Liberatory strategy in this moment
Any discussion of strategy to win a certain future must begin with an assessment of the present. So let’s start with some broad points about this moment that we (you and LeftRoots) probably agree on (since, after all, you are reading this brand-new LeftRoots publication).
Since you picked up or downloaded the journal, we probably agree that we are in a moment filled with dangerous reaction and unprecedented possibility. That human activity is threatening humanity’s very existence. That right now, a ruling class hell-bent on intensifying imperialist war, neoliberal austerity, unfettered extraction of natural resources, and militarized crackdowns is dominating the planet. That overlapping crises—economic crisis, ecological crisis, as well as crisis of empire—are raining chaos and misery on the world.
And, like us, you’ve found power in the face of all of this by coming together with others to take action. You’ve knocked on doors. You’ve attended and organized marches and rallies. You’ve gone to political education trainings. You’ve done everything you can think of. Like us, you take hope as you see people all around the world rise up in search of genuine solutions.
The nature of this historical moment—an oppressive system in deep crisis—makes fundamental change possible, but it does not make it inevitable. Scattered and disconnected action alone, no matter how heartfelt, will not be enough to overcome the powerful forces of reaction lined up against us and against the planet.
This fact, then, begs a vital question the Brazilian popular educator Paulo Freire posed often: What can we do today, so that tomorrow we can achieve what seems impossible today?
That’s where liberatory strategy comes in.
Who is LeftRoots?
In the last weeks and months, working people across the country have taken action to win better schools, to win quality healthcare and wages for hotel workers, and to force the federal government to re-open. Community members have rallied to win justice for survivors of police brutality. Everyday people have elected a wave of politicians promising to enact progressive and radical policy at the state and federal levels.
Committed and talented organizers and activists— guided by a critique of exploitation, white supremacy, cisheteropatriarchy, and colonialism, by a vision of a better future, and by a belief that that future is achievable—have worked tirelessly behind the scenes of all of those struggles. Drawing on the insights of the Chilean political activist Marta Harnecker, we call this growing group ‘the social movement left’. LeftRoots grows out of this social movement left.
We are a national organization of social movement leftists with a shared conviction that people like us—leftists engaged in mass organizations and social movements— have a unique, but as yet unfulfilled, role to play in helping to reimagine and give life to a broad U.S. left that is as radical as it is grounded in mass struggles. In LeftRoots, we are preparing ourselves and one another to play that role.
Because the forces fighting for a better future will battle that monstrous triumvirate of capitalism, white supremacy, and heteropatriarchy, LeftRoots has intentionally cultivated a membership with super-majorities both of people of color and of women and gender-oppressed people. Most of us became active in the movement in just the last ten years, and for most of us, LeftRoots is our first experience in a self-described socialist organization. And while we might not look like what most people in the United States think of when they think about socialists, we know that a strong and vibrant left committed to winning liberation for all people and the planet must draw many, many more people from our communities.
Our central purposes are to:
1. Develop strategy to build 21st century socialism; and
2. Develop cadres with the individual and collective
skills to formulate, evaluate, and carry out such a strategy.
Together, we hope to help pave the way for the type of revolutionary organization in the U.S. that will successfully link diverse struggles into a common quest to bring about a system which achieves freedom, equality, and self-determination for all. This means a global social and economic system based on popular participation in politics, the economy, and all aspects of civil society that is in balance with the planet’s regenerative capacities.
We call this system “twenty-first century socialism”. Others use different terms to describe similar visions. Whatever we call it, we cannot win it without grounded and comprehensive strategy. And the ability to develop, evaluate, and carry out strategy is a skill we all can learn.
Unfortunately, we haven’t cultivated it yet. Far too few social movement leftists in the United States have been trained as liberatory strategists. That is not because of any individual short-comings. Historical and structural realities have made it difficult for U.S. organizers and activists radicalized over the past thirty years to get the training we need. We plan to explore some of those reasons in future issues of this journal but for now, it is enough to say that social movement leftists can and must learn to be socialist strategists. It is our only hope for winning the future our people and planet deserve.
