Spontaneity, Movementism and Leadership Methods

by Comrade Victor Hampton, Revolutionary Initiative

General reflections on emerging movements

Since the financial collapse of 2008, monopoly finance capital has used the structural crises of government deficits and debts – exacerbated to a great extent by the massive corporate and financial bailouts from 2008 onwards, but rooted in monopoly capitalism’s long-running dependence on state support – to launch an unprecedented transfer of wealth from the masses to the monopoly bourgeoisie, through bailouts and privatizations, to the rising cost of living and all-around attack on wages.

The roll back of redistributive measures and legislative concessions to the masses has awoken a sense of indignation among the people. There is ample evidence of this across the globe, from the recent uprisings in Greece, Spain and Italy, to the mass mobilizations of students in Chile, Colombia, Puerto Rico and Quebec around the cost of education, to the upsurge in the United States demonstrated through the Occupy movements and the Wisconsin General strike. With continued imposition of these ‘austerity’ packages, there is an undeniable and escalating disenchantment and hostility to the lot of bankers, captains of industry and the politicians facilitating this theft. Even polling firms serving the bourgeois press acknowledge that increasing numbers of people are coming to the realization that the problem lies in the political and economic structures that these actors are working through. There is a rising tide of anti-capitalist thought and expression among the masses and this is an extremely positive and important development.

As the crisis continues to unfold, new opportunities for building struggles will present themselves. These will occur on various fronts, with each struggle having its own particularities and expressing its own demands. There is no single terrain of struggle and we must build to be present in as many of these struggles as possible, without losing our footing in long term base-building projects in the oppressed and exploited masses. All of these are spaces and opportunities to carry the mass line and win workers and others masses over to the idea that radical social transformation must occur in order for these problems to be decisively resolved.

Of course, communists are and should be present in these aforementioned ‘movements’ and spaces, recruiting from the most advanced elements of these movements but we must also strive to contribute positively to the development and strengthening of these movements in their analysis and action. We must learn from these movements, constantly analyze the mood, desires and inspiration of the people who are fighting and from this, bring a broader analysis of what the problems are and what needs to be done. However, we need to be involved in these struggles in order to understand their sentiments and thinking and to be able to make political interventions. So what should communist involvement in these mass struggles look like? The long experience of the International Communist Movement provides many lessons for correct methods of organizing the masses and for engaging spontaneous movements which serve as an orientation for us. Some of these lessons remind us to ensure the following:

1. Engage with, don’t worship, spontaneity

Some of these spaces and movements can be relatively spontaneous, amorphous and sometimes limited in their scope (ie. issue based). This does not mean that they will necessarily stay this way, as many spontaneous movements and uprisings give birth to more radical, better organized movements. The Quebec student strike is an important recent example: in a mass movement built to combat a 75% tuition fee increase, the largest and most radical student union, CLASSE, has taken a principled line against Quebec’s colonial ‘Plan Nord’ and has been able to navigate beyond the trappings of economism to develop the strike into a broader social movement and strike. This movement is a good example how a mass struggle can leap from a struggle around very limited demands into a more far-sighted and militant movement.

Spontaneously arising mass movements can often appear to lack structure and/or direction, but this does not necessarily mean that there is no leadership involved. In fact, this condition often makes such movements susceptible to direction and even misguidance from an organized presence operating within them. Such was the case with the involvement of the Liberal Party and the NDP in the mobilizations around the proroguing of the Canadian Parliament and the co-option of that movement as a result.

In the same vein, there will undoubtedly be (at least for a time) a political eclecticism that characterizes these movements and we enter in these spaces as one of many lines being presented, from anarchism to primitivism, from right-wing libertarianism to quasi or crypto-social democrats. These tendencies have their limitations, and there may even be reactionary currents within them. Revolutionary forces must be conscious of the class character of these spaces while cautioning against those who will opportunistically co-opt the energy of these nascent or spontaneous spaces for electoral ends or other purposes that are not in the interest of developing these movements and advancing their legitimate demands.

