Losing Politics: A Proposed Definition of Base-building

By Ben S. 

In Brief

In this essay I define base-building as political work done in such a way that it either results in creating or strengthening existing mass democratic organizations (independent of any other political organization or NGO) of the working class and that develops individuals not previously engaged in political work as organizers and leaders.

First, I provide some background on my understanding of base-building work, and the impulses behind it. I also explore its goal as a strategy of the Left. I then list some theoretical assumptions that are key to my understanding of the operation of base-building but are not directly connected to Left organizing strategy. After that I try to formally define base-building and also discuss tactics that have been described as base-building that I feel don’t fit the description. I then address two of the potential obstacles I see to implementing base-building as described. Following that, I describe hypothetical campaigns addressing two issues: an eviction from a medium sized apartment building and a campaign against a centrist city councilor; I describe a non-base-building approach and a base-building one for each of these issues. Finally, I propose open-ended questions around base-building that I feel are necessary for the Left to address.

Background

Base-building is the hot new term on the American Left. My first exposure to the term was through the writing of Sophia Burns, Tim Horras, and others (this packet, assembled by DB Cooper, served as my first formal exploration of the subject). The phrase “organizing the unorganized” is used as a pithy explanation of what the tactic consists of. The most formal definition of base-building I have seen comes from a piece published in the Philadelphia Partisan, in which Tim Horras describes base-building as work intended to produce “new and more experienced militants” and sketches out possible means for that to occur. This tactic, despite clear connections to historical organizing tactics, was exciting and seemed fresh in the face of the previous tactics of the Left (see Sophia Burns’ Four Tendencies for a good summary of some of the past tactics and issues with them). In DSA circles and elsewhere, the concept of “organizing the unorganized” made sense; it felt right. Base-building was how we could win. Projects described as base-building garnered more attention, and drew more people in to help organize. However because of this, everyone wanted their project to be a base-building project. Base-building became (and remains) a buzzword. It began to lose its meaning.

My understanding of base-building is that it is based on an acknowledgement of the absolute weakness of the modern US Left. The Left as it currently stands is a small, marginal group. Even the largest socialist organization in the US, the Democratic Socialists (DSA), has only 55,000 members on paper. I have no evidence for this except my own experience, but I would put a generous cap on the number of people who have attended more than two DSA meetings since 2016 at 10,000 nationwide. For reference, the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) had 50-60 thousand members in 1919 immediately after its split from the Socialist Party. Given our numbers, our ability to make change is limited. We can consistently get the same couple of hundred people out to protests. But without masses of people behind them, our demands hold no weight. If the Left wants real change, the Left must be built. I believe that base-building is the way forward for the Left. But in order to be used, the tactic must be more formally defined. Words without meaning are useless.

Given the weakness of the Left, it is no surprise that we frequently fail in our campaigns. Personally, I have taken part in a losing BDS campaign, a losing city council campaign, and seen the most meager of reforms watered down and rejected by “progressive” law makers. To quote the Labor Notes book Secrets of Successful Organizers: “people are power”. “There’s more of us then there are of them” is the underlying theory of how any socialist project hopes to win and maintain power. So where are the people? The Left must build up revolutionary power, build up people’s understanding of themselves as part of a collective, build up broad, true solidarity. To refer to the organizing bullseye model, people must be pulled from being indifferent to being supporters; people that are supportive must be made into activists; and those activists who can must be given the opportunity to develop into core organizers, into leaders. I believe there is no more radicalizing experience than the experience of fighting for change in the capitalist system. There is no better way to learn how to organize than by just doing it. I believe that the definition of base-building proposed here provides a way to allow people to organize, to fight, and maybe, just maybe, to win.

Underlying Theoretical Assumptions

This section covers some ideas that inform my definition of base-building. These ideas won’t be explored or defended here, but are intended to serve to help explain my line of thought.