We hope Out to Win! will help all of us develop the strategic capacities that our movement and our future need.
A toolkit for liberatory strategy
Okay, strategy is important, but what is it, exactly? When LeftRoots says ‘liberatory strategy’, we mean a theory of change that describes how a set of aligned forces might, on ever-changing terrain and against opposing forces, shift the balance of power in order to make fundamental change in a society.
Since the reality of ‘fundamental change’ can seem so far over the horizon, many of us are likely to have different theories of what it will take to get us there. After all, many ‘21st century socialists’ will have different visions in mind for a truly liberated society, and many will have different assessments of where we are starting from now. This is not necessarily a bad thing. But without
a common framework for how we turn our various visions and assessments into coherent strategies, those differences can produce unnecessary confusion and conflict between individuals, organizations, sectors and regions that need to learn from each other if we intend to win.
To support social movement leftists clarifying their own strategic orientations and to facilitate more productive debate and discussion, LeftRoots is working to develop a framework for liberatory strategy based on our work, study, and reflection—our praxis. So far, this framework has eight components:
1. Vision. Liberatory strategy must be grounded in a clear vision of a liberated society that brings an end to capitalism, white supremacy, and patriarchy. This vision offers not only a sense of direction, it also informs what capacities, practices, and commitments we must develop to make the vision real.
2. Systemic Analysis provides a structural assessment of the society’s base and superstructure. This systemic analysis both informs the basic categories of how society is organized as well as reveals whether that system can support the grounding vision.
3. Conjunctural Analysis is an assessment of the concrete conditions of the moment and of the terrain we’re fighting on. Our struggles take place in existing conditions, not ideal or abstract ones, so a grounded analysis of what is actually happening now, of the state of and shifts in social, economic, political, and cultural systems, is critical.
4. Strategy provides the narrative throughline of how the vision can be achieved despite the opposition’s resistance.
5. With Scenario Planning we can prepare to respond to possible, near-future events in ways that advance the strategy. These scenarios grow from the conjunctural analysis and an assessment of how change is happening.
6. Hypothesis are building blocks of strategy: answers to key strategic questions that must be proven or disproven in practice. Guided by materialist curiosity, the movement should gear its actions toward testing the validity of a strategy’s hypotheses.
7. Action. Strategy alone does not guarantee victory. We have to do the work, and social movement leftists need to be skilled in many areas in order to carry out the diverse set of activities a successful movement will require of them.
8. Evaluation & Assessment. Strategy is not chiseled into stone. It is living, evolving theory that must incorporate lessons and new information over time. With evaluation and assessment, we can determine what worked, what didn’t, and why. This should happen throughout the strategy development process so we can make any necessary adjustments to make our work more effective in the future.
Needless to say, each of these components relates to the others. None of them exists in isolation. But we distinguish them within this framework in hopes that it supports our collective ability to discuss and debate strategy in ways that advance and strengthen our work.
Future issues of Out to Win! will explore these components in more depth, but as you will see, all of the articles in this issue will be tagged to the component each one addresses most directly.
Why publish this journal now?
After our founding in 2014, LeftRoots spent its first three years developing our individual and collective capacities for liberatory strategy. As the rising tide of right-wing nationalism and Trumpism came into sharper relief in 2016, we felt an incredible sense of urgency and sped up our process.
In April 2017, nine LeftRoots cadres, elected by the membership and the leadership, formed an ‘advance team’ to produce a discussion document that would give us something concrete to reference and play with as we began organization-wide conversations about liberatory strategy. In September 2017, after just six months of working together, that team completed the first document in this issue, “We Believe That We Can Win”. The organization spent the next year discussing and debating its content and developing a plan to share some of our discussions with the movement.
