RWIOT and Left Refoundation: Building a New Culture of the Left


This past August, two hundred self-identified revolutionaries gathered in Chicago for the Revolutionary Work In Our Times (RWIOT) Strategic Dialogue. Like the 2007 USSF workshop that sparked RWIOT and last year’s RWIOT Summer School, the driving force behind this year’s gathering was a yearning to deepen dialogue and relationships between revolutionaries from different traditions, social movements, and organizations. The project’s planning committee—composed of the New York Study Group, Solidarity, Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM), the League of Revolutionaries for a New America (LRNA), Left Turn, and Freedom Road Socialist Organization/Organización Socialista del Camino para la Libertad (FRSO/OSCL) — reflected this exciting commitment to cross-organizational and multi-tradition dialogue on the Left.

RWIOT and Left Refoundation

First, however, it is useful to understand how RWIOT is situated as part of a broader effort of Left Refoundation.  After last year’s summer school, there was significant feedback that people did not fully understand this aspect of RWIOT.  This year, in order to facilitate greater understanding, there was a panel entitled, “RWIOT in the Context of the US Left.”  Representatives from each of the planning crews shared some useful historical context and theoretical foundations, and gave their take on how RWIOT figures into this broader process.

RWIOT’s History

One of the most striking images of this presentation was a tremendous diagram of a river that helped everyone visualize the historical roots of the process.  The streams forming the mouth of the river represented the founding of Left organizations committed to changing the worst aspects of “party Left” culture.  These included the mergers that led to the founding of Solidarity and Freedom Road, as well as the formation of LRNA.  Newer tributaries fed into the river further downstream, representing the additional participants in the USSF workshop on revolutionary organization, like NYSG and Bring the Ruckus.  All of these streams joined to form the river that has become RWIOT.  Throughout the planning of last year’s summer school and this year’s dialogue, a few more branches have flowed in and some have trailed away.

This image of a river beautifully captures the collectivity of the overall process of RWIOT.  That emphasis then highlights the intent of RWIOT to build a stronger and more vibrant Left by drawing on the lessons of the 20th century in an attempt to chart a path for a socialism for the 21st century.

Theoretical Foundations

SlingshotIn order to understand the overall process however, it’s useful to understand the concept of Left Refoundation, a dialectical process between the “organized Left” and the “social movement Left.”  In general, the “organized Left” refers to revolutionaries belonging to existing Left organizations.  The “social movement Left” generally refers to individuals who self-identify as leftists or revolutionaries, participate in on-the-ground movement work, but haven’t joined any existing organization.

Obviously this language is imperfect, which is in part due to the fact that it’s drawn from the work of Marta Harnecker, a Chilean theorist who studies popular democracy throughout Latin America.  Because she hails from a region whose Left has historically been much more organized and influential, her language of “party Left” and “social Left” doesn’t translate exactly.

In the US there is no “party Left” to speak of, which means in reality most people from the “organized Left” also participate in the social movements.  While the intent of this article is not to wrestle over semantics, this has been part of the learning process of LR.  This article by BJ, “Social Movements and the Movement for Socialism” however does further discuss Harnecker’s language and our attempts to translate its application to our experiences in the US.

Context of the US Left

Perhaps the biggest challenge posed by our context in the US is the current composition of the left.  The RWIOT organizers went to great lengths to try to account for this by setting up an application process and goals for targeted outreach, but it’s impossible to avoid the reality that the Left isn’t adequately based in oppressed nationality working class communities, and so the problem still made itself manifest.

On the second full day of the Strategic Dialogue, representatives from the women of color caucus gave a presentation that challenged all of the participants to consider the still inadequate composition of the left.  They pointed specifically to an insufficient representation of women of color’s voices, particularly those of women of African descent, on panels and in leadership roles as one manifestation of how multiple intersecting systems of oppression continue to permeate our work and divide our movements.  Their intervention very presciently highlights the enormity of this challenge for the Left, and begs many as yet unanswered questions:

  • If we’re not based deeply enough in oppressed nationality working class communities, why is that?  How can we change it?
  • Are we actively engaged in transforming the composition of our organizations?
  • Is there a lack of leadership development coming from the base?
  • What strategies/visions are we advancing that can adequately address questions of composition, relevance, and scale?

