Communist work: sing our song

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Communist work: sing our song

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."

* * * * * * * * *

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.

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


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.


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People in this conversation

  • Thanks Mike for a challenging piece. This gets to something that has been at the core of my own questions since re-engaging with the left in the wake of Occupy. I go to FNT meetings, and while I didn't contribute to this leaflet, I thought it did I good job of trying to inspire workers toward more militant action than they might actually be conceiving by referring back to something that actually happened, was actually done by a previous generation of school bus drivers. And yet, I see your point, and I completely love the Kasama leaflet you refer to. So obviously the presumption here is that intersecting with workers engaged in actual struggle is a way to build solidarity, class identity, build toward a victory that inspires generalizing the struggle. I hear you saying that is a fundamentally flawed approach. To me passing out a flyer talking about revolution and communism makes a lot of sense in something like Occupy, given the issues and the people involved. I'm trying to imagine how that would work here, in a struggle that is much less politicized. I don't mean this to sound flip, but are you suggesting something like "You Might Think You're Just Trying to Save Your Job but You're Really Starting on the Road to Revolution"? Or are you suggesting that intervening in these kind of workers struggles is poorly conceived?

  • I think this is an important question, and a very immediate, very pressing one for those of us who are doing workplace organizing. In most cities it also seems like much of the fresher, more vital workplace organizing is actually being done by groups that might also be categorized as "left communist" or syndicalist -- with the rest mostly eaten up by the labor bureaucracy. With these political trends, I think it is a claim often leveled against them that they see workplace struggle as the be-all-end-all of organizing. This is somewhat enhanced by these trends themselves as they write about their own histories -- syndicalists writing histories of revolutionary Spain, for example, emphasize the CNT but sort of ignore the immense number of affinity groups, community assemblies, social centers, libraries, free hospitals, peasants' collectives/communes, independent armed brigades, etc. etc. that contributed to the revolutionary break -- and most of whom were engaged in decidedly non-'economist' forms of agitation. Still, it's something that is always a risk when you're doing ANY kind of worplace organizing.

    But I want to problematize one of the claims made above:

    "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."

    I think this is unfair. Now, I admit, being from the west coast I don't know as much about their organization or organizing styles, though I have read their website. From reading their materials, it does not at all seem like they fit into this category or that the statement above (from them, cited in the article) stands AGAINST the idea that one of our central tasks ought to be to bring revolutionary elements from outside people's everyday experience.

    The issue here is twofold:

    1. Saying that people DO often come to revolutionary or semi-revolutionary (or at the very least anti-capitalist) attitudes through workplace struggle and "everyday experience" is certainly correct. It's clear that there is a latent rejection of the system, especially among the younger generations today. On the west coast, it literally seems like everyone under 30 who you talk to holds either SOME sort of "revolutionarY" view (though often a reactionary one) or a collapsist one. Either way, there is no real conception that the system as such can continue -- there is a general understanding that another world is not possible, but INEVITABLE.

    This does NOT mean that it's immediately translated into a "good" anti-capitalism. It can just as easily turn into myths of techno-salvation, ecological apocalypse, or even fantasies of fascism. Particularly dangerous are the trends of "national anarchism" developing in certain cities, which argue for a racialized, decentralized form of "stateless" communitarianism, meshing elements of decolonial thought, bookchin-style libertarian municipalism, and national self-determination -- but all of course resulting in something that is basically nazism by another name. Now it's of course not that bad frequently. Many people have a very latent, very lite view of how "socialism would be better," with socialism basically seen as some sort of social-democracy welfare state, and they think some large non-violent civil society "revolution" will be required to get there. All of these options are still far to the right of communist, revolutionary thinking -- but they are still relevant leverages that exist, and which environmental and economic crisis are enhancing in people.

    The difference, I guess, is that I do NOT think that groups like FNT are saying that this sort of internal, every-day or workplace-struggle experience is at all SUFFICIENT to make revolution or communist consciousness. It seems instead like they are pointing it out as an apt place to begin engagement with folks in a workplace--and that is honestly correct, it works very well to leverage these things in agitation, even if they are people's negative "collapsist" views of the future.

    At the same time, I of course agree that a lot of "external" elements are necessary -- and I think the role of communists in workplace struggle is to act as a sort of enzyme, catalyzing contact between two previously segregated molecules (the workers' inherent presumptions, often anticapialist of some sort, on one side, and specifically communist, revolutionary thought on the other).

    There is a quote frequently attributed to Bill Haywood of the old IWW: "I've never read Marx's Capital, but I have the Marks of Capital all over me."

