This piece reflects on the current strengths and weaknesses of the revolutionary networks that have emerged out of the Decolonize/ Occupy movement in Seattle. In particular, I critique some of the problems that arise because of lack of organization, and suggest ways we can address these without falling into top-down, authoritarian models of organization building. I want to acknowledge that several friends in the movement here have raised some of these points over the past nine months, and in some cases their interventions were dismissed. I am writing this to back up their arguments, and to share my own. I hope this piece can spark the kind of comradely, transparent, public debate that I call for in it – I welcome criticisms and responses.
I. Decolonize / Occupy Seattle today
Decolonize/ Occupy Seattle might be dead. But if so, it has simply resurrected and transformed into something else: vibrant networks of people who are engaging in a variety of attractive struggles and projects that don’t seem to be losing any energy.
Weekly free barbecues in the Central District; a summer-long campaign against Prop.1, (the county’s attempt to fund a new juvenile detention center); labor solidarity with port truckers and striking Davis Wire and Waste Management workers; study groups and discussions at the Free University and the Wildcat social space; a new current of revolutionary queer organizing around the Grand Legion of Incindiary and Tenacious Unicorn Revolutionaries; solidarity with the rebellion in Anaheim; struggles against police violence, raids, grand juries, and state repression here in the Northwest; guerilla gardening; weekly marches against student debt; the workers’ caucus’ organizing with precarious workers. This is just a partial list of activities that gives a sense of the furious pace of political development going on here.
A lot of this is possible because several, relatively new revolutionary political tendencies emerged before or during Decolonize/ Occupy Seattle and figured out a way to work together with a minimum of sectarianism. This created an attractive, open movement culture that many new activists from Decolonize/ Occupy could shape and make their own. In Seattle there is not the kind of intimidating “star system” of activists that you see in places like Oakland and New York. None of us are famous and none of us are really trying to be. We are not competing with each other to claim glory for the work we do. We are just getting shit done, and having fun kickin’ it with each other while we do that.
At the same time, we are clear enough about our revolutionary commitments to know that we cannot subordinate our politics to liberals or social democrats who want us to shut up and behave in order to supposedly attract more people to the movement . We’ve learned through difficult and exciting struggles this year that our militancy, more than anything, attracts us and other working class people toward each other. We are part of a global working class upsurge that needs no condescending saviors.
(Note: when I say “working class” throughout this essay, I mean all people who do not own capital – whether we work for wages, whether we do unwaged housework, whether we’re unemployed, whether we’re in prison, or whether we hustle to get by. The “working class” is not the stereotypical blue collar white male that socialists of the past celebrated… the working class is majority people of color, it is people of all genders, and it is global).
II. You can measure the success of a rupture by the working class consciousness it generates
An experienced revolutionary who used to be in the Sojourner Truth Organization recently suggested that we should measure success not in terms of “winning” short term demands, but in terms of the development of revolutionary working class consciousness. This consciousness often emerges through events that serve as ruptures from the status quo. Something is a rupture if it is a beginning that ensures new beginnings – a reference point that builds our confidence as working class people to break with the legitimacy of capitalist “business as usual”, including its forms of acceptable and easily dismissed protest. So next time a crisis emerges, instead of reaching for the usual activist tools that involve pleading with government officials or bosses, we turn toward more disruptive and creative methods like unpermitted demonstrations, blockades, wildcat actions on the job, strikes and walkouts, etc. All of these require a reasonable hope that we can get each other’s backs under intense pressure, and that hope is a lot more concrete when we know we did it before.
By this measure, the Occupy camp, the Dec. 12th port shutdown, and Seattle’s May Day were all successes because they’ve generated a range of ongoing struggles that break from the usual tame forms of protest. These struggles are increasingly multiracial, with key leadership by working class people of color, women, gender nonconforming folks, and queer folks.
III: Occupy: the new WTO?
For a while, I worried that these direct actions might be mobilizations that don’t lead to deep organizing, just spectacles that are gone the next day as we return to the alienation and misery of our daily lives under this system. I worried that both May Day and the Port Shutdown might simply be mobilizations of radicals that fail to expand beyond our small circles, that fail to invite the rest of the working class to participate, or fail to respect the independent self-activity of other layers of the working class. However, if the past few months are any indication, these actions have encouraged participants to maintain an outward orientation toward the rest of the working class, especially in majority people of color neighborhoods like the Central District and the South End, and in majority people of color workplaces like the port truckers, Dairy Gold farmworkers, or Davis Wire. In my opinion, there is not enough outreach in these places, but at least t his kind of work has begun, and the center of gravity of the movement has shifted in a more multiracial, working class direction.
