The Intermediate Level and Trajectories of Struggle

The Intermediate Level and Trajectories of Struggle

A response to Miami Autonomy & Solidarity's Defining Practice: the intermediate level of organization and struggle.

This piece is in dialog with some stuff by my friend Scott Nappalos. I won’t try to summarize all of Nappalos’s points here. I want to focus here on a few points I think are important. I wrote this to think out some issues and lay out some points that may sound obvious but didn’t to me until after I wrote them. I hope others find it thought provoking. I’m not sure what conclusions follow from all this. I’d be interested to hear what conclusions and questions others draw from this. I should also say, I got tangled up mentally on some of the issues in this piece. I think visually and so I tried to do some drawing to get unstuck. That worked. I recognize that the diagrams or drawings may not be helpful to everyone as readers, even though they were helpful for my own thought process.

The Intermediate Level

One of Nappalos’s goals in his essay on what he calls the intermediate level is to help people set aside “rigid conceptions of the separations of the political and mass organization.” One is that the article offers a correction to mistaken ideas about mass organizations and mass struggles. It is easy to see mass organizations as being simply about “bread and butter” issues or “dollars and cents.” I think this mistake is particularly easy for those of us who came of age politically without much experience of mass struggle and mass organizations.

Not Just Bread And Butter
Mass organizations are not simply about economistic struggles or power relations. In their “Workplace Position Paper,” NEFAC write that “Unions serve as a mediator between the working class and the bosses,” they “negotiate the sale of their members labor power to employers (and, in exchange, they offer workers material benefits: job security, health care, better wages). They seek a fairer form of exploitation under capitalism, rather than an end to exploitation itself.” This is correct. At the same time, we should not mistake means and ends here. Mass organizations consist of people coming together around demands for better lives in the short term, prior to the end of capitalism. Unions for more favorable terms in the sale of labor power (organizations of tenants fight for better housing, etc), but this is not always an end itself for participants in mass organizations. (This is not criticism of NEFAC and I am not saying they make the mistake I describe. Read their position paper here.) Yes, mass organizations exist for people to exert power collectively, mass struggles are struggles to exert power, but people exert power over the things they care about and people understand this through a variety of perspective. “Workers have their own ideas and logic,” Nappalos writes.

Many people join mass organizations such as unions because of a cost/benefit calculus along the lines of “if I pay dues to this union then I will help win a better contract, and so I will see gains in my wallet.” Organizers in unionization drives sometimes make arguments like that. But more people join mass organizations because of issues of right and wrong, fairness and respect, dignity and justice. That is, people tend to view the world in value-laden ways; people’s values inform their decisions (and people’s actions can sometimes shape their values).

Part of Nappalos’s article is a criticism of understandings of the category of “mass” (as in “mass organization” and what Nappalos calls “the mass level”) which chop up people’s experience. My father has been a lifelong member of a union in the construction trades. He has never really been a union activist. He credits the union with getting the generous health insurance benefit package that paid for extensive dental work one of my siblings needed as a kid. He believes union membership is a sound economic decision. At the same time, I remember many times hearing him complain about things bosses did on job sites. “It’s the principle of the thing!”, he would rant, “I’m not going to be treated this way! I’m going to take this to the union!” And he has always honored picket lines, because scabbing is wrong – scabbing undermines other workers’ economic situation, and it’s wrong to hurt other people. My father belongs to his union and thinks it’s a good investment; he sees all of this in value-laden terms. My father lives in a social world he sees as having both economic and moral elements. Even when my father has been about money – striking for higher pay and so forth – this too has been value-laden. He wanted more money for a variety of value-laden reasons: to have the money to be a certain sort of parent, to be able to buy things to impress his other relatives, to save for a comfortable retirement, etc. Even in fights over money, the money was not really an end in itself; the reason why he wanted that money often had everything to do with his value system. I think this is often the case. People are involved in mass organizations in ways that are tied to their self-understanding and their value system. The mass level is not just a matter of interests. Or rather, interests are value-laden categories, which people understand through ideas and morality. To use E.P. Thompson’s famous phrase, people in struggle have a “moral economy,” they have a culture, expectations, traditions, ideas about right and wrong, ways to legitimize their actions (at least to themselves and each other). To quote Nappalos again, we should pay attention to “the ways in which movements change across time and constitute themselves,” which means we need to recognize that organizations are diverse and are value laden.

The mass level is about people trying to exert power for what they want, and what they want is tied to their value systems. Values are something which the mass level has in common with the intermediate and political levels, something which is sometimes left out of accounts of the mass level and mass organizations. That said, there is something different about the mass level. The difference is what defines the type of unity – what do people come together around? People at the mass level come together to achieve what they want. This requires varying levels of unity – for organizations, every group tends to be begin developing norms and standards of behavior and a group culture – but in general the mass level is about fighting to get something people want. Mass organizations and mass struggles are value laden.

Nappalos defines what he calls the intermediate level as the sorts of practices when “people organize based on some basic level of unity of ideas to develop and coordinate their activity at the mass level.” This is also a matter of values. People participate in mass level activity because of what they want, and what they want is informed by their outlook. People engage in intermediate activity tend to be motivated more explicitly by principles. Think about union stewards: good union stewards are often dedicated to their union as a part of their identity and are often motivated by a sense of solidarity or other ethical notions which are not simply about themselves.

The boundary between mass practices and intermediate practices is very fluid. Here’s an example. Several years ago I was part of an effort to organize janitors. The janitors at one point confronted management over their low pay; this was about interests in a narrow sense though as I’ve said repeatedly, economic interests are informed by (people want economic gains for reasons they interpret via) people’s value systems. The janitors also began to cooperate with other employees in other job classes on actions. In those case,s people participated in collective action as a vehicle for their own gain.

