A critique by the Facing Reality Collective in Philadelphia of the 'revolutionary left' and the 'ultraleft'.
“…each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it.”
It has been five years since the economic crisis shook global capitalism. Since then, millions of people throughout the world have responded with riots, strikes, and uprisings. Yet capital is still as strong as ever. While the proletariat has thrown a few good punches around the planet, it is capitalism, in fact, which has given the proletariat a pounding. Austerity and immiseration continue to rain down. The threat of ecological catastrophe haunts the planet as a whole. The battles taking place in the present period should certainly be participated in, but they can only be the first steps in a much larger historical conflict that is yet to come.
The working class in the United States has suffered defeats and demoralization since the late 1970s, and is for the most part unwilling to fight. Despite an ongoing economic crisis, class struggle remains at a low level. Some sectors of the unionized working class are still calling for a return to the “golden age” of capitalism. Others are so disillusioned with trade union activity that they abstain from the union struggle all together. While many immigrants today are middle-class—a phenomenon of U.S. class composition since the 1970s—there also exist significant layers of hyper-exploited immigrant workers. The immigrant movement for the most part remains in a “civil rights” phase, demanding legal rights under the U.S. Constitution. Same goes with the LGBTQ movement. Arab and Muslim movements have struggled to connect to broader layers of U.S. society. The black working class has been devastated by the restructuring of capitalism. So has the the white working class, yet white supremacy continues to deeply divide whites from the rest of the proletariat.
A small layer of women in the U.S. have achieved wealth after gaining entry into the workforce in the 1970s, while the vast majority of women grind out a working class existence, and work a “double shift” as caregivers for children, spouses, or the elderly. At the same time, social and ecological crises in the global south have pushed masses of women to the global north. These women now serve as waged reproductive workers, whether in food, health care, social service industries, or as nannies in the homes of predominantly white women who are wealthy enough to subcontract their housework. Violence against women, both within and outside families, is pervasive across the globe.
The low level of class struggle in the U.S. is reflected in the acceptance of a very mediocre level of struggle among the left. Every recent major struggle has ended in defeat, while campaigns against particular policies have produced limited reforms, but no significant upsurges. While there exist small insurgent layers of the working class that are willing to fight, most of the left organizes for reforms within capitalism.
In the face of capital and its police state, the “revolutionary” left is just as useless as the reformist left. Capitalism does not tremble before socialism, communism and anarchism; the latter trembles before capitalism. While the “revolutionary” left might push for the overthrow of capitalism in theory, in practice it is building no organizational base for the development of such a fight, and is instead isolated in left subcultures, on the Internet, and in academia.
A younger generation of working class militants, who are either unemployed or semi-employed, showed us in the Flatbush and Anaheim riots that they are willing to struggle for more than reforms. They are willing to fight for a revolutionary future. Yet the “revolutionary” left either ignores this class of people or has no idea how to engage with them. The young militants who participated in the Anaheim and Flatbush riots not only gained direct experience in the use of insurgent tactics against the state, but also acquired concrete knowledge about the classes and forces involved in the struggle. The potential for rebellions by this underclass exists in many cities all over the US. While the new generation of militants has yet to find any organizations that will fight alongside them, they are learning who will not fight alongside them: the reformist left and the “revolutionary” left. The left as a whole is still unable to respond to the present historical moment.
The authors of this document come from a left-communist, Marxist-feminist, anarchist-communist perspective. We refer to our our broad political tendency as “ultra-left,” for short. We are heartened that the last decade has seen the growth of direct-democratic social movements and various currents of autonomous Marxism. We feel these developments mark the first small steps away from the disastrous history of state socialism and vanguard party politics in the 20th century. But we also believe that the ultra-left is amateurish in terms of self-discipline, politics, and strategy, and as a result, is unable to wage a serious offensive against capital.
The U.S. ultra-left is strongly anti-organizational, for both theoretical and historical reasons. Historically, the ultra-left is determined to avoid Bolshevik and Leninist organizational models. Theoretically, they are influenced by the contemporary European ultra-left, most of it post-workerist or insurrectionary anarchist, both of which favor loose radical milieus and informal or temporary forms of organization. In the U.S, ultra-leftists find themselves in a political terrain dominated by non-profits and unions, and an array of Marxist-Leninist sects left over from the 1970s. Because the most dynamic social movements appear outside of, or struggle to break free from, these forces, organization itself appears to be a block to revolutionary movement. These factors combined lead most U.S. ultra-leftists to oppose organization as a whole. This throws the baby out with the bathwater.
