Tag Archives: organizing

4 reasons to prioritize the study of the Bolivarian Revolution

The Russian Revolution has a disproportionately prominent position in the imaginations of modern revolutionaries in the West. Regardless of how smart and insightful Lenin was, and the trailblazing  efforts of the Bolsheviks, the hard truth is that the Russian Empire in the early 1900s was a totally different society than the ones we are dealing with today. Instead of focusing so much on the Russian Revolution, would-be revolutionaries should put much more energy into studying the Bolivarian Revolution, which is still playing out in Venezuela today, and which will have continent-wide ramifications. Now of course, the Bolivarian Revolution can be a controversial topic, and there are a lot of disagreements within the radical left about whether it is “truly socialist” or whatever; but regardless of these debates, I think we can all agree on the basic fact that the last couple of decades have seen some truly remarkable experiments in revolutionary praxis happen in Venezuela.

The first and most obvious reason to study the Bolivarian Revolution is that it is actually contemporary, starting in the 1990s and continuing today, as opposed to taking place 100 years ago during a totally different historical context. It started at the dawn of the information age, during an era of relative peace and a uni-polar US-controlled world order, and rebelled against neoliberal capitalism. These factors still mostly hold today, although the geopolitical context is certainly changing quite a lot, with the rise of China and Russia as economic and military rivals to the US, respectively. Compare this to the situation in the early 1900s. Basic technologies we take for granted today, like electricity and oil-based transportation, were just barely getting off the ground; the world was getting ravaged by vicious wars between evenly-matched imperial powers, in the worst violence that humanity has ever seen; and capitalism, in its modernist-developmental phase, was non-existent or peripheral to many regions that were still largely feudal in nature — such as Tsarist Russia.

Second, the Bolivarian Revolution took place in a highly urbanized country, which is again a stark contrast to Russia in 1917 (~20% urban), or really any country that saw a revolutionary socialist movement take power in the 20th century, like China, Vietnam, or Angola (Cuba is a possible exception, since in 1960 it was almost 60% urban). This is a huge factor for revolutionary politics, since the socio-economic and political dynamics of cities are extremely different than that of the rural countryside. Cities tend to be “fully capitalist”, with people totally subsumed by markets and wage-labor. In rural areas, markets have a presence but tend to exist alongside other social relations. The economic basis is also wildly different, with cities being orientated around industrial and service sectors, while rural areas revolve around energy and resources (agriculture, mining, etc), and corresponding differences in class and social composition. Given that the West is heavily urbanized, we should look closely at how radical politics has taken such deep roots within Venezuela.

Third, the Bolivarian Revolution was largely a peaceful process that combined electoral politics with autonomous social movements. This is quite novel in the history of revolutionary socialism; the closest parallel to this was the Allende government in Chile in the 1970s, which only lasted three years before being overthrown by a military coup. Chavez’s democratic road to power is crucial to study, given how hegemonic and popular democratic institutions generally are in the US, other developed countries, and wide swathes of the Global South. Despite the structural limitations of bourgeoisie democracy, its hegemony means that revolutionaries have to figure out some way to engage with it — albeit in a very different way than Western electoral parties, socialist or otherwise, have done so thus far. Hence the need to learn from the electoral experiences of Venezuelan socialists. The key lesson is probably in the relationship between electoral politicking and non or extra-electoral organizing, which has taken place across a dizzying number of cooperatives, clinics, affinity groups, neighborhood associations, etc., and how they feed into each other — a process that is much more complicated and interesting than current debates on the matter in the US and the West have acknowledged thus far.

Fourth, the Bolivarian Revolution is a revolution based on oil. The Chavez administration has used Venezuela’s oil industry as the material base for organizing and mobilizing the Venezuelan masses, turning its huge profits into funding for the aforementioned network of grassroots cooperatives and associations. This worked as long as oil prices were high (which was an explicit policy goal of Chavez), but their collapse has been the key factor in the recent crisis and potential end of the Bolivarian Revolution. This whole experience is an important lesson in the relationship between political economy and revolutionary strategy, and strategic questions about revolution and global processes — namely, imperialism and climate change. Venezuela’s oily socialism was dependent on exports to the US, which is obviously untenable for any serious revolutionary project in the long-term. And dependence on oil is itself untenable given the ongoing climate crisis. The (failed) attempts of the Bolivarian Revolution to break from US imperialism and fossil fuels must be studied; whether we can figure out how to actually overcome our material entanglement with US imperialism and fossil fuels will make or break all future revolutionary struggles.

