It’s All About That Base: A Dossier on the Base-Building Trend

Edited by D.B. Cooper

This packet was originally compiled by D.B. Cooper for distribution to local Socialist Party membership as a primer on base building and the Marxist Center.  It was then shared with the rest of the Marxist Center, and the editor has graciously permitted us to republish it here.  A full PDF of the packet is available here; in addition, we have below reprinted the editor’s introduction and conclusion, and provided links to the already published pieces which compose the packet. We have also republished an additional article by Tim Horras for inclusion with this dossier, and have added a description of it to the Editor’s Introduction below.   — A. Minnelli and E. Levin

Editor’s Introduction

This packet was compiled for the purpose of providing a crash course in the emerging “base building tendency” among many socialist and communist groups in the United States today.  Much of this tendency is centered around the “Marxist Center network”, a loose collection of local and regional socialist and communist organizations from around the United States who share the common political methodology of base building, and generally (though not exclusively or totally) reject political reformism and activist protesting.  While the proverbial “Marxist Center” isn’t really a concrete set of organizations, the generally accepted understanding is that the 20 or so organizations which sent representatives the first Marxist Center conference in August of 2017 comprise the “Marxist Center network”. Recently, many organizers and organizations in the network have endorsed calls and plans to begin a process of unification between the Marxist Center groups.

The base building tendency isn’t restricted to the Marxist Center however.  Other groups and organizations in this tendency, to one extent or another, include the Refoundation Caucus and Communist Caucus of the Democratic Socialists of America, some chapters of the Party for Socialism & Liberation, the Organization for a Free Society, a number of organizers in the Socialist Party USA, the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement/Cooperation Jackson, and others still.

While there is hardly a gluttony of literature covering the emergence of this new tendency, the [seven] essays included here only represent a fraction of the papers in circulation on the topic.  Regardless, this packet should be substantive enough to provide a solid overview of the political ideas underpinning this growing movement, as well as outline the practical work of base building as it’s generally understood by the dozens of organizations and groups that embrace this tendency.

The first two essays here were authored by Sophia Burns of the Communist Labor Party (CLP), which is a small autonomist political party in the Pacific Northwest.  The first, Dual Power FAQ, was published in the spring of 2016 and is the first significant document to come out of this emerging tendency.  Reflective of the CLP’s emphasis on practical work over theoretical work, the document is fittingly a field manual for “building dual power” – in catechism form.  At the time, the CLP had hardly, if any connections to other groups in what became the base building milieu, so it developed a lexicon independent of other groups that share its political conclusions.  “Dual power”, while not strictly synonymous, can essentially be understood as another term for base building – although it emphasizes itself as a political strategy for revolution, rather than a political methodology for organizing the working class, which base building can be defined as.  The goal of the Communist Labor Party today is still to “build dual power”, however as it’s grown closer to other base builders around the country, its lexicon has organically shifted toward referring to base building, rather than dual power, in some contexts.

The second essay, Summation of the Experience of the Greater Seattle Neighborhood Action Coalition, was published in October 2017 and is a reflection on a failed attempt by the Seattle chapter of the Communist Labor Party to take part in building a socialist base in the city in the wake of mass protests following the election of Donald Trump and emphasizes the need for revolutionaries to consciously and actively reject liberal narratives and modes of debate.

While the content remains completely unchanged, the formatting of both of Sophia’s essays was significantly altered so they would better fit into the style of this packet.  The primary change was the removal of nested bullet points and section numbering which didn’t undermine the information being presented. The content of the rest of the essays included in this packet are also unchanged from their published originals and only minor reformatting was done to accommodate the packet.

The next two essays were written by Tim Horras of Philly Socialists and were published in its newsletter, The Philadelphia Partisan.  Philly Socialists was formed in the wake of Occupy where its founding members saw the need for a more grounded and permanent means of organizing people against capitalism.  Activist Networking or Organizing the Unorganized? was published in the summer of 2017 several weeks ahead of the first Marxist Center conference and was the first substantial document in the tendency to juxtapose base building to the modus operandi of Leftist organizing, which Tim calls, “activist networking”.

The next article, Where does the march end? Base-building and mass action as discrete moments in a singular process was published shortly after the Marxist Center conference and is primarily a response to various criticisms of the tendency that had arisen at that point.

The fifth essay, Base Building and Refoundation, is a paper published in February 2018 by the Refoundation Caucus of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).  While the Communist Labor Party and Philly Socialists are both part of the Marxist Center network, Refoundation and the DSA are not – although Refoundation organizers are in close contact with Marxist Center organizers.  I’ve included this paper in part to demonstrate that this tendency is in fact not exclusive to the Marxist Center, but rather is more widely represented among socialists and communists in the United States, and is gaining popularity constantly.  I’ve also included the paper because apart from the Dual Power FAQ, which was a pragmatic manual for cadre organizing, Base Building and Refoundation is the first public document calling for a systematic strategy of base building nationwide, and it’s worth noting that it’s being called for in the largest socialist organization in the country.

