Towards Theory of Political Organization for Our Time Part II: we are not platformists, we strive to be

In recent times a number of ideological currents from the libertarian communist tradition have inspired a generation to organize, build and reproduce organizations, and struggle around a rethinking of their traditions and future. Much of this theory comes from the period of the greatest waves of proletarian and peasant struggles in the 20th century. That period produced theory of organization based on the protagonists’ position within high points of struggle, its successes and failures.

Submitted by s.nappalos on January 24, 2011

Coming back to our time, we find ourselves in a situation distinct from say the Friends of Durruti or the Makhnovschina. In our time there are no mass movements that provide a counterpower and pressing threat to capitalism and the state. No significant organizations of revolutionaries are immersed in and drawing from struggle, and no serious revolutionary fascist movements threaten the working class directly at this point[1]. That is to say that there is a serious disanalogy between our reality and that of the high points of revolution, and consequently difficulty in directly applying the theory of that time. While the lessons of those struggles are crucial to understand and build from, what we are missing is our own theory (that of low periods of struggle) that can illuminate not merely how you struggle in times of rupture, but how you grow and develop them. We need a praxis that helps us get from our place to those high points, and consequently need to widen our view of history to look at people who faced similar challenges we do. This article will look at a few of the theories from high points of struggle, attempt to extract lessons of these struggles, while showing how we need to find our own theory that lets us built to the high level of struggle and unity they assume.

The first theory we will look to is synthesism. Synthesism is not necessarily a theory from a high point of struggle so much as a broad current, but one that prompted the development of tighter theories of organization in response to failures coming out of synthesism. Synthesism is an organizational theory and practice which in the US tends to be popular amongst lower case ‘a’ anarchists and activists (actually amongst the Marxist-Leninist left too this is a strong current in a social-democratic form). In fact, synthesism has never really existed as an explicit theory (outside of aberrations and historical footnotes like Faure[2]). No one calls himself or herself a synthesist, but in practice most libertarian organizations have a synthesist character. Synthesism groups together people who do not have a basic level of unity on strategy and often theory. The classic example are the “anarchist federations” (particularly in Europe though also in recent US history with the Social Revolutionary Anarchist Federation[3]) which allow for varying contradictory tendencies to all exist in the same organization without any fundamental unity. One present example would be the French and Italian anarchist federations in the International Anarchist Federation, which are heavily inspired by the synthesis, and join together people based on anarchism broadly conceived to include even individualists.

Synthesism thus groups revolutionaries based on the desire to organize actions/activities, organizational patriotism, or propaganda. This is the one place we do have a level of praxis; many have discussed the theory and experiences of limitations here. The legacy of sub-cultural scenes, activist networks, and protest politics were mainstays of the proto-synthesist milieu. Synthesis has a productive role to play in these contexts, especially in the anti-globalization and anti-war movements. Broad mass activities and upsurges brought people together, and advanced to rethinking direction. In some ways synthesist practice was the theoretical expression of the maturation of that milieu, and its attempt at finding a political solution to the limitations of pure action.

Groupings[4] that emerged from these milieus developed their critiques of the paralyzation of synthesist organizations, lack of education and engagement of its membership, anti-strategic orientation, and its inability to adapt to changing conditions. This, on occasion, led people in North America to look to past ideologies for guidance beyond synthesism, whether it was in the form of Leninism, Maoism, platformism, especifismo, or cadre-organization[5].

There was a move that was made in the 1990s and 2000s. People studied history, worked with organizations abroad, and attempted to apply theory to the concrete problems they found in their organizational work. This step advanced the revolutionary libertarian movements. At the same time, the solutions found were limiting because of a historical gap between the present and the past. The worst examples of this manifest in a kind of “born again” revolutionaries, who repented for their past sins clarified by a new found ideology that answered past problems.[6]

Platformism was one such ideological contribution of Ukrainian, Russian, and later French revolutionaries based on experiences in the anarchist stronghold of Ukraine during the Russian revolution[7]. The platformists emphasized the development of revolutionary organization rooted in and building mass organization, but with a unity of theory, strategy, and tactics. Unlike democratic centralism, platformist organization lacked the top-down higher bodies that could dictate organizational line to the base[8]. Platformism shows promise for rectifying the bureaucratizing tendencies in the Bolsheviks, and the at-times chaotic hamstringing disunity of the revolutionary mass movements and synthesist revolutionary organizations.