These spaces should be assessed appropriately when contemplating work with or within them and part of our mass line should always emphasize the need to have these struggles crystallize into independent people’s organizations that can ensure the longevity and continuity of a struggle.

2. Communists must engage on a principled ideological and political basis

The participation of our cadre and party members in any of these movements should never be of the fleeting, opportunistic variety where we move through spaces simply to take advantage of the convoking of people these bring. Quite to the contrary, we should be sincere in our support for any movement that is genuine in its desire to challenge the crimes of capital and our political and ideological interventions should call out and educate the masses against the sorts of opportunists that routinely arise in these spaces. But more importantly, we should emphasize class analysis, democratic engagement with and highest possible political unity amongst the masses at a given conjuncture.

Some sections of the radical left point to these contradictions listed above and the imperfections of these spontaneous spaces as reasons for abdication. We should be reminded however that revolutionaries should be contesting as many spaces where the masses are present and where there is opportunity to win these masses towards revolutionary ideas, political struggle, and organizational forms. Winning these masses over to a revolutionary mass line and organizing them will help clarify the contradictions and scattered thoughts that they may have so that the real enemy becomes clear and the path towards liberation well defined. However, almost all spaces where masses are present are rife with contradictions and as such, the ideas of those masses in these spaces can be negatively influenced as a result. This is not a reason to retract from entering these spaces although reactionary ideas and leadership must be fought.

Our participation and the leadership style that we offer in these spaces can never be opportunistic – we must always talk direct and clearly with the masses with the guiding principles of our mass work and how to carry out work and ideological development among the people. We must deal with people’s immediate grievances and issues but always project beyond them so that we do not fall into the trap of economism and parochialism.

3. Work to build up the organizational capacity of the masses

Building a movement naturally entails building organizational capacity amongst the masses. People’s involvement in these organizational forms presents the opportunity for engaging ideologically with and among them. There should be little question that currently in most parts of the country, the people are not prepared yet to go to open war with the state. Yet every one of these struggles, and the intransigence and violence from government is an opportunity for the people to bear witness to the true character of state. Conversely, these movements also offer opportunities for revolutionaries to bring our analysis and developing program to the people as they engage in their struggle, where each activity and demonstration can contribute to their preparation for the next phase of struggle. While these preparations occur daily as the pitch of struggle heightens, the mass movements need a far greater development and accumulation of forces as well as greater coordination and coherence in order to make a qualitative progression in the tactics being applied against the state and its agents.

Of course, this will largely depend on the ability of the advanced segments of the working class to coordinate and carry out a strategy to develop the mass movement towards revolutionary struggle with the state. This strategy will have to be a multilayered strategy with legal and clandestine organizing, contesting spaces where the masses can be won away from bourgeois leadership to proletarian leadership, engaging in both legal and illegal work. The tactics employed in each area must be coordinated and are not mutually exclusive.

4. Strategically firm, tactically flexible

We enter into these movements with limitations, prior commitments of work and a strategic orientation for the mass movement – we should always balance the need for intervention in these emerging movements and developments with our previous commitments to the masses and building firm mass organization amongst the people. It will be through these organizations that mass activists are developed and that we will rally revolutionaries to the building of a Party. This necessarily implies that we are limited in our human and material resources and do not have the luxury to be omnipresent. The opportunists are highly skilled at  swooping in to dominate any and all spontaneous mass movements and redirecting them to their narrow social democratic ends, and liquidating whatever is threatening to them. A revolutionary approach aims to nurture and guide spontaneity in order to create higher forms of organization and mobilization wherever possible.

Revolutionaries need to guard against the tendency to jump from issue to issue, diverting resources away from our constant work to other issues or movement which may dissipate or whose work may not fall within our plans. That being said, a truly revolutionary organization must have a sharp and critical eye so that organizational plans are not so rigid and static as to make them inflexible to emerging issues that should command our attention and participation.

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