There are some real swell comrades in the area who are kicking off some serious work around housing, so its a good time for me to dive back into some of my earlier musings on revolutionary communism and housing struggles. The following is a summary of the argument I was trying to make across three essays I wrote several years ago: Biopolitics, Dual Power, and the Revolutionary Characteristics of “Serve the People” Programs, The Political Economy of Revolutionary Struggle: Lessons From the Black Panthers, and Serve the People, Seize the Land: Prospects for Revolutionary Struggle Around Affordable Housing.
Revolutionary movements are all based on particular local conditions and histories, but they do have important similarities that can be universalized and applied generally.
- Revolutionary movements deliver immediate and concrete benefits to people. They are not based in abstract demands for a better world, or promises of societal improvements at some point in the future—they improve things now. Hence why workplace action has often been at the center of Marxist praxis—it is an area where people can force immediate changes, and in the process, develop into revolutionary subjects. The creation of concrete benefits makes it clear to people that participating in the revolutionary struggle will improve their lives, even if they may disagree ideologically, or don’t understand the more complex theoretical underpinnings of communism. The Black Panther Party applied this practice in the US outside the traditional site of class struggle (the workplace), in the neighborhoods, with their service and protection programs.
- Revolutionary movements develop autonomous institutions of the working class, outside of state and capital. This is a requirement for the revolutionary creation of material benefits to the masses; what makes these benefits revolutionary is that they are created and distributed by and for the masses. This requires proper coordination, planning, and discipline, as well as the ability to scale up and out, and to continually reproduce itself—hence the term “institutions”. They are also independent from capital and its fetters, outside the control of the state, wealthy donors, non-profit foundations, and so on. Thus the establishment of popular institutions of the class, which govern and coordinate the creation and distribution of tangible goods and services, develops proletarian “dual power”. The Black Panther Party developed such institutions to organize their diverse spectrum of survival programs such as breakfasts, clothing drives, etc., although they failed to ensure that these efforts were properly independent from state and capital.
- The economic foundations of the revolutionary movement are key to its survival, and is heavily related to the way dual power institutions are structured. The Black Panther Party, while at its core was made up of dedicated volunteer cadres, also became dependent on donations from petite-bourgeoisie classes like local business owners and white professionals. This worked while there was a material basis for an alliance (local business owners were locked in the ghetto due to segregation and thus subject to Panther governance; the children of white professionals faced the draft), but once the foundation of this alliance crumbled (desegregation, end of the war), the Panthers were split between a social-democratic tendency that chased after donations from an increasingly conservative base (thus steadily absorbed by liberal institutions) and an insurrectionary tendency attempting to be true to its revolutionary principles without any material base at all (thus easily crushed militarily). For modern revolutionaries it is clear that we must take seriously the question of how we sustain and reproduce ourselves and our organizations financially.
- Revolutionary movements tap into feedback loops. The creation of immediate concrete benefits isn’t just a way to attract new recruits and impress observers, it is to help break the biopolitical control of capital over our lives and free up time and energy to further engage in revolutionary organizing — thus allowing for even more benefits to be created, and so on, in a positive feedback loop. Militant unionism increases wages and decreases workplace stress and working hours, thus increasing the amount of money, time, and energy available to organize, which should lead to even more wage increases and stress/workday reductions. The Black Panther Party’s armed interventions against police brutality made the streets safer for people to walk around and organize, and also kept money in people’s pockets, making more available to help fund more survival programs.
- Land struggles in particular have a lot of potential to generate revolutionary feedback loops. It is precisely for this reason why pretty much all modern revolutions have had at least some basis in land struggles, and why some of the most interesting movements today are based in land struggles (EZLN in Mexico, MST in Brazil, Maoist guerrillas in Asia). The monopolization of land in agricultural societies presents a very obviously zero-sum game for the masses of landless peasants. When even a small group of revolutionaries begin to upend this monopolization and start to seize control of and distribute land, it is obvious to all landless people that it would be most excellent if this revolutionary movement was to expand. The more land gets expropriated and redistributed, the more stable and prosperous and popular the revolutionaries are, and the weaker the old landed class is, and the more land that can be expropriated and redistributed. (Obviously things are more complicated than this, i.e. unresolved ethno-linguistic conflicts between landless people, less black-and-white statistics around land ownership and inequality, but in general the trend seems to emerges).
- The situation of housing in the US today has many parallels to unequal feudal/agricultural societies. After 2008 the rates of property ownership for different income/class groups was completely upended in favor of the bourgeoisie and their institutions. The number and proportion of tenants has skyrocketed, as has the amount and proportion of workers’ income going into the pockets of the landlords. Pushing back against this trend and organizing to put money into people’s pockets is a simple, common-sense idea with broad popularity, but at the same time is a radical attack on capitalist property rights, even if it does not immediately turn into a campaign of expropriating and collectivizing housing (it won’t!). Organizing around simple and straightforward demands (i.e. repairs/maintenance, freezes on rent increases) would be popular, and also pave the way for increasingly revolutionary actions, like rent strikes and outright expropriation. But key to all this, as comrades on the ground in housing struggles have emphasized, is overcoming the incredibly high level of risk present in acting against your landlord — and by extension, the state’s security apparatus. This is not just a question of tactics, but a question of overall revolutionary strategy, and one that should be the focus of investigation and experimentation for all of us interested in exploring the revolutionary potential in urban land struggles.