We believe that it is necessary for us to develop organizations which corresponds to the conditions and needs of our time. Organizations are crucial because they can help us learn from our experiences in the daily struggle. Organizations can help identify and defend working class activities that challenge the power of capitalist society and which anticipate a new society. At times, organizations can lead upsurges of mass struggle. However, we do not fetishize organization: groups fulfill their tasks to greater or lesser degrees for limited periods of time, and then become a barrier to further development if they do not dissolve. Furthermore, organizations cannot spark mass struggle out of thin air, and without a wave of movement to engage with, no revolutionary group will be able to deeply refine its method and politics. To organize ourselves we must engage with proletarian militants, participate in mass struggles, and better understand the world around us.
All signs point to a deepening of the economic crisis in the coming years and decades. Contrary to what bourgeois economists claim, the global economic downturn is just beginning. Based on our assessment of the historical moment we find ourselves in, we believe that more outbreaks are coming which could be much larger and more radical than anything we have seen. To contribute to the coming struggles as effectively as possible, we believe militants in Philadelphia should develop one or more revolutionary organizations. The clock is ticking. This will be an uphill battle, requiring perseverance, dedication, intellectual rigor, political understanding, and organizational sophistication. So far our generation has been unable to meet this challenge. Will we rise to this task before it is too late?
Besides the overview provided above, this document will examine the present state of the left in Philadelphia, evaluating its shortcomings, and outlining in broad terms the beginning of a revolutionary project in the city. This analysis was originally developed in the context of NYC, and was modified for Philly. It applies to many other cities through the U.S. We invite other comrades to compare their take with ours, and to consider collaborating with us in the near future.
The Left and Ultra-left
There is no revolutionary left in Philadelphia. We find that the overwhelming majority of self-proclaimed “socialists,” “anarchists,” “communists” and other “anti-capitalists” in the city are consistently fighting solely for reforms, and with no strategy for going beyond them. When they engage in mass organizing, it is usually by coddling and pandering to liberals. Organizationally, this approach translates into working within unions and non-profits, lobbying the state for concessions, and attempting to “lead” coalitions with progressive sectors of the bourgeoisie. The liberal hegemony of the Philly left is also influenced by the politics of black nationalism, a number of progressive black politicians in the city, and a history of extremely brutal repression against black revolutionary forces. All these factors combined produce a category of leftists we call “reformist revolutionaries,” who say that they want revolution, but strive for it by means of reformist strategies that actually hinder and prolong any revolutionary development. It is a very contradictory phenomenon and it is highly pronounced in Philadelphia. This category includes most, if not all, of the groupings in the Philly left.
Where there is a substantial ultra-left scene in NYC (as isolated as it is), in Philadelphia there exists nothing but an ultra-left vacuum. There are fifty or so mostly black and white ultra-leftists scattered throughout the city. It is a very fragmented milieu, brought together in community spaces, event series, publishing projects, housing collectives, and occasional marches or isolated actions. Despite the fact that there are many talented organizers in this scene, their work is largely irrelevant to the daily struggles of proletarian communities. In this regard, the ultra-left is conditioned by the recent history of the U.S. left as a whole, which grew distant from class struggle in the 1970s, influenced by professional activism in non-profits, unions and universities, and the increased segregation of poor communities.
As it is not an autonomous political force in the city, this tiny ultra-left is often absorbed into the larger reformist left. Many individuals with ultra-left politics can be found chasing the coat-tails of reformist organizations. Ultra-leftists will also focus on informal self-help projects, such as community gardens, free stores, food distribution programs, skill shares, or community libraries. But like the reformist groups, these projects have no revolutionary strategy or politics involved in them, making this organizing work little more than unpaid social service work that appears radical. Some of the college educated ultra-leftists might organize small study groups amongst themselves, but with no clear organizational purpose.
Ultra-leftists also organize within narrow subcultures held together by friendship, rather than through organizations based on politics and strategy. Lacking ultra-left organizations and coherent politics and strategies to test in practice, ultra-left individuals rep their revolutionary politics within their small private circles, but tail reformist groups in public. They also attempt to intervene exclusively within their insular subculture. Either way, film screenings, potluck dinners, and benefit parties are the main glue that holds the scene together.
Race Dynamics of the Left and Ultra-left
Any discussion of race has to start with the recognition that racial oppression is integral to the history of capitalism in the U.S. Despite the reforms and shifts of the 60s and 70s, we believe white supremacy is still as pervasive today as ever. Yet it has also changed in ways that are not yet fully understood and need to be further investigated. The left is not immune to the racism of broader society, and must struggle against its own internal racism as it fights the ruling class. However, we believe the way in which leftists and ultra-leftists are currently doing this is ineffective.
The POC (people of color1 ) left in the U.S. has been profoundly shaped by the developments of the past thirty years, including the growth of mass incarceration, and the separation of middle-class people of color from the poor. While some POC intellectuals study in universities, prisons serve as a center of revolutionary education for others. The defeat of the black liberation movement in the 1970s casts a long shadow on all of today’s POC militants. Historically, successive waves of black movements have been the incubators of organization and ideas for the revolutionary left in the U.S. Today this role has yet to be filled by any sector of the U.S. proletariat. As of yet, none of the recent immigrant layers have made a comparable impact. This has created a situation where militants are left to grapple with race politics based purely on past precedents.
