The Long March

You can’t do mass politics without mass demonstrations.

Marchers with "District 65 ALF-CIO" sign at the March on Washington, 1963. Marion S. Trikosko / Library of Congress

In my recent Jacobin essay I called for using a March on Washington as an anchoring tactic in a broader strategy for Medicare for All. I argued that the tactic would complement other organizing strategies, help facilitate the consolidation of institutional relationships, lend itself to the development of programmatic clarity, and serve to help integrate the currently marginal socialist movement with the broader working class and in particular, militant health-care-worker unions.

Fortunately, this essay sparked a lot of discussion within the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and the broader socialist left with some accepting the premise of the article and others rejecting it wholesale. Michael Kinnucan’s “Don’t March, Organize for Power” is one of the more skeptical replies. Some of Kinnucan’s criticisms boil down to mere misinterpretations of the original proposal, while other are more fundamental disagreements.

Kinnucan argues that a march of the kind I propose won’t significantly alter the national political landscape. Of course, he is right and I conceded as much in the opening lines of the original essay. But no tactic is guaranteed to change the balance of power. Such an uncertainty exists for even the most militant strikes. And further, I wholeheartedly agree with Kinnucan that we need a strategy and a long-haul campaign in order to win Medicare for All — yet none of this contradicts making a mass march a significant component of such a campaign.

Kinnucan and I actually agree on much. We both want DSA to have more organizational cohesion and a stronger, more unified national character. We disagree on what tactics, strategy, and political campaigns will be most useful to get us there.

Where we differ is that Kinnucan asks us to think and act locally to help us build a base for the future. He argues that such a strategy is more likely to reap the benefits of our organizing than any nationwide campaign, and in particular, futile mass demonstrations. It’s here where Kinnucan couldn’t be more wrong.

Local Coordination or Nationwide Unity?

One of the more popular alternative approaches to a national march has been to argue for a campaign built around locally organized and nationally coordinated “days of action.” This is an approach to which Kinnucan seems more sympathetic:

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.

Kinnucan’s focus on small-but-winnable battles doesn’t necessarily “build mass support” for some larger future confrontations. How exactly does this alternative strategy alter “the national political landscape” if our focus is tied largely to disparate local victories? If we want a nationwide coalition for Medicare for All we need to build such a coalition at the national level.

The federalized nature of the US state system presents major barriers to progressive politics. Local organizing is often obstructed by federal law and what’s more, I think Kinnucan overestimates DSA’s local capacity. While DSA has strong locals in a minority of major cities, most locals are not in positions to win city-council races or even succeed in passing local ordinances. Further, our own recent history should show us that working on national campaigns alongside mass working-class organizations (i.e., the Bernie Sanders campaign) is how we best grow our organization, our capacity, and develop a national presence. As a nationwide organization focused on a federal-level demand we can become more than the sum of our parts — as a loose group of local, relatively autonomous, organizations we are at best akin to Action United and at worst a social club.

While locally organized campaigns are attractive, because they allow members to pursue their most immediate goals, they unfortunately contribute to the segregation and balkanization of any nationwide movement. Most socialist demands are national and international in character and we should rise to fight for them on the level at which they are pitched. Medicare for All is a great example. As a national demand, single payer is a viable program: politically smart and economically feasible. But at the state level, single payer is less sound economically and more politically vulnerable to sabotage. Consider that the movement for single payer has been organizing for local- and state-level legislation for nearly thirty years and yet no state has succeeded in implementing the system.

Beyond this, strictly local tactics have their own challenges. When not tied to a larger national action, local “days of action” are not exactly stellar examples of “organizing” over “mobilizing.” Instead they are just watered down, smaller and locally focused mobilizations. They are, of course, more achievable and easier to pull off because the only “national coordination” around such events is that they might be planned on the same day. However, the distributed nature of such actions presents major obstacles to success.

For one thing, there is no good reason why major mass organizations would participate in our “day of action.” We are much smaller and poorer than almost every other national organization on the progressive left. Any “day of action” we organize could be easily ignored or overshadowed by better funded and larger organizations. The organizing costs of these events are so low that any major organization can take the lead. And because displaying a mass show of force is not the goal of such actions, opting out is much easier. For instance, the AFL-CIO rarely participated in the locally oriented campaigns of the Southern Civil Rights movement but to ignore the March on Washington would have been a national embarrassment — then-AFL-CIO president George Meany had no choice but to help build the mobilization.

