Category Archives: Revolutionary Organization

Learning to Fight, Learning to Heal

Like everybody else, Unity and Struggle members have grappled with how to address abuse and patriarchal behavior in our society, and in left organizations including our own. We don’t have easy answers, but we’ve found it helpful to study the nature of abuse under capitalism and different responses to it. Below is the syllabus for an abuse study that some U&S members and friends are currently test-driving in several cities, based on interest. We hope other groups will take up the reading list, adapt it to their needs, and use it to craft responses to abuse in our movement and lives.

UPDATE 6/5/2016: We’ve added a few more discussion questions to this study guide, to reflect some of the themes that came up as we finished reading everything.

Sit El Banat, stencil tribute to the women who were beaten, dragged and stamped on by military forces in December 2011. Image from SuzeInTheCity

Abuse Study Guide

1. Defining Abusive Relations.

Objectives: (1) Gain empirical understanding of the broad range of physical and emotional abuse in intimate partnerships; (2) Explore relationship between objective social relations and individual experience of abuse, consent, trauma; (3) Develop our own definition of abuse;

 

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Communism is the Ascension of Humanity as the Subject of History: A Critique of Althusser and the Affirmation of Marx

(By Gussel Sprouts)

“Communism is the riddle of history solved, and it knows itself to be this solution.” (Marx)

If we are to affirm the ideology of Marx, and the Marxist understanding of not only communism, but its relationship to humanity, we can only begin so by understanding his thoughts on ideology and of his break with Feuerbach, and what this means for the relationships of subjects/objects. Louis Althusser, the philosopher who said “structures don’t take to the streets” as he turned his nose up at the students protesting in May ’68, disingenuously knew or cared little for the ideas of Marx and the ways they were distinct from the other thinkers of his time. At other times, he was willfully and honestly ignorant, but it is important to understand that Althusser’s thought is largely contradictory in a logistical sense (he was inconsistent in his breaks/agreements with Marx) but also in a sense that he produced thought which was fundamentally anti-Marxist.

Our critique of Althusser must go even further here than that of his misunderstanding of Marx, but what he builds on with such a conclusion, parallels can be seen in ideological apparatuses already in historical existence and the present moment, to which we can conclude that the ideological and cultural apparatus, the real movement to abolish the present state of things is not one of ideas, nor ideological “structures”. Capital has already reached an unprecedented level of totality, a certain subsumption of the Real by an irreconcilable “big Other” (1). Althusser would have all of this for what he calls “socialism”. We have seen this already in the history of existing socialisms, while originally hiding the ill-informed and possibly disingenuous veil of being “the first Left-wing critique of Stalinism”.

The first few sections are to provide contexts of Althusser (and therefore his thought) with that of Marx, revolutionaries of his time, and his politics in the Communist Party of France. After such, we will venture into Althusser’s ideas themselves. We will find that we do not require a deep understanding of Structuralism (or the sociological and Freudian undertones in his thought) to see that Althusser’s thought is irreconcilable with that of Marx.

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The Intermediate Moment (Part One)

by Adelita Kahlo and Tyler Zee

*The perspectives advanced below are those of the authors and do not represent an official “line” of U&S.  U&S, as will be seen below, does not have formal positions.  While many of the ideas will be common starting points for U&S, there will be nuanced differences and perhaps some disagreements according to individuals and locales.

PART ONE

Introduction

This piece is the result of many conversations and has been informed by engagement with a cross section of various nodes of activity.  We, the authors, have learned so much through these conversations; many assumptions we held prior to this effort have now been either thrown out or complicated.  While a number of questions remain, a few starting points have been clarified.

As a consequence of these conversations, the scope of this piece has also changed from one tailored primarily to debates within the solnet milieu, since the two of us have been doing aspects of solnet organizing for a while now, to being fundamentally about the intermediate concept and its strategic merits for revolutionaries in the current moment that takes the solnet (and others) as a kind of case study.  While the scope has shifted we very much want to enter into more systematic exchange with the above folks and others that are grappling with these and parallel questions.

Part one of the piece is geared toward making sense of the current moment and elaborating on concepts the writers have used to do so.  This also means a discussion that might appear as tangential but what for us represent an attempt to have a holistic, systematic, and rigorous approach.  The conclusions drawn here are of necessity temporal and are toward the ends of building the bridge between the present and the medium-term future.  So as “scientific” as we have tried to be, there are limits to this piece both in scope and in the factors entering our analysis.

