Responses to "Sing Our Own Song"

A debate is emerging sparked by a flier  in NYC being handed out to striking bus drivers. This discussion touches on larger questions about revolutionary consciousness and strategy. The following comments first appeared on the Fire Next Time network blog. Other parts of the debate on Kasama can be found here and here.

Proletariat ideology is not merely a matter of theoretical analysis. It is a weapon and armory with which we must arm and surround the American working class and particularly those who face the enormous tasks confronting us in the present period. —CLR James, Marxism for Our Times


Arturo writes:

Ely makes some good points about the flyer being too tame, but it is an isolated example if you look at other FNT work. In his critique of the FNT flyer, Mike Ely strongly argues that revolutionary consciousness comes from outside the day to day activities of the oppressed; that there is no elements of revolutionary consciousness contained within the everyday experiences of workers. This line of reasoning comes directly from Lenin's What Is To Be Done (WITBD). "We have said that there could not have been Social-Democratic consciousness among the workers. It would have to be brought to them from without. The history of all countries shows that the working class exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade union consciousness...The theory of socialism...grew out of the philosophic, historical, and economic theories elaborated by educated representatives of the propertied class, by intellectuals.

This point about revolutionary consciousness being external to the proletariat is the most influential and misunderstood point of that essay. It is a thesis that is a basic assumption behind Ely's line of reasoning and that of many Marxist-Leninists and vanguard-party communists. This logic was not special to Lenin: it was popular within mainstream Russian Marxism at the time. It was a product of the fact that the Tsarist police-state forced Russian revolutionaries to operate completely underground and outside of the workers movement, although still influencing it (this was before certain legal rights were given in response to the 1905 rebellions). It was also a product of the fact that the Russian communist movement was not made up of workers...yet. (CLR James elaborates on all this in Facing Reality).

WITBD is regarded as the earliest Leninist document. It was written in 1901-1902. Compare the approach of WTBD with that of documents that were written during and after the 1905 rebellions and as a result of the 1917 revolution. The Bolsheviks were some of the most enthusiastic and committed cadres organizing within the spontaneously developing factory committee movement (soviets) in 1917, Lenin arguing that "Vital creativity—that is the fundamental factor in the new society.... Socialism is vital and creative, it is the creation of the popular masses themselves" and that "One of the most crucial tasks at present, if not the most crucial, is to develop the independent initiatives of the workers and toilers and exploited generally in the sphere of creative, organizational work."

I'm quoting Lenin so much not because I'm a Leninist (I'm not), but because I want to show that the model of Leninism which most vanguard communists are operating with is an extremely conservative and elitist one based in specific historical conditions. I think that the radical shift in Lenin's thought says something very important about the nature of revolutionary consciousness and how it is dictated by the on-the-ground activities of the oppressed and changing material circumstances.

I'm not interested in this debate because it is super theoretical and abstract. I'm interested in it because there are very different organizational, strategic, tactical, and methodological implications involved. ISH, Will, and NPC give good examples of how the different approaches play out in action.

The working-class is either revolutionary or it is not. For Ely and many others stuck in the past, it is not. They implicitly believe that proletariats are only revolutionary with external guidance that has no bearing on their immediate, practical activities. This complete dismissal of the revolutionary self-activity of oppressed people (flawed and incomplete as that activity is) leads to a bourgeois and sectarian drift. If revolutionary consciousness is supposedly not derived from within the activities of workers, but from outside them, then revolutionary consciousness comes from non-workers. This tendency is a reflection of the fact that the bourgeois has a monopoly on revolutionary theory; the proletariat is systematically pushed outside of it.
I'm not interested in arguing for or against spontaneity or self-activity. I think we need to explore the dialectical relationship between spontaneity and organization, between the limitations of the immediate present and the potentials of the long-term future, between the ways in which the working class is internally revolutionary and the ways in which it is externally influenced.