Worse still, it is much harder to craft a uniform and coherent political narrative across hundreds of nationwide events with no central locus of activity or unified organizing committee. To be sure, these sorts of mobilizations in no way contradict or replace the value of a march. They are perfectly compatible in the build up to a national mobilization or even as satellite events on the same day. Yet such tactics do not substitute the strength of a mass demonstration for a number of reasons. Chiefly, they fail to actually test our organization’s organizing skills on a national level; they fail to provide a unifying tactical benchmark for a broad coalition to work toward; and they fail to provide socialists with a national platform addressing thousands of attendees and potentially millions of onlookers.

Kinnucan also argues that my interest in a march betrays the more serious attempts at organizing made by the likes of National Nurses United (NNU) and Our Revolution. He says:

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.

But NNU actually did organize a Medicare for All march on Washington in 2009 (I guess they weren’t “serious” yet) and RoseAnn DeMoro, among other labor figures, has shown support for my July 3 call.

Of course, the 2009 march was not a very large showing. That was before Obamacare’s weaknesses were exposed, before Bernie Sanders made Medicare for All an issue of nationwide concern, before the large independent nurses unions like MNA, NYSNA, and PASNAP grew their capacities as fighting unions and before DSA had tens of thousands of members. Today the demand is more popular than ever and the universe of organizations and individuals that would participate is far larger.

In addition, I think Kinnucan sees a critical tension between organizing a large centralized demonstration and more distributed local organizing — in particular, the legislative advocacy campaign in California. I disagree. DSA has already played an important role in building the movement for single payer in California and in no way would a march like the one I propose interfere with that work — instead, it would complement it.

Again, a mass demonstration is fully compatible with state- and local-level advocacy where single-payer bills are viable. Yet Medicare for All is popular among voters beyond these states and we have to mobilize those people too if we want to build an effective nationwide political coalition.

Finally, Kinnuncan’s own strategic “criteria” are not actually about the form of the tactics employed but rather contingent on the success of the campaign they are employed within. He criticizes the march as an action that fails to build a base, fails to win a demand, fails to strengthen our organizing, and fails to cohere a working-class political coalition. But each of these criteria could be met by any number of tactics employed within a given campaign — if the campaign is broadly popular and provides a unique political leverage — but no tactics uniquely satisfy these criteria prima facie.

In Defense of Mobilizations

A more fundamental skepticism of demonstrations appears to drive much of Kinnucan’s critique. He chastises me for falling on the wrong side of the dichotomy between “mobilizing” and “organizing.” He says:

Both forms of activity have their uses, but, as [Jane] McAlevey points out, mobilizing comes with sharp limits: in the United States today, there are not enough leftists or progressives to win the fights we need to. 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.

I agree with Kinnucan when he argues that mobilizations are meant to demonstrate the power and organizational capacity you already have. They are not power as such — I don’t claim otherwise nor do I think this conclusion is terribly controversial. But mobilizing tactics can be useful. Kinnucan — in his strictly catechistic reading of McAlevey — exhibits an almost complete aversion to large centralized mass demonstrations regardless of their character. Worse, he can’t seem to articulate what should replace such mobilizations (besides vague phrases about “deep” organizing, or the equally theatric but less effective local “direct actions”).

But how exactly does one envision any nationally organized campaign for any transformative working-class demand that completely eschews the mass demonstration?

It is, of course, true that most demonstrations are pageants, nothing but PR stunts. This is what we get when the organizations of the nonprofit and NGO world dominate progressive politics and when activism and action trump strategy and organization. But this is not an intrinsic feature of demonstrations as such. We can avoid the problems of “Social Movement Inc.” if the march is tied to a) strong organizations that have agreed to coordinate on a larger campaign, b) programmatic clarity on the scope of the demand, and c) the development of a durable political coalition that lasts beyond the event.

Most contemporary marches, including the impressive Women’s March, failed to meet any of these criteria. However, their failure to do so does not consign us to the same results. We need to be able to build concrete coalitions for long-term campaigns but those campaigns need clear benchmarks for demonstrating the strength and vibrancy of the insurgent political bloc.

Historically this has been exactly the role of mass demonstrations and not incidentally, it has often been the function of socialists to organize them.

