Toward Theory of Political Organization for Our Time Part III: nature of our period

The Nature of Our Period: looking to an autonomous working class alternative

Submitted by s.nappalos on January 24, 2011

The end of the twentieth century was a time of transition. The regime of low-intensity warfare, the dismantling of the welfare state, and neo-liberal privatization schemes ultimately was running its course[1]. The final defeats were to be dolled out across the world in the eventual collapse of finance bubbles, widespread resistance to austerity, and the implosive of the economies of Latin America[2]. Before this was all but said and done, there was the gradual and later meteoric rise and fall of social movements against neo-liberal reforms and the militarism leading to the afghan and Iraq wars. Revolutionaries played an active and disproportionate role in mobilizing the social actors in what would become the largest mobilizations of their kind.

Time has passed, and the limitations and deflation of the early 2000s anti-globalization and anti-war movements are becoming clearer to many revolutionaries. Though massive mobilizations occurred, little lasting organization was built. This means that the militancy we witnessed in the streets had a very short shelf life, and much of the work can reasonably be said to have disappeared. Millions of people engaged in various forms of resistance to the wars, globalization, and the new forms of capital and state; however the left was not able to produce a sustained alternative that was able to engage, nurture, and develop that activity into a lasting movement against capitalism and the state. While seemingly militant direct action was relatively common, this militancy rarely led to further radicalization or the popularization of struggle. Power was built, but dissipated. The left had not developed the ability or perhaps the orientation to build movements, either mass movements or revolutionary ones.

The decline of the era of activist mobilizations was an interlude to a series of economic failures coming to a close. Capital had been able to delay escalating crises in previous decades through expansion of markets into new proletarianized workforces, seizing new assets and bringing them into the market via privatization schemes, austerity programs, and financialization of markets with new financial “products” such as derivatives, currency trading, and the like. A series of bursting bubbles eventually brought us to the brink. Though people dispute the beginning or the trajectory, we can see a continuity of bubbles from the finance scandals of the 80s and 90s, the dot-com bubble, post-September 11 accounting scandals, and the real estate bubble. Resistance both by social movements in the developing and developed worlds forced the ruling class recompositions[3], and likewise bred new resistance. The ensuing crisis has brought a new era of austerity, following previous austerities, and a culmination of decades of ruling class assaults on the basic living conditions of workers and oppressed classes across the globe.

Presently in an environment of austerity, the most politically significant and powerful mass movements in the US are movements from the right, often with organized tendencies of conscious neo-fascist forces. In an era of ruling class assaults and austerity, it has been the right that has been most successful in responding to organizing the oppressed classes. While the left is quite conscious of this, the left’s isolated position makes a serious challenge more difficult and questionable.

At the same time no major progressive mass movements provide a counterweight to the ruling class assaults, restructuring, cuts, and collaborationist mass organizations. Unions are nearing a crisis with decades of attacks on the social compact which gave the unions a stable base in the American economy. As we reach new lows for unions in terms of position and power in major industries, many unions are choosing not to organize at all and others are attempting to launch of quixotic crusade for labor-management partnership while management prepares for total liquidation of the unions. Many environmental groups actively partner with major capitalist interests, and have become support bases for green consumerism.

The institutional left has largely sought to save capitalism as was done in the Great Depression, through a combination of state intervention and a social compact between capital and institutionalized forms of social organization (unions and NGOs). Our time is however different and capital itself has evolved beyond the prior compositions. The New Deal era social welfare programs were based on a time when capitalism required a highly productive and predictable workforce, which was guaranteed by unions as mediators on the shop floor and social welfare programs in the community. No analogy exists in our time of international capital, the dismantling of the welfare state, and increasingly fractured state rule. It is unlikely that even if capital had the will to find such a solution, it would be able to solve the fundamental causes of this crisis which is not merely a lack of jobs or capital, but in fact the global organization of production and the break down of the balance of forces, both proletarian and capitalist[4].

The existing organs of the institutional left (the unions, the NGOs, and the liberal and social democratic political machinery) have not built up mass movements, but rather organizations with a service orientation towards the working and oppressed classes. Our goal is not to judge these movements merely evaluatively. As revolutionaries, we should seek to understand what potential there is for building and supporting the mass popular movements for the revolutionary transformations that can abolish capital and replace it with a classless society administered and organized by all for all. Setting aside questions of how much these institutions actually do to protect and expand life under capitalism (for which they also fail significantly); as revolutionaries who seek not just to win day-to-day struggles but also to transform the systemic causes of exploitation, we need to evaluate our role in these institutions, their role in capitalism, and the potential for transformation in mass movements.