This is good so far. From what I’ve read and heard, a lack of working class orientation, a sense of “protest hopping” mobilization without organizing were problems that killed the anti-globalization movement. However, the reaction to the death of that movement also helped delay its resurrection. Many of its participants either dropped out of the movement, or turned toward slow patient base building, by which they sometimes meant becoming nonprofit leaders or union bureaucrats. Their emphasis on outreach to a romanticized “community” meant they were unable to move when a militant minority within this “community” moved without them, in opposition to the will of established community leaders who claim to represent the silent, more conservative majority of the “community”.
I think this is one of the factors that explain the general weakness of the older Left formations in Seattle in the decade leading up to Occupy (and in this case, I don’t just mean socialist groups, I also mean various anarchist projects).
Many of the activists who had oriented toward community base building were unable to relate to the new energy that erupted around Decolonize/ Occupy Seattle, including the new energy coming from militant minorities of the very communities or workplaces they had entrenched themselves within. While a few veterans of past movements saw what time it was and hit the streets, unfortunately many participants in the past movements were not there in the movement to share their wisdom and experience, and, worse, some spent their time sniping from the sidelines, cynically warning that Occupy would simply fail the way the WTO uprising supposedly “failed.” Thankfully, the waves of new working class people who became active in the Decolonize/ Occupy movement did not pause too long to get demoralized by their snickering. If they paid attention to the legacy of the WTO at all, it was to treat it as a rupture that ensured new ruptures in the present moment.
IV: Challenges we face if we want to survive and grow
Our willingness to embrace the movement and to move without reservations should not lead to cockiness. How do we know for sure that we will not go down the same path that the anti-globalization movement went down? There is a vibrant revolutionary network that is steadily growing in Seattle. However, it is still largely younger folks without children, with some notable exceptions. As more of us develop family responsibilities, how can we ensure that people don’t start dropping out of the movement over time? How can we support comrades who already have these responsibilities?
The movement is hard to keep up with even if you don’t have kids. As a full time teacher who is also taking certification classes for my job, I’ve struggled with this. I remember a couple of nights sleeping in a tent in my clothes ready to jump out in case the Neo-Nazis who entered the camp one night came back to attack us. Drifting in and out of consciousness, I heard people addicted to meth or crack getting into fights with each other, followed by 2 AM mic checks and people debating how to handle those situations nonviolently, without coming to any conclusions. Then I got up in the early morning, thankful there wasn’t a police raid so that I could take the bus to work, where my students were coping with losing friends to gang violence, and my coworkers and I would try to deescalate potential conflicts – which is hard to do on 4 hours of sleep.
Now consider that fact that I have a relatively privileged job. If I’m sleep deprived I’m not likely to get into a physical accident at work without healthcare or time off to recover. How do we expect folks to participate when they’re working 60-70 hours a week at dangerous jobs with kids at home and daily financial stress?
When I’ve raised these frustrations, some comrades have told me to quit and help build the Commune. While I respect people who choose to quit work and survive off of dumpster diving and guerilla gardening, this is not a sustainable option for the entire working class, especially folks with medical issues who need health insurance.
Things have gotten better, but this movement culture is still difficult for many people to participate in. I have heard other full time workers express similar frustrations. Because there is no public, central clearinghouse for movement information, it’s hard to find out what’s going on unless you know people active in the scene, and even then it takes a long time to figure out what’s at stake because many of the key debates happen in private, not in public. There is no place like the GA anymore where the issues are hashed out for all to see, and few people are taking the time to write up their disagreements with each other in principled, respectful ways where these can be posted publicly for all to comment on. That means that those of us with little time have to spend way too much time trying to sort through facebook polemics and gossip to figure out what is at stake.
