Don Hamerquist on the Black Block in Seattle


In the past few months, Seattle has seen an upsurge of organizing against police terror  in the wake of the murder of the late Native woodcarver J.T. Williams.   Black Orchid Collective members have been active in this upsurge and we are currently working on a theoretical piece reflecting on it, imagining how we can advance the struggle beyond its current limitations.  It will be up shortly.

One of the key debates on the Seattle Left right now is over the role of the Black Block in these anti-police brutality actions.  The Black Block is a tactic where protestors dress all in black and wear black bandanas over their faces so that the police cannot as easily tell them apart.  That way if someone in the Block engages in property destruction or other illegal tactics it will harder for the cops to pick that person off.  It is a way for a wider group of protestors to express their solidarity with those who do not believe in confining movement strategy and tactics to the limits of legality under the capitalist system.   The Black Block is often associated with anarchism, but really it is a tactic, not a politics; there are a variety of anarchists and non-anarchists who engage in it, and there are also anarchists who do not engage in it.

The Black Block presence at several recent demonstrations against police terror has  sparked debate on the Seattle Left.   This debate is over the following questions: Are people ready for illegal tactics like smashing cop car windows?  Do engaging in such tactics put oppressed people at risk of police retaliation?  Will engaging in such tactics help grow and deepen the participation of oppressed people or will it cut the Left off from the rest of our communities?  Is it undemocratic for a militant minority within a crowd to escalate tactics, even if other political tendencies present disagree?  Did the Black Block undemocratically “hijack” protests?

Many of these questions had come up earlier during the 1999 rebellion against the meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Seattle, where the Black Block played a prominent role (the famous sound of Starbucks and Niketown windows smashing in the downtown shopping district).  Don Hamerquist wrote and circulated an essay around that time engaging in these post WTO debates.  Hamerquist is a long-time Marxist revolutionary and working class intellectual whose work has had a major influence in our political tendency’s attempts to build rank-and-file direct-action oriented labor struggle.   His focus on deepening the self-activity and participation of working people, and breaking through the constraints of more bureaucratic modes of Left organization comes through in his analysis of the WTO uprising here in Seattle.  In that sense, his essay is more than simply a polemic defending the Black Block; it is an articulation of the need for developing methods of struggle that recognize and expand revolutionary ruptures, helping to develop new revolutionary militants.    As far as we know his essay  has not been published online.  We are posting it here because we think it is just as relevant to the Seattle Left today as it was 10 years ago.  Of course the issues raised both then and today in Seattle touch on more universal questions facing oppressed people everywhere.   We are looking forward to hearing your thoughts and comments.

We do not endorse everything Hamerquist writes here; we present it to spur discussion.

On the Black Block in Seattle

February 2000

Everyone in the “movement” agrees the WTO action in Seattle was important–perhaps even historic. But ask why, and the “agreement” dissolves into a complex and contradictory mix of different interests, motives, strategies and perceptions. I think that what made Seattle important is exactly what made it difficult for capital. Some of these difficulties are objective problems facing global capitalism. These will be touched on later. However, in terms of the action itself, the starting point is the Black Bloc. Without the Black Bloc, the Judas embrace of the Clintons on the one hand and the Buchanans on the other would have ripped the political heart out of the Seattle action, and the police would have had an easy time containing it.

(For most of this discussion, the Black Bloc actions are considered to go beyond the property destruction by roving anarchist affinity groups to include features of the main activity, in particular some of the responses to police attacks on the blockades. Also included is the spontaneous redistribution of property by local residents; and the popular resistance to the police attempts to impose a curfew on the Capital Hill district. Of course, this does not mean that all of these elements were organizationally linked or even that they shared a common politics, only that in total they provided something important and new.)

Not surprisingly, the features of the action I identify as Black Bloc have provoked a shitstorm of criticism. They are called violent, irresponsible, provocative, nihilistic, undemocratic, naïve, illegitimate and worse. The movement’s general response to Seattle pictures the Black Bloc as a subtraction from the overall action and a dangerous diversion. This attack requires a strong and careful response by the Black Bloc and those who align themselves with it; or the political momentum we have gained in Seattle will evaporate into nostalgia, and genuine radicals will remain a marginalized fringe of a tame movement.

Preliminary point

At certain moments the question is, which side are you on? This paper is on the side of the Black Bloc. Any criticisms or differences with one or another feature of the action, or with one or another of the explanations of it and arguments for it, are meant to be read in this context. There have been fence-straddling statements on Seattle that try to mediate the differences, picturing them as disputes over tactics between people who are on the same strategic path. This is not helpful at best, and at worst deliberately obstructs the needed discussion. One’s strategic path is demonstrated at moments of political crisis and pressure. Black Bloc critics who essentially come down on the side of order in Seattle are raising differences that go beyond tactical issues. Without some compelling evidence to the contrary, I find their professions of radicalism and anti-capitalism equivalent to those of Blair, Mitterand, and Schroeder. Their positions should be dealt with, but not with big expectations of finding some common ground.

Determining which side you’re on is only a first step. It may raise some questions, but it provides no useful answers. We must not wrap ourselves in a self-congratulatory and self-righteous cocoon to deflect criticism and discussion originating outside of our ranks. This is all too common. In addition to weakening our ability to win over people who disagree with us, or who think that they do, this stance also pretty much guarantees that there won’t be a healthy internal debate. The radical position is a minority position, a small minority, and will continue to be for some time. It must be developed, demonstrated and tested in both action and argument to convince a significant number of people that it is valid and workable. Luckily for us, people and their positions do change, sometimes, in response to events like Seattle, rapidly and dramatically.

Circumstances

Just at the point of capital’s apparent universal triumph, there is an outbreak of conflicting interests and tendencies within it, and the emergence of new insurgent potentials against it. This paradox, a happy one for radicals, was the basic context for the Seattle WTO meeting. These issues are not the topic of this paper so I will only make a few brief points that I think are relevant to what happened in Seattle.

Capital is increasingly international. Profit is maximized through supranational institutions and processes that are relatively independent of specific national interests and are not necessarily advanced through the policies of particular national states. However, capitalist political and military power is still organized on the basis of nation states, and in many cases, globalization has been at the expense of sectors of capital that have historically been dominant in particular countries and that have the ability to resist their eclipse politically and, potentially, militarily, despite being superceded economically. Thus the political requirements for stability and hegemony and, thereby, military power in a nation, for example, this nation, don’t always dovetail with global profit maximization. The supranational institutions such as the WTO that might implement a new equilibrium for capital are still in the developmental stages, and it is urgent for capital’s stability that they be developed quickly.

Underlying this situation, reinforcing its contradictions and preventing easy capitalist solutions, global capital is reaching limits on its ability to revolutionize the productive forces, in particular the fundamental productive force, human labor. The exploitation of direct labor is becoming less important than the accumulated productivity of historical labor. As a consequence we have the situation, an absurdity in human terms, where living labor is becoming redundant, not because it could not be employed productively, but because dead labor is “too productive.” Meanwhile some two thirds of the world is on the edge of famine and plague. Capital is treating direct labor as if it was raw material to be consumed in the production process and discarded.  It uses up one pool of cheap labor at immense human cost and then moves on to another one, attempting to avoid the development of countervailing organization which might force it to assume some of the costs of social reproduction. Beyond this, having transcended its relationship to specific territories and cultures, capital is, if possible, even less concerned than it has been historically with the environmental and social consequences of profit maximization. Entire populations have been devastated and, to some extent, activated, through the operation of impersonal market forces that are completely beyond their political reach.

. Think of what this means. There is this bewildering array of grievances and responses. Outmoded sectors of capital would like to go back to the good old days in ways that superficially parallel the projects of some popular forces. There are pressing grievances among newly proletarianized populations while historically privileged working classes now face the issues of marginalization. The cumulative consequences of capitalist development have given urgency and momentum to demands for a different quality of life. Neo-colonial political structures evolved to divert national liberation movements from a revolutionary anti-capitalist trajectory are undermined by economic processes denying them the ability to deliver the goods to their constituencies. These all contribute to potentials for insurgency. The decisive and leading sectors of capital must deal with all of this when they can’t rely on stable political hegemony within their own class, much less in any national state. This, in my opinion, is what underlay Seattle.

These are issues here that need a lot of sorting out, but three things are clear enough. First, structural reform/ necessary stage approaches make no strategic sense. What are the overarching demands that might constitute essential goals short of anticapitalist revolution? Certainly they cannot be interest group demands that could and would be satisfied at the expense of some other constituency in a sort of a zero sum game. Second, an implication of my first point is that sectoral demands and minimum agreement alliances to achieve them have to be carefully scrutinized. They can mask incompatible interests in ways that help capital adapt to changed circumstances more than they help any sector of the people. Finally, in this country, as well as throughout the world, there is a lot of chaos churning underneath the apolitical surface normalcy. Large groups of people are likely to make major changes in what they think and are willing to do without going through a gradual incremental process of  “learning.” We can certainly be thankful for this, given the quality of most of those who would appoint themselves as the teachers.

The Discussion

An interesting discussion is developing about the Seattle action. It’s important it continue and that it involve more questions and a wider range of participants.  This is not a time to be afraid of having differences. We will have differences, big ones. My point of departure, to repeat, is solidarity with the Black Bloc. This was where the Seattle action broke out of the suffocating orbit of capitalist power and one of its hegemonic adaptive mechanisms– the “legitimate” official protest movement. The Black Bloc was the core of the party of disorder. It was the grouping whose project consciously tried to be anti-capitalist. It contributed heavily to the actions and attitudes that are difficult for capital to repress and/or contain. To make the same point differently, the Black Bloc marked the path to the differentiating a revolutionary component in the struggle and took a few steps along it.

One main document putting forth the position of the Black Bloc (perhaps one of the positions within the Bloc would be more accurate) is the Acme Collective communiqué. There is a lot to like and agree with in this document. It is refreshingly militant and even funny. Its description of the actual behavior of the Black Bloc makes an instructive contrast with the officially sanctioned ‘tactics’ that have been boring us to tears for decades.  Its points about the ‘peace police’ are also right on target. But the Acme communiqué raises issues where I disagree.  Hopefully my criticisms will help develop a clear and coherent response to the attacks the Acme document has generated, and will also clarify some conditions and terms for future activities.

Two straightforward points: First, let’s try a little Aesopian language. A group that argues we are already “living in a police state” (more about this later) should not lay out a blueprint for felony interstate conspiracy charges.  The state is a party to our debates, sometimes silent, sometimes not so silent. Second, at times, and Seattle may be one of them, the state develops a certain tactical paralysis when it is confronted with harder choices than those to which it has become accustomed and when it has sharp internal differences over how to respond. This can result in both incredible lapses in control and almost vigilante violence from the police. We shouldn’t expect this paralysis to become chronic and should temper any euphoria over the success of Black Bloc tactics. It will not always be possible to find unprotected symbolic targets; to ‘get away’; or to hide behind masks which also are markers. It’s unlikely to be this easy next time. The state will learn from this experience. Certainly it will learn at least enough so it will be prepared for the next case. It’s important that we learn also, and learn better. One thing to learn is the situation in Seattle cannot be mechanically reproduced elsewhere. Efforts to do this will be largely futile and can become a self-parody. Rather than trying to replicate a unique set of conditions, we should find the ways to incorporate the spirit of insurgency and intransigence demonstrated in Seattle into tactics that fit a wide range of different situations.

I have a bigger problem with Acme’s treatment of the issues of violence and non-violence.   It is not in our interests to try to finesse these questions, but I think that is what Acme does. The communiqué makes some comments on the violent essence of capitalism that many of its critics could accept, and then, as I read it, argues that property destruction is an essentially non-violent form of struggle. This is a dismayingly glib evasion that will open up a fruitless debate with pacifists. They will point out that when property is trashed, someone is inevitably hurt, caused “pain,” even if no one intends it. In fact, unless the property damage is purely symbolic, they are right.

We have an enemy, but it is not tangible property. It is not technology. It is a system of domination by a class, enforced, in the last instance, which is often the first place, by force and violence. Class rule is not going to disintegrate in the face of non-violent persuasion; certainly not when the persuasion originates with people who are not intransigently hostile to capital but only to some of its features and policies. (Equally important but totally outside the scope of this paper, it’s impossible to develop a revolutionary response to fascism without abandoning pacifism.)

Radicals can’t afford to be pacifists in either the short or the long term. We can’t afford to take responsibility for our actions through religious submission to the legitimacy of the very authority we challenge. The use of violence must not be romanticized, but it does have to be planned and organized. No significant popular advance is possible, certainly nothing that approaches a revolution, without using force and popular violence against the inevitable and omnipresent violence of the system. This is a requirement for our own defense, and it is a requirement for victory.

Nothing that has been said to this point excludes agreement on nonviolent tactics in certain circumstances, but this agreement should not involve tacit acceptance of the moral and philosophical stance of pacifism. The elitist underpinning of pacifism should be confronted and rejected as a matter of strategic principle. It takes a stance of unwarranted moral superiority, both to the vast majority who are unwilling to cede a monopoly of force and violence to the state and to those of us who draw a qualitative distinction between the violence of an oppressor and the violent response of the oppressed. This is a false superiority that rests ultimately on being able to opt out of the struggle if it doesn’t develop along the lines you advocate.

Perhaps it’s unfair to think the Acme Collective deliberately ducks the issues around violence just because of what they do and don’t say in this short document. However, even if this isn’t a fair criticism of them, it certainly applies to much of the rest of the movement.

The issues around force and violence involve much more than the acceptance or rejection of pacifism. As mass insurgencies develop in this country, the movement will go beyond pacifism. This is already the case in most of the rest of the world and it has been true at times in the past in this country.  Inevitably, however, evading the discussion of force and violence around pacifism leads to evading it or distorting it on more important points. The failure to work out the issues of force and violence contributes to a left that flops all over the place; embracing pacifism casually and uncritically, then rejecting it in favor of a romanticized violence, even to the point of rationalizing its legitimacy inside the movement. Commonly, this is followed by a paroxysm of penitence and yet another reversal which rediscovers social work or parliamentary liberalism or some other capitalist crap.  We should all be aware this has happened before in this country. In fact, it is happening here and around the world right now. Hopefully this generation can break the cycle.

Radicals must take political responsibility for their tactics, violent and non-violent alike, carefully thinking out the consequences and implications for overall strategy.  Violence, even when it is clearly targeted against capital, must be measured and limited so that an increasingly credible moral distinction between capitalism and anti-capitalism emerges. A great weakness in the international radical tradition and culture, and a heavy legacy of “actually existing socialism”, is that this moral distinction, which at one time was self-evident, has been eroded to the point where it is virtually invisible.

There are two other points in the Acme document that deserve more extended treatment: First, “…let us remind you–we are living in a police state”(Acme, p. 3); second, “private property–and capitalism, by extension–is intrinsically violent and repressive and cannot be reformed or mitigated” (Acme, p. 4).  These statements are understandable and have elements of validity, but as stated they are wrong and can lead to dangerous illusions and a flawed optimism. Rather than make these criticisms here, I will put them in the context of my differences with the main critiques of the Acme statement and the Black Bloc activities with which I’m familiar: Michael Albert’s “Response to the Acme Collective” and Brian Dominick’s  “Anarchy, Non-violence and the Seattle Actions.” There is really no reason to spend time on various criticisms and observations that come from the so-called communist left. Basically, Seattle provides a pretext for restatements of their too well known positions. There is little else to them besides invective and imagination. I don’t agree with Albert and Dominick but they at least present positions that can be discussed and debated.

(Albert has put out a later argument that takes a substantially different and less objectionable tack than “Response.” He also has an abridged version of ‘Response’ that omits the direct criticism of the Acme Collective position. When politics improve it is certainly welcome. Unfortunately, Albert doesn’t indicate he has changed any of his positions in “Response” even though some of them appear to be the ones he criticizes in his later piece; specifically the concepts that certain folks have property rights in the movement and that majority tactical decisions should be binding on all participants in movement actions. So, if we are lucky, Albert may be better than he seemed. However, even if he does not stand by all of his initial positions, they are certainly held by others and can still be usefully criticized. It also has to be noted that his change in tone and in some specifics does not affect fundamental elements of the strategy his initial argument advances.)

The Albert criticism purports to deal with the Acme statement on a “point by point” basis. The basic presentation patronizes its readers with a tone of weary olympian detachment. Albert believes he has seen it all, and seen others do it all before. He aims to corral the wild kids before they do real damage while smoothing the ruffled feathers of the movement apparatchniks they have offended. But from time to time his own indignation at the Black Bloc actions does come through and he gets strident.

Dominick is much more confused and conflicted. He goes on at length about what he knows, what he thinks, what he has been arguing, what he could be convinced of and what he sees some value in. When he is done, we are left only with petulant conclusions such as the Black Bloc should limit its activity to times and places removed from “the actually valuable work done by those who used mass action to disrupt the WTO…There is a time and a place for everything, and there’s no reason to risk spoiling one group’s event for what then amounts to the shenanigans of another” (Dominick, Anarchy, p. 4).

This is not a “point by point” refutation of Albert or Dominick. That could be instructive, if tedious, but it is more than is called for. Let’s assume for the moment, as both Albert and Dominick appear to, that they and the Acme people share a similar objective–call it anti-capitalist revolution, communalism, basic institutional change, or whatever. Is there also a strategy to achieve this objective they share with the Black Bloc – a strategy that provides a basis for criticizing and, indeed an obligation to criticize, the Black Bloc tactics? I don’t think so, and if there is no such a shared strategy, it clearly calls into question whether they actually do agree on ultimate objectives.

