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Hands-on Radicalism

The election of Kshama Sawant, a socialist, to the Seattle City Council, does not mean that large swaths of voters in Seattle have suddenly made an ideological or theoretical shift. Sawant’s election was not a theoretical exercise and voters in her precinct didn’t make the decision to vote for her after reading pamphlets, visiting the Marxists Internet Archive, or listening to folk songs.

Sawant ran on a platform of increasing the minimum wage, the restoration of rent control, and the funding of public transit. She had credentials as a successful and committed Occupy organizer. She did not win because she was a socialist. She won because she worked hard in her community, to win gains for her community. Where she had a rhetoric, it did not deploy theoretical terms, but rather condemned economic inequality, analyzed the city’s jobless rate and downtown building boom, and offered concrete proposals for change. She did not need to lecture people on the long-term trajectory of capitalism or the inevitable triumph of the proletariat. She needed to convince people that her ideas would make our lives better.

Sawant is not the only socialist making an impression on urban politics. In Minneapolis, Ty Moore lost a city council race by 229 votes. On the morning of the election, Moore helped organize efforts to block the eviction of an activist from their home. The action was successful. Moore had made evictions a central part of his own political projects, and his election campaigning, and his most visible public act was to help stop one.

Led by activists affiliated with socialist and Green organizations, elected officials, Occupy leaders and others, America is witnessing not only a revival of grass roots activism from the left, but the building of alternative communities. Those communities are not academic and, while thinking and theory are important, these activists are laying out the structural means to change political and economic relations in communities where capitalism and bureaucracy have demonstrably failed.

A few days ago I attended a meeting of socialists in Madison, Wisconsin, and one of the agenda items was Occupy Madison’s successful tiny house project–one of many around the country. Activists team up with homeless individuals to build small houses and change city ordinances to allow such houses to occupy public space. Participants win a place in the program with a set number of hours of labor. Churches and other organizations lend land and resources. In Madison, Portland, Eugene, Olympia WA, and other cities, activists, who as often as not call themselves socialists, are building the structural means of survival and stability for a growing number of disadvantaged “surplus” people.

The activists struggle. Cities are unsympathetic. The bourgeois media is unimpressed. A lot of long-term homeless people are skeptical of such projects, having been disappointed so many times in the past. It’s hard, initially, to tell the difference between bureaucrats and revolutionaries. But houses are built, struggles are won, and consciousness slowly turns.

Moore and Sawant are members of Socialist Alternative, and “are backed by coalitions including the Green Party, trade unions and community organizers.” Surprisingly, not all “socialists” are okay with this.┬áThere are still sectarian groups who privilege theory above action, ignoring the dialectical nature of praxis, that material engagement informs theory. On election day, two acquaintances belonging to the Socialist Equality Party, the Trotskyist group responsible for the impressive World Socialist Web Site, told me that they couldn’t support Ty Moore because Moore worked with Greens and Democrats. I asked about Moore’s (and Sawant’s) street experience, and Moore’s use of direct action to stop evictions–a progressive act whether examined through primarily theoretical or practical lenses. One of them answered that socialists should be revolutionaries, not “social workers.” Doing nice things for people, she said, is nice, but it won’t transform the ownership of the means of production. I have to confess, I stopped listening to her after she equated an eviction blockade with social work–not because I have anything against social workers (they’re mostly awesome), but because the identification of one with the other was an arrogant, ideologically myopic deprecation of both.

Something important happened in the elections of 2013. Scores of Greens were elected around the country, one socialist won a city council seat and another narrowly lost one. Occupy activists are now part of material restructuring and grass-roots relief efforts around the country, and people at all levels aren’t just talking about the need for a just and democratic economy–though talking is certainly happening. More than talking, advocates of a democratic economy are making it happen, with hammers and nails, eviction blockades, sound policy proposals, and engagement with sympathetic organizations. The old “reform versus revolution” debate is meaningless now. When we build and fight and work together, we win.

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About Matt J. Stannard

Policy Director for Commonomics USA, longtime writer, speaker, and legal & policy consultant on economic justice and public deliberation.