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March on Washington for Medicare for All!

by John Leslie

I read with great interest Dustin Guastella’s article in Jacobin, “We Need a Medicare for All March on Washington” (MoW). I agree with Dustin, a member of Democratic Socialists of America, on the main points. Building a national mass mobilization would afford the left and broader social sectors an opportunity to turn our current defensive fight to preserve access to health care into an offensive struggle for a concrete gain for working people.

This health-care struggle won’t be won easily. I believe it will take years of social movement organizing to win the fight. By doing so, we can decisively shift the balance of forces in favor of the working class.

Despite the recent impressive increase in size of the Democratic Socialists of America [to 25,000], I don’t think the DSA alone has the resources or social weight to carry this issue forward on its own. That said, the DSA does have the political authority, right now, to call for the building of a mass movement.

A united front coalition that includes the unions, women’s groups, community organizations, students, and, yes, socialists is necessary for long-term victory. The united front is a concept that goes back as far as the early years of the Communist International and allows for unity in action between organizations around a limited program. The constituent organizations retain their independence and right to criticize, publish and organize.

A Necessary Debate

Dustin’s article has sparked a necessary debate, for which he should be commended. The objections to the MoW raised in Jacobin by Michael Kinnucan, Don’t March, Organize for Power, reflect an unnecessary counterposition of “organizing” and “mobilizing.” Both are activities that I believe, based on my experience in the antiwar and Central American solidarity movements, should not be seen as isolated from each other. Organizing and mobilizing both take place in the context of on-the-ground work at the local level and of building national organizations and coalitions.

According to Kinnucan, rather than “squander” resources on organizing for health care, which the Democrats are already doing, the DSA should concentrate on housing issues. Kinnucan’s political horizon is set on 2020, when the Democrats will magically enact single payer. But the Democrats’ current desperate plea for “compromise” and a “bipartisan” solution show which side they are really on.

Labor organizer Jane McAlevey’s “organizing model,” which Kinnucan places a lot of confidence in, seems to have real limitations. McAlevey is critical of the lack of an organized base for movements like Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street, since these mobilization-based movements lack what she calls “actual power.” McAlevey has a pessimistic view of protest movements and instead proposes a form of long-term base-building organizing that leaves little room for the self-activity of workers and the oppressed. Perhaps McAlevey’s top-down organizing model can be used in trade-union campaigns, but it hinders the building of vibrant social movements.

Beyond Social Media

We were all inspired by the Women’s March on January 21 and the airport protests against Trump’s travel ban. The problem I perceive with these and other social-media-driven mass actions is not in the mobilizations themselves. Rather, the problem is that these sorts of demonstrations create no structures for democratic decision-making or accountability.

In her book, Twitter and Tear Gas, Zeynep Tufekci writes: This “allows for the organization, for example, of big protests or major online campaigns with minimal effort and advance-work, but this empowerment can come along with a seemingly paradoxical weakness. I find that many such movements lose out on network internalities or the gains in resilience and collective decision-making and acting capacity that emerge from the long-term work of negotiation and interaction required to maintain the networks as functioning and durable social and political structures.

“In the past, this was more organic to the process of taking care of tasks and preparation for acts of protest, from rallies to marches to producing dissident media—there was no other way to do it quickly or on-the-fly. Taking care of such tasks through adhocratic methods leads to many significant consequences, ranging from inverted movement trajectories (protest first, organize later, unlike the past where a large protest was the culmination of long-term work.) to complex frailties including tactical freeze, where movements cannot quickly respond to changing conditions and have an inability to negotiate and delegate when necessary—since they have no strong means of collectively making decision and adapting to new circumstances” (Zeynep Tufekci, Twitter and Tear Gas, pp. 269–270).

In other words, by building protest movements through reliance on social-media-driven mobilizations, we create “movements” that are a mile wide and an inch deep. Without the long-term and patient work of building movements, forging coalitions, etc., we are not creating movements that let the working class and oppressed learn their own potential power. What is needed are a mass social movement, coalition building, democratic movement structures, and political independence from the bosses’ parties.

From Vietnam to Fight for $15

A notable use of the united-front mass-action strategy was during the U.S. imperialist war in Vietnam. The Vietnam antiwar movement mobilized millions of people and helped shift public perception of the imperialist war. Socialist activists worked day and night to forge broad, democratic and inclusive coalitions. While socialists were some of the main organizers, the movement included unionists, religious organizations, and students. This unity in action didn’t come easily.

In his book, Out Now!, Fred Halstead describes the process of coalition building: “Beyond their agreement in opposing the war, the initiators of the movement held discordant views on many matters and advocated different, and even conflicting, methods. At every point along the road they had to thrash out their principled strategic and tactical differences in order to arrive at a unified and concerted action. This was rarely easy and not always possible. … In the beginning, the movement came to grips with three internal policy problems that were interconnected: red baiting, nonexclusion, and democratic decision making” (Fred Halstead, Out Now! A Participant’s Account of the Movement in the U.S. Against the Vietnam War, pp. 954–955).

