Don’t March, Organize for Power

The socialist left needs more organizing and less mobilizing.

Alec Perkins / Flickr

With the sudden and unexpected expansion of socialist organizations like Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) in the wake of the 2016 elections, socialists finally have the opportunity to debate basic strategy. A nationwide socialist movement with tens of thousands of members and supporters has emerged. Considering what we should do now is a vitally important question.

It’s also a difficult one. Despite its recent growth, organized socialists remain marginal, with no real mass base. To change the direction of American politics and challenge capitalist hegemony, we will need to reach out not only to self-identified progressives but also to a broader layer of politically disillusioned workers.

We will need to choose battles where we can genuinely affect outcomes despite limited resources. We will need to find ways to engage in coalition politics while carving out space to the left of the Democratic Party’s newly invigorated progressive wing. We will need to win measurable victories that grow our constituency, develop class consciousness, and build toward a broader fight.

We should use these criteria to judge Dustin Guastella’s recent Jacobin article, which called on socialists to spend the next year organizing a “Medicare for All March on Washington.”

We should praise Guastella for starting a conversation on strategy. But his proposal itself leaves something to be desired. Why should socialists spend months planning a national march? What do we hope to achieve?

It should go without saying that single payer will not be enacted under the Trump administration. Republicans oppose it, and neither the socialist left nor the much-larger progressive left can change their minds.

One could argue that a march would put single payer on the Democratic Party’s 2020 agenda, but the issue is already playing a central role in that organization’s internal life. More than half of the Democratic congressional delegation and several leading presidential contenders, including Kirsten Gillibrand, already support it. It will almost certainly take center stage in the 2018 and 2020 election cycles.

A small organization like DSA has little chance of exerting meaningful pressure on the federal government to pass major legislation; if single-payer does go into effect after 2020, it will be thanks to groups like Our Revolution and National Nurses United (NNU).

The socialist left needs to focus on local organizing, not national mobilizations.

Why March?

If DSA decides to pursue single payer, we should consider how a march would help advance the cause. Washington, D.C. has seen thirteen such events already this year, and three more are planned.

Each has required a major investment of time and resources on the part of its organizers, and some, like the Women’s March and the Climate March, have attracted hundreds of thousands of people — far more than DSA could hope to mobilize. While some have shaped the national mood, none has significantly altered the political landscape. Most have made headlines for a day or two and then vanished without a trace. Why would the Medicare March be any different?

As Guastella himself acknowledges, marches only work when they demonstrate the power of an organized mass movement, proving that a mass base has unified around a particular demand. Put differently, organizing work must precede any successful march, and that work takes years, not months.

Today’s left, however, often goes in reverse, organizing a march in the hopes that it will spark a mass movement. Guastella appears properly skeptical of this strategy, but he nonetheless proposes it.

Socialists do not yet have an organized a base in the United States. A march on Washington without a supporting movement amounts to a meaningless publicity stunt. Politicians and the ruling class will have no reason to listen to its demands. Democratic operatives may stop by for a photo op, but we are unlikely to meaningfully influence their political calculus.

At best, a march will attract a few thousand people and garner a day’s worth of media attention. It will not advance its central demand, and it will quickly fade from memory. But achieving even this level of success would require a substantial investment of time and resources from an organization that enjoys little funding outside member dues. It is hard to imagine how demobilizing and dispiriting this project will be for the activists involved, many of whom are new to politics. In fact, a failed Medicare March may do more to depoliticize young socialists than to inspire them.

Why Health Care?

But these arguments miss Guastella’s point. He’s less interested in winning the fight for single payer and more interested in associating DSA, and socialism more broadly, with the ongoing struggle. As he writes:

Medicare for All is the only demand that meets the needs of most workers and has received a warm reception among voters across the political spectrum. The prospect of free health care at the point of access is more popular than ever … Simply, a march would give socialists the opportunity to vocally and aggressively lead on a major working-class demand.

Guastella argues that socialists should identify with single payer because people like single payer. If they identify us as “leading” on that issue, perhaps they will like us, too.

It’s an understandable impulse. The socialist movement remains small and weak despite its recent growth. The movement for single payer, and the progressive Democrats who have taken it as their signature issue, appears large and strong. If socialists go all-in on single payer, perhaps some of that strength will rub off on us. A march may not win single payer, but it could help the DSA’s brand.

As seductive as that idea is, it suffers from a number of basic problems.

For one, the fact that single payer is popular among the working class does not mean that an ineffective march will inspire workers to join the DSA. Working-class people already know that they need health care; they just don’t know how to get it. Spending months organizing an action that won’t move people closer to a universal-health-care system won’t make them sympathize with the DSA, it will simply show them that the organization can’t help.

The national march proposal sharply contrasts with the strategy of serious single-payer advocates like National Nurses United. The nurses’ union has focused on California where passing single-payer legislation seems possible. Further, it has used health-care activism to drive a wedge between the Democratic Party’s conservative and progressive wings and committed to an electoral strategy that can build on those gains by primarying the Democrats who oppose single payer. These tactics have attracted a large and effective activist base, including local DSA chapters.