Over the course of that organizing drive, one of the older janitors began to have chest pains at work and so began to work slower. His supervisor began to shout at him and urge him to work faster. He was afraid to lose his job so he worked faster, and had a heart attack at work. The other janitors were disgusted by this and told the supervisor so. After the older janitor recovered, the supervisor again began to hassle him to work faster. The janitors confronted the supervisor as a group and said that this was unacceptable. In another incident, an employee in another job class was fired unfairly; here too the janitors were morally outraged and mobilized with others. These were not actions defined by narrow interests, this was a matter of personal relationships and principles. This sort of action is closer to intermediate level activity. As Nappalos writes, while we can and should draw analytical distinctions between types of activity, “[in] reality, this division is not so clear.” People are dynamic. Indeed, mass activities often lead people to intermediate level activities and perspectives. Through action, people can be transformed – people become not only motivated to act about individual instances of injustice, people can develop a passion for justice and a commitment to it as a principle, people can develop a taste for or a need to fight.

Again, to quote Nappalos, in intermediate level activity “people organize based on some basic level of unity of ideas to develop and coordinate their activity at the mass level.” Just as I have argued that mass activity is value laden, so too I argue that mass level often requires intermediate activity. I don’t mean to challenge the mass/intermediate distinction. What I mean is that at least for organizations, mass organizations require people who act at the intermediate level as part of their participation in mass organizations. I already gave an example of union stewards. Union staff and officers are often a sort of intermediate layer as well – either they are self-interested so that they do what they out of a drive for personal gain (and so are subject to very familiar leftist criticisms), or they are sincere and committed (in which case they are still subject to criticism but the criticisms differ somewhat and are more structural than individaul). That is to say, all mass organizations in struggle – all people in struggle over any kind of sustained period of time – require that at least some of the people involved begin to “organize based on some basic level of unity of ideas to develop and coordinate their activity at the mass level.” Without this, mass struggles and organizations can not last. To put it yet another way, all mass organizations and struggles that persist over time in any way have an internal division of labor where at least some people at least some of the time perform tasks which fit into the category of intermediate level practices. Nappalos argues that revolutionaries should engage in intermediate level practice, namely “bring together the most conscious elements of the mass movements together with the most active and grounded elements of the revolutionary movements to provide continuity, organization, coordination, and education between struggles.” Note here that these most conscious elements already exist within mass movements and organizations. As he puts it, “the intermediate level already exists in struggle.”

Levels of Activity and Types of Organization

Nappalos’s article has another important point for radicals today. Not only should we recognize the mass level as value-laden, we need to recognize the actually existing diversity of organizations. We must start from where we are now in terms of struggle and relationships. Organizations and struggles do not fit cleanly into mass vs political, or mass vs political vs intermediate, even though these categories help us analyze. Really there are a great many different organizational types, and each actually existing organization has its own unique cultures and traditions and so on – these are not necessarily important at the level of principle or theory, but they matter for us in acting within them or in relation to them.

Across the levels/types of activity that Nappalos lays out, we see a few organizational types:

1. Political only
2. Intermediate only
3. Exclusively mass
4. Mix of intermediate and political
5. Mix of political, intermediate, mass
6. Mostly mass
7. Mix of intermediate and mass

I will not argue this point in any detail here, but in my view types 1-4 are the most limited of organizational types. As Nappalos writes, “Ultimately the mass level is the lifeblood of all struggles. Without the mass level, the intermediate and political levels are merely chasing winds.” Organizations of type 5-7 are really what we aim to create and sustain, and the differences are primarily ones of degree.

Action Across Levels And Organizations
Nappalos wants revolutionaries to bring together the most advanced people. As I quoted earlier, Nappalos argues that revolutionaries should “bring together the most conscious elements of the mass movements together with the most active and grounded elements of the revolutionary movements to provide continuity, organization, coordination, and education between struggles.” In the picture here, these advanced people or handfuls of people are represented by the black asterisks. Notice that only some of them are in currently existing organizations. They also are only some of the members of currently existing organizations.

The likely reality is that unification of the most advanced will cut across pre-existing organizational lines. It will probably also involve people who have temporarily stepped out of struggles and/or who are not members of current organizations but who have in the past been involved in organizations and/or struggle, as well as some people who are just beginning to radicalize or to become part of militant mass-level fights. The unification of these advanced sectors does not necessarily need to be formalized – its form will be worked out in time and at this point no one can specify its necessary characteristics. As Nappalos writes, struggle can transform organization: “the mass organization itself may change then, and intermediate and political organizations may evolve from those struggles.”

Nappalos identifies two main priorities in moving forward. The main priority is that we “prioritize work that facilitates the radicalization of militants at the mass level.” This means creating more intermediate level militants from out of the mass work. He identifies a second and secondary goal of attempting to get revolutionaries to do mass work. Essentially, Nappalos’s proposal is for people who are already currently revolutionaries and organizers in mass work. The idea is that these people, the most advanced, should emphasize work with three groups:

1. other organizers at the intermediate level who are doing mass work
2. people at the mass level who are doing mass work, and
3. other revolutionaries.
For other organizers at the intermediate level, our goal is to organize and radicalize – to create community, continuity, greater competency, greater retention, and make more revolutionaries.

For people at the mass level the first goal is to make people into intermediate level militants, more organizers. From there, the goal for them is the same as I just described.

With regard to other revolutionaries who are not already organizers, the goal is in many ways the same as it is for people at the mass level: to get people engaged in fights in a real way, to learn the lessons that struggle teaches, to make them into organizers.

It is important to note that people at the political level are not always organizers, in some cases theoretical grasp of the political level and understanding derived without much attendant other practice stands in for other activity. More simply: not all people who think of themselves are revolutionaries have experience or ability at mass work. Part of our task, though not a top priority, is to educate these revolutionaries enough to get them into mass struggle, which will then educate them further and they will become, for the purposes of the schematic approach outlined here, the same as anyone else at the mass level in terms of how we orient toward them. Those who don’t or won’t get involved in such struggle are not of any real concern.

