What if John Brown joined a nonprofit?

What if John Brown joined a nonprofit?

East Coast-based Leninist collective discussing the role of nonprofits in the workers' movement as part of the larger ideology of reformism.

1. Organic leaders

We find ourselves at a new beginning, one that is both similar but ultimately different from the old civil rights and labor movement of the 20th century. Everywhere and in every way, working-class youth, students, and oppressed peoples are being bombarded with messages on how to be leaders and fight poverty and oppression. On billboards, in subways, newspapers, and social media, a wide range of options are presented: college programs specializing in degrees like social entrepreneurship; social justice retreats and anti-racist initiatives organized by nonprofits; and church groups with a focus on gay, lesbian, queer, and transgender youth. All of these issues are what we should be fighting for unconditionally. That’s because the struggles against racism, homophobia, gender rights, and poverty are necessary in order to build a democratic and revolutionary movement of the working class.

It’s no surprise that more people are becoming radicalized in the midst of the largest social and economic crisis we’ve encountered in recent history. These uncertain times breed doubt and confusion, they have become the acid that eats away at ideas we were once so sure of or never really questioned. From the institutional role of the police to racial and social inequalities and more, it is clear that people are rightfully and finally demanding answers. When we look at history, we see that it has been a very small layer of working-class youth who reject those so-called, ready-made “answers” that are all-too readily offered to them by schools, churches, and even family. Revolutionary ideas are needed, especially as we begin to organize against capitalism and its associated evils. The system is in crisis, and our mission is to see that it finally ends it torturous role in degrading humanity. But not all those who stretch out their hands are our comrades. The following text is dedicated to the nonprofit organization, one of the most common obstacles and false friends that are in fact the enemies to the working class and oppressed peoples.

2. Counter-revolutionary forces

There was a time when the struggle of the working class was so strong and advanced, that even organizations which the capitalists and the state set up to pacify revolutionaries were turned against them. In the face of a revolutionary working class, all counter-revolutionaries eventually reveal their true faces. Today is different. We are living in a time where the working class is relatively passive in the face of capitalist attacks. Even so, there always exists the possibility for the struggle for socialism, the fight to bring about a new society in which poverty and oppression are being eliminated permanently. Who brings this fight will be the layer of class conscious workers, in tandem with people of oppressed communities such as Blacks, Latin@s, and women, and of course, the youth. They are out there as we speak, discussing revolutionary ideas, becoming interested in organizing their workplaces and standing up to oppression—and the capitalist class is very much aware of this.

Capitalists understand that their society is not equal and breeds discontent and anger. In fact in the years prior to the Russian Revolution, capitalists kept tabs on the workers’ movement and read revolutionary literature. Capitalists often use different tactics to mislead and break the workers’ movement, some more brutal and direct than others. Today, the nonprofit organization and the non-governmental organization a/k/a the NGOs take up the roles of redirecting the frustrations of activist and working-class youth in a similar manner.

Progressive community organizations which are centered around grassroots organizing is one type of nonprofit that has recently become successful in its ability to inspire and lead younger activists and youth. As a form of political organization, its roots can be varied. Some may have been part of a larger organization and split, others emerged as a response to an ongoing struggle, or there are even those consciously engineered by politicians. Whatever their roots are, they tend to be linked in some degree or manner to reformist or pro-capitalist parties. In what way are they linked? The Democrats or Greens know that just calling for elections alone will not rally this skeptical layer of activists and youth. Since 2008, street organizing and events have increased apart from the more mainstream practice of electoral politics. Democratic politicians and their strategists have also taken note of how movements like Occupy Wall Street and even the Black Lives Matters movement, have led people to either create or join existing organizations which stress organizing as a way to effect social change.

Such organizations are not restricted in terms of their political outlook or even membership. Of course, in order to establish a broad mass movement, any organization will need the inclusion and leadership of conscious workers, the oppressed, and youth. Because of the potentially powerful leverage they can provide to challenging the root of capitalist society, there will also a perspective that is not at all found in existing political parties in the United States. These parties, which have an agenda that is not for fundamental change our society, but rather in line with keeping the status quo the way it is, are very capable of co-opting nonprofit community organizations. They do this by providing them with money in exchange for their activist base which can funnel them votes. Their method of being successful at doing this can be everything from hosting summer retreats to extracurricular activities in high schools precisely in order to tap into the impulses of activists and youth who genuinely wish to make a change in the world. They foster a sense of solidarity, a sense of community and begin to see how they might be able to change the system from within. What ends up happening is that change is made, but not in a way that truly scratches the surface of how capitalist society functions and operates. In other words, the very real problems which afflict us on a daily basis are only addressed in superficial ways.