Many important, controversial discussions happen at midnight at a party over drinks and a lot of people have to miss it because we have to go to work the next day. A lot of people complain about meetings or political emails, but I prefer them to nothing, because at least I can get the information I need to stay active without having to go to a bunch of informal meetings on different sides of the city, with half hour bus commutes between each, and no time to sleep or eat. I’d rather get our political work done in efficient, well organized meetings and online discussions, so that we can spend the rest of our free time having fun and relaxing together.
Finally, although we are doing some good labor solidarity work, most of us have not figured out a way to take the struggle into our own workplaces, which means that the place where we spend the vast majority of our time feels like a distraction from the movement instead of a place where the struggle could expand in ways that could help us challenge the stress, frustration, and dangers of our jobs.
All of these problems could easily lead to mass burnout if they are not addressed – especially considering that the state repression (raids, grand juries, etc.) could intensify some of them if we are not careful.
V. A Leaderless Movement?
So how do we overcome this contradiction between the “activist scene” and our daily working class lives?
Some people suggest we need to stop calling ourselves “activists” or “organizers” because this separates us from everyday people, and implies we are some sort of vanguard of professional revolutionaries with specialized roles. Others argue that we are a vanguard and we need to publicly declare ourselves to be one, and then go about leading the working class. I think that both of these perspectives are flawed, and the rest of this essay will explain why.
One of the best parts of the Decolonize/ Occupy movement was its insistence that we do not need entrenched bureaucratic leadership roles, and that everyone can join the movement and lead, whether they are veterans of past movements, or whether they just became politically active yesterday. This created a context in which all of us could assume serious responsibilities without reservations. We learned how to struggle by doing it. For this reason, someone who has nine months of steady activity in the Decolonize/ Occupy movement probably has more real experience under their belt than someone who has five years of professional activist experience in some bureaucratic Leftist sect but has never organized a protest that goes beyond the limits of predictable and acceptable dissent. This became very clear by the winter, when people who had just joined the movement were essentially defeating long-time self-proclaimed Leftist leaders in public debates over the strategy of the movement.
However, this strength was also a weakness. We are fooling ourselves if we assume that everyone was able to simply walk into the movement and assume leadership with equal access and ability. The general assemblies, the camp, and the rest of the movement spaces were not somehow separate from the capitalist world. They may have pointed in the direction of the new society, of “everything for everyone”, but it’s not like we all somehow checked our capitalist, white supremacist, or patriarchal baggage at the door when we entered the movement.
The capitalist system does not prepare us all equally for the kinds of tasks that we want to do in the movement. Capitalist education reproduces racial and gender divisions of labor – some of us are trained to speak publicly in front of crowds while others are trained to wash dishes and make coffee. Some of us are trained to strategize in real time under pressure, and others are trained to listen and empathize. Some of us are trained to defend ourselves and each other from physical attack, and others are trained to write about that sort of thing. These skills are not always mutually exclusive, but few of us entered the movement well-rounded enough to do all of these crucial things, and all of them needed to be done. Whether we like it or not, some people were better prepared to lead than others – whether this preparation came from a relatively privileged position in the capitalist division of labor, or whether it came from previous self-education in past movements or organizations.
All of this amounted to a fact that is uncomfortable for many of us to deal with: no matter how much we deny it, there was an unofficial leadership in Decolonize/ Occupy Seattle. In fact there were several. Liberal leaders competed with radical leaders for influence in the movement. They also competed with each other. Radicals tended to work together, but as a bloc, the radical networks produced a wide array of leaders who helped shape the overall trajectory of the movement.
And this brings me to my main point: these leaders will not magically stop being leaders if we claim we are not leaders. All of us anti-state communists and anarchists want to abolish the division between leaders and lead, activists and “everyday people”, or the “vanguard” and the working class. But this cannot happen simply by claiming the leaders are not leaders when we really still are. All this does is hide our power and make it less transparent and accountable.
The other popular solution to this problem is the common anti-oppression phrase: step up, step back. This is a good principle for group facilitation – if you’ve spoken a lot, step back and let others speak. It is also good security culture – if someone makes themselves indispensable then an attack on them could destroy the movement. But simply stepping back is not a foolproof solution to the problem of leadership. Many people who realize they are becoming too indispensible as “key organizers” often have this impulse to step back, but when they try to do this, noone else steps up to take up the work, and it falls apart. This is hard to deal with – it can lead to resentment and frustration on everyone’s part.
