Lenin and Revolutionary Organization

Share on Facebook0Share on LinkedIn0Share on Tumblr0Share on Reddit0Tweet about this on TwitterEmail this to someone

by Will

Vladimir Lenin.  This name for most radicals, militants, and progressives has largely become irrelevant.  The problems, issues, and experiences of Lenin are considered to be part of another historical era in another country.  Sometimes the differences are even expressed in racial terms in that white folks did that worker’s revolution stuff while people of color can’t because they do not have the privilege or do not struggle that way.

I believe that the dilemma of Lenin still remains with oppressed people and pocs today not only in Russia, but across the world.   It does not matter if you are a woman, Latin@, Muslim, or Queer; the themes which occur in Lenin’s life have to be taken up.  Just like every oppressed group can learn from the life of Malcolm on the importance of standing up for yourself and your people, for being strong, unapologetic, etc., so can every oppressed group learn certain things from Lenin.  I know this is not popular to say considering the dominance of identity politics and privilege in the American Left.  But the path to liberation is not a straight and linear line.

While I am not a Leninist, there are a lot of things I have learned from him.  This post tries to summarize some of the basics of what can be taken away from Lenin’s experiences building revolutionary organization—a project I am committed to.


One of the most interesting and important aspects of Lenin is that there is no agreement on what the historical Lenin is, and what this means for revolutionaries who try to study and learn from his political-organizational thought and practice.  In other words put ten different revolutionaries in a room and you will get ten different understandings of Lenin and what that means for today.  This is so because Lenin’s political-organizational praxis reflected tensions inherent in his praxis or the very nature of what he was doing.  This tension has been the center of immense debate on whether Lenin’s and the organization he was involved with, the Bolshevik Party, was a model and tool for the emancipation of oppressed people, or whether it was actually a Trojan horse for a another ruling elite.   Anarchists have generally believed the latter, arguing that the Bolshevik Party was a professional class of revolutionaries, whose only interest was to lead the working class, and use their self-activity to put themselves in power.  The best of Anarchism reminds this historical Lenin that the emancipation of the working class is the task of the working class itself and not a party above the working class.  Anarchists (Trotskyists have written about this as well) remind followers of the Bolshevik tradition that for almost its entire history the Bolshevik Party, including Lenin, believed that while oppressed people would lead and build the new government, it would fundamentally carry out middle class/ bourgeois radical reforms.  This is very different from a revolution that is supposed to be an immediate communist revolution.

Trotskyists, Maoists, and Stalinists have believed that the Bolshevik Party model is generally the correct way to build revolutionary organization and eventually emancipate the working class.  Each of these three traditions—Trotskyists, Maoists, and Stalinists—has their own readings of what the Bolshevik Party did and thought.  Stalinists have made a monstrous caricature out of Lenin’s legacy by understanding the party as a place where orders are given from above to mindless functionary/ revolutionaries who then instruct/ lead the masses.  In this conception, the party is the all knowing organization which only has to convince the “stupid” masses of the need for revolution.  If the masses are treated in such a manner, the internal life of the organization is no better, where the all knowing power of the leadership is unquestionable, where debates are limited, and being expelled for the wrong political perspective can happen at any moment.   This was all justified in the tradition of the Bolshevik Party and Lenin and the appropriate quotes and actions from both were cited to prove themselves right.

The New Left initially reacted against this tradition and the rise of Anarchist thought since the 1990s is due to the collapse of the Soviet Union and Stalinist parties around the world.  What the trend of the 1960s and 90s show is that the Stalinist conception of revolutionary organization not only has haunted young radicals, but it is also the prominent conception of revolutionary organization that many people hold, which is a major barrier to building this project.  It is no surprise that people do not want to touch this project with a ten-foot pole, when it has largely been understood along the lines of Stalinism.  It is vital that the idea of revolutionary organization is clarified from such misconceptions.

I believe the Trotskyist tradition has also made important contributions to thinking about Lenin.  The Trotskyist tradition comes directly out of the Russian Revolution.  Trotsky participated and times led the 1905 and 1917 revolution.  He worked very closely with Lenin after the 1917 revolution.   This is important history to consider because Trotskyism sits on the organizational and political perspectives of authoritarian and libertarian/ direct democratic perspectives.  This is so because of its close association to the from below struggles of the Russian revolution which has shaped its ideological, organizational, and political perspectives.  At the same time, Trotskyism has held onto a vanguard conception of organization rooted in the historical conditions of the time.  What is also important about the Trotskyist tradition is that they have been constantly at the wheel of building organization, have a lot of experience, have done this through many different periods in history, and under extremely difficult circumstances.  Their experiences are real lessons to every issues I take up in this post.

Meanwhile the libertarian-Marxist tradition of Johnson-Forest Tendency (CLR James, Raya Duyanavskaya, and Grace Lee Boggs) had a much more mixed interpretation of Lenin.  For the purposes of this post, Facing Reality give us a sense of what they thought of the vanguard party/ Bolshevik Party.  (Although Raya had left the organization by the time FR was written.) While they were together, they generally agreed that the Bolshevik model of organization was meant for Russia and was useful under those conditions, but in the era of modern capitalism, they bent in the direction of nearly liquidating the need for revolutionary organization.  One point which they did get right, is that the vanguard organization is dead. At the same time disagreements over the need for organization and intervention in movements would be the basis for future splits in this tendency.

Our Society

The need for revolutionary organization exists because society is divided into classes, or more simply speaking into the oppressed and the oppressor.  But simply saying society is divided into the oppressed and oppressor does not explain how this happens.  I believe historically and contemporarily, oppressors have built their own institutions.  The most basic are institutions of violent coercion: the army and the police.  As society has advanced the institutions have gotten more complex and at times have had to rely on less and less violence.

In the meantime, what are the institutions that represent oppressed people?   Through what organizations will oppressed people fight for their own interests?  Where can oppressed people learn about their own history, understand the current world, and find ways to free themselves?  Most revolutionaries have responded to these questions by building revolutionary organizations.  However, all revolutionary organizations are not the same.  There are also other types of organizations which revolutionaries have built as well, such as networks, mass organizations, and unions.

The Contemporary Left

Individual Anarchist revolutionaries have said that there is no need for revolutionary organization.  That any type of organization, even one for the oppressed, will turn into a collective overlord, which will destroy individual liberties.   Another strain of Anarchists have been willing to go as far as forming networks sometimes describing these networks as a large federation.  Platformists have tried to learn from the lessons of the Russian Revolution and have tried to create a hybrid organization.  The results of the Platformist’s experiments in the USA are questionable in achieving their aim.  Anarchists who agree with the Platform do not seem to be any more organized than those in federations.  At least that is the reality of American Anarchism.

There is also a tradition of revolutionaries, ranging from Trotskyists, Maoists, and Stalinists, who in the tradition of Lenin have tried to replicate the Bolshevik model of organization in contemporary times.  They have tended to look at the Bolshevik party at a given moment and tried to model their organization from that moment. This is a very difficult thing to do because taking a snap shot of the Bolshevik organization can leave an inaccurate picture.  The only way to understand this organization was to see its development from the beginning to the end. The Bolshevik organization was always changing. What was policy one year would be incorrect the next year.  This is so because Lenin was always thinking of revolutionary organization in relationship to mass movements, and the political and economic situation.

