Mamos, Amaranto, and The Fish

Mamos, Black Orchid Collective
Amaranto, Black Orchid Collective
The Fish, Advance the Struggle

In August 2012, members of Advance the Struggle, Black Orchid Collective, one revolutionary from New York, and several comrades from Seattle and Oakland came together in Oakland to discuss and learn from each other. Instead of a conference aiming to hash out a comprehensive program, this was more of a combined study group and strategizing meeting, blending theory and practice. In the weeks leading up to the conference, we had read and discussed several texts together, including Truth and Revolution, and had begun critically reflecting on our own interventions in the Decolonize/Occupy movement. During the conference, we participated in a workshop that analyzed key themes from Truth and Revolution and from our recent experiences in struggle. We are sharing our notes from this workshop in the hope that other groupings, collectives, communities, and crews around the country might find them useful in their own reflection processes.

We decided that the goal of our collaboration with each other is not to immediately form a small national cadre organization and then recruit people to it. We are simply coming together to share skills and tools with each other so that we can draw new lessons from the struggles we've been through the past years that gave birth to our organizations and shaped them—especially our different experiences intervening in the Occupy upsurge and its aftermath. This workshop is an example of the kind of discussions we've been having. In the upcoming year, we hope to open up these conversations to include more revolutionaries from other regions and political tendencies, and we hope to engage more with similar conversations that are happening among other revolutionary networks. We hope that sharing this workshop can help with this process, and we hope that over time this process will start to gather revolutionary forces around a common trajectory of theory and practice that could lead to new breakthroughs in revolutionary struggle and revolutionary organization.

We are not sharing our answers to all of the workshop questions for several reasons. First, we have different answers, not a solidified organizational line. Secondly, in the current moment, any answers to these questions are provisional since our generation has only just begun to struggle and reflect at the level necessary to really generate new theories and long term strategies. It will take a while yet to answer all of these questions. Thirdly, in the current climate of the US Left, there is a tendency to freeze groupings into positions based on one or two things they say at a specific moment, instead of seeing our organizations and crews as dynamic works in progress. At our early stage of development, this is frustrating and harmful.

If other groupings are studying Truth and Revolution, we hope they find this workshop useful, and we are looking forward to hearing their answers to these questions, and sharing our own.

Part I: Race, Ruptures, and Revolutionary Consciousness

Objectives:

1. to debate how revolutionary consciousness emerges
2. to understand the forces of capitalist hegemony that prevent it from emerging, especially white supremacy
3. to debate the role of revolutionary organizations in breaking down this hegemony, and unleashing this consciousness.

Texts covered: Chapter 3 of the STO book

The previous day, we discussed the concept of class composition, based on the Italian autonomist Marxist movements documented in Steve Wright's book Storming Heaven. Class composition is the idea that the proletariat is not some fixed identity; it is always changing as proletarians struggle against the way capitalism is organized, and the capitalists reply by co-opting, crushing, or incorporating their resistance, creating more dynamic forms of capitalism that reorganize the proletariat. In reply, the workers then reorganize themselves to initiate a new cycle of struggle. To study class composition, we can do what Marx called workers inquiry—interviewing, learning about how workplaces, cities, working class culture, etc., are changing, and learning about how people are fighting on the job and outside of it.

Class Composition, Ruptures, and Class Consciousness (20–40 min)

Here are three different positions on how class composition relates to the creation of revolutionary consciousness:

1. Economic determinism: the class composition at any moment automatically determines the ways in which the working class struggles. The working class will automatically struggle in these ways, even if they are not fully conscious of it.

2. Class consciousness comes from ruptures: Don Hamerquist argues that revolutionary working class consciousness is not automatically determined by class composition. Instead, it emerges through events that serve as conscious 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 the 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. Of course, the struggles that generate ruptures are often in response to the given class composition at any time.

Based on these criteria, what are some examples of ruptures? How can we tell whether something is a rupture or not?

3. Position held by some people in the Kasama network: There is conflict in society over oppression and political power, but it is not necessarily always about class. Class composition does not determine revolutionary consciousness. Instead, we need to build a “revolutionary people,” which includes people from various classes who have developed communist consciousness. Communist consciousness comes from events and ruptures, but primarily from the way in which revolutionaries interpret and believe in the power of these ruptures. As Alain Badiou puts it, to be a revolutionary you need to “live in fidelity to the event.” In other words, revolutionaries create new values, new ideas, and new culture through our collective willpower.

Spectrum debate on these 3 positions: Everyone who agrees most with the economic determinist position goes to one side of the room; everyone who agrees most with the first position goes to one side of the room, everyone who agrees most with the third goes to the other side, and everyone who agrees with the second goes to the middle. People in between each position line up on a spectrum between them, depending on which one they are closest to. Then the facilitator asks people from each pole in the debate to present their positions and then facilitates each pole responding to the other ones. People can move closer to another pole if they are convinced by arguments that people in that pole are making.

Note: In this debate, most of us were close to the second pole, the idea that class consciousness comes from ruptures, but there was significant discussion about what exactly constitutes a rupture and how you can tell when one is happening.

