Saturday, September 26, 2009

Pittsburgh G20 Diaries: Day Three


Photo: PDA's Randy Shannon with banner, center, next Michael McPhearson of Vets for Peace with Rick Kimbrough, right.

10,000 Marchers Beat Back

The Steel City’s ‘State of Siege’

By Carl Davidson

Beaver County Blue

Nearly 10,000 protesters marched through the streets of Pittsburgh on the last day of the G20 this Sept. 25 afternoon, delivering a powerful message for global justice that was expressed with a brilliantly colored display of unity, militancy and diversity.

Peace and justice groups demanded an end to wars and occupations, trade union contingents demanded green jobs and fair trade, women and people of color raised the banners of equality and empowerment, and young people called for a sustainable and liberated future in a new world.

“Will we make any difference?” Rick Kimbrough asked me a few hours earlier as we headed down a parkway heavily secured with police cars at every exit on our way into town. Kimbrough is an old high school friend, an African American steelworker with 37 years in a huge Beaver County mill that’s now shutdown and gone, Jones And Laughlin Steel. When I asked him to join me the day before, he was fired up to go already, until he heard a nephew had taken a bullet as a bystander in a senseless street fight. When he heard his nephew would do OK, he called back, ready to ride in with me and join the United Steel Workers contingent in ‘the People’s March’ at the close of the G20 sessions.

“We’ll make SOME difference, but not nearly enough, and not yet,” was my reply. “These G20 people think they can run the world as they please, but we have to show them they can’t, that there are limits, at least until we can grow stronger, and turn things around completely.” I asked Rick if he had ever been to something like this before. No, he’d been to political, union and civil rights rallies, but this was different.

We turned to discussing the news from the previous day, mainly about the efforts by anarchist youth, a thousand or so of them, to stage actions on a variety of targets, and march on the G20 without permits. They had a number of skirmishes all day and into the night with the highly militarized police, who made use of tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets. Some 82 protesters were arrested overall, and the day had seen numerous smashed windows and trash cans sent rolling into the streets.

Far worse, the Pittsburgh riot police, on the night of Sept 24, swept the university neighborhood streets, downtown Oakland, clean of students with pepper spray and tear gas canisters. Students were trapped on stairwells by riot police above and below and gassed. Students were gassed in closed passages between dormitories. They had committed no crime, no offense, no discourtesy, no disrespect, but had simply been walking to get a bite to eat, or to visit a friend, or to study, or stand around in the cool night air and talk with friends.

The media accounts had worried Rick’s family about his participation. In fact, a number of other Beaver County workers I had asked to take part flat out said “No!,’ they had no interest in playing tag with heavily armed cops who were largely inexperienced--and my assertion that today’s march would likely be large and peaceful didn’t count for much. In fact, it was entirely peaceful on this last day—no windows broken, and only one arrest.

“What’s the deal with breaking windows? Don’t they realize that’s just a big diversion that waters down the message?” Rick asked about the previous night. I tried to explain that anarchists didn’t necessarily share our message, and could be manipulated by police and provocateurs. But young people had minds of their own, often having to learn things the hard way. He agreed, turning the talk back to his nephew, and venting his anger against the criminal profiteers selling guns to kids in his neighborhood. “I’ve seen too much senseless street violence,” he concluded, “I’ve got no patience for it.”

When we hit Pittsburgh, our attention turned to trying to park downtown near the Steel Workers building, so we would have the car nearby at the end of the march. Nice idea, but no way it was going to happen. Every downtown exit was blocked until Oakland, near the university. We tried twice to double back, and were turned back by police and blockaded streets.

Security was tough and serious. The militarized police, more than 6000 of them brought in from across the country, had shut down normal commerce and movement of people in the city. The city was placed in a real, not a virtual state of siege.

Finally, Randy Shannon from Beaver County’s Progressive Democrats of America got us on the cell phone. He’s across the river on the South Side, the closest spot he could find. So we picked him up, and made our way to Oakland, and luckily found a parking lot right near the head of the march.

As we neared the top of a steep block and reached the staging area, Rick got a little wide-eyed at the first thing we saw, a contingent of 200 Tibetans, some with monk robes and beating drums, and all with red and yellow flags and banners. So I gave him a quick crash course in who’s who—the Tibetans are protesting what they see as a raw deal from China threatening their Buddhist culture, the young people dressed in black with masks are mostly the anarchists we were taking about, the people with checkered scarves and green, black red and white flags are pro-Palestinian, the women in shocking pink are Code Pink, a militant peace group, and so on.

“This is wonderful, all kinds of people are here,” was Rick’s conclusion. I suggested we look for union caps and jackets, or people in fatigues with Army veteran’s stuff, and we’ll find the folks we’re looking for. Right away, Carl Redwood Jr. from the battles in the Hill District, a low-income African American neighborhood, comes over to talk. I met him at a teach-in two days before. We fill Rick in on the issues around the new Penguin stadium and gentrification.

As we neared the front ranks, I spotted Michael McPhearson, a national leader of Vets for Peace I knew through United for Peace and Justice. When I introduce Rick, it turns out Mike has folks in Aliquippa, so they are quickly making connections.

There were two groupings up front. Randy had connected with his daughter, a University of Pittsburgh student, and was positioned with the Thomas Merton Center antiwar people. Rick and I were with the Iraq Vets Against the War group along side them. Aaron Hughes, an IVAW national leader, came up to greet us. He and Rick were soon talking about post traumatic stress and it impact on communities when soldiers return. “I still haven’t spotted the Steel Workers,” I told him, “but let’s just stay here until we do.”

Suddenly the march moved out, and we’re in the front ranks, about four rows back. It’s a long walk, more than a mile, but fortunately, almost all of it is downhill. After we’ve gone twenty blocks or so and are on a little rise, I walked backwards and looked for the end. I couldn't see it; we were still filling the streets. It meant we numbered somewhere between 5000 and 10,000, and we could declare a victory for the day. Progressive activists had beaten back attempts at intimidation.

Rick picked up on all the rhythmic chanting. “The people, united, will never be defeated!” seemed to suit him best, while “This is what democracy looks like!” was my favorite for the day. As we come in sight of the Hill District, I’m informed that a feeder march of the residents numbering about 500 has merged with us, as have a number of other groupings with feeder marches throughout day.

Eventually we decide to stand to the side and wait for the USW contingent to show up. This meant we got a terrific review of the march’s composition: large banners from the Green party went by, followed by a huge HR 676 Single Payer health care contingent, then several hundred young anarchists in black with black flags, the Gay and Lesbian people, more environmentalists, then Middle East peace militants. Finally we spotted the large blue USW flags, with dozens of people in union T-Shirts, perhaps 50 in all. I waved to Maria Somma, a Steel Worker organizer. Interestingly, the front banner is featuring the rights of immigrant workers. Plenty of ‘Good Jobs, Green Jobs’ placards are also visible. We fell in at the back of the contingent, carrying our own placard with a picture of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and a demand for jobs.

The taller downtown buildings provided and excellent echo chamber for our chants and drum beats, so spirits were high as we turned the corner to the rally scheduled at an open plaza near the City-County Building.

“We had this successful people’s march today only because we FOUGHT for it, every step of the way” declared Peter Shell of the Thomas Merton Center’s Antiwar Committee from the platform. He delivered a powerful indictment of the federal and city tactics designed to disorganize the protestors and dampen the turnout. “Look at all these militarized police brought in here from everywhere. They have taught us an important lesson, even if in a small way, about what it’s like to live under and occupation, and why we have to increase out efforts this fall to end the occupations in Iraq, Afghanistan and Gaza.”

Lisa Jordan of the USW Education Dept spoke for the steelworkers. “The G20 is undemocratic and unrepresentative,” she stated. “They only speak for the CEOs; there is no voice for the workers.” She pledged the solidarity of the USW with all the ongoing fights for global and social justice.

We listened to a few more speeches, but the crowd was breaking up. One contingent would go on to the East Side within a few blocks of the convention center, where the G20 was wrapping up, and thus technically getting within ‘sight and sound’ of the gathering. It was a thin concession to what was really needed.

Rick had a bum leg, injured years back in the J&L tin mill when a sheet of metal sliced a tendon, and it was giving out on him. Given the restrictive logistics, we called it a day. Getting to a bus to get back to our car was hard enough—we had to pass through three barriers of hundreds of police, including a long line of German shepherd police dogs that looked forlorn behind their uncomfortable muzzles. The bus quickly filled, and in twenty minutes, we were back at the car and headed home.

Since the G20 bigwigs were also headed toward the airport, which is located near the border of Beaver County, security was even more intense on the highway on the way back. “It’s all overkill,” said Rick. “They just want to use us for practice. We’re just a training exercise for them, and it’ll be turned against us even more somewhere down the line.”