The only solution I can see to this problem is to prioritize the revolutionary education and development of everyone else so that they can become leaders too, replacing the current leaders, so that everyone can rotate in and out of various responsibilities without creating fixed bureaucratic roles. Comrades in Advance the Struggle call this horizontalism, a term which I think originated in Latin American anarchism. We need to create an underground proletarian university, an insurgent educational process that can challenge the division of labor created by capitalist education. Those who have the skills and theoretical methods necessary to lead need to share these skills and methods with everyone else. Those who do not have these skills and methods need to find the people who do and put pressure on them to share them. We need to set a basic standard in the movement – if you have an education (whether you got it in college or in prison), and you are not sharing this with at least one other working class person, then you are failing as a revolutionary and you need to check your priorities.
I know some people will think this is too harsh. I can just hear the reactions from those who are committed to the passive aggressive culture of “seattle nice”. But consider this: the ruling class has standards for their own side of the social war against us, and they do a pretty damn good job of educating new generations of rulers at top colleges and universities. They work their asses off figuring out how to oppress us. We are simply not going to win unless we figure out collectively how to outsmart them. As a comrade recently asked, “are we in this to win, or are we in this to simply be a social scene?”
Others might object that the process of mentoring and teaching fellow activists is inherently authoritarian because it implies a hierarchy of teacher over student. In response, I would argue that this process of teaching can be done in a way that is not condescending. Good teaching should also be a process of learning and collective discovery. This is the pedagogy of the oppressed – where the person teaching becomes a student, and the person learning becomes a teacher. Someone with movement experience can share this with someone who is new to the struggle, but in turn they should learn from the fresh analyses that the new person is making of their own activity. Revolutionary education is not about an authoritarian classroom dynamic – it is about people constructing knowledge together based in practice.
Of course this happens best in struggle – I’m not suggesting we stop struggling and withdraw into quiet study. But we can’t assume that the struggle will automatically teach us everything we need to equalize divisions among us. That’s pure fantasy. People learn through struggle but under capitalism they do not learn equally unless we work to share the tools necessary for everyone to educate themselves. These are exactly the tools that the capitalist education system has withheld from working class people – especially working class people of color – knowing full well that if people got ahold of these tools, it would be dangerous for the slave masters and the economists who justify their rule.
VI. But wait, isn’t that Leninism?
I admit that what I just argued for sounds a lot like What is to Be Done, by the Russian revolutionary VI Lenin. Lenin advocated that revolutionary intellectuals have a responsibility to share Marxist theory with workers so that intellectuals will not dominate the party. I know a lot of people justifiably do not like What is to Be Done because it is associated with a Leninist practice that has justified all sorts of authoritarian nightmares. I don’t blame people for this. There is no excuse for the flaws in Lenin’s practice.
But just because Lenin did something does not automatically make it wrong – or right. To frame the argument that way is dogmatic. After all, Lenin also advocated for small groups of revolutionaries to actively intervene in struggle to challenge the hegemony of reformists in the movement, to eliminate obstacles to the insurrectionary energy of the working class. Some anarchists in Seattle today do exactly the same thing, basing their practice on Bonanno instead of Lenin. Does that make these folks secret anarcho-Leninists? Should we be suspicious of them because they have the self-organization necessary to put out well-made and timely leaflets that rip apart reformist arguments and encourage rebellion? Or because they publish and distribute attractive newspapers? Or because they intervene in demonstrations to back up the most militant people in motion and to prevent movement cops or peace police from holding back the upsurge? Lenin did all of these things too at various points in his life. All that means is that some anarchists happen to agree with him on these few points, while rejecting the more authoritarian aspects of his practice. We need to stop getting stuck on what happened or didn’t happen in 1917 and focus on what is to be done now. Studying history is important, but only if it is used as a weapon to defeat oppression and authoritarianism today.
At the same time, I am definitely NOT advocating a return to authoritarian and outdated Leninist organization building. The main problem with this approach is that it maintained a division between mental and manual labor. Capitalism creates this division – academics, scientists, philosophers, inventors, and capitalists create new ideas, and then workers carry them out in production. Historic Leninist parties reproduced this dynamic – Party leaders claimed to have the correct “science” that could guide the movement, and the workers in their orbit were the shock troops who would carry it out.
