20 Theses for Liberation was co-published by multiple outlets on 1 May. Co-authored by 30 progressive activists (of which I am one) and co-hosted by 5 international organisations at the time of publication, 20 Theses proposes a basis for collectively seeking a shared vision and strategy for a winning better world. The hope is that, without being prescriptive, 20 Theses can be a unifying force for the Left, serving as a guide that activists can refine, improve and use.
20 Theses begins by expressing the desire for a movement of movements, though pointing out that this is not a new idea. Indeed, it is not new but it is elusive and essential in a world where we face compounding existential problems, among them nuclear annihilation and ecological breakdown and a drift toward Fascist activism. Problems of this magnitude can cause overwhelming feelings of doom or apathy – we’re screwed so why bother? At times, that can be exactly how we feel when we’re part of a progressive programme that’s working alone simply because these problems are too enormous to be defeated by individual programmes. The truth is, if we remain separate, we cannot win a better world. The truth is, if we want to win, we must unite to form a movement of mutually supportive movements. 20 Theses attempts to facilitate that unity.
Clearly, uniting to form a movement of movements makes a lot of sense. Why then has it remained so elusive?
It’s possible that activists may feel threatened by an approach that expects them to join forces with others. They may fear losing out to programmes in the same area of interest, viewing them as competitors rather than collaborators. They may worry that their message will get crowded out or diluted and become less important. They may believe that having to work with others could side-track them from their primary focus, requiring them to throw away their own agenda and take on someone else’s. They may consider building unity with others as a waste of time. Or they may be indifferent and simply not see the point of uniting. Or it may be none of the above.
Many of these reasons could be overcome if we were able to agree a shared vision and strategy that enabled us to see the bigger picture and the ultimate end goal which is to win. With sufficient shared vision and strategy, the Left could unite. Every Left programme would be able to locate itself within the overarching shared vision. Each would be able to understand its relationship with other programmes and the contribution it makes to the end goal, without having to compromise on its own agenda.
20 Theses proposes a starting point upon which a shared vision and strategy could be arrived at by suggesting six spheres of social life and a series of organising principles. The six spheres are polity, economy, kinship, culture, ecology, and international relations. These are broad enough to accommodate pretty much any Left programme and place it within the context of the physical and social world.
A shared vision addressing the six spheres would be like a large river system with a multitude of tributaries; where each Left programme is a small tributary that flows into a bigger tributary representing the sphere it fits into; the bigger tributaries flow into the river that represents our shared vision and, that flows as one and in the same direction towards the sea that represents our ultimate goal of winning a better world.
For example, I might be part of a programme for black empowerment. If my programme buys into creating a shared vision based on 20 Theses, we might locate ourselves in the culture sphere. We might also forge partnerships with climate campaigners (ecology) because black communities suffer disproportionately from industrial pollution; with feminist campaigners (kinship) because our female members endure crippling levels of discrimination; with a minimum wage campaign (economy) because black workers on average earn less than white workers; with prison legislation reformers (polity) because incarceration rates are higher for black people; with the anti-war movement (international relations) because, in addition to wanting an end to war, the billions of dollars in public money spent on the military industrial complex means there’s less money for social programmes like education, health, housing.
Or, for example, I may be involved in a programme for a mutual bank which could find a home in the economy sphere. Under a shared vision emerging from 20 Theses, the bank programme I pursue might see fit to join forces with climate campaigners (ecology) because once in operation, the bank would prioritise investment in enterprises that have environmental value; with participatory budgeting campaigners (polity) because the bank shares their goal to democratise decisions about public money spending; with the international tax justice campaign (international relations) because the bank helps retain wealth in local communities and prevents it from being diverted into the global finance sector and tax havens; with a migrant rights group (culture) because the bank can ensure migrant workers are guaranteed access to basic banking services; with anti-child poverty campaigners (kinship) because the bank will have technology that makes budgeting and saving much easier.
By uniting with all these other programmes in seemingly unrelated spheres, our campaign for black empowerment or our campaign for a mutual bank can build solidarity across movements, creating an interconnected movement of movements that are more powerful and more effective together than apart and that can share mutual support and learning. It is possible for each programme within this movement of movements to share the same vision and same ultimate goal of winning a new society while simultaneously pursuing different intermediate goals. No programme need feel displaced, threatened, distracted or diminished. And because campaigns are united, success in one campaign has a positive impact on the others. In other words, success for one means success for all, means a step closer to the end goal of winning another world.
