Toward a communist electoral strategy

While the working class can’t vote away capitalism, electoral politics are nonetheless an essential tool in the class struggle.

Participation in electoral politics, and therefore an electoral strategy, are essential if communists are going to gain public legitimacy as a serious political force. Election cycles are of course endlessly nauseating, particularly this years in the USA with the obnoxious Trump vs. the neo-liberal imperialist Clinton. It is indeed sad that the majority of the public only seems somewhat politically active once every 4 years. Dominated by bourgeois parties that are neither democratic nor republican in the true meaning of those words, electoral politics becomes more and more cynical and corrupt. Yet it would be mistaken to believe that if a communist party simply played the field it would catch this disease.

At one point it was essentially leftist common sense that socialists would take on the electoral realm (excepting anarchists). For the Marxist left, the general view on elections differed little from his classic 1850 Address to the Communist League:

“Even when there is no prospect whatsoever of their being elected, the workers must put up their own candidates in order to preserve their independence, to count their forces, and to bring before the public their revolutionary attitude and party standpoint. In this connection they must not allow themselves to be seduced by such arguments of the democrats as, for example, that by so doing they are splitting the democratic party and making it possible for the reactionaries to win. The ultimate intention of all such phrases is to dupe the proletariat. The advance which the proletarian party is bound to make by such independent action is indefinitely more important than the disadvantage that might be incurred by the presence of a few reactionaries in the representative body.”

After the fracture of Social-Democracy in 1914 and then the October Revolution in Russia this would change. Theorists such as Anton Pannekoek (associated with the German KAPD) and Otto Ruhle (also associated with the KAPD) would take the betrayal of social democracy as a sign that it was necessary to abandon parliament and even the party form itself. Amadeo Bordiga, though forced to reconcile his view to remain within the Comintern, would argue for a stance of abstention toward all bourgeois elections. The early Communist Party in the USA also had a majority that rejected elections and argued for illegal work. While Lenin would chastise these political tendencies as infantile and a regression in marxist strategy, the New Left would rediscover these along with anarchist critiques of electoralism to argue for a left purely based on direct action that held no stance toward the electoral sphere. To this day these arguments influence large sections of the left. Yet these arguments have appeal for a reason; the bourgeois state presents itself as a leviathan of sorts, and anything that touches it is therefore doomed.

The ‘leviathan’ nature of the state is due to its level of subsumption to the needs of capital accumulation. While having pre-capitalist roots in class society itself, the state must be outfitted to meet the needs of a capitalist class, and thus will act in the end to assure the reproduction of a society based on class domination. While it may balance the needs of various classes, the state is the protection racket of the ruling class because it is committed to the rule of law, the rule of property, and therefore the rule of the propertied. It is clear that the bourgeois state must be crushed, its armies and police disbanded and new systems of governance established that allow for the rule of the proletariat.

Yet the question of whether we must smash the state and whether we participate in elections are two different questions. The bourgeois state can be smashed, yet we can still participate within its institutions with the purpose of propagandizing and politically training the working class. Election campaigns, even when lost, serve the purpose of forcing Communists to engage the public at large and argue their positions. However what if Communists actually win elections? Would we not just be managing the bourgeois state?

The first clarification to make is that we would not come to power unless we had the mandate to operate our full minimum program and essentially smash the bourgeois state and create the dictatorship of the proletariat. The party would be a party in opposition and would not form coalition governments with bourgeois parties. Unlike other organizations like Syriza, who act as if they cannot accomplish anything until they are in power, a properly Marxist party would remain in opposition and not form a government until conditions for revolution are ripe.

Another clarification is that we are not going to aim for executive powers we can’t realistically win. The extent to which communists are responsible for managing the state is the extent to which they will be forced to make compromises with bourgeois legality. Rather than running for offices like governor or president, we should aim for offices in the legislative branch such as the federal House Representatives, but also state Houses and Assemblies. In these positions we can vote for and against legislation (as well as abstain) and establish our party as a “tribune of the people” that uses its seat of power to propagandize against the bourgeois state and capitalism. By voting against reactionary laws, even if we are outnumbered by the Democrats and Republicans, we can demonstrate that our party stands firmly against the interests of the bourgeois state and develop mass legitimacy for radical positions.

Many would object to even this level of participation. One argument is the idea is that party representatives will develop interests independent from the working class. There of course is merit to this criticism, the German Social-Democrats voting for war credits in WWI being the most infamous example. The issue of why the SPD went social-chauvinist is another question, one I plan to address in depth elsewhere. However the phenomenon that electoral representatives will tend to develop class interests antagonistic to the proletariat can be addressed without having to abstain from electoral activities. For example, electoral reps can be required to donate a certain percentage of their salary to the party and be subject to recall by a popular vote. Electoral reps can also be given party-imposed term limits more strident that those enforced by the bourgeois state.

Another argument against electoral participation as such is that it’s a waste of time and diverts from the real type of struggle; direct action, which is what supposedly really makes history. Usually what this translates to is that energy is better spent engaging in the labor movement – that we should be building our capacity to wage mass strikes for example. This argument makes a false distinction between direct action and voting, the ballot or the bullet. A mass party will have to engage large amounts of workers through “extra-parliamentary” means before it will even stand a chance winning in an electoral campaign. Building class unions, solidarity networks, unemployed councils, mutual aid societies, gun clubs, sports teams, etc. is not to be rejected in favor of electoral action. A critique one could make of Bebel and Kautsky is that they did focus on the parliamentary movement to exclusion of mass actions and strikes.

Gains in the electoral sphere can also translate to “on the ground” victories through a feedback loop of sorts. Getting anti-worker and anti-democratic laws revoked can help the mass movement in the streets organize more effectively. It puts elected representatives in a position where they may be forced to defend the extra-legal and sometimes violent mass actions of the proletariat, thereby exposing to a mass audience revolutionary arguments.

Elections as a tactic have benefits, as does direct action. Today the left acts as if one must pick and choose between the two, yet this was not the case for Marx, Engels, Luxemburg, and Lenin. All saw the need for both the ballot and the bullet to win power. Yet at the same time no true Marxist would think one could abolish waged labor through passing a law. No one would deny that a social revolution involving the participation of mass of proletarians reorganizing the fabric of social life is required to transcend the capitalist system and achieve communism. Civil War will have to be waged against the forces of reaction in some instances. To deny these things is to be either deceptive or foolish.

While it is true aspects of 2nd international Marxism incorrectly comprehended the capitalist state and perhaps overemphasized the importance of electoral action, one could say the opposite plagues the current left which mostly fetishizes direct action. It is only “action in the streets” that vitalizes and gives consciousness to the working class; when it participates in electoral campaigns it is inert and doesn’t recognize the sham nature of the elections. When the left does break with this, it is in presidential election cycles. Most far leftists either don’t vote, vote for the most left-wing candidate on the ballot (Greens?) or vote for their sect’s marginal candidate. Worse, some talk a radical game but end up succumbing to the pragmatic lesser-evilism of the Democrats. The truth is that until we can build a mass party that has a successful electoral strategy, bourgeois politics will dominate the political discourse. This fact is not some “inevitable logic of capital” but a product of the general weakness of the left and the working class. Without a mass working class party, politics will remain the business of the two bourgeois cartels, each selling its brand of ‘rule-of-law’ constitutionalism. This weakens the direct action-oriented left as well, as the general level of militancy the masses is determined by how legitimate they see the state’s authority. A powerful communist party undermining business as usual within the state not only challenges the authority of the state but it expands what the public overall think is politically possible.

In order to take power and enact the full minimum program without launching a coup or delusional military adventure, the party needs to have enough of the politically active working class on their side as possible. If there is not adequate support, the regime will either be overthrown or suppress revolutionary democracy to stay in power. Bourgeois elections are of course not a reliable means of determining legitimacy, but they can give the party an idea of where and how much it garners popular support. So elections can not only serve as way to win support, but also to measure it. For Engels, measuring support alone was enough to utilize the benefits of suffrage:

“And if universal suffrage had offered no other advantage than that it allowed us to count our numbers every three years; that by the regularly established, unexpectedly rapid rise in the number of votes it increased in equal measure the workers’ certainty of victory and the dismay of their opponents, and so became our best means of propaganda; that it accurately informed us concerning our own strength and that of all hostile parties, and thereby provided us with a measure of proportion for our actions second to none, safeguarding us from untimely timidity as much as from untimely foolhardiness—if this had been the only advantage we gained from the suffrage, then it would still have been more than enough. But it has done much more than this. In election agitation it provided us with a means, second to none, of getting in touch with the mass of the people, where they still stand aloof from us; of forcing all parties to defend their views and actions against our attacks before all the people; and, further, it opened to our representatives in the Reichstag a platform from which they could speak to their opponents in Parliament and to the masses without, with quite other authority and freedom than in the press or at meetings. Of what avail to the government and the bourgeoisie was their Anti-Socialist Law when election agitation and socialist speeches in the Reichstag continually broke through it?” (1895 intro to Class Struggle in France).

So what do we make of these conclusions? First of all, CLT won’t be running any candidates anytime soon, as we are a small sect with little support and limited resources. Our energy right now is being put into making ourselves a more effective organization and helping get a General Membership Branch of the IWW started. We are obviously not saying communists should just run for office hoping it will kickstart a revolutionary movement. But in the long-term, if we are committed to building a world-wide party of the proletariat, the question of electoral strategy must be taken seriously. If we abstain from elections, it should be done on the basis of what is tactically best for the situation, not on the basis of anti-electoralism as an eternal principle.

Advertisements

Interview with the International Communist Party on the SICobas movement

Below is an interview done in collaboration with Croation Communist Iskra with members of the International Communist Party who are based in Italy and involved in the SICobas, a militant union that fights for class struggle principles rather than the corporatist arrangements that dominate unions in Italy. We publish this not only to spread awareness of this militant class movement, but to potentially provide insight into the task of building a classist labor movement in the USA and beyond. 

facchini-corteo

QUESTIONS REGARDING THE SI COBAS

Introduction
The party did not form the SICobas: the SICobas arose entirely independently of the party and there are no ties binding the two organizations. The party is not now, nor has it been in the past, in the SICobas executive.

How did the SI Cobas come to be formed?

The formation of the SICobas is described in the article “A Report on Rank and File Movements in Italy” published in The Communist Party No.1

What are some of the more recent struggles they have been involved in?

A survey of the SI Cobas’s recent struggles  is included in the article ‘No “Christmas truce” for the struggles of the SI Cobas.: Against police and Confederates’, which is in The Communist Party, No.3 

You are a territorial union instead of a “company” one. What does it mean inpractice? How are the SI Cobas different from the mainstream Italian unions, which are integrated into the State? What differentiates them from the other rank and file “base” unions?

The reasons why trade union organization on a territorial basis is to be preferred is explained in a leaflet, ‘For territorial reorganization of the working class’, which also appears in the first issue of The Communist Party.

