Kasama: Sites of Beginning Parts 1 & 2

Sites of Beginning Part 1: Are communist openings structural or evental?

by Mike Ely

LPA writes on something that preoccupies me:

“I wonder if some of this discussion isn’t being influenced by where the participants live, and the character of the community they are a part of. I think Toddy is making some very relevant points, that we should be thinking about where to focus our energies. However, this may be different depending on the cultural context. A strategy for Europe may be very different then one for the US, rural vs. urban etc, campuses vs workplaces.”

Where should communists dig in? And how?

For various reasons, those are sometimes not even considered real questions. They are often blotted out — because there is a sometimes hegemonic view among radical people  — that we should dig in “in our own communities,” which often means we should “relate” to what is spontaneously happening in the neighborhoods and workplaces right around us. It is an often-unspoken strategic choice based on very particular assumptions about identity, mass line, and popular agency.

Stepping Back for a Sec

There is a difference between a structural and an evental view of revolutionary opportunity.

If our opportunities are structural then they might emerge wherever the interface exists between the oppressed and the oppressor, the rich and the poor. And so we can each disperse to our local site of that interface.

But if revolutionary opportunities are evental (i.e. conjunctural), then we could disperse ourselves all along that interface and nothing will happen (at least nothing revolutionary). And we will be trying to make local issues and concerns into something they refuse to become. And we may find ourselves entrenched, pinned down and dispersed there along that interface when some major opening pops up in a concentrated and unexpected way.

I am a believer in  the evental (conjunctural) view. The eruption is in sites that are not simply defined by the class structure of society or the structure of national-racial oppression. Those sites (which are not merely locations geographically) are often unexpected, and even shocking in the forms the eruption adopts.

Put another way: The underlying class and racial structure of this society defines many things.  It shapes experiences and possibilities. It frames the future (and future alliances) we can create.

But the class and racial structure of this society does not dictates the specific sites of eruption and opportunity. Their appearance is much more contingent and unpredictable. (And by appearance i mean their arrival into our field of view.)

Organizers + The Oppressed = A Movement? Or?

An historical example: Mississippi Freedom Summer (1964) was an example of a moment that concentrated a world of contradictions. The grinding and sparks arose from deep contradictions and lit the darkness. People streaming to Mississippi as “organizers” were forged into something new — and in many ways, their work and experienced forged the times we lived in. They became a model of “outside agitator” that inspired the best of a generation.

And it is worth noting that many radical forces did not go to Mississippi — they abstained. That includes Malcolm X’s forces and also much of the “old Left.” They could not foresee its power. They felt it was a distraction from their ongoing work and commitments. They largely missed a breaking point and a turning point that defined subsequent history.

It meant that what emerged was often unmarked by them — which was both good and bad.

A different historical example: A decade later, at the other end of the 60s, i.e. in the early 1970s, there had arisen a new communist movement of about ten or twenty thousand youth. We dispersed ourselves from campuses (precisely!) into surrounding communities and factories — and we thought that the simple addition of “ourselves + the oppressed” would equal a new popular revolutionary movement.

It followed a structural conception of opportunity (even though everything that had produced us was so very evental). And the reality was that for the vast majority of those young communists entering the factories nothing happened. Zero.

There were not conditions for eruption everywhere, and we could not just force them to emerge by our will and work. And this is true even though people were oppressed and discontent (as they are today all around us).

Mao quips you can’t pull a sprout to make it grow.

Our highly structural view of class and of radical potential was mistaken. And we should (today) learn the lesson of that — or else we may repeat it with far fewer and more fragile forces.

A third historical experience: My personal experiences “going to the working class” (in the 1970s) were (ironically) different from most members of the New Communist Movement — because my particular small team of communists went into one of the few placed that did erupt, i.e. the coalfields — which saw the largest wave of uncontrolled working class struggle in the last half century.

But that exception was precisely contingent and its reasons for existence were external to us. It was not because of the quality of our work, or something that could be reproduced or exported to other working class sites. Some sections of the RCP, especially the more trade unionist circles, did try to promise precisely such reproduction  in the buildup to the 1977 National United  Workers Organization (NUWO) conference. They were peddling illusion (including to themselves).