In Philadelphia there are many Asian, African, Caribbean, Central and South American workers, however, the city has much more of a black-white dynamic. Black Americans are the largest racial group in the city, followed next by whites. This is reflected in the racial composition of the Philly left, which is informally segregated along the black and white color line. The black left, which is much more organized and self-disciplined that the white left, usually operates in different social circles and political projects than the white left, although there is considerable overlap at times.
The separation between the black and white left is influenced by the recent history of race politics in the U.S. By the mid 1970s, the white left through the country had separated itself from communities of color, in tandem with the rise of national liberation politics. In response to the rampant paternalism of white activists, for decades black nationalists had been calling for whites to stop organizing in black communities and to instead organize exclusively in white communities, in separate white organizations that would operate in solidarity with black organizations. White leftists (including ultra-leftists) today tow this nationalist line in order to rationalize their isolation from communities of color. This is often done in the name of “not infringing on POC struggles.”
The isolation of the ultra-left prompts white ultra-leftists to abandon their revolutionary politics when confronted by identity politics and black nationalism. This is an especially common occurrence when white ultra-leftists participate in struggles against anti-black racism. We have seen this happen with the flash-mob phenomenon, the struggle against the youth curfew, struggles against the police and prisons, protests against the school closures, and in the protests against the Zimmerman verdict. We also expect this to happen if anti-police riots pop off in Philadelphia. White ultra-left militants write incendiary zines, flyers, graffiti, etc., but when POC liberals and nationalists accuse them of being “outsiders,” the white ultra-leftists shut up and fall in line. What’s worse, the white ultra-leftists rationalize their halfheartedness as “ally” and “solidarity” politics. The ultra-left as a whole fails to develop organic connections with working-class militants (of any color) that can break with liberal hegemony. Instead, the ultra-left stays isolated in its enclaves, falls back on shallow identity politics, and tails behind reformist forces.
While a small layer of black militants in the city are inspired by left-communism, Marxist-feminism, and anarchism, the majority of the black left here is not. Instead, the black left scene is dominated by a mix of liberalism and black nationalism, politics which constantly pull in young black militants. Such politics retain their influence because of the inability of the ultra-left to pose an organizational and strategic alternative. Where the ultra-left can offer only a subculture, nationalists claim to possess a coherent theory of race, nation, and national liberation. In this way, the shortcomings of the ultra-left, and those of the black left, coincide and reinforce each other.
A small milieu of unaffiliated black and POC militants orbit around the reformist organizations and non-profits, flirting with the ultra-left through Zapatismo or a general anti-authoritarian ethos present since the counter-globalization movement. Many of these militants fall back on radical cultural criticism as their form of politics. They throw benefits for political prisoners, rep Assata, invoke the history of the MOVE bombing, and write blog posts that critique racism in movies or patriarchy in hip hop. Much like the ultra-left, they roll in a social scene. But few have organized to fight capitalism as an autonomous force. In many organizing and social settings, POC militants critique the manifestations of racism and patriarchy they find in the left and ultra-left, but do not develop new politics and a strategy of their own.
At leftist events and protests, POC militants sometimes establish status and legitimacy by wailing on the white kids who say ignorant crap, some of it severe, but most of it relatively banal. They posture about how much they hate white people and decry how many are in the room, but fail to develop strategies for organizing in proletarian communities of color, fail to build revolutionary organizations, and fail to develop bonds with working class militants of color in a manner that is any more effective than the white leftists. This becomes clear in “POC only” spaces. Here the white people are gone, but POC militants still regularly fail to create their own lasting politics, strategy and organizing projects. Instead, they often continue tailing the white left with critiques, which is a poor substitute for building revolutionary alternatives to electoral politics and nonprofits. This is a tendency we saw in the People of Color Working Group at Occupy Philly, and for years in the Anarchist People of Color scene.2
The white left and the POC left are locked in an unhealthy relationship. Multiracial organizing projects often foster a reciprocal process of white guilt and POC resentment. This can turn sadomasochistic: white leftists joyfully submit to scoldings from POC militants, in order to feel legitimated when organizing alongside them. At the same time, POC leftists seek individual satisfaction by wailing on white people. The compulsion of POC and white militants to wail and be wailed upon, and thereby somehow purify themselves of internal racism, limits their ability to fundamentally challenge the capitalist system.