On Revolutionary Organization

Lenin believed that revolutionary organization was something that could not be built the night before the revolution.  A look at what happened in the late 1960s and early 70s in the US, when many revolutionary organizations were built is a very important story to study.  Many revolutionary organizations were overwhelmed by changing movement dynamics, overwhelmed by a lack of experience in political work, overwhelmed by not being connected to oppressed people, disoriented by political differences, and disoriented by what they were building themselves.  Lack of study and planning had led to immense confusion between what were mass organizations, networks, and revolutionary organizations.  The Black Panthers, League of Revolutionary Black Workers, Congress of African People, Revolutionary Union, League of Revolutionary Struggle (part of the New Communist movement), the International Socialists (representatives of the new Trotskyist formations) to name some of the groupings which came together pretty quickly, but were not prepared for the precise task of building revolutionary organizations in the difficult environment of the 1970s and 80s.

Revolutionary organization is a process, meaning that it takes years to build because the revolutionary organization is a product of participating in all oppressed struggles.  While some militants have argued that the time is not right for building a revolutionary organization in the United States, I have to disagree with them.  The argument is that you need massive social movements and crisis of large magnitude to build such organizations.  But the historical evidence shows that this approach leads to people being unprepared to build such an organization and develop a healthy relationship to mass movements and organizations.  I do agree with a certain angle of these arguments which is that the dangers of revolutionaries becoming isolated and sectarian is immense when mass struggles are not breaking out.  In quieter periods, revolutionaries become prophets of words only and foreground the correctness of their politics again and again, creating barriers between themselves and non-revolutionaries.  This is a natural and unfortunate reality of the project.  Revolutionary politics can only be understood in its full dimension of practice and theory.  The practice side of revolutionary politics is the most militant of what the Black Panthers did: cop watch, setting up community health clinics, setting up a newspaper, conducting radical educational classes in the community etc.   But when this is not going on, revolutionaries become increasingly one-dimensional.

Building a revolutionary organization means involving oneself in the struggles of oppressed people.  People are not won to revolutionary ideas just by a revolutionary standing on a soapbox and proclaiming that the rulers suck and we need to over throw them.  Nor are people won by insurrectionary and militant acts against the state or other oppressive institutions.  There are no short cuts.  It is through practice, struggles, victories and even defeats that people learn the way forward.  It is only in this context which revolutionary organizations can be built.

Leadership Versus Vanguardism

The process of revolutionary organizations also working with mass movements and organizations also results in the training/ development of revolutionaries from oppressed layers. Revolutionary organizations are the place where oppressed people are taught to become sharper, stronger, smarter fighters in the class struggle.  If the mass movement is the actual battlefield, then revolutionary organization is the key institution, which develops an activist to be the most effective organizer and militant possible.  It is in the very nature of movements that people do not get time to think, assess their own actions and thoughts, and study history collectively, etc.

At the same time, Lenin has been attacked for not only building leaders, but building a vanguard organization.  This is another way of saying a group of professional revolutionaries, who are separate from the class, tend to give orders to oppressed people, and are a future State/ oppressors in the waiting.  My argument is that a non-vanguard organization and leaders can exist.   I will admit this is easer said then done.   But what if revolutionaries are rooted in the oppressed layers of society, develop a collaborative relationship with mass movements, and are against all forms of the State?  This is the challenge which faces the revolutionary left today.

But this still does not answer the more difficult question if some people have to dedicate more time to political study and activity and others, does this make them professional revolutionaries with skills which others do not have?  Is this a slippery slope back into the vanguardist conception of revolutionary organization?  At what point does an organization become a vanguardist organization? How can these things be prevented?

Strategy and Organization

Lenin believed that the revolutionary organization was meant to lead oppressed people.  At the same time the organization itself was made up of oppressed people.  So it can be looked at as the advanced layers of oppressed society leading another layer of oppressed society.  But what happens if the revolutionary organization is wrong on a certain political question or strategic decision.  History shows that at times this actually happens and the best revolutionaries have done their best to change their party’s course, block with forces outside the party, and even break with their respective party.  This is a dynamic Lenin demonstrated several times in his life.

This a crucial part of breaking the vanguardist aspects of such organizations.  In political, organizational, or cultural issues different layers or forces outside the revolutionary organization can be more advanced, correct, sensible or militant.  I will say that this can happen in any type of organization and it is not just revolutionaries who fall victim to these tensions.  Anyone who has been involved in decent organizing knows that their organizations are not always correct and after a certain period of debating, it is sensible, and I believe actually the responsibility of good organizers to leave such groups and build new ones.

Some deeper questions remain which can be explored in the discussion section. When and how does politics become a formula and become transformed into an art?  What is the difference between tailing mass movements, being a vanguard, and having an organic relationship to them?  This is where politics becomes an art.  At a certain point, once the fundamentals of politics and organization are learned, it is creativity, experience, intuition, will, real knowledge of the on the ground conditions and courage which shape the way forward.

Revolutionary Organization’s Relationship to Other Organizations


I mentioned earlier that revolutionaries have built other organizations besides revolutionary organizations.  Some organizations which come to mind are Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee and Students for a Democratic Society.  Today equivalent organizations might be anti-war groups, Non-Profits, and groups doing cop watch, etc.  What is striking about these groups is that while many of them are vital, they are not the same thing as a revolutionary organization.  Each of these groups take-up narrower issues and are inherently reformists.  That is not a bad thing per se.  In fact it is an important way which millions of people can first become involved in political struggle.  The problem is that they alone cannot transcend their reformism.

Lenin argued that revolutionaries should participate in all mass struggles and organizations where oppressed people were willing to take action against the oppressor.  This means that revolutionaries and their organizations have to make real contributions to the movement.  This does pose many tensions and difficulties for revolutionary organization.  It must have enough resources and people to actually make a difference.  This is vital because this plays a role in how other organizers who are not in the revolutionary organization see the latter’s necessity.  At the same time, revolutionaries cannot ignore the specific needs of their own organization.

Student organizations, community groups, trade unions, non-profits, Church or Mosque groups, and networks are important organizations which oppressed people build when they initially want to confront a problem.  These groups can be very effective in fighting for the specific issue they were created to address.  They can run into systemic barrier or opponents which block their goals from being accomplished.   They can also have limited connections to others doing similar work.  Another common problem is that the people in these groups, especially if they are young, have little historical knowledge of past mistakes and successes.  They also tend to lack the massive resources needed to fight the powerful forces they want to change/ address.  In periods when generalizing or broadening the struggle might actually lead to its success these groups tend to be hesitant because they do not see how we live in a inter-connected world.  These tendencies can be overcome with the interaction of a revolutionary organization.

At the same time revolutionary organization without mass organization ends up isolated, and at best turns into a publishing center of ideas, or at worst a sectarian outfit.   Sometimes this is the fault of revolutionary organizations because they put so many barriers between themselves and others.  At other times, the economic and political conditions of a period can make for very difficult organizing, and mass organizations might be difficult to participate in let alone build.  Mass movements are supported by mass organizations, and mass organizations by revolutionary organizations.  This is done through painful organizing, winning over militant layers and leaders, struggling for victories and hanging in their during moments of defeat.  There is no shortcut.

It should be obvious looking at US history that mass movements and organizations can be absorbed into the capitalist system.  The energy and political ideals can be dissipated into the channels of voting for “progressive” congressman/ woman A or B.   In such channels, the framework for discussion, strategy and even goals change and the initiative of the oppressed is lost.  This usually results in a more liberal assimilation of a once radical struggle and demand.  This is where revolutionary organizations can make a vital contribution to movements, by placing the interests of the oppressed over the interests of progressive bureaucrats, congress people, capitalists and even other progressive activists.  The task of the revolutionary organization is to help organize the largest forces, most militant layers, with the most radical politics possible in the hopes of winning the most decisive victory.

Lastly, there is always the danger of confusing mass organizations with revolutionary organizations. Why/ how does this happen?   What are some of the precise differences?  How can revolutionary organization become a parasite on mass organization? And what about danger of liquidating the revolutionary organization into the mass organization?

