Three Cheers for the Philly Socialists Leadership Retreat

by Matt Hoke on August 14, 2013

People keep asking me “How was the Philly Socialists retreat?” and I keep saying “hold on, I’ll write about it so I only have to do this once.”

Well, first off, pretty damn good.  Better than that Left Forum 2013 certainly. Sad thing is this was about 1/20th of the size, with something like over 20 people as opposed to 4,000.


I honestly was expecting the talks to be mediocre introductions to the socialist basics, which is what you get out of most broad formations who don’t take a party line.  Boy was I wrong.  Even the talk which really was just an intro to Marxist economics killed it and really covered all the bases explicitly and unapologetically, serving as a perfect crash course for anyone who has no idea what Marx’s critique of capitalism is.  After the talk you would know.

Then out of left field came Philly Socialists’ Communications Director Anthony Shull’s research into business practices, wisdom gained from business books and literature as well as some academia about strategic planninginformal social relationships within an organization, and using quantitative psychological testing to identify a person’s strongest possible organizational role.  I’ve heard of literally no socialist organization that utilizes business practices and it closely mirrors my love of stealing tactics from the bad guys.

Philly Socialists use the revolutionary concept of basing itself on relationships.  Now, their website and literature defines that despite having no party line they do insist on being explicitly political.  So if you’re asking, what relationships is Philly Socialists based on – relationships based on common values and ideas (political), or relationships based on friendship, hanging out, possibly dating (apolitical) – the answer would be, they can be either, and will probably be both.

Some say this model “has flaws”: for example, not everyone will be friends and it would be silly not to expect that at least some people in the group would even dislike each other.  There’s also the possibility that a group can drift too much toward being fun and friendly and lose political seriousness.  The first possibility can be worked around I think, and the second, well I just see absolutely no threat of that actually happening to Philly Socialists because the seriousness with which they approach political ideas surprised me.

The main thing is, I think this has come to grips with a fundamental dishonesty that most party-line organizations have been practicing.  They are all friend crews.  Half the time the people in the group are married to each other.  And yet we insist that membership must be based entirely on political ideas only?  Hogwash.  And Philly Socialists has called that out.

They talked about applying a network model.  If you imagine people as dots and their relationships as lines, a sparse network is one where people have only a few relationships with each other, so the dots may be connected to one or two other dots but not much.  A dense network is one where most of the dots are connected to many of the other dots, covering the space in many more lines, making it look more like a geometric shape where a line has been drawn between every point (except arranged in a scatter and not a neat shape).  A cult of personality movement would have everyone connected to the one central leader and may or may not have any other “density” (cross-relationships).

How are these relationships accomplished?  It could be formal or informal, political or apolitical, but the point is to assess both the formal/informal lines that already existed and accept them as your operating terrain, and then intentionally set up situations to create lines between the dots that aren’t yet linked.  This applies to so many different issues: breaking racial barriers, creating a sense of community, acknowledging and using informal scenes and hangouts and friendships.  There is also the great idea of creating internal cross-pollenation in the organization not just by finding, using, and expanding the existing formal connections, but by having the different sub-units of the organization occasionally swap or overlap their formal work, or assigning people as “ambassadors” who split their time between two sub-units.

They also discussed the best practices of speaking smoothly with people and active listening.  I admit I did not entirely identify with the talk about being a good listener because I work in customer service/security, and most of the time I just want to rip people’s throats out with my fingernails.  I’m in a job where I don’t have to care so much if I offend “my” customers (and am even often required to), and besides if one thing is true on this earth it is the dark side.  Still, what kind of socialist group focuses on teaching people how to listen?  Most of them just focus on shoving their shit down your throat as loudly, repeatedly, and specifically as possible.  A socialist group that listens!  What an idea!  Seriously, kudos to them for being an ethically better type of person than me.

Philly Socialists, for a non-party line group (again such groups are often ill-defined and naïve compared to their sectarian sisters), was shockingly self-conscious of its strategy and its goals.  They say they have a 40-year plan to build a national mass party, which is exactly the kind of thinking I believe the left needs.  Nietzsche said something like greatness is a long, terrible will.  Rock on.

The “retreat” was, however, physically abusive in a way similar to Left Forum 2013. More sitting and listening than I can possibly handle.  For a group that values connecting each member with each other member partially by promoting informal interactions, there was surprisingly little time for that (though there was some).  I was so brainwiped by the session-after-session barrage that by the end of the day I took refuge in copious amounts of alcohol to the point of becoming blackout-drunk.

The harrowing circumstances which led to my excesses, however, are an example of neglecting the needs of the movement’s bio-physical-psychological infrastructure: human beings.  It’s a shame because the organizers actually did a great job making sure we had food, toilet paper, etc, so in many ways actually attended to precisely those needs. Still, the seeming appearance of the retreat as a camping trip-strategizing hybrid was almost entirely deceptive – it was a classic exhausting leftist conference which merely happened to be in the woods, and not a vacation at all. 

