My close friends in Black Orchid Collective, Advance the Struggle and NYC have collaborated on a discussion document entitled “Unifying Revolutionary Forces in the Coming Year.” I have mixed feelings about this document and hope that these thoughts here will be taken constructively in the spirit of building broader, deeper revolutionary formations. It is in the spirit of comradely critique that I lay out these thoughts to engage in this discussion:
1) As a member of Black Orchid Collective , I take issue with the vague way the document is being signed by “members of BOC.” The document seems to imply, even if unintentionally, that this is a group endorsed document. I am someone who is an active member of BOC but was not present for the conversations that led to the finalization of this document. Neither did I know that the document would be signed under what I perceive to be a vague descriptor, as “written by members of BOC…” until it was already published. Since then, I heard that BOC members who were present had similarly argued against this but the document had accidentally already been sent out by the authors. This was a mistake that I hope will not be repeated. I feel that by not clarifying who actually endorses this document in our immensely small organization, it inadvertently unfairly represents me. If we are open to changes in our current formations, and acknowledge that our groups are likely transient for the questions of these times, we need to encourage democratic debate among and between members of organizations. As this document reveals, there could be more affinity among individuals across organizations than there is between members of specific groups. To foster that culture of cross organizational dialogue and clarification of differences within groups, signatories of such documents should be specified (by pseudonyms if necessary) and not lumped only under organizational affiliations. Or, they should clarify themselves as particular tendencies within specific organizations. I know that some people may see this as a petty issue. However, the conversations of national formations carry with them the often associated baggage of democratic centralism. It is important to create a culture that does not conflate minority opinions with majority ones. As our conversations deepen, it is necessary also to be concise and specific about the points of agreement/disagreement within and across groupings.
I would like to emphasize however, that this specific critique does not come from a mistrust of my comrades. I believe they tried to do the best they could under pressing schedules. They raise points in this piece that we need to be vigorously discussed and so I thank them for furthering these discussions publicly. That said, process is important and I hope that we can figure out a way to collaborate across groups with flexibility, no bureaucracy, and yet also respectfully and democratically.
2) A broader left network, or clarifying of a common tendency?
Despite their critique of “unity of action” being the basis of political unity, the groups listed in the document, ranging from the IWW to Trotskyist organizations such as SULU and Left Party, are referenced by their actions, not their political theory, vision or long term strategy. The document describes that what is common among these groups is that they are on the ground doing solid organizing. I definitely support and highly respect the on-the-ground organizing as well as the dynamic exchanges I have had with members of some of these groups. However, I am left unclear as to the purpose of this document. It seems to me that the piece emphasizes organizational formation and detaches it from the necessary conversations around clarifying the basis of unity. Is this piece about expanding the broader left network and fostering multi-tendency relationships (“united fronts” as the document states), or is it about finding other anti-state communists and moving toward a national network formation with them? Which is the emphasis? What is the relationship? What framework are my comrades using to draw the relationship between the two? In my mind, the 2 are related but are somewhat distinct tasks.
I am interested in both tasks — building united fronts as well as a building of our tendency, but think it is important for us to be clear about which we are doing, when. (To be clear, when I say tendency building, I mean broadly bringing people together who want to struggle in similar ways and who share a similar perspectives and visions around what we are fighting for so we can learn from one another’s experiences) Otherwise, we end up being lumped in with, or worse still, tailing the more defined or more numerous tendencies, many of whom are comrades but where political differences may exist for example, with regard to the importance of workplace struggles or centrality of race and gender in our analyses and organizing. This is a tension that other comrades have pointed out and pushed me to reflect on. Building united fronts where we engage in discussion and debate with those who disagree or draw from other sources, can help us think through and clarify what we ourselves believe in, and more importantly, be creative in the ways we think as influence one another. This is in contrast to popular fronts where each formation and individual is pushed to subjugate their own beliefs for the presumed unity of tactics and strategy. Dynamic united fronts as I have experienced in Seattle with various anarchists and communists also makes actions possible when our individual formations and networks are small. All that said, it is still important for anti-state communists (as I believe the authors and myself are) to lay out, distil, and present what are some initial defining features of our politics, organizing methods and organizational practice, as the growing basis for further developing, growing and solidifying a tendency.
