need to engage in fights for material reforms organizers often refer to a passage from Amilcar Cabral, leader of the social revolutionary national liberation movement in Guinea-Bissau:

Keep always in mind that the people are not fighting for ideas, for the things in anyone’s head. They are fighting… for material benefits, to live better and in peace, to see their lives go forward, to guarantee the future of their children. National liberation, war on colonialism, building of peace and progress—independence—all that will remain meaningless for the people unless it brings a real improvement in conditions of life. (qtd. in Davidson 280-81)

But Left community organizers don’t see all reform fights as being strategic places for their energy. They often have to look at a reform fight through the lens of their maximum program, and together with their priorities for the current period assess whether it’s the right fight at the right time. For example, as a service provision organization, St Peters Housing Committee has to assess when their reform fights for tenant and immigrant rights are strategic. As Maria Poblet put it,

We could win some major change, but to what end? There are definitely people we could collaborate with, who have very good relationships with city hall—who could definitely pass pro-tenant legislation, but this legislation might actually work against our movement building goals. It doesn’t always, but we have to be clear that it is going to help build a movement, and not just improve conditions, because they are not the same thing. And, as a service providing organization, we can see this very clearly. While we do things all the time that improve people’s living conditions and don’t build a movement, we still think that is important because sometimes they do help build a movement. It’s a balance. Our analytical framework and our political vision help us do that.

This new model of Left community organizing take an explicit ideologically, politically driven approach to building the power of working class communities to fight for material changes in their lives. Their progressive political framework sets Left organizers apart from many of the models of classical community organizing. Left organizers’ politics and understanding of how change happens in society—being driven both by the material conditions and by people’s capacity to engage in struggle—frame how they carry out the work, prioritizing political education and leadership development, base-building, and working for material reforms. As well as the prioritization of developing sharp assessments of the global and regional political economy, building strong organizations, and using confrontation- al tactics. These methodological tenants, along with organizers’ political analysis, defines this model as a distinct new tendency—departing both from classical populist community organizing and from classical Marxist method—creating a vibrant new form of working class organization.



5. Anti-Imperialism & Third World Marxism

Every Left community organizer interviewed for this project strongly identified with the revolutionary tradition known as “Anti-Imperialism”. This tradition provides for much of the theoretical and broad strategic foundations upon which most of the Left community organizing examined in this study is based. “Anti-Imperialism” often refers simply to a political or moral position against empire building and the conquest of nations. In this context “Anti-Imperialism” is used by the revolutionary Left to identify both politically and strategically with a strain of thought that organizers have developed out of Marxism-Leninism to fit their particular context in many parts of the Third World. This loose political and strategic framework is often referred to as “Third World Marxism”[vii] (Elbaum 2-3). Third World Marxism takes classical Marxist economic theory and revolutionary strategy developed for specific application in the advanced industrial capitalist nations and reworks them broadly for application in the colonies of the Third World, and specifically for practical application in the Third World’s struggle for national liberation. To understand Third World Marxism and its departure from classical European Marxism there are first a few components we must grasp from the original theory. The first necessary component is understanding what imperialism is and how it developed; the second is understanding generally which class classical Marxism understands as the revolutionary subject; the third is understanding Marx’s theory of primitive accumulation; and finally understanding the Marxist conceptions of national oppression and self-determination.


5.1. Lenin’s Imperialism

Lenin, famous strategist of the Russian Revolution, elaborated on Karl Marx’s economic theories—updating them theoretically and upon them building revolutionary strategy for his given context. Lenin believed that the political economy in the early years of the 20th century was significantly different from that upon which Marx had based his ideas. According to Lenin, capitalism had entered a new phase of “imperialism” which he understood to be the “highest stage of capitalism”. According to Lenin this new stage in capitalism’s development was marked by capitalism’s global expansion to secure new markets for its surplus goods, as well as cheap raw materials and labor. As the Amandala Project describes in Towards Land, Work, and Power,

Until the end of the 19th century, capitalism was largely a national system of exploitation of the working class by the capitalist class. But capitalism had to break out of its national borders like a snake that had outgrown its skin. With the development of new technologies such as the steam engine and electricity, the capitalist class was able to produce more commodities than they could sell in just their national markets. The system had to grow or die. (40)

In order to grow the imperialist nations of Western Europe, Japan, and the United States set-out to conquer the nations of Africa, Asia, and the Americas through a brutal process of colonization whereby they seized foreign territories and controlled them through direct military force. During the end of the 19th century, Europe expanded its colonial control over Africa from 10% to 90%. The United States annexed half of Mexico’s territory in 1848, and then battled Spain in 1898 to obtain it’s colonies of Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines (Amandala Project 32). The imperialist nations then used these colonized Third World nations to extract natural resources and labor in order to produce their commodities, and also as a controlled market within which to unload their surplus goods.

Under imperialism private corporations and banks extract value by-and-large, but these corporations rely heavily on the imperialist state to carry out the political and military control that make their ventures possible. Thus the transition from capitalism to imperialism is also a broadening from exploitation of workers by bosses within advanced industrial nations to the addition of super-exploitation of whole peoples by imperialist nations. Lenin points out the need this process creates for movements for national liberation within the Third World to free themselves from the yoke of imperialism while at the same time utilizing their right to self-determination to internally struggle for socialism.


5.2 The Revolutionary Subject: The class to which the future belongs

The second position that is important to understand in order to grasp ird World Marxism is the strategic role that classical Marxism places on the urban industrial proletariat as the revolutionary subject. For Marx and Engels the working class, in their inevitable struggle with the bourgeoisie, is the political force that will accomplish the destruction of capitalism and a transition to socialism (Bottomore 526). For Marx and Engels the future historical significance of the proletariat is ultimately not that it is op- pressed, but rather that it is the only class which is capable of overthrowing bourgeois society and establishing a classless society. The rationale behind this is that the proletariat is the only class that survives entirely based on the sale of its own labor power and does not draw profit from any kind of capital. The working class sells themselves as opposed to selling products like the petty-bourgeoisie and capitalists. In e Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels stated, “Of all the classes that stand face to face with the bourgeoisie today, the proletariat alone is a genuinely revolutionary class. The other classes decay and go under in the face of modern industry…” (13). Here they are referring to the process, during the emergence of industrial capitalism, of the rise of a huge class of wage laborers, whose position in the economy gives it the power to make a revolution. Their position is in part their relationship to production and their close proximity to and common situation with the rest of their class in the factories of the urban centers.

Classical Marxism has privileged the industrial factory worker (classically found in the imperialist nations) over the peasant (who classically makes up most of the Third World) as the revolutionary subject in part because of the many obstacles they saw standing in the way of peasants leading a revolutionary movement. Modern theorist L.S. Stavrianos identifies these obstacles as being both economic and social, including:

The independence of peasants’ productive units; the tyranny of the peasants’ work routine, which is broken only at grave peril for the peasant’s family; and the temptation to withdraw from conflict back into independent subsistence production… e village is the center of continuity and security, in which each peasant has an acknowledged place in the order of things. Ties of family, Church and community are strong, while the life of the guerrilla is notoriously arduous and precarious. Finally, there are the powerful psychological inhibitions induced by millennia of subjugation and obedience. Peasants traditionally have been excluded from the decision-making process in the wider world, so that they lack knowledge and confidence to articulate their aspirations and to act upon them. (450)

The reason the Third World has historically lacked a proletariat class is ultimately the product of capitalist development—which systematically required their nations’ underdevelopment. This has meant that the Third World has historically consisted mostly of peasant classes, which formed the base of their revolutionary subject. Today this class formation is shifting, as the nature of imperialism is shifting, moving industrial centers out of the imperialist nations and into the Third World where they can find cheaper labor, less stringent environmental regulations, and direct access to raw materials—thus increasing their profits. The result is that Third World workers are increasingly concentrated in industrial settings.


5.3. Marx’s Theory of Primitive Accumulation

As Marx reflects in Capital, Volume 1, “…primitive accumulation plays approximately the same role in political economy as original sin does in theology” (784). Primitive (or ‘original’) accumulation describes one of the processes that leads to, or creates the foundations of, capitalist production. It is a process marked by theft and extreme violence. While capitalism as an economic system was getting off the ground, the capitalist class needed a bulk of capital in order to build the initial infrastructure that the new industrial economy would rest upon. They essentially needed loot to jump-start their economy. Where did this capital originally come from? Largely it came from the pillaging of the Third World’s natural resources and the enslavement of its peoples through the process of colonialism and Europe’s imperialist expansion. This theft and super-exploitation provided the economic base from which capitalism could flourish.

In defining the rough political framework of Third World Marxism, Left organizers draw heavily on this theory to help explain the underdevelopment of their nations and their people’s need for national liberation.

The great wealth and productive power of the advanced capitalist countries is premised on the oppression and exploitation of the underdeveloped countries; and the poverty and backwardness of the underdeveloped countries is a result of their subordination to the advanced. Monopoly capital and underdevelopment are mutually dependent, antagonistic poles of the imperialist system. In this sense, the condition of underdevelopment is qualitatively different from that of lack of development. The former is a condition produced by imperialist penetration, while the latter is a condition of youth. Underdevelopment can only be overcome by the revolutionary termination of imperialist domination and a program of socialist construction, while the lack of development merely requires a natural process of maturation. There are virtually no parts of the world that can be considered undeveloped: the problem is not lack of development but underdevelopment, not youthful immaturity but imperialist oppression. (MLEP 217)

The process of pillaging the Third World to jump start industrial capitalism is seen as the beginning of the process of underdevelopment—which continues through today’s economic policies. Third World Marxists maintain that this process can only be reversed by overcoming imperialist domination—hence the need for national liberation and socialism.


5.4. National Oppression and Self-Determination

One of the central components of Third World Marxist thought is the relationship between oppressor and oppressed nations under imperialism. Having a theoretical understanding of the role of national oppression has enabled Left organizers both within the centers of capital and within the colonies (or former colonies) to understand their material position in society and to formulate strategies for their struggles for national liberation and socialism.

Throughout the history of Marxist thought there has been a constant tension between advocates of a political analysis in which race and nation play a central role and those who argue that race and nation are secondary to a “fundamental” class analysis. The definition of “nation” that I am utilizing here is taken from Left organizer and theoretician Harmony Goldberg. She defines “nation” as “a group of people with a shared history, culture and consciousness” (2-3). There are clear distinctions to be made between the concepts of a state, a nation, and government. The state is the political expression of the economic structure of society and, therefore, the representative of the people who own or control the wealth of the com- munity. The main function of the state is to guarantee the existing social relationships within a given society through centralized political power and a monopoly on violence. Government in its most basic form is the political organization of a given society, and does not inherently contain the repressive aspects of a nation-state. None-the-less, the important distinction here is between the concept of “nation”, or the identity of a people, and the form of political organization of a society. States may be made up of a single nation, or they may be multi-national (2). A nation of people may have a state or government structure that represents them (whether in their interests or not), or they may be part of a multi-national state, or they may be denied the right to build a state or government representing their nation (for example the Palestinian nation or the Black nation in the U.S.).