The Platformists were dealing with a particular problem in history however. At that time there were mass Bolshevik, Socialist, and Anarchist revolutionary organizations and putting into practice anti-capitalist organization of society. Platformism is a response to this situation, and calls for a unification of libertarian communists to combat those who co-opt and repress revolution, for advancing our ideas and practice, and creating a coherent current in the mass organizations to make libertarian ideology and practice living in popular practice (what Joseph K. of Solidarity Federation and a University of Sussex committee of occupying students call “massification[9]”). The absence of this unity and coherence was one factor that contributed to capitalists and reactionaries repressing and defeating revolution in a number of revolutionary insurrections. Platformism has become merely one name for a whole current. Dual organizationalism in Italy, the Friends of Durruti in Spain, Shifuism in China, etc., all drew similar conclusions during revolutionary periods[10].

The correcting influence of platformism should be welcomed in the present environment lacking clear organized alternatives, but the limitations of straight applicability should be clear. Given the low level of development, the lack of mass organizations, and alienation of the left, platformism presents necessary lessons but is insufficient. It does not give us guidance for how we develop the unity necessary to have a high functioning revolutionary organization. Strategic unity requires strategy. Building a grounded strategy today would requires a level of presence in struggle, learning lessons from such, and expanding confrontation with the state. Instead much of what passes for strategy is largely speculative and based on assumptions of how struggle would proceed, rather than experiences in living struggle.

At the least, we can see a high-functioning unity requires experience and high levels of struggle. Attaining that unity requires that people have the experience in struggle, abilities, and understanding necessary to build both the strategy and the unity, which is exactly what we are lacking. For these reasons much of the organizational theory to emerge from the platformist milieu has been relatively abstract and at the level of principles, or drawing from revolutionary periods. Ultimately platformism is a goal, an end point of revolutionary process. We need a bridge of theory and practice that can take us to the high level of unity necessary in revolutionary times. Platformism then is an important legacy in understanding revolutionary organization, but is insufficient as a theory that can help us build a political capable and tight organization in the present.

Especifismo is related to platformism in that all especifista organizations today are aware of, draw from, and are in dialogue with the platformist current. Especifismo is somewhat of a complicated affair due to conflicting histories in existence. Especifismo means simply specific-ism, or the idea of believing in the need for specific (political) organization. In Uruguay (birth of especifismo) there was a traditional division between anarchists who only believed in mass anarcho-syndicalist organization, and those who believed a political organization was also necessary. Many if not most in North America trace especifismo to the Federacion Anarquista Uruguay founded in the 1950s. The real birth of especifismo as an explicit position of the FAU was in post-dictatorship Uruguay during the 1980s, when the FAU was re-founded, anarchism re-proclaimed, and especifismo put forward as a lesson of the struggle.[11]

Especifismo emphasizes the need for social insertion (revolutionaries should organize as rank-and-file militants in mass movements), trying to build a libertarian character in these movements, organizational unity and discipline combined with a base-democratic federalist model[12]. The FAU, following the dictatorship, has something of a cadre orientation with a long probation period for joining the organization in which the member studies the FAU’s curriculum, builds practice in the mass movements, and develops unity with the organization. Part of this is due to security concerns that are real following the dictatorship in Uruguay. While this method of internal practice is advanced and presents lessons for us, many who identify with especifismo in North America are unaware. It is also unclear who outside of the FAU who has this practice.

The political environmental and history of Uruguay is disanalogous to our circumstances for the same reasons as platformism. While especifismo is not an ideology of revolutionary times (it came out of the collapse of reaction, with an upsurge but not revolution), the level of left-immersion in struggle and organization outpaces significantly our own. The process of radicalization of militants therefore will look significantly different for us, where we have fewer experiences to draw off. Especifismo puts forward the principled development of militants through engagement with the revolutionary organization, and revolutionaries being primarily committed to building libertarian practice in mass movements. What that looks like for us, and how we go about that is largely absent from these questions, and is I believe reflective of the differences in existing struggles between South America and ourselves. Like Platformism, especifismo should be a goal and part of the process of becoming revolutionaries, but is incomplete as a theory of our practice.