It’s hard to tell anything definite from the impressionistic equivocations in the Dominick piece, but Albert’s conception of a strategy is evident. A few excerpts illustrate it:

“Movement building, winning short term demands and laying a basis for winning longer term aims…assessing tactics means noting whether they enlarge or diminish immediate chances to win some goal!”… “ Thus the evaluative issue remains what it was at the outset, what behavior builds a movement and what behavior will worry elites into succumbing to pressure”… “More, changing society isn’t a matter of breaking windows, it is a process of developing consciousness and vehicles of organization and movement, and of then applying these to win gains that benefit deserving constituencies and create conditions for still further victories, leading to permanent institutional change” (Albert, Response, p.1, p.4, p.6).

These passages simply restate reformism, whether of the Bernstein (socialist) or, more likely, the Alinsky (populist) variants. It’s a little odd for someone who presents himself as a reasonable and experienced radical to put out this position without indicating it has been tried and rejected by a multitude of other reasonable and experienced radicals–not only by those who have “lathered themselves into a well-motivated but utterly out of touch turmoil of hope, rage, desire, paranoia, anticipation, and abstract rationalization that (is) so divorced from reality as to render them…virtually useless…” (Albert, Response, p.8). Time will tell who is “utterly out of touch” and “divorced from reality.” In any case, it is absolutely clear the Acme collective rejects all variants of reformism’

They say, “Private property–and capitalism by extension–is intrinsically violent and repressive and cannot be reformed or mitigated…we aim to destroy the thin veneer of legitimacy that surrounds private property rights.” (Acme, p. 6).

There are certainly problems with this Acme position; e.g. the “veneer of legitimacy” is not at all thin, and capitalism has demonstrated an ability not only to be reformed, but to be almost transformed in response to mass movements. Beyond this, at least in this document, the Acme people leave a lot of unanswered questions about how they would relate to mass movements and popular grievances. However, these limitations are trivial stacked against the flaws in Albert’s alternative. All of our collective experience with structural reforms, popular fronts, qualitative demands, even national liberation governments, provides no reason to regard any of them as steps towards anti-capitalism, much less as necessary stages through which an anticapitalist movement must travel. Why should we think Albert’s unspecified ‘winnings’ are any different? Presuming, of course, that this is what he believes.

In fact, we shouldn’t.  Where the movement has achieved the victories, the ‘winning’ that is Albert’s sine qua non, one result, however unintended, is that they allow capital to draw political support from what previously was an area of instability and potential insurgency. This is accomplished through the co-optation and incorporation of the movement or sectors of it. While capital always holds the option of police repression and, on a selective basis, regularly employs it, the co-optation and incorporation of protest movements, and not general repression, has been and still is, the normal form taken by capitalist rule in the so-called advanced areas. So long as it is possible to rule, while hiding the reality of exploitation and class domination behind purportedly neutral, objective and ‘just’ institutions and processes, the decisive sector of the ruling class regards this as the preferred strategy to maintain power. It’s always desirable to have the oppressed and exploited acquiescence in their essential subordination. It’s even better to have them participate in it. Capital will pay a price to achieve and maintain this position. The hegemonic reasons for this should be obvious.

Even historically significant “winnings” like the franchise, civil rights, the right to union organization, and formal political independence for oppressed peoples, have had this dual character. On the one side a popular advance; on the other side a revitalized legitimacy for capital that in many cases comes to outweigh the advance. This said, it must be noted that Albert is not asking that radicals defer to historically significant demands – at least he doesn’t indicate what they might be. Rather remarkably he appears to regard the attainment of demands, any demands, as more crucial than their content or the nature of the struggle for them. He would subordinate the Black Bloc’s actions to whatever demands the movement of the moment happens to throw up. In his view, any sort of victories, and the coalitions to obtain them are necessary first steps, notwithstanding the fact that such steps have been taken and retaken over the entire history of capitalism without ever leading to anything but another repetition of the same sad process.  When reduced to its essential argument, Albert’s real criticism of the Acme statement is nothing other than they disagree with this moth-eaten strategy. They are right to disagree.

When the core of a strategy is building coalitions aimed at winning immediate demands that will, in theory, lead incrementally to qualitative institutional change, any actions that alienate potential participants will be viewed as disruptions. When the core of a strategy is to develop a direct challenge to capitalist order in all of its modalities, no reform demands can be fetishized and many popular notions about what is needed, what is possible, and what is right, must be challenged. A debate over tactics that doesn’t clarify and take account of such huge underlying strategic differences will not be productive.

There are many historical situations where something similar has happened. I want to mention a couple of these, and then spend more time on an example that should be more familiar. Finally, I want to construct a hypothetical example based on an argument Dominick makes about Seattle.

The hot and confused debate about “sabotage” between Wobblies and the Socialist Party leadership in the 1910’s was part of the differences that split the international socialist movement during WWI and went far beyond tactics to fundamental issues of stance. The French C.P. grew quite apoplectic when confronted with radical slogans like ‘‘Be Realistic, Demand the Impossible’’ in the 1968 French General Strike. But this was not based on tactical differences with the “enragés,” although there were many, but on a fundamental inability to comprehend politics outside the limits of their popular front anti-monopoly coalition government strategy. At historical junctures such as these, radical tactics are routinely pictured in just the way that its critics viewed those of the Black Bloc; irresponsible, self defeating, nihilistic, almost irrational, and quite possibly, police-inspired. On the left the most common method of dealing with an emerging strategic alternative is to attack a caricatured version of its tactics.

When the Black Power movement suddenly (or so it appeared to outsiders) emerged from the civil rights movement of the 1960’s, it also was beyond the comprehension of much of the mainstream movement, not to mention groups like the CPUSA. Why raise a new demand which by its nature could not be conceded  (power can’t be bestowed) and why do this just at the moment when major victories were being attained?  Why alienate long time allies and jeopardize realistic expectations of majority support by attacking the system and allying with its enemies around the world? Why, particularly, when just yesterday the struggle had aimed at integration into the exact same system?

With the benefit of hindsight neither the tactics nor the strategy of Black Power seem at all irrational. The class base of the Black movement was transformed by it and the politics of the entire 60’s movement was as well. I don’t mean to argue that Black Power was necessarily a viable strategy, or that any strategy is correct just because it is a radical departure from what is in vogue. These things must be proven in action over time. In fact, Black Power was expeditiously defanged into a cultural style and attenuated into interest group politics, leaving us with Farrakhan and Jackson Sr. (Certainly there are lessons here for current day irreconcilables, Black Bloc included, but they are a part of a different argument.)  My point, again, is that competing strategies cannot be adequately evaluated on the level of tactics, and they will not generally be implemented through unitary tactics

Dominick apparently disagrees with this. For him “bad” tactics by the Black Bloc were the problem and “good” tactics would be the solution. Black Bloc arrogance was the essential issue in Seattle. He believes the Black Bloc imposed its tactics on someone else’s activity when the responsible and democratic course would have been to implement them at a distance in time and/or space. Dominick argues that with some organizational adjustments and a reasonable approach to tactics, the Black Bloc could easily have been a productive part of the overall movement.  I’m referring back to the earlier citation from Dominick, “…there’s a time and a place for everything…” (Dominick, Anarchy, p.4). Let’s look at his position in a little more detail and construct a plausible hypothetical case around it to see whether or not he could be right.

“Why didn’t those who hold that property destruction furthers the cause against neoliberal globalization simply engage in such acts on another day, or in a place far removed from putting thousands of law-abiding others at risk?”(Dominick, Anarchy, p.4).

Referring to the non-Black Bloc sector of the Seattle action as, “thousands of law-abiding others”, is too ridiculous to be called slanderous, but let’s put this aside. Suppose the Black Bloc had decided to do some major damage to the Boeing facilities in Renton or Everett, and to act against Nike, Disney, et al, in the University district or other neighborhoods away from downtown. Unless this action was purely symbolic (in other words, an essential failure), it would have been a big problem for the police–forcing them to divide their forces, complicating their command and control and consequently weakening their ability to deal with the main action’s blockade. It also could easily have expanded to involve residents in impromptu commodity redistribution, further diverting the police.

Would everything have been harmonious in Seattle with this more felicitous division of labor? Hardly. Let’s list common criticisms of the Black Bloc: it alienated potential supporters and allies; it broke majority “guidelines” for the action; it diverted attention from the real message; it legitimated repression. Isn’t it clear this hypothetical behavior would have evoked exactly the same basic criticisms even though it appears to be what Dominick would have advocated, or at least sanctioned. In fact, only tactics that had no impact would have been tolerated by the Black Bloc critics. And then these tactics would have been ridiculed for being ineffectual. The important differences between the Black Bloc and its critics are about strategy and fundamental goals. Where Dominick stands on these differences is an open question

If this were just an academic debate, it would be sufficient to demonstrate that Albert, and possibly Dominick as well, are operating within a flawed strategy and that they both fail to confront a developing strategic alternative. But it’s not an academic debate. Their positions have real references in popular attitudes in this country. Illusions about the attainability and significance of one or another reform are almost as widespread as acquiescence to the established order. People must be convinced a revolutionary alternative is possible. Then they must be convinced that it is really needed because they know that fighting for it will entail real risks and costs and has no guarantee of ultimate success. In fact, they understand this point better than does the movement that chants “the people united will never be defeated.”

Changes in popular perspectives will be accomplished mainly through the logic and momentum of action, but they will also require debate and discussion. Radicals must be able to convince a critical mass within the movement and among the people generally, not only that Albert et.al. are mistaken, but what the mistakes are. People must also be convinced that radical alternatives aren’t equally mistaken, even if for different reasons.

 

Social Engineering

What Albert liked about Seattle was the number and the diversity of the constituencies that were “united”; the extent to which there was an understanding of a common target; the potential demonstrated to win tangible and significant victories; and the popular power that was manifested. What he disliked about the Black Bloc was that it attempted to question the unity, the conception of the target, the relevance of the demands, and the meaning of “winning” them. Albert sees this as an anti-democratic, anti majority position on the part of the Black Bloc (more about “democracy” later), but the issue really is that the Black Bloc whether or not they intended it, disrupted a reformist problematic that has nothing to do with democracy.

There are reformist perspectives in which the immediate struggle for short term gains is everything; just as there are activists who can’t see anything beyond their “own” issue. These pose simple problems for capital. The movements for them can be absorbed through selective concessions and diverted through selective repression. The demands can be played off against other, equally real and “legitimate”, demands. Both Albert and Dominick, I assume, are quite aware of the problems with simplistic reformism. But Albert, at least, bases his entire criticism of the Black Bloc on a different variant of reformism.

His scenario begins with constituencies becoming active around their immediate needs and grievances; learning their potential strength through winning some tangible victories; joining with other constituencies that have the same target; and building on the accumulated experiences and victories to launch a successful movement for basic social change. History says things will not be so simple, but it is more than just our accumulated experience that calls such perspectives into question. When and how does the movement for “short term demands” become a movement for “permanent institutional change”(Albert, Response, p.1, p.6)?  How does the movement become aware that this is “its” objective and not one chosen for it by some condescending saviors?

A basic problem with most reform strategies, and certainly with Albert’s, is that the bulk of the participants in the movement are seen as the objects of organizing, not the subjects of history. They don’t need to have a vision of ultimate objectives until the final stages of the struggle. They will “learn” these piecemeal along the way through a set of structured experiences controlled as much as possible by an essentially self-selected leadership, e.g. “…those who tirelessly and effectively organized it (the Seattle action)” (Albert, Response, p.2). Any genuinely popular participation in strategic decision making will only come at the end of a long process which has pre-digested the issues and simplified the options.

This is social engineering, not radical politics. It is not only not what a radical movement should do, it is the exact opposite of what it should do. The responsibility of the left is to organize itself, not to place itself as the thinking head of a passive body. Priority should be put on the conscious and autonomous activity of participants in the struggle, the aspects that prefigure strategic objectives, not on feeding the rank and file a sugarcoated picture in order to maintain morale. The very first issue in developing this kind of participation is to make sure that everyone has access to relevant facts about the issues and the obstacles and can make their own judgements about the alternatives.

The left has difficulty accepting autonomous activity as more than a utopian illusion. This grows out of its propensity to accept an essentially capitalist simplification of popular political attitudes into vulgar quantitative sociology. On the surface, most people are apolitical, nonpolitical, and antipolitical.  They are preoccupied with private concerns. They are atomized, and the system can and does consider them as statistical aggregates. However, underneath the surface is a complex of contradictions; contradictions within what is popularly thought; contradictions between what is thought and what is done; contradictions between what is done normally and what is done under exceptional circumstances. Albert’s tendency and that of much of the movement is to accept this reduction of people, and these are “the people,” to a set of objective statistics. The “people opposed” the Black Bloc actions, meaning presumably that if some pollster called and asked them if they were for violence and property destruction an overwhelming majority would say no. If they were asked if they supported breaking the law and fighting the police, they would say no; etc. ad infinitum.

Such sentiments are only evidence that capital rules and that, when they are approached as isolated individuals enmeshed in the routine of daily life, people have difficulty seeing beyond it. This is certainly part of reality and cannot be ignored or wished away, but it is only a part. Radical politics have to challenge this pervasive passive acceptance of essential subordination or they are not radical. We cannot capitulate to it just because it is one part of daily life.

Radicals must break meaningful groups away from passivity into self-conscious activity. This potential is also part of daily life. These breakaway groups will be minorities, usually small minorities, and they will be susceptible to fragmentation and co-optation. But they are the key element in radical change. Radical tactics must be developed with respect to, and evaluated in terms of, this process. It can be said with absolute certainty that gradualist, legalist tactics contribute to passivity and atomization rather than challenge it. This is no guarantee of the efficacy of any specific radical alternatives, but at least they have a chance. Reformist tactics, which usually approach people through “their” leaderships and “their” organizations, do not.  They cannot because these leaderships and organizations are based in, and premised on, the essential passivity of the base–the membership–the rank and file under “normal” conditions. This passivity is what capital counts and what it counts on. People who are self-consciously active can no longer be counted or counted on.

Social engineering can come from the left as well as the right. There are “leftists” whose approach rests on the peculiar notion people and movements will be convinced of the necessity and possibility of revolution by their failure to achieve anything else. One common feature of this approach involves leading movements into confrontations where issues and risks are not clear, with the assumption that the experience will be a radicalizing one. Albert has no apparent problems when manipulation comes from reformists. The essential content of the “self definition”, the “guidelines”, and the “aspirations” that he superimposes on the Seattle action are just that, manipulation and control. However, he is very worried about it coming from the left. This is the general sense of his Readers Digest overview of the movements and debates of the 60’s. Both he and Dominick hint ominously that the Black Bloc was providing a “pretext for police repression” (Albert, Response, p.5), “endangering others” (Albert, Response, p.2), or that the Black Bloc actions, “predictably inflamed” (Dominick, Anarchy, p.4) the police against the nonviolent sector of the demonstrations. Albert and Dominick don’t think this is only stupidity and carelessness on the part of the Black Bloc. It’s clear they see it as a planned consequence of Black Bloc actions, “(they)…are taking advantage … for their own tactic.” (Dominick, Anarchy, p.3)

It is certainly true that in addition to strengthening the action, militance by any element in any action, also raises the ante, upsets the police and increases the risks for all participants. Albert and Dominick charge the Black Bloc with tactics that deliberately put others at risk to advance their political agenda, but there is no evidence the Black Bloc intended get other people hurt. The Black Bloc was organized to minimize its own risks. Additionally, the Acme Statement authors clearly believe mobile tactics and a different approach to the police would have reduced everyone’s risks in Seattle.

This said, there is no denying that there is a problem with the Acme Statement here. If they actually begin functioning as if we are living in a police state without any potential for reform, they will inevitably be tempted to maneuver people into confrontations where they too can “learn” this lesson. Unfortunately the most lasting lesson from such situations is that manipulation creates resentment. Also unfortunately, the Black Bloc can easily follow this analysis down a road which will create a mini-police state for itself and a handful of supporters. Albert is right, this has happened before.

Alienated Protest

Albert and Dominick regularly refer to the “massive,” and the “hugely huge” nature of the Seattle actions. But it wasn’t the massive character of the Seattle action that made it important and refreshingly unique. Comparably sized movement activities are quite common.  The distinctive factor was the fact that in Seattle, massive didn’t also mean passive. Seattle wasn’t another of the “immobilizations and demoralizations” that Abbie Hoffman used to talk about.

Normally, participants come to an event that is scripted and choreographed by movement organizers and the relevant authorities. Tactics have been determined and limited to the level supposedly required to get favorable coverage from capital’s media, and to involve a largely hypothetical, usually mythical, conservative constituency that supposedly doesn’t know “this” and isn’t ready for “that.” (This position is apparent in Albert’s article.) Any break with legality is symbolic and pre-arranged with the legal authority, an Orwellian conception if there has ever been one. The role of the participants, unless they rebel, is to provide an attentive audience for the “important people.” These “opinion makers” are selected to speak despite the fact they neither represent those they’re speaking for nor have anything relevant to say to those they are speaking to. In part because of, but also and more importantly, in spite of its organizers, Seattle broke with this pattern.

People join movement actions wanting to do something meaningful, something that makes a difference. There is nothing positive when a handful of self-selected movement organizers make all the decisions about how this will be accomplished under circumstances where only a few easily discounted radicals even know how and where to disagree. I suppose it’s possible for these decisions to be good ones, but based on the record, it’s unlikely. Can anyone think people choose to expend substantial money and effort just to walk docilely up some street, chant some simplistic stuff, obey the police and their little movement helpers, and, to cap the experience, be bored by speeches?  No. People have opted out of the ‘movement’ or chosen not to get involved in it by the thousands in substantial part because they find this part of the experience ineffective and even embarrassing. It’s way too similar to voting. Perhaps this is not entirely coincidental.