Third World Marxists have often been the key advocates for a revolutionary politic that situates race and nation in the center. Their theory and practice is building off of foundations in classical European Marxism-Leninism. Lenin’s theoretical work on imperialism lays the groundwork for the Third World Marxist politic around the struggle for national liberation and socialism. As Harmony Goldberg points out,

Lenin theorized that the transition from competitive capitalism to imperialism required that capitalist nations dominate less-industrialized nations in order to capture new markets and to gain new territories for expanded production. Colonialism was a key mechanism for the survival of capitalism; if colonialism could be challenged, capitalism could not survive. This meant that the oppressed nation’s struggle for liberation from imperialist domination came to be seen as a central aspect of the international struggle for socialism. (3-4)

Lenin also discussed the distinction between the progressive nationalism utilized by Third World independence movements to strengthen resolve for their nation’s self-determination and the oppressive nationalism utilized by the imperialist nations to rationalize war and conquest. This distinction is still being debated within the movement today.

Stalin later contributed to the theoretical understanding of what constitutes a nation with the right to self-determination. His own practice and the practice of the Soviet Union not withstanding, his support of self-determination in Marxism and the National Question is strong, as can be seen in this quote,

Social-Democracy in all countries… proclaims the right of nations to self-determination. e right of self-determination means that only the nation itself has the right to determine its destiny, that no one has the right forcibly to interfere in the life of the nation, to destroy its schools and other institutions, to violate its habits and customs, to repress its language, or curtail its rights.

The right of self-determination means that a nation may arrange its life in the way it wishes. It has the right to arrange its life on the basis of autonomy. It has the right to enter into federal relations with other nations. It has the right to complete secession. Nations are sovereign, and all nations have equal rights.

In fighting for the right of nations to self-determination, the aim of Social-Democracy is to put an end to the policy of national oppression, to render it impossible, and thereby to remove the grounds of strife between nations, to take the edge off that strife and reduce to a minimum. (321-322)

While many reject the extreme repression of Stalinism, Stalin’s writings on this question, and particularly his definition of what constitutes a “nation” became the basis on which Marxists would later take positions in support of national liberation for oppressed nations in the Third World and even within the confines of the United States.

Building on this theoretical foundation Left organizers have developed theory and practice centering the struggle for national liberation within the struggle for socialism, and holding up the strategic role of oppressed nations, especially within the Third World, within those struggles.


5.5. So What is Third World Marxism?

Utilizing the above theories within classical Marxism as key reference points, Left organizers and intellectuals within oppressed nations built a loose political and strategic framework to suit their need for a revolutionary practice. This practice links their nations’ struggles for national liberation and their class’ struggle to end their exploitation by the capitalist class in general; and aims to build a politic and practice that can lead their nations to full self-determination and ultimately to a classless society.

This body of politics places racial and national oppression front-and-center alongside class struggle. In doing so it identifies imperialism as the central contradiction facing humanity and upholds the struggle for national liberation, self-determination, and socialism as the answer. In order to win national liberation, self-determination, and socialism, Third World Marxists believe that on a strategic level oppressed nations and particularly those of the Third World need to play a leading role. A clear break of Third World Marxism away from classical Marxism is on the question of the revolutionary subject. For them, the revolutionary subject is no longer the urban industrial proletariat of the imperialist nations, rather it is the Third World generally and specifically the peasants along with their increasing working class.

Revolutionaries in the Third World adopted Lenin’s understanding of imperialism to frame their context. Drawing on this framework, the Amandala Project has defined imperialism as “a global system of political economy based on the super-exploitation of whole nations and peoples by the world’s imperial powers and transnational corporations. To sustain this unstable multi-national system, the imperialist state serves as a manager for global capital” (39).

The Labor/Community Strategy Center states:

Certainly, the working class and poor peasants, principally women, in every country are exploited by domestic or regional capitalists. But the decadent nature of imperialism’s concentration and centralization of power in very few transnational finance capitalist enterprises, backed by very few nation-states, gives birth to a new form of class struggle on a world scale. In this internationalization of antagonism between exploiters and producers, class struggle often takes the form of national liberation struggle. Indeed in some countries an identity is reached between these struggles. (5)

They understand imperialism—the conflict between oppressor and oppressed nations—to form the central contradiction of our time. Some, like the Labor/Community Strategy Center, also understand imperialism to be intrinsically patriarchal. As they point out, “We use the term ‘imperialist patriarchy’ to refer to the system of relations of domination under capitalism and imperialism which could not exist without the subjugation of women and colonies” (6). Much like property ownership in many pre-capitalist societies, the capitalist system of production and distribution has always been patriarchal. Thus, the exploitation or workers, nations, and the oppression of women all come together to provide the capitalist class with substantially higher profits.

For Third World Marxists, as the central dynamic of oppression shifts from simply the exploitation of worker by capitalist to include and center the exploitation of whole peoples by nations, the revolutionary subject also shifts. A simple way to think about who is the revolutionary subject in a given situation is identifying 1) who has a material interest in changing the way society is functioning, and 2) who is strategically positioned to be able to carry out that change. While industrial workers in the advanced capitalist nations may have been the key revolutionary subject positioned to deal with the insular capitalist economy through which they are exploited — imperialism has shifted the ground on which we stand.

Mao Tse-Tung, one of the leading Third World Marxist theoreticians and strategists, threw classical Marxism on its head, and laid the basis for Third World revolutionary movements for the next five decades, on the question of the revolutionary subject. Mao proclaimed that the revolutionary vanguard could only be the poor peasants of the Third World (Stavrianos 594). In discussing national liberation movements in Africa with a social revolutionary character, Stavrianos writes, “European Marxism, with its dependence on the urban proletariat, was obviously irrelevant for… the colonies of Africa, where proletarians were virtually nonexistent” (733).

The imperialist nations have found ways, using both material and ideological privileges, to align white workers with the white ruling class— so as to inhibit them from uniting with workers of the oppressed nations against their common exploiters. Because of these privileges, white workers in the imperialist nations materially benefit from the spoils of imperialist conquest and it is no longer in their material interest to overthrow imperialism. They also in large part ideologically associate their interests with the white ruling class and against oppressed nationalities. Thus the development of the First World comes at the direct expense of the underdevelopment of the Third World. Because of a huge restructuring of the global economy white industrial workers in the First World are also no longer strategically positioned in relationship to production to be the ones to lead key struggles for change.

So if it is not in the interests of white workers in the First World to be the revolutionary subjects in an internationalist socialist project, then in whose material and ideological interests is it? Who has the relationship to production necessary to be able to overthrow capitalism? And who is in a position that opens up potential for high levels of organization? W.E.B. Dubois eloquently leads a discussion on this in his classic Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880,

That dark and vast sea of human labor in China and India, the South Seas and all Africa; in the West Indies and Central America and in the United States—that great majority of [humanity] on those bent and broken backs rest today the founding stones of modern industry—shares a common destiny; it is despised and rejected by race and color; paid a wage below the level of decent living; driven, beaten, prisoned and enslaved in all but name; spawning the world’s raw material and luxury—cotton, wool, coffee, tea, cocoa, palm oil, fibers, spices, rubber, silks, lumber, copper, gold, diamonds, leather—how shall we end the list and where? All these are gathered up at prices lowest of the low, manufactured, transformed and transported at fabulous gain; and the resultant wealth is distributed and displayed and made the basis of world power and universal dominion and armed arrogance in London and Paris, Berlin and Rome, New York and Rio de Janeiro.

Here is the real modern labor problem. Here is the kernel of the problem of Religion and Democracy, of Humanity. Words and futile gestures avail nothing. Out of the exploitation of the dark proletariat comes the Surplus Value filched from human beasts which, in cultured lands, the Machine and harnessed Power veil and conceal. The emancipation of [humanity] is the emancipation of labor and the emancipation of labor is the freeing of that basic majority of workers who are yellow, brown, and black. (15-16)

Third World Marxists respond to this question of who is the revolutionary subject today by answering that it is the working class oppressed nationalities all over the world, including the peasant classes, with those in the Third World playing a leading role. Expounding on this position the Amandala Project asserts,

Their struggle will be facilitated by their greater numbers and their control of the territories which the imperialist nations need for cheap resources and new markets. How- ever, even with these factors on their side, the people of the Third World cannot defeat the imperialist forces by themselves because of the United States’ monopolistic control over weapons of mass destruction… In order to successfully defeat U.S.-lead imperialism, the people of the Third World must lead other forces in a broad, anti- imperialist movement. (75)

This begs the question of what the role of oppressed nationality groups inside the imperialist nation-states is? The Amandala Project answers,

Our role is to build a strong movement to address the issues that working class people of color in the United States face that also recognizes that our fights are against the same systems and same enemies as those of the people of the Global South. We play the role of forcing the imperialist states to address the conditions within their borders, as well as around the rest of the world… Although the people of the Global South will play a leading role within the global struggle against U.S.-led imperialism, Third World peoples inside the United States will play an important role too. Working class people of color within the imperialist super-power can, and must, lead a broad anti-imperialist united front which involves people of color from various class positions as well as anti-racist whites. (77)

Discussing the need for working class Third World immigrants to be in leadership of Left movements in the United States, Maria Poblet from St. Peter’s Housing Committee reflects on the strategic importance of their organization’s Latino immigrant base, positing them as a potentially key revolutionary subject today:

Strategically immigrant workers are positioned to offer a threat to imperialism not simply because they are oppressed by the system but more importantly they are strategically positioned to screw imperialism since it principally depends on their exploitation. People challenging that exploitation, changing the terms of that exploitation, or even negotiating the terms of it are big threats to the viability of the system.

Beyond their strategic economic relationship to imperialism, immigrant workers also have a high level of class-consciousness. Immigrant workers have real, lived, familial relationships to the Third World and to Left movements in the Third World. Immigrants, and specifically Latino immigrants, are also the largest growing group in the U.S.; and the largest growing group joining organizations, unions, and forging grassroots struggles. This is not a coincidence. It is directly related to immigrants having experienced the impacts of imperialism in their home countries and on their social position here.

Immigrant workers, overwhelmingly, have had opportunities to participate in Left social movements, to understand what organizing is, to understand what people’s power is. They carry with them the kind of historical memory that people in this country need, and that Third World leadership can bring.