This completely corrupted the real, emancipatory aspects of science – constructing knowledge by experimenting in practice and learning from successes and failures. It embraced the authoritarian aspects of bourgeois science – passing down the results of past experiments as dogma to be memorized and implemented in order to produce results – and in the case of Soviet of Chinese state capitalism, that meant producing profits.
I saw this at play the other day when I went to a socialist meeting about ongoing labor struggles in Seattle. It was a really interesting meeting, with rank and file waterfront workers speaking out against racism on the job and highlighting the need to go beyond the limits of labor law. The room was full of rank and file union activists, many of them part of socialist parties. I raised the suggestion that union workers could resist ruling class attacks on us if we opened up our struggles to the rest of the working class, welcoming nonunionized and unemployed workers to participate as equals. In other words, when teachers are under attack, we could form rank and file groups of teachers to fight back against these attacks, but could welcome our students and their parents and other working class people to join our labor struggle as equals, making it a struggle about working class control of education, not just about our narrow contractual issues. When Longshore workers are under attack, they could form rank and file groups to fight back, but could welcome port truckers and other working class people to join them and to collectively plan actions to shut down the port to fight against the capitalists who are attacking all of us. Some people in the room came up to me afterwards and said they agreed with what I was saying.
However, one particular activist came up and said that my proposal would not work because the union activists would not be able to trust that the rest of the working class people there would have the intelligence and training necessary to struggle in an effective way that would not put everyone at danger. She mentioned Occupy Seattle as an example, saying that the movement was too uncoordinated and leaderless, and that she didn’t want to march side by side with people who might get her killed because of reckless tactics. ( To be clear, she was simply representing her own view, not necessarily her party’s.)
In response, I kept trying to explain how people in the movement know what we are doing, that we are developing increasingly sophisticated ways to organize, mobilize, and resist repression, and that we are teaching ourselves to do this without any condescending saviors. She did not recognize any of this… to her, if we didn’t have decades of experience in party and union training, we were not equipped to even participate in labor struggles, let alone co-lead them. This is a perfect example of condescending Leninism.
However, I’m worried that some people in the movement might just dismiss her as an old white socialist, instead of systematically defeating her arguments in both theory and practice. One of the most obnoxious and dangerous effects of this kind of Leninism is that it can produce an ugly mirror reflection – a tendency to reject all organization, all leadership, and all education as authoritarian.
If we go down this route we will never learn from any past experience, and we’ll be doomed to reinvent the wheel each movement upsurge, because we will scatter when the burnout, internal movement drama and gossip, pressures of working class life, and repression drive us out of the movement. We should not fetishize experience, but we should not dismiss it either – sometimes movement elders have learned it through a lot of painful mistakes, and even if they can’t always draw the necessary conclusions from those mistakes, we should learn from them so we don’t have to make them ourselves. Avoiding past mistakes frees us up to make new mistakes instead, so we can focus on experimenting today with what works and what doesn’t, advancing our theory and practice.
In my view, this socialist is right about one thing: noone should march into battle with anyone they don’t trust. And you should not trust anyone who you do not think is capable of thinking clearly under pressure. In fact, I think I saw a poster making the same point in the Wildcat anarchist space.
Where she goes wrong is her top-down, party leadership-focused view on how to build these capacities for intelligent action under pressure. She can’t see how people are learning how to do this through other forms of self-organization.
I reject the polemics thrown against the anarchists on May Day – that they are all privileged white boys, that they drove immigrant workers out of the struggle by putting people at risk, etc. There were many economic refugees active in the downtown May Day “general strike” activities, especially youth who walked out of their schools that day. However, it is a fact that the majority of the people down there were young. There were relatively few people there with their children. I think there is something to be said for the argument that oppressed people of all ages will only join a movement like this in large numbers if they are confident that the movement is organized enough to get their back if there are ICE raids, police violence, fascist attacks, etc. It is not enough for us to say we will get people’s backs, we need to show and prove it, and that takes more serious organization that we have right now. This is a point that several comrades have been trying to make for months, and I don’t think it’s being taken seriously enough.
Of course, we can’t push this point too far – working class economic refugees in Anaheim are rising up without any clear public organizational formation backing them (though this should not be seen as “spontaneity”, since there are probably deep networks in the community of self-organization that are hard for those of us on the outside to see).