A far different form of organizing can be seen in the campaign for a $15 per hour minimum wage. Fight for $15, organized by the SEIU, has been an on-again, off-again, bureaucratic affair. The fast food worker strikes were an inspiration that pointed to the potential for a mass action strategy to win victory.

However, instead of a unified mass movement, organized by the AFL-CIO, the campaign has been, at times, starved of resources and demobilized. The Democrats tried to sabotage the movement in favor of an increase in the minimum wage by embracing the embarrassing $10.10 per hour wage, with union bureaucrats like Rich Trumka as accomplices. In places where $15 per hour has been “won,” the Democrats succeeded in having it phased in over a space of years and have placed certain exceptions and exemptions in the bills.

The unions could have made an increased minimum wage into a nationwide crusade that would lift the living standards of millions of working people who live on the edge of financial ruin. Instead, they let their ties to Democratic Party politicians blunt the effectiveness of the movement.

Unreliable “Allies”

Kinnucan’s and Guastella’s shared faith in the Democrats’ capacity to carry this fight forward is, I think, misplaced. The Democrats’ supposed embrace of single payer doesn’t line up with the reality. When the issue came up recently in California, it was Democrats who sabotaged the effort.

The Democrats have made it clear that they are wedded to the neo-liberal health-care plan called the ACA, begging the GOP to compromise to save this bailout for insurance companies. Of course, some progressive Democrats will “support” single payer in words now and then cite “reality” as the reason they can’t vote for it later. It’s a pattern that goes back decades. The Democrats promise a reform when out of power and fail to push it forward when they have the votes.

Kinnucan’s and Guastella’s view comes from a common misapprehension about the possibility of reforming the Democratic Party. Well-intentioned people mistake the existence of a “progressive” wing of the Democrats as proof that the party can be fundamentally reformed. They draw a false distinction between a supposed Democratic “establishment” and the rest of the party. Progressive Democrats have traditionally played the role of keeping workers and the oppressed inside the party by feeding illusions in the Democrats’ goals and policies.

The truth is that the Democratic Party as an institution is inextricably linked to Wall Street and dependent on the capitalist class for its funding. The structures of the Democratic Party will resist tooth and nail any progressive effort within the confines of that party. Just look at the way the DNC sabotaged the moderate liberal Sanders campaign.

While we want to work in coalitions with progressive Democrats to win reforms, we have to understand that the Democratic Party is not a viable arena of struggle for socialists. Rather, our task as socialists has to be to break the subordination of our unions and social movements to the Democrats.

No Electoral Solutions

The fight for health care for all won’t be won at the ballot box. It can only be won in the streets. The question of working-class political independence is a fundamental difference between the DSA and the revolutionary socialist left. While class independence is a principled issue for us, it’s not a sectarian stance. We oppose work in the Democratic Party and other bourgeois parties because these parties will always put the interests of workers and oppressed people behind those of their paymasters on Wall Street.

If our friends in the DSA truly want to build an effective socialist movement, they have to make a clean break with the bosses’ parties. There can be no halfway measures in this. The notion that we can run socialists in Democratic primaries or “inside-outside” strategies are doomed to fail because the Democrats as an institution won’t let their party be captured by left forces. The best a Democratic Party left can hope for is the role of a housebroken and token opposition.

For a United Front, Mass Action Orientation

Movement building isn’t just about winning this or that reform. It is also about preparing the working class and oppressed for the struggle for power, for their self-emancipation. In that sense we must necessarily see our task as socialists as moving beyond Medicare for All to a national health-care system entirely under democratic workers’ control and run in the interests of the majority.

There are no shortcuts in movement building. I want to lend my voice in support of Dustin Guastella’s proposed March on Washington. I would propose that the DSA, in conjunction with other forces—unions, socialist organizations, women’s groups, Black and Latinx organizations—organize a national conference in the fall to call a National March on Washington for Medicare for All in April. This national conference should be democratic, non-exclusionary, and open to all. The conference should be used as a springboard to launch local and regional coalitions capable of building the movement at the grassroots. Such a movement would be open to participation of rank-and-file Democrats but must maintain its independence from Democratic Party politicians.

For Further Reading:

We Need a Medicare for All March on Washington
by Dustin Guastella, Jacobin, July 3, 2017

Don't March, Organize for Power
by Michael Kinnucan, Jacobin, July 25, 2017

The Long March
by Dustin Guastella, Jacobin, July 25, 2017

The Limits of the Organizing Model
by Steve Darcy, The Public Autonomy Project, June 11, 2017