As I dropped him off at home, I reminded him to check the news. “The cameras all loved your picket sign; you may get your fifteen minutes of fame, and can brag to your grandkids.” When I got home and turned on the news, however, reality sunk in. There were a few brief snippets about our huge march today, followed by great detail about how many windows and storefronts had been smashed the night before, complete with charts and maps of targeted areas, and lots of footage of broken glass, with kids in black masks, while cops do their best to round them up or disperse them.

Randy Shannon called to check in, making sure we made it back OK. “In that state of siege,” he summed up, “the march today was a shining example of the courage and determination of those of us who understand the need to fight for the First Amendment.”

But on the wider messages, if we’re ever to get beyond preaching to the choir of the militant minority, and instead break through to the progressive majority, we’re going to have to find the ways and the forces to do things differently.

Carl Davidson is a writer for Beaver County Blue, and a long-time organizer going back to the 1960s New Left. Today he is a national co-chair of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism and a national board member of the US Solidarity Economy Network. He is author, along with Jerry Harris, of 'Cyberradicalism: A New Left for a Global Age.' If you like this artile, make use of the PayPal button at

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Thursday, September 24, 2009

Pittsburgh G20 Diaries: Day Two


Photo: USW Blue-Green Rally at G20 for Green Jobs, Clean Energy

Union Teach-Ins, a Nobel Laureate
Ninja Turtles and Steel City Rockers

By Carl Davidson
Beaver County Blue

One of the first things you see entering Pittsburgh from the Fort Pitt Bridge is that the United Steel Workers, headquartered in this working-class town, are determined to deliver a strong message to the G20 bigwigs.

“Jobs, Good Jobs, Greens Jobs Now!’ declared the huge five-story-tall banner draped from the top of the even taller USW headquarters building that faces the Golden Triangle and its hotels. Despite squads of militarized police, some in their Ninja turtle outfits, no one anywhere near the downtown area can miss it.

Today I’m headed for the day-long ‘Teach-In on Human Rights, Global Justice and the G20’ organized by the USW at their 4th floor conference center. Later in the afternoon on this gray, drizzly and humid Sept 23 day, I plan to hear Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz speak in the low-income Hill District, and attend a labor-environmentalist rally and concert featuring local politicians and rockers.

The street heat protests are planned for the last two days, Thursday and Friday, Sept 24-25. So far, the police have been going out of their way with petty harassment of out-of-town protestors—getting permits mixed up, trying to stop a Free Food bus, challenging small encampments. Some Green Peace people get busted today for hanging a huge banner on one of the bridges, but arrests and scuffles so far are minor.

I arrived early, just in time for the freshly brewed coffee and wide array of muffins and pastries that will load my blood sugar and won’t help my waistline—but who can resist? The TV cameras are there, and the room is filling up with union people and activists from near and far. The press is focused on Richard Trumka, the new president of the AFL-CIO who’s very popular here in Western Pennsylvania. He came from the coal mining area about 40 miles south of the city, where he started as a leader of the United Mine Workers of America.

“I’ve been given the job of ‘framing’ the discussion here today,” Trumka began, but warns us he won’t be around for criticism if he doesn’t do a good job. He’s got to take off early and meet with the top labor leaders from the other 20 or so countries here for the G20 event.

Trumka gave us a big picture. “From 1946 to 1976, the productivity of the American worker and our wages rose together and nearly doubled. But from the late 1970s, and especially after Ronald Reagan, things changed. Our productivity continued to rise, but our wages stagnated, and now are declining.” He followed with a good definition of neoliberalism, urging us to use and understand the term, and how it produced the cycle of consumer debt and the financial bubbles leading to the recent crash.

The neoliberals of both parties, he continued, have tried to put labor and its allies “in a policy box with six sides”—labor ‘flexibility,’ shareholder value primacy, globalization/ off shoring, ‘personal’ responsibility over all, small government to a fault, and economic ‘stability,’ meaning austerity for us. He explained the hidden trap and fallacy in each one of these.

“We make it, and they take it, that’s what it boils down to on wealth creation,” Trumka concluded, noting that it was unacceptable. Labor wasn’t about to be imprisoned in the box defined by neoliberalism, but was going to break out of it. It was clear that the new AFL-CIO chieftain was sharp as a tack, well-versed in political economy, and not about to be easily bamboozled by anyone.

Lisa Jordan of the USW took the podium as Trumka headed for his G20 meetings. “I can’t help but report what I saw driving in here yesterday and today,” she said. “A long caravan of paddy wagons, and for what? Just waiting to arrest us and scare other people away. She added that the USW would stand up to it at the rally tonight, and especially at the large ‘People’s March’ on Friday. She urged a large steelworker turnout from the locals. “We want to see a sea of our banners, so bring out our people and every local banner you can get.”

Jordon outlined the upcoming speakers and breakout sessions at six different roundtable spots on the floor—topics included labor in Latin America, the corporate agenda, the WTO, anti-sweatshop legislation, race, gender and globalization, and several others.

I picked one on economic development battles in the Pittsburgh region. The town I’m from, Aliquippa in Beaver County, is one of the hardest hit in the area and matches the ‘boarded up communities’ phrase in the session’s description.

Barney Oursler of Pittsburgh United leads us off with an account of Pittsburgh’s contrasting areas of downtown glitter, which extends along the high-tech corridor out to the airport, with the grime of neglected neighborhoods and depressed river valley mill towns. “What’s the first word that comes to mind when you hear the word ‘development?’ he asks. “Profits, big ones,” someone answers.” “That’s exactly right,” he says, “and more often than not, it’s the elites that benefit, not the rest of us.”

The case in point offered several times over the day is the Pittsburgh Penguins demanding $750 million from the city for a new stadium, and getting it. The main opposition came from ‘One Hill,” a coalition of mainly African American groups in the Hill District, which both the new stadium site and is targeted for gentrification. One Hill fought the Penguins corporate core for restrictions on expansion and a community benefits accord. They got a deal worth $10 million, but the battle goes on.

“We have a different problem,” I interjected. “We have no development even to demand a piece of in Aliquippa, and we used to be the home of one of the world’s largest steel mills.” I went on to briefly describe some local discussions about opening a closed hospital as part of our larger battle for ‘Medicare for All, Healthcare not Warfare, ‘ as well as some discussion we started around rebuilding locks and dams on the local rivers for green barge transport and green energy infrastructure. Steffi Domike of the USW Associates staff picks up on the latter point. “The Pittsburgh plateau is a good region for wind farms, but we’d have to modernize the energy grid to get the most from it.” We agreed to follow up with more discussion on the implied projects in the weeks ahead.

One thing is quite clear about the Steelworkers. They are very serious, from President Leo Gerard’s speeches down to the brochures in the lobby, about getting beyond traditional business unionism and fighting for a major green industrial policy and new structural reforms to get out of the economic crisis. Moreover, they want to do it in a way that benefits the entire working class. This is why they are putting resources behind the Blue-Green alliance with environmentalists and the ‘Green for All’ projects associated with Van Jones and his inner city youth programs. The steelworkers know they can’t do it alone, and need all the allies they can muster. What the union is doing during the G20 week is only incidental to this broader effort.

Two videos were also highlights of the teach-in. A short version of “The Battle of Seattle” was previewed, showing labor’s role in the anti-WTO global justice demonstrations going back ten years. Leo Gerard, now USW president, who appeared in the film, told those who just watched it that the union had bought up a good number of the two-DVD versions and combined it with a number of educational tools. “We’ll make in available to you for showing in your local groups or at house meetings. All we ask is that you have people sign in, and send us the lists.”

The other video was on the super-exploitation of workers in Bangla Desh, and show horrific scenes of the harsh conditions at sites deconstructing old merchant freighters for salvaged metals. “This goes beyond abuse of workers,” said Charlie Kernaghan of the National Labor Committee. “This is murder at the hands of these bosses.”

As the afternoon sessions drew to a close, a group of us got a ride up to the Monumental Baptist Church in The Hill district. Literally near the top of the hill near the center of downtown Pittsburgh, the 100-year-old African American church, with a long legacy of involvement in social justice causes, had offered its grounds for a ‘Tent City’ of out-of-town protestors.

This afternoon, the church had also opened its sanctuary for a speech by Joseph Stiglitz, economist and Nobel laureate. A former top insider with the World Bank, Stiglitz was fired from that body for exposing and speaking out against the disastrous impact of its policies in many parts of the world. When combined with his critique of the Obama administration’s more dubious concessions and Wall Street bailouts, he has gained rock star status among global justice activists.


After an introduction by John Nichols of The Nation, Stiglitz made a small concession to the G20 by noting that adding a few countries was better than the G8, but still, some 170 countries around the world were on the outside of these deliberations.

“But make no mistake about what going on here,” he warned. “Even if we had waged war on many of these countries, we could not have done as much damage in many parts of the world as that done by indirectly by the policies of these global powers. The question is not whether we have to change our ways, but how, and by how much.”