  • People have an inherent understanding of their conditions, although the language they use may not match that used by others. Paolo Freire’s discussion of “emergent themes”, the idea that in the process of working with people the manifestations of oppression will become clear and that a path forward will come out, in Pedagogy of the Oppressed influences my thinking here.
  • The state under capitalism is a tool of bourgeois oppression. Legislation from capitalist parliaments will never fulfill the needs of the working class. However, elections and the state can be used for propaganda purposes, and socialists in power can take actions to help lift the boot up a bit off of people’s necks.
  • The Democratic party and the Non Profit Industrial Complex are the structures through which left dissent is dissipated while leaving capitalism as a system intact. In order to preserve the possibility of a revolutionary horizon, the working class must be able to express itself outside of these institutions.
  • All of the Left’s analyses and theories are at best approximations of the actual processes and structures of society and revolution. There is currently no visible vanguard. The vast majority of the explicitly socialist Left (in the form of political parties and registered as non-profits) as it currently exists is separate from the working class and cannot claim to fully represent the working class.
  • The most likely way in which radical change will occur is through crowd events like the Gilets Jaunes, the bus fare protests in Brazil, or a large scale version of Occupy. Masses of people flooding in to the streets in a statement of “no, enough”, preventing the functioning of capitalism and demonstrating that another world could be possible (see Jodi Dean’s Communist Horizon and Crowds and Party for more information) create a space in which a socialist hegemony can emerge. These events are vulnerable to fascist entryism and co-optation (e.g.- in  France, or Brazil). Organized structures of the working class that can claim to speak for the crowd are necessary to prevent fascist cooptation of the crowd moment and ensure that the ensuing change moves towards a socialist horizon.
  • The end goal of socialism is democratic control of society and production by the people, and the elimination of all forms of oppression. The current goal of the Left should be to build up the capacity of the working class to self-organize and express its demands.

The independent structures created through base-building work provide a means for the concerns of the working class to emerge, and for an understanding of the working class’s collective interest to develop and be expressed. They can both provide for the working class’ immediate needs and make demands on the system as a whole. A network of these institutions could form the seeds of a revolutionary mass working class party, fit to claim the mantle of leadership during a revolutionary crowd event. In the event of a Left capture of state power, assuming that these institutions remain independent of any leading party, they can serve as a check on the power of those claiming leadership. As George Ciccariello-Maher’s description of the comuneros under Chavismo in his book Building the Commune  shows , even successful Left movements are vulnerable to bureaucratism, which can be corrected only by the assertion of democratic decision making on the part of the working class.  

Base-building: Fighting to Win, Planning to Lose

The guiding question for my definition of base-building is “What do we as organizers want to have remaining/standing if/when our campaign fails?” Too often, after a failed campaign, all that organizers can say they’ve built or achieved are strengthened friendships and connections among people already involved in political work. A new person or two may have found their way in to the organizing meetings through coalitions or social connections, but all that really remains are tired organizers, improved understanding of campaign tactics and local conditions, and an organization/affinity group at best one or two members bigger.

To further inform a definition of base-building, this is a non-exhaustive list of tactics I have seen described as base-building that I feel do not fit the description:

  • Awareness Campaigns
  • Protesting/Direct Action
  • Recruitment of members to an ideological organization/a front group of an ideological organization
  • Electoral Work
  • Mutual Aid

These are all valuable forms of work and can either be part of base-building tactics or undertaken as a base-building campaign, but in and of themselves these are not base-building activities. If any of them fail to achieve their explicit goals, there are no new organizers or organizations to strengthen future work.

So if these are not base-building activities, what are? Base-building activities are political work done in such a way that it either results in creating or strengthening of existing mass democratic organizations (independent of any other political organization or NGO) of the working class and that develops individuals not previously engaged in political work as organizers and leaders. This work can either be the explicit goal of a campaign, or intentionally pursued as part of a campaign around an agitational issue. The work we do must be pursued in such a way that at the end of the campaign the initial organizers can disengage, and have the work be self sustaining. Socialism is a collective project, anything relying on the long term presence of a single individual is doomed to fail.

