An ongoing discussion around the strategy of “base building” has occupied sections of revolutionary socialists. One notable proponent of this strategy is Sophia Burns, whose essays have gained growing acclaim due to their insight and provocativeness.
Burns has written several pieces about base building that have influenced different sections of the revolutionary Left, including the left wing of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), though especially DSA’s “Refoundation Caucus.” Burns sometimes mentions the DSA in her writings in an attempt to influence the rank and file DSA member’s approach to politics.
Burns’ articles always contain compelling arguments often rooted in hard truths, but what they often lack is a unified approach to strategy and tactics. By correctly critiquing the politics of various tendencies of the Left, Burns then has a tendency to overcorrect: she justifiably denounces opportunistic-drenched tactics, but then refuses to amputate the opportunism from the tactic, tossing out baby and bathwater.
This article aims to unearth the contradictions embedded in Burns’ politics, which represent a broader layer of revolutionaries. In so doing we’ll attempt to come to a more unified strategy to revolutionary organizing. Ultimately Burns’ politics leads to a one-sided approach, abandoning the “by any means necessary” approach that has been the hallmark of revolutionary Marxism since its inception.
A key component to Burns’ base building strategy is the concept of “dual power,” an idea that came into fruition during the Russian Revolution, but whose definition has evolved over time. Burns’ definition of the word differs markedly from Lenin’s, who used the word to describe the conflict between the Russian “Provisional Government” and the governing power of the revolutionary workers self-organized into bodies called “Soviets.” In his essay “The Dual Power” Lenin says:
“What is this dual power? Alongside the Provisional Government, the government of bourgeoisie, another government has arisen, so far weak and incipient, but undoubtedly a government that actually exists and is growing— the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies.”
Lenin’s definition assumes a revolutionary situation is in play, where two dueling government powers— rooted in opposing class interests— exist side by side batling for hegemony.
In her essay “What is Dual Power,” Burns offers a new definition:
Dual Power means new, independent institutions for people to meet their own needs in ways capitalism and the government can’t or won’t…By developing them, people create a second kind of social, economic, and even political power, separate from government and capitalism.
Dual power is thus reduced from a type of governing body actually exercising power to a type of institution, or organizing campaign, and can also include a labor union or worker cooperative store.
Burns’ definition of dual power is more aligned with the anarchist tradition, now expressed by sections of Libertarian Socialists and especially their subsection of “Municipalists,” a trend that includes both anarchists and Marxists.
The father of anarchism, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, outlined the theory of the anarchist brand of dual power, in his pamphlet the “General Idea of the Revolution in the 19th Century”
“Beneath the governmental machinery, in the shadow of political institutions, out of the sight of statesmen and priests, society is producing its own organism, slowly and silently; and constructing a new order, the expression of its vitality and autonomy.”
A Marxist perspective on Proudhon’s version of dual power would be to label it a brand of “reformism,” since its incrementalist pace would make it impossible to “evolve” into a socialist society, and thus relegate it to a permanent appendage of capitalism, while claiming to be “separate” from it. Marx famously attacked Proudhon’s economic views in his “The Poverty of Philosophy.”
The belief that socialism can gradually be brought about without a break from capitalism— requiring that power be taken from the capitalists— goes against the history of revolutions in the past 100 years that have occured all over the world.
If power is not taken from the capitalists they cling to it, refusing to freely give it up no matter how many people demand they do so. Burns’ approach implies that it is not necessary to challenge the power of the establishment, while a Marxist approach views this as the necessary first step in creating a mass movement. Burns writes:
By putting together a new system parallel to the current one, Dual Power can eventually provide enough of a second power base to totally replace capitalism.
The key word in this quote is “eventually,” and Burns’ theory seems to suggest that by building one worker cooperative after another, one labor union upon another, that the sum total of such alternative and “counter-institutions” will somehow “replace capitalism.”
