Summer 2022

BOOK REVIEW: What Are They Building? 

A review of Power Concedes Nothing: How Grassroots Organizing Wins Elections. Edited by Linda Burnham, Max Elbaum, and María Poblet. O/R Books. 2022. 


Co-editors Linda Burnham, Max Elbaum, and María Poblet have put together an indispensable guide to electoral politics from the perspective of a broadly defined American “left.”  Their ecumenical spirit shines through in the variety of views encompassed in the book. While sharing core values, the articles show significant differences that require elaboration and respectful discussion in a context of action in order to be resolved.  Forty-six authors are represented; an alphabet soup of organizations—ranging from the nationally known to those familiar only to local people—is presented. 

The multiplicity of authors talking essentially about the same thing—the role of progressives/the left/radicals/ in electoral politics—is bound to create duplication.  But don’t avoid it. What might initially appear repetitive often is illusory.  God (or the Devil) is in the details.

Authors are generally careful in distinctions they make, and these differentiate them from others talking about the same things.  This is one of those books that requires pauses during the reading to evaluate material, compare it with what others say, and draw tentative conclusions that a subsequent chapter might challenge.  At the same time, there is often fuzziness in conceptualization that muddies the waters required for clear conversation.

For me, a public housing project kid with 60+ years of engagement, ranging from tenant organizing in a New York City Lower Eastside housing project to four+ years on the staff of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (“Snick”) to directorship of a Saul Alinsky Black community organizing project in Kansas City, MO, to independent work from my ORGANIZE Training Center base that took me from the heart of Black and Latino/a inner city communities to mostly White suburbs to rural Nebraska to public, industrial, construction and service workers’ union locals to an almost ten-year national effort to move evangelical, Pentecostal and Holiness pastors from their ideological (not theological) conservatism into “faith-based” community organizing, it was refreshing to read articles by and about people I’d barely or never heard of.

I like the possibilities for radical action and organization-building in electoral work, and the uses of new technologies to strengthen the basics of face-to-face, one-to-one and small group meetings. 

I admit to being annoyed by claims of “transformative” rather than “transactional” activity, or power building when it wasn’t clear how more than winning an election was accomplished.  As one writer noted, we should recognize electoral gains as important without overstating what they mean.  “The Squad” is not transforming American politics.  A Democratic majority and president will not adopt transformative policies, though Medicare for all, a $15.00 minimum wage, substantive criminal justice reform, a much more progressive tax system, affordable housing, student and homeowner debt relief, immigration reform, and well-paying jobs or living income-for-all would substantially improve the lives of hundreds of millions of Americans—which is nothing to make light of. They wouldn’t qualitatively alter the nature of the power structure.  Bernie Sanders’ self-identification as a “democratic socialist” expanded the parameters of “mainstream” politics, and in so doing made a major contribution.  Most-if-not-all of his proposals are “social democrat” or “New Deal” in character not “democratic socialist”.  One Power Concedes Nothing author makes that distinction.

There is a fair amount about Donald Trump and the authoritarian right that has emerged to control the Republican Party, as there is about corporate money and power’s influence in the Democratic Party’s moderate/centrist camp.  It is not simply money that matters, though it is surely important.  Through direct and indirect, legal, questionable and illegal, financial contributions, wealthy individuals and major financial and corporate institutions influence and determine specific legislation and seek to define the range of what is considered “legitimate” in American politics.

The book might have been strengthened by a chapter that described how corporate racial capitalism (one article uses the term) shapes the culture: “consumers” not co-creators of the political options from which we choose; rugged individualism and the race to be numero uno; invidious status differentiation based on income, wealth, race, gender, religion and immigrant status create “The Other” rather than a culture of individuality, mutual respect, community and solidarity.  

An elaboration  of the mechanisms of corporate wealth’s political power would be useful as well:  the job that awaits a retiring or defeated incumbent or a challenger who loses; the overwhelming presence of lobbyists in meetings that write regulations to create loop-holes in legislative intent; wining, dining, vacation homes and other entertainment that are part of big money’s relationship to politics; offers to move into or away from a place depending on the availability of city planning waivers, zoning changes, publicly paid for land clearance to create sites for private investment; intervention to influence or overthrow foreign governments that interfere with private capital; tax loopholes or deferments, infrastructure benefits, lax enforcement of what’s “on the books”; neighborhood churning (or turnover) that undermines neighborliness; foreign trade agreements and treaties like NAFTA that shift millions of well-paying jobs to low-wage economies; the list goes on.  They are the province of both Republicans and Democrats. Perhaps the editors thought this book’s readers know all that—if so, I hope they’re wrong and that its audience is broader.  