The issue then is this. Whatever level of practice there is amongst the mass organizations is social democratic practice. Revolutionaries, for the very few who do have a level of activity in mass organizations, tend to have social democratic practice in these organizations. In actuality, this social democratic practice is probably the most advanced and progressive even compared to the tiny fractions of revolutionaries trying to build a mass practice. Revolutionary practice, because of the low level of struggle and isolation of the left from direct rank-and-file struggle, is in its infancy. There is a large gap between ideas and action, and in our time it is worth questioning the extent to which ideology does work. If radical ideology yields social democratic practice, and at times social democrats outpace radicals we should question that relationship.

We can reasonably ask questions of the existing mass organizations (to the extent they actually function as mass organizations): (1) do they organize their members, engaging them in collective activity and struggle, and (2) if so, to what ends, and (3) to the extent this does happen, how much does it facilitating conditions for revolutionary transformation or create openings for developing militants of the left committed to social transformation? We might even add, to what extent does the left presence in the NGOs, unions, and liberal political machinery translate into an advance of revolutionary practice, theory, and organization?

The overwhelming majority would answer no to the first. Instead activity is professionalized service activity, and is integrated into existing channels of struggle within the capitalist and state infrastructure. Nor do most NGOs and unions engage in collective struggle, opting instead for lobbying, attempting to elect representatives, and legalistic maneuvering which can be called struggle only in the most vague and meaningless sense. While collective struggle leverages power based on the collective strength of social classes united in action, legalistic maneuvering relies upon the skills and activity of a narrow class of professionals and decision making that stands outside the grasp of collectivities. It is possible to engage in collective pressuring of institutions of power, but this is different from believing that lobbying, candidate work, and filing lawsuits is itself collective struggle.

Due to the pitched antagonism presently towards any autonomous working class movement, there are contradictions. Some unions for example must fight for their survival in a hostile environment (particularly service sector unions), and in some instances must fight hard against bosses. Even if we’re charitable in the content of these fights, any semblance of activity and organization gets dropped following a contract period. The unions actively promote working together with the bosses, and organize workplaces for labor peace in an era of ruling class cut backs and brutal assaults. The NGOs, often funded directly by major capitalists and the state, have taken up social service functions of the state and have centralized organizing activity into a professional bureaucracy without building up popular organs of collective activity and power. This is the case even when NGOs have nominal revolutionary administrators and explicitly talk about their work in terms of building movement, or worse revolution.

When collective organization and struggle does occur in these institutions, to what ends do they fight? Besides largely symbolic actions (perhaps resolutions passed against wars, symbolic strikes and marches), these institutions are firmly rooted within the bounds of the left-wing of the capitalist class. There are numerous examples that are worth spending a little time reflecting on.

The boring-from-within union reform movement has a section that comes out of revolutionary politics. Most prominently Solidarity (US) is active in union reform movements across the United States, and is one of the main driving forces behind Labor Notes, the labor reform publication with associated movements and conferences. Despite 80+ years of the failure of communist-led union reform movements to produce either reformed unions or communist practice, the basic tenets of reforming the unions through running slates, electioneering, and bureaucratic reform measures is unquestioned. Teamsters for a Democratic Union, which had many Solidarity organizers within, won control of the Teamsters for a period in the early 90s. Many laudable reforms were introduced, and there were strides made to increase organizing and transparency in a notoriously corrupt union. Still, from a revolutionary perspective we should ask, what was built? Where is the mass movement of Teamsters organizing combatively, and where is the revolutionary practice to emerge from this? In fact what we have is a social democratic practice of business unionism and liberal politics, but under revolutionary pretenses. The union reform movement’s emphasis on positions of leadership, staff organizer positions, and structural reform on the system and union’s own term kept these struggles contained by the existing bureaucracies. Just as Ron Carey’s presidency was recuperated and contained, we repeat the experiences of communist reformism in the unions from another era. Walther Reuther was elected by a communist opposition on a union reform basis. Reuther would eventually become the opponent of the same opposition that led him to power, just as the union reform movement itself is an opposition to a revolutionary practice in the unions in our time[5].

