You can hear a recorded audio presentation of this organizing framework) read by Carl Redwood at the Thomas Merton Center’s New People’s Award ceremony. This presentation is at 50:00-1:12 in the recording.
Call for the Initiation of a Progressive Alternative for Pittsburgh
Introduction – The Situation We Face
We are at a historic moment in our national and world history. Three forces have combined to create our current situation. The first is the rise of Trump in the United States, and right wing, proto fascist movements in Europe and other parts of the world. Trump and his ilk elsewhere threaten to roll back basic liberties and democratic protections for immigrants, women, ethnic and racial minorities, the LBGT community, workers and the environment that have been won in the last part of the 20th century and first part of the 21st. Many progressives think or hope that Trump’s pathological lies, his missteps, corruption and perceived bumbling will sink his presidency fairly quickly. While that scenario is certainly possible, it would be foolhardly to rely on Trump’s self-destruction. As Mark Danner has perceptively noted in the New York Review of Books, the Trump, Bannon, Sessions et al right wing plan is to use crisis and chaos to pave the way to strengthen authoritarian, executive control and undermine democracy itself. Trump’s persistent falsehoods about fraudulent voting, Obama’s wiretapping and his virulent attacks on the judiciary and the media should be viewed as precursors to a broad assault on democratic opposition and liberties once crisis and chaos escalate, which is almost certain to happen.
Yet Trump’s ascension to power also gives rise to a great opportunity to build a powerful progressive movement, primarily because of the remarkable outpouring of energy and activism among activists and community people who have never been active before. The incredible turn-out at the nationwide women’s marches the day after the inauguration, the ongoing exponential increase in people attending local protests, meetings, and the spontaneous demonstrations against Trump’s Muslim ban at airports and elsewhere all illustrate that the time is ripe for developing a broad, multiracial, progressive and militant movement of the likes not seen since the 30s and 60s in this country. Yet despite the enormous increase in activism, resistance, and militancy of the past few months, such a movement is unlikely to be created or be successful unless it can overcome the other two forces that are related to Trump’s rise to power, and that have combined to create our current situation.
The second historical trend that has resulted in our current situation is the refusal and failure of the Democratic Party in the United States and social democratic or moderate parties in Europe to confront and address the fundamental economic and social problems arising out of late 20th century global capitalism. The current crises of neo-liberal capitalism is at the root of our problems in which the all consuming drive for corporate profit wreaks havoc on people and the planet. The industrial working class in the United States and elsewhere has been decimated by the policies of global capitalism, leading to a world-wide populist rebellion which has primarily taken a right wing, racist, anti-immigrant form. The mainstream of the Democratic Party, whether Clinton or Obama, has been tied to the corporate, banking elite, and has been unwilling to take on basic issues of global and domestic inequality and social justice. While the Democratic Party has verbally and halfheartedly supported a more racially, ethnically and gender inclusive society, inclusivity has not led to economic equality for the vast majority of minorities, poor people or women. Nor has the mainstream of the democratic party – whether Bill, Hillary or Obama – been willing to embrace a populist message attacking the corporate and banking elite for their role in creating the outrageous economic and social inequality that has grown over the past few decades in the United States. Their basic answer to the growing economic crisis has been minimal government regulation to curb the worst abuses, but no fundamental restructuring of society, nor a strong and consistent criticism of the increased economic inequality.
The final factor that has created our current mess has been the demise of the historic left and progressive movements. The tremendous movements of the 30s and 60s did result in major reforms being enacted. However, in both those eras, once the crisis subsided, the radical mass organizations that drove the changes withered, dissipated or became bureaucratized shells of their former selves. Moreover, the socialist and radical alternatives to the social and economic inequality of American society posed by those groups in the 30s and 60s failed and do not present an alternative for today. The trade unions have become bureaucratized shells of the activist workers organizations of the 30s and have gradually withered under internal stress and attacks from the right. The civil rights organizations of the 60s are also either dead or not very effective. So too, the mainstream feminist movement has become ossified and top down, unable to incorporate younger, more radical feminist activists. While of course other organizations and movements have arisen in the past 30 years, no national or even local group has been able to present the vision, tactics and strategy to revive a broad progressive movement. There has been a great deal of excellent local and national organizing around a host of issues in the past several decades, work that yields insights and base for the movement that needs to be built. But without a revival of an independent progressive movement with a coherent strategy and alternative, all the activism in the coming years will be insufficient to pose a strong challenge to, and serious alternative to Trump.