With all its messy limitations and overwhelming dominance by bourgeois hegemony, the working-class is still fundamentally revolutionary. It is the revolutionaries, not the proletariats, who are more backwards when it comes to revolutionary consciousness. Not because of what is said here or there, but because of what people's material positioning is in world society, because of what their concrete relationship is to the state and capitalism, and what they are historically compelled to do because of that relationship.


Nat Winn writes:

What is meant by class consciousness? Is the working class fundamentally revolutionary (as brother Auturo says)? What does this imply about organization? These are important questions with strategic implications and I'm glad that the discussion over a flier distributed to striking NYC bus drivers has led into this area.

My understanding is that the working class is not fundamentally revolutionary, At least in terms of its ideology or its consciousness. In a structural sense it can be said that historically the position of workers in capitalist society as collective producers create the potential for a radically egalitarian society based on collective ownership of natural resources and human knowledge and technology. I think that argument still has value. I don't think this implies that working class experience thus equals communist (or revolutionary) consciousness.

Any individual from any class can develop a communist consciousness. There are both objective and subjective reasons for why an individual decides to commit themselves to human liberation. Likewise any individual can commit themselves to counterrevolutionary politics and of course in the vast majority of individuals there is a mix. Some brothers and sisters refer to it as a dual consciousness. In that sense I think dual consciousness is inherent across classes.

The reason I see for choosing to focus on organizing in a certain section has to do partly with our summations of what sections of the people would serve as the backbone or core of a revolutionary movement.

This does not mean that the whole or even the majority of the working class are fundamentally (I am reading this as "inherently") revolutionary.
There is a need for all of us to clarify what we mean when we talk about the working class or the proletariat. Are the two the same? Does the global proletariat encompass more than just wage earners? Does it include our brothers and sister in the shanty towns, in the prisons, domestic workers, poor peasants, etc.? What forces do revolutionaries represent when they write and lead (organize) struggle. This all has to be fleshed out?
Brother Will and brother Auturo assert that the working class is often more revolutionary than revolutionaries. Brother Will asks if revolutionaries have anything to learn from the workers.

Let me speak to both these points.

Like I said, I think all sorts of people develop revolutionary consciousness, often isolated from each other and divorced from the broader sections of people and focused on the day to day. Sometimes these people find one another and begin to build revolutionary organizations.
I think that something that can be called the working class movement or labor movement develops separately from that. Communist ideas are not prevalent among workers. The opposite is the case. We live in a capitalist society and the ideas prevalent among those we would organize are capitalist ideas.

There are feelings and sentiments within those ideas that are more lofty and closer to what communist militants conceive of as a liberating society, though those idea are undeveloped, and to the extent they become the fire within an individual or among groups of oppressed people, this develops away from the movement of labor, which is basically a struggle based around interests and getting a better piece of the pie within the frame work of the current order.

So what about the experiences when the oppressed break out in struggle and form new institutions that shake the foundations of society? What about the soviets in Russia and Germany, the workers councils in Italy and during the Hungarian uprising in 1956, the fight between rank and filers and the CIO leadership in the 1950s, the Shanghai commune, etc.?

I raise these experiences because these are what are often referenced as examples of working class self-activity that push at the bounds of overthrowing capitalism.

My understanding is that all these experiences point not to the potential of working class self-activity, but to it limits because of what I would call the unevenness of consciousness and the need for organization and leadership from revolutionaries.

What do I mean by this?

Auturo talks of a radical shift in Lenin's thinking from the time of 1903 when he wrote What Is To Be Done? to 1905 to 1917. I agree, Lenin's thinking developed and changes as the communist movement developed. On the hand Lenin still struggled hard for the leadership of the Bolsheviks over the course that the revolutionary movements of both 1905 and 1917 were to take. And there was a reason for this.