Burns’ gradualist approach ignores the fact that revolutionary situations are often brief, requiring a battle for power at all levels of society. Nearly all revolutions begin as massive, mostly-spontaneous mobilizations, so it would behoove a revolutionary to understand the abc’s of organizing mobilizations. Mass mobilization, however, barely registers as an activity that Burns believes a revolutionary should engage in.
The term class war implies there is an open struggle between the classes. Burns wants us to only engage in guerrilla tactics that don’t attract the attention of the establishment. But if ever such tactics actually succeed in challenging power, the ruling class would aggressively respond, since their economic and political power would actually be threatened, at which point Burns’ approach would be rendered useless, requiring a completely different strategy.
What is Revolutionary Strategy?
The flawed theory that Burns is advocating matters when it’s put into practice. The immediate problem is that Burns is suggesting that base building— using her dual power strategy— is the sum total of how a revolutionary should direct their activity.
In her essay “The US Left Has Only Four Tendencies,” Burns fires shots against various Left organizations that focus their activity on different strategies that Burns then dismisses. Her main targets are electorialism, street protesting and fighting for reforms, labeling the latter approach “government socialism.” The article ends with the strategic superiority of base building. She writes:
The objective conditions are more favorable than they have been in generations for refounding mass socialism in the US. Base-builders are right that organizing the unorganized and rejecting activist networking is the only way to do it. However, base-building is slow and patient. Activists – in all three of the other tendencies – promise quicker and easier results. Leftists shouldn’t buy what they’re selling, though.
Burns is right that there are “no shortcuts” to organizing and fighting for power, and her hyperfocus on “base building” is commendable, since training new organizers and putting them into action must be a strategic priority of the Left (the Left has a surplus of revolutionary Twitter users). Burns is also right to criticize those groups who think that protesting in the streets is itself sufficient, or that electing “slightly better” establishment politicians offers us any way forward.
But by focusing on the worst examples of these tactics, Burns creates a cartoonish straw man, allowing her to divorce several key components of revolutionary work in favor of one.
By abandoning various arenas of struggle, Burns gives the establishment free, uncontested reign. Wherever power can be contested it must be contested, wherever consciousness can be raised it should be raised.
Lenin critiqued the approach that Burns is advocating in his classic work Left Wing Communism:
Any army which does not train to use all the weapons, all the means and methods of warfare that the enemy possesses, or may possess, is behaving in an unwise or even criminal manner. This applies to politics even more than it does to the art of war.
In Left Wing Communism Lenin attempted to summarize the strategy and tactics deployed by the Bolsheviks as they built organizational strength. Lenin wanted to dispel the myth that certain kinds of organizing, strategies, and areas of struggle were unbecoming of a revolutionary. As the above quote implies, Lenin argues that a socialist should engage in any and all arenas where there is power to be organized or contested, by any means necessary.
It’s possible that Burns might retort that she is open to all strategies and tactics, once a broad base is built that can then be successfully pushed into the streets, or into elections, etc. But such an argument would be overly formulaic, assuming that politics happens in certain, preordained “stages,” whereas a more dialectical approach is needed to actually mirror the real life dynamics of politics.
An example of how organizing can work in the opposite direction to Burns’s base building was displayed recently by the success of Portland Tenants United (PTU), an organization that has had many organizing and political successes that include passing pro-tenant legislation, helping to elect a city councilperson and organizing tenant unions.
PTU emerged from a Facebook page, and later organized street protests and eventually mobilized at city council hearings to demand rent control. Having then gained significant media attention, it jumped directly into electoralism: its members backed a city council candidate (herself a member of PTU) and raised tenant issues during candidate debates. When PTU’scandidate won(incredibly), Portland passed the most radical pro-tenant lawin decades, causing Oregon’s landlord lobby to scream in anguish.
It was only after some of these initial victories that PTU began organizing tenant unions. The legitimacy they gained in the media helped while canvassing tenants at the doors of Portland’s poorest neighborhoods. It made PTU “legitimate” and “powerful” in the eyes of the tenants.
The example of PTU is not meant as a recipe to be copied and pasted, but the lesson here is that a political moment (the housing crisis) was seized by an organization, and while base building was a pillar of the organizing, street protest, electoralism, and demanding reforms have played an equally prominent role, if not more so at times.
