From Portside <[email protected]>
Subject Socialists of Color to the Front
Date August 14, 2019 12:00 AM
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[LeftRoots, a socialist group with majorities of women and people
of color, is strategizing to win.] [[link removed]]

SOCIALISTS OF COLOR TO THE FRONT  
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Eli Day
August 5, 2019
In These Times
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_ LeftRoots, a socialist group with majorities of women and people of
color, is strategizing to win. _

LeftRoots co-founder NTanya Lee started the group in 2014 to bridge
the gap between daily organizing work and big-picture socialist
strategizing. “It wasn’t enough” to just hope, she says., Photo
by Sarah Maney

 

One evening in late May, upward of 50 grassroots organizers from
different groups around the country gathered at a union hall in
Dorchester, Mass. They were grappling with some of the Left’s
age-old questions: In a future where the Left wins political power,
what would we like to see happen? And more pragmatically: What would
it take to get there?

A local community organizer sets the scene: “It’s 2019. Burning
issues are facing our communities.” She lists off galloping
inequality, a trigger-happy white nationalist movement, looming
environmental disaster. It’s urgent, she says, to do “more
cross-fertilization work” to harness progressive forces (like the
striking teachers around the country) to build solidarity across
issues.

This discussion of base-building to include more different types of
people is typical of many Left gatherings. But what’s noteworthy is
the faces in the room, who reflect the kind of diverse base the Left
has aspired to build for decades.

That’s by design. The meeting host is LeftRoots
[[link removed]], a five-year-old socialist group that offers
a hub for on-the-ground organizers around the country to
strategize together. LeftRoots’ membership includes
“super-majorities both of people of color, and of women and other
gender-oppressed people.” Co-founder NTanya Lee says this isn’t
“just a racial critique that the contemporary U.S. Left is too
white” (though “that is a fact,” she adds). Instead, it’s
vital, she says, that any movement to transform the world be “rooted
in the struggles of working-class communities of color who are the
ones who have the most at stake in defeating the system and winning
the liberation that we really want.”

In the American political imagination, talk of the working class still
conjures an image of gruff, salt-of-the-earth white men in the Rust
Belt. While they’re certainly out there, at 59% of
25–64-year-olds, white people (and white men, especially) make up a
declining share 
[[link removed]]of
the working class. The Economic Policy Institute
[[link removed]] projects
that, by 2032, a majority of the American working class will be people
of color. Women already make up nearly half of working-class adults
[[link removed]] in
the country at 46%.

That LeftRoots even exists might send much of established media
stumbling back on their heels. The chattering classes have been quick
to interpret the surging interest in socialism as a fad for a loud
(but small!) band of white millennials. (A snarky _New
York_ magazine piece
[[link removed]] published
in March reports on the silly quirks of the “young socialist power
elite” in Brooklyn, who supposedly live on Twitter and believe
socialism to be “sexy” without really knowing what it means.)

Of course, there’s a long history of socialism in communities of
color in America, from what historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz calls
pre-colonial “indigenous socialism”
[[link removed]] (and
its radical heir, the American Indian Movement
[[link removed]]) to spirited traditions of Chinese American
socialism
[[link removed]] in San
Francisco in the early 20th century and the radical Chicano movements
of the Southwest
[[link removed]] in the
late 20th century. Black socialists have been a pain in the ass to
many of their white counterparts for more than a century, relentlessly
insisting that white supremacy is chief among the Goliaths that
socialism must slay. In a 1913 essay
[[link removed]],
noted socialist W.E.B. Du Bois famously described “The Negro
Problem” as “the great test of the American Socialist.”

Lee launched LeftRoots in 2014 with a crew of three other San
Francisco Bay Area organizers who thought the political Left was
failing to bridge the gap between urgent, daily, in-the-trenches
action and a longer-term vision and strategy. “It wasn’t enough to
cross our fingers and be like, ‘One day this shit is all going to
get connected and we’re going to win,’ ” says Lee, 50, the
former executive director of San Francisco-based community organizing
group Coleman Advocates.

It’s worth emphasizing what LeftRoots is _not_. LeftRoots does not
initiate or run campaigns, whether issue-based or electoral, like the
Democratic Socialists of America and many other socialist groups. Nor
does it organize protests. LeftRoots’ focus is simply on its stated
purpose: to strategize around “21st-century socialism” and then
bring people together to help get there.