The claim that the global recession was over was simply not true, Stiglitz went on, especially given growing unemployment. “Nor is it likely to end anytime soon. They’re simply deploying money in the wrong direction, bailing out the giant banks rather than a greater job-creating stimulus. What has happened to the banks that were supposedly ‘too big to fail?’ They’ve only gotten bigger, and their lobbyists are still thwarting needed regulation.”

Leo Gerard of the USW was next up and picked up where Stiglitz left off. “Pay attention to this number, 30 million!” he told the crowd. That’s the true number of unemployed in this country. That’s what you get when you add up those looking for jobs, those working part time when they want more, and those who have given up, what they call the ‘labor reserve.’ You can tell be my accent that I’m a Canadian, and to give you some idea of the scale, 30 million is a greater number than every human being in my native country.”

“We need jobs,” Gerard continued, “we need good jobs, and we need green jobs. What make a good job? It’s a UNION job that can support a family, and we need a second stimulus to create them and a financial transaction tax on Wall Street speculation to pay for it all.”

Emira Woods of the Institute for Policy Studies and a native of Liberia brought the voice of the third world to the discussion. “What the G20 powers do,” she explained, “is prevent the poor countries to act in their own interests and determine their own future.” She stressed the need for ‘people power’ to bring change.

Carl Redwood Jr. brought it all back to the realities of Pittsburgh. Speaking for the Hill District Consensus Group, he told the story of the battle over the Penguin stadium to this crowd, where the problems just outside the church’s doors were staring everyone in the face.

We gathered up our crew a little early to head back downtown in time for the rally in Point Park. Out on the sidewalk, Redmond came up and said, “Hey, Aliquippa guy! I heard you at the union hall earlier.” He tells me he was a reader of the Guardian back in the 1970s, when I was a writer there. We agree to stay in touch around the Green Jobs and Health Care campaigns. Making new connections is what these activities are all about.

We wind our way down the wet streets. It’s drizzling again, and still hot and humid. At a light, a UPS truck pulls up beside us, with side doors open. ‘Where is everyone?” he laughs, noting that it’s rush hour and the only crowds you see are batches of cops on every other corner. “It’s like Sunday afternoon with a Steelers game on!”

Point State Park is a large and pleasant open space at the tip of the ‘Golden Triangle,’ the site of the historic fort at the forks of the Ohio. Here the Monongahela and the Allegheny rivers come together to form what the French explorers called “La Belle Riviere, or beautiful river, their translation of the Iroquois and Seneca word ‘Ohio,’ meaning roughly the same thing.

This night, however, it had a split personality. Part of it was fenced off and occupied by militarized police and the Secret Service, wanting it as a command center for the same reason the French and British armies did more than 200 years ago: it’s a strategic location. The other part was a huge double stage with a terrific sound system and giant video screen. The Steelworkers, the Sierra Club and Al Gore’s climate change group had gone all out to claim at least part of the space to deliver their message to the G20.

The question of the moment was whether the weather and oppressive police presence would prevent a crowd from forming. As I enter the area divided off for the rally, a youth street theater group was putting on a performance in front of a long line of cops in their new camouflage gear. The kids were having fun, while those in uniform tried to look stern. Inside, people were surveying the literature tables, food stands and cheering on the local opening bands. There were only 500 or so there, but once the speakers got going and more musicians warmed up, the crowd quickly grew to about 5000—enough to make it a success, given the circumstances.

A young speaker started off the rally. "Thomas Jefferson said that every generation needs a new revolution," said Alex Loorz of Kid vs. Global Warming. He noted that some adults weren’t worried about the worst effects of climate change because it was 50 years away. But in 50 years, he said, "my generation won't be dead, and neither will our grandchildren, but if we don't act now, it is my generation that is going to pay for it."

State Senator Jim Ferlo also welcomed everyone, stressing the need for a large and unified movement. “We need a powerful force to counter these pinheaded pundits in the media who want to cater to all this nonsense coming from the right wing!”

Next Joe Grushecky and the House Rockers, a local band, really got the crowd fired up. They gave us a very polished mix of Springsteen tunes with their own original numbers full of steel city grit and energy. They would be followed later by Big Head Todd and the Monsters.

Leo Gerard took center stage for the USW the third time this day, but was still in good form. “A wind turbine is made of 200 tons of steel and 8,000 parts," he shouted out, and this crowd knew exactly what he meant. "Imagine what we could do if we could turn not just this country's jobs, but the world's jobs green. Imagine if we had the will!” PA Governor Ed Rendell followed him on the stage, and likewise committed to green and clean energy innovation on the state level.

A number of local Democrats have got the Steelworkers message, and it was evident at this event. Only a new industrial policy with major structural reform is going to create jobs on a scale needed to rescue Pennsylvania and the rest of the Rust Belt. Only political will combined with street heat could challenge the G20. But a good number also are still dragging their feet, captured by the Blue Dogs and bowing to the neoliberal anti-government tirades of the far right. This is going to be a critical battleground in the months ahead.

I caught a few tunes from Big Head Todd, and then headed back to Beaver County for the night. The next two days will put the spotlight on battlegrounds of a different sort, in the streets with the police and in the realm of public opinion over what is really going on behind the closed door deliberations of the G20. Stay tuned!

[Carl Davidson is a writer for Beaver County Blue. He is also a national co-chair of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism and a national board member of the US Solidarity Economy Network. He is author, along with Jerry Harris, of 'Cyberradicalism: A New Left for a Global Age.' If you like this article, make use of the PayPal button at] ]

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Monday, September 21, 2009

Pittsburgh G20 Diaries: Day One


March for Jobs

in ‘The Hill’

By Carl Davidson
Beaver County Blue

The ‘G20' is a big deal in Pittsburgh, with multiple stories in the local press and TV, even though many everyday citizens are wondering what it’s really all about and whether it’s worth all the fuss and expense.

“I know all the big shots from around the world are coming, I see that on the news” my dad told me last week. “But what do they actually do behind all those guards and closed doors?”

It’s a good question. The ‘big shots,’ of course, are all the top political and economic leaders of the world’s nineteen largest economies, with the European Union added to make twenty. And lots of people would love to be a fly on the wall when they start wrangling over who’s really to blame for the latest financial meltdown and how to recover from it.

I told my dad, for starters, that they’re cooking up schemes to have the rest of us pay off the gambling debts of Wall Street speculators while they ship more jobs overseas. That’s why the unions are going to be in streets, along with the environmental people, the antiwar movement, and everyone else. He’s dubious that it will do any good, but I told him I’ll be in the thick of it, and I’d let him know what happens.

So today I headed for one of the first actions, a mass march for jobs, sponsored by the ‘Bail Out the People Movement.’ It’s a coalition pulled together by a number of left and community groups, with an assist from the Western Pennsylvania United Steel Workers and the United Electrical Workers. The organizers have picked Pittsburgh’s low-income African American ‘Hill District’ as the launch site, and it couldn’t be a better one, since this is the heart of the neighborhoods that need jobs the most. The route is a little under a mile, and ends at the edge of downtown, in an open space behind the Civic Arena.

Coming into town on the parkway, the first things that hit you are the giant ‘Pittsburgh Welcomes the World!” banners on the large corporate lawns lining the highway. Next is a higher density of police cars. Finally, there’s a blizzard of orange detour signs re-routing traffic so the sports arenas and casinos can function while the security zones go up around select areas downtown. I maneuvered through it all, and made my way through bleak blocks with boarded-up storefronts to the ‘Tent City’ on the grounds of the Monumental Baptist Church near the top of ‘The Hill.’ I find a tenuous place to park on a rise that gives me an excellent view for photos.

It’s immediately clear this is going to be a spirited and colorful march, but of a militant minority. The weather is good, but on the hot and humid side. Nearly 500 people are there, and perhaps half of these are from out of town. There are a number of preachers around, some ladies from churches in their Sunday finery, a number of people with UE T-shirts and Steelworker ball caps, and dozens of young people putting together picket signs and adjusting sound systems. In brief, all the components of the coalition are there, but this is going to be a relatively small kickoff march rather than a massive outpouring.

I started to survey the crowd and right away run into Scott Marshall from the ‘People’s Weekly World.’ He’s been in town for a week covering the AFL-CIO convention, which just ended.

“Whaddya think?” Scott asked. “Multiply by 100, and it would be terrific,” I answered. I added that I thought the media overkill on the supposed threats of violence and the city’s dragging out the permit process until the least minute had taken a toll. “They’re getting very clever on dealing with us, and we have to find ways to counter it.”

Next I ran into some friends from the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism from New York City and Los Angeles, who traveled from both coasts in vans. The tables of the main sponsoring left groups with the ‘People’s Bailout’ coalition are prominent. From Pittsburgh, there’s a sizable group from the Thomas Merton Center and its Pittsburgh Antiwar Committee, as well as Paul LeBlanc, a local leftist professor and antiwar leader. He reported favorably on the large educational sessions held over the weekend.