What methods do you use in your struggles? Are you using “direct action” or are you also using lawyers and other legal means?

This and other fundamental questions are covered in the speech made by one of our comrades at the First SI Cobas conference, which can  be found in The Communist Party, No.2.  

Do you cooperate with other organizations in your struggles? I saw you had joint general strike with USI-AIT.

The SI Cobas doesn’t offer preferential status or collaborate on a permanent basis with any particular trade union. Indeed, during a strike, it has show that it is prepared to unite the forces at its disposal with those mobilized  by other trade unions, supporting the principal of unity of action. This has happened in conjunction with other rank and file trade unions, as was the case during the last general strike on March 18 last year, when it organized alongside the CUB and the USI-AIT. But also with regards to mobilizations organized by the CGIL, the biggest of the Italian regime unions: on 14 November 2014 a thousand SI COBAS logistics workers joined the  march organized by the FIOM, the CGIL metal-workers’ federation and the main trade union in the category. A month later, on 12 December, it saw to it that the general strike in the category within which the majority of its members are concentrated – logistics – coincided with the general strike of all categories proclaimed by the CGIL.

In our view the latter policy is the right practical policy, and it is classist, because by uniting the workers it means strikes acquire greater force and that is the initial condition needed for them to break free from the control of the regime unions. Thus uniting with the mobilizations of these unions doesn’t in fact strengthen them.

This policy has been rejected by the other rank and file unions, which have always boycotted strikes when called by the regime unions, and organized their own ones in competition with them, on different dates, thus weakening the workers’ mobilization.

In our eyes this practical policy adopted by the SI Cobas is one of the positive elements which distinguishes it form other rank and file trade unions, as we have explained on various occasions, for example during our speech at the first congress of the SI Cobas.

A big debate amongst proponents of class struggle unionism here in the USA is on the use of paid staff. Do the SI Cobas use paid staff and if so for what functions?

It is not a matter of principle at stake here: large trade unions will always need a certain number of full-time organizers. The prevalence of a conservative, self-serving trade-union bureaucracy  isn’t therefore the cause of the conciliatory policies pursued by the union and of its betrayal, but the effect: the bulk of its members and organizers have not proved strong enough either to prevent the leaders from betraying or to get rid of them and replace them with leaders they can have faith in.

What does the organizational structure of the SI Cobas look like? How are decisions made?

The SI Cobas is a young trade union which wants to equip itself wit a more robust organizational structure. It is composed of committees [cordinamenti] and provincial and national executives. In the case of enterprises which are spread out over several sites across the country there are also Company National Committees. These organs are not always that effective

The Provincial Comittees are made up of delegates from the various forms in the province. The Committee elects a smaller group as its Executive. The provincial Committee is supposed to meet at least once a month and the Executive once a week.

As far as  know there are a lot of immigrant workers in your union. What is the union’s  position on the”European refugee crisis” and do you act somehow to help people arriving in Italy?

It is necessary to come up with a class, rather than a vaguely humanitarian, solution to the problem: the immigrants are workers and are doubly oppressed, as proletarians and as foreigners.

On 16 September the SI Cobas organization a national demonstration in solidarity with the the immigrants and refugees. We distributed this leaflet.

QUESTIONS REGARDING  PARTY AND TRADE UNION IN THE USA

While in the USA the situation of the unions is radically different, are there any lessons to be learned from the experiences of the SI Cobas for militants in the United States who want to build class struggle unions and connect this with the struggle for a Communist programme? Are there any developments in the class struggle here that have caught your attention?

Communists do not pretend that the various forms within which the class struggle finds expression should conform to a fixed pattern.  The history of class trade unionism has shown that the types of organization that most lend themselves to leading the working class against the bosses’ State are the ones to be preferred, thus those open to all workers, independently of their ideas, political beliefs, party membership and religious faith. For the same reason are to be prefigured industrial trade unions as compared to those of a particular trade; those of a category as compared to those a particular firm; and national as opposed to local ones. The vast majority of the base unions in Italy apply, or attempt to apply, these organizational models.

On the history of the American workers’ movement we are publishing a long study in our English review Communist Left. the 5th installment of which will appear in the forthcoming issue. The general conclusion of this study confirms what the American working class has often lacked in its history is not trade unions, and examples of great mobilizations and bravery, but a communist party which is, 1) firmly founded on the uncorrupted doctrine of revolutionary Marxism, 2) which is committed to tactics which are intransigently anti-opportunist, and which, 3) lives according to a corresponding type of internal organization which is centralised, fraternal and anti-personalistic.

QUESTIONS REGARDING  PARTY AND TRADE UNION

In the USA many who identify with the Communist Left take a hard-line anti-union stance and argue that all unions inevitably become integrated into the state. The ICP, regarding the SI COBAs, takes a different stance. How did you did come to this political conclusion?

It is true that we have witnessed, since the end of the nineteenth century, the progressive submission of the trade unions to bourgeois ideology, to the nation and to the capitalist states, to the point that they participated in disciplining proletarians in two world wars and the defense of national capital in both peacetime and war. But this process, even if it has now become irreversible for many of the large existing trade unions, which have become virtually institutionalized as organs of the bourgeoisie, does not detract from the imperative necessity of workers’ defense against the growing pressure from the ruling class; this will lead to the rebirth of new trade unions freed from bourgeois conditioning. And in fact, we are seeing this rebirth. Whether they succeed in maintaining their independence will depend on the relative forces between the classes and the ability of capitalism to continue to hand out a few corrupting crumbs – something which today seems ever more unlikely.

What kind of political work does the ICP do within the SI COBAs? How does the organization work to politicize workers within the union?

This is the authentic Marxist position on the trade unions, summarized to the extreme:

The economic struggle is a necessary defensive and spontaneous response of those who sell their labor power: given the balance of forces between capitalists, who monopolize the means of production, and the destitute proletarians, if the latter stopped defending the level of wages and of working hours they would soon be reduced to conditions lower than those necessary for their own physical subsistence.

Because it soon became evident that this was not a matter of an individual dispute between single capitalist and working class citizens, but a clash between the opposing interests of two classes within society, from the very beginning trade union type organizations arose with the aim of defending more or less vast groups of workers.

These working class associations arose spontaneously, not through the will and intervention of a political party. The process by which the Marxist communist party, possessor of the doctrine and program of the working class, and the trade unions were born and developed was of no short duration, and though it happened side by side, it was not simultaneous as regards time and place. Over the course of the years there have often been situations in which the trade union movement and working class combativeness extended itself greatly on the level of economic demands, but there was minimal response to the communist party’s directives within the class.

To anticipate revolutionary or communist trade unions, as trade unions composed only of revolutionaries or communists, is to ignore the real historical revolutionary process. In the course of the transition from capitalist society to communism, that’s to say in the period when the dictatorship is exercised by the party, the wage-earning class abolishes itself. Where there are trade unions there is no communism, and vice-versa. The trade union emerges as and remains a product of bourgeois commercial society and remains subsumed within it, with many of its defects.

It is only when directed by the communist party that the trade union, functioning as a transmission belt between the party and the class in general, becomes a powerful and indispensable instrument for the revolutionary overthrow of bourgeois power; and, after the seizure of power by the party of the proletariat, for the reorganization of production and the distribution of goods.

How the communist party relates to the trade union movement has been definitively outlined by Marxism:
    Marx1871, London Conference of First International: “… Considering, that against this collective power of the propertied classes the working class cannot act, as a class, except by constituting itself into a political party, distinct from, and opposed to, all old parties formed by the propertied classes; That this constitution of the working class into a political party is indispensable in order to ensure the triumph of the social revolution and its ultimate end – the abolition of classes; That the combination of forces which the working class has already effected by its economic struggles ought at the same time to serve as a lever for its struggles against the political power of landlords and capitalists The Conference recalls to the members of the International: That in the militant state of the working class, its economic movement and its political action are indissolubly united”.
    In What is To Be Done (1901), Lenin wrote that Social-Democratic consciousness could only be brought to the workers from without. “The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade union consciousness, i.e., the conviction that it is necessary to combine in unions, fight the employers, and strive to compel the government to pass necessary labor legislation, etc.”.
    The Communist Left1957, The Fundamentals of Revolutionary Communism: Syndicalists “are actually far removed from Marxist determinism, and the interaction which occurs between the economic and political spheres is a dead letter to them. Since they are individualist and voluntarist, they see revolution as an act of force which can only take place after an impossible act of consciousness. As Lenin demonstrated in What is To Be Done? they turn Marxism on its head. They treat consciousness and will as though they came from the inner-self, from the ‘person’, and thus, in one deft movement, they sweep away bourgeois State, class divisions, and class psychology. Since they are unable to understand the inevitable alternative – capitalist dictatorship or communist dictatorship – they evade the dilemma in the only way that is historically possible: by re-establishing the former”.

Therefore the specific and principle task of the party within the union is not to politicize workers. The communist party does not work to make the trade union a watered-down version of itself, nor, in the revolutionary process, does the party dissolve itself and blend in with the trade union.

The communist party, from outside, with the support of the communist fraction within the trade unions, which is composed of the minority of communists among the militants and members of the union, comes to conquer its leadership. The working class, as an army, is already organized in the trade unions: the party sets out to lead this army; first in its defensive economic  struggle, and then, when the historical situation allows it, in its political and offensive struggle.

The guidelines for practical behavior that the party advocates inside the trade union, on how best to defend itself in a particular situation, entail no contradiction with the party’s task of reorganizing the forces of the proletarian class towards the general and vaster end of the struggle for communism.

Propagandizing the party’s general positions, the diffusion of its press, manifestos, invitations to public conferences, takes place, as in every other environment, but not at the same time s its trade union organizational work.

Only in this sense is “connecting class struggle unions with the struggle for a communist program” conceivable.

Some party comrades are militating within SICobas (as in other rank-and-file trade unions) and observing discipline to it: they bring their energy to bear as members and as communist sympathizers. Being known and respected, and  openly declaring their allegiance to the international communist party, they regularly make the party’s point of view known within the trade union with respect to the struggle under way, denouncing any possible strategic errors and indicating the best way to obtain the hoped-for results. They perform the organizational and propaganda work of the trade union: being present on picket lines, distributing the union’s flyers, building links, and editing and distributing press releases.

 

Reflections on Occupy – Four Years Later

A former Occupy participant reflects on the problems and virtues of a failed movement.

I would like to apply a basic Marxist analysis of the Occupy phenomenon. This is much more difficult than it might appear. There was no clear class orientation, though it often seemed to skew white and declasse. Occupy wasn’t a programmatic organization with a set of points open to critique. It arguably wasn’t even an organization. An event might be the best description, and it could almost be seen as a kind of temperature check of the American left in its moment. Any easy criticism of it will inevitably amount to it not being Marxist enough, i.e. lacking any kind unified program or even a shared understanding of capitalism. Decentralized in the extreme, Occupy was at once pre-political and hyper-political. Like riots or other spontaneous outbursts of indignation, the participants in Occupy agreed more on what they were against than what they were for, but unlike a riot, a great deal of the movement and discussion internal to the phenomenon was dominated by an abundance of conflicting political conceptions. In a way, Occupy was almost an effort to conjure a resistance to the current order out of thin air.

