Movement, cadre, and dual power - Joel Olson

I will use my experience as a member of Bring the Ruckus to explain the role of a cadre organization in political struggle; and how being in a cadre informs my work in the Repeal Coalition, a grassroots, all-volunteer, organization that seeks the repeal of all anti-immigrant laws in Arizona, including the notorious, racist law known as SB 1070.

Submitted by knotwho on November 21, 2012

Global capital has weak spots. I want to hit them.

I do not believe, as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri assert in Empire, that there is no “center” to global capital and that any strike at the beast is equally effective. Nor do I believe, as many anarchists do, that attacking any mode of oppression is equally effective. While I firmly believe that all forms of oppression are evil and must be abolished, I do not believe we can or should try to fight them all simultaneously, or that we even need to. Because global capital has weak spots, and we should hit them first.

The task of anarchists and other radicals is to find and exploit those weak spots. That means we must think and act strategically: we must carefully choose the kinds of political organizing we do, and we must perform that organizing in the most effective way possible. Cadre organizations are an important way of doing this.

I will use my experience as a member of Bring the Ruckus ( to explain the role of a cadre organization in political struggle; and how being in a cadre informs my work in the Repeal Coalition, a grassroots, all-volunteer, organization that seeks the repeal of all anti-immigrant laws in Arizona, including the notorious, racist law known as SB 1070. The purpose of a cadre, I argue, is not to lead the revolution but to seek out and participate in those struggles—such as the immigrant rights struggle in Arizona—that have the most potential to bring about a dual power.

Ruckus as a Cadre Organization

A cadre organization is not necessarily a vanguard organization, as some anarchists mistakenly assume. It is simply a group of committed, active, revolutionary intellectuals who share a common politics and who come together to develop revolutionary thought and practice and test it out in struggle. By “active” I mean one who is involved in political struggle, not merely a book reader. By “intellectual” I don’t mean someone with a college degree but one who makes a serious, ongoing commitment to understanding the world in order to better agitate within it. A cadre group is not a mass organization like Anti-Racist Action, Janitors for Justice, the Wobblies, or the Repeal Coalition, i.e. a political group that involves a (potentially) large amount of people fighting for specific demands. Nor does a cadre assume leadership of mass organizations (i.e. it doesn’t create “front groups”), although its members may play leadership roles if they have earned the respect of others in the organization. Nor does it try to co-opt or use these organizations for its own ends, although it certainly participates democratically in struggles over their purpose and direction.

Rather, a cadre group seeks to participate in those mass (or potentially mass) struggles that have the best chance to blow the lid off this society and build a free one, and to work within them to make them as radical and as democratic as possible.
Bring the Ruckus, for example, believes that it will take revolutionary changes to create a free society. But we do not believe that we will lead the revolution. Rather, the purpose of Ruckus is to create a place where revolutionaries with similar politics can debate theory, history, and strategy, and seek to put ideas into practice.

The system of global capitalism, we believe, is the root source of exploitation, oppression, and alienation in this society. It must be abolished and replaced with a free society in which people are able to fully develop their capacities without hurting others to do so. But how to do this? Ruckus believes that in the United States, the key to abolishing capitalism is to attack white supremacy. In a nation whose economic and social structure has depended on slavery, segregation, genocide, and reservation, to attack whiteness is strike a blow at the pillars of American capitalism and the state.

White supremacy, as our founding statement puts it, “is a system that grants those defined as ‘white’ special privileges in American society, such as preferred access to the best schools, neighborhoods, jobs, and health care; greater advantages in accumulating wealth; a lesser likelihood of imprisonment; and better treatment by the police and the criminal justice system. In exchange for these privileges, whites agree to police the rest of the population through such means as slavery and segregation in the past and through formally ‘colorblind’ policies and practices today that still serve to maintain white advantage. White supremacy, then, unites one section of the working class with the ruling class against the rest of the working class.” The task of revolutionaries, we believe, is to break up this unholy alliance between capital and middle and working class whites, so that whites begin to think of themselves as workers rather than whites and begin to act in solidarity with working peoples of color throughout the nation and the planet.

We are not arguing that white supremacy is the "worst" form of oppression. Nor are we claiming that if white supremacy is abolished then all other forms of oppression will immediately disappear. Rather, ours is a strategic argument, based on a theory of U.S. history, that argues that the “public and psychological wages” of whiteness, as W.E.B. Du Bois terms them, have been the principle obstacle preventing the development of radical movements in the United States. Thus, attacking these wages creates opportunities to challenge all forms of oppression, just as what happened with abolitionism (which gave rise to the first wave of the feminist movement and unionization struggles) and the civil rights movement (which gave rise to a host of social movements).