Reform and Revolution

One of Lenin’s great strengths was his understanding that all reforms were worth fighting over and should be taken advantage by revolutionaries and oppressed people.  Every reform is another inch of power, control, life, and blood taken away from the oppressor and won by the oppressed.  It is vital that revolutionaries fight in these struggles.  Another reason to fight for reforms is that this is where revolutionaries can build relationships with oppressed forces, demonstrate that they are the most aggressive, active, and militant advocates of radical reform.

Lenin also understood that the struggle for reforms was different from a reformist political perspective, which only understands politics as the struggle for reforms.  It is critical that reforms are used to build the confidence of oppressed people, to increase their knowledge of their own powers, to show the limits of capitalist society, and to demonstrate the need for more radical and even revolutionary change.  Many radicals today think that reforms are only used to buy off oppressed people.  While this dynamic can be true, there has been a tradition of politics, which used reform to corner the oppressors and actually wet people’s appetitive for more change.  The fact that reforms are only understood in the former manner is a reflection of how oppressed people have lost their best organizing traditions.

Perhaps the question can be asked, why the need for revolutionaries and revolutionary organizations, if reforms can be won endlessly.  I argue that there is a certain limit/ amount of reforms that the rulers give in any period.  After you cross that line, they will do what they did to the Black Panther Party and Malcolm.  It was one thing to demand that Black people be treated equally in restaurants and when applying to jobs, but a whole other thing when Black people were demanding an end to the ghetto, the right to self-defense, jobs for all Black people, and control of workplaces by Black people.


Lenin’s writings on revolutionary organization are important for the libertarian-socialist/ Johnson-Forest Tendency Left to consider.  The sad reality is that this left has made important intellectual and political contributions to the movement and to revolutionary politics, but has been unable to play a more decisive role in mass movements because of its own lack of cohesive organization.  It is a tragedy of history that JFT was not able to grow.  Will that tragedy continue as new shoots of movements and libertarian-socialist politics pop up in the country?  This is a much longer discussion, but I felt I could not ignore such a vital lesson that my tradition must learn if it is going to be a serious player in the political life of our people.  We have time and we do not have time.

Lastly, I have to say something about this current economic and political crisis, which demands the need for revolutionary organization.  In the last two years any illusion about the social compact between the rich and working people has been withering away quickly.  In other words many people are watching Wall Street firms give big bonuses while they struggle just to make ends meet.  The rest of corporate America is making some money by making Americans work harder and lowering their wages. The “old America” where the rich and middle class pay a little more in taxes to help the little guy has been long gone.  In broader terms, this is the greatest crisis of capitalism since the Great Depression.  If progressive and radicals have missed this, it is only because they are disconnected from the suffering and desperation of working people today. Things are bad out there…

In this crisis, the rulers and capitalists have waged an almost systematic attack on working people in the US and abroad (seen most clearly in Pakistan and Afghanistan right now).  What organizations can fight this systematic attack?  I don’t believe narrow struggles of reform are possible in this period.  Narrow social movements will be defeated because the rulers are not willing to give concessions.  In other words they will not be powerful enough to defeat even individual capitalists because the capitalists—while they compete with each other—also know that at the end of the day they are on the same team and at this moment they are united in the fact that they don’t want to give concessions to working people.

We are living in a period where some mass activity is coming to the surface as seen in the fight against budget cuts in the UC system in California or the direct action strategies of the Windows Republic workers in Chicago.  This brings us back to the points I discussed earlier of how revolutionary organization can relate to such type of activity, and how it can help build new organizational formations, which win huge reforms and push towards more radical solutions to the current crisis.

I fear greatly for the future of the American working class. One of my great fears is that it will have to fight the American rulers and capitalists on their own.  That revolutionaries, progressives, and radicals will not have spent time building the links to these movements, helping them advance, and at the same time building revolutionary organization.  The danger is that the movements will get huge, colossal and will even shake the foundations of white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism, and empire, but will not have the strategic and organizational courage, energy, coordination and strength to beat the oppressors.  Just because you have a big movement does not mean you will have a victory: look at the anti-globalization movement, anti-war movement, and immigrant rights to name some of the largest in recent memory.  Why did they not achieve success?  We need to remember the oppressors have the FBI, the police, National Guard, and much more.  There are also the possibilities of cooptation which is ironically facilitated by progressives and liberals. We know that they will use all these forces to slow or break the movement.  What will we build to break this cycle? They cannot be built from above or over night.  They must be built starting today.  We have time and we do not have time.  Either way we must do it because it is the historical mission of our generation.

Share on Facebook0Share on LinkedIn0Share on Tumblr0Share on Reddit0Tweet about this on TwitterEmail this to someone

26 thoughts on “Lenin and Revolutionary Organization”

  1. Very interesting contribution to an important issue! Lenin’s idea of the vanguard was based on a simple recognition—the working class is divided politically. In every work place , there are divisions on issues of racism, sexism, imperialism, class struggle, attitudes to unions etc. In order to move the struggle forward, those with more revolutionary ideas need to organize together to influence the whole class. As struggle picks up , there are those who are in the “vanguard” , the leading edge of the struggle. There is always a vanguard in any struggle. The only question is, will this vanguard be organized and informed by clear politics ? Lenin’s idea was not to falsely proclaim any group to be the vanguard, but to organize the really existing vanguard of the struggle, a real section of the working class and inform it with Marxist politics. If the vanguard is not organized, it will be defeated by other political forces—reformists , capitalists, sometimes fascists etc. In the last 100 years , the key lesson is that there needs to be massive , well organized socialist organization for the struggle to be successful. There have been many revolutionary situations, but besides Russia in 1917, no mass revolutionary party that could lead the struggle to victory. This meant that the revolutionary upsurges of Spain 1936, China 1925-27, Hungary 1956, France 1968, Poland 1980, Iran 1979 etc. ended in the defeat of the potential revolution. We don’t want and can’t afford for the sake of humanity to allow this to happen again! Revolutionaries should not be shy about trying to win leadership in movements—not on a bureaucratic basis of fiat, but by winning political arguments in discussion and action. Of course, we all must and will learn as we organize. We will make mistakes. But the key is to understand the need to connect up and organize the vanguard that WILL develop in struggle to be as effective as possible in leading the movement. Lenin’s Bolsheviks were 10% of the industrial workers at the time of the insurrection. We should aim for a revolutionary party of millions in the U.S. We should not let the fear of potential Stalinism prevent us from trying to win leadership for the Marxist strategy of revolution. The biggest danger today is NOT the rise of a new Stalinism, but the disorganization of the Left which could allow the Right to win. The idea of leadership expressed in the article is good—but the author makes an incorrect distinction between “leadership” and vanguard. We should openly call for the revolutionaries leading struggles–but on the basis of winning that leadership democratically.
    Steve Leigh, International Socialist Organization ( writing as an individual)

  2. Good piece Will, thanks.

    A few thoughts in response:

    1) I know it is dangerous to completely separate organizational structure from ideology but at the same time I don’t think they’re identical. I do think it’s possible to develop a more cohesive cadre organization with anti-state politics even though these politics have historically been more associated with anarchism than with Marxist cadre groups. (By cadre group, I mean a relatively disciplined organization of revolutionaries who train ourselves to intervene together in national politics on multiple fronts and on multiple issues, not just local single-issue activism.) In other words, we could learn from Bolshevik organizational methods without adopting the Bolsheviks’ largely state-capitalist program (it’s another whole debate about whether or not Lenin broke from this state capitalist program with his April Theses and is call of all power to the Soviets). Of course, anti-state/ libertarian socialist forces can’t just appropriate the Bolshevik organizational model wholesale because of its many flaws, especially its vanguardism. But there are a few things we can learn from the Bolsheviks: 1) their ability to bring together militant layers of workers to keep up struggles through the rise and fall of mass movements , 2) we can learn from their ability to break with the rest of the Left in order to oppose colonialism, imperialism, and World War I, and 3) we can learn from how the Bolsheviks closed their ranks more at certain points and opened them up at others in order to constantly support and draw from the rise of mass movements, etc. There are many other lessons we can discuss.