When you look at all of the experiences mentioned above there is not uniformity of consciousness in the working class. Ok that's obvious. There are all kinds of ideas percolating and a lack of a concrete resolve in the consciousness of the oppressed who rise spontaneously. At a certain point of political crisis, whether in a wildcat strike or in a general rebellion the oppressed look for leadership. The workers in Hungary for instance want to preserve their councils, but they are uncertain of how and often they look for answer in the wrong places.

In Hungary there were those who wanted a councilist state, there were those who would trust reformist sections of the Commmunist Party of Hungary led by Nagy to carry out the demands of the uprising, there were sections of workers who wanted a Western style democracy, and those that were even calling for the US and NATO to intervene on Hungary's behalf in the United Nations Security Council.

My point is that left to its own devices working class self-activity can go only so far. There is a need to fuse with those workers that carry the most lofty and revolutionary outlooks into an organization, a fighting force that can rally broader sections of the oppressed that have yet to think on those terms and also have yet to see a viable organizations that represent in the concrete that loftier vision.

The answer to Will's question is yes, the workers (and oppressed) have a great deal to teach the revolutionaries. We learn from how to they see their struggles, from what they think is possible in any particular historical moment, and from the spontaneous and creative resistance that emerges when large sections of them begin to rise.

It is the responsibility of the revolutionaries in my view, to then synthesize what they have learned into concrete revolutionary demands, slogans that speak to their most lofty sentiments, and strategy.

This is how I understand the relationship between spontaneity and organization.

Finally, without getting into the hastiness of the response to the flier that began this debate, I wanted to bring a part of Mike's response out that hasn't been touched on. We as FNT all talked about the need for investigation and we carried it out. We learned what the workers were interested in and a few brothers together with others wrote a response based on that investigation. In my view an important part of this debate is thinking about how we then speak about the 1979 strike. Do we write about it in such a way to connect with the more advanced and loftier visions, or do we speak to the majority of workers who are looking for a better contract.

In some ways, as brother Jed points out in his comments to Will on the Kasama site, the flier seeks a loftier "general" interest (though I might argue we move beyond speaking in terms of interests at all). This was a positive, though I'm not sure how conscious it was.
From the organizational side of things, because of the unevenness of consciousness among and within the different forces we are attempting to mobilize, I think there needs to be deeper discussion of who we are attempting to reach and why when we write. It's been talked about but we haven't collectively dug deep. For example, if you are starting out attempting to develop class wide committees that are revolutionary in nature and those committees are dominated by workers who hold narrower visions, what will happen to the committee? Is it not better to write to the minority at the outset, with the idea that minority can become a core that can then appeal to the broader majority as its vision become a more concrete force in the political?

These are the ways I am looking at the relationship between consciousness and organization.


Gio writes:

"Hi all,

I didn't write this pamphlet, but assisted in its production. While I don't disagree entirely with the usefulness of what Mike puts forth, I want to disagree on specific points and suggest that both strategies are useful.

Firstly: to say that everyday experience contains revolutionary elements, that the consciousness emerging from that experience has revolutionary potential, does not imply that it emerges "naturally." Nothing could be further from the case. If this were the case, no "push" would be necessary.

Secondly: this means that a focus on self-activity is not a blind tailism as you suggest, destined to pull us to the right. Nor does it mean we bring nothing whatsoever "from the outside." This is a caricature. It means that what we do bring, an orientation toward ruthless critique that seeks to push the revolutionary elements within consciousness, does not come as a roadmap, abstract principles, empty words divorced from the reality of experience.

Thirdly: one point of confusion seems to be that "revolutionary elements (of consciousness and action) are those that arise from everyday experience of that subgroup of workers." There is no suggestion that a specific subgroup of workers contains these revolutionary elements, and thus no suggestion that these bus drivers should be blindly followed into trade-union demands (note whether or not to engage a specific grouping of workers is a strategic question). As a result "rank and file schema" like "job security" clearly do not "dominate" this leaflet.