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Reflections on Truth and Revolution: A History of Sojourner Truth Organization 1969-1986

by Eve Mitchell, originally posted on We’re Hir We’re Queer here.

I recently finished reading Michael Staudenmaier’s Truth and Revolution:  A History of Sojourner Truth Organization 1969-1986.  Sojourner Truth Organization (STO) was a majority white revolutionary group that worked closely with Black Nationalist and Black Power groups to build autonomist workplace, community, identity- and issue-based organizations.  They are most known for their theoretical contributions including the white skin privilege analysis and theory of dual consciousness.  Perhaps their most well-known writing (which was originally a speech) is “Black Worker, White Worker,” which describes their approach in building militant, fighting groups that organize on the demands of the most oppressed layers of the class.  Concretely, in their time and in the spaces they organized, that meant the Black proletarian.

Staudenmaier_TruthHowever, as Truth and Revolution describes, STO was involved in many forms of struggle including the early anti-nuke movement, the women’s liberation movement, some immigrant defense work, among other things.  The sheer amount of work they accomplished with very few people and resources in the span of a 17 years is extremely impressive.  This post will discuss some other reflections I have on their work.  These reflections are relevant to me in this stage of my organizing and experience, having recently moved to New York City and attempted to help build the Florence Johnston Collective (aka Flo Jo), a group that organizes within and across feminized workplaces, alongside working to build Unity and Struggle, a small, national, left communist grouping for the last five years.(1)  Obviously both of these tasks have been carried out in an extremely low movement time, in the wake of some interesting struggle globally and some upticks nationally and regionally.  My comments may not reflect some of the broader lessons to be learned from STO; I recommend checking out Truth and Revolution itself to extract those.

1. Privilege Theory and STO’s Race Politics.

Elsewhere I have written substantial critiques of how today’s activists and the Left use privilege theory and identity politics.  While I think this is qualitatively different from how STO used them, I agree with Staudenmaier when he writes that STO must bear some of the responsibility for how this theory continues to be applied.

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What is to be Done? and the Need for Organization

revs97The following essay was written awhile ago and sat around waiting to be fixed up. It can be read as a follow up to notes on Lars Lih’s important book, Lenin Rediscovered: What Is To Be Done? in Context. Only recently the essay was finally fixed up enough to post here.

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It is important to deal with Lenin’s concept of organization in WITBD. The point is not to elevate WITBD into a set of principles that can be abstractly and universally applied. Like any work, WITBD is a product of history. As Lih noted in the beginning of his book such an approach has been an evident enough problem in the history of “Leninism”. However, despite Lih’s attempt to downplay the importance of WITBD in subsequent bolshevik thinking about organization, Lenin’s work—including WITBD—continues to be a necessary reference point for rethinking the role of revolutionary groups and organizations in our own day. By restoring the detailed context of Lenin’s concept of organization and reestablishing its connection to Kautsky, Lih provides the basis to learn from and critique Lenin and Leninism. In doing so he makes WITBD alive again—a renewed and important departure point for thinking about revolutionary groups and organization.

As Lih argues, the importance of WITBD was found in its generalization of already existing practices in the Russian underground, codifying and synthesizing those practices into a broad whole. The generalizing character of WITBD is what continues to make it so valuable today.
The Need for Revolutionary Theory

The first principle that Lenin elaborates is the necessity of revolutionary theory. Lenin writes, “[w]ithout a revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement” (696). A revolutionary theory is necessary to understand the system as a whole from the standpoint of the working class and the oppressed, and their necessary struggle for liberation. According to Lenin, only the revolutionary organization can develop such theory and put it in practical relationship with a workers movement through a program and tactics of struggle. For Lenin in such a role the organization articulates the relationship of the class in motion between its historical tasks and its concrete existence. Finally, not only is the elaboration of theory necessary so is its defense against reformists, or what today would be called progressives

The specific tasks that correspond to the construction of theory and its defense only become clearer when Lenin gives an account of the history of the workers movement in Russia. He argues that the strikes of the mid-1890s signaled an important leap in the form of activity by Russian workers. For the first time they demonstrated “the awakening of the antagonism between workers and owners” which was expressed in the form of collective action and specific demands on the capitalists (702). However, Lenin cautions, these struggles remained “a tred-iunionist struggle” and were “not yet a Social-Democratic one” because “there did not exist among these workers—nor could it have existed at that time—an awareness of the irreconcilable opposition of their interests to the entire political and social order” (701-702). In other words, for Lenin revolutionary theory grasps the totality of relations of capitalism and therefore the standpoint of abolishing the system itself. Trade unionism, on the other hand, is form that corresponds to workers as workers. As a result, Lenin implies, trade unionism without revolutionary theory and its organization leads to a focus solely on distribution of the surplus in the form of the wage.
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The Communist Theory of Marx

The link for the Spanish translation of this post can be found here.