    2) I agree with Will that revolutionary organization is needed to help prevent mass movements from being co-opted or absorbed back into the system. I think we can recognize this point without concluding, as the early Lenin did in “What is to be Done”, that workers spontaneously will only reach trade union/ reformist consciousness unless if the revolutionary party intervenes and brings the correct consciousness from outside.

    In our own tendency’s experiences organizing with custodians, we’ve repeatedly seen how workers put forward programs and demands which have reovolutionary implications. For example, they’re not just demanding wage increases, they’re demanding more control over their jobs, less managerial oversight, control over hiring and firing, etc. Also, we have met indiviudal workers who have studied history and current events and have come to the conclusion that capitalism needs to be abolished without ever having contact with any revolutionary organization. This is all what CLR James and the Johnson Forrest Tendency called the “Invading Socialist Society” – direct democratic social relations breaking out within the shell of capitalist society, preparing to cast off that shell. One of our primary tasks has revolutionaries has been to do what CLR James advises in Facing Reality – to “recognize and record” this working class self-activity. We have done that by working on flyers with workers, organizing opportunities for workers to speak at public forums, and developing a small book/ zine with workers’ writings and interviews which we will publish shortly on Gathering Forces.

    At the same time though, the custodians we are working with, and the programs and demands they have put forward through forming informal workgroups and shop floor organizations are very vulnerable to attacks from the bosses, union bureaucracy, etc. Many of them can’t speak freely and have to write anonymously, and many of them also tend to doubt themselves at times because their perspectives are constantly under assault not only by the bosses but also by “progressive” trade unionists. In order to sustain their militancy over time and to keep it from being crushed, revolutionary organization is necessary. Bringing these folks around revolutionary centers like the ones we are trying to build inside Democracy Insurgent here in Seattle is very helpful because it validates their own experiences, ideas, programs, and perspectives, and shows them that they are not alone, that what they’re striving for is part of a broader national and international struggle.

    3) I’ll try to take a stab at Will’s question: if some people have to dedicate more time to political study and activity and others, does this make them professional revolutionaries with skills which others do not have? Is this a slippery slope back into the vanguardist conception of revolutionary organization? At what point does an organization become a vanguardist organization? How can these things be prevented? In my view, this is where Hal Draper’s concept of the center model comes into play (see for example: http://www.marxists.org/archive/draper/1973/xx/microsect.htm). The goal of the center model as I’ve interpreted it is to pass on some of these skills and political study so that they’re not monopolized by the revolutionary organization alone.

    The vision of revolutionary organization that Will lays out is certainly more centralized than an anarchist federation because it aims to make decisive and coordinated interventions in mass movement and mass organization building. For example, our circle is coordinating all our local forces together in Seattle to help build up the group Democracy Insurgent…. we are not simply each doing our own organizing and then reflecting on it together, we are trying to focus our energies so we can be more effective working together. However, we are not trying to make Democracy Insurgent into a revolutionary party in miniature, or a micro-sect. It is not just a recruitment tool for our larger project of revolutionary organization building. Instead, we hope it will be the nucleus of a possible future mass organization, with open space for multiple political tendencies. We aim to build it outwards in more and more complex layers of organization, as a place where folks new to activism can fight shoulder to shoulder with more experienced organizers, including insurgent left wing social democrats and trade unionists who are disillusioned with reformist organizations and who are beginning to look for answers beyond the limitations of social democracy, as well as various folks who have been influenced in different ways by anarchist, socialism, and revolutionary nationalism in communities of color. That way, skills are shared and passed along. Our role as revolutionaries within Democracy Insurgent is not to pre-plan everything through secret behind the scenes meetings. Instead, our role is to act as a pole, as a center, within this more complex organization, to raise perspectives and discussions, and to constantly back up, validate, and support the most militant layers of folks we are meeting and interacting with in our organizing and in our own workplaces, classrooms, and neighborhoods. The key here is flexibility and organizational complexity. We are not aiming to recruit every single person we work with to our project of building revolutionary organization. With some folks, we’ll simply pass on skills and training and experiences which they will then use to build other forms of organization, including, we hope, future mass organizations.

    For example, we provide time and space for workers to study politics and history ( I’ve been meeting regularly with a rank and file militant custodian to discuss Martin Glaberman’s Punching Out and Paul Romano and Grace Lee Boggs’ American Worker pamphlet). We certainly hope many of the folks we’re interacting with will join us in building revolutionary organization, but even if they don’t they will undoubtedly end up spreading revolutionary perspectives and methods of organizing among broader layers of the working class which will hopefully have the effect of radicalizing any mass movements they will be a part of.

    And just as importantly, this process works in reverse as well. Through these meetings, discussions, and common study groups we learn and grow as revolutionaries, constantly sharpening our perspectives, strategies, and tactics by learning from the self-activity of other workers around us. I have read The American Worker pamphlet several times but returning to it again with an older, more experienced shop floor militant has certainly opened up a new understanding of the text for me, which I can then share and feed back into the revolutionary organization we’re building.

    there are many other unanswered questions, but hopefully this can help get us started responding to Will’s piece.