In my view, all mass organizations include some functions or internal sections which do intermediate level activity in service of the organization and the mass level struggle. To put it another way, every mass organization has internal organs and some of these are sorts of intermediate organizations which are entirely contained by and loyal to the mass organization. Without these, mass organizations tend not to last, or to even be formed at all.

The diagram above tries to represent some of the division of labor or differentiation of function within a mass organization. The blue block is a single mass organization. Within it there are people playing a variety of roles, represented by the smallest colored shapes. There are members who don’t really participate, represented here by white circles. There are staff (not all mass organizations have staff, of course, though often there are volunteers who play roles analogous to staff in other organzations), represented here by purple circles. There are active members who participate in the life of the organizations, represented here by yellow rectangles, and there are officers, represented here by green squares. There is sometimes crossover among these categories as well – people can move between being active members, staff, and officers. The larger orange and pink rectangles represent organizational projects in which different people interact. These could be organizing drives, member education initiatives, or conflicts that take various institutional and extra-institutional forms (around elections, for example; or around actions against employers and other opponents, actions that may have varying degrees of support among different constituencies in an organization – such as unauthorized work stoppages). Within a project, staff, members, and officers can interact and relate in various ways and these relationships change over time. These things happen within the life of an organization and often many of these co-exist and overlap, interacting with each other in complicated ways. A member of a union may all at the same time take part in as a volunteer helping with an organizing drive at a non-union workplace (and in that case have positive interaction with staff and officers and other members, and perhaps have some tensions if people are jealous of each others’ work and abilities and relationships), work on a union election (and in that case have good relationships with some officers and members and conflict with others), and take part in an unauthorized work stoppage in their own workplace (and in that case have good relationships with fellow members and be in conflict with staff and officers). There are numerous other possibilities. In all of these hypothetical examples, people are engaged in their activities primarily out of values and relationships, not primarily out of self-interest narrowly defined, in a “bread and butter” sense. Numerous actors within any given mass organization are at what Nappalos calls the intermediate level. That intermediate level activity is crucial to the making, maintenance, and growth of the organization. It is hard to imagine examples of mass organizations that don’t have people like this, unless they are entirely hollowed out shells. I’m belaboring this because the analytical distinction here between levels should not be understood as requiring a spatial or organizational difference. I want to stress the overlap of the categories – the intermediate is within the mass, much of the time, wherever mass activity exists.

Nappalos argues for intermediate organization as a step toward mass movements and organizations. This is important; people doing intermediate activity need to improve in various ways, I discuss this again later, and we can best do so via a combination of organization and struggle. At the same time, it must be repeated that “Ultimately the mass level is the lifeblood of all struggles. Without the mass level, the intermediate and political levels are merely chasing winds.” While Nappalos is somewhat pessimistic about our ability to successfully build and maintain mass organizations in the present, doing so is a necessary task. Mass level struggles are what make intermediate levels activity matter. Intermediate-level organizations that try to take themselves as self-sufficient, or are excessively self-involved instead of getting involved in mass work, are a dead end. Some organizations that see themselves as revolutionary political organizations are actually this sort of intermediate organizations. Our route, then, is from the intermediate level to the mass level and back again, in a self-expanding spiral. To quote Nappalos again, “people are transformed in struggle and organizations can be built through these transformations”, which in turn engage in transformative struggle and expand or rebuild organizations, which engage in struggle… and so forth.

One additional note here: the point about intermediate level organization should be a matter of how we measure success as much as a matter of our other practices. Intermediate level organization is crucial to the success of mass organization as I tried to discuss above and, in his essay “A New Workers Movement in the US: A proposal for a refoundation through the intermediate level”, here

It is worth noting again that this perspective preserves the crucial emphasis on doing mass work, but it also emphasizes that we do not judge success simply by victory in the mass work. From this perspective, success is judged by increase in the quality and quantity of militants as much or more than success in the aims of mass struggle. To build on this point, I now turn to a discussion of the trajectories of struggles.

Trajectories of Struggles
As revolutionaries, we need to think long term. We need to be prepared for how struggles are likely to play out. We also need to understand how a struggle fits into our longer term vision. That is not say we should be opportunistic or treat struggles as simply means to our ends, but we need to not take any particular struggle as fully an end in itself. We want to win any particular fight, but we also know that until the end of capitalism all struggles are limited. We want to do our best to win particular fights and to make connections between particular struggle and the larger struggle for revolution. We have to walk with people through the trajectories of struggle in ways that are informed by our perspectives as revolutionaries.

Struggles have a trajectory to them, sort of like breathing. They rise. They fall. Conflict heats up. It cools off. Every struggle is different but whatever the specifics, these dynamics play out. Hopefully the end point is better than the beginning. Often individuals’ participation in a struggle follows a similar arc.

When in the middle of a struggle, it often takes up so much of our time and attention that we don’t think beyond the end point of the struggle. This is understandable. But the perspective of a specific single struggle is incomplete.

Each struggle is an individual arc, like in the picture above.

Over all a more long-term perspective we see a sequence of arcs, like in the second drawing. Each arc has an endpoint. This endpoint shapes the conditions for the next arc. The individuals are different after an arc of struggle; the organization is different, and so on. As always we hope the ending of one struggle, the end of one arc, is higher than when it began. We hope that seeing one struggle through to the end sets us up to be better place for the next struggle. We can’t guarantee this. Sometimes the ending is worse than the beginning. Sometimes a failure undoes previous success. Sometimes one struggle, even a successful one, sets us up badly for the next struggle. These are realities we need to be prepared for.

