Earlier this month two BOC members participated in a debate between several revolutionary tendencies in the Seattle area. Other members of our group also contributed by writing the responses to the debate questions beforehand. We are publishing our answers to those questions below, as they provide some clarification on our politics. We plan to develop our answers to these questions and more into a points of unity to use as one of our bases for inviting new people to join the group.
However, readers should know that our degree of organizational unity on the statements below varies — some of these positions are based upon many hours of reading, discussion, and shared experience, while others we are less certain about. Furthermore, these are absolutely not the only questions that we think are important to understand and develop our politics around. In addition to comments about the politics we present here, we also welcome additional questions that people think are important for revolutionary organizations to consider.
Our Responses to Anti-Capitalist Smackdown Questions
The enemy: How do you define “capitalism” and “civilization”? Are there certain aspects of civilization that could and should be retained after the revolution?
Capitalism is a system of complex social relations between humans and the environment wherein the former and latter become commodities to be used for the expressed purpose of maintaining a recurring and expanding cycle of investment and returns for the capitalist class. Historically this relationship has taken on different forms depending on the particular place in the world. Regardless, the effects of capitalism have been the making of human labor power (our creative ability to transform our surroundings) into the property of the capitalist class by way of force and ideology (e.g. imperialism, the state, legal and educational institutions). A value is put onto the proletariats’ ability to labor as well as the natural world. Neither is intrinsic and by default this value placed on one form of ability (i.e. the ability to utilize labor power) outcasts those who don’t conform to the ideal worker. In this relationship, humanity’s labor power and the whole of nature are seen as commodities to be bought and sold, given a price and value for the expressed purpose of an unequal exchange between the proletariat and the capitalist class where the latter is able to gain surplus value (more capital to invest) from our labor to continue in the process of self-valorization or growth.
The capitalist class has historically amassed capital by force bringing the world into the capitalist system which has allowed it to further invest into buying commodities and invest in technology. This process of making the world and every aspect of it into commodities to be exchanged for the gain of surplus value is the enemy. What has been laid out here is a logical analysis of the phenomena of capital. This enemy is more complex but the underlying reality is a system which continues to grow and turn the whole of the planet into commodities utilizing varying divisions, hierarchies, and ideals which have been created, modified and adopted to allow this process to maintain itself.
The continuous search for surplus value and the unrelenting resistance of the proletariat has prompted capitalist to enlist all the knowledge of the world to create technological and scientific advances. Under capitalism the world has seen arguably some of the greatest advances in science, technology and organization. Unfortunately, much of these advances have not been used to benefit humanity. For many these advances are considered civilization. In reality this is relative. The fact that billions starve daily calls this claim into question. Of course technology that destroys the environment and runs on limited resources should be cut from use and new means of producing and creating should be created. We hope these advances, which don’t negate the disastrous effects of capitalism, can be used for helping humanity and the planet rather than making production and exploitation more efficient. This is when real civilization will begin.
Revolution: How do you define “anarchy” or “communism”? What kind of “democracy” would this involve? What would the process of transformation from capitalism/civilization to communism/anarchy have to entail?
Anarchy- the state in which there is no state, hierarchies or forms of systemic coercion, where humanity develops forms of organization which allow for freedom to utilize ones creative abilities for the collective and for personal enrichment.
Communism- the state in which the majority of humanity has taken collective control of its labor power (i.e. its ability to labor or its creative powers) creating varying forms of organization to utilize that power as the collective sees fit as well as the individual. This is in direct contrast to capitalism where this collective creative power is subject to the will of the capitalist class and the market where it is used to create capital rather than fulfill the needs of humanity.
Aside from theoretical terms Anarchy and Communism share many similarities. To be clear, these definitions simplify the fact that these processes are not static and even if achieved are subject to change and internal contradictions. In each historical vision there is an understanding that democracy can’t be had for the many in system such as capitalism which requires major usage of hierarchical institutions and oppressive social relations to persist in plundering the earth and the proletariat or the disposed. Granted there are some differences which need to be discussed especially around the conflation of communism with authoritarian statist tendencies.
For true democracy to come about there would have to be a total inversion of the global economy from one which perpetuates the cycle of capital investment, profit, and investment and the subsequent expansion of this process. Labor power must be freed from coercion of capitalist social relations. Technology, science, and other means of creating subsistence have to be evenly distributed across the world. The majority must have access to the means of reproduction. This can only be done through assaulting the legs that capitalism stands on; divisions amongst the class based on ideological and/or material (read wage) hierarchy and the institutions/ideals that assist in this division.