(It would be interesting to make an assessment of how many have been turned off by this experience and it’s one of the better parts of the movement experience, compared to how many have opted out because of the “shenanigans” of the anarchists. I’d put it in the area of thousands to one).

What’s democratic?

“Breaking windows was not a demonstration agenda item. The stated and understood goal of the thousands upon thousands of people from all over the U.S and the world who attended the event was to build movements to challenge the WTO using marches, rallies, and civil disobedience. To take advantage of the opportunity of the assembly by violating those aspirations undermines any sense of democracy” (Albert, Response, p.6).

Besides being factually inaccurate–through what sort of democratic process did these thousands come to these decisions and who let in the guy from France who drove his tractor through a McDonalds?–Albert’s conclusion is completely wrong. The Black Bloc, broadly conceived, performed a democratic function by giving participants and spectators in the Seattle action some real choices about what to do and how to conceptualize the issues. I doubt that these choices could have been considered in the official action planning. There were too many cops listening in for any but the foolhardy to raise them, and the “movement leaders” would have ruled them out of order if they had.

Of course, many participants in the action opposed the Black Bloc tactics. Certainly a lot of non-participants, in Seattle and around the world, did as well. (And let’s not forget that every faction of capital, its entire public relations apparatus, and all the arbiters of morality and legitimacy, were all opposed to the Black Bloc tactics.) This raises questions about how to view such differences. Albert and Dominick are pretty clear. The Black Bloc screwed up the action and should have gotten lost. Amazingly, positions like this can be put out right next to attacks on the Black Bloc for dismissing their critics as the liberals and reformists most of them are. There is no suggestion from the Black Bloc that the range of tactics they opposed or thought were ineffectual should be read out of the “movement.” There has been a lot of this from their opponents. In fact, some even call on the state to help their political sanitizing. No one ever likes their critics, but the real problems of tactical rigidity and intolerance rests with the opponents of the Black Bloc.

The Black Bloc should never give people who are politically hostile a veto power over their activities, but it is just as important that it respects others’ tactics. This isn’t liberalism. People have to be won to a categorically radical and militant position through their experiences and through debate and discussion. This is not an easy process. There are good reasons why most people are not yet ready to break with reformism and legalism. Indeed, these reasons illuminate again the potential consequences of the Acme Statement position that this is already a police state and there is no reforming of capitalism. If this were literally true, then those who didn’t opt for revolution would simply be taking the side of capitalism or capitulating to it, whether or not they understood it. If, as I believe is the case, this Acme position is not literally true, the burden is on the radicals to undertake a protracted struggle to win people away from gradualist reformist strategies by showing that no partial steps come close to meeting the human needs they address, and that a myopic focus on winning small victories wastes the possibilities created in mass struggle.

Collateral Damage

Things seldom work out smoothly. The possibility exists that radical tactics will not only provide real popular options, but might also inadvertently cause injuries to people who are not involved and/or who don’t approve. This “collateral damage” view is part of Albert’s and Dominick’s Black Bloc critique, bit there is no evidence it was a real problem in Seattle  – at least not from that source. In fact, it is hard to find many similar situations in this country where it has been, Albert’s overheated memories of the sixties notwithstanding. However it is conceivable. To illustrate what this might involve, consider the WWII assassination of the Nazi, Heydrich, by the Czech resistance prodded by British Intelligence. The Nazis responded by killing tens of thousands, including the entire civilian population of the town of Liddice, the overwhelming majority of whom had nothing to do with the partisans or their actions and certainly nothing to do with the aims and policies of British Intelligence. Though this is a long way from the Seattle situation, it illustrates in an exaggerated way that radicals can ignore the danger of collateral damage only by forgetting that we have a real and quite ruthless set of enemies.

These potential problems shouldn’t obscure the actual collateral damage resulting from the tactics of some of the most vociferous of the Black Bloc critics. This is the damage caused by the failure to recognize the enemy at all. A common feature of movement organizing is cooperation with authority. Serious discussion of whether any element in the power structure, and particularly the police, are our friends or, at least, can be treated as neutrals is usually conspicuous by its absence. Whether or not the discussion occurs the rightwing of the movement always has a pseudo realpolitik justification for doing what it pleases. Cooperation with authority is responsible for real and growing collateral damage, and we are paying for it. I don’t doubt that Albert and Dominick have qualms in this area, but this damage does not loom large for the admirers of the “massive” and the “hugely huge.” For reasons that have been touched on earlier in this argument, it’s neither necessary nor possible to exclude this approach from the movement. But it can be criticized, isolated and politically defeated. Until this is done, full discussion and democratic decision making will be illusory.

(Albert and Dominick are even reluctant to criticize approaches that do deliberate, not collateral, damage to the movement. Consider those who appoint themselves as peace police and physically confront other protesters; those who point out ‘troublemakers’ to the police; those who advocate arrest and prosecution of the Black Bloc members. This is behavior that shouldn’t be tolerated.)

The Police

“Another question that’s arising is the actual value of confronting police. It’s been pointed out regularly and responsibly with regard to the Seattle events, that police are not supposed to be the adversary of the day. In actions against neoliberal globalization (and most other issues, too) our real target is elites, not working class cops. Unfortunately, the police tend to form the elites second line of defense, (the first being the mass media outlets)”(Dominick, Anarchy, p.2).

I can’t even think of dealing with Dominick’s position on the police before asking what the hell is “neoliberal globalization?” Is it that thing Buchanan attacks?  Is it the Clinton policy? Are we advancing “liberal” globalization as our preferred option? Whatever. I’m going to assume that “neoliberal globalization” must be a policy of capital, possibly the dominant policy. I, and probably Dominick as well, oppose the policy and oppose the system that advances it. So what about the police?

The police are there to defend capitalist property and maintain capitalist order. This is the case whether the policy du jour is neoliberal globalization or cryptoconservative autarky. Our intent is, or should be, to attack the legitimacy of capitalist property and disrupt and undermine capitalist order. That makes us adversaries of the police on each and every day we decide to do something about our positions. (“Working class cops”…give me a break. If there is any place where the use of the term “working class” is a red herring this is it.) Saying that the police are always adversaries does not mean that they also should always be confronted. We are seriously outgunned and confrontation is often stupidity. But that is a far cry from saying that our only remaining alternatives are cooperation or passive non-cooperation with the police. Our job is to make their job as difficult as possible while keeping our exposure to a minimum, not to win them over.

The importance of having masses of people break with capitalist legality by learning ways to undermine, evade and demoralize the police can’t be overestimated. We also can’t overestimate the importance of publicly exposing their social role and both the techniques they routinely employ and the ones they will resort to in a crisis. There are certainly risks here, but some of them must be taken.

Attempts to slide around dealing with the police are symptomatic of a larger problem. Many movement people, particularly those who define themselves as organizers, develop a stake in becoming the loyal opposition and are reluctant to close off their personal and political options by adopting an intransigent, anti-capitalist stance. But the system can’t be overthrown by working within its framework of legitimacy and that’s where all loyal oppositions work. Any genuine insurgency will break out of this framework. This worries many movement organizers who are almost as afraid of the movement getting out of control, meaning out of their control, as they are opposed to capital.

We should have learned the problems with self-described vanguards or semi-professional organizers imposing their version of order and discipline on the movement. Not to sound too much like an anarchist, but there will be no orderly line of march towards revolution. Everything we do should make it harder for capital to rule and should create episodes and islands of ungovernability which will not and should not be subject to any external discipline. Radicals should take advantage of every point where capital is vulnerable and counter every capitalist policy option, not pressure for the relatively better or the less bad. This means that not only the police, but authority in general, is always the “adversary of the day”.

 

Random Points

The following three points probably should have been worked into the body of my argument, but I am running out of energy. I hope that the relevance of the second point to Seattle is not just in my head.

Number 1: There are “radicals” who have spent their entire political lives attempting to involve some section of the trade union structure in the movement, ignoring the evidence that this would be a disaster for radical politics. So while it is significant there was a trade union presence in Seattle, it is far from an unalloyed good thing as the Turtles will discover. As more is learned about the role of the union leaders who were in Seattle, I’m confident there will be evidence that one of their major concerns was to channel and control the actions of their memberships. Everyone who has been in a strike situation knows a major function of the union structure is to check the militance of its own members. The obvious parallel with Seattle, again, is the 1968 French General Strike where the main role of most of the French trade union structure was to stop the politics and tactics of the student movement from “infecting” the rank and file workers.

.  When union officials feel compelled to criticize capitalism, as happened in a much-noted incident in Seattle, we should remember that the real issue isn’t  “naming” the system, but acting against it. Elsewhere in the world, trade unions and their leaders routinely and officially proclaim themselves as anti-capitalist and socialist. Such proclamations mean next to nothing about their actual social function. It is noteworthy that in the Seattle case the official in question has also firmly hitched his wagon to the “anti-capitalists” Bill and Hillary Clinton and Al Gore. One of the projects that capital is experimenting with in this period is the so-called “third way.” As watchers of CNN know, this is part of the “Clinton legacy.” It’s also what much of the revival of so- called labor progressivism is about. Anyone who thinks the “third way” is anti-capitalist will find out to the contrary sooner rather than later.

Number 2: The objective relationship between radical insurgency and reforms should be evident, but most discussions either fail to take it into account or deny it altogether. When a movement poses a real threat, capital’s response is dual: repress the most dangerous elements and use political and economic concessions to absorb the actual and potential constituency and the more docile and conciliatory sectors of the leadership. There is a strange illusion that the movement is better able to force bigger and better concessions once the left holds positions of leadership in mass reform movements. This is the classical C.P. position of leading by capturing control of structures and making alliances at the top. Obviously, however, if genuine radicals lead reform movements, the incentive for capital to make concessions is reduced. It will be reluctant to strengthen its enemies. Just as obviously, taking on this role undermines the radicals’ willingness to be radical. When these positions of formal leadership are captured, and from time to time they will be, trouble will shortly follow. A good example is the collapse of the “left” unions in the CIO. A handful of radicals lost their jobs. A much larger group of radicals kept their jobs by becoming ex-radicals in unions that were no longer “left.”

Reformists are just wrong to argue that militance damages the chances of  “winning” concessions. Frequently, the opposite is the case. However, they are frequently compelled to oppose militance anyway or they risk being left out when concessions are made. Whenever possible, capital’s trade-off for concessions is “responsible” leadership that is willing and able to discipline the unruly. If you doubt this, read any labor contract.

Revolutionaries, on the other hand, are well advised to avoid getting into a “worse is better” stance. Reform struggles and reforms are an essential part of our political landscape. To the extent that they materially benefit one constituency without harming other ones, they should be supported. The support will always have to be critical, however, because every reform tends to become an obstacle to further struggle.

Number 3: There is a lot of ridiculing of Black Bloc tactics as “trashing”, and the even more trivializing, “breaking windows.” This is then contrasted with the really significant actions which “shut down the WTO,” and the really significant alliances (potential alliances) between Teamsters and Turtles, Lesbian Avengers and Steelworkers. Time will tell what significance these “alliances” warrant. My money goes on the not much side. Time will also show that the WTO, or a functional equivalent, will find ways to strengthen itself in response to being “shut down” by incorporating some NGO’s and greasing some squeaky wheels with economic and political concessions.

It is possible to ridicule and trivialize everyone’s tactics at this stage of the struggle and I plead guilty to doing it above. But there are some important distinctions. There are tactics that break with the framework of legitimacy and there are tactics that confine themselves within this framework, and whose proponents normally demand that others do as well. The element of break is what is significant about some of the tactics employed in Seattle, not whether or not they were a significant economic cost to capital and not their contribution or lack of same towards physically shutting down the WTO meeting.

It is strange that Albert and Dominick write as if the chaos and confusion, the undoubted risks and dangers, the sharpness of the differences with the system and among the participants, were problems that weakened the Seattle action and that should be avoided in the future. To the contrary, these are the very reasons why those who were in Seattle will never forget it no matter where they fit in the political spectrum. There are too many actions that are totally forgettable. This is one that was not. There are thousands of people who are kicking themselves for missing Seattle, because it had the taste of revolution. There is an essential spirit from Seattle that is a vital part of an insurgent culture. It was what radical politics should be, but too seldom is.

February 2000

This entry was posted in Organizational Practice, Strategy and Tactics, What's up in Seattle and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

31 Responses to Don Hamerquist on the Black Block in Seattle

  1. Frank Arango says:

    “…the starting point is the Black Bloc. Without the Black Bloc, the Judas embrace of the Clintons on the one hand and the Buchanans on the other would have ripped the political heart out of the Seattle action, and the police would have had an easy time containing it.

    “…The Black Bloc was the core of the party of disorder.”

    Comrades,

    For anyone who was at the Nov.-Dec. anti-WTO events such statements as these are utterly absurd and ridiculous. The Black Block played no role in shutting down the WTO meeting for part of the first day (thousands of others did), and it played no role in the mass resistance to the police attacks on the crowds (thousands of others did). In fact, while hundreds of people were defending the protests by throwing teargas back at the police the ACME Collective et al sat on the sidelines, and later boasted:

    “Unlike the vast majority of activists who were pepper-sprayed, tear-gassed and shot at with rubber bullets on several occasions, most of our section of the black bloc escaped serious injury by remaining constantly in motion and avoiding engagement with the police.”

    Thus, an afternoon and two evenings of mass active resistance to the police by thousands of people was of no political significance to them. Instead, they maintained the small-group outlook of escaping serious injury by avoiding engagement with the police.

    But rather than re-write things originally written more than 11 years ago, let me provide these links dealing with the actual “Battle of Seattle”:

    http://communistvoice(dot)org/23cWTOImportance.html
    http://communistvoice(dot)org/23cWTOFrontLines.html
    http://communistvoice(dot)org/SeaWTO99Dec.html
    http://communistvoice(dot)org/23cWTOAnarchism.html
    http://communistvoice(dot)org/23cWTOOpportunism.html

    BTW, the reason that several if these articles deal so much with anarchism is only because the Black Block’s really minor activity was blown out of proportion by the capitalist news media. Only a small minority of demonstrators even knew that the BB was there before this happened.

    Finally, over the past years I’ve had numerous people tell me that Nov. 30, 1999 was the happiest day of their lives! These articles only give the tiniest glimmer of why people say this. You just have to have been there in order to understand.

  2. Jeremy says:

    I really enjoyed reading this article, and I wanted share a personal response I sent to one of Black Orchid’s members awhile back…slightly edited to be less snotty.

    Just read the Hammerquist piece. Wow, that person is really quite smart! I couldn’t have imagined finding anything with so much foresight back in 2000. I wish this had been published back then or, if it was published, more widely circulated.

    Truth is, there’s a lot of stuff in there that I’d like to talk about and don’t get to talk about enough. I think the Black Bloc, and other similar “no compromise with the system” type tactics can be really vital. However, I think that Hammerquist misses Albert’s position in a number of ways…specifically in dismissing reformism as pretty much incompatible with radicalism. To be honest, I just think that’s silly.

    What’s the strategic difference between someone getting radicalized by the experience of winning a fleeting victory in a hard-fought reform campaign, and someone getting radicalized in a fierce, seemingly spontaneous black bloc action? Is the first really more manipulative or socially conditioning than the second? Is the second really more revolutionary than the first? In both cases, the actual experience is more or less symbolic, it is fuel for the revolutionary hope and consciousness inside the person. In neither case is the person actually, directly participating in a revolutionary turnover. That is, both of the experiences are actually rooted in a gradualist strategy. In both cases, we know that our organizing won’t have immediate implications…instead we’re trying to spark people to think about their own power and their ability to act for themselves. Hammerquist acts like Albert isn’t interested in people thinking and developing power for themselves, but I think Hammerquist is wrong. I’ve read probably too much of what Albert’s written, and I do think he’s problematic, but I also think he does have revolutionary politics. It’s not helpful to attack his ideas on those grounds.

    This is the thing that bothers me most about this piece and the vast majority of revolutionary pieces in general: they aren’t grounded in an actual strategy for winning. Sure, this piece argues that we can’t win unless we break with the stale tactics of the “loyal opposition” and at least claim our revolutionary aims militantly. This is good. This is a solid point. But in the end, is that more about messaging or really getting us to a long term strategy? Sure, the black bloc offers some really important messaging and tactical considerations. But what’s its view on building or claiming power? What’s Hammerquist’s?

    From what I’ve seen, the current black bloc seems tied to insurrectionist strategies/perspectives on revolution. Okay, that’s something that we can debate about. I think insurrection is a possibility anywhere, and I think history bears that out. So, knowing how to participate in insurrectionary activity without getting caught and being tactically effective is cool, and I think the black bloc is useful for that. Also, I think the black bloc can show people the possibilities of insurrection in times and places where it hasn’t been conceived before. That’s cool too.

    But in comparison to the building of consciously revolutionary organizations that do community organizing–yes, often around small-scale reforms–I don’t think there’s any comparison in terms of how thoughtful revolutionaries should spend their time. I think revolutionaries should be spending a lot more time trying to help energize and support the people around us to learn how to exercise their power institutionally and their potential for community control. That’s a far different skill-set and a far different type of self-confidence than the confidence to fight cops. They are almost not translatable…and I think that shows in that insurrectionaries and block bloc kids often kind of suck at friendly social interaction or participation in meetings. That’s a generalization, of course, but based on a wide variety of close experiences. And I hate that retort that they don’t want to be caught up in the left’s boring meetings anyway…I’m sorry, but I can’t conceive of any community controlled society that isn’t loaded with meetings…it’s going to be a highly necessary skill in any realistic post-revolutionary society.

