What happens when you remain on the defensive? The answer is simple: unless you are the great Floyd Mayweather, you ultimately lose, after your opponent has worn you down.
Therein lies the problem for the progressive movement. As the late Bayard Rustin suggested in the 1960s, there is a complicated, yet dialectical relationship that exists between protest and power. On the one hand, a strategy that is focused exclusively on protest assumes that through protests—whether for or against something—the elites can be compelled to do the ‘right thing.’ And while it is the case that elites are or can be influenced by mass protest, e.g., compelling Obama to enact DACA, expecting the elites to fully implement the scope and intent of the people’s demands is wishful thinking. In fact, it sets the stage for the reforms to be rolled back.
That said, when protests decline, there is little left to withstand the horrid assault from our opponents. On the other hand, a strategy focused on fighting for governing power enters into an admittedly murky world which necessitates alliances and compromise, something which is often anathema to much of the Left and progressive movements.
It is obvious that there is a massive assault underway by forces on the Right, including a very energized—and armed—far Right. The swiftness of their maneuvering displays everything about which many of us once warned, i.e., that they would strike with the zeal of a blitzkrieg and with no intention of stopping until they had “reached the oceans and the borders.” The progressive beliefs in the inevitability of progress and the supposed marginal lunacy of the Right have blown up in our faces.
Strategic paralysis within the progressive movement is as apparent as is our oddly periodic tactical creativity. Nonprofits, social movement organizations, mass democratic organizations increasingly recognize the toxicity of the moment yet, and quite ironically, very little seems to change in the scope and scale upon which progressives need to operate in order to reverse the deadly situation. In fact, we increasingly act like boxers who remain in their corner after the bell has sounded, starting the next round. Instead, we need more than courage but a new sense of strategy in order to take down an opponent who has regularly and swiftly delivered near knockout blows.
The “mountain stronghold”
A story arose out of the Chinese Revolution that revolved around something Chinese leader Mao Zedong called “mountain stronghold mentality.” The story goes like this.
The Chinese Communists relied on guerilla warfare during a period of the Chinese Civil War when they were on the strategic defensive in the face of constant assaults by the Guomindang forces of Chiang Kai-shek. In this setting, the Communists frequently established basecamps on mountain tops. The basecamps were well-secured. The guerrillas could emerge from them at night, strike the enemy and retreat to their mountain tops. The bases were sufficiently defended that it was unlikely that a direct assault by the Guomindang forces would succeed.
When conditions changed and there was a need for a different type of warfare—on the part of the Communists—many of the leaders of these guerrilla units refused to come down from the mountains. They provided various explanations about how the conditions were not yet right. Regardless, they resisted the need to form different sorts of military units in order to address the changed conditions.
This “mountain stronghold mentality” is something familiar to almost any observer—or participant—in the US Left and progressive movements. One could argue that it has infected the movement. It is more than the generalized sectarianism that is common in many left and progressive movements, though sectarianism plays a key role. In our context, it is deeply rooted in a mis-assessment of the moment, purism, and—increasingly— “branding.”
The “moment” and the question of history
The obliteration of Roe v Wade should have taught progressives that the dominant—liberal–approach to defending a woman’s right to choose and opposing gender injustice had failed long before the Supreme Court’s decision. The overreliance on the judicial system and periodic marches, while the Right was building state-wide electoral power, reflected illusions about US democratic capitalism, as well as a misreading of the intent of the political Right.
The offensive character of the rightwing populist movement that fully emerged after the election of President Obama and the rise of the Tea Party Movement was underplayed by most progressives, a case in point being the manner in which the Tea Party was frequently described as a supposed “AstroTurf movement.” This faulty analysis ignored the deep roots of US rightwing populism in racial settler-colonialism, as well as the crushing impact of neo-liberal globalization on multiple sectors of US society.
Nevertheless, at key moments, the focus on protest has not evolved into the building of strategy and organization capable of constructing a counter-offensive against the Right, while simultaneously undertaking the struggle for progressive governing power. From the Occupy Movement, to the mass actions of the Dreamers, through the mobilization around Standing Rock, and later with the eruptions of 2020 that followed the George Floyd murder, progressives have been able to take to the streets but leave little in our wake, at least little at the scale at which we need in order to defeat the Right and bring about a political transformation. Instead, most of our organizations remain small and have failed to build sustained alliances.
The irony is that the bulk of the broad progressive movement can see the juggernaut approaching and hears the screams of those being crushed. The need for a reorganization is so obvious, yet there is a lack of political will to undertake the necessary changes.
