Tiers of Communist Work: One Counter-Plan to Swamp & Sect

by Mike Ely

In a recent essay,"What a Communist Beginning Might Look Like"  I tried to crudely sketch how a new communist movement might start to emerge -- imagining three tiers: an Iskra project, a Pravda project and a series of Faultline projects. (I won't repeat those details here.)

Selucha asked me: 

“Was this concept something you’ve been working on, or just something you thought up on the fly? What does everybody else think about this proposal?”

This approach has been my framework of operation for quite a while.

Here are some of the problems I’m trying to bang on:

  • If our organizational plan is not to build one more mini-sect what is it?
  • If we want to avoid a “left unity” that is dominated by liberal politics, how do we do that?
  • How do we develop organic ties to actual resistance resistance,  real popular motion toward revolution and a newly conceived communist core?
  • What process(es) can accumulate (attract, train, organize) real material force for revolution in a country like this?
  • What is the process that will gather raw material for a future communist core that has organic ties to the people themselves?
  • How do we practically prepare for future conjunctural moments whose outlines and features are not yet clear?
  • What is communist political work — how do we organize it without building self-encapsulated organizations?
  • How do we have a communist movement without a legitimizing orthodoxy?
  • How do we both popularize and constantly refine communist conclusions and methods?


A counter-concept to swamp and sect

Communist and revolutionary work does not look like other kinds of activism — it imposes all kinds of specific tasks and requirements on us, that are often not easy or obvious. One of my frustrations is that we are in a period without a communist core — yet many communist activists are not particularly  engaged with the responsibilities in such a period. We still need to confront the theoretical and organizational challenges — and make them the possession of more among us. It won’t do to carry out generic activism, while leaving our communist politics in the realm of a secret identity or a vague desire.

I am working on one counter-concept  for building a new communist movement. Perhaps these crude sketches can encourage responses from others.

We have spoken quite a bit about the problem of the old 1970s mini-party approach — but we also need to avoid being bogged down in a swamp — where creative tensions have given way to stagnant coexistence, or (worse!) where the radical movement is dominated by its most liberal and social democratic parts.

We need a process of reconception just to imagine how we can create  a communist core and leadership that isn’t defined or legitimized by previous orthodoxy. And that process need not assume we will all (one day) merge. We should develop creative synergies together. We should all be transformed. But let’s not be surprised if our process also produces distinctions and trends.

An Iskra Project needs to define a creative and successful communist outreach — which I believe must look different from what we created in the past. Perhaps we will produce several approaches — that collide and build within a larger revolutionary eco-system.

What most people don’t (yet) care about

JFSP said

“Hitting the nail on the head, most working class people do care about jobs, health care, etc…they don’t want to hear about Trotsky and Lenin. A lot of today’s youth probably don’t know who they are anyway.”

This remark brushes up against a real contradiction — people often need things they don’t care about or know about.

Take medicine as an example. What would you think about a doctor who said to you “I promise I won’t propose any cures that you don’t already know about.” Would you switch doctors?

Yes, in American politics, people “care” about some things and not others. The “issues” have been framed for them both by the media and by the very structure of capitalist society. They “care” about cheaper gas, but often don’t “know about” socialist sustainability. They “care about” health care (because the bourgeoisie had an acute crisis and disagreement over how to restructure it), but don’t necessarily think outside the box of bourgeois proposals (including “single payer”).

That contradiction that JFSP discusses is why we need a mass line approach for our communist work. It is also why we need multiple tiers of communist work (and not just plans for outreach).

Politics is not a mirror where you identify what people spontaneously “care about” and then feed that back to them — since spontaneity is shaped and limited by the political operations and ideologies of  capitalist society. There is a great deal that we need to bring in from outside that world defined by people’s spontaneous political concerns.

We need a whole Iskra process of communist reconception and regroupment — with theoretical and political debate serving as an attraction and as a scaffolding for emerging revolutionary organization. Many topics at the very core of that Iskra project will be things that most people don’t (yet) know or care about. Our engagement around communist  philosophy, strategy, historical summation, socialist imaginings, final goals, organizational principles is about reconceiving what we have inherited.