Given its historical significance, we feel it is important to make special note of how this unhealthy dynamic distorts the development of black militants. In most cases today, black militants are brought into multiracial groups not because of their politics, but primarily because of their skin color. This causes bizarre situations in which black militants actually do not have the same politics of the groups they are part of, or are not as politically developed as the white militants around them, but are kept around anyway without being debated or pushed to develop their politics. The white militants accept this situation because they want to be legitimated by any black person they can find; black militants accept it because they can attain authenticity status as a substitute for black revolutionary politics, which have been largely destroyed since the 1970s. The broader POC left accepts the situation as well, often using notions of “people of color unity” to get closer to “authentic blackness” than white militants can.
The left is saturated with white supremacy from head to toe. Historically, it has appeared in the form of white-only unions, violence towards POC groups, or the pervasive use of racial slurs. However, these explicit forms of racism are less prevalent today, due to the lasting impact of the struggles of the 1960s. Instead, we see the following signs of white supremacy in the left: (1) failing to build the organizational means to challenge and politically develop POC militants; (2) ignoring POC history and theorists (you can grapple with these without agreeing with everything); (3) having no regular organizational contact with the POC working class; (4) subordinating the struggles of proletariats of color to the interests of bourgeois POC and more conservative layers of the working class; (5) putting POC on a pedestal as leaders when they are actually not good leaders; (6) denying leadership to militants of color when it exists on a merit basis.
We believe a revolutionary organization must struggle relentlessly to overcome the shortcomings of the left as it exists now, and address racial oppression internally in the course of fighting it in society. It must provide a venue through which ultra-left militants can engage in ongoing work with proletarian communities, from which they are for the most part alienated from. Only in this way can the ultra-left break out of its sub-cultural milieu, and the larger POC left avoid reformism and identity politics. A revolutionary organization must commit itself to building the political foundation for the self-development of militants of all colors, and black militants in particular, in order to address the political vacuum caused by the defeat of the black liberation movement, and the increasing impoverishment of working-class communities. All members of a revolutionary organization must develop their reading, speaking, writing and organizing skills, and all members must learn the history and struggles of proletariats of color. Finally, a revolutionary organization must develop new forms of healthy multiracial organization, which avoid identity politics while attacking racist institutions in society and dismantling racism internally.
Gender Dynamics of the Left and Ultra-left
A global resurgence against patriarchy is still in its early stages, fueled by recent currents of radical women in places such as Mexico, Egypt and India. This resurgence has appeared in the U.S. on a smaller scale and was pushed forward during Occupy. Philadelphia has been shaped by this trend as well, though organizing against patriarchy here remains as segregated and politically limited as most of the left. There have been protests to raise awareness about street-harassment, there have been Take Back the Night marches, and solidarity protests for Marissa Alexander, Cece McDonald, and a number of murdered transwomen. However, sustained ultra-left organizing against patriarchy on a mass level has yet to appear in Philly.
Black feminists have engaged in much more community-level organizing than their white counterparts. The politics of the black feminist milieu take a different turn than the white feminist one inasmuch as black feminists focus simultaneously on the violence women are subjected to by men, racist state violence, and women’s labor. Because of this more holistic approach, the black feminist milieu has tremendous potential. Yet some of its politics substitute personal and emotional survival, and uplifting one’s individual self-image, for collective revolutionary struggle. These politics of survival have influenced the development of a number of discussion and writing circles for black women, but these are isolated from the daily struggles of proletariat black women. Like the rest of the left, much of the black feminist milieu lacks a theory of revolutionary organization and strategy. Thus this milieu reps a nominally “anti-capitalist” politics, but tends to fall back on nonprofit work and reformist strategies. Neither the white nor the black feminist milieus have been able to organize with working-class women on a revolutionary basis.
Ultra-left feminists of all colors in Philly have also been limited in their ability to engage with women in working-class communities. The potential for such organizing clearly exists. The study groups and dialogues that have taken place in the ultra-left milieu have produced women thinkers with a level of political sophistication unmatched by the male dominated left. However, this milieu has yet to build upon the layer of thinkers it has developed, and organize militants to lead struggles among proletariat women, who fight the patriarchy of capitalist society daily and stand to benefit from an ultra-left perspective.
Trans and queer politics—which often overlap, but also branch apart—have produced a number of militants with the potential to attack capitalist social relations in a unique and powerful way. However, the queer and trans scene today is dominated by various non-profits, which seem to have forgotten the revolutionary history that created them. Liberal LGBTQ politics in Philadelphia are often centered around the “Gayborhood,” a center city area that queer/trans proletariats once called their home, but which over the past 20 years has been gentrified by a number of LGBTQ non-profits, businesses, restaurants and bars. The Gayborhood has become an elite bourgeois neighborhood for upper class gays and lesbians, and has gained popularity as a result of its official recognition from the city government. Transphobia and gay misogyny are today highly entrenched in the Gayborhood.