Similarly, while “caste system” may not be analytically quite correct, it explains a lot.  Not even the most grassroots mobilization of voters changes these.  

An Important Story

The essence of these stories is personal contact with potential supporters by canvassers who “listen to people’s rightful anger, anger about politicians, electoral politics, partisan party politics. I got to tell them, ‘Yes, I’m disappointed in the Democratic Party, too. They have let me down, too. And here’s why I’m doing this work in this moment’.” 

National groups interested in defeating the right and wanting to support progressive candidates in critical electoral vote states reached out to state and local organizations to engage them in conversations about how best to accomplish their common objective.  The former listened to the latter and asked how they could strengthen what they were doing.  That, in itself, is a big leap forward from how national organizations typically relate to those with their feet on the ground.

Together, these groups made maximum use of the most up-to-date research and media tools available to them to identify their potential voters who they define as racial and ethnic minorities (with some exceptions, like Cubans in South Florida); women, which is sometimes more specifically “working class women of color”; young people; in some cases, union members; and “progressive” White males.  

In an important departure from many election campaign professional strategists, they sought to shift unlikely voters to register and to vote.

Door-to-door and phone canvassers had conversations with people rather than trying to make a quick sale and move on to the next potential buyer.  In these conversations, they shared their own stories and listened to those of the person “at the door”—who often invited them in when s/he realized the canvasser actually was interested in what the person at home had to say.

Nothing more undermined their approach than COVID.  For the most part (UNITE/HERE was an exception, and that story is told too), these groups withdrew from door-to-door work; they had to creatively come up with the best substitutes they could find—and they did.


I was left with many questions.

For example, what does “being explicit about race” mean?  What did canvassers tell a white person who supports a federally funded massive effort to rebuild physical and social infrastructure, Medicare for all, universal child care, and debt relief for students but isn’t in favor of “Defund the Police” and wants more cops in his neighborhood?  Did they tell him he was wrong?  I’d rather get him in an organization that includes police-community relations among its purposes, and has racial and ethnic minority group members where he could develop relationships of trust and hear stories that might lead him to favor reform.

And if there weren’t such organizations, in this moment at the door, I’d rather have his vote.  Where does this person go after the election, even assuming a vote for the Democrat? And what if he was a Black opponent of “Defund?” 

The Michigan chapter asks, "Is it possible to build a multiracial, working-class movement in Michigan that can create aspirational vision together…?”  Not now, says a long-time labor organizer friend of mine who lives there.  He elaborates: 

I don’t have much patience for romanticizing the working class, certainly not around here.  Not the white people…you’re in MAGAworld – that’s all of rural and small-town Michigan.  A look at the voting patterns by county will tell anyone that.  A significant percentage, maybe half, of the Steelworkers at the iron mines are in love with Donald Trump.  It’s all guns, gays, and abortion.  The labor movement isn’t a movement.  Local and regional union officers are afraid to challenge their members or provide any real leadership on politics.  Not pretty.

In Arizona, “Our efforts also further narrowed the Republican majority in the Arizona state legislature, elected Democrats to several statewide offices, contributed to Democrats taking back the United States House of Representatives, and secured the election of Kyrsten Sinema to the United States Senate.”  I assume this was written before we learned who Sinema really is.  But what does it tell us about the on-the-ground groups that elected her that they are unable to hold her accountable to what she presumably said in the campaign?  Or, if they knew what she was going to become, which—given the closeness of the Senate party breakdown—might have led to a “lesser of two evils” decision, what’s different about that from the usual calculation in electoral politics?  What’s transformational about it?  

The Arizona story tells us, “Often, our people are disheartened by what feels like wasted energy spent on elections for politicians who will ultimately betray us, but that is only because we usually fail to make explicit the larger strategy that elections are a small part of. At the end of the day, we’re trying to build political power to reshape our communities into places where we can thrive, and electoral power is essential to that project.”  Beyond the left, the movement or progressive forces, it is unclear what that larger strategy seeks to build.  And if these are what it is, they are insufficient—a point to which I will return.

White working-class men are excluded from these efforts because of their high propensity to vote for Trump Republicans.  That is a result that has been 50+ years in the making.   In 1970, union electrician Michael Schneider wrote: 

There is an alarming problem in this country today, the alienation of a large segment of the population, the white working class.  Forty million strong, [they] form the bulk of this nation’s labor force.  Attached to them are civil servants, small entrepreneurs, shopkeepers, all the people encompassed in the term ‘middle America’. They add up to 60-or-70 million.  (“White America:  A Study in Frustration,” The Center Magazine, Nov/Dec, 1970)

Continued marginalization of this constituency by “progressive” efforts will heighten that marginalization.  But elections aren’t the time or place to reach out to them.  What follows?  What happens when these voters are ignored in states sufficient in number to provide electoral college majorities to a right-wing Presidential candidate?  In states where rural and White suburban counties can elect majorities to state senates?  Isn’t a year-round “majority constituency” approach to organizing required?  But since elections aren’t a good mechanism for that, what is the substitute?  There isn’t sufficient examination of these questions here.