In this spirit, I think the call for a 2013 conference needs more focus. Is this conference looking to be another E4E which does the important work of connecting revolutionaries across tendencies, or is it for the first steps toward an articulation and formation of a tendency? In my mind, these 2 tasks require different emphasis in the lead up. I am for the latter and have some thoughts around the process. I will discuss some of them later in this piece. It is not clear to me what my comrades stances are.
3) Related to the point above, I think this document forefronts the questions of organizational formation in a way that minimizes what I believe are some key characteristics of an anti-state communist tendency that draws from autonomous Marxism. For this reason, the document does not resonate fully with me. In my interactions with other left formations, I have realized more deeply that our ability to discuss the alienation of work, the permeation of capitalist social relations into all parts of our lives, the existing struggles and consciousness that many of us have to combat the compartmentalization under capitalism, are some precious aspects of our tendency. Our attempts to include a racial, gender and disabilities justice perspective to these politics as part of a unified humanistic analysis are what is unique about our projects. These visions however, are lacking in the document and I find it hard to distinguish the piece from the organizational document of more traditional Marxists. In my experience, these perspectives have also been central in differentiating the organizing and writings of BOC members from other Marxist tendencies. This is why they are important for any conversation on national formation that I see myself a part of. Because I know that the comrades who have written this piece are knowledgeable about these politics, I am curious as to why this aspect has been left out of this document and whether it is intentional or not.
4) This piece presents a stark dichotomy between workers engaged in productive, industrialized wage work, and “surplus populations.” It references the Dec 12 port shutdown in this analysis. I have several thoughts on this framing.
First, it is an inaccurate characterization of the Seattle port shutdown and the political questions and tensions it raised. The dichotomy my comrades made is too broad to be useful and does not draw out the political questions necessary in thinking through class wide organizing in today’s class composition in the US. The participants of the Seattle port shutdown were largely young people, many who work and yet do not identify with their workplaces. Rather, they identify with the streets as their political outlet. There were also many students and unemployed people. Conflating all these different social and class layers into a broad “surplus population” in contrast to productive, employed, “strategic” unionized workers, seems to be an unhelpful over-simplification. Whether intentional or not, the implications of it are that only the latter are legitimate worthwhile workers. I am a healthcare worker and student who had encountered many derisions from port workers, including leftist activists in the union, who saw me and my fellow participants as workers who didn’t count and could not have a say in the reclamation of the port, using that as a basis to delegitimize our involvement in the port shutdown. This is despite the fact that some of us were in fact involved in the production, circulation of goods as well as the reproduction of this society, but belonged in workplaces that were non-unionized, or where our centrality to to capitalism and its reproduction had not been acknowledged as such. This monopoly over class struggle organizing was racialized and gendered in the Seattle context. I find it unfortunate that my comrades’ simplified dichotomy fails to distinguish itself from such conservative politics.
Furthermore, the simplification of this dichotomy seems to have a singular approach to questions of revolutionary agency. Whether intentional or not, the piece seems to suggest that the true revolutionary subjects in the US are workers engaged in production. This simplification does not help us understand how to both support, affirm and further the agency of the working class, especially that of young people who are alienated from their workplaces as areas of struggle, even as their work is key to the reproduction of US capitalism. I am not claiming that workers in transportation, or manufacturing are not important to organize with, but simply that they should not be seen as the the only revolutionary agents in class struggle. No one layer of the working class should monopolize or own class struggle.