A Pickup truck with a decent sound system got positioned in the middle of the line of marchers. It’s playing ‘Ain’t No Stopping Us Now!’ and as the line moved, the chants begin: “We want a J-O-B, so we can E-A-T! is a popular one, as is ‘We’re fired up, won’t take no more!” Since it’s all downhill, it’s an easy hike. I describe a few historic sites we passed to some out-of-towners, like the Crawford Grill, center of the Pittsburgh jazz scene for decades, as well as the home of the famous Pittsburgh Crawfords and the Negro Baseball Leagues of which it was an important part.

Waiting for us at the rally site at the other end were Pennsylvania State Senator Jim Ferlo and his assistant Mikhail Pappas. Ferlo has long used his Harrisburg Senate position to advocate for labor, civil rights and antiwar causes, and today is no exception.

We’re welcomed to the rally by Rev. Thomas Smith of the Monumental Baptist Church. He started off by answering my dad’s question: “These G20 people are here to make deals that benefit the corporations; they’re not here helping the workers, or the rest of us in the communities.” Our efforts today are only the beginning, he reminds us, there’s much more to come, in Pittsburgh and elsewhere.

Senator Ferlo was next. “We’re here to speak out to right our countries wrongs, not only here but around the globe. Capitalism is in deep crisis. Some here may say capitalism IS the crisis. In any case, we have to press for a sustainable economy that works for us, the majority of the working people.”

Ferlo then took up a topic that had everyone buzzing all day. The morning’s Post Gazette including an article based on an interview with Obama, where the President said, in relation to the G20 protests: “I was always a big believer in — when I was doing organizing before I went to law school — that focusing on concrete, local, immediate issues that have an impact on people’s lives is what really makes a difference; and that having protests about abstractions [such] as global capitalism or something, generally is not really going to make much of a difference.

The Senator was furious with Obama. “This is worse than misguided and a major miscalculation; it’s intellectually dishonest. It was people in the streets that put him there. It was mass protests that built the unions, that got rid of Jim Crow, that won rights for women. This is the problem with the whole top layer of the Democratic Party in dealing with these attacks from the far right. They’re acquiescing to it; they should hang their heads in shame-and I’m telling you this as an active and registered Democrat. We have got to rise up and turn this around.”

“If we had a hundred more elected Democrats like him,” said one protester standing next to me in reference to Ferlo. “It would be a whole different ball game.”

Brenda Stokley followed up. She was with the Katrina and Rita Hurricane Survivors Committee, and delivered a blistering indictment of the government’s ongoing failures to deal with these crises. “There’s no reason for people to be homeless, no reason for people to be without jobs. We need these for survival.”

One speaker stood out in his ability to command the attention of almost everyone. Fred Richmond, a vice president of the United Steelworkers and an African American, started off by asserting that “the issue of poverty is central to labor’s agenda, and not just in this country, but globally.” He went on to describe in some detail exactly what the AFL-CIO would be pressing on the G20-fair trade, green jobs, a ‘Tobin Tax’ worldwide on financial speculation, a ’second stimulus’ on a global scale to spur job growth and the transition to clean energy and a green economy.

Richmond also put the earlier critique of Obama in a larger perspective. “This president is under a heavy and fierce attack from the far right. What he’s going through is unprecedented, unless you go back to Roosevelt. We have to back him up, but we also have to make sure all of them act in our interests.” Some were dubious on this point, but most of the crowd took him very seriously.

I missed a few of the final speakers, since I was making a point of connecting with some of the Progressive Democrats of America activists there. Western PA’s 4th CD was represented, as well as a group in from Akron, Ohio, who was passing out PDA’s ‘Healthcare, Not Warfare’ placards to use for the rest of the week. We exchanged stories of our dealings with the rightwing ‘Tea Bagger’ rallies in various places, plus the days to come.

Two important events are up soon for the remaining days of the G20. One is a union-sponsored rally in Point Park on Wednesday, Sept. 23. The negotiations for the permit there have been contentious, because the police and Secret Service wanted the same spot as a staging area. On Thursday, Pittsburgh’s anarchist youth will be heard from in one way or another-no one is quite sure what they will do. And Friday, Sept. 25, there will be ‘the big march,’ with the area’s peace and justice movements at the heart of it. Stay tuned!

[Carl Davidson writes for Beaver County Blue, the online voice of the 4th CD Progressive Democrats of America. He is also a national co-chair of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism. If you like this article, make use of the PayPal button at the top of this site]

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Sunday, September 13, 2009

Debating Anarchism on Organization & Strategy

armoredtrainfuturista Building Stronger


Learning to Be Makers

of Our History &

Masters of Society

[Note from CarlD: What follows is the thread of a discussion between myself and several people with anarcho-syndicalist views on matters of organization. It appears as part of a larger series of discussions on Z-Net, as part of its ‘Reimagining Society’ project. The initial post that started the discussion here is included at the end of the thread, for those who want to read it first. Otherwise, jump right in, since I summarize the main points in the first reply I make here.]

Disorganizing Principles

By Carl Davidson

I disagree with most of this article, but I think it's illustrative of many things holding back the development of strong left organizations. So here goes:

Lesson 1: Reject Democratic Centralism

This is supposedly to wage class struggle against the nascent ‘coordinator class' in our organizations that are trying to grow.

But let me pose the classic counter-questions: When workers take a vote and decide by a solid majority to strike, should they make it binding on all, even those who voted ‘No'? That means should they use the social pressure at hand to sanction scabs? Moreover, should the workers elect a strike committee? Should they empower it to make tactical decisions in secret, subject to later review?

I would answer ‘Yes' to all of the above, and note that the Flint Sit-Down Strikes couldn't have happened otherwise. And contained herein are the core principles of ‘democratic centralism'—the majority rules, and the minority goes along with the decision in practice; the organization has leading bodies, with a division of labor and a hierarchy; and not all knowledge is always shared with everyone, the organization can have secrets, as needed.

Having been in several democratic centralist organizations, I'm also well aware of where the dangers, distortions and corruptions are—not permitting factions, not permitting horizontal communication among cadre, restricting debate and access to publications, cooptation of new leadership by the old, and several more.

But if you want organization that can fight and win battles, that can sum up gains, sustain itself and grow, you had best not throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Lesson 2: Reject Monist and Pluralist Approaches to Organizing

How one rejects BOTH ‘monism' and ‘pluralism' is, to be kind, something of a Zen riddle, like ‘what is the sound of one hand clapping?'

But the argument here is that making priorities means the same as ‘privileging' one or several types of oppression over others.

That's simply a huge non sequitur. Of course, not all organizations have to make the same priorities—some can decide to organize Blacks in communities, others workers in factories, and still others students in community colleges. In terms of strategic overview, one could even argue at given times that all the categories of oppression are equally secondary to, say, a Wall Street crash or global de-industrialization. In any case, an organization, to grow and thrive, needs a plan of work and a deployment of forces, none of which can happen without deciding on priorities. If everything is equally a priority, then nothing is a priority, there is no plan of work and no organization to grow.

Participatory Democracy

This position argues: "As an alternative to democratic centralism I would like to suggest participatory democracy. Unlike democratic centralism participatory democracy has no hierarchical division of labor. Instead, to ensure an anti-elitist culture, a participatory democracy strives to distribute empowering and desirable tasks out evenly amongst its members. "

One major organization of the 1960s New Left, SDS, when participatory democracy was its main feature, still had a hierarchy, in fact several of them, all with pluses and minuses. One was whoever could afford to come to a quarterly ‘national council' meeting. They got to make decisions, and those who didn't, couldn't. Another was our teams of ‘campus travelers' and ‘regional organizers.' These people made all sorts of decisions among themselves, which helped the organization grow to a mass scale. We set up semi-autonomous ‘elite' projects, based on knowledge and commitment, many of which thrived beyond SDS and are still around—NACLA, Radical History, Venceremos Brigade, and others.

SDS failed for many reasons, and this is not the place to go into them. But a critical structural problem was its lack of the organizational tools to resolve serious differences—and this shortcoming created a situation wide open to the wrecking activities of the FBI's Cointelpro provocations, and similar negative activates. But to think that participatory democracy—a core value I still uphold—is some magic wand is illusory

I do agree with this paper's point about ‘shared vision'—not that all the left is going to share the same vision, but one group or even an alliance of groups can, and this is to be worked for. But I also think that any given group does best to pick the vision most of its members share, and use that as a working hypothesis, rather than try to implement a multiplicity of visions at once. That's a recipe for self-sabotage.


By Tom Wetzel

Carl writes: "When workers take a vote and decide by a solid majority to strike, should they make it binding on all, even those who voted ‘No'? That means should they use the social pressure at hand to sanction scabs? Moreover, should the workers elect a strike committee? Should they empower it to make tactical decisions in secret, subject to later review?"