The following posts represent one part of a larger project on communist theory and revolutionary organization that was begun this past summer [2012]. It is an ongoing working project that was not only intended to provide a frame of reference for our own grouping. More broadly, it is meant to be a contribution to ongoing discussions and debate on communist theory and practice, which, in our historical moment, cannot and will not be the product of any single grouping.

The overall project is divided into three main parts 1) Partial synthesis of Marx 2) Critique of the history of revolutionary organization 3) Provisional thoughts on the need for organization today. We are currently in the process of writing a draft of part two, but we wanted to begin to post part one now, which will be serialized over number of months.

The draft on Marx is not intended as a popular introductory pamphlet. Instead, it is meant for an audience with some basic familiarity with Marx. In our own practice we use it as a supplement to study groups and ongoing discussions on Marx, as well as wider revolutionary theory.

It is important to say something about the concept of communism that underlines this series. We understand communism in the sense that Marx wrote in “The German Ideology”:

Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence.

This passage contains a whole world of thought and historical experience that must be unraveled and put back together again. However, what is important about Marx’s work, including, crucially, Capital, is that it places living human activity at the center of the concept of communism. Communism is the necessary and ongoing struggle of humanity to achieve freedom—to liberate itself from its own alienated existence.

There are a great number of thinkers and political trends that have taken up this mantle and have influenced our own developing thinking. However, we claim no specific adherence to them. While they may have made important contributions, we are not bound by their limitations that arose from their particular historical experiences. Instead, we need a new synthesis that arises out of the social realities of today.

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The history of communist organization cannot be separated from the history of marxism as a critique of its own history. Since the crisis of the revolutionary left is, in part, a crisis of revolutionary theory we must, to some extent, begin again by returning to Marx. The history of revolutionary theory itself is marked by such returns in which revolutionaries attempted to understand their society in the light of past ideas and struggles. This has been a critical and necessary part of communist practice historically.

Since today we again face an impasse defined by a lack of categorical knowledge and analysis we must struggle again to find ground upon which to stand. Only with clarity can we arrive at a more solid foundation for revolutionary work.

The understanding of revolutionary organization must be rooted in a categorical approach and it is for this reason that we attempt to synthesize some of the fundamental premises of Marx’s thought. The aim here is somewhat limited. We have neither the space nor the time at the moment to cover the sum of Marx’s thought. This involves his critique of capitalist society as a whole, including the critical volumes two and three of Capital. Instead, we hope to concentrate on the bare outline of his view of humanity and its relations in capitalist society.

What follows is a somewhat abstract presentation. It is meant to function as a foundation for the further development of theory, investigation, strategy and tactics. The achievement of categorical knowledge and methodology is absolutely necessary to avoid the empirical, pragmatic and economistic perspectives that haunt the American Left – symptoms of its own decay. What follows is meant to provide the basis for the concrete investigation of the actual, real, and moving society. Without clear categories and methodology, strategy and tactics become increasingly delinked from anything concrete, and thereby reified in their abstraction.
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Notes on Lars Lih, Lenin Rediscovered

What follows are some notes on Lars Lih, Lenin Rediscovered. An upcoming second post will conclude these notes with some separate conclusions on the continuing relevance of What is to be Done? in regards to thinking about revolutionary organization.

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Lenin Without “Leninism”

Lars Lih, Lenin Rediscovered: What is to Be Done? in Context is a major reevaluation of the famous (and infamous) work by Lenin. The status of What is to Be Done? in the history of the revolutionary Left since the Russian Revolution has obscured the actual context and meaning of Lenin’s arguments on organization. While Lenin’s book became one pillar for the “vanguard party-building model”, it also evolved into a kind of shorthand for what was to become known as “Leninism”. Taking apart the myth of What is to Be Done? is the subject of Lih’s book, which consists of an almost 700 page commentary and a new translation.