“Business as usual” during the Holocaust and the climate crisis

I’m reading Ward Churchill’s Pacifism as Pathology [PDF], a polemic against pacifism and non-violence as a moral-political code. The rather grim and harsh section analyzing the Holocaust stood out to me. Ward unpacks what he sees as a general pattern of non-resistance among most German and European Jews against the Nazi’s steady escalation from discrimination to genocide. He argues that a key factor in this was that local Jewish leadership at the time was largely pushing a pacifist strategy, where resistance was seen as potentially inviting more repression and violence against Jews, than simply going along with Nazi oppression and hoping not to anger them more. Much of this was about sticking to “business as usual”.

Bettelheim describes this inertia, which he considers the basis for Jewish passivity in the face of genocide, as being grounded in a profound desire for “business as usual,” the following of rules, the need to not accept reality or to act upon it. Manifested in the irrational belief that in remaining “reasonable and responsible,” unobtrusively resisting by continuing “normal” day-to-day activities proscribed by the nazis through the Nuremberg Laws and other infamous legislation, and “not alienating anyone,” this attitude implied that a more-or-less humane Jewish policy might be morally imposed upon the nazi state by Jewish pacifism itself. (p36)

Now, I haven’t done much reading on Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, beyond the basics, so I have no idea how accurate this narrative is here about whether Jews were that passive, or what the politics of the German Jewish leadership was like, etc. Nonetheless, this idea — that even in the face of tremendous and escalating evil and violence, people still clung to the idea that perhaps if they just kept their head down and obeyed, things would go back to normal — really struck home, mainly in the context of thinking about the ongoing collapse of Earth’s biosphere.

This collapse may very well turn into a sort of Holocaust, if current trends of expanding fossil fuel infrastructure and political non-action continue. And despite this, much of the organizing against the climate crisis does not seem to match the reality of the situation; it is generally legal, non-disruptive, and not a significant threat to “business as usual”. There are some notable exceptions, of course, mainly in indigenous struggles like the Standing Rock standoff. But mainstream environmental movements are simply not acting with the seriousness and anger that their rhetoric would seem to demand. Its all generally very respectable and reasonable, fully rooted in normal day-to-day activities; at most, they wheel out the same dusty and tired tactics of performing street theater and perhaps some symbolic arrest rituals coordinated with the police. Meanwhile even The Economist is acknowledging that things are going pretty badly, with fossil fuel companies cheerfully continuing to expand their operations; Exxon Mobil is apparently planning to increase oil production by 25% by 2025.

Likewise, mainstream politics still continues to marginalize any serious discussion about climate change; it was barely mentioned in the 2016 US presidential elections (except for maybe that one time Bernie Sanders brought it up in response to a question about national security) and so far none of the presidential candidates for 2020 have made climate change even close to a central campaign plank. The recent hullabaloo about the Green New Deal is a welcome change to this trend, although it remains to be seen whether it’ll fade away the next time Trump says something stupid and scandalous. It would be fair to hypothesize that Democratic politicians are secretly climate change deniers, given how little action they actually take despite rhetorically upholding the grim scientific consensus.

Nathan J. Robinson of Current Affairs has written more eloquently about all of this. In “The Climate Change Problem“, he points out the huge gap between rhetoric and action about climate change, and how it could be a factor in why many people don’t take it seriously or think its a hoax. More recently, in “The Choice We Face“, he goes to town on the zoo of dipshit centrists who are scoffing at the Green New Deal without providing even a hint of an alternative — which again, betrays the fact that they are, functionally, climate change deniers, albeit more subtle and quiet about their denial than their brash Republican counterparts.

To tie it back, a lot of this most definitely has to do with the fixation on maintaining “business as usual” — not just in terms of capital accumulation, although that is central, but in terms of keeping with the inertia of one’s day-to-day routines, the general safety of normalcy, and the comforts of remaining an obedient citizen. Robinson suggests that those who really believe in climate change should be spending all their time trying to move their fellow humans toward action — but of course, nobody wants to be that guy, the loudmouth who gets invited to fewer and fewer parties and hangouts, because he won’t shut up about the trees and the bees. And climate change is certainly a much more abstract crisis than Nazism and the Holocaust — the latter was most definitely present in your day-to-day life, an undeniable force to take into account, even if this was done passively. But if people for the most part really did not resist their own extermination then, what exactly are we to do today to actually halt our collective civilizational dismemberment?