The ability to keep a focus on the long-term goal while campaigning for immediate goals in the here and now is not to be underestimated. It’s the difference between working for reforms in a reformist way versus working for reforms in a non-reformist way. Often, Left activists work for reforms and often, for lack of vision, we don’t advance to non-reformist reforms. For example, without a shared vision that 20 Theses could help create, we might campaign for a 4-day working week. Once we accomplish that, it’s likely our campaign would come to an end. Our goal is achieved, our job is done, we can all go home. The energy, learning, resources and momentum amassed during the campaign disperses and is lost. This is a reform, well won and valuable, but not going beyond itself.
By contrast, within the context of a shared vision, the campaign for a 4-day working week could be part of the long-term goal to replace capitalism with a participatory economy which would culminate in self-managed workplaces that are part of the commons. So, we would not stop at winning the 4-day working week. We would keep going thus transforming it into a non-reformist reform because it isn’t an end in itself. We would use the energy, learning, resources and momentum amassed during the campaign to move to the next campaign which might be to demand better working conditions for workers; and the campaign after that which might be to seek greater worker self-management in workplaces, and so on and so on. We would campaign for a series of non-reformist reforms, one after the other, guided by our shared vision, until we reached our end goal.
The Left has shown moments of unity in the past but these have, by and large, dissipated or splintered once success or a certain level of success was achieved. Examples are the US labour strikes in the 1930s or the US anti-war movement in the 1960s and 1970s. In these, while momentous victories were achieved, they stopped before any longer-term goal was achieved. What might have been won had they continued with the same singular determination to demand more?
And so, what is next for 20 Theses?
At the crassest level, the plan is to grow the number of signers to the document. I want hundreds of thousands, millions even, of activists and programmes to sign.
As you contemplate signing, ask yourself, do you accept that it’s possible to use 20 Theses to have a deep and wide conversation that could arrive at a shared vision without losing sight of your own agenda? Are you prepared to trust the process, trust fellow activists, and work to reach a shared understanding bigger than your own area of interest? Will you unite with others and become part of a movement of movements? Do you truly believe success for one can be success for all and that winning is possible?
If you or your programme can answer yes to at least one of these questions, then I invite you to sign. And once you do, that’s when the work really begins.
And while those of us who sign don’t have to agree with every word in each of the twenty theses, while we might see what is missing or what is inadequately described, it shouldn’t stop us from engaging in a discussion to improve 20 Theses. It shouldn’t stop us from accepting the principle that united under a shared vision we will be stronger and more effective; so long as that shared vision is broad enough to give a home to the myriad of activists out there; so long as that shared vision is flexible enough to evolve and accommodate change. And that imperfect as it is, 20 Theses is still a good place for us to start creating that vision.
If you or your organisation wants to read or sign 20 Theses or wants to get involved in the project, please visit the 20 Theses for Liberation website.
Progressive International will provide translations on The Wire.
20 Theses for Liberation Initial Co-Hosts & Co-Authors:
ZNetwork, DiEM25, Academy of Democratic Modernity, MetaCPC, RealUtopia, Michael Albert, Renata Avila, Ramzy Baroud, Medea Benjamin, Peter Bohmer, Fintan Bradshaw, Jeremy Brecher, Urška Breznik, Noam Chomsky, Savvina Chowdhury, Devriş Çimen, Mark Evans, Andrej Grubačić, Jason Hickel, Kathy Kelly, Arash Kolahi, Bridget Meehan, Sotiris Mitralexis, Jason Myles, Cynthia Peters, John Pilger, Matic Primc, Don Rojas, Stephen Shalom, Alexandria Shaner, Norman Solomon, Cooper Sperling, Yanis Varoufakis, Brett Wilkins, and Greg Wilpert.
Other essays written in response to 20 Theses are available at:
Me, You, and 20 Theses #4Liberation, Labor #4Liberation, Part 1 and Labor #4Liberation, Part 2.
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