Ultimately, people will struggle and will rise up without organizations or leaders initiating it. They will learn through struggle. But organization and working class leadership can help catalyze this process, which in turn makes this leadership no longer necessary because it becomes generalized throughout the working class, until the entire working class becomes “the vanguard”. That would be a revolution. Occupy claimed to be a “leaderfull, hence leaderless” movement. It also claimed to be the 99%. Both are goals, not realities, and we are deluding ourselves if we think we’ve gotten there already.
VI. “Seattle to Oakland, we ain’t the Joker….”: Dealing with the limits of autonomy, and diversity of tactics
When people talk about this being a leaderless movement, they often emphasize the autonomy of small groups to determine their own tactics. I agree that this autonomy is a strength of the movement, but at times it can also become a weakness. What follows is an example of that.
While Latino workers in Anaheim were putting their lives on the line to challenge the police, activists associated with Decolonize/ Occupy called for a solidarity demonstration in Seattle the night of Friday July 27th. For the most part, it went well. We marched through the historically Black but gentrified Central District, and talked to many of the neighbors who were coming out of their homes to see what was happening. Nearly everyone, of all ages, were down with what we were doing and were outraged at both the Anaheim and the Seattle police.
The problem was that we didn’t have enough signs, so a lot of people could not figure out what the march was about and were confused until we went up and talked to them. Because of the lack of signs and banners, the most visible visual representation of the march were the clowns. When I say clowns, I mean that literally – people who put on clown make up at protests: presumably from the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army
Now, I don’t have a problem with clowns, and I love rebels. The problem is, this was happening a few days after the Aurora shootings in Colorado, where a white man wearing Joker-style clown makeup murdered people in a movie theater. This kind of sociopathic behavior has more to do with how fucked up late capitalist culture has become, and less to do with anything remotely related to clowns or rebellion. But as I was passing out flyers in both the Central District and Capitol Hill, people watching the march were telling me they were really scared of the rebel clowns, and at first they were thinking we were marching in solidarity with the Aurora shooter. Apparently the media had been playing up this confusion by reporting that an “Occupy Seattle clown” had imitated shooting police and pedestrians with an umbrella prop gun at another rally earlier that week:
“As details emerge from the horrific shooting in Aurora, Colorado, the nation grieves and remains on edge towards sensitive topics relating to the crime. Knowing that the main Aurora-shooting suspect James Holmes allegedly behaved and disguised himself like “The Joker”clown villain from “The Dark Knight,” troubling new video has emerged of an apparent protester at Occupy Seattle dressed in clown garb pointing an umbrella at police and bystanders, and “shooting” them as if the umbrella were a gun.
Gateway Pundit, where the video is posted, reports that video was filmed Friday at the “Bring the Fight to the Banks” rally and march. In the video the clown is seen hurling the usually Occupy Wall Street “one percent” accusations at police and pedestrians, before aiming the umbrella at those he taunts while yelling “ba-bam, ba-bam!” When one police officier who the clown taunts appears to be getting unhinged by the shooting imitation, the clown brags to protesters “I’m getting to him. I really am.“ At one point a Seattle woman who was heckled by the clown while running to catch a bus yells back ”get a job.”
Certainly the media might be sensationalizing what they themselves acknowledge to be simply some Theater of the Oppressed style protest tactics. These kinds of media reports may not be completely accurate, but they have a real effect on people which we need to be aware 0f.
Isn’t it reasonable to ask whether the use of these clown tactics right now might be playing right into our opponents hands? We need to be paying more attention to the right wing’s attempts to link our movement to the Aurora shooter, suggesting he was an anarchist and part of Occupy. Could these right wing arguments be used as part of a counterinsurgency campaign that could justify more grand juries and raids against revolutionaries by turning the rest of the working class against us, criminalizing our rebellious political activity as “terrorism”?. Why would we do anything that helps them develop that narrative against us?
Also, when people express criticisms, fears, or frustrations with our movement, we need to reach out to them, not dismiss them. The people I talked to on the march that night could not easily be dismissed as reactionaries or yuppies – many of them told me they hate the police, but they were also really frightened by the clowns because of the recent shooting.