5.6. The Mass Line

Based on the principle that “the people, and the people alone are the motive force in making world history,” (Mao 257) many organizations utilize an organizing principle and methodology called “the mass line”. The mass line is an organizing methodology rooted in Marxism that was codified during the Chinese revolution. As a method for revolutionary organizing it highlights the need for conscious organizers to root themselves amongst the people, and to carry out their work with humility and constant engagement with the revolutionary subjects. The Chinese revolutionaries believed that leadership depended primarily on responsiveness to popular needs and aspirations, which could be ascertained only by constant contact with the peasants in the villages (Stavrianos 599). In their book National Liberation: Revolution in the Third World Norman Miller and Roderick Aya describe the development of mass line:

To maintain mass militancy, revolutionaries in China, Vietnam, and elsewhere have generated a nonbureaucratic style of leadership; the Chinese have codified it as the “mass line” — from the masses, to the masses… Chinese revolutionaries have evolved a political method to synthesize popular initiative and impeccable organization. Intensive programs of cadre recruitment from local communities bring articulate, politically conscious leadership into persistent interaction with the masses at the grass-roots level. In this context, the mass line involves summarizing peasant grievances and aspirations in terms of broader political experience and revolutionary theory. Compiled and interpreted, these ideas are once again presented to the people in articulate form for public criticism, approval, and implementation. The practical consequences of these policies are reevaluated in the same terms, continuing the interaction of leader and led over and over again in an endless spiral, with the ideas becoming more correct, more vital and richer each time. (xvii)

In its application in Left community organizing in the United States, mass line organizing method points to the need for the starting point to be the felt needs and wants of the people. Mao discussed this practice as “linking oneself with the masses”. He said,

One must act in accordance with the needs and wishes of the masses. All work done for the masses must start from their needs and not from the desire of any individual, however well-intentioned. It often happens that objectively the masses need a certain change, but subjectively they are not yet willing or determined to make the change. In such cases, we should wait patiently. We should not make the change until, through our work, most of the masses have become conscious of the need and are willing and determined to carry it out. Otherwise we shall isolate ourselves from the masses. Unless they are conscious and willing, any kind of work that requires their participation will turn out to be a mere formality and will fail… There are two principles here: one is the actual needs of the masses rather than what we fancy they need, and the other is the wishes of the masses, who must make up their own minds instead of our making up their minds for them. (236-37)

In carrying out the Third World Marxist principle of “from the masses, to the masses”, a recent campaign development process that Just Cause Oakland carried out began with a community survey in which organizers spent months in the field knocking on people’s doors and having house-meetings in the organization’s base communities. These surveys served as an investigation into what working class people of color in the base communities were focusing on as the most pressing issues affecting their neighborhood and testing where they were at, in terms of their levels of revolutionary consciousness. This enabled the organization to make some assessments of where the community was at. Along with research and study of the political economy of the region, in process and dialogue with the membership of the organization, they were able to hone in on what the next phase of campaign work for the organization would be. After framing it with relevant political analysis, the organization then returned to the communities through door-knocking, house-meetings, and town-hall meetings to test for resonance. Through this process they were able to refine how they were discussing the issue and framing the campaign with regards to how the base was responding to it and whether or not they were taking it up as their own fight with a high level of determination.

To put it another way, in rooting themselves amongst oppressed communities, Left community organizers first assess where the community is at in terms of needs and consciousness. Then they use political analysis, garnered through direct contact, study, and research, to sum up where the people are at. Then they develop talking points, policies, plans, and ways to fight back that people will take up as their own. Left organizers believe that it is in this way that revolutionary theory becomes a material force, i.e. when people are acting on it, it moves out of the land of ideas and becomes a material factor in the class struggle. They see this as one of the only ways to test whether the theory, analyses, and plans are correct, while at the same time creating the basis to deepen their theory (FRSO 5).

Left community organizers in this tendency forcefully assert the need for organizers to have a high level of humility in relationship to the oppressed communities they are organizing within. This humility is in part informed by Mao’s discussion of the method of mass line:

… See that no comrade at any post is divorced from the masses… teach every comrade to love the people and listen attentively to the voice of the masses; to identify himself with the masses wherever he goes and, instead of standing above them, to immerse himself among them; and, according to their present level, to awaken them or raise their political consciousness and help them gradually to organize themselves voluntarily… (315-316)

Here, in discussing the process of building deep relationships and trust with the base, and the development of political consciousness and its relationship to oppressed people’s self-organization and commitment to the freedom struggle, Mao begins to get into the role of the conscious organizer.

Being rooted amongst the people is of vital importance to Left community organizers. Without this foundation they have little ability to build the organizations needed to win progressive changes in the lives of working class people, and they certainly have little ability to build a working class movement. Building trust amongst the base, as well as developing and testing their messages and tactics are key to a winning strategy—and none of this can be done while removed from the daily experiences of working class communities.


5.7. Leadership and Revolutionary Democracy

Though they draw a lot of political analysis from the Marxist tradition as well as a great amount of inspiration and guidance from the insurgent strategies developed by Third World revolutionaries like Mao Tse-Tung and Amilcar Cabral, many of the organizations studied here are highly critical of the colossal failures of many post-revolutionary socialist societies on questions of democracy (STORM 51). Innovating within the Marxist tradition, most Left community organizing projects are constructing forms of organization that are mass-led and rooted in revolutionary democracy and member leadership. This tendency is in stark contrast to the high degree of political repression and almost total lack of any form of democracy that the pursuit of socialism has so frequently been associated with.

The role of the organizer in helping lay the groundwork for communities to come together and enact fundamental and lasting social change is a delicate balance. Organizers must both offer key leadership to help guide the social change process and be humble artists of democratic and collective action. I have yet to find a thorough guide or roadmap illustrating the role of the organizer. But there are oft-discussed principles that should guide the organizer’s practice; those of humility, humanism, honesty, love for the people, accountability to the membership and the organization, and effective leadership. It is a work of art when an organizer can embody all of these characteristics—both offering expertise and guidance and at the same time opening the space and creating the conditions for others to democratically determine their own future and develop their own leadership capacity.

There are two principle figures that Left community organizers often hold up when discussing the principles that effective revolutionary organizers should exemplify in trying to navigate the delicate balance of the need for leadership and the importance of a democratic practice. One is Amilcar Cabral the deceased head of the PAIGC, Guinea-Bissau’s national liberation movement. And the second is Ella Baker, a deceased leader of the Civil Rights movement in the United States.

Over the course of the struggle for national independence and socialism, in the 60s and 70s, for the West African nation of Guinea-Bissau, Cabral pioneered a form of “Revolutionary Democracy” that was both effective in its practice and embodied many of the humanist qualities that organizers are searching for in their struggles for a free and just society. The central aspect of Cabral’s leadership, “lay in his unparalleled ability to combine political effectiveness with a high degree of adherence to human decency as a principle of political action… Cabral sought to establish a state structure which would pursue socialist policies effectively and without recourse to political oppression” (Chabal 154). Even within the nation’s armed struggle he rejected all forms of terrorism and maintained his leadership through persuasion rather than coercion or force. It was to his credit that he released Portuguese prisoners unharmed, pardoned his political enemies, held democratic elections after the party was already in power, and sought to co-opt rather than isolate his rivals (10). Cabral is looked to as an example of a revolutionary leader and organizer who upheld democratic principles on both a societal level as well as the level of internal organizational practice. His party operated in a way that favored “a mode of ‘democratic politics’ that sought consensus through consultation… [and] genuine collective leadership…” (Chabal 157). Cabral’s example stands out to modern Left organizers because he was not just principled, but ultimately his humanist approach to revolution led to the success of the movement. His example stands as a model of leadership that upholds the principles of democracy and collective action, while leading to success in the struggle for material change.

Left community organizers often state that a good organizer is one who can develop the leadership of another. Ella Baker’s model of leadership is the guiding light for this concept. Baker, a leader of the civil rights movement in the U.S., helped found the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. She is looked to as an example of how to cultivate oppressed people’s leadership and facilitate collective action, while providing tender political and strategic guidance. In talking about her method of democratic leadership, Left organizer Chris Crass writes,

Ms. Baker had an innovative understanding of leadership, an idea which she thought of in multiple ways: as facilitator, creating processes and methods for others to express themselves and make decisions; as coordinator, creating events, situations and dynamics that build and strengthen collective efforts; and as teacher/educator, working with others to develop their own sense of power, capacity to organize and analyze, visions of liberation and ability to act in the world for justice. Ella believed that good leadership created opportunities for others to realize and expand their own talents, skills and potential to be leaders themselves. This did not mean that she didn’t challenge people or struggle with people over political questions and strategies. Rather, this meant that she struggled with people over these questions to help develop principled and strategic leadership capable of organizing for social transformation. (6)

Ella Baker provides an example of leadership that is focused primarily on developing the leadership capacity of others. The legacy she provides is one of egolessness and humility—key traits to the organizer committed to others leading.

Lee Staples asserts “Groups do not form and take action by spontaneous combustion. Someone has to pull people together and help things get organized. Whoever does this is functioning as an organizer… The role includes being a recruiter, leader, enabler, agitator, consolidator, trainer, strategist, and tactician…” (8). To that list the Amandala Project — and Left community organizers in general — would add that the organizer must also be an intellectual in order to make material and strategic assessments of the given period.

Staples finishes off his discussion of the role of the organizer by stating very clearly: “It is the organizer’s job to get other people to take the lead” (8). Contemporary Left community organizers go to great lengths to infuse their work with this kind of democratic leadership. Every organization that I interviewed had built into their organizational structure member-leadership bodies that focus on simultaneously guiding the organization’s work and politics and developing the leadership capacity of oppressed people. Jaron Browne from POWER talks about one of the ways this manifests in their work: “We do an intensive amount of leadership development and have an entire wing of the organization called Power University that is about building the capacity of the members of the organization to lead the organization on all levels, and building people’s political and ideological framework as well.” is leadership development enables POWER members to then actively participate in a number of leadership bodies that ultimately determine the work and direction of the organization. In most cases within this political tendency, the drive for revolutionary democracy and egalitarian forms of leadership are rooted in organizers’ desires to prefigure the world they are trying to build through the manner in which they engage in political struggle.


The political tradition of Third World Marxism provides this tendency of Left community organizing with an analytical framework with which to understand the world and how change is made. With the aid of this political framework, revolutionary Left community organizers work to contextualize the daily experiences of working class people with an anti-imperialist analysis that points out the roots of their problems within a system of inequality and exploitation. The political framework also points to a clear solution in the equal distribution of resources, and control over the means of production. This political framework offers them a strategic guide, an analysis with which to understand the world, and a legacy of struggle and liberation within which to root their aspirations.


6. Historical Traditions & Influences

It is beyond the scope of this project to either attempt to give a historical lineage of community organizing in general, or even to give a complete lineage of this specific model. Therefore, this chapter is a study of five pieces of social movement history that were most influential on the development of this model of Left community organizing. The five in review are early militant industrial unionism; depression era socialist and communist organizing; Saul Alinsky’s populist model; the New Left; and twentieth century Third World national liberation movements.