Creating a Progressive Alternative in Pittsburgh- Basic Principles and Vision
The task ahead thus clearly requires developing an activist movement that is not simply one of “resistance” to the Trump Administration and Congress’ new measures, but combines resistance with the positive vision of a healthier political and economic environment. The creation of such an activist movement requires a sustained effort in local communities, and not simply national demonstrations, work on broad national issues or even continued local demonstrations. What needs to be created are local, multiracial, diverse, intersectional, and broad movement organizations in different cities or communities around the country which have a vision of how to move forward in this era. We should create such a group in Pittsburgh. This group should have a number of basic, unifying themes and principles.
1. Our central unifying theme should be that the structure of current economic arrangements, promoting corporate/banker greed and a drive for profit over people’s well being, has created the obscene inequality between rich and poor that is the central issue facing Americans today.
The first task of creating a movement is to create a central narrative or unifying vision which offers people an explanation for the root cause of our societal problems and suggests a solution. The right has successfully done that: from Reagan to the Tea Party they have focused on a narrative that big government was the evil and the solution was to reduce taxes, reduce government regulation, leave more power in the States. The progressive counter was often to focus on inclusion and diversity, to defend the New Deal Programs, and to offer a mélange of new reform proposals.
This counter-narrative has been weak and will not suffice today. While inclusion, diversity, respect for rights are basic principles and starting points, they are insufficient. We must both protect the most marginalized and defenseless amongst us who will be the brunt of the Trump attacks, but also challenge the corporatist, rich elitist vison of this Administration and the two parties more generally.
Our narrative must start with the basic proposition that corporate profit, wealthy greed, bank speculation and the resulting obscene inequality between rich and poor are our main problem. The Trump Administration and the right wing attack liberalism’s aiding the “underserving”- welfare moms, immigrants, communities of color. We must counter that the main problem is that the government is dominated by a rich, corporate elite, which makes rules benefitting themselves at the expense of the vast majority of the people and the planet. Trump, for all his populist rhetoric, has staffed his Administration with wealthy, corporate whites who encapsulate the inequality underlying American society. A populist economic message, as set forth most prominently by Bernie Sanders can win over many of the working class and rural folks who supported Trump, opposed Clinton, or simply did not vote, and can form the basis of a program for real change. Perhaps even more important, such a narrative forms the basis of radical, thoroughgoing structural change to remove corporate power over the economy and government which can really improve people’s lives and not simply throw morsels of reforms at major problems. For example, while the Affordable Care Act did represent a meaningful reform allowing millions of people access to health care, it was fundamentally flawed in that it represented a capitulation to corporate power in the form of the insurance companies and hospitals. Our goal must be a single payer, national health care system. So too, was the Obama Administration’s economic policy after the crash, which while helping get the economy out of depression, was based on solidifying the position of the banks and large companies.
Perhaps the best expression of this narrative in recent history is the Occupied Movement’s attack on the 1% and support of the 99%. This slogan best expresses the basic underlying principle that our movement and government must be opposed to the 1% taking a vast percentage of the national wealth at the expense of us all. Of course, it is possible to go further, and make a basic principle of unity an attack on Capitalism as the root cause of the problem. Many of us believe that Capitalism is the root cause. But it might be a mistake to make that the unifying narrative now for several reasons: 1) capitalism is an abstract system which people don’t understand while the greed and profit seeking of the %1 is a very tangible expression of the problem, 2) it might lead to ideological fights and alienating people who are in general agreement but who might think that capitalism can be rescued from the extreme American version of profit and support a more European model or those who simply haven’t studied enough, 3) the 1% really encapsulates the idea best in a popular form. While focusing on the idea that challenging the 1% greed, power and drive for profit at our expense is the basic point of unity, we must still educate people to the basic structural problems with neo-liberal capitalism. We may want to agree- if there was that basic unity – that capitalism was the root cause of our problems, but to still focus our political narrative on the 1% idea of Occupy.