This brings me to a few related points. At several places in the document, my comrades critique the “West Coast Occupy movement” for “overestimating [the “surplus population”] section of the working class.” They seem to attribute blame to the Occupy movement for not organizing employed workers engaged in productive sector. I have participated and organized in Decolonize/Occupy Seattle. Many of my fellow participants and I have also felt frustrated at how there is an absence of class struggle organizing on the shop floor, and a general depoliticization of the workplace. We have and are trying to counter this through various initiatives which are new and challenging. I would love to exchange more thoughts and get feedback on our efforts. Despite sharing similar frustrations at the class composition of the movement, I find it too idealistic and easy for my comrades to blame the lack of class struggle workplace organizing, on the “West Coast Occupy movements.” This implies a) that the movement was somewhat a unified undifferentiated whole and b) does not investigate the reasons why there was uneven participation across the various layers of the working class in this mass movement. What do we do, when large numbers of workers are still enamored by the union bureaucracy, where their own organizing in limited within the union framework? What do we do when there is obvious unevenness in the politicization, and differences in the ways political involvement is carried out, between these so-called “surplus populations” and employed workers in productive sectors? Why is it that multiple prison strikes have taken place and associated themselves with the Occupy movement in a way that little/few workplace struggles have? What do we do when existing organizing in these various areas are so separated and divided so that we don’t engage in common struggle against common enemies? What do we do when workplaces are also structured along racial hierarchies that encourage divide and conquer? Where there is also much fear and the prospects of winning are hard to imagine? What do we do when in Seattle Jan 6th, conservative union officers and rank and filers trashed a panel where workers and community members across the working class gathered to speak about their independent and related reasons for shutting down the port? What do we do when some of these same workers are racist toward immigrant port truckers, calling them “monkeys”? What do you do when attempts to flyer to workers and reach out to them are being met with threats of violence by those same workers? These are only some questions that may help us get at the issue of why workplaces have not been occupied by the same fervent and enthusiasm that parks and squares have been occupied, and why our struggles have also been so divided. I wish to overcome this and learn from the mistakes I made so I can try again with my comrades. Yet, the piece too conveniently blames it on the presumed common ideology of the West Coast Decolonize/Occupy movement. I support efforts toward class unity and wish to imagine and organize with workers and community members across different sectors and occupations. I know my comrades share the same desires but I strongly disagree with the idealistic nature of their analysis. The consequences are that we do not ask the questions that need to be addressed. Ironically, like Decolonize/Occupy, many left formations themselves do not also have any workplace base, or workplace organizing skills. We do better to ask ourselves why, rather than blame a mass movement for a shortcoming we share.
It is analyses that make invisible or ignore the subjectivity of workers who are not engaged in the productive sector, who are not consistently employed, who are young and un-unionized, that trigger my frustrations of how even though many leftists speak about the centrality and importance of workplace organizing, we often compartmentalize the skills and knowledge and training that are helpful for such work, onto the IWW. Rather than making serious orientations and attempts to develop ourselves, to support, or initiate and relate to on-the-job workplace struggles, the IWW is often tokenized as the group that we simply need to include to round out our support for on-the-job workplace organizing. I hope our tendency can actively engage with, learn from, and grow with the IWW and demystify workplace organizing as well. But first, we have to acknowledge that the workers that the IWW is engaged in organizing, are legitimate workers worthy of our analysis and understanding.
I further find myself frustrated by the scenarios that my comrades pose, where they say
” We face a fork in the road for our orientation towards employed workers in the coming ruptures. Occupy’s method of inspiration from the outside has not worked. If, for example, port workers are not integrated into ruptures and we attempt to run the ports from the outside it could devolve into human chains against their attempts to work, or even worse, beating them up as scabs in the name of the movement.”
I sincerely wish this would never happen. Jan 6 in Seattle was awful and that experience left many of us disillusioned. Like I mentioned earlier, I wish we are able to build class unity. However, it needs to be class unity on equal terms, not on the terms of a hierarchy of who is the “real” “legitimate” worker. I too, do not wish for such disastrous confrontations to take place. However, to place all the blame on the possible unfolding of such a scenario solely on the shoulders of a presumed wrong ideology of the Occupy movement completely simplifies the complexity of the issue. Not clarifying this issue risks falling into the “unite and fight” ideology of the Communist Party USA, where the idea of “unite” was premised around the acceptance of certain chauvinisms against more oppressed workers. I know my comrades do not believe in this, through my many conversations and struggles with them. For that reason, I do not understand why they adopted such an analysis.
5) On another note, I am unsure if this piece is arguing that the port shutdown was substitutionist. I certainly have critiques of the actions and am interested in engaging in conversation about the strengths and weaknesses of our efforts. In this piece, the critiques seem to stop short at actually calling the West Coast port shutdown “substitutionist,” even though the content of the critiques seem to indicate that. If I am misunderstanding this in any way, I hope my comrades can clarify.