In the Virginia chapter, we are told "Translating deep organizing into electoral mobilization is, again, patient work. At best this core group of leaders can generate four or five volunteers for a half-dozen weekends prior to an election to support voter mobilization.”  

How does that compare with what the membership-based, multi-issue, Community Service Organization (CSO) did with four paid organizers after about fifteen years of existence:  

By 1963, the CSO had 34 chapters across the southwest with over 10,000 dues-paying members which, between them, registered some 500,000 new voters and helped over 50,000 Mexican immigrants obtain citizenship. <>

CSO didn’t endorse; it had a year-round program that included mutual aid (buying clubs), direct action against government and business targets on issues, voter education, registration and get-out-the-vote, member benefits and member education.  It turned out voters who knew, based on their relationship with CSO, who they wanted to vote for.  Formal endorsement wasn’t required.

From Florida: “when resources became available for mutual aid, [our team] distributed over $375,000 to the people who expressed financial hardship and sent teams of organizers to food distribution sites to hand out cash assistance and call on the governor to take action to protect public health.”  Isn’t this direct service rather than mutual aid?  “Our team” is distributing benefits to people.  That’s good.  It’s not mutual aid—which historically has meant people coming together to help each other, and can range from the vast cooperative network in Italy’s Emilia Romagna region or the Spanish Basque Mondragon Cooperatives to a buying club or community garden.

And, “The new majority coalition has arrived. It’s only a matter of time before it is no longer ascendant, but holding the reins of power.”  This appears to be an overstatement until you read further: “When I see Biden, I see a leader from a working-class family who has lost his wife, daughter, and son, and because of his experiences will listen, build a great team, take responsibility and find solutions that will work for all of us, not just the wealthy few.”  If he’s all these things, why did Bernie run?  Why not an equivalent to Students for a Democratic Society (SDS)’s 1964 campaign slogan, “Part of the Way with LBJ.”  To put it in the starkest terms, what’s wrong with saying, “He’s the lesser of two evils?”

We are told, “California’s reputation as the most progressive state in the nation rests upon the blossoming of community organizing in the early 1990s and the movement infrastructure we built with support from progressive allies in organized labor.”  In the last couple of years, San Francisco, one of the most progressive cities in this “most progressive state,” David Campos was defeated—a left former member of the city/county Board of Supervisors (64% to 36%) in a low-turnout (23%) primary in an Assembly race by Matt Haney, who challenged him from the center; a “progressive” school board majority was recalled by the voters; the same result later took place with Chesa Boudin, the progressive District Attorney.  Meanwhile the systematic replacement of low-to-middle income rental housing by condos, tenants-in-common, and high-priced rentals continues—despite policy and direct-action wins like rent control and negotiations with landlords.  Creating “an atmosphere inhospitable to investment” might have greater impact but that requires mass (in the thousands) direct action.

Is Endorsement Necessary?

In a mass meeting (called “accountability session”) the PICO (now “Faith in Action”) affiliated New Orleans All Congregations Together (ACT) asked candidates for public office if they supported ACT’s campaign to get New Orleans to shift its drug-addiction policy from criminality to public health. (Earlier briefings with candidates’ staff had elaborated the program and answered questions about it—it was carefully researched, developed and documented.)  The accountability session demanded “yes” or “no” answers.  A “no show” was treated as a “no.”  The responses were widely publicized in the Black community.  ACT yard signs outnumbered those of any candidate.  The “yes” candidates from mayor down the list won.  No formal endorsement was made.  ACT subsequently was directly involved in hiring a new police chief.

In the campaign that defeated Chicago Mayor Daley Sr’s proposed Crosstown Freeway (it would have eliminated tens of thousands of housing units, and thousands of jobs and small businesses), a massive voter education, registration and turnout campaign was undertaken in the proposed freeway corridor by the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF)-affiliated Citizens Action Program (CAP). It similarly used a public accountability session to demand “yes” or “no” answers to the “Will you oppose the freeway?” question from the full-range of candidacies on the 1972 ballot—from George McGovern vs Richard Nixon (they both supported it) to various state and local offices.

