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 seem 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 ask the people in it 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 people like us, who hold what is often seen as a sinister ideology. Well, people think to themselves, 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 charity network that Red Plenty was part of by trying to ban 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, the socialists – taught me English! And that is seriously dangerous.