    This could easily be taken to mean exactly what is argued against in the article above -- the daily experience of struggle is sufficient for revolutionary consciousness. But I think it's interesting that the quote actualy acts in a reflexive manner -- if the "marks of capital" were sufficient, then Marx's Capital would not need to be mentioned. Communist thought is here operating in that in-between capacity -- what Zizek would call the parallax role, or the position of the analyst, as the third point-of-connection between the segments of the statement. It's still presumed that Marx's Capital exists, is valid, and bears some relation to the actual "marks of capital."

    2. The second thing we have to keep in mind is that on-the-ground organizing is messy, and people have all kinds of different presumptions in different areas. On most of the west coast, for instance, if you say the word "socialist" plenty of people in the cities will just be like "yeah, hey, I'm a socialist too!" but they of course mean some sort of social-democratic welfare state or, at best, something like Venezuela but as an END GOAL, rather than (as in Venezuela) a STARTING-point. "Socialism" communicates almost zero revolutionary consciousness. As Zizek and Dean have argued, "Socialism" is today increasingly becoming the code-word for "capitalism with a human face," and thus acts as one of the strongest categories OPPOSED to communism and communist struggle. Similarly, if you say "socialism" in a poor rural area, you're just as likely to find similar misunderstanding but from the opposite direction -- and honestly I think you'd have a better chance of turning it into a revolutionary category HERE than in the wealthier liberal cities.

    But the point is that one often has to balance outreach with potential immediate-dismissal based on ideological assumptions. If you say "mobilize the masses for communism!" you are going to look like a wingnut and be classed in the ideological category of "wingnuts" in most peoples' minds. If you, in a flier on a bus strike, start talking TOO MUCH about Obama's drone strikes, foreign wars, transnational corporate malfeasance, etc. etc. you'll be dismissed and classed into the category of "helpless activist," and people will again not want to engage with you.

    I think that, despite a lot of text-heaviness and other design-side flaws, the flier actually makes the RIGHT choice in talking about a similar historic event. It's not at all being done in the condescending fashion of "school bus drivers will only understand/resonate with the struggles of other school bus drivers." Instead, it's remembering a forcefully FORGOTTEN history and tying it directly to the present (not just remembering, then, in a nostalgic fashion). It becomes immediate because it reminds people that struggle happens, it is not the weird, alien practice that you "can't do" because it is beyond the scope of (today's) normality.

    A quick anecdote: In talking to port truckers here (who have been struggling to organize, were sort of abandoned by the teamsters and the ILWU, etc.) I found immense reception when I was just casually chatting about how the old IWW used to operate. As independent contractors, for instance, they were attracted to the idea of a union form which basically accomodated that "informal labor" aspect. It was certainly just (at one level) history-talk, but at another it offered material that was relevant to their struggle today, if only to prove that their fight is NOT hopeless.

    I certainly agree, though, that the FNT flier doesn't seem to get much beyond this -- and thus ultimately sounds kind of conservative. At the same time, given the atmosphere, that MAY be an immediate necessity, and this flier may be the first in a series that would gradually up the revolutionary content -- I know so little about the on-the-ground conditions that I can't say whether that would be a good strategy or not.

    But a final example: The Black Panthers, though pretty clearly revolutionary, and militant, especially at their inception, also rarely included DIRECt talk of the "we want socialism" or "we want communism" variety. Their materials are constructed in a cunning way -- where they basically can endorse a sort of socialistic idea by describing it but without using the "buzzword" really heavily everywhere. Think of the final point in the ten point program: "We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace" -- well, this is basically saying "we want communism" but without saying it in those words. This, first of all, gave them an independent identity, not subsumed within the category of "socialist/communist parties" at the time. second, it probably, honestly DID contribute to their immediate flood of applications -- while if they had had "communism" or "socialism" plastered all over their materials, it's doubtful that (coming out of the McCarthy era), they would have gotten the same reception EVEN AMONG the oppressed. Of course, I also think that it was an ultimate FAILURE of the BPP--maybe caused by how fast they actually were recruiting--that they never seemed to jump past this stage and find an efficient method for truly communist agitation/education among their own membership or beyond.

  • Guest - Dengue Fresh

    So who was it that brought the "ideas from without the everyday experiences" that led to the Paris Commune, Hungary 65 or Paris 68? Even the Bolsheviks weren't the impetus for the October Revolution.. they simply steered it toward putting them in power after it already arose.

  • 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.

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