I recently read a paragraph posted in the anti-revisionist archive project from the Revolutionary Union’s national pamphlet on  the 1974 Boston busing controvery. It starts:

“The U.S. workers movement is surging forward. Every day our ranks swell, our unity strengthens, and our political awareness of our great revolutionary tasks further develops. And with each passing day, the need for us to further deepen our unity and awareness becomes even greater, as the collapsing monopoly capitalist system comes down on our heads.”

This reminds me of a quip Alain Badiou makes about a leading Maoist group in France (the one he chose not to join):

“Almost everything put out by GP propaganda was half untrue — where there was a kitten, they described a Bengal tiger.”
(from Richard Wolin’s The Wind from the East)

Often our movement fantasized what would happen — and then (prematurely) announced it was happening.

And even in the coalfields, where there actually was such militant struggle of many thousands  of workers over a several intense years — the mix did not prove fertile ground for communist recruitment or beliefs. It was Jerry Falwell and Ronald Reagan who politically dominated that particular Appalachian playing field by 1980, not us.

That too is a lesson worth summing up — so we don’t reinvent the same illusions again.

Investigate and Concentrate

To be clear: That doesn’t mainly mean that we should not do communist work where we are — where we live and work. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t go deep among the people. How can we not?

But I am (tentatively) speaking against simply dispersing into our communities in particular ways with particular expectations — to merge with whatever is spontaneously happening there. Those kinds of dispersal form a pre-event for liquidation (and have done so many times).

The work we do should be connected to a common revolutionary approach that may not connect in all communities — and may find footing only under unique circumstances (initially).

I’m studying the communist philosopher Badiou these days. Our study group just touched on his chapter on the Paris Commune in “The Communist Hypothesis” which digs into — precisely — one of his exploration of how unique events rupture the old. And (as I mentioned before) Bruno Bosteels’ essay “Post-Maoism: Badiou and Politics” in positions works on the Maoist approach to active focused investigations in a way that had me buzzing.

We need to do serious investigation (collectively) of places to concentrate — we need to feel our way along the faultlines of this society to identify where best  to dig in — because (and this is serious) not all places or moments are equal. And in Part 2, I will discuss this in regard to finding particular kinds of advanced cohorts.

In addition, we should be flexible and alert for new things suddenly on the wind, especially for those that could be earth-shaking — for “our Mississippi” — and which will need us able to perceive, adapt and move. Such things may take strange forms that are hard to interpret, and they can come and go before communists even have the wisdom to see and respond. (The characters in the movie Dreamers almost miss the days of Paris May 1968 completely — cuz they were just wrapped up in something else.)

Sites of Beginning Part 2: Nodules of the Advanced

by Mike Ely

Let me start here: I listened to someone explain the formation of the Zapatistas.  The process  involved understanding that there were nodules or pockets of the very advanced in very particular conjunctural places among the oppressed people.

And those nodules — concentrated in particular regions, and in this case, within the Catholic lay structure — involved the emergence of  literate, energetic and very radical circles within the people themselves, who were able to  “hook up” with organized revolutionary intellectual forces  (from outside) in ways that are mutually transformative.

I think that the previous communist movements have not been able to find or connect with such advanced forces (in the U.S., in several decades.)  I  think our previous communist movement was perhaps able to “see” them sometimes, but not know what to do with them.

Particularly: I don’t think our movement was able to transform itself in order to fuse with the advanced (in those specific moments over decades where they emerged and the movement ran across them). Certainly our movement was not able  (through and with them) to develop a partisan connection to the broader people (which would need to happen in the course of  powerful moments of struggle).

Seams or Veins?

Let me sketch a mining metaphor: Coal is a sedimentary layer of fossilized wood — so it is concentrated in a seam that spreads over a large area. You can dig straight down in southern West Virginia — and any hole has to pass through the major horizontal coal seams sooner or later.