Another contribution to organizational theory is the concept of the cadre-organization of Bring the Ruckus. To my knowledge there is not another organization that has put forward the concept, or at least they’re the first to put it forward so centrally so I will discuss BTR’s conception alone.[13] That being said, BTR brought together existing left practices into the cadre concept, and it’s less new than it is merely BTR’s emphasizing of certain elements within. It is likely that the cadre organization concept is a synthesis of New Left debates around cadre with a libertarian perspective, though this is only speculation based on BTR’s drawing from 60s era left-Marxist currents and libertarian concepts.

Cadre organization is similar to platformism and especifismo in that it emphasizes revolutionary organizational unity and a mass practice of revolutionary politics. BTR’s account of cadre organization emphasizes not just the organizational positions, but also the capabilities and activity of militants. Cadre organization is marked by having highly developed and capable membership and aiming at a unitary strategy. Cadre organization then has every member as a cadre, capable of organizing in the mass movements and with theoretical development in line with the organization. Strategically speaking, the cadre organization attempts to work on only select areas to maximize the impact of cadre based on a strategic analysis. Bring the Ruckus has mandated organizational work, and has criteria for what the work looks like.

“A cadre organization seeks to participate in those grassroots (or “mass”) struggles that it believes has the most revolutionary potential, based on the cadre’s political analysis. At the national level, a cadre organization develops and implements dual power strategies for its members nationwide to participate in. At a local level, the local cadre participates in grassroots struggles that fit within the national strategy, debates their effectiveness in local meetings, reports back to the national organization, and seeks to move the grassroots struggle in a radical direction according to these discussions”[14].

It is worth pointing out that democratic centralist organization is not necessarily cadre, nor is cadre organization necessarily democratic centralist. Cadre organization is defined by its militants and its strategy, and generally speaking most present anarchist and democratic centralist organizations are more uneven in abilities and consciousness. What is most positive in the concept of cadre organization is the role of internal practice. The theory of cadre organizations should push us to question our place in history, prioritizing activity, and developing militants to the level where they can do the work the organization prioritizes. It is a collective and mass orientation, with strategy made from the bottom up, and for this reason I identify it within the broad libertarian communist tradition. Cadre organization then gets much of it right, addressing the crucial lack of discussion around how we develop direction for revolutionary organization. That being said, cadre organization suffers from similar limitations to platformism and especifismo.

The problem is where we are today. The people who are drawn to or recruited into the left do not have a cadre orientation. Much of the left emerges from academia, politicized subcultures, and the institutional forms of the left (unions, NGO, arms of the political parties). Generally militants at the mass level have a deeper understanding of practice than the activists the come into the left. The low level of experience and development in the left is a serious impediment to the development of strategy and a functional militancy. The commitment level is extremely low, people are footloose, and the discipline necessary to sustain the ideological, organizational, and even emotional work of a revolutionary movement is often absent. Worse, these problematic dynamics are rarely posed clearly, let alone sufficiently and consistently carried out.

The challenge then for a cadre organization is how to achieve militancy and unity, while retaining sufficient strength to justify organization. While unified strategy is crucial (and platformism was clear about this as well), we have to question what kind of strategy and at what level we are capable of given the abstraction from practice. People come to our organization at a variety of levels, and we see large gaps between the consciousness, education (taken in a broad auto-didactic sense), and capabilities. If we are not at a very advanced level of unity, there are real methodological questions about how we deal with this unevenness of consciousness, commitment, and capabilities while remaining functioning democratic organizations. A cadre orientation doesn’t automatically give us a method to bring up the level of the left to the unity and strategy we seek. In fact, attempts at building cadre (unlike BTR usually unconscious cadre orientations) in our time have tended to lead either to paper-unity populist organization or sectarian micro-sects. None of this is inevitable, but we need other tools to help us understand that transition to a functioning cadre organization beyond merely theorizing the unity, tightness, and discipline that it would exhibit once we achieve it. I attempt to address these questions in the article Towards Theory of Organization for Our Time[15].