Why democratic and independent? What is meant by those words here? The created structures must be vehicles for self expression of the working class. Without democracy, or with explicit or de facto control by separate political groups, the new structures will treat people as foot soldiers of a pre-decided cause rather than organizers of equal standing. The horizon of socialism is a stateless, classless society, it is the people in power. As organizers we must trust the people who we are organizing with to find the best path forward. We should not hide our radical and revolutionary politics, but neither should we expect the people we are organizing with to fall in line with our beliefs. We are working to create a means for the working class to express itself as a “class for itself.”  Direct democracy is the only means available for the working class to fully express itself, with all of its contradictions and complexities fully represented.

What does it mean to be a “mass” organization? In terms of formal structure, all it means is open membership. In practice this entails working to ensure that what is created has a mass character, that the membership of the organization is reflective of the complexities of the working class. This means approaching our organizing with an understanding of intersectionality and working to avoid recreating the issues of simply being a more organized vehicle for the “scene” to express itself (as described by Sophia Burns here). Despite its open membership, the DSA distinctly does not have “a mass character”, as described in the recent article on racial issues in the DSA. There is no way to guarantee a mass character, but working towards truly representative organizing likely takes the form of minimizing outside organizer presence in mass meetings, actively addressing racism, and engaging in coalition work with other organizations that have a mass character.

Under the above definition base-building is not inherently tied to any single issue, although some issues are easier to organize around than others. The ideal issue is one that directly affects the lives of those being organized and has an initial solution that feels achievable enough that someone not currently involved in political work would be willing to give their time to the project. As a revolutionary socialist, I believe that we cannot reform our way to socialism, but that is a belief based on study of theory and organizing experience. People may not share that belief, or they may feel that revolution is impossible. Knocking on someone’s door and directly advocating immediate revolution likely won’t be effective. But asking someone to join with their neighbors to fight the landlord, or discuss how to make change in their neighborhood seems doable. And if the structures created last until the revolution comes, they can provide a way for the people to express and organize themselves more effectively than they could based on spontaneity alone.

Obstacles

Legitimacy, Resources, and the NGO Trap

Canvassing is often a large part of most (if not all) base-building campaigns. In the case of DSA, this takes the form of primarily mid to late-20s college-educated, middle- and upper-middle class white men knocking on people’s doors. Someone like that knocking on your door is more likely to work for the landlord than want to help you fight them.

Adding to that, with the exception of members of labor unions (and most of those aren’t anywhere near democratic) most people in the US have no experience being in an organization of the type that base-building hopes to create. Especially when a base-building project is just starting up, and there isn’t much past success to point to, convincing someone that their participation in the project is worth their time is difficult. Coalition work with NGOs can provide a short cut to legitimacy, as well as access to resources when mutual aid is a portion of the project. However, most NGOs with resources are unlikely be supportive of the creation of autonomous structures with a revolutionary goal. I do not draw a hard line against ever working with NGOs on base-building work, but I think coalition relationships and partner orgs should be carefully studied, and the organizing focus must remain on building autonomous structures. The risk of a project drifting towards a charity and service model should be kept in mind.

Classism, Racism, and Patriarchy

Base-building organizations are made up of people. Without constant work, they will reproduce the structures and prejudices of capitalist settler-colonial heteropatriarchy. Sexual harassment will probably occur and will need to urgently addressed. Racist and classist statements may be made by individuals and will also need to be addressed. Groups may also choose to undertake projects that enforce systems of oppression, for example a tenants union choosing to take on a project of changing the behavior of “problem tenants” rather than identifying the landlord as the real target. Redirecting these frustrations towards better targets (landlords, bosses, etc.) is difficult to do while maintaining the democratic and independent nature of base-building, and the best way to handle this is an open question.