Tracing the lineage of a community-organizing model cannot be a perfect science. It is a highly subjective task of looking at social movement history and assessing what organizing models or traditions a contemporary model has been influenced by. The process of having the organizing infused with ideas and practices, that developed during an earlier period of social struggle can certainly be a conscious and intentional process, but it is often an organic process of younger organizers being influenced by veterans of earlier movements. Some of the historical trends or legacies that I identify are clearly visible in many current organizations and will be immediately recognizable; while for others the relationship is subtler.


6.1. “The Working Class & The Employing Class Have Nothing in Common!” — Early Industrial Unionism

Today’s Left community organizing is a direct descendent of early militant labor organizing in the United States. Though many organizers were trained in the modern mainstream labor movement, and many are former AFL-CIO organizers, those leading this new tendency now emphasize the need for independent organizations. In Towards Land, Work, and Power, the Amandala Project clarifies that, “By independent we mean that organizations operate independently of the Democratic Party and the AFL-CIO, the more traditional institutions seen as organizing or representing the working class. This is both a break from traditional structures in these institutions and the political leadership guiding these institutions.” (145)

Though independent from the AFL-CIO, many organizations within this new model are strongly rooted in worker organizing. Because of their autonomy from this traditional, and often non-confrontational leadership, they are able to carry out more militant, class-struggle-focused worker organizing. They build on the history and traditions of early militant, pro-organizing, industrial unionism, such as the Knights of Labor (KOL), the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), and the early Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). From this legacy of organized labor one can see these new base building organizations drawing a number of characteristics: the classical Left understanding of the strategic position of workers; their commitment to working class base building; their militant orientation; their orientation towards internal democracy and rank and file participation; and their eye towards movement building and cross sector organizing. Also a commonality between the two is their commitment to organize across the lines of race, gender, and language. Especially in early labor organizing, this commitment set these organizations apart from much of the rest of the movement.

Different schools of organizing, just like different schools of politics, place different emphasis on social groups based on who they think hold the key to the kind of social change they desire. Shared by both early industrial unionism and this emerging model of Left community organizing is an emphasis on the working class as the social group that holds the key to social transformation from a capitalist society to a socialist one. This understanding is based on the strategic position of workers in relation to production, and based on how their class position defines their material interests within society. According to these models this makes them the only class capable of overthrowing capitalism and establishing a classless society. One of the main pioneers of radical working class organization, the class-conscious approach to the Industrial Workers of the World’s organizing can be seen here in an excerpt from the agitational preamble to its constitution,

… The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace as long as hunger and want are found among millions of working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life. Between these two classes a struggle must go on until all the toilers come together on the political as well as the industrial field. (qtd. in Boyer and Herbert 165)

Sharing this uncompromising understanding of the relationship between the working and owning classes, echoes of this revolutionary internationalism can be heard amongst the battle cries of today’s Left community organizers. As Maria Poblet, from St Peters Housing Committee put it,

We have what you could call Marxist politics, in terms of the irreconcilable nature of the struggle between working class people and the capitalist class. That’s part of our framework for how we do the work. If we thought that we could elect someone who could represent the working class or we thought that the Mission district needed to just be Latino and that was it, then the work would look really different then it does now.

With its focus on working class communities, and specifically working class communities of color, today’s Left community organizing has a particular orientation to the need for a mass social movement to enact the kind of fundamental social change it sees as necessary. As stated earlier, this requires an emphasis on base-building. This is not a new concept. Base-building also played a large role in early militant industrial unionism. Just as today’s Left community organizations spend ample amounts of their time door knocking, having house meetings, and utilizing endless means to recruit and further engage members—the same thread runs through the history of industrial unionism. There has long been a split between more conservative and protectionist trade unions historically controlled by the AFL, and the generally radical industrial unions.[viii]

Historically, this split focused around the conservative craft unions of the AFL, and the generally radical unions of the KOL, IWW, and significant forces within the CIO, which emphasized the need to build a unified working class movement to overthrow the capitalist class and establish a classless society, run by and in the interests of workers.[ix] Because of this maximum program, industrial unionism had a much stronger movement building approach to the work. Unlike narrow craft unionism, they saw the need to organize the unorganized sectors of the workforce, in order to build a powerful working class movement. Richard O. Boyer and Herbert M. Morais point out in their study of American labor history,

The IWW was essentially a reaction against the craft un- ion structure of the AFL and the conservative policies of its top leadership…[the IWW] organize[d] all workers, regardless of skill, sex, or race, into industrial unions… it set out to organize the unorganized on the basis of the unity of the working people. e IWW opposed not only the craft unionism but also the safe and cautious approach of the AFL leadership to big business. Desiring to revive the militant class struggle of an earlier period, it advo- cated militancy on both the economic and political fronts. (164)

These early industrial unions also share with modern Left community organizing their orientation towards internal democracy and rank and file participation. They depart from the AFL type unionism in their rejection of top-down bureaucratic leadership structures that often leave workers with little to no control over their unions.[x] According to labor historian Philip Foner, this early industrial unionism firmly believed that “the leadership must arise from the workers, and remain, at the same time, with the workers” (144). That modern Left community organizers share this position is evident in the way the organizations have largely structured member-based leadership bodies that guide the direction, work, and strategy of the organizations. As Adam Gold from Just Cause Oakland put it to me in an interview,

We want to be a democratic organization. We all value democracy and democratic decision-making as an important aspect of people’s development of consciousness. It is not just simply in order to have everyone come to a meeting, but by having people actually able to see their opinions enacted in a decision and then carried out is an important part of feeling and being a constructive part of society. And that is not what happens in this society that we live in, really. So being able to have that within our organization is a value that people hold.

Today there are a number of developments in the labor movement that signify that Left community organizers aren’t the only ones who have departed with these conservative elements exemplified by the AFL-CIO.[xi] The advent of a number of fighting unions and workers’ centers, some independent of the AFL-CIO and a few even affiliated (such as the United Farm Workers), marks an important turning point for the growth of a successful militant working class movement.[xii]


6.2. “Fight!—Don’t Starve.” — Unemployed Councils of the ‘30s & Communist Community Organizing

With the advent of the Great Depression in 1929, the Left in the United States launched a number of highly successful organizing drives of unemployed workers, tenants, and Southern sharecroppers. The most influential formation leading these organizing drives was the Communist Party of America (CPUSA). In this era of economic devastation, the CPUSA sent cadre into the field to organize the unemployed workers, tenants, and Southern sharecroppers around the slogan “Fight!—Don’t Starve.” The influence, however organic, of the CPUSA from this period on today’s Left community organizers is evident in a number of different areas. Five of the most prevalent include the need:

  1. For sharp assessments of the global and local political economy and the shifting material conditions;
  2. For multi-racial or multi-national organizations rooted in an anti racist politics and strategy;
  3. To develop revolutionaries from the working class through mass work;
  4. To win real material benefits in working class people’s lives;
  5. For counter-hegemonic demands and militancy.

Long before the depression even hit, the CPUSA was preparing for these organizing drives, putting the party in a very strategic position, based on a sharp assessment of the global political economy. Robert Fisher details in Let the People Decide:

… The party anticipated the impending collapse of capitalism and was surprisingly well prepared, certainly more so than any other group, to address the crisis and mobilize their forces around it. The Sixth World Congress of the Communist International (Comintern), the Moscow-based, policy-making body for Communist parties world-wide, predicted in 1928 the imminent economic collapse and ordered Communist parties to initiate more openly revolutionary actions. Concerned about ‘the Negro Question,’ the congress also insisted that the CPUSA make the organization of African-Americans a preeminent priority. (39)[xiii]

This level of study is far too rare in the world of community organizing, and is one that contemporary Left community organizers place a high value on today as well. Many of these organizers argue that without this sharp assessment of the material conditions in society, it is very difficult to calculate with any accuracy where and when to strategically intervene in certain struggles.

In Capital, Karl Marx states, “Labor cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded” (329). Certainly drawing on some of the political positions upheld by the CPUSA during this period modern Left community organizers uphold the need for multi-racial or multi-national organizations to build a united working class movement. After a long struggle by the small number of Blacks in the CPUSA, they temporarily broke through the narrow class reductionism that so sharply defined the Old Left. By the early 1920s they were able assert that Black workers were a strategic sector within the class struggle, and that there would be no successful working-class movement in the U.S. without Black workers at the center. In that same period, Lenin was developing his theory that all nations had a right to self-determination, and the working class possessed national identities. He insisted that the communist parties give direct support to revolutionary movements of the oppressed nations (Kelley 46-47). This opened up space for the Black communists to assert the position that their oppression was “national” in character, and that for the CP to be for full Black freedom they would have to recognize Black’s self- determination and self-organization.

The CPUSA saw their mass work in the realm of unemployed organizing, tenant defense, and sharecropper organizing, as the training ground through which new cadre could be recruited and developed. They aimed to use these mass organizations as “transmission belts” to bring in new members (Leab 327). Robert Fisher points out that, “the goal of the CPUSA was not simply to politicize people at demonstrations or to give people a sense of their own power through protest victories. The fundamental goal of the party was to build an effective communist organization that could lead a working-class revolution in the United States” (41). While none of the modern Left community organizations are tied to a national party or cadre organization, they are revolutionaries and do have the goal of using mass organizing work to build the political consciousness and organizing skills in members so as to develop new working class cadre as life-long revolutionaries. As Roy Rosenzweig points out in an article on the unemployed councils called “Organizing the Unemployed,” “Not only did these radical organizations of the unemployed stop evictions and raise relief payments, they also helped to intensify the class consciousness of many of their members” (38).

The CPUSA understood that in order for working class people who are in desperate situations to be able to engage in the struggle, they must have their survival needs met. Because of this, they engaged in “bread and butter” fights for daily survival, taking on people’s individual cases of eviction, welfare benefits, employment, and so on. While blockading one family’s eviction, or storming welfare offices to secure one family’s benefits may not fundamentally shift relations of power in society, engaging in “bread and butter” fights enables people to get their needs met, opens up the space for them to join in organizing, and wins people’s allegiance to the organization. A number of Left community organizations today provide services, such as housing legal services or food provision, as a point of entry to bring people into the struggle, and to help meet their membership’s daily needs.

