Politically, the two keystones of our identity are our emphasis on national oppression, self-determination and white privilege; and our commitment what we call Left Refoundation. There is no other group on the left that places these two positions at the heart of its politics.
We support the concept of the intersections of oppression between race, gender, sexuality and class. This is the idea that no one form of oppression operates independently. Each is impacted to a greater or lesser degree by the others. It is necessary to remember that if we are truly to become revolutionaries, we must learn how to organize all our oppressed to end all our oppressions.
We have placed a strong emphasis on combating patriarchy. This means supporting the leadership of women and queer people in our organization and the movements we work in. Internally, we are also engaged in a lengthy study process on patriarchy which will lead to the creation of a new organizational document on the topic.
Also people tell us that we seem “normal,” and aren’t constantly trying to sell them a newspaper.
We hold that what is usually termed racism is, in fact, an entire social structure of national oppression. The history of this country, built as it is on stolen land and stolen labor, means that the US contains within its borders actual oppressed nations, internal colonies — the “First Peoples” or indigenous nations including the indigenous peoples of Alaska, and the Black, Chicana/o and Hawai’an nations. It also colonially dominates the “commonwealth” (actually nation) of Puerto Rico. We hold that those nations have the right of self-determination, up to and including the right to secede and form separate countries if that is their wish. On the foundation of this national oppression, immigrants from oppressed or Third World nations and dark-skinned people generally are also subject to discrimination, state and vigilante violence and other forms of domination which we fight.
Further, we believe the historic weakness and low class consciousness of the US working class is principally due to the system of small, real and deadly privileges granted to those who have been defined as “white,” even when they are exploited workers. This system was first intentionally promoted by the British settler elite in the 17th century, to divide and conquer rebellious indentured servants. Their strategy has remained at the heart of capitalist rule throughout US history. The system of privileges and the ideology of white supremacy have also taken on a life of its own, in institutions and in white people’s hearts and minds. Any organization, any movement, which fails to tackle these issues in a determined and consistent way cannot hope to throw out the capitalists who rob and dehumanize all of us.
FRSO sees the need for a powerful disciplined revolutionary organization, big enough, deeply rooted enough among the people, and well-coordinated enough to challenge the white supremacist US ruling class for power. But such an organization cannot be built the “traditional” way: by a small group which through its good organizing and correct political line grows into a vanguard party. In this complex country of 280 million, that’s not about to happen any time soon. Instead we need to conceive and develop an ongoing, long-range process. It will involve many activists participating in joint projects and organizing at the local, regional and national levels. Interwoven with this is the collaborative development of up-to-date theory and the discussion of program and strategy — core principles, key campaigns, short and long-term goals, methods of working together and visions of the society we want to build.
Such a process requires that participants be willing to set aside many of their most cherished bottom lines to try and formulate a new unity. It will also require thinking through and struggling out some degree of unity about what lessons we have learned from our current organizing efforts, from earlier upsurges here in the US and from other revolutions and efforts to build socialism.
Unlike regroupment or left unity, Left Refoundation is not mainly about bringing together existing self-identified socialist groups (or independent socialists). Even together, these forces are too small and too white, too old, too male and too middle-class. Refoundation calls for those who already believe in socialism to reach out and engage others active in diverse social movements of working and oppressed people. There’s no blueprint for this, but we’re trying to learn from examples of groups around the world who’ve tried similar things.
Though FRSO was founded in 1985, our roots lie in the upsurges of the ’60s. Older FRSO members cut their teeth in the Civil Right Movement and the Black rebellions that shook the country and in all that came after: the Chicano National Movement, the birth of the modern women’s movement, the gay liberation movement, ecology activism, and the generational revolt against the Vietnam war and the whole corporate culture of death and destruction.
By the early 1970s, thousands of young people had passed from resistance to revolution and began to form the new disciplined Marxist-Leninist groups. These outfits concentrated their members in the working class, and collectively became known as the New Communist Movement (NCM). As the upsurge of the ’60s faded and the realization set in of how difficult and protracted the making of revolution in the belly of the Beast would actually be, the NCM imploded. Sectarianism and ultra-leftism also played a big part in that. The original Freedom Road Socialist Organization was formed in 1985 by two surviving groups — the Proletarian Unity League and the Revolutionary Workers Headquarters — and other groups merged later on.