Follow up question: How do these different theoretical positions generate different organizational practices? What is the right balance between working class flyering/organizing/consistent community building on the one hand, and rapid, flying-squad interventions in ruptures like Occupy on the other hand?

Discussion questions on hegemony, white supremacy, and class consciousness (20 minutes):

1. What happened at the Melrose Harvester plant? How does this show STOs perspective on race, especially in the workplace?

2. What is hegemony? How is white supremacy an example of hegemony?

3. What were W.E.B. Du Bois's arguments about race and class in America? How did STO draw from these?

4. What were Ted Allen's arguments about how white supremacy started?

5. Why did the civil rights movement make these issues so central for radicals in the 1960s? Think about the experience of SNCC. What do we think about the conclusions that radicals drew from this experience?

6. Was STO a multiracial organization or a white solidarity organization? What contradictions did they have around this? Why did those contradictions emerge? How did STO relate to Black-only or Latino-only organizations? Do you agree or disagree?

7. Summarize the concept of privilege politics and the critique of it that some folks in our tendency have made. How is STO's line similar to privilege politics? How is it different?

8. Who were the Weathermen? How was Noel Ignatin's argument about white skin privilege different from the Weathermen's idea of privilege?

9. How did STO relate to Latino workers (pp. 98, 99)?

10. What were Ignatin's arguments in his Black Worker, White Worker speech? Do you agree or disagree?

11. What were the main critiques of Ignatin's speech from other factions in STO? Do you agree or disagree with these critiques?

Consciousness, Struggle, and Revolutionary Organization (20 min):

How do workers become revolutionaries? Here are three positions discussed in Truth and Revolution. Different people and factions in STO emphasized aspects of these three positions at different times in the organization's history, which lead to a tension in the organization that was sometimes productive, sometimes destructive, and sometimes both.

CLR James: Gardener/seeds of socialism/invading socialist society: everyday working class life includes seeds of the new socialist society growing within the shell of the old. For example, in the 1960s, aspects of daily life in Black communities, Black popular culture, and Black resistance at work all pointed in a socialist direction. The role of revolutionaries is to be a gardener: simply to “recognize and record” these seeds as they organically grow.

Gramsci: Dual consciousness: workers have contradictions. To some extent, they have bourgeois consciousness, and to some extent they have working class consciousness. Through struggle, working class consciousness grows beyond its own limits of class belonging, becoming communist consciousness. They key thing is to embrace struggles that go beyond the limits of “legitimate” protest, which often means breaking with legality. It is through these kinds of experiences of “getting each others' backs” under pressure that communist consciousness grows.

For example, there is a civil war in the minds of white workers—on the one hand, they buy into their white skin privilege, but on the other hand, they realize it doesn't compensate for their exploitation as workers, and that they need to fight side by side with Black workers to end this exploitation. The role of revolutionaries is to convince white workers to side with Black workers' militant demands, and to show that these demands are actually in their own class interest. In this way, they overcome their racism.

Orthodox Leninism: Workers on their own can only develop “trade union consciousness.” Communist consciousness comes from the outside, from petty bourgeois intellectuals who build revolutionary organizations that bring consciousness to the workers.

For example, white workers have “false consciousness” and are blinded by their own racism. That's why we need to build a revolutionary organization which can teach them not to be racist.

Discussion question: Which of these positions is Noel Ignatin's Black Worker, White Worker closest to? Why?

Spectrum debate on these three positions: CLR Jamesian “seeds of socialism” on one side, orthodox Leninism on the other, and Gramscian dual consciousness in the middle.

Part 2: Interventions

Texts Covered: Chapter 2 of the STO book

Chapter 2 Summary

The inherited Marxism of the New Left led to a focus on employed heavy industrial workers. The May ’68 experience radicalized the world, and showed how the labor bureaucracy often plays a negative role. The Italian Hot Autumn showed that rank-and-file insurgency was still possible. The DRUM showed that US workers could insurrect in a revolutionary way, organized around the demands of black workers. STO drew from Antonio Gramsci's idea of “hegemony,” meaning the influence of the ideas of the ruling class. They saw the primary form of hegemonic ideas in the United States as white supremacy, and focused much of their agitation on that. STO rejected trade unions as vehicles for healthy workplace organization, and instead promoted independent workplace groups. Many workplace orientations in the Chicago area, tension always between supporting workers no matter their decisions and agitating for certain approaches and politics.

Interventions:

Group 1:

STO Western Electric: 6-day long wildcat in response to lay-offs and speedup. Union told the workers to wait for an investigation, but they struck instead. They demanded reduction in work, new bathroom, removal of a racist foreman and a direct negotiating committee with management. Chicago left tried to orient to it, but the workers were like “we don't need any of that socialist shit.” STO persisted and offered legal advice and the use of their printing press, and STO accepted this support role. Management offered a deal: “we'll give you your demands if you stop discussing this struggle with other workers.” STO was just in a support role, and so they didn't intervene. Compare to an intervention of your own.