Organizations Across Struggles
The mass organization exists over a sequence of multiple arcs of struggle. In this drawing the struggles are the black line and the dynamics of the organization are the blue line. The organization has a trajectory, just as struggles do. The organization is rarely fully ready for every struggle. Organizations are rarely fully adequate to any struggle. Most struggles challenge our capacity. These challenges are like exercise. Challenging our capacity helps us increase that capacity. The struggles make the organization develop. The organization develops and improves itself by participation in struggle. Also like exercise, if a struggle exceeds our capacity too much it can damage our capacity. Struggle usually make the organization stronger but they don’t always do so.

The organization is a resource in any particular arc of struggle as well, improving the course and outcomes. The mass organization can be a headache and a drain on time and energy sometimes as well. In general, the organization contributes to struggles and also gains from it. It gain members, members gain confidence and dedication and learn new skills.

The organization has its own dynamics independent of individuals. This controversy or that falling out can weaken the organization which can in turn weaken struggles. People involved in a struggle may attend some event for the organization – say, a long convention which uses parliamentary procedure and deals with important but technical questions about finances – and find the event makes them less interested in the organization and perhaps the struggle as well. The event may be necessary for the organization and even a success for the organization but it may still have negative or mixed effects on struggles. People can also meet other members, attend a convention or training, and come away more committed, more confident, more capable, and so become more of a resource.

Over all, we should measure the organization’s adequacy both in terms of each particular struggle and even more so in terms of the over all tendency – in general, across time and across multiple struggles, what are the trends? In what ways are we advancing? In what ways are we moving backward or stagnating? There aren’t any final answers to these questions, they’re things we have to keep asking periodically to assess our activity.

The mass struggles and mass organizations relate to political organizations and their members. On this drawing, the red line represents political organization. The blue line represents mass organizations, an important part of the ability to wage the mass fights. Here the black line represents mass struggles in sequence. The red line is shaped by the others but it is not identical to them. Struggles challenge these organizations – the members of these organizations are challenged by the struggles just like anyone else. Organizations’ ideas are challenged as well. Often mass-level losses undermine political organizations. Success at the mass level can do so as well, however. And in some cases, difficulties at the mass level do not have to undermine political organizations.

The mass struggle is about people fighting for what they want. Often at or immediately after high points of mass struggle, people get more of what they want. Here the black line represents is the intensity and trajectory of mass struggles in sequence. The arcs of individual struggles, and especially the high points, have the potential to radicalize individuals. At these moments, people move from fighting hard from what they wanted when they started their involvement in a struggle into wanting something new. These individuals become new radicals, with a new need for justice, a new need to struggle, and/or tight bonds with others in the struggle.

Struggles also challenge political organizations – the members of political organizations are challenged by the struggles just like anyone else. The organization’s ideas are challenged as well.

Over all, the political organization should seek to learn as much as possible from each struggle, to maximize the transformative effect of each struggle, and to unite as many of the people radicalized by each struggle. The political organization is autonomous from, yet intimately connected to struggles. It can advance in some ways without struggles but over all without an adequate relationship to struggles the organization stagnates. Struggles also do not guarantee that the political organization will advance.

Revolutionaries should be as clear and sharp as glass. The mass struggle provides the heat from which glass is made. Often the mass struggle declines after a crushing defeat, but it can also decline after a serious victory, as I discussed above about union contracts. The mass struggle will ebb and flow – we will lose sometimes in mass struggles, and sometimes we will win but in ways that create more problems or set us back as revolutionaries and set back the emancipation of our class. History does not only advance.

Our orientation should be to get as many into the trajectories of mass struggles. We also want to shape the trajectories those individuals trace. In this drawing, the blue arcs are a sequence of mass struggles. The black lines are trajectories of some individuals. The high points of these individuals’ arcs are the moments of greatest performance in struggle and greatest potential for individual transformation (though they are represented the same here, in reality these moments are not necessarily identical). As organizers, we want as many people involved as possible. We don’t just want to win the particular struggle, though, we want to think long term, and as revolutionaries we don’t just think about the long term prospects of mass struggles. Unfortunately, some people will deviate, quit, burn out, and so on. This happens in response to the intensity and demands of struggles; it happens in response to victories as people draw the wrong conclusions, grow complacent, or simply need to take the opportunity to rest; it also happens in response to failures of mass struggle, not depicted here. Without organization and effort to maximize the positive effects on individuals – without deliberate effort to try to shape these dynamics while they occur and to try to retain the positives afterward – the results are much worse than when we do make these efforts, even though effort is no guarantee of success.


There are different ways to measure the arc of a struggle and a sequence of multiple arcs. We can measure these in terms of “bread and butter” gains and in structural terms: what did we win? Measured this way, in “bread and butter” terms, if we win anything, generally we see a clear rise in the arcs of the struggles. We have more than when we started – more money, better conditions. In structural terms, we can think about how a struggle sets us up in relation to an opponent or opponents – are we on better footing, or worse, in terms of our ability to exert power?

In union struggles, measured according to gains, workers advance by winning wage gains and better conditions. Often inflation reduces the value of these gains over time and management tries to erode gains over time through a variety of measures. This means that workers often begin the next struggle at a somewhat lower level than the end point of the last struggle, in terms of wages, benefits, and conditions. Employers also take steps to erode power – dividing workers, discouraging workers from fighting, and so on.