In a manner very similar to the black feminist milieu, many trans and queer radicals uphold a politics of survival, where personal and emotional survival is seen as trumping collective revolutionary struggle. These politics are based in the context of occupying an extremely alienated position in capitalist society. With no revolutionary organizations to turn to, transgender proletariats are frequently forced to rely on non-profits for medicine and support. Campaigns for prison and health-care reforms are often posed as a matter of immediate tactical survival. Because of the bankruptcy of modern revolutionary politics, it is easy to dismiss the need for revolution as “privileged,” while framing struggles for reforms as concrete improvements in the here and now that can save lives. Paralyzed by guilt and fear of being labeled as “privileged,” non-trans revolutionaries will abstain from principled critique of these reformist politics. If non-trans militants do engage in critique, they usually ignore the societal context, and as a result, reinforce trans liberalism. This is all a far cry from the revolutionary politics of the Stonewall riots and the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries.
There are quite a few queer and transgender ultra-leftists in Philadelphia and around the country who reject liberalism and reformism, usually in favor of insurrectionism. Although these revolutionaries have been influenced by feminist politics, they have also been very critical of the implicit heteronormativity of such politics. Feminist politics (including ultra-left feminist politics) consistently limit their understanding of patriarchy to the man-woman binary, while trans/queer politics oppose patriarchy from a much broader standpoint. Trans and queer ultra-leftists have very advanced understandings of how homophobia, transphobia, and gay normativity are central components of capitalist patriarchy. Unfortunately, most of these revolutionaries are highly anti-organizational, and stay isolated in sub-cultures alongside the rest of the ultra-left.
Trans and queer militants in Philly have led the way in organizing various responses to transphobia and homophobia, not just in society at large, but in the left. Alongside these struggles, feminist activity in Philly has emerged as an internal critique of the male left. These activities reflect developments on a national scale, where radicals have focused on critiquing patriarchy within the left, and attempting to hold those who display patriarchal behaviors accountable by a variety of means. These efforts have produced mixed results, which have been reflected upon in recent zines from the west coast.
The fact that much organizing against patriarchy focuses on confronting it’s pervasive effects within the left milieu, points to serious problems in the left. We see the following manifestations of patriarchy at work: (1) sexual assault, rape, harassment and abuse; (2) male domination of organizations and informal networks, e.g. women are always the ones to leave the group after a breakup; (3) failing to build the organizational means to challenge and politically develop women and LGBTQ militants; (4) failing to understand patriarchy beyond the man-woman binary; (5) failing to study and learn from the history of women, queer, and trans struggles; (6) having no regular organizational contact with trans and queer proletariats and failing to engage with women, trans, and queer struggles when they break out; (7) women, trans, and queer militants being denied leadership when they have the skills; (8) subordinating the struggles of women, trans, and queer proletariats to the interests of bourgeois society and more conservative layers of the working class.
Historically, the left has been abysmal at counteracting patriarchal tendencies in revolutionary groups. The history of Leninist organizations in particular is riddled with problems of patriarchy. We believe this is a result of the organizational structure and power relationships encouraged by Leninist models. The internal hierarchy found in Leninist parties, the degree of power, control and status wielded by leadership, and the devotion of party members to the preservation of the organization, all militate against accepting and incorporating the critiques of women, queer, and trans membership. The disaster of the Socialist Workers Party in Great Britain, and the Progressive Labor Party in California, both indicate the danger of organizational fetishism trumping the struggle against patriarchy.
We believe it is necessary to build revolutionary organizations that can both counteract the patriarchal tendencies present in broader society as well as in the left, and help develop revolutionary ultra-left struggles against patriarchy on a mass level. Such an organization must build upon the momentum of the recent resurgence against patriarchy, and provide a venue in which women, trans, and queer militants can grow as thinkers, organizers, leaders and mentors. Members must sharpen their grasp of theory, philosophy, and revolutionary history, and develop practical skills such as speaking and writing. Some currents of identity politics cast this approach as inherently masculine or patriarchal, but we strongly disagree.
No revolutionary movement, and no revolutionary organization, can ever be a fully “safe space,” and organizing will inevitably reproduce the patriarchal norms of broader society and the challenges of dealing with them. Revolutionary organizations must develop standards of behavior for members, the means to deal with problems as they arise, the capability to expel abusive members, and the ability to engage in self-critique and restructuring.
College Educated Revolutionaries
Like other cities, Philadelphia has many college-educated revolutionaries of all races, genders and sexualities. Many organize in the university, without going outside it. The university could be a site of working class struggle, since jobs on campus are precarious and students are often workers themselves. However, these campus-based militants rarely extend their activity to other proletarian sectors or organize on a class-wide level, which is a central role of revolutionaries. Instead they hold reading groups with people they meet through school, organize protests on campus, and write things together, for each other.