Nonprofits and NGOs are not interested working class liberation from exploitation and oppression. Regardless of their use of radical imagery and rhetoric, in the end they only offer more “humanized” versions of capitalism. But trying to create a more just and fairer capitalism is similar to like trying to create a friendlier virus—it can’t be done. At best, one will learn how to live and treat the illness, but there it remains, still inflicting its harm and crippling the body. The working class as a whole is suffering from wage-labor, from oppressive ideas and behaviors like racism and sexism. The nonprofits and NGOs just offer kinder versions of each.

3. Practical politics and reformism

What if the famous white abolitionist John Brown didn’t launch his attack against slave owners, but instead joined an anti-slavery nonprofit as an organizer? Chances are he would be able to keep his fiery sense of commitment to the cause, but would be encouraged to adopt a less-confrontational approach. The nonprofit leadership would urge Brown to be practical, to organize demonstrations to gain support of this or that politician. He would be told to write letters of dissatisfaction to the President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis—not demanding the abolition of slavery—but asking him to provide more suitable living conditions for the slaves. There would be lots of grant-writing involved. Brown’s nonprofit would draw attention to how bad working conditions for slaves hurts the economies of the Union and the Confederacy. They would solicit local businesses in New York and Boston to help fund projects on social entrepreneurship programs to help escaped slaves in the North.

Fortunately, Brown did not fall into such a trap. But that’s not to say that “practical politics” or even liberal nonprofit-style organizations lacked in mid-19th century America. Revolutions and class struggle do not spring from practical politics—they emerge in conflict against them. The freedoms we enjoy today can trace their origins to conflicts on the shop floor and in working-class communities, against the common political wisdom of the day. These range from material victories such as the eight-hour work day (down from originally 12 hours), to pensions, to the weekend. We have much to be thankful for in the workers’ movement and the abolitionists, and there is no better way to recognize the way forward than to learn from the victories and defeats of the past.

An organization forged out of struggle needs to be reminded of its origins and the reason why it fights the way it does. Political independence of workers and oppressed peoples’ organizations is vital in order to prevent them from becoming absorbed into reformism, the home of practical politics. In essence, reformism means accepting that capitalism is good for humanity and can be changed to serve that end. Reformism is dangerous because it is easy to fall into, its strategy, its buzzwords all come from “knowledgeable” experts. These experts are trained in the world of business, management, and social policy—areas which attempt to provide progressive organizations a sense of respectability and professionalism. Managers and managerial “science” often present their arguments as rational and inclusive to make their employees or members feel as if they are being empowered or supported. The reality couldn’t be further from the truth. They foster this atmosphere of inclusion only to further the goals of the company. These ideas easily flow into social movements, where nonprofits use their practices and money to recruit people to their ideas and methods.

The end result of accepting reformism, which is not always a conscious decision, is the establishment of a bureaucratic layer in the nonprofit organization. Bureaucratization is the elevation of a select few into positions of power in order to promote their methods of control. They ideas become converted and seen as “objective knowledge”, not as politics to be questioned. Bureaucrats manifest their control by having their members obey an increasingly rigid set of rules and procedures on how to conduct meetings and how to execute and plan actions. Through these rules and procedures, a certain method is created and held as the “legitimate” way of doing things. The revolutionary thinker Karl Marx wrote that: “The bureaucrat has the world as a mere object of his action.” When you examines the history of working-class struggles, you can observe how various reformist groups attempt to enter and redirect their focus and energy into a bureaucratic object. Those movements which have been effective have to fight a long and difficult battle in order to advance the struggle to achieve political independence. These fights are sometimes external, sometimes internal, depending upon how successful the reformists are in quelling and co-opting the movement’s leaders.

4. The necessity of a socialist perspective

The Russian revolutionary leader and theorist, V.I. Lenin once wrote: “All official and liberal science defends wage-slavery, whereas Marxism has declared relentless war on that slavery.” We can easily see how this applies to our current situation, adding: “All organizations which do not criticize and struggle against wage-slavery, defend it.” It is through the perspective of Marxism—the revolutionary theories for working-class socialism—where we can understand the need for revolution to bring real democracy and peace to our embattled world.