Popularization is a separate matter.  But (ironically) that whole reconception project may (if it is successful) have a huge impact on what many other people ultimately come to know and care about.

Embedded in JFSP’s comment is a sense of orienting our work toward the intermediate among the people. I don’t think it is wrong to think about future majorities (i.e. we should already now imagine who the future supporters of a socialist revolution and society will be…. and be aware of what they are now thinking.) But we also need to orient our public outreach (i.e. our organizing and agitation) toward the more advanced (i.e. politically radicalizing and awakening) forces in society. there are times (like large strikes on campuses or industries) where the communist core must take responsibility for reaching out to the intermediate — but our main work (during the periods of preparation) are to help forge the objectively advanced into the beginnings of a revolutionary people.

Where’s the juice gonna come from?

Among his interesting comments on these issues, Reid wrote on his blog “The Luxemburgist”:

“I think Ely is hasty when he says that ‘most of the “raw material’ for a new revolutionary movement is outside the existing left silos.”

My assessment may be (as you say) hasty. There are pockets of creativity within the organized left. But I also believe that much of the organized left is exhausted and relatively clueless. Many left projects are running on routine and vapor. I don’t think that the new revolutionary movement will mainly emerge out of the reorganization of those organized left silos.

If that’s wrong, correct me.

A Project in Common

Sam writes:

“Why does everything on this site seem to talk about “beginnings,” and other messianic language, as if the rest of the left is dead, unimaginative and/or useless. … I come by here occasionally and always get the impression that Kasama editors believe they are the only ones on the left who think seriously about political strategy and the historical experiences of the left.”

As one of the people working with the Kasama Project I’m willing to take some responsibility if there is a confusion.

Let me try to be more clear: We are all at a new beginning. This doesn’t mean that Kasama has declared it is the new beginning. there has been a full century of socialist revolution (from the Paris Commune to the restoration of capitalism). And we are ALL at a new beginning — for the communist revolution. All of us. Not just all communists, but all people on earth.

The work of reconception and regroupment is something that has been taking place globally, and in many corners. No one owns it.

We communists need to decide HOW we plan to emerge within that new beginning: how do we present ourselves? How to we describe our goals? How do we organize ourselves? How do we discuss our own communist past? How do we describe what we have learned? How do we unite ourselves (and where do we divide ourselves)? How do we view the connection between the organized communists and the people? How do we envision and embody leadership? And much more.

It is a great tragedy (in many ways) that we have lost previous socialist countries. And there are other tragedies embedded in the previous history of socialism and communism.

But (without minimizing the problems of our situation) there is also a great, rare and liberating freedom in being allowed (by circumstances) to reinvent ourselves. A writing group within Kasama touched on Sam’s points in the closing words of our essay “Shaping the Kasama Project“:

“We should not form a little group that play-acts as the seed of a future party. The process we foresee will be far more contradictory than that. Most initiating projects sprout several trends (or none at all). We will not arrive on the scene like some magical galvanizing thunderburst 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.”

People in this conversation

  • While I also think most of the left is exhausted and, if not clueless, at least trapped in legacy routines of activism that aren't going anywhere, I think it is a big mistake to ignore the groups that exist or treat them as if they have nothing to offer, and I suspect that is how some are coming to view Kasama.

    Calling such groups "silos" for instance (unless I am misreading this reference) seems unnecessarily dismissive.

    These groups are the product of previous generations efforts first to build revolutionary organization in the context of upsurges and then to keep the flames of radical thought and activism alive through downturns. Dysfunctional as they may be in various ways, and they are (and so of course are we) they nonetheless concentrate not just a fraction of revolutionary-minded people but also a body of accumulated experience that we discard at our peril.

    To be sure this experience is often locked up as it were in old verdicts and in need of rethinking, but it is experience born relatively recently in this country and as such important to us. In a practical sense, in the absence of anything better or fresher, they continue to act as poles of attraction for new revolutionary minded people, obviously some more successfully than others.