Perhaps another famous example is that of Van Jones. Van Jones was once an NGO staff-cum-Maoist in the Bay Area political grouping STORM (Standing Together to Organize a Revolutionary Movement) made up largely of the administrative staff of leftist led NGOs. While it is worth questioning Jones’ radicalism (he seems more like a fellow traveler passing through, than a committed revolutionary), it is worth reflecting on the activist->ngo staff-> white house trajectory. As some have noted[6], the institutions of power are filled with people who think or thought of themselves as radicals, but who function largely to serve and protect capitalism (or at least their progressive version of it). Van Jones’ Green Capitalism is one such project, and we can look to Carl Davidson promotion of Progressives for Obama and similar reformist capitalist visions[7] as yet another. Whatever the revolutionary ideas or credentials of these particular people, there is a strong link between these ideas (which have strong currency on the left, in spite of their ties to the most major institutions of state power and capitalism) and the institutions (NGOs, progression electoral organizations, and unions). The politics may be on the surface revolutionary, but its role in functioning is not merely reformist but actually constitutive of capitalist power relationships. These radical leaders help reinforce and expand capitalism from inside the system even from a position of supposed opposition.

We see similar dynamics at a more local grass roots level as well. There is a long history of communist electioneering, but recently there has been an emergence of Maoist-inspired politics in NGO staff. Freedom Road Socialist Organization (not the Midwest pro-Stalin split organized around the paper Fight Back) is the most characteristic organization which has a high concentration of NGO and union staff. Freedom Road has a long history of electoralism dating back to Jesse Jackson’s Presidential campaign[8], which members of today’s Freedom Road supported and helped organize. Recently, Freedom Road members have been instrumental in election work within NGOs including voter-turn out campaigns, endorsing Democratic Party candidates, and promoting electioneering as a revolutionary strategy both primarily and through voter organizations aiming for “new majorities”[9]. This NGO-revolutionary unity has sought to organize and rally their organizations behind sections of capitalist power[10]. Organizing Upgrade (a new media site that features NGO staff, Freedom Road members, and Maoist-inspired writings) is worth looking at for detailed insight into this new reformism-as-revolution ideology. For an in depth look at the theoretical justification for these electoralist adventures by the staff doing the work, it is definitely worth reading Organizing Upgrade’s “Fast Forum: Electoral Organizing”[11]. What is most interesting is the total conflation of mass movements and attempting to leverage either positions of power or shifts in policy. We see revolutionaries engaged in activity which objectively strengthens the electoral process, takes up positions within the power structure, and actively attempts to bring masses into the system’s means of settling disputes on its own terms. Despite the Maoist origin of this current of NGO staff, the ideology is much more clearly coming from the historical reformist communist currents such as euro-communism. This is clear for example in an interview with two organizers in Virginians for a New Majority who draw from Poulantzas who, perhaps unintentionally, became the theoretician for euro-communism’s embrace of the capitalist social democratic state in Italy and Spain a generation ago[12].

“We believe that our strategic approach should draw from Poulantzas and create political space that neither builds a parallel state that leads to a complete replacement of the old with the new, nor simply elects new people to fill the existing state. By creating new structures and laws we seek to create fissures that increasingly alter the class, race and gender power disposition of the state. Examples of this may include efforts at democratizing the system – same day voter registration or mail in voting, felon voter registration (still an arduous process in Virginia and elsewhere in the south), others might work to eliminate structural obstacles that systematically disempower people of color such as statewide election of senators, non-proportional elections, or participatory budgeting. Others challenges could seek to democratize the economy through taxes on financial transactions or community control over banks or other flows of capital[13]”.

In so far as membership is engaged at all politically (beyond high sounding lectures), it is to mobilize with de facto support of capitalist social and political institutions even when under a red banner.