I’m really not sure. But there are a few things we can start doing, mainly in the realm of ideas. For one thing, while we should try not to annoy people, since that is self-defeating, we should definitely bring up climate change more in conversation, especially with folks who aren’t that political and/or have a long-term dream of quiet suburban family living. A more fun suggestion is that in terms of proposed actions, we ought to up our rhetoric; enough with the mundane bullshit about calling your representative or recycling or whatever, let’s talk about climate vengeance. Lets work toward normalizing the idea of ruthless property expropriation and punitive measures against the capitalists and politicians responsible for the crisis. Name names, call them out as the real eco-terrorists, and talk about seizing all their assets and locking them up. Fire and brimstone sort of stuff. Lastly, pacifist ideology needs to be countered within the environmental movement, and there needs to be a larger strategic discussion about how to actually push the large-scale system change needed to reverse the collapse of the biosphere. The movement absolutely has to get more aggressive, more disruptive, and yes, more violent. No more with unquestioned  self-confinement to the rules of the non-profit industrial complex and the broken legal system. Climate change is already a large scale act of ongoing violence, potentially unprecedented in scope and depth; fighting back is a question of self-defense.

US Marxist-Leninist electoralism in the ’70s and ’80s

I recently read two good things on US Marxist-Leninist groups in the ’70s and ’80s: Out of Oakland: Black Panther Party Internationalism During the Cold War (2017), and “Lessons From One Left to the Next: Revolution in the Air Revisited”.  The first is a book on the Black Panther Party (BPP) and its international organizing efforts, and the second is a book review on the New Communist Movement.

It is extremely interesting to see how the BPP, as it started to fall apart after 1971, started to very rapidly turn toward electoral politics.  And this turn didn’t even try to maintain much of a veneer of revolutionary communism.  In 1973, the BPP more or less fully pivoted away from revolutionary struggle and focused on electing Bobby Seale as Mayor of Oakland, and Elaine Brown to the Oakland city council.  Their leaflets urged voters to “Elect Two Democrats”; they advocated for the economic benefits of having police officers live within city limits; and they proposed a “Multi-Ethnic International Trade and Cultural Center” on the grounds that it would help trade and cultural exchange with developing countries and help grow local businesses and tourism.  By the end of the decade, the BPP was basically nothing more than an appendage of the Democratic Party; Elaine Brown attended the 1976 Democratic National Convention as a delegate for Jerry Brown’s presidential campaign.  (Malloy 217-9).

What the hell happened?  The book doesn’t go into much detail, since its much more about the way BPP’s politics and philosophy on internationalism changed over time, than about the internal dynamics of the party domestically.  My own hypothesis, as argued here, is that the BPP was materially dependent on social bases outside of its lumpen-proletarian core membership, namely elite white liberals and black businessmen.  For a short while, these groups were willing to support the BPP in its radical program.  But as the Vietnam War winded down and the US government opened up space for the emergence of a black middle class, these groups became increasingly moderate, and the BPP was forced to follow this moderating trend.

Of course, the BPP wasn’t the only revolutionary group operating during this time period, even if it was the biggest and most visible.  The New Communist Movement saw a number of radical left groups organizing explicitly around Marxist-Leninist lines in the ’70s and ’80s, in the aftermath of the New Left movements of the ’60s.  Unfortunately this area of organizing seems rather understudied comparatively to the ’60s movements, which is why resources like Paul Saba’s bare-bones website, part of the Marxists Internet Archive, are so useful.  The Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), which is now a creepy cult around its leader Bob Avakian, is one relic from this era.  Another large and relatively well-organized group was the Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist), which was founded in 1977 and collapsed in 1982 — perhaps for the better, given that the party opposed gay liberation, supported the Khmer Rogue, and called on the US to arm mujaheddin fighters in Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion in ’79.  This report, written by a leading member who resigned in 1980, seems like very interesting and insightful reading on the trials and tribulations of the CP(ML).