If we agreed on this basic narrative, the task would be to actualize it in a local program for activists.
2. Movement must be Independent of Democrats, Republicans and Corporations
A progressive movement must be independent of both the Democratic and Republican political parties and be totally independent of large corporations or government and/or foundation grants. For too long, a major goal of progressives participating in electoral politics has been to “push the Democratic party to the left”. While that might in fact happen from the development of an independent political movement, that cannot be our goal. Our goal must be to develop an anti-corporate, pro social justice political movement, not to be subsumed within the corporatist democratic party. So too, our organization must reject the corporate gifts, pac funding that fuel the two party system in favor of an independent, radical politics.
The Sanders campaign is a great illustration of both the possibilities of independent political action around an anti-corporate narrative and the dilemmas of starting on a national level. The Sanders campaign was perhaps the most substantial effort on a national level to compete for power on a broad, anti-corporate program that most of us would agree with. Indeed, the success of the Sanders campaign demonstrates that millions of people are prepared to support the radical anti-corporate message that Sanders based his campaign on. Yet Sanders was constrained by running in the Democratic Party and not being part of a broad electoral/activist movement for fundamental change. For example, had Sanders won, he would have been tremendously hindered by the fact that he was running alone and would have been dependent on the mainstream democratic party and republican opponents to implement any serious program for structural change. The answer is not necessarily to support marginal third parties on a national level, for Sanders had a more profound influence than any of those parties/candidates in the past. Rather, the answer is to start at the local level and do what Sanders did in Burlington Vt years ago – namely build an independent movement that combined activist and electoral struggles into one movement. If that could be done in many localities, then a future Sanders-like campaign would look very different.
3. Combine Electoral and Grassroots Activist Work in Pittsburgh and Surrounding Communities
Electoral campaigns in the United States have been divided and separated from political activism on concrete issues such as women’s rights, racial justice, LBGT rights, housing, immigration. Even the first Obama campaign, which did create and rely somewhat on an activist network, disbanded that network once Obama became President. Indeed, the Constitution was designed to create a yawning gap between the elected representatives and the people. As Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and an important voice for ratification of the Constitution in Pennsylvania, put it: “all power is derived from the people, they possess it on the days of their elections. After this it is the property of their rulers.” Roger Sherman, a participant at the Constitutional Convention from Connecticut expressed the same sentiment when he hoped that “the people… have as little to do as may be about the government.”
Of course, as Professor David Cole and others have pointed out, we have a vibrant civil society with numerous activist organizations on the left and right which do play a profound role in affecting government policy and constitutional interpretation. But those activist organizations are generally separate from the electoral campaigns of the two parties. There is no organic link between the election of representatives on all levels and an activist movement.
This proposal calls for the creation of an organization in Pittsburgh which would create such a link. The organization would seek to unify under one umbrella many of the activist networks that are currently struggling around low and middle income housing, mass incarceration and criminal justice, civil rights and anti-discrimination work, workers rights, environment, women’s rights, school issues, mass transit etc. The organization would eventually seek to run a slate of candidates on an independent ticket – e.g. the Human Rights Party, or the Human Rights and Social Justice Party- for local offices – e.g. city council, county council, mayor, District Attorney, Judges etc. Those candidates would generally come out of the activist work and pledge to work for a platform that the organization would agree upon. In each of the areas of work such as housing or police misconduct etc, the activists working in that area would bring to the organization a basic platform for work in the city/county. Together, those positions would form an overall platform for a new vision of Pittsburgh as a people’s/human rights city and not one beholden to the corporate elite. The candidates who would run for office would support that platform concretely would use their election campaigns to educate and engage people around that platform and, as a key aim of the electoral work, seek to draw people into the activist work of these movements. The activist work would thus support the electoral work, and the election campaigns would stem from and help build the activist work. It is precisely that tie between the activist and electoral work that would distinguish this organization from the two major parties and some other “third parties”.
In a city like Pittsburgh, such a “third party” campaign would be very different than a national or state election in that there really is no significant “second party” in Pittsburgh. So such an election strategy would generally not run up against the argument that it was simply allowing a reactionary Republican to win. Presumably if our work was successful, we eventually could be competitive against the Democratic slate of candidates, and win some seats on the City Council, or even a citywide or countywide position like Mayor or DA or Judge.