I have no problem with what you've described here. Scabbing is job theft and destructive to workers' class interests. It needs to be opposed. This would be true even if this were a union where not all the workers were members...perhaps an open shop situation.

But the role of a strike committee is merely delegating a task temporarily to a group of one's workmates. This is not setting up a permanent hierarchy...such as a union executive board made up of paid officials who hire staff and monopolize various aspects of running the union.


Re: union hierarchies

By Carl Davidson

So 'temporary' hierarchies are OK but 'permanent' ones are not?

Suppose the strike lasts 6 months or a year? Or suppose the executive committee is voted out every four years? There's a lot of wiggle room there, rather vague, isn't it?

No one should work full time for the union? The bosses’ consultants work full time against the union. Union staff shouldn't be paid, say, the average wage of a worker in the plant?

'Monopolize' various aspect of running a union? Most locals I know welcome volunteers to help with all sorts of things.

You're defining a structure that is designed to be weak and never come to scale. We certainly need class struggle unionism over business unionism, and union democracy over union bureaucracy--but you'll never get it through the simplistic worship of spontaneity and an effort to codify weakness and primitiveness into organizational principles.

As I've suggested, the prevalence of the set of ideas is one reason we lack a strong and far larger left.


Re: Disorganizing Principles

By Mark Evans

Hi Carl - You say you disagree with most of my essay. Let me make a couple of quick statements to see if they help.

When I say we should reject democratic centralism I'm talking about the Leninist argument that the movement (and ultimately society as a whole) must be organized along democratic centralist lines to protect the revolution from counter-revolutionary forces. In my view democratic centralism is (part of) the counter-revolution organized by the co-ordinator class. The "classic counter-question" you pose is not an example of this.

Having said that, it may be true that under specific circumstances we may not be able to practice participatory democracy (as I define it) in full. In fact, this, to some extent, may be the case all of the time. However, regardless of the circumstances, we should be committed to - balancing out empowering and desirable tasks within the organization plus allowing members a say in decisions in proportion to how much they are affected by them - as best we can.

Nor do you have to be a one-handed Zen master to reject both monist and pluralist approaches to organizing. You simply recognize the limitations of prioritizing classism (for example) over racism, sexism and authoritarianism and you have rejected the monist approach. Likewise, if you recognize the limitations of prioritizing classism and authoritarianism (for example) over racism and sexism you reject the pluralist approach.

A complementary holistic approach to organizing recognizes the importance of two basic things –

1. That we need to develop shared vision and strategy for the kinship sphere, the community sphere, the political sphere and the economic sphere and that all spheres are considered equally important. This is the holistic aspect of the approach.

2. That our vision and strategy in the various social spheres co-define and reinforce each other. This is the complementary aspect of the approach.

So, I'm proposing the formation of a new international organization which is run by its members along participatory democratic lines and that has as its primary function the development of shared vision and strategy.

Now, as someone who says they "agree" with the development of shared vision and upholds participatory democracy as a "core value" I would have thought we would have a lot in common.


By Tom Wetzel

Carl, you write: "So 'temporary' hierarchies are OK but 'permanent' ones are not?" I didn't call it a "temporary hierarchy". A strike committee isn't a hierarchy as I use the term. Certain of the workmates are delegated the task to do coordination work, such as logistics around a strike, which is an action that presumably their coworkers have approved. They will be controlled by the fact that they have to continue working with the others and can't force the others to do things they don't want to do in that situation. This is not a hierarchy.

A hierarchy is a power relationship where there is a relative monopolization of ownership, expertise or decision-making authority. A worker committee might end up creating that sort of situation...but it might not. If we look at how AFL unions became bureaucratized originally, workers who were elected as a delegate might have gained quite a bit experience and knowledge doing that...negotiating with employers and so on. When they were fired, as they would often be, workers then hired them...and that was the origin of the "walking delegate", which became the business agent system. The problem here is that if the representative did nothing to train their co workers on how to do what he was doing, then they might become dependent on him. In AFL unions this then led to the development of circles of cronies of leaders, dependent on the paid rep doing favors for them, and it was a political machine that kept that person in office. But worker committees do not have to develop in that bureaucratic trajectory.


Re: Disorganizing Principles

By Carl Davidson

First, I am a monist philosophically, and see no need to reject it.

Second, I don't think there is such a thing as the "coordinator class." I think there's a stratum of coordinators with a left, middle and a right.

Third, I do believe any revolutionary gains, or even radical reforms and our democratic rights; will have to be defended against reaction. Since that is likely, I'd like to do it in the most disciplined and effective way possible. Otherwise, too much blood, including too much of ours, will be unduly shed. Combining the organizational principles of both centralism and democracy, I'd argue, is the nest way to go about it.

Fourth, I make no argument for applying these notions to the state generally--although they do apply to its armed forces. I'm one who believes sovereignty resides with the peoples themselves, and their governments are ceded only limited powers, powers subordinate to popular sovereignty and natural and universal human rights. People will find a variety of ways to make effective governments without a central plan from me.

Fifth, I'd keep politics out of private life, including much of the 'kinship sphere.' 'The personal is the political' is actually a rather feudal concept. I think politics overlaps with the personal. But they are not the same. Otherwise we abolish the autonomy of the social self, especially its conscience, one of the main achievements of the Enlightenment. Besides, people are diverse, and their kinship notions even more so. We can make laws and set standards, but the more you interfere in some things, the more trouble you make. Some things are best changed indirectly, over time, by rendering them obsolete.

Sixth, I set priorities all the time, and it serves me well. Without the process, or thinking everything in every project was 'equally important,' I'd never get anything done. Besides, no two things in the universe are absolutely equal.

So yes, I encourage people to participate in the decisions that effect their lives, to become public citizens (Dewey) and makers of their history (Marx and Mao). I try to develop a shared vision with a militant minority, but for the vast majority, I try to seek common ground, uniting all who can be united, while understanding full well that they will have a variety of visions, shared and unshared.

In brief, despite some criticism I have of their work, both Lenin and Chou En-lai are people I learn a lot from when it comes to organization. As the latter put it, it's how we turn words into deeds.

Perhaps that will explain some important differences.


Re: Disorganizing Principles

By Michael McGehee

CD: First, I am a monist philosophically, and see no need to reject it.

< I see one: a monist view of the LGBT community would be very inaccurate, especially if it was economistic.

CD: Second, I don't think there is such a thing as the "coordinator class." I think there's a stratum of coordinators with a left, middle and a right.

< How do you explain making sub-classes (i.e. strata) out of a class you claim doesn't exist? You are recognizing the class but making sub-classes out of it and then offering that as evidence of its non-existence. I don’t get that.

CD: Third, I do believe any revolutionary gains, or even radical reforms and our democratic rights, will have to be defended against reaction. Since that is likely, I'd like to do it in the most disciplined and effective way possible. Otherwise, too much blood, including too much of ours, will be unduly shed. Combining the organizational principles of both centralism and democracy, I'd argue, is the best way to go about it.

< That's like combining oil and water. The two don't mix. What you are talking about is the populace getting to select from narrow choices determined by central group of (elected?) elitists, especially since you later praised Lenin for his organizing.

CD: Fifth, I'd keep politics out of private life, including much of the 'kinship sphere.' 'The personal is the political' is actually a rather feudal concept. I think politics overlaps with the personal. But they are not the same. Otherwise we abolish the autonomy of the social self, especially its conscience, one of the main achievements of the Enlightenment. Besides, people are diverse, and their kinship notions even more so. We can make laws and set standards, but the more you interfere in some things, the more trouble you make. Some things are best changed indirectly, over time, by rendering them obsolete.

< This is precisely why centralism should be avoided and participatory democracy should be sought

CD: Sixth, I set priorities all the time, and it serves me well. Without the process, or thinking everything in every project was 'equally important,' I'd never get anything done. Besides, no two things in the universe are absolutely equal.

< I think you are misunderstanding what is being said. We all set priorities but usually we observe before setting them. In this context we are talking about prejudging issues with priorities. For example, a typical Marxist might prejudge the LGBT community with an economistic lens and thus distort reality. CoHo proposes we first observe the relations between people and institutions in all spheres before making that judgment.

CD: In brief, despite some criticism I have of their work, both Lenin and Chou En-lai are people I learn a lot from when it comes to organization. As the latter put it, it's how we turn words into deeds.

< I learned from them to when it comes to organizing... on what NOT to do. Tom has written a lot about this topic so I won’t repeat what’s been acknowledged at length many times.


Re: Disorganizing Principles

By Carl Davidson

First: Monism means one doesn't bifurcate the universe between the creator and the creation of the creator. It affirms both our interconnectedness, including everyone in the human species, and the impermanence of all things.

Second, the coordinator strata span at least three classes in modern society--capitalists, small producers and workers. It is not a subset on any one of them. That's why I call it a strata.