Hypothetical Example Campaigns

Tenant Organizing

Problem: Jane Smith’s landlord wants to convert her apartment in a ninety unit building into a jacuzzi room for the landlord’s son and files a no fault eviction of Jane. Other tenants in the building have issues with mold and water damage, as well as difficulty getting things fixed. Rents in both the building and the city as a whole have been steadily going up for years. The building is a mix of section 8 and market rate tenants.

Individual Aid Approach:

Organizers find Jane’s case through reading the docket of upcoming eviction cases and make contact with her and offer to provide assistance. The organizers recommend and assist in calling a legal aid service to provide legal assistance (If the service identifies Jane as having enough need, assistance is provided). If any NGO identifies Jane as not being in need, the organizers still work to support her regardless. Organizers recommend and assist in contacting city agencies to assess facts of the case/state of Jane’s apartment.

If Jane wins her case, what are the material results of the organizing work?

  • Jane stays in her apartment!
  • A relationship was built between Jane and the organizers (although she has no direct means of influencing future organizing work, short of joining the organizers political group).
  • Jane hates the landlord (more?).
  • Jane’s neighbors are likely unaware of the struggle, and may still not understand how their landlord operates.
  • No fault evictions are won by indicating that the landlord hasn’t held up their end of the lease to provide a habitable living space. This is typically shown by getting record of housing code violations (which most apartments have). If the landlord addresses these issues, the case could be refiled and the process started over again.

If Jane loses her case, what are the material results of the organizing work?

  • Jane contacts local public assistance agencies + NGOs for help finding additional housing (with the assistance of organizers), is homeless in the short term, potentially has to leave her neighborhood and community.
  • Jane only has her previously existing support structure of friends and family to rely on and the resources of assisting organizers.
  • No one outside of Jane and her immediate contacts are aware of the situation; other tenants are in danger of similar future treatment by landlord with no support.

Tenant Organizing – Base-building Approach:

Organizers find Jane’s case through reading the docket of upcoming eviction cases and identifying her building as a target for organizing. On the initial canvas, organizers knock on all doors in her building, and inquire about ongoing issues. Agitation is done around common conditions issues, rent raises, and general gentrification. If individuals are interested, tenant unions are mentioned as ways to fight back. Contact information is gathered. Contact with Jane is made, organizers assist with her case in a manner similar to the advocacy model, and provide court support while also working to unionize her. If any NGO identifies Jane as not being in need, the organizers still work to support her regardless. Canvasses are repeated; tenants showing interest are invited to help canvas. Agitation is done around Jane’s case, identified issues, and around the general issues of the area. An initial meeting is planned either in an apartment in the building, if a tenant is willing to host, or a nearby public space. Over a series of meetings, demands are articulated around conditions and Jane’s case. The tenants circulate and sign a letter that announces the formation of a tenant association and iterates their demands. This letter is sent to elected officials and the landlord. If similar tenants unions exist nearby, the tenant union is connected to them. The union takes democratically decided on actions as appropriate in pursuit of its demands, which would typically include dropping Jane’s eviction case. These actions can include forms of direct action, public pressure campaigns, or rent strikes.

If Jane wins her case:

  • She stays in her home!
  • She continues to work with the union to achieve their other demands.
  • Jane is connected to her neighbors, and there is greater awareness around her struggle/experience with the state when people are in conflict with landlords/capitalists generally.
  • The union continues to exist as a vehicle through which future tenant issues can be addressed, and its members gain organizing experience.

If Jane loses her case:

  • The union is in a position to provide material and emotional support, in addition to the existing assistance agencies.
  • The union can engage in direct action or a public pressure campaign in support of Jane, without relying on the legal system.
  • In the event of a future eviction, the union is in place to take action around that eviction.

Groups operating this way: City Life Vida Urbana (with Boston DSA) – Boston MA, the Philly Tenants Union and Philly Socialists, the Tenant and Neighborhood Councils (TANC) in the Bay Area, the LA tenants union, etc..

