The North Star at the Left Forum: Theory, Strategy, Practice

by Luke Elliott on July 1, 2013

Hi everyone! Thanks for coming out early on a Sunday morning. In the few minutes that I’ve been given to speak, I’d like to briefly discuss what I see as three key elements of a sturdy left practice, and then paint a brief picture of the U.S. left, with some suggestions about the potential role that an online publication like The North Star could play in constituting a politically powerful left formation.

My very being here says something about what The North Star is. The good folks who started the website invited me to be on this panel after reading one short piece that I wrote, which is to say that we’re just getting to know each other. To be honest, for all these folks know, I’m about to give a 20-minute lecture about tomatoes. But in all seriousness, what I mean to say by bringing this up is that The North Start is open – to new and fresh voices, ideas, and organizational formations on the left.

Given how far behind the eight ball the left is in the U.S., this openness is fundamental to our potential for new successes.

So, I’d like to move to a relatively high level of abstraction. But since abstractions can be annoying, I’ve made some pictures too! I actually want to put forward the relatively simple proposition that any successful and genuinely left formation will include three key elements:

  • First, a theoretical practice that is both reading and producing ideas, analyses, and perspectives on capitalism, racism, sexism, and many other socially and economically structured oppressions.
  • Second, a strategic practice that is the development of short and long term plans to combat the oppressions analyzed at the theoretical level. This includes concrete plans to deal with the institutions, elected officials, government agencies, corporate practices, cultural and subcultural dynamics, economic structures and systems etc. that create and enforce various oppressions.
  • Last but definitely not least, an organizing practice by which I mean, the act of connecting with and training large numbers of people to become leaders and combat oppression at work, at home, in the community, through direct action, lobbying, and elections.


It should be relatively clear – especially from the awesome picture above! – that each one of these practices feeds the next in a spiraling process. First, the theories and analyses we have determine the scope of our strategy: for example, if we see the fact that corporations are legally human as the fundamental ill in our society, we’ll develop a very different plan than if we see the competitive dynamics among corporations within capitalism as a root cause of many of the world’s ills.

Subsequently, the plans we develop affect the organizing work we do: who we mobilize and against what institutions and individuals with what short and long term goals. Our strategy affects whether we seek the attention of mainstream media, go on strike or block a roadway and how we sequence such tactics.

Finally, to come full circle, our organizing practice must then feed back into our theory to develop more accurate and useful ideas about how oppression functions. To use a very concrete example, through organizing experience my former union UNITE HERE came to recognize that anti-black racism was a problem within their ranks and especially coming from employers. Therefore, they made hiring a certain percentage of black folks a non-negotiable element of their collective bargaining agreements. The experience of failing to organizing black Americans led UNITE HERE to a new analysis – that is, that employers were successfully dividing their membership and the working class more generally by discriminating against black folks, in many ways to the advantage of the industry. This new analysis required a new strategy: namely forcing employers to reverse this racism in the process of contract negotiations. Ultimately this lead to new practices, especially the education of their membership around issues of racism and the logic behind why a hiring clause benefiting black Americans was worth fighting for – and then ultimately of course, fighting for it.

All this is to say that left formations that fail to consciously include any of these elements are likely to tumble off in one direction or the other – toward relatively un-grounded abstraction on the one hand or toward important but overly narrow reforms on the other.

With these three elements in mind, I’d like to shift gears and talk concretely about the U.S. left as it exists today. I made a picture for this too!

elements2Following Bill Fletcher Jr. and others, I think the following formulation is extremely useful, that there are three key elements of the U.S. left as it currently exists:

  • First, there is the organized left: I should say that I think I misused Fletcher’s category in a recent article and I’m correcting that here. By the organized left, I mean explicitly socialist formations that may or may not engage electoral work. Examples include ISO, CP, DSA, and so on.
  • Second, there is the independent (or lone ranger) left: this is a collection of unaffiliated individuals – academics, journalists, musicians, and maybe folks who just read Karl Marx sometimes, but have never found a place to live out the quirkily left ideas they work with. There are a lot of good ideas stored in the lone ranger left, but often not a lot of good action.
  • Finally, there is the social movement left: this includes the fighting labor unions, community organizations, tenant organizing groups, feminist organizations, anti-racist organizing projects, LGBTQ groups. Namely, anyone that knows how to pick a progressive fight and win it.

So from Greece to Great Britain and even here in New York last Wednesday there are various types of calls for ‘left unity’. As many of you know, Greece has done a pretty good job of pulling it off and achieving some level of unity and mass support – their efforts are worth studying, although the context is very different than U.S. In any case, as I understand them at least in the U.S., these calls are focused almost exclusively on the organized left, that is on the relatively sectarian, but explicitly socialist, formations. The hope in such calls is that the many sectarian groups will set aside their differences and create a broad left formation that will be able to attract significant membership and political power in multiple forms.