The organization should also have some electoral flexibility. While the overall goal is to develop an independent political organization which tied independent candidates to an activist movement, there might be a variety of tactics we could use or consider–e.g running independent candidates in the Democratic Primary. The touchstone would be to maintain both independence and flexibility. Another example to consider would be that in certain national, statewide or local races in which we were not running a candidate we might want discuss whether on a case by case basis whether to endorse someone in a particular situation – even if they were not part of our independent movement While these type of decisions could be made on a case by case basis, the overall goal of the organization would be to develop an independent politic and run activist candidates as part of an independent ticket not tied to either the Democrats or Republicans.
4. Creating a Program for a Different, Radical Vision of Pittsburgh
The overall goal of the organization should be to articulate a positive vision of Pittsburgh that presented a radical, non- racist, sexist, homophobic, democratic and more egalitarian Pittsburgh than
that articulated by the current elite. For example, in each of the activist areas, the movements involved should not just be involved in particular reform struggles, but seek to tie those struggles to an overall platform for a different Pittsburgh. Housing activists have and should promulgate a perspective on how to develop Pittsburgh without kicking the poor people out and increasing racial segregation, and ensuring that everyone has affordable access to decent housing. Anti-corporate activists should develop a platform on how to ensure that the major corporations that dominate Pittsburgh such as UPMC pay their fair share towards improving the lives of the people in Pittsburgh. Activists in the criminal justice area should develop a platform of dramatically reducing the number of people in jail, getting rid of bond for non-violent crimes, developing restorative justice programs, and treating those in prison with humanity and dignity. Labor activists should develop a program that would help create environmentally clean work, with well paying jobs in Pittsburgh not just for the technology wizards, but for ordinary people, and ensure that the wages those people are paid reflect a truly livable standard. The point would be not simply to oppose the injustices that we have been fighting against, but to develop a positive program that would cut across different activist areas, and would present an alternative to that proposed by either the liberals or conservative elites who run the city. Much of that program would come out of the grass root struggles that are already taking place. It would be a program that placed our struggle in a national and international context, and incorporated the lessons and principles of international human rights. Creating a common program against the common corporate enemy would help bring the various struggles together in a deeper, more meaningful manner than coalition politics, in that the different campaigns would really fall under the same umbrella and part of the same cause.
5. Creating more Democratic, Popular participation in Pittsburgh neighborhoods.
The U.S. Constitution was deliberately designed to have representative government but not grass roots democratic government. A radical movement should focus on increasing popular participation in all aspects of governmental and civic life. As simply one illustration, police regulations in this City are not transparent, and the public often has no access to even what the regulations say. The best place to start is on a local level, and this movement should brainstorm on what could be done in the city to increase popular participation in decisions that affect people’s lives. Such a program can only be worked out in practice, but the key point here is that the focus on participatory democracy in addition to representative government should be a key aspect of our work.
6. Creating a Diverse, Welcoming, Non-Sectarian Organization and Movement
Thousands of people who have never been activists have become active and engaged now. We must both present a concrete vision, strategy, program and tactics, and also welcome new energy in a non-sectarian and diverse movement. Therefore, leadership of the organization should be flexible, changing and democratic – and people should be open to new ideas. The basic principles are that of placing the 99%s interest and not the 1% interest in the forefront, merging electoral work with grass roots non-electoral militant activism, political independence from the two parties, creating a radical program for Pittsburgh and fostering participatory democracy – but within those principles there can be diverse and differing ideas that can co-exist. Radical organizations such as the National Lawyers Guild which have been able to survive for a long time and continue doing progressive work have been able to do so because they were open to new and diverse leadership and to new ideas which did not contradict their basic radical principles.
7. Imagining and Creating Institutions that Prefigure a cooperative, socialist society
One of the problems that the progressive movement has had over the past 50 years is in imagining and arguing for a fundamentally restructured society. The communist countries that came out of the Soviet Revolution and World War II proved to be disastrous and collapsed. So too the third world revolutions which held so much promise in the 60s and 70s – Cuba, Vietnam, China, Nicaragua- have also not led to any models for a US socialist future- although elements (health care in Cuba) can be supported. Nor have radical, democratic socialist models come from Europe or North America, although some societies in Europe, such as the Scandanavian countries, clearly have more egalitarian, socially just societies than the United States which we can learn from.