Group 2:

STO Truckers' Struggle: Went on several day wildcat in response to an increase in gas prices. They demanded a price control on gasoline. STO members moved to a local truck stop in Gary, Indiana, and helped the strikers produce propaganda. They also offered technical assistance in organizing meetings and reaching out to contacts. Eventually had strategic discussions about where the strike was going. Compare to your own interventions.

STO Gateway Industries: A factory staffed almost entirely by immigrant women from Mexico prepared to close and move to Mexico; the workers found STO at their labor legal clinic. STO “prompted” them to organize against the plant closure. When a manager offered to meet with an STO lawyer, the workers organized a sneak attack and confronted him. He offered the women jobs at a new factory, but after discussion they tore up the contract STO had brokered with the management.

Your experience here—themes to think about:

Intervention vs. autonomy

Political vs. economic

2b: Types of Workplace Organization

Spectrum Debate!

Surplus Populations / Noel Ignatiev: unionized workers are conservative; unions being destroyed is good and the new insurgency will come from the unemployed and the 89 percent.

STO: unions are labor managers, independent workplace organizations are the form for workers' struggle that moves in a revolutionary direction.

Orthodox Trotskyism: unions are mass working-class organizations with bad leadership that we should regain control of and push towards revolution.

3. Organizational Forms

Texts covered: Chapters 1 and 4 of the STO book

Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) Split, Chicago, June 1969

The collapse of SDS shows how loose networks can all of the sudden transform into hardened organizations based on the pressure of events.

Factions:

  • Worker Student Alliance (WSA)—front group for Progressive Labor (PL) party (formed 1961 by CPUSA dissidents), working class orientation, black and white, unite and fight
  • Weathermen / Revolutionary Youth Movement I (RYM I)—most wrote off the white working class, instead looked towards global national liberation movements; white radicals, however, should support black demands.
  • Revolutionary Youth Movement II (RYM II)—Unity in opposition to Progressive Labor and Weatherman. Turn towards workplace / community organizing rather than student organizing. Noel Ignatin publishes “The White Blindspot.” November, 1969 conference—STO founding members attend
  • Could we see existing networks today hardening? If so, into what factions?

    STO Splits

    Defining Democratic Centralism

  • Boston Group—“it's only around theoretical positions, organizational principles, strategic and tactical line that communist unity can be achieved” (p. 119)

    Boston Group's definition of democratic centralism: “precisely the organizational form recognizing the necessity for a single direction of the proletariat and disciplined democratic discussion of its strategic and tactical options.” It is opposed to federalism which “implies the equality and inviolable integrity of different political lines… but liberalism of this kind is incompatible with an organization seeking to serve the interests of the oppressed and exploited” (p. 120)

  • STO (X)/Federation—“a more centralized organizational structure will more readily permit struggle over programmatic and theoretical differences” (p. 119)

    STO X's definition of democratic centralism—“For the [Federation], democratic centralism means a decision to carry out joint activity… without such a decision, and such activities, it is quite possible to continue to function as if every position and tendency has equal status. Second, it means implementation of divisions into clear majorities and minorities on all disputed questions with the understanding that the majority ‘rules.’ This, it means that a minimum concern with developing our political positions into a coherent perspective entails the organizational purging of elements which consistently adopt minority positions which are closer to that of other political tendencies than to the [Federation]. Fourth it means a very careful and reasoned concern with not mechanically imposing a majority decision on the minority, for the simple reason that no minority that is serious will accept such treatment in a grouping so new and so weak. Fifth, it means definite protections of the right of minorities to argue their positions.” (p. 121)

  • Spectrum Debate: Everyone who agrees most with the network position goes to one side of the room and everyone who agrees most with the national cadre / programmatic development position goes to one side of the room.

    Networks: We can find provisional unity in developing a fighting network. We can figure out the theory as we go because we cannot use theory to predict the future. We don't even know our real dividing lines of debate; we will only discover this through struggling together.

    National Cadre / Programmatic development: We need to promote theoretical unity before regroupment. Taking actions with those of different political tendencies will tear us apart. We need to prepare for future upsurges and we can only do this by starting with theoretical unity and recruiting to it.
    Note: Below is a summary of one position between the poles.

    Coming Together So that We Can Turn Outwards: Our network should avoid the twin pitfalls of a) prematurely building a Marxist cadre organization that closes us off from broader multi-tendency revolutionary networks and b) liquidating our political tendency into the ideological confusion that currently exists within broader multi-tendency revolutionary networks. Instead we should form an informal network prioritizing our own collective learning and development, with little overhead in terms of structure. The primary purpose of this network should be to help each other develop a clear strategy for how to intervene in broader struggles in collaboration with people from other tendencies. We should agitate folks we collaborate with, by proposing solid strategies around organization, race, gender, workplace organizing, and class struggle in ways that don't cut us off from the rest of the milieus through sectarian polemics and dogmatism. Studying the Marxist method together is a key part of developing our capacity to make these interventions in a non-dogmatic way.