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Killing Lenin again: Toxic trolling against left security culture
"A central argument is starting to emerge: That the very idea of an internal political life is offensively anti-democratic, and everyone should celebrate deliberate disruption of private, collective decision-making. This is done in the name of mopping the influence of 'Leninism' and 'people still living in the 1960s.'"
by Mike Ely
A blogger published (wholesale) 19 internal discussion documents of International Socialist Organization. And an important debate has ensued.
A central argument is starting to openly emerge, and I think it needs to be highlighted:
It is that the very idea of an internal political life is offensively anti-democratic, and that everyone should celebrate disruption of private, collective decision-making. This is done in the name of mopping the influence of Leninism.
Look at how Joaquin Bustelo and Louis Proyect have defended their participation in this "outing" of ISO documents. Joaquin Bustelo justified his participation this way:
"I am not a member of the ISO and therefore I am not bound by its discipline. I did not override anything. I simply publicized that these documents were available.
"Why did I do that? a) Because it is of interest to a layer of people. I am a journalist. It's what I've done my whole life. b) Because I am against the "secret handshake" culture of the toy Leninist parties."
Louis writes on Facebook:
"This is my take on things. The ISO creates these line resolutions as a way of "intervening" in the mass movement geared to its own strategic and organizational imperatives. This is a fundamentally undemocratic mode of functioning.
"It is part and parcel of the "democratic centralist" functioning of a left that has outlived its usefulness if it ever had any. Political parties operating under conditions of legality have no business maintaining the secrecy of line resolutions that impact the left as a whole. "
I think Louis goes to the core of the issue.
The argument is that it is "fundamentally undemocratic" for revolutionaries to meet in private, discuss common policies and plans, and to keep their deliberations secret from everyone else (including from the state).
In other words, it is not enough that Louis and Joaquin personally choose not to join a cadre organization. (That is their business.)
In their view, internal collective discussions of politics and practice is so odious that they advocate active disruption of organizational privacy attempted by others.
Look again at LP's core argument:
"Political parties operating under conditions of legality have no business maintaining the secrecy of line resolutions that impact the left as a whole. "
Now this leak of ISO documents (to be precise) was not mainly about dark secrets, it was not even about secret resolutions -- it outed the private collective discussion of plans and controversies in a national left organization.
And Louis doesn't think that anyone has a right to have such collective discussions privately -- he both celebrates and participates in the outing of the internal discussions of other people.
He is not arguing that a particular organization has done something so nasty that a particular circumscribed outing is needed.
Louis and Joaquin are arguing that ALL "secrecy of line" is intolerable, and should be actively frustrated by those able to do so.
And I don't think they are alone in believing this. It is hard to see the welcoming of the ISO leak, and not believe that many of those people think all radical secrecy should be violated.
Let me say this bluntly: This is an attempt to argue that communist organizations (despite their best efforts) should have their internal lives laid bare to the state by other leftists.
It is done in the name of the "right" of the "broader movement" to know what communist forces are up to, but its effect is not confined to this "broader movement." These activities would deliberately deny revolutionaries the ability to have any necessary secrecy or security culture.
And this is done in the name of "conditions of legality" -- i.e. the assumption that there is no real or current threat to radical people. The argument is that the state is not a threat, so forming organizations with an internal life is simply and solely an "undemocratic" practice.
This argument (it needs to be said) is wrong on every level. It would confine radical discussion and practice to whatever the state considers legal -- at this point and future points.
Look: if Louis and Joaquin (or the opposition within ISO, or a thousand sincere soft-left activists) don't want to participate in any private collective process of discussion -- that is their business and their politics. No one is trying to force them.
But when some want to deny to all others the ability to develop some privacy (and distance from the state) they go too far.
Andrew Pollack wrote:
"Even if you think an organization should not keep documents and discussions members only -- which is a pretty big if in these days of hyper-homeland-security -- it is NOT the business of any nonmember to override the democratic decision of the members of that group."
Are internal collective decisions inherently anti-democratic?
"The ISO creates these line resolutions as a way of "intervening" in the mass movement geared to its own strategic and organizational imperatives. This is a fundamentally undemocratic mode of functioning."