Because the socialist perspective is actively combated across the country, in churches, schools and so on, a correct understanding of it is hard to come by. It is normal in high school history classes for example to view figures like Lenin as devilish and equating him with Stalin. Even John Brown is portrayed in much softer, more liberal light, in spite of the fact that both Lenin and Brown fought mercilessly against capitalist society in their own ways. While we recognize the need for schools and mass education, they do the working and oppressed an immense disservice by laying the groundwork for reformist thinking and arguments. A correct understanding of socialism is therefore necessary. But why?

Socialism is a framework that can give you a better understanding of how to carry out revolutionary work. It is a perspective to help the working class identify traps set by reformists.To avoid these pitfalls, a commitment to reading and discussing of revolutionary history and theory are indispensable. Workers need to understand that while winning reforms like higher wages, better public schools, affordable healthcare, pensions, etc. are necessary, they can only be won through organizing their workplaces and communities. A bigger political picture must come into play in all actions revolutionaries engage. While workers fight for these reforms, they should avoid becoming victims to its thinking, reformism. Reformism is the virus which can be lived with—a socialist perspective is the vaccine.

Without a socialist perspective, these long histories of failure will continue to play themselves out on today’s workers like reopening wounds. Armed with socialist knowledge, workers need to form their own political organization to promote this perspective among themselves to combat reformist traps, regardless of how small they appear to be. Not only a perspective, but also a revolutionary party that is capable and up to the challenge of developing working-class militants, oppressed peoples, and youth to leading a struggle away from pro-capitalist parties and bureaucrats and to a future free of exploitation and oppression.

5. Socialist organization in action

Reformism is not a democratic movement or body of thought. It only projects in a superficial manner ideas which appear to be democratic, but in its daily internal operation it is just the same as a company. Its commitment to social justice and the like are firmly bonded within the system it wishes to reform, not overthrow. Reformism is not just limited to nonprofits, but also creeps into so-called socialist organizations which have become overtaken by unworthy leaders. Leon Trotsky relates this problem as a crisis in leadership of the proletariat–a crisis for correct, revolutionary leadership. And indeed there are many competitors for this leadership who are willing to stoop low in order to fulfill their own selfish or sectarian interests.

Not every organization who proclaims itself as socialist are therefore worthy of its name. What needs to be said in word at a rally needs to also be proven in deed when action must be taken. There are several ill-begotten strands of reformist behavior and tendencies which are unfortunately rife in the workers’ movement, here’s a few of them:

Workerism: Adapting to the lowest common denominator of a workers’ class consciousness.

Opportunism: Furthering selfish or sectarian interests in the movement.

Tailism: Merely agreeing or following the “tail” of the nonprofit leader or union bureaucracy with hopes of gaining the support of the base.

What is needed to fight reformism and its attendant behaviors is the true practice and understanding that is socialism, a democratic and revolutionary perspective that enables democracy within its ranks and holds leaders accountable and transparent. Ideas and actions ought to be agreed upon by democratic majority and mandate—not by corporate handbook strategies. So how does a socialist organization take on democracy among its own ranks?

Let’s say that members of a socialist organization are unevenly divided on what strategy to adopt. The majority holds and everyone agrees to do it their way. What does this mean for the minority? The minority vote does not cry unfair and walks away arms up in the air, frustrated. Rather, they agree to take on the action the way the majority wishes to, but explains that if that action fails, the entire membership decides to try it their way. The goal is advancing the class as a member of organization, not a sect that wishes to advance itself. The correct position or “correct line” must be understood through practice and experience, and should worked into an organization’s theoretical approach as well. This does not meant that the more successful strategists will always be correct. In another action, they might be wrong. That is why the Mid-Atlantic Revolutionary Socialist collective advocates for united front work and democratic agreement in order to assist the class and fight for the transparent and capable leadership it deserves and moreover, needs.

Posted By

Jun 4 2015 21:54


  • Nonprofits and NGOs are not interested working class liberation from exploitation and oppression. Regardless of their use of radical imagery and rhetoric, in the end they only offer more “humanized” versions of capitalism.

    Mid-Atlantic Revolutionary Socialists

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Jun 4 2015 22:09

Hi Automattick,

Thanks for the post, what did you think about our essay? What criticisms do you have of it?