Since it no longer exists, and since it never really had any positions to begin with beyond slogans and complaints, recapitulating the necessary points of programmatic Marxism would largely be a waste of time. So instead I’m going to put on my swamp boots and wade back into the political muck of Occupy as I remember it. There were points where Occupy exhibited traces of latent untapped potential. It could have taken a turn that might have moved closer to substantial class conflict, where some steps were taken in the right direction. Typically however such steps were too little too late, or implemented haphazardly and not treated with the necessary seriousness that meaningful political struggle requires. I will identify some of these points along the way and offer a final summary of this failed movement.

Occupy Wall Street was clearly a response to the global financial crisis of 2007/2008, yet it seems curious that it took over three years for any kind of popular mobilization to take place in response to it. Part of this had to do with the election of Barack Obama, which many hoped would bring some kind of deeper shakeup in Washington politics. The general disarray of the American Left, burnt out from the numerous summit protests of the preceding anti-globalization wave, and the even more apparently fruitless anti-war demonstrations, doubtless played no small part in this as well. The belated response of the left to the financial crisis indicates just how far directly economic questions have been removed from the political conversation in this country. It wasn’t until the revolution in Tahrir square and similar movements that something came a long which seemed to serve as a plausibly functional new protest model. The first effort at this came in the Wisconsin Union protests, which would eventually end in a failed gubernatorial recall against Scott Walker. Old school peace activists planned a similarly styled protest in Washington DC, but for whatever reason the Occupy Wall Street protest is what caught everyone’s attention and energies. This action brought forth every conceivable aspect of the left, along with no shortage of elements from the fringe right, all seeking to reenact past glories or realize future visions. For the politically naïve, and I include myself in this, all of the past accounts of history suddenly seemed to be back on the table for a new settling.

Whenever I have talked to someone about Occupy, either when it was happening or after, I am reminded of the parable of the elephant and the blind men in which several men each grasp a different portion of an elephant and each has a radically different understanding of what they’ve experienced. Some came to Occupy for a hippie jam fest, others brought insurrectionary delusions of grandeur, some wanted to further their political careers, some wanted to fight the illuminati or the Tea Party, some wanted a revolution and others wanted life to be like the 50’s again. It is by no means limited to observers of the Occupy phenomenon that there are numerous conflicting analysis of what the hell the thing was. If anything, Occupy’s participants themselves had the largest spectrum of views on the subject. This was not accidental. From the beginning Occupy was undefined by any particular analysis or political agenda. Nor was there any set of agreed upon tactics aside from “taking public space” in a general populist demonstration against a set of vaguely defined elites. Riding high on enthusiasm over the “Arab spring” and low on the fallout from the financial crisis, this was enough to bring out almost every sector of the American left, as well as many others without any political experience or identification, in addition to Libertarian rightists, tinfoil hat conspiracy theorists, and even the oathkeepers in some places. Lyndon LaRouche and god knows what else. This set the stage for a massive an impromptu political conversation in which the imperative to act brought out all sorts of questions as to what people should actually do. The most famous of the initial calls to occupy wall street was put out by adbusters, in which they called for protesters to decide on “one big demand.” While many were opposed to making demands of the state, there was still a general sense that the discussion would turn to some kind of collective project or at least a concrete decision upon a course of action. But the numerous conflicting ideological dispositions and discourses resulted in an increasing confusion. Ultimately the effort was abandoned.

Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder_-_The_Tower_of_Babel_(Vienna)_-_Google_Art_Project_-_edited

To add another layer of complication, every Occupy was different. Occupy Oakland saw itself as a commune and fought the police constantly while Occupy San Francisco endorsed Ron Paul for president. I participated primarily through the Tampa manifestation of the movement, and it is through that vantage point that can discuss it.

From the beginning, Occupy Tampa was both bolstered and hampered by the forthcoming Republican National Convention. Preparation for the event served as a long term goal for people to point to, at the same time it brought up a level of scrutiny by the police and various other interests that many were unprepared to deal with. The initial demonstrations in Tampa, for which I was not present, are purported to have numbered in the hundreds and some have claimed thousands. Tampa was one of the first out in Florida, and so had larger attendance numbers than others, though participants at nearby cities that I’ve spoken to reported similar levels of initial strength. The kind of turnout of the earliest protests would never be seen again, even during the RNC, but the hope seemed to be all along that we could somehow return to that moment. Overlooking of course the numerous people who turned up to take selfies and leave, in Tampa many blamed the initial decline in turn out to the first big split over the question of whether or not to take a park.

The question over whether or not to take a park immediately split the radicals against the reformists. The debate and “consensus” over the matter was subject to extensive procedural manipulation. In short, there was one faction lead mainly by aspiring careerists and DP hacks who sought to position themselves as mediators between the protesters and the city. They negotiated with representatives from the city in meetings that were often rumored but no one knew the content of, and threatened to go to the media and condemn anyone who was arrested trying to take a park as “not being a part of Occupy.” Unfortunately their ploy worked at getting the protesters not to go in the park, but of course it failed to get the city to give us space, their stated aim. When I started attending, Occupy Tampa was in the midst of this debate.

Instead of fighting for a park, we camped out on a 10 foot sidewalk near a busy road. We were routinely awoken violently by the police every morning and subjected to the kind of endless harassment that being in a park probably would have provoked anyway. But instead of one big confrontation, there was a steady withering away of forces over the following months.

Throughout my experience of Occupy, I observed an intensive focus on process. Because of the extreme heterogeneity of the different ideologies of the participants, making any kind of lasting decision collectively could be enervating in the extreme. It makes sense then that boundaries would have to be routinely enforced discursively in order for discussions not to collapse into shouting matches or even fistfights (which isn’t to say that these never happened either). The focus on process also stemmed from the obscurity of the process itself. Consensus decision making, typically utilized by small groups of like minded activists, hadn’t been typically applied to something as large and heterogeneous as Occupy. And for many, consensus decision making was a new concept. Because there was no central decision making body for the movement on a larger level, though the General Assembly of New York was the closest thing to it, clarity over what constituted good consensus practice was lacking. Horizontal decision making was as subject to manipulation and opportunism as anything else. Furthermore people often approached it formally in a way so as to gain an edge in the discussion. Often, debates over process served as proxies for deeper ideological differences, which served to obscure them further. Not to say that there weren’t broader debates over ideology, or attempts to develop a unified platform and strategy. There were numerous efforts at this, and abstract theoretical and historical conversations went on informally constantly. Again, without any underlying basis of agreement, these efforts went extremely slowly and lead nowhere. What could capture people’s attention tended to be instances in which the occupation’s functioning itself was in crisis.

Amid this, the issue over taking a park persisted. Many who were sleeping in the sidewalk wanted tents, others were convinced that things couldn’t go on without some kind of “infrastructure,” even more abstractly some insisted that we weren’t a “real occupy” unless we took public space. Eventually, around November and for all of the wrong reasons, the GA approved a plan to take a park, one that was approximately 1.5 miles from the downtown. What this meant of course was people getting arrested. The park was dark, there were no witnesses, and our popular support was not at the level it had seen initially. Many of those most agitating for this were themselves never arrested. Some never even stuck around when the cops showed up, and it has been later suspected that the “plan” was put together in part by some retrospectively shady people with the explicit intent of draining human resources. The police certainly seemed to enjoy themselves and treated the whole affair like the training exercise that it probably was. GA funds were drained on bail bonds and people were tied up in court. At this point the enthusiasm waned and the occupation limped on into the new year when it moved even further away from downtown to West Tampa to live on a park with the permission of its owner, local strip club magnate Joe Redner.

The narrative goes on for another 8 months, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll cut it off here. The long strange journey things took were probably less typical of most occupies nationally. We eventually reached the RNC with token forces, and whatever protest were managed were so easily contained by the police that things remained fairly ineffectual. Occupy Tampa lasted longer than most, but it was almost certainly a pyrrhic victory. For better and for worse, Occupy Tampa was a transformative experience for many. For me it served as a kind of crash course in American Leftism. I was exposed to a ton of new ideas and was able to test some notions I had in practice. In its best moments there was a sense of camaraderie and rebellion that you could almost get high off of. In the end I was forced to clarify my thinking and get around to studying Marxism more seriously, though not everyone took away the same lessons.

Instead of going through the numerous blind alleys that plagued the movement, the most prominent being it’s Graeberian focus on debt resistance, I’d like to instead point to the more positive tendencies and directions that it leaned in over the course of its existence. In spite of everything, there were a number of points and tactics that Occupy moved toward that showed a certain degree of promise, and that may even contain traces of elements we will see in struggles to come.

Feeding people

The openness of occupations meant that they were often inundated with houseless persons, the neediest people in the social order and sometimes the most dysfunctional. Providing food, aid, and just accommodating their baggage was often a drain on resources, yet it is one of the few concretely positive things that Occupy did. Revolutionary organizations cannot become charities, and there is nothing inherently revolutionary about charity. However, if the proletariat is to recompose itself as a class, developing lines of mutual aid and support will form a necessary be a part of any project of emancipation. In instances of strikes and other struggles against Capital the question of how food and other resources will be administrated becomes an immediate issue for the proletariat. Furthermore, the development of working class institutions capable of acting as a form of counter power is a development that ought to be encouraged. Of course Occupy came nowhere close to this, and never developed a sustainable means of regulating the internal distribution of resources, however its open handed policy with food was much preferable to having images of poor people being turned away. Many liberals, and even one houseless person that I talked to, blamed the collapse of occupy in part on the homeless. This of course is absurd. Again, it was the failure of Occupy as a whole to develop a cogent analysis of capitalism and viable strategy for the developing political power that allowed it to run out of gas. Without an outward sense of direction, there really can’t be any clear metrics through which to determine the allocation of resources anyway. In Tampa this effort has transitioned into a local chapter of Food Not Bombs, one of the better existing organizations in the area.

Land fights

On a national level other occupations had some level of success fighting home evictions. Having access to free legal representation, sometimes in the form of the National Lawyers Guild tended to be important to these efforts. Much of the struggles against home evictions involved civil disobedience i.e. getting arrested. For this struggle to work, there would need to be more extensive political institutions capable of representing the proletariat, or a set of tactical actions undertaken in such a way capable of challenging or evading the law on the ground. There were efforts to attempt this in Tampa. Foreclosure rates in the area were astronomical and so in theory Tampa would have made a good place for such an effort. Few were willing to come forward to make their living situation a media circus/political issue and no one involved were willing to take the risks directly themselves. Eventually local activists attempted to import the Take Back the Land model of squatting in foreclosed homes. This already problematic model was implemented poorly. Contrary to what some involved were being told, the one house that was taken however ended up serving more as a publicity stunt for local paid “organizers” before the RNC. The house itself was stocked with homeless people who were told by one organizer that they were getting the deed to the house.

