A Conversation with R.L. Stephens

By Andrew Sejong

RL Stephens was elected to the National Political Committee (NPC) of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) in 2017. He recently came to Philadelphia to speak and sat down with Andrew Sejong, the Director of Communications and Design for Philly Socialists, to discuss Stephens’ vision for socialism today. This is a sneak peak of that interview. Any editorial decisions about this transcriptions lie with the author and do not reflect the decisions of RL Stepehens. A complete video and a full transcript of that interview will soon be made available.

Introduction

AS: So I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about at what point you decided to join DSA and what led you to make that decision?

RL: First of all, thanks for having me. I have enjoyed my time with Philly Socialists, and just seeing your organization has been a real eye-opener for me as far as what the range of socialist organizing is in this country. I’m really appreciative to get to see that.

As far as DSA, I was interested in socialist organizing when I was working at UNITE HERE. I liked trade unionism, but I recognized that we had militant workers but there was a gap between worker militancy and what I was reaching, or thinking, about as the politics of socialism. I thought a socialist organization’s role is to begin to close that gap between militancy—whether it’s in a union or in the streets—closing the gap between militancy and this horizon called socialism.

So I quit my job at the union actually because I knew I couldn’t do both. I couldn’t be a staffer and campaign strategist in the union and make the moves that I wanted to make with organized socialism. That just wasn’t possible where I was.

So I made the choice after I had been invited to the YDS [Young Democratic Socialists] conference in New York, spoke there in February [2017], and that’s when I was like, “Okay. This makes sense to join this organization.”

Brokerage Politics

AS: That’s kind of like what you’re talking about in your piece on Ta-Nehisi Coates, and so I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that.

RL: That’s what I spent the summer digging at: this idea that race is part of the motion of class politics, and how do you begin to have a materialist understanding of racism, and how do you begin to attack it in a way that does not map right onto this brokerage, special-interest political form that is the dominant way of political engagement in society. That’s the way that race is handled; that’s the way that trade unionism is handled. They become special interests, and unions become brokers on behalf of the workers or you get these brokerage institutions on behalf of Black people that negotiate… I’m not with that!

*   *   *

In conversation about the kind of conversational spaces necessary to move beyond a brokerage politics.

RL: Let’s talk about the brake light program, for example. The brake light program is not something that I came up with. It started in New Orleans, where people are going and trying to replace tail lights on cars, having an articulation of how the police use these broken tail lights to pull people over. They conceived of it as a mutual aid program. There’s a variety of different ways that people are looking at this program: mutual aid or whether there’s going to be a campaign to actually attack the police relations that actually put people in danger […] There’s a lot of criticism. This got called “white saviorism” in the organization which, again, in this context is a re-articulation of this brokerage thing: “Is Black emancipation just for Black people?” And their answer is “Yes,” because if you try to participate in it, then you’re a white savior. I think that pejorative was a disciplining mechanism to try to delegitimize the efforts of people in this organization to break out of this trickle-down, entitlement-based, mass politics. […] And, it wasn’t just a disciplining mechanism against the white people in the organization, because there were people of color doing it too, and they got called “white saviors”! And there was a conversation about “these people,” the masses, are not our base. There was chatter around that!

*   *   *

Base-building

In conversation regarding Stephens’ article “Does DSA Have a Medicare for All Strategy?

AS: In your mind, why do you think Medicare for All, in particular, is not actually engaging in base-building? What about the current campaign for you is not base-building?

RL: It’s not good enough for it to be a good idea. No one’s arguing against—least of all me!—arguing against Medicare for All (MfA). I can’t afford health insurance. I’m not sitting up here arguing like, “Eh! Naw, man.” I’m not saying this! What I’m saying is: go back to those people on the east side of Kansas City, where I’m really from. It’s not good enough that something trickles down to them. I want them to have real power so I want to engage in a fight, even for something like Medicare, in a way that builds real power across multiple sectors, across social divisions.

That’s why a week before the NPC meeting in October, I went to the Put People First (PPF) membership convention in Pennsylvania. They are working on a statewide healthcare legislation push. The way that they go about doing it is using a base-building strategy, which concerns itself with the development of the leadership of the poor and the dispossessed. The campaign is a vehicle for achieving the ends of organizing durable structures that allow poor and dispossessed people to exercise political power independently of the electoral cycle. That’s the point, and this campaign is part of building that apparatus in each county in the state.

