B1: All-round communist work or bringing light into struggles?

By Mike Ely

Intro (October 2012)

We need a communist beginning — including both new regroupment among communists and a process of fusion with a potentially partisan section of the people.

And for that, we need the kinds of discussions that have been going on: of where to begin and what to do when we get there.

What is communist political work? What does it look like? How is it different from other familiar forms of trade unionist or left activism?

Whenever such moments have arisen, in the history of modern politics, there has been a view that we go to the workers, and assist them in the struggles they are already waging, and that out of that we would help sum up the lessons of that struggle (which, presumably, will lead to revolutionary conclusions). The arguments for this are often unarticulated and assumed. But when they come out there are often common themes:

  • That struggle at the point of production inherently and naturally raises questions about exploitation and surplus value,
  • That communist ideas are inherently present (in embryo) whenever people rise in struggle,
  • That people themselves can spontaneously develop the ideas they need for self-liberation, or that they will relatively easily recognize those ideas when offered them in an accessible popular format.

And in contrast to this, is a set of contrary ideas:

  • That political struggle (over social power, racism, equality, war, macro-policy in society) is a better arena for the development of revolutionary consciousness than the economic struggle of workers in the workplace.
  • That there are a significant body of ideas that must be made available to oppressed people “from without” — i.e. from outside their own experiences and struggles, meaning: from the study of history, politics, military affairs, economics, and from the world experience of communist movements.
  • That economic struggle is often an important and necessary arena of working class class struggle. And that  upsurges (like the 1960s farmworkers, or the 1970s coalminers, or the more recent breakouts of immigrant meatpackers) are an important site for communist work and solidarity. But that economic struggle is not automatically the arena best suited for developing class consciousness (i.e. the consciousness of the need for a new society and the potential working class role in that). In great upsurges of the past (say 1905 in Russia), the political struggle (over power) has often given rise to political consciousness, while mass economic struggle around collective self-interest has often been a way of drawing in the unawakened and intermediate sections of the workers.
  • That there needs to be all-round communist work, which is not limited to organizing existing struggles or making such struggles larger and more militant. That all-round work includes participating in key struggles of the people, but also leading — by putting forward specific programmatic (and tactical) approaches based on a revolutionary perspective. And it involves the work of developing historical summations, lively media projects, news analysis from revolutionary point of view, art, theoretical explorations, schools of cadre, durable structures of revolutionary organization, cores of trained accountable leaders  and much more.

 The model of a communist cannot be confined to the organizer-activist “fanning the flames” of struggle. Nor simply the Promethean image of the bringer of light– extrapolating “lessons” from struggles spontaneously initiated by the oppressed themselves.

The following essay was written in the summer of 207 — before there was a Kasama Project, as we were circulating an early draft of the “9 Letters to Our Comrades.

It deals with the recurring historical question of how to connect with active sections of the people (and the working class).

It discusses how this question was raised among early Bolsheviks, and in the early New Communist Movement of the 1970s, and how it has come up more recently.

What triggered this essay originally: In 2007, a circle of communists, named Single Spark, said the following as Point 14 of their “What We Believe” statement:

“The basic approach we promote toward the masses of people is to join up with them in their existing struggles for their own collective interests and, in the course of that, to bring the light of revolution to them. As an important part of this, in all our work we try to promote the mass line, the leadership method of ‘from the masses, to the masses.’”

The following essay is a critique of that  approach — and an early suggestion of what else communist work should include.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Strategic Problems of “Bringing the Light into Existing Struggles”

By Mike Ely, 2007 (minor edits for clarity)

B1: Lenin’s first response to working class strike wave

This  idea of “bringing the light of revolution into existing struggles” repeats a formulation communists once called “B1.”

In the fall of 1972, as we were living out of sight, waiting to move down to West Virginia, my  partner Gina and I were instructed (by our organization, the Revolutionary Union) to study the notes on B1, from Lenin’s 1895 outline notes for a early Russian Social-Democratic Party program . At that time those notes concentrated how sections of the communists of the early Revolutionary Union imagined we should develop communist work among working people.