In the Governor’s race, Democrat Walker said “yes”, incumbent Republican O’Gilvie said “no.”  Walker won, and the margin of his victory could be accounted for by the votes in the freeway corridor.

In the down-ballot Prosecuting Attorney race, Edward Hanrahan (he said “no”), the mayor’s heir apparent who was responsible for the police murder of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, was defeated by a moderate Republican (they existed in those days—he said “yes”), including in Irish precincts!  

I call this approach “non-partisan partisanship”.  Is there any reason why a coalition of people power organizations couldn’t develop a multi-issue agenda that would be used in this way?  Of course, the issues selected would have to have substantial support in the precincts that were subsequently targeted for voter education, registration and get-out-the-vote activity which in most Black communities would mean something other than “defund” for a criminal justice plank.  

“Insider” Democrats can deal with the Party’s reform.  I think this “outside” tactic avoids entanglement in endless procedural and party organization disputes while simultaneously creating the effect of supporting reform candidates.  But note:  you have to have the power to subsequently punish those who say “yes” but act “no” once in office.


The book’s title shortens, “Power concedes nothing without a demand,” from the now widely read 1857 speech by Black Abolitionist Frederick Douglass, “If There Is No Struggle There Is No Progress.”  Douglass needs to be supplemented with former Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters Union President and 1920-1960s civil rights movement leader A. Philip Randolph: “At the banquet table of nature, there are no reserved seats. You get what you can take, and you keep what you can hold. If you can't take anything, you won't get anything, and if you can't hold anything, you won't keep anything. And you can't take anything without organization.” (emphasis added)

Another chapter, “Integrated voter engagement (IVE)” describes an approach used in California, Virginia and other states. 

[It] connects the short-term, cyclical work of voter education, outreach, and mobilization to the year-round work of organizing communities, developing grassroots leadership, and waging campaigns…[E]lections are…milestones in a movement-building strategy.  IVE organizing thus engages new and infrequent voters in ways that motivate them to vote consistently, and to show up as well for local policy battles and other kinds of civic engagement.  


IVE leverages the depth of relationships that community groups have among key constituencies and neighborhoods to reach unlikely, infrequent, and new voters. It represents a maturation of community organizing whose scope had too often been limited to the municipal or neighborhood scale. Its scope thus reaches beyond the short-termism of traditional electoral work, with notable results at particular moments in states like California and Virginia.

There are two different kinds of organizations in the book whose distinction on the questions of power and transformation isn’t clear:  mass-membership organizations like unions (UNITE/HERE and SEIU) and ISAIAH, and activist organizations with one or more of these purposes:  to transform the Democratic Party, conduct issue campaigns and win elections.  (A further distinction between organizations that “do for” versus “do with” members is beyond the scope of these pages—but it is essential.  See Jane McAlevey’s books on unions for an elaboration as one example, or “Renewing Labor…” by Michael Eisenscher and me)*.

Organizing and Mobilizing

Here’s a story from my experience to make distinctions that get fuzzy in these stories of voter education, registration, and get-out-the-vote and its connection to “organizing”.  I’m telling the story in the way the Wobblies used to tell stories:  not for their narrative accuracy, but to highlight points that illustrate ideas.

The Setting

Sometime in early 1965, Cesar Chavez visited me in San Francisco to ask if I would be the co-coordinator with Rev. Jim Drake of a boycott of Schenley Liquors, which owned a grape vineyard in California but whose principal profits came from its liquor label—it had a vulnerable brand name.  Further, unlike the overwhelming majority of Republican growers, its owner, Lionel Steinberg, was a moderate Democrat.  

At the time I was the Bay Area field secretary for “Snick,” the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.  I told him I was interested in doing it, and would ask SNCC leadership if I could do this as a Snick staff person.  I got authorization from the national organization to do so.  I quickly called Paul Booth, a friend and National Secretary of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), at the time the principal national expression of the student movement.  He quickly was on board. Through SDS, CORE (Congress On Racial Equality) and SNCC we began recruiting people to boycott local grocery stores that wouldn’t take grapes from their shelves.  The boycott was a success.  

Chavez asked me to move to Delano.  But my commitment was SNCC.  I asked him to make SNCC and SDS the principal organizations to conduct the boycott.  He wasn’t interested.  We had different organizations that we wanted to build though we shared the aim of organizing a successful boycott and winning the first farm worker union contract in California.  This wasn’t an acrimonious conversation; we recognized our different priorities.  He wanted a successful boycott to build the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFWOC) which became the United Farm Workers of America (UFWA).  The latter was at that time understood to be a union of dues-paying farm worker members who made organization policy, elected their leadership, and operated under procedures adopted at a meeting that merged the AFL-CIO’s Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) with the Chavez-organized National Farm Workers Association (NFWA).  

