Beyond the Ballot Box: Introduction to Base-Building in Philadelphia

By Andrew Joung

Photo by Jake Haut

Note: These remarks were given at the Socialism 2019 Conference in Chicago on July 5th, 2019. The panel’s title was “Which Base? The Official Marxist Center Perspective”. This panel was given alongside Kate Doyle Griffiths (Red Bloom) and chaired by Todd Chretien (DSA)

Hello everyone! I am excited to be on this panel. The Marxist Center is very new; its founding convention occurred in the summer of 2017. Part of being so new means that it’s a little deceiving to have suggested in this title that I’d be providing the “official Marxist Center Perspective”. 

Our organization is diffuse both structurally and ideologically. Most of my remarks will be based on my experience in Philly Socialists. When I say “we” or “our”, you can assume that I am talking about Philly Socialists as a collective, rather than the Marxist Center.

I’ve been a member of Philly Socialists for just three years, and I’ve spent the last two on the Central Committee and on the Editorial Collective of our quarterly magazine, The Philadelphia Partisan. 

It’s crazy to think that I was ready to exit the Left back to when I joined Philly Socialists. I’m sure many of you have felt this way at some point over the last several years (maybe you feel this way right now)—this feeling that we are in a historic moment, but the Left just is not keeping up. 

Before I moved to Philly three years ago, I had no idea who we were but I haven’t looked back since. Because in this small organization, that only exists in one city, I found a group of people pursuing a strategy that I had never seen or heard of. I spent months agonizing because there was nothing written down about what we were doing or why. But over those months I saw our strategy in action.

We are finally in a position after a series of major successes to develop a more clear and public theory of our strategy. Like I said, the Marxist Center is a diffuse body, but it would misleading to suggest that we are not united along some common strategic ground. I believe that through telling Philly Socialists’ story, one can see the outlines of a common Marxist Center strategy.

This is one of our biggest public attempts to explain ourselves and what we are doing. I look forward to a robust Q&A, and conversations throughout the conference.

. . .

Let’s dive in.

In Philly Socialists, our main strategic priorities are (1) to rebuild a direct connection with the working-class and (2) to establish the legitimacy of socialist politics in our communities. These are the most immediate priorities to building a politically independent working-class base. By politically independent, we are referring to the degree to which the class can act for itself and by itself. 

We believe that it’s up to us as revolutionaries to build this base. However, I want to make it clear: base-building is not an inherently revolutionary strategy—unless phone banking and door knocking are somehow inherently revolutionary. Our basic understanding of base-building comes from Jane McAlevey’s No Shortcuts and Raising Expectations. Based on these texts, I would argue that base-building must at least fulfill four criteria:

  1. The organization wants to constantly grow its base. For example, an antifa organization would likely prefer smaller numbers for security reasons. Small, tight-knit affinity groups have an important role to play in fighting the Far Right, but it’s not base-building.
  2. The base does not rely on a self-selecting membership. For example, if my recruitment strategy centers the most advanced sections of my constituency (the kind of people who are already going to every protest in town), then we are building what McAlevey would call a mobilizing network, and what others in the Marxist Center might label as an “activist network”. We need to be extending our base into working-class communities where people may not be involved directly in any political organizing.
  3. Organizations need to center the organic leader’s relationships to recruit and mobilize. Organizers need to be identifying and developing these “organic leaders”, who are people with pre-existing relationships in the constituency you are organizing. Base-building organizations cannot solely rely on the organizer’s ability and hard work to turn out membership. For example, for our community garden, the César Andreu Iglesias community garden, we regularly ask community members to lead doorknocking. In our experience, doorknocking is significantly more effective when you have someone who can speak to the specifics of the area. 
  4. “Organic leaders” hold decision-making power. Not, for example, having your projects being led by socialist insiders who keep decision-making away from non-socialist participants.

This is highly schematized, but this roughly outlines the basics of base-building. While it is not inherently revolutionary, this model focuses on establishing what we in Philly Socialists refer to as deep trust-based relationships.

People arrive at socialism when a crisis pushes them to seek alternatives beyond capitalist institutions, and the groundwork is there so socialists can convincingly present one such alternative. This groundwork is a lattice of “deep trust-based relationships”. Whether it is calling a strike or simply delivering a list of demands to your landlord, people need to have faith in us, our organizations, and our politics before they can be compelled to act—let alone become socialists. 

But I’m not asking socialists to parachute into communities, knock down doors, and make hundreds of thousands of new friends. Base-building relies on organic leaders who already have their foot-in-the-door. Sometimes the organic leader is the person everyone in the neighborhood already knows and respects. More typically, it is someone who is ready to act, has a few pre-existing relationships to leverage, and most importantly can speak authentically about the experiences of the constituency you are helping to organize.