Another way to judge the arc of a struggle or sequence of struggle is by the organization’s commitment and ability to fight but begin a trajectory which lowers our ability to fight next time. We might see huge gains as result of struggles which in turn allow us to get bigger gains in the future without having to wage such intense struggles. Over time this can erode the mass organization as a fighting organization, which can lead to losses in the face of attacks which seek to reverse old gains. Those losses in turn can perhaps motivate re-organization, rebuilding a culture of fighting. To put it another way, a fighting organization involves qualities and abilities that are like muscles. If our muscles go unused, they atrophy. If our muscles are over-used, they strain and we are temporarily (and in some cases permanently) set back. I’m not sure of clear measurements for identifying in advance what is sufficient exercise of the muscles of our fighting capacity, I think above all we need systems in place to get feedback on what’s happening at any particular moment, in a way analogous to how people need to ‘listen to their bodies’ in exercise.

In this drawing, the yellow line represents the dynamic of struggles for four successive contracts in a union. There is an upward arc. Immediately after the peak of each arc there is a contract negotiated. The green boxes represent the moments when the contract is negotiated. The line slowly declines due to inflation and management attacks. There is a second upward arc, higher than the last, an even better contract. The line declines. The third contract involves many concession and takebacks and no increase at all. The fourth contract is better. The black line represents the quantity and quality of the membership and cadre of the organization and the organization having a culture of fighting. Over the first contract fight the lines are similar. The organization builds to the contract and builds from the contract. The organization fights hard for the second contract and wins a lot. The organization improves temporarily as a result of this, but become complacent. The organization is not ready for the third contract fight. The contract is a bad one compared to the last contract. The loss deflate the organization further for a time, until the organization makes a strong push to prepare for and fight to win on the fourth contract. These dynamics happen often with union contracts but they are not limited to contracts. Organizations fight, win (or lose), then rest. When we rest, we either move forward along a plateau, prepare for a new upsurge, or things deteriorate. This is more or less true for all mass organizations, all experience arcs and sequences somewhat like this.

In the drawing above, the yellow line and the black line are related: wins and losses effect the organization, and the organization shapes whether or not we win or lose, and how much. Each line also represents a different way to evaluate a struggle and an organization. The yellow line represents a measurement in dollars and sense – in the contents of contracts. The black line represents a measurement of the organization’s commitment and ability to fight. We might win a huge victory but begin a trajectory which lowers our ability to fight next time. We might see huge gains as result of struggles which in turn allow us to get bigger gains in the future without having to wage such intense struggles. Over time this can erode the mass organization as a fighting organization, which can lead to losses in the face of attacks which seek to reverse old gains. Those losses in turn can perhaps motivate re-organization, rebuilding a culture of fighting.

Plans and Reality
These trajectories occur in struggles and sequences of struggles. We should make projections and set goals for what we expect to see and what we intend to accomplish across struggles and sequences of struggles. Of course, our plans for struggles – our goals, strategies, and tactics – rarely play out exactly how we hoped. We push forward against a strong wind of opposition, this usually pushes us at least partially off the course we had planned to steer. Still, having clear plans is important. Plans provide idealized arcs and sequences which we can use to measure our progress and evaluate our successes and failures. These courses we chart are not the same as the courses we actually take, but if we do not chart a course then the course we actually take will be much worse, and we will be less likely to understand what course we are actually taking.

This is particularly important for those of us concerned with building long term workplace-based mass organizations. In general, mass organizations are under pressures tied to the dynamics of struggle. These pressures encourage mass organizations to manage struggle sometimes. I like to use the metaphor of a kerosene lamp to describe how mass organizations are pressured to behave. A kerosene lamp has components that create fire, that sustain fire, that contain fire to keep it from getting above a certain temperature and from spreading or joining up with other fires. Mass organizations create class conflict, sustain class conflict, manage class conflict to keep it from getting too hot, and prevent it from spreading around the class. For unions the managerial roles are built in to the labor law, to encourage or force unions to contain workers’ struggles. The National Labor Relations Act when originally created had a preface that argued that collective bargaining was necessary for labor peace. In our efforts to organize, we should be clear about these different relationships to the fire of class struggle. We should also seek to build organizations that have the first few functions – creating and sustaining struggle – while avoiding or minimizing the containment functions.

This is easier said than done, though. One challenge we face in building such organization is that we lack clear models with strategies that describe the arc of struggle we hope to achieve. That is, we lack well charted courses to where we want to go. The maps we have are often defined more by what we want to avoid – with large sections marked “here be monsters!” – without clear plans to get to the destinations we want to arrive at. We need better courses charted, even though we know we will be blown off course. We need to have articulable, imaginable short term visions for what we intend to accomplish and how, as part of beginning and maintaining the trajectories of struggle involved in moving people from mass to intermediate and intermediate to mass level work.

Cadre and Components, Development and Division of Labor

Every organization and struggle has key people who do the work that the organization needs. I like to call them cadre; I know some people are unhappy with that term. Cadre are the people who form the core of a struggle or organization. Organizations should aim to come away from struggle and organizations with more and better cadre. Over all, we want to continue to increase the numbers of capable, confident, and committed people. We also want to increase the ability of our cadre: we want to increase our cadre quantitatively and qualitatively. In my view, cadre should be committed to a long-term vision beyond single arcs of struggle and, ultimately, beyond capitalism.

There are cadre of political organizations and cadre of mass organizations/mass unrest. In my view, in the present in general today we have a very strong need for more better cadre, both mass and political cadre. Currently, in general, mass cadre are further along than political cadre. There are two main tasks to my mind for political cadre right now. One is to do whatever the variety of things are that are involved in becoming mass cadre. The other is to build relationships with existing mass cadre. From there, then those people who are self-consciously revolutionary and are, for lack of a better word, objectively cadre of the class/of the mass struggles/organizations, then those people will be able to figure out the tasks of truly revolutionary struggle. For now it seems to me that the main task of actually existing political organizations (proto-political proto-organizations) is to push that process of cadre development.

By “development” I mean improving the quality of cadre, by learning lessons from struggles and discussions and reflection. Struggles are potentially transformative. As we walk with people through the trajectories of struggle, we hope to maximize this transformative potential.