For folks who weren’t around when all this took place, Max Elbaum’s book, Revolution in the Air, is a good place to start. Our website has a number of exchanges with Max about his views and also comments on the book, as well as a Family Tree of the New Communist Movement. If you’re into this sort of thing, this material will shed more light on the NCM and Freedom Road’s own history.
When FRSO was founded in 1985, some members had been already been through the naming thing a couple of times and really, really didn’t want, this time around, a boring, lefty-sounding name full of terms like Proletarian, Bolshevik, Headquarters, Communist, etc.
Freedom Road is a term that Black people and their allies used for the Underground Railroad, a key element in the resistance of Black working people to their enslavement, the central struggle which shaped this country. Our leaflet, Freedom Road Socialist Organization: An Introduction, pivots on our name and provides a much deeper answer to this question.
In 1999 a section of the organization based in Chicago and Minneapolis split off. The overwhelming majority of comrades of color and most of the overall membership, the National Executive Committee and the local branches (which we call districts) stayed with the organization. Yet those who left chose to keep the name Freedom Road Socialist Organization. It is a good name.
Those who left objected to the concept of Left Refoundation, even though it flowed out of Freedom Road’s original orientation.
From our founding FRSO has carried out a line and practice of promoting unity among revolutionary organizations and, as a necessary result, of leaving political space for diverse views internally. Of all the groups which had united to build the Road, no one from the Proletarian Unity League, no one from the Organization of Revolutionary Unity, no one from the Paul Robeson/Amilcar Cabral Collective and only one comrade who had been in the Socialist Organizing Network took part in the split.
The very first thing the minority did after bailing out was to ditch one of the three Basic Documents of our organization, the Statement on the Crisis of Socialism. They decided that there is no crisis of socialism — everything is just fine, nothing needs to be rethought.
We see them as part of a long historic process in which we learn new lessons from each new attempt, both its successes and its setbacks. Our most thorough discussion of this question is summed up in the 1991 “Statement on the Crisis of Socialism” which examined the collapse of Soviet-style regimes throughout Eastern Europe and the crushing of the 1989 democracy movement in China.
The glaring reality these events highlighted was the lack of socialist democracy. In Eastern Europe, for example, significant layers of the people hated their nominally Communist leaders and ditched them — because they had erected a huge, repressive state apparatus above the people. While the imperialist powers are constantly trying to destroy efforts at socialism, we concluded that we can’t chalk up these failures up to imperialist intervention alone. So we believe socialists need to re-think the one party state and pay more attention to developing new democratic forms and struggling out class, patriarchal, national and rural/urban contradictions after the revolution.
At the same time, we take very seriously our obligation to stop our government from undermining existing self-identified socialist regimes through economic embargoes, military threats, etc. — whatever criticisms we may have of these regimes.
We learn from many revolutionaries and we idolize none.
Among the things we draw from Marx: the analysis of how capitalism works and why it is a dynamic but irrational system; and of class struggle as the motor force of history. Marx and Engels believed that working people are capable of overturning capitalism and creating a society based on human need not profit. They learned from the rise and smashing of the Paris Commune that workers could create incredible democratic governance forms but must be prepared to defend them with weapons against exploiters grabbing back power.
From Lenin: an understanding of imperialism — of the revolutionary potential unleashed when oppressed nations struggle for self-determination, and of the tendency of socialists in imperialist countries to fall into reformism and support their own bourgeoisies in imperialist wars. Lenin also emphasized that the capitalist state must be completely destroyed and he made breakthroughs in building a revolutionary party — for which there is definitely no everlasting formula!
From Mao, the methods of the mass line and the united front — how to learn from the experiences and insights of workers and broad masses to formulate demands and build struggles that are as broad and inclusive as possible yet also really challenge the system; and the insight that the transitional relations of production under the socialist state generate new exploiters who must be prevented from restoring capitalism.
We have many friends who are Trotskyists.
Many — some famous and some too little known. Amilcar Cabral on the role of culture in revolutionary process, Antonio Gramsci’s theory of hegemony, Ella Baker’s promotion of organization-centered leaders rather than leader-centered organizations, Ted Allen’s analysis of the invention of the white race and white privilege, Marta Harnecker’s call to Latin American socialists to bridge what she calls the party left and the social movement left, Robert Biel’s analysis of the new imperialism, Audre Lorde’s pioneering work on the intersection of oppressions, Paulo Freire’s pedagogy of the oppressed, Richard Levins on imperialism, ecology and public health, Kjersti Ericsson of Norway’s Workers Communist Party on women’s oppression in society and how that gets reflected — and can be fought — inside communist organizations.