Light has been shed on this reality within the struggles of our predecessors. For instance, the Black struggle brought to the fore the relationship between the creations of identities based on biological/genetic differences (pseudo-science and ideology) and a groups relationship to capital in terms of wages, education, treatment by legal institutions etc. In other words the black struggle showed how fighting white supremacy exposed how race was used to separate the proletariat from unifying.
There can be no destruction of the current reality without the recognition that this struggle extends beyond economics and is not the burden of one identity. Revolution has no road map but knowing the structure of the system we fight and its history will assist in focusing our collective aim toward a goal which may take decades if not centuries to reach. We can’t foretell what that process would look like but we can be certain that it would involve the destruction of private property, the redistribution of knowledge, the dismantling of the state, and struggle within the proletariat.
Class, oppression, identity: Is the revolutionary subject “oppressed people” in general or “the proletariat”? Is there a difference between the proletariat and, say, women or POC? How can we relate to anti-colonial struggles without falling into nationalism?
We define the proletariat as the majority of humanity that has been dispossessed. In order to accumulate wealth capitalists rob us of our means of living: primarily land and access to technology but also the knowledge and community required to produce food, shelter, clothing, and everything else that we need to live. This leaves the proletariat with no means of survival except to sell our ability to work to the capitalist class that robbed us and our ancestors in the first place. Not all of us are actually able to do this though, so the proletariat also includes unemployed people, prisoners, housewives, and many elderly and disabled people who must find other means of survival besides wage labor.
All the proletariat is oppressed, but some layers are more so than others. Undocumented Latina farmworkers and white third-generation longshoremen are both proletarians, but the former are clearly more oppressed than the latter. Racism, sexism, ablism, and heterosexism amplify oppression for most proletarians. This is not a claim to moral authority, it is just a fact. Being more oppressed does not make an individual or a layer of the proletariat more (or less) militant or more likely to have the best strategy in struggle. Furthermore, there are people of color, women, and queers in the bourgeoisie.
The revolutionary subject is the proletariat as a whole, but historically and in the future different layers of the proletariat will struggle more than others. For example, after World War II, many black veterans came home and were no longer willing to tolerate the conditions of Jim Crow South and struggled militantly against them. Many white proletarians, on the other hand, were experiencing upward mobility and either ignored or fought back against black veterans’ struggle. This shows how the capitalist class uses divisions within the proletariat like white supremacy to keep the entire class down.
This example illustrates that, while more oppressed proletarians are not guaranteed to have better politics, it is essential that revolutionaries support and engage their struggles. This is because uniting solely around the struggles of more privileged layers of the proletariat makes it easy for capitalists to buy off those more privileged workers and co-opt the struggle. The struggles of the most oppressed proletarians create the greatest opportunity for authentic unity of the class as a whole.
Similarly, anti-colonial struggles offer opportunities for mass participation and important lessons to carry forward in future movements. Even struggles that involve alliances between proletarians and the bourgeoisie, as many anti-colonial movements do, can sow the seeds for more anti-capitalist struggle later by increasing proletarians’ confidence, skills, and radicalism. Rather than abstaining from such struggles, revolutionaries should actively engage with them while refusing to subordinate anti-capitalist, anti-patriarchal, and internationalist politics. We should similarly engage with anti-patriarchal and queer liberation movements for analogous reasons. Revolutionaries should also study such struggles for their essential role in the history of capitalism and social movements and for the lessons they offer for those of us trying to destroy capitalism today.
The role of revolutionaries: What is the proper role of revolutionaries? How does this understanding influence your principles of organization, and your approach to communication and collaboration with people outside your tendency, or outside the anti-capitalist milieu? What do you say when outsiders ask “what is your program”?
The proletariat can only become free by transforming itself through struggle; communism is the real motion of the proletariat, not something imposed from the outside by a vanguard party. The role of revolutionaries is to recognize this self-activity of the proletariat in all of the forms of struggle that break from the daily functioning of capitalism.
This self-activity is not automatic, slow, or linear. Revolutionaries should focus on those historical events, or ruptures from the normal functioning of capitalist common sense– strikes, blockades, insurrections, etc. These are the moments where a revolutionary situation can start to emerge and where a process of communization can begin. However, these ruptures are not automatically communist and they don’t automatically lead to revolution. They are often contradictory and partial, and unless the vast majority of people involved in them are consciously aiming to destroy the legitimacy of capitalism then aspects of capitalism will reemerge and fragment the movement – recreating divides along race, gender, or employed vs. unemployed lines and co-opting the struggle.
For that reason, revolutionary militants should attempt to hone and develop methods of analysis to understand the functioning of the capitalist system so as to develop a program for destroying it. We should build organizations that can share these methods widely – teaching them to fellow proletarians. But any good teaching requires humility and an openness to learn and transform the content of our knowledge so the teacher becomes a student and vice versa. A revolutionary organization should learn from, and teach, the rest of the proletariat as we all struggle together.
