What in the hell are Juan Conatz’ ideas on organization? - Klas Batalo

Recently a draft on organization by Juan Conatz a member of the Twin Cities IWW and former member of the Workers Solidarity Alliance and Wild Rose Collective appeared on his new wordpress blog dedicated to unfinished drafts and assorted thought fragments, a blog much like this one.

The piece is called “Liquidationism” and is some what of a sister piece to his earlier released “Fragmented thoughts on political organization”. The prolific Scott Nappalos has already written a reply here.

As can be seen on the piece at libcom.org I had previously already engaged much with these ideas. I haven’t re-read my comments on the threads there, but what I do remember was my frustration on how a lot of things were presented, mostly that the pieces seemed written out of frustration and burn out (for all Juan’s ranting about political organization/dual organization being taken from high periods of struggle, the concept of “liquidating” revolutionary minorities (political groups, revolutionary unions) into the general class movement (councils, etc) like the AAUD-E and many others Juan was inspired by at the time, is also an expression of a high period of struggle, so the rhetoric always came off a little hypocritical to me.) Despite all that I think there is a lot of clarity that came out of Juan’s agitated state around these issues, much I agree with and think should be and can be adopted by contemporary revolutionaries thinking about these questions.

Most of Juan’s thoughts on these matters were made into lists of separate theses style points of contention or reflection, so I will respond and reflect in turn to these.

1) Contemporary political organization in the United States in large part came out of the post-Seattle 1999 resurgence of anarchism and the subsequent disagreements with primitivists, post-leftists, counter-institution types, and insurrectionaries.

This assessment from what I can tell from my own study of history is rather correct. Prior to the late 90s early 00s most anarchists were either of the later type, or in political organizations like Love and Rage Revolutionary Anarchist Federation and/or class struggle/anarcho-syndicalist influenced organizations like the Workers Solidarity Alliance and the IWW. Around the end of the previous century mostly younger activists reflecting on their experiences in previous efforts or lack of anarchist organizations (by this period the WSA was down to only a few members) caught the platformism and then later especifismo bug.

2)So for a long while (and to a certain extent today), the purpose and main appeal if political organization was in part because of defining themselves against other anarchists. This is no longer an acceptable purpose.

I would generally agree with Juan here, mostly because as we have learned from the last decade or more is that because of the low state of class struggle and the influence from bourgeois/petit-bourgeois ideas within the left, many wingnut and alternativist ideas are going to remain mainstays. I also agree because at least since the crisis opened up clearly post-08, many within the anarchist movement have become more and more class struggle, many insurrectionists made a turn to Marx and the ultra-left and started reading Capital. Compared to a decade ago I think the general anarchist movement is more open to concepts of class war, and even compared to 2008 and 2009 the term is used more interchangeably with old fashionable ones like social war. Especially since Occupy all that was old is new again and there has been so much rediscovery of previous generations ideas by the new activists entering the anti-capitalist movement that many of the old distinctions have been obliterated on the ground.

3)Political organization has a tendency to take the types of conversations that should be happening in the wider class and instead places them primarily in closed groups between a very small amount of people. This is encouraged by advocating that a strict separation of the political and the economic must be maintained. However, it assumes that existing economic organizations are not already political and it is rarely gives an adequate explanation on how this differs from Lenin’s ‘trade union consciousness’, which anarchists and libertarian communists have always rejected.

I do not necessarily think that revolutionary minorities always 100% conform to taking conversations that should be happening in the wider class and separating them in small closed off groups. There is much more intermingling than I think Juan lead on to here, and this problem still exists for minorities trying to bring political education, development, and reflection into the IWW through projects like Recomposition, not everyone reads it and there is still much more work to be done via projects like it or by folks like the Wobblyist Working Group.

However there has at least historically and continues today to be a major trend within the platformist space that speaks of a need for an abstract separation of the political and economic. I think Juan is correct to point this out, and I do think that in North America and Europe (the West) this is mainly reflective of such groups and individuals thinking in these groups being influenced heavily by the historical Left (Old and New) and Leninist political spaces. In recent years much has been made about the concentric circles formulation of organizing, which while useful and even used in the IWW OT 101 (Know the Union, Hear the Union, See the Union), might not be the only way to see how revolutionary minorities should relate to other revolutionary and/or working class organizations. A comrade of mine who recently visited South America when talking to Chilean especifistas shared with me diagrams written by a comrade there that elaborated on a model much like a libertarian social alliance of revolutionary political groups, cultural associations, social organizations, and intermediate groups, that was represented by 4 spheres that all interact and mutually benefit each other on a horizontal basis. This was counter posted to a model closer to the concentric circles approach that is dominant on much of the Chilean left uses that saw a basically transmission belt hierarchical relationship between political groups, their front organizations, and mass/popular organizations. This same tendency dominant on much of the Chilean left I believe is so, because in general I think it is dominant on much of the Western left, platformism and was not immune to this conception, even if has seen it from a more bottom up within the class perspective. Tom Wetzel has been going on about the need for such bottom up social alliances or united fronts from below for quite sometime, similar to what I saw in the sketches by the Chilean comrade and I think there should be more experimentation with these ideas.

