A Base-Building Glossary for Socialist Organizers

In recent years, we have seen the first stirrings of a working class awakening. We have seen strikes, uprisings, and crowded meetings. There is a boom in progressive and anti-capitalist media, from podcasts to blogs to print. Socialist organizations consistently claim larger membership rolls. But despite these encouraging signs, the strength of the working class and size of the socialist movement remain a ghost of what they were in the first half of the twentieth century. The question is, given that the socialist movement is not currently challenging capitalism in any meaningful way, how should socialists act to rekindle its strength?

Numerous socialists organizations have responded differently to this question, proposing numerous approaches and strategies to deal with the current moment. One such response, primarily advocated by comrades in the Marxist Center, is a strategic orientation towards organizing and political work commonly known as base-building. In the following pages, we define base-building and other concepts related to socialist organizing with the goal of providing an easy-to-use glossary that socialists can refer to when planning, strategizing or when reflecting on their previous political work.


Base-building is political work that creates and/or strengthens independent democratic organizations of the working class, developing its members into leaders and organizers regardless of their previous political experience. Base-Building is otherwise known as “organizing the unorganized.”

Base-building is different from other models of organizing popular among the US left, vanguardism and class collaboration.

  • Vanguardism is a form of political practice rooted in an idea that the working-class should be led by intellectuals possessing a certain ideological purity. In practice, vanguardist organizations that do not practice base-building lack an effective method to reach the working class. This often positions the self-described vanguard above the working class, a problem that is aggravated when it expects deference due to its own belief in the correctness of their theory. Without participation in class struggle, many non-politicized members of the working class will not immediately see the theory reflected in their daily struggles, resulting in a self-described vanguard that is isolated and irrelevant.
  • Class collaboration is a form of political practice where activists, cynical of the capabilities of the working class to achieve change or allured by the possibility of taking “shortcuts” to victory, join coalitions led by non-profits or bourgeois politicians. These coalitions distract activists and working class leaders from the task of building working class power, redirecting their energies to lobbying politicians and petitioning the state, thereby domesticating our movements and preventing actual changes in the relations of power.

Vanguardism and “class collaboration’ privilege preconceived ideas over practical work among a constituency. The former does so by separating the “leaders” from the masses, and the latter by appealing to uncritical unity no matter what. Base-building, on the other hand, centers practical struggle byand among the working class and uniting it with socialist theory. After all, “winning ideas” are useless if no one is hearing them. Likewise, unity slogans without practical efforts to bind workers together does not generate solidarity.

Base-building understands that the majority of the working-class has no experience with organized political work. Consequently, base-building means going out to meet food workers, community college students, day laborers, tenants, and all other sectors of the working class in order to seek out those who are willing to stand up to their bosses and landlords. Base-building requires going beyond simple recruitment to systematic development of leaders who can take increasing responsibility for their own fights. This is done through the creation of durable, independent organizations that can reliably meet workers experiencing heightened class conflict (against their bosses, landlords, or the state) and provide them with the support to wage those struggles successfully, all while helping them realize that they can change reality through struggle and that ultimately, their issues will only be solved with the abolition of capitalism.

Organizing, Mobilizing, and Activism

Organizing is the primary activity of any organization that engages in base-building. Organizing focuses on creating organizations of ordinary people that rely on mass participation to achieve their goals, rather than on professional activists or administrators. Organizing is done by organizers, people who persuade others to act collectively and help them achieve their collective goals. Organizers define a constituency and make a long-term commitment to it. Their work is based on relationships and trust, and consists of collecting their constituents’ deeply felt needs, coming up with ideas to address them, and convincing them that their involvement is crucial for their needs to be met.

Organizing is different from two types of political activity prominent among the US left, mobilizing and activism.