    There are a number of such groups doing work amongst students, immigrants, and low-wage workers. Even if they don't attract all who could be attracted within the particular contexts in which they operate, they do still attract some. In a country where very few people identify openly as socialists, much less as communists or revolutionaries these constitute a fraction of the advanced that is important because they have made the move from critique to action even if that action is circumscribed by the horizons of the groups they join as well as by the objective conditions of the present moment.

    Otherwise, excellent piece.

  • Guest - isaac

    First, I appreciate TNL's thoguhtful comments above. More on that in a bit.

    * * * * * * *

    I'm not trying to pop a balloon here, but the "three tiers" are not really a new way of thinking about revolutionary work. Aside from some more meat on the bones, it seems like an elaboration of the classic "educate (iskra), agitate (pravda), organize (faultlines)" model. The unimaginative form that this took throughout the 20th century was a "theory journal", a "tabloid newspaper" and carefully selected "mass organizing" or "political intervention".

    That's basically what every sect in existence already does, depending on their capability to pull off all three. Of course, there is some leeway possible on how subjectively/intentionally sectarian the implementation is. Like, for the "iskra" angle, some groupings (whether membership or affinity based) are more open about honestly dialoging with other ideas, or revealing disagreements within themselves. Likewise, there are more or less sectarian ways of agitating and organizing. Or in other words, capacity is both a quantity and a quality. Some groups have more qualitative ability to do good work on these three tiers because their self-conception allows for it.

    Why are all of our organizations sects -- and why are all of our organizations sects?

    Sects aren't new. Marx & Engels dealt with them and belonged to them, as did practically every other historic figure. The character of groupings that are consciously guided by a revolutionary strategy is in accordance with a combination of objective conditions (the state of the class struggle and relationship of class consciousness to it) and subjective conditions (the various paradigms of revolutionary organization). A low level of mass struggle means that groups wedded to an ideology of class struggle are isolated from masses and subjected to all kinds of distortions. A paradigm of sect-based organization has an effect on everybody.

    Under the current paradigm, and configuration of organizations, "revolutionary" and "socialist" and "communist" says - to workers, students, etc with much political experience - it says "sect".

    Therefore I'm curious how Kasama or others can engage in this really existing world while bypassing that reality. On May Day, the dude I saw passing out your statement looked to be doing basically the same thing as the rest of us pamphleteers....

    How to interact with "the masses"?
    On the web? You mainly attract (in an ongoing way) those of us already familiar with this stuff.
    Going to places where the class is socially organized as residents, workers, or consumers? There are already people leafletting or paper selling in those places.

    Checking out the places where people are politically active (as basic as a demonstration or town hall, or as involved as an organizing meeting)? Well, we're already there, as well and have - whether with a positive or negative impact - shaped the experiences of non-socialists...

    Responding to a few of your questions directly:
    If our organizational plan is not to build one more mini-sect what is it?</blockquote>

    As I stated above, I think even those of us who don't want to be in a sect are bound by the historical circumstances which categorize the organizations we construct...

    <blockquote>If we want to avoid a “left unity” that is dominated by liberal forces, how do we do that?

    I dunno, but in a country and working class that is dominated by liberal forces, it's a real challenge...

    How do we develop organic ties to actual resistance, real popular motion toward revolution and a newly conceived communist core?

    To actual resistance, it's not hard, really, right??? I mean, the other day I ate lunch with the guy who came up with the "Undocumented and Unafraid" slogan which TNL referred to in a previous comment. I do political work with him, as a socialist... but, I hate to say, a lot of the political work is in fact very routine or "generic". There's not a special communist way to pass out a leaflet, get somebody to a meeting, etc. In all of those, it is possible to say (when relevant/appropriate) "here's the worldview I've got and how it relates to this struggle - and here are the strategic ideas I can contribute based on that worldview".

    Again, this is kind of classic stuff.

    <strong>On TNL's comments:
    I have respect for Kasama and don't feel dismissed.