4)There has yet to be a serious and comprehensive assessment of the political organization experience since Seattle ’99. This includes successes/failures as well as current and now defunct groups.

I would agree that this has yet to be done. For instance a book on NEFAC never came out, and with the amount of turn over and burn out over the years it may be hard to do this properly, but I do hope some veterans of the movement would be willing to take the time to make some of these assessments (I’m looking at you Mike Harris, Flint, Truck Dee, and so on.)

5)Despite their rejection of building anarchist or radical left mass organizations ‘from scratch’, the strategy of social insertion (a type of boring-from-within) doesn’t seem to take into account the hundreds, if not thousands of leftist groups who have entered mass organizations in order to radicalize them1.

It also fails to account for the fact that many of the theories and the practice of the especifismo groups in South America have been developed after starting many new social, cultural, and popular level organizations on a libertarian / radical left wing basis in competition with larger social forces. This does not mean that they haven’t also involved themselves in pre-existing union federations and so on, but this complete oversight by many in the platformist/especifista milieu in North America and beyond I believe is a blind spot. Organizations that do mass work and mix libertarian or radical left politics are going to pop up and exist, refusing to relate to them on an abstract basis because of pragmatism or their impurity within your theoretical framework seems short sighted to me. There is also a note here basically about how this is boring from within, and how these political groups have had staff members or union officials in them. In my experience that has been more the exception than the rule, and so I think the note is a bit snarky.

6)The issue of formal VS informal as some sort of flagship identifier is nearly a false dichotomy, with some political organizations mostly being a listserv you pay dues to be on that occasionally sends out short statements of solidarity. Dwelling on whether something is ‘formal’ or ‘informal’ doesn’t take into account if the something is worth doing at all.

This is an old one, but I think Juan is pretty much on the ball here, except there has been increasing realization that there really is a need for emotional and political support for organizing. This has increasingly been a desperate cry from the less formalized space as it has encountered more and more repression over the last few years with comrades getting jail sentences or having to go into hiding, never mind basic support for sustaining momentum and organizers. The key difference though is over organizing or not organizing, less formal organization or informal organization. Informal and formal practices will help keep up the initiative to organize, formal revolutionary minorities should take head and try to adapt to be more flexible and reduce useless bureaucracy. This is as much true for the IWW (possibly even more so) than the political organizations which often tend to be much more informal. In many places the IWW is also paying to be on a listserv just to be privy to flame wars and leftist spam. I am also surprised with this sentiment of not getting what one paid for, and it comes off as a very service minded impulse, i.e. that the union or political group didn’t do enough for Juan. Perhaps that is true enough in his case, but I think as revolutionary unionists it makes sense to abide by the principle “you are the union” more often than we think is necessary. That is sort of the informal drive and practices that we need to continue to foster, beyond formal accountability.

7)Despite talk of ‘theoretical and tactical unity’, the actual projects members are involved in as a main activity includes the internal functions of the political organization itself, mainstream unions, the IWW, solidarity networks, Occupy, what amounts to internal reading groups, workers centers, co-operative projects, Food Not Bombs, etc. or…an extremely wide range for a relatively small group of people.

Low blow with the FNB, jk. I mean it’s true that various comrades have had a plethora of various political activist or organizing commitments. What I think this misses is that it is not clear always (especially from the outside) what is considered to be the political work and focus of organizations. I do think it would behoove revolutionary minorities to publicly and internally spell this out more in their strategy documents. I have often seen this sentiment come from people getting disillusioned with platformism, that is something along the lines of “where the hell do you get off with not having tactical unity, I thought I was joining a platformist organization.” Assessments of common work have regularly been done over the years, but they probably do not happen enough, and reflection on common political work, never mind strategic prioritization of such work, in common spaces (like conferences, organizing summits, etc) is certainly sorely lacking. At this point I think we can only recognize the problem and try to strive for better.

8)Branching off the lack of assessment on the experience of contemporary political organization, there is no formalized resource for passing down skills and knowledge. There are no trainings or documents that help members do the activity the groups say they exist for, nor any effort to make sure members get to trainings or have resources that do exist in other groups.

