“To serve the people” Contribution to a defense of mutual aid, revolutionary culture, and survival pending revolution

Bobby Seale Checks Food Bags. March 31, 1972. Photo by Howard Erker.


By Tim Horras


Part I: The History of a Tactic


We must not regard our survival programs as an answer to the world problem of oppression. We don’t even claim it to be a revolutionary program. Revolutions are made of sterner stuff. We do say that if the people are not here revolution cannot be achieved, for the people and only the people make revolutions.

Huey P. Newton, “We must survive until we can transform society” (1970)

A debate has been lurking under the surface of the socialist movement: Can (or should) mutual aid be included by socialists in our repertoire of tactics? Or are these tactics in fact reformist and counter-revolutionary? This has sometimes been referred to as the debate on “serve the people.” The lines of argument generally line up as follows:

Some socialists argue our movement should prioritize intervening in the hegemonic political process: through participating in elections and/or lobbying in support of a progressive legislative agenda or specific policy demands.

Others support a broader diversity of tactics, which would encompass not only protest, lobbying, and elections, but also direct action including the provision of goods and services to working class communities as part of a larger strategy to build a social base for radical politics within the working class.

This essay will be divided into two parts. The first half will detail the history of mutual aid in an attempt to counteract the notion, prevalent even in leftist circles, that social welfare is “naturally” the role of the capitalist government, and that activists should not be involved in social provision, but rather that our role is solely to make demands on the bourgeois state.

The second part will go into greater detail and address contemporary arguments made by socialists against including mutual aid or “serve the people” as a tactic in the repertoire of socialists. I will attempt to make the case that “service to the people” is an important component of revolutionary strategy to overthrow capitalism, and that criticisms of mutual aid ultimately come from a reformist understanding of the bourgeois state as a neutral entity which can be “transformed” to serve the working class, and a reformist understanding of activism that has us either begging for scraps or tailing the liberal segments of the capitalist class.

I apologize in advance that, in order to tell a story of this magnitude, I’ve had to telescope events and paint with a broad brush. A more comprehensive overview of the subject is beyond my ability. I’m also obliged to say that I’ve relied heavily on the excellent scholarship of radical academics and activists who have loudly and bravely told this story at times when few wanted to hear it. However, any omissions or mistakes are my own.

What is mutual aid?

To understand the political questions within this debate, first we need to understand the history of mutual aid.

The practice of mutual aid goes as far back as the workers movement itself. When the workers movement was in its infancy during the Industrial Revolution, before workers had developed the capacity to effectively make demands on the state, workers created avenues for self-help outside the aegis of an unresponsive government.

The movement created economic cooperatives: alternative means of employment which were democratically-controlled rather than top-down. They created social welfare institutions to pool the limited capital which workers had access to in order to create childcare cooperatives, social security funds and healthcare services.    

These mutual aid societies predated the establishment of a state-funded social welfare system. Indeed, many of the modern social welfare programs that exist today began life as union-funded initiatives, for instance, in many of the Scandinavian societies beloved by democratic socialists, unemployment insurance began as union-funded initiatives (this was referred to as the so-called “Ghent” system, based on the model developed in Ghent, Belgium). Even today in the capitalist United States we have union-administered pension funds, a weak shadow of our social democratic cousins in Europe.

In the United States, as a response to virulent racism as well as exclusion from economic and political life, mutual aid societies were often created by the most oppressed communities, who had the least access to capital and other resources. As Jassmin Poyaoan writes:

“Some of the first mutual aid societies in the U.S. were formed out of necessity by groups with limited access to mainstream services and support. In 1787, the Free African Society was formed to provide aid to newly freed blacks, so that they could develop leaders in the largely exclusionary community.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, immigrants from various ethnic and national origins formed mutual aid societies to serve as social support groups, extending financial support to each member during illness and unemployment, as well as emotional support during times of loss.”

These communities understood from bitter experience that they could not look for support from a white supremacist and bourgeois state. Many of these individuals also supplemented independent institution-building with making demands on the state, but they had no illusions that the existing government was set up to serve their interests.  

Given that mutual aid as a survival strategy for the working class emerged organically from the labor movement, the question arose among revolutionaries as to how mutual aid fit into a strategy of overcoming capitalism, i.e. how mutual aid could not only help the working class today, but help the class overthrow its exploiters.