  • Mobilizing is a form of political activity that focuses on turning out large numbers of people for events. While mobilizing is needed in many campaigns, too often it is the same people turning out again and again, without the full mass of their community behind them. While mobilizing in and of itself is valuable, it lacks what’s arguably most important: organizational growth.
  • Activism means taking action in support or opposition to a political cause. Working class and social movement history, however, shows that some actions are more effective than others. When we talk about activists, we usually refer to “boots on the ground” type supporters — those who show up when they see something politically exciting to show up for, with no pre-existing relationship with the cause and no long-term commitment to change. Most activists don’t do the slow, patient work of putting together a base like organizers do, making their efforts fleeting and results (if any) short-term instead of long-lasting.

Mobilizing and Activism consistently fail to engage the masses of working class people in long-term struggle. Only organizing allows for our messages to resonate deeply with regular people and encourages expansion of the organization, resulting in more awareness, more members, and more power. This can be seen in history, as the most powerful working class movements in US history, the labor movement and the civil rights movement, reached the height of their power when organizing was central to their political activity.

Organizing is something that needs to be learned through study and practice. After more than a century of struggle, the working class has developed methods and techniques of organizing that are proven to work. These include worker inquiries, canvassing, one-on-one conversations, calling the question, leadership identification techniques, power-mapping, ladders of engagement and many others. As socialists, we should study and apply these organizing techniques, so that we are in a position to assist the working class in its struggles against their oppressors and exploiters.

Organizing Around a Constituency vs. Activism Around Issues

When faced with the possibility of starting a new campaign, organizations in the US left usually follow one of two approaches to starting a campaign: Organizing around a constituency or Activism around issues.

  • Organizing around a constituency means taking a base-building approach where organizers define a constituency, which could be a neighborhood, building, or worksite. Organizers then learn about the problems faced by the members of the constituency, and recruit them into a mass organization that aims to address those issues. Together, they create demands and campaign ideas, and workshop these ideas over several conversations, using a democratic process to choose how to proceed. After the campaign ends, organizers remain with the constituency and begin the process anew, organizing around demands important to the constituents. Each cycle builds on previous shared experiences, resulting in a strengthened organization that ties together the organizers and the constituents. This kind of organizing gives people from different backgrounds the opportunity to cohere around a shared vision, rooting their politics in working class issues.
  • Activism around issues, or “ambulance chasing”, involves individuals who are hesitant to engage with non-activists. Instead of rooting their struggle in the needs of actual working class people, they decide in advance what issues to engage with according to their own perception of what issues are popular, right or just. This creates a difficult recruitment situation for the activists who, without having developed trust among any working class constituency yet, need to find people who care enough about the issue to get involved and remain committed. Most activists hardly ever overcome this challenge, resulting in situations where the same limited group of people attend the events organized by each other over and over again. This problem is exacerbated when the activists move onto new issues when the news cycle changes or after campaigns end, because the people they met along the way may not share the same commitment to the new issue.

Base-building organizations always aim to organize around constituencies. Organizing around constituencies is the only reliable way to reach previously non-politicized members of the working class and maintain their political involvement, because they are fighting their own struggles, rather than on behalf of someone else.

Recruitment and Leadership Development

Recruitment and leadership development are both necessary activities for socialist organizations.

  • Recruitment is any activity that is done with the exclusive goal of attracting new members to the organization. Recruitment is useful and can help an organization grow, but the kind of people who respond to recruitment drives tend to be the minority that already have some predisposition to engaging in politics.
  • Leadership development, or cadre-building, is work that organizers do to develop the organizing or administrative skills of members of an organization, or work done to encourage those members to take on additional responsibilities in the organization.

Base-building organizations recognize that recruitment without leadership development does little to increase the capacity of the organization to become a vehicle for organized working class struggle. For these organizations, the work done by a reliable, committed and skilled comrade is more valuable than multiple “paper memberships”. As a result, they make leadership development a priority.