V.I. Lenin (central leader of the underground Russian communists) wrote from prison:

“The Party’s activity must consist in promoting the workers’ class struggle. The Party’s task is not to concoct some fashionable means of helping the workers, but to join up with the workers’ movement, to bring light into it, to assist the workers in the struggle they themselves have already begun to wage. The Party’s task is to uphold the interests of the workers and to represent those of the entire working class movement…The program says that this assistance must consist, firstly, in developing the workers’ class-consciousness. We have already spoken of how the workers’ struggle against the employers becomes the class struggle of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie…The workers’ class-consciousness means the workers’ understanding that the only way to improve their conditions and to achieve their emancipation is to conduct a struggle against the capitalist and factory-owner class created by the big factories.

“Further, the workers’ class-consciousness means their understanding that the interests of all the workers of any particular country are identical, that they all constitute one class, separate from all the other classes in society. Finally, the class-consciousness of the workers means the workers’ understanding that to achieve their aims they have to work to influence affairs of state, just as the landlords and the capitalists did, and are continuing to do now.

“Every strike concentrates all the attention and all the efforts of the workers on some particular aspect of the conditions under which the working class lives. Every strike gives rise to discussions about these conditions, helps the workers to appraise them, to understand what capitalist oppression consists in the particular case, and what means can be employed to combat this oppression. Every strike enriches the experience of the entire working class. If the strike is successful it shows them what a strong force working-class unity is, and impels others to make use of their comrades’ success. If it is not successful, it gives rise to discussions about the causes of the failure and to the search for better methods of struggle. This transition of the workers to the steadfast struggle for their vital needs, the fight for concessions, for improved living conditions, wages and working hours, now begun all over Russia, means that the Russian workers are making tremendous progress, and that is why the attention of the Social-Democratic Party and all class-conscious workers should be concentrated mainly on this struggle, on its promotion.”

Though this was written by Lenin (the early 1895 Lenin), what stands out about it (to me now) is that it is sharply opposed to the views Lenin put forward just a few years later in his major workWhat is to be Done? – on the nature of communist work and the nature of class consciousness.

The problem with B1′s notes

It is no surprise by now that I have number of differences both with the Point 14 formulation and with that B1 we once took as guidance.

Here are a few:

1)    I think that to lead a revolution you have to be leading people all along… you can’t just have struggles (that they spontaneously initiate) and a communist work (that involves “bringing the light”). How does a revolutionary movement develop the muscles for revolution without leading? And leading in the course of struggle, in complex relationship with other programs and forces (and not just “working with them in a friendly way”).

2)    I think the formulation “join up with the masses of people in their existing struggles for their own collective interests” is double restrictive: It posits as a “basic approach” focusing on “existing struggles” (as opposed to possibly initiating struggles no one else has thought about before) and focusing on specifically THOSE “existing struggles” that are around their “own collective interests.”

3)    Why would we confine ourselves to joining with the masses in “their existing struggles”? Historically the assumptions have been:

  1. That is where the advanced are
  2. In those situations (and within those movements) people are most open to “talking socialism”
  3. By participating we can prove our motives and our worth, and so make people more open to our larger ideas.

In other words, the assumption is that in struggles over “their own collective interests,” people are most open to communist ideas. This is sometimes true, and often  not. But as a schema (as a “basic approach”) it falls far short.

4)    I don’t think that struggles we might initiate and lead (as communists) are inherently sterile, stillborn or sectarian.

And I don’t think that any basic approach should be adopted that rules out initiating struggles over key faultlines and contradictions. I think there are times when we need to consciously initiate struggle, and then win over sections of the masses to participate. The national movement against police brutality was initiated that way – and the experience shows the potential to create, lead, shape and wage struggles of this kind.

5)    And if we do that correctly, there can be on a basis and framework that attracts the more politically advanced – and help forge them as a leading and active core (the existence and maturation of which is a prerequisite for any hope of revolution). And such initiative can creates a political context and struggle that is particularly amenable to leaps in consciousness (including among the masses broadly).

6)    It may make sense for the revolutionary communists outside the RCP to focus on initiating a campaign to popularize and support  revolutionary movements internationally (which may  take important leaps, and which could potentially also be an excellent framework for attracting and regrouping communists). I am not proposing this, nor am I secretly convinced this is the course to take. But I am against a formulation for a “basic approach” that essentially RULES OUT the possibility of focusing on such a project (outside “existing struggles”).