That puts them in the position to win and defend and implement all kinds of stuff. That’s the idea, and to do so with poor people and dispossessed people as a leading force in those struggles. That, to me is very different than articulating that MfA is going to disproportionately help poor people and certainly different than, as often claimed in DSA, that MfA will liberate workers. […] Wait a minute, because I’m serious about this question about emancipation and liberation. […] So what is liberation? That’s a conversation we need to have, to take seriously the lives of the oppressed and the conditions of oppression and not use it merely rhetorically to justify what I consider to be a good program but not doing the heavy lifting of emancipation.

*   *   *

RL: There’s nothing about the demand for MfA that precludes it from being a base-building project. What makes it base-building is a question of, “With whom are we building socialism?” PPF is saying it’s with the poor and the dispossessed, along with other class positions, but there is an emphasis on developing the leadership of the poor and dispossessed.

AS: What about the current MfA strategy isn’t concerned—and maybe this is putting it too harshly—isn’t concerned with building the leadership capacity or building with the poor and dispossessed?

RL: If DSA is according to the last membership survey 89% white, and then the idea is to go to our friends and neighbors to canvass or door-knock. […] We live in a segregated society, and you also have to keep in mind that this idea of white saviorism is deployed against people who are trying to engage across those lines of difference. If that is the context in which we are discussing things politically—and, then, on top of that, MfA is justified by this trickle-down rhetoric—that’s not attached to the methodology that gets into the development of the leadership capacity of the poor and the dispossessed.

[…]

If we are an army of canvassers for a strategy that is ultimately about attacking the Democratic Party establishment and using that attack, that frontal attack, to push for an entitlement reform, then I’m not confident that that translates into the type of truly broad, and I mean multi-sector, organized power that we are capable of. That’s not a knock on the nurses’ union or any of these advocacy organizations that are single-issue campaigning the Medicare for All or single-payer issue. It is just to say that is the difference between militancy and socialism. We need to close that gap. That’s our job!

Revolution and Ghosts

In conversation about political leadership and the need for conversations defining what that means within DSA.

RLI could be wrong in my estimation around what’s going on with this campaign or what’s happening in DSA or what’s happening in the world… I could be wrong about things! But the way to correct that is through discussion on political merits. That’s what we need to do. That’s the only way people learn. […] What I am going to be referencing right here: how to handle discussion in a party.

The only way to settle questions of an ideological nature or controversial issues among the people is by the democratic method, the method of discussion, of criticism, of persuasion and education, and not by the method of coercion or repression.”

[…] The thing that really changed things for me by reading this stuff [The Little Red Book by Mao Zedong]: the revolutionary position is not about piety or self-righteousness. You begin thinking that it’s about “I have the most radical perspective” or whatever, but what this book says and what any real revolutionary is about is about figuring out, and this is how Mao says it, who are your real friends and who are the real enemies. It’s about collaboration, in the process of overturning society, which is not contingent on one’s self-righteousness. That is the friction right now in DSA, where we’re going to need to do more than tell people that we have a good idea.

*   *   *

In conversation about how socialists should relate to the existing set of social forces.

RL: The more I read about this—“a spectre haunting Europe” [from The Communist Manifesto]—we tend to interpret that “it’s a threat,” like a spectre being this force, but also it was kind of incoherent! The economy was rapidly shifting. It was not this tangible, fully formed thing. He [Marx] was describing this thing that was in motion, that was coalescing […] There might be a spectre here around what is class struggle now and, more importantly to me, is revolution imminent? And not imminent in the sense of “It’s any day now!” not like that. What I mean by that is, “Are the pieces of it already there?” That’s what Marx is describing with the spectre—the pieces of it are there!

AS: And it just needs to condense and harden into an actual form and matter.

RL: That’s, again, the mission that we’re on! That’s the question of political leadership, because it’s not inevitable. It must be made to exist. It must be manifested, which is to say in other words, we must struggle for it—and I think this is a life commitment.

. . .

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