But rock mineral mining is very different: diamonds, gold and silver exist in nuggets that are embedded along the fissure lines in the hard rock in the crust — in occasional and irregular cracks where lava once forced its way upward. You can go to Nevada and randomly dig a hole straight down and are very unlikely to hit a pocket of gold or silver. You have to find those old fissure lines, and follow the veins of quartz along those fissures, and explore them until you find the nuggets and nodules.

I’m saying that the most advanced forces in society are not simply a “layer.”

Of course, in any situation, anywhere, you can find relatively advanced and relatively backward — but that is a different matter. Those people advanced enough t0 (1) connect with a revolutionary movement, and also (2) help connect that movement to sections of the people are rare in the U.S. — and are dispersed in cohorts along social fissure lines where they have experiences special pressures and heat.

And if  you just go “dig a hole” where life has placed you — looking to connect the revolutionary movement to people there randomly — you are unlikely to trigger a process of fusing socialism with the people, because the necessary ingredients  for initiating that fusing are not evenly distributed everywhere.

The location of such cohorts of people is not necessarily geographic. In 1994 the anti-immigrant Proposition 189 gave rise to a radicalized section of Latino high school and college students scattered across the state, part of a larger radicalization that has gone on among second generation immigrant youth. In the 1960s, something was happening among Black students and workers that made it possible for the Black Panther Party to suddenly “go national” and gather thousands of members (seemingly overnight) — Black students had been forming “black power” organizations everywhere and developing training as militants and organizers. Returning Vietnam vets were such a force in the 1970s — as many returned embittered and conscious, and in networks of co-thinkers.

Connecting well with such networks before they disperse takes very active work, creative fusion, communist training… and a bit of luck.

To be clear: I talk about cohorts — using the old Roman word for bonded co-fighters, a brother/sisterhood that emerges (including generationally).

In political work, we often run across very advanced and communist people as individuals — whose special life experiences have brought them a particular consciousness. And that is a good thing. But often the few recruited by previous communist organizations have been the relatively rootless — who are able to adapt themselves into a rigid pre-existing structure, and who were generally not able bring that structure into deep connection with broader sections of people or help transform that structure in needed ways. The RCP summed up that when it trained occasional communists from “among the masses” they often went back “home” to have great difficulty hooking back up or communicating what they now understood. The RCP’s hope of developing them as levers shows that this  process will hardly be  easy. The point remains, however, the advanced who emerge in important cohorts, and who in their interactions — with each other and the communist movement that some of them may join — can (potentially) help creatively press forward the process of fusion.

We have to seriously talk about how that can happen. Since we don’t yet know how to make that work — and since the actual details of that need to be worked out in practice, in the concrete, in the act.)

Linking Partisan Communist Work with Strategy

Chicanofuturet is righteously passionate about representing communism among the people. He argues hard with those among us who think that can’t be done. And many of us  have a deep unity with him on this point — a unity  that goes beyond words into practice. Promoting communism, talking creatively and coming from within are extremely important parts of our communist work.

But let’s also situate those necessary discussions Chicanofuturet has among the people (discussions of communism’s accomplished past, of our common inherited ideas, of our visions of radical change) within a new strategic plan for an actual movement (a communist movement with a partisan base among the people).

How do we communists arrive (among the people) as the beginnings of a movement (in the present, within this situation) — not merely as a disembodied idea about either the distant past or the distant future)? How do we organize a communist base (and a larger revolutionary current) among the people?

Where the Gaps have Narrowed

One issue (I believe) is that there is a large gap between thinking of the relatively advanced in most places and the ideas that defined a communist movement.

And further there is a relatively large objective gap between the activity of the relatively advanced in most places, and the forms of engagement that the previous communist movement allowed.

People from among the oppressed have had great difficulty bridging those two gaps — becoming communists (in the way that we chose to model it).

And I think we need to find the places and ways to close that gap:

  • by finding those distinct sites (in space and time) where the advanced are actually open to our vision of a revolutionary movement, and
  • by creating a movement that can creatively connect with such forces.