While college educated revolutionaries might participate in movements for a time, most ultimately hope to become the next Angela Davis or Robin D.G. Kelley. This leads to people participating in movements while publishing scholarly articles about them, and treating research projects as a form of revolutionary organizing. College educated revolutionaries theorize about movements with each other, but talk a different language when organizing with working class people. They justify this move in typically anti-intellectual ways: they say that theory is something white and middle-class intellectuals do, while “real” working class people only need music, art, and raw experience in order to struggle. They say that discussing revolutionary theory with proletariats is an imposition, and inherently oppressive.
Ultimately, all these justifications further the professionalization of revolutionary intellectuals, and keep theory out of the hands of the working class. They turn reflection and theory into something that militants do in elite circles, in unintelligible language, rather than seeing it as a vital part of organizing, practiced alongside proletarian militants in revolutionary organizations. We believe the weapon of theory is vital to oppressed people’s liberation. It is not something to be monopolized by the college educated.
The kind of academic Marxism, feminism, queer studies, etc. found in the left tends to view working people abstractly. Academic theory develops brilliant macro-level analysis of the global economy, labor, identity and hegemony, but with little or no insight regarding strategy. Academic theory is disconnected from fighting organizations, and thus is not written for use in revolutionary organizing. As a result, it often ends up making policy recommendations, or suggesting a program of reformist or social democratic demands. This disconnect from the proletariat and its struggles will only continue to deepen as universities become ever more inaccessible; the cost of college has gone up 500 percent since 1980. Universities will continue to produce scholar activists with little connection to working class struggle, and lots of guilt.
Scholar activism must be abandoned entirely. Instead, we must continually work to make theory relevant to working class militants outside universities, and help them build their capacity to reflect and theorize with a variety of tools. We must retain the richness of theory and demonstrate how theory can be used to grasp everyday experience. We must use theory as way to evaluate political work, and to develop new understandings that shape effective strategy. In this way, a revolutionary organization can be the fighting university of the working class, while the university itself can only be the embalmer of revolutionary theory and politics.
Autonomy Has Become A Ghetto
The notion of “autonomy”—that movements can develop their own forms of self-directed organization, distinct from political parties and other dominant forces—has been twisted into its opposite in the contemporary U.S. In the 1970s, European autonomia emerged as a new generation of revolutionaries broke away from the existing communist parties. At the same time in the U.S, the black, Puerto Rican, Chicano and Asian movements refused to subjugate their interests and demands to those of the Old Left, which claimed to speak for everyone. From its beginnings in this time period, the term “autonomy” is now used in a variety of contexts.
The left communist milieu, for example, pursues a strategy of autonomy to avoid cooptation by unions, the state, and nonprofits. POC groups such as the New Black Panther Party, inspired by the example of the original BPP, establish “survival programs” to maintain black proletarian survival in the face of poverty and state repression. Feminist collectives draw inspiration from the European feminist currents of the late 1970s, advocating autonomy from male-dominated organizations. Finally, a wide range of anarchists pursue the development of autonomous projects in order to build “the new world in the shell of the old,” separate from existing state institutions.
One common thread among all these uses of “autonomy” politics is that small groups of militants substitute themselves for the movement of masses of people, pursuing “autonomous” projects that have little relation to broader proletarian struggles. For example, instead of organizing with health care workers to take over hospitals and run them autonomously, militants today might organize a small health care collective with few resources, and no relation to the masses of workers with medical expertise, while hoping their project will inspire others and spread spontaneously. Such attempts often ignore the autonomous activities of proletarian communities who continue to survive under capitalism. In doing so, they also overlook the shortcomings of working class self-organization, which revolutionaries could help to address, but instead romanticize. The “autonomy” pursued by the ultra-left ultimately becomes the autonomy of revolutionaries from the proletariat, whose autonomous activity and potential they are supposed to learn from, encourage and defend.
In contrast, we are for a strategic and fighting autonomy, modeled upon Italian Operaismo and autonomia, the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, the Industrial Workers of the World, and the Underground Railroad. Such currents participate in autonomous movements on a mass scale, develop and execute their own self-directed strategies, and expropriate resources from the state and capital in order to better attack both. We believe autonomous organizing requires engaging with working class communities and the autonomous activities they are already developing, rather than simply substituting leftist activity for mass activity.
State Socialism and the Need for New Organization and Theory
There are various state socialist tendencies in Philadelphia—the most prominent are the Trotkyists and the Stalinist-Maoists. The Trotskyist groups in the city, such as Solidarity, International Socialist Organization, and Socialist Action, are all reformist. So is the main Stalinist-Maoist current, the Workers World Party. None of these groups have a coherent understanding of how class composition has changed over the past decades, and how it is changing now. Furthermore, they remain committed to the notion of a dictatorship of the proletariat led by the party and a “worker’s” state with nationalized property: a recipe for authoritarian state capitalism.