    However, I do think it would be cool to see thoughtful revolutionary organizations that also can participate in and support militant activity like that some times. I want to be careful not to disparage it too much. Because in the end, I’m glad that someone’s experimenting with something else.

    I mean I’ll readily admit that my own views on this stuff are connected to my own dislike for angry confrontation, and my own family relationship to police. Because I don’t feel comfortable advocating for tactics that I wouldn’t personally participate in, that definitely effects my views of what’s tactically and strategically effective.

    Another interesting recent reading about this is AK Thompson’s, “Black Bloc, White Riot.” I think that book, read with this piece and a few others, could generate a lot of really great discussion!

  3. mamos206 says:

    @ Frank, I wasn’t in Seattle when the WTO uprising happened, so I can’t really judge one way or another… I hear you though that Hamerquist might be factually incorrect about some of what went down. I’d encourage other folks who were there to weigh in if you want. I also think Hamerquist might be stretching the term “black bloc” to include a lot of other folks beyond just the Acme Collective. He might be using it to represent the entire wing of the movement that had the audacity to break with capitalist legality and try to get away with it. In that case, he might actually be trying to endorse and defend the kinds of actions you described. I’m not sure. It’s clear to me though that the point of his piece is not to narrowly defend the Acme Collective; it is to defend the importance of illegal, insurgent, and participatory action as part of the struggle. That’s why we published it – not so much to revisit old debates, but to get at these issues as they relate to the current struggle. WHY exactly was Nov 30 such a moment of joy for people, and why hasn’t it happened since? How can we get to a point where struggles we build today are equally life changing?

    So yeah, what do you think about Don’s deeper underlying points about the need to break with capitalist legality, and with scripted, ritualized forms of protest? How about his endorsement of building a militant minority of working class folks who can galvanize and deepen a struggle? How about his comments on how such a minority should relate to other tendencies in the movement? A lot of his ideas here, and his related writings on Lenin and the art of insurrection (http://gatheringforces.org/2009/10/26/don-hammerquist-on-lenin-and-leninism/), seem to parallel some of the questions you’ve tackled in past discussions and debates we’ve had. Where do you agree and where do you disagree with what he’s putting forward? It seems that both of you have an interest in creatively reapplying Leninism to struggles today, in ways that break out of Trotskyist and Maoists dogmatism. I am not convinced of that as a project, but I see you two as some of smartest and most committed militants advocating it, so I’m curious to see where you agree and disagree on the fundamental issues.

    peace,
    Mamos

  4. mamos206 says:

    @ Jeremy, again, I haven’t read enough Albert to really make a judgement one way or another on his work. I see Hamerquist’s piece as useful for its critique of a certain type of reformism. I’m not sure if Albert actually represents that type of reformism or not, but I do know I disagree with Albert’s critique of the Black Block and agree with many of Hamerquist’s responses.

    The way I see it, there are four popular strategies for how to link reform and revolution (I know there are more positions out there, these are just the ones I hear most commonly in Seattle today):

    1) revolutionaries should work with liberals to fight for immediate reform demands and should subordinate our revolutionary politics so we don’t scare away our coalition partners. We should be willing to use any tactics to win demands, even if they are top down, bureaucratic, or not based on mass participation of workers in the actual struggle.

    2) revolutionaries should fight for immediate winnable reform demands but should do it through direct action in a way that builds workers’ confidence, organization, consciousness, and collective power; this will gradually lead to the development of a revolutionary working class. I hear a lot of folks in Seattle Solidarity Network and the IWW advocate positions like this

    3) we should do everything described in point 2), but shouldn’t have the illusions that this will gradually over time lead to revolution by winning over one worker at a time. The goal of short term direct action winnable campaigns should be to consolidate a large cadre of serious working class militants who have deep ties to the rest of the working class and are good organizers. Then, when spontaneous struggles break out, these militants will be able to consciously deeepen those struggles and help create revolutionary openings. To do this, these militants need to develop a conscious, theoretically grounded political program that speaks to the actual aspirations and conditions of the working class today, and they need to democratically share their theoretical method with as many fellow workers as possible so as much of the class as possible can participate in developing and refining this program.

    4) all reform struggles are coopted, therefore revolutionaries should not participate in them; instead we should directly try to communize and reclaim spaces today; the revolutions is now, not in the future, so we should “occupy everything, demand nothing.”

    My own position is the third strategy. Here’s why I consider each of the other points inadequate:

    – strategy 1 leads to the demobilization and demoralization of worker militants for all the reasons Hamerquist’s piece lays out. I think such strategies are responsible for alienating far more serious young workers than anything the Black Block has ever done.

    – while I respect the Seasolers and others who pursue strategy 2, I think their narrow focus on immediate winnable demands does not prepare the militants in their millieu to deal with the wide variety of political crises that might erupt, or the wide variety uprisings, upsurges, movements, or initiatives that the working class more broadly could create in this time of economic crisis. Keeping the immediate struggle “apolitical” can lead to problems because the people involved in the struggle are political, and will take positions on questions like police brutality, the war, etc. It is important to collectively train ourselves and replicate effective methods for dealing with these political questions in practice. We also need skills and experiences acting effectively in insurrectionary situations, as you acknowledged, if we want to win future strikes, etc., let alone make a revolution. That’s why we should not dismiss the Black Block.

    However, my proposal for how to develop all of these other revolutionary capacities is not to push Seasol and groups like it to become revolutionary organizations. That would destroy the important political ecology that Seasol has built. Instead, I think we need to build separate revolutionary organizations that overlap with groups like Seasol. We need revolutionary organizations whose members are really good at fighting, in both short term winnable Seasol style fights, AND in proto-insurrectionary agitation. We need revolutionary organizations that can link these two types of activity together through a well-developed theoretical method. This is what we aim to build with Black Orchid. We’re not there yet, but it’s our mid-term goal.

    – I disagree with the “occupy everything demand nothing” insurrectionist folks because they don’t seem to have a clear strategy for how to expand the stuggle beyond the already activated militant minority in their immediate milleiu. For this reason, they end up falling into the subsitutionism and vanguardism they criticize so much; they substitute their own activity for the activity of the working class as a whole. I agree with them that we need to communize spaces and we need to start implementing aspects of communist social relations NOW, we can’t wait till the distant future; my comments on the Critique of the Gotha Program got at that point. However, I think this is not so much a matter of occupying specific spaces and making them communist, it is more about making ourselves as militants into well-rounded, social communists, who can relate to each other in communized ways. To put it more simply, we need to be loving people, who relate to each other based on the ethic “from each according to ability, to each according to need.” This is very difficult to do because capitalism warps and restrains us in all sorts of ways and we can’t be utopian about breaking out of this or we’ll get sorely disappointed and will start hating each other for it. But I see activities such as the Black Block, occupations, Seasol work, militant strikes, etc. as spaces where communist social relations can start to break out if the militants involved consciously try to build those social relations in the heart of struggle. This is a fragile and long term process with many defeats but we should try to engage and expand these new relationships by openly engaging in militant direct action struggles WITH demands, without fetishizing or overemphasizing “winning” these demands.

    The goal is to win the revolution, not the immediate demands. If winning the immediate demands helps us get there, great, if not then we should be focusing on other demands that will.

    I agree with you, much of the Black Block, and much of the Left doesn’t have a clear strategy for winning the revolution. I think this is what we as the working class need to collectively develop, and we need revolutionary organizations to facilitate that. The first step I think is to develop ourselves and others as highly capable militants who can actually work together to figure this out.

    Finally, I disagree with your characterization of the Black Block as a bunch of folks who don’t know how to relate to everyday people. You certainly have more experience with the anarchist scene than I do, but I know that some of the people out in Black at the recent anti-cop rallies are community organizers. I agree with you critiques of the kind of vulgar anarchism that dismisses conversation and meetings as authoritarian or boring, totally undermining the necessary political processes that are indispensable for building a stateless, direct democratic society. But I think this vulgar anarchism is only a small tendency within the Black Block today.

    I’m actually more worried about sophisticated class struggle anarchists bending the stick too far in the other direction in reaction to the insurrectionists. I’m not saying you personally are doing this, but I do think it’s a pitfall folks in your broad tendency should watch out for. The way I see it is a lot of “social” or “class struggle” anarchists try really hard to differentiate themselves from the insurrectionists and the Black Block because they are trying to make anarchism more accessible to the working class. Because some of the least sophisticated Black Block members do really help the ruling class discredit anarchism within the broader working class, I can understand why many class struggle anarchists feel the need to separate themselves strongly in order to reclaim the soul of anarchism. Folks also got burned out by the aimless protest hopping that happened after the WTO. Folks reacted to that by trying to return to community organizing. I think this lead a lot of class struggle anarchists in groups like NEFAC into something way too close to the first strategy I laid out above. They wanted to put down roots in the working class and engage in slow patient base building, but they did this through joining non-profits or the union bureaucracy.

    To the credit of the Seasolers, they didn’t do this; instead they put down roots by building one of the most serious direct action organizations in the country. However, I still worry when I hear some Seasolers dismiss the insurrectionists so much. I worry it can cause folks to loose touch with those layers of the working class that are more organically moving in an insurrectionary direction outside of the anarchist scene, for example layers of youth of color who want to escalate the struggle against the cops. Folks miss chances to engage with serious young developing militants by abstaining from the kind of street struggles that have been happening against police brutality. Dismissing all of this as merely “symbolic” can lead to a kind of narrowness where we imagine the revolution coming through the long slog of our day to day organizing efforts, kind of “salvation by works”. It prevents us from being open to the experiences of political grace, rapid, collective rebirth and unexpected upsurge like Seattle 99 – “salvation by grace”. Moments of collective working class actino like that can change people’s lives and can make people revolutionary militants for life if we can consciously intervene and show folks that there is an emerging community of people who have been reborn like this together through struggle. Then, folks who are activated at moments like this can engage in Seasol type work and grow in those ways as well, expanding the struggle once the immediate spontaneous upsurge has died down. I am intentionally ripping off language from the evangelical Christians here because I read your excellent work on what the Left can learn from evangelical organizations. One point I would add your list is this sense of openness to crisis, this sense of being a group of people who can go through experiences of crisis together and can come out stronger. I worry that focusing ONLY on small winnable demands, as important as that is, misses opportunities to build this confidence and camaraderie.

    In any case, I feel like I’m preaching to the choir on that last point because you clearly acknowledged in your comment the need to go through experiences of proto-insurrection together to develop our capacities as revolutionaries. I’m writing this more for other readers, to intentionally provoke folks to think about both the strengths and weaknesses of focusing on small winnable demands. The way I see it, both the Black Block and Seasol represent important, but incomplete parts of developing a holistic revolutionary strategy.

    • Matt A says:

      I’m opposed to the cadre method number 3, at least in its full form, because the mass participation of large numbers is ultimately far more important than the skills of a few. Communism cannot be built by specialists. Of course it’s vital to develop our organizing skills to the greatest extent possible, but I put the emphasis on spreading that knowledge as widely as possible. I also don’t see it as gradual, one worker at a time, but coming in bursts, and while small demands are useful steps they are ultimately limiting. Also, it’s impossible to come up with an adequate program – the program will come up with you. To think otherwise is idealism, just as thinking a small number of people can change something (rather than it changing them) reflects the bourgeois individualism of class society rather than proletarian collectivism, to use exaggerated jargon.

    • Fray says:

      Matt A, between your comment and T Barnacle’s below, it sounds like the differentiation you make between your position and position #3 — that you are for bringing in large numbers over more deeply developing smaller numbers — is probably a more relevant difference between SeaSol/IWW folks and Black Orchid (BOC) than the “one worker at a time” thing. My question is, can we develop working class militants deeply and in large numbers? It’s obviously not easy to deeply develop the skills and theoretical sharpness of a lot of people in a short amount of time when there’s no large movement and the group you’re starting with is small. But, in principle at least, as a revolutionary organization grows, it expands its capacity to develop new militants. (I realize this is sounding a little “one worker at a time”-ish, but I think it’s different from that because the idea isn’t that growing the revolutionary organization itself is what creates the revolution — it just creates a group of people who can respond quickly and effectively to upsurges when they happen.) But it sounds like you either a) think that a cadre organization is inherently not able to grow that way because it separates itself too much from other workers, or b) even if a cadre organization could grow like that, it still will at best tail and at worst stifle larger upsurges when they happen. Or maybe you think a third thing — I would be interested in hearing more!

      Also, can you explain what you mean when you say, “it’s impossible to come up with an adequate program – the program will come up with you”?

    • T Barnacle says:

      Fray, I’m actually replying to this:

      “Matt A, between your comment and T Barnacle’s below, it sounds like the differentiation you make between your position and position #3 — that you are for bringing in large numbers over more deeply developing smaller numbers — is probably a more relevant difference between SeaSol/IWW folks and Black Orchid (BOC) than the “one worker at a time” thing”

      This seems to assume that Matt A and I have the same views, which isn’t a valid assumption.

      I’m also doubtful about whether cadre organizations do actually ‘more deeply’ develop their members than broader struggle organizations. But of course this depends on what people are actually doing within the organization.

    • Fray says:

      T Barnacle, I referenced your comment because you disputed Mamos saying that SeaSol/IWW folks have a “one worker at a time” approach. Both you and Matt A seem to think that might not be the most significant difference — or a real difference at all — between the tendencies. I was also trying to expand on and better understand what Matt was arguing was the more significant difference. I did not intend to imply that you two agree on that point.

    • mamos206 says:

      Hey folks,
      T Barnacle, when I attributed position 2 (gradually building working class militants through wining small demands) to members of Seasol and the IWW, I wasn’t making a straw man argument. I actually have heard these positions articulated by some in Seasol and IWW milieus. I’m certainly not saying that everyone in these groups shares the same position. But some folks do. David, who is active in Seasol, just endorsed this position in the discussion here (see below). I have heard Nate argue for this position as well (Nate if you’re reading this please correct me if I’m misunderstanding you on this). I’m not trying to polemicize against this position. Many of the best organizers who I respect the most hold this position. We’ll see in practice, maybe it will turn out to be correct. I just have my doubts.

      Fray you’re right there are actually two different issues at stake here: 1) whether a revolutionary movement develops “one worker at a time” or in bursts/ ruptures/ leaps. 2) should revolutionaries focus on mass organizing, cadre building, or both?

      On point 1, I agree completely with Matt A: “I also don’t see it as gradual, one worker at a time, but coming in bursts, and while small demands are useful steps they are ultimately limiting.” I’m not against focusing on small winnable demands, especially in a time of low movement activity like right now. I just think we need to be able to see when broader ruptures or political openings are happening and change our tactics accordingly to reach larger numbers of people through more bold demands and larger scale actions when it’s appropriate to do so. The IWW’s attempt to put forward a general strike call during the Wisconsin crisis, or the attempts of various militants to engage in the anti-police brutality upsurge here in Seattle this winter are examples of what I’m calling for here. We need to train ourselves to be able to engage in future openings like this, and since these openings come relatively unexpectedly, that means we need to be knowledgeable about a variety of different political issues and terrains of struggle. That brings me to point 2.

      In terms of mass organizing vs. cadre building, I think Matt A is posing the issue too much as an “either/ or” question. I am for BOTH mass organizing AND cadre building. Ultimately, like Fray suggested, I think we need to develop a lot of working class militants to a high level. I don’t see how there can be a revolution unless a majority of the working class is consciously and actively making a revolution. This doesn’t mean that everyone needs to be a professional revolutionary comitting 100% of their time to an organization. But it does mean that millions of workers will need to creatively and collectively develop a high level understanding of the revolutionary process, and revolutionary ideas can’t be dummed down into slogans or over-simplified “literature for workers” and then “spread” among the “masses.” That would be a recipe for the movement to be dominated by a small layer of intellectuals. How do we prevent unaccountable leaders from trying to institute some new authoritarian society if we all don’t create a solid understanding of revolution that we can use to check them?

      I don’t see cadre building as something that will only be focused on a select few specialists who will then go an lead the movement. That is a very dogmatic type of Leninism that leads to building cult-like sects, not revolutionary movements. I do think we need to start with a small group of cadre because that’s all we are right now.. we need to train ourselves to a high level not because we want to lead the overall movement but because we need to do that in order to share our perspectives and skills with as many people as possible from as many different backgrounds and political experiences as possible, so that way they can in turn mentor, support, and help develop new working class militants in their workplaces, schools, neighborhoods, and social milieus, and those folks will then develop other working class militants, and so on. We need to democratize tools like revolutionary theory, and organizing skills, and we need to develop new revolutionary theory out of reflection on organizing, and new forms of organizing out of cutting edge theory.

      Since this process won’t happen gradually, but probably through leaps and bursts of movement activity, it’s crucial that we build and consolidate relationships among those of us who have been radicalized in past upsurges, to prepare ourselves to reach and support large numbers of new militants who might come around in future upsurges. I think that requires building tighter-knit cadre groups in the current moment that can do study groups, collective writing, and public political agitation.

      When I say we need to develop a “political program” I don’t mean a set of ideas that we preach. You’re right Matt, that would be idealism. By program I mean a holistic integration of theory and practice that emerges out of collective reflection on current and past struggles, plus a serious analysis of the current capitalist system, its crises and contradictions, and the places where it might be breaking down, opening up space for us to build an alternative. Matt you’re right to polemicize against the idea of a small group of people pushing their program as a set of ideas. That’s what way too much of the Left has become and we need to break out of that. But when you talk about the program coming up with us instead of us coming up with the program, I worry you’re falling into some type of determinism – as if there is this automatic revolutionary process that just happens and we don’t have any say in how it unfolds. That’s the kind of perspective many Marxists had fallen into in the early 20th century, and I’m emphasizing the need to collectively develop a conscious revolutionary program in order to counter that, and in order to emphasize our agency and our choice in developing a revolution.