There at least five components to struggles and organizations and the lessons we take away from them. Each component is one area where a struggle and a sequence of struggles poses challenges to us. These are vision, goals, strategy, tactics, and logistics. Vision is the ideology and theory of the organization and our ability to assess current reality. Goals are where we want to get to. Strategy is the plan to get there. Tactics are the individual components of the plan. Logistics are the implementation and competency in carrying out tactics. Struggles and sequences of struggles require some of each of these components and that’s why they pose challenges to our abilities in each of these components. Here too we can think of each of these in relation to a single arc of struggle and over the long term across a sequence of multiple arcs or across multiple sequences of struggle.

It is easy to think of these five parts as involving a linear progression, like this: people learn and master some logistics – they become very good at carrying out specific tactics. Then they learn and master tactics – they become very good at formulating and planning a specific range of tactics related to one strategy. Then they learn and master strategy – they become very good formulating strategy related to specific goals. Then people become good at setting goals. Over the course of this progression, people become better at assessing where we are currently and they deepen their social vision and add to our collective understanding of our social vision.

Things rarely are so even and linear, however. It would be nice, but in reality, people have uneven abilities with these different sorts of components. Someone may have an excellent understanding of social vision and worldview and be able to speak eloquently about this vision. That same person may not be very good at determining strategy or carrying out tactics. Someone may be excellent at specific tactics – for example, they might have great abilities in conducting face to face conversations with people in order to get them interested in being involved in the campaign – and a moderate grasp of social vision, but have a poor understanding of how to formulate tactics and strategy. Someone may have excellent ideas about strategy for campaigns, but have poor people skills and so be bad at aspects of the implementation of tactics. In general, organizations need cadre who are strong in all of these areas. That is to say, organizations need to be able to do each of these components well.

Ideally, the organization will have cadre who are good at all of these components. In reality, as discussed above, people are better at something and worse at others. Over all, we need to strike a balance between winning the fight and developing cadre. This is a distinction between development and division of labor. Development means people should take on tasks that challenge their capacities, particularly capacities that they are not as good at. Strategists should improve their ability at logistics. People who are excellent at the logistics of specific tactics should improve their understanding of how to set tactics. On the other hand, we need to balance this education and development with the needs of the organization and the struggle at the moment. Sometimes, if a component is especially important, it is better to have the people who are best at that component focus on that work – have the best strategists formulate strategy, have the people who are best at logistics of specific tactics carry out those tasks, and so on. This division of the labor often makes us more effective in the short term, in order to have a struggle go as good as possible. This division of labor is in tension with the need to develop new cadre and for cadre to be as good possible at each component. Each individual involved should experience some aspect of development as well. Each individual follows an arc during a struggle, an arc with multiple lines, including these different components. There are no hard and fast rules that determine what to prioritize. Balancing these priorities is itself a skill and something which should be a conscious aspect of our strategies. In general, we should be deliberate about what we prioritize and every campaign should include some aspects of division of labor and some aspects of development.

Winning What We Want And Changing What We Want

So far I have mostly talked about measuring struggles in the terms of the mass level. Revolutionaries should measure the organization’s adequacy both in terms of each particular struggle and even more so in terms of the over all tendency – in general, across time and across multiple struggles, what are the trends? In what ways are we advancing? In what ways are we moving backward or stagnating? Even more than thinking long term, however, as revolutionaries, our measurements are not the same as mass-level assessments. As revolutionaries we do not measure our successes simply in the terms of union contracts (and their analogs in other forms of mass struggle) and our ability to win such contracts in the future.

I agree with Scott Nappalos about strategic priorities for the time being — do mass work to radicalize, push radicals to do mass work in order to be better at it. People should have experiences that increase their competencies in the various facets of this work. People even more need experiences that radicalize them – that expand or revise their vision.

Our emphasis should be on mass work with two goals: radicalization of others, to get more cadre, and education of current cadre. The struggle teaches people and people can radicalize quickly, suddenly based on experience. Conflicts create these moments of potential sudden leaps in consciousness (as do objective conditions, which I have entirely neglected here, in my subjectivist mode). Alongside this, to retain lessons and maximize effects, and to keep people in the fight, people also need relationships. Put simply, we have to walk with people. This was part of what I tried to convey with the discussion of trajectory, we have to orient toward accompanying people over the course of struggles in their collective and individual ups and downs. To an important extent, our emphasis on and role in developing people is also about providing an opportunity to build and strengthen relationships, so that we are best place to help produce and retain the outcomes we wish to see – more radicals, and more competent committed radicals.

A few threads that remain untied

I wrote this piece in the effort to think out some things that have been on my mind for a while. I have circulated the piece because I’d like help thinking about all of this, help taking this further. I’ve gotten good feedback from several people. I also have a couple other bits I wrote that I think are related to this. At the moment I’m not able to take all the feedback into account and the other fragmentary bits I wrote and revise it all to make this piece into a seamless whole. I don’t have the time and my thoughts aren’t coherent enough to do that yet. I’d like to do that eventually. At this point I’m still writing to unspool the ideas, writing to think. Eventually I’d like to clean this up and revise it substantially for the sake of presentation. In order to do that, I’d have to first follow these thoughts to the end of the thread. For now, I’m just going to respond to some of the feedback here and include the other bits that I think are related but don’t yet fit.