I believe this is reflective of Juan’s experience with such organizations, and I believe I said as much in the previous Libcom.org thread over a year ago. Part of this is a big reason for my push for the little city based local organizations to regroup so to have more capacity and enter into more dialogue with the larger organizations like Common Struggle or WSA. However lack of capacity and abled minds and bodies has hamstrung such efforts towards development and prioritization of training new militants often in the larger organizations as well (we’re not talking much larger, more like a few dozen people compared to under 10). However though WSA has had a rocky experience with this over the years, I’ve had a great experience with this because of Common Struggle. Comrades really did take the time to point me in the direct of trainings, and making it financially possible for me to go to them, and encounter spaces of political development. Until I joined political organizations, I didn’t even come into contact with many thinking about political education and organizing development within the IWW. I had to find these people, and especially many of the people around projects like Recomposition because I joined the political groups, and they came from that space. Scott Nappalos touches on this briefly in his piece when he says:

In our relatively recent experience we’ve come to see the need for deepening the politics of the IWW, and finding a way to do politics more explicitly in our day-to-day work. I think that’s a move towards anarchosyndicalism and within the tradition. In practice though I think it’s fair to say that the people who have experimented the most with that are people more in the political organizational world. In fact some of the wobs, who can speak for themselves, who started doing political work in the workplaces were drawing from some of those traditions and experiments directly. I know my own advocacy of those positions came from engaging with anarchist and marxist experiences in latin america that questioned education as instruction, and that within the CSAC millieu those perspectives led to a number of experiments along those lines. Not much to show for it, but the thinking and practices did expand, and the IWW has benefited, even if indirectly.

Anyway it is clear that this continues to be a dire objective for all revolutionary minorities to fulfill and continue experimentation with.

9)As there is no formalized way to pass down skills and knowledge, there is a huge gulf between older, more established individuals (mostly in major metro areas) and newer, younger and less established people (many in smaller cities, towns and isolated rural areas).

The IWW and most mainstream unions are also not immune from this dynamic, and it can be seen across the country within the left. We need to have more of a federalist impulse to focus outwards instead of focus inwards towards political centers. When we have actively done this we’ve seen growth in places that beforehand did not have organization, we have to constantly remind comrades in the bigger political centers to put in more effort into focusing at least part of their operations on sustaining at large and more rural or on the periphery local groups.

10)Often dominating the dialogue, agenda and concentration of the political organizations are those who speak mainly of theory and ‘internal education’. The need for developing organizing skills and experience is secondary. This begs the question of what is a political organization VS what is a reading and discussion group.

This point though it has validity I do not think is totally dominant. Whereas some groups may have tended more towards discussion circles, I’ve had the experience of groups at least moderately functioning as spaces for networking and pointing members in the direct of developing their mass work and organizing skills. In the end run this boils down to needing to assess the purpose of such activity and it’s importance (and/or personal reflections by individuals why they are engaging in such activity). I have seen people also leave revolutionary organizations (including IWW), not because they were not pointing people towards organizing, but because they did not do enough new theoretical development. So certainly the tendency is there, (there is always going to be theory nerds, especially disgruntled ones) but I do not think it is a majority characteristic of such organizations.

So far my exploration of Juan’s ideas has focused primarily on his first piece (a year after re-reading it) but I am most excited about his new piece on “Liquidationism” where he assesses that it is either “…time to get actually serious.’ or ‘Formal political organization isn’t useful’.” He states and as the title implies that he is more in favor of the latter, though he does share with the readers enough humble doubt about whether these things are inherent to political organizations as such (at the time of his writing) that I give him mad respect for at least having a some humility about these ideas. However again, the thrust of the piece is “a critique of formal political organization as a useful project for anarchists and communists in the United States right now.

First it is important to realize why Juan thought it was needed to write such a piece:

Some of this has been directed at groupings or currents seen as too disorganized, undisciplined or too ‘ultraleft, whether that means insurrectionary anarchists, primitivists, anarcho-syndicalists or whatever variety of communist. Very rarely has there been much of a worthwhile response. Mostly any response comes as sniping comments on a website or from the formerly more common‘post-leftist’ perspective.

In addition, those of us from the milieu who may have a critique that speaks the language of the formal political organizations mostly keep silent and don’t write them out of a fear of making people they respect become mad or offended. The defensiveness is understandable if one remembers the uncomradely and hostile tone from certain camps during the formation of NEFAC in the early 2000s. It’s understandable, but unfortunate.