      At the same time, no matter how good their program is, cadre groups are useless unless they are composed of good organizers who can learn from working folks around them, and their members will only develop as organizers if they are actively building mass and/ or intermediate layer organizations like Seasol, the IWW, 90’s Upheaval, FADU, etc. That’s why I’ve been encouraging members of groups like Black Orchid, Unity and Struggle, and Advance the Struggle to get involved in or build solidarity networks. It is also by being active in these groups that cadre members can actively share and make relevant the skills and methods that we learn in our cadre organizations. This is crucial to prevent cadre groups from being elitist, or, as Matt put it, falling into bourgeois individualism.

      There is another whole set of issues here about how “political” broader organizing formations like Seasol or 90’s Upheaval should be, and to what extent revolutionaries should be open or expressive about their politics in these spaces. I’ll leave that discussion for another time.

      In any case, my purpose here is not really to try to convince you to build your own cadre group or to join Black Orchid or any other cadre group. I am simply trying to defend the idea of building cadre groups and to try to convince you that it doesn’t automatically lead to an unhealthy Leninism or some sort of authoritarian elitism. Ultimately I’m trying to overcome what I see as a false dichotomy between groups like Seasol and groups like Black Orchid. You are doing crucial work building mass organization, and that’s absolutely necessary and maybe it’s really too much of a time commitment to do that plus anything else at this point. I respect that. Mostly I’m interested in figuring out how Black Orchid and other cadre groups can play a role that is complementary and supportive of your efforts in Seasol, and vice versa. I see the two types of formations as potentially mutually beneficial if they relate in healthy ways.

  5. David C says:

    Great discussion so far! I am an unapologetic “2nd strategy” person but I definitely appreciate your thoughts Mamos.

    One of my handful of “extra-radicalizing” experiences was while in high school and a member of Youth Undoing Institutional Racism, a group that was partnered with the Seattle Young People’s Project. Before I explain the experience, I have to give a little background. We had been organizing for over a year around racism in Seattle Public Schools – doing counter military-recruitment, supporting Native students in their campaign to replace West Seattle High’s racist mascot, lobbying the school board to use A People’s History in the district curriculum, etc. These slow and patient/winnable demands experiences were amazingly influential for me and I could go on and on about them I am sure…

    The experience for me though, that topped off all this slow and patient organizing, and that really gave me a visceral feeling of what people power could REALLY mean was when we crashed a fucking school board meeting! We organized yet another rally at the School District offices, but this time had the building scouted out and had a plan for crashing their meeting. Yet another taskforce on racial inequity in the schools was gonna release yet another report that wouldn’t change anything. We crashed their meeting to tell them it was all bullshit, and that they had all the input they needed if they ever bothered to listen to what the community has been telling them at years of school board meetings.

    Anyways, we crashed their meeting and for what felt like a good 5-10 minutes they could not run their stupid meeting and keep the fucked up school district going. Cops were outside not letting the rally attendees enter the public meeting but but we snuck the crowd in through a side door. Memory does not serve me well but it must have been a multiracial group of 50-60 high school students coming in through a side door with bullhorns and banners and calling bullshit on the school board and the whole system. Cops had to come in and escort and shove us all outside.

    What I think is also key is that this whole effort mentioned above came out of a larger push that included a lot of slow and patient/small winnable demands organizing… the adults involved in it then were not afraid to take it there. Many of the people in those circles were outside in the rally and in full support of this youth-led action. It wasn’t fighting pigs in the street, and it was definitely symbolic, but it was a militant action that left a major impact on me.

    Of course the schools are still awful. Our efforts dissipated and fell and broke apart. I bring up this story because Mamos’ last comment made me think about it – and I think it’s worth pointing out. Crashing that meeting was an amazing feeling and though I don’t always think about it, there is a definite part of me that is hungry for another taste of that feeling. I also I have to say that I get it plenty through SeaSol actions and victories as well – they aren’t that at all distinct in my mind. My body craves some physical evidence that all of our ideas and views can work in the world.

  6. Frank says:

    Mamos,

    The political victories of the anti-WTO protests were three: 1) the large mobilization, 2) the shutting down of the meeting on the first day, 3) the mass resistance to the police attacks. These victories, and the fact that the governor had to call out the National Guard, gave the people a sense of the power of mass action; and I think that this is what elated everyone. But besides being part of the anarchist mobilization from around the continent (which was not that large) the Black Block was irrelevant to these victories. So that’s why I have to snicker and shake my head when Hammerquist writes:

    “…the starting point is the Black Bloc. Without the Black Bloc, the Judas embrace of the Clintons on the one hand and the Buchanans on the other would have ripped the political heart out of the Seattle action, and the police would have had an easy time containing it…The Black Bloc was the core of the party of disorder.”

    And the most ludicrous myth of all is that “the police would have had an easy time containing it” were it not for the Black Block. No, out of the corner of my eye I saw Black Block watching from afar as the masses holding the streets were giving the cops tit for tat with everything we could get our hands on. Two of the links I provided above discuss why Black Block & Co. did this.

    So after seeing that Hammerquist’s starting point was so far off the mark I personally saw no reason to finish the article because I have a lot to do. Further, to answer the questions you ask me I still see no reason to finish it.

    Why hasn’t a protest like the anti-WTO protest happened since?

    In late 1999 certain objective conditions came together that resulted in a large mobilization:

    The basis for the large turnout was that we’d had more than a decade of accelerating imperialist, neo-liberal globalization under Bush I and then Clinton. But the economic “boom” that developed in part of the Clinton years was mainly at the top, while the working people were increasingly seeing the negative effects that globalization was having on the working class locally and around the world. (Locally, stagnant wages, outsourcing overseas and the new wide-scale usage of “temp” labor, for example.) They were also seeing the negative affects imperialist globalization was having on indigenous people and on the environment. They were unhappy about Clinton’s wars and the genocidal sanctions against Iraq. And the Black and other national minority youth were being especially victimized by the “war on drugs.”

    Thus, while the latter 1990s hadn’t given rise to large mass struggles in this country or this city, there had been dissatisfaction building in society beneath the surface which poured forth against the meeting of this major international neo-liberal institution, the WTO. In those conditions all that the anti-globalization activists, environmentalists, indigenous peoples rights groups, worker internationalists and many others had to do to mobilize some 50,000 people was to appeal to and tap into this dissatisfaction with literature, etc., and it’s also notable that they had a very long time to organize in.

    Important among the “many others” I mention were the Naderites, Greens, and other left-wing populists who want to escape the infamies of globalization by going back to some mythical past time when capitalism supposedly didn’t exploit, wasn’t racist, and didn’t wreck the earth. (The “take your country back” types of the left, which exist even more so on the right.) And even more important was the AFL-CIO bureaucracy, which was upset that Clinton hadn’t adopted protectionist measures and wanted to use the WTO meeting as an occasion to pressure the government for more protectionism, i.e., “fair trade.” So with this aim the AFL-CIO turned out by far the largest number of people of any single organization, tens of thousands.

    Overall, the predominant mobilizing literature was outright reformist (the AFL-CIO) or vaguely social democratic, with sometimes a soft anarchist tinge. But except for the top labor bureaucrats’ stuff, most of it had a militant call to “shut it down!” And in this case it was not a mistake to make this call because there was a good possibility that the movement could in fact implement it. (Our very well recieved leaflet is at http://communistvoice.org/SeaWTO99Nov.html.)

    The rest is pretty straight-forward.

    The capitalist establishment underestimated the masses: they didn’t think those who had come to shut down the WTO meeting with civil disobedience would stick to their guns in face of police intimidation (I respected those people much more than the Black Block), and they didn’t think the masses would fight back when tear-gassed and shot with rubber and plastic bullets. Indeed, it was a real blunder for the authorities to order this. The masses had come to demonstrate against the hated WTO, and they were going to do it no matter what.

    Now back to your question: why hasn’t it happened since?

    Well, while no big imperialist institution like the WTO has again come to town certain sides of it have happened. For example, there was a demonstration of similar size on the eve of the invasion of Iraq, but the police didn’t attack it. Or there have been small demonstrations that fought to stay in the streets but they had no chance because they were outnumbered. But the main point I would raise is that your question is rather like asking why the mass upsurge in Tunisia took off in December 2011, rather than in 2001 or some other year. Certain things have to have come together among the discontented masses that are then touched off by some spark: a self-immolation, a big meeting of the class enemy, a particularly odious piece of legislation, a racist murder, or something else.

    How can we get to a point where struggles we build today are equally life changing?

    By preparing conditions for even better struggles with constant mass political agitation on issues concerning the majority of the people. Said another way, revolutionism is synominous with writing and widely distributing leaflets and other forms of agitation: mass work which cannot be done on the internet. This necessitates building a revolutionary political machine and press with which to do it, which necessitates theoretical study and struggle by revolutionaries over the political line around which to agitate. Or, said yet another way, we need to oppose bowing to spontaneity by conducting constant mass work aimed at raising the class consciousness and organization of the masses, which requires revolutionaries themselves getting organized to do this. The more we do this the more militant and better organized the mass struggles will be.

    Lastly, since I haven’t read them, I can’t directly comment on your questions about Don Hammerquist’s particular views “about the need to break with capitalist legality, and with scripted, ritualized forms of protest? How about his endorsement of building a militant minority of working class folks who can galvanize and deepen a struggle? How about his comments on how such a minority should relate to other tendencies in the movement? Nevertheless, I can give my own views on the questions themselves.

    1) Yes, the labor traitors and dominant opportunists preach legalism and often act as volunteer cops. So there’s an issue of opposing legalist ideology—something which really must be done around concrete issues if it’s going to have much meaning or affect. But for real Marxist-Leninists the general issue is not breaking with capitalist legality, but learning how to combine legal and illegal methods of struggle. And in doing this neither form of struggle can be judged as “better” because that can only be judged in the particular circumstance: sometimes legal forms of struggle are better; sometimes illegal forms are better; sometimes a combination of the two (weighted one way or the other) is better.

    I would add something that I think we’re in agreement over, i.e., just because we’re organizing for something illegal (a revolution) doesn’t meant that we musn’t fight to maintain or extend what is legal under the rule of the bourgeoisie. Indeed, throughout North Africa and the Middle East thousands of people are today sacrificing their lives in this fight, and they’re using both legal and illegal methods of struggle.

    2) Of course we must build a militant minority in the working class. But I would add some more things that may or may not be obvious:

    a. If the aim of this minority is not to become the majority then it’s inevitably going to be an elitist, tailing sect no matter how much galvanizing it does.

    b. Building a militant minority of workers does not distinguish revolutionaries from reformists, i.e., reformists also do this, including building minorities which use illegal tactics.

    c. Militant minorities, quite a few of which already exist in the class today, often come up in particular struggles or movements. But if you’re talking about building a militant minority that strives to lead the class struggle on its main fronts (the economic, political, and ideological-theoretical fronts), that strives to foster, unite with, and support other militant minorities, etc., then you’re talking about building a party even if for some strange reason you don’t want to call it one. More, if this party with another name is to truly deepen the class struggle it must be scientific, must apply materialist dialectics in all its work. Hence, it must be a Marxist-Leninist party.

    3) How should such a minority should relate to other tendencies in the movement? It should strive to lead the entire movement, which means that it must be non-sectarian, carefully use Leninist united front tactics, and listen to and study the experience of others.

    Fraternally,
    Frank

  7. Fray says:

    WTO
    I participated in the WTO protest in ’99, specifically in the blockade of the intersection of Pine and Boren. I was in an affinity group that organized with the Direct Action Network (DAN), which blockaded key intersections to physically stop delegates from attending the meeting.

    I think Frank is right that Hamerquist’s piece doesn’t address the nuance of DAN-type protesters, who were pretty distinct from the Black Bloc that day but were absolutely breaking with capitalist legality, including, contrary to what RAND claims, in their plan to get arrested. Folks who locked down took active measures to not get arrested, including locking their arms together inside “lock boxes” that the cops couldn’t cut through and hanging themselves from tripods in order to create a situation too dangerous for cops to throw tear gas canisters into. There was nothing ritualized or symbolic about our civil disobedience that day.

    Still, Hamerquist does have a larger definition of the Black Bloc than many, and includes some of the actions that you mentioned, Frank:

    For most of this discussion, the Black Bloc actions are considered to go beyond the property destruction by roving anarchist affinity groups to include features of the main activity, in particular some of the responses to police attacks on the blockades. Also included is the spontaneous redistribution of property by local residents; and the popular resistance to the police attempts to impose a curfew on the Capital Hill district. Of course, this does not mean that all of these elements were organizationally linked or even that they shared a common politics, only that in total they provided something important and new.

    Despite my disagreements with this aspect of the piece, it’s still very much worth reading. I think that much of the framework that Hamerquist provides applies quite well to the stuff that DAN folks did as well as the Black Bloc: we also gave “participants and spectators in the Seattle action some real choices about what to do and how to conceptualize the issues” and we helped to “create episodes and islands of ungovernability which [were] not and should not [have been] subject to any external discipline”. This is why thousands of people refused to stay with the AFL-CIO march and joined the DAN blockades. And this, for me, was why WTO was so inspiring and so memorable: just months after being introduced to anarchist critiques of capitalism and the state and associated ideas for how direct democracy could do better, I saw those ideas play out and win. At least for a moment. That seems to be exactly the same feeling that David C describes in his moment of high school “break with capitalist legality” and in SeaSol campaigns, legal and economistic though they may be.

    Reformism

    Jeremy raises some really good points, and I generally agree with Mamos’ responses. I read Michael Albert’s criticism of the WTO Black Bloc back in the day, but quite frankly I can’t stand his writing style, so I’ve avoided re-visiting it even though I suspect that Hamerquist has made him into somewhat of a strawman. However, if it’s a strawman that represents a broad tendency on the left, then it’s still a useful one to discuss and critique.

    I have read some stuff recently by Robin Hahnel, intellectual co-parent of Participatory Economics along with Albert. Specifically, I’ve been looking through his book Economic Justice and Democracy: From Competition to Cooperation, which I think was published after he and Albert split for some unknown reason. Hahnel’s position seems to be a modified version of position (1) that Mamos presents.

    Hahnel argues that revolutionaries should participate in reform movements not for the organizing experience, boosts in confidence and commitment, and radicalization that it can offer participants who might then be better positioned to push future revolutionary moments forward, but because the winning of the demands themselves further the goal of revolution by moving the system closer toward one that reflects our values. Hahnel identifies a number of “non-reformist reforms” that could accomplish this: Keynesian economic policies, full employment, improvements to public schools, single-payer healthcare, etc.

    Hahnel also says, again and again, that revolutionaries (though actually he uses words like “progressives”, even though he’s advocating the eventual overthrow of capitalism and the state) involved in such campaigns must “explain” that such reforms are not enough and that we must not let ourselves be bought out by such reforms if we win them. Instead, we must advocate for using the increased power that such reforms give us to push for still more reforms.

    So, Hahnel is opposed to revolutionaries subordinating their political perspectives in order to not alienate coalition partners. But he doesn’t say whether we should subordinate more radical or illegal tactics for the same reason. If he agrees with Hamerquist that militant tactics can help to win a demand rather than hinder it, then his position would be functionally similar to Mamos’ position 2, even if the strategic vision behind it is different (and the demands aren’t immediately winnable).

    But I think the bigger issue is why we should expect that, if we do the same thing we leftists have always done — focus on winning demands for the sake of the demands themselves — but somehow do it differently (“explain” to people that they can’t just go home at the end of the day), we’ll get a different outcome than what we’ve had before. Both Hamerquist and Mamos present good reasons why such efforts can’t lead to revolution, not least of which is historical evidence to the contrary.

  8. T Barnacle says:

    Mamos, you’ve got me curious to know who in SeaSol/IWW has “illusions that this will gradually over time lead to revolution by winning over one worker at a time”? But I guess it wouldn’t be good to name names on a blog like this… My first gut reaction was “this is a straw man!”, but on second thought I guess there could well be someone who thinks this. Struggle organizations will tend to have more diversity of ideas and levels of political education than highly ideologically specific groups like Black Orchid.

    As for your Position 3, I agree 100%t that building up a big pool of solid, committed, competent organizers is the key. As for the rest of your description of this position, I’ve grilled you on this stuff before at some length but have yet to get a clear understanding of what it all actually means in practice. Maybe next time…

  9. Funny, Fray, I was at Pine and Boren on N30, too! Were we in the same affinity group? I was actually too scared to lock down, so I was the kid who had everyone’s lockbox keys on me!

    Yeah, this is a great discussion. I would say that I most resonate with Mamos’ strategic position 3 for all the reasons that Mamos lays out. I especially appreciate the critique of how many position 1 and 2 folks are too dismissive of the insurrectionist folks. Like I’ve said to some of the Black Orchid Collective members before, the revolutionary left is too small and we know too little about what works to get so hardened into positions that we dismiss other strategies entirely.

    One thing that’s interesting is how the Pacific Northwest makeup of the Black Bloc has shifted since 1999. While the Black Bloc back then wasn’t entirely primitivist, the primitivist tendency was way more dominant in Pacific NW anarchism…yet now it seems like the folks utilizing the Black Bloc tactic have better politics. That’s progress! And as a tactic, I think it offers so much to learn from.