Now, to add to that problem, when Friday’s protest got to Capitol Hill, I heard that some people allegedly started escalating tactics in ways that were confrontational against people who felt inconvenienced by the protest. I was really worried that some people might respond by attacking the crowd, thinking that we are wannabe Aurora killers about to attack them. I mean, some of these folks really looked terrified and on edge, and since this is an area full of bars on a Fri night, a lot of people were drunk. This was one of many situations during the past 9 months that I’ve worried that someone in the movement was going to get hurt because of poor tactical choices and lack of awareness of the social context of their actions.
Should people generally have the autonomy to wear clown make up to protests? Of course. Should we hold back militancy in a crowd? In most cases, no. Our first priority should be to avoid falling into the “Good protestor vs. bad protestor” dichotomy that the police try to create to neutralize the ruptures the movement has opened. But in this particular situation, autonomy needed to be balanced with basic political effectiveness.
I am all for diversity of tactics. I firmly argued against the people who wanted to impose mandatory pacifism on the movement. People should have the autonomy to develop and choose a variety of tactics that can advance the overall struggle. When we were organizing for the port shutdown, none of us collectively planned to build a barricade; some folks autonomously did that, and it helped solidify the overall strategy on that day that we had collectively planned. However, not every example of autonomy advances the overall strategy of an action or struggle in such a graceful way. During the port shutdown we explicitly asked folks not to climb on top of the port truckers’ vehicles because this could cause us to loose their support, and also not to block longshoremen inside the port. People respected both of these requests (it was the police, not the crowd, that blocked the exit from Terminal 18; protestors were routing the exit traffic around the barricade that was blocking the entrance). This is an example of balancing autonomy with strategically chosen limits.
VII. Democracy and consensus
I am for diversity of tactics, but I am also for very clearly and publicly criticizing foolish tactics that could get us killed. I am for having some sort of direct democratic organizational formation where we can decide on a strategy together, and then implement it together – we can leave plenty of room for affinity groups to autonomously add tactics that further that overall strategy, but we should also be able to hinder tactics that are objectively reactionary, that could jeopardize the strategy we decided on.
Of course, we should have maximum transparency – people who are outvoted in the meetings that decide on the strategy should be able to publicly disagree with the overall strategy in cases where it is secure enough to do so.
I know this is an unpopular position in the current activist circles – a lot of folks feel we need to present a unified voice to the public because we are under so much attack and so many people want to divide and conquer us. But if we cannot publicly debate strategy, and if we cannot publicly separate our own positions from positions that are foolish then we will not be trustworthy. Working class people will not want to join because they will think we are no different than the clowns.
Also, it seems like bad security culture not to be able to debate stuff out publicly. Tensions could just end up rising within the activist circles to the point where the state could manipulate these divisions. It is better to air out some of these disagreements in a comradely way. That being said, we need to maintain our general opposition to sectarianism, because that’s what has made the movement here so vibrant. We should have some clear expectations in terms of making critiques in a respectful and thoughtful way.
Finally, public debate is a key part of the educational process I talked about earlier – it helps those engaged in the debate grow. This is a key part of preventing the kind of dogmatism that comes from never having your ideas challenged in front of other people.
VIII. Cadre Organization?
To summarize, I’ve argued for an intentionally educational and organizational process of reflection on our struggles. I’ve argued that we need to recognize when leadership exists instead of pretending it doesn’t. I’ve argued that we need to create organizational contexts where new leaders can develop, so that we can overcome the capitalist division of labor.
These kinds of positions are often associated with the idea of cadre organization – building a relatively small, specific political organization with a coherent political program, which can prioritize high-level revolutionary education of its members, so that all of its members can take responsibility for difficult revolutionary work. Black Orchid Collective is an example of an aspiring cadre organization.
Beyond some dogmatic anti-dogmatism, or knee jerk anti-Leninism, I have recently heard some very thoughtful anarchist criticisms of this idea. In particular, an anarchist comrade argued that cadres tend to focus on developing their own members, at the expense of developing knowledge and leadership more broadly across the movement.
This is a good point, and it is a real risk. With limited time and energy, do you do a study group with people in the cadre group, or with people in the movement as a whole? I do think cadre groups are dangerous if they do internal educational work only because they aspire for control of the movement as a whole. Not only will this mess up the dynamics in the movement, stifling its development and leading to possible sectarian competition among cadres, but it also can create a suffocating and overly professionalized atmosphere inside the cadre group by ratcheting up the membership standards to an unrealistic level. People start walking around acting like they’re the shit because they’re in a functional organization. Then they feel like they have no margin of error, no room to experiment and learn from their mistakes, because they have to somehow “represent” this awesome group. That’s totally poisonous.