An Electoral Campaign

Problem: In Brockhampton, MA (pronounced “wooster”) – a gentrifying suburb just north of Boston has elected Tony Baloney, a cop loving pawn of real estate developers and landlords, as city councilman of Ward 3 for the past 20 years.

Data Based Voter Contact Approach:

Two or more years out from the election, organizers identify and target the seat. They choose a progressive local activist to run for the seat (the candidate may or may not self-identify as a socialist). The campaign managed by small number of staff people and highly active volunteers. Endorsements are sought from local progressive and socialist organizations. Likely and registered voters indicated by a voter information management service (such as Votebuilder) are canvassed. Usually voters receive two visits. First, an informational canvas, informing voters of the election, discussing issues of concern chosen by the campaign. Canvassers record if voter plans to vote, and ask if the voter would like to volunteer with the campaign. The second visit is a get out the vote canvas immediately before the election, canvassing voters who indicated they would vote for the candidate to remind them to vote.

If the candidate wins:

  • There is one additional progressive/left-ish voice on city council.  Passing progressive or socialist legislation without compromise is unlikely, absent heavy external pressure. The candidate can use their new position to advocate for more radical changes, although they will be unlikely to make them reality.
  • The remaining infrastructure is primarily campaign staff, volunteers, who are likely personally invested in success of candidate. Some connections to endorsing organizations may persist as well.
  • There is a general raising of awareness around the campaign’s issues based on conversations with canvassed people and limited media coverage of campaign.

If the candidate loses:

  • The City Council is unchanged and heavy external pressure is needed to pass progressive or socialist legislation.
  • The campaign staff and volunteers have more experience in running a campaign and have gained some social connections to the endorsing organizations.
  • There is a general raising of awareness around the campaign’s issues based on conversations with canvassed people and limited media coverage of campaign.

Proposed Base-building approach:

This is based on adaptation of tenant organizing model to electoral issues. I have no personal experience in planning electoral campaigns, so this is very much a hypothesis. This differs from the models of the Richmond Progressive Alliance in that it does not rely on non-profits getting together to form a coalition focused on a pre-decided election or set of elections. It is most similar to the Cooperation Jackson model of neighborhood assemblies and allowing those assemblies to guide to organizing.

The campaign has a goal of organizing neighborhood constituent assemblies, who may elect one of their own to the city council seat. Two or more years out, the seat is identified as a potential organizing opportunity and canvassing begins. Canvassing is done for issue discovery and agitation around discovered issues and the general state of the city government. All residents are canvassed, regardless of their voter registration status. The initial canvassing ask is for attendance at a constituent assembly. Organizers can mention potential of challenging council member – but with an emphasis on that the selection of a challenger/decision to run will be made by constituent assemblies. Repeated conversations/relationship building through repeat canvassing of individuals are key. The long term vision and intent of the organizers can and should be shared with people who ask as well as being presented at the constituent assemblies, described as a way to amplify the voices of the residents. The strategy should not be a secret. The constituent assemblies are run democratically, with a structure decided by the assembly. All of the meetings are open. Initial organizers are present as individual members of the assembly, with no special privileges. The meetings serve three main purposes: community building (food and child care should be present at the meetings), issue discussion with participants sharing stories and frustrations, and discussion and planning of actions that could resolve identified issues (this is where challenging city councilman or other electoral work such as ballot question campaigns could be proposed). Only a small number of outside organizers should be present (aim for ~4, regardless of meeting size). Geographic area represented by the assembly is variable, dependent on local conditions. Organizers should work to develop leaders, and make the assemblies self-sustaining. If other assemblies/similar groups are present, organizers should work to connect them to the assembly being built. Who should the organizers connect to? Small d democratic, open, mass character orgs. NGO involvement is not an inherent stop, but careful study is needed if NGO involvement is in place in the other organization. Does the NGO leadership choose priorities then just mobilize the organization’s members or are members clearly in control? What is the connection to the Democratic Party (its progressive or establishment wing)?