Lih not only takes issue with the revolutionary Left that claims the “leninist” mantle. He also critiques those who see in What is to Be Done? the foundations of authoritarianism and one-party dictatorship. However, it wasn’t only Cold War era academics in the West who crafted this kind of argument. A highly developed form of this idea was also developed by revolutionary marxists, which has continued to characterize WITBD ever since. It is best summarized by Trotsky’s attack in 1904 that what Lenin actually proposed was “subsitutionism” in which “the organisation of the party substitutes itself for the party as a whole; then the Central Committee substitutes itself for the organisation; and finally the ‘dictator’ substitutes himself for the Central Committee”. Luxemburg brought an even more distinct leftwing critique, citing Lenin as an example of a marxist who theorized a party of “blanquist” intellectuals as the agent of history rather than the working class.

Lih calls these approaches to What is to Be Done?—whether from the left or right—the “textbook interpretation”. He defines this approach as one that sees WITBD as a break with the prevailing social democratic marxism of its time. While the rightwing use of the “textbook interpretation” argued that WITBD cast in terms of organization an authoritarian and undemocratic worldview, the leftwing use said that it showed a clear rejection of the central role of worker self-activity.

Lih equally takes to task a more subtle use of the “textbook interpretation”. He writes:

The textbook interpretation is thus, on the whole, a postwar creation. One reason for its rise is a great forgetting of what prewar international Social Democracy was all about. The principal reason for this loss of context is the watershed of the 1917 revolution, which split prewar Social Democracy in two and gave the name ‘Social Democracy’ only to the more moderate side. On the other, a number of writers with no or very shallow roots in the Second International—Georg Lukacs, Antonio Gramsci, Karl Korsch—created a theory (not shared by Lenin) that Leninism was the principled rejection of the fatalistic Marxism of the Second International and of Kautsky in particular. (32)

Lih points to a version of this interpretation in the Trotskyist tradition. Perhaps the best example is Tony Cliff’s classic four-volume work on Lenin. The Trotskyist recuperation of WITBD, Lih argues, sees Lenin as establishing a real if not completely realized break with social democratic marxism. While there is no doubt, the argument goes, WITBD overstates the role of a party working on an “unconscious” proletariat, Lenin “bends the stick” back during the 1905 Revolution, to not only reinsert the category of workers self-activity into his theory of revolution, but also into his approach to organization when he castigated rank-and-file bolsheviks for not “opening up” the party to the masses of newly radicalized workers.
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Developing Militants and Organizers

From our last post on the topic of organization, S Nappolis wrote, “Revolutionaries active in the mass level need to prioritize work that facilitates the radicalization of militants at the mass level.”

The following is being reposted from the blog, Workers Power, which archives material from the Industrial Worker newspaper.  In a similar vein, it begins to discuss what is required to actually help a new layer of militants develop as organizers.

Replace Yourself

by J. Pierce

The primary task of an organizer is to build more organizers. We need more and more working class leaders and the way to do this is to constantly replace yourself. Here’s a few easy ways to help you build up your successors:

Reveal your sources so others can think with you: “I had a long talk with MK recently. He really convinced me that we should reorganize as a shop committee instead of having one or two ‘stewards’. He gave me this awesome article on how IWW shop committees used to work.” Telling others where you got an idea from demonstrates that you think of them as equals. You also provide an opportunity for them question your sources.

Show others how it’s done and take them through the process: “Hey Keith, has anyone showed you how to post an article to iww.org? I’m going to post that write-up on the strike right now. Let me show you how to do it. We need another person who can post.” Pass on the technical know-how so others can be ‘experts’ just like you.

Encourage people because you believe in them and you know they can do it: “We really need this message to get to the people upfront. Can you have a talk with Shannon? She respects you and you’re the best person to talk to her.” You run faster for coaches that want to win. We’ve got to show that what we do matters and that we believe in each other.

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Thinking About Organization: Between Mass and Revolutionary Activity

Continuing from two recent essays we have reposted in the last month or so, we are reproducing here an essay from the Bedtime Theory blog. The author is a member of Miami Autonomy and Solidarity.

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Defining Practice: the intermediate level of organization and struggle

by S. Nappalos

There is a left tradition of thinking about and taking action within two realms of activity: the mass level and the revolutionary political level. There are different ways to cash out these concepts, but they are distinguished basically by levels of unity and content. The mass level is where people come together based on common interests to take action in some form, with unions being the most obvious and traditional example. A higher level of unity is the revolutionary political level where people take action based on common ideas and practices. These concepts are tools or instruments that can help us make sense of the world, and better act to change it. In so far as they do that, they work. If they don’t, we get new ones. At the level of reality, this division is not so clear and in fact we see mixtures of unity and action everywhere. That being said, these concepts help us parse out how as revolutionaries we can relate to social groupings, and how we can intervene.