Fourthly: What then does? A historical lesson about: 1.) the need for "self-directed, uncompromising [!] action; 2.) the power of "physical direct action"; and 3.) the central task of generalizing and circulating struggles. Mike writes: "(I won't use their phrase "revolutionary elements" because there are no revolutionary elements in this leaflet)," but what is the combination of these three elements if not essential ingredients to the building of a revolutionary situation?

Is revolution words and flags, or is it processes and actions?

Fifth, and finally: this is all not to say that Mike's example of possible text has no use, but simply that this use is partial, and depends on a lot of things. That a pamphlet or flyer feels hot in someone's hand depends much on that person: how they are feeling, how they view their position in the world, how far-off (or even unthinkable) the revolution seems to them. FNT has used the sort of rhetoric you propose on a number of occasions (here's one:

But revolutionary action is not about words, it's about the capacity to build revolutionary movements, which means it's profoundly intersubjective. For those who don't find echo in the burning prose you suggest, should we write them off? Or is the idea that this is the best approach simply an article of faith? Yes to burning prose, but yes also to flexibility, which in and of itself reflects a respect for those everyday experiences that will be the foundation for revolutionary action."


People in this conversation

  • I read with great interest and support about new teams of revolutionaries starting work among working people in NYC.

    I am a lifelong working class communist woman, who has spent a lot of my life in the housing projects of Atlanta. And I would like to say a few words in this discussion.

    First, I have to share, honestly, that the New York leaflet felt strangely familiar -- in tone and content -- to the materials I saw and circulated in my days within the CPUSA.

    I know that is not anyone's intent. And I realize that the author's think they are breaking with the old Left. But the way this focuses on trade unionism, and its assumptions about what we should present about ourselves strike me as the rather liberal and trade unionist approaches of the CP (even if, the New York authors are obviously not promoting electoral politics quite the way the CP always had).

    The leaflet is rather rightist and non-radical even though the people who wrote it are (consciously) rather radical in intentions. The method is to reach out to the lowest common denominator. It is a focus on the “average worker” who is quite conservative. I also suspect there is some fear of alienating the ‘average worker’ with really revolutionary politics. Now really radical, really revolutionary politics will turn off the ‘average worker’ but is that who we really need to be appealing to? To people we are not going to win over at this point anyway? People who are rather not dream beyond the limitations of their own self-interest? Or do we need to be building a communist pole in society?

    I believe we need to be appealing to those that are poised on the edge to take up radical politics – those that are yearning for real answers – to understand the world and change it. They are out there. They are searching. They are waiting. But they won’t be drawn to you by the ho-hum.

    I recall when I first came across really revolutionary writing. It made my jaw drop. I was like “holy shit!” and I wanted more I craved it. I could not stay away though it challenged many of my assumptions. Someone had dared to say those things that were forbidden to say it this society. Someone dared dream beyond the ho-hum of union politics and welfare states – beyond fair pay, solidarity, stable jobs and state hand-outs and more housing projects wile all the time still getting the shit exploited out of you for someone else to sit on their ass. Someone will to talk about turning this whole thing upside down and really putting the power in the hands of the masses. It was about our liberation not our continued slavery in a little better situation.

    But this flier is a focus on building a movement or strike not on finding the advanced and fighting for revolution. The people don't need us to build their strikes. This is actually not what we are needed for. We should support strikes and we should on occasion provide leadership. We should participate in economic actions. But really, people don't need us to just fan the existing struggles. They need us to be Revolutionaries in the fullest sense. They need us to dare to scale the heights and they need us to say what no one else is going to say. It is our duty to speak the truths no one dares speak.

    But going down to the lowest common denominator, going down to the average worker and fearing offending him - trying to tease him to the left a little will not produce radical consciousness and it never has. It is not breaking with the errors of a dogmatic past but exactly repeating it. This is what every right leaning quasi-socialist has ever done. It turns you from a revolutionary into a mere trade unionist and really there are already plenty of them out there.

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