- Category: Kasama
- Created on Monday, 03 January 2011 15:14
- Written by eric ribellarsi
by Eric Ribellarsi
New Beginnings Need New Methods
Kasama is a communist project – which means we have united around our end goal, a radically changed and liberated world without exploitation or oppression. Meanwhile, we are engaged in a creative struggle to define the means and strategies for getting there. For three years we have tried to make a contribution toward creating a new revolutionary movement in the U.S., and a new communist pole within it.
We think that means breaking with a lot of past thinking and activity. We have pointed to two things that are missing: At this moment in the U.S., communists don’t have a core organization to unite our work, and we don’t have a creative strategy for fusing revolutionary politics with the people who rise in struggle.
To deal with these absences, our Kasama project has consciously tried to avoid two common pulls: First we have resisted rushing to form a new small sect based on pre-existing and inherited politics. And second we have resisted losing ourselves in a flurry of generic activism.
Both of those things (sect-building and generic activism) would recreate those methods and routines that have, time and time again, led scattered radical forces to stop far short of a revolution.
In the document that follows, I would like to talk about what we have been doing – which has been, admittedly, primitive and tentative. Many people reading this will be familiar with our Kasama discussion site, but may not be aware of how this site fits into building a new revolutionary movement.
As part of that, I want to respond to a recent polemic written by GM of the Club Jacobin blog – which makes a negative summation of our Kasama Project. Despite our sharp differences, I suspect part of the issue here is that some observers, including the CJ author, may honestly misunderstand Kasama’s politics or activities. And so I’m excited for this chance to clarify.
While I was a bit disappointed in the way that CJ’s piece relied heavily on speculation regarding the non-public work of the Kasama organization, mainly I am excited and welcoming of this opportunity to clarify our politics in response to this comrade.
To be fair, I believe that the Club Jacobin piece points to a number of places where Kasama has real weaknesses – we are a very young and primitive project that is just starting our theoretical and practical work. To deny this would be a mistake. Nonetheless, we are trying to develop a common language for revolutionaries who are, often, coming from very different places and experiences, and we have made some progress in this important work.
But, at the same time I also feel the CJ piece is based on a rather different view of what revolutionaries need to be doing.
At the center of CJ’s piece are five basic arguments, which I will address one at a time:
The Frog Must Investigate the Sky
(1) “You may be asking: what about their mass work and daily organizing? Surely that legitimates their claim to be a political organization. And it might, if they did any. But there is precious little.”
Is it true that any “claim to be a political organization” rests on the legitimization of “daily organizing”? Can’t we perhaps answer that a claim to be a *revolutionary* political organization requires having worked out a *revolutionary* method for doing mass work? Is it true that our main, even our only, task should be to take up “daily organizing” around various demands?
CJ assumes that it is known how communists today should do mass work, where they should dig in, with what strategy, and for what political goal. Kasama disagrees; we do not think this is already worked out. And more: we believe that just rushing toward the current model of “daily organizing” would make the political work of revolutionaries subordinate to reform politics, NGO agendas and the Democratic Party establishment.
The assumption at work in the CJ polemic is that the main need (in this moment) is agitating a bigger movement into being, and that the main way of doing that is for activists to meet more people at the level of “issues” they already understand. ‘Just Do it’ then becomes a form of generic, routine and often reformist form of activism presented as the main (in fact often the only) task of revolutionaries.
To the contrary, Kasama believes that two absences (an absence of communist organization and an absence of revolutionary strategy) mean that there are specific tasks and contradictions facing revolutionaries in a country like the US. In other words, we contend that our tasks and goals in this period don’t simply boil down to simply getting out among the people and becoming the best fighters in various existing (or even non-existing) struggles.
To the contrary, Kasama believes that there needs to be built a culture of organizing that is wedded to a new conception of revolutionary politics. To create that, we want to combine select projects of mass work with a long-term effort at communist reconception. This means that rather than rushing forward we are also stepping back, learning from previous attempts at communist practice, while at the same time trying to draw in diverse forces to jointly consider future moves. In particular, we are working to develop new communist cores of revolutionaries, new communist strategy, and at the same time orienting ourselves to seek out fault lines of struggle upon which revolutionaries can fuse with the advanced among the people.
In other words, Kasama is not arguing against going to the people.
Nearly everyone in Kasama is involved in different forms of mass work, in various local contexts. And certainly many in Kasama have long years of practical experience that they are working to sum up and apply. Moreover, we believe that deep and active investigation is itself, at this point, an important form of mass work.