Similar kinds of opportunities exist in every locality across the country, especially as the social crisis deepens. A revolutionary organization must be flexible enough to exploit these opportunities wherever they rear their head, though as a part of pursuing specific demands and/or broader goals. If the strategy of base building prevents such a dynamic approach as PTU displayed, then such a strategy is seriously flawed.
The Balance of Forces
An old dictum of revolutionary Marxism is that the tasks of a revolutionary organization are determined by the balance of forces between the working and capitalist classes. This essentially means that the working class’ level of class consciousness and organization determines our strategy, though in relation to the power and stability of the capitalists.
In short, wherever there are arenas of struggle where we are strong, we should strike, and where we are weak we are presented with a task: to strengthen our position through education, agitation, and organizing; and once our position is strengthened— through organizing for power— new opportunities and barriers then present themselves, as a result of us having shifted the class balance of forces in that arena.
The balance of forces is always in constant flux, opening up new opportunities and threats, for example the election of Donald Trump. A shifting balance of forces also allows for the pent up frustrations of the working class to be channeled quickly into organizing campaigns that can allow us to strike preemptively, or to quickly overcome a powerful barrier that then allows us a higher level of organizing to confront a higher level of capitalist power.
This general approach applies to protesting in the streets, organizing new unions— or striking with existing unions— running a political candidate, and organizing any event that helps raise class consciousness and increases organizational capacity.
The above-mentioned experience of Portland Tenants United can be recycled here as an example of shifting the class balance of forces between tenant and landlord. Before PTU existed the balance of power was incredibly one-sided, at the expense of the renter.
PTU used public demonstrations and media attention to educate the public about rent control and other needs of tenants, and soon the balance of forces began to shift, since class consciousness began to grow, and with it new expectations and the willingness to take action.
The balance of forces shifted more still when a tenant advocate ran for city council, and the public campaign agitated renters around the housing crisis (an election that would have been impossible without the prior raising of consciousness around the housing crisis); and after the election city council was then pressured into passing historic pro-tenant legislation, pushing the balance of power still further in the direction of the tenant, the overwhelming majority of whom are working class.
By moving the balance of power PTU was put in a stronger position to make yet stronger demands. By either participating or watching the very public political fight between landlord and tenant, thousands of people learned lessons about politics and their place within this fight between the classes.
No single strategy is in itself the best in all situations, since strategy often flows out of the necessity of events, where opportunities are granted to us by the weakness of the establishment combined with the strength of our organizing and broader class consciousness.
The key question is, “Where should revolutionaries direct their energy now?” There can be no simple answer to this, but a good organizer becomes skilled at recognizing organizing opportunities, and then strategically seizing them by any and all means necessary.
Certain people have organizing opportunities based on their job, neighborhood, ethnicity, etc., while opportunities for organizing campaigns for certain demands— like rent control— can emerge from the existing needs of the community combined with the capacity of the organization leading the campaign. Where our influence is strong enough we should help defend ourselves from the anti-worker policies of neoliberalism such as the continuing anti-union offensive, which will look different in nearly every state.
A good defense can quickly turn into an offensive, such as the teacher strikes across the country. It is usually bad politics to mandate a preordained, national long-term strategy around a specific demand, without knowing first that the broader population is ready to take action around the demand.
We Don’t Always Pick Our Battles
In a perfect world an organizing campaign can be charted out far in advance, using a whiteboard to power map to help guide our way through a year-long timeline of actions and goals. Wherever possible this is best practice, but sometimes the fight picks us, and it happens very suddenly. This is why revolutionaries must learn to be comfortable in all possible arenas of struggle, since sometimes we’ll be forced into having to defend positions that we may have neglected.
Lenin emphasizes this point in his Left Wing Communism:
“In politics it is even harder to know in advance which methods of struggle will be applicable and to our advantage in certain future conditions. Unless we learn to apply all the methods of struggle, we may suffer grave and sometimes even decisive defeat, if changes beyond our control in the position of the other classes bring to the forefront a form of activity in which we are especially weak.”