Fighting pigs

Occupy Oakland became famous for its routine Fuck the Police Marches and overall fighting spirit. Confrontation with the police, and any other armed representative of the state, has always formed a crucial component to revolutionary struggle. In recent decades, the United States prison population has skyrocketed, and it is no coincidence that this has taken place midst a period of de-industrialization. Rising populations, surplus to the needs of capital accumulation, must be increasingly managed by the armed force of the stat). For those outside the immediate circuit of productive capital the police stand in as the primary enforcer of capitalist social relations. The problem of the police, who enforce property relations, is one of the central problems of capitalism and will continue to remain central to future struggle. This has been borne out further in recent years.

Internationalism

Occupy started out as an effort by leftists and internet libertarians to recreate the Arab spring in the United States. As insane as this sounds, the fact that the protest was inspired by international action, and consistently saw itself as a part of a global movement is important. Again, due to its extreme decentralization this internationalism never really evolved beyond signs and salutes over the internet, but the spirit was in the right place.

General Strike

Perhaps the biggest missed window lied in OWS’s attempt to revive the myth of the General Strike. Slated for May 1st, the events ended up being more of a May Day rally than anything else. Getting organized labor back behind a “red holiday” wasn’t nothing but it wasn’t a lot either. From the beginning many sought to develop one demand in the style of Egypt’s one demand to get rid of Mubarak, and I think that a General Strike could have fit the bill. It wouldn’t have been addressed to anyone in power, but instead to the whole of workers everywhere, which would have satisfied a good deal of anarchist concerns over placing demands toward those in power. The effort to organize something approaching a general stopping of the capitalist economy would have required the development of a level of coordination and labor organization that doesn’t currently exist. If the notion had been taken seriously as a long term goal, the efforts needed to bring it into being, or even close, could have served to elevate the level of class organization and bring the efforts of occupies into the realm of legitimate political struggle. Not to say that there aren’t problems with the concept of the General Strike, but a serious effort would have been streets ahead of anything else they had going and might have given things an outward orientation beyond trying to keep occupation going. Of course, there is no guarantee that the meme of a General Strike, even with the full backing and support of Occupy would have caught on the same way that the take the square protests did, and it even leaves out the question of what the general strike would be for exactly. But the relocation of Occupy’s organizational energies from camping and street marches toward the realm of wage labor could only have been an improvement, and in my opinion stood to open new possibilities.

Of course, the extension or intensification of any of these aspects would not in itself have translated into a more meaningfully revolutionary organization. But had things continued along these lines, new sets of problems might have opened themselves up, prompting new theoretical and analytical needs. Occupy’s lateral thinking worked best when it was able to avoid the normal blind alleys of American leftism.

Occupy was the apotheosis of the neo-liberal, post-modern protest. If the term rhizomatic could be applied to any type of protest, Occupy fit the bill. Occupy perfectly demonstrated the failure of a leftist discourse in which all struggles are theoretically equal, and randomized action will somehow additively total up to something. In order to shape the world there has to be some kind of “shared grand narrative” or at least an agreed upon “worldview” of its participants. We must understand class as the axis through which to understand the totality of social relations. Through this lens we can have a meaningful political orientation and begin to conceive of tactics that don’t just amount to persistent agitation and well, activism. This requires not only clear points that can be critiqued and refined against experience but an open identifiable, accountable leadership.

Since the post-war recovery from the great depression, capital has seen numerous crisis. Due to new modes of state capitalist economic management none have resulted in the same kind of panic and sudden catastrophe of past crises. And yet in 2008 we came close. If Marx was correct about the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, and there is some empirical evidence that he may well be, then the contradictions which compelled protesters to take to the streets will continue to develop. Capital will respond and the proletariat will also respond.

Occupy well demonstrated the limitations of franchise activism. Having a highly decentralized organization based around some popular slogans has the virtue of bringing in large numbers of people, and spreading geographically very quickly. The problem comes when these groups have to act in accord and represent something that has captured the public imagination. We can see this now with the Black Lives Matter movement. Formed in response to a series of uprisings against police brutality, BLM is similarly decentralized, with no accountable leadership beyond the admins of the original website. BLM has a tighter focus, but it is also coming up against questions of what its relationship should be towards the police and how it should relate to the state in general and electoral politics in particular. As with Occupy, as with any movement there are currents within it who hold higher aspirations for human liberation. But without a clear analysis of capitalism and an adjoining program that can build power and win reforms it seems headed directly into the old currents of activism and DP political machinery.

It is easy to mock the more ridiculous aspects of Occupy. In fact this was a favorite past time of many of its most loyal adherents at the camps. It is also easy to dismiss it out of hand as being insufficiently class based. But many of those who were stirred by the actions of the camps shared a strong imperative to “do something.” It makes sense then that the somethings that they latched onto consisted of whatever was closest at hand in existing American politics. It is up to us then to develop a new current, and advocate for an alternative to activism and the NGO complex, and to articulate a clear theoretical understanding of capitalism and how to abolish it. Only with a proper map can we hope to get anywhere from here.

To hell with democracy?

Rather than blanket rejection or blind leftist worship, communists should aim for a more nuanced position on democracy that recognizes its importance in working class organizations as well as its limitations. 

greatmomentsinleftism

Almost every leftist worships at the altar or democracy but is very unclear about what it means or why exactly we need it. Some, taking up an “ultra-left” position influenced by the likes of Bordiga, Camatte and Gilles Dauve take a stance contrary to this and argue for a complete rejection of democracy, claiming it to be a purely bourgeois form. Against both the blind leftist worship of democracy and the flat out rejection of it by many ultra-left communists I’ll attempt here to argue for a more nuanced take on the democratic question.

The question of democracy is a question that communists need to address with care and precision. We need to define our terms carefully and be careful to avoid purely semantic debates to map out where legitimate differences arise and where they are purely questions of how things are worded. Is democracy merely a bourgeois mirage that we should fully reject? Is the dictatorship of the proletariat, the phase of working class rule to abolish capitalist relations, democratic in character? Answering these questions requires a closer look at what democracy actually is and what it means in different contexts. They are also questions that carry immediate relevance, not a matter of abstractly imagining a far off communist future that has no major importance today (what some would call ‘LEGO socialism’). Today, when the left is dominated either by bureaucratic and corrupt sects or activist cliques dominated by the informal rule of charismatic individuals, such matters are practical questions that relate to how we organize now.

Communist organizations as well as other institutions of the working class need to be able to make collective decisions on a mass scale. For organizations to truly express the will of its base and therefore the proletariat as a class there must be a basic adherence to the notion that decisions are made by the entire group, that essentially everyone has a say and participates in the decision making process, even if this is through delegation and representation. Furthermore it entails accountability and transparency in decision making processes, not merely procedural norms like voting or majority rule. This is the definition of democracy that communists should stand for, rather than bourgeois notions of democracy which are really just rule-of-law constitutionalism. It’s also the definition of democracy that the Communist League of Tampa and its affiliates call for in our basic Points of Unity: “We uphold the right to open debate, factions and accountable collective decision-making within revolutionary organizations, especially our own. This means opposing bureaucratic centralism and working against the development of unaccountable caste-like layers of leadership.”

Individuals with unaccountable decision making power within an organization are essentially small-proprietors, with the organization being their property. It is unavoidable that decision-making authority will have to be delegated to certain individuals, as not every single decision made can be voted on in larger bodies. What matters is that these individuals who are delegated decision-making authority are accountable to those affected by these decisions. This decision-making power, essentially intellectual property in the form of specialization and control over information, must be collectivized. There is not one formal mechanism that can guarantee achieving this (such as majority rule), but as a minimum requirement the basic standards of accountable democratic decision-making must be the general basis for how our organizations conduct themselves.

Basic democratic standards of operation are not important because of abstract universal principles, but because they are necessary for the healthy functioning of organizations that are capable of organizing the proletariat to act as a class. Democracy for communists isn’t an ahistorical ideal, but an instrument. That said, it’s an instrument we can’t afford to not use. Organizations that do not function with internal democracy will develop a layer of unaccountable bureaucrats who are essentially small proprietors which have objective class interests alien to the proletariat. They are not representatives of an alien class due to their specific political lines but because they essentially treat organizations as a form of property and will have a tendency to protect this property. This in turn will lead to a silencing of all dissent within the organization, capitulation to reformist politics in order to keep organizational growth at a maximum and meaningless splits due to bureaucrats aiming to maintain control over what they see as their property when they can’t get their way. From there it’s a straight road to racket-ville, where organizations are either completely ineffective or so hindered by corruption that we would prefer them not to be effective.

It is also of importance that people are free to criticize decisions and voice alternatives without being silenced or expelled. The “Leninist” notion that disagreements within the organization should only be expressed internally while externally one can only express the official party line should be rejected. Rather than this, debates within the organization should be performed in the public press or in public meetings unless they are regarding information that puts individuals at risk of repression. The notion that “freedom of debate” merely opens the door to opportunism is more often than not a means for the central leadership to silence criticism, enforce rigid ideological centralism and assert control over what they see as their property. Of course reactionary positions can be defended under the guise of “freedom of debate” but it is important for any collectivity to come to a general agreement on where the margins of acceptable debate lie.

The unhindered rule of bureaucracy affirms the mental/manual division of labor which is at the core of class society and must be abolished in the future communist society. While our organizations will never be able to fully prefigure communism (as they exist under the structural pressures of capitalist society), the communist movement must relatively prefigure the kind of society we fight for. If our movement is to show a way forward out of capitalism towards a better world and capture the support of millions of workers it must in some sense prove that life after the revolution won’t be a repeat of current miseries. It is partially because of the failures of Stalinism and labor-bureaucracies in the 20th century that class consciousness today is inhibited. Workers aren’t stupid, and if our movement presents itself as a repeat of the bureaucratic rackets and personal tyrannies that define Stalinism, the bourgeois state and capitalist enterprises they won’t be interested (and rightfully so). As a result communists as a force in society cannot afford to organize through bureaucratic structures that directly reproduce the divisions of class society. The only alternative to this is to produce democratic structures.

Not only must our organizations pre-revolution be democratic in the sense described above, but the form of the state under the dictatorship of the proletariat must also be democratic. To quote Lenin, ….Dictatorship does not necessarily mean the abolition of democracy for the class that exercises the dictatorship over other classes; but it does mean the abolition of democracy (or very material restriction, which is also a form of abolition) of democracy for the class over which, or against which, the dictatorship is exercised.” Dictatorship in the sense that Marx used it was not to be counterposed to proletarian democracy but relied on it.