If the Assembly chooses not to engage in the election:

  • Organizers continue building it until it is self sufficient/capable of engaging in its own recruitment/agitation canvasses.
  • Initial organizers mention recreating similar structure nearby, potentially request organizing assistance from the current assembly.
  • Initial organizers maintain involvement and communication with the assembly, maybe continuing to place the option of electoral work on the table.

If the Assembly chooses to engage in the election:

  • The assembly elects an individual to run for seat.
  • Campaign strategy decisions are made in open democratic meetings run through the assembly.
  • All formal campaign staff positions are filled by election as well (primarily spokespeople given permission to speak for the assembly).
  • Electoral canvassing operation should be done in a way that works to bring more individuals in to the constituent assembly. Fewer repeat visits are acceptable due to the need for additional contacts, but canvasses should still include registered voters and those who can’t vote.

If the Candidate wins:

  • There is one additional progressive/left-ish voice (connected to the mass organization) on city council. unlikely to win legislation without compromise, absent heavy external pressure. The candidate can use their new position to advocate for more radical changes, although they will be unlikely to make them reality.
  • The constituent assembly infrastructure is in place to provide pressure as needed (including placing pressure on the elected candidate, in the likely event of co-optation/mission drift), or to work on different projects as chosen by the assembly.
  • All members of the constituent assembly gain some experience in running a campaign/generally organizing, potentially radicalizing some not previously radicalized members in regard to the functioning of the electoral system.
  • There is a general raising of awareness around the campaign’s issues based on conversations with canvassed people and limited media coverage of campaign.

If the Candidate loses:

  • The City Council is unchanged, heavy external pressure is needed to pass progressive or socialist legislation.
  • The constituent assembly infrastructure is in place to provide pressure as needed, or to work on different projects as chosen by the assembly.
  • All members of the constituent assembly gain some experience in running a campaign/generally organizing, potentially radicalizing some not previously radicalized members in regard to the functioning of the electoral system.
  • There is a general raising of awareness around the campaign’s issues based on conversations with canvassed people and limited media coverage of campaign.

Groups operating this way: Cooperation Jackson. I believe the Cat Brooks campaign in Oakland may have come out of a similar structure as well.

Future Questions

My hope is that by proposing a more formal definition of base-building we can advance conversations around organizing tactics on the Left as a whole. If we accept the definition of base-building as the organization of mass independent democratic structures in the course of a broader organizing project, we are faced with a number of questions as to the applications and limits of this strategy.

Most directly, strategies for working through the obstacles mentioned in this piece, (and others I am unaware of) are not yet apparent.  These will require hard work, hard thought, and likely many failures on the part of organizers to be discovered. How can we as organizers work through the challenges of bringing people together? How can we build mass solidarity?

Next, this definition was developed out of my experience working in tenant organizing projects and on a municipal BDS campaign (not to mention countless conversations with comrades). The only concrete examples of campaigns proposed are a tenant organizing campaign and an electoral campaign. What would an ecosocialist base-building campaign look like? A prison abolitionist one? An anti-imperial one?

Thirdly, base-building campaigns are best suited to smaller scale local projects. But socialism is an international project. This piece is being written in the US, the current seat of capitalist empire. As leftists in the US, we have a duty to actively oppose and undermine the functioning of the empire. Where does base-building fit in to this context?

Finally, as all leftist writing should remember, we are living in the anthropocene. We now have only eleven years to prevent the complete collapse of the climate. Petro-capitalists and the bourgeois state appear to have made the bet that they have enough money and guns to survive the post climate change world. The scale of the problem is massive. Yet base-building projects are best suited to small scale patient work. How can we fight against something with the scale and urgency of the climate? We are faced with an updated version of Rosa Luxembourg’s question: Ecosocialism or Ecofascism? The world is clamoring for an answer, and time is running out.

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