7)    I think some of the important focus of struggle should be precisely not around people’s “own collective interest” – but around the suffering and resistance of others.

When Black youth were shot down in NYC, it would have been important to mobilize enlightened, progressive and revolutionary white people (including of course poor and working people) to take up fierce and public resistance to this (in a multinational way). Such action would be especially powerful exactly because it would not be struggle around their “own collective interest” in any narrow sense. I think that the interests of others often motivates the more advanced –in fact, I think a defining feature of the relatively advanced is that they are less concerned with self, and more with others. (This is opposed to the more economist view that the advanced are those more willing to “fight,” militantly – often from a politically complex stand of “collective self.”)

8)    I think we should look at the larger political faultlines in society (when deciding where to dig in) rather than deliberately confining ourselves to what some (relatively small) sections of the masses see as important and are willing to struggle over at any given point. Rising fascism and police state, police brutality, the criminalization of immigrant workers, the intense discontent over U.S. aggressions and occupations – these are important, whether or not there is “existing struggle” around them.

9)    Not all “existing struggles” are the same.

When I make a list of “existing struggles” among the masses, these are movements that are rather diverse  – and vary in their value and political potential. Black nationalists (including revolutionaries) have maintained a low-level “existing struggle” over reparations. Many people are engaged in existing struggle over their right to bear arms. Ranchers are fighting for their “own collective interests” by upholding property rights against “tree huggers.” Immigrant workers are engaging in an existing struggle for legalization. The “existing struggle” over the war in Iraq continues to be heavily subsumed and channeled into the electoral arena.

Some of these “existing struggles” may be excellent arenas for communist work – some may not. You have to do a concrete analysis, and not naively assume that if the masses are into it, then it must be conducive.

10) I have mentioned that the active forces in “existing struggles” are not always the politically advanced forces. I gave the example of the coalfields (where discovering this was a shellshock revelation – and took years and sharp two line struggle to even see.) And there were other struggles that attracted the advanced (for example the resistance to the religious rights’ text book protest, and the work around the Deng demo of 1979).

11) I think we should be very wary about having a mechanical and stereotypical view of what a “struggle” is – a view that tends to assume “struggle” necessarily involves leaflets, rallies, picket lines and bigger demos. Artists often wage important resistance through their art and music. Scientists write books and polemics, and conduct sharply pointed research. There are alternative cultural movements of many kinds that respond to the outrages of this society. We don’t want to conceptually confine either the masses or the revolutionary movement to a treadmill of a few well-worn tactics.

The 1895 Lenin makes an argument against “fashionable” means of connecting with the people — but there should be a diversity of means, for a diversity of radical forces to make t heir contributions, and to connect with the oppressed. He was writing in the middle of an economic upsurge — and saying “let’s get into the thick of things.” Which is certainly justified. But certainly, when the level of economic struggle is low as it is now, it becomes important to develop well-considered and creative means of connecting.

We may see upsurges of economic struggle (I have always expected them among undocumented, lower-tier immigrant workers in a way that combines a civil rights struggle for equality with an  economic struggle over conditions   ) — and we should be deeply in the thick of that. But the question remains (even then) of what we, as communists, do there, and what we are building out of such moments for a revolutionary movement.

12) We should not assume that our approach is always to subsume our efforts within the existing organizational and coalition frameworks. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t. It would be short-sighted to decide (on principle?) that our approach is always to “join” or “participate” in whatever the pre-existing framework of struggle is. This is the question of explicit communist presence with its own voice. Mao argued “not everything through the united front.” Communists need to maintain independence and initiative, even when in alliance (as we almost always will be). We need to develop an independent and partisan base of support. That will require having some form of independent voice as often as possible.

13) I think it is mistaken to believe/assume that “existing struggles” are somehow a thing “initiated” by the masses. Struggles launched spontaneously (by which I mean outside the influence of c’s) are rarely, simply “initiated” by “the masses.” There are other classes, class forces, other programs and views. If something is not waged on one program and line it is waged on another.

Let me give one recent example: The Mexican and Guatemalan workers in southeastern North Carolina broke into some powerful struggle on May Day 2006, when 30,000 stayed away from work, and 8,000 marched through the startled town of Lumberton demanding legalization.

