It’s not time for a U.S. SYRIZA

August 11, 2015

Owen Hill contributes to a discussion about whether the far left in the U.S. should direct efforts toward an electoral effort.

I WANTED to write in to respond to Dan R.'s thoughtful and engaging piece, "The lessons of SYRIZA for U.S. socialists."

In his piece, Dan gets quite a bit correct. He skillfully uses the example drawn for revolutionaries around the globe of the Left Platform and the Red Network's participation in SYRIZA to correctly argue that revolutionaries cannot skip over the experience of working within mass non-revolutionary political organizations in order to advance the struggle of the working class.

However, I think that some of his arguments border on incorrect in the practical conclusions that one can draw from the final section of his piece. So without misinterpreting Dan's arguments (hopefully), I want to argue that the primary task of revolutionaries today is not to begin organizing such parties, but instead lay the groundwork for their future development.

This is not the position I held three years ago in the fall of 2012. In fact, for a period of roughly two years from fall of 2012 to fall of 2014, I attempted to begin to build broad organizations--an "American SYRIZA," if you will--while operating as a lone International Socialist Organization (ISO) member in Portland, Maine. As many can probably guess based on Portland's lack of coverage in, these efforts were not as successful as I initially hoped.

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So what did I try? How did it go? What, if any, are the lessons that are applicable to other revolutionaries in the U.S.? Well, I'll get into that, but first I want to back up: What would lead some 24-year-old radical to think that Maine would be the next Greece? How and why did I develop this perspective?

WHEN I first became a revolutionary socialist, I was 16 and living in Kennebunk, Maine--the well-known summer home of the Bush family. I was radicalized by reading Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn, listening to punk music and learning about the Industrial Workers of the World and the Zapatistas from Wikipedia. It was an ill-suited place for a budding revolutionary, and in 2007, I moved to New York City to attend Hunter College. My first week on campus, I met the ISO and two months later, I was a member. And, let's be honest, my world was rocked.

Barely older than 18, I was surrounded by intelligent, passionate Marxist revolutionaries. I attended regular branch meetings. I got to hear talks on a monthly basis. It was a huge experience for me and one of the most important times in my life--but in the summer of 2011 it came to a close. Broke and jobless, like tens of thousands of other college grads, I gave up and moved home to live with my folks--though this time in Portland at least.

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But the summer of 2011 gave way to the fall of 2011, and the miracle that was Occupy Wall Street. I finished out the campaign job I was working on and, in November, grabbed my backpack and moved back to New York, just in time for the whole thing to come apart at the seams (two days before in fact). Still, I stayed and organized full time for a couple months, trying to help the ISO district connect better to the movement. But I ended up back home pretty quickly, and it was clear that Portland was where I would be staying for a while, so I tried to make the most of it.

After that, I kind of drifted in and out of politics for a little while. I tried--fairly haphazardly and without too much success--to build a branch of the ISO. I sold Socialist Worker to coworkers on my campaign job working to win marriage equality in Maine. I did end up getting five coworkers to come with me to the regional Marxism conference in Boston in 2012.

But just after this success, another blow fell--we won marriage equality and then promptly all lost our jobs. Three of the people who came with me moved out of Maine, one of them drifted away, and the fifth I became less political with. I was back to square one. Except now I was delivering pizzas.

It was in this context that I made my first attempt to start an "American SYRIZA." In the winter of 2012-2013, I began meeting with a small group of people--some independent socialists, some Green Party members and some anarchists--to put together a united anti-capitalist network in Southern Maine. We called ourselves, appropriately enough, the Southern Maine Anti-Capitalist Network.

The first thing we did was go to a March against Monsanto together in the early spring. There was a pretty big fight at the time over the export of tar sands oil through South Portland, so the environmental movement in Maine was extremely energized. We had just had a huge regional climate demonstration in Portland in January, which had brought out 1,500 people (remember Portland's population is only 60,000).

So the March against Monsanto ended up being really big, too--some 900 people--and our slogans dominated. The most popular one we raised was "Disease and starvation will not be solved by corporations! That's bullshit! Get off it! The enemy is profit!" But the crowd took up others that we raised.

Out of this march, we put on a panel on "Public Space, the Environment and Capitalism." It brought together working artists fighting for the right to sell art and Portland residents working to save a public park, with environmentalists fighting against the Tar Sands pipeline and against the privatization of water, and then connected these fights to the bigger fight against capitalism (I gave the presentation on capitalism). It was a great meeting--we brought out well over 30 people, had a great discussion and made some awesome links. Then we tried to figure out what to do next, and things fell apart fast.

The issue was that we didn't really have very much common ground to stand on. There was no central project that clearly animated the group. I wanted us to meet regularly, make decisions effectively and grow the anti-capitalist left in Portland. Some people agreed with me, while others felt that we should be more focused on mutual aid projects and prefiguring the future by using consensus decision-making models.

Some of the people who agreed on the need to build anti-capitalist ideas had widely different ideas about what that looked liked. Some people looked to Cuba, others to Sweden--and almost everyone started looking at me funny when I talked about the Russian Revolution before the rise of Stalinism.

We spent two months trying to decide what we were about and what we were trying to do, and then one day, we looked up, and there was nobody in the group but myself and a few others. After two months had gone by, we folded, closed up shop and stopped being a thing. It was a full year before I became political again.