Third, I have no idea what you mean by an 'economistic lens.' I know what economism means, as described by Lenin, the mother lode on the topic, and also why we do best when we fight it. That's one of the valuable lessons I take from him.

The rest of your commentary is not really argument, but simply counter-assertion of what I'm arguing against. So no need to reply.


Re: Disorganizing Principles

By Mark Evans

Carl - can I ask you some questions in the hope of further clarifying our differences or maybe unravel some misunderstandings?

When you say "I'd keep politics out of private life, including much of the kinship sphere" are you arguing against feminist struggle to eradicate sexism from the kinship sphere?

As someone who understands the need to develop vision, isn't it the case that feminists need to conceptualize vision for a post-sexist kinship sphere? And if so, isn't it necessary for this vision to be compatible with vision in other societal spheres?

Isn't it the case that our strategy needs to be informed by our vision? Or to pose the question another way; that our vision and strategy need to complement each other? If we have a libertarian vision we must have a libertarian strategy. However, you advocate democratic centralism (which is an authoritarian strategy) so can you explain how your authoritarian strategy can move us towards our libertarian vision?

Given that you argue that there is no such thing as the coordinator class what class would you put Lenin in? Working class? Capitalist class? Other?


Re: Disorganizing Principles

By Michael McGehee

CD: First: Monism means one doesn't bifurcate the universe between the creator and the creation of the creator. It affirms both our interconnectedness, including everyone in the human species, and the impermanence of all things.

< Monism, at least in the since being discussed, is a narrow view of perception. Thus, Marxism has traditionally been a monist theory in that it tends to see everything through an economic lens; Feminism has traditionally been a monist theory since it tends to see things through a gender lens. My question was that if you don’t see a need to do away with monism in this sense that we are discussing then explain how this lens could be qualitatively useful to understand the LGBT community. Point being that you can’t. Other spheres are essential in having a qualitative understanding. And since we can’t know or understand until we empirically search to investigate we can’t put the cart before the horse, that is we can’t pre-emptively say which sphere is the sphere of all spheres, which is typical for monists.

CD: Second, the coordinator strata spans at least three classes in modern society--capitalists, small producers and workers. It is not a subset on any one of them. That's why I call it a strata.

< I suppose you can structure it that way but I see why Albert and Hahnel (and the work they drew upon by Ehrenreich) chose to conceptually make it a class among itself: the "strata" though it shares some qualities with capitalists and workers is also in conflict with those classes, and since the definition of a class is that of shared interests, recognizing these opposed interests warrants making them a separate class.

CD: Third, I have no idea what you mean by an 'economistic lens.' I know what economism means, as described by Lenin, the mother lode on the topic, and also why we do best when we fight it. That's one of the valuable lessons I take from him.

< economic lens = economism.

CD: The rest of your commentary is not really argument, but simply counter-assertion of what I'm arguing against. So no need to reply.

< Not to get too semantical, but wouldn’t an argument and counter assertion be the same thing? I mean I disagree with what you wrote and offered "commentary" opposing it and brief descriptions of why. I think that qualifies as an "argument," but whatever Carl. Listen, I tried to correct what I saw as perceptions of coho and what mark wrote. I tried to use examples to illustrate or to guide you to other people's writings on the same topic.


Words and their meanings

By Carl Davidson (with help from Lewis Carroll)

`But "glory" doesn't mean "a nice knock-down argument",' Alice objected. [to Humpty Dumpty]

`When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less.'

`The question is,' said Alice, `whether you can make words mean so many different things.'

`The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, `which is to be master -- that's all.' [My Emphasis --CD]

Alice was too much puzzled to say anything; so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again. `They've a temper, some of them -- particularly verbs: they're the proudest -- adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs -- however, I can manage the whole lot of them! Impenetrability! That's what I say!'

`Would you tell me please,' said Alice, `what that means?'

`Now you talk like a reasonable child,' said Humpty Dumpty, looking very much pleased. `I meant by "impenetrability" that we've had enough of that subject, and it would be just as well if you'd mention what you mean to do next, as I suppose you don't mean to stop here all the rest of your life.'

`That's a great deal to make one word mean,' Alice said in a thoughtful tone.

`When I make a word do a lot of work like that,' said Humpty Dumpty, `I always pay it extra.'


Re: Words and their meanings

By Paul Brodie

From wikipedia: "Economism is a term used to criticize economic reductionism, that is the reduction of all social facts to economical dimensions. It is also used to criticize economics as an ideology, in which supply and demand are the only important factors in decisions, and literally outstrip or permit ignoring all other factors."

Carl, you're referring I think to the latter definition, Michael is talking about the former definition. It's a legitimate misunderstanding, perhaps now you can address Michael's question using the first definition of 'economism'.

And would also be interested to see you contest the reasons for labeling coordinators a 'class' as outlined by Michael in his post.




Re: Words and their meanings

By Steve D’Archy

In those strands of Marxism that originated out of the Russian revolutionary movement -- which covers a lot of very, very different and incompatible variants of Marxism, such as 'Trotskyism,' 'Stalinism' or 'orthodox communism' as some call it, and 'Maoism,' each of which divides into numerous sub-variants -- the term "economism" refers (basically) to the idea that promoting trade union struggles of an economic character (not political strikes, as in syndicalism) is sufficient for advancing the workers' movement, and a separate political struggle, organized by a socialist political party, is unnecessary.

Economism in that sense was one of the currents on the Left in pre-revolutionary Russia.

So, obviously, economism in that sense has nothing to do with the present discussion (or with either of the two wikipedia definitions). The term 'monism' also had a specific meaning in the debates among Russian Marxists, but once again it has nothing whatsoever to do with the present discussion.

What I want to object to, though, is the idea that (quoting Michael M's post) "Marxism has traditionally been a monist theory in that it tends to see everything through an economic lens" and "Feminism has traditionally been a monist theory because it tends to see things through a gender lens."

I'm not going to 'play dumb' and pretend I have no idea what you're talking about whatsoever. However, I think that if you read "Self-determination for the American Negroes," which is a transcript of a conversation in the 1930s between CLR James (referred to here by his pseudonym "Johnson") and Leon Trotsky, at the time two very "classical-Marxist" writers, you will find that they do not seem to be "seeing everything through an economic lens" at all. In particular, Trotsky rejects the idea that Blacks should be asked to unite with their 'fellow workers,' because the racism of white workers makes it reasonable for African-American workers to be distrustful of whites. Instead, he argues that white Leftists have to make it clear to African-Americans that, if they want to form their own independent nation (which at the time was a demand made by some), the white Leftists would fully support this, and if they wanted instead to 'integrate', then white Leftists would fully support that, but the key thing was that it should be up to African-Americans to decide for themselves, and as "internationalists," the rest of the Left should fully support whatever they demanded, while taking no position one way or the other, because the "spirit of internationalism" demands that the Left support "self-determination" for African-Americans. If you read it, you'll see that the language used and the debates referenced (e.g., Garveyism) are all very old-fashioned. And clearly they are interested in class and capitalism. But in no way do they think about racism simply in class or economic terms. They have a much more subtle and (in my view) sophisticated view of it.

The same applies to the things that Lenin wrote about the "national question" in the years of the 'Communist International.'

Moreover, consider the early '2nd wave' feminists. Try reading "An Argument for Black Women's Liberation as a Revolutionary Force," by Mary Anne Weathers, from 1969. It is very difficult to read this and think she's seeing everything through the lens of gender (or 'kinship'), or the lens of race (or 'community'). In fact, she is proposing -- again -- a view that is more subtle and sophisticated than that, which integrates a certain picture of capitalism with a certain analytical and strategic perspective on how race and gender interact, all placed in the context of a historical story about global anti-capitalist revolution. She may be wrong about much or even all of it. But she is not "seeing everything through the lens of gender," clearly. (And, if she's not, and if it is easy to find lots of other feminists who are not, why would you say that feminists do that, since in fact it seems that they do not do that.)

So, in short, I think that this claim that feminists, Marxists, and others have these really simplistic views about race and/or class and/or gender, and only "complementary holists" are aware of these complexities, it is really just made up. It isn't true.

Now, more specific claims about specific people might be true. For instance, it is true that Marx claimed that changes in the 'economic structure' of society (e.g., from feudalism to capitalism) explained other changes, like from theocratic monarchism to liberal republicanism. But did he see "the Irish Question" simply "through the lens of economics or class"? No, as a matter of fact he didn't.

It is also true that Marx (and most Marxists) believed that there was a certain kind of strategic centrality to class struggles, at least under capitalism, because workers have a special kind of power that derives from their capacity to stop production. But that doesn't mean he "tends to see everything through an economic lens." It is just a "scientific" (i.e., sociological-theoretical) assessment, and it may be right or it may be wrong, but we have to look at the relevant facts to find out, not just label it as "monism" and dismiss it with a wave of the hand.