Great transitions in history or in knowledge do not generally emerge fully formed out of the chaos of the old order or theory. Rather, as what happened when industrial capitalism developed and supplanted the feudal, serf or slave system, pieces of a new system emerge within the body of the old and compete within it for some time – perhaps even hundreds of years.
Progressives should begin to create new institutions and cities and towns such as Pittsburgh which would reflect a different economic and societal model – emphasizing cooperation and not individualism, social usefulness over profit, solidarity over go it alone thinking. One of the tasks of this organization should be to think through areas in which these new institutions, even very localized or small scale, can be started, nurtured and expanded.
8. Non-Violence and Dialogue
Many 20th century revolutionary movements such as the South African struggle resorted to violence to achieve revolutionary goals. As an organization, we should adopt a radical egalitarian stance and also the non-violent tactics of Gandhi, King, the Pelican Bay Hunger Strikers or the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions. Such tactics can be militant, can confront state power in a way that violates the law, can challenge unjust laws, but should not resort to resolving disputes by violence. A corollary to non-violent tactics is engaging in non-patronizing or antagonistic dialogue with the many people in American society who voted for Trump, who are disgruntled with our current system but who have problematic racist or misogynist ideas as to what they want to change. Too many intellectuals, leftists and democratic party liberals have written off white, rural working class voters as simply misled, racist or stupid.
9. Humility, Dialogue and Respect for Disagreement
The organization must be based on a radical new type of leadership and relationships amongst people within the group. We must commit to humility, to develop comfort with our own strengths and limitations, to build compassion for ourselves and others, and to put a primacy on listening to those we work with on the grassroots and within our group. Within our basic unity, we must also embrace disagreement and conflict with a respect for the opinions of others and a humility to realize that someone else might be right. We come from different backgrounds and experiences, and will not always agree, but must to learn, grow and build transformative relationships by listening to each other, trying to understand each other and when disagreeing, doing so respectfully with each other. We each have different skills and attributes, and we should respect those differences. Finally, our group should lead with its heart and head, with compassion and reason, and with a profound commitment to equality, justice and radical democracy.
How to Move Ahead.
It might be a mistake to try to unite various organizations under an umbrella coalition. While that effort might be somewhat productive in providing support for the various groups working on different issues, it will probably fizzle in the long run. More important, it misses the historic opportunity that exists now to create a new movement, as opposed to simply supporting some of the existing efforts, as valuable as that might be.
An alternative approach would be to identify a diverse group of 15-30 activists/leaders in different movements who would be supportive of the broad principles outlined in this document and bring them together with the aim of seeing if there was support for and willingness to figure out how to move forward in creating the organization/movement outlined above. The group should be diverse and broad enough to represent a significant section of the Pittsburgh radical activist movement, yet be small enough to really engage in concrete and intensive dialogue on how to move ahead.
The goal articulated here is more ambitious than creating a loose knit coalition of activist groups that would support each other’s actions and goals. Rather it is to not only resist the reactionary forces that govern America, but to overcome the two other forces that have led us into this mess – namely to begin to create an alternative to the liberal/moderate/conservative Democratic Party which has proven unable to address the great crisis of our times, and to begin to reconstitute a radical left movement which poses an alternative narrative, program and positive vision of a future society that has been lacking for the past half century.
This understandably is a daunting task, but in the absence of a strong national movement, it falls to local communities to undertake this goal. If in Pittsburgh and other local communities, such organizations, groups, coalitions or movements can begin the task of creating an alternative, it might be possible to in the medium to long term to develop into a national movement. Undoubtedly we are quite limited in local communities; lack of resources, preemption by state law, opposition from local, state or national politicians, resistance from powerful corporate forces, but if even some significant progress towards developing a program and an electoral/activist movement to push that program can be made, it could be a significant step forward toward eventually leading us out of the situation where all we can do is resist on the ground but have no real positive national or even local alternative.