Lenin is right that sometimes a method of struggle is chosen for us by external conditions. The Janus vs AFSCME decision may be a good example of this: the Supreme Court’s attack on unions is part of a capitalist offensive against the organized working class. This threat is also an opportunity, and must be an arena of struggle for socialists.
Janus vs AFSCME is an example of the establishment trying to implement a new balance of forces by smashing the strongest institutions of the working class (34% of public sector workers are organized).
At the same time, however, the effects of a massive teacher strike continue to reverberate across the country, changing the balance of forces in every state they touch, and even shifting power in states that they have yet to strike. Teachers’ consciousness is being raised in these other states, as teachers begin to think,“If they can do it why can’t we?” While many states have already struck, other states are preparing to strike.
New opportunities for organizing are popping up everywhere, and the difficult calculus of a revolutionary organization is figuring out how to prioritize these organizing opportunities, so they can be appropriately seized. By following the limited strategic approach of Sophia Burns, many such opportunities will be lost, since she is essentially ignoring all the current arenas of struggle, and insisting that we create “new” institutions that may or may not be able to eventually challenge power.
Ultimately each step of the class struggle requires us to adjust our methods. A win in one arena of struggle often opens up opportunities in other arenas: a teacher striking in Kentucky can inspire a tenant union to strike in Los Angeles.
An obvious, immediate task mandated by the balance of class forces is for more revolutionaries to learn organizing skills, which without any kind of political activity becomes more difficult, if not impossible.
Basic organizing skills can help with other simultaneous tasks of the Left, such as out-organizing the faux-Leftism of the non-profit industrial complex that acts as the leftwing of the establishment in cities across the United States.
The highest form of organizing is engaging working people in a fight against powerful interests. Building relationships is a key part of organizing , but “building community” for the sake of building community doesn’t build power unless a fight is waged in an effort to shift or smash the existing balance of power.
It’s possible that Sophia Burns and other Leftists overemphasize “base building” because they recognize that learning basic organizing skills must be a priority of the Left, and if this is true then they cannot be criticized too harshly.
In its attempt to weigh in on the discussion over base building, DSA’s Refoundation caucus wrote a document on base building, advising DSA members to “build DSA into an organization of organizers.” The document defines organizing as
“…the skill of action-oriented relationship building.Countless people have invested much blood, sweat and tears in pioneering and developing the skill set needed to make organizing successful.”
This is excellently said. But how a group actually deploys its organizers is critical, and one could interpret Burns’ approach to mean that the fights happening now should be avoided, in order to engage in an arduous process of creating something out of nothing. If this is the takeaway, then base building becomes a form of abstentionism from the existing class struggle.
Sophia Burns seems to want what we all want: a revolutionary organization that takes itself seriously, that doesn’t engage in protest for the sake of protest, or get behind any candidate that expresses the slightest progressive leanings.
But in her nobel effort to avoid fake short cuts Burns has charted the longest possible course, so long that the destination is perpetually out of reach. It’s true that short cuts always lead to dead ends, but real opportunities do arise that raise consciousness and that can lead to organizing campaigns that directly challenge power, capable of shifting the balance of forces where power is concentrated.
The amount of organizing opportunities that currently exist haven’t existed in decades, and the prior, low level of class consciousness is evolving by the heat of events. Our strategy must mirror this quickly-changing dynamic.
By taking the initiative wherever the ground is fertile, and by using all effective strategies and tactics to build organizing capacity and raising class consciousness, the new era of Left organizing can lay the foundation for an organization capable of seizing ever more opportunities, building a culture of organizing and education deeply connected to the broader working class, capable of putting it into action when necessary.
By building power in this way we become more comfortable exercising power, which is a precondition for pushing the ruling class out of power. Capitalism cannot be pressured into governing more rationally, and we cannot stealthily overcome its power by building “counter institutions.” Their power must be directly confronted by our power, and our goal must be to displace them from power, by any means necessary and as soon as possible. The future of humanity depends on it.