How do communists fuse their politics with broad sections of people? A debate has begun around a flier that was distributed to striking New York City bus drivers. Mike Ely has criticized the flier, arguing that it fails to "sing our song", to present to the workers a message that goes beyond the limits of self-interest of the bus drivers and even beyond the limits of a united working class. The following article is a reponse to Mike's article by Will, a member of the Fire Next Time network.
I am in Fire Next Time, have been involved in the bus drivers strike, and have passed out the flyers Mike is talking about.
I find Mike Ely's criticisms misplaced because he has little information on what the purpose of the flyer was. If he does know the context, he does not contextualize the rational of the flyer in his blog post.
Part 1: The Flyer
The flyer came out of a lot of conversations we had where bus drivers wanted to know what happened in 1979 (I am going to repeat this point many times). The myth of 1979 was fairly large. We saw almost all the workers having an orientation that was very legalistic and sectoral minded, praying for the unions to take care of the situation. We thought we could do something useful in providing the history of that event. Not because the event had all the answers, but because the bus drivers themselves were referencing the event. So when Mike writes in "Where's the Communist Work," questioning whether" bus drivers are more open to lessons drawn from their own past," he ignores the real conversations which we had and Mike did not. That is pretty frustrating. That is just one example of Mike's mistakes. I will go into all of them, but it shows the dangers of making the judgments Mike does.
I do not think the 1979 strike can solve the problems the workers face. But it is an expression of their attempt. So we did some research and put together a flyer. Of course, to win anything we must go further than the strikes. If we end up writing a new flyer, I hope that that is one of the things we raise. Or that in our own conversations with workers, we raise those possibilities. But I do not think these things can be forced.
Another point: as Mike probably knows, it is better to take assessment of how militants are relating to other workers by collecting their various flyers, conversations, organizations they attempt to build, actions they try to take, etc., and then assume the many things Mike did. FNT should post up some of the work around Con ED, where the structural situation of the Con ED workers allowed us to do things a little differently.
I agree that the last paragraph soft balled it and should have been sharper. That is a mistake on writing up the flyer. The last line of the flyer hints at job security. So the point about job security falls into the softness of the last paragraph.
I do not know Kasama's or Mike Ely's precise method of approach to working class people. But living NYC, Seattle and Detroit, my experience was you had revolutionaries of all political stripes go to workers and start telling them about communism, imperialism or whatever else. And it never made sense to workers because the people I saw do this--I felt--believed that workers were idiots and had to be told in highly abstract ways about the need for communism. I do not want to be mistaken for not being in favor of discussing communism or revolution. My point is that I see this all the time, where workers are trying to solve a specific problem, and the revolutionary A,B, or C is telling them about the need for communism. And every time this happens the workers shut down, their eyes glaze over, or respond that that is too idealistic, that the militants are too comfy, etc. If the workers do not ignore the revolutionary then they have classic rebuttals which hardly go anywhere.
More broadly, almost none of the revolutionaries I have met, from 1968 or today, know how to talk about revolutionary politics to working class people. I do not think Mike's suggestions help much, other than giving suggestions which I have heard many times and read about, as if that were the magic bullet. Frankly, everyone in the hard left blindly follows what Mike has outlined. I think a much more serious assessment of Mike's suggestions are needed. (Notice that I have not developed a fleshed out theory of consciousness, organization, etc. So I hope people do not jump on me by assuming that I am a spontaneist or that workers experiences are magically revolutionary. Easy caricatures, but not my position.)
I want to be clear. I am not saying that Mike or Kasama does what I outlined in the relationship of militant to workers. I do not know Kasama's practice with workers in struggle. I am just saying that is what I have seen almost 100% of the time in the hard-left. If Kasama has a better method, they should write about that or do it in NYC. I do not think any of Mike's suggestions deal with the problem I have outlined, other than saying we should just say communism and tap our heals three times. At least that is how I generally interpret Mike's very brief notes. Perhaps I am mis-understanding Mike. He can clarify.
I remember reading Mike's writings on organizing with the coal minders in West Virginia. I thought they were very helpful, nuanced, etc. I hope he brings that to the table when offering advice, which I did not feel he did with this flyer.
Finally and to repeat, the flyer has to be understood as explaining the 1979 strike to workers who did not know what happened. Otherwise, the flyer makes no sense. That is why many things were not mentioned. If we keep working on the bus driver strike, I imagine we will cover some of the points Mike has laid out.
For readers who do not know, there are Kasama members in FNT. There have been very hard debates inside FNT with Kasama people about the nature of communism, China and many other questions. I generally see Mike's position as rushing to a conclusion based on one flyer, for the purposes of scoring ideological points. That is why I am frustrated. Perhaps I am wildly wrong. I was told Kasama does serious investigation and then debates. Mike ignored the context of the flyer, the broader situation of the workers, the broader work of the militants involved... He ignored everything except a very narrow literary critique of the flyer. I hope this was an accident by Mike and he demonstrates his serious class struggle experiences via the coal miners strike, by bringing that kind of stuff to bear on what we can do better.
Part 2: Some Notes on "Communist Work: Sing our Song"
On Mike Ely's blog post "Communist Work: Sing our Song," I generally see where Mike is coming from. I do not expect Mike to know the internal differences FNT members might have. We are a network. While, I think that our work and publications on the blog offer important counter examples/ more complex readings to what Mike says our general politics are, Mike's readings are fair enough.
At least for FNT folks, we might want to keep thinking about how our self-description needs to be more complex.