Around the same time, another very interesting group formed, the League of Revolutionary Struggle (LRS), which unlike the CP(ML) was largely composed of people of color organizing around national liberation movements.  The LRS was a merger of I Wor Kuen (made up of Chinese Americans), and the August 29th Movement (made up of Chicanos).  It soon merged with the East Wind Collective (made up of Japanese Americans), Seize the Time (made up of Blacks and Chicanos), and Amiri Baraka’s Revolutionary Communist League.

Sounds super cool, right?  Except, skimming through the documents, the most active campaigns that the LRS seems to have engaged in was…campaigning for Jesse Jackson in the Democratic Party primaries in 1984 and 1988.

What is it with Marxism-Leninism and milquetoast electoralism???

But snark aside, the post-’68 movements are extremely interesting, not to mention important, given that they were attempting to organize and (supposedly) trying to stir up revolutionary struggle at precisely the time when capitalism was restructuring into its modern neoliberal form.  Taking a closer look at the activities and internal debates of the New Communist Movement groups could tell us a lot about how to deal with such a terrain of struggle, give us a better understanding of US radical organizing that is more recent than the ’60s, and of course give us valuable lessons for today at a time when the debate within the radical left around democratic socialism, revolutionary struggle, and the Democratic Party is heating up.

Notes on Endnotes’ “A History of Separation”

Endnotes Issue 4, “A History of Separation”, is all about situating the workers’ movement of the 1800s and 1900s into its historical context.  It continues with Endnotes  rather heretical central thesis that the industrial proletariat is not the class that will overthrow capitalism, and that in fact capitalism will not automatically create a revolutionary class in the first place.

Here is a summary of the arguments that stood out to me.


The workers’ movement of the 19th and 20th century was couched in a very specific identity, that of the industrial worker.  This identity was rooted in the conditions and experiences of laboring in the factories, but also in the institutions and social spaces built by the workers’ movement to help reproduce this identity and pave over divisions of language, religion, etc.  This was all closely connected to the orthodox Marxist valorization of the industrial worker as the producer of all value in society, and thus the rightful heir to the wealth being produced by capitalism.

This not only informed, but overdetermined the class politics of the era.  Early communists believed that capitalism, as it developed, would inexorably proletarianize the rest of society, expanding the ranks of the industrial workforce and uniting them in the factory across divisions of nation, language, religion, etc., and creating a revolutionary force that would overthrow capitalism and establish socialism, a dictatorship of the proletariat.  This seemed correct for a time as industrialization, urbanization, and the expansion of the industrial workforce proceeded; but as capitalism developed and became fully mature in the mid-20th century, the real long-term trend became deindustrialization and the marginalization of industrial workers, as automation steadily reduced the relative need for industrial labor, and produced all sorts of different sectors and strata of workers with no real shared experience or identity — and in particular, a growing population of surplus people of no use to capital.  Capitalism did not unite the masses into a homogeneous collective industrial class, but instead alienated and separated them from one another; the only unity produced by capitalism is the unity of being atomized from everybody and everything, and being dependent on the market.  Unity-in-separation.

The excessive focus on the industrial worker by the workers’ movement also explains the policies of the revolutionary Marxist-Leninist states, which took hold in societies which were backwards and agricultural.  These states saw their primary task as developing the productive forces and creating the proletariat in the first place, and so ruthlessly attacked and undermined and displaced peasants and other rural/agricultural classes, driving them into the factories.  The underlying logic was to produce the revolutionary class that the old regime, dominated by feudal elites who stifled capitalism, had failed to produce.  But this focus on expanding industrial production and industrial workers replicated in the socialist bloc the same dynamic as in the capitalist bloc: the tendency toward the technological displacement of workers and the production of alienation and separation.

Deindustrialization and the full realization of unity-in-separation also meant that the shortcomings of the workers’ movement — whose self-identification revolved largely around the figure of the semi-skilled white male worker — became obvious, thus leading to the relative increase in importance of the various social movements around gender, race, sexuality, etc. in the 1960s and afterwards.  With the identity of the worker no longer able to mobilize a strong and powerful force, other identities became more materially powerful.

None of this is about whether communists at various times had mistaken ideas in their heads about how to go about revolution.  Rather, it is an assessment about how the leading revolutionary strategies of history were emergent from their specific material context, with regards to the particular phase of global capitalism at the time.