The dictatorship of the proletariat, contrary to the claims of anti-communists, is not the rule of a minority clique above the proletariat. This point is made many times but it nonetheless stands. If the working class is going to politically rule it must be legitimately in control of the state. This ‘commune-state’ must be organized and function in such a way as to prevent the petty-bourgeois labor bureaucracy from expropriating political power from the working class. This will require democratic norms such as representation through recallable delegates, strict term limits and freedom of speech (though in civil war situations it is inevitable exceptions will have to be made for this rule). These were the characteristics that Marx praised the Paris Commune for holding.

While using democratic forms, the rule of the proletariat is a dictatorship and anti-democratic in the sense that it must break with bourgeois constitutionalism and repress capitalist property rights that are considered basic freedoms in the eyes of the bourgeois ideology. An expansion of political freedom to the proletariat can only be coincided with restricting the political freedom of the propertied classes. This will certainly mean taking measures that will be seen as dictatorial in the eyes of the exploiters. It is for this reason that Engels claimed that democracy would be the rallying call of the counter-revolution. Yet democracy for the bourgeoisie is mostly that: a rallying cry, a means of legitimizing their class rule through the state that is never extended more than is necessary.

Rather than the logical form of capitalist rule as such, there is much reason to believe that for the capitalist class democracy is just as much a liability as it is means of legitimation to integrate antagonistic classes. Democracy plays an ideological role in the bourgeois revolutions to unite “the people” (the peasantry, other small producers, semi-proletarians and the bourgeoisie) as a whole against the aristocracy and clergy under the banner of the national republic. Through the ideology of democracy the bourgeoisie aims to present its rule as the rule of the entire people, not a single class. Yet too much substantive democracy where the oppressed classes are actually given real participation in political decision-making proves to be a liability to bourgeois rule and must be suppressed. We see this in the French Revolution, with the suppression of the Sans-Culottes and then the suppression of the Jacobins followed by the rise of the Directory and then Bonaparte. We also see this in the suppression of the radical abolition-democracy during Reconstruction in the United States when the Industrialists who were the backbone of the Republican party feared the growing power of the laboring classes. This tendency is also visible in the rise of fascist regimes during the inter-war period, where sections of the bourgeoisie threw in their lot with anti-democratic political movements to crush both parliamentary and extra-parliamentary workers movement. So while democracy certainly plays an important role in the ideological arsenal of the capitalist class it is also something they are more than willing to do without and suppress when needed. For the capitalists class political democracy is a means of masking its rule as a class under the guise of political freedom. Yet at the same time they recognize that too much of this political freedom in the form of substantive democracy is dangerous and must be kept in check.

Despite the fact that the proletariat very much needs political democracy to organize and rule as a class there is certainly a danger of fetishizing democracy, making the mistake of thinking that democratic forms as such are revolutionary and desirable without class content. This is the strength of the ultra-left critique of democracy, which is that a fetishization of democracy emphasizes procedural form at the expense of actual political content. These critiques have their root in the works of Italian Communist Amadeo Bordiga, who went as far to claim he rejected the democratic principle and argued that a vague notion of ‘organic centralism’ where democracy would be transcended should be the core principle of communist organization. The roots of these critiques can also be found in the works of Marx and Engels themselves. For example, in the 1850 Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League, Marx and Engels warn the workers they “should not be led astray by empty democratic talk about the freedom of the municipalities, self-government, ect in a country like Germany, where so many remnants of the Middle Ages are still to be abolished.” In an 1884 letter to August Bebel, Engels claimed “In any case our sole adversary on the day of crisis and on the day after the crisis will be the whole of the reaction which will group around pure democracy, and this, I think, should not be lost sight of.” So while Marx and Engels certainly recognized the importance of democracy and advocated it in its most radical forms they were no fetishists of democracy that viewed it as always inherently progressive to the goals of the proletariat. It always exists within a certain class context and must be understood with that in mind.

The problem of fetishizing democracy can be exemplified with a simple thought experiment. Imagine a political change which merely involved simply implementing a form of localized direct democracy in place of the current state, as imagined by Murray Bookchin’s ‘libertarian municipalism’. In many contexts this would result in a less liberatory society than the one we currently live in. For example, in the United States a system of decentralized direct democracy without a change in class relations could simply result in suburban communities choosing to pass laws allowing for segregation or banning abortion.

Modern proponents of “direct democracy” seem to overlook these problems and argue for a form of democracy without the mediation of representation and political parties. This ideal of decentralized mass assemblies making all political decisions is appealing to those disenchanted by the betrayals of political parties and the emptiness of bourgeois democracy. Rather than governance through representative institutions, local face-to-face assemblies are suggested as a more legitimate form of social decision-making. Yet mass society cannot make decisions purely at the local level, and even at a local level the complexity of society would make it unfeasible to put every decision up to a popular vote. This isn’t to say that localities shouldn’t have control over decision-making, and in fact there should be self-government of localities to whatever extent is possible. But beyond this the need for decision-making at larger regional and international levels necessitates forms of political representation and mediation, as well as centralization. The question shouldn’t be whether or not there is representation, but rather how representation can be kept accountable and under the control of the rank-and-file/base.

The experiment of Occupy in 2011-2012 verifies the problems of experiments in direct democracy as well as democracy devoid of any kind of class content. At the core of Occupy was not a basic political programme or class base so much as a democratic form, “horizontalist” consensus decision making. The result was that the project could find no basic agreement on politics and ended up at the lowest-common-denominator of unity. Many camps became dominated by libertarian conspiracy theorists or Democratic party hacks who took full of advantage of the fact that democratic process took precedence over any kind of political unity other than the most vague populism (99% vs 1%).

Given the experiences of Occupy and the fetishization of direct democracy by certain currents of modern anarchism, the ultra-left critique of democracy has reason to be taken seriously. Yet there is also a danger of taking this critique too far and completely dismissing the need for democracy within working class organizations. This is exemplified by the text Against Democracy by Wildcat (UK) which does indeed take its critique this far.

The text begins agreeably enough with a critique of democracy as the rule of rights and equality, which is premised on the existence of the state and citizens who are atomized into legal individuals. Communism, by doing away with the state and class stratification, would therefore make talks of rights and equality meaningless. It also makes the point that when in combat with class enemies, we don’t afford them democratic rights and instead ruthlessly crush them. You can’t respect the rights of a cop if you‘re beating him to death! If a trade union leader tries to address a meeting and we respond by shouting him down or dragging him off the stage and kicking his head in, it’s absurd for us to say that we believe in freedom of speech,” says the Wildcat text. So far this is mostly agreeable, though expressing this point in the most edgy possible way does come off as a bit silly. Communists advocate for a dictatorship of the proletariat, which means that certain bourgeois rights that are afforded to the propertied classes under capitalism will be suspended and trampled upon. We don’t respect bourgeois constitutional legalism (which is really what they mean when they talk about democracy) and often we are in the minority when we take this stance. The revolution is not going to be decided on in the halls of congress or parliament through a majority vote where 51% of the vote make seizing power legitimate while 49% doesn’t.

Yet the Wildcat text goes a step further in saying that democracy “within our own ranks” is also to be rejected. This is defined as three basic principles: Majoritarianism (that nothing can be done unless a majority agrees to it), separation between decision making and action (nothing can be done until everybody has had a chance to discuss it), and embodiment of the view that no one can be trusted (delegates are to be revocable because they may not be trustable). Yet what this is arguing against is almost a straw-man, as no organization I know of actually puts every single action performed up to a complete majority vote. There is of course a danger of getting bogged down in formalities, but when decisions have to be made on a mass scale there needs to be some baseline formal process of decision-making to regulate these processes in a way that maintains accountability to those effected. The alternative is either a tyranny of structureless, where personalistic and unaccountable charismatic cliques dominate, or bureaucratic centralism, where an unaccountable leadership calls all the shots and no apparatus exists to challenge these decisions.

The fact that Wildcat extend their critique to mocking the idea of recallable delegates and faction rights further reveals the poverty of their complete dismissal of internal democracy. The argument for recallable delegates and term limits doesn’t necessarily stem from the idea that “no one can be trusted” but that delegates should express the needs of constituencies and these constituencies should be able to recall them if these needs aren’t being met. The alternative is that the organization is basically the private property of the bureaucrats and there is no means of keeping this in check. And even if the idea behind recall-ability is that people can’t be trusted, the argument against recall-ability rests on an idea more absurd than the idea that no one can trusted, which is people can always be trusted.

Regarding the right to form factions within an organization, Wildcat basically dismiss this as the province of Trotskyists who want “the freedom to plot and conspire against other members of what is supposedly a working class organization.” This claim that the right to form factions is basically the territory of “trot wreckers” sounds like something coming straight from the mouth of a Maoist sects central committee. It was partly the banning of factions in the Bolshevik Party that prevented it from regaining any kind of genuine connection to the proletariat, and in fact while Wildcat claim to oppose “majoritarianism”, the right to form factions is a safeguard against the problems of majority rule. It is only with the right to form factions that minority positions in an org (which may be the correct position since majority rule isn’t a magical tool for discovering the truth) can be defended and argued for in a way that prevent unnecessary splits and expulsion of any dissent. This isn’t to say any and all factions should be tolerated – for example the Communist League of Tampa wouldn’t tolerate a faction giving critical support to Putin’s Russia or any kind of US intervention in the Middle East – but we certainly would tolerate a faction advocating for a harder stance against electoralism.

Ultimately the Wildcat critique of democracy is useless because it offers no alternative on how to run mass-scale political organizations other than “trust and solidarity”. Instead we are presented a fetishization of militant minorities that act against democratic norms, as if these actions on their own are able to offer a real threat to capitalism. The actions of small minorities coupled with spontaneous upsurges can only lead to a conspiratorial tactic of “invisible dictatorship” ala Bakunin. Rather than elite anti-democratic vanguards that rely on spontaneity, the proletariat must create its own mass scale organizations within capitalism that can pose the question of political power.

Mass scale organizations within capitalism will inevitably develop some sort of bureaucracy of paid full-timers. A small propaganda group like CLT can obviously operate on purely volunteer labor, yet at a certain point organizations will get to a scale and level of activity where the level of work cannot be done on an all volunteer basis. Because we live in capitalism, workers have to work for wages to survive and are limited in how much time they can volunteer to an organization. As a result there will be a strata in any large scale organization that have to work as salaried as full-time officials. As stated earlier this strata is essentially petty-bourgeois because they will treat the organization as their property if unchecked. To counter this tendency there must be standardized norms of democracy, accountability and transparency that collectivize decision making in the organization as much as possible. This is the only real alternative to the rule of experts and decision-making dominated by an elite.

Tackling the ‘democratic question’ requires nuance and precision rather than pseudo-radical sloganeering. Rather than claiming that all democracy is merely a bourgeois mirage that is to be wholesale rejected, communists should aim for a more nuanced position that recognizes the importance of democracy within working class organizations while not fetishizing democratic forms or conforming to bourgeois constitutionalism.