In addition, base-building organizations are aware of the limitations of recruitment as a tactic for organizational growth. Untargeted recruitment often draws new members from similar backgrounds as the people already in the organization. Base-building attempts to overcome this problem by developing relationships of trust with members of the constituencies they organize, who becoming class conscious in the heat of class struggle, realize the importance of joining the organizations they have come to trust.

The Mass Line

The foundation of base-building is the principle of the mass line. This principle is usually summarized in the expression “from the masses, to the masses.” That is, base-building requires organizers to conduct social investigation, going to the masses to collect their struggles, demands, and to learn from their understanding of the world. Organizers then synthesize what they have learned, add a critique of capitalism to that synthesis and encourage the masses to take action to solve their problems. The mass line is a repetitious process that requires organizers to recognize the knowledge of the masses and their enthusiasm for and capacity to struggle towards socialism. After each cycle of struggle guided by this principle, the organizers learn more from the masses and sharpen their analysis, and the class consciousness and practical organizing ability of the masses is raised.

Most organizations that apply the mass line usually codify what they learn into a party line and then propagate it with organizational discipline. A base-building organization has looser organizational discipline and does not adopt a party line. This inevitably results in differences in the way the mass line is applied by those organizations and by base-building organizations. Nevertheless, we believe that the mass line is a crucial development in socialist theory and that its study and practice is critical for all socialists.


Liberalism is the ideology of the capitalist class. Liberalism consists of political ideas that are based on concepts that are taken at face value, without an examination of the history or forces that created or shaped those concepts. Liberal ideas are also those that describe the world incompletely, affirming that attitudes and beliefs shape the world without acknowledging the primary importance of economic and environmental forces.

In other words, liberalism is a form of idealism. It assumes that the ideas and ideals of a society (such as “all men are created equal”) are reflected in and implemented by society. It does not consider that the actual conditions of the society are a hindrance to the realization of those ideals. Liberalism is often expressed in the belief that simply “trying harder” to meet those ideals is sufficient to make them real.

Born into capitalist society, every comrade is at first socialized into liberalism. Some comrades make the mistake of assuming that, because they vocally reject liberalism and declare themselves socialists, they can’t be liberals. The truth is that we often see comrades who inadvertently hold socialist and liberal ideas simultaneously. Ideology is clingy, and it doesn’t let go that easily. Like unlearning sexism and racism, unlearning liberalism requires continuous work, re-education and self-reflection.

As socialists, we recognize the need to struggle against liberal ideas within our minds and in our organizations. Each comrade should seek to learn to think materially; that is the only way to shed the remnants of our earlier liberal ideology. And, collectively, we should help each other examine our incorrect beliefs; nurturing each other as we develop, together, a clearer understanding of the world and as we grow to become better socialists.

However, a mere commitment to struggle against liberalism is not enough to prevent it from sprouting in our organizations. We recognize that we need to implement structures and practices that make it harder for liberalism to take root. We should develop structures of accountability so that liberal ideas do not remain unexamined or go unaddressed. But most importantly, we should continuously engage in direct, militant and non-conciliatory class struggle against landlords, capitalists and the state. Direct, militant class struggle is incompatible with liberalism, and its long-term practice tends to frighten liberal ideas away. Where the class struggle is flaming hot, liberal ideas don’t hold much water.

Revolutionary Socialism

The goal of the socialist movement is the abolition of the capitalist mode of production, or capitalism. We reject the claim that any attempt at organizing or base-building is socialist if it is not undertaken with this ultimate goal in mind.

Revolutionary socialist politics consist of theory and practice that acknowledge that opportunities for a rupture with capitalism will arise; that it is unlikely that capitalists, landlords, and sectors of the petty-bourgeoisie will sit quietly while their class privileges are annulled; and that the socialist movement must be ready and willing to do whatever it takes to end the capitalist mode of production.

In our view, socialist base-building is the initial stage of a working class regroupment to fight back against capitalist appropriation, lay the foundations for a new society, and prepare for the defeat of capitalism.

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