Karl Marx, the intellectual founder of modern communism, was supportive of the idea of building independent working class institutions separated from the bourgeois state, calling them a “victory of the political economy of labor over the political economy of property” and emphasizing that “the value of these great social experiments cannot be overrated.” Engels went even further, describing cooperatives as “transition measures to the complete communistic organization of society.”

While some evangelists for mutual aid eschewed political action, many of these cooperatives and mutual aid societies had explicitly political ends. Some were even directly affiliated with socialist political parties. In fact, a much larger number of working class individuals participated in the network of affiliated cultural associations than ever joined the party proper.

The undisputed model of the “political” approach to mutual aid was the German Social Democratic Party, which was considered the premier working class political organization at least up into the 1910s. The scholar Richard N. Hunt wrote that “Social Democracy was a kind of self-contained and independent social unit. It possessed its own institutions of government, its own welfare, educational, and cultural organizations, its own mass media, its own quasi-military force, its own system of finance.”

These took the form of “welfare institutions attending to such diverse needs as nursery care, adoption, unemployment and health services, travelers’ aid, old age care, etc. – literally a cradle-to-grave program; educational facilities for children and adults… together with organized vacation trips and even a Party School; sport and hobby groups embracing everything from the Workers’ Cycle Club and the workers Photography Club to the Workers Mandolin Club.”

This dense network of supporting institutions provided a number of benefits to the socialist party. The buffet of activities provided by German Social Democracy retained lukewarm party members, attracted new ones, and reaffirmed the loyalty of the true believers. The party’s welfare system allowed workers to make the best of things under capitalism, while strengthening the vehicle which could eventually overthrow the system.

Sadly, German Social Democracy equivocated on the question of whether or not the working class should integrate into the bourgeois state. The party was never able to come to a firm consensus on whether the existing state could be transformed or if the state needed to be smashed and a new government created in its stead. The German working class paid for this ambiguity with the slaughter of millions.

The emerging Nazi movement copied social democracy’s institution-building strategy with their own fascist institutions, gaining strength by exploiting the perception of Social Democracy’s closeness with the hated Weimar government. And of course, once the Nazis had seized state power, they made quick work of their opponents, either destroying these social democratic mutual aid societies outright or coopting them into the service of the Nazi Party.

There are valuable lessons to be learned from this time, specifically on the need for a clear revolutionary political line and the dangers of close alliance between socialists and the bourgeois state. But this brief historical sketch also underlines the power of mutual aid and non-state institutions as supplements to a larger party-building process.

“Serving the people” from Mao Zedong to the Black Panthers

Black Panther Poster for the Bobby Seale People’s Free Health Clinic

The present day revolutionary conception of mutual aid traces its lineage back to mid-20th century China, when the Chinese communists popularized the slogan, “Serve the people.”

As the New Left of the 1960s searched for an alternative to what was perceived as the rigid Stalinism of the Soviet Union, they inevitably sought guidance from another socialist society which was putting itself forward as a superior model: the People’s Republic of China.  

The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense were one of the revolutionary groups which were influenced by Chinese communism (often referred to as “Maoism”). As founding Black Panther Huey P. Newton wrote in his memoir Revolutionary Suicide, Newton’s conversion to socialism “was complete when [he] read the four volumes of Mao Tse-tung to learn more about the Chinese Revolution.”

Taking inspiration in part from Chinese communism, as well as drawing on the long tradition of African-American self-help, the Black Panthers embarked upon a series of campaigns to “serve the people,” directly providing for the needs of the black community. According to Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin Jr., in their book Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party, the Panthers conceived of their “serve the people” programs as a key component in support of a strategy for expanding and cohering the party under conditions of state repression, improving its public image, garnering political support, and finding meaningful activity for its members to engage in.

In late 1968, the Black Panthers embarked on an ambitious campaign to directly address malnourishment in black communities by providing free breakfast to neighborhood youth. The program was a huge success and eventually expanded to thirty-six free breakfast programs operating nationwide by 1971.