Finally, both the CPUSA and today’s Left community organizations identify the need to put out counter-hegemonic demands. As Roy Rosenzweig points out, “…the organizers of the radical unemployed movement confronted more than just police batons and tear gas. They sought to win the allegiance of the unemployed in the face of powerful ideological and cultural assumptions that militated against their success” (55). These organizations engagement in our society’s battle-of-ideas sets them apart from the vast majority of community organizations. While more populist models of community organizing put out very short term reform demands based on the expressed desires of community leadership, Left community organizations largely frame demands that are counter-hegemonic and challenge the logic of broader capitalist society, taking into account which issues are most strongly resonating with the community. For example, the Labor/Community Strategy Center in LA writes,

We select demands that create new forms of struggle that break out of a culture of accommodation to expand space for antagonistic, adversarial negotiation with corporations and the government. We select demands with counter-hegemonic content that can challenge the domination of capitalist ideology. We select demands that create collective learning experiences that expose the complex interrelationships of the U.S. political system we are challenging and create the basis for ideological transformation. (8)

The influence of socialist and communist economic justice organizing during the Great Depression over today’s revolutionary Left community organizing has been significant. This era is one of the few in U.S. history that organizers have to look to for examples of committed revolutionaries engaging in the daily material struggles of working class people—on mass—in a systematic and strategic fashion.


6.3. A Trade Union in the Social Factory: Alinsky & the Building of a Populist Community Organizing Model

The most recognizable name in the lineage of community organizers is Saul Alinsky. Alinsky emerged from the labor movement of the late 1930s and 1940s and was trained within the CIO. Alinksy’s community organizing came out of a specific historical context, and was rooted within a specific trajectory of organizing experience. This included liberal social service work, confrontational industrial unionism within the CIO, and organizing work within the CPUSA’s popular front strategy (in Chicago from 1937- 1938). Alinsky said that he aimed to take the skills he learned within the industrial union context and apply them to “the worst slums and ghettos, so that the most oppressed and exploited elements in the country could take control of their own communities and their own destinies” (qtd. in Fisher 56). As Robert Fisher says, he aimed to build “a trade union in the social factory—an instrument at the neighborhood level through which people could bargain, struggle, strike, and advance their interests, just as they did in the CIO” (56).

Over the years Alinsky constructed a highly influential model of urban populist community organizing. In the 1940s Alinsky built the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council—a populist neighborhood organization in the stockyards of Chicago—and helped seed organizations all around the country through the infrastructure of his Industrial Areas Foundation, which both still exist today.

Robert Fisher identifies five essential elements that define Alinskyist organizing:

  1. The professional organizer is the catalyst for social change
  2. The task is to build a democratic community-based organization
  3. The goal is to win power
  4. Any tactics necessary should be used
  5. A people’s organization must be pragmatic and nonideological (53-54)

Although there are many areas in which Left community organizing departs with Alinskyism, it is undoubted that this emerging model ends up drawing a lot of its organizing practice and methodology from the Alinsky organizing tradition. The clearest point of diversion between Alinskyism and Left community organizing is the question of the role of ideology and politics. Though Alinsky certainly had a world-view, he upheld an ultra-pragmatist and ultimately populist line, which said that community organizing needs to be nonideological. In stark contrast to revolutionary Left community organizers’ position Alinsky maintained that ideology was just a hindrance to getting you to the bargaining table. And since winning material victories was the most important thing you could possibly do, he felt that just wasn’t worth it (Alinsky Reveille 10).

Alinsky also diverges from the revolutionary Left in terms of his maximum program. Alinsky believed that the key contradiction in society that keeps people down is their lack of power over their lives. As such, he concluded that neighborhood empowerment and winning small material victories is the key to altering people’s conditions. Alinskyist organizations would survey communities to get a read on what issues were most resonant, and than call together the existing leadership of the community (ministers… etc…) to try and get their support. They then would build campaigns on anything from installing stop signs and speed bumps, to fixing a dilapidated school. This approach was necessarily limited precisely because of its rejection of ideology and a structural analysis of power. As Robert Fisher points out, “Because Alinsky organizing does not question the economic foundation of the existing order or seek to replace the political system that maintains that order, his approach overlooks the possibility that capitalism is not set up to serve the poor and working class and that it is ultimately undemocratic” (64).

Though Left community organizing diverges from Alinskyism on the questions of ideology and vision, Alinsky was strong on tactics, and there are a number of practical and methodological tenants upon which revolutionary organizers draw. They draw from Alinsky’s meticulous organizing method that prioritizes base-building through door knocking and house meetings, membership involvement and tracking, as well as a myriad of nuts-and-bolts tools utilized in the daily operations of building a community-based organization.

Though he never joined the party, Alinsky was heavily influenced by the strategy of the CPUSA during their Popular Front period in the 1930s. He drew from them the need to unite with the broadest grouping of potential tactical allies in order to win your demands. Left community organizations often engage in building Popular Fronts toward the same end, though are much more concerned with not letting their political focus get detracted or watered down by forces who are on a different political page.

The model of Left community organizing also shares with Alinskyism their use of confrontation and militancy to win demands from a given target. Both models often use confrontation to pressure their targets to give into their demands, whether through occupying the offices of state service agencies until they agree to give members welfare; through confronting politicians in order to stop a development project; or fighting an exploitative employer head on. This use of confrontational tactics was a main tenant of early Alinsky organizing and is firmly in the tradition of industrial unionism. We see it used regularly today, and organizers are trained from day one in the use of confrontational tactics to win the demands of the membership.

Although there are clearly substantial areas in which Left community organizing departs with Alinsky’s politics and model—and today the tendencies are occasionally at odds—it is undoubted that Left community organizers end up drawing a lot of their organizing practice and methodology from the Alinsky tradition.


5.4. The New Left

The period from the early 1960s through the late 1970s saw mass social upheaval in the United States. This social upheaval took its clearest form in the catalytic rise of the Civil Rights movement, a mass movement against the war in Vietnam, the explosive growth of Black Power ideology and struggle, and the development of national liberation movements in the US, of Puerto Ricans, Chicanos, Asians, and Native Americans.[xiv] Also of note was the growth of a revolutionary anti-imperialist ideology amongst whites (Berger 37), as well as the women’s liberation and queer liberation movements. This period is popularly characterized as the New Left, with its most influential forms of Left organization making a clear break from the old Left of the 1930s with their rejection of the CPUSA; their embrace of race centered politics and participatory democracy; their focus on the Third World as a driving force;[xv] and their base in youth counterculture.

The catalytic force for this era of intense social struggle was the birth of the Civil Rights movement, with the African-American fight for racial equality in the Jim Crow segregationist South. The demands and political framework of civil rights soon shifted to calls for self-determination and socialism, and quickly evolved into the militant Black Power movement. The Black Power movement was initially defined by the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), following on their highly influential community organizing and voter registration drives in the Black Belt South.[xvi] It was later popularized and further evolved by the Black Panther Party (BPP), with their neighborhood defense and community survival programs based in the urban ghettos of the North and West.[xvii] With the inspiration of the Black Power movement, other oppressed races and nationalities built militant organizations that embraced the popular revolutionary nationalism in communities of color, where Marxism and nationalism converged (Elbaum 3). These organizations were built around a program to fight for self-defense and self-determination. Among them was the Puerto Rican organization the Young Lords,[xviii] the Chicano organization the Brown Berets, and the Native American organization the American Indian Movement (AIM).[xix] The white New Left, was represented, largely, by the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), a massive national campus-based organization that primarily organized against the war in Vietnam, but for a time also took on neighborhood organizing efforts in working class communities of color.[xx]

A vast array of organizing lessons arose out of the powerful era of the New Left, many of which have had a deep impact on the development of a contemporary model of revolutionary Left community organizing. From this period of struggle it is clear there has been a high level of influence on the development of the politics, ideology, and strategy of modern Left community organizers:

  1. Militant, confrontational orientation to struggling for self-determination;
  2. Relationship-based method of organizing and base building;
  3. Democratic member-led organizations.

Some of this influence and inspiration has come from studying history, and much of it has come more directly as many of the organizations have members, and occasionally older staff or mentors, who were politicized and developed as members of these New Left revolutionary nationalist organizations, and bring their orientation and lessons directly to the work.
The New Left’s influence on today’s Left community organizer’s confrontational orientation can most clearly be attributed to the development of the Black Panther Party and other national liberation struggles internal to the United States. These groups of revolutionary nationalists rooted themselves in working class communities of color. Like many Left community organizations today, they built fighting organizations whose program work was based on a combination of direct action, service work, and developing consciousness. The direct action, such as the Panthers carrying firearms on police watches, helped to shift people’s immediate conditions while giving them a sense of their own power. The service work, such as the Panther’s free breakfast program, helped struggling working class people to meet their needs, which gave them more time to commit to the struggle, and built a high level of trust and relationship to the organization. And they raised consciousness through political education programs and by contextualizing people’s struggles into a systemic analysis that was antiracist and anti-capitalist.

The slow, relationship-based organizing method that has so much resonance with today’s Left organizers was a trademark of early SNCC organizing in the South. The highly influential study of SNCC’s model, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle, is pretty much required reading for Left community organizers today. It imparts much of the wisdom that SNCC developed fighting the white supremacy of the Jim Crow state, the racist paramilitary organizations such as the Klu Klux Klan, and registering Black voters. To carry out this program they utilized a relationship-based organizing model that centers member leadership and internal democracy—using the then popular participatory democracy model. Their methods were so successful that organizers are still building them today.

Today’s Left community organizers have drawn substantial elements of both their politics and their organizing method from lessons they draw from the New Left era. The legacy of this period of social movement often serves as a reference point for inspiration and guidance to today’s organizers. Some organizations even have programs named for this legacy of struggle. For example, Just Cause Oakland’s political education wing is named ASSATA (The Assata Shakur School of Analysis Theory and Action), named after the former Black Panther Party member now in exile in Cuba. Left community organizers today draw from elements of the New Left’s orientation to struggling for self-determination, their relationship-based method of community organizing and base building, and groups like SNCC’s democratic approach to organization building.


6.5. Third World National Liberation Movement

In response to what Left organizers understand to be a growing tension between oppressor and oppressed nations under imperialism, throughout the last century mass movements for national liberation have swept most of the Third World. These movements have generally taken two distinct forms. The first is independence movements whose primary leadership have assumed a nationalist character, wanting to end foreign political domination but not to fundamentally alter social institutions or class relations. An example is India’s political struggle to free themselves from British colonialism but not fundamentally shift the economic relationships of society. As L.S. Stavrianos points out in Global Rift,

They did not seek to challenge fundamental landholdings, plantations, commercial firms, banks, railways, mines or government debt arrangements. Such nationalist leaders or movements were more likely to be entrusted with political power because it was understood implicitly that they would not use that power to effect social or economic change. The colonies thus gained political independence but were not free of imperialism; rather they became dependent neocolonial states. (630)

The second is independence movements that have taken a social revolutionary character as well as being nationalist, like the democratic struggle for self-determination and socialism led by Amilcar Cabral in Guinea-Bissau. They simultaneously fought for a new social order as well as political freedom from their colonizing power. Stavrianos points out that these social revolutionary national liberation movements:

…led to confrontations with both local and foreign vested interests, which usually joined forces to resist social revolution to the bitter end… Thus Britain was willing to grant independence to an India led by the Congress Party and the Muslim League, whereas France and the United States fought against the Communist Ho Chi Minh in Indochina for three full decades. Likewise in the Americas, the British readily granted independence to the nationalist-minded Federal Labor Party in the West Indies, but refused it to Leftist Cheddi Jagan in Guyana, even after he had won majority support in parliamentary elections. (530)

These movements most often turned to the politics of Third World Marxism in their search for a political and strategic framework through which to lead their nations to a both politically and economically free future.