[1] This isn’t to discount the possibility of any revolutionary movement, right or left, arising in short order. With the crisis seemingly expanding and the political balance of forces tipping in reckless directions our present situation could rapidly shift.

[2] Sebastien Faure was a French anarchist who lived in the late 19th and early 20th century, and eventually became an opponent of Platformism. He, alongside Voline, argued instead for a “synthesism” of all anarchist tendencies (individualist, communist, etc) in one organization.

[3] See the unpublished account of one participant on anarchistblackcat forums For an alternative view see Mike Hargis’ account of these two organizations on the Anarcho-Syndicalist Review website

[4] I’ve been told from some participants that in North America platformism was a response to the de facto synthesism of the protest movements of the late 90s, but I can’t verify that personally. For one perspective, see the semi-official North East Federation of Anarchist Communist history entitled We Learn as We Walk: looking back on 5 years of NEFAC

[5] The break up of the Love and Rage Anarchist Federation is the obvious example here which produced a new Maoist group (Fire by Night, which merged with Freedom Road Socialist Organization later), a platformist organization NEFAC, and a cadre libertarian organization Bring the Ruckus, along with other less known initiatives. See the Love & Rage Archive for more

[6] The crassest example of this was Chris Day’s The Historical Failure of Anarchism in the wake of the break up of the Love and Rage Anarchist Federation. Day attempts to rectify real problems encountered broadly in political organization by attempting to fit left history into a neat narrative that follows traditions (Marxist and anarchist). History speaks for itself as to where that line of thinking leads you (apparently social democratic variants of Maoism). Similar moves are made by platformist attempts on occasion to rehabilitate the anarchist tradition via a narrative of lineage. The interesting question isn’t who was right, but rather how do we answer contradictions in our practice in current conditions.

[7] A collection of writings on the platform is here The French and Italian traditions are particularly strong in this regard and Fontenis’ Manifesto of Libertarian Communism should be considered. Barry Pateman’s A History of the French Anarchist Movement: 1917-1945 is a good historical resource for the debate around the platform, and its life beyond the Ukrainians.

[8] See the newest translation of the Organizational Platform of the General Union of Anarchists here

[9] From Mobilisation to Massification. A pamphlet from a University of Sussex occupation.

[10] See the Anarchist Communist Federation of Italy’s article Anarchist Communism: A question of class and Adam Weaver’s Building a Revolutionary Movement: Why anarchist-communism for a summary of the history of this current.

[11] The FAU was nearly exterminated during the dictatorship; though its decentralized nature helped it fare better than many left organizations. The majority of the leadership however turned to Anarcho-guevarism before being murdered. A split in the movement developed and a significant section of the FAU created the PVP, a libertarian-influenced social democratic party in the present ruling government. Old militants combined with new libertarian youth radicalized in the environment of crumbling old-left and crumbling dictatorship to found the new FAU.

[12] See the English translation of Huerta Grande by the-then-Marxist influenced FAU in 1972 under the dictatorship. While this work prefigured the FAU’s transformation in the Partido para Victoria del Pueblo (which eventually became a bizarre libertarian social democratic party), some concepts made it’s way to the FAU re-founded under anarchist principles. Adam Weaver’s article on especifismo for a good outline of especifista principles, though the historical account conflates a number of distinct time periods

[13] Searching the literature will turn up “cadre organization” as a discourse within Leninist, and often Maoist circles. In most cases, this does not differ from democratic centralism and Mao’s notion of putting politics at the head of one’s life. Lenin argued for paid professional revolutionaries as cadre, and this concept took on a life of it’s own under Stalin and Mao’s distinct interpretations of discipline, and professionalism of cadre. BTR however took the concept from a completely different angle, and so I separate it out as a distinct tendency.

[14] What is Cadre Organization. Bring the Ruckus. Accessed 9/25/10