Revolutions are preceded by preparatory periods of ferment and debate, clarification of ideas, perspectives, and tasks, and shaking off the inertia of the previous epoch of stability and passivity. In these periods, there is a growing sense that society is at an impasse, while at the same time, history is accelerating and great events are coming. This pushes broader layers of society into political activity, and there is a thirst for ideas that can explain the crisis of the system and the way to transform it.
Today we see a mushrooming of socialist discussion circles, Marxist reading groups, socialist campus clubs, and working groups of all kinds across the country. The entry of socialism into the mainstream over the last few years is transforming the political landscape. Most notably, a vigorous debate is taking place within and around the growing and evolving forces of DSA on questions of tactics and strategy: How should we relate to electoral work? What kind of activities should socialists engage in? How can we build a broader socialist movement? How can we reach the masses?
The latter question—one of the most pressing and fundamental—has been at the center of revolutionary debate since the birth of the socialist movement.
A socialist revolution in the US can only succeed if the working class—a vast layer of the population numbering 250 million or more, and spread across a 3,000-mile continental expanse—is won over to a program for the socialist transformation of society. How do we span the immense gap between the size of our forces today and the many-millioned ranks of the working class as a whole?
One proposed solution for reaching “the masses” which has recently gained popularity is the concept of “base-building.” Sometimes presented as a revolutionary strategy, other times as a way to “build working-class power” in the abstract, base-building has become a buzzword in DSA and among other groupings on the left.
As far back as 1851, Marx fought against attempts to divert the class struggle into “doctrinaire experiments, exchange banks and workers’ associations, hence into a movement in which it renounces the revolutionizing of the old world by means of the latter’s own great, combined resources, and seeks, rather, to achieve its salvation behind society’s back, in private fashion, within its limited conditions of existence, and hence necessarily suffers shipwreck.”
This approach has seen a revival in recent years, as attempts have been made to define and codify base-building as a methodology for activist groups. In a 2017 article in the Philadelphia Partisan, a local activist publication produced by the Philly Socialists, Tim Horras gives a description of what he calls “the practical tasks” of base-building:
. . . door-knocking, one-on-one conversations, serving the immediate needs of the masses, fighting the power of local oppressors alongside them . . . There are a million tactics we can use to weave socialism into the fabric of working-class life, because working-class life has a million and one facets. We can organize working-class sports leagues, self-defense classes, provide after-school tutoring to youth, host block parties, formal dances, poetry slams, paint murals, set up worker cooperatives, engage in research and investigative reporting, organize tenants unions, copwatch, neighborhood meetings, union caucuses, provide legal support for community members, fight wage theft, and more.
Increasingly, the term “dual power” has been employed to refer to the same concept, though this differs from the classical Marxist understanding, which views it as part of a pre-revolutionary situation in which the tottering capitalist state has not yet been toppled by the nascent workers’ state. As explained by Sophia Burns of Seattle Communists:
Dual Power is both a type of institution and a strategy to change the world. 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. (That’s what the “dual” means, in duality with the current system).
In another article entitled, “Base-Building: Activist Networking or Organizing the Unorganized?” Horras adds:
The task of radicals, at present must be digging in deep to the class, going “to the masses,” building long-term relationships with layers of oppressed and working-class people, and organizing in our neighborhoods and workplaces. This is the punishing, demoralizing grind work that activists prefer to avoid, but it constitutes the only way forward.
Although this conception is catching on as something new, making its way from small activist groups with a local focus into the broader ranks of DSA and beyond, in fact it mirrors a tendency with a long history and provides many lessons for today’s revolutionaries.
Nearly half a century before the 1917 Russian Revolution, the revolutionary struggle against tsarism was waged by the forebears of the Russian socialist movement—the Narodniks. Primarily a movement of middle-class youth and intelligentsia with mixed anarchist and liberal ideas, the Narodniks were nevertheless selfless fighters committed to inciting a mass movement to bring down the tsar. Their main slogan was “Go to the People!” and they aimed to establish roots among the poor peasantry, who constituted the overwhelming majority of the population.
The Narodniks were divided into two wings—each with their own ideas about how best to reach “the masses”—the “educators” and the “insurrectionists.” Much like the “base-builders” of today, the “educators” focused on winning people over with cultural and educational acts of community service and local activism. They sought to achieve change through “small deeds.” In times of famine, they would set up soup kitchens as part of famine relief campaigns, at other times they would set up illiteracy committees to teach reading and writing, etc. However, despite the Narodniks’ self-sacrifice and tireless efforts to politicize their activities, the Russian peasants were primarily interested in acquiring property of their own and proved impervious to revolutionary ideas at this stage—often going so far as to report the liberals in their midst to the tsarist authorities.