The boycott was a tactic, as was “the strike in the grapes.”  Both aimed to win collective bargaining agreements with growers that would recognize the union as the spokesperson organization for farm workers.  Previous strikes, timed carefully for peak-picking season, had won pay increases and other specific benefits.  None had won union recognition; some hadn’t even sought it—the critical difference here being one of concessions granted unilaterally in the face of profit loss by the powers-that-be versus an agreement negotiated between two centers of power—one of money, the other of people.

The people who overwhelming staffed the boycott were former students and other young people drawn to the farm workers by the power of their cause and appeal of their leadership, Chavez in particular.  Some farmworkers left their communities and traveled to urban centers to join in the boycott work.  But organized presence in the vineyards diminished as the boycott gained center stage.  The strike in the grapes was primarily won by the boycott in U.S. and Canadian urban centers, and the international refusal by longshoremen to unload grapes that came into their ports.  At the boycott peak, 20% of Americans were not eating grapes.

What Was and What Wasn’t Transformative?

At no point I’m aware of did the union seek to expropriate ownership of the vineyards and turn them over to government or into worker-owned cooperative entities.  That transformative possibility wasn’t on the table for discussion (though Chavez’ vision included co-ops).

Growers could no longer unilaterally determine wages, hours, benefits and working conditions covered by a contract that was negotiated between the union and their association.  What had been “the sole-prerogative of management”—the standard term to describe these relationships—was now a matter of negotiation between organizational equals, one whose power was in its numbers who could strike, slow down, demonstrate, boycott, or otherwise disrupt business as usual, and who could vote for politicians that supported them, and the other in its ownership and control of companies that employed workers, and its influence on Republicans and Central Valley Democrats.  

Further, workers were dispatched from a union-run hiring hall, which meant growers couldn’t pick and choose who was going to work a crop; they had to accept who was dispatched to do that job.  (The hiring hall was a subsequent topic of great discussion.  But this is important:  farm workers labored in “crews” which were informally organized, often around extended families, friends and places of origin.  The union hiring hall dispatched individuals, thus ignoring an organizational form created by farm workers among themselves.) That was a mistake. 

In the International Longshoremen’s & Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU), workers could unilaterally stop work if they considered a cargo dangerous or unhealthy to handle.  Their contract with the Pacific Maritime Association provided for such action.  Now it was the sole prerogative of the workers to make this determination.  That was a radical shift in power relations between the employers and their workers.  A “gang” in a ship’s hold could stop work.  The union would enforce the stoppage by shutting the ship down if the employer failed to himself correct a situation.  This was a radical departure from most union contracts that required work to continue while a grievance was filed through a procedure that could take days, weeks, months or even years to resolve a disagreement.

Was union recognition “transformative”?  It seems so to me.  Is an increase in wages from $.75/hour to $1.25/hour transformative?  I wouldn’t call it that; I’d call it “more.”  But you better believe both are very important.  The crucial distinction is one of power.  Recognition meant negotiation; no more unilateral power.  “More” means a better standard of living for farm workers.  It is the power of an organization—the union—that accomplished both, and each strengthens the other.

The boycott was a tactic seeking to win a strike whose purposes were to achieve both transactional and transformative results.  Indeed, the two couldn’t be separated.  The tactic was, at least in its early stages, an expression of an organization—the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee.  That Organizing Committee would gain AFL-CIO recognition and become an International—the United Farm Workers of America (UFWA).  

Had things progressed as they might have, UFWA could have developed democratic, participatory locals representing members at various employers’ vineyards, orchards and farms.  There would, in turn, have been smaller “ranch committees” where workers met face-to-face to discuss and resolve local questions and formulate views on larger ones.  

The strike and boycott were actions aimed to build a permanent union—the vehicle for the pursuit of social, economic, and political power—all required to obtain justice.  

The early organizers, people like Chavez, Gil Padilla, Dolores Huerta, Jim Drake and Marshall Ganz, might have become internal organizers for the union or moved on to organize other powerless people into organizations they democratically controlled.  Such organizations could become members of local, regional, statewide, national and international federated or unitary organizations so they could conduct negotiations with employers, and engage in political, economic, legislative and direct-action campaigns against the multiplicity of targets whose decisions and structures limited their freedom, community and justice.  These could have rich internal lives that included member education, social activities, celebration to create new heroes and heroines, a history from below and more.

Kinds of Organizations

The NFWA, and the CSO from which Chavez came, were mass-based.  You could identify them by name rather than as “the movement”.  They had members who paid dues, and who annually came together to elect officers, amend, if necessary, their founding meeting-adopted constitution and by-laws, weekly and monthly leadership body meetings, and annual conventions, and ad hoc or permanent committees with specific mandates from the larger body.  That is the standard form for mass membership organizations, whether in the workplace or community.