The analysis of Anti-Imperialism is the most centrally defining analytical position of both the social revolutionary-minded Third World national liberation movements of the 20th century and contemporary Left community organizers in the United States. They share an assessment that there are nations that play the roles of oppressor and oppressed within the world’s political economy.

This polarization came about through the birth of the imperialist system, which hence gave birth to the trend of movements for national liberation sweeping the Third World. This dynamic struggle between oppressor and oppressed nations is seen by both the leaders of social revolutionary national liberation movements of the 20th century and by contemporary Left community organizers as holding one of the central contradictions of this era, and holding the ability to unlock further struggles for oppressed people’s economic freedom and political self-determination.

From national liberation movements, especially those which are social revolutionary in form, contemporary Left community organizers draw many of their central theoretical and strategic positions including: anti-imperialism, Third World Marxism and revolutionary strategy, and a reliance on Mass Line and mass organizing in their daily practice.

Today’s Left community organizers in the United States draw broader theoretical and strategic guidance from Third World national liberation movements. Examples of how Left community organizations in the United States understand Third World national liberation movements’ influence upon them can be seen clearly through examples from POWER, St Peter’s Housing Committee and the Labor/Community Strategy Center. POWER talks about structures in their organization being directly influenced by ways in which social revolutionary Third World national liberation movements have structured their organizational forms. They developed a wing of the organization called the Amandala Project, which is a space where members and staff of the organization can engage in work from an explicitly anti-imperialist position. Within this organizational space, members engage in study, writing, strategizing, and direct action with the broader anti-imperialist movement through discussion and relationship building and also through joint activism. This sort of collaboration can most visibly be seen through the group’s engagement in with the San Francisco anti-war movement. Steve Williams, executive director of POWER described the inspiration for the Amandala Project like this:

The inspiration for the Amandala Project came out of a couple of trips that staff and members were fortunate enough to take to South Africa. It was recognizing the relationship between the SACP (South African Communist Party) to many of the mass organizations, including COSATU (the trade union federation) and also the ANC (the African National Congress), and recognizing the particular leadership role that the SACP was able to play in relationship to those organizations, providing a clear conveyer-belt for working class rank-and-file members to really aspire and work to develop their own political consciousness and assessment.

St. Peter’s Housing Committee often discusses the direct influence that Third World national liberation movements have had upon their organization’s work and politics. This influence comes in part through their organizers’, all of whom are Third World immigrants, study of history and Third World Marxist politics and strategy; – and in part through the direct influence of their membership, many of whom were once participants in national liberation struggles in Central America. St Peter’s Housing Committee lead organizer Maria Poblet discusses this impact and the consciousness people bring with them to the work:

There lies a lot of opportunity within people’s consciousness and people’s lived experience with imperialism. It is a very different context when people come from countries in the Third World. People coming from the Third World tend to see imperialism for what it is. For example, when I came to the US, I was like “Holly shit! They have everything here!” I mean I knew it and at that point I thought it was cool, and maybe I could get in on it. Then you get here and it dawns on you that the discrepancy between Third World people and people here is just fucked up. So there is a view that people have when they have lived in the Third World, and especially when they have been forced out of their countries by the policies of imperialism, of how oppressive that system is. It makes clear the relationship that the U.S. has with the rest of the world. Also many have participated in popular and radical social movements in their own countries in Latin America, like the national liberation movements of the 70s and 80s. Those massive movements were within people’s lifetimes. People participated in them or their families did… Our organization is really a magnet for Latin American Leftists. The Mission district, our organizing turf, is great for that. This neighborhood has been a home for Latin American Leftists for a long time.

Many organizations stumble upon key advances in their organizing work. For example, the Labor/Community Strategy Center organizers often talk about how when the organization was kicking off its first campaign, they were doing door-knocking trying to build community support and recruit people to be members. In one of the first few days they stumbled upon a house that was full of recent working class immigrants from El Salvador. It turns out that the house was full of former FMLN members and people who had been very active in the country’s national liberation struggle – which had a very clear social revolutionary character and was rooted in Third World Marxism. These neighborhood residents had been thoroughly developed as revolutionary organizers through this struggle and eventually had to flea their country’s civil war. They joined the Labor/Community Strategy Center’s campaign and went on to play important leadership roles. They have since had a great influence on the politics and work of the organization.

In some places it is clear that Left community organizers today have studied, and drawn directly from these earlier movements. At times veteran organizers from earlier movement days have been the ones to train today’s organizers, directly passing along their experience and lessons. In other instances this process of being influenced by history has come much less directly, being carried out by culture and word of mouth along multiple decades of Left movement building. Either way, direct or indirect, Left organizers are heavily influenced by those who have come before them. Drawing from these disparate organizing traditions; drawing politics, organizing method, strategy, tactics, and even cultural elements, emerges the beginnings of a new model of Left community organizing which is at once new and unique, and the same time a reflection of the decades of struggle that have come before it.


7. Strategic Implications for Building the Left

7.1. The Current Stage of History

The political economy of the world today is marked by the continued growth of economic disparity between oppressed and oppressor nations, and the continued lack of political self-determination of oppressed nations, both within the First and the Third World. A recent U.N. Human Development Report found that the gaps between the poorest and the richest people and countries have continued to widen, continuing the trend of the last two centuries. They found that the past decade has shown increasing concentration of income among people, corporations, and countries (qtd. in Dollar 1). In his essay “Poverty and Inequality in the Global Economy” economist Michael Yates states:

It is remarkable to observe that most of the rich countries are those where capitalism first arose, while most of the poor countries have long histories of colonial and imperial domination. In terms of per capita GDP, no Latin American country ranks in the top 35, and no African country ranks in the top 55. More than one-half of the poorest 50 countries are in Africa. Sixty percent of the top 50 are either in Europe or North America.

The West’s neoliberal economic policies have continued the underdevelopment of the former colonies, and just when it appeared that the era of formal colonialism had indeed passed into the dustbin of history, we are now seeing the world’s top imperial power militarily occupying a subordinate nation in direct and flagrant violation of international law. To put it plainly, imperialism still exists. Not only does it still exist, it is celebrated today like no other point in recent history. This exuberant celebration of imperial dominance is exemplified by groups like the “Project for the New American Century”—a far Right think-tank at the center of American political power, figure-headed by people such as Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Jeb Bush, and Paul Wolfowitz—who proclaim loud and clear that “American leadership is good… for the world; and that such leadership requires military strength” (Kristol).

In previous periods in history imperialist nations just stole from other nations. This was the case with Spanish conquistadors’ theft of gold, silver and copper from the Americas. This was the case with the British theft of Native American land. It was also the case with British, Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch theft of Africans to be used as slave labor throughout the Americas (Amandala Project 42). Exemplified by the current U.S. occupation of Iraq, the super-exploitation of whole peoples by imperialist nations exists today just as it did in the era of classical colonialism. Today’s imperial domination is carried out economically and politically through sanctions, forced debt and structural adjustment programs, unilateral military aggression, and forced exposure to the unequal playing field of the world market. Today the underdeveloped nations act as sources of great wealth for the imperialist nations: both as producers of goods for First World consumption; and through their payment of billions of dollars worth of debt from IMF/World Bank development loans designed to build the infrastructure needed to outsource imperialist nations’ industrial production.

These social and economic policies are being put into action globally through the growing power of the Right wing. Following on the defeat of socialism in the Soviet Union and China, and the destruction of New Left social movements, the Right has risen to extreme dominance. They have reached this level of power by enacting a multi-decade, multi-faceted strategy of building a grassroots power-base through the church and an ideological hegemony through the media. The strategy is to boost a Christian moral crusade to save the American patriarchal family, against what they see as the onslaught of homosexuality, illegal immigration, and terrorism. To this end they have been remarkably successful and today enjoy far reaching powers and wide ideological support.


7.2. The State of the Left & an Assessment of Needs

Part of the Right’s success has depended on the failure of the Left to offer a clear material and moral alternative. More so the Right’s ascendancy has depended on the Left’s failure to build the mass base needed to advance a Left alternative. The clear exception to this trend is the currently developing Latin American power block of Venezuela, Brazil, Bolivia, Uruguay, Argentina, and Cuba. This exception aside, the Left’s current lack of power and relevance in the rest of the world is partially due to the objective material conditions of the time, partially due to successful attacks from the Right designed to neutralize Left movements, and partially due to failures the Left has made in its strategies over the last two decades.

Though approval ratings for president Bush are rapidly dropping, on a practical level the Left provides little in terms of an ideological counter-weight to the Right’s hegemony. In the intellectual world of the media and academia progressives have lost the foothold they secured in the 60s and 70s. And on a mass level the Left provides little to no leadership or influence over the working class in the U.S. What little influence the Left does have in the U.S. tends to be limited to middle and upper-class people.

Given our current predicament in relation to political influence and power I am going to identify five areas that I argue are grave needs for the development of a relevant, powerful, and influential Left in the U.S. These areas are: 1) the construction of a mass base and a move away from ultra-left politics and practice; 2) the development of an accurate material assessment of today’s global political economy and the development of a long-term strategy; 3) the prioritization of working class immigrant and oppressed nationality leadership; 4) the construction of a feminist praxis; and 5) participation in and growth of an international movement with common practice. I am going to argue both for the necessity of these tasks as well as the importance that I see in the growth of this new model of Left community organizing in accomplishing them.


7.2.1. Towards a Mass Base

No Left movement has ever accomplished the task of fundamentally shifting the relationships of power in society without being rooted in organizations that are mass-based. By mass-based I am referring to organizations that have an orientation towards building a sizable base amongst a given constituency—as opposed to a small activist or cadre organization. Cadre organizations normally organize a relatively small number of highly developed members. Mass-based organizations, on the other hand, unite hundreds of thousands of followers, sometimes millions. But the number of members is not the only criterion of a mass-based organization. The essential factor is that the organization bases itself on an appeal to the masses. Today’s Left must be rooted within mass-based organizations that are building power in working class oppressed nationality communities. These communities have a strategic role to play, given their relationship to production and their inherent interest in changing the economic and social relations of imperialism; and without organizations through which to raise their consciousness, develop their organizing skills, and to build community power, these communities will be unable to harness their revolutionary potential. Without the prioritization of the development of these organizations, the revolutionary Left in the U.S. runs the risk of remaining a middle-class intellectual sub-culture with little relevance or influence amongst the working class.