  3. Hi Steve,
    You raise some key points here. You argue that: “Lenin’s idea of the vanguard was based on a simple recognition—the working class is divided politically. In every work place , there are divisions on issues of racism, sexism, imperialism, class struggle, attitudes to unions etc.” It seems true that the working class in Russia was divided in the years leading up to 1917. There were some workers who supported imperialism and World War I and others who didn’t, some workers who were patriarchal and others who were for women’s liberation, etc. That’s why the Johnson Forrest Tendency folks (CLR James, Raya Dunayevskaya, Grace Lee Boggs, etc.) agreed that the vanguard party was necessary for the working class to win the Russian revolution. I agree that revolutionary organization was necessary in 1917 for that reason, but I’m not 100% convinced that the vanguard party was the only form, or the best form of revolutionary organization possible at that time (my comments at the end of this post start to explain why).
    But in any case, the JFT argued that by the time of the 1950s and 60s, the working class was far less divided. They thought that the mass media and mass education had lead to a far higher level of political awareness and organization throughout the working class of Europe and the US. They thought that the wave of wildcats in the auto industry, the Hungarian Revolution, and eventually Paris ’68 showed that workers could directly build workers councils and committees (soviets) without the aid of a revolutionary vanguard party. For CLR James, this lead him to conclude that interventionist revolutionary organization itself was no longer necessary. He thought that revolutionaries should only recognize and record the self-activity of workers and we should not put forward programs and perspectives and fight for them in our own workplaces, schools, and neighborhoods. Raya disagreed with him on that – she tried to directly intervene in the miner’s strike – and that’s one of the reasons they split. I would agree more with Raya on this point. I do think that the working class in the 50s and 60s was still divided by race, gender, attitudes to the union, attitudes toward imperialism, etc. and an interventionist revolutionary organization was necessary to block with large minorities of militant workers who were ready to move even if the rest of the class was not yet moving. For example, groups like the League of Revolutionary Black Workers were crucial in galvanizing Black auto workers who were at the forefront of rebellions in the 60s in Detroit.
    Steve, I would agree with you to some extent, that the rebellions in Hungary ’56, Paris ’68, and Detroit in the 60s were defeated at least partially because there weren’t strong enough revolutionary organizations who could help bring the various rebellions together nationally and internationally and each rebellion got isolated in its own workplace or city. Gathering Forces recently posted Loren Goldner’s critique of CLR James’ pamphlet Facing Reality, which makes this point, and I agree with Goldner on this. (see: http://gatheringforces.org/2009/09/28/facing-reality/).
    I think that the working class is still divided today along the lines you lay out. I think Will recognizes this both in this post on Lenin and also in his comments on Advance the Struggle’s interventions in the mass assemblies during the Berkley walk out (for example, see: http://advancethestruggle.wordpress.com/2009/10/03/924-opening-shot-against-the-budget-cuts/#comments). I think Will and I would probably agree that for a revolution to be successful and direct democratic it needs to involve the majority of the country, not just a minority that will seize state power and rule over the rest. In that sense, we would probably agree with anarchist perspectives on Dual Power such as those put forward by Murray Bookchin. However, Will points out that a revolutionary movement is not built overnight and even in non-revolutionary times, revolutionary organizations need to consistently block with militant minorities of workers and everyday people to advance mass struggles against capitalism, patriarchy, heterosexism, and white supremacy. We need to start with a minority and work towards winning over a majority through successful actions. As Will pointed out in the comments on Advance the Struggle, we can’t wait for everyone to move to start these decisive actions. For example, if a significant minority in the Berkley general assemblies wanted to do an occupation, revolutionaries there should have blocked with this minority like ATS did, and should have tried to win over the rest of the crowd. Democracy Insurgent has done the same thing here in Seattle. For example, in the January upsurge of Palestine Solidarity activity against the Israeli massacre in Gaza, we blocked with a sizable minority of Arab and Muslim youth who wanted direct action and angry, explicitly anti-Zionist demonstrations rather than passively listening to relatively tame speeches. We gave them our megaphone and encouraged them to lead the crowd, which they did – they were able to win over about 80% of the demonstrators to do an upermitted march through downtown. We got a lot of shit from the cops and from other Palestine solidarity organizations, including various Leftists for doing that because we didn’t ask everyone’s permission first, but our main goal was to build up the confidence, strength, and power of the most militant and dynamic segments of the community in order to advance the struggle. This took priority over proceduralist and bureaucratic etiquette. For more on this, check out “Echoes of the Intifada”, the statement we put out on these events: http://blakorchid.blogspot.com/2009/01/echoes-of-intifada-in-seattle-arab-and.html
    So in general, I agree that revolutionaries need to block with the most militant mass minorities among the working class to help push the struggle forward. Through this process, our revolutionary organizations will hopefully grow and will include the most dynamic, democratic-minded, anti-racist, anti-patriarchal, anti-heterosexist workers. If this is all you mean by a “vanguard” Steve then maybe we’re just arguing over semantics and we might actually agree. But my understanding is that for most Marxist-Leninists, the term “vanguard” also involves several other assumptions/ assertions about revolutionary organization that I disagree with (you might as well). For example,

    a) the vanguard of the working class, organized in the revolutionary party, will staff the new revolutionary state that will emerge during the insurrection. I disagree with this because I am against all forms of state power, including a progressive ruling class

    b) the vanguard of the working class, organized in the revolutionary party, represents the most “modern” workers, free from religion, superstition, etc., and is the social element most able to modernize the rest of the country (especially, in the case of Russia and China, the peasantry). I disagree with this because I think that religious workers and peasants can also be self-governing. I would agree with some of the perspectives put forward by Sylvia Federici, Peter Linebaugh, and the Midnight Notes Collective that the struggle against expropriation of village communes (primitive accumulation) can contribute to, support, and draw from working class struggles in the cities. There is this potential, for example, with the Zapatista’s Other campaign in Mexico. Often the struggles of peasants and of workers who have just entered into industry for the first time takes on highly religious perspectives, and I don’t think this is necessarily backwards or authoritarian. For example, in the Iranian Revolution, many of the workers who set up factory councils (shoras) were Muslim. They didn’t have the same politics as the reactionary, counter-revolutionary Islamic Stalinism of Ayatollah Khomeini. I would consider these workers the foundation of the revolution there, but much of the Marxist Left was sectarian and unable to engage with the religious politics of the revolution, which is a key reason why the revolution was crushed. Also, modernist assumptions about the backwardness of religious workers and peasants are dangerously close to imperialist rhetoric bout the need to civilize the Third World.

    c) the vanguard of the working class, organized in the revolutionary party, needs to bring the proper consciousness to the rest of the working class. As I laid out in my earlier comment, I disagree with this. Workers in revolutionary organizations should affirm, recognize and record, and build off of the perspectives that other workers come to based on their own experiences. We also will learn from other workers. In fact, as Will suggests, Lenin repeatedly had to chide and argue with the majority of his fellow Bolsheviks when they acted in conservative and bureaucratic ways, and sometimes he appealed directly to workers outside the party who were acting in a more advanced ways then the so-called “vanguard.”

    c) the vanguard of the working class will be organized in only one revolutionary party. I disagree with this. In a country like the US of hundreds of millions of people, I doubt that all of the most militant forces will gather in one organization. Some sort of united front, or multi-tendency mass organization will need to be built to bring together different revolutionary forces with different experiences and origins in different social layers.

    Steve you may agree with this last point though, because locally you have avoided sectarianism and have not held up the ISO as the only vanguard that needs to lead the movement. If anything it seems like you’re encouraging Democracy Insurgent to see the role we’re playing in workplace and campus organizing as a vanguard role. I hope my comments here sort out a bit how some of us in DI see this – to some extent we agree with you, and to some extent we disagree. For us, the most important thing is that students and workers can be self-governing now, and we are trying to do everything we can to affirm, build, defend, and extend opportunities for this to happen. We hope to keep working with you on a united front basis to extend these struggles.

  4. just to clarify one point in my response to Steve – when I use the Berkley assemblies or the seattle Gaza solidarity street demos I’m not assuming that the forces involved in these cases are workign class. In other words, I’m not equating or replacing students and youth (in this case a mix of middle class and workign class youth) with the working class. I’m just showing how crowd dynamics and the dialectic between a militant minority and the majority play out, in this case even with other class settings. We are seeing similar dynamics happening now with the custodians we are working with to fight privatization and budget cuts.

  5. hi all,

    Thanks for this piece, it’s helpful to me, and good discussion so far as well. For whatever it’s worth, I like to think of their being mass organization cadre and political organization cadre, and the second are not necessarily better than the first on many things (along the lines of what the article here says about how some workers in struggles go beyond the existing left). It seems to me that one of the tasks right now, especially for those of us who are young-ish, is to make any political cadre or potential cadre do mass work so as to become capable of being mass cadre, in terms of real abilities. Alongside that, we need to build relationships to existing mass cadre and use those relationships to move them politically and, ideally, win them to join our political organizations. (Sorry if this is obvious, or off topic, it’s useful for me to try to articulate it.)

    Rambling on my part aside, some questions and comments on the article. First, maybe I’m being defensive because I’m something of a platformist, I think the piece is unfair when it comes to platformists – only two tendencies get talked about must at all here as actually existing people who attempt stuff now, platformists and descendents of the JFT. Platformists get rightly criticized for their/our shortcomings, but the implication is that this is something wrong with platformism as a perspective. The JFT-istas, the piece notes, are also in some disarray, but get a much more sympathetic treatment and the disarray is not treated as something wrong w/ the perspective so much as a challenge for contemporary JFT-istas to take on. Why can’t the same be said of platformists?