    However, one thing that this discussion and your recent post about the police organizing makes me think about is how the Black Bloc tactic is hard for bystanders to imagine themselves in. That is, I do agree that lots of people resonate with watching the audacity and seeming bravery of the Black Bloc in action, but it’s hard to actually imagine getting the gear, the skills, finding peers to do it with you, etc. It feels closed, and I think that limits its usefulness to a subcultural level.

    I think we should look back at some other tactics from the global justice movement in the early 2000’s. For example, the Ya Basta!/White Overalls tactic that cropped up. This was also militant, prepared, tactically fresh, yet its goal, rather than street fighting, was to push back police to open up space for more self-activity within the protests. With the tragedy and crimes of Genoa in 2001, I feel like this tactic just sort of got dropped (hopefully I’m wrong?), but I’d like to see deeper tactical/strategic reflections on it. In some places they were marching with all these inner tubes and plexiglass walls and things! Now this is also hard for someone to imagine themselves in, but the whole attitude and energy of it was different than the Black Bloc, yet it also had a healthy insurrectionist spirit.

  10. Ah, Fray, of course I know who you are! It’s tough when people’s names on here don’t match their real names!

  11. Nate says:

    I haven’t had time to read any of this over closely, been meaning to and will come back later, but I just want to respond the stuff where I got mentioned (I’m flattered, by the way), which is all I’ve really read of this.

    I’m actually for some version of strategy 3. I think that the notion that any of us have a clear idea of how our work now feeds into a revolution happening is, to be blunt, silly and self-aggrandizing. I *do* think we should proceed for now primarily emphasizing “winning over one worker at a time” but this will move in forward and backward steps, and we do need to respond when bigger things kick off. There are different sets of work if the current objective is “one worker at a time” and if its involvement in big upsurges. I don’t think the two reinforce each other very much of the time as actually practiced; in actual practice I think what happens is that people temporarily shelve one set of priorities and one set of work; those priorities and that work basically atrophies while the other set of priorities and work is pursued. I think this is just the reality we deal with and I don’t know that there’s a theoretical answer that sheds much light beyond “try to keep a good balance and try to handle an overwhelming task.”

    So in terms of how to proceed, I think the thing to do is proceed one worker at a time in order to “consolidate a large [well, larger than now] cadre of serious working class militants who have deep ties to the rest of the working class and are good organizers. Then, when spontaneous struggles break out, these militants will be able to consciously deeepen those struggles.” I’m deeply skeptical about the notion that we will “create revolutionary openings” in the short term [this is a cue for one of my friends like Don and Pete and Scott to call me a gradualist and imply that I’m conservative😉 ].”

    I agree that this requires “militants (…) to develop a conscious, theoretically grounded political program that speaks to the actual aspirations and conditions of the working class today, and they need to democratically share their theoretical method with as many fellow workers as possible so as much of the class as possible can participate in developing and refining this program.” I happen to think that the existing practice of grouping militants into parallel or otherwise separate organizations rarely actually does this, I think if anything it discourages that democratic sharing; as such I think that mass or fighting formations need to develop ways to do this internally (via cadre forming what are essentially organs internal to the body of the fighting formation and which carry out this work – SeaSol’s SETI program strikes me as a good example of this within SeaSol). I also think that a “program that speaks to the actual aspirations and conditions of the working class” will likely only be developed piecemeal small section by small section and primarily by a process of asking questions and consulting rather that formulated based on the logic of radicals on their own.

    Finally, one other difference here – for me winning has very little to do with any of this. I do advocate for the IWW taking on organizing where we can get some traction, but that’s not because I think that we proceed “through wining small demands.” It’s more about what I think we can manage in terms of day-to-day operations; I would imagine that Black Orchid does the same – you are not, for example, trying to put out a weekly national paper-based publication, at least in part because you don’t have the resources to make a commitment like this. So you do things that make sense in terms of how to allocate the scarce resources you have. In any case, I think winning and losing are largely a matter of interpretation and demands are largely a matter of how people begin a process of involvement which can and should be transformative. I think the win or the loss is not the primary assessment for that and I think winning should matter to us only to the degree that it helps with cadre development. The part that I think is most likely to be transformative, from my experience and that of others I know, is not so much the outcome of the struggle understood as a sort of negotiation but rather the experiential quality of the struggle while it’s in motion — that is, what has mattered for me and other examples I’ve seen and been somewhat involved in, has not been the outcome in terms of success or failure to win demands, it’s been the forms of activity and conflict people engaged in that are new to them and expand their horizons and make them see the world differently plus the relationships and types of interaction with other people that they built or witnessed during the struggle.

    Two final points, One, in my view this orientation toward quality-during-the-action rather than outcomes of the struggle is something that I and likeminded comrades shared with some of the insurrectionary anarchist currents, from my limited exposure to them, including some of those which Black Orchid comrades and others have criticized (I think rightly) as adventurists. That’s something I think I/we should think and read more about. Two, there a flip side to this, people who speak a lot about mass ruptures and mobilizations and what are basically insurrectionary hopes will sometimes talk about those as being important for what they win. For example – a mass uprising may topple a dictator, or bring an end to police brutality in some locale. Those things matter a great deal, but a perspective that emphasizes those outcomes – changes in life under capitalism, however important – uses a different set of assessments than those that I and my closer comrades tend to use.

    take care,
    Nate

    • T Barnacle says:

      Nate, as usual I agree with almost all of what you say here.

      On the issue of the importance of winning particular demands, I agree that a particular demand is never our ultimate goal, and even in the short term it shouldn’t always be the main thing we’re aiming for.

      However, I think we should not underestimate the value of making serious attempts – and sometimes succeeding – at winning small demands as we’re building up our forces. Not only can doing so dramatically improve our ability to bring in and retain new people, but most importantly, the educational value is huge. The winning or losing of fights over particular demands gives people a very empirical, hard-to-bullshit yardstick by which they can learn how to measure collective strength and effectiveness and the balance of forces in a given situation. It helps force activists to leave their ideological fantasylands behind and develop realistic ways of assessing where we’re at and what it will take to get where we want to go.

      Granted, sometimes it’s worth launching into fights even when we’re very doubtful of the outcome. But we need to make sure we’re honest and realistic about it and aren’t bullshitting our people. Otherwise we’re selling illusions, which leads to confusion and ultimately, disillusionment.

      To be clear, I too realize that this process of gradually building strength through (initially) small battles is not likely to bring about revolution in any direct or automatic way. At best it will help generate a movement whose existence and whose character and robustness will improve the chances that future revolutions will not be squandered.

    • Nate says:

      Thanks TB. If you don’t mind my asking, do you have another online name you go by? I only ask because I don’t remember interacting with you under this name; I understand the reasons for being cagey about this of course. Anyhow –

      I’m for winning of course, but… these quotes from Rosa Luxemburg put it pretty clearly – “revolution is the only form of “war”… in which the ultimate victory can be prepared only by a series of ‘defeats'” and “besides a “definite success” in material gains, and indeed without this success, strikes “in Western Europe” have perhaps their most important effect as beginning points of union organization: and it is specifically in backward places and hard-to-organize branches of labor that such “unsuccessful” and “ill-advised” strikes are most common, from which over and over arise the foundations of union organization.”

      To my mind, the point here is not that winning doesn’t matter, but rather what our primary criteria for success ought to be. Where I agree with Mamos here is that at least for now our emphasis ought to be on cadre development. I don’t think there’s any single answer to this, but I do think the general question for measuring our activity ought to be “what does this do for us in terms of cadre?” rather than “what does this win?” Or to put it another way, the most important thing we should be trying to win is more and better cadre; other wins or losses matter only to the degree that they have an effect on that. I don’t have a clear idea of how long this should be the emphasis, but it should be until there are enough of us of enough quality and experience that we can start putting our heads together to start making real world-historical change and eventually big, big wins.

      take care,
      Nate

    • Gah. I am apparently constitutionally unable to write anything without later having another thought I should have said in the first place. The thought strikes me reading over this again that perhaps really TB we’re just orienting toward different parts of the same elephant, based I’m sure on the different priorities and situations of the work we’re currently doing. Self-referencing always makes me feel funny but… I wrote a long piece in reply to a thing by Scott Nappalos, it’s here – http://recompositionblog.wordpress.com/2011/04/27/the-intermediate-level-and-trajectories-of-struggle/ Most of it is irrelevant here but toward the end, in the second to last section toward the end called “Cadre and Components” I tried to parse out some of the different elements we can improve on in a type of struggle – what facets of ourselves and comrades we hope our participation in a struggle improves; I now think the list there is pretty flawed but I think the attempt is a worthwhile one. I think what you’re talking about is valid and importat, and is perhaps just a different operational priority from what I’m talking about – emphasizing a different facet of cadre-making than what I’m talking about. (Incidentally the bit just after that, the last real section, “Winning What We Want And Changing What We Want” spells out more of the point I was trying to make about having our top priority be trying to organize in a way that is transformative.)

  12. Nate says:

    And in case anyone’s interested this is a talk I gave a while back where I first tried to sketch out some of my views on this stuff –
    http://whatinthehell.blogsome.com/2010/09/13/was-i-on-about/

  13. Nate says:

    One other point I wanted to make, if y’all want to just fold this into my above comments as PS that’s cool with me –
    I think “one worker at a time” sounds a lot smaller when we’re talking about starting from groups that have numbers in single digits or the teens. With larger groups, though, “one worker at a time” looks different — it’s one worker per organizer over some period of time. The more organizers doing this, the more people won over, at least some of whom become organizers, and the process grows. I realize that I’m still talking about tiny, tiny numbers, but in five years my IWW branch went from 10 people total to 100 members with several hundred supporters, and at one point the Portland IWW had about 300 members. Again, things aren’t linear, there are setbacks, but as we start to talk about larger organizations (or large networks of small organizations like Black Orchid) then “one worker at a time” per organizer over some period of time becomes a whole lot of people.

    There’s a good bit in this interview with Sergio Bologna that’s relevant here too –
    http://libcom.org/library/analysis-of-autonomia-interview-sergio-bologna-patrick-cunninghame

    He says, “spontaneity does not exist. What we could call “spontaneity” is, in reality, the formation of microsystems of struggle which are already very mature politically, because they have been determined by a generation of militants”

  14. David C says:

    To set the almighty internet record straight: I do not endorse Mamos’ strategy 2, I was just saying I’m perfectly fine with being lumped in with whatever people think SeaSol is trying to do. I don’t have much to add on what approach we all should take. One little thing I would add is that we all need to be getting better at setting and trying to achieve specific, measurable goals in our organizing – like T Barnacle writes about above. Along with that, we all need some better plain old, nuts-and-bolts organizing skills… a sharp analysis and good intentions can only go so far.

    SeaSol is making good headway in these aspects, and that, among plenty of other reasons, is why I ride for SeaSol.

  15. Mamos says:

    This discussion clarifies a lot, thanks ya’ll. I agree with Nate, our primary goal in the current moment should be cadre building. I also agree that this will change in the future – at a certain point “spontaneous” working class struggles will build cadre faster than we could ever hope to and we should orient toward cohering larger numbers of militants.

    I agree that one of the crucial aspects of cadre building in the current moment is nuts and bolts organizing skills which groups like Seasol do an excellent job of developing. I think the Seasol/ IWW training sessions are one of the best examples of this I’ve seen on the Left in Seattle. I do think that these need to be supplemented with the kind of theoretical and current events study and discussion that Seasolers do in SETI and that groups like Black Orchid and Red Spark have been hosting. I agree with T Barnacle that there is a lot of delusion and wishful thinking on the Left, and that we need specific, measurable, attainable, and relevant goals to judge success or failure by. As folks have indicated though, these goals don’t always need to be winnable demands.

    For example we could set some specific, measurable, attainable, and relevant goals for cadre building. One goal we have is that Black Orchid should provide a high level of internal support, study, and discussion so that every member will have the confidence and skills necessary to do study groups with militants active in various struggles, so that those militants will then develop the skills necessary to do study groups with other militants, and so on. This democratizes theory and prevents it from being dominated by an elite few. Another goal that we have is for every member of Black Orchid to go through both day to day nuts and bolts organizing experiences as well as moments of intervening in upsurges and political crises, to the point where we are able to be reliable and consistent organizers in a variety of situations.

  16. Frank says:

    In my opinion, everyone on this thread has made thoughtful points aimed at pushing organizing work ahead. Furthermore, these points are based in experience. So this makes it a joy to read when compared to Kasama or similar sites, where the main aim seems to be to theorize against uniting theory with practice, e.g., thou shalt not build revolutionary organization in the workplaces, thou shalt not build organization that strives to step-by-step lead forward the real, objective mass movements we have, etc. But while I agree with various points particular authors make, I often disagree with them about others. Hence, if I below endorse what someone has said above this does not mean I endorse everything they’ve written; or if I disagree with someone on a particular point, I may very well agree with them on numerous other points.

    By way of introduction, I don’t fully understand what is meant by some of the words or phrases being used, e.g., space, proto-insurrectionary agitation, agency, and others. Probably the most important, however, is the notion of “creating revolutionary openings.” If what is meant is that conditions for revolutionary work don’t presently exist, and we have to create openings for such work, then I’d totally disagree. Or if what is meant is that through their work alone, revolutionaries are going to create such openings (whatever the word means), I would share Nate’s deep skepticism. But Matt A may mean something else, although it’s not spelled out.

    Cadre organization–

    I don’t normally use this term because it means quite different things to different people. For example, most groups that proclaim themselves revolutionary have study groups, strive to train members in their line, and strive to train more good speakers, writers, and organizers. But for all this, if they have an incorrect general political line then they’re building cadres who will divert, disrupt, mislead the class struggle. Furthermore, most people on this thread are probably only familiar with cadre organizations which are in fact sects with petty-bourgeois politics, and who try to impose preconceived formulas on the mass struggles rather than working out revolutionary tactics; or sects that shout we need revolution while disdaining the tactical work needed to move things forward, if only an inch. So this means that their cadres are not being taught to use revolutionary theory as a tool to think with and act upon. Instead, they’re taught to use revolutionary phrases as an adornment for opportunistic practice. And this is accomplished with bureaucratic centralism rather than democratic centralism.

    Thus, such cadre organizations as these are repellant not because they’re cadre organizations, but because of their world outlook and politics.

    So I do agree that we need cadre organizations. In fact, I think we should be consciously laying the basis for the refoundation of the proletarian party of the American proletariat. But I disagree with Nate when he writes that

    “…the general question for measuring our activity ought to be ‘what does this do for us in terms of cadre?, rather than ‘what does this win?’ Or to put it another way, the most important thing we should be trying to win is more and better cadre; other wins or losses matter only to the degree that they have an effect on that.”

    I think that this is looking at things narrowly, and undialectically. In fact, it’s the way that notorious sects like the ISO, RCP and others look at things. In my experience, you cannot win revolutionary people to your group if your primary mission is not to advance the class struggle—be it on the economic, political, and the theoretical fronts, and preferrably all three. The measure of the group’s success is how much it’s doing to raise the level of class political consciosness of the masses, and helping them get better organized. It’s focus must be this, it’s reason for existence must be this. And as it proceeds along these lines it will at some point begin to draw new members into its ranks, where it will strive to raise their consciousness still farther thru study of theory, where it help them become good leaflet writers and agitators, etc., etc. (I don’t think anyone as mentioned training in using scientific method, or training in applying materialist dialectics, but I think this is the most important thing of all. Also, no one has mentioned the role that criticism and self-criticism have in advancing the work of a cadre organization. But maybe that’s just taken for granted.)

    This is not to say that we shouldn’t actively seek new cadres (recruits). But to emphasize my point, I would say that even though he probably doesn’t mean to do it, I think that Nate gives a formula for building an inward-looking, self-cultivating, and sideline group. A group can’t build revolutionary cadre unless it’s at the same time struggling to work out and apply a revolutionary political line in the objective movements. Not only must the two must go hand in hand, but if the organization does not see its entire purpose to be serving the mass movements then it’s going to fail in cadre building.

    One worker at a time, and bursts–

    Even when large numbers of workers are coming forward, you still have to organize them one at a time. This puts stress on small organzations, which is another reason why all members have to be raised to the level of skilled organizers. I would add that in times of mass upsurge there is not necessarily a direct correlation between the intensity of the struggle and lots of new people wanting to join a revolutionary organization. A good example of this is that in the early 1930s the CPUSA (which was then still revolutionary) was leading very sharp struggles involving hundreds of thousands of workers, unemployed, and sharecroppers and it had a lot of prestige. But not many new people joined. Instead they joined unions around the party, the sharecroppers union, unemployed councils, and other organizations that the party was active in. It was simply taking people time to make up their minds about joining the party itself. But the CP drew wrong conclusions from this, and by 1935 (with the pushing of the Stalinists internationally) it had abandoned revolutionary politics for liberal-labor politics disguised with revolutionary verbiage. Then it grew more rapidly, but it was now acting as another wet blanket thrown upon the backs of revolutionary workers.

    Summing up struggles for partial demands–

    When T Barnacle writes “but most importantly, the educational value is huge” I think that he’s getting at the main thing: revolutionaries sum up partial battles in terms of what they’ve done to increase the level of proletarian class consciosness and organization.