I think this is admirable, and I appreciate his honesty in wanting to put forward a more substantial critique, even if I do think it’s a bit late in reply to the organization (formality [red]) vs anti-organization (informality [green/post-left]) flame war era of the last decade. It is probably useful though as a reflection without having to deal with the young vitriol from those early days, and a useful counter-point to new generations to try to be more considerate and open minded to critique. Now on to Juan’s points from “Liquidationism”:

-The need and usefulness of political organization is directly tied to the existence of fighting organs of the class. If they do not exist, it is the task of ‘pro-revolutionaries’ to build them. But build what kind?

Because most of the documents and groups the POs are influenced from were written at a time of intense struggle, with large mass movements or organizations already existing, the interpretation expresses itself as looking at already existing mass organizations and advocating involvement. However, besides spurts of movements here and there, there are little to speak of. The ones that do exist are so intertwined with the state, capital or non-profit industrial complex as to make them virtually immovable when it comes to pushing them be combative organs of the class with the potential for communist content.

I believe Juan is pretty much right in his assessment here (despite my previous small point that he also takes from high points). But overall what the current POs or traditional platformist view seems to misunderstand or has had to grapple with is this dilemma here. Even before the high points most of the organizations in the low points of struggle in the old workers’ movement were illegal and also had to be fighting organizations.

Like Juan points out most mass organizations of the name, though they may have mass numbers on paper, are usually not actively in motion, i.e. the space to move and create them into fighting organizations is very limited. Because of this I think the tendency to write off creating new libertarian or revolutionary organizations with a focus on and strategic prioritization of mass organizing, or propagandizing for such where we have little capacity is misguided. It is very clear that what the workers movement needs is new fighting mass organizations, and the current trade unions and NGOs are inadequate. This has basically been apparent since the 1920s/1930s, when we saw Leninists turn towards red unions, and council communists turn towards ‘workers unions’ not dissimilar to the revolutionary unionism of the anarcho-syndicalists. There is a need for new libertarian class wide and industrial focused strategy built on the embryo of creating new independent workers committees and worker controlled and self-managed organizations.

This isn’t a complete write off of intervention where it makes sense in the trade union or NGO space, but about strategic prioritization of developing new organizing that does not replicate the mistakes of the past major wave of struggle, by learning from it’s defeat.

-Political organization has not been shown to assist much with the building of these formations and when they do, the time and energy associated with being involved in a political organization interferes with participating in the building of these formations.

I think this is a bit of a chicken or the egg type of question. For instance the IWW at one point in the late 70s early 80s had about as many members as those forces that could have propagated the need for new independent anarcho-syndicalist style unions. Anarcho-syndicalists at that time were split between those who went on to become Anarcho-Syndicalist Review who favored building the IWW into a revolutionary union from it’s former state as an essentially wobbly propaganda group, and the comrades of the Workers’ Solidarity Alliance. Through the 90s and even probably up to now the IWW has existed more as a revolutionary union initiative in most places (to steal a term from Solidarity Federation in the UK). Even for the last few decades Solidarity Federation and before that the Direct Action Movement and so on, had existed as an anarcho-syndicalist propaganda group focusing on the need to gather more people who were in support of creating revolutionary unions and doing mass organizing. If WSA had put itself in a similar sort of position to develop itself with a perspective of transforming into an anarcho-syndicalist revolutionary union initiative at some later date, we may have started to see more completely out anarcho-syndicalist unionism in the United States and beyond. The proletariat’s minorities were certainly not too afraid of the anarcho-syndicalist thrust groups like ASR and others (including many WSA members over the years) brought to the IWW.

My point is, we have to start somewhere, but I would agree the prioritization should be on trying to develop new organizing and going from being propaganda groups to opening up more possibility for what revolutionary minorities can do. Despite this there will always be a need in such organizations for making sure we develop our political thinking and capacity and trying to make sure it expands within the union and mass organizations, or as our organizations gain a more mass character. This is where one can see later on formation of groups like Recomposition or the Wobblyist Working Group as the more informal predecessors to dual organizational groups like the Friends of Durruti. In moving from making demarcations between political and economic to a political-economic perspective, we have to recognize that there is going to be an organic, and dialectical (possibly emergent?) relationship between politics and economics in the social struggle. If we start thinking in this way we can start superseding the who dual/mono organizationalist binary dichotomy.

-A sometimes stated purpose and function of political organizations is being the ‘memory of the class’. However, this can be accomplished with publications and blogs, which do not have attached to them large amounts of internal processes, structure, etc that can be a hindrance to building previously mentioned formations.