Why we need a world party

As a long-term goal communists should work towards a world party organized around a minimum/maximum programme that can tolerate factionalism while maintaining independence from bourgeois and reformist parties.

mythical party

“…it is inevitable that the growing proletariat should resist exploitation, and that it should organize industrially, co-operatively and politically to secure for itself better conditions of life and labor, and greater political influence. Everywhere the proletariat develops these phases of activity whether it is socialistically minded or not. It is the mission of the Socialist movement to bring all these various activities of the proletariat against its exploitation into one conscious and unified movement, that will find its climax in the great final battle for the conquest of political power.” – Karl Kautsky, The Road to Power, 1909

“There are therefore no bodies which are revolutionary because of their form; there are only social forces that are revolutionary through the direction in which they act, and these forces are organized in a party that fights with a program.” – Amadeo Bordiga

Do Communists need a party? If so, what kind do we need? Can revolutionary syndicalism or councilism serve as an alternative to forming a party? While the Communist League of Tampa is not a party formation the question of proletarian political organization is raised in our Points of Unity which states: “the proletariat must form its own political institutions independent from other classes and develop the capacity to rule as a class and abolish capitalist relations.” 

It is my view that political organization inevitably takes the form of a party of some kind if it is effective, so communists undeniably need to form a party as a long term goal. Right now the conditions for forming a party aren’t viable. This does not however mean that there isn’t work in the current circumstances we can do to change these conditions. We can still form political groupings, build those groupings, merge with others, intervene in mass struggles and run educational efforts without being centralized as a single world party. Instead we have to develop the basis for such a party to exist.

To clarify, a party is simply defined as a formal organization unified around a programme, which is in the broadest sense a series of political demands and basic principles of operation as well a long term vision of social change. This programme is the basis around which it organizes, agitates and educates. It is these characteristics that define a party rather than precise organizational structures, which can vary. A party doesn’t necessarily mean standing in elections; nor does it always mean a “vanguard party” where a small cadre with strict ideological unity proclaims itself the leaders of the working class. Neither does it mean an organization which will substitute itself for the working class by establishing a monopoly on political power.

The kind of party we need is first and foremost a world party, an organization where (to use a rather militaristic metaphor) each national section is essentially a battalion in a worldwide army. Our revolution will be international, hence there must be organization at an international level to coordinate it. Before the question of seizing power is even on the table some kind of world party that can pursue the internationalization of revolution must exist. Such an organization must have a balance of centralization and decentralization so as to prevent a single national section from asserting specific national interests over the whole organization while also allowing for the autonomy that separate sections need to meet their specific conditions. This was one of the problems of the Comintern: its domination by Russian national interests. To paraphrase Bordiga, the Comintern should have run Russia rather than the other way around.

This party should be a mass party rather than a vanguard party in the following sense. It should welcome all workers and intellectual allies that are willing to follow the programme and collectively work to actualize it. There should not be a tight ideological/theoretical line imposed on members, which constrains the ability of an organization to adapt to new conditions and have open debate without splitting or needlessly expelling members. Unity should be based around the broader programme, with debate open within all layers of the group on policy as well as theoretical issues. There must be internal democracy, accountability and transparency. Like a proper proletarian government it must be run on principles of delegation and egalitarianism rather than through a caste-like hierarchy. Leadership responsibilities should be formalized to ensure accountability, though recallable by constituents if necessary. The party also should not associate itself with the vanguard of the class struggle itself. The vanguard is not a single organization but a layer of the class that exists both within and outside party organizations. To say otherwise would be making the untenable claim that class struggle only occurs under the control of the party.

The kind of centralism we desire is one that is based on a true unity of the group around programme and action. This kind of centralism is a goal to be worked towards, not something to be forced by a clique in the leadership when the conditions for it don’t exist. Therefore the banning of factions as such is not a tolerable policy, as factions are an expression of real divisions in the organization that cannot be ‘cured’ with mere suppression. The ability to form factions and oppose leadership is part of a healthy organization that develops itself through debate rather than blind conformity to the central committee. This isn’t to say any and all factions should be tolerated; some positions will fall completely outside what can be tolerated in a communist organization. That said a healthy organization must be able tolerate factionalism, as it will be inevitable in any kind of mass party.

Bolshevism, before the Russian Civil War, operated on these principles for the most part. The party contained multiple factions and would publish internal debates in their public press. Much of the attempts to mimic Bolshevism today are based more on how the Party and Comintern developed after the Russian Civil War rather than pre-1918 Bolshevism. The point is not much that we must mimic their example, but that mass parties based on these principles can be formed and that a party like the Bolsheviks became successful organizing with them. The notion of an “iron-law of oligarchy” where all political organization of a considerable scale will lead to authoritarianism should be avoided for the conservative notion that it is. Of course any party will have tendencies towards deformations due to operating under the pressures of capitalist society. But these tendencies can be fought against; they are not impossible to overcome.

The Bolshevik Party before 1918 was hardly a bureaucratic centralist organization that stifled internal debate.

Attempts to replace the party as a central organ of revolution such as syndicalism and councilism have provided interesting movements and critiques but ultimately have failed to provide a realistic alternative. Syndicalism counterposes party organizations to workers in industrial unions that will prepare a revolutionary transformation through general strikes that seize the means of production to institute workers self-management. One basic problem with this strategy is the general tension between the roles of trade unions and political organizations. Syndicalism aims to essentially combine the two, forming trade unions that are based on a political affinity to a general vision of seizing means of production. This model of organization had much appeal to workers who were skeptical of social-democracies parliamentary tactics, seen as avoiding the mediation of politics altogether in favor of direct action on an economic basis. Yet a vision of seizing the means of production and self-managing them is still a political vision that must grapple with social problems beyond the economic.

Unions, to most effectively perform their function of protecting the basic economic interests of the workers they represent, must gain membership from as many workers as possible in a given trade or sector regardless of politics. However political organizations are based on the exclusion of those who don’t follow the groups political line. As a result in syndicalism there is a constant tension between maintaining the political vision of the union and operating as a functioning union that can mediate the relation between laborers and employers. Syndicalists unions therefore tend to either give up on radical politics and become reformist unions like the French CGT or essentially become parties that run workplace committees, albeit confused ones that refuse to recognize they are essentially parties. This isn’t to say revolutionary or ‘red’ unions never have existed or can’t exist at all, but they tend to not last for long or have trouble sticking to their politics and therefore on their own have trouble developing the kind of long term strategy and base that can provide a basis for revolution. Revolutionary unions have a place in a broader communist movement, but by themselves they are insufficient.

Another alternative to the party that is raised by some communists is councilism, which argues that the only legitimate revolutionary organs are workers councils formed by the workers themselves through mass strike actions. Councilism argues that political parties are an essentially bourgeois form that will inevitably substitute themselves for the proletariat as a class and therefore must be avoided at all costs. Generally its adherents argue that rather than organizing as a party communists should simply educate others and circulate information. Most councilists therefore take a very fatalistic attitude to revolution, arguing that only intense economic crisis will inspire the proletariat to form councils without any kind of prior organizing from conscious militants. The hope is that workers will spontaneously realize the need to seize the means of production and form workers councils on their own without guidance from conscious organized militants.

Councilism is based on a historical fantasy, because the actual historical experiences of workers councils have all been connected to political parties. The Soviets of 1917 were formed by Mensheviks, while the workers councils of the German Revolution were all connected to whatever political parties the workers who participated were involved in. Council rule is still essentially party rule, just the rule of whatever party dominates in the councils. In Germany 1918 this was the SPD. In Hungary 1956 the councils backed a social-democratic left nationalist Imre Nagy. On their own workers councils have never been able to act as an alternative centre-of-authority to the bourgeois regime. They have functioned moreso as united-front organizations of the class in struggle that rarely stand as permanent decision making apparatuses. Practically every mass upsurge of the working class has involved agitation, organization and education from conscious militants, both during and preceding the uprising.

Without a party with a mass base in the working class that develops a plan for an alternative to the current regime workers councils will simply give power back to the existing state or give way to other reactionary or reformist forces. There must be organized political opposition to reformist/reactionary groups that can organize an alternative center of authority and coordinate an overthrow of the state and formation of a new revolutionary regime. This means more than just loose networks of individuals who circulate information and theory who will either be completely ineffective or unaccountable. The hope that councils on their own will rule without political parties simply has no real basis in history. It is an idealistic fantasy. The workers who make up councils are themselves part of political parties, and the delegates they elect and decisions they make will reflect this. The alternative would be to ban political parties, which of course then raises the question of who enforces this ban.

The question of substitutionism raised by councilism is still an important one however. What will prevent a party from taking power and substituting itself for the proletariat, becoming a bureaucracy separate from the class that sets up an exploitative state? The simple answer is that the party doesn’t rule as a single party with complete monopoly on power but shares power with the entire revolutionary mass movement, as well as other revolutionary tendencies it may be in alliance with. Through political struggle within and outside the party the class keeps it on track and accountable to mitigate the development of internal counter-revolution. For this purpose the ability to form factions and for workers to have institutional channels outside the party to defend their basic interests are of importance. Another consideration to make is that the regime which developed in 1920s Russia primarily represented petty-proprietors (professionals,state bureaucrats, peasants) rather than the proletariat. With a ban on factions in the party and the soviets being shells of what they once were there were no institutional means for the proletariat to challenge this, leading to a sort of ‘red bonapartism’.

When the party takes power it doesn’t install itself as the sole source of authority but rather secures the basis for its minimum program to be put into practice. The minimum program is a set of institutional and political measures that destroys the bourgeois state and raises the entire working class to take hold of the ‘general means of coercion’ (Marx). This includes but is not limited to rule of the commune-state (based on free elections, recallable delegates, political egalitarianism, self-government of localities), the arming the workers, the abolition of police and military, reduction of work hours, banning of bourgeois/reactionary political parties, and empowerment of workers at the point of production. In other words it secures the dictatorship of the proletariat and enables class struggle to ascend to a new level without the constraints of the bourgeoisie state. This minimum program, as it becomes universalized internationally, provides the basis for enacting the maximum program which is composed of measures to transition into communism. If the minimum program cannot be actualized due to insufficient support then the party must wait; there is no shortcut into power through coalitions with bourgeois parties unified around a more reformist and tame programme that isn’t blatant opportunism.

Rather than taking power through a coup the party gains sufficient support for its minimum program and mobilizes the population to enact it. If properly applied the minimum programme will expand political power to the entire proletariat rather than confine it to a single party. The party doesn’t rule with a monopoly on power in the name of the class; it secures the institutional means for the class to rule as a whole and abolish itself along with all other classes. We have no patience for conspiratorial Blanquist fantasies, yet at the same time we reject that taking power must mean majority support in bourgeois elections. How we determine sufficient support depends on specific historical circumstances. There are no formalistic procedures, especially not success in bourgeois elections, that can measure this. We should of course aim for majority support of the working class, but even then measuring whether or not we have a true majority is difficult.