[The sixth essay, Where does the Marxist Center Stand? Answering aspersions, was also written by Tim Horras. This document, released in September 2017, is a response to a polemic by “Rust Belt Revolution”. We felt that this would be a worthwhile addition to the original packet because it directly addresses some of the common criticisms of the base-building tendency. This includes its orientation to “Leninism,” party-building, and reformism.]

The final essay was penned by the editor for the purpose of closing out this packet.  Cultivating a Model is essentially a take-away from the first five essays of this packet and provides a rough outline for organizing new socialist collectives and how they can effectively begin base building.  It’s based on the shared experiences of organizers from several different Marxist Center groups. While I did write this short piece, I cannot take real credit for it. It’s based on a notes made by Sophia Burns and the subsequent discussion of them between several Marxist Center organizers.  It was adapted for this packet with permission from Sophia and I thank her for allowing me to do that.

– D.B. Cooper, March 2018

Cultivating a Model

D.B. Cooper, Northern Indiana Socialist Party

Based on analyses of the experiences of several young socialist and communist organizations including Seattle Communists, Philly Socialists, Austin Socialist Collective, Red Bloom Communist Collective, among others, Sophia Burns has outlined the following model for the effective creation of new revolutionary collectives with the goal of building mass bases in the working class.  The process should ideally play out in three phases:

  1. A small, committed group of people with a shared idea of socialism and base building must be willing to come together and dedicate themselves to the work of socialist base building.  This group may be comprised of a pre-existing formation or network of organizers and activists who are committed to shifting their activity toward base building, or it may be a wholly new formation which shares the same commitment.  What is more important than experience here, is this commitment and a willingness and ability to follow through on the long-term work of base building.
    • As an important transitory step into Phase 2, the group should reflect on their own relative socio-economic positions, experiences, social connections, and technical knowledge.  These should inform where and with whom the work in Phase 2 takes place.
  2. After making the formal commitment to this process of base building, the group must identify a specific constituency or area or activity with which they can focus the few resources they have into supporting.  It is important here to focus on a level of activity that the group is capable of immediately, or almost immediately dedicating themselves to in an effective way. Rather than thinking big, their work should be centered where they have the capacity to cultivate a meaningful influence.  As one example, rather than the group deciding they should begin a campaign to organize the tens of thousands of warehouse workers in their city into a union, it makes much more sense for this young, small group to identify one warehouse, or a small cluster of warehouses, with perhaps a few hundred workers and focusing their efforts to organize that specific constituency.  Through combinations of proactive outreach, mutual aid, social events, and material support for their struggles, the group can begin organizing a small base in the constituency they’ve decided to focus on.
  3. As a natural extension of the work laid out in Phase 2, Phase 3 should begin with some process of social investigation to determine what a more ambitious project or projects will look like for the group and its base.  To continue the example of the warehouse workers, by connecting with them and better understanding their experiences at work and the organization of their industry, you may find that it makes sense to begin a city-wide campaign to enforce new safety regulations in the warehouses, or even just in the warehouses where you’ve already been cultivating your base.  Regardless of the case, the purpose of more ambitious projects is to take the small base you’ve already cultivated and organize, expand, and strengthen it into a larger base.

It’s almost impossible to present a meaningful timeline for when each of these three phases should take place.  Depending on your circumstances, they could be broken up by years or compressed into the span of a few days. In the case of Philly Socialists, getting from Phase 1, founding their organization, to Phase 2, the creation of a solidarity network, took years, and going from Phase 2 to Phase 3, when they organized the Philadelphia Tenants Union, took only a few months.  From the example of the Greater Seattle Neighborhood Action Coalition, the whole process took only weeks to fly through all three phases. As another example, Tacoma Communists began it’s Serve the People program (Phase 2) shortly after forming into a chapter of the Communist Labor Party (Phase 1), but it took years of dedicated, consistent work for that to evolve into what is now a widespread and self-sufficient free grocery program in the city (Phase 3).  It’s also very gray as to where Phase 2 became Phase 3, and ultimately it wasn’t a clean cut event, instead was the product of steady growth and evolution.

While these three phases describe a robust and tested model for socialist base building, it’s important to realize that the process is nonetheless fluid and tied to the situation where you’re at, so your experience may not line up with what’s laid out here.  However, this model, as cursory as it is (perhaps necessarily so), should provide new socialist collectives with a basic framework for beginning an effective process of base building in their cities and neighborhoods.

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