I agree with this, though it is sort of an odd argument against left political organizations, then when often that is all they have amounted to being, i.e. propaganda groups that put out a blog, magazine, newspaper. What is more on point is that there should be more flexibility and openness, i.e. less bureaucracy and crazy amount of internal process that makes even pro-organization folks start to question if they should become post-Left, especially if that is hindering the work of developing towards massification of our organizations and the struggle. Here the importance of social media has been key in showing how we can have a more two way relationship with those outside of our organizations, that will help us expand the reach of our ideas and thus transforming from minorities of revolutionary obsessives to becoming revolutionary mass minorities worthy of such a distinction.

-One of the primary tasks of anarchists and communists should be gaining organizing skills and experience, as theory should derive from practice. Political organization that does not absolutely prioritize this will tend to degenerate into an email list for people with time to argue on, that you pay to have access to. A political organization that does not prioritize their members gaining organizing skills and experience has a questionable purpose.

I largely agree with Juan here, though still think my critique of the service mentality to organization applies (it’s a minor criticism). I really think only propagating further these “new” theories and practices coming out of the anarcho-syndicalist experience will help us do this. I think it is mistaken to frame this as political organizations lacking this political impulse or theoretical understanding of the problem at hand. Dual organization in a serious original sense was always tied the emphasis put on connection and direct relationship to mass organizing. The problem is the weakness of left forces and the workers movement, and our commitment and capacity for a mass practice, not as much the theory gained from previous years.

-The IWW is not ‘apolitical’. It is an ultrapolitical expression of an ‘indigenous’ working class experience in North America. It has principles that guide its action and vagueness as an endgoal, similar to nearly all other organizations that claim a label like socialist, anarchist, etc.

Juan is basically on target here. The IWW is a revolutionary union, a minority of the class, and because we still have not had much experimentation except for the few high points of struggle starting to develop new ways of life, it’s vision is rather broad, probably as broad as the historical content that the IWA meant by free socialism or libertarian communism.

-One of the stated primary reasons for political organization has been along the lines of ‘gathering people who agree with each other for common work’. The ‘work’, more often than not, has been limited to the internal functions of the political organization itself, much of it having little to do with what is meant by ‘common work’.

This is hardly a new critique and is as old as Malatesta and others insistence that organization have a function. For this reason though, I think it is hardly inherent to political/revolutionary organization that it is forever doomed to being focused on internal process, otherwise like I said even the IWW would be doomed since it has much more bureaucracy than the smaller political organizations. Anarcho-syndicalist/anarchist communist work should look like striving to reduce this as much as possible internal to the organizations we participate in.

-If the dysfunctional nature of the political organizations are the fault of being spread too thin, it’s hard to see what can change this, other than fighting formations of the class arising.

While this is certainly true and there was a bump in capacity and membership during the Occupy period and a bit preceding it in the various organizations discussed, it has been noticed across the board that capacities are again lower. The only way to get pass this impasse though is to reject this councilist assertion here that we have to wait for fighting formations of the class arising spontaneously. We need to study more what makes and develops political and revolutionary actors, what sustains them. And we need to remember the old anarcho-syndicalist adage that we can build organization that fights now so we are prepared for when the higher periods of struggle break out so we can push them further. That said if such groupings in the USA refuse to build new organizations from scratch, it might amount to as much as a councilist interpretation of how to engage with struggle (we have to work in the trade unions for now because we are in a low period of struggle and revolutionary forms of organizing such as workers unions and councils will appear tautologically when a higher period of struggle erupts).

-The Friends of Durruti are often championed as one of the few shining examples of formal political organization. But they, unlike current FPO’s, did not see themselves as seperate from the CNT-AIT.

This is certainly true, and it seems sensible despite this that such projects internal to the mass movement and organizations of the class will be essential in future high periods, and that anarcho-syndicalist/anarchist communist work will be to sustain such critical projects.

But this is simply highlighting the facts, and how dual organization is theorized, worthy though it might be to inform some who may think of specifism as distinctly needing organizations separate and outside of the mass organizations. However unfortunately as Juan admits comrades have contested his “vague alternative indicated.” From this period of his writing I do not think he had one developed much further than these convictions that something was going really really wrong.

Our project now is to realize that in low periods of struggle there can be a use for such projects as publishing blogs, magazines much like Recomposition does, Anarcho-syndicalist Review and WSA continues to do with Ideas and Action, but these formations need to continue to find ways to move from being minority tendencies and transform towards massification through development, reflection, and hopefully actually doing organizing.

Originally appeared: September 20, 2013 at ¡klas batalo!