Philly Socialists’ Service Model: Outreach Disguised as Charity?

by Matt Hoke on August 19, 2013

Philly Socialists is what would appear to be an unassuming local socialist group. If you are familiar with them, you may have heard of their service projects including food handouts, community gardens, English classes, and free Internet. At first glance this would appear to be a naïve mistaking of charity for socialism. As I’ve learned firsthand, though, appearances can be deceiving: beneath Philly Socialists’ friendly, simple exterior is a group of razor-edged political operators with a killer instinct for strategy.

Imagine a protest that never ends. It simply continues existing, somewhere in your neighborhood – perhaps not so noisy, but always present. You see it every time you walk down your block. And eventually, after the hundredth time of walking past it, you inevitably cave and talk to the people in it about what it’s all about.

This is exactly what Philly Socialists’ community garden is: a recruiting-and-retention tool disguised as a friendly service project. (“Disguised” may be the wrong word, however, because it’s actually much more honest than that, for reasons I will explain later.) It’s always there. It never goes away. And anyone who approaches it to talk will quickly learn that it’s not just a row of tomatoes, but it’s a row of tomatoes run by commies. That has an incredible seductive power of humanizing we who hold what is often seen as a sinister ideology. Well, people figure, we’re just growing tomatoes; we can’t be so bad. And in fact they may get a hankering for those tomatoes (fastest way to the heart is the stomach!) or they may even want to help grow and tend to those tomatoes, for no other reason than to be good neighbors and make friends in a heinously lonely capitalist world.

Another example of Philly Socialists’ service projects, the food handout they titled the Red Plenty, reveals why “disguise” was the wrong word. The use of directly providing services is not particularly new, but was used by the Black Panthers to embarrass the entire capitalist government when they provided free breakfast for children. This caused such an uproar that the capitalist state itself began the school breakfast programs which we all now accept as normal. So rather than some foolish attempt to establish an island of socialism in a sea of capitalism, such as starting a commune, the direct action of providing food turned out to be a pivotal tactic for changing public policy. The continuing political nature of such projects was forced into contemporary view when the Philadelphia city government responded to the Red Plenty by actually trying to place a ban on open-air food distribution!

The absolute best reason for the service project model, in my opinion, has been saved for last: Philly Socialists has enlisted the use of cutting-edge sociological theory in deciding to base its entire organizational model on human relationships, and they believe that this more than makes up for their rejection of the typical party-line model of leftist organization. (For the record, though, they are not a bunch of feel-good fluffy bunnies with no knowledge of politics; actually their leaders tend to be well-developed Marxists of one tendency or another who declined the party-line model with both eyes open.) For the nerds who know what this means, you could say the service projects are a ‘Gramscian’ tactic for reinforcing a formal political movement by creating a politicized informal community. The Philly Socialists use a “dense network” model of organizing, in which they attempt to maximize the amount of connections that each member has with each other member. In some organizations you might only really know, work with, or hang out with one or two other members. Philly Socialists wants to arrange both its organizational structures, as well as its more casual interactions, so that everyone knows, works with, or hangs out with everyone.

Another Philly Socialists project, free English classes, seems like just a very kind thing to do. However, it also serves as a way to intentionally bridge the gap between the typical Leftist scene of white Millennials, with one of the USA’s other most radical demographics: Latino immigrants. Besides drawing a line of connection across the demographics, each service project also serves to reinforce the organization’s own cohesion by giving members one more space to share and work collectively. And of course all the countless interactions which occur over the course of an English class help build not one, but a whole enmeshed webwork of relationships across the two disparate demographics, ensuring that the bridging attempt will be reliable and not tenuous.

The political use of charity and service projects has a long tradition. If you haven’t been living under a rock, you may have heard of the not-unimportant grouping known as the Muslim Brotherhood. Such tactics were also used with great success by an obscure German sect known as the Nazis. Yep, that’s right – the Brownshirts ran soup kitchens and made a lot of inroads with them. Of course, Philly Socialists’ service projects may be driven by a far less Machiavellian impulse. Maybe they just want to care about human need in a direct, individual sort of way instead of always insisting on being systemic and political. This would make their projects indistinguishable from the average soup kitchen, of course, but I understand that not everyone’s heart has yet been turned to stone by the murderous logic of capitalism, so such mushiness is forgivable I suppose. But then it’s not so simple. Because there are now people all over Philadelphia, who when asked, will say the socialists gave me food, the socialists grew my lettuce, the socialists gave me Internet, socialists taught me English! And that is seriously dangerous.

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Richard Estes August 19, 2013 at 6:47 pm

I’ve never understood the concept of “mistaking charity for socialism”. Socialists, including anarchists, have a rich history of providing educational and economic assistance as part of their effort to reach and mobilize people. Today, it is almost impossible to comprehend the richness of these activities, ranging from school programs for children and adults to food aid to newspapers to sports and recreational clubs.

With the implementation of the New Deal and European Social Democracy, and the clientelism that they engendered, the connection between these efforts and political activism was lost, as many of these programs were provided by the government or through no-profits receiving government funding. But with the imposition of austerity, there is an opportunity recuperate this history and put it to good use. Socialism before the end of the second world war was about more than protest and participation in the electoral process, and had much to do with its success.