    More constructively, I hope –
    about fighting for reforms, I’m not sure what the piece is saying precisely (I may have just missed something, I’m quite tired). Is the argument that winning reforms has an important contribution to building up our class/advancing the class struggle from our side? Or is the argument that the experience of struggle changes people and builds relationships between self-conscious (self-styled?) revolutionaries and other workers, and fighting for reforms is a good way to get people into struggles? These aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, depending on how they’re developed, but I’d like to hear more. And of course if there’s some third thing that y’all have in mind, that’s cool too.

    Finally –
    I really like this piece but I have the same reaction I did after I read Don Hamerquist’s Lenin piece, which I also really liked – I don’t really know Lenin, the piece is arguing for some things that I should take seriously about Lenin’s work, but it doesn’t offer any advice on what, if anything, by Lenin I ought to read if the piece has convinced me to take Lenin more seriously. Any advice on that front?

    Anyways thanks again for this article and the discussion.


  6. Crap. Typo – “only two tendencies get talked about must at all here as actually existing”, “must at all” should have been “much at all.” Sorry about that.

  7. Let me take up the easy parts of your post.

    A) There is a lot of good and bad stuff out on Lenin. If I had to choose my top three influential works on Lenin it would be:

    -Leninism by Ron Taber and Chris Hobson
    -Lenin and the Revolutionary Party by Paul Le Blanc
    -The Third Revolution Volume 3 by Murray Bookchin

    Works by Lenin—again 3 pieces…

    -State and Revolution
    -Left-Wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder
    -What is to be Done

    And I gotta through this out there as well. An important new work has come out on Lenin. I finally had the chance to read a review on it… Many of the formulations and historical evidence were very exciting in this piece… Here it is


    B) Nate, I believe you have caught me with my pants down as the saying goes. The limitations of the number of tendencies discussed are 100% my own fault mostly cuz of lack of time. We could definitely talk about Trotskyism and all its variants, Maoists in more detail, not to mention the variety of nationalists out there, or Especifismo to name some of the groupings I did not contextualize/ discuss much.

    C) JFTism—I do think the James and company was wrong in Facing Reality in terms of what type of organization they were building. Mamos has pretty much laid it out in the comments so I will not repeat the key points. One thing I will add is that there were fundamental weaknesses in their organizational perspectives.
    But this still does not answer your original point which was why I kinda dismiss the Platformists in the post and yet hope for a renewal of organizational perspectives from the JFTistas. Let me give this a try as this is gonna be a difficult thing to explain…

    There are a lot of ways to explain this… here is one way… part autobiographical…

    I became politicized and pushed into revolutionary politics within a few months of 9/11. Strangly enough it was the Socialist Worker’s coverage of what was happening in Argentina at the time which convinced me that revolution was the only solution to oppressed peoples’ problems. Overtime, I learned about Trotskyism and Anarchism. I appreciated Trotskyism a lot for its serious studies of organization and history. The History of the Russian Revolution by Trotsky was a major inspiration and influence on me. But I was never convinced of Trotskyism or Leninism per se because of their track record in Russia. I never bought all their arguments although I certainly understand the difficult problems they faced. Yet I could see they made vital contributions to revolutionary politics and organization. Around the same time, I was reading a lot on Anarchism. I was pretty pissed seeing Anarchists lose again and again because of the lack of organization and lack of political depth. The Spanish Revolution and the experience of Anarchists in Russia had a big impact on me. While I was reading all of this stuff, I was checking Anarchists and Trotskyist groups out. Looking at them, I was pretty convinced that a multi-racial organization from their organizational and political milieu was not possible—this was key. Personally (as a “Muslim”, Afro-Asian, immigrant, man) I felt a lot of alienation from them besides noticing political and organizational differences.

    It would not be until I ran into the JFT tradition where the differences between these tensions were squared away. Unfortunately, JFT got a lot of things wrong as well, especially on organization. Not till I became much older and hopefully more mature as a revolutionary, was I able to take a new combination of Lenin, Trotskyism, Anarchism, Nationalism, Fanon/ Malcolm, and JFTism and figure something new out…. In many ways all of them have had to be transcend as they all had horrible holes/ flaws…I suppose you could say in an ideological sense I am a pluralist-revolutionary. In other words it is part of the ideological re-composition the revolutionary left has to go through and I went through it and continue to go through.

    In terms of Anarchism, I felt I had to move away from it in terms of its racial sensibilities, its organizational methods, and its political methodology/ tools which I felt led to a serious anti-intellectualism and underdevelopment of a lot of important questions. I can count on my hand the Anarchist written histories, theories, and organizational documents which I feel have made a contribution to the liberation of my people. (Ironically it is non-Anarchists who have written amazing histories about Anarchist struggles which made an impact on me.) It was a sign for me that Anarchism’s anti-intellectualism was a trap. I knew I was not for a federation model of revolutionary organization and/or for a synthesis type of organization. And I felt the Platformism’s claim to breaking the federation model, where autonomy of action and politics remain supreme, did not play itself out in the practice of things—at least in the U.S.

    But that still begs the question why call for the JFTistas? It would probably be fair for Nate to point out that it is not like the remnants of JFTistas are teeming with militant people of color. From what I know they are not. Nor are libertarian-socialists. Perhaps, part of that formulation was sloppiness on my part. I originally thought about saying the “Nationalist, people of color, anti-state, etc etc Left”, but for whatever reason I left it as it is currently posted. The other reason I could offer is that the JFT tradition inspires me as a person of color and I believe it will inspire other pocs as well… I can also say that if someone had to pin me down to a label of 6 words, I guess I would say I am a “bastard of the Johnson Forest Tendency” ☺

    Hope this all makes sense!

  8. As a kind of follow up to Nate and Will’s discussion, I’d like to pose a question:

    do folks think it’s helpful to conceive of what we need to build as synthesis of the most centralized interpretations of platformism and the most democratic interpretations of Lenin’s democratic centralism?

    In others words is it possible to build a cadre organization with anti-state / anarchist politics, with a highly democratic internal group structure and culture, etc. which can prioritize the kind of intensive theoretical and organizing training that Will calls for and admires in the best of the Marxist tradition?

    My sense is some of these questions are taken up in the Hammerquist piece which I’m about halfway done with so far (it’s outstanding from what I’ve been able to get through) so maybe it’d be more appropriate to discuss it in the comments section on that post. There are other aspects of Will’s piece that can be taken up so I don’t necessarily want to channel the discussion only in this direction.

  9. hi comrades,

    This is fun. Will, thanks for the in dept reply! I’m quite tired so I’m not sure I can do this justice. For now, I think we’re pretty close on this really and maybe it’s just words (on the other hand maybe they’re words that we’re strongly invested in, I’m not sure). It may also be biographical differences – I started off close to a quasi-Stalinist group around 18, at the same time that I was doing a lot of feminist anti-violence work and anti-gaybashing work. The party said none of that mattered as ending capitalism would end that stuff. That never made sense to me and made the party and its version of marxism unravel for me. From there for a while I decided I wasn’t a marxist, but an anarchist,because I didn’t know how read Marx/ism except in the way the party had. Then I read Harry Cleaver’s book and things got more complicated and interesting, at this point I think marxist vs anarchist is a false dichotomoy, though some variants of each are definitely incompatible.
    On Platformism… maybe I’d make the distinction this way – I’m not sure if I’m a Platformist, but I am a platformist. I take a lot from that document and I think the actually existing platformist groups are worth taking seriously and made up of solid comrades. I don’t like the emphasis on federations, though, I think we’re on the same page here. So like I said, maybe this is mainly just a matter of words. Or maybe it’s just a matter of who finds which texts to be foundational for them in their own experience – I’m not sure how much hangs on the terms, as long as their’s room to recognize convergence of practice and political outlook despite terminological difference (and vice versa, awareness that terminological similarities don’t guarantee avoiding,and in some cases can mask, real political and pratical differences).