Most Leftists today shy away from immersing themselves in struggles that don’t already have an explicitly revolutionary character, and as such often fail to orient their work to the day-to-day concerns of people or to root themselves amongst the oppressed. Many express a frustration with what they perceive to be apathy in working class communities. They regard them as brainwashed, sleeping, duped, bought out and in need of either being woken up, or side stepped altogether. They do not regard oppressed people as having the capacity and consciousness to emancipate themselves (Levant).

In the early 20th century, there were mass working class organizations fighting around material day-to-day struggles. Today, aside from a very weak and often politically reactionary labor movement, these mass organizations largely do not exist. In today’s context it is pretty easy for those on the Left to avoid mass-based organizing altogether. It is the role of Left organizers to build Left poles within mass movements, but this is hard to do when the movements themselves are very weak. But this difficulty cannot deter them. Though small in number and thus far relatively modest in their impact, there are those on the Left who are finding ways of doing highly relevant organizing work applying non-sectarian Left politics and strategies to people’s daily struggles.


7.2.2. A Material Assessment and Strategy

The Left must develop a material assessment of today’s political economy and from it a strategy to build power and prepare to step up when the opportunity of the right crisis within imperialism arises.

It is a task that all too often gets overlooked or pushed to the side by mass organizers. The assessment then remains in the hands of academics that are all too often distantly removed from both the base-building work and working class communities. This then leaves us with two tasks: one, there is both a need for organizers to carry out the work of becoming intellectuals, theoreticians, and strategists—and counter the anti-intellectual tendencies prevalent in the movement today; and second, the need for Left intellectuals working within the academy to humbly root themselves and their work within accountable relationships to mass-based organizations. Through this work we can open up opportunities to understand the crises within imperialism and prepare our actions in anticipation of them.


7.2.3. Working Class Immigrant and Oppressed Nationality Leadership

Given the character of the working class, effective movements for fundamental social change in the U.S. must be multi-national and multi-racial in character. There is no race or nation within the U.S. or worldwide that is capable of overcoming U.S.-led imperialism on its own. In a period when working class oppressed nationality communities are poised to play such a vital role in the advancement of an effective movement for fundamental social change, it is vital that these communities provide leadership to the Left. It is these people who can speak most effectively to their people. It is these people who can ground their analysis in theory and lived experience. Though they play many vital roles to the movement, white organizers in the U.S. are largely not in a position to provide the leadership needed to build a base of oppressed nationality people. There are many barriers within the movement to working class oppressed nationality peoples providing this leadership—including white supremacy, national chauvinism, and the unequal distribution of resources. e white Left in the US has an ugly history in relation to these issues, one that has seriously stunted the movement’s growth and development. Without seriously addressing these issues the chances of building an effective multi-national, multi-racial movement are very low.


7.2.4. A Feminist Praxis

We live in a patriarchal society. The definition I find most helpful in relation to patriarchy is: “An economic, political, cultural and social system of domination of women that privileges men. It is based on binary definitions of gender—male/female—with strict gender roles. It also has rigidly enforced heterosexuality that places male/straight as superior and woman/queer as inferior” (Catalyst Project 2). Patriarchy is a system of male supremacy and domination that has its origins in pre-history and has shaped and been shaped by the emergence and development of class society.

Women’s oppression and the oppression of queer people is one of the main pillars of the existing oppressive social order. The fight for the liberation of all women and gender-oppressed people therefore poses a fundamental challenge to the status quo and must be a consistent feature of a successful international Left movement. The leadership of women and gender-oppressed people in revolutionary movements is a necessary condition for the successful liberation of all people. Patriarchal relations reproduce themselves everywhere including within the Left. Left organizers must constantly struggle against this tendency while recognizing that it will persist as long as patriarchy exists. Therefore, the Left must consistently raise feminist demands that mobilize and unite women and gender oppressed people within mass organizing, and consciously promote and develop women and gender oppressed people’s leadership in mass organizing projects and in the Left in general. Organizers must also challenge male privilege and develop feminist male leadership. In the movement, we need to fight for the continual development of a feminist theory and practice (Fire by Night 35-38).

7.2.5. An International Movement

The Left in the U.S. needs to prioritize participation in and development of an international social movement with common practice, for the impetus of a worldwide movement for fundamental social change does not lie within the confines of imperialist nations. The vast majority of people with a deep vested interest in changing this system, and those who over the last fifty years have repeatedly demonstrated their ability to do so, reside overwhelmingly in the oppressed nations of the Third World. Though there is a deep need to build a strong social movement amongst oppressed people here in the U.S., the role of U.S. social movements needs to be thoroughly studied and debated, in partnership with movements in the Third World. It is through this relationship with the international Left that social movements in the U.S. can be the most productive and strategic in their fights for human freedom.


7.2.6. Shifting the Material Conditions

The growth of this new model of Left community organizing presents an important development for the Left in general. No other mass-based organizing model in use within the U.S. over the course of my lifetime has presented as much opportunity for the Left to address its most pressing needs. There are, indeed, many organizational forms that will be necessary in order to take on the tasks of this next period in movement activity. Mass-based organizations are only one. The organizations studied here are also not the only ones weighing in on the struggle. With that said, this organizing model is positioned to play an important role in addressing the above needs for the advancement of a strong Left movement. As is demonstrated in this study, this model can play a vital role in the construction of a mass base amongst strategic oppressed nationality communities; the development of accurate material assessments of today’s global political economy and the development of long-term Left strategies; the development of working class immigrant and oppressed nationality leadership; the construction of a feminist praxis; and active participation in and growth of an international movement with common practice. Of course these organizations cannot do this work on their own, and by no means can they single-handedly solve the Left’s problems, but their contribution is strong.


7.3 Current Failures

Upon close examination there are a number of internal issues that can be identified as shortcomings, and could serve to hold organizations within the model from meeting their long-term goals of building a powerful Left base of oppressed people in the U.S. Four internal short-comings that I see currently serving to hold the model back are: 1) their organization’s current lack of numbers; 2) their heavy reliance on the non-profit legal structure; 3) their lack of resources; and 4) their relative lack of development and experience. In addition there are a number of barriers to the organizing work that are a product of today’s objective conditions, such as: reactionary hegemonic thinking amongst the base; lack of economic development in working class communities of color; attacks from the Right; and past failures of the Left. Community organizers can respond to these objective barriers in more or less helpful ways but for the most part they are beyond organizations’ control.


7.3.1. Lacking the Numbers

Given the potential base of millions of working class oppressed nationality peoples in the U.S., most of today’s Left community organizations have a relatively small membership —numbering anywhere from a couple hundred dues-paying members to a few thousand. Seen alongside Left mass organizations of the Third World, such as the 1.5 million active members of the MST (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem-Terra or the Landless Workers’ Movement) in Brazil, or the 2 million members of COSATU (the Congress of South African Trade Unions), these organizations are dwarfed in size and in impact. Given the underdeveloped state of the Left and lack of progressive working class mass movements in the U.S., one could argue that those numbers are the best that can be expected for this current period.

Differing priorities enable U.S.-based community organizations that utilize more populist models out of the Alinsky tradition—to attract a much larger membership. This model of Left mass-based organizing often places a higher priority on doing a deeper level of leadership and political development with members. This focus makes growth considerably slower and more intensive. This model also chooses to fight around issues that highlight class and race contradictions inherent within the imperialist system looking to heighten people’s consciousness. These campaigns often require political struggle with neighborhood residents to counter the hegemonic thinking that has been drilled into people’s heads.

For organizers in this model it is an important distinction between ideologically Left campaigns that forward a strategic political vision and ones that rely on populist sentiment. None-the-less it a distinction that is not without its consequences—one of which is a considerable lack of numbers. Organizers see their work in this period as laying a solid foundation for when a more revolutionary period arrives.


7.3.2. Lacking the Resources

This may seem obvious, but these organizations need money in order to be able to do their work. It is worth noting that even with the ability to tap foundations, every Left community organizing project struggles with acquiring the resources they need to sustain their organizations. Nobody has deciphered a way to remain fiscally solid. Organizations rely on individual donors, foundations, the occasional government grant, member dues, and grassroots fundraising campaigns like mailings, t-shirt sales, house parties, and cultural performances to raise their operating budgets. While it is very rare for an organization to fold solely based on their funding this situation continues to leave most in a very precarious position and in many cases organizers end up going unpaid for lengthy stretches of time. It will not be the deciding factor in the success of these organizations’, but their funding situation will impact the stability and effectiveness of their work.


7.3.3. Reliance on the Non-Profit Structure

Another point which could serve to hold back these Left community organizations from meeting their goals is a reliance on the 501©(3) non-profit legal structure. This legal structure allows an organization to be exempt from paying income tax, allows donors to make tax-free contributions, and gives them access to receiving grants from foundations, corporations, or the government. Over the last thirty years a vast array of established social justice organizations have become reliant on this legal structure in order to set up organizations that can financially sustain themselves and the staff organizers tied to them. This structure has allowed many organizers a stable work environment with the benefits of salaries and health care so needed to sustain their work over a long period of time. With their finances heavily regulated by the government, the risks and drawbacks are that the legal designation makes the organization mimic corporate structure and entrench itself in government regulations. They also in large part have to pander to foundations for future funding. Most organizers in this trend are highly critical of the 501©(3) structure as well, and there is a growing dialogue within the movement to attempt and address the contradictions inherent within it, complete with an entire conference devoted to the subject and a forthcoming book. None-the-less it will continue to be a problem that organizers will be grappling with over the foreseeable future.


7.3.4. Lacking the Development

The final area that I’ll point out is that, with a couple of notable exceptions, the vast majority of organizing projects in this Left trend are quite young, both in terms of the relative age of the organizations and the age of the organizers themselves. This youthfulness has its upsides and its downsides.

Organizers are largely fresh and energetic — important traits in a role that often risks leading to burnout and cynicism. This youthfulness also means that to large degree these organizations tend to avoid a sectarian or dogmatic political practice, and stale political theory. But it also means that their practice can be somewhat unrefined. It lacks the refinement that can only come with decades of application and reflection.

Many organizers were trained in organizing methodology either through trade unions or through classic community organizing schools. Others were self-taught. Almost all are politically self-taught, and came to the politics of Third World Marxism in their search for tools to advance their work as organizers and activists (STORM 51). This has allowed them to draw the best from various revolutionary traditions—allowing an important synthesis of politics, anti-dogmatism, and anti-sectarianism. But it has also meant that much of their politics and practice are experiments that have yet to be refined through decades of trial and error, critique and refinement. The trend is a powerful and effective one, whose refinement will come with time and maturity.