That is certainly an “existing struggle” but like most large struggles it was hardly “initiated by the masses” in some simple way.  It was led by the local Catholic priest (whose Mother Church played a MAJOR role in initiating and then shaping this movement around the country). Organizers came from a local trade union workers center (whose leaders are very ambivalent about pressing hard for legalization – fearing that making this central might divides Latino workers from Black workers and from white people in surrounding communities). It was financed (believe it or not!) in part by the Smithfield pork processing corporation (the major imperialist employer) who funded the busses that transported the Latino workers that May Day. So you had this major (ground-pounding and important) May First event – where the workers were called into political life by the actions of the Bush regime and the counteractions of a complex of other class forces, and where they started to act (with energy, enthusiasm and some initiative) on the political stage IN THAT CONTEXT and still largely under those leaderships.

On one hand, this was and still is  an example of the masses of people acting (and coming into political life). It is an important flash of struggle to uphold and to connect with in some real and creative ways.

14) The whole schema of situating ourselves within “existing struggles” and then “bringing light” – negates the degree to which people learn from their larger political experience and from larger political events. It still rests on a mechanical and simplistic idea of “telling” that is not far from “preaching” – and that in reality assumes more simple receptivity than is the case.

15) In the 1970s, we often told ourselves in the RU that “taking ML to the working class is bringing it home.” However, in fact, that “home” is stocked with other ideologies, and often the workers are quite content with them (religion, bourgeois democracy, trade unionism, black nationalism, white racism, patriotism, and more etc.) And it is not true (as we later thought) that it is merely difficult among the more stable workers, and that bringing it to “lower and deeper” is actually where you bring it “home.”

It’s not like we get “situated” deeply among the masses, and then they just see our words and ideas as “light” illuminating their darkness. “Oh gee, thanks for bringing your light into my world.”

To put it sharply: Part of the problem of “bringing light” is that it can treat  us the sole active element (adopting the image of Prometheus), and it often treats the people as passive recipients.

But another part of it makes an opposite error that people easily develop (or adopt)  new and radical ideas — and that they spontaneously know, or recognize or develop the ideas and politics they desperately need.

Life just isn’t that simple or easy. It will be a protracted struggle to gain a foothold (and then an expanding partisan base) for revolutionary politics — even among those sections of people most desperate and discontent.

And that underscores the need for a politics that identifies those who are already especially inclined toward revolutionary politics, and help them organize themselves as a distinct, organized active force more broadly among the people.

[And the very use of the word "light" in this way has deep roots in simplistic European 19th century views of truth and progress -- in the very idea of revolution as "enlightenment." Among the Bolsheviks this became an acute struggle in the early 1900s, when a section of them turned this into a whole way of thinking -- which is on display, for example, in the language and politics of Maxim Gorky's Mother -- an early and wonderful communist novel written 1906.]

16) We should not view (or treat) people as a blank slate.

There is a material basis for the holding of INCORRECT ideas among the masses. And they hold wrong ideas for real reasons – based on real experiences and needs. (Marx’s insights into theexistence and grip of religion are relevant here – and are important in a criticism of Avakian’s view of this.)

17) Now, I believe our politics and ideology (at its best) truly are objectively and potentially “light” in a dark world – but even when we are deep among the masses, fighting shoulder to shoulder along side them over things some sections of them truly value, it is not like they casually or easily “fire their ideas and hire ours.”

Don’t be naïve – or you will reproduce the 1970s unnecessarily!

We attract those inclined toward revolution, internationalism, secularism, analysis, generous view toward humanity etc. (i.e. the advanced) – but the existence and growth of that “inclined” section” involves the macro-experiences of political life that “light the sky” and influence the collective thinking of millions (like the OJ trial, or the killing of antiwar students at Kent State, or the killing of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., or the LA rebellion, or the invasion of Iraq, the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China and whatever comes now in our future etc.)


18) The leap from civil rights to Black liberation took place through an explosive interaction of macro-political events with subjective transformations in the minds of many people (Vietnam’s anti-colonial struggle, the killing of MLK, the open manifestations of racism in the North, the failures of non-violence, the use of integrated organizations to impose liberal politics, the subjective study of revolutionary nationalist politics from around the world etc.)