Some other challenges, as well as opportunities, stem from the particular limitations and contributions that the “organized Left” and the “social movement Left” each bring to the table.  Many of us are unfortunately also all too familiar with the negative aspects of the culture of the “organized Left” historically:  vanguardism, sectarianism, and dogmatism.  Max Elbaum coins the term “miniaturized Leninism” in his book Revolution in the Air in order to describe the trend of ever-increasing fragmentation and posturing that contributed to the demise of the Left and its current state of weakness.

On the other hand the “organized Left,” or at least the portion who is attempting to learn from these mistakes, also has much to offer in terms of resources, analysis, and in generating effective long-term strategies and visions.  Organizations can also play an important role in nurturing collectivity and combating the constant onslaught of isolation under capitalism.  Of course ultimately as socialists we also generally believe that organization plays an integral role in the revolutionary process, and eventually a party that can facilitate a mass socialist revolution is necessary.

At the same time it’s important to recognize that the “social movement Left,” or “unaffiliated Leftists”, bring their own set of both strengths and weaknesses.  One such strength, made evident at the Strategic Dialogue, was that some of the most exciting cultural aspects of the weekend were organized and facilitated by “social movement Leftists.”  For example there was a healing track which included acupuncture, massage, an altar, yoga classes, a breakout on Self-care for Revolutionaries, and a centering exercise to open and close the large group sessions each day.  Some examples of common weaknesses of the “social movement Left” include the difficulty of connecting work across sectors, NGO-ization, inadequate opportunities to develop long-term vision and strategy, and an inability to adequately address questions of scale.

Building a New Left Culture

Leftist Lounge PartyAll in all the most exciting elements that have come out of RWIOT as a Left Refoundation project have come specifically from the team efforts of folks from the “social movement Left” and the “organized Left.”  In my opinion the ultimate highlight from this particular collaboration was the hot party on Saturday night that was organized by Leftist Lounge and boasted a cast of local performers, homemade mojitos and multiple DJ’s.  There was also a great deal of experimentation with formats at this gathering and many attempts to make the space more participatory.  While an overall balance of course still needs to be struck—in some instances the popular education techniques were critiqued as actually hampering deeper conversation—the fact that these experiments are taking place demonstrates our willingness as a portion of the Left to begin thinking about how to harness our respective strengths and grow this thing beyond its constituent parts.

Lessons Learned

As another manifestation of Left Refoundation work, the gathering offered a number of important lessons.  One is that what we aren’t in the practice of, as either a small “party Left” or as a “social Left,” is thinking to scale—big picture—and putting forward strategies to other sectors of the Left in order to share and learn. This is something we’re going to have to learn in order to move Left Refoundation forward, and to really “go deep” in terms of our similarities or differences, beyond just sharing analysis.  In order to facilitate this level of ongoing dialogue we’ll need to develop infrastructure and institutions (at least eventually) that can foster this kind of debate and relationship-building over time, especially in relation to summing up our work.

Another major lesson is that while we have a wealth of conversations about our varying analyses (e.g. What’s happening with the crisis?  What’s the nature of the Obama movement?  What’s the state of our movement?), what continues to be missing is real strategy conversation.  Ironically, the conversations that most engaged people were centered on summations of and proposals for concrete work.  The question then is:  given our different or similar analyses of what’s going on in the world, what is to be done?

Given this question, and perhaps most importantly, what we need is a vision for common work, based in the sectors of the class with the highest stake in revolutionary transformation, that can adequately address questions of relevance and scale, emphasize developing leadership from the base, and advance socialism as a viable alternative.

For more information on this year’s program click here to download the registration packet.

Aiden Graham is a member of FRSO/OSCL and a librarian-in-training in Boston, MA.  His struggle work consists mostly of queer and trans community organizing and anti-violence work that centers the experiences of women of color, though this last year was mostly focused on RWIOT.  Many thanks to everyone who contributed to the substance of this article.
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