Trotskyist, Stalinist, Maoist (and ultimately Leninist) traditions fetishize organization, and believe revolutionaries are capable of bringing revolutionary consciousness from outside the working class into the working class. Each state socialist tradition tends to interpret ever-changing political contexts and class compositions through the narrow lens of the historical moment in which the tradition was produced, and fails to grapple with class struggle as it currently exists. These traditions employ formulaic or fixed programs to guide their participation in mass struggle. This approach is effectively a-historical—a method to which Marx was explicitly opposed.
Between the obsolescence of the state socialist tendencies, and the irrelevancy of the ultra-left subculture, we believe it is possible to build a healthy form of revolutionary organization and theory. Part of this task requires doing what no group in the U.S. has been able to: critically investigate our own political organizing, and our own theoretical categories, in order to develop a revolutionary communist politics based in the present historical circumstances.
What We Want To Do
We seek to develop an ultra-left communist current, which prepares not only for the overthrow of capitalism and the state by the working class, but also for the overthrow of any developing “communist” or “socialist” state. We see ourselves in the tradition of the Kronstadt rebellion, the Shengwulian, and the Friends of Durruti. We must contribute to the self-emancipation of the proletariat, and demolish any state that seeks to repress the revolutionary urges of this class.
We are for revolutionary organization that serves as a fighting university of the oppressed. We are against anti-intellectualism of all forms, including those that maintain the theoretical underdevelopment of oppressed people with apparently “benevolent” intentions.
We seek to understand how identities shape the emergence of movements, and are transformed in the process. We reject the notion that politics are reducible to identity. Oppressed people are not inherently revolutionary simply by virtue of being oppressed.
We are for the development of a strategic, fighting autonomy on a mass scale. Anything less merely perpetuates the isolation of the left from the rest of the working class, reinforces the racial, gender, and class segregation of our society, and ultimately devolves into marginal social service projects employing radical slogans.
We are for an expansive understanding of class. Our understanding of class acknowledges the centrality of classically productive workplaces, but also the role of waged and unwaged social reproduction, and the effects of the punitive state. We also believe that patriarchy and racism are central components of class rule. We are against narrow workerism and class reductionism.
We seek to break down the oppressive and exploitative divisions within the class. We believe that the struggles against gender and race domination are central parts of the class struggle. We will combat any attempts to subjugate movements of people of color, women, etc. to the interests of more conservative layers of society.
We are for a multi-racial, multi-gender organization. We believe that such an organization is possible, although we are fully aware of the challenges involved in such a project. Any organization that brings together different genders and races will meet internal conflicts and oppressive dynamics, and these will be painful to experience and uncomfortable to address. But we believe they can be addressed successfully. An organization would have to actively work to dismantle divisions internally, in tandem with the mass movement.
We are for communism. We are for the direct control of the means of production by the workers, the abolition of all classes, and the abolition of the law of value. We are against Leninism, Trotskyism, Stalinism, Maoism, and all tendencies that view state socialism as a transitional strategy to reach a free society. This approach has never led to communism despite a century of failed attempts. Solutions must be sought in other directions.
We believe an ultra-left communist organization is both possible and necessary. We build upon the historical legacy of the Johnson-Forest Tendency, Socialisme ou Barbarie, Potere Operaio, Lotta Continua and others. We are against tendencies that fetishize the role of the revolutionary organization in class struggle. We feel a new theory of revolutionary organization must be developed over the coming years, through a practical process of trial, error and reflection.
Beyond this broad outline of political unity, we feel the task of small groups is to study the historical, political, and organizational problems which we face today, but for which we don’t yet have answers. As groups find solutions to these problems, they develop platforms or programs. We aren’t putting forward a program at this moment, because we recognize this is something that has yet to be developed from study and experience. Instead, we seek to answer this set of questions, which will help us develop strategies adequate to our moment. Depending on circumstances, some of these questions might be more urgent than others:
1. What will the transition to a new society look like, both militarily-strategically (general strike, armed communizing insurrection, etc.) and after the state is smashed in our region, and replaced by forms of popular power and workers’ control?
2. What is the nature of patriarchy and white supremacy? What is a revolutionary strategy to dismantle oppression surrounding gender, race, and sexuality through concrete struggle, rather than reifying these categories as eternal, or prematurely declaring them moot?
3. Why did most of the revolutions of the 20th century fail and give rise to authoritarian state capitalist regimes—for example in Russia, China, etc.? Why did the Spanish revolution fail?
4. What form of revolutionary organization is appropriate for our context, given the class composition of the U.S, and the manner in which proletarian communities are organizing themselves in neighborhoods, workplaces, and prisons? How do we develop a revolutionary organization that centralizes the needs of the range of possible revolutionary subjectivities?
5. What is capitalism, and how is it changing today? What are the most strategic sectors to organize in, given the trends in global class composition and crisis, and the locations where struggle is popping off or likely to pop off?