And free breakfast was just the beginning. As journalist Andrea King Collier notes, the Panthers eventually “developed more than sixty Serve the People programs, including efforts to provide free clothing and shoes, medical services — including drug and alcohol awareness — legal aid education, and what was thought to be some of the first true early childhood education programs in the nation, preceding Head Start.”

The Free Breakfast for Children program threatened the status quo in a way no protest could have. Embarrassed and threatened in the face of Panther propaganda, and seeking to neutralize the threat posed by independent initiative, the federal government formally rolled out their own School Breakfast program in 1975. The program catalyzed much-needed changes more rapidly than would likely have been possible if the Panthers had stuck to a traditional protest/lobbying/elections framework.

There’s a lesson to be drawn here: there are situations in which mutual aid can win concessions from the state more rapidly than formal recourse to protest and lobbying. In other words, direct action (sometimes) gets the goods.

But mutual aid was not justified simply on the grounds of its effectiveness in achieving reforms. These programs were justified variously on the grounds of raising the consciousness of the masses, as well as in terms of ensuring the survival of their communities.

In addition, the Panthers’ mutual aid programs provided their cadre with practical training which allowed them to develop a wide variety of logistical, technical and administrative skills. As Huey Newton in To Die for the People: “We recognized that in order to bring people to the level of consciousness where they would seize the time, it would be necessary to serve their interests in survival by developing programs which would help them meet their daily needs. For a long time we have had such programs not only for survival but for organizational purposes.”

What did Huey Newton mean by the phrase “organizational purposes?” To take an imaginative leap, we might conjecture that the experience of running mutual aid programs in the very heart of the communities in which they were seeking political support provided the Panthers with a greater exposure to the day-to-day concerns of the masses, a wider variety of opportunities for skill development and more of a sense of meaning than they could have ever received from, say, simply phone banking elected officials in support of a bill or door-knocking for a candidate’s election campaign.

But these developments did not occur in a vacuum. As a revolutionary party, the Black Panthers quickly attracted the attention of the repressive apparatus of the United States government.

Counterinsurgency: Annihilation and co-optation

It was 1969, and the judgment of the America’s top cop was unequivocal: “The Black Panther Party, without question, represents the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.” This was the verdict of J Edgar Hoover, the notorious Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), whose nearly half a century in office was largely devoted to (in the words of his biographer) “[waging] war on homosexuals, black people and communists.”

The Black Panthers represented a unique threat to the legitimacy of the United States government, not because they had stockpiled some weapons (which anyway they held and handled in complete compliance with the law). Rather, it was the potent combination of base-building in the community yoked into the service of a larger revolutionary strategy which gave cause for alarm.

Growing community support for the Panthers was bolstered in no small part by “serve the people” programs such as the free breakfast program. This comes across explicitly in FBI memos from the time period. For instance, in May 1969, the following memo was sent to FBI offices across the country: “The Breakfast for Children Program […] represents the best and most influential activity going for the Black Panther Party (BPP) and, as such, is potentially the greatest threat to efforts by authorities to neutralize the BPP and destroy what it stands for.”

The FBI’s means for disrupting and neutralizing the Panthers involved both blatant political assassination (as occurred with Illinois Panther leader Fred Hampton) as well as more subtle covert misinformation and activities, today known as COINTELPRO.

But there is another aspect to the “carrot and stick” approach which needs to be considered: the cultivation by the capitalist state of an alternative set of civil society institutions of social support: the nonprofit industrial complex.

While charitable organizations have a long history in the United States, the immense wealth extracted from the working class during the so-called Gilded Age concentrated enormous wealth in the hands of a small number of industrial capitalists.

Consequently, a large number of philanthropic foundations were established by by the so-called “robber barons” in the early 20th century. These foundations were created in part to act as a tax shelter for large fortunes belonging to business tycoons and their relatives; they were often named after the magnates whose ill-gotten gains they were established to protect: Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Sage.

The role of these large, private, tax-exempt foundations took on a new political role during the social insurgency of the 1960s. The Ford Foundation led the way in the shift from charity toward direct intervention in social movements. As Andrea Smith writes in the The Revolution Will Not Be Funded, “The Ford Foundation became particularly prominent, not only for philanthropic giving, but for its active involvement in trying to engineer social change and shape the development of social justice movements. For instance, foundations […] became involved in the civil rights movement, often steering it into more conservative directions.”