6) In light of their harsh critiques of the Occupy movement, I wonder how this piece accounts for the varied ways that people are politicized. Are workers only politicized through work? Are events like the port shutdown, which once again, drew out workers as well, not politicizing in and of themselves too? We are politicized at work for sure but don’t we acknowledge that people are politicized in other parts of our lives because our emotions and insights are often not so easily compartmentalized? That some of this politicization flows back into the workplace in ways we are unable to predict or understand? Our initial politicizations might not come from the workplace, but may be just as worthwhile and necessary. I wonder what my comrades think about this piece, “Dec 12th Port Shutdown: A word from some genderqueer and womyn organizers” that myself and other organizers of the action wrote, reflecting on how empowering the port action was in gendered and racialized ways. Majority non-cismale organizers (many of us whom are also workers AND workplace organizers) played important roles in reclaiming a public space that had typically been associated with cismasculinity. Is this experience not part of class consciousness? Is this experience negated because certain other”strategic” workers did not participate? In addition, the organizing of the port shutdown helped us build connections with the Seattle Port Truckers Association, consisting of majority immigrant workers who were not unionized and faced severe racist repression at work. Our initial introductions through a mass meeting for the port shutdown made it possible for a few Decolonize/Occupy Seattle activists to organize a strike fund fundraiser for the striking port truckers. In addition, some of us have done copwatch at the port to challenge the racist harassment of the truckers by the state patrol. Granted we continue to face many obstacles and challenges in our attempts to form resilient class wide unity, but the port shutdown was a significant event for the initial steps. My comrade’s easy critique of Decolonize/Occupy movement lacking class analysis simply because more port workers (presumably longshore workers) were not involved, seems to overlook the significance of such developments. For this reason, I would like to ask my comrades what standards by which they measure the success or failures of class struggles, and which forms of class consciousness they presumably seem to privilege over others.
7) I support horizontalist and democratic revolutionary organizations for various reasons, especially because in my experience, we are able to have frank conversations about accountability and commitment to how we can develop and support one another as we explore new questions and organizing efforts, even as our capacities or availabilities may differ. In my experience, non-hierarchical organizations also encourage me to develop clarity around my own beliefs and perspectives because I am constantly actively pushed to relate to other peoples’ thoughts. These are features not limited to organizations and in fact, I experience some of it with comrades who do not desire to form any organizations and so I do not claim it works for everyone. In their piece, my comrades do not discuss why they believe revolutionary organizations are necessary formations. I acknowledge that they do list it as a topic for further discussion. Their lack of explaining this, combined with their naming of existing relatively small organizations as potential key contributors to this broad “national formation,” lead to the document being very organizational centric. I am not denying that our organizations may have important roles to play. However, to limit the readership and accessibility of the document to those who are already in/aware of revolutionary organizations, is a shortcoming. The existing organizations referenced, including BOC, are small and differentiated, and in the larger picture of the national and global struggle, quite insignificant. Why then does this piece focus on an audience that is either already in, or well versed in the language of revolutionary organizations? If the intentions are about building a tendency that is networked to one another across the country, then we should be reaching out to people who are inside and outside of revolutionary groups, but who share similar politics and organizing methods, so we can imagine our future formations together. It would be good as a next step for us to clarify how we imagine a multi-tendency network is different from a national network of like-minded anti-state communists and how that too, is different from a national cadre organization. My comrades do state that they are not calling for a national cadre organization, but what they are calling for, and their focus on pre-existing revolutionary organizations is confusing to me. I hope they can clarify their intentions.