The resulting tactical impasse led to a shift in favor of the terrorist wing. While ostensibly aimed at igniting a broader movement through “propaganda of the deed,” in reality, it reflected an impatience for “action” and a lack of faith in “the masses.” The Narodniks succeeded in assassinating a whole number of tsarist officials, including Tsar Alexander II himself in 1881, but each of these acts was met with a wave of terror and repression by the state. By the early 1880s, all the main leaders of the terrorist wing of Narodnism were in jail, and the movement had fragmented into small groupings.
By the mid-1880s, the crisis of Narodnism had become apparent and many activists began rethinking their methods and looking for a way forward. Over the following two decades, the revolutionary movement was gripped by an intense debate over how to proceed. This coincided with a period of strike waves and a revival in the class struggle. It was in this context that Marxist ideas found fertile ground and began to spread rapidly.
In Bolshevism: The Road to Revolution, Alan Woods describes the subsequent shift from a more narrow focus on activism towards combining activism with political education and the training of working-class militants:
The stormy strike battles of the 1880s proclaimed to the world that the heavy battalions of the Russian proletariat were ready and willing to fight. But they also revealed the weakness of the movement, its spontaneous, unorganized, and unconscious nature, its lack of direction and leadership. The army was there. What was necessary was to prepare the future general staff. This conclusion now dawned irresistibly on the consciousness of the best workers. And with the serious and single-minded approach which characterizes worker-activists the world over, they settled down to learn.
The revolutionary veterans of Narodnism, seeking immediate action and an all-out struggle against tsarism, did not come around easily to the need for a cadre organization, which emphasized study and discussion to establish a core of well-educated and committed Marxists within the labor movement. But the exhausting experience of local activism and “small deeds”—familiar today to many activists who experience burnout from the endless work of organizing rallies, demonstrations, doorknocking, phone banking, and other more narrowly focused efforts—led them to the conclusion that a revolutionary movement would require a more serious ideological foundation.
Even after Narodnism had faded into the background, the “go to the people” mentality survived in the idea that socialists should not see themselves as “leading” the workers, but only as “serving” them by helping out on picket lines and in confrontations with the state. There was pressure to focus on exclusively “bread-and-butter” economic issues, rather than discussing politics or theoretical questions that would be too “difficult” or “abstract” for the workers to understand. The Marxists fought against this tendency, known as “economism” and emphasized the importance of theoretical training for working-class militants, and the need to combine both economic and political struggle.
In 1900, Lenin penned the following description of the emerging socialist movement:
The past few years have been marked by an astonishingly rapid spread of Social-Democratic ideas among our intelligentsia . . . Study circles of workers and Social-Democratic intellectuals are springing up everywhere, local agitation leaflets are being widely distributed, the demand for Social-Democratic literature is increasing and is far outstripping the supply . . . The movement is growing, it is spreading to ever wider regions, it is penetrating more and more deeply into the working class and is attracting public attention to an ever-increasing degree.
This was the outcome of a period of theoretical study and debate in small circles—a fitting epitaph to the base-building experiments of the preceding years. Of course, the political battles were far from over, but the foundations for a new kind of movement had been laid. The following year, Lenin would launch Iskra and write his famous What Is To Be Done? in order to unite the until-then disparate Marxist circles to a common program and plan of action.
Just 15 years after Lenin laid out his conception for what kind of organization was required, the Bolsheviks had succeeded in establishing roots among the working class and, in the course of 1917, won it to the program of the socialist transformation of society. As Trotsky put it, “The unspannable distance, which in the epoch of tsarism separated the underground revolutionists from the government, shrank into nothing.”
The previous decades of patient, painstaking work, of recruiting workers to weekly reading groups, producing and distributing the revolutionary press, debating and clarifying ideas, had, in fact, played the role of a revolutionary academy preparing the general staff of the October Revolution. In skeletal form, the structure of a much larger organization had been established—composed of highly professional, trained Marxists who fought shoulder to shoulder with the workers’ struggles and knew how to transmit the revolutionary program to ever-wider layers of the population.
It was not only the political discussions but the organizational discipline of underground work that provided the Marxist network with the agility and dynamism required to grow from 8,000 cadres at the beginning of 1917, to 250,000 members by October.
It goes without saying that the road to the American Socialist Revolution will not be identical to that of the Bolsheviks, nor can their methods be replicated mechanically. But the stages through which the movement must pass are strikingly similar. And although the pace of events will also differ, in practical terms, the task of revolutionary socialists today remains essentially the same: To build a political force that can connect a revolutionary program with the broad layers of the working class. It’s an ambitious goal, but a century later, history has again produced a generation that is up to the task.