It was not some cardboard scenario where “the people initiate struggle, and then someone brings them the truth that they accept.” [In other words, radicalization takes leaps in a conjuctural way  not linearly.]

19) For that reason, and because of the real impact of opposing programs and class forces (seeking to keep everything “under the wing of the bourgeoisie”) – the question of communists LEADING on (and within) various frontlines of anti-system struggle is very important (and is missing from the whole vibe around Single Spark). That means taking responsibility on several levels, actually seeking to identify correct frontlines, forms of struggle and even tactics – and that means identifying them (not from the self-contained logic of “this struggle,” but from the larger strategic goals of the revolutionary proletariat.) It means taking responsibility for the future within the present, but it also means thinking through (in the present) how to beat back the enemy and organize the people (in ways that serve our larger goals).

Winning, not merely fighting and talksing

20) Something omitted in Point 14: It is important to fight to win key struggles – and not mainly for the ideological reason that people are demoralized and dispersed by defeat.

I don’t agree that the point of connecting with struggles is mainly as an effective method of raising consciousness. There are many important struggles that we actually want to win, and need to win (because the future of the class struggle demands that the enemy be DRIVEN BACK, and our movement needs a tenacious, hardened, determined culture focused on winning).

When the rev movement rallied people to defend the Black Panthers facing prison or murder, this was not mainly done to create conditions for “bringing light” – but because if the Panthers were crushed the revolution would suffer a great setback. We are not just in a “battle of ideas” and the struggles of the people are not mainly or solely an “arena” for that battle of ideas. We aimed to “Free Huey” — actually win, and free him.

Communist base

21) Point 14 does not appreciate the dialectics of “prepare minds and organize forces for revolution.”

And, in general, the writings of Single Spark do not appreciate nearly enough the need to “organize forces for revolution” – actually organizing a REVOLUTIONARY movement, with its own banners, slogans, symbols, leaders, etc. Even the assumptions of “an anti-imperialist student movement” (in connection with today’s new SDS) is something I’d like to explore critically. What about a “revolutionary youth movement”?

22) I need to repeat my belief from the protracted experience of the 1970s: “B1” (carried out today as Point 14) would represent a left form of economism – where we would seek to inject “light” about revolution, socialism, communism as a veneer onto spontaneous struggles (that by their nature, program, forms, dynamics are inherently leading people under the wing of the bourgeoisie.)

This has been tried. One can sometimes “find the crown is in the gutter” (if you are very lucky, as we were in the coalfields) – i.e. clever organized forces can take tactical leadership of mass struggles, but that at the end of the day there remains a knotty and difficult problem of winning a section of the people to communist and revolutionary partisanship. (And it is a problem for which B1 is not a magical solution.)

Representing the future within the present

AAA writes:

“I think what’s important in the B-1 formulation is that it recognizes a connection between the revolution as a discrete event in the future and the masses who exist today. The link between the masses of today and the revolution of the future made by some large portion of those masses has to be forged. B-1 recognizes that masses are impelled by capitalism to ‘fight back’ in some form or another. We somehow need to channel/divert/enlighten those struggles into a process that leads to that future revolution.”

Well, it is important to make that connection between revolution (not just as a discrete event, but as a process that goes on from there) and the masses who exist today.

But part of the problem with Point 14 is its schematic simplicity.

It posits the wrong connection. Any “basic approach” to the masses of people needs to encompass many more things. And the relationship between spontaneous “fight back” and revolution is not that one gets diverted into the other. The process is considerably more complex, and involves a great many other contradictions that act on the people and society, and from which the ultimate revolution arises.