For example, several supporters of Kasama have spent months in Nepal investigating the revolution there. Based on that, people around Kasama have begun early efforts to build solidarity with the revolutions in South Asia.
But in order for revolutionaries identify the best places to launch our common collective practice, there needs first to be careful consideration, planning, strategy, and organization. That planning has to be part of our own communist strategic goals; it will not simply ‘take care of itself.’
This is especially true in a moment like the present one when we can’t yet see clearly the outlines of those coming eruptions which will and must play a special role in mass radicalization.
Our mass work, then, must be seen not as separate from theoretical reconception; rather it needs to emerge from and be integrated into a plan for preparing an actual revolutionary movement, including forms of openly communist work (something that so much of the left has abandoned in favor of hiding one’s politics from the people in order to “build the social movements”).
CJ goes on to argue that without this mass work (which they would have comrades rush into without a conscious strategic orientation or serious revolutionary organization), it is impossible to do theoretical work. CJ further defends this by selectively quoting Mao:
“Where do correct ideas come from? Do they drop from the skies? No. Are they innate in the mind? No. They come from social practice, and from it alone… There is no other way of testing truth.”
While avoiding a “war of quotes,” (a mode of argument that is generally contrary to Kasama’s approach, as such a method presumes that the “answers” to present questions are to be found ready-made in the “classic” canonical texts of the past) it is worthwhile to place this quote into context. In particular, CJ ignores the rest of Mao’s argument.
Mao writes that:
“All genuine knowledge originates in direct experience. But one cannot have direct experience of everything; as a matter of fact, most of our knowledge comes from indirect experience, for example, all knowledge from past times and foreign lands.”
Mao goes on to discuss a frog at the bottom of the well. This frog, he argues, is incapable of developing an understanding of the sky from direct experience because, from where the frog sits, the sky appears to only be as large as the mouth of the well.
We are sitting atop decades of accumulated practice that has yet to be summed up. The experience of thousands of young communists who emerged as the New Communist Movement remains to be summed up. A century of revolutionary attempts across the planet, if properly studied, offer incalculable value to our understandings. Meanwhile, we are emerging in a new period that is rapidly changing, and these evolving social conditions need summation as well.
None of this can be correctly summed up through the direct experience of a new activist mini-sect. Indeed, much of it cannot be done through direct experience at all. It requires stepping back, and doing summation and abstraction. It requires refusing to be a frog in the bottom of a well.
What do we mean by Reconception?
In discussing Kasama’s concept of reconception, CJ’s second argument moves to dismiss the theoretical contributions of Kasama.
(2) “The revolutionary Left in this country badly needs to revisit old assumptions and create new theory. The problem is that after two years the Kasama site and the Kasama project don’t really have any new theory or ideas to show for their troubles. Indeed, they seem to be allergic to actually coming up with hypotheses that could be tested by revolutionary praxis. Pick any subject: the Black Panther Party; Queer liberation; Obama; Afghanistan; Nepal; Lady Gaga. But at some point, a political organization needs to make choices: adopt view A, and reject opposing view B.”
Indeed, a serious revolutionary organization will need positions and theory that can be taken to the people. And we may end up with several revolutionary organizations taking different positions.
And, it is somewhat remarkable CJ doesn’t seem to see the theoretical work and ideas being presented, publicly, as various sharp poles within the Kasama debates.
I must admit my own impatience with all the necessary work of preparing for revolution – which at present all lags behind my desire for revolution. Nonetheless it appears to me to still be necessary.
To put it another way: CJ outlines an approach to theory that would really amount to a quick negotiating between positions among current cadre over the ideas they walked in the door with.
CJ then goes on to use this vulgarized understanding of theory (and in our case, reconception) to call Kasama arrogant:
“The idea that a small organization, overwhelmingly made up of white men, can sit down and ‘reconceive’ the correct revolutionary course for this incredibly complex nation of 300 million people is — well, ‘arrogant’ would be the kindest thing that you can say about it.”
“We should not form a little group that play-acts as the seed of a future party….We will not arrive on the scene like some magical galvanizing thunder burst to tell everyone else what to think and do. Let’s have some scientific non-messianic modesty and not perpetuate previous grandiosity. We will strain to make real contributions. There may be contributions that only we can make. And that matters. But we expect much from many other people.”