“We Believe That We Can Win”
It is important to note that “We Believe that We Can Win” is not LeftRoots’ line. It will not provide the singular basis for all of LeftRoots’ (or LeftRoots cadres’) activities internally or externally as we move forward, nor is it something around which we are trying to align other movement forces. It is the starting point for LeftRoots’ (and we hope the movement’s) continuing discussion about liberatory strategy.
“We Believe that We Can Win” simply represents the consensus of the advance team that wrote it. It was their best effort—given their current skill and knowledge and the time limits they were working with—to produce an example of a strategic orientation that could guide not just a campaign or an organization, but an entire revolutionary movement. It is sweeping and ambitious, and we believe that it can foster the types of discussion about liberatory strategy that we need.
It can be hard to remember how quickly conditions have changed in the past two years. As we publish the first issue of Out to Win!, “We Believe that We Can Win” is now more than a year old. Some events it imagined have come to pass and are now part of what many of us understand as the ‘new normal’ but they were not that in the spring of 2017. And, of course, many things have happened that it did not anticipate. Despite the monumental shifts in U.S. and world politics since its writing, though, we think that “We Believe that We Can Win” remains an important document to share and discuss.
It builds on the three prior years of organizational discussions to synthesize and articulate our framework for liberatory strategy, while moving beyond that framework to put informational and analytic flesh on the skeleton it provides. For the (non-LeftRoots) reader, it provides a peek inside the early stages of our development as strategists.
The organizational discussions about “We Believe that We Can Win” that began in the spring of 2017 are ongoing. They have revealed major weaknesses in places where the ideas are underdeveloped and entire questions remain unexplored. They have also uncovered debates within LeftRoots, where we lack organizational consensus and need to more fully explore our differences and to subject some of those differences to testing in practice.
This document does not mark the end of a process but the beginning of one. It is one example of a set of strategic hypotheses based in the context of current conditions. It is a discussion document, produced by nine of our comrades, that has pushed our collective thinking forward, and we hope it will do the same for others.
Articles submitted in response to “We believe…”
As stated above, LeftRoots’ internal discussions about “We Believe that We Can Win” have revealed differences and debates within our membership. As we prepared to share “We Believe that We Can Win”, several teams LeftRoots cadres came together to write critiques of and responses to “We Believe that We Can Win” that would be published alongside it. This inaugural issue of Out to Win! includes not only “We Believe that We Can Win”, but also seven response articles:
We are losing, but we can win: caravans, imperialism and waging the war of position for 21st century socialism
by the LeftRoots Ad Hoc Anti-Imperialism Working Group
“As of this writing the U.S. is actively attempting to overthrow the government of Venezuela
and there is a very real threat of a U.S. backed coup or even a U.S. invasion and thus far social movements here in the U.S. are engaging in very little organized resistance to this intervention … As social movement leftists it is imperative that we work within our organizations, particularly mass-based base-building organizations, to incorporate anti-imperialism and internationalism into the way we frame our campaigns and develop our strategy.”
Liberation for our people and our planet: ecological justice and the struggle for 21st century socialism
by LeftRoots’ Environmental Justice and Climate Justice Praxis
“The scale of the crisis, which will impact millions (or likely, billions) of people, presents opportunities to unite a large number of social forces in a broad, counter-hegemonic united front that can advance the kind of transformative, and ultimately anti-capitalist, program we need…The united front will need to contend with a devastatingly short timeline that demands radical results on climate change faster than we are likely to be able to assemble the forces necessary to fully overthrow capital and realize our vision for an ecologically just socialism of the 21st century. This has profound implications for strategy, tactics, and program.”
Taking account of state violence: A proposed revision of We believe that We can Win
by the Ad Hoc State Violence Study Team
“[W]e find that “We Believe That We Can Win,” fails to foreground the role of the state, and its coercive capabilities, throughout its assessment of the system and our current conjuncture. In essence, the role of the state as an instrument of coercion in “We Believe That We Can Win,” remains underdeveloped and understated… Perhaps more so than any other factor, the racialized violence of domestic policing and immigrant detention, mass imprisonment and military intervention have the potential to bring together [Black, Latinx and Indigenous people from the lower layers of the working class], while also building a coalition inclusive of the associated social forces.”