This requires a critical mass of revolutionary activity where we can develop theory based on our practice, and vice versa. No small collective or affinity group or organization today can achieve that if we just focus on our separate organizing projects because none of our projects is deep enough, or broad enough to really push us to develop further. We need to be organizing and building deeper and stronger connections with wider layers of the proletariat so that when those moments of rupture do occur we have the trust, relationships, and capacities to help expand those ruptures, prevent co-optation, and create ungovernable situations.
That’s why different tendencies should come together in Occupy and other movements to initiate more daring projects of revolutionary organizing , direct action, education, cultural work, and agitation that can catalyze the self-revolutionization of the proletariat. Together we all form an organic, horizontally-organized (not top-down) vanguard that is porous to the rest of the class – not a party that aims for state power. Our common attempts to advance the struggle allow us to critically assess our successes and failures with an open-ended, experimental method. Debates like this are a crucial part of that.
Out of common struggle and debate a new program will emerge that will clarify the way forward. A program is crucial as an open-ended but clear trajectory of struggle based in theory. By theory we mean a weapon to change the world, not a method of interpreting it. But we need to be honest about the fact that we don’t have this weapon yet and it needs to be forged in collaborative struggle.
Unions: Two forms in which (employed and sometimes unemployed) workers have fought for their immediate interests are unions and “direct action casework” (exemplified by SeaSol). What is your position on each of these in relation to longer-term goals?
NLRB-recognized unions, shaped by the National Labor Relations Act and Taft Hartley are truces between workers and capitalists establishing labor peace. These labor laws became complex involving settling issues in the courts instead of through direct action. The truce legally left out domestic and farm workers, majority Latin@ and Black folks, solidifying and deepening white supremacist divisions within the proletariat. Millions of European immigrants who had faced racial discrimination became upwardly mobile as they built unions like the United Auto Workers and the ILWU. Meanwhile, Black and Brown workers continued to face extreme forms of exploitation. Some of them made it into the unions, but most did not. Those who made it in were constrained by the labor truce which prioritized collective bargaining around wages and benefits instead of direct action on the job against racism and sexism or for more workplace control. Unity is a goal for the U.S. proletariat, not a reality, and it will only be forged through militant struggles and transformations.
We don’t see the current U.S. unions that emerged from this process as a path to the emancipation of the oppressed from capitalism. NLRB-recognized unions have a dual nature: 1. ensuring union workers have the ability to negotiate with bosses about wages and benefits by way of collective might. 2. force adherence to laws which hinder the potential of this collective might and its ability to end capitalist social relations. Unions play a role in maintaining labor power as a commodity and in ensuring some level of discipline at the workplace. At times rank and file workers use the union structure to fight back against the bosses and secure gains; at times they go beyond this structure creating new forms of struggle. In either case, our solidarity should be with workers, not the union structure.
Today, automation, de-industrialization, unemployment and prisons are competing with industrial workplaces as the reality and experiences of proletarian life. The need for global solidarity to win against global corporations is more apparent. Revolutionaries should be attempting to create organizations with rank and file union members, non unionized workers, the homeless, the criminalized, and the unemployed which fight for immediate needs but prepares it’s participants to deepen revolutionary struggle throughout the class.
NLRB-recognized unions have insufficiently addressed these realities because none of them has been able to initiate mass, anti-capitalist, from-below campaigns to organize the unorganized, precarious working poor. The disenchantment of many proletarians toward unions is also addressed in the fact that unions, with few exceptions, have not been present in the struggles that proletarians, including their members, have faced outside the workplace. We need to experiment with organization and methods of struggle and address this reality of division.
Direct action case work is a step in this direction as well as workplace organizing/direct unionism by the IWW. Both have encountered challenges in building a mass movement from case to case or shop by shop organizing. That said, our orientation will need to move away from capturing shops/territory, to focusing on developing people and building spaces to sustain engagement. This is difficult work and likely the things we need will be created by future ruptures. We have to keep trying, but we should prepare our cadre for the context their fighting in, one in which active mass organizations with ongoing radicalization and participation still feel distant. We’ll also need to take on broader levels of strategizing and coordination.
“Occupy”: What are the pros and cons of “the Occupy movement”? How should we relate to it as revolutionaries?
Occupy has functioned as the US answer to uprisings in Egypt, China, Greece, and many other places where the proletariat and petit bourgeois are fighting austerity, police violence, and abusive workplace conditions. Like the struggles against Mubarak in Egypt, Occupy is a cross-class alliance in which unemployed, working class, and middle class folks join forces to fight the elite who hand down these austerity measures and whose wealth the police protect.