Richard Estes August 20, 2013 at 11:06 pm

I have never understood the concept of “mistaking charity for socialism.” Socialists, including anarchists, have a rich history of providing educational and social welfare assistance as part of their effort to organize people in their communities. Such efforts, almost incomprehensible today, ranged from educational programs for children and adults to newspapers to food aid to sports and recreational clubs.

With the advent of the New Deal and post-war European Social Democracy, the connection between the left and such efforts was severed. But there was always more to socialism than political activism and electoral politics. Given the intensification of austerity, there is an opportunity to recuperate these practices to meet contemporary challenges, as the Philly socialists are doing.


Richard Estes August 21, 2013 at 12:35 pm

Socialists, including anarchists, have a rich history of providing educational programs, child care and food aid, among other things. They considered such activity an integral part of their efforts to politically organize people. Beyond the “charity” aspect of such activity, it exposed the inadequacies of capitalism and the means by which people could act outside of market relationships.

I understand that these efforts can easily degenerate into non-profit social welfare, but much the same can be said of anything else that the left does as well, party politics can devolve into machine politics, activism into self-referential theatrics, that sort of thing. So, that doesn’t strike me as an argument against it. This post does, however, express an “us” (socialists) and “them” (people all over Philadelphia) perspective that may inhibit success over time.


Jacob Richter August 21, 2013 at 11:33 pm

Purely on the question of form, our focus should be more on food banks and not soup kitchens. That’s the service the precariat will use far more often.


JayJay August 22, 2013 at 9:30 am

Too expensive to maintain. Same problem with the anarchist-inspired infoshops. I worked at one that needed forty grand a year to maintain itself. That was with having two part-time workers being paid minimum wage.

The other comment I posted is more on the organizing role of such an activity. It appears to me to be the more effective path for us in the charitable outreach field.


Aaron Aarons August 24, 2013 at 7:10 pm

Soup kitchens are far better than food banks for at least two reasons that immediately come to mind:

1) Homeless people don’t have the ability to store and prepare food.

2) Collective food preparation and consumption, as in what Chileans and others call ‘ollas comunes’ (lit: common, or communal, pots), is an activity that encourages collective thought and action. While it is important, for health reasons, to not have a too-casual attitude to preparation and serving, new, untested people can be involved in setup, cleanup, etc.


JayJay August 22, 2013 at 9:28 am
Deran August 23, 2013 at 12:39 am

I can see the comrade’s points abt making sure that the no one is hiding their socialism behind community service work. But it seems to me that volunteering and mutualistic projects like gardens, ESL and such should not be used like some religious food kitchen where hungry people have to sit through preaching and gospel singing to get fed. It would seem to me that it is better to be known for no-nonsense presentation of the service or resource, as good people, who are socialists. And a presence of material for those interested. Building relationships seems much more productive than the sale of any number of newspapers or handing out pamphlets.

I will say, it would also seem more useful to create little pamphlets like those Christian ones, the “Chick Ministries” little tracts that make some basic points with comics or graphics. Something that entertains so as to draw people in, and makes some good points that might get some people thinking. That would seem to me the kind of pamphlets that would be worth having on hand at any volunteer or mutualist project. We’re trying to get people to not think socialists are dour zombies doing everything toward recruiting people.


J.B. August 22, 2013 at 2:44 pm

y’know, I remember back when Occupy Sandy was going on, a lot of right wing commentators were saying things like “this is just like what Hezbollah does! They give out aid as a means to trick people into their political organization!” I really don’t see anything wrong with using aid as a political tool, though, if the point of the aid and the point of one’s political program are the same. If you think everyone should have food, it makes perfect sense both to advocate for socialist policies and to give them food yourself. This also helps counteract the “left-wingers don’t solve any problems, they just want the government to do it” meme. Good for Philly Socialists!


Aaron Aarons August 24, 2013 at 2:26 am

Hasn’t anybody at the Philly Socialists or the Rosa-Debs Network ever heard of Food Not Bombs? They’ve been around since 1980, have inspired offshoots in probably hundreds of places around the world and have provoked a lot of the same repressive reactions from ruling-class institutions as are discussed here, including hundreds, perhaps thousands, of arrests for serving food along with a political message.

Food Not Bombs don’t call themselves ‘socialist’, but they are definitely anti-capitalist. I’m not claiming that their activity is the same as what the Philly Socialists are doing, but their experience is certainly at least as relevant to the potential of similar activities in the U.S. today as are the experiences of right-wing groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and the Nazis. (I think the Greek Nazi Golden Dawn does something similar, but explicitly only for ethnic Greeks and not for migrants.)


Deran August 27, 2013 at 3:39 pm

Comrade Aarons. I also thought about Food Not Bombs (FNB) when I first read about Philly Socialists (PS). But my thought is that Philly Socialists are taking the same idea a step further. Not just providing a meal, but creating ways that PS and other people can be involved in long-term projects that both provide something needed, but also create a space where socialists are seen as more than just replicating the old Christian soup kitchen idea of people in need having to listen to a lecture before they are allowed to eat.

What I mean is that PS seem to be taking the FNB mode and expanding the idea.


Aaron Aarons August 24, 2013 at 2:36 am
admin August 24, 2013 at 12:00 pm

Indeed! Much thanks.


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