Pursuing the same goal with less effective tactics will not attract new people to socialism. Rather, serious activists will join the serious organizations doing real work for single payer, not a socialist movement more interested in jumping on bandwagons than winning fights.

Which brings us to a broader point: for the socialist movement to succeed and grow, it must distinguish itself from the Democratic Party.

In one sense, we can easily accomplish this task: many socialists live in large cities controlled by progressive Democrats — Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Oakland, and San Francisco — that are nevertheless still riven by inequality, segregation, mass incarceration, and a seemingly endless housing crisis. The DSA is perfectly positioned to show how poorly these Democrats serve their working-class constituencies. The party can build an oppositional base around the demands progressive Democrats have no time for.

Of course, from another perspective, it’s immensely difficult to build a movement around issues that have been beyond the pale of mainstream political thinking for fifty years. Far easier to follow Guastella’s suggestion and identify ourselves with the progressive Democrats, adopting their chief demand and providing organizational support for their campaigns. Progressive Democrats have grown in popularity since making single payer their central policy plank.

If the DSA adopts the progressive Democrats’ platform, however, the organization risks being dissolved into the Democratic Party. The mainstream liberals are more likely to coopt segments of the emerging socialist movement than to allow it to share in the Democrats’ success.

This is not to say that we should avoid collaborating with progressives on shared objectives; coalition work creates useful alliances and leads to real gains. For example, the DSA’s work on the New York and California single-payer campaigns has helped grow the organization.

But the socialist movement must articulate the necessity of anticapitalist politics. Choosing an issue that makes the socialists indistinguishable from the Democrats’ welfare capitalism leads away from that goal.

Why Not Organize?

In her book No Shortcuts, Jane McAlevey distinguishes between organizing and mobilizing.

Leftist organizing — the work it takes to build a labor or tenants’ union — addresses itself to the apolitical, the disillusioned, or those actively hostile to the Left and attempts to persuade them to join organizations and take collective action for their own betterment. Mobilizing, in contrast, seeks out those who already agree and asks them to make their support visible.

Organizing brings new constituencies into the Left, while mobilizing demonstrates existing support. The characteristic culmination of organizing is something like a strike — an action that requires majority support within a specific constituency. The protest is the characteristic culmination of mobilizing, and it draws a self-selecting minority of activists to show up and demonstrate support.

Both forms of activity have their uses, but, as McAlevey points out, mobilizing comes with sharp limits: in the US today, there are not enough leftists or progressives to win the necessary fights. The Left must bring in new people, which means organizing.

Organizing, however, is hard, resource-intensive work that takes years to accomplish, so leftists will always be tempted to take the “shortcut” and mobilize existing supporters. But, the same historical conditions that make marches so seductive — the Left’s lack of local organizations with ties to a larger base as well as its inexperience in building effective campaigns for power — are the very conditions that make mobilization the wrong strategy.

They also happen to be the very conditions that the DSA is meant to — and must — change.

Guastella’s proposal focuses exclusively on mobilization. A futile march on Washington will not interest anyone except the tiny minority of Americans who already support single payer, who already engage in left-wing activism, and who can travel across the country for a protest.

Think Local

A serious DSA organizing campaign would push socialists to build alliances with their local working-class bases. It would engage in the small but real battles on which movements thrive while building mass support for the bigger confrontations ahead. It would be national in scale but local in focus since socialists are not yet powerful enough to push federal legislation.

For example, socialists could lead a national campaign around housing rights. In big cities, that would mean fighting rent increases, advocating for tenants’ rights, and demanding government action to address housing shortages. Elsewhere, campaigns could focus on mortgage debt and housing quality.

In every locality, a housing campaign would directly address an issue every working-class person faces, would challenge the property regime that leaves basic needs to the whims of the market, and would produce tangible wins. Most importantly, it would entail organizing local communities for rent strikes and anti-gentrification work rather than drawing energy toward Washington.

This kind of nationally coordinated, locally focused organizing isn’t limited to housing. In health care, too, we can do important work around specific, winnable issues that supports our understanding of health care as a human right.

Socialists can bring the fight for adequate and just health to the local level. In cities, access to care often follows the lines of racial segregation. We can push municipalities to provide better mental health care and addiction treatment for workers, states to guarantee care to undocumented immigrants, and schools to ensure young women have access to reproductive care. Working on these issues will help build solidarity and bring new people into the movement. Just as importantly, they will lend real substance to our commitment to universal and decommodified health care by winning battles that make an immediate difference in people’s lives.

We need to pick campaigns that bridge the gap between our long-term socialist goals and the realities of working people’s daily lives as well as between national coordination and local organizing.

A march on Washington in support of federal legislation does not meet these criteria. It squanders time, money, and energy. Even worse, it sets up members for defeat and disappointment. Guastella’s proposal actually works against the goal of building a powerful movement that can fight for socialist goals.

At the height of its power in the 1930s, the American socialist movement was deeply involved in organizing the working class into unions. The labor movement recognized socialists and communists as among the most dedicated, astute, and effective organizers, and the millions-strong, racially integrated, rank-and-file-oriented, ideologically progressive unions they built produced gains for their members and the broader working class that we still enjoy.