Although I think this is an important effort, I would suggest an alternative direction at this point, and one that The North Star can modestly contribute to, alongside other efforts. If some level of left unity within the organized left emerges, then the process that I’m proposing would ideally dovetail with it. But for now, it strikes me as a different project, with a different set of opportunities and limitations.

As you can see in my nifty Venn diagram, there is an especially fruitful place where two elements of the U.S. left intersect. This intersecting group is comprised of people who have organizing training, who know how to pick fights and win them with and for oppressed constituencies. I’m talking about stop Stop-and-Frisk organizers; rank-and-file union members who take leaves of absence to organize new shops; feminists campaigning for equal pay. These are all strategically skilled social-movement leftists. At the same time, as ‘independent leftists’, this group has some theoretical critique of capitalism, sexism, racism and other oppressions, but also, likely and importantly, of their own work. That is to say, they are likely to think and feel that picking and winning issue-based fights for oppressed people is vital, but that it is not enough given the power and ubiquity of deep structural oppressions.

This is a group that is vital to connect with if a new left formation or set of formations is to emerge in the U.S. This is perhaps the one group where – even if only in each individual mind and body – theory, strategy, and organizing come together dynamically. To invite such organizers into a new space where they can collectively analyze what works and what doesn’t work in their strategies and organizing campaigns is vital to beginning the construction of new, powerful left in the U.S.

The North Star is big on doing interviews, and so I’ve discussed with the editors a series of interviews with folks who fit in this category, in this place where the social movement and independent lefts intersect. The content of these conversations will help connect the circle – or rather the spiral – of theory, strategy, and organizing; at the same time that it will help to build a network of people who know how to fight and win, but who are seeking something more. This is one small way that a publication like The North Star can contribute to the monumental task of reconstituting a left that can not only match the efforts of U.S. communists, socialists, and other leftists in the heyday of the 1930s, but even exceed them, in this new time in history, with the new crises that we face and the new technologies and theoretical tools that we have at our disposal. With that being said, I’m open to many others.

Thanks so much for your time and to the other panelists for sitting here with me and sharing their excellent ideas!

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Carl Davidson July 1, 2013 at 3:23 pm

This is interesting. I tend to group our tasks into two batches, our socialist tasks and our mass democratic tasks. In the first, I include socialist theory, policy and strategic thinking. In the second, the participation in the mass movements and struggles, both as leaders and activists. A bridge between the two is the ongoing task of revolutionary education and organization, at all levels. To use Karl Liebknickt’s motto for when struggle is on the uptick, ‘Study, Teach, Organize!’


Robert Gahtan July 1, 2013 at 8:01 pm

I think the following bibliography might be a good addendum to your proposal:
Lenin’s What is to be Done (1902),
Saul Alinsky’s Reveille for Radicals (1989),
Randy Shaw’s The Activist’s Handbook (2001),
Prokosch, Laura Raymond’, and Naomi Klein’s The Global Activist’s Manual (2002),
Marshall Ganz’s Why David Sometimes Wins (2010),
Gene Sharp’s From Dictatorship to Democracy (2012),
Aiden Ricketts’s The Activist’s Handbook (2012).
Playbook for Progressives (2013)


Pham Binh July 1, 2013 at 10:46 pm

I’m glad Luke wrote this. I remember reading his Znet piece on post-Occupy strategy for the left and using Google to try to find his email (in vain) so TNS comrades could get a hold of him to see if he was open to collaborating. I had a feeling we had a common passion for tomatoes. ;)

Quite a few people have criticized me for calling for regroupment starting at the end of 2011 on the grounds that such a call would be barren in terms of results since the sects would never converge or unite in a productive manner. I made that call knowing full well that this was the case, that the sects would not respond, because the point in doing so was not to change or orient to the sects but to find the elements of the left (individuals mostly) in sectors 1, 2, and 3 who agreed the existing organized left was not up to really any worthwhile tasks given its dismal performance in and reaction to Occupy. Eventually out of this TNS was born in early 2012, and after a fair amount of hard work and a lot of persistence in the face of adversity, this small site has a tiny following among all three sectors of the left.

So I guess what I’m saying is that by calling for a better, healthier, more effective 1 we have managed to bring together people of the same outlook from where 2 and 3 overlap. My orientation was never to chase sects around in circular arguments re: organizational questions — which in practice would’ve meant tailing Occupy’s worst tailists — but to use their close-minded, dysfunctional nature as a stepping stone towards helping to create something bigger and better. So far, so good… I think.


southpaw July 3, 2013 at 9:44 am

Yeah, I like this. It’s approachable and very clear. Thanks for writing it up.


Ethan Young July 3, 2013 at 10:16 am
Julia July 5, 2013 at 7:57 pm

I’ve heard a lot of academic leftists need to tone down their views, at least until they get tenure and aren’t really able to be political activists until they receive tenure. So they are disconnected from the left by necessity, not out of habit. Anyone agree? Disagree?


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