The most naked display of the embrace of playing the “cop within the movement” was shown in leaked emails from NGO staff in the Bay Area during the Oscar Grant trial. Advance the Struggle, a bay area revolutionary organization, published an expose of sorts clearly demonstrating the way in which local NGO bureaucracies embraced a role of trying to work with local city and police authorities in diverting organizing and anger surrounding the police brutality in favor of “voicing one’s opinion” and “making music”[14]. The Urban Peace Movement sent an email in which it revealed that they had “…been in preliminary conversation with some of our partners an allies up to this point including the Ella Baker Center, Youth UpRising, Oakland Rising, BWOPA, The Mayor’s Office and the City of Oakland regarding these suggestions. Let’s continue to be in dialog and hold each other close in the challenging days ahead.”[15] Note that Oakland Rising is one of the groups represented in Organizing Upgrade’s Electoral Organizing article, and the NGO staff proclaims “We don’t believe in struggle, we believe in winning”. The Urban Peace Movement staffer lays out the method that this grouping of state and NGO officials will use to contain coming agitation surrounding the immanent letting loose of Oscar Grant’s murderer. Whatever critiques there are of symbolic protest violence, and I think there are, it is not random that the response of the NGO bureaucracy is to defend the state in this instance and to consciously “inoculate” and “create avenues of expression”. The position of NGOs constitutively within capitalism reinforcing its social relationships, hierarchies, and distribution of power pushes radicals in these directions, often in contradiction to their self-conception and their language.

The issue is not whether these institutions do some good. Humanistically they do improve humanity and this should be supported. The problem is that these institutions consistently rally behind ruling class interests, often against the working class, and are organized against the building self-activity of the class. Noticeably off the table are fighting mass organizations whose basis and activity are founded on the collective interest and activity of a class working autonomously. There is a glaring absence of organizations working to build up a class alternative of workers acting directly and collectively to build independent class power capable of breaking with capitalism.

Whatever struggles can emerge outside of these institutions find themselves facing significant repression, cooptation, and difficulty taking an organized and sustained path. The left is generally isolated both in practice and ideologically from the oppressed classes. Whatever exceptions there are remain localized, cordoned off, and contained at this time. This is not to dismiss out of hand the crucial work occurring in various NGOs, unions, academic circles, and revolutionary organizations. It is not difficult to see what would occur without a positive social force fighting back. Still it is important to ask harder questions about why the good work has systematically been retarded, and why the bureaucratized movements are so dominant.

This situation has meant that whatever solutions and responses the revolutionary left is developing at this time is largely internal to the left, and without sufficient practice to clarify our attempts. In the recent history of North America, this has generally been the case. This severing of theory from practice has contributed to our problems moving forward, building organized revolutionary forces capable of contributing to mass movements, and developing revolutionary consciousness, practice, and catalysts.

With the unions, the social democratic trends, and NGOs lining up behind an increasingly desperate attempt to save capitalism through populist-electoralism and state-interventionist measures, the necessity of an autonomous working class alternative is pressing. There is broadly speaking a crisis in the institutionalized left and its allied radical currents. The path to an autonomous working class alternative is not merely a matter of organizing, or being proficient. There are objective forces that necessitate a strategy, and one that meets the reality of our time. The method for this is intermediate organizing, which I explore in my companion article Towards Political Organization for Our Time: trajectories of struggle, the intermediate level, and political rapprochement[16].

[1] Midnight Notes Collective. Work, Energy, War: 1973-1992. Autonomedia, 2001.

[2] Wallerstein, Immanuel. Structural Crises. Originally published in New Left Review #62 March-April 2010.

[3] Federici, Silvia & Montano, Mario. Theses on the Mass Worker and Social Capital.

[4] There are too many places to look to here. For a start see Don Hammerquist’s Thinking and Acting in Real Time and a Real World. and Karl Heinz Roth’s Global Crisis – Global Proletarianisation – Counterperspectives

[5] See an interview with Stan Weir by Insane Dialectical Posse here as well as Weir’s article on the Reuther-Meaney split at the Marxist Internet Archive

[6] Weaver, Adam. On Van Jones Resignation.

[7] Davidson, Carl. Mondragon Diaries.

[8] That is by one of Freedom Road’s predecessor organizations. See Jamala Roger’s A Rainbow Coalition a Second Time Around.

[9] Freedom Road. The 2008 Electoral Dilemma.

[10] Freedom Road. Savor the Victory, Get Right to Work.


[12] From Aufheben #18 2010. Reclaim the ‘State Debate’.

[13] Organizing Upgrade. New Kids on the Historic Block.


[15] Ibid.

[16] Nappalos, Scott.


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