Category Archives: Revolutionary Organization

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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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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Women & Revolutionary Organization

By our comrades in Miami Autonomy & Solidarity.

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Why Women Should Join Political Organizations

By Dolores

In Miami Autonomy and Solidarity, we have discussions with people that might identify with the “left” in general to see where our political agreement lies; as well as to learn from each other with the goal of reaching enough unity to become members of MAS.

While these discussions have helped us engage with a lot of different people, and have lead to new membership there is a noticeable hole in our group- a severe lack of women members. MAS has prioritized recruiting more women and we have had many continuous discussions with women from different backgrounds, yet none have joined.

For example, one of our members had been meeting regularly with a young woman involved in various social movements here in Miami but had reached a certain point where the discussion stopped. Recently I was speaking with this young woman and she expressed to me that the person she had been meeting with didn’t understand her because she was a woman and he could not see her perspective. Unfortunately, someone that could have over time become a potential member was lost.

Is it because this man could not “understand” her that she did not join? Would it have been different if the discussions had been with me? Though it may have helped a little, I think that the problem is much larger than just identity. It is an issue that I have seen in too many political/revolutionary organizations, and that continues to be a problem as well as a source of frustration for many of these groups; particularly the women who are members of them, but also for those outside of them that may have some ties to these groups.

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No More Excuses, Time to Organize in the Ghetto

by BaoYunCheng

In this following post, I argue for movement builders and revolutionaries to take seriously the task of organizing with low-income people of color in the ghetto—the unemployed, the homeless, the gang members. I hope to engage with two primary audiences: white anti-racist progressives and revolutionaries. In my first section, I criticize white anti-racists and how they use the idea of white privilege (aka privilege politics) to distance themselves from directly organizing with people of color. In the later sections, I lay out the urgent need for revolutionaries and movement builders to organize with street people of color (POCs) and thus avoid reproducing the problems of social distancing by white anti-racists and avoid the rigid conception of working-class-led revolution by contemporary revolutionaries.

I. SOCIAL DISTANCING BY WHITE ANTI-RACIST PROGRESSIVES and THEIR FEAR OF BLACK BOY!

It happens so much it’s become ritual now. Every time I hear the overstated progressive truism “the oppressed peoples must lead the movement” put forth by an organizer/activist who’s completely disconnected from the day-to-day interactions with oppressed communities—and believe me, when you’re around the organizing scenes in Seattle, you hear it as frequent as it rains—the song “Black Boy” by Tech N9ne plays in my head. I can just hear a more movement-oriented Tech N9ne singing, “I was told by your movement I was a fool…I think I know why organizers would look in my eye and say that, and why’s that?” with Krizz Kaliko (Kali) responding in his opera-esque voice, “Cuz I’m a BLACKBOY!…Scared to see me, frauds disappear like a genie.”

I think Kali’s line “frauds disappear like a genie” is particularly appropriate for white anti-racists who talk the big talk of people of color movements and the need for people of color (POC) leadership, but don’t walk the walk in building this movement together with street folks and low-income POCs. White anti-racists, this day and age, seem intent on organizing in comfortable spaces while using the aforementioned truism to validate their own distance from low-income workers, unemployed, and street people of color based in the inner cities and ghettos of Amerikkka.

The added irony is that many white anti-racists, if they are in majority white organizations, proudly use the language of ANTI-RACISM as an excuse to not organize with street people of color. They correctly point to past histories of militant people of color movements co-opted by white folks, at the same time blatantly forgetting groups like the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, the Congress of African Peoples, the Young Lords, and the Black Panther Party, none of whom could be dismissed as folks who were intimidated and co-opted by white anti-racists. This is extremely important when thinking about the possibilities of multi-racial organizations for the contemporary period. However, there is a host of real history, theories, and organizations which have devolved a multi-racial way of organizing into separate movement building based on “privilege”: the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Freedom Summer, Fanon’s “Black Skin White Masks,” Steve Biko’s Black Consciousness Movement, the Black Panther Party’s call to organize in one’s respective community, and Noel Ignatiev’s “Race Traitor.” A lot has been lumped together, and what is of interest is how each of these examples has been interpreted to justify specific social relations in terms of race.
Continue reading No More Excuses, Time to Organize in the Ghetto

Questions of Form, Reform and National Liberation in State Capitalism & World Revolution

written with Will

Chapter IX of SC&WR addresses the issues of Tito and Yugoslavia.  In many ways the question of Yugoslavia could be seen as the last straw for the Johnson-Forest Tendency.  Yet again orthodox Trotskyists and the Fourth International fetishized nationalized property and described Tito’s Yugoslavia as breaking Left from Stalin’s Russia without asking that central question:  was the working class self-governing?

Along with China, Yugoslavia posed other challenges to the common conception of Marxism for that time.  Like other exercises in national liberation, Yugoslavia raised questions about the role of the peasantry, the material limitations of national liberation without world revolution, and the dynamic class tensions within national liberation movements.

Hopefully the following prompts can help us think through some of these issues.

  • How do they describe the mode of labor in Yugoslavia? (86)  How did this compare to Stalin’s Russia?
  • What was Tito’s People’s Front, and what role does the Johnson-Forest Tendency argue it played in relation to class tensions?
  • Tito and the Communist Party Yugoslavia (CPY) established a method of emboldening the bureaucracy that could be described as a process of upward mobility;  “in its crisis it sought to strengthen the state authority by new recruitments from those who have shown readiness in the factory to exceed the norms in production.” (92)  The notion of meritocracy is a common conception today of what an egalitarian society should look like.  How have we encountered and challenged these sentiments in our own organizing?
  • The Titoist bureaucracy, through a process of criticism and self-criticism, argues for “decentralization.” (93)  The demand for decentralization is still common in progressive/Left circles today.  Is this enough?  Does decentralization have any role in defining the new society?
  • The example of Yugoslavia is posed as similar to other experiences of national liberation.  What was the relationship of the CPY bureaucracy to the Yugoslavian working class when it opposed the Kremlin? (96)  How does the class nature of the Titoist bureaucracy explain its relationship to both the US and Russian empires? (94-95)  How has the problem of socialism in one country been manifest in the historical failures of other national liberation movements – socialist, nationalist, or otherwise?
  • JFT describes the CPY bureaucracy as “concretely nationalist and abstractly internationalist,” what does this mean? (97) How has the Trotskyist tradition understood the nature and process of national liberation?  Is it necessarily a bourgeois revolution?  Are there alternative conceptions of national liberation movements, and why are they necessary?

Part II of State Capitalism and World Revolution

By Will and Jubayr

What up everyone? Hope readers are having fun with State Capitalism and World Revolution ☺ I don’t think I got much to say as the questions kinda get at what SCWR is constantly trying to hammer from different angles. Here are some more questions which can guide us as we read SCWR.
Chapters 6-8

1-What is SCWR saying about the plan, the state, and the party? Why is it antithetical to the self-government of the working class?

2- What is the implications between the following two formulations: crisis of revolution is in the crisis of leadership versus the crisis of revolution is the crisis of the self-mobilization of the working class? Where does Trotskyism fall on this question and what does it say about Trotskyism according to SCWR?

3- What is the political economy of the post WWII era as JFT sees it? Has it changed in the neo-liberal era? If so, how?

4- How does SCWR describe the role of unions in the state-capitalist era?

5- What is the theory of permanent revolution? How does SCWR orient towards it in the post WWII era?

6- In “Leninism and the Transitional Regime” SCWR poses quiet an interesting history of Lenin’s relationship to the Russian working class after the October Revolution. Is SCWR being completely accurate in its historiography of Lenin?

State Capitalism and the Break with Trotskyism

written with Will

The Johnson-Forest Tendency (JFT) has been at the foundation of our project here at Gathering Forces.  The theoretical contributions JFT made to the worldwide working class movement place them in the traditions of Left-libertarian socialism, libertarian Marxism, and a broader anti-authoritarianism.

With the Left and Marxist tradition in the US historically dominated by tendencies that formulated a socialism ‘from above’ – namely, Stalinism, Social Democracy, and variants of Trotskyism – JFT has played a pivotal role challenging these traditions by restoring the notion that the emancipation of the working class is the task of the working class itself to the center of Marxism.

The method and conclusions of the Johnson-Forest Tendency contextually emerged from their break with Trotskyism in regards to Trotsky’s failure to understand the state-capitalist nature of Russia.  The document State Capitalism & World Revolution (SCWR) is a statement of this break, and attempts to clarify some of the fundamental questions facing revolutionaries at the time. Is Russian “Communism” what socialism/ the new society actually looks like? What is Stalinism: a revolutionary force or counter-revolution?  What is the unique feature of the modern bureaucracy under capitalism?

These are just some of the key questions this work tries to get at. Looking around the world and the left, these questions are still with us today.

Lots of militants roll their eyes when discussions over Russia begin. After all, James is known for demanding the Americanization of Bolshevism and here we are talking about Russia!  Considering everything going on in the world and the hundreds of other books a militant could read right now, why look at SCWR?

Although it is over fifty years old, it was a profound advance on Marxist theory and still relevant for militants today.  In many ways many of the questions the book raises have yet to be surpassed in terms of the development of capitalism and the revolutionary Left’s response to the dilemma’s facing oppressed people.

The following are questions raised in the first 5 chapters of SCWR:

  1. What is Trotsky’s analysis of Stalinism?  Where does Trotsky think the Stalinists will end up?  What does he think the Stalinist relationship to the bourgeoisie is?
  2. What is JFT’s analysis of Stalinism?  According to JFT what is Stalinism’s relationship to private property and to the Russian “Communist” state?  According to JFT what are the implications of Trotsky’s analysis of Stalinism?
  3. What do they mean by “the fundamental antagonism of society was the contradiction between the development of the productive forces and the social relations of production”?  Why can only worker self-management of production solve this fundamental contradiction of capitalism?
  4. What is the difference in understanding crisis and Russian “Communism” when using falling rate of profit in contrast to the under consumption argument? (10)  What are the implications of the under consumptionist argument? (13)
  5. If capitalism can plan, then does under consumption disappear, does crisis disappear, does the falling rate of profit disappear?  Can capitalism plan completely?  Can capitalism’s plan negate working class resistance or the falling rate of profit?
  6. What is JFT trying to say about bureaucracy?  What is the bureaucracies’ relationship to capital and to workers?  What is significant about the sentence, “The bureaucracy inevitably  must substitute  the struggle over consumption, higher wages, pensions, education ,etc., for a struggle in production” (41).  What does it mean to say that bureaucracy is an organic outgrowth of capitalist development and working class resistance?  What is JFT trying to do when comparing the mode of labor in Russia and the mode of labor in the United States?
  7. What is JFT’s critique of Trotskyism in relationship to the plan and the bureaucracy?  Why is this important when one is attempting to destroy the bureaucracy and struggle for direct democracy?

The Debate on Strategy in the Anti-Budget Cuts Movement

by Mamos

As an anti-budget cuts organizer in Seattle, I am excited by the important debates Advance the Struggle (AS) has raised with their piece Crisis and Contradictions: Reflections and Lessons from March 4th.    I basically agree with the perspective that AS is putting forward;  it confirms and advances a lot of the perspectives that my comrades in Unity and Struggle have been developing, especially with our anti-budget cuts work with Democracy Insurgent in Seattle, with ella pelea! in Austin, and our comrade’s work at Berkley.  For those who don’t know, Unity and Struggle is a revolutionary organization animated by a belief in the self-emancipation of oppressed people; for more info, check out the “About US” section of the Gathering Forces blog.    I would consider Unity and Struggle and a lot of the milleiu around Gathering Forces to be part of  the “class struggle Left” tendency that AS outlines and calls for; like AS we are attempting to chart a third path that is independent from both the centrists (the “we need to meet people where they are at” folks) and the adventurists (the “Occupy Everything Demand Nothing” folks).  We appreciate the chance to dialogue with AS and other  like-minded activists around the country and we also appreciate the chance to have principled debate with comrades from the other two tendencies.

The response pieces written by Socialist Organizer (SO) and Labors Militant Voice (LMV), raise some important challenges to this third tendency and highlight some key differences between us and the centrist tendency.  It is important to note that LMV’s piece raises important critiques of SO’s piece and I engage with those here  – I have no intention of lumping them together.   I offer my notes on these responses  in the hope of furthering the debate.

What I write here is relatively unsystematic because my comrades and I are  in the middle of organizing for a strike at the University of Washington on May 3rd so I don’t have a lot of time to flesh this out. I hope comrades will forgive and correct any points here that are underdeveloped , inaccurate, or unclear. I am writing this from a first person perspective rather than formally representing Democracy Insurgent or Unity and Struggle, the groups I am a part of.   I imagine that most people in both groups would agree with the spirit of what I put forward here but we simply don’t have the time to collectively write and edit a formal response right now because of all of our organizing and study groups.

Continue reading The Debate on Strategy in the Anti-Budget Cuts Movement