Some of our members come out of the anarchist tradition, originally from the important ’90s group Love and Rage and then in the Fire by Night Organizing Committee. They don’t consider themselves anarchists any more, and they wrote a critique of anarchism and their own past practice. In struggles, we often unite with the fighting spirit and bold tactics of anarchists, and we learn from their thinking about the relationship between the individual and the collective. But overall we don’t think anarchism offers strategies or organizing methods that can unite broad masses for revolutionary transformation. Check out “After Winter Must Come Spring” for more on this.
We come from a political tradition that is not religious and sees organized religion primarily as a tool of the existing order, encouraging oppressed people to seek salvation in the hereafter rather than justice today. However, there are obvious exceptions to this — major trends in the Black church, and the many people of faith who’ve been fighters for justice and even socialism, and with whom we’re honored to work in many struggles. In fact, some Freedom Road members identify as religious and actively participate in congregations. We believe that the role of religion and, more broadly, spirituality is among the important topics that that we need to explore more deeply.
We think it’s both necessary and possible, but obviously it will not be easy. And because this is the Belly of the Beast of imperialism, we don’t expect to be the leading edge globally — a lot of revolutionary struggles in the Third World will doubtless lead the way. (Of course it’s all inter-connected; revolutionaries in the global South have told us that the stronger we get, the more space they have to carry through their battles.)
Despite the actual strength of our rulers and, even more, of their hegemony — the dominance their worldview has within the society — which we breathe in like the air around us, a careful look reveals deepening cracks which run through the system from top to bottom. This country is riven by many contradictions, internally and globally, and we don’t know which may break through and have a shattering effect. The US is supposedly a democracy but one party pays to keep Black people off the voter rolls and the other makes no consistent or wholehearted effort to prevent it. Troops are returning maimed or spiritually destroyed from an invasion they know should never have been undertaken. Millions of people live in fear as their health benefits and retirement security disappear. Everything from the environment to human relationships is turned into a commodity and offered for sale.
We’re not crystal-ball gazers, and we’re not one of those groups that predicts the imminent collapse of capitalism at least once every seven years. We anticipate a long process involving many tactics and sites of struggle, in which white supremacist imperialist hegemony — the “common sense” understanding of what’s right and who gets to make decisions–begins to break down. When there’s some qualitative break — when the masses of people finally decide they’ve had enough and are ready to overturn the system — history shows us that the exploiters simply won’t step aside peacefully. So the forces of the people must be prepared to advance our interests and defend ourselves by any means necessary.
To quote from our “Statement on the Crisis of Socialism,” “We identify socialism… not simply with public ownership of the means of production, but with the cultivation of mass participation in and control over economic, political and social institutions and structures.”
It will be a long process but we look toward these developments: overcoming national oppression, male supremacy and heterosexism; eliminating the divisions in the labor process between planning/administration and execution; each individual having the chance to develop as a full human being with collective support — especially people with disabilities who are currently marginalized; and workers actually controlling a rational production process (and consumption process) that doesn’t destroy the earth for our grandchildren. This involves a cultural shift in which people come to find fulfillment in human relationships and creative work rather than consuming, so that the over-consumption of resources in the global North will end.
We are an organization of revolutionary organizers, who work together to build mass struggles. Then we evaluate and sum up collectively in order to learn from our practice, and fight white supremacist capitalism more effectively in the next round.
In each struggle of working and oppressed people that we engage in, we try to: (1) win what victories can be won (democratic rights, better working conditions, etc.) and strike blows at the enemy (for instance, weaken US imperialism’s capacity to intervene militarily); (2) build the organized forces of the people (progressive, ongoing labor and community groups or anti-war coalitions, etc.); and (3) win new fighters to socialism. If knowledge really does come from the people, then we should actually be out there, working and struggling with them.
We believe that oppressed nationalities and the multi-national working class will be at the core of the revolutionary united front in this country. With that in mind we predominantly work in the Black and Chicano movements and various immigrants’ struggles, and in labor unions, workers centers and labor/community groups and coalitions (e.g. against public transit cutbacks etc.). Some of our work against patriarchy and heterosexism takes place through caucuses within nationality and worker groups; for example, we helped to found the Women’s Commission of Black Workers for Justice and have folks in Pride at Work. At the same time, we also work in a citywide LGBT group with a broad progressive agenda.