This will need a mutually transformative process, and a resulting fusion will mark the beginning of a new kind of “subject” — and give shape to the kind of communist movement we create. It will (in some ways) mark its real appearance.

And I think that contact-and-fusion needed to be initiated by now-scattered communists doing new deep investigation  into the highly complex geology among the people.

The Problem with Forays

Let me put it this way: Talking to the people is not enough. I have been in countless “forays” to talk to the people about communist politics. I was part of an organized trend that did exactly what Chicanofuturet describes — nationally and daily for many years in many cities.

Door-to-door in housing projects, dorms and coal camps. In demonstrations. In campus talks. Weekly newspaper with communist agitation. etc. And over and over, lots of people express interest (and respect). Probably hundreds of thousands of people. That is important to note — communist politics has been controversial, but not automatically been self-isolating. It has always found interested people in significant numbers.

But then…. there has remained those gaps — and an inability of more people to make the  leap from a kind of interested “listening” to an organized and partisan participation. The interest has not ever congealed as a partisan base or network.

And for me the question is: How do we bridge that gap (from the interested to the networks of organized partisan participants)? What are the stages of that process? What are the adjustments in form and speech that would help? What are the forms of organization that would move from “energetic propaganda sect” to an organized network of revolutionized working people themselves?

Connection Without Mutual Transformation

A historical example: In our ten year project in the U.S. coalfields (during the 1970s) — we only recruited one person who was a native coalminer (even though we worked closely with dozens, perhaps hundreds of men and women over those years).

This brother was unusual in many ways — including in that  he had left the coalfields and worked with the farmworkers union in California etc. — and in other ways had become opened to a large world of ideas and organizing outside the immediate world of the coalfields.

Years later I went back to West Virginia, and met with him on a writing trip — and he said to me,

“I wanted socialism and I wanted to wage the class struggle — but really 80% of what the party was talking to just went by me. I had no idea what all that was about, or why it mattered.”

That speaks to weaknesses in our work more than it speaks to his weaknesses. And I’m saying that some of this is objective — that the political life among working people in the U.S. and the general level of political discourse in the U.S. leaves even the most radical and discontent people rather distant from discussing the complexities of radical transition.

And some of it is subjective — i.e. it speaks to the rather particular conception of “being a communist” that dominated the communist trend I was in (including its always-marked “fetish of the word”).

Part of the problem here was that we connected with the people, but there was not enough mutual transformation. As individuals we communists transformed by adopting some of the local workingclass culture (dress, speech, lifestyles, etc.) — but as a movement we did not remake ourselves to be able to fuse with the advanced — and through them connect politically with the people more broadly.

For one thing, we need a movement radiating its ideas — but that isn’t over-intellectualized. And we need a movement capable of listening and seeing — and then continually transforming itself (without losing its goal, and the road to radical change). That is a very hard mix.

A Method of Starting

Obviously there is an element of uniting a critical mass of revolutionary forces to even initiate an organizing project. Some people have impatience frustration that our discussions (here on Kasama) are mainly among those already socialist. But in fact we need to have some regroupment of revolutionaries — along common lines and ideas — to start anything. And in many ways, we have barely started that process (and the necessary theoretical reconception).

As a key part of initiating practice: I think we need to look closely at the most advanced among the people — because they are the link to everything else.

Some think of the advanced as a layer dispersed uniformly among the people (along the interface between the oppressed and oppressor). Some think our main audience is the intermediate (or typical) worker who is not (yet) socialist or political.

But, by contrast, we need to see radicalization as conjuncture followed by contagion. Those advanced capable of fusing with a communist movement (and being its links to larger communities of people) emerge in circles and scenes — in a conjunctural way along often unappreciated fissures. They are formed in moments, and come in waves. They try to change the world and often sink back into the grayness out of frustration.

We need a serious discussion of “where are the advanced, who are the advanced, what do they believe” — that is based on  organized  investigation among different sections of the people.

What we learn and decide will determine what we do, where we go, and what we say — and how our movement appears when it is born.

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