There is an additional level though that can help us in this manner, the intermediate level. As opposed to the political level, which is defined by attempted unity of ideas, and the mass level, which is defined by common practices with diversity of ideas, the intermediate level shares some features of both. The intermediate level is where people organize based on some basic level of unity of ideas to develop and coordinate their activity at the mass level.

Taking the example of the workers movement, we see unions at the mass level grouped together by common workplace issues, and a political level of revolutionary militants with unified ideology acting within the unions in some way or another. Within the unions there can be a plurality of political organizations, and even of individual militants who lack organizations. An intermediate level organization could come to unite class conscious workers around a strategy within their industry, workplace, etc. The intermediate level organization would not have the unity of a political organization, since its basis is bringing together militants for a common practice that doesn’t require everyone having the same ideology and political program. Likewise, if we required every member in a mass organization to share a high level of class consciousness and militancy (independently of the ebb and flow of struggles), we would be doomed either to fractions or paper tigers.

There is also a distinction between levels and organizations. That is there’s a mass level before the mass organization. The mass organization is made up of people who come together around common interests. That means there are people with common interests who exist before they come together in the mass organization. Often there is mass level activity and organizing (like spontaneous struggles, informal work groups, etc), before there is mass organization. There’s also a revolutionary (or at least leftist) level before the revolutionary organization – there are people with ideas and actions who exist before they come together into a conscious revolutionary body.

Likewise with the intermediate level, there are individuals and activities that precede organization. Presently there are organizations that sometimes play the role of intermediate organization (unconsciously), and there is prefigurative organizing and tendencies of potential future intermediate organizations. I want to hazard a thesis; in the United States today the intermediate level is the most important site for revolutionaries. In fact, I think this is true beyond the United States, but I lack the space here to prove it, and will leave it up to others in other places.

The intermediate level is strategic at this time is due to the state of political and mass organizations. The revolutionary left has been isolated from the working class (as well as other oppressed classes) for at least decades. The left is largely derived from the student and sub-cultural movements which serve as a training ground for the various institutional left bureaucracies (NGOs, unions, lobbying groups, political parties, sections of academia, etc), or at the least these institutions remain dominant within the left. The left reflects a particular section of society, one that sets it apart from the working class in its activity, vision, and makeup. There’s an inertia of dyspraxia; the ideas the left espouses do not reflect the activity of the left. Whether this is from the black block to the so-revolutionaries working to elect the left wing of capital, the left is characterized at this time by an alienation from the working class rather than an ability to “act in its interest”.
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New Beginnings for a New Time

The crisis today is not just one of capital; it is integrally one of the Left, as well.  After a recent series of expulsions and resignations from the International Socialist Organization, a layer of cadre have staked the claim that, today, not only is more necessary from the Left, but more is possible in struggle.

Brian Kwoba, after spending 6 years in the ISO has, with others, recently inaugurated The New Socialist Project.  We welcome their insights and contributions to the immense tasks before us in the cause of working class revolution.

Why a new socialist project?

by Brian Kwoba

One feature of the US political landscape in 2010 is that despite all the war, poverty, and oppression that our society is dispensing every day, there is a historic opportunity for the growth of a socialist politics and organization. This task has particular urgency right now for two basic reasons:

(1)   The biggest economic crisis of US capitalism since the great depression is combining with the long-term crisis for US imperialism (from the Middle East to Latin America to Asia) to create a generational radicalization and opening for revolutionary politics like that of the 1930s or 1960s.

(2)   Because of the pace and trajectory of capitalism’s rampant and potentially irreversible destruction of the environment, this may be the last generational radicalization remaining in human history within which to build successful revolutionary movement to transform the system. The question is not “socialism or barbarism.” It is socialism or extinction.

These facts alone place the question of a radically different economic system—socialism—on the front burner. But in 2010 we find ourselves not only with the urgent  necessity, but also a historic opportunity for building a socialist movement in the US. Consider the following statistics.

  • A Rasmussen poll (April 2009) found that 20% of Americans prefer socialism to capitalism and among Adults under 30, the number was 33%.
  • An international BBC Poll (Nov 2009) asked a more sophisticated question about the system. They asked whether capitalism (a) “works well and efforts to reform it will result in inefficiencies,” (b) the “problems generated by capitalism can be solved through reform and regulation,” or (c) capitalism is “fatally flawed, and a different economic system is needed.” In the US, 13% agreed with the latter statement.
  • A Gallup poll (Feb 2010) found that 36% of Americans view “socialism” positively.

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