[Note from 2012: This is the problem with those who thought Occupy needed to "become" a revolutionary movement, or that Occupy needed to take on all the burdens and features of the revolutionary movement we need. Assuming that, and attempting that, underestimated both the actual potential of Occupy and the actual tasks of developing a revolutionary movement.]…

Sketch of what we need:

I think we need some combination of:

  1. Connecting the revolutionary movement with the most important spontaneous outbreaks of resistance
  2. Conducting communist “agitation and propaganda” [i.e. media projects] along a modernized version of WITBD-ism [i.e. What is to be Done-ism, or Iskra/Pravda projects]. Including: we need a quick means of communist commentary on burning events.
  3. A serious and unapologetic defense of communism, and a dialectical upholding of the profound experiences of socialist revolution to date (from the Paris Commune to Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution).
  4. Creatively focusing on leading (and possibly initiating) struggle around key faultlines in society in ways that bring growing numbers of people into organized conflict with this system and its crimes.
  5. Perseverance around a carefully considered path, rather than succumb to the jerky pull of “get rich quick schemes.”
  6. A less risk-averse approach to “lighting the sky” with our movement and its line (learn from the Panthers, early SDS, Abby Hoffman etc. at their best)
  7.  Some real luck in having things roll our way (i.e. that while we hasten, the things we are “awaiting” finally arrive in ways we can use!)

We need to be part of a process (which may turn out to be long or hopefully relatively telescoped) through which large numbers of people rupture with old politics and create new loyalties and affiliations. And our involvement has to function on different levels, and be very clever, flexible, creative, attractive, and freshly rooted in THESE times (not in the dogmas and assumptions and cultural forms of past decades).

And it is worth thinking through what the impact would be of adopting it:

I believe it would be to waste precious time and energy on false promises of an easy solution. It would cause us to disperse our forces into struggles that are often most conducive to bourgeois politics – and lead us to refrain from initiating struggles where we could develop important breakthroughs. It would bring a deserved dismissal from veteran communist forces who know well where this formulation leads. It would be settling for an easy, schematic strawman, when we need to actually do some fresh, creative communist thinking on the basis of what has gone before.

Another direction…

I am wary of just whipping together some glib new formulation.

I really am trying to think outside the channels we have all been operating in. But I did gather some of my current thoughts here (if we can agree this is rough, very provisional, and written mainly to have something to bounce off of.) And I have to say, their affinity with the approaches embodied in the RCP’s draft programme are real. (And I think it is worth exploring how the RCP has taken distance from these approaches.)

Revolutionary communists seek to prepare minds and organize forces for revolution. This is a protracted process that involves bringing large numbers of people into more and more conscious opposition to this system, as the system commits great crimes and especially as it plunges toward possible crises of legitimacy. This involves training a growing core of people to be conscious partisans of revolutionary communist politics, and as communists.

Revolutionary communists need to support, to the extent possible, every justified outbreak of struggle and resistance among the masses. They need to find creative ways to connect with people awakening to political life, especially with lively communist agitation and propaganda exposing the crimes and nature of this system and the necessity of a new and liberated communist society. And we need to help working people see the potential among many different groupings and stata in society to be part of a powerful movement that sweeps this system away. And as an important component of this work, we need to energetically wield the truth about both history and class society — push back those poisonous anti-communist verdicts that now suppress so many people’s vision of what is possible.

At the same time, revolutionary communists also need to directly help lead in particularly important arenas of class struggle – especially those involving key faultlines of society that have a special potential for bringing large numbers of people into opposition to the criminal policies and workings of this system, helping bring growing numbers out from “under the wing of the bourgeoisie,” and bringing forward and training waves of politically awakened people who have the potential to become fighters consciously struggling for the final goal of communism.

And revolutionary communists need to lead in all this, with the perspective of being prepared both politically and organizationally, when the time is right, for the difficult transition of going over (with those forces painstakingly accumulated and the new raw forces gathering rapidly amid extreme crisis) to radically different forms of mass struggle.

People in this conversation

  • I think we should take the immediate struggles and use them to educate people, by showing them how those struggles are connected to other larger problems/struggles in our society. At the same time, we have to fight those immediate struggles to win, to show the workers that we are on their side and that we know how to get something done they want. Sometimes this will require working with all kinds of other groups, even our enemies. E.g., we should critically support attempts at immigration reform, even if this means working with (and against, at the same time) the Obama administration. And we should fight to win some meaningful reform, not just try to make ourselves look good with unrealistic radical demands. If we get some meaningful reform, we show the workers that maybe we could lead them in their struggles. If we fail, we can at least say we tried. But if the workers think that we failed because of our unrealistic demands, they will conclude that we care more about our theories than their welfare. And we lose them.

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