In Philly Socialists, we’ve adjusted this strategy for the specific needs of socialist organizing by developing a base-building dual strategy. This is best captured by our slogan “Serve the People! Fight the Power!” 

When we say “Serve the People”, we refer to our campaigns that lie roughly “outside” the terrain of the State; these include our service projects as well as campaigns against slumlords and other members of the capitalist class. When we say “Fight the Power”, we refer to our campaigns which lie in direct relation or directly within the State; these include legal reform initiatives and elections. Of course, sometimes the lines are blurred—many campaigns require activity within and without the State. When we launched our community garden, it was designed as a “Serve the People” project. However, as gentrification has expanded into our neighborhood, we are building a “Fight the Power” campaign to defend our garden from developers by pressuring city government. 

To understand our dual strategy, I want to talk about a recent example of the Philadelphia Tenants Union (PTU), which on December 6th, 2018 won its main reform campaign—Good Cause eviction protections. Before I move on, I want to talk a little about our relationship to the PTU. The PTU’s relationship to Philly Socialists has always been close; our members provided the founding base of organizers and we provide the PTU with $150 per month. However, the PTU’s membership ranges from socialists to Democrats and it maintains a separate leadership board. While Philly Socialist members argue strongly within the PTU to follow a base-building dual strategy, we have worked hard to build the PTU into its own independent democratic organization.

Returning back to Good Cause, this legislation is a first step to protect tenants from arbitrary evictions (also called evictions without just or good cause). When the PTU first presented this idea to progressive politicians and the established tenants’ rights non-profits in Philly, the PTU was rebuffed. They said the PTU’s strategy was too militant, threatened the relationship between the Democratic Party and the non-profit sector, and was generally politically impossible.

Without much support, the legislative route faltered but the PTU continued to “Serve the People”, tackling building fights and providing court support for tenants. At the same time, it continued to “Fight the Power”, bird-dogging City Hall politicians at town hall events, and continuing to door knock and table to collect signatures in support of a Good Cause bill.

During this period, the PTU encountered its largest fight at Penn Wynn House, a large apartment complex in Philly. By the time the PTU arrived, many of the housing units had been vacated; however, more than 60 tenants remained. Many of those who remained were on fixed income—disabled, veterans, retirees—and could not afford to move so quickly; others needed to wait for Section 8 vouchers to come through. The PTU launched a series of escalating direct actions, began media outreach, and met with local politicians. While the PTU could not stop the evictions, it won several months of delay and personally helped dozens of tenants move to new homes.

This fight proved crucial for the PTU’s reform efforts. This victory brought greater media attention to Good Cause, leading a local machine Democrat on City Council (not a progressive) to draft and sponsor Good Cause legislation. 

As the legislative struggle unfolded, the PTU was the leading force in pushing the bill forward. The PTU took the lead organizing lobbying days, filling City Hall, outlining a strategy to target specific members of City Council, and all the while continuing building fights. The PTU did not do this alone; it brought into coalition the same forces that just a few years ago had spurned them. In contrast, however, to the typical position of the Left, the PTU did not act as a minority voice in this coalition, but as the dominant force in a broad coalition of progressives, centrist Democrats, and tenants’ rights non-profits. 

On December 6th,  2018, the PTU passed Good Cause eviction protections. While this victory failed to cover all tenants, this bill extended coverage to tenants on a month-to-month lease, roughly 1 in 14 renters in Philly (more than 20,000 tenants). These are the tenants with the greatest likelihood of facing extreme poverty and sudden eviction. With this modicum of protections, Philly’s most vulnerable tenants now have a more solid legal footing to take action and organize.

More than just a reform, this victory represents the most comprehensive test of the basebuilding dual strategy that Philly Socialists has advocated for. By focusing on “Serve the People” campaigns while its “Fight the Power” campaign was simmering, the PTU rinsed-and-repeated a basic strategy: build deep trust-based relationships with tenants and organic leaders, bring them to act based on their faith in the organization and strategy, and deliver on that faith with real material gains. This allowed it to build a base among working-class tenants, who were prepared to act beyond the ballot box to make gains. This allowed it to avoid endorsing political candidates or tailing progressive non-profits as the campaign progressed.