Since the long-term tendency of capitalism is the production of a unity-in-separation, the task for revolutionary communists is to engage with the problem of composition, of how to add up different fractions of the exploited masses into a revolutionary force.  What’s necessary, then, is not “class consciousness”, but a “consciousness of capital” as the common enemy of all of our disparate and differentiated lives.  From the last paragraphs of the second-to-last section:

Ours is a society of strangers, engaged in a complex set of interactions. There is no one, no group or class, who controls these interactions. Instead, our blind dance is coordinated impersonally, through markets. The language we speak — by means of which we call out to one another, in this darkness — is the language of prices. It is not the only language we can hear, but it is the loudest. This is the community of capital.

When people make the leap out of that community, they will have to figure out how to relate to each other and to the things themselves, in new ways. There is no one way to do that. Capital is the unity of our world, and its replacement cannot be just one thing. It will have to be many.


So how much of this do I agree with?  A lot, I think.  Its absolutely necessary to not be weighed down with the traditions and myths of the past, and moving beyond the heroic figure of the industrial worker in favor of examining capitalism and class as it actually exists today is a vital task.  In this regard the arguments of Endnotes echos that of Autonomist Marxism, and indeed “A History of Separation” starts with a quote from Mario Tronti.  There is no doubt that the working class today is heterogeneous and stratified, encompassing everybody from software developers to teachers to meatpackers to waitresses.  Building a basis for unity must be the point of organizing, not something assumed or asserted.

The points on automation and decomposition are also on the mark.  This essay goes into more depth on the question of automation and employment, and reaches more or less the same conclusion: that while automation expels the working class from some segments of production, there is a corresponding increase in labor demand in other sectors, mainly lower-wage and more precarious service work, or what Endnotes terms as “surplus population” (surplus to the core sectors of capital but not to the capitalist economy).

I’m not nearly as pessimistic as the essay is with regards to the problem of composing a revolutionary force.  At the risk of sounding like a simpleton I think it is pretty easy to assert that there is more that binds us than separates us, and despite the mass production of unity-in-separation its not at all a hard sell for most people that regardless of our occupations, national backgrounds, etc. we all gotta eat, and we all have to take shit from some kind of boss.  Pushing this generic observation to actual material alliances built around class struggle is another story, of course, but I’m optimistic about these prospects based on the organizing I’m seeing around me, particularly in the tech industry where workers across strata are working together and slowly grasping toward a common identity built through struggle.

Indeed reading Endnotes makes me outright optimistic, despite them being labelled as “bleak” by magazines like N+1, possibly because it echoes what I’ve been hypothesizing on my own in recent years: that the key task of revolutionary communists is to act as catalysts for different fractions of the working class to come together in common struggle, by facilitating communication and collaborative efforts, unveiling avenues of concrete solidarity, and doing whatever else it takes to recompose the working class.

Sophia Burns on ambulance-chasing and revolutionary strategy

I generally think that the radical left in the US does very little in the way of strategic thinking, so its always nice to read pieces like “Chasing Ambulances” and “Strategize, Don’t Moralize”, both written by Sophia Burns, a radical out in the Pacific North-west.

“Chasing Ambulances” critiques the common leftist practice of bouncing around different hot-button issues that are sparking protests and rallies, in an effort to spread the good word of revolution or whatever and find new recruits.  This is often weird and alienating and annoying to the people who are actually organizing the events and who have been engaged in long-term organizing around a particular issue or community.  And even when leftists aren’t being weird and opportunistic, there is still a tendency to put out all manner of resolutions and endorsements and whatnot as a way to “support” a cause — and it usually ends at that, which makes it highly questionable what the actual point of them is.  Burns argues that instead of running around and chasing after causes, leftists ought to instead be actual organizers, and engage in base-building in specific communities, with a long-term strategic perspective.  Sounds obvious, but then again, look at all the different cliques and sects running around in urban centers of the US that can be found at the fringes of any protest action, but have no meaningful organizing activity of their own, aside from trying to recruit people and raise awareness of socialism or whatever.