LeftRoots offers regular branch meetings and other training events.
Members also work through an online curriculum they call the Little
Red School, covering topics from political economy to cultural
hegemony to strategies for building organizational power. This breadth
is also apparent in LeftRoots’ _Out to Win!_ journal
[[link removed]]. At 150 pages, it makes
references from Engels and Marx to American Idol, includes quotes from
Paulo Freire to Langston Hughes and Grace Lee Boggs, and explores
ideas from cis-heteropatriarchy to neoliberalism, all while citing
sources and marking points of debate.

Today, LeftRoots has more than 200 members spread across seven
branches—Boston, Philadelphia, New York, the Bay Area, Los Angeles
and two at-large branches that meet online. While their numbers may
seem small, their influence is multiplied by the simple fact that
nearly everyone is already involved in other grassroots work aimed at
improving their communities. Members say LeftRoots has deeply informed
that work.

Sometimes when you’re in the day-to-day of the work, you’re [only]
focused on what’s right in front of you,” says Mike Leyba, 31, an
electoral strategist and organizer in Boston who sits on the LeftRoots
National Coordinating Committee. It’s LeftRoots’ job “to zoom
out and … see where our potential for really strategic action is.”

Leyba, who spent his formative years in Compton, Calif., became a
political organizer in 2008, when he joined the fight against a
California ballot proposal banning same-sex marriage. He joined
LeftRoots in April 2016. For Leyba, LeftRoots has “really honed my
political strategy around electoral work.” Since 2010, he has
staffed or managed four local electoral campaigns in Massachusetts and
California, including state house races and a Boston mayoral campaign.

“If I weren’t a part of LeftRoots, I probably would be much more
cynical about working in electoral politics,” Leyba says. “If
progressive candidates, once elected, don’t always deliver,” he
says, the feeling becomes, “I worked so freaking hard for this
person and they didn’t do shit for me or my people, and we’re
still in crisis.”

But Leyba says LeftRoots helped him see that electoral campaigns can
be a way to build a socialist base, regardless of the election’s
outcome or how the official performs once elected. For example, Leyba
“deep canvasses” Boston neighborhoods; rather than just reciting
a candidate’s biography to potential voters, he now asks questions
rooted in race and class, such as, “When was the last time you got a
rent increase?” Those conversations can spin out into deeper
discussions about rent control or funding public schools. He says
“It’s putting an ear to the ground and seeing where people are at.
Where are they feeling the squeeze? Where should we be focusing our
energy? Where is the transformative potential?

“Now multiply this by tens of thousands of conversations. You’re
able to see much bigger than any particular candidate. Whoever wins
will have very real limits on their power. But there aren’t the same
limits on social movements.”

Paige Kümm, 32, another member of the LeftRoots National Coordinating
Committee, serves as a national organizer with Right to the City
[[link removed]], an alliance of social justice
organizations that aims to offer “a unified response to
gentrification” nationwide. At a March staff retreat in Brooklyn,
Right to the City discussed LeftRoots’ newly expanded working
definition of class, laid out in the first issue of _Out to Win_.
Here, LeftRoots sees potential allies for working-class issues in the
lower tiers of the ownership class, like taxi drivers and corner store
owners. While the upper layer of capitalists (“the executives, board
members and major shareholders”) may fight socialist change tooth
and nail, this lower-tier group still faces significant hardship and
could be moved to join a movement to redistribute wealth and power.

LeftRoots’ layered definition of class helped Right to the City
“better understand the layers of the working class,” says Kümm.
Some homeowners may technically be landlords, in that they rent to
tenants and depend on rent to make their payments to the bank, but
these homeowners are still “bank tenants,” as Kümm describes
them, who face foreclosure if they fall on hard times. LeftRoots’
definition was a helpful reminder to not pit these homeowner-tenants
against subtenants, Kümm says, since both have interests in fighting
the power that banks have to make them homeless.

“We’re trying to better understand: What are the different strata
of the working class and how can we speak to their interest?” Kümm
says. “How can we make them feel like they are a part of this
movement?”

There are two ways to join LeftRoots, which holds no membership drives
and no purity tests beyond its “points of unity,” which includes
notes like “socialism is the future” and “the planet is not a
commodity.” The first is as a “compa” (from the Spanish for
“friend”), an ongoing financial and political supporter, important
for an organization that doesn’t apply for philanthropic foundation
grants. 

