On Left Organizations: A Response to Epstein’s Article

Barbara Epstein’s article "Why the US Left is Weak – and What to Do About It" offers lots of provocative points, both implicitly in the way that she tells history and explicitly through her recommendations. Although I disagree with some aspects of what she presents, I want to focus here on an area where she and I share a lot of agreement – the need for organizations on and of the left.

Basically, I think Epstein is right that we need left organizations, but this begs at least a couple of questions: What kind of left? And what kinds of organizations? I’ll say a little about each of these in turn.


What kind of left?

On this first question, I appreciate that Epstein offers a definition of the left in her opening paragraph: "those of us who want a democratic and egalitarian society, a demilitarized world, and a respectful relationship between humans, other creatures, and the natural environment, those of us who are convinced that this will require a massive redistribution of power and wealth, within the US and internationally." Further on, she also mentions, "It would be difficult to consider anyone who is not critical of capitalism part of the left."

The other category that Epstein brings in to her discussion is what she calls "left liberals" or "progressives." These are people who share many aspirations of those on the left but, she writes, "they tend not to see the need for fundamental, structural social change."

I definitely see how these categories broadly track some realities in the U.S. However, I also think that things are a lot more complicated and we would do well to consider some of these complexities.

In particular, I’m not sure that there’s much space in this schema for the many people who are engaged in various movements and popular organizations but who might not have all of the aspirations and analyses that Epstein associates with the left. In terms of movements, I’m thinking of examples such as the immigrant rights movement, the anti-war movement, or the movement against the prison-industrial-complex. And in terms of popular organizations, I’m thinking of examples such as Domestic Workers United in New York City, Project South in Atlanta, or the Rural Organizing Project in Oregon, all membership organizations of different sorts. There are, of course, many other examples of both movements and organizations.

These kinds of people, it seems to me, are part of the left. But this is a left that only partly overlaps with the self-consciously anti-capitalist left that Epstein names. And this is a left that I don’t think is adequately named as "left liberal" or "progressive"; it might be better called a "movement left" or a "grassroots left." In my view, any effort to build a viable, broad-based left in the U.S. will have to be grounded in just these sorts of movements and organizations.

What kinds of organizations?

On this second question, I appreciate that Epstein thinks practically about the benefits of left organizations: "A sense of common purpose and an atmosphere of comradeship should create an arena in which differences of perspective can be discussed in a friendly way, and in which differences of time commitment can be accommodated." These are crucial.

Other general features of left organization that seem particularly important to me include:

  • practicing democracy and self-management
  • fostering and sustaining accountability among members
  • developing skills, analysis, capacity, and confidence, individually and collectively
  • formulating collective visions and strategies
  • planning, carrying out, and evaluating political work
  • providing structures through which to mitigate differences of power and privilege
  • sharing and democratizing resources
  • organizing means through which members can care for one another
  • offering many points of engagement and levels of commitment
  • welcoming and incorporating celebration, humor, and appreciation

But these features, like Epstein’s discussion of organization, are still quite abstract. The truth is, "organization" can actually mean many different things depending on what political priorities and reference points we might have. With that word, for instance, we could be talking about "party," "collective," "cadre group," "coalition," "base-building organization," "neighborhood assembly," or "spokescouncil," among other things.

So, I think we need to get more specific about the aims, politics, and contexts necessary for building left organizations. I also think we need to get imaginative. If we are to have dynamic left organizations, I suspect that they’re going to have push beyond the currently available models. This undoubtedly means challenging the ways that we tend to fetishize different forms of organization, whether revolutionary parties, autonomous affinity groups, or others.

Most of all, I think we need to be building organizations oriented to the left we want: big, broad, and lively; including many tendencies, struggles, and sectors; and grounded in the day-to-day lives of ordinary people.

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