I had to insist to even go hiking at Rickett’s Glen legendary waterfall trail, which was immediately nearby.  For anyone who knows what this means, I donned the horns, and even encountered a guy in a red Philmont shirt with the bull on it at the end of our hike, and there was much celebration.

Cool people though, lots of techie nerds and Game of Thrones fans and diehard Reds with Third Period aesthetics, also a surprising number of sane people who are actually socially normal and personable, plus a decent gender balance, and congratulations to Philly Socialists for achieving the careful balance of being Millennial radicals without being disgusting hipsters.  (Or maybe we were just too focused on politics for them to show their true colors, but I have a decent eye for these things, and as far as I could tell, no.)

Singing the Internationale around a campfire while setting off fireworks and holding sparklers and being wasted, now that was seriously sweet.


{ 33 comments… read them below or add one }

Jon Hoch August 14, 2013 at 3:19 pm

Glad to hear it. Hope all had a blast. Any chance any audio is available online a la We Are Many?


Jon Hoch August 14, 2013 at 3:53 pm

Also, is the Left Forum 2013 audio available anywhere?


Deran August 14, 2013 at 8:40 pm

And why can’t such things be held via livestream or something so many more can see/listen, and some mechanism for some sort of participation. Via some sort of messaging. Something cheap/free? Such webinars could be “held” at a regional level as well. And yet somehow not make it just another dreary meeting?


Jon Hoch August 14, 2013 at 3:21 pm

And any chance someone would post the 40 year plan here? I’m sure all of us would like to hear it and debate its credibility.


Aaron Slater August 14, 2013 at 3:26 pm

The 40 year plan is meant to simply be a constant reminder that organizing a new society takes many years and hard work, rather than an actual step by step plan.

If you really want to know what the plan is, broadly it is:
Bridge the Gap, Build Density, Repeat.


Jon Hoch August 14, 2013 at 3:58 pm

Oh OK. That’s a little disappointing. A detailed 40 year plan, while obviously it would have to be incredibly hypothetical, would be indicative, to me at least, of a level of seriousness which most socialists don’t have right now. I’m sure capitalist parties and other organizations create documents like this all the time. But anyway, I think this leadership conference was a great idea. And that it sounds like it was a lot of fun makes all the difference.


Karl Grant August 14, 2013 at 4:50 pm

American Prospect posed the question of a 40 year plan to prominent liberal thinkers:

It’s obviously impossible to formulate a plan in detail but I think it’s useful to think about medium and long term strategies to shift the terrain towards socialism.


Tim Horras August 14, 2013 at 4:21 pm

For folks interested in some of the presentations and suggested reading materials, just follow this link and scroll down the page:


David Berger (RED DAVE) August 14, 2013 at 7:14 pm

I will keep this diplomatic and low key. From reading about the Philly Socialists here at TNS and on their website, it is impossible to determine what their politics are or what their strategies are. So, in the interest of gathering information, I would like to know:

(1) What strategy, if any, does the Philly Socialists have for being a part of ongoing working class struggles such as, for example, the current wave of actions by fast food workers. Do they participate in such struggles?

(2) What strategy, if any, does the Philly Socialists have for being a part of ongoing anti-racism struggles such as, for example, the various demonstrations about the Trayvon Martin verdict? Do they participate in such struggles?

(3) What strategy, if any, does the Philly Socialists have for participating in the anti-war movement? Do they participate in the anti-war movement?

(4) Are the Philly Socialists participating in the 50th anniversary commemoration of the March on Washington?


Deran August 14, 2013 at 7:57 pm

I think you can go look at the Philly Socialists’ website to see if they share your personal interests and are involved in the same projects you are. It seems unclear how the set of projects and interests one person has can be used as a mark to measure others by?


David Berger (RED DAVE) August 15, 2013 at 12:14 am

DERAN: I think you can go look at the Philly Socialists’ website to see if they share your personal interests and are involved in the same projects you are. It seems unclear how the set of projects and interests one person has can be used as a mark to measure others by?

DAVID BERGER: I would appreciate it if my questions were answered. If the answer is that the Philly Socialists are not involved in working class struggles, anti-racist and anti-war activities, and they are not supporting the March on Washington, I would like someone to state that explicitly.


Jeff K. August 15, 2013 at 1:20 am

I’m not sure where all this implicit hostility is coming from.

Philly Socialists is a very young group. We’re barely two years old and we’re still trying to build connections with the community – that’s what the garden project and ESL classes are all about. My participation is limited because I live two hours away from Philadelphia, but I try to make every even that I can, and one of those was the Justice for Trayvon Martin march that happened the Saturday after the verdict in which I and another member were present.

It’s not that the group is against or neglectful of the importance of movement work, it’s just that we aren’t at that point yet. I get the impression that Philly Socialists wants its image to be of an organization connected to the community first and foremost, rather than one that repeats the same strategies as the other alphabet soup grouplets that compose the U.S. left.


Aaron Slater August 15, 2013 at 10:17 am

Mr. Berger I can not speak for the Philly Socialists as a whole but I will say that as a non-party line organization our members are free to and do participate in various different causes and actions.