Kinnucan’s distaste for mobilizing comes from something of a semantic or taxonomic fetish of the word “organizing” as if it has some magic quality. Yet organizing is not some mystical or profound skill that is radically separate from mobilizing. Organizing mostly consists of talking to people and convincing them to do something in concert with our political program. In this sense the organization of a mass mobilization is not a fruitless endeavor or a shortcut but entails much of the work Kinnucan claims it skips over, namely, building capacity, training organizers, developing deeper organizational and institutional ties to the labor movement, and forging stronger unity in strategy and program.

Beyond this, I think mobilizations are actually useful when they satisfy the above criteria.

Mass demonstrations and rallies were one of the major reasons Bernie Sanders was able to catalyze and activate his base. When demonstrations succeed in articulating the support for a clear, concrete demand and when they succeed in convening and representing a durable political coalition, they actually do work to shift popular attitudes. And if successful, they inspire fear in legislators.

Mobilizations fail to do this when they represent vague platitudes and when they aren’t tied to any base in particular. Marches for “science” and “women” are about as open-ended as a march for “politics.” We can easily imagine many liberal Senators — and even some conservatives — rhetorically supporting the “demands” of such marches, because such demands are abstract and lack any real political threat. It is much harder to imagine these same legislators sticking their necks out for Medicare for All. If we want to be able to reactivate much of the Sanders base and distinguish ourselves from the self-appointed liberal resistance efforts, we need to demonstrate our strength, we need to march for our politics and our demands.

A March and A Movement

Finally, I think the most troubling aspect of Kinnucan’s critique is his actual aversion to working on Medicare for All. The demand is broadly popular among almost all workers and as such, some Democrats have been won over, but for Kinnucan these features make taking up the issue somehow opportunistic or bandwagonish. He couches Medicare for All as a fight for the Democrats to take up and win and suggests that socialists should steer clear of conflating our demands with theirs.

But the recent token appreciation of single payer by Democrats is neither evidence of the demand’s strategic weakness nor does it suggest eminent victory. After all, Obama was a vocal supporter of Medicare for All in 2003.

Democrats that are supportive of Medicare for All are in no position to win the fight for it and they know this. Taking a rhetorical position in favor of universal health care today is free of any political liability because the bill is a dead letter. Further, the Democratic leadership is not even rhetorically committed to the demand. In fact, they are ready to introduce equally futile competitor bills that seek bipartisan “compromise” to fix Obamacare.

If we want to force legislators to actually take a serious stand, we need to generate the political costs necessary to make neglecting the issue a liability. The only way to do that is to cohere a militant base that can push the demand to the center of the national political debate consistently for several years. A coalition of organized nurses, teachers, communication workers, health advocates, and socialists can make the demand visible, reignite a mass base for class politics and prove that we are capable of doing more than signing petitions and calling senators.

This is where I think socialists can play a unique role. Unlike other organizations, we are uniquely positioned to mobilize hundreds of cadre to build the infrastructure and the on-the-ground organizational components of the march. We can use our network of tens of thousands of members and Sanderistas to popularize the march and organize satellite events. A march gives us the opportunity to demonstrate the Left’s recent growth and organizing capacity — which has unfortunately suffered due to the lack of coherent political objectives, nationally coordinated activity, and a unified strategy since the end of the Sanders campaign.

Better yet, the march would be organized as a complement — a unifying tactical anchor — to other parts of a broader campaign. Any successful campaign will need to involve days of action and pressure points on particular legislators. A good campaign will need to make use of a broad and thoughtful petitioning drive, a recruitment drive to get eligibles to sign up for Medicare/Medicaid, and a political education operation in order to build a genuine base for the demand.

But all of these components would be helped by a large and focused mass demonstration, and if we are successful, such a campaign actually fulfills much of Kinnucan’s own criteria. A march can provide a centralized way for a broad swath of health-care advocates to participate, it helps us position ourselves in opposition to the Democratic Party leadership (despite Kinnucan’s insistence that the leadership are enamored by Medicare for All), and it can help us convene a large coalition of organized workers, health advocates, progressives, and socialists around a single popular working-class demand during a period when we are in no position to win the demand in the short term.

Simply put, a march organized in tandem with mass working-class and progressive organizations and coordinated alongside a broader national campaign for Medicare for All provides us the opportunity to organize our ranks, build a broad national coalition, and forge programmatic clarity while also giving us a useful benchmark in the long struggle for Medicare for All. It won’t abolish the insurance industry but it will be a useful tactic on the long road to doing so.

We don’t have much to lose but a lot could be gained.