A recent article in Jacobin called attention to the need for new mass organization on a national scale. The authors, Jeremy Gong and Nick French write a compelling piece that is equally charmingly sectarian and ahistorical. The piece completely ignores the history of the efforts to build independent political organizations, e.g., the National Rainbow Coalition in the 1980s, but also ignores efforts currently underway in the USA to do so, such as Progressive Democrats of America and the Working Families Party. As such, they offer little that can bring the troops down from their “mountain strongholds” and establish any direction.
Let’s examine a few of the obstacles.
“Build my own organization”
Sometime around the 2008 election of Barack Obama, one of us [Fletcher] had a lengthy discussion with the cofounder of Progressive Democrats of America, the late Tim Carpenter, about progressive electoral organizations. We raised that PDA could play a pivotal role in a realignment of the progressive electoral movement through reaching out to various organizations that had a similar politics to PDA and seeking to build a unified approach. Tim, very politely, rejected the idea, instead insisting that building PDA was the key.
This story and dialogue have been repeated endlessly across the nation. “I have to build my organization first, and then we shall unite” is repeated again and again, even when the organization that one is discussing building may not differ from existing organizations and is in an almost life and death competition for resources. And ironically, every organization never fails to complain about the “lack of capacity” to meet the growing needs of the struggle.
Once the organization is built, its existence must be justified, making it that much more difficult to create unity. It becomes, among other things, difficult to go to potential funders arguing that you should be supported when the similarities between you and other organizations is apparent to everyone. Thus, justifications have to be engineered in order to rationalize separation.
This regularly raises its ugly head in Left and progressive circles. This purism takes the form of the fight to either demonstrate pure left and progressive politics and/or the fight to demonstrate that your constituency is drawn from the most oppressed strata and that no one can possibly compete with you for the legitimacy of speaking on behalf of the poor and oppressed. The result is isolation and the inability to build alliances because no one is as pure as you are. So-called AfroPessimism is an ideological expression of this, whereby some argue that African Americans—Blacks generally—are the most oppressed people on the planet and that anyone else arguing that they are victims of racism is somehow misappropriating the Black experience. The result: isolation and the inability to construct a politics and practice to win.
We see this purism in all parts of the movement, and it is subtly represented in the Gong/French article where they politely suggest that a new mass organization must distance itself from the Democratic Party. In the absence of a counter-strategy other than holding up the banner of genuine progressiveness, this is a recipe for disaster in the face of a rightwing onslaught.
Time to realign
A progressive realignment is badly needed. We have plenty of organizations but they are less than the sum of their parts (and we would add labor unions to this mix). Contrary to Gong/French, there is much more out there than Our Revolution, the Richmond Progressive Alliance and the Vermont Progressive Party. How about recognizing statewide formations such as the New Virginia Majority and California Calls, some of the more progressive-led labor unions (e.g., UNITE HERE; National Nurses United), and the aforementioned Working Families Party and Progressive Democrats of America, all of which are working to build a progressive movement and fight for governing power?
Yet, despite the strengths of these groups, the failure to move towards a realignment is, to be honest, frightening. These organizations, as well as larger alliances such as Grassroots Global Justice and Right To The City, play a key role, but there is no general alignment in terms of political objectives and message, and not enough of them have built sustainable bases within the broadly defined working class.
A progressive realignment needs to be built around three core principles: fight the Right; save the planet; and, build people power! Most immediately progressives need to be at the core of constructing a broad front opposing the Right, one that makes the fight against racism and national oppression central to its work. This is more than GOTV for the midterms. It involves taking on the Right in its suppression of literature; its attacks on women and gender nonconforming individuals; its voter suppression and intimidation, and its attacks on immigrants. And it also must involve preparing for varying levels of self-defense against the armed and aggressive far Right. But most importantly it means being unafraid to build and participate in coalition with those with whom we may have a variety of differences or who themselves may even be connected to the ruling elite and participating in a policy arena that might include policies to which we are opposed. Our movement has to overcome the fear of being politically uncomfortable.
The field of battle has changed remarkably since the days of George W. Bush and the theft of the 2000 elections. We are in an environment of a “cold civil war” and our opponents have decided, in classic “American” fashion, to alter all of the rules of the game.
In considering the organizational shape of the progressive movement we are reminded of a quote attributed to General George S. Patton during World War 2: “Fixed fortifications are a monument to the stupidity of man.”
Time to abandon the mountain strongholds? We think so.