The boycott operation was a different kind of organization:  activists devoted to a cause who are flexible, relatively small in number, and can shift gears quickly from demonstrations that mobilize their otherwise passive constituency to voting to boycotts to direct action.  When the action is over, perhaps some of its participants join the activist bodies.  These organizations are important too.  But alone they are insufficient for political transformation.

In Power Concedes Nothing, it is not clear what is being built.  Is it something referred to as a “social movement”, “the left”, “The Left”, “progressive forces”, a combination of them?  Except in the cases of UNITE/HERE, SEIU and ISAIAH, the organizations that are called “community-based” appear to be organizations of the activists who, after an election is over, use their organization as a tool to mobilize people on local, state and national legislation, and direct action on one-or-another of their causes.  

With any luck, we are in the early stages of an era in which the left strengthens its capacity for effective intervention from one election to the next, shifting the political alignment in a more progressive direction.…And we also have a national network of thousands of members across the US who work on abolition and economic justice campaigns in their states and communities.

The Deep South Freedom Movement

Let me shift now to a different example:  the roughly ten years of “The Movement” (as it was then called) that began with the 1955/56 Montgomery Bus Boycott and for this review’s purposes ends around 1966.  (Militancy increased after that, but organization declined then disintegrated.)

The mechanism of the bus boycott was a coming together of an activist Black women’s organization, the local NAACP branch and two of its key leaders (a man and a woman)—one who held office in the Sleeping Car Porters Union and the other a graduate of Highlander’s citizenship education program, and a majority of the city’s Black churches.  In the absence of the former, the ministers probably wouldn’t have acted as forcefully as they did; in the absence of the latter, it is doubtful that a mass boycott could have been sustained for a year.  The Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), whose primary leadership was Black clergy, led the boycott.  The organization largely disappeared after a federal court ordered an end to bus segregation.  Why MIA didn’t move on to other Black community issues is a very good question, but my focus here is on the depth this boycott had in the Black community.  Black riders were the bus company’s principal customers; the buses remained largely empty for one year.  The boycott was broadly-based and deeply rooted in the Black community.

In 1960, Black student-led sit-ins engaged tens of thousands of young people in direct nonviolent action at lunch counters across most of the south.  The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee emerged from them.  Freedom Rides to integrate interstate public transportation followed the next year.  Some Snick people decided they would find out why “local people” weren’t part of the action; they learned from their elders that voter registration, voting and political power were their priority. A number of the students dropped out of school to become full-time Movement workers. SNCC shifted from being the coordinating body of Black student organizations at seminaries, colleges and universities across the south whose members and broader student body were engaged in sit-ins and freedom rides to one of full-time “field secretaries” whose focus was on voter registration in states where the attempt by a Black citizen to register could lead to firing, eviction, credit denial, beating, jail or death.  Fortunately, they came under the influence of Ella Baker, an unheralded hero of that period, who got them to think about community organization.  In a brief period of time, SNCC became an organization of full-time organizers and their support staff.  In this form its peak full-time staff was 225 mostly Black southerners.  They were both recruiting and accompanying people to the County Clerk’s office to attempt to register, and building or strengthening local voter organizations and county and statewide political organizations. 

There emerged two views on the role of SNCC’s full-time field staff.  On the one hand, Executive-Secretary Jim Forman believed that SNCC should lead a south-wide, democratically-constituted, federation of the local groups.  SNCC would become its leadership.  Other leaders would develop and rise as new organizations were created or old ones renewed.  On the other, Mississippi Project Director Bob Moses believed organizers should establish independent organizations that came together at the county, congressional district and statewide levels and determined their own leadership and structure.  

Two images make the distinction graphic:  leading from “in front of” the people or being “alongside” the people.  In the latter, organizers might challenge local leadership, but it is the authority of influence not of position that determines what leaders decide.