To answer your questions the best I can I will also say:

1. What strategy, if any, does the Philly Socialists have for being a part of ongoing working class struggles?

Members of Philly Socialists have worked for various labor unions in different facets including direct organizing and communications. I am unsure what the material conditions on the ground are like where you live Mr. Berger but in Philadelphia labor politics is closely tied to the Democratic machine and some of the largest and most powerful unions are staffed by almost exclusively white men, many of which are not even residents of the city. This is not to say that work with and in labor is not a tactic that Philly Socialists will pursue, we have just not formed a coherent vision of what that will look like here based on the real conditions on the ground.

2. What strategy does Philly Socialists have in regards to anti-racist action?

Members of Philly Socialists have been involved with Zimmerman protests, some have been involved with Decarcerate PA. We are actively working on bridging the gap between our organization and the immigrant communities we serve, and we are starting outreach to another young group of radicals disaffected with establishment politics and the established left called the Hip Hop Party for the People. As I stated before, members of Philly Socialists are free to pursue causes they believe in and are not forced to follow a party line. To this end different members have different experiences in anti-racist action.

3.What strategy, if any, does the Philly Socialists have for participating in the anti-war movement?

Various members have been involved in anti-war actions since the early 2000s. Much of the current leadership of Philly Socialists has extensive anti-war experience. Currently our practice has not been focused on anti-war work due to our local focus, but this does not mean we are a pro-war party.

4. Are the Philly Socialists participating in the 50th anniversary commemoration of the March on Washington?

“[Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.] would not be invited to the very march in his name,” says Dr. Cornel West about the upcoming commemoration. “Because he would talk about drones, he’d talk about Wall Street criminality, he would talk about the working class being pushed to the margins as profits went up for corporate executives and their compensation. He would talk about the legacies of white supremacy.”

The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was an extremely important event in our history and represents a movement towards freedom and justice. That being said, I do not understand why you include this in your list of questions for Philly Socialists. To answer it, to my personal knowledge I do not know anyone attending the commemorative march. Again that does not mean that members are barred or are not going, I just do not know of anyone.

I hope that answers your questions.

Thanks for your inquiry.

Aaron Slater
At Large Committee Person
Philly Socialists


Deran August 14, 2013 at 7:39 pm

I was wondering if the Philly Socialists vote as individuals, and who they vote for? I know the org doesn’t endorse candaites, but I was wondering how the Philly Socialist look at voting in the present?

And since Saturn links to his blog post abt Left Forum 2013, and the North Star forums on electoral politics and organizing, I’d still love to read some other comments/reports/analysis of those forums and any further developments along these sorts of projects? I’m very curious and interested.


Joaquin Bustelo August 15, 2013 at 10:13 am

As the oldest among the 25 participants in the Philly Socialists leadership retreat (and I mean way oldest: I am 62, the runner up was 35, third place went to a 32-year old and everyone else was less than half my age), I hope to write an impressive evaluation reflecting the wisdom that is said to come with age an experience shortly … as soon as I figure out what that wisdom might be.

But for Deran’s benefit, let me say the Philly comrades absolutely blew my mind.

I mean, after having attended since the 1960s approximately 442 socialist summer school classes, educational conference workshops, leadership retreat seminars, cadre educationals and National Committee, Central Committee, Political Committee Political Bureau, and factional meetings (among others), the absolutely very last thing I expected was to be assaulted from the very first session with ways of thinking about and looking at organizing and strategy that I’d never heard before.

And precisely what made it so fresh was that in that context, questions like:

“What strategy, if any, does the Philly Socialists have for being a part of ongoing working class struggles …

“What strategy, if any, does the Philly Socialists have for being a part of ongoing anti-racism struggles …

“What strategy, if any, does the Philly Socialists have for participating in the anti-war movement…”

… those questions made no sense, absolutely no fucking sense *at all*.

The approach of the comrades is at right angles with the entire spectrum of approaches on those questions of the 20th Century Left. Their approach may have only limited applicability, a sell-by date coming up soon and many other issues. But we are (IMHO) at the very beginning of a rebirth of the socialist movement in the United States, and the success of these comrades shows that it is a fruitful approach at least for this specific moment and set of circumstances, and one that the rest of us should examine with an open mind and learn from.



Derick Varn August 26, 2013 at 1:14 am

Originally found here:

Comrade Saturn makes some good points on the value of charitable outreach. My goal with this response is to put that tactic on a more solid basis for the more skeptical Marxists.

All tactics must be looked at through the eyes of he working class, its activity more specifically. The main advantage for this type of outreach is the creation of areas where movement activity can more easily reach a working class audience if we make effort to provide a wide variety of movement materials (pamphlets, leaflets etc). If done systematically it can also prove to be key support for the working class in the event of strikes, demonstrations and economic lulls.

It is also important to note that the early Marxist movement in Russia at the turn of the nineteenth employed similar tactics in the form of teaching workers to read and write. Out of these classes the first worker-Marxists were recruited to the movement. More importantly it created a strong working class current in society and encouraged comradely debate between those among it. This became the foundation on which the Russia Social Democratic Labor Party (as Marxists were known as at the time) was built.


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