See what I mean? It is not a virtue to ignore complexity in the views of others and just pretend it isn't there or to refuse to see it. Even if it is somehow reassuring and bolsters one's sense of confidence in political debates, it is still not a virtue.

Sometimes it is better to be less confident, and to think, "I wonder if there is something important that I can learn from this feminist or that Marxist?," or at least, "I think that the actual claims made by this feminist or Marxist are one-sided, and I think they need to consider aspects of the issue that -- having read what they actually say -- I'm convinced they are ignoring."


Re: Words and their meanings

By Paul Brodie

Thanks for the correction re economism, Steve. I posted the two definitions as I had the impression from Carl's Alice in Wonderland post that he thought Michael was twisting or fabricating the definition of 'economism', when in fact there are multiple commonly used definitions.

"So, in short, I think that this claim that feminists, Marxists, and others have these really simplistic views about race and/or class and/or gender, and only "complementary holists" are aware of these complexities, it is really just made up. It isn't true."

I think that's a reasonable comment.

"Now, more specific claims about specific people might be true. For instance, it is true that Marx claimed that changes in the 'economic structure' of society (e.g., from feudalism to capitalism) explained other changes, like from theocratic monarchism to liberal republicanism. But did he see "the Irish Question" simply "through the lens of economics or class"? No, as a matter of fact he didn't."


I know that what Marx may have believed (say, a nuanced and non-economistic understanding of society) and the meaning of Marxism that is commonly used by socialist groups, such as those on my campus, is often different.

Not all Marxists have simplistic views about race, class, etc, of course - it would indeed be stupid to reject self-identified Marxists out-of-hand before hearing their arguments. However, many self-identified Marxists in fact do have narrow views about these things, and Marxist theory is used as the basis for them.

While agreeing completely that a priori condemning Marxists for being 'economistic' is a stupid idea - I don't think Michael was saying that anyway, he argued there is a tendency for Marxists on the whole to be economistic, and I think that's a reasonable assessment - I don't think that discounts the advantages of complementary holism in accounting for those 'complexities' explicitly, right up front, in the theory.


Re: Words and their meanings

By Michael McGehee

Paul, you nailed it when you used the word I used "tend(ency)."

Coming from personal experience and empirical observation of the many self-professed Marxists, feminists, anarchists and others who could be labeled as monist or pluralists I tend to see a reliance of putting the cart before the horse/a priori arguments.

I think the reason is structure. As theories there is nothing innate in Marxism or feminism, like that of coho, that dismisses a priori in place of empirical observation to best determine a qualitative understanding of societies. By structure, feminist theory goes in with gender placed high on the mind. A Marxist or anarchist does too in their own ways.

Reflecting on my anarchist and Marxist roots I can testify that I was guilty of this big time (I still struggle with it) and my encounters with others further confirms this.

What I was disagreeing with Carl on and what Steve takes objection to is my comment of what monist theorists (and pluralists for that matter) tend to do and what are likely outcomes if they are asked to qualitatively explain a society or sub-society (like the LGBT community in the US): make a priori judgments where their particular bias colors their vision.


Re: Words and their meanings

By Mark Evans

Steve - When people are trying to understand complex systems it is necessary to simplify them in order to make the subject manageable. This usually involves some level of idealization. When dealing with society and people these idealizations can come across as caricatures. Real people and institutions rarely fit their "caricatures" but this does not make the idealizations irrelevant. There are inherent dangers to the idealization of reality so we do need to be careful how we use it, but there are also benefits.

That is how I understand and use complementary holism. I don't expect individual Marxists or feminists (for example) to fit the idealizations formulated within the framework. I do, however, want the concepts I employ to capture specific important aspects of reality. What I am looking for is a set of intellectual tools that help me understand society in order to change it.

So, if understood from this perspective, and if used carefully, I think that the benefits presented in the complementary holistic framework out-weigh the dangers involved.


Re: Disorganizing Principles

By Carl Davidson

I think feminists do best when they, and all of us, mainly fight against all the structures of women's oppression in the political, economic and social sphere--widening their options, improving their conditions, strengthening their independence. We also need to deal with things like violence within the family, assault and the like, taking legal and coercive measures against the perpetrators, and guaranteeing a woman's right to divorce and safe haven. But on the nature of kinship structures themselves, I would advocate considerable restraint.

I don't think it does any good to trash the nuclear family--husband, wife and children--as inherently backward. Many working class people are happy with their families as they are, even if they would like their conditions to improve. They enjoy their extended family reunions and honor their elder 'patriarchs' and 'matriarchs'--the quotes are because these roles wield little power among working class families. Single parent families are viewed as unfortunate, and they often try to lend a helping hand in various ways. We can urge tolerance for other new forms, such as gay marriage and other more experimental arrangements, such as intentional communities.

But attacking the core family structures of many people, as structure, is a bad and divisive idea. I think it only drives people to the right. Better to work for conditions that allow for more gradual, evolutionary change in this sphere.

Strategy is first about looking at our situation as a whole, and in that sense it certainly overlaps with vision. But it next poses the questions, 'Who are our friends; who are our adversaries? Then it seeks to unite the many to defeat the few. More precisely, to unite and develop the progressive forces, win over the middle forces, isolate and divide the reactionaries, and crush batches of our adversaries one by one. Tactically, it means wage struggle on just grounds, to our advantage and with restraint, i.e., don't go on strike the day before payday.

You can stick the adjective 'authoritarian' in front of anything I say all you want. It's rather meaningless, unless you simply want to say I'm not an anarchist, which is true.

But it doesn't mean I treasure freedom, liberty or mass participation any less than you. That’s why I find it a tad arrogant and off-putting on your part. The approach I outlined toward government is more libertarian than many anarchists hold for their own groups.

Here the bottom line. In my view of strategy, the revolutionaries--communists, socialists or whatever--are always in the minority. Yet the masses, in their millions and often in their majority, are the makers of history, as they are, with all their diverse views and visions. My strategy starts with people as they are, and does not have uniformity as a subtext. Its a strategy for uniting wide forces, mainly who don't agree on many points, to be able to achieve common goals and objectives, to consolidate those, and then develop a new unity to keep on going.

Democratic centralism is not a strategy. It's a method of organizing forces that can be used by many different strategies.

Lenin was from a largely feudal society with pockets of advanced capitalist production, often foreign owned. His father was a salaried employee of the Tsar's government, working mainly in developing public schools. Lenin went to university a got a law degree, practicing only briefly. He was considered a revolutionary intellectual, although far more connected to actual workers and far more democratic than most of that strata. For most of his adult life, you could say he was an employee of the RSDLP and then the new Soviet government. He was extremely skilled at growing an organization of professional revolutionaries, embedded in the working class and army, and under harsh conditions, and then awakening the revolutionary consciousness among far wider numbers of workers and soldiers.

By your definition, he was a 'coordinator' and thus a class enemy. But not in my view, not by a long shot.


Re: Disorganizing Principles

By Michael McGehee

Carl, I don’t buy the whole "the ends justify the means" argument. When it gets down to it that is what you are suggesting. From this conversation to many others we have had on Obama, markets and private enterprises. Broadly speaking we agree on many things but when it comes to strategy you seem too willing to accommodate features that are counter-productive for my tastes.

The means must compliment the end.

"One cannot in the nature of things expect a little tree that has been turned into a club to put forth leaves." ~ Martin Buber


Re: Disorganizing Principles

By Carl Davidson

No, I'm not making an 'ends justify the means' argument.

I do argue the ideas have consequences, and we should try to foresee them, and we do best when we accept responsibility for both ends and means.

I derive my politics from my values, not the other way around, i.e., my values from my politics. That means both means and ends are best when morally derived and evaluated.

But I'm also a pragmatist, in the deeper sense of the term, i.e., I follow an instrumental theory of truth, i.e., there is no Truth with a Capital T, but truths are the product of inquiry revealed in the solving of problems. Since several solutions can exist for one problem, there can be a plurality of truths. John Dewey, William James, along with Charles Sanders Pierce and George Herbert Mead, are a lot deeper than some people think.

I also believe that we often have only bad choices. So I'm with Sartre on the matter of 'dirty hands' in the making of moral choices and with St Thomas on when confronted with two evils, with no practical alternative, choosing the lesser is a moral option, if not required of us. There's lots of rhetorical salvos against 'lesser evilism' on the left. But I've yet to hear a solid refutation of St Thomas on the matter, which has held up for 500 years now.

So I'm not really sure what you're talking about here, but perhaps this gives you some perspective.


Re: Disorganizing Principles

By Michael McGehee

Carl, you are saying and have been saying elsewhere that we should accommodate features like markets, centralism, private enterprise, voting for Obama, etc for the success of revolution. I.e. the end justifies the means.