6. What is the function of social democratic institutions facing capitalist attack, such as unions and welfare agencies, and how do different sectors of workers understand and relate to them?
7. What are the global prospects for revolution today across both the ‘developed’ and ‘underdeveloped’ world? How do we understand imperialism today, and the political divisions and financial interconnections between these zones? Is national liberation still on the agenda?
Answering these questions will require both practical engagement in everyday struggles, and study of revolutionary history and theory. In terms of study, we will draw upon a range of works and thinkers from the revolutionary tradition: Marx, Du Bois, Rosa Luxemburg, Lenin, Trotsky, Gramsci, Amadeo Bordiga, C.L.R. James, Paul Mattick, Frantz Fanon, Selma James, Maria Mies, Loren Goldner, Sylvia Federici, and many others.
In terms of practice, we will engage in strategic political work on a citywide level. We will actively participate in struggles, reflect on our experience, conduct inquiries into the conditions and contradictions of working class life, and evaluate the state of struggle in the U.S. We see our tasks to be the following: (1) to help renovate communist theory for the present period; (2) to contribute to the development of revolutionary militants; (3) to build “intermediate level” groupings, composed of militants who may not be ultra-left revolutionaries, but who seek broad radical change beyond single issue reforms; and (4) to participate in mass movements as part of such intermediate groupings.
“Intermediate level” is a term developed by Miami Autonomy and Solidarity in a series of online articles, which we think accurately reflects a level of organization that is necessary in the present period. Groups such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the 1960s, or Take Back the Bronx in NYC today, are intermediate level groups. When millions of people are not involved in mass struggle, intermediate level organizations can gather together the most radical organizers, and can make interventions that push beyond the reformist organizations holding sway. They push radical lines within broader struggles and provide a venue in which radical activists can develop into revolutionary militants. As with any type of organization, intermediate-level groups serve this purpose for a period, and over time either grow into mass organizations or shrink and disintegrate.
We will undertake political work in intermediate level groups, based partly on what people are already involved in, partly on an assessment of their strategic value in the present moment, and partly on our capacity, given time and numbers. We see some possible areas of activity: workplace and immigration struggles of undocumented people; workplace struggles of low-wage, precarious, and reproductive workers; student and school worker struggles; struggles against police, prisons, landlords, welfare agencies and street harassment in the hood.
Where we do this work is almost secondary to how we do it. We will develop a culture of principled debate and emotional maturity that is largely absent in the Philadelphia left. We will establish organizational structures through which militants of color, women, trans and queer militants are not tokenized and pampered, but engaged, challenged, and encouraged to speak and lead. To maintain committed intermediary organizations, we will strive for about eight militants for each one.
Eight people per operation is fairly high, but it is a recognition of the taxing reality of working class life. It also reflects our refusal of asceticism. Revolutionaries desire rich lives, with time to have families, enjoy movies, read fiction, and fall in love. We believe taking up fewer areas of work, with greater numbers and more strategic consideration, will allow for clearer thinking and sustainability among militants.
In the next year we hope to bring together a grouping of militants who are committed to developing the following skills:
1. Participating in all meetings, and on time, unless there is: an emergency; a very rare visit by family or friends; an irregular work schedule; a very rare event; shit popping off somewhere.
2.Under average conditions, reading and comprehending at least 60 pages / wk (2-4 hrs, depending on speed).
3. Writing and designing a concise, agitational flyer on a quick turnaround.
4. Conversing with someone in a way that grasps their interests and perspective, and challenges them to see active involvement in revolution as the only way to meet their overall interests.
5. Leading a 5-person study-into-action group that introduces people to revolutionary politics.
6. Writing an article about a news event, political action, book, or political theory (to be published in a newspaper or blog).
7. Principled debate and emotional maturity (we will work on an “introduction to principled debate and political culture” document to help define this).
On the basis outlined in this document, we hope to help bring together the different milieus floating around Philadelphia into a common organization. We do not see this happening overnight: this is just the start of a conversation. We hope this document will lead to a round of discussions, followed by more formal meetings to consider the project. After participating in joint organizing and study for some time, it may be possible to have a conference and establish at least one citywide, ultra-left, membership-based organization by the summer of 2014.
This outcome would be the result of a collaborative process, building from what has been written here, but reshaped by the participation and creativity of others. We are embarking on this path, and we invite those who agree with this document to join us.
Originally posted: October 2013 at Facing Reality Collective
- 1We recognize the problems of the People of Color category. Most who use it ignore the specifics of race in the United States and the globe. We stand by our usage of POC in this document largely because it explains a general trend of a reality which does affect non-white people. However, this is not to say that all POC racial groups have the same experience.
- 2The “Smack A White Boy” controversy from 2009 is a good example of this dynamic.