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Bottom-Up Organizing, Not Top-Down Mobilizing
A mass party that organizes working people into local parties that provide a forum for political discussion and decisions about policy positions and actions is crucial to building the sense of empowerment and self-confidence that working people need to take on the entrenched political powers. The ruling-class / middle-class political alliance prevails in elections because working people vote in such low numbers. Many attribute this to apathy.
But in my experience talking to working-class people in political campaigns for more than four decades and in running for office many times in the last two decades, that apathy is rooted in alienation from the political elites and demoralization at the slim prospects of making changes against the elites’ perceived overwhelming power. Many working people feel the politicians of both parties have no idea what their lives are like and what their issues really are. They feel invisible to the politicians. Many just stop paying attention to politics because it is so painful to feel they can’t make any difference. They believe the politicians are going to do what they want to do and voting won’t make any difference.
The campaign strategies of the major parties reinforce low turnout by working-class communities. During elections, campaigns target middle-class voters and precincts with histories of high voter turnout and neglect working-class voters and precincts with low voter turnout as a waste of limited campaign resources. Between elections, they make no effort to engage the low-turnout voters.
An independent party of the left can build its base by filling this political vacuum and engaging working-class people who are now disaffected from and neglected by the political process. It needs to engage them between as well as during elections. Crucially important in organizing from the bottom up, an independent left party must prioritize organizing Black people, Latinx, and other people of color. If not centrally involved, their particular concerns tend to be neglected. If not involved from the beginning of organizing, the barriers to later inclusion are difficult to overcome given the existing patterns of residential and social segregation and the long historical legacy of racism that yields suspicion and skepticism when a majority white organization attempts belatedly to include people of color. With more than a third of the American working class composed of people of color, a working-class party that is not well-rooted in working-class communities of color and championing their demands has failed to organize the whole class and will not realize its potential electoral majority.
The labor movement also tends to reproduce the corporate class structure. Some unions do practice a social movement unionism that engages their members in education and decision-making and seeks to build a class-wide movement with labor and community allies. But most unions practice a transactional business unionism where the officers and top staff make the decisions and cut the deals and the members’ role is minimized. With automatic dues deductions administered by the payroll systems of employers, most unions’ top leaders control a budget and make decisions with little participation from the membership. The professional-managerial staff tends to be college graduates, sometimes of labor studies departments, who mobilize the working-class membership for elections and sometimes demonstrations when the union wants to lobby for a bill or put pressure on an employer during contract negotiations.
Few unions organize their members for political education and lateral communications. The union bureaucracy tends to worry that an organized membership would vote them out of office. Incumbent politicians, especially Democrats, receive union endorsements and donations for election campaigns, not because they are great champions of labor’s cause but because union leaders want access to the politicians in power. So union decisions, like nonprofit advocacy decisions, tend to be made from the top down. As Arun Gupta reported on the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Fight for 15 campaign,
There’s little evidence of worker-to-worker organizing. . . . Victor (not his real name) in Seattle says the campaign is faltering because workers are “babied at the meetings.” He says the process involves workers getting “amped-up” and “rubber-stamping some decisions that are already made,” which wears thin after the first meeting.
Bottom-up organizing, as opposed to top-down mobilizing, means assisting working people to come together to make their own decisions. An exemplary case of this kind of organizing was how the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) organized the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) in 1964. Led by well-educated students and teachers like the Harvard-educated mathematician Bob Moses, SNCC’s main organizer of Freedom Summer in Mississippi, the SNCC organizers did not put themselves into leadership positions in the MFDP. They organized Freedom Schools to provide both basic and political education to the sharecroppers, small farmers, and farm and factory laborers they were organizing. They let these people choose their own leaders.
When the integrated MFDP delegation challenged the segregated Mississippi Dixiecrat delegation for seating at the Democratic National Convention, it was sharecropper Fannie Lou Hamer who was elected as a cochair to speak for the delegation. President Johnson sent three prominent liberals—Minnesota senator Hubert Humphrey, Minnesota attorney general Walter Mondale, and United Auto Workers president Walter Reuther—to offer the MFDP a compromise of two non-voting at-large seats on the convention floor. The middle-class leaders of the mainstream civil rights and liberal organizations, including Martin Luther King Jr., at first urged the MFDP to take the compromise as progress.
But Fannie Lou Hamer said, “We didn’t come all this way for no two seats,” and persuaded the MFDP delegation to vote to reject the compromise as tokenism. That is what happens when working people are organized to speak for themselves and elect their leaders. Those leaders have little to gain from selling out for token symbolic measures. They will be ostracized by their organized peers if they do so. Middle-class leaders, on the other hand, do have something to lose. Their careers are at risk if they buck the system that pays them. They tend to be more willing to compromise workers’ interests.
What the SNCC organizers did with the MFDP is what the socialist left has long advised: build an independent party of working people and they will take care of the policy program in time. When the Independent Labor Party in New York, created by 175 labor unions in New York City, nominated the non-socialist reformer Henry George as its mayoral candidate in 1886, Frederick Engels advised the Socialist Labor Party in America to support the campaign and participate in the Independent Labor Party despite his misgivings about George’s platform:
In a country that has newly entered the movement, the first really crucial step is the formation by the workers of an independent political party, no matter how, so long as it is distinguishable as a labor party. . . . That the first program of this party is still muddle-headed and extremely inadequate, that it should have picked Henry George as its figurehead, are unavoidable if merely transitory evils. The masses must have time and opportunity to evolve, and they will not get that opportunity until they have their own movement—no matter in what form so long as it is only their own movement—in which they are impelled onwards by their own mistakes and learn by bitter experience.
For both the nineteenth-century socialists and the MFDP, the party and the movement went together. For the socialists, participating in the labor movement, organizing unions, fighting for better wages and working conditions on the job were a central part of the party’s work. Similarly, SNCC did not organize the MFDP in a vacuum. It was built at the same time in 1964 that forty-one Freedom Schools taught an academic curriculum based on reading, writing, math, and basic science and a citizenship curriculum focused on Black history, power structure analysis, and movement history. In 1965, they organized the Mississippi Freedom Labor Union among day laborers and domestic workers.
The notion that the party should focus on electoral work and leave movement work to others prevents the party from engaging working people between as well as during elections. It is essential that the party not leave educational and social movement projects to the corporate structures of the foundation-funded nonprofit advocacy and business unionism. The nonprofit advocacy groups and business unions rarely offer a platform to independent left activists for fear of losing access to Democratic funders and politicians. They just want the independent left to show up at events in order to increase attendance without giving them any voice in them. Their strategies are oriented to lobbying the Democrats, not exerting independent power. By contrast, independent political action may move Democrats on issues, but its main strategic goal is to replace corporate Democrats with third-party insurgents.