The Need for a Socialist Sprawl

Members of Bucks County Socialists protest proposed SEPTA fee hikes.

By: James Lyuh

Over this year, Philly Socialists has helped launch two branches: Bucks County Socialists (BCS) and Montgomery County Socialists (MCS). While these branches are self-governing, Philly Socialists has extended our support and resources. Philly Socialists has limited capacity and faces many projects, so it is worthwhile to discuss whether we should commit resources and cadre to supporting suburban organizing. In an attempt to understand the concrete situation of the suburbs, let us address two common characterizations of suburbs: “suburbs are wealthy or upper-middle class” and “suburbs are too dispersed to effectively build organizations.”

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In its report Confronting Suburban Poverty in America (2013), the Brookings Institute published its finding that the overwhelming majority of America’s poor live in suburbs, not cities. The migration of poor and working-class people into the suburbs is complicated. Many arrived during the period of “White Flight,” when white families fled cities as black families moved in. Many were also immigrants, responding to a growing demand for their labor. Many were simply those who were too poor to continue living in cities; rent had become too high to access quality schools and safe neighborhoods.

Alongside the long-standing de-industrialization of many towns, the Great Recession devastated booming suburbs, pulling the economic base out from under the poor and immigrant workers who had moved to the suburbs. These economic crises brought into poverty members of the middle class and those who had managed to climb out of poverty during the suburban boom.

However, it is not simply a matter of expanding poverty. Suburban poverty is fundamentally different from urban poverty. While neoliberal austerity programs in the 1990s and 2000s led by both Republicans and Democrats have gutted social welfare programs, the original construction of the social safety net focused on inner-city neighborhoods and isolated rural areas where poverty rates were the highest. The location of the remaining social safety net infrastructure—transportation, free health clinics, homeless shelters—does not match current needs. The meager resources that the poor typically can turn to are not in the suburbs.

It is this economic situation to which Philly Socialists can respond. While rich suburbs exist, so do poor ones. Our task is to build an infrastructure that can improve the lives of the poor and oppressed, independently from the state and a defunct political system, both in and outside Philadelphia.

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Dispersion is a real, serious problem. In our experience with BCS and MCS, we have found that within a single town there are few socialists. Moreover, the quantity of socialists in a town might not match the opportunities for socialist organizing there. Without established means of communication, news about a socialist gathering or opportunities for organizing in one town might never reach another. What needs to occur is cross-country coordination; however, in the absence of any pre-existing coordinating structure (or at least radical ones), the obstacles to starting an organization can be insurmountable for a small number of isolated cadre.

Philly Socialists can provide the resources and coordinating base from which suburban socialists can begin. Over the years, we have developed an infrastructure of experienced cadre and supported by monthly dues. Given access to these resources, suburban socialists can begin the outreach work to coordinate among isolated socialists and begin work that can provide the basis for a self-sustaining branch.

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Why should we direct cadre and resources towards uncertain prospects in the suburbs rather than existing, and often growing, city work? Supporting autonomous organization may sap our resources without our partner organization being able to reciprocate our support for a long time. However, we should never forget the scope of our mission. The aim of Philly Socialists is not to build the strongest organization in Philadelphia, but to support an international movement.

Part of this mission is building a mass party of the working class. This does not mean our task today is to coordinate every suburban socialist or the entirety of the working class. We are not in a position to do this. However, we are working towards being in that position, through national coordination work and base-building in Philadelphia. Instead, we must establish the infrastructure that enables us to build a party that can reach into the entirety of the working class.

We cannot claim to be building a working-class party, if that party stops at the outskirts of our cities. It is clear that substantial barriers existed that stymied the efforts of past organizers. However, with a strong city-base to lean on, suburban socialists can renew their efforts on a far stronger footing. As our movement grows, this is a crucial experiment with important outcomes. Many cities have socialist organizations, and it is time that we think about how we can organically spread and support the efforts of comrades beyond our normal stomping grounds.

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