Ruckus cadre seeks to develop this analysis within our organization. This means regularly critiquing it. In fact, we begin our annual meetings by challenging our most fundamental concepts and assumptions. (Like Marx, we strongly believe in a “ruthless criticism of everything existing,” including ourselves.) We also try to apply this analysis in the mass organizations and struggles we participate in. Our analysis of white supremacy helps us choose which forms of struggle to participate in. This is why Ruckus members are active in struggles around the police and immigration, but not really around vegetarianism or “anarchism.” (1)

Revolutionaries have neither the time nor the resources to get involved in every moral evil. The existence of a moral evil, or even evidence that lots of people are “on the move” fighting such an evil, are not sufficient criteria for us for participating in a struggle. If fighting such an evil does not challenge the wages of whiteness, we will not participate actively in it, because we don’t regard it as strategic.

The purpose of a cadre organization is to help distinguish those struggles that seem to have more revolutionary potential than others. A cadre seeks to determine which mass struggles have the best chance to build a dual power.

Dual Power

Dual power is a situation in which two or more social forces assert power over the same territory and fight for it outside of the official political institutions (elections, parties, etc.). A dual power struggle poses a revolutionary or potentially revolutionary challenge to state power and it prefigures a new society in some way. It does not aim to create alternative institutions that live alongside the existing state, but to replace the existing institutions, through a great clash if necessary. Dual power implies civil war between the haves and the have-nots. The most famous example of a dual power situation is the conflict between the Provisional Government versus the Soviets in Russia in 1917 (Lenin’s description of that struggle is where the term comes from). However, there have been numerous examples of dual power situations in the U.S., including the American Revolution, “Bleeding Kansas” in 1854, the Civil War, and Birmingham in 1963 in the midst of the civil rights demonstrations.

A dual power strategy works by participation in those mass struggles and organizations that a cadre believes can bring about a dual power situation. No revolutionary organization can create a dual power situation; to believe one can is vanguardism. Dual power comes about through the struggles of the great masses of people to overthrow their rulers, like in Tunisia or Egypt. The task of a cadre organization is to determine, through study and debate, which struggles have the best potential to create a dual power situation, and then to participate in them to try to strengthen them and make them as radical as possible.
In trying to decide which struggles have the most revolutionary potential, Ruckus members evaluate them according to our Six Criteria. The political work we engage in 1) must address systems that attack working class people of color, 2) must attack white supremacy, 3) must have the potential to further the development of revolutionary consciousness among the working class, 4) must have the potential to build a dual power, 5) must actively push the development of a feminist praxis, and 6) should stretch the boundaries of political organizing. If a struggle does not meet these criteria, members will have a difficult time persuading other members that they should be involved in it.

For example, in 2007 Ruckus comrades in Arizona, after much debate and discussion, decided that immigration struggles have the most potential to create a dual power in the state. In our study of the Arizona immigrant rights movement, we judged that the fundamental demand of undocumented people and their allies is not citizenship but the freedom to live, love, and work wherever they pleased, and that this demand cannot be co-opted by global capital. Global capital needs borders to control labor flows, even as goods and services flow freely across them. Without borders workers can organize internationally against their exploitation. Merely by crossing the border illegally to support their families, undocumented workers express their belief that borders are or should be irrelevant. They suggest a world without borders, and a willingness to clash with those who depend on them. Immigrant rights struggles in Arizona thus have the potential to build a dual power between a world that insists on walls and fences and one that is indifferent or hostile to them. Based on that analysis, we became determined to join with undocumented workers in their struggle.

Repeal and Dual Power

We began by looking for existing organizations to join to do this work. Finding none in Flagstaff, we decided to create our own. (We also found that no organizations in Phoenix fully acknowledged the radical potential of immigration struggles, so we also built a Repeal chapter there.)

The Repeal Coalition is a grassroots, all-volunteer organization that seeks the repeal of all anti-immigrant legislation in Arizona. We demand the freedom of all people to live, love, and work wherever they please, and for the right for all people to have a say in those affairs that affect their daily life. The organization, founded in 2008, has fought the notoriously racist law known as SB 1070 and dozens of other anti-immigrant laws in the state through grassroots organizing. Repeal’s organizing strategy has two parts. The first is our noncompliance campaign, in which we urge individuals and businesses to publicly refuse to abide by SB 1070 and all other anti-immigrant laws. The second is to develop the radical potential of young people by creating “Freedom Schools” that teach them how to create grassroots campaigns of their own, such as demanding ethnic studies programs at their school. (Ethnic studies programs were banned in Arizona in 2010.) These campaigns, we hope, will pit young radicals against the powers that be in a struggle they can win and build on.