This proposed party would be organized around an invariant minimum/maximum programme as detailed above rather than transitional demands or a “mass line” that tails the spontaneous demands arising from immediate struggles. It would have to patiently build up mass support for its politics rather than hoping to be the “spark that lights the prairie fire”. This entails not softening our politics in hopes of “chasing” the masses to gain popularity or sacrificing our political independence through united fronts with bourgeois or reformist parties. The party must be a party of opposition to the entire bourgeois order, one that stays hard and fast to its programme without embracing reformist coalitions as a shortcut to power. This doesn’t mean refusing to fight for reforms short of proletarian dictatorship, but it does mean rejecting the notion that we can ‘trick’ the working class into taking power by mobilizing it to fight for reforms.

To emphasize the role of the party is not to deny the role of spontaneous mass struggle. There is a mutually reinforcing relation between the spontaneous mass movement (where action precedes consciousness) and the planned efforts of communists organized on the basis of programme (where consciousness precedes action). Mass action and party together comprise the totality of the class struggle, the former bringing the largest masses of workers into the battle against capital with the latter working to merge this mass movement of the class with the communist programme. This doesn’t mean class consciousness is injected into the class “from without” through the bourgeois intelligentsia, but it doesn’t mean it will develop spontaneously into a movement to topple class society without the conscious efforts of communists either.

Today there is much hope amongst ultra-left tendencies like Endnotes that spontaneous class struggle will bring forth completely novel forms of organization that are adequate for our times. While this is possible there is reason to believe that as long as politics exists the party (defined as organization centered around programme) will be invariant as a necessary means of intervening in politics (any collective project of changing society). Politics means a clashing of social visions which are products of class interests, and to contest these social visions classes and factions within classes form programmatic organizations. Some would claim that the party is a 19th century form of organization that is outdated by changed conditions. There is no doubt the 21st century won’t bring us organizations identical to German Social-Democracy or Bolshevism; to attempt to recreate these models would be foolish. Conditions have certainly changed, but how they have changed to make the party in general irrelevant is never made clear by those making this claim. A party for today will obviously look different from those of the past, operating under different structures and formalisms. We need organizations that can adapt to the novel circumstances of today. There is no perfect past model for us to mimic, no ideal form of proletarian organization that we can resurrect for todays use. Yet there is also no reason we cannot learn from the whole past of revolutionary organizations, from groups like the early SPD and Bolsheviks, the KAPD, the PCInt and even syndicalist organizations like the old IWW or FORA.

Forming a world party is not the immediate task at hand. First we must develop the “raw material” that can form the basis for such an organization. An organization with membership dominated by a single locale or country cannot declare itself a national or world party in good faith. Such an organization would merely be a sect masquerading as a party. First we must build our local committees and organizations around revolutionary politics. Yet we cannot do this in isolation. It is essential that we stay in contact with other communists around the world, engaging in collective discussion on long-term strategy, coordinating our activities and organizationally centralizing as necessary.

Thoughts on Organizing Today

Anton Johannsen weighs in on what working class organization will have to accomplish and what it may look like in 21st century capitalism. 

The geographical and compositional shifts in corporate governance and accumulation have shifted the terrain under workers’ feet. Capital is concentrated in “multinational” corporations, while sites of accumulation are spread across the globe. In the U.S., more workers are engaged in the provision of services than ever before. A rough look at the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Employment Statistics for Tampa-St.Pete-Clearwater indicates that in the top 10 specific types of employment by number of people employed, 262,264 out of 281,074 workers are employed in non-production “service” work. Now this is a very rough estimate, but gets at the fact that most of this work is not in the field of “production” which is characteristically regarded as manufacturing and shipping. Most of this work is in the field of services, production having been so thoroughly automated and made redundant of labor, or where it is unable to do so, been shipped off to places where wages are kept low. We could also ask, what percentage of these workers in fast food, retail, hospital work etc., are employed by national or multinational corporations?

Why is this important? What makes a worker a worker? What is class? Is it your distinct position in the reproduction of society? This has some attractiveness to it. It’s structural so it seems to explain how we all fit in together. But it is limited. Capitalism continually revolutionizes the means of production, which are not limited to the technical organization of energy and materials, but also the social organization of labor within the process of production. Technological change necessitates and is predisposed toward a change in the organization of the working process. The assembly line, the standardized shipping container, their implementation was a means to changing the organization of the production process, eliminating the amount of labor necessary to do certain tasks, inaugurating speed ups, lay-offs, and new positions at work. In other words, the changing of the production process, changes our positions in the reproduction of daily life. Well, what other quality can we find in class?

“Proletarian” classically refers to the “ones who produce offspring” in Roman society. The ones who hold no property, but their children. The ones who labor for a wage. It is this, in part, that is key. Fast food workers do a meaningless job. There will be no Starbucks after the revolution, HALLELUJAH! Does it produce value? Is it “productive” in that technical sense of producing surplus value? Or does it form part of the circulation-cost of the commodity coffee, the work of making it available to be realized? Does this matter? If what is important about workers is their condition as wage-workers, dependent on wages for survival, are they not as much a part of the commodity society, and a part of the process of accumulation, either in value-production, or value-realization? Perhaps this is a meaningless digression. But one point here is that, alongside the “surplus population” of much discussion nowadays, service workers as proletarian purely by being made available to work in exchange for necessities, is often up for grabs. They may not work in a “linchpin” industry like warehousing or shipping, manufacture of steel, or ball bearings, but they are proletarians, workers. They’re united in their lot as owners of labor-power with no recourse to living, short of sale of this labor-power.

It should be noted that both of these ways of looking at class are important. Obviously cops are paid a wage, and obviously it is a paltry one compared with capitalists. But their position is the general enforcement of property relations and the first line of response against workers in revolt, as well as mediating general social conflict. What is increasingly clear is that many a working position can be eliminated and shifted around, with the base condition of wage-earning remaining intact.

This points to a few other problems. Service jobs, with the exception maybe of offices and hospitals, are characterized by centralized capital and decentralized sites of work. This poses challenges for directly influencing a company’s income as a strategy for attack (striking). Alongside this, the company can marshal enormous resources in it’s defense politically, ideologically. It would be necessary to not only unite workers across an employer in a major city/region, but across both employers within an industry and within employers across industries. Now, the IWW has had considerable success in one-city organizing against large employers like Jimmy Johns and Starbucks; they’ve wrenched considerable concessions from them and gotten workers fired for organizing re-instated, but this has been through a combination of work stoppages and public pressure, the latter being key. Large centralized capital, especially that provides a service, generally has a big stake in the reliability, trustworthiness and honesty of those providing it. This is a leverage point communists ought to utilize, but it is simply one among many, that has to be oriented toward organizing the class our primary goal. I don’t mean to suggest that this has escaped the view of the Starbucks Union organizers, but more that the conditions which they’ve worked hard against, have been difficult to route: How do we get workers together and encourage them to fight back? How do we meaningfully secure workers against retaliation, not by over-reliance on the near-useless NLRB and lawyers, but by virtue, of our own action? This seems to point to the need to cast a wider organizational net.

An example; some production in grocery stores and fast food chains might be contracted out, but a lot of it might also be done internally. Warehousing and shipping might also be done internally. This would seem to point toward the necessity of supply-chain organizing. But even this is the same narrow view of worker organizing often historically pushed by union movements, even the I.W.W. They typically, for better or for worse, take as their jurisdictional or organizational unit, the dividing lines laid by capital. This can be a strength, where organizational unity around shared demands makes sense, and allows for the effective cultivation of identity and power. But it’s weakness is that it is not class unity. Centralized capital and decentralized workplaces seems like it points toward the need for One Big Union or, a political organization of struggle rooted firmly in the class as a class. On the one hand, workers in one grocery chain in a city might have differing demands about wages and hours than those of another chain, or even those of another department within their chain. But where they have unity is in their class position, and it is asserting unity around the needs of the class that communists must focus on. Surely, developing power in a particular chain or industry can be itself a tactic for developing communist militants and organization.

Class organizing can be seen in the AWO in the 1910’s I.W.W. and the KAPD-AAUD in Germany. Unfortunately, these organizations and a lot of their conditions are far from us, and what can be gleaned from their failures are perhaps only principles and maybe a few intriguing uses of “form.” How do conditions today, mirror conditions that those organizations attempted to deal with? It would seem that the AWO responded to conditions more similar to our own, what with a diverse array of direct employers, and a vast, turnover-heavy workforce of various types of skill and employment, and a geographical, class-oriented form of organizing, vs. “industrial organizing” favored by Haywood and the eventual CIO.

Organizing based on class and geography; neighborhood and city, region and state, nation, would help us to also be open about our politics. We aren’t just interested in a union of Starbucks workers, or fast food workers, but of workers. We limit ourselves geographically for applicability. But this too could run into similar jurisdictional problems to the lines laid by capital if we’re not vigilant in general toward the fact that the geography of work changes in response to class struggle.

But we find ourselves in a bind that doesn’t much make sense; how do we get workers, who are of a “practical” mind now (Yes I’d like higher wages, but I don’t want to lose my job!) interested in fighting for a moral vision that is exactly discounted by what they express now? Developing a response to this is difficult. In the general sense, organizing workers against employers is founded partly on direct gains, and partly on moralistic/ideological development. Workers don’t simply fight for better conditions, but to also for “what is right”. If “moral” makes you trigger happy, we could call this an “ideological” vision, or “level of political development.” (these are not all the same, but we’ll save the nuance for another time!). What we’re doing in our group is in some ways a response to this. We are centered around a reading group that discusses politics and history openly. There is a common saying from the Left-Trotskyist union tradition that goes along the lines of “Action precedes consciousness” which might more aptly be stated as “Action that I approve of, precedes consciousness that I approve of.” For many people, the focus is to get people on board with a particular demand, or action. It is suggested that through this activity workers will see the light and start thinking more clearly about relations of power at work. They will then be more open to radical politics. This thinking tends, in part, to reinforce ideas about “the permanent campaign” and activism. “Just get out their and organize! There will be opportunities to learn and educate in the process!” This is obviously somewhat of a caricature. Never the less, the idea lends itself to this style of thinking and can be seen played out in various Trotskyist, Anarcho-Syndicalist and other efforts at organizing. Instead, we ought to recognize that action takes place along a developing consciousness, and that while action and consciousness are often contradictory, the development of consciousness or political ideas, is itself a social undertaking. Again, this is why reading groups can be beneficial. They won’t be the draw for most workers interested in socialism generally, but they can help us develop a core group of people with varying interests and backgrounds toward organizing more sociable and educational events; classes, lectures, film screenings, workshops.

