As Z and Sean watched the leftist ecosystem expand in the wake of Donald Trump’s election, they noticed something still missing: There was no broad socialist organizing grounded in the black radical tradition. And so, in 2017, they founded Black Socialists of America, and declared it internationalist, eco-socialist, democratic, intersectional, nonsectarian, anti-war, and revolutionary. It quickly earned the endorsement of Noam Chomsky, who wrote that it was “particularly encouraging” that BSA was attempting to create “the germs of a future and better society within the deeply flawed existing one.”
As its 26-year-old national coordinator, Z conceived of the collective’s most ambitious project yet: the Dual Power Map, which seeks to plot every worker co-op, small-business development center, community land trust, and “dual power” project in the United States. Along with a snappy Twitter feed and a wealth of radical knowledge, BSA seeks to inspire and aid an international rainbow coalition, which Z insists will be one day realized. (Z and Sean requested that their government names not be used to protect their privacy.) To discuss the organization and “dual power,” The Nation spoke by phone with Z.
Teddy Ostrow: What is Black Socialists of America, and what are you hoping to achieve with it?
Z: Black Socialists of America is a network of anti-capitalist black Americans who are not just interested in building up a platform for black American leftists or getting the ideas of black American leftists out into popular dialogue; we’re also trying to push mass education in poor and working-class black and brown communities to dismantle capitalist relations and the capitalist state.
We’re not advocating for a black nation state, but we believe that black people need to be able to build in self-determination—in coalitions with people from other communities—to ensure that our particular needs and interests are met and that we have space to implement the various ideas, organizational structures, and approaches that we know best fit our communities.
TO: What does Black Socialists of America do on a day-to-day basis? What are the main activities and operations?
Z: What we want BSA to be as time goes on is essentially a national collective and network for black leftists who are trying to build on what we’re calling “dual power projects” and Cooperation Jackson. Some of their members are a part of our organization, and we’re formally partnered up with them. Their project—a federation of predominantly black-owned worker cooperatives based out of Jackson, Mississippi—is utilizing the tools of what we call the “solidarity economy movement” in order to build on this idea of economic democracy and community control. They’re doing it under an explicitly eco-socialist, anti-capitalist politics.
And so we want to catalyze the development of Cooperation Jacksons throughout the country, and we want to be able to support and connect these various initiatives.
TO: Why do you think poor and working-class communities of color need to mobilize with socialism as a guiding philosophy?
Z: There’s a lot of ways I can answer that question, but I want to start by quoting one of the first black socialists of America, who was a preacher by the name of George W. Woodbey. He has a quote, and mind you, he said this in 1909: “Negroes…are yet under the impression that the accumulation of wealth in the hands of a few Negroes will solve this problem…notwithstanding the fact that a few white men have all the wealth and the rest of their brothers are getting poorer everyday.”
First and foremost we have to understand that we—poor and working-class black people—are in the position that we’re in because of capitalist relations and a capitalist logic in tandem with white supremacy and various other systems of oppression that we’ve been dealing with since chattel slavery. You can’t use exploitative methods to transcend a system of exploitation.
TO: I want to get more into those weeds in a little bit. But first, tell me a bit about yourself. When did you come to be a socialist, and how did you come up with the idea for this organization?
Z: I was raised in a fundamentalist Christian household. For the first 17, 18 years of my life, everything was oriented around Jesus Christ and the types of values that came along with that. There are figures throughout the black radical tradition who had a similar upbringing. I don’t believe in any organized religion at this point in my life, but I do think that might’ve played a role in shaping my values and in how I perceive the world around me, perceive people in my community, and perceive struggle—what that means and what that is.
But I really didn’t come around to socialism explicitly until sometime after university. Throughout that entire period, I took a deeper dive into left history and theory and heterodox economics, which is still something that I’m learning. But in December of 2017—it was actually after Cornel West put out that piece in The Guardian critiquing Ta-Nehisi Coates—the response he got infuriated me. Black petit bourgeois academics calling him a hater, that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, that he’s washed up, all these different things. I was like OK, there needs to be some sort of platform for black leftists in the United States.
So in December of 2017, I started Black Socialists of America as a social media platform to let people know that not only are black anti-capitalists here in numbers, but also black socialists have been here for well over a century—well over a century. Black people have been using mutual aid and cooperative economics since chattel slavery. We had black American socialists back when Karl Marx himself was still alive. Peter H. Clark, for example, who we identify as the first black socialist of America, was writing about socialism in the 1870s.
Through this platform I curated that history from the 1870s to today, covering the Black Panther Party and various individuals and movements throughout history—sharing pictures, quotes, videos, articles. And after a certain amount of time, I started sharing more of my views. Doing threads on various dynamics got a lot of traction. Within six or seven months, in the middle of 2018, we partnered up with Cooperation Jackson formally.
It went from being “black American leftists need a platform” to we have a chance here to present to people a concrete practical strategy and model that can allow us to start building counter power and counter institutions against capitalist relations.
TO: What does BSA offer to black leftists that other organizations, such as the Democratic Socialists of America, do not?
Z: I mean, where do I start? I just want to preface my response here by saying that I have comrades in DSA, and they’ve been supportive of us for a long time. Before Black Socialists of America, there was no all-encompassing organization that represented us and our history. There are black anti-capitalist organizations that have been here for a long time, but if you googled “black socialists,” you weren’t going to get a lot of results.