In all our organizing, we pay attention to the intersection of oppressions–class, national, patriarchal, heterosexist — and how this concretely affect people’s lives. We believe understanding this can help to deepen struggles, build greater unity between various sections of the people, and foster revolutionary consciousness.
Over the past three years, we have also been working in the anti-war movement and organizing with vets and military families. Given the historical role of students in sparking struggle in other sectors, we do some student work — but not enough and not as much as we’ve done in the past. In all our work, we try to build and work within genuinely broad united fronts, rather than close fronts that pretend to be independent and open but are actually dominated by us and recruiting grounds for us.
In everyday terms, our commitment to national liberation means that we don’t consider it inherently divisive when people of color in a labor union or anti-war group or a socialist group want to make criticisms of white supremacist behavior or meet together and discuss whatever issues they choose. It is only by bringing these issues forward and winning the support of the whole group for oppressed nationality demands that true multi-national unity can be built. As stated above, we also build the independent organizations and movements of oppressed nationalities, and we try whenever possible to break the “white united front” (for example, helping found a group of Italian Americans opposed to the Columbus Quincentennial). We also try to insure that all comrades learn about and draw inspiration from the historical resistance of people of color.
Well, for one thing we currently don’t have a paper; instead we have a web site, statements and pamphlets. This isn’t a question of principle, just a question of resources. As for large banners, when we march, we are generally with the mass organizations in which we are based. Occasionally we organize contingents but even then, that’s not us alone but, for example, in concert with other anti-imperialist groups in an anti-war march. Overall we probably err in a “movementist” direction — focusing on the broad movement and underplaying our own independent public face. This can sometimes make us seem mysterious so we’re trying to rectify by having more public statements at demos, a more user-friendly web site, more literature tables etc.
Well, we don’t have any illusions about transforming the Democratic Party into a vehicle of revolution. But the electoral arena has of necessity often been an arena of struggle for the working class and oppressed people — and will probably remain so through the long process of forging a broad united front against white-supremacist imperialism. In California, we’ve worked against various racist propositions like the anti-immigrant 187. In Boston, Atlanta and other cities, we also have worked in local electoral campaigns, where elected officials (including Democrats) can be held accountable by a movement to work for better public schools, affordable housing and public transit, immigrants’ and oppressed nationality rights, less brutal policing, etc.
Much less often, we have worked on national campaigns focused on the Democratic Party, but only when they help to promote an anti-racist and pro-people agenda, like the Rainbow Coalition in the ’80s. We also work in and hope to build formations outside of the two-party system, especially in the context of left refoundation and the long-term struggle.
We have districts in about a dozen cities and the larger districts are broken down into units based on work area (for example, a community unit, a student unit and an anti-war unit). We have a small National Executive Committee in which each member is elected to a specific responsibility, and national commissions and work teams which guide our mass work in particular sectors. Our basic line is set by Congresses, which generally take place every two to three years. Districts develop a local plan for carrying out the line and strategy set by the Congress, recruit new members, and nurture each other through the alienation and assaults of life under capitalism.
We believe that each of us has the obligation to try to test the group’s ideas in all the work that we do (mindful of the culture and flow of the mass organizations in which we work), sum up collectively whether the group’s line was useful in practice or not, and give each other constructive criticism on how we work. This is what makes us a cadre organization.
We are about 46% oppressed-nationality cadre and 44% women. 20% of our cadre identify as LGBTQ, As far as age range goes, 40% of us are under 35 and we have some older and some middle aged folks. About half of our cadre are of working-class origin, with most of the rest middle-strata and 1% “other.”
We are actively engaged in a transformation process aimed at changing our composition to become a majority oppressed nationality, and a majority women. Transformation means changing our demographics, culture, consciousness and practice and it is creating a space that is welcoming and supportive of oppressed nationality cadre and has an active feminist group process.
People join a local district. Usually they meet us through doing mass work, and if they seem compatible in approach, we invite them to study our Unity Documents and other key points of line and theory. If there seems to be a fit, after common work and study with us, they join up. Because we believe in working collectively in the same mass organizations, it’s somewhat more complicated and demanding to join Freedom Road than a group which lets you just sign up and come to meetings if you agree with their ideas. This approach is embodied in the formal requirement that a member agree with our basic documents (which you can find on this website) and general line, be actively involved in fighting the enemy and take part in the collective life of the organization (including paying dues).
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