    I agree that Solidarity (the organization I'm in) is moribund. In fact that's a part of our self-identity! We weren't supposed to last this long and see our continued existence as a product of missed opportunities, not something to be proud of.

    At the same time, I must say a lot of the thinking on this site and in the "9 letters" (unless I'm missing key insights) is sort of old news for us; the questions are not unfamiliar and searching for answers is also not unfamiliar. A difference is, we have different conclusions about certain foundational analyses. Not sure if that qualifies as routine, or just a different political POV.

    (For one example, Mike writes "One of my frustrations is that we are in a period without a communist core" - I'd say, "yeah, but that doesn't mean the key task is to build "a communist core" - and that's based on a different foundational analysis of the dialectic of organization and of class struggle.

  • Guest - reidkane

    Thanks for the response Mike.

    I don't think this is a right or wrong issue. It's a question of what happens to work, and the only way we can really know what works is by doing it. If your analysis inclines you to avoid strategies involving "conversion" of existing factions, thats all well and good. Part of what I'm trying to do on my site is think about the strategic implications of theoretical differences of this kind, a question obviously related to that of sectarianism. Anyway, thanks again and keep up the good work.

  • Isaac,

    Could you please elaborate on your "analysis of the dialectic of organization and of class struggle" and why you consequently don't think "the key task is to build a communist core"?

  • Guest - isaac


    If you're asking about what the (kind of jargony) phrase means, what I was trying to convey is that the type of political vehicle we propose, belong to, and build should be suited to our analysis of the current objective conditions and the tasks that flow from that analysis (which of course all contribute to doing whatever we can to change the conditions, which then means that our vehicle and its tasks are themselves changed....)

    If you're asking what my analysis is - I believe (as, I think, Mike is saying) we are on a very elementary level. However, relative to Mike I tend to de-emphasize the importance of our movements theoretical &amp; philosophical level as opposed to the importance of the overall class struggle, motion towards political action by the class, class independence, etc. I think we have to be much more modest about the impact of our hypothetical ideological or organizational breakthroughs in light of the sobering lack of movement in the class.

    And because our tininess, there's not much we can do about that - the best examples of "interventions" by revolutionaries in the class struggle in this country, over the past couple of decades, usually amount to the prolonging of a local/sectoral struggle which ends up winning some partial defensive demands and maybe a better positioning for more advanced or class-wide struggles in the next round. Or there are sporadic protests, media spectacles, etc. which put radical ideas or actions in the spotlight for the blink of an eye.

    (This is an aside, not a straw man - not saying anybody here has lauded the news, but...) I'm not especially impressed by the surveys that show socialism getting a positive review by 30% (or whatever) of the population. Because I don't think our main task is to proselytize about socialism or revolution (although doing that is fine, if you prefer). I'm more attuned to other measurements of class struggle and basic class consciousness - how many strike hours and by how many workers, direct actions and social disruption, and so on. There's really not much of that.

    And there's not much because the lessons of a whole generation lend themselves against the idea that collective militant action is a way to address our grievances. In fact, most of "our" grievances are felt as "my grievance" and as a result people turn to either individual or family-based routes to try and address them. This is true of unemployment, homelessness, immigration, etc.

    In short, I think that the reason that there's not a "communist core" is not because "many communist activists are not particularly engaged with the responsibilities in such a period" but because such a period doesn't lend itself to the creation of a communist core. Or maybe I don't know what a communist core is - I'm assuming it's like a party, but structured differently. A communist political center. But wasn't that the key task in the 1970s too?

    I'm sort of rambling now. Maybe that addressed your question.

  • Guest - Avery Ray Colter

    I also am not quite sure how one has class consciousness and avoids being sectarian completely, as the defenders of capitalism love - as we all know - to describe ANY class demarcation AS sectarianism.

    It sounds though like there is a question here. Does a party have to exist long before a revolution happens? Or do individual revolutionaries get out in the world and tip others into revolutionary interest, and then once enough people are thinking about it do they then form a party and a cadre and revolt in rapid succession?

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