The second way to become a member is by invitation only. To be
eligible, you must complete the General Baker bootcamp, named after a
giant of Black socialist organizing in Detroit. In one-day sessions
over eight weeks, held simultaneously around the country and online,
participants share their ideas about socialism and their own journeys
as activists. Afterward, some are invited to become full-fledged
members, called cadre.

That word, “cadre,” may be off-putting for those who remember it
mainly as a description of various leftist factions with top-down
leadership structures, the kind that aspired to be revolutionary
vanguards—an elite tier supposedly most qualified to lead radical
change—in the 1960s and 1970s. These groups based themselves on a
particular interpretation of socialist theories of change in which a
leadership role in working-class politics was guaranteed by devotion
to a particular ideology and intellectual rank, rather than earned by
a practice in mass struggle to help forge and unleash the power of
workers and oppressed peoples.

Most on the Left now reject that particular version of cadreism as
both fundamentally anti-democratic and doomed to failure—and the
dozen or so LeftRoots cadres I spoke with agree. They use the term in
a much more generic sense, to mean the activists who believe in a
political project; devote a considerable portion of their time, energy
and talent to moving it forward; and are serious about developing the
intellectual and practical skills to do so effectively. Thus they see
no contradiction between the importance of developing revolutionary
cadre and rejecting the vanguardist practices of the past. In fact,
the LeftRoots website has an explicit “against vanguardism”
section [[link removed]]: “Challenging the
practice of many 20th century cadre organizations on the Party Left,
we reject the vanguardism and the associated practices of operating
secretly within mass organizations while trying to control them;
creating front groups; or being opportunist and leeching onto
authentic mass struggles to avoid doing the long hard work of building
a real base.”

LeftRoots insists that “the people that are doing the strategy”
should be “really grounded in the work,” Leyba says. “Otherwise,
you’re just an armchair activist and we don’t need more of
those.”

Instead, LeftRoots refers to a cadre as a committed member who
“willingly makes sacrifices, learns skills and plays roles that are
required in order to fight for the change we wish to see.” Here,
“cadre” acts as a small way to highlight, yet again, that
isolation can be overcome, because the walls that separate those who
are hungry for an egalitarian world are thinner than they imagine.

LeftRoots doesn't see itself as the final home of this 21st-century
socialism. Rather, it is “attempting to lay the groundwork for the
launching of a political instrument in the future,” Kümm says.
LeftRoots, she says, is a way to “train up social movement leftists
to be prepared to take part in the launching of that political
instrument.” LeftRoots folks are candid about how far the Left has
to travel before it can flex its political muscle the same way as
robust cadre movements of the past (the radical Black socialist
autoworkers in Detroit
[[link removed]] in the late 1960s
and 1970s, for example). But LeftRoots intends, after a couple years
of rigorous study, experimentation and analysis, to draw a clearer
picture of the sorts of vehicles the Left needs to bring its vision to
life.

In that union hall near Boston (which LeftRoots requested not be
named, out of “an abundance of caution” about redbaiting), close
to 100 area organizers also participated, representing groups
like City Life/Vida Urbana [[link removed]], Dominican
Development Center [[link removed]], New
England United for Justice [[link removed]], Boston
Liberation Health
[[link removed]] and Right to the City
Boston [[link removed]], groups fighting for
everything from racial, economic and environmental justice to land,
labor and housing rights.

The discussion closed with long-term questions: Should the Left
prepare to launch a third party or commit to a takeover of the
Democratic Party? And speaking of takeovers, how cool would it be if
workers in weapons factories just took the damn things over and
retrofit them for green purposes?

After decades in the political wilderness, the American Left is aware
of the obstacles to a more egalitarian world. But in rooms like this,
where political imagination and analytic rigor walk hand in hand, you
can see possibilities unfold, a tapestry of radical hopes and ideas.
In an increasingly desperate moment, it’s a refreshing revival: an
old socialist tradition being built upon and refined and expanded to
ensure meaningful participation for all, particularly working-class
communities—of color, especially.

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Eli Day is an investigative fellow with _In These Times_' Leonard C.
Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting. He is a writer and
relentless Detroiter, where he writes about politics and policy. His
work has appeared in the _Detroit News_, _City Metric_, _Huffington
Post_, _The Root_, _Truthout_, and _Very Smart Brothas_, among
others.

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