    Leadership–

    The bourgeoisie has political leadership—represented by the Democratic and Republican parties—which allows it to act as a class. The proletariat, on the other hand, presently has no party, and, leaving aside episodic rebellions, it therefore cannot act as a class in any historical sense. The bourgeoisie is happily aware of this situation, and does mountains of propaganda to perpetuate it, i.e., communist parties are allegedly by nature controlled by power-seeking bureaucrats who set the line, dupe their members into doing the daily organizing, etc. This is entirely hypocritical, of course. The line of the Democratic Party, for example, is set at the top, while the role of the membership (for example, school teachers) is to go ring doorbells at election time…and to raise money and give money. Moreover, the bourgeois propagandists can get off this way by pointing to the Stalinist and Trotskyist parties (historically, and today) as examples of what they’re talking about. Thus, part of the struggle against revisionism is learning how to build a proletarian party in a revolutionary style.

    But in this discussion there seems to be nervousness about the question of party building. Instead, all that is talked about is cadre building. Moreover, there seems to be nervousness about struggling to lead. So remembering that I heartily agree with him on many points in this discussion, let me pick apart something Mamos writes to show this:

    “I don’t see cadre building as something that will only be focused on a select few specialists who will then go an lead the movement.”

    Neither do I.

    “That is a very dogmatic type of Leninism that leads to building cult-like sects, not revolutionary movements.”

    That is not a type of Leninism at all.

    “I do think we need to start with a small group of cadre because that’s all we are right now”

    Agreed.

    “.. we need to train ourselves to a high level not because we want to lead the overall movement”

    Well, any group that is truly revolutionary thinks it has something to say in the world, and it struggles to lead particular mass movements. This means struggling against reformist, ultra-leftist and other trends involved in the movement over tactics (or lack thereof), as well as struggling against them over perspective. But if we’re revolutionary, we also fight to lead as much of the overall movement as we can. Indeed, over time we need to build up the kind of organization that can combine all of the streams of discontent in society into a torrent of proletarian socialist revolution.

    So I say revolutionaries militantly struggle to lead! This does not mean rushing to the front of demonstrations with our banner, or trying to shout slogans the loudest, or wearing communism on our sleeve, or proclaiming ourselves the vanguard and everyone else backward, etc. Nor does it mean we should try to lead everything, which would be impossible anyway. It does mean is humble and persistent work to scientifically analyze what are the decisive tasks are at each turn in the various movements, and overall; and struggling to implement the line and policy our analysis tells us to. In this way we work to build up the independent political movement of the working class, and in this process we build up the party forces themselves (build cadre, if you will).

    Much of this is very prosaic work that no one is going to cheer a group for doing…and they shouldn’t! Moreover, the determinant thing is an organization’s class standpoint. If it really has a proletarian class standpoint, then over time it can correct errors in its line, and further develop it.

    But after he seemingly opposes leading, Mamos continues

    “…we need to train ourselves to a high level not because we want to lead the overall movement but because we need to do that in order to share our perspectives and skills with as many people as possible from as many different backgrounds and political experiences as possible, so that way they can in turn mentor, support, and help develop new working class militants in their workplaces, schools, neighborhoods, and social milieus, and those folks will then develop other working class militants, and so on. We need to democratize tools like revolutionary theory, and organizing skills, and we need to develop new revolutionary theory out of reflection on organizing, and new forms of organizing out of cutting edge theory.”

    Don’t lead, just share with others the perspectives and skills that the group has trained itself in, and these others will in turn mentor, support, and help develop new working-class militants. Thus, this high level self-trained group (and vanguard since it came first) would in fact be leading while preferring to call it sharing, mentoring, and the like.

    Why this nervousness about party-building and leading?

    CLR James and Leon Trotsky

    Class oppression drives the working class to struggle and makes it sympathetic to the demand for change. But the consciousness even of a rebellious class is bound by the fashionable ideas of its time unless it consciously organizes itself to develop revolutionary theory and to apply it to the problems of the working class struggle. Thus, the Marxist Leninist view is that there has always had to be a conscious struggle against the ideology of pure-and-simple trade unionism in order to develop a political workers movement, much less a revolutionary one. Moreover, today there also has to be a conscious struggle against the almost-universally held idea that Stalinist state-capitalist society represented socialism if communism is going again arise as the banner of mass proletarian revolt. The consistent carrying out of such a conscious struggle requires the building of a consistently revolutionary party, which itself does not arise simply by spontaneity.

    But I’m aware from previous discussions with Black Orchid members that they’re impressed with the late CLR James and the Johnson-Forest Tendency. So what were James’ views on the necessity of a proletarian party to lead a conscious class struggle?

    James was first a member of the Trotskyist SWP, which was the bureaucratically controlled U.S. section of the equally top-down so-called 4th International. This organizational style was consistent with Trotsky’s, who led the founding of this International. Hence, before the 2nd Congress of the RSDLP in 1903, Trotsky enthusiastically proposed ways the Central Committee would crush dissenting party organizations, and coined one of the most extreme formulations of centralism: the party rules should be a system of “organized distrust” of the party towards its organizations. And when Trotsky joined the Bolsheviks in 1917 he became not only a centralist, but a notoriously heavy-handed one— “one of the sternest disciplinarians”according to his admiring biographer Isaac Deutscher. Moreover, Trotsky didn’t want to limit his anti-democratic methods to internal party affairs. In his famous 1920 controversy with Lenin and others, he wanted to rebuild the trade unions as institutions that imposed the state’s views on the workers rather than representing the views of their members.

    James eventually split from the SWP, but he may well have continued to share the other side of Trotsky’s organizational views. These were that between 1903 and 1917 Trotsky “cursed Lenin as a dictator and declared that the idea of a centralized party amounted to substituting the activity of the party for that of the working class as a whole. He appealed to the ‘self-activity’ and spontaneity of the working class; he held that a disciplined, centralized party would crush the self-activity and even the very thinking of the masses, and be a dictator over the workers and even over the party members themselves. He thus counter posed the building of a centralized party to the spontaneity of the masses, and to certain mass organizations that he believed would incorporate proletarian self-activity.” (From Part III of the CVO’s outline of Trotskyism’s anti-Marxist theories.)

    Behind the two sides of Trotsky’s views was that he never grasped that you couldn’t have revolutionary centralism without democracy…while that same centralism facilitated democracy in the party. Similarly, the activity of the masses prepared conditions for the founding of genuine MLPs, and strengthened them…while the parties in turn facilitated broader and more conscious mass activity. In both cases the two went hand in hand; there was a dialectical relationship between the two.

    But after leaving the SWP, CLR James and his co-thinkers didn’t reject that party’s bureaucratic centralism, but instead rejected the very idea of a vanguard party. They wrote of “the crisis of the self-mobilization of the proletariat,” and James toyed with autonomist ideas. I think they were all wrong in doing this.

    Revolutionary agitation–

    It’s almost shocking that besides Mamos calling for collective writing and public political agitation, there is almost no mention of this crucial work in a very long thread. And perhaps related to this is that when Fray writes that

    “in principle at least, as a revolutionary organization grows, it expands its capacity to develop new militants. (I realize this is sounding a little “one worker at a time”-ish, but I think it’s different from that because the idea isn’t that growing the revolutionary organization itself is what creates the revolution — it just creates a group of people who can respond quickly and effectively to upsurges when they happen.)”

    he misses that revolutionary work isn’t just about creating a group of people who can respond quickly and effectively to upsurges. No, it’s also about doing revolutionary work to lead the masses forward in the struggles that occur even in periods of lull, or said another way, it’s also about ideologically preparing the masses (not just small handfuls of people) for the future. And it’s almost impossible to conceive of a group seriously trying to do this without writing and passing out lots of leaflets.

    The internal by-products of this central activity are many: The group is forced to look at and analyze the objective class struggles, the problems arising in in them, the role of other groups in them, etc.—all of which politicizes the group, and helps it from becoming an inward-looking sect. Almost every leaflet throws up theoretical challenges that often require research and study, as well as tactical considerations. Writing good agitation is also a humbling experience in which group members learn how to express themselves.

    Mamos’ four popular strategies for how to link reform and revolution, and anti-revisionism–

    I think that everyone on this thread rightfully rejected Mamos’

    “1) revolutionaries should work with liberals to fight for immediate reform demands and should subordinate our revolutionary politics so we don’t scare away our coalition partners. We should be willing to use any tactics to win demands, even if they are top down, bureaucratic, or not based on mass participation of workers in the actual struggle.”

    Yet no one challenged that no revolutionary actually advocates this! Instead, it’s advocated by the leaders of the various Trotskyist and Maoist organizations, plus their God-fathers of the Stalinist CPUSA ever since 1935. And these are all anti-Leninist trends, revisers of the basic tenets of Marxism-Leninism. There is nothing proletarian-revolutionary about them.

    So this highlights the need for a conscious struggle against revisionism, and turning anti-revisionism into a mass trend as it was in the 1970s, but now on a higher level because we’ve learned a lot more since then. Indeed, there can be no Marxist movement without the fight against revisionism (bourgeois ideas masquerading as Marxist ideas).

    Program–

    I’ve been part of a revolutionary trend that for years didn’t have much of a program outside what it agreed to advocate in its leaflets and newspapers, and outside what it decided to dointernally and externally in meetings. Thus, I was initially impressed when Matt A wrote that “it’s impossible to come up with an adequate program – the program will come up with you. To think otherwise is idealism…” But in looking at the passage again I see that “the program will come up with you” is actully also idealist nonsense, i.e., there is not some adequate program floating around in space that will one day grab hold of revolutionaries.

    Nevertheless, I think that Matt really only means that small revolutionary groups have to be modest about their programs; and if he does I agree with that. I would add, however, that a modest program is in fact an adequate program if the group is revolutionary. For example, if it’s revolutionary it’s going to struggle to implement its program, draw lessons from its experiences, and thereby be in a position to expand its program on a materialist basis when organizational growth occurs. Further, not to mystify anything, when I write of modest program I mean a program of internal theoretical study combined with revolutionary activity in a selected few workplaces or mass movements that arise. (Try to do everything and you usually end up doing very little.)

    But fundamental to a program is the theory it’s based upon. If a group snatches a little of its theory from Marx, Engels and Lenin, a little more from CLR James or Trotskyism, a little more from the new-leftists or other elitist, anti-working class intellectual trends, etc., it’s going to be eclectic. Thus, while it may do a few things to help the revolutionary movement it will do others that harm it. And in the final analysis it will be just another group that did not rise to the historical necessity.

    That said, I think that the Black Orchid and other participants on this thread are serious and thoughtful people who are entirely capable of separating the wheat from the chaff when it comes to revolutionary theory.

    Comradely,
    Frank

    • This discussion is very exciting. I’m a member of BOC and wanted to chime in. I particularly want to respond to some of Frank’s points. I agree that there is a need for organization and the synthesis of the economic, political and theoretical. I agree that our aim should be to assist in pushing working class struggle forward at all times. We are enmeshed in a battle of ideologies and to paraphrase Marx, the ruling ideas of the day are that of the ruling class. But this has its contradictions that bring a reaction from the working class. This we can be certain of. The form and direction of this reaction can vary. It is for this reason I agree with you that we need revolutionary organizations engaging with the masses. I disagree with your takes on the idea of having a vanguard party to do so. This is a crucial point that I want to focus on.

      Party/Organization

      I am weary of the party. We have to ask ourselves what a party is. I would argue that the party as a political structure is bourgeois and implies mobilizing/taking over an existing state. It is hierarchal, creating a division between mental and manual by professionalizing or creating a political division of labor. An unhealthy power dynamic emerges from this and I haven’t found any reason to believe that democratic centralism changes these facts. The party becomes the professed consciousness of the masses. Revolution is perceived to not be possible without it. This assumes the masses are just there to be roused by revolutionaries and have no agency. No wonder when the masses have moved without professed vanguard parties these parties have been caught off guard. We must remember that it has been the actions of the masses without parties and vanguards, in the sense of a group of revolutionaries, which have been the major influence on Marxism and the Marxist method.

      It was after the concrete experience of the Paris Commune that Marx gave his idea of the workers state. It is through action that consciousness is developed and revolutionary situations, nay, revolution itself emerges. It is spontaneous. This doesn’t negate the need for organization but organization does not have to come in the form of a party. What we need are organizations that can prepare to adapt to these situations and more importantly individuals who can propagate revolutionary analysis and the Marxist method so the masses can utilize this when we struggle. Orgs should develop revolutionaries and equip them with tools that will enable them to play a pivotal role in struggle. The dichotomy between party as consciousness and workers as form must cease.

      Parties and orgs shouldn’t monopolize revolutionary theory or be seen as the only way/place where these things are created. Parties cannot be seen as the only organizational form that the class can resist through. When the party becomes the default and “proper” form for revolutionaries to resist it can inhibit the growth of new and potentially more effective organizational forms. An orthodoxy is formed which stultifies movement. Any developments outside of this form are ignored and possibly held back.

      The tradition of the party in revolutionary politics comes from a time when, particularly in Russia, folks were struggling for liberal democratic states. We are in a liberal democracy now. The conditions have changed. Organizational structure should correspond to the changes in the material conditions or they become static and dogmatic. We cannot use an organizational structure that came out of the needs of 1900 Russia where there were feudal relations, a Tsar, hardcore repression, etc. Though we are students of past revolutions but we should recognize that the next revolutions will not be the same through and through so we must be able to adopt or we and our organizational form become fetters on the masses. Capitalism is a dynamic system. It constantly changes its form and thus social relations. Our organizations must adapt with it and the adaptation in social relations it brings.

      I urge that we look at the party and vanguard dialectically. For instance, let’s look at unions. Where not unions one of the most effective organizational forms for the working class to fight through until the conditions change, i.e. capital incorporated Unions into its left wing creating an aristocracy of labor and making unions static stuck between maintaining order for contracts and defending the working class? Granted not all unions were revolutionary we can find a similarity in them to the party and to the state for that matter. That similarity is the idea that salvation must be brought to the worker. They are not capable. As aforementioned I recognize that revolutionaries are entrenched in a battle of ideology and that theory is not some latent instinct in the human mind. I feel the best way to remedy this situation is to take on a leadership role in developing cadre form the class itself, while vehemently pushing a revolutionary analysis, networking, and developing relationships with the class. I have no clue if this will work but I am willing to try. If we fail we can learn from our mistakes and try again.

      This is to say we need to take into account the current situation and experiment with new forms. We can base aspects of these new forms on historical examples but to stick to one form of organization as if its doctrine inhibits our ability to adapt and totally ignores new situations.
      With all this in mind the question of leadership emerges. Since we know from countless historical and contemporary examples that the people will move with or without parties the way we interact becomes totally different. We don’t bring about the conditions but we should bring forth a strong revolutionary analysis, help to develop militant layers of the class, agitate for things that will push the class struggle forward. We are not trying to lead as Mamos states because we can’t in the sense that we know not where things will erupt. We know that they will and that when they do a revolutionary perspective and method will definitely assist in assuring that the aims of the masses is toward the destruction of the system that alienates and exploits them. We’d be leading these efforts without question. But our leadership in one that doesn’t try to make folks conform to our line and join our group in a static manner.

      Org forms should come and go. Orgs are not the revolution. People’s actions constitute revolution whether conscious of it or not though the former is more desirable. Hence, we show leadership in sharing skills, developing organizer, studying theory, etc, but not with the aim of becoming the ultimate representatives of the class but rather spread this know how so the class can represent itself. Orgs must be developed based on the needs, context, and situation workers find themselves. Now let’s mossy on to another point.

      Vanguard
      Ok, this needs to be said. Just because a group of people study theory organizes, put forth analysis, agitates, etc does not make them leaders of the class nor a vanguard. Vanguards are major sections of the class that have reacted to contradictions within the material conditions in a way that can serve as a catalyst to unite the class as a whole wittingly or otherwise. For instance, black veterans who came back from World War II as well as other black workers became the vanguard of the working class because they moved in mass numbers against the material conditions of capital which subjugated them. In doing so they began to strike a blow at one of the roots of capitalist power in the US, the division of the working class along racial lines. Many of these folks probably didn’t read Lenin and Marx and some did.

      To be clear, this isn’t to say that we shouldn’t do anything because the working class will bring about revolution soon. That would be detrimental and far from dialectical. What I am trying to get at is a very fundamental question that has harmed the lefts perception of itself. There seems to be an idea that without a party or group of revolutionaries nothing will happen. This is false. If the nature of capitalism is what we claim it is (alienating, exploitative, destructive) and if human beings do have agency we have to expect and accept the historical reality that folks will move against their material reality for better or for worse.

      The role of the revolutionary in this sense is not to make people move but to put the conditions that people will move against into perspective and try to assist in the creation of orgs to collectively struggle against this system. The vanguard and the party imply that super hero revolutionaries will move and save the day. I recognize you are not saying this Frank but I do think that this will be the effect. Vanguards are vanguards because of their actions not how much they prepare and discuss for revolution. To say that a group like BOC is a vanguard of the class would be quite insane since we only constitute four people. This can probably be said of other revolutionary groups as well whether they number in the double or triple digits. More can be said on this but I will continue on.

      Program

      I am no authority on this but I do agree programs are crucial and helpful in making concrete arguments against capitalism. I also agree that the theory a program is based on is crucial. BOC has been studying Marxism to develop our understanding of the method Marx employed. In doing so we also study how others have used or misused it. Marxism is a science that has been used in many ways. We simply want to figure out where to go next based on history and the present. If we go to the source and explore others interpretation of that source and find ourselves in agreement with some we are not eclectic. To conclude by using the dialectical method, we expose ourselves to a world where everything is dynamic and changing. With history as an anchor we must be able and willing to adapt to the conditions whether in programs or organizational forms.

      Hope this is clear and thanks for giving me so much food for thought Frank. I’m certain to grow from this!!