Simultaneously, the big money provided by private foundations helped to cultivate a “comprador” layer of black leadership which could function as a political pole of attraction and provide an alternative to revolutionary leadership within the black freedom movement. Because the black freedom movement represented the vanguard of the wider democratic social struggle, this had devastating effects on the political left. This history is recounted in books such as Karen Ferguson’s Top Down: The Ford Foundation, Black Power, and the Reinvention of Racial Liberalism and Cedric Johnson’s Revolutionaries to Race Leaders.

The bolstering of pre-existing brokerage politics was noted as far back as 1980 by Amiri Baraka and his co-thinkers:

In the aftermath of the 1960’s rebellions, the ruling class tried to coopt the revolutionary demand of the Black masses for political power and self-government by confining the political struggle to the electoral arena and creating illusions that placing Black faces in high places was synonymous to “self-government.” In fact, real political power remained in the hands of the monopoly capitalist class and not in the hands of the masses. While certain reforms were gained through the struggle for Black representation, the basic conditions of oppression of the masses could not be alleviated through the electoral process.

Furthermore, as Black petty bourgeois and bourgeois politicians […] did attain elected office, they were usually bought off to serve the interests of the bourgeoisie. Representing an upper stratum of the Black population, they had class interests in maintaining the political system; and as government functionaries, served a role as part of the oppressive state machinery itself.”

As the radical Sixties waned and America was slowly but surely overtaken by a reactionary backlash, many radicals or reformed ex-radicals retreated into more comfortable positions in academia, the labor bureaucracy, or the social welfare state. Many who’d hoped for “revolution in our time,” were deeply disappointed and disillusioned by the failures of the revolutionary movement. While their motives ranged from self-serving to making the best out of a bad situation, the overall direction was toward funneling activists into safer and more ameliorative ends. As Cedric Johnson wrote, “Political elites, the intelligentsia, and community activists formed a crucial linchpin in the success of this social management strategy.”

By the end of the 1970s, a confluence of successive seismic political and economic shocks an ebbing and disoriented mass movement, the economic shocks of emerging deindustrialization, the winding down of US military involvement in Vietnam, the slow atrophy of union and strike activity, and more — led to the eclipse of working class mutual aid.

Social welfare programs initially funded through government largess ended up on the chopping block as profound economic shifts and a politics of austerity became the order of the day. As part of a larger pattern of privatization, many functions of the government were shifted onto completely unaccountable private entities, with private foundations leading the way in the arena of social welfare.

By the end of the 1990s, the underdeveloped and imperfect state-directed social welfare state was on its last legs. The nonprofit industrial complex, formally aloof from the state, remained standing, engorged by the profits of an expanded corporate sector. By this point, the network of capitalist institutions had developed deep ties to the social movements, with capitalist interests picking and choosing more conservative sections within the social movements through grant monies and access to power.

The parasite had made its way to the brain of the host and taken control.

We can only win by destroying them: Against nonprofits, for mutual aid

It should be clear from this brief historical sketch that, in place of a robust and diffuse network of working class institutions, many of which were linked to an explicitly socialist political project, the leadership of civil society is today completely monopolized by the capitalist class.

Through a successive series of decisions compelled in part by objective circumstances, the crucial role of mutual aid and social provision which had originally been the purview of unions, organizations of the oppressed, and revolutionary political parties was surrendered to the state, which eventually turned this task over to administration by capitalist interests directly through their nonprofit arm.

Today, revolutionaries must attempt to counteract and push back against the influence of the nonprofit industrial complex. But we must do more. Ultimately, we will need to raze to the ground the nonprofit industrial complex in its entirety. This network of institutions serves as a barrier to working class hegemony. Our aim should be to establish social provision under the direction of unions, mass organizations of the oppressed, and socialist political parties in the service of a revolutionary strategy that seeks not to reform or “transform” the capitalist state, but looks to its overthrow.

In the next part of this essay, we’ll look at the various criticisms made of mutual aid programs, dig into the underlying political perspectives informing these criticisms, and attempt to lay out a coherent explanation of how “service to the people” plays an important role in building a working class political base.

. . .

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