To prevent this, cadre groups need to have transparency and porous boundaries with the rest of the movement. They should meet on their own to provide a space for people with similar politics to strategize and develop their perspectives, but the whole point of doing that should be to advance the overall movement, not to control it. The cadre group should be publicly experimental – it should be clear it doesn’t have all the answers, and that the interventions it makes are provisional. People in a cadre group should be constantly learning from discussions, debates, and struggles alongside people outside the group, including people from other tendencies. They should not lose their own individual voices or become simply representatives of the group.
Ultimately, I think we need to build a larger revolutionary network with multiple cadres with in it; that network will be healthier if these multiple cadres each offer their perspectives and suggestions for strategy, but then leave it up to the network as a whole to decide what to do.
The cadre should be outward focused in other ways as well. The process of education in the cadre group should be “each one, tech one”….. group members study together not to horde that knowledge in order to maintain leadership in the movement, but instead to share it widely in the broader networks to make that leadership unnecessary. The cadre should be a place where people learn how to most effectively share their skills and methods with others – how to practice a pedagogy of the oppressed. And because the cadre group is public, it is more accountable and it can learn from criticisms directed against it by other tendencies. Cadres and affinity groups have many things in common, but this is probably the biggest difference – the public nature of cadre groups mean that the can learn and grow from public critique.
IV. Avoiding the Dinosaur Sponge model of revolutionary organization
The goal of the cadre group should NOT be to gradually recruit members until it grows into a vanguard party. In Black Orchid Collective, we mock this idea by calling it the “dinosaur sponge method of revolutionary organization building.” You know those dinosaur sponges you used play with when you were a kid? They come in these little gel capsules that you throw in the bathtub, and as the capsule dissolves the sponge expands into a dinosaur. Many Leninist groups today operate that way. They imagine that as long as you have the right social conditions, the right “bathwater”, purged of ultraleft impurities, then their small sect will somehow rapidly recruit until it becomes a huge dinosaur- I mean vanguard party. Hal Draper criticized this idea decades ago in his famous piece “Anatomy of a microsect ”
Any small organization is purely delusional if it thinks that it alone is the vanguard. The vanguard is simply whatever layer of the working class is moving fastest toward revolution at any given time – for example, a significant section of the Black working class acted like a vanguard during the 1960s. A small cadre group may aim to become one small part of a much larger vanguard- but it can only do that by advocating for, supporting, merging with, and defending the autonomy of broad working class revolutionary self-activity. In other words, it can only do this through generalized insurrection. Any attempt to control this self-activity will either kill the self-activity – or, much more hopefully, will kill the parasitic cadre organization, or make it as irrelevant as a dinosaur.
Ultimately, what we need is an anti-vanguard vanguard. We need a significant layer of the working class to take up all the things that small cadre organizations currently do, and more – but at a mass scale, not just among a small exclusive group. We need this mass layer of the working class to develop its capacity to reflect on its struggle and to lead the rest of the class, while generalizing its leadership abilities until the entire class becomes the vanguard and the concept of the vanguard becomes irrelevant. This can only happen by challenging any self-proclaimed vanguards that act like condescending saviors. Small cadre organizations are useful to the extent that they help catalyze this process, and are harmful to the extent that they hold it back.
I believe it is necessary and possible to avoid the problems of disorganization that lead to a situation where working class people think we are sociopathic clowns trying to attack them. I also believe it is possible to do this without reverting to forms of Leninism that are as outdated as dinosaurs. Many people are trying to figure out a third option. These debates are going on throughout the movement because these are not abstract questions, they are immediate, pressing issues that are coming up as the struggle sharpens and as repression becomes heavier. For that reason, I hope we can have a thoughtful and eye-opening debate about the positions that I’ve proposed here, and I’m looking forward to hearing folks’ responses, critiques, and counter-proposals.
note: This piece is influenced by a text on organization by Don Hamerquist called Lenin, Leninism, and some Leftovers. While I don’t agree with every point he makes, I would highly recommend reading the text and thinking through the challenges he poses.