I’ve been posting a lot of critical stuff on gaps and faulty assumptions in the rhetoric and strategy (such as it is) of the US Left. A reasonable person might say, OK, enough already. We know what we’re doing isn’t working, but what would? What’s the alternative?
Good question—I’m glad you asked. Actually, for about 40+ years I’ve had the same idea, which I’ll now try out on you.
First, consider the basic conundrum of organizing the Left. On the one hand, what’s needed is structure on every scale from your neighborhood or workplace to the whole country. We need to bring the millions of people who share our outlook, in some general sense, into a common organization. Conservatives will always have more money to draw on; those on the other side have to rely on numbers—and not hypothetical or once-in-a-blue-moon election numbers, but everyday, signed up and available for mobilization numbers. In other words, the organizational basis for ongoing collective action.
But here’s the thing: the Left has had only flashes of success at this game because it has a powerful tendency to factionalize. Every time it looks like an organization is getting over the hump it breaks apart. Why this is so is an interesting question, but I won’t go into it here. In some ways the dissentious character of the Left is a good thing, since social change is complicated and we need many points of view. Still, it gets in the way of solving the organizational dilemma, and I will assume this will remain the case.
So how to build a measure of organizational unity on a fractious base? Scale down the scope of this hypothetical organization in order to scale up across differences in beliefs and strategy. Imagine an organization with many of the characteristics organizations are supposed to have, like membership rosters, officers, budgets, facilities, and activities, but prohibit it from taking sides in any electoral, legislative or judicial dispute, or promulgate manifestos as an organization. Make it so there is no political program to fight over, nothing to make members want to quit or drive out those who disagree. Then allow it to succeed at a more limited role.
And what would this role be? Above all, it would make visible, countable even, the existence of a massive Left constituency in America. People would feel differently—they would have more self-confidence and be willing to take bolder action—if they knew they were not alone but part of a movement with millions of supporters. They could begin to think in “we” terms, where “we” is a fairly well-defined group with game-changing potential. In addition, such an organization could create opportunities for networking, incubating smaller groups centered on particular issues or ideologies or self-identities, free to be as political as they want, and facilitate media with a wider reach than what we currently have. It could schedule debates and film series, organize festivals and commemorations, and foster other activities to keep people informed and connected to one another. It would not do everything—we would still need explicit political organizations to take stands, lobby, organize protests and win elections—but it would be a giant step forward.
The issue of membership is crucial, because it essentially defines what it means to be on the Left. Here I think the key move is to emphasize values and not means. What makes someone part of the big family of the Left is not adherence to a particular system of ownership of the means of production or support for any single strategy for social change, but acceptance of democracy, freedom and equality as the primary criteria for valuing any of these. Wording would be tricky, but I can imagine a short list of core values that the organization would stand for and that joining it would endorse. It would probably be necessary to make the values binding in the sense that a clear pattern of violating them would be grounds for being denied membership. White supremacists or other bigots, for instance, should not be permitted to infiltrate, nor others whose underlying philosophy indicates their purpose is disruption or domination rather than collaboration with broadly like-minded activists.
Dues should be kept as low as possible, perhaps on a sliding scale to remove economic status as a condition of membership. But some payment is needed so that members are making at least a nominal commitment, with self-financing a crucial buffer against external influence.
There should be chapters of this organization at every scale, from a few city blocks to states and the whole country. Officers would need to be elected to manage funds, coordinate activities, communicate to the media and guarantee the principles of the organization are being followed. Of course, there should be transparent procedures for recalling officers who prove to be deficient—but again it is crucial that the organization be prohibited from taking sides in any political dispute so that battles over leadership are not about control over political orientation.
A useful alternative to manifestos and official statements of political position would be frequent polling of the membership. If a reasonable hurdle, such as support from a minimum percent of the organization, could be met, polls would be conducted to convey the range and weight of views. In this way majorities would not presume to speak for the whole, and minorities would not be silenced, but the existence of both would be acknowledged.
I don’t have all the details figured out. Above all, I don’t see an obvious solution to the problem of media. One of the main functions of such an organization should be to stimulate the growth of left-oriented publications and similar outlets. These would need to be curated, since there is already a superabundance of material directed at those on the Left (and every other political stripe), and there is no point to simply piling on. At the same time, to select the “best” or “most important” content is to apply judgment over which factions will tend to factionalize. I don’t see an obvious solution.
The general principle is that what we need to do, what we always need to do, is take the next step. The step must be large enough to be worth taking, but not much more than that, since if we succeed we’ll be in a better place to take another step, and then another.