Two things happened roughly at the same time:  the decision to become an organization of organizers, and the understanding of an organizer as someone who builds people power organizations that are led by leaders of the communities in which those organizations are developed. Though not clearly stated at the time, the Moses’ view is what came to characterize SNCC work.  SNCC workers in Lowndes County, Alabama considered their job done when the Lowndes County Freedom Organization was formed.  They moved on (unfortunately not to organize elsewhere). This approach made possible the unleashing of incredible people power energy that went on to change the Deep South.  It also failed to go deeply enough to resist the efforts to marginalize or coopt it that were unleashed by an establishment determined to defeat it, thus failing to realize its deeper ambition for economic transformation of the south.  (People wishing to pursue this question should read The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party:  A Case Study in the Rise and Fall of Insurgency by Rachel Reinhard with Mike Miller.*)

Vanguard Parties, Socialism and Democracy

Judging by what they say, some of the Power Concedes authors are socialists, perhaps Marxists, and maybe members of “vanguard” political parties that view Marxist-Leninism as a science to correctly guide action to transform the world.  Here I briefly examine the relationship between left political parties and “mass organizations”.  Needless to say, but I will anyway, there is a degree of hubris in this schematic presentation of material that fills libraries and includes the most intense political debates of the 20th century!

The Political Party and Mass Organization

In the Russian Revolution, workers, peasants, soldiers and sailors formed councils and councils of the councils (“soviet” is the Russian word for “council”).  But the revolutionary Communist Party came to a parting of the ways with the soviets, and over time coopted and/or marginalized them, stripping them of most of their power and repressing their leadership (and later killing some of them).  

Observing the phenomenon, German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg pithily remarked, "Let us speak plainly. Historically, the errors committed by a truly revolutionary movement are infinitely more fruitful than the infallibility of the cleverest Central Committee.”  While her commitment was to socialist revolution, she did not believe it could be achieved without democracy.  

Here’s the relevance to our discussion here.  Many of the best of the CIO’s 1930s labor organizers and leaders were members of the Communist Party.  That common membership, however, blurred an important distinction among them:  some were small “d” democrats who were Communists; others were Communists for whom the Party and its decisions embodied democracy.  Here’s where the distinction became important:  Communists who were leaders in unions were sometimes directed by their political party’s officers to implement its policies in the union, even if those Communist union leaders thought them to be unwise, not what their members supported, and/or anti-democratic.  

For example, William Sentner, who publicly identified himself as a Communist in the St. Louis regional United Electrical Workers Union (UE), asked a respected member of the rival Socialist Party to run on a slate with him for regional offices in UE.  The Communist Party told him not to do that.  He told the Party, “You run your organization and I’ll run mine.”  Rosemary Feuer’s Radical Unionism in the Midwest, 1900 - 1950 tells us, “Sentner’s union policies often went against the party line. ‘The C.P. never ran Bill Sentner,’ he told Fortune Magazine. “No one fools around with what I believe...and I don’t fool around with what they believe’.”

For example, Herb March, another open member of the Communist Party, a key organizer in the Chicago Packinghouse Workers Organizing Committee, and an important ally of Saul Alinsky’s in the development of the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council, told me he sometimes disagreed with Party higher-ups and wouldn’t act in a “disciplined” manner when they told him he should do “x” if he thought “y” was more in the interests of his co-workers.  He, like Sentner, was too widely regarded in the union to be expelled by the party, though later when both the union and party were in decline, he resigned rather than face expulsion.  A committed fighter for equal rights, because he disagreed with a particular Party instruction on candidacies for the District Council he was characterized as a “white chauvinist.”

The pattern repeated itself with the important leaders of UE, the Transport Workers Union (TWU), United Auto Workers (UAW) and other CIO unions. In one of the most centrally disciplined political parties of the American left, key members were more democrats than Communists when forced to choose between the two.  Sometimes Party higher-ups backed off; when they demanded a choice, most of these leaders quit the political party.

The Political Party and Elected Politicians

Translate the discussion to contemporary politics.  The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) considered expulsion of Congressman Jamaal Bowman because of his favorable vote for funds for a missile defense system for Israel, and for “meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, and recent trip to Israel with J Street, a pro-Israel lobby group.”  For strategic reasons, DSA decided against expulsion.  In its December, 2021 statement, DSA said, “As a socialist organization building mass, working class power for the freedom of all oppressed peoples under capitalism and imperialism, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) is committed to the Palestinian fight for freedom. Palestinian liberation is an essential part of our struggle for a socialist future, not a symbolic statement, and we are facing a question of how to achieve the power necessary to ensure we are victorious. It is within this context, the context of strategy, that we examine our relationship to DSA member and Congressman Jamaal Bowman.”  

What if Bowman’s vote and behavior reflect the opinions of the majority of his Congressional District supporters?  If DSA disagrees with the voters, shouldn’t it try to change their minds?  Should the accountability of a member of Congress be to the people of the district that elected her or him, to the Democratic Party that nominated him, to DSA that endorsed him, or to an interest group that supported her/him?  And if to the voters of the district, what meaning does that have if there isn’t effective and continuing mass-based organization among the people of that district?  