On this latter point, I want to make a heavy emphasis. If our goal is to build a politically independent working-class base, then tailing non-profits is not a viable strategy even in the short-term. Of course, we have joined campaigns where our influence is negligible. For example, larger immigrants’ rights organization might organize a protest without our involvement. When we are asked, we publicize their events and turnout our membership. However, we are clear-eyed. By showing up, we demonstrate that socialists are good folks who care about immigrant rights. But it is these larger immigrants’ rights organization which delivered this action, and which (hopefully) deliver immigration reform NOT the socialists—and that matters

. . .

For socialist base-builders, strength beyond the ballot box is our focus. It should be clear that, in our base-building dual strategy, elections play a very small, but practical role. 

In the context of reform struggles, electing progressive or socialist candidates to accumulate State power can help. However, before we intervene in the electoral field, we believe that any organization should ask the question of whether or not they can hold their elected official accountable. Even if we are a minority partner, we should be sufficiently powerful that we can influence elected officials. Absent these criteria, a familiar conversation regarding “who actually delivered?” emerges. If we are not at the table holding politicians accountable, who actually delivered this electoral victory? Socialists or the Democratic Party?

Despite our recent growth in Philly Socialists, we do not believe that we have the commensurate social power to hold accountable any elected officials we might help place in office. Given this assessment, for a little over a year, we have had a moratorium on official endorsements or campaigning for candidates in elected office. 

In doing so, much like the PTU, we still were able to carry out reform campaigns. In the summer of 2018, Philly Socialists helped organize a Left response to ICE detentions, by launching an occupation of our local ICE office. As part of this occupation we called for City Hall to stop sharing with ICE the Philadelphia Police Department’s Preliminary Arraignment Reporting System database, PARS for short. Coordinating with progressive non-profits and the broader socialist Left in Philly, we won this demand after weeks of constant protest.

But we should be aware that our aim is not only to alter the actions of the State (in other words, demanding reforms), but also to alter the composition of the State (how it is structured). Some may argue that there is no reason the Left could not vote into office every change we desired. We could imagine that supermajorities of socialists after years of successfully electioneering would pass law-by-law socialism into existence. Laws abolishing the police and establishing democratically controlled community defense boards. A complete re-organization of the US federalized governance system and the introduction of workers’ councils. Medicare for All, nationalization of housing, and the withdrawal of US troops from abroad—just to name a few.

But, we know that the US governance system will never allow such a reorganization of the American State through a bourgeois democratic process alone. 

The important role of power beyond the ballot box is captured by Jane McAlevey’s retelling of the Gore v. Bush debacle in 2000. Having warned labor leaders that the GOP was strategizing beyond the ballot box, mobilizing its activist base into direct action, Jane McAlevey pleaded with her superiors to provide her with the resources and authority to organize mass labor rallies across Florida. However, the Gore campaign stood firm relying on the bourgeois democratic process to win. When the Supreme Court voted 5-4 to stop the recount in Florida, McAlevey recounts:

“The Gore people were flipping out because, guess what, they hadn’t planned it this way. They’d imagined they were involved in a civilized legal proceeding, that they were going to “win the case” methodically by recounting the votes, that the law was going to keep the matter local, away from the Supreme Court where things didn’t look so good. But oh wait, the Republicans have this whole direct action thing, working in perfect sync with their legal action.

~ No Shortcuts by Jane McAlevey

Despite having the strength of the labor movement behind them, the Democratic Party failed to leverage its strength beyond the ballot box. Protests, strikes, mass civil disobedience were all eschewed for a commitment to the naïve belief that the State’s logic was centered at the ballot box.

. . .

Bernie Sanders’ presidential bids in 2016 and in 2020 loom large in the background of this conversation. So do the recent elections of democratic socialists. However, these recent developments exist in the context of Black Lives Matter protests, Day Without an Immigrant strikes, the Women’s March, teachers’ strikes, and so much more. The greatest opportunity available to the Left is not that socialism has ceased to be a dirty word, but that the class has gone into greater motion than in recent memory. The gulf between what working-class people need and what they receive has always been wide—that’s obvious. What has changed is that working-class people are now demanding in greater numbers that the gulf be bridged through forceful political and social action.

There is a serious debate to be had: how many of these demands can be met by a strategy focused on the ballot box? What reforms can we actually deliver? What compositional changes to the State can we enact? 

Here’s what Philly Socialists believes. We will never change the composition of the American State through the ballot box alone, for the simple reason that bourgeois rule extends beyond the ballot box.

But as the gulf between what working people need and receive widens, and clamor for action loudens, socialists can strike beyond the ballot box, deliver, and rebuild a politically independent working-class base.

This is the strategic perspective of Philly Socialists—and I believe the contours of an official Marxist Center one.

Thank you.

. . .

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