“This is the perfect time to launch a large-scale progressive alliance with an organizational presence in every state. We need organization not just spontaneous eruptions that flower and wilt. We can’t just tweet an end to runaway inequality. We’ll need to systematically fight for it over a long period of time. We need an organizational structure that brings us together and connects our many issue and organizational silos.”
I am in agreement that the Occupy Wall Street Movement lacked a clear understanding of the need to form a progressive organization. It was oriented to “direct action,” and had disdain for organizational structures, permitting a fear of authoritarianism to provoke distrust of the legitimate structures of rational/bureaucratic and charismatic authority that a social movement must have for the attainment of its goals (see “Authoritarianism vs. legitimate power” 5/16/2016).
But when Leopold outlines what the new organization ought to do, I do not find myself in agreement. He proposes: “Immediately, this new organization would have two goals: 1) defeat Trump; and 2) organize a million people to come to the Washington mall shortly after the inauguration to press for free higher education and a Wall Street speculation tax.” The proposed mass march on Washington would “demand that Congress pass a financial speculation tax to fund free higher education.”
I maintain that this strategy of submitting demands and pressuring political elites is an historic strategic error of the Left. Like “direct action,” it is a strategy that has its place, but it must be part of a larger comprehensive plan that fundamentally involves the taking of power by the people.
A new progressive organization should indeed be launched, and it should have two fundamental goals. First, the education and organization of our people. We must develop schools for the people, centers of popular education, meeting in homes, schools, churches, and organizations where the people have access to space. The centers would enable the people to arrive to understand: the historic development of structures of domination, exploitation and exclusion; the collusion of the political establishment, including many political figures who pretend to be progressive, in the development and maintenance of domination; and the achievements of revolutionary processes in other lands, where the people, confronting structures of domination and exploitation, formed revolutionary movements that enabled them to remove elites from power and to place it in their own hands.
Secondly, the progressive organization should lead the people in the taking of power. The new organization should conceive of itself as a new form of political party. It would not be a conventional political party, because it would be dedicated to popular education and to the organization of protests, which would be organized as educational tools and as demonstrations of popular support. The new organization, however, also would engage in conventional political activities, such as nominating candidates for Congress, seeking to take control of the Congress during the course of the next twenty or twenty-five years. The nomination of a presidential candidate with a democratic socialist agenda would be the culmination of a quarter-century of work in popular education and in attaining ever-growing presence in the Congress.
In the late 1960s, the Progressive Labor Party had it right. They stood in the midst of a general confusion of the Left. On the one hand, there were the proponents of direct action, who erroneously believed that confrontational strategies would catalyze the people to support of the causes of the Left. On the other hand, there were reformist organizations, confining themselves to particular issues, and offering little more than superficial education. In this confused panorama, the Progressive Labor Party understood that it was a question of organizing and educating the people, preparing them for the long-term goal of taking power. But the Progressive Labor Party had a fundamental limitation. It rigidly applied the concepts of Marx, Lenin, and Trotsky, without creatively adapting their insights to the particular conditions of the United States in the 1960s. This greatly limited their influence, inasmuch as their discourse was alien to the thinking and the common-sense insights of the people.
The Left has a legacy of division and confusion. We have developed direct action strategies, disdaining education and organization; we have organized protests focused on particular issues, without trying to raise the consciousness of the people toward an historical, comprehensive, and global understanding; or we have sought to educate and organize our people for the taking of power, but with a perspective that made no sense to our people. We have to overcome these errors and get it right. The challenges that humanity confronts confer upon us this duty.
The structures of domination of our people have included ideological distortions of all forms, which have bombarded our people through the mass media, and which have pervaded educational institutions. As a result, our people are confused. We must develop an organization that responds to this situation, seeking to overcome ideological confusion among our people. We need to formulate a comprehensive, historical and global understanding that we can effectively teach our people, enabling them to understand why and how they are dominated, exploited and excluded; and enabling them to understand that they can and must take power in their own name, so that they can, in defense of themselves, establish a government that acts in accordance with the universal human values that humanity has proclaimed. The political elites who profess democratic values but who collaborate with the wealthy cannot be pressured to act in accordance with human values, except in token form. They must be cast aside by the people, who with a growing understanding, acquire the capacity to delegate their own leaders to act in their name.
Key words: Leopold, Sanders, progressive, progressive alliance, Left