8. Our Historical Memory: Learning from the Past, Looking Towards the Future

Over the past number of years a handful of organizations around the country have been advancing an exciting and groundbreaking organizing trend on the Left. Drawing on the rich and long history of Third World people’s resistance to imperial domination and worker’s resistance to the exploitative hand of capital—they have cultivated, in a brief period of time, a rich body of knowledge and experience. With careful reflection, this experience has the potential to guide community organizations through many more years of fighting for the oppressed, and to provide crucial lessons in strategy and method to the broader Left.

I have a very personal relationship to this study and to the work it examines. That I am biased in favor of it cannot be denied. As a youngster I had very basic feelings that something was not right about a world in which inequality was so pronounced. I had a basic understanding of fairness that was not being met, and I wanted to do something about it. Naturally, I was drawn to Left politics in my search for explanations and solutions. After becoming politically active and beginning my development as a political person amongst the upsurge of the Global Justice movement in the U.S. in the late 90s—typified by the Seattle 1999 protests against the World Trade Organization—I came to the not so original position that for the Left to be able to advance a libratory agenda, organizers would have to be rooted in material organizing in oppressed communities. I was also convinced that the Left would have to get beyond the chauvinism of white middle-class activists in order to be effective. This work, of course, was already happening. I just didn’t have a relationship to it and hadn’t done the work of seeking it out.

Over the course of the next few years trying to find my place in the social justice movement I studied, got training wherever I could, engaged in movement strategy debates, did anti-racist political education and organizing with the white Left, did solidarity work with racial and economic justice organizing in working class communities of color—doing my best to familiarize myself with the work—and searched for a way to get trained as a community organizer. My first round of training came as a six-month internship as a tenant organizer at the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness, under the caring tutelage of “Right to a Roof ” director James Tracey. Here, through a campaign addressing the eviction of a building of tenants on fixed incomes in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, I began to learn the art of building power and leadership in working class communities. It was an instructive process, and I was deeply inspired by working on a campaign that won real material benefits in people’s lives—and which had a catalytic impact on the group of tenants, catapulting a number of them into long-term engagement with social justice work.

My next opportunity was to join the staff of Just Cause Oakland. I came to JCO because I had been searching for an organization that was engaged in effective material organizing while applying the Left politics that I was becoming increasingly committed to. I had considered going the route of labor organizing in one of the AFL-CIO unions, but was concerned about the mainstream labor movement’s lack of space for the application of radical politics. After the staff created the opportunity for me to join the work, it was here at JCO that I was rigorously trained by organizing director Dawn Phillips, over the course of the year that I was conducting research for this study. Though one’s learning is never over, and my development is quite far from complete, through my time as an organizer at JCO, through my research, and through engagement in various Left study groups in the Bay Area—I was trained in the method of organizing whose development is studied above. Personally, participating in this method of organizing on a daily basis, and having the privilege of working with incredible ordinary people taking extraordinary action to gain control of their lives and their communities, has brought me great hope in the possibility of oppressed people changing the course of history and rearranging the power structures of our society.

There are a few lessons for the broader Left that I think are important to draw from this method of organizing. The first is that hope for a sane and egalitarian future lies amongst the oppressed people of the world, and their struggles for dignity and survival. These are the people in whose material interests it is to redistribute the wealth of the world. And it is through these people’s collective struggles that the lessons can be drawn to inform the construction of a libratory society.

The second is that ideology and political vision provide the Left with vital tools, which today are very often overlooked or shunned. Developing these tools takes engagement in political practice, as well as study and reflection. Without a sharp analysis of the problems of the world today, it is virtually impossible to craft strategies to overcome them. And without a vision of the future we want to see, we condemn ourselves to wandering a never-ending maze searching for vague notions of freedom. Our work aims to prefigure the world in which we want to live. Vision provides us with a touchstone to which we can constantly return to assess the nature of our practice. Through prioritizing the work of developing vision, not only do we provide ourselves and our movement with the inspiration of a new tomorrow that is so needed to get through the desperation of today—but also we give ourselves a rubric with which to gage the correctness of our work.

The third is that strong organization—the key to shifting power in the world—take discipline, courage and humility. The discipline to engage in the thankless tasks of neighborhood organizing, study, and reflection; the courage to go up against the institutions of power in our society as well as challenge hegemonic thinking amongst the base; and the humility to be constantly challenged and develop and trust the leadership of others. These may appear to be personal traits, but they are ones that the organizer learns through the course of struggle, and without which is of little use to the movement.

And last but not least, in order to develop an effective practice, we must have a deep commitment to learning from the successes and failures of the past so they can provide us with a guide for the future.

This model of community organization serves as a reminder to all of those on the Left that the politics of working class internationalism are still relevant as ever to the oppressed people of the world. Even in these times of deep political and economic desperation, hopes of a new tomorrow can still rightfully burn in the hearts of those who seek it. As celebrated author and social critic Arundhati Roy eloquently stated, “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”




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[i] Like those adopted by organizations and networks such as ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now), and PICO (Pacific Institute for Community Organizations).

[ii] For insight into Alinsky’s populist organizing model see his book Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals and Horwitt’s Let Them Call Me Rebel: Saul Alinsky: His Life and Legacy.

[iii] For insight into organizers’ analysis of capitalism Marx’s Capital, Wage, Labor, and Capital and The Amandala Project’s Towards Land, Work, and Power: Charting a Path of Resistance Against US-Led Imperialism.

[iv] For insight into organizers’ analysis of imperialism see Lenin, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism

[v] For insight into organizers’ analysis of white supremacy see The Wages of Whiteness by David Roediger, Racist America by Joe R. Feagin, The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon, and Black Reconstruction in America 1860-1880 by W.E.B. Du Bois.

[vi] For insight into organizers’ analysis of patriarchy see Maria Mies’ Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale.

[vii] Some call it Third World Marxism, and some don’t. Within it some don’t recognize a fully articulated body of politics and strategy and in-turn lump it in with the broader Marxist politic. Opinions aside I think it is helpful to delineate this loose body of thought developed for a very different context then classical Marxism, and for ease I refer to it as Third World Marxism.

[viii] Today this is exemplified by current splits in the labor movement. On July 25, 2005 the AFL-CIO split, partially over the question of base building.

[ix] This is seen on page 13, Volume 4 of Philip Foner’s History of the Labor Movement in the United States, “By the summer of 1904, many progressive-minded elements in the American labor and Socialist movements were convinced of three basic principles: (1) the superiority of industrial unionism over craft unionism in the struggle against the highly integrated organizations of employers; (2) the impossibility of converting the conservative American Federation of Labor into a type of organization which would achieve real benefits for the majority of workingmen and women; and (3) the ineffectiveness of the existing organization of the industrial and radical type to build a movement which would organize and unite the entire working class. Clearly… a new organization of labor was necessary… It was this conviction that led to the formation of the Industrial Workers of the World.” Also here: “While the worker, increasingly displaced by mechanical progress and deprived of his skill of craftsmanship, was sinking into the uniform mass of wage slaves, his power of resistance was being broken by the perpetuation of outgrown, artificial craft divisions which only served the purpose of keeping the workers pitted against one another, thus weakening their resistance to capitalist tyranny.”

[x] This is a departure that is also very clear today with the growth of a new and vibrant labor movement, based in independent workers’ centers, which are autonomous from the classical union hierarchies. Some of these workers’ centers fall firmly within this emerging model of Left community organizing, and some are separate.

[xi] The recent split in the AFL-CIO along some of these lines should also be noted. See “What Does the AFL-CIO Split Mean” by Chris Kutalik in Labor Notes September 2005

[xii] Some of these new workers’ centers are: Miami Workers’ Center, LA Garment Workers’ Center, Asian Immigrant Women Advocates, Fuerza Unida, La Mujer Obrera, Korean Immigrant Workers Advocates, Chinese Staff and Workers Association, and many more. To study the growth of this new worker center movement, see Ching Yoon Louie’s Sweatshop Warriors: Immigrant Women Workers Take on the Global Factory and Tait’s Poor Workers’ Unions: Rebuilding Labor from Below.

[xiii] In the next period of their engagement in mass work, the CPUSA would shift their line to a Popular Front strategy and virtually abandon the African-American struggle. See “Organizing the Unemployed: the Early Years of the Great Depression, 1929-1933”.

[xiv] To frame the explosion of radical movements in this period, author and movement veteran Max Elbaum used this helpful framing: “ The biggest chasm was race. De facto segregation in housing, employment, education and society in general; the different ways in which oppression was experienced by whites and by different peoples of color; backward racial attitudes among white activists who had grown up in a racist society; the emergence of Black Power ideology and the call for whites to organize against racism within white communities — all these meant that most radical organizations of the time tended to be race- or nationality-specific. Organizations were thus exclusively or overwhelmingly made up of Blacks, Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, Asians, Native Americans or whites” (59).

[xv] “Between 1968 and 1973, layer after layer of young people went in search of an ideological framework and strategy to bring that revolution about. Inspired by the dynamic liberation movements that threatened to besiege Washington with “two, three, many Vietnams,” many decided that a Third World-oriented version of Marxism (sometimes explicitly termed “Third World Marxism” and sometimes not) was the key to building a powerful left in the US, within the ‘belly of the beast’” (Elbaum 2).

[xvi] 20. For an highly detailed study of this movement see Payne’s, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle.

[xvii] 21. For good overviews of the Black Panther Party and the growth of Black Power ideology see Forman’s e Making of Black Revolutionaries: A Personal Account, Ture and Hamilton’s Black Power: The Politics of Liberation, Foner’s The Black Panthers Speak. Shakur’s Assata: An Autobiography, and Brown’s A Taste of Power: A Black Woman’s Story.

[xviii] For a detailed study see Torres and Velazquez’s The Puerto Rican Movement: Voices from the Diaspora and Melendez’s We Took the Streets: Fighting for Latino Rights with the Young Lords.

[xix] For good overviews see Smith and Warrior’s Like a Hurricane: The Indian Movement from Alcatraz to Wounded Knee, and Weyler’s Blood of the Land: The Government and Corporate War Against the American Indian Movement.

[xx] This program was called ERAP (Economic Research and Action Project). See Frost’s An Interracial Movement of the Poor: Community Organizing and the New Left in the 1960s.


Lessons from Amílcar Cabral: Revolutionary Democracy, Class-Consciousness, and Cross-Class Movement Building

By Maria Poblet

As a Left community organizer in the United States, working with oppressed and exploited people in the San Francisco Bay Area of California, I have benefitted greatly from Amílcar Cabral’s work and thought. I am part of a broader growing political tendency that is building a working class base for the Left in urban centers inside the United States, innovating with organizing fights for housing and transportation, immigrant’s rights, and women’s rights, building race-conscious class unity, particularly between oppressed communities of color who are pitted against each other at the bottom of the economy in the US, and have a strong basis for solidarity with working class and poor people throughout the world. Details