      -BlueBossaNova

    • Frank Arango says:

      BlueBossaNova,

      We agree with the obvious fact that proletarian organization is necessary, but from your perspective, it’s only necessary as long as it isn’t a proletarian party. But the ironic contradiction, I believe, is that ANY organization, even a very small one, has to deal with hierarchy, elitist attitudes toward the masses, and other bourgeois outlooks and methods that you rightfully declaim against. Thus, banning the perspective or working toward eventually founding a proletarian party accomplishes nothing in these regards. Worse, it can foster a small-group outlook, liberalism toward errors in order to keep the group together, conservatism, and other ills.

      You say that you’re “weary of the party”…..but WHAT party? We haven’t had a revolutionary party in this country of any size in more than 75 years! In place of this (except for the MLP from 1980-93), we’ve had nothing but Stalinist, Trotskyist, and Maoist sects that call themselves parties. They’re revisionists. Their vision of the future is state capitalism, and their tactics in the present-day mass struggles, when they have them, are usually wrong. Along with this, and often flowing from it, is the fact that they practice bureaucratic-centralism internally, and bureaucracy in various mass movements.

      Moreover, while some of these groups may crash on the rocks with a new revolutionary upsurge, these groups represent long-standing political trends that as a whole will grow when more people are looking for revolutionary politics. (The revisionist CPUSA and SWP grew in the ’60s and early ’70s.) And this is related to the fact that they have a social basis in sections of the petty-bourgeoisie. Hence, the fight against their influence is going to continue, and since these are national trends this is a national fight. From this, I would suggest that having a proletarian party that is organizing lower and deeper among the masses is the surest way to speed the overcoming of their influence.

      “I would argue that the party as a political structure is bourgeois and implies mobilizing/taking over an existing state.”

      But the aim of a proletarian party is to smash the bourgeois state. Further, ANY organization of more than a handful of people is going to have a political structure. Try to conceive of an organization existing in several cities and fighting on several fronts of the class struggle without a political structure. So where is the dividing line where an organization suddenly has too many workers in it, and is fighting on too many fronts, and therefore becomes bourgeois, i.e., a party? At what point does an “unhealthy power dynamic emerge?” And can’t a very small group just as much have unhealthy internal power dynamics? (In fact, small groups are rather infamous for this.)

      “The party becomes the professed consciousness of the masses.”

      I have trouble understanding this because no party or group can become the consciousness of the masses. But if it’s a revolutionary party it constantly strives to grasps what the mass consciousness is, and it strives to sum up the mass experience (raise it to the level of theory), and take this back to the masses. What’s wrong with that, and doesn’t BOC set it as one of its tasks?

      “Revolution is perceived to not be possible without it.”

      History has repeatedly shown that revolutionary upsurges are possible, but I argue that a successful proletarian revolution that goes on to socialism is indeed impossible without an anti-revisionist MLP…..and especially so because the bourgeoisie is much more organized than it was during previous attempts.

      “This assumes the masses are just there to be roused by revolutionaries and have no agency.”

      Bunk. This sentence doesn’t logically flow from the former at all. Only elitists think that way.

      “We must remember that it has been the actions of the masses without parties and vanguards, in the sense of a group of revolutionaries, which have been the major influence on Marxism and the Marxist method.”

      Fine. But what did this lead Marx (and not just Marx) to conclude??

      “In its struggle against the collective power of the possessing classes the proletariat can act as a class only by constituting itself a distinct political party, opposed to all the old parties formed by the possessing classes.

      “This constitution of the proletariat into a political party is indispensable to ensure the triumph of the social revolution and of its ultimate goal: the abolition of classes.”–K. Marx

      “It is through action that consciousness is developed and revolutionary situations, nay, revolution itself emerges. It is spontaneous.”

      Fine, consciousness is a product of action. But this consciousness is mainly going to be framed in the dominant bourgeois, petty-bourgeois, and trade-unionist ideas of the age. More, while revolutionary upsurges emerge out of the spontaneous movement, having a large and experienced revolutionary party in action can hasten their development, and ensure revolutionary victory.

      That’s my opinion, of course; and up to a point you seem to share it. For example, you write that the revolution “emerges” from the spontaneous terrain, but you don’t write that revolution itself is a spontaneous, or unconscious, act. But then you go on

      “This doesn’t negate the need for organization but organization does not have to come in the form of a party.”

      O.K. What is this newly-discovered form of organization that is superior to a proletarian party?

      “What we need are organizations that can prepare to adapt to these situations and more importantly individuals who can propagate revolutionary analysis and the Marxist method so the masses can utilize this when we struggle. Orgs should develop revolutionaries and equip them with tools that will enable them to play a pivotal role in struggle.”

      Well, a proletarian party is a voluntary association of individuals who propagate revolutionary analysis and the Marxist method so that the masses can utilize these in the struggle; and a party works to develop, equip with tools, etc., more and better revolutionaries outside its ranks, as well as working to raise the level of everyone inside its ranks. So where’s the rub, where’s the difference?

      1) We’re talking about the most profound and difficult revolution in history, a class revolution that emancipates all of oppressed humanity. And this revolutionary process will liberate human individuality. Yet you seem to counter pose the role of individuals to the role of organization—even the kind of organization you argue for! I may misread what you write, but it seems that you reduce the role of organization to training INDIVIDUALS who will play pivotal roles, etc. Nothing is said about how these individuals help work out the organization’s line and tactics, or about the ORGANIZATION playing a pivotal role with the help of all of the individuals in it. Nothing is said about organization being a vehicle for class liberation.

      2) If we seriously think in terms of class liberation it poses the question of building a powerful political force that can lead the class, and rally all of the other oppressed people into a revolutionary onslaught to overthrow the bourgeoisie. In short, we aim to storm heaven. This requires organization such as we’ve never had before. But a weakness of our movement is that it’s divided into scattered groups, and not very many of them. More, petty-bourgeois/anarchist fear of real class organization exists all around us. Yet in these conditions you seem to want to turn vice into virtue by talking about building organizations—in the plural, and I think this is actually a conservative position. Sure, we want to see revolutionary groups being formed everywhere, and the CVO trend has called for this. But the concrete way we can inspire the formation of new groups is by developing our own organization and its work.

      “The dichotomy between party as consciousness and workers as form must cease.”

      Workers are always conscious, but with what consciousness? And a party is a form that strives to help shape consciousness. More, who upholds this dichotomythat must cease, anyway? At any rate, just before this you wrote of individuals coming out of the kind of organization you favor propagating revolutionary analysis and the Marxist method so the masses could utilize this. So you, yourself uphold that there is a dichotomy that must be overcome. And this is only natural. Marx said that the communists were the most advanced and resolute section of the working class in every country, that section which pushes forward all others…..and that theoretically, “they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement.”

      “Parties and orgs shouldn’t monopolize revolutionary theory or be seen as the only way/place where these things are created.”

      Right. Revolutionary parties and organizations work to spread revolutionary theory as far as they can through leaflets, theoretical journals, books, study groups, meetings, etc., etc. And revolutionaries don’t see their organization as the only way/place where things are created, which would be absurd.

      “Parties cannot be seen as the only organizational form that the class can resist through.”

      This would be another absurdity, a travesty of Marxism-Leninism. But it just as much applies to small groups or organizations.

      “When the party becomes the default and ‘proper’ form for revolutionaries to resist it can inhibit the growth of new and potentially more effective organizational forms. An orthodoxy is formed which stultifies movement. Any developments outside of this form are ignored and possibly held back.”

      This is just a mish-mash of assertions, fears and possibilities that apply to any organization. The point is to fight to build revolutionary organization, democratic-centralist organization (if it has any size) that can fight.

      “The tradition of the party in revolutionary politics comes from a time when, particularly in Russia, folks were struggling for liberal democratic states. We are in a liberal democracy now…We cannot use an organizational structure that came out of the needs of 1900 Russia where there were feudal relations, a Tsar, hardcore repression, etc.”

      No. The tradition comes from the fact that when the class struggle reaches any maturity it becomes a struggle between parties. Thus, the fact that we don’t have a revolutionary party indicates the immaturity of our class. Moreover, in the 19th Century Marx and Engels worked to build proletarian parties in countries no longer ruled by autocrats, and where socialism was the next step on the historical agenda. With Marx dead, Engels also helped found the Second International. It included parties from democratic countries, as well as autocratic ones, i.e., Russia.

      “Organizational structure should correspond to the changes in the material conditions or they become static organizes, put forth analysis, agitates, etc does not make them leaders of the class nor a vanguard.”

      O.K. But why is it so hard to say? I agree, 1000%!

      “There seems to be an idea that without a party or group of revolutionaries nothing will happen.”

      Perhaps you keep raising this idea because of whom you’ve had associations with, or something. But I, for one, agree that something will happen.

      “The role of the revolutionary…is not to make people move but to put the conditions that people will move against into perspective and try to assist in the creation of orgs to collectively struggle against this system.”

      Yes, but the role of revolutionary organization also includes the need to investigate, study, seek, divine, and grasp tactics with which to step-by-step move the partial struggles ahead, and step-by-step move various mass movements toward revolutionary conclusions. Indeed, working out revolutionary tactics is often the key that opens the door to everything else.

      “The vanguard and the party imply that super hero revolutionaries will move and save the day.”

      You assert that vanguard and party imply this, but certainly don’t prove it. In fact, if a party really represents the vanguard of the proletariat it will have long been immersed in all of the proletarian (and other) struggles in society. Hence, when it moves millions will move with it. (Try doing this with an organization of a few hundred, or even a few thousand!) Further, Marxist-Leninists (those terrible upholders of the party principle!) believe that the masses of people are the makers of history, and the real heroes in any sharp mass struggle. The revisionists do not.

      “I recognize you are not saying this Frank but I do think that this will be the effect.”

      So you THINK this will be the effect, but why? What is your thinking based on?

      Since you’re committed to accumulating many more years of experience in the class struggle, I think you’ll eventually give a clear answer. And, if you keep your wits about you, I’m confident that you’ll conclude the obvious: for the working class to become the ruling class and begin the transition to sociaism it needs its own party!

      I have no more to say regarding program.

      Fear not death by a thousand cuts, for we dare unseat the emperor!

    • Nate says:

      Frank,

      I just noticed your comments. A few replies –

      “fundamental to a program is the theory it’s based upon. If a group snatches a little of its theory from Marx, Engels and Lenin, a little more from CLR James or Trotskyism, a little more from the new-leftists or other elitist, anti-working class intellectual trends, etc., it’s going to be eclectic. Thus, while it may do a few things to help the revolutionary movement it will do others that harm it. And in the final analysis it will be just another group that did not rise to the historical necessity.”

      I don’t think that’s true. The sources of Marx’s thought were famously said to be French socialism, German philosophy, and English political economy. That’s an eclectic mix. Anyway eclecticism is in the eye of the beholder. People who draw from a range of sources and take up contradictory positions are one thing; people who draw from a range of sources and don’t take up contradictory positions are another. You also seem here to treat theory as simply what people read of our radical forebears. (If that’s not what you meant, great.) It seems to me that a key part of ‘theory’ is reflection on experiences and activity, with reading playing one key part of that, and writing and discussion play others.

      Moving on, I said “the most important thing we should be trying to win is more and better cadre” and Frank said ” this is looking at things narrowly, and undialectically. In fact, it’s the way that notorious sects like the ISO, RCP and others look at things.” That’s an understandable mistake but it’s a mistaken reading of my point. I don’t mean cadre as simply members of groups. I mean cadre as people of a high level of seriousness, skill, and above all commitment to gaining skill and experience and maintaining seriousness. That isn’t just or even mainly a matter of membership. I may be using the term ‘cadre’ idiosyncratically here, but I mean it more as something like ‘cadre of the working class’ and not ‘cadre of an organization.’ To put it another way, I think proceeding in this way – with an emphasis on making cadre – means we commit to producing new committed communist revolutionaries, ones who we may disagree with on some issues of line, and that this production of new communists lays the basis for a potential regrouped organization in the future and, more importantly, for a change in how the class struggle unfolds.

      As for “you cannot win revolutionary people to your group if your primary mission is not to advance the class struggle”, I think that’s an empty truism. Every radical group ever has thought of itself as oriented toward advancing the class struggle. For revolutionaries “advancing the class struggle” is basically a synonym with “being good.” It’s like the old joke – I belong to a church, you belong to a sect, that person over there belongs to a cult. No one who is sincerely committed to a group believes that their group isn’t in some roundabout way advancing the class struggle. So that category sheds little light.

      “a modest program is in fact an adequate program (…) the group is (…) going to struggle to implement its program, draw lessons from its experiences, and thereby be in a position to expand its program (…) I mean a program of internal theoretical study combined with revolutionary activity in a selected few workplaces or mass movements that arise.”

      I quote that because I think that’s a good point that bears repeating.

      cheers,
      Nate

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  18. Frank Arango says:

    BlueBossaNova and all,
    I was in a hurry when I pasted this in the window, and didn’t notice that several lines were left out about 2/3 of the way through. So here they are:

    “Organizational structure should correspond to the changes in the material conditions or they become static and dogmatic.”

    Correct. We cannot copy organizational structures from the past. But we can, and should, uphold organizational principles that have been proven correct, and are forever young.

    In the next paragraph you return to lambasting condesending saviours (I’m on your side, there), and again recognize that revolutionaries are entrenched in a battle of ideology. And you conclude:

    “I feel the best way to remedy this situation is to take on a leadership role in developing cadre form the class itself, while vehemently pushing a revolutionary analysis, networking, and developing relationships with the class.”

    But a genuine Marxist-Leninist party does these things.

    “We are not trying to lead as Mamos states because we can’t in the sense that we know not where things will erupt.”

    Oh, but the test for revolutionaries is patient work to lead when things are NOT erupting, and thereby help prepare ideological conditions for eruptions, as well as an organization to employ in them.

    “Ok, this needs to be said. Just because a group of people study theory organizes, put forth analysis, agitates, etc does not make them leaders of the class nor a vanguard.”

    O.K. But why is it so hard to say? I agree, 1000%!

  19. Frank Arango says:

    Replying to Nate…

    “The sources of Marx’s thought were famously said to be French socialism, German philosophy, and English political economy. That’s an eclectic mix.”

    Yes, but Marx dealt with their eclecticism, solved the questions that they often posed but could not answer, and he spelled the end of philosophy with dialectical materialism. At any rate, I certainly think that we must draw from a range of sources, and I DO NOT treat theory as merely reading what Marx or other old-timers had to say. Yet the basic theory, standpoint, and method of Marxism is opposed to the basic theory, standpoint, and method of Trotskyism, “new leftism,” etc. Hence, if a group takes what it likes and ignores what it doesn’t like (in terms of basic theory) from these very different trends it will be eclectic in its practice.

    I went on at some length against your saying “the most important thing we should be trying to win is more and better cadre.” Among the things I said were,

    “I think that this is looking at things narrowly, and undialectically…In my experience, you cannot win revolutionary people to your group if your primary mission is not to advance the class struggle…The measure of the group’s success is how much it’s doing to raise the level of class political consciosness of the masses, and helping them get better organized. It’s focus must be this, it’s reason for existence must be this…A group can’t build revolutionary cadre unless it’s at the same time struggling to work out and apply a revolutionary political line in the objective movements. Not only must the two must go hand in hand, but if the organization does not see its entire purpose to be serving the mass movements then it’s going to fail in cadre building.”

    And I said these things, truisms if you will, because of a lot of experience in seeing groups that tried to perfect cadres while staying on the sidelines of the mass movements. You reply that I misread your point, and I very much hope this is true.

    Cheers in return,
    Frank

  20. Ben Seattle says:

    I have read this thread (and the comments) with great interest.

    I intend to make the time to reply in a substantive way that
    is also concise.

    My comments this morning must be brief, however, and less substantive
    than I would like, but they are all I have the ability to do at this
    moment.

    There has been some discussion on this thread about the need (or
    the lack of a need) for what is called a “party” and also of
    related topics, such as “democratic centralism”.

    One of the ironies (ie: contradictions) in the discussion is that,
    to an extent, those who argue against the need for a “party” may
    be doing more of the kind of work that may lead to the development
    of a party than those who argue that we need a party.

    Part of the background here is that the crisis of theory has become
    so severe that the words we are forced use to discuss things have
    become corrupted, and have often evolved, in their meaning, to mean,
    today, the opposite of their original meaning.

    ========================================
    Do we need a party?
    ========================================

    I have written of the need for a party (and how this party is likely to be
    created as activists find themselves working shoulder-to-shoulder in the
    context of creating a powerful revolutionary news network with a mass
    audience).

    However, my work today puts focus on the need for a revolutionary “network”
    rather than an organization that would be known as a “party”.

    Why is it important, at this time, to understand the kind of organization
    we need to be a “network” rather than a “party”?

    The use of the work “network” helps us to understand that we need a relatively
    loose and informal kind of organization which makes it easy for activists to:

    (1) get to know one another, and

    (2) work together on various kinds of projects (other than those projects
    which are approved by the majority of activists that make up the network).

    More than this, the term “network” helps us understand that we need an
    organization which is not based on keeping its differences (and its
    dysfunctions) secret.

    ========================================
    Do we need democratic centralism?
    ========================================

    In my writing today, I target the use of the term “democratic centralism”
    because every group that uses this term today uses it to keep activists
    in the dark. The development of a living and powerful movement requires
    activists to reject the path of keeping everything secret. The secrecy
    is used, overwhelmingly, to conceal dysfunction.

    But as far as the living content of the term, that activists have
    the right to determine the destiny of their organizations, the term
    “democratic communication” comes closer to making this idea understandable.

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