This is the english version of an interview we conducted with Kate Griffiths about base building and the Marxist Center (MC). Griffiths is an editor in the marxist journal Spectre, member of Red Bloom Communist Collective (RBCC) in New York and was a delegate at the Marxist Center Conference in 2018.
You’ve been involved with the network called Marxist Center. For those unfamiliar, could you say a little bit about the network and the conference that was held in 2018?
Yes, at that conference we met with dozens of collectives from around the USA who saw ourselves as to the left of the socialist movement’s focus on electoralism and instead were focused on organizing workers in workplaces and on the shop floor, with or without unions, organizing tenants and cooperatives. We used the meeting to come up with a minimum basis of political agreement, and to propose that we work over the next few years towards more coordination and cooperative political development. It was particularly exciting to see that we had interested collectives in places that the rest of the socialist movement wasn’t reaching — in the west and the south and outside of major cities, as well as of course in the places that have a stronger history of left and worker organization. It was also a notably young, working class and disproportionately queer/lgbtq crowd.
We assume “base building” is a foreign concept to our Norwegian audience, except for those who have been following debates on the US left. How would you briefly explain the strategy of “base building”?
There are a number of perspectives on this even within the Marxist Center, as well as without, as there is a “base building” tendency in the DSA (Democratic Socialists of America) as well. I can say for myself I think the conception has both a very important core orientation, while in practice it can be quite vague and on some level constitutionally apolitical.
In general when people refer to base-building, they mean building within and among the working class “for the long haul” rather than simply intervening in existing debates or institutions, and rather than agitation, protest and self-defense. However, base-building need not be hostile to these other forms of activity. Concretely, for the MC, it means a program of building tenants unions, shop-floor worker organization and, somewhat less often, worker and consumer co-ops.
I find the idea most useful as an expression of the importance of organizing outside and beyond the election cycle and outside service-model non-governmental agencies, who while formally apolitical, largely operate as a base for the Democratic Party machine. I’d like to see “base-building” develop, through the experience of MC collectives and other efforts in to a more specific strategy for reforming existing unions along the lines of rank and file democracy, building new workplace organizations and shop-floor unions, industry-wide and cross-sectoral networks, tenants unions at the level of building, block, city, state and even beyond, combined with and supported by worker-controlled alternatives to patchwork, coercive, and neoliberal state and NGO services.
I think the best and fastest way to build this model, and these institutions, in relation to each other, is in the now increasingly common moments of confrontation, with landlords, city governments and bosses. “Social strike” tactics and ad hoc mutual aid that arise in moments of strike and struggle can be a basis for building longer organized connections between job and neighborhood and the spheres of production and reproduction, with the most potential, I think, for building concrete relationships of solidarity across national borders yes, but also across the divisions internal to the class that occur within, as well as across and between international lines.
How would base building relate to conventional activism, or what you call “activist networking”?
I think, and maybe I’m giving my personal view here rather than some MC official one, that we need both things. On the one hand, the goal of “base building’ is to build working class institutions and sources of power that can be in the future, and maybe soon, sources of power for left-wing, socialist and independent working class politics. On the other hand, “networking” and regroupment among the left, particularly the revolutionary left, remains an important task. I think where “activist networking” gets dangerous is when it becomes a vector for orienting working class organization back toward the Democratic Party or any other fundamentally bourgeois formation, or where it becomes a substitute for the primary task of building that organization in the first place.
How does base building relate to “dual power”? Is the term “dual power”, as is understood by US base building organizations, different from a Leninist conception of dual power?
I think within the MC, and really, historically on the left, there are two main ways of understanding “dual power”–an “insurrectionary” vision and a “prefigurative vision” of dual power. Im drawing here on my partner Madeline Rolka theorizing this pretty intensely of late, and what I hope will become a set of important debates within the Marxist Center. On the one hand, in the more traditional insurrectionary model, Madeline put it well I think: “a crisis of authority develops between the existing capitalist state and an external working class power that results in an insurrectionary overthrow of the capitalist state to be replaced by new institutions of working class rule.” But our system is so alienated that I dont think we can count on the existing — surviving — working class institutions to play this role, even as we are, I think entering into a period of crisis and one that entails serious threats to the legitimacy of bourgeois rule. We still have to build those organizations, and that is the point, for me, of base-building.
On the other end of the debate, prefigurative models of dual power — and I do think this is a strong trend in MC — imagine that we can simply avoid the state rather than contest it in the course of building organization, and go about building the new world in the shell of the old. I understand this impulse and I support its actualization to the extent we can do it, but I think its naive to think we can get very far without ending up in some sort of confrontation.
Base building seems focused on building alternatives to the capitalist way of doing things, to improve people’s lives here and now. However, as revolutionary socialists, we don’t just want to build a parallel system of social organization — we want to abolish capitalism and the bourgeois state. Does the “base building trend” have a theory and strategy for taking and holding onto power?
I think we are working on that, out of practice. Right now, I think the pandemic has really provided a lot of opportunities for the idea of workers control to become the “good sense” of an increasing number of working class people — who should decide what is essential work? Who should decide where necessary goods go and how they get there? Should bosses and politicians decide, or workers in hospitals, warehouses, fields and grocery stores? I think these are questions that will become increasingly practically relevant in the process of base-building and which lay the groundwork for a strategy of enacting and taking hold of power, of contesting it.
The Norwegian left seems stuck in the double quagmire of electoralism and “conventional activism”. Our situation is different from what you have in the US. Over there, you have dozens of competing revolutionary organizations. Here, most revolutionary-minded people are active in the Red Party, which increasingly engages in an electoralist strategy. Do you have any recommendations for revolutionaries in Norway?
My first recommendation would be not to romanticize the situation on the left in the USA. I’m not sure we really have dozens of organizations at all, but even if we do, a large proportion of the USA left, the vast majority, has been disoriented by the failure of the Bernie Sanders campaign to either win or to meaningfully build the left and working class organization. I think some portion of those that have been disappointed will start to work toward more substantial forms of organizing and help build revolutionary organization, but even now we are really just at the beginning of that process, even though the situation is quite dire.
I would suggest to anyone trying to build a revolutionary organization and movement for this century to first, primarily get involved in building workers and tenants organizations, to engage practically in direct action against racism, sexism and especially in defense of migrants, and to see what kinds of practical problems this presents. Out of these, and out of reading and study circles we need to build a new layer of educated experienced militants and revolutionaries, and ultimately a new international. It’s not so far off on the horizon as it might have once seemed. At the same time, no concrete organizing is too small a place to begin.