This article was originally written for our 25th anniversary in 2010. We’ve tried to keep it punchy yet politically rich and not full of code words. Feel free to skip around and find the period/development that interests you most. We’re working on a sum up/companion piece that’s shorter with graphics and charts. Stay tuned!
- More Unity
- The Jackson Campaigns
- Another Merger
- Left Poles
- Breaking Up Is Hard To Do
- A New Generation of Activists
- Moving into the Current Decade
- Socialism for the 21st Century in the US
- The Challenge Ahead
The world is certainly different from 1985 when two small organizations, Proletarian Unity League (PUL) and the Revolutionary Workers Headquarters (RWH), formed Freedom Road Socialist Organization/Organicion Socialista del Camino Para la Libertad (FRSO/OSCL).
Both PUL and the RWH came out of what was called the New Communist Movement (NCM). During the Sixties, tens of thousands of young people in this country called themselves revolutionaries. A slew of parties and organizations arose in preparation for a revolution that seemed on the horizon. Most groups told the world they were the only ones who could lead the revolution. By the late ’70s the upsurge had subsided. Shortly afterwards, the NCM collapsed as well, in large part because of in-fighting between groups/parties each claiming the be “the one true” one.
Both PUL and RWH had opposed this “one true path” thinking. They centered unity efforts among survivors of the collapse who shared that viewpoint. Even so, it was an earnest struggle just to unite the two groups in 1985.
Line was hammered out on a number of issues. In particular, PUL folk got RWH members clear on the role of white privilege—specifically the role white privilege plays in maintaining the oppression of the Black nation, the Chicana/o nation and the First Nations, and in stunting the development of class consciousness and unity in the US working class.
The Congress voted to become the Freedom Road Socialist Organization, borrowing another name for the Underground Railroad, so as to put the struggle of the Black Nation, and by implication all oppressed nationalities, at the center of our politics, even if the new organization was still uncomfortably white.
By dumping grandiose names so popular from the 1930s – 1970s, and avoiding claims to be “The Party, ”Freedom Road now had openings to share our vision of how a real revolutionary party could only be built by uniting a broad range of forces, based on working together in struggle.
The merger of the two organizations was just the start. When more groups rallied to Freedom Road, it validated our approach that party building should take place by unifying socialist forces from various backgrounds.
First, in 1986 came a West Coast-based group called the Organization for Revolutionary Unity (ORU). They brought a wealth of experience, especially from the Chicano movement.
ORU had ties on the other side of the continent with the Amilcar Cabral-Paul Robeson Collective, Black Marxist-Leninists who had moved to the traditional homeland of the Black Nation, the Black Belt South. Their decision in 1989 to join FRSO was a watershed. Now we were a group with increased membership of people of color with a presence in Black revolutionary and nationalist circles.
The Jackson Campaigns
All of this came after Jesse Jackson’s 1984 bid for the Democratic Party nomination for President. His 1984 and 1988 bids marked the high point of nearly 20-year period when the Black Liberation Movement’s main focus was electoral, a strategy geared toward consolidating gains that had been won in the street.
But the two Jackson campaigns were more than that. Jackson had the most left platform of any major party candidate in the 20th century. He won support from a broad array of forces—African Americans, naturally, and other oppressed nationality communities, but also several unions, white family farmers in the Midwest crippled by the Reagan Recession, gays facing the first great wave of AIDS deaths, feminists, students and more. Much of the organized socialist left in the US, and an even larger section of unaffiliated reds and revolutionaries threw themselves into the campaigns.
Jackson’s newly formed National Rainbow Coalition, billed as an independent form that would fight inside and outside of the Democratic Party for a radical agenda, provided a common project for comrades to work on and around. Now we could test and strengthen the unity we had built. In 1988, Jackson won nearly a third of the delegates, and the Democratic Party moved hard to co-opt him.
When Jackson slid into the Democratic Party mainstream he tried to bring his whole campaign with him. But FRSO members joined others fighting to keep their state Rainbows independent until he dissolved them.
Among those who chose to go with Jesse into the Democrats were members of the League for Revolutionary Struggle (LRS), the largest surviving group from the New Communist Movement. They disbanded the group and distanced themselves from their revolutionary past. Not everyone in LRS agreed.
These folks established the Socialist Organizing Network. By 1995 they had merged with FRSO. The new organization maintained the FRSO name along with most of the line and functioning of the original FRSO.
The 1990s were a transitional decade, with an economy transformed by neo-liberalism, de-unionization, and the revolution in information/communications technology. The election of “moderate” Democrat Bill Clinton as President disarmed many, in particular the leaders of mainstream organizations in the social movements. They essentially rolled over as Clinton continued neoliberal Reagan/Bush policies like deregulation, most fatefully in finance.
Under these circumstances, FRSO made the strategic decision to build organized left poles within the various social movements. Examples included La Raza Left Asian Left Forum, the Labor Left, and especially the Black Radical Congress.
In 1998 over 2,000 Black intellectuals, organizers, politicians, workers, students, community folk and leftists gathered in Chicago to start the Black Radical Congress (BRC). The BRC was conceived in response to the sexism of the Million Man March and its rebuff of the black Left. Grassroots groups like the Organization of Black Struggle from St. Louis and Black Workers For Justice from North Carolina helped anchor it. It issued a Black Freedom Agenda and launched several national campaigns.
In the course of doing this kind of work, FRSO adopted in the late ’90s ambitious goals for transforming the internal culture and demographics of Freedom Road, to make the organization majority people of color, upping the figures for women, young folks, LGBTQ, and working class people, and developing these folks as our leadership. Making substantial progress on that goal has meant that not everyone who wants to join can come in when they want.