Reconception is not a simple surveying of whoever is in the room, and then rushing to a quick position based upon that. We in Kasama do not see ourselves as coming to quick facile verdicts upon which we can use to impose our new line on the people. We see ourselves as making contributions to a larger process of reconception centered within a new generation of revolutionaries.
Also, there is a sharp contradiction in CJ’s critique –Kasama is criticized for NOT reaching quick verdicts, and is then criticized as sectarian for even trying to reach any verdicts at all (specifically criticisms of the Obama government’s attempts at coopting radicals).
The discussions of Kasama (both public and private) have, in fact, started to make contributions to nearly every topic that CJ mentions. Just go look at the work gathered in our Kasama Readers or the Khukuri theoretical site.
This work isn’t presented as final or authoritative verdicts from some self-appointed group, but instead as arguments (made now over years) within the Kasama site – where sharp opposing poles and articulated arguments have been laid out, and then debated and further developed in full view.
Kasama has not rushed to draw premature lines of demarcation on every question imaginable. That would be the short path to a mini-sect, and we consciously rejected it very early on.
Rather, our understanding of reconception is one that envisions a synthesizing of communist theory, summations, and experience with rapidly developing and emerging new revolutionaries and fault line struggles.
Bringing from the Outside, Then Emerging from Within
CJ dismisses even the name of the Kasama Project itself as being outside the experience of “American masses.” It is part of unspoken economist strategy and assumptions. CJ argues:
(3) “The name actually does a good job summing up the problems with the organization. ‘Kasama’ is a name that will not immediately have any meaning for the large majority of Americans, including the advanced among them… What it does do is convey the idea that whatever they are about comes from outside the experience of the American masses and needs translation to be intelligible by the masses in America.”
First, do we suddenly have an “English Only” policy for communist terms and names? How is that justified?
Is it true that “the American masses” can’t accept things with a “foreign” name? Yoga? Feng Shui? The Karate Kid?
Beyond that, I particularly am turned off by the notion that “the American masses” need a distinctly “American” politics that is cut off from the communism of foreigners. What does this kind of casual nationalism say about learning from immigrants, or the experiences of Latin America, or China, or South Asia? And if we communists aren’t about learning from those experiences – where will the people of the U.S. more broadly learn about them?
On one hand, this thinking flirts with American chauvinism. On the other hand, it seems to accept an economist belief that all necessary ideas arise from within; from direct experiences and spontaneity. In fact, they don’t. There is much that must be brought in “from the outside.”
Communist revolution won’t be made by appealing to the narrow self-interests of the “American masses.” The communist revolution must be a conscious one; it requires the people to understand and transform the world… in order to end all forms of exploitation and oppression, not just within one nation, but everywhere.
Is the central task of communists always just, or even primarily, appealing directly to the people’s immediate situation? Even in absence of a serious revolutionary organization or a strategic orientation? Why can’t there be—in fact, mightn’t there have to be—a period in which communists make those kinds of long-range, essential, theoretical preparations while selectively engaging in initial mass work that helps train communists, identify the advanced, and forward those preparations?
The name “Kasama” implies the road we have chosen to take. It means “comrades travelling together.” It reflects the kind of comradely unity we are trying to foster among revolutionaries, and the kind of engagement that is constantly in motion and aimed at a communist goal.
And if Kasama is suspect because it comes from “the outside” – what about the concepts of socialism and communism, what about the idea of violent revolution? Should we cast them aside too because they are not easily understood by “the American masses” which I suspect means the unawakened and intermediate, and not the more advanced (who are often intrigued by foreign experience, communist politics, and things outside their own realm)?
We call ourselves a "project" based upon our current level of development and what we see as the needs of the moment: an ongoing process of engagement, debate, investigation, summation. When we are in a different stage, we may adopt a different name that speaks to that strategic orientation. While we are eager for this work to progress to future stages, we feel no rush to declare our intention to move towards a specific future organizational form – because that regroupment too must emerge in connection to and on the basis of these reconception debates, that is, if it is not to fall into the traps outlined above.
Faultline Struggle is the Opposite of a Get Rich Quick Scheme
3. CJ makes another claim, arguing that:
(4) “In keeping with the rise in sectarian sentiment and the unwillingness to engage in patient mass work, Kasama has begun to focus on get-rich-quick schemes of becoming a mass political force overnight.”
This is a misunderstanding. We have no illusion of becoming a “mass political force overnight.” And we are focused on how to emerge “from within” at future moments when unforeseen events create radicalization moments for millions. That explains our approach toward fault lines, our eagerness to investigate more this system’s contradictions, and decide where to take up protracted struggle with the potential for evental openings.