The main question I got from people in response was a politely-worded “so what?” That is, what changes if I think in terms of trajectories vs instances? I’m not sure about that. I don’t know how much this changes practice or not. I think one of the main take-away points for me is to be patient with people and, as a friend of mine says, walk with people. Have the patience to walk with people even if they’re currently heading in the wrong direction or moving at the wrong pace. Walking together gives us the ability to eventually shape people’s direction and pace. (Of course we need some standards, we don’t just walk with anybody…) One of the other take-away points is also about patience – be patient with the outcomes of struggles. Wins and losses will come and go; they’re a really big deal, but neither is the whole struggle. Huge wins in the short term don’t necessarily make huge contributions to the struggle to end capitalism and huge losses don’t necessarily set back the struggle to end capitalism. The connection between short(ish) term struggles in life under capitalism and the long term struggle to end capitalism is complicated. To my mind the main project in our political moment is to get more and better cadre, with strong relationships. That’s the third take away point for me, about patience, the need to be patient with comrades in order to preserve and strengthen relationships. Sometimes we have to be conflictual and make people angry in order to get our way. Sometimes, though, it’s better to lose a vote and walk out with stronger relationships that set one up, over the long term, to have greater ability to shape the organization. All of this feels like platitudes and truisms, maybe this is all obvious but it wasn’t for me. I had often treated each decision and disagreement in isolation, treating each as a decision about the direction of the collective effort. That’s true, but it’s possible to shape each specific decision for the better but still set up long-term problems by creating a culture of drawing lines in the sand or of unnecessary combativeness.

Specific feedback…

One friend asked why I use the term “struggles” instead of “campaigns.” That’s a good question. I’m for campaigns, by which I mean planned efforts with clear expectations. Often though on the left we find ourselves dealing with activity that started up without a clear plan and clear expectations (whether by others on the left or by workers who are not part of the political left). I think struggles in general have the dynamics I describe here, whether campaigns or not.

My friend also asked me what I meant about the relationships between political organizations and mass organizations and mass struggles outside of permanent organizations. In my view, members of political organizations need to be part of mass struggles and preferably mass organizations. To paraphrase my friend Scott Nappalos, the mass level is the life of the political level, without it the political level become empty. To use the categories of work I laid out earlier, I think a good short term goal for radicals is for there to be more of us, with better skills and abilities, and more relationships. This has two components, one oriented toward existing radicals and one oriented toward trying to make more radicals. Existing radicals should participate in mass work in order to get as good it as possible and to build as many relationships as possible. We should try to be placed close to aspects of conflicts that have transformative potentials, so that we have relationships with people who are undergoing experiences that have the potential to change them. We should use our relationships and those experiences to try to radicalize those people, so there will be more radicals. Through all of that, we will hopefully become more numerous, more capable, and more influential – because people will know us, care about us, and respect us so that they will take us seriously enough to at least listen and weigh things when we put forward our radical ideas.

My friend asked what the arc was actually measuring. The arcs are vague, I know. My friend pointed out with regard to my example of union contracts that the intensity of a struggle is not the only factor that shapes a contract. Larger economic and policy trends in different regions and industries can make it so that in one area workers build stronger more combative organizations but get a mediocre contract while in another workers build mediocre organizations and get a relatively better contract. The quality of a union and the quality of a union contract are somewhat independent of each other. Good organizations are not a guarantee of good contracts, and good contracts – especially on paper – are not necessarily evidence that a good organization exists. These are important points. All I meant here with the contract was to point out that there are different criteria of assessment. We should be clear on what we’re measuring and how. In my opinion, we should measure the quality of organizations and struggles according to where the people involved are at afterward in terms of class consciousness and ability. We want to have more people who are committed to struggle over the long term, who are pretty good at the practical aspects of struggles, and who are radicalized over time. In my view that’s the most important way to evaluate what happens, rather than other benchmarks such as wages and benefits (or union democracy, for that matter).

My friend also asks “how can you distinguish between “managing” struggles and simply being subject to the limitations of the exact dynamics of struggle that your piece investigates?” That’s fair as well. Forward is not the only direction. Sometimes we have to stop, or reverse, in order to be able to have the ability to advance in the future. I don’t have a clear answer here and I don’t know how to identify managing struggles from nonmanagement of struggle in general. All I can say for now is that in my opinion at least for the time being we should consider advance in terms of radicalization, taking tiny steps toward moving our class as a whole toward opposing capitalism openly and consciously, which is not really an answer.

Another friend noted that my squiggle drawings conflate the intensity of struggles with capacities to carry out struggles over time. Struggles do follow an arc in terms of intensity – they rise, they fall. What about capacity, though? In my view, our capacity to fight (and to hang in there over time), both as individuals and as organizations, varies and is not linear. We advance, we fall back. We gain new skills and determination, we reach roadblocks and wrestle with burnout, we gain new comrades who inspire us, some close comrades move away or drop out of the struggle. Ideally, we want rising capacity and, across our class more intense struggles with shorter valley or no valley at all between the peaks.

I also want to note that I think more capable and committed long term organizations can raise the ability and quality of mass struggles (they don’t necessarily do so, we all know of left activities that have caused problems), but absence of these things doesn’t mean struggles are impossible. We can always be surprised, spontaneous upsurges can happen, but we shouldn’t worry much about planning around that.

Speaking of spontaneism, my friend suggested I might have too spontaneous of a conception of struggles. That wasn’t my intent (though it’s refreshing to hear that I sound spontaneous, as I feel like I’m often being told I don’t believe enough in the spontaneity of the masses). What I meant here was that I think the existing radical left is relatively disconnected from and unimportant for mass struggles. The radical left is often behind – is less advanced than – mass activity at the moment. That’s why I think a key initial task is for radicals to learn lessons from mass work – initially lessons on how to carry out mass struggle better, and then political lessons. The radical left should play a positive role in mass struggles, I’m not sure we do much of the time. In order to do so I think we should first priorities building ability at mass work and gaining cadre, as I’ve said repeatedly here. That’s not the same as trying to play a shaping role toward the mass struggle accomplishing its own goals – as I tried to say, our measure of success should be how does the radical left advance. I think we will generally advance by doing things that advance mass struggle (or help us learn how to advance mass struggle) but success according to the terms of the mass struggle is not exactly the same as success judged from a communist perspective.