In fact, in most local, state and national political districts there aren’t such organizations. Reaching beyond Bowman to the country, the central political issue of our time is democracy versus autocracy.  The central economic issue of our time is whether “the economy” will be accountable to something mythically called “the market” (which is run by big money) or a democratically-constituted people who have the power to consider whether they want socialist, cooperative, capitalist, a mixture or some other kind of economic system.  The authors characterize pre-Trump American politics as “democratic.”  I think that is a mistake.  We now are struggling to retain democratic forms (competitive elections, freedom of speech and assembly and others). Without mass organization, however, corporate America will continue to dominate or substantially influence the major political parties. 

Socialism, Social Democracy and the New Deal

Social democrats and their parties, and the shadow of social democracy that was the American New Deal, increase in varying degrees the welfare of the people they govern.  But existing power structures remain in place, at most “regulated” (often by regulators whose decisions are shaped by the regulated).  A stronger government may now play a “balancing role” between capital and labor, and may adopt new welfare programs that improve housing, education, welfare, health, employment and other conditions of life.  Those are all good.  They may entail new problems of bureaucracy and unaccountability as well.  

In Sweden, the most social democrat country in the world, business and union representatives sit at the table to negotiate collective bargaining contracts with a strong government in the wings capable of intervening if agreements aren’t reached.  The structure of corporations remains, as it certainly did in the New Deal.  Sporadic strikes and other expressions of worker discontent occasionally erupt, and in recent years the Social Democratic party has been rejected by the voters.

Here’s a criticism of Swedish Social Democracy from a group to its left: “In 1976, Sweden had 276 wildcat strikes – the highest rate in the country’s history. Rank and file workers’ organization could advance to challenge capitalism itself, but that would threaten the bureaucratic rule of the trade union officials and their reformist allies in parliament. Or the workers’ movement could accept cooption and defeat. The social democrats chose not to confront the capitalist class, but instead to take the teeth out of the workers’ movement by offering a compromise that gave the capitalists wage caps and the demobilization of workers. In exchange, workers were promised future decision-making power in workplaces.” (Chris Giddings. Red Flag. 19 November 2019).

I introduce the criticism not because I agree with it; I don’t know enough to agree or disagree.  Rather, it appears that people power forces “from below” weren’t satisfied with the political party that was supposed to express their aspirations.  

A democratic people might choose capitalist, welfare state, social democrat or democratic socialist proposals for governance and running the economy.  The important thing to me is that there be a democratic people with the capacity to makes those decisions.

For a pessimistic view of internal democracy in the early 20th century social democratic party of Germany, see Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy, by Robert Michels.

What Constitutes a Democratic People?

One view is that free, competitive elections in a context of free speech and assembly that guarantees the right to form associations is the essence of democracy.  Competing candidates and parties are chosen by voters who know when the shoe pinches.  Politicians and public administrators are lobbied and held accountable by lobbyists and other leaders of the “voluntary sector” who are buffered by checks and balances from the continuing participation of citizens whose engagement might be irrational and susceptible to demagogs.  This was the view of the “Founding Fathers,” and is the dominant view of “democracy” held by political scientists. I want to argue that competitive elections and lobbying by independent groups are necessary but not sufficient.

Sufficiency requires the absence of great wealth or poverty; no concentration of economic, political, social or cultural power—which requires break-up of massive institutions and decentralization of decision-making; a vital civil society comprising voluntary associations that express the full range of interests of a people; forms for and a culture of continuing participation by all people in decision-making processes.

Structures and law are not sufficient.  In the Argentinian workers’ movement of the early 2000s, factory occupations led to confiscation of abandoned privately owned businesses and their replacement by worker-owned cooperatives.  Subsequent studies of these enterprises discovered an important distinction among them.  In some places, the pattern of deference to authority that existed previously was replicated in the new form of ownership.  In others, a whole new level of participation by workers took place with discussion, deliberation, debate and compromise on necessary company policies taking place among equals whose leaders might be rank-and-file workers, supervisors or managers depending not on their status in the firm but on the merit of what was said.  Participation was widespread.  There was a continuing culture of democratic participation rooted in the companies’ structures and the unions that formally represented the workers. 


I have heightened conceptual differences for the purpose of sharpening distinctions that I hope will lead to clarity.  It is a clarity desperately needed at this point in American history if the forces for social and economic justice and a democratic society are to slow, halt and reverse present trends. Mass-based people power organizations are the necessary conditions for a democratic society.  

Electoral political reform led by activist organizations that mobilize voters is an important strategy in today’s United States.  It is only one piece of the puzzle that confronts us. This is a conversation that must take place now.  Power Concedes Nothing is an important contribution to that discussion.

More about the author and his work can be found at 

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