We in Kasama are moving beyond the simple formula of
Oppression + Communists = Revolution
Instead, we are seeking out the nodules of the advanced among the people, particularly those who are engaged in key fault line struggles, which, in our view, contain the greatest potential to produce revolutionary lessons on a mass scale and galvanize larger sections of society.
One example: when I was in Nepal, I learned of the way that the Maoists of Nepal identified a particular village: Thewang – as key to a revolutionary beginning (and the eventual initiation of the People’s War). This village had decades of experience in anti-police brutality movements, was home to many who sympathized with communism, and was in a particular period of police repression. It was from here that the Maobadi focused their initial work, fusing long standing demands of the people with a communist outlook and struggle for nation-wide (and ultimately worldwide) revolution.
Turning back to our US-context, such an approach means that instead of running around to organize the latest movement of the day (which past practice shows to have often achieved very little), we are asking “where is our Mississippi Freedom Summer?” We are searching for where, with our obviously limited resources at this point, we should focus our protracted communist work. At the same time we are reflecting on the question of what methods offer the most potential for fusing with “nodules of the advanced” (and notice, we don’t consider ourselves the advanced here).
Nothing could be further from this “get rich quick scheme” label that CJ constructs out of a Kasama discussion of viral videos. To probe the question of media and information in our society, and the opportunities for political activity that these evolving systems may open for us, is not to launch a “get-rich-quick-scheme.” It is essential to understanding how to connect communist ideas with the people themselves, in the twenty-first century.
Let’s Step Off… to Make Revolution
Club Jacobin ends the polemic with a final statement:
(5) “Do some real political work… If Kasama means ‘companions who travel the road together’ — to my friends in Kasama I say step off the couch and start walking down that road for real!”
I can’t help but be reminded of a comment from Zizek’s recent book, First as Tragedy, Then Farce, where Zizek responds to the constant movementist demand that we “stop talking” and just “do something” by asking whether “perhaps it is time we do the right thing?” To strike upon this “right thing” of course, requires quite a bit of theoretically informed “talk.”
It is a caution: rushing into mass work without a revolutionary plan is to rush into the embrace of status quo politics.
Without endorsing its entirety, I am sympathetic to Badiou’s view that our current situation looks much more like communism’s first sequence during the time of Marx (a period where the primary task of communists focused on shaping and asserting the revolutionary communist idea, an idea whose very existence at that point in time, as in ours, is far from secure), rather than the second sequence where communists were more focused directly on questions of power and organization.
All the talk about “get off the couch” is rather crude, and very American, anti-intellectualism. It reminds me of how Bakunin mocked Marx as “man of theory,” while Bakunin posed as the “man of action.”
Let’s think over the meaning and context of this call to do something “for real” – with its special hostility to our supposedly sectarian debates critiquing Obama. What is “real” and how different is this from the White House advisor who slammed critics on the left – saying they “need to take off their pajamas, get dressed and realize that governing a closely divided country is complicated and difficult.”
We should collectively be wary of a pragmatic focus on “what works” in the short term, or the idea that our goal is just to fan the embers of the immediate movements into an active flame (and think about our goals later). That mood has a strategy embedded within it (often unconfessed, or even unrecognized) that harnesses the activist left to the “realistic” politics of the status quo.
What would it mean for those precious few communists in the US today, to “step off the couches” and rush to ‘do something,’ without orienting that something in terms of our communist end goal?
This is a hostility and impatience with theory, planning, conception, summation, substantive cross fertilization, revolutionary strategy, necessary distinctions, and respectful exploration of differences, which is all precisely what we all need much more of.
Let’s make a step towards revolution. Let’s develop a serious approach to build a new revolutionary movement and a new communist core. We desperately need one that is creative, serious, and aimed, not just at “getting active” but at achieving revolution. We need to sink deep roots among the oppressed, for that specific goal. Getting there, even imagining getting there, is hard work that takes real time and effort. And we need to do it together.
Let’s treat each other and our resources as the precious stuff they are. Let us carefully choose which struggles to join now, along key fault lines that hold the prospect of touching thousands and tens of thousands and soon millions deeply in a way that prepares them to play a leading role in very radical changes.
Let’s fight along such fault lines as communists, bringing revolution openly into the mix, and let’s do it in a way where we are mutually transformed together with the people.
We have a fresh opportunity and a new beginning. Why aim that at anything short of what some claim is impossible?