1. The underlying argument animating Mike Ely's point on his blog "Communist Work: Sing our Song" is Lenin'sWhat is to Be Done (WTBD). Correct me if I am wrong. I argue the method in which Mike is using WTBD is isolated and a-historical, leaving revolutionaries with very limited tools to solve the complexities of dealing with consciousness, organization, and class. No doubt WTBD is a key work and has important insights. But a broader set of tools are needed.
2. I am not going to directly answer Mike Ely's post. But instead offer a list of names (and implied method) and a broader way to think about the problem. I take the most from Lenin, Gramsci, Luxemburg, Marx, Fanon, Du Bois, Malcolm X, Lukacs, CLR James, Operaismo, Glaberman and a whole bunch of literary artists.
Several points: there is a running thread of exploration in all of these revolutionaries which tries to solve the different conditions oppressed people have found themselves in and the historical and specific problems of consciousness, organization and class they faced. That is key in my perspective. While, historically they often are counter-posed to one another, if we use them as historical experiences of the sharpest revolutionaries of their times, a richer sense of the class, consciousness, and revolutionary (party) emerges. I do not think they get it 100% right, but how they tackle the problems are important. (I will admit the burden is on me to elaborate. A longer article is needed on this question, but not today.)
I do not think that Lenin alone is the guiding stick for how to tackle the points Mike Ely raises. There is a lot I agree with in Ely's blog post, but its solutions are too narrow and simple. I wonder if Mike Ely can talk to people in any other manner, deal with other historical problems, consciousness, etc... It also ignores context and offers a magic pill to complex problems. In the end Mike's suggestions end up being like someone who only knows how to use a hammer to build a house. An important tool, but not the only one relevant to building a house.
Lenin wrote about one historical experience of consciousness, class, organization. Is that the only experience that counts? I think what he wrote is crucial and I take a lot from it, but it is not enough.
To me this explains Mike E's reaction to the flyer. While I think he is correct in saying that the last paragraph soft balls it, I think his general analysis is too narrow. Forgetting his lack of knowledge on what is happening in NYC, it does not demonstrate much nuance in handling consciousness, class, revolutionaries (party). Hope that makes sense.
3. Some of the questions which I'm not sure how Mike E's method would tackle are the following: a) what happens when oppressed groups revolt against the party, as in Kronstadt? b) what do we do with Mike E's post considering that most revolutionaries today are fairly disconnected from working class, lumpen, prison, etc. experiences and struggles c) what theory and strategy do oppressed groups have to teach revolutionaries; is there a dialectical relationship or is it a one way street? d) how do revolutionaries deal with the specifics which different sectors of the class are facing; is there any room for that? are we doomed into falling into sectoral struggles? e) I find most serious proletarians have a better sense of strategy than most revolutionaries. They know the conditions on the ground pretty well. One example to think about is how do Black proletarians confront the police versus the anarchist/ communist scene? f) how do social conditions, experiences, struggles help develop communist politics? or is it just a matter of line arguments/ convincing people? g) how do we tackle contradictory consciousness h) what about the relationship between action and consciousness? which one comes first? how does their relationship change historically?
4. I also want to post a draft flyer that was floating around in FNT and other militant circles, that I wrote. It is not edited and I will not edit it for publication. I will leave its grammar and political mistakes in there, but it gets at what Mike Ely might consider a more 'dangerous' flyer. The reason I am including this draft is to demonstrate two things: a) Mike Ely is ignorantly intervening in local stuff without knowing the context. I am guessing he is pro-Lenin and pro-democratic centralism. I fall more critically in that camp as well. The burden is on people like myself and Ely to prove that our interventions can accurately capture the local conditions. And most importantly not waste time in debates which do not reflect the questions militants face. That is one of the reasons I have been frustrated with this entire conversation. There are a generation of militants who cannot stand Lenin or democratic centralism and they have good reason. I think Mike Ely gives them more ammunition.
This is not to say that we should study Lenin and the specific points he makes, but that in this instance, Mike's point are coming a little bit out of nowhere and carries a very limited framework.
b) I see no fundamental difference between this draft that I wrote up and what I ended up passing out. Some of us decided to shelve this draft of the flyer, because we ran into workers who were curious about 1979. It showed to us how people were curious about their own history--young and old workers. Maybe--I do not know--our next flyer will be this one??
"The Department of Education is on a rampage against teachers, students, parents, and workers. Piece by piece it has destroyed the lives of all these peoples. Charter schools, drop out rates,
The crisis facing all of NYC is not an accident. It is the crisis of capitalism. Many of us know this when we say that we wish money could be taken out of politics. Or that greed is the problem. All these are ideas which are afriad to get to the root of the probem--capitalism.
We can choose to ignore the situation. And in NYC, it might be possible for some, as the immense wealth of the city allows the rich to throw workers an extra crumb off their table. Anyone who knows what is on the table, knows the workers are more like slaves then human beings.
The power of workers: women, gay, undocumented, Black, white etc. is the great weapon we do not use. The city bosses know about our power. That is why solidarity strikes are illegal. That is why so many cops protect the banks. That is why so many managers boss us around at work. The question is: do we know our own strength.
There is a great battle coming. It is not the prophecy of 2012 predicted by Mayans. Great wars between the rich and the poor, between the workers and the rich are coming. The rich know this in NYC. Do we know it?
We have been losing many of the battles: Subway strike, Con Ed strike, Wisconsin, Longview etc. But we should not lose sight. Every new battle is alos a chance for us to win, and like the Egpytian revolutions, can spark a wave of victories of the poor/ workers against the rich."
5. I found NPC's arguments pretty helpful and agree. It seems like NPC is semi-familiar with FNT, but also showed great respect and had a sympathetic reading of the strengths and failures of our method. To me it showed a lot of organizational-political maturity.
(PS I am not sure who NPC is in real life.)