    Before I forget, thanks for the Lenin and secondary sources references, I appreciate that. I’ll dig into that stuff as soon as I can. Tanks as well for clairifying about how you see the limits of Facing Reality, that makes a lot of sense.

    Mamos, you wrote “is it possible to build a cadre organization with anti-state / anarchist politics, with a highly democratic internal group structure and culture, etc. which can prioritize the kind of intensive theoretical and organizing training that Will calls for and admires in the best of the Marxist tradition?”

    I’d like to think so. Phrased as a statement, that’s a great description of a goal we (broadly, meaning fellow travelers with various disagreements) should all take on in various ways.

    take care,

  10. hi again Will –
    One more thought, trying to get clear on this platformism and JFT stuff. I think you rightly criticize all involved, but I think w/ the JFT stuff you suggest that their weakness of practice is not built into all of the ideas – that a version of JFT-ite thought could avoid those weaknesses (if it lost some of its bad ideas) and yet could still be JST-ite thought. I agree w/ that (along similar lines I think all of here are committed to some type of marxism and yet would agree that there are problems some versions of marxism – we all agree then that elements of some actually existing marxisms can be jettisoned while we still remain marxists). I think w/ platformism you criticize real problems of actually existing platformism, yet you treat them as sort of internal to platformism such that if someone who fixed/reject those problematic aspects would not be a platformist anymore. (I hope this isn’t an unfair characterization of your piece.)

    Terms aside, I think the real issue on this point is to what degree there are useful lessons w/in the platformist tradition and useful practices w/ in the platformist milieu and platformist groups, I’m not sure how much the concerns I’m voicing here matter for that issue.

    take care,

  11. Yo Nate

    You would make Inspector Gadget proud of your detective skillz.

    I do draw upon the Anarchist and Platformist tradition, but it is part of a broader ideological, organizational, and political constellation of other traditions.

    One of the things I observed about the Anarchists I ran into is that they only considered radical history where folks threw up the Red and Black or something of that sort. Meaning there was a narrow sense of what constituted important and radical history. More importantly, this implied what social struggles should look like. The Anarchists I was around failed to read the self-activity of social struggles. (This is vital because this touches on how some Anarchists see culture, politics, language etc—everything imaginable. Mamos explained this more regarding JFT’s Invading Socialist Society pamphlet.) While I studied the Spanish Revolution, dabbled a little in Italian Anarchism, Kropotkin etc, over the years I have spent more time studying the history of the Iraqi CP, the Iranian revolution and some of its less recognized thinkers among the contemporary left, struggles in the Caribbean, East Africa, among other places where the Red and Black flag rarely appeared. What to make of these histories? Are they part of world history, radical history? Have these people made contributions to the struggle? Are they worth studying? Are they important to people of color, women, and the American working class? My answers to all these questions are yes. (I am guessing yours are as well). Many of the Anarchists I ran into might say no or just ignore these histories.

    I guess what I am getting at is that I moved away from the need to save the soul of Anarchism and/or Platformism. Instead, I think something new needs to come about. To the extent that I over-emphasize JFT in my post, it is a sign to the immense contributions I think that tradition has made. Dimensions of these contributions are powerful enough that they reshape how other “isms” are thought about. I do not know if I can say that about Platformism and maybe even Anarchism. (At the same time, JFT is not enough and needs to be overcome for its limitations. I guess I need to come up with a new “ism”. ☺ )

    So I think your hunch is probably correct. While I think much can be learned from the Platformist tradition, my hunch (and certainly my practice) is that thinking through the paradigm of Platformism has to be overcome/ broken. I cannot say that I was ever a Platformist so cannot touch upon what it would mean for someone who shares affinities with Platformism to do such a thing. The only types of Anarchism I ever identified with were Revolutionary Anarchism and Anarcho-syndicalism.

    What histories of the Platformist tradition would you recommend?

  12. Couple more things…

    Nate’s fine detective work has gotten me thinking if I am out to save the soul of JFTism. I will have to think about this.

    And what about saving the souls of Malcolm, Fanon, Elma Francois, Walter Rodney, and the BPP among others?

    Or are we at a historical moment that needs a new “ism” which sublates (think Hegel) the past contributions into something new? If that is the case, what is the significance of that? What does that say about the current period we are in? The past we have left behind?

    Hope this makes sense…

  13. Mamos wrote: “In others words is it possible to build a cadre organization with anti-state / anarchist politics, with a highly democratic internal group structure and culture, etc. which can prioritize the kind of intensive theoretical and organizing training that Will calls for and admires in the best of the Marxist tradition?”

    From what I can tell, if the answer isn’t “yes” quite yet, it certainly is “folks are thinking about it/giving it a shot.”

    The numerous examples I can think of:

    1. The wave of coastal revolutionary study groups (see the round-table on radical discussion groups published in the latest Upping the Anti): Activist Study Circle in the Bay Area, LA Crew, New York Study Group, Another Politics is Possible study group (NYC)

    2. Bring the Ruckus (whose stated goal is combining anarchist organization with cadre models)

    3. Miami Autonomy & Solidarity (a very young revolutionary organization that just put out a political statement; google it for reference)

    4. Class struggle anarchist organizations are all engaging with Marxism in a lot of ways while playing with forms of organization that one might call “cadre” if “cadre” didn’t have the Leninist origins. Even older, more established organizations like Northeastern Federation of Anarcho-Communists are engaging with what there is to learn in Marxism a lot, internally.

    This need for something new, some new form of revolutionary practice and organization that isn’t wedded unnecessarily to this tradition/tendency or that, seems to be a nation-wide phenemenon. It could just be that I’m young and don’t pay attention enough, but it seems like a very new development to me.

  14. I found Andrew’s comment helpful. Implied in this, I think, is that there are small cadre-ish (aspiring to cadre?) organizations slowly forming, and maybe a cadrification (or attempt at) of some other groups. That implies an additional issue, which is how these various small semi-cadre groups can relate to each other constructively.

  15. I find these questions about ideological recomposition very interesting. I would be interested in hearing more about what is means, might look like, or historical examples of it. I do not know enough about the trajectory of leftist politics to answer Andrew’s question about whether this particular ideological recomposition (anarchists/those with anti-state, democratic politics forming revolutionary cadre organizations) is very new or not. But my sense is that there are other historical examples of this phenomenon. Can we learn from the struggles of the 60s and 70s about how ideological recomposition works? My understanding is that for the Old Left, they would or could not imagine a mass movement with revolutionary potential breaking out where the movements were centered on nationalist race politics, gender liberation, etc. (As Nate pointed out, some Stalinists, as well as folks from other tendencies, may still carry this line.) But what is this going to look like for us? I have the sense that the answer may lie in, as Will said, that narrow reform movements are not possible during this time. I took this to mean that yes we will engage in reform struggles for all the reasons laid out above, but that these struggles themselves will have to be broader in terms of reaching more deeply into the oppressed classes, seeing the interconnected nature of struggles, and making demands that address these two points in order to be successful in this particular moment of crisis. This is perhaps not a super concrete way to look at the issue, but I’d be interested in hearing the ways in which other folks have understood it.

    In response to Nate’s questions about perspectives on reform struggles, I would say that both points he laid out are dead on, and that there may be more to it as well. Every reform that is won means a tangible gain for oppressed people that has a true impact on our lives. And the experience of fighting, losing and winning, and building organizations is one that gives us the confidence to build broader movements with demands and politics going beyond reform. But these struggles are also important in developing the understandings that revolutionary organizations have of the particular moment, what is needed, what is possible, and what we should be demanding, and not just a way for us to increase our numbers.