8) In their document, my comrades list several topics that we could cover in a future conference. I agree with, value, and encourage theoretical discussions and documents. I believe this could be complemented by other forms of knowing the potential participants of the conference, as well as being accessible to the other ways that people learn/discuss. My experiences of strengthening relationships with activists from other cities has been more through visits, common organizing, as well as relationship building. The emergence of the Occupy movement have pushed us to expand our networks, but in a way that I think is still slow and limited. If the purpose of a national formation is to deepen and expand those relationships, then we should also encourage trips to visit one another as part of the process to prepare for the conference. Building relationships throughout a period of time, engaging in face to face/phone/Skype discussions on our work and thoughts, play important parts in flushing out our disagreements and deepen our trust so we feel comfortable calling one another in times of need. Otherwise, I am concerned that the basis of unity or attendance in this conference would be dominated by those who are most able to articulate themselves effectively through documents or presentations. Again, I am not coming from a place that derides these skills. They are important and we should all develop them to the best of our abilities. However, the measure of our common vision and effort should not be biased toward those who are skilled in these, and should also be accessible for those of us who may not engage best in such ways. As my comrades would agree, skills in these areas also do not imply solid organizing. I make this point as a constructive critique and hope we can incorporate them into the lead up for a 2013 conference.
9) Lastly, we speak alot about theory and practice, with practice being limited to the organizing work that we do. However, I think practice within our various political formations (whether they be revolutionary organizations or affinity groups etc) around gender, race, disabilities are also important. I have encountered many organizations and individuals who are dope theorists, and dope organizers but have little or nothing to say about organizational or community practice, such as how to create accountability structures, how to encourage dialogue about the effects of various oppressions in their organizing spaces, how to recognize and address the gendered divisions in caring labor, or mental/manual divisions. I attribute this to the delineation between revolutionary politics, and what have been deemed as social democratic anti-oppression politics. My friend Kloncke articulates this more clearly here. Questions like sustainability, transformative justice, accountability, creating structures for recognizing and addressing gender, race and class inequalities within our political communities are issues that have been monopolized by the liberal/social democratic non profit industrial complex. With some exception, many revolutionaries throw the baby out with the bathwater and do not concern themselves with these issues. I would like our call for a future formation to value these skills and thoughts as part of our conversations and our practice.
In my current travels in Southeast Asia, I have been engaged in conversations with revolutionaries about my experiences of Decolonize/Occupy movement, and learning from them about their own militant struggles against agricultural land grabs, extreme workplace exploitation and forced economic displacement, often involving US corporations and military. I am reminded that our efforts to fight imperialism and capitalism in the belly of the beast is an important task. They have impacts globally on those who are already engaged in courageous resistance. Despite the fact that occupations of public lands take place often in the third world, it was with excitement that the revolutionaries I met approached the US Occupy movement. “It’s about time. We hope it goes further” is what I hear. It is very humbling. It is with this spirit that I hope our discussions around building deeper, stronger, democratic revolutionary currents can take place. I hope our conversations around these tasks also recognize that most, if not all of us, are doing this for the first time and we need creativity, exploration and always more feedback from one another.
I have expressed many issues in my piece. Below, in the spirit of moving forward, are some specific next steps with regard to a 2013 conference, that I would like to put out. I obviously don’t expect that we will all have the same responses to these questions but this is for discussion:
– What are the purposes of the 2013 conference? Is it about deepening a multi-tendency network, or about consolidating, growing and furthering an anti-authoritarian anti-state communist tendency? My preference is the latter.
– Could we envision forming an ad hoc workers caucus of anti-state communists where we pool together our resources, thoughts and strategizing around workplace organizing and solidarity work? I do not intend to come across as compartmentalizing or centralizing discussions around workplace struggle, but only to emphasize that there needs to be intentional space created for such conversations as they relate to concrete organizing.
– Could we figure out a way where the topics listed are flushed out some more so those of us who are knowledgeable in certain areas, and less knowledgeable in others, have time/space to both share our perspectives as well as to understand the issues and questions at hand? This will assuage my concerns that we are “conference hopping” to listen to experts, but rather that we are preparing one another and ourselves to engage in vibrant discussion around the clarification of common politics.
– Could we figure a way to facilitate people visiting one another to engage with, learn from and observe how we each engage in political struggle? This will include a willingness to host one another and if possible, do some fundraising for each other to cover travel costs.
– The need to clarify the relationship between existing revolutionary organizations, unaffiliated individuals to the formation of national tendency/network, as well as conversations around what future forms of anti-authoritarian organizations we can imagine at this time.