The act of occupying itself is transformative for many participants. It offers a concrete opportunity for people to realize that we have the ability to run our own lives by making and sharing what we need and deciding democratically how to implement that. Doing this side by side with political action keeps people engaged in our current context instead of turning to Occupy as means of escape. It also sharpens our understandings of capitalist contradictions as we articulate both what’s wrong with the current world and what sort of alternatives Occupy can point to. The notion of “everything for everyone” becomes very immediate.
The composition of Occupy varies over time and from place to place, but Occupy Seattle has attracted some folks from the most oppressed layers of the proletariat, namely homeless youth who kept the movement alive in the early days. Groups like the People of Color Caucus, Hip Hop Occupies, and various revolutionary tendencies have fostered a radical milieu within occupy that includes many proletarians of color. This helps Occupy Seattle at least partially overcome some of the middle class politics that dominate in many other cities.
However, Occupy Seattle certainly hasn’t overcome all of these politics. The POC Caucus and HHO have faced a lot of racism from liberal white occupiers. The liberals’ positions in Occupy are essentially populist ones: they use the language of broad alliances among the “99%” to advance the interests of the shrinking petit bourgeois and professional class. This comes into direct conflict with the militant class-struggle, anti-racist, and anti-patriarchal positions of revolutionaries and proletarians within Occupy. However, we see that people who took liberal positions a couple months ago have changed their minds through their direct experiences with police repression and authentic solidarity from proletarian Occupiers in combination with debate with revolutionaries who refuse to hide our politics.
As the first mass uprising in the US since the financial crisis and recession started, Occupy is an important movement that revolutionaries in the US should seriously engage. We can’t wait around for the perfect struggle with the right political line to spontaneously emerge. If we’re committed to advancing revolutionary struggle, we have to engage with what’s in front of us. This means clearly and honestly presenting our politics as a real alternative to the liberal line on one side and the right-wing reactions on the other. This also means being “good citizens” of Occupy, helping out with the day-to-day work where we can, and carrying ourselves in principled ways even with occupiers who we disagree with.
Prefigurative politics: Is there any value to “building the new world in the shell of the old” through experimentation with social relations and ways of living (cooperatives, communes, etc.), under present conditions? Is there any value in traditional non-capitalist arrangements, such as communal resource management in peasant societies?
We should encourage any activity that builds up the capacity and confidence of the proletariat to organize society without the state and capitalist exchange relations. Panther-style programs, communes, etc. can do this if they are organized without an entrenched top down leadership. They also help us and our communities survive pending revolution.
However these projects should not be an end in-and-of themselves. If we get bogged down in the logistical maintenance of projects like this we can end up getting sucked into a narrow political world – our neighborhood organization, farm, commune, etc. becomes the only focus and negotiating the personal conflicts between us becomes more important than the fact that proletarians are revolting all over the world.
Occupations have more promise because they offer survival pending revolution and practice building direct democratic organization but they also take shit back from the bourgeoisie. They de-commodity land, labor, buildings, etc., breaking the laws of capitalist exchange relations. In this sense they give us a taste of revolution.
All of this is a process of developing elements of a future direct democratic communism. We could call it communization. However, we should avoid two common pitfalls here. One is assuming that all of this is simply preparatory and communism is far in the future after gradual, stage-managed “phases” of development. This risks treating immediate survival programs as simply pragmatic, practical maters with no connection to revolution, and opens the door toward acting like a nonprofit or bureaucratic union. The other pitfall is calling whatever project we are doing right now communism. Refusing to pay bus fare, occupying a building, or doing guerilla gardening is anti-capitalist, and it may be part of a communization process, but it is not communism… it is not a new society growing in the shell of the old. The gas on that bus is still extracted through extreme brutality in Nigeria, the stolen electricity in the building is still generated in ways that are ecologically destructive. There is no way to solve this without proletarian revolution.
We need to avoid the danger of setting utopian goals for immediate projects then wasting massive amounts of energy fine-tuning these projects to get closer to utopia and blaming each other when they don’t work out. This creates patterns of sectarianism and cult-like behavior that turn so much of the Left into an unhealthy subculture.
We should prioritize building healthy multi-racial and multi-gender organization and community which means attempting to prefigure a society free of patriarchy, hetereosexism, sexual violence, and white supremacy in how we relate to each other. Oppressed people should not have to wait for the revolution to be treated with basic respect and equality within the movement. However we know that aspects of the fucked up system we live in will infect even the best groups, so when we find oppression in our midst we shouldn’t go into crisis and attack each other, we should just try to directly and firmly correct it and move forward.