IWW campaigns in the past 20 or so years have varied in their application of communist/anarchist politics openly. This problem goes beyond this group, however, and some of the campaigns have had success at recruiting militants. Some, not so much, and in general the various campaigns have failed specifically in the field of sustaining a presence at any one workplace-geographical unit. Instead, there has been the proliferation of General Membership Branches, which are purely geographical units within the organization that act as hubs for workers in various industries, as well as hubs for the development of political expression and discourse. This is, in my view, a positive development. It indicates a response to the conditions faced workers that has some measure of sustainability and involves conscious and open efforts at political development. Through organizing of book tours, organizers/workers from other countries, summits, and Organizer Trainings, the IWW has committed itself to a lot of these tasks, generally based on the level of organization reached in particular GMBs. There is still a mix of activism, no-politics-in-the-union confusion, and general uneven development. But there are also writing projects, research projects, and inspiring attempts at experimental organizing, and uneven development is a general organizational problem, not very particular to the IWW.

As for the titular question – How Do We Organize Today? Well, in some ways we see it already happening; geographically, in groups loosely united over a general political “program” or set of guiding principles, toward better education and experiments at wrenching demands from capitalists and building power. Some things to look out for are the shifting geographical organization of work, and ways of getting workers together in a neighborhood or city, and fighting for wider demands. Do we make demands on municipalities, without engaging in electoralism? Finding that transition from workplace or landlord defensive struggle and wider struggle is key – maybe it doesn’t exist yet, but we’re living history, and it demands our thoughtful intervention.

Towards a communist left

What is the modern left in the USA? How can we escape the world of sects? Moving beyond both defeatism and activism will require an approach that’s aware of our historical limitations as well as opportunities. 

_smashcapital

Today the existing left in America is largely composed of leftovers from the New Left student movements of the 60’s and 70’s, anti-globalization populism and a labor bureaucracy in decay. Left discourse today primarily focuses its critiques on neo-liberalism, which is identified with finance capital and a corrupt power elite, and cultural expressions of oppression and alienation. Class struggle as a unifying factor in the left is largely missing. Rather there is skepticism not only of movements centered around class but around any kind of universal project of human emancipation. For to posit such a project would mean to put forward a “grand narrative” where universalism is asserted, something forbidden in post-structuralist influenced leftist discourse. Rather than individual struggles being part of a greater project aiming to abolish capitalist relations worldwide we are presented with individual activist campaigns against given evils of the world. Fragmentation and individual subjectivity are more important than unity in a common project of emancipation, with mere allyship with individuals in struggles against subjective oppressions being celebrated as an alternative to solidarity.

Otherwise popular leftist discourse focuses on a surface critique of existing conditions, refusing to truly delve into the root of things. Anything but communism itself is suggested as a solution to the continuing crisis of capitalism, as the Thatcherite credo of TINA (There Is No Alternative) is essentially absorbed by the left. This is reflected in everything from Jacobin magazine’s endorsement of market socialism to enthusiasm for co-ops and universal basic income. Finance capitalism is presented as the real enemy, in counterposition to productive capitalism that is unionized and domestic and therefore preferable. Instead of capitalism itself, which requires a global solution, movements uphold “Neo-liberalism” or “globalization” as the problem, upholding the sovereignty of the nation over the international scope of the world market. Social movements expressing this ideology are not class based, but instead a broad front of liberals, far left participants and even aspects of the right.

The ostensibly Marxist left in the United States, who unlike much of the left do play lip service to class, is primarily composed of “soft-Trots” like the International Socialist Organization, Solidarity and Socialist Alternative who offer bureaucratic organizations and actual politics on slightly to the left of the democrats despite proclaiming allegiance to Bolshevism. On the other hand are the Maoists and Stalinists of groups like Freedom Road Socialist Organization (FRSO), Party of Socialism and Liberation (PSL), Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), and Workers World Party (WWP) who are essentially leftovers from the various splits of groups from the New Left generation. These groups offer antiquated cold-war era politics to a mostly student audience, often basing much of their identity on support for various third world dictators.

Truth is that the world of the organized radical left still exists in the shadow of the New Left. The existing official leadership of these groups for the most part are old-timers from the social movements of the 60’s, 70s and 80s. This is true for RCP, FRSO, WWP, International Socialist Organization (ISO), and the Spartacus League, as well as left-communist groups such as International Communist Tendency (ICT) and International Communist Current (ICC). Essentially the “world of sects” is under control of a gerontocracy of leftists who grew up with different movements and different conditions. It’s the decaying remains of an old generation of social movements. They are able to attract revolving door membership amongst youth, meaning that only the most committed recruits stay for long while most quickly get bored or disillusioned and leave. Very few groups amongst the marxist left have a central leadership comprised of younger militants who didn’t get their political education from the New Left.

The “world of sects” is also a world full of splits, many quite mundane. Look at PSL, FRSO-ML and WWP. These three groups have essentially identical politics, as dreadful and incorrect as they are. There’s no real reason for them to not be one larger group with minor internal disagreements. It’s a similar case for ISO and Socialist Alternative. These “soft-Trot” groups have little different about them at the political level. So why so many splits? These people go on and on about the necessity of centralism yet see no real reason to centralize around their actual politics. Part of the problem is that organizations don’t aim for programmatic unity through the broader organization but instead have a political and theoretical line imposed by the leadership. Splits are often over theoretical disagreements rather than political disagreements where real issues are at stake. Rather than having complete theoretical unity an organization should aim for unity in basic political questions – programmatic unity. Another problem is the notion of vanguardism taken from an ahistorical reading of Lenin that sees splits as a mean to purge potential rightist bureaucracy and maintain revolutionary purity. Splitting is often justified, but as a tool for achieving purity it accomplishes little. Yet is the fractured, sect-like nature of the left really a reason to embrace some vague project of broad left-unity?

What left unity really offers today when groups don’t have any real political weight is very unclear, and “left” is such an ambiguous term these days it is bound to mean capitulation to awful politics.  Most of these groups are not only isolated from any mass movements of the working class but are also quite toxic in their behavior, with rape scandals, silencing of opposition and opportunism at large. Yet it would also be a mistake to consider them “The main enemy” with our primarily goal as an organization to prevent them from having influence over workers (as the Nihilist Communism writers suggest).

Rather than an enemy to be actively battled, these shitty left groups can for the most part be dismissed as “Live Action Roleplayers” or “LARPers”. Stuck in the past, the radical left of today often tries to roleplay the movements of old in search of a way to maintain permanent activity with an inflated sense of importance. We can see this in the various Maoist/Stalinist groups looking to relive the student activism of the 60s or certain sections of the IWW who think that recreating the good old fashioned industrial unionism of the early 20th century is possible today. LARPing is an expression of the cult of activism – a phenomena which goes back to Lasalle’s notion of the “permanent campaign”. Activism doesn’t mean activity as such; rather it means refusing to make an appraisal of what limitations are generated by the current historical conjecture, to pretend as if one’s group must merely try harder to generate a movement when no real movement exists. Activism damns those who sit back during a quiet period to focus on theory and make a discerning judgement on what is realistic. Instead the need to take action takes priority above all else. Out of organization, agitation and education the cult of activism leaves us only with agitation.

With regards to the ultra-left (where we would situate ourselves, Marxist tendencies to the left of Trotskyism and Maoism) there is little in terms of formalized organization in the United States beyond scattered members of the ICT, ICC, certain sections of the IWW, online cliques and heavily theoretical journals.  Amongst the “ultra-left” is a heavy element of defeatism and anti-organizationalism. Many mistake a justified critique of activism with a way to legitimate complete political quietism, falling in line with the dominant neo-liberal discourse about “The end of history”. Others maintain hope in revolution, but first announcing the end of “proletarian subjectivity” in favor of immediately establishing communist relations without the mediations of politics, creating a vision of revolution so idealistic it might as well be impossible. Amongst this eclectic milieu of “communizers” any kind of associational organization on a programmatic basis is frowned upon with many instead placing hope in the spontaneous riots as a path forward.

There is of course much to take from the analysis coming from groups such as Endnotes and Theorie Communiste who take up the mantle of communization, and we in many ways are sympathetic to their project of creating a fresh analysis of current conditions. De-industrialization in core economies, fragmentation of workforces, increases in the reserve army of labor and a decrease in the power of unions are very real phenomena that pose real challenges to the formation of the proletariat as a class. It would be a mistake to think we can bring back the old workers movement, that old school left-communist politics can be applied today untouched from their original form without taking new conditions into consideration. But questioning orthodoxy doesn’t mean that all orthodoxies need be abandoned and are necessarily wrong.

Much of the skepticism of modern ultra-lefts towards organization is with good reason. Fear of falling into the misery of the LARP-form and degenerating into the cult of activism as well as experiences of being burned previously by various leftists groups often deters individuals from being politically active. Yet by refusing to build a movement and engage with the greater public we merely cede ground to the politics of liberals, reactionaries and the left-wing-of-capital. A “real movement” isn’t going to fall out of nowhere without a pre-existing era of organization by conscious radicals. There is no historical precedent to believe otherwise. The question should not be “organization – yes or no?” Rather, it should be “how can a formalized organization be self-aware of its own historical limitations?”

Those who have completely given up and declared “There is no alternative” only empower the dominant ideology. There is no reason to think that capitalism will have a future of peaceful and balanced growth where crisis tendencies and class conflict are liquidated, nor is there strong evidence to believe that mass political mobilizations are now historically obsolete. Given these two claims there is reason to think that communist politics can have potential relevance in the coming years. However moving forward will require fresh perspectives and organizations, organizations not under the leadership of left-overs from the New Left but rather a new generation of communists that are in tune with current realities.

Is it possible to avoid being a sect in todays era? At this point, probably not. But what groups can do is 1) be self-aware of their actual importance and limitations and 2) fight against the various symptoms that are expressed in sects. One way of doing this is to form organizations that are based on unity in politics, programmatic unity, as opposed to unity through a totalizing theoretical interpretation of Marxism. An example of the latter would be International Communist Current, which is unified around a certain interpretation of “decadence theory”, or the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) which is unified around a specific theory of state-capitalism regarding the USSR. Ultimately these theoretical issues should be up for debate and discussion in a group, not a basis for unity. What should instead be a basis for unity is basic political positions, which can often be arrived at through differing theoretical paths. To take the example of the SWP and state capitalism, what matters is ones basic political position on whether the USSR was a positive example of working class rule rather than ones theory on what specific mode of production existed there. To fight the symptoms of the “sect-dom” means an organization must tolerate factions and internal dissension rather than senselessly purging opposition. Rather than every disagreement being a sign of a need for splitting, groups must develop a culture that can tolerate internal disagreement and debate. Centralism that is imposed rather than achieved through collective debate and political struggle is usually a form of bureaucratic consolidation, not a centralism based on real unity within the group. While these basic suggestions are no guarantee against pointless splits and the clique-like dynamics of sects they do provide some ideas for trying to tackle the problem.