by Mike Ely
"Something we hand out should often feel hot in someone's hand. They should read the first paragraph and go 'Whoa!' Our materials should make people want to argue with their friends and lovers. And want a dozen to pass out hand to hand.
"Without fake bombast -- our materials should feel like FINALLY! someone is speaking forbidden truths, and daring to think forbidden thoughts. It should have the dangerous feel of Nat Turner about it, of slaves plotting the unforgivable.
"And the most fire-ready slaves among them should feel compelled to seek us out, to find out who we are and become part of making this happen.
"And by that standard: I think this leaflet is far too tame -- not because its authors are conservative (they aren't!), but because their conception of communist work led them there."
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It is exciting that more and more teams of revolutionaries are now connecting with working people -- in communities and in struggle. A revolutionary impulse either fuses with the advanced sections of the oppressed -- to form a partisan base, or it does not become a movement.
But the questions gets sharply posed, right away: What do we communists do and say when we connect with people in struggle? What is our role? How do we present ourselves and our politics? What goals are we seeking to accomplish?
Yesterday we started to discuss a leaflet handed out in New York City to bus drivers -- exploring what it was saying, what the act of handing it out would mean, and how it embodied a particular view of what communist work should be.
That leaflet "Wildcats, Workers' Power and Lessons for today" appears on the revolutionary website "Fire Next Time." And it is worth reading. I urge everyone to look at it closely. It makes the decision to focus (in a discussion with the NY school busdrivers today) on a relatively obscure NY school busdriver wildcat strike in 1979, over thirty years ago -- to draw lessons from that event for today. The assumption (apparently) is two-fold:
1) First, that bus drivers are more open to lessons drawn from their own past (and "their own," in this case, is very very narrowly conceived as a "history of NYC school bus drivers and their struggles), and
2) second, that the ideas and insights that people need for revolutionary consciousness and politics can be drawn (extracted, summed up) as "lessons" from their own most direct, personal, day-to-day experience.
I would like all of us to have a deep and respectful engagement over those two ideas.
Which (as will surprise no one, I assume) I believe to be mistaken ideas that would pull us strongly to the right -- toward non-political agitation, tailing the current low level of consciousness, ignoring the advanced to focus on the intermediate, neglect the need for revolutionary forms of organization and more.
One eats up the other
Perhaps the controversy is best expressed here: The Fire Next Time site provides a clear and concise description of their politics. They explain that FNT is a revolutionary network on the East Coast of the United States. And then they explain their concept:
"We believe our central task is to seek out the revolutionary elements of people’s everyday experiences, to support and push this self-activity in ever more radical directions. At the same time, we must ruthlessly critique everything that holds it back: both the racist, sexist, reactionary elements within it, and the liberals and self-appointed leaders who co-opt it, such as politicians, nonprofit staff, and union bureaucrats."
And the idea is expressed here clearly: That there are "revolutionary elements of people's everyday experiences" (that these are objective and inherent). And that our "central task" is to "support and push this self-activity."
Just to be clear: FNT is making a strong statement against the idea that we (as communists) have a central task to bring key revolutionary elements from outside people's everyday experience.
And that is the controversy we need to engage.
And if you look at the two parts of their statement: How well does the leaflet embody those two parts? I would say that it (sincerely) tries to build on elements of "people's everyday experiences" -- and it completely abdicates the second half. Why is that? Because they are in sharp conflict with each other. One eats up the other -- in ways the authors almost certainly didn't intend.
Communists: A living link to the larger
I would argue that as we engage in living practice we will discover (and rediscover) that the elements needed for revolutionary consciousness do not reside or emerge naturally in "people's everyday experiences" -- that very important parts of our central task is bringing connections and insights from the outside of everyday (from a sense of history, from communist theory, from the experiences of other struggling people, from the radical movements of the time, from international experiences going on all around us, from an analysis of the current capitalist crisis --- and more.)
We communists should represent the whole within the part, and the future within the present (as Marx and Engels put it in their Manifesto). That is very different from looking for the truths mainly within the immediate, day-to-day and local.
And I would argue something else: If we adopt as our central task merely pushing what spontaneously arises from people's everyday experiences, our movement will suddenly move far to the right (rather than help people move far to the left), precisely because revolutionary elements can't (literally can't) arise from the everyday in ways that produce revolutionary consciousness.
Finally I would like to ask you to take the FNT-posted leaflet as a good example.