Breaking Up Is Hard To Do
“Tell no lies. Claim no easy victories,” the African revolutionary Amilcar Cabral admonished. So…
The worst thing to happen to FRSO since 1985 was the split in the organization in 1999.
Two related questions led to the split: What is socialism? How do you build a party?
The first came up in the ’80s. A few members, based in the Midwest, decided that any country ruled by a self-defined Communist Party was de facto socialist. The Tienanmen Square Massacre of Chinese workers and students in 1989 became the line in the sand. The Midwest comrades held that it had saved socialism.
Unimpressed, the 1991 Congress, by a considerable majority, adopted “On The Crisis of Socialism,” which called for a rethinking of the history of the socialist model established by the October Revolution and identified questions, like democracy, for which answers had to be developed. It became one of our three basic unity documents.
The party building issue got sharp later in the ’90s. The Midwest grouping firmly opposed a proposal that Freedom Road should center its work on Left Refoundation, a different approach to building a revolutionary socialist party—or parties—in the US that would draw a wide range of organizations and individuals into an extended process of rebuilding the left. The folks from the Midwest favored a traditional party building approach of recruiting people to the existing group, all in line with long-established and unchanged Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy. Left Refoundation, focusing as it did on the crisis in socialism in theory, organization and practice, was anathema to them and they openly declared their intention to drive out its advocates. When they could rally no one else to this effort, they left.
The Midwest split group included a minority of the leading body, a minority of the members, a minority of the districts. Of all the groups that had united to create Freedom Road, they had several members who had been in the old RWH, one from SON, and none from the others. They quickly abandoned key elements of FRSO’s political line, dropping the position on the crisis of socialism and then rewriting the basic document on the statement on national oppression to eliminate the term “white privilege” and downplay the concept.
All this would not be remembered today if the Midwest group had not decided to use the name Freedom Road Socialist Organization as well.
A New Generation of Activists
One of the most important developments in the history of FRSO/OSCL was the merger with Fire By Night (FbN) in 2000. This was the first group to join Freedom Road that had not come out of the NCM. This new generation of revolutionaries came to FRSO through the student movement and anarchism. They brought with them fresh ideas, analysis, language, culture, and experience. They helped transform FRSO.
Moving into the Current Decade
Eleven years ago, the Battle of Seattle announced a new configuration of forces on the U.S. political scene. The developing No Global alliance of unions, environmentalists, anti-imperialists around a critique of corporate transnational neo-liberalism and the optimistic slogan, “A Better World is Possible” promised to shape the political struggle in the US in the new century.
The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon cut off that path. Instead, for the first time since Vietnam, US imperialism plunged into a full-scale war of occupation. Two, in fact. This totally changed the dynamics of the struggle in the US. Members started building an antiwar movement nationally (United for Peace and Justice, US Labor Against the War, Veterans for Peace, the Iraq Moratorium) and locally while combating attacks on immigrants and Muslims.
Two other major developments stand out. One was the devastation from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The inability of the left and the Black movement to counter the Bush administration and capital’s remake of the Gulf Coast underlined the need for a coordinated and organized left.
The other development was the huge immigrant upsurge of 2006, which made it clear that any revival of the labor movement would require immigrant workers playing a leading role. Work that comrades had long been engaged in positioned us to help lead the DC area demonstrations and play a strong role in Los Angeles, two centers of the levantimiento.
Socialism for the 21st Century in the US
Since the late ’90s, much of FRSO/OSCL’s political work has been centered on advancing and refining the project of Left Refoundation. The effort started with exploratory national meetings among several revolutionary socialist (and a few social movement groups), which developed closer working relationships but did not produce organizational progress.
From this FRSO sharpened the vision of Left Refoundation. Drawing on the analysis of Latin American socialist and political thinker, Marta Harnecker, FRSO has said it must be based on the fusion of forces from both the Party Left (socialist organizations) and the Social Movement Left (mass-based groups in different sectors with left politics and a core open to socialism). Two pamphlets were written with these new sights and widely circulated: “Which Way is Left” and “The Young and the Leftless” (aimed at younger activists). Both make the call for a broad party-building project on the left which required a reassessment of long-established organizational models, theory and practice. These pamphlets, coupled with participation in local social forums and the USSF, locally-based cross-left forms, and being a founding organization of Revolutionary Work in Our Times has stirred interest in a new generation of revolutionaries based in the social movements.
Another aspect of Left Refoundation has been the development of new theory. As a contribution FRSO undertook a several year project of writing a book, The Cost of Privilege, which lays out a basic understanding of the centrality of national oppression to capitalist rule in this country and the mechanisms by which it is maintained. A pamphlet entitled “Intersectionality” presents our view on the inter-connectedness between different oppressions, class, national, gender and others, and has been important in drawing a new layer of queer and trans youth into the group.
In fact, our emphasis on creating something new and substantially larger and broader than any existing socialist group, focused on developing 21st century socialism in all it aspects, has resulted in a lot of new comrades knocking on the door. A few are veterans of the New Communist Movement, but it has mainly been younger folks from the anarchist tradition, small ultra-left groups and the cores of NGO-type groups who have signed on. This has helped Freedom Road expand into several new cities in the last few years, with more in prospect.
The Challenge Ahead
The world is a very different place from what it was when Freedom Road was born, with some of the biggest changes happening in the last few years. Today there is a national government focused on the rescue of large blocs of finance capital, soaring budget deficits and defunding of social services at the state and local level, huge, on-going, and probable structural unemployment, two costly and deadly war/occupations, and now ecological catastrophe. The footing is tricky and the stakes are high.
One thing that has not changed is the need for revolutionary socialist organization built on a new foundation with new theory and practice, drawing from the variety of national cultures that make up the US, and in harmony with nature. It’s the best tool working and oppressed people have to wage struggle, to analyze and sum up battles and the changing terrain, to forge a vision of the future and a plan to get there.