    This I think is related to Will’s question about the difference between tailing mass movements, being a vanguard, and having an organic relation to them. During movements, and we can see this example in the Bolshevik Party as well, sometimes the mass of people move far more quickly and beyond the revolutionary organization. Lessons are learned faster during these times, and for those who have spent the periods of low activity building organizations and political perspectives may lack the flexibility to move immediately, or to change positions radically. On the eve of the February Revolution in Russia, members of the Bolshevik party advised a group of women planning an International Womens Day march and rally to not go on strike, but they did it anyway and it kicked off a general strike. Members of the party were annoyed that their advice was not taken, and they didn’t put out flyers for a general strike until 200,000 workers had already struck. On the other hand, the committees of the Bolsheviks that were rooted in communities with more working people were much quicker to move with the mass activity, rather than tail it. The latter example I think is representative of what an organic relationship between revolutionary and mass organizations looks like.

    I’d like to take a stab at Will’s question about confusing mass organizations with revolutionary organizations. In terms of the specific differences, I think revolutionary organizations are necessarily more politically cohesive, meaning there is a higher amount of political agreement than in mass organizations. As was mentioned by Mamos I believe, it is likely that the organizations that will lead the fight for oppressed people in a movement will not be a single revolutionary organization, but a large multi-tendency mass organization that agrees on a set of political points particular to the movement and within which revolutionaries can argue for militant orientations to struggles, not conceding to liberal cooptation, etc. I think the confusion might occur when the relationship between people in the rev org and people not in it is not clear. Hopefully the center model provides a way forward in laying out the relationship in a democratic framework, with clarity about the role of the rev org in the mass org, the independent validity of the work being carried out by the mass org, and a level of political agreement that is high enough to wage a militant struggle but not so high that only revolutionaries of a particular ilk can participate.

  16. Afrose said,
    “My understanding is that for the Old Left, they would or could not imagine a mass movement with revolutionary potential breaking out where the movements were centered on nationalist race politics, gender liberation, etc. (As Nate pointed out, some Stalinists, as well as folks from other tendencies, may still carry this line.) But what is this going to look like for us?”

    i’ve been asking myself that same question for some time now. to what extant will past movements be seen as caricatures, and to what extant will they still hold sway?

    to an extant it’s already happened. i’ve heard of old, Trotskyist remnants trying to argue why Russia was a degenerated workers state and not state capitalism to an 18 year old person of color whom had no bearings on the subject, and frankly didn’t give a shit.

    there are a number of issues wrapped up in that scenario.

    in the 60s & 70s the question of Russia held sway because of the importance of the Chinese Revolution to so many people of color in the US and around the world. that’s not so much the case today.

    the material and ideological connections between Russia – and maybe even China – have not crystalized in any movements here.

    this is not to say that – and i think Don H makes this point – there are not important lessons we can learn form Lenin, the Bolsheviks, and the Russian Revolution.

    quite the opposite. as revolutionaries we must expect to revisit many of these historical questions but in different form. i want to emphasize both parts of this statement. we need to be prepared so that we don’t repeat the same mistakes.

    BUT… they will most definitely take a different form. i think this latter point is related to the rise of new subjectivities in any movement, and the transformation of those subjectivities.

    the lack of historical memory may very well lead to many young folks brushing off any serious engagement with the legacy of the Black Panther Party, for instance. but figures like Queen Mother Moore teach us that it is important for us, as revolutionaries, to be repositories of history and politics for the new generation of radicals while at the same time giving them the space and freedom to walk their own path and arrive at questions as they come up in the movement.

    at other times leaps will be made. in my head i’m think about the leap from Civil Rights to Black Power. the velocity of the movement will accelerate, contradictions will crystalize, and a restructuring of the movement will take place. during these times we will have to balance our interventions against a volunteeristic pace.

    i’m not sure if all this makes sense, but in my head they point to the tensions surrounding the emergence of new movements and subjectivities on the one hand, and the need to not repeat the same mistakes on the other…


  17. a couple other things on Queen Mother Moore that got lost somewhere between my brian and my keyboard:

    she kind of served as a bridge between the Old Left and the New. when Muhammad Ahmad was hanging around her during the early years of RAM he had some anti-communist sentiments. but because she was sincere about building the black liberation movement he shed these prejudices and began to explore the Marxist tradition.

    that’s the importance of organic revolutionaries like Queen Mother Moore: as patriotic movement builders they are able to make the past relevant again.

    Lenin was good at this as well. one month he advocated “What is to be done” and later he called for “opening up the party.” he understood that the growth and structure of the revolutionary organization was organically related to the height, velocity and form of the movement. Stalinist Bolshevization in the 30s, and a repeat of this by sectors of the movements in the 60s & 70s was a mechanical reading of organizational structure that was part and parcel of its vanguardist implications.

    like Queen Mother Moore, Lenin saw one of his tasks as making old ideas new again. his “State & Revolution” arguably is an application of Marx’s “The Civil War in France” and “Critique of the Gotha Program”.

    Queen Mother Moore, Black Power, the Chinese Revolution and the resistance in Vietnam — for all of their faults — was a generation renewing the relevance and giving new meaning to the ideas of Marx and Lenin.

  18. It has been helpful for me to frame the anarchist rethinking of organization—something U&S can be included—as part of a recurring historical phenomona. Off the top of my head I can trace it to the victory of the Bolshevik Party and its association/ leadership (and suffocation) of the Russian Revolution. As far as I have understood it, a generation of Anarchists decided join the forming communist parties around the world. Victor Serge is the most famous representative of this trend that I am aware of. From this catastrophe, Anarchists such as Nestor Makhno helped co-write the founding document of the Platformists. They had to wrestle with a historical period and deal with older assumptions of Anarchist organization in light of contemporary successes and failures. (I think this is one of the key features which signals an age of ideological juggling and re-composition. Something so catastrophic or unbelievable happens on a systemic level that the old ideas have difficulty explaining them.) There were other key moments such as the failure of the Second International, the breaking apart of the social democratic parties and the rise of the Communist Parties to name some of the most powerful….

    But to stay on the track of the Anarchist tip…. Anarchism became widely held after the collapse of Soviet Union. For obvious reasons this was a good development. There was a period of organizing mass organizations and revolutionary organizations by Anarchists in the 1990s. Then we had the heady years of the anti-globalization movement where protest hopping and affinity groups were the buzz word. In the context of this various organizations built by anarchists fell apart. It seems to me there is a general scratching of the heads going on about the way forward. What is different about this period is the nightmare of Stalinism and Soviet Russia does not hang over everyone. I am sure this has effected the conversations and ways of thinking about organization and politics which old timers might be able to give us an insight to. This might make for a period of a richer synthesis of Anarchism and Marxism then what has been ever done before.

    Thanks for the link on the roundtable Andrew. I will look at their discussion in the upcoming days. Exciting stuff!

  19. Hi Anne,

    The study group article I posted above interviews two different NYC groups, Another Politics is Possible and the NY Study Group. APIP seems more on the anti-authoritarian/anarchist side of things, and NYSG seems to be more connected to the socialist party left.

  20. This conversation looks to be over on this post, but for what it’s worth….

    Dana Barnett makes a case for more unified leftist political development (along the lines of of the above mentioned study groups and multi-tendency formations) in her review of Diana Block’s recent memoir “Arm the Spirit: A Woman’s Journey Underground and Back.” See http://towardfreedom.com/home/content/view/1768/1/

    I’ve read Block’s book and found this review to be a really good look at the issues it brings up and how they connect to current developments on the radical left.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *