The following series of writings were sparked by Mike Ely’s critique of an FNT flyer. The flyer, “Wildcats, Worker’s Power, and Lesson for Today,” is being distributed to striking bus drivers in NYC. The debates deal with questions of how to engage in popular struggles and what is the nature of revolutionary consciousness.

 

ISH:

Thanks Mike for a challenging piece. This gets to something that has been at the core of my own questions since re-engaging with the left in the wake of Occupy. I go to FNT meetings, and while I didn’t contribute to this leaflet, I thought it did I good job of trying to inspire workers toward more militant action than they might actually be conceiving by referring back to something that actually happened, was actually done by a previous generation of school bus drivers. And yet, I see your point, and I completely love the Kasama leaflet you refer to. So obviously the presumption here is that intersecting with workers engaged in actual struggle is a way to build solidarity, class identity, build toward a victory that inspires generalizing the struggle. I hear you saying that is a fundamentally flawed approach. To me passing out a flyer talking about revolution and communism makes a lot of sense in something like Occupy, given the issues and the people involved. I’m trying to imagine how that would work here, in a struggle that is much less politicized. I don’t mean this to sound flip, but are you suggesting something like “You Might Think You’re Just Trying to Save Your Job but You’re Really Starting on the Road to Revolution”? Or are you suggesting that intervening in these kind of workers struggles is poorly conceived?

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NPC:

I think this is an important question, and a very immediate, very pressing one for those of us who are doing workplace organizing. In most cities it also seems like much of the fresher, more vital workplace organizing is actually being done by groups that might also be categorized as “left communist” or syndicalist — with the rest mostly eaten up by the labor bureaucracy. With these political trends, I think it is a claim often leveled against them that they see workplace struggle as the be-all-end-all of organizing. This is somewhat enhanced by these trends themselves as they write about their own histories — syndicalists writing histories of revolutionary Spain, for example, emphasize the CNT but sort of ignore the immense number of affinity groups, community assemblies, social centers, libraries, free hospitals, peasants’ collectives/communes, independent armed brigades, etc. etc. that contributed to the revolutionary break — and most of whom were engaged in decidedly non-‘economist’ forms of agitation. Still, it’s something that is always a risk when you’re doing ANY kind of worplace organizing.But I want to problematize one of the claims made above:”Just to be clear: FNT is making a strong statement against the idea that we (as communists) have a central task to bring key revolutionary elements from outside people’s everyday experience.”I think this is unfair. Now, I admit, being from the west coast I don’t know as much about their organization or organizing styles, though I have read their website. From reading their materials, it does not at all seem like they fit into this category or that the statement above (from them, cited in the article) stands AGAINST the idea that one of our central tasks ought to be to bring revolutionary elements from outside people’s everyday experience.The issue here is twofold:

1. Saying that people DO often come to revolutionary or semi-revolutionary (or at the very least anti-capitalist) attitudes through workplace struggle and “everyday experience” is certainly correct. It’s clear that there is a latent rejection of the system, especially among the younger generations today. On the west coast, it literally seems like everyone under 30 who you talk to holds either SOME sort of “revolutionarY” view (though often a reactionary one) or a collapsist one. Either way, there is no real conception that the system as such can continue — there is a general understanding that another world is not possible, but INEVITABLE.

This does NOT mean that it’s immediately translated into a “good” anti-capitalism. It can just as easily turn into myths of techno-salvation, ecological apocalypse, or even fantasies of fascism. Particularly dangerous are the trends of “national anarchism” developing in certain cities, which argue for a racialized, decentralized form of “stateless” communitarianism, meshing elements of decolonial thought, bookchin-style libertarian municipalism, and national self-determination — but all of course resulting in something that is basically nazism by another name. Now it’s of course not that bad frequently. Many people have a very latent, very lite view of how “socialism would be better,” with socialism basically seen as some sort of social-democracy welfare state, and they think some large non-violent civil society “revolution” will be required to get there. All of these options are still far to the right of communist, revolutionary thinking — but they are still relevant leverages that exist, and which environmental and economic crisis are enhancing in people.

The difference, I guess, is that I do NOT think that groups like FNT are saying that this sort of internal, every-day or workplace-struggle experience is at all SUFFICIENT to make revolution or communist consciousness. It seems instead like they are pointing it out as an apt place to begin engagement with folks in a workplace–and that is honestly correct, it works very well to leverage these things in agitation, even if they are people’s negative “collapsist” views of the future.

At the same time, I of course agree that a lot of “external” elements are necessary — and I think the role of communists in workplace struggle is to act as a sort of enzyme, catalyzing contact between two previously segregated molecules (the workers’ inherent presumptions, often anticapialist of some sort, on one side, and specifically communist, revolutionary thought on the other).

There is a quote frequently attributed to Bill Haywood of the old IWW: “I’ve never read Marx’s Capital, but I have the Marks of Capital all over me.”

This could easily be taken to mean exactly what is argued against in the article above — the daily experience of struggle is sufficient for revolutionary consciousness. But I think it’s interesting that the quote actualy acts in a reflexive manner — if the “marks of capital” were sufficient, then Marx’s Capital would not need to be mentioned. Communist thought is here operating in that in-between capacity — what Zizek would call the parallax role, or the position of the analyst, as the third point-of-connection between the segments of the statement. It’s still presumed that Marx’s Capital exists, is valid, and bears some relation to the actual “marks of capital.”

2. The second thing we have to keep in mind is that on-the-ground organizing is messy, and people have all kinds of different presumptions in different areas. On most of the west coast, for instance, if you say the word “socialist” plenty of people in the cities will just be like “yeah, hey, I’m a socialist too!” but they of course mean some sort of social-democratic welfare state or, at best, something like Venezuela but as an END GOAL, rather than (as in Venezuela) a STARTING-point. “Socialism” communicates almost zero revolutionary consciousness. As Zizek and Dean have argued, “Socialism” is today increasingly becoming the code-word for “capitalism with a human face,” and thus acts as one of the strongest categories OPPOSED to communism and communist struggle. Similarly, if you say “socialism” in a poor rural area, you’re just as likely to find similar misunderstanding but from the opposite direction — and honestly I think you’d have a better chance of turning it into a revolutionary category HERE than in the wealthier liberal cities.

But the point is that one often has to balance outreach with potential immediate-dismissal based on ideological assumptions. If you say “mobilize the masses for communism!” you are going to look like a wingnut and be classed in the ideological category of “wingnuts” in most peoples’ minds. If you, in a flier on a bus strike, start talking TOO MUCH about Obama’s drone strikes, foreign wars, transnational corporate malfeasance, etc. etc. you’ll be dismissed and classed into the category of “helpless activist,” and people will again not want to engage with you.

I think that, despite a lot of text-heaviness and other design-side flaws, the flier actually makes the RIGHT choice in talking about a similar historic event. It’s not at all being done in the condescending fashion of “school bus drivers will only understand/resonate with the struggles of other school bus drivers.” Instead, it’s remembering a forcefully FORGOTTEN history and tying it directly to the present (not just remembering, then, in a nostalgic fashion). It becomes immediate because it reminds people that struggle happens, it is not the weird, alien practice that you “can’t do” because it is beyond the scope of (today’s) normality.

A quick anecdote: In talking to port truckers here (who have been struggling to organize, were sort of abandoned by the teamsters and the ILWU, etc.) I found immense reception when I was just casually chatting about how the old IWW used to operate. As independent contractors, for instance, they were attracted to the idea of a union form which basically accomodated that “informal labor” aspect. It was certainly just (at one level) history-talk, but at another it offered material that was relevant to their struggle today, if only to prove that their fight is NOT hopeless.

I certainly agree, though, that the FNT flier doesn’t seem to get much beyond this — and thus ultimately sounds kind of conservative. At the same time, given the atmosphere, that MAY be an immediate necessity, and this flier may be the first in a series that would gradually up the revolutionary content — I know so little about the on-the-ground conditions that I can’t say whether that would be a good strategy or not.

But a final example: The Black Panthers, though pretty clearly revolutionary, and militant, especially at their inception, also rarely included DIRECt talk of the “we want socialism” or “we want communism” variety. Their materials are constructed in a cunning way — where they basically can endorse a sort of socialistic idea by describing it but without using the “buzzword” really heavily everywhere. Think of the final point in the ten point program: “We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace” — well, this is basically saying “we want communism” but without saying it in those words. This, first of all, gave them an independent identity, not subsumed within the category of “socialist/communist parties” at the time. second, it probably, honestly DID contribute to their immediate flood of applications — while if they had had “communism” or “socialism” plastered all over their materials, it’s doubtful that (coming out of the McCarthy era), they would have gotten the same reception EVEN AMONG the oppressed. Of course, I also think that it was an ultimate FAILURE of the BPP–maybe caused by how fast they actually were recruiting–that they never seemed to jump past this stage and find an efficient method for truly communist agitation/education among their own membership or beyond.”

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Will:

I am in Fire Next Time, have been involved in the bus drivers strike, and have passed out the flyers Mike is talking about.

I find Mike Ely’s criticisms misplaced because he has little information on what the purpose of the flyer was. If he does know the context, he does not contextualize the rational of the flyer in his blog post.

Part 1: The Flyer

The flyer came out of a lot of conversations we had where bus drivers wanted to know what happened in 1979 (I am going to repeat this point many times). The myth of 1979 was fairly large. We saw almost all the workers having an orientation that was very legalistic and sectoral minded, praying for the unions to take care of the situation. We thought we could do something useful in providing the history of that event. Not because the event had all the answers, but because the bus drivers themselves were referencing the event. So when Mike writes in “Where’s the Communist Work,”  questioning whether” bus drivers are more open to lessons drawn from their own past,” he ignores the real conversations which we had and Mike did not. That is pretty frustrating. That is just one example of Mike’s mistakes. I will go into all of them, but it shows the dangers of making the judgments Mike does.

I do not think the 1979 strike can solve the problems the workers face. But it is an expression of their attempt. So we did some research and put together a flyer. Of course, to win anything we must go further than the strikes. If we end up writing a new flyer, I hope that is one of the things we raise. Or that in our own conversations with workers, we raise those possibilities. But I do not think these things can be forced.

Another point: as Mike probably knows, it is better to take assessment of how militants are relating to other workers by collecting their various flyers, conversations, organizations they attempt to build, actions they try to take, etc., and then assume the many things Mike did. FNT should post up some of the work around Con ED, where the structural situation of the Con ED workers allowed us to do things a little differently.

I agree that the last paragraph soft balled it and should have been sharper. That is a mistake on writing up the flyer. The last line of the flyer hints at job security. So the point about job security falls into the softness of the last paragraph.

I do not know Kasama’s or Mike Ely’s precise method of approach to working class people. But living in NYC, Seattle and Detroit, my experience was you had revolutionaries of all political stripes go to workers and start telling them about communism, imperialism or whatever else. And it never made sense to workers because the people I saw do this–I felt–believed that workers were idiots and had to be told in highly abstract ways about the need for communism. I do not want to be mistaken for not being in favor of discussing communism or revolution.  My point is that I see this all the time, where workers are trying to solve a specific problem, and the revolutionary A,B, or C is telling them about the need for communism. And every time this happens the workers shut down, their eyes glaze over, or respond that that is too idealistic, that the militants are too comfy, etc. If the workers do not ignore the revolutionary then they have classic rebuttals which hardly go anywhere.

More broadly, almost none of the revolutionaries I have met, from 1968 or today, know how to talk about revolutionary politics to working class people.  I do not think Mike’s suggestions help much, other than giving suggestions which I have heard many times and read about, as if that were the magic bullet.  Frankly, everyone in the hard left blindly follows what Mike has outlined. I think a much more serious assessment of Mike’s suggestions are needed. (Notice that I have not developed a fleshed out theory of consciousness, organization, etc. So I hope people do not jump on me by assuming that I am a spontaneist or that workers experiences are magically revolutionary. Easy caricatures, but not my position.)

I want to be clear. I am not saying that Mike or Kasama does what I outlined in the relationship of militants to workers. I do not know Kasama’s practice with workers in struggle. I am just saying that is what I have seen almost 100% of the time in the hard-left. If Kasama has a better method, they should write about that or do it in NYC. I do not think any of Mike’s suggestions deal with the problem I have outlined, other than saying we should just say communism and tap our heals three times.  At least that is how I generally interpret Mike’s very brief notes. Perhaps I am mis-understanding Mike. He can clarify.

I remember reading Mike’s writings on organizing with the coal minders in West Virginia. I thought they were very helpful, nuanced, etc. I hope he brings that to the table when offering advice, which I did not feel he did with this flyer.

Finally and to repeat, the flyer has to be understood as explaining the 1979 strike to workers who did not know what happened.  Otherwise, the flyer makes no sense. That is why many things were not mentioned. If we keep working on the bus driver strike, I imagine we will cover some of the points Mike has laid out.
For readers who do not know, there are Kasama members in FNT. There have been very hard debates inside FNT with Kasama people about the nature of communism, China and many other questions. I generally see Mike’s position as rushing to a conclusion based on one flyer, for the purposes of scoring ideological points.  That is why I am frustrated. Perhaps I am wildly wrong.  I was told Kasama does serious investigation and then debates.  Mike ignored the context of the flyer, the broader situation of the workers, the broader work of the militants involved… He ignored everything except a very narrow literary critique of the flyer.  I hope this was an accident by Mike and he demonstrates his serious class struggle experiences via the coal miners strike, by bringing that kind of stuff to bear on what we can do better.
Part 2: Some Notes on “Communist Work: Sing our Song”

On Mike Ely’s blog post “Communist Work: Sing our Song,” I generally see where Mike is coming from. I do not expect Mike to know the internal differences FNT members might have. We are a network.  While, I think that our work and publications on the blog offer important counter examples/ more complex readings to what Mike says our general politics are, Mike’s readings are fair enough.
At least for FNT folks, we might want to keep thinking about how our self-description needs to be more complex.

1. The underlying argument animating Mike Ely’s point on his blog “Communist Work: Sing our Song”  is Lenin’sWhat is to Be Done  (WTBD).  Correct me if I am wrong. I argue the method in which Mike is using WTBD is isolated and a-historical, leaving revolutionaries with very limited tools to solve the complexities of dealing with consciousness, organization, and class.  No doubt WTBD is a key work and has important insights. But a broader set of tools are needed.

2. I am not going to directly answer Mike Ely’s post. But instead offer a list of names (and implied method) and a broader way to think about the problem. I take the most from Lenin, Gramsci, Luxemburg, Marx, Fanon, Du Bois, Malcolm X, Lukacs, CLR James, Operaismo, Glaberman and a whole bunch of literary artists.

Several points: there is a running thread of exploration in all of these revolutionaries which tries to solve the different conditions oppressed people have found themselves in and the historical and specific problems of consciousness, organization and class they faced.  That is key in my perspective.  While, historically they often are counter-posed to one another, if we use them as historical experiences of the sharpest revolutionaries of their times, a richer sense of the class, consciousness, and revolutionary (party) emerges.  I do not think they get it 100% right, but how they tackle the problems are important. (I will admit the burden is on me to elaborate. A longer article is needed on this question, but not today.)

I do not think that Lenin alone is the guiding stick for how to tackle the points Mike Ely raises. There is a lot I agree with in Ely’s blog post, but its solutions are too narrow and simple. I wonder if Mike Ely can talk to people in any other manner, deal with other historical problems, consciousness, etc… It also ignores context and offers a magic pill to complex problems.  In the end Mike’s suggestions end up being like someone who only knows how to use a hammer to build a house. An important tool, but not the only one relevant to building a house.
Lenin wrote about one historical experience of consciousness, class, organization. Is that the only experience that counts? I think what he wrote is crucial and I take a lot from it, but it is not enough. To me this explains Mike E’s reaction to the flyer. While I think he is correct in saying that the last paragraph soft balls it, I think his general analysis is too narrow.

3. Some of the questions which I’m not sure how Mike E’s method would tackle are the following: a) what happens when oppressed groups revolt against the party, as in Kronstadt? b) what do we do with Mike E’s post considering that most revolutionaries today are fairly disconnected from working class, lumpen, prison, etc. experiences and struggles c) what theory and strategy do oppressed groups have to teach revolutionaries; is there a dialectical relationship or is it a one way street?  d) how do revolutionaries deal with the specifics which different sectors of the class are facing; is there any room for that? are we doomed into falling into sectoral struggles? e) I find most serious proletarians have a better sense of strategy than most revolutionaries. They know the conditions on the ground pretty well. One example to think about is how do Black proletarians confront the police versus the anarchist/ communist scene?  f) how do social conditions, experiences, struggles help develop communist politics? or is it just a matter of line arguments/ convincing people? g) how do we tackle contradictory consciousness h) what about the relationship between action and consciousness? which one comes first? how does their relationship change historically?

4. I also want to post a draft flyer that was floating around in FNT and other militant circles, that I wrote.  It is not edited and I will not edit it for publication. I will leave its grammar and political mistakes in there, but it gets at what Mike Ely might consider a more ‘dangerous’ flyer.  The reason I am including this draft is to demonstrate two things: a) Mike Ely is ignorantly intervening in local stuff without knowing the context. I am guessing he is pro-Lenin and pro-democratic centralism.  I fall more critically in that camp as well. The burden is on people like myself and Ely to prove that our interventions can accurately capture the local conditions. And most importantly not waste time in debates which do not reflect the questions militants face. That is one of the reasons I have been frustrated with this entire conversation. There are a generation of militants who cannot stand Lenin or democratic centralism and they have good reason. I think Mike Ely gives them more ammunition.

This is not to say that we should study Lenin and the specific points he makes, but that in this instance, Mike’s point is coming off a little bit out of nowhere and carries a very limited framework.

b) I see no fundamental difference between this draft that I wrote up and what I ended up passing out. Some of us decided to shelve this draft of the flyer, because we ran into workers who were curious about 1979.  It showed to us how people were curious about their own history–young and old workers.  Maybe–I do not know–our next flyer will be this one??

“The Department of Education is on a rampage against teachers, students, parents, and workers. Piece by piece it has destroyed the lives of all these peoples. Charter schools, drop out rates,

The crisis facing all of NYC is not an accident.  It is the crisis of capitalism.  Many of us know this when we say that we wish money could be taken out of politics.  Or that  greed is the problem.  All these are ideas which are afriad to get to the root of the probem–capitalism.

We can choose to ignore the situation.  And in NYC, it might be possible for some, as the immense wealth of the city allows the rich to throw workers an extra crumb off their table.  Anyone who knows what is on the table, knows the workers are more like slaves then human beings.

The power of workers: women, gay, undocumented, Black, white etc. is the great weapon we do not use. The city bosses know about our power.  That is why solidarity strikes are illegal.  That is why so many cops protect the banks.  That is why so many managers boss us around at work.  The question is: do we know our own strength.
There is a great battle coming. It is not the prophecy of 2012 predicted by Mayans. Great wars between the rich and the poor, between the workers and the rich are coming.  The rich know this in NYC. Do we know it?

We have been losing many of the battles: Subway strike, Con Ed strike, Wisconsin, Longview etc.  But we should not lose sight.  Every new battle is alos a chance for us to win, and like the Egpytian revolutions, can spark a wave of victories of the poor/ workers against the rich.”
5. I found NPC’s arguments pretty helpful and agree. It seems like NPC is semi-familiar with FNT, but also showed great respect and had a sympathetic reading of the strengths and failures of our method.  To me it showed a lot of organizational-political maturity.

(PS I am not sure who NPC is in real life.)

peace,

Will

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Arturo:

“Proletariat ideology is not merely a matter of theoretical analysis. It is a weapon and armory with which we must arm and surround the American working class and particularly those who face the enormous tasks confronting us in the present period.” —CLR James, The Americanization of Bolshevism

In his critique of the FNT flyer, Mike Ely strongly argues that revolutionary consciousness comes from outside the day to day activities of the oppressed. This line of reasoning comes directly from Lenin’s What Is To Be Done (WITBD). “We have said that there could not have been Social-Democratic consciousness among the workers. It would have to be brought to them from without. The history of all countries shows that the working class exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade union consciousness…The theory of socialism…grew out of the philosophic, historical, and economic theories elaborated by educated representatives of the propertied class, by intellectuals.”

This point about revolutionary consciousness being external to the proletariat is the most influential and misunderstood point of that essay. It is a thesis that is a basic assumption behind Ely’s line of reasoning and that of many Marxist-Leninists and vanguard-party communists. This logic was not special to Lenin: it was shared by social democrat Karl Kautsky and was popular within mainstream Russian Marxism at the time. It was influenced by the fact that the Tsarist police-state forced Russian revolutionaries to operate completely underground within the workers movement (this was before certain legal rights were given in response to the 1905 rebellions). It was also a product of the fact that the Russian communist movement was not made up of workers…yet. (CLR James elaborates on all this in Facing Reality).

WITBD is regarded as the earliest Leninist document. It was written in 1901-1902. Compare the approach of WTBD with that of documents that were written during and after the 1905 rebellions and as a result of the 1917 revolution. The Bolsheviks were some of the most enthusiastic and committed cadres within the spontaneous factory committee movement (soviets) in 1917, Lenin arguing that “Vital creativity—that is the fundamental factor in the new society…. Socialism is vital and creative, it is the creation of the popular masses themselves” and that “One of the most crucial tasks at present, if not the most crucial, is to develop the independent initiatives of the workers and toilers and exploited generally in the sphere of creative, organizational work.”

The model of Leninism which most Leninists are using is based in specific historical conditions. I think that the transformation of Lenin’s thought over the course of many years says something very important about the nature of revolutionary consciousness and how it is driven by the on-the-ground activities of the oppressed.

There are very different organizational, strategic, tactical, and methodological implications involved in this debate. ISH, Will, and NPC give good examples of how the different approaches play out in action.

The working-class is either revolutionary or it is not. For Ely and many others stuck in the past, it is not. They implicitly believe that proletariats are only revolutionary with external guidance that has no bearing on their immediate, practical activities. This complete dismissal of the revolutionary self-activity of oppressed people (flawed and incomplete as that activity is) leads to a bourgeois and sectarian drift. If revolutionary consciousness is supposedly not derived from within the initiatives of workers, but from outside them, then revolutionary consciousness comes from non-workers. This is a reflection of alienation in capitalist society and the bourgeois monopoly on revolutionary theory.

I’m not interested in arguing for or against spontaneity or self-activity. I think we need to explore the dialectical relationship between spontaneity and organization, between the limitations of the immediate present and the potentials of the long-term future, between the ways in which the working class is internally revolutionary and the ways in which it is externally influenced.

With all its messy limitations and overwhelming dominance by bourgeois hegemony, the working-class is still fundamentally revolutionary. It is the revolutionaries, not the proletariats, who are more backwards when it comes to revolutionary consciousness. Not because of what is said here or there, but because of what people’s material positioning is in world society, because of what their concrete relationship is to the state and capitalism, and what they are historically compelled to do because of that relationship.

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Nat Winn:

What is meant by class consciousness? Is the working class fundamentally revolutionary (as brother Arturo says)? What does this imply about organization? These are important questions with strategic implications and I’m glad that the discussion over a flier distributed to striking NYC bus drivers has led into this area.

My understanding is that the working class is not fundamentally revolutionary, At least in terms of its ideology or its consciousness. In a structural sense it can be said that historically the position of workers in capitalist society as collective producers create the potential for a radically egalitarian society based on collective ownership of natural resources and human knowledge and technology. I think that argument still has value. I don’t think this implies that working class experience thus equals communist (or revolutionary) consciousness.

Any individual from any class can develop a communist consciousness. There are both objective and subjective reasons for why an individual decides to commit themselves to human liberation. Likewise any individual can commit themselves to counterrevolutionary politics and of course in the vast majority of individuals there is a mix. Some brothers and sisters refer to it as a dual consciousness. In that sense I think dual consciousness is inherent across classes.

The reason I see for choosing to focus on organizing in a certain section has to do partly with our summations of what sections of the people would serve as the backbone or core of a revolutionary movement.

This does not mean that the whole or even the majority of the working class are fundamentally (I am reading this as “inherently”) revolutionary.

There is a need for all of us to clarify what we mean when we talk about the working class or the proletariat. Are the two the same? Does the global proletariat encompass more than just wage earners? Does it include our brothers and sister in the shanty towns, in the prisons, domestic workers, poor peasants, etc.? What forces do revolutionaries represent when they write and lead (organize) struggle. This all has to be fleshed out?

Brother Will and brother Arturo assert that the working class is often more revolutionary than revolutionaries. Brother Will asks if revolutionaries have anything to learn from the workers.

Let me speak to both these points.

Like I said, I think all sorts of people develop revolutionary consciousness, often isolated from each other and divorced from the broader sections of people and focused on the day to day. Sometimes these people find one another and begin to build revolutionary organizations.

I think that something that can be called the working class movement or labor movement develops separately from that. Communist ideas are not prevalent among workers. The opposite is the case. We live in a capitalist society and the ideas prevalent among those we would organize are capitalist ideas.

There are feelings and sentiments within those ideas that are more lofty and closer to what communist militants conceive of as a liberating society, though those idea are undeveloped, and to the extent they become the fire within an individual or among groups of oppressed people, this develops away from the movement of labor, which is basically a struggle based around interests and getting a better piece of the pie within the frame work of the current order.

So what about the experiences when the oppressed break out in struggle and form new institutions that shake the foundations of society? What about the soviets in Russia and Germany, the workers councils in Italy and during the Hungarian uprising in 1956, the fight between rank and filers and the CIO leadership in the 1950s, the Shanghai commune, etc.?

I raise these experiences because these are what are often referenced as examples of working class self-activity that push at the bounds of overthrowing capitalism.

My understanding is that all these experiences point not to the potential of working class self-activity, but to it limits because of what I would call the unevenness of consciousness and the need for organization and leadership from revolutionaries.

What do I mean by this?

Arturo talks of a radical shift in Lenin’s thinking from the time of 1903 when he wrote What Is To Be Done? to 1905 to 1917. I agree, Lenin’s thinking developed and changes as the communist movement developed. On the hand Lenin still struggled hard for the leadership of the Bolsheviks over the course that the revolutionary movements of both 1905 and 1917 were to take. And there was a reason for this.

When you look at all of the experiences mentioned above there is not uniformity of consciousness in the working class. Ok that’s obvious. There are all kinds of ideas percolating and a lack of a concrete resolve in the consciousness of the oppressed who rise spontaneously. At a certain point of political crisis, whether in a wildcat strike or in a general rebellion the oppressed look for leadership. The workers in Hungary for instance want to preserve their councils, but they are uncertain of how and often they look for answer in the wrong places.

In Hungary there were those who wanted a councilist state, there were those who would trust reformist sections of the Communist Party of Hungary led by Nagy to carry out the demands of the uprising, there were sections of workers who wanted a Western style democracy, and those that were even calling for the US and NATO to intervene on Hungary’s behalf in the United Nations Security Council.

My point is that left to its own devices working class self-activity can go only so far. There is a need to fuse with those workers that carry the most lofty and revolutionary outlooks into an organization, a fighting force that can rally broader sections of the oppressed that have yet to think on those terms and also have yet to see a viable organizations that represent in the concrete that loftier vision.

The answer to Will’s question is yes, the workers (and oppressed) have a great deal to teach the revolutionaries. We learn from how to they see their struggles, from what they think is possible in any particular historical moment, and from the spontaneous and creative resistance that emerges when large sections of them begin to rise.

It is the responsibility of the revolutionaries in my view, to then synthesize what they have learned into concrete revolutionary demands, slogans that speak to their most lofty sentiments, and strategy.

This is how I understand the relationship between spontaneity and organization.

Finally, without getting into the hastiness of the response to the flier that began this debate, I wanted to bring a part of Mike’s response out that hasn’t been touched on. We as FNT all talked about the need for investigation and we carried it out. We learned what the workers were interested in and a few brothers together with others wrote a response based on that investigation. In my view an important part of this debate is thinking about how we then speak about the 1979 strike. Do we write about it in such a way to connect with the more advanced and loftier visions, or do we speak to the majority of workers who are looking for a better contract.

In some ways, as brother Jed points out in his comments to Will on the Kasama site, the flier seeks a loftier “general” interest (though I might argue we move beyond speaking in terms of interests at all). This was a positive, though I’m not sure how conscious it was.

From the organizational side of things, because of the unevenness of consciousness among and within the different forces we are attempting to mobilize, I think there needs to be deeper discussion of who we are attempting to reach and why when we write. It’s been talked about but we haven’t collectively dug deep. For example, if you are starting out attempting to develop class wide committees that are revolutionary in nature and those committees are dominated by workers who hold narrower visions, what will happen to the committee? Is it not better to write to the minority at the outset, with the idea that minority can become a core that can then appeal to the broader majority as its vision become a more concrete force in the political?

These are the ways I am looking at the relationship between consciousness and organization.

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Gio:

Hi all,

I didn’t write this pamphlet, but assisted in its production. While I don’t disagree entirely with the usefulness of what Mike puts forth, I want to disagree on specific points and suggest that both strategies are useful.

Firstly: to say that everyday experience contains revolutionary elements, that the consciousness emerging from that experience has revolutionary potential, does not imply that it emerges “naturally.” Nothing could be further from the case. If this were the case, no “push” would be necessary.

Secondly: this means that a focus on self-activity is not a blind tailism as you suggest, destined to pull us to the right. Nor does it mean we bring nothing whatsoever “from the outside.” This is a caricature. It means that what we do bring, an orientation toward ruthless critique that seeks to push the revolutionary elements within consciousness, does not come as a roadmap, abstract principles, empty words divorced from the reality of experience.

Thirdly: one point of confusion seems to be that “revolutionary elements (of consciousness and action) are those that arise from everyday experience of that subgroup of workers.” There is no suggestion that a specific subgroup of workers contains these revolutionary elements, and thus no suggestion that these bus drivers should be blindly followed into trade-union demands (note whether or not to engage a specific grouping of workers is a strategic question). As a result “rank and file schema” like “job security” clearly do not “dominate” this leaflet.

Fourthly: What then does? A historical lesson about: 1.) the need for “self-directed, uncompromising [!] action; 2.) the power of “physical direct action”; and 3.) the central task of generalizing and circulating struggles. Mike writes: “(I won’t use their phrase “revolutionary elements” because there are no revolutionary elements in this leaflet),” but what is the combination of these three elements if not essential ingredients to the building of a revolutionary situation?

Is revolution words and flags, or is it processes and actions?

Fifth, and finally: this is all not to say that Mike’s example of possible text has no use, but simply that this use is partial, and depends on a lot of things. That a pamphlet or flyer feels hot in someone’s hand depends much on that person: how they are feeling, how they view their position in the world, how far-off (or even unthinkable) the revolution seems to them. FNT has used the sort of rhetoric you propose on a number of occasions (here’s one: http://firenexttimenetwork.org/2012/08/24/cops-are-people-too/)

But revolutionary action is not about words, it’s about the capacity to build revolutionary movements, which means it’s profoundly intersubjective. For those who don’t find echo in the burning prose you suggest, should we write them off? Or is the idea that this is the best approach simply an article of faith? Yes to burning prose, but yes also to flexibility, which in and of itself reflects a respect for those everyday experiences that will be the foundation for revolutionary action.

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