This friend also pointed out that while these criteria of success are different, they’re not fully independent: people need motivation to stay in the fight, whether radicals or not, whatever the fight is. For communists acting in mass organizations and mass movements, we have to be aware of the criteria for success that are present in the mass level. An advance at the mass level is not necessarily an advance from a communist perspective. Yet mass level criteria are an operational concern for communists seeking to bring about what communists consider an advance. To be more concrete: better wages, more union democracy, an intense conflict, all of these are important on their own terms but they are not necessarily important from a communist perspective. We have to engage with these on their own terms in order to draw out communist potentials and win over more people to radical ideas.

This friend also suggested, rightly, that my piece talks more about individual radicals than it does about organizations. He said “this consideration should be more focused on the development of the movement (as opposed to development of particular militants within the political organization and as opposed to just winning a particular campaign.) Winning the campaign may be the best way to develop the movement; but in general the development of the movement should be the goal (as it sets us up for long-term change) with the winning of particular campaigns being secondary goals in themselves as well and functional means to that primary goal.” I think this is right. At the same time, I think the organization should be judged by the trajectories of the individuals within it… while at the same time individuals are networked with each other (in ways that raise questions about the idea of “individuality”). Another way to put this is that I think we should worry first and foremost about what our membership and our constituency looks like after a struggle, above issues of organizational structure or organizational reputation. I think organizations advance when they gain more and higher quality members who are more committed to the fight. Of course, this neglects all kinds of important issues about what individuals ought to do together – how to struggle, how organizations should be organized – and those are key issues for making individual radicals actually effective.

Fragments I couldn’t figure out how to include…
I feel simultaneously like my closest comrades and I always disagree and like we never disagree – we have moved together in practice and in theory in a process that has put forward new questions and issues. Each time there’s been a new range of questions and issues to deal with we’ve taken various views, discussed them, disagreed, then achieved agreement and the process has repeated. At any given point in time we probably disagree on several things within the current field of questions and issues we’re working through, but also we’ve moved along a shared trajectory together over the past several years and continue to do so. It’s like we’re in a van driving to a destination – at any given moment we may have different positions within the current space the van occupies but we’re still in that common space moving together. To my mind, what we’re trying to do is build spaces that will move forward and get them moving – like with the van analogy – and our real assessments should be about the trajectories of individuals and of those spaces over time. The working class is very contradictory and any organization that exists will also have internal contradictions. The way to assess organizations should be the trajectory over time, the trajectory of the organization over all and the trajectory of where most individuals are going as part of their involvement is very positive over the past few years and looks to continue to be so.

Considered as a dynamic thing, as a changing pool of people who are on a trajectory, a good organization is not one that avoids problems. Problems will occur and recur. Rather than unity in a straight-forward sense and lack of disagreement, we should judge according to what the problems are that we face over time. Do we deal higher quality problems over time? Do we see creative experiments in responding to persistent problems? And of course, what do we see in the membership in quality and in quantity.

We should also recognize that people can change their minds. Some of the time when people hit a wall, they head off to the right. That’s a problem, but right-wing deviations are not necessarily permanent. Some deviations are worthy of breaking over, but not all are. If we allow the room for experimentation in theory and in practice, we have a greater chance to maintain relationships which can correct deviations. When people take up mistaken perspectives, if we keep relationships with them we can try to change their minds in better and worse ways (to my mind “better ways” require the freedom to try out their bad ideas, worse ways restrict their options and berate them), or we can kick people out. I don’t see any other options. Also, people often cross-participate: people work on campaigns that are problematic in their own work and volunteer time on better campaigns elsewhere. It’s all very messy. In addition, after people follow the arc of right wing deviations, they may come back to a correct perspective, especially if we keep relationships open and walk with people.

This applies in mass work and politically as well. We need to create spaces of engagement between multiple view points. There are standards of course, there’s a floor, a lower limit that forms a requirement for participation. That floor does not define all of our aspirations, though. We want more unity and higher quality than that, but that comes out of activity on that floor, within that space. So, we create a space of encounter, hope and encourage encounters to stick and become engagement. That makes it possible to walk with people across differences, and as a result (well, hopefully…) higher unity begins to result. This is not a matter of rejecting the goal of being hegemonic or having everyone think the same – I’m for that, the best ideas should set the standard/agenda and everyone should hold correct ideas. In fact, this is an attempt to achieve that goal where it doesn’t previously exist. In organizing, both at the mass level and in political organizations, we create frameworks for people to interact together. These frameworkes form a structure of opportunity, opportunities to meet people where they are and from that meeting to move them to a better position. This can look like an absence of position or agenda but doesn’t have to be. Again, we assess the progress/success of this sort of effort according multiple criteria, with an emphasis on longer term trajectories which will hopefully over time even out some of the unevennnes on the left and among the working class. Again, this will not be straightforwardly linear.

Final thought, on tasks of the class and of the organization. It’s important that we don’t confuse the struggle of the class with the tasks of any particular organization. Given the divisions in our class it’s good to have more than one working class organization. The class can have more than one organization working on aspects of its interests. There are different forms or structures for organizations, and multiple examples of each form. This can be inefficient, causing duplication of effort, but it can also be beneficial by allowing different organizations to experiment with different approaches. At present, and for a long time to come the working class and the left will form a sort of eco-system with multiple types of organization and multiple organizations of each type. I don’t have much to say about this except that our criteria of operation are different within an organization, between organizations, between individuals who belong to different organizations, and with regard to the bigger picture of the ecosystem itself. We need to balance developing individuals, developing organizations, and maintaining conditions in the social ecosystem, all in ways that, we hope, point toward preparing ourselves and the class for our long term revolutionary goals.

Taken from Recomposition.