Gender oppressions and revolutionary strategy
by the Unicorn Collective. Unicorns include: Adlemy, Cynthia, Erika, Luz, Najla, Rose, Tara, and more
“Class, race, gender, sexuality, and planet are essential parts of our vision, our assessment, and our strategy…Those of us who came together as a collective to write about these intersections felt an analysis of cisheteropatriarchy was underdeveloped in “We Believe That We Can Win,” and that the 21st century socialism that we are working towards cannot exist without dismantling multiple oppressive systems at once.”
The Role of Asian American and Pacific Islander Movements: Race, nationality oppression and revolutionary strategy
by Carolyn Chou, Cecilia Lim, Lydia Lowe, Don Misumi, Sian Miranda Singh ÓFaoláin, Jensine Raihan, Helena Wong
“Strategy still needs to emerge from collective practice, analysis, and struggle, so it is premature for LeftRoots to name specific “driving forces” at this moment. We believe that social movement activists, including LR cadre, need to learn more about the role of AAPIs in the US …[W]e believe that the vast majority of AAPIs of all classes have a stake in the struggle against racial monopoly capitalism and that the struggles of the most exploited sectors of the AAPI working class have particularly advanced and continue to advance the interests of the entire working class and benefit all of US society.”
The Nonprofit Industrial Complex is a master’s tool
by the Nonprofits and Revolutionary Strategy Study Team
“One of the defenses of the Nonprofit Industrial Complex from leftists who run nonprofits is that nonprofits are just a tool we can use to do revolutionary work. We argue that the NPIC is not a neutral tool, but rather a master’s tool as Lorde describes it. Working in a social movement nonprofit puts us squarely in a neoliberal institution, within the master’s house, where our interests as a working-class are obscured and our strategies and practices become aligned with the capitalist class interests that drive the system.”
The revolutionary potential of a revived union movement
by members of the LeftRoots Labor Praxis Circle
We argue that the features of the unions make the union movement critical to the labor movement, and the labor movement as a whole is vital to (a)
the defeat of Trumpism and (b) our ability to build a 21st-century socialist movement to scale… Our praxis circle plans to do further study, which will draw from our experiences and from the experiences of other left unionists …We invite unionists to become part of Left Roots and join us on this journey!
Strategy & base: A praxis for power
by members of LeftRoots’ Basebuilding Praxis Circle
“Given the interlocking ecological, political, and economic crises impacting the vast majority of humanity, why aren’t exploited and oppressed communities flooding into community organizations and committing their lives to overhauling society? … Because we are anchored in basebuilding organizations across different sectors and geography nationally, LeftRoots is in a unique position to convene movement leaders to synthesize, test out, and further develop a transformative basebuilding praxis.”
Reading these articles in context
Each of these articles was drafted by LeftRoots members in some collective process. In most cases, the writing offers a glimpse into months of internal discussion, debate, theory, and practice. Like “We Believe that We Can Win”, they do not reflect a unity among all LeftRoots members; rather, they represent the views of the groups that drafted them.
For many, it was the first time trying to write about strategy and strategic questions in this way. As in every issue of Out to Win!, we hope the pieces here offer grounded assessments, sharp analysis, and an intersection of theory, practice, and reflection. We also know that writing such pieces is a skill that we will develop over time, and that we will stumble at times along the way.
For this inaugural edition of Out to Win!, our editorial team worked with the writing groups to present their arguments as strongly and clearly as possible. We have been very mindful to avoid editing the ideas and arguments themselves, though, and it has been up to the authors to determine the shape and content of their final articles. As such, each article presents the distinctive views of its authors, and not of the editorial team, the National Coordinating Committee, or the organization as a whole.
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