However, I would nuance this line of argument by saying that there are leftists who can and are engaging with flare-ups in social movements, like the ongoing teachers’ strikes, in what seems to be an effective and fruitful manner.  This engagement isn’t based on trying to recruit or preach, but on mutual communication and on the basis of learning.  There are plenty of radicals in education and academia who can and are connecting with the West Virginia wildcat teachers on the basis that they, too, are facing similar styles of exploitation and subjugation.  And of course it certainly helps that radical organizations like the IWW have been actually helping out in West Virginia.

“Strategize, Don’t Moralize” is a more explicit discussion of the need for revolutionary strategy, and a critique of the common leftist practice of debating about tactics in the abstract, divorced from context or strategy.  For example, its ultimately meaningless to talk about whether punching Nazis is good or bad in the abstract; you have to discuss it in the context of specific goals, which themselves must be connected to a larger strategy.  For revolutionaries, this strategy of course needs to be oriented around the prospect of revolution, which requires the synthesis of many different tactics — direct action, mutual aid, etc. — that have appropriate times and places to implement.  Without a coherent strategy, then leftists are left debating and implementing tactics in a vacuum, and arguing ideas without implementing practices, and thus remaining marginal to both the masses and to political and social relevance.

Burns doesn’t explicitly connect this line of argumentation with the one about ambulance-chasing, but the connection should be clear: when leftists aren’t acting in accordance with an explicit long-term strategy, then the impulse to abstractly moralize means that their actions are dictated by the issue of the month, and the need to “be correct” or “take the right position” on all manner of topics that, in the end, they have no concrete ability to influence.  The war in Syria is an excellent example of this.  Everybody is so damn caught up in yelling at each other about the correct line on Syria that nobody has stopped to realize that none of them have any power whatsoever to influence the situation in the first place, so the debate is ultimately irrelevant.  Instead of this style of moralizing, we need to take a step back and think about how to get from point A (being irrelevant to the situation in Syria and global capitalism/imperialism as a whole) to point Z (being a serious revolutionary force capable of intervening against imperialism).

Strategize and build power, don’t run after ambulances!

Rise of the “Tech Left”

There was a pretty good piece recently published about a month ago in The Guardian about left-wing organizing and activism in the tech industry, titled “Coders of the world, unite: can Silicon Valley workers curb the power of Big Tech?”  The article touches on much of what I talked about here, and extends it to look at what is called the “Tech Left”, a movement within the tech industry that focuses on tech workers as a potentially radical agent of change:

Their insight is as compelling as it is counterintuitive: the best people to confront the power of the tech giants may be their own employees. First, they want to teach their colleagues to see that tech work is work, even though it doesn’t take place in a factory. Then, they want to organise them, so that rank-and-file workers can begin to bring political transparency and democratic accountability to the platforms they have worked to build. Call them the Tech Left…

…The Tech Left believes it must urgently transform the industry in order to stop it from serving nefarious ends. It is not focused on getting Democratic politicians elected. On the contrary, much of the Tech Left distrusts mainstream Democrats. It does not believe that more engagement with digital tools necessarily means more democracy, or that the tech industry will necessarily lead the way to social progress. It is sceptical that people who became billionaires under the current system will transform that system. Instead of venture capital, the Tech Left talks about worker power, believing that the best chance to reform these companies will come from people who work there.

The article looks at two organizations, the Tech Workers Coalition (TWC) and Tech Solidarity, both of which are organizing tech workers for left-wing and progressive ends.  The TWC is organizing to both raise class consciousness among engineers and programmers and other techies, and to unite these white-collar workers with their blue-collar counterparts who work in food and janitorial services in the same buildings and campuses.  Tech Solidarity is working along similar lines, to build labor-oriented networks among tech workers and empower them to resist a reactionary Trump administration.  Other organizations and networks are observed as well, such as the New York City chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and their Tech Action committee, and the Never Again pledge that was passed around among thousands of techies.

The article is long, and good.  Check it out.  Also related is a more recent op-ed, published last week, on basically the same topic, titled “Tech capitalists won’t fix the world’s problems – their unionized workforce might”.  The op-ed notes the TWC’s activities in the US, as well as parallel activities in India and Brazil among radicalizing tech workers.

Hopefully, this is all just the beginning of a wave of organizing and mobilizing in an industry that is the engine of contemporary capitalism.

Notes on the revolutionary potential in housing campaigns

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” ProgramsThe 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.