As black people, we have perspectives that these predominantly white organizations just aren’t going to have. Also, the economic programs and strategies we’re advocating for are not reflected in the programs of the larger, predominantly white left organizations in the US. We’re talking about white supremacy, and we’re talking about patriarchy, and we’re talking about all the social systems of domination in addition to capitalist exploitation.
The left is still largely class reductionist today, and you have neoliberal organizations, and media and figures who are race reductionists. We’re starting in poor and working-class black communities because, to put it as simply as possible, white people don’t listen.
TO: BSA has made calls for the foundation of other potentially allied socialist organizations, such as Latinx Socialists of America. I believe an Asian Socialists of America is in development. Why has BSA called for their establishment?
Z: We are going to know our issues better than anyone else. Human beings are heterogeneous. It doesn’t make sense for us to file under organizational structures that homogenize us and force us to assimilate into an organization whose perspectives ultimately don’t reflect our understanding. It makes more sense for us to build where we’re at, with people who understand our struggles, and then to build coalitions with folks from other communities who know their own struggles and dynamics.
TO: On the BSA website, if you leave the webpage open long enough, there are these pop-ups of influential leftist figures like James Baldwin that appear with quotes. And your social media is flooded with threads, excerpts, and pictures of leftists of color. How do you see Black Socialists of America fitting within the black radical tradition?
Z: If you study the black radical tradition and black figures on the left in our history, the one common thread between all of them is that they were trying to grab onto whatever framework, whatever insights they could in order to help black people liberate themselves and find freedom.
Our history is, as poor and working-class black people in the United States, various forms and variations of enslavement—some much more brutal and extreme than others. And Black Socialists of America is another stage within the black radical tradition that nests the fight for freedom within a global fight for freedom and utilizes whatever analytical frameworks to push and develop tools for liberation.
The quote that I actually like to bring up on this question is from David Hilliard from the Black Panther Party. He was the chief of staff and said, “We are not Maoists. We are not Marxists. We are black people from Africa, who [have] a scientific approach to our world. Our philosophy is that everything in the world is always changing. Which means that you always have to adapt your thinking.” That basically sums up Black Socialists of America.
TO: We talked about “dual power” earlier. How do you define dual power?
Z: In the “Mumbo Jumbo” section of our website, we define dual power as “two powers, one proletarian (democratic) and one capitalist, coexist and compete for legitimacy during the transition away from Capitalism.” A lot of people, by the way, associate dual power with Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks, because he came up with that term, but the concept predates Lenin and the Bolsheviks in 1917 by over half a century. It goes back to the works of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, who describes it as essentially a parallel sector of an economy—autonomous, decentralized—germinating under cooperative relations and an alternative logic.
TO: Why did you create this Dual Power Map, and what are you trying to do with it?
Z: We created the Dual Power Map, because it’s one thing to sit and talk to people about the solidarity economy movement, worker cooperatives, community land trusts, and how great they are. And then it’s another thing to give people an interactive resource that allows them to engage with and support these institutions in the real world and in real time—something that we can update as time goes on.
In addition to that, we get to showcase Cooperation Jackson within this greater map in order to give people a distinction between something like what we’re trying to build on—dual power projects—and something like the cooperative and solidarity economy movements in general.
People can see very clearly that one is just kind of messy, and while it’s better at the micro level than the default capitalist alternative, they’re weaker in the sense that they’re not united. They’re fragmented. The hope is that as time goes on, we’re not just going to see cooperatives sprout up sporadically. We want to see explicitly political dual power projects and build out ecosystems of economic democracy that can reinforce other ecosystems of democracy throughout the country.
Ultimately, we want to build out on this Dual Power Map into what we call the Dual Power App, an iOS-Android application that would allow folks to engage and start building on their own projects in a much more comprehensive, accessible, and streamlined way.
TO: I think that the Dual Power Map for a lot of leftists was very exciting. And dual power is a household term for many socialists. On your website, there is a section of glossary terms, that includes common phrases used by leftists, different leftist sects, and there’s also a resource page with introductory readings, longer reads, and other literature. What is the importance of becoming familiar with the literature, the theory, and the real nitty-gritty of socialism?
Z: I actually think we have a lot more work to do on this front, in terms of making these concepts, ideas, and materials accessible to poor and working-class people. We have to do the work of simplifying without oversimplifying for people who are unfamiliar and who might be interested or curious.
I also want to give us some credit. I do think that with the resources that we have, we’ve been doing a decent job on this front. Through our reach with social media, we’ve been interfacing with popular culture. We’ve been outward-facing. We haven’t just been dealing with internal politics and sectarianism in an insular fashion. We’ve been sharing quotes from Tupac Shakur, Serj Tankian, Kurt Cobain, and Albert Einstein—people who a lot of folks don’t know were socialists and who were very well-known outside of the left.
I think hopefully we’ll be able to have our own production studio to create video content—video essays, and we’re definitely going to have different podcasts, maybe even an online TV series where we have certain guests on and host certain conversations to allow people to grasp some of these questions, concerns, and ideas in different ways.
Teddy Ostrow is an editorial intern at The Nation.