Not only should political oppositional movements be transparent to the state (when they are under "conditions of legality") -- but even forming an organization that makes takes action together is somehow "fundamentally undemocratic" -- and deserves hostile disruption from outside.
In other words: This is not about the ISO narrowly, this is an argument to be targeted widely -- at a whole range of left and revolutionary organization, at the very idea of disciplined collectivity and cadre organization.
It is a justification for organized self-righteous trolling and disruption of hard-core left groups. That is why (despite differences we may have with ISO) there is good reason to speak out now.
And more: There is a pretty crude, familiar and virulent anti-communism at work here.
Leninism is treated as a curse word (or mocked as "toy Leninism.") Democratic centralism is portrayed in ways not far removed from classic rightwing mythology -- i.e. communists are blanketly accused of anti-democratic conspiracies and suspicious secrecy.
There have always been places where "anti-Stalinism" rubbed shoulders with Joe McCarthy, Here comes a new one for a new generation.
Conditions of legality?
We should unravel the wrong assertion that formal "condition of legality" means that revolutionaries a) don't face immediate danger of repression, b) that there aren't real needs for preparatory precautions.
First, since 9/11, it is simply unknown what the "conditions of legality" are (go ask any constitutional lawyer what laws now govern federal surveillance). The FBI was told not to limit their surveillance and infiltration to "probable cause" (meaning cases where an actual crime has been committed or planned), and not to limit secret police activity to cases where a chance of prosecution (under current law) exists.
Billions have been spent on surveillance and infiltration -- the vast (vast!) majority of which has not yet born fruit and is still submerged in secrecy. (Less secrecy thanks to Snowdon, but still secrecy). In particular there are major campaigns of agent provocateur activity that have produced prosecutions around the country (often of naive Muslim youth drawn into some police madness, but also of anarchist and leftist circles). And the target has expanded to groups like FRSO (Fightback) whose supporters were subjected to outrageous search, detainment, threats and more.
Beyond that: We should assert the basic Leninist point that communist organizations can't base their forms of organization merely on current conditions. Communists have a responsibility to "represent the future within the present." Building organizations now means (if we are serious and responsible) creating conditions for surviving later (under harsher conditions.)
Some have said that future repression would naturally come with a lot of warning -- like heavy footfalls -- so that radicals can build open transparent organization now, and "tighten up" when repression approaches. This is wishful thinking, and will lead to disastrous results.
The best protection against repression are rich and complex ties to the people -- developing a social base of support willing to sacrifice to keep revolutionary politics functioning. But it also requires creative application of security culture -- and discussions of what kinds of collective privacy are appropriate now. (Should the identities of members and leading people be public? Should meetings be privately held? Should some discussions be held under conditions that are not easy to record or surveil?)
Louis and Joaquin not only think the answer is no, they think they (rather arrogantly, self-righteously) are justifying in simply denying others the chance to take a differing path. Because Louis, or Ross, or whoever has (personally) decided that an internal functioning has "outlived its usefulness" -- they feel they have the right to literally deny anyone that internal functioning.
In this post-911 world they think they have the right to enforce transparency on radicals seeking to exercise basic securities. At its very core it is hostile to the point of bitterness. It is disrespectful of the political beliefs and cautions taken by others. It is wrong on every level.
* * * * * * * * * *
We should take this as a learning moment -- to assert that we (collectively in our millions) live and operate at the heart of a ruthless empire, which daily proves and reproves its intention to kill opponents and decapitate movements.
And there needs to be a common culture -- both on the rather sad left landscape of today, and in the hopefully vibrant revolutionary ecosystem of tomorrow -- of mutual respect and mutual protection (even while we have deep and real differences).
Revolutionary organizations (precisely in current conditions) need to have both internal political accountability and degrees of security. We need to be as open as possible to each other and the people -- while being as closed as possible to hostile, watching enemies. These things form a tension, a contradiction, a unity of opposites.
It is not easy to navigate those tensions. Contradictions need to be creatively "handled" -- in ways that recognize both aspects of the dynamic. This requires tradeoffs, summing up experience, and (under these new digital conditions) real innovation.
And there is no alternative for those wanting to regroup a communist movement as a current within a larger revolutionary effort.