We talk to people in their homes, hold mass meetings, organize protests, teach people about their rights, and hold open meetings every week. Our goal is to repeal SB 1070 and other nativist legislation. Even more, we seek to create a third pole in the immigration debate. Right now the debate is limited to nativists who scream, “Kick them all out!” and liberals who want to exploit people first and then kick most of them out, providing a path of citizenship for a few. (This is sometimes called “comprehensive immigration reform.”) Repeal is trying to inject a third, radical, and common-sense position: In a world in which TVs, t-shirts, and technical support recognize no borders, humans shouldn’t have to either. Everyone deserves the freedom to live, love, and work where they please. (This is the slogan of the Repeal Coalition.) If we can change the debate in Arizona, we think, we can change it nationwide.

One could argue that Repeal is a “reformist” group, in that we seek the repeal of laws (though we don’t go to the courts or legislatures to do so, but to the streets). But this criticism fails to see the radical potential of this struggle, a potential that a dual power strategy recognizes. The repeal of nativist laws, like the supposedly “reformist” struggle for the ten-hour working day in nineteenth century England or the voting registration drives during the civil rights movement in the U.S., is a reform that challenges the pillars of the capitalist system itself. Repeal is a strategy to defeat nativism, break up whites’ distorted class consciousness, and organize Arizona workers on a class basis rather than a racial one. It seeks to bring workers who are white and of color together to fight their bosses. It seeks to improve the organizing capabilities of the worldwide working class by struggling against the borders among them (literal and otherwise), and to get more and more whites to recognize that their interests lie with undocumented workers and other workers of color, not with white democracy.

As David Bacon notes in his book Illegal People, the goal of nativism is to depoliticize undocumented workers. Nativist laws like SB 1070 are designed to silence undocumented people, their families, and their allies. “Comprehensive immigration reform” is designed to exploit their labor while denying them political power. The antidote is to politicize undocumented people and their allies by getting them involved in grassroots politics. For the active participation of the working class always portends the possibility of open class struggle. The dual power.

Ruckus members see Repeal as a mass organization that has a better chance to bring about a dual power situation in Arizona than any other current struggle. Yet Repeal is not a Ruckus front group. Non-BTR members also helped found Repeal, and Ruckus has always been a minority presence in Repeal. Some BTR members have taken on leadership roles, but that is a result of our commitment to the group (and, to be honest, to our privileged status as documented people), not vanguardism. If we lead in Repeal it is because we earned leadership, not because we presumed it.

Ruckus members discuss Repeal at BTR meetings in order to discuss strategy and tactics. We help keep Repeal alive during lulls in the struggle. We encourage political discussion in Repeal meetings. In particular, we try to help Repeal members see the international nature of their struggle (i.e. the immigration struggle is not limited to Arizona or even the U.S.) and its radical nature (i.e. it goes beyond the quest for citizenship or just taking care of one’s family but toward transforming society).

The task of revolutionaries is to develop this “praxis,” this combination of cadre work and mass organizing. Revolutionaries need both kinds of organizations. That way, when a crisis hits and people take to the streets, they will be experienced, they will have the respect of important sectors of the working class, and they will be able to show to the working class the truly international and radical nature of their struggle. When the weak spots of global capital are exposed, in other words, radicals need to be ready to hit them—hard.

1. Some members of Ruckus identify as anarchists, others as communists, some as both, and some as neither. We believe that the old arguments between communists and anarchists are largely irrelevant today—though as an anarchist, let me just say that our side was right in those old debates.

Joel Olson died on March 29th, 2012. Joel was a close friend and comrade to several of us at the IAS. We mourn his loss, but maintain his life as an example for us all.

Joel Olson was a member of the Repeal Coalition, a grassroots group seeking the repeal of all anti-immigrant laws in Arizona and that fights for the freedom of all people to live, love, and work wherever they please. He was a member of two cadre organizations over the past twenty years, the Love and Rage Revolutionary Anarchist Federation and Bring the Ruckus. He is also the author of The Abolition of White Democracy (University of Minnesota Press) and at the time of his death was writing a book on fanaticism in the American political tradition.

Originally posted at