Let's return to this: In the FNT explanation there is a heartfelt and positive statement that they intend to ruthlessly critique everything that holds back a radicalization process. Including "both the racist, sexist, reactionary elements within it, and the liberals and self-appointed leaders who co-opt it, such as politicians, nonprofit staff, and union bureaucrats."
That is a good sentiment. They have historically been sincere and quite militant about it. It forms part of what communists bring from without --( thought I have to say it is quite partial, and doesn't say anything at all (!) about the need for a new society and the indictment of the old one. Where is the abolition of rich and poor? Where is the empire -- and our belief in the common cause of people around the planet? Where is a sense that "our struggle" is anything but rank-and-file unity in one city (meaning: where is revolution? where is global thinking? where is the future?)
In this particular leaflet (as I said earlier) one thought ate up the other. There is an active attempt to find positive elements in "people's everyday experience" thirty years ago -- (I won't use their phrase "revolutionary elements" because there are no revolutionary elements in this leaflet). And there is an attempt "draw lessons" from those distance experiences of an earlier generation of New York school bus drivers.
But what happened to "ruthless critique"? Where is any "ruthless critique" of racism, sexism, reactionary thinking, liberal politics that dominate city workers, or any analysis of the limits put on working class struggle by tradeunionism and its aparatus?
School bus drivers and the whole school system in NYC is marked by white supremacy and rpacism -- it is a surrounding goop that people wade through every day. Why is that experience unmentioned?
I think that will prove to be a very common and natural pull to the right. Once you decide that the revolutionary elements (of consciousness and action) are those that arise from everyday experience of that subgroup of workers themselves -- you will find yourself suppressing that second sentence about "ruthlessly critique." It will wither. It will take a back seat to the kinds of rank-and-file schema (and naive promises about "win job security") that dominate this leaflet.
I am excited by the sincere revolutionary intention of the folks in NYC and in "Fire Next Time." But I want to point out how remarkably limited and tradeunionist their leaflet is.
Above all: Let’s go for the whole thing
Our materials should be quite a bit more shocking than this.
Something we hand out should often feel hot in someone's hand. They should read the first paragraph and go "Whoa!" Our materials should make people want to argue with their friends and lovers. And want a dozen to pass them hand to hand.
Our materials should feel like (FINALLY!) someone is speaking forbidden truths, and daring to think forbidden thoughts. It should have the dangerous feel of Nat Turner about it, of slaves plotting the unforgivable. And the most fire-ready slaves among them should feel compelled to seek us out, to find out who we are and become part of making this happen.
And by that standard: I think this leaflet is far too tame -- not because its authors are conservative (they aren't!), but because their conception of communist work led them there.
We, in Kasama, don't have a lot of positive examples to share (yet!). But one leaflet we produced does have a bit of that feel, and does give a sense of what communists have to say in the middle of a struggle. It is our "Five minutes to dawn" leaflet at the start of Occupy Wall Street -- and (obviously without equating the two situations) I think it would be useful to contrast that leaflet with the one FNT is handing out to school bus drivers.
Yesterday, I sketched a brief paragraph that illustrated my belief that we should discuss (with striking school bus drivers in NYC) much more than their particular job demands, or their particular history (as a bus drivers!) Here was that paragraph... why wouldn't we say something like
"They ruin and wreck countries all over the world, and drive millions of us here for cheap labor. They drive us like cattle out of our own communities like Bed-Stuy and Harlem -- to make room for condos we can't afford, and offices we can't walk into. They hunt our kids down like an endangered species with their police. They push our next generation into mind-numbing schools that are run like prisons. And then they come to cut our livelihood? Everywhere we go we are sucked dry, threatened, beaten down -- and then told we live in a "land of opportunity" and we should be glad we don't live somewhere else."
Communist work is not a mirror held up to reflect what workers already think. It is also not a kind of lemon press that merely extracts and concentrates the juice that is already there. Our work connects people to the future and to their world -- we form living links with events and ideas far larger than those that surround us.
An overestimation of spontaneous consciousness, and a mistaken view of how communist insights take root, will lead to political work that becomes (unintentionally and frustratingly) less and less political, and a presentation that is less and less revolutionary.
And where does that leave the workers (and the revolutionaries themselves)? Not developing a struggle and consciousness at distance from the state, but drawn (precisely by their day-to-day experiences) deeper into the muck of city budgets and electoral commitments, into a politics ensnared in the state.
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Last fall Kasama published an essay called
"B1: All-round communist work or bringing light into the struggles"
It gets at these strategic questions a bit more historically, and in more depth.