EVENTUALLY, I did though. And the first thing I did was electoral work--something that Dan points to in his letter.

In June 2014, I was recruited to run for state Senate with the Green Party in Portland. Later that month, I bought a last-minute ticket to Socialism 2014 and took a car with some comrades from Boston out to the conference. Although I had never formally left the ISO, at the conference, I decided to actually rejoin the organization and try again to build a branch in Portland, based on the things I tried the first time: selling the paper, holding public meetings and getting some people to a conference.

The issue was that by the time I got back, I was running an election campaign, so the vast majority of my political time was eaten up by quick 5-10 minute conversations with hundreds of people while I campaigned for votes.

Now, these conversations and this kind of engagement might have been a powerful opportunity to build the organization and political consciousness of large numbers of people, as Dan alludes to in his letter. It might even have been a good opportunity to meet some people who wanted to study and read and discuss how to change the world in the long term. Indeed, the fact that I got nearly 27 percent of the vote suggests that both audiences were out there.

The problem is that I had no base to build from, no routines and no organization. So this potential just dissipated. In retrospect, the campaign was ineffective at building organization and political consciousness and was constantly pulled by the forced shallowness of electioneering.

However, during my campaign, I did do something very important. I started selling Socialist Worker again. Although my follow-up was spotty, I started taking the newspaper out of the "shame box" that arrived at the start of each month, reading it and trying to sell it to people. And I was successful. I gave some away, but I managed to sell some as well.

The real turning point was after the campaign ended, when I started organizing a discussion group based on the physical copy of Socialist Worker that met twice a month. This group was very successful. For one, it animated my sale of the paper to people. I actually had a reason for someone to get a copy of the paper, since we were going to sit down and talk about it later.

Again, it is worth pointing out that it was something I organized primarily with people who were already activists in Portland, many of them candidates for state office in 2014, and not new people I met during my campaign. I don't think that this isn't because there weren't people out there I could tap into, but because they weren't organized.

It was slow work at first, but out of this modest, twice-a-month discussion night, something very important has grown. We used the monthly paper as a scaffold, out of which we've started to erect new elements, one piece at a time.

First, in January of this year, we put on a very successful public meeting with the organizers of the Black Lives Matter movement, bringing Khury Petersen-Smith to Portland to speak on "Racism, Capitalism and Revolution" in front of 50 people. Out of this meeting, we also decided to get more serious about studying Marxism as a discussion group. So we started having weekly meetings, alternating reading articles out of Socialist Worker with one chapter at a time out of Paul D'Amato's The Meaning of Marxism.

We got even more serious about learning when four of us went to Socialism 2015 in Chicago last month. And now, two of the discussion group members have decided to formally join the ISO, while another three are considering doing so within the next week to a month.

OF COURSE, there have been challenges along the way, ups and downs and sidetracks and limitations. But something lasting and politically sharp is being built. It's starting to reach out to new layers and win people in small handfuls to fight against capitalism. It's only a start, but it's real and precious, and it will be absolutely decisive as we work to rebuild the left here in Portland and across the whole U.S.

It means that the next movement or election campaign or broad left organization I build, I won't be doing it alone. I'll be doing it with a team of conscious revolutionary Marxists who want to use every opportunity to turn this terrible world upside down. I also hope it means that in 10 years, some kid will move into the big city of Portland and be greeted by a deep district of 100 thinking and fighting Marxists, just like I was eight years ago.

To be sure, the experience that I had in Portland is not a mechanical recipe for success. It would be wrong to argue that we could transpose this project onto another time and place that it would be at all the correct thing to do. In a different situation, focusing solely on education, study and winning a small group of people to being revolutionary socialists would be an absolute disaster.

Yet I think that mechanically transposing a successful tactic in one situation onto a fundamentally different concrete situation is actually the primary mistake that anyone who believes that we need to begin to build an American SYRIZA today is making--and I count myself among those who got the question wrong.

Indeed, in my experience, such premature attempts to conjure a mass party out of thin air are not only unproductive, they can also be destructive. My first attempt to do something along these lines left me confused and demoralized. My second attempt only yielded anything positive at all because I shifted away from electoral work and refocused on the very modest and basic goal of organizing a good discussion night two times a month.

Part of the reason I wanted to start with the story of my transition from New York City back to Maine is because I think it highlights the real reason that I set out on such a project on my own in 2012: I wanted to take a shortcut. I was leveled by my isolation. A whole piece of who I was felt like it was simply gone.

So I tried to get it back, not by doing the patient work that would allow me to stitch together the building blocks for the next 100-person district of revolutionary socialists but by leapfrogging over my challenges with clever tactics. Clever tactics are important, but the biggest is thing that I've learned over the last three years is that right now, tactics are pawns, and patience is king.

Revolutionary socialists today should look for opportunities to be able to project our politics in as big a way as possible. We strive to connect with other members of the left who don't agree with us on every little question. We should think creatively about the best way to accomplish these goals given our local conditions--including researching the electoral process in our city and even, where and when we can, running a candidate.

But we shouldn't be afraid to do the patient work of educating and organizing while we wait for new opportunities to blow the lid off our current practices.

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