For example. You have shown your support for classlessness yet you incorporate it into your vision and strategy because you think the end will justify the means "hundreds of years" from now.

You have also shown your support for market abolition yet you incorporate markets in your vision and strategy because you think the end will justify the means "in due time."

You say you support participation just as much as I do but you incorporate centralism into your vision and strategy because you think the end will justify the means.

It’s one thing to support reforms that don’t mirror how they would be done in our ideal society, but its another to incorporate some of the very features we want to overcome into our vision and strategy. I wouldn’t use sexism to overcome sexism or racism to overcome racism and that is why I have a hard time accepting that the incorporation of markets, class divisions and centralism into our vision and strategy for a marketless, classless and participatory society is reasonable or acceptable.


Re: Disorganizing Principles

By Carl Davidson

The more interesting question is “what justifies 'the ends'?”

I do 'justify' markets as both means and ends, relatively speaking. The quotes are because it’s not so much justifying as acknowledging the fact that they are an achievement of human civilization over what predominated before them. The same can be said for class society. The surplus created and the priestly-intellectual strata created allowed for the beginnings of an explosion in knowledge, the democratization of which, of course, would come much later.

So what I'm really pleading guilty to is being an historical materialist--which doesn't mean, by the way, that just because something happened, that it HAD to happen. There were often choices and contingencies.

Modern socialized production was created with the use of markets and a rather developed division of labor. It also forms the basis for both advanced socialist relations of production and economies of abundance, wherein classes, market and states can begin to wither away. That's part of the ABC of Marxism, of which I am an admitted admirer and student.

In that's what you mean by 'the end justifies the means' in my thinking, so be it. But it's an odd ahistorical and moralistic way of framing things, and not very useful at all.


Re: Disorganizing Principles

By Michael McGehee

Carl, whether you think that markets and class divisions are an "achievement of human civilization" or not is hardly the point I am getting at.

My point is that if we agree on a desire for a market-less and classless society then incorporating them into our vision and strategy is counter-productive.


Re: Disorganizing Principles

By Mark Evans

Carl - You write "Many working class people are happy with their families as they are..." Following this logic you could also argue that most working class people are not anti-capitalist and therefore conclude that they are happy with capitalism - but you don't and I wonder why? You seem to me to have a radical attitude towards the economic sphere and quite a conservative attitude towards the kinship sphere.

The idea behind developing vision for the kinship sphere is to overcome barriers to meaningful and sustainable participation within society that originate within that sphere and not to "trash the nuclear family".

You are also wrong when you assume that I automatically consider members of the coordinator class "class enemies". The coordinator class become a problem when they insist on organizing the movement and society along democratic centralist line. This is because democratic centralism elevates the coordinator class to positions of authority within the movement / society which tends to lead to elitism and authoritarianism. On the other hand if our organization is run along participatory democratic lines (as defined in my essay) coordinators should be able to make important contributions without the negative consequences.

There are other misunderstandings, inconsistencies and contradictions with your comments that, in my opinion, are quite typical of contemporary leftists. I think these characteristics go a long way in explaining why the left is so ineffective in its organizing efforts. I also think that the complementary holistic approach to organizing helps to highlight and iron out these inconsistencies.


Re: Disorganizing Principles

By Carl Davidson

First, it's true that many working-class people are not anti-capitalist, at least now. That's why we have to project a platform of both immediate demands and structural reforms that are not, in themselves, socialist, if we are to unite a progressive majority, and then develop the socialist minority and platform within that context.

Second, your formulation of the family-related changes you want to see are not different from those I proposed regarding women and children, which was precisely to overcome barriers to participation. It's good that you're not interested in 'trashing the nuclear family.' Neither am I, but there are more than a few in the anarchist and feminist movements that do.

Third, I maintain a distinction between political life and private life, although the two overlap. Kinship as part of the social sphere spans both, but is part of private life to a large degree. I'm not one who agrees with the slogan, 'The personal IS the political." I think the personal is connected to the political, but when you merge them into one, you end up with a feudal outlook, not unlike Sharia law, where there is no private sphere, private self or individual conscience, at least that deserves respect. Establishing these boundaries is partly what the Enlightenment was about, which, despite POMO faddism, is worth defending.

So in the end, I think you have to take a more gradual and evolutionary approach in the private and social spheres, as opposed to the mainly political and economic. To use Mao's frame, these are 'contradictions among the people', and are dealt with by different methods than 'contradictions between the people and the enemy.'

Finally, every factory I've worked in needed foremen and a plant manager, and they needed some authority to do their jobs, which in turn helped us do our jobs. Even in a system where the workers can choose or get rid of these people in democratic assemblies, they are still going to need some authority to function well. You can call it anything you please to prettify it, but it's still authority--and you can't run a small factory, let alone an army or an entire economy without it.

As Engels pointed out long ago in his little essay on the topic, revolution itself is rather authoritarian--doing away with an old order, and preventing it from coming back, by force of arms if need be. Even today, we take, say, men who rape and otherwise do criminal violence to women, and we arrest them, put them on trial and, if guilty, we put them in prison, or at least we would do better if we did so more consistently. All that is rather authoritarian and it make no sense to call it anything else.

So being called 'authoritarian' in these political and economic or military senses, doesn't cut any ice with me.

It's rather easy to shout 'down with patriarchy' when you're young, and rebelling against your fathers. But when you have children of your own, hold them in your arms, and realize that YOU are responsible for their well-being, since the good society is a ways down the pike, and YOU have to raise them up, educate them with decent values and protect them, then 'down with patriarchy' or 'down with authority' takes on a different light. There's one level of hierarchy you note right away--you and your spouse at one level, and the youngsters at the level one notch down. You and your spouse have some authority and some responsibility, and you best do well with it, as best as you can.


Re: Disorganizing Principles

By Paul Brodie

Carl, as I understand it in a Parecon some situations and projects in the workplace will call for someone to "lead" a work team. Some person might be responsible for coordinating the actions of various other work teams in a workplace to ensure that the project is completed the way it was meant to.

However, if a member of a workplace takes on a 'team leader' role, that will have to be factored into their job complex - they will have to compensate by doing a greater proportion of relatively less empowering work later on, and for the next project some other person will take on the mantle, so that the "leader" position doesn’t become entrenched. In other words, if there are going to be "leaders" or temporary authority figures in the workplace they have to be temporary, democratic, rotating, recallable and factored into a balanced job complex so that no one person gets significantly greater time in empowering positions than anyone else.

A division of labor is necessary yes, but it should be equitable and not leave the possibility open for entrenchment of authority.

Would you agree with that?


Re: Disorganizing Principles

By Michael McGehee

Carl wrote: "...every factory I've worked in needed foremen and a plant manager, and they needed some authority to do their jobs..."

I realize pointing out your authoritarian tendencies doesn’t "cut any ice" with you but you haven't provided anything that sufficiently explains how these prevailing practices are a "necessity." And that's what means more to me because there is a huge difference between how we perceive things and our ability to validate those perceptions.


Re: Disorganizing Principles

By Carl Davidson

Have you tried to get anything done in a workplace where no one had any authority or everyone had equal authority? Lots of luck.

This doesn't mean you forego democracy, the election of leaders, or worker assemblies to develop plans and set policies. But when it comes to production, a division of labor with designated responsibilities and authority works rather well.


By Tom Wetzel

Carl, “Authority" refers to decision-making. Wherever there is decision-making, there is "authority." Let's consider rather the concept of self-management. This says everyone is to have decision-making say or "authority" as you put it, in proportion as they are affected. Self-management in this sense is part of the positive concept of liberty.

If there is something that is only your business, then you are the person who should have control over that...that is your own personal self-management of your own affairs. But many decisions are social and affect groups of people, and the idea is that if a group is mainly affected by some sphere of decision-making then that group should have collective control over those decisions.

Another part of positive liberty is having roughly equal access to the means to develop one's potential. When we're talking about social production, these are related in the following way.

Within corporate capitalism a new main social class emerged in which decision-making authority and key kinds of expertise needed for decision-making authority came to be concentrated into the hands of a few. Tarylorism is based on this idea. When the "scientific management" movement began in the 1890s there were very few engineers (mainly in certain new fields) and technical expertise was still mainly the province of skilled workers. Since the World War I Taylorist principles have been applied systematically, and have gone hand in hand with the building up of a huge managerial bureaucracy, and the creation of certain "professional" groups who are repositories for, and responsible for developing, certain key kinds of expertise that management wants to use to control the enterprise and the labor process, such as design of jobs and equipment and software to control workers.

So the new class consists of the ranks of middle-managers and high-end professionals who work with management, such as lawyers, engineers, HR experts, financial experts, management consultants etc. We can call this the "bureaucratic class" or the "coordinator class" (as Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel do). These are the bosses that most working class people deal with day to day in corporations and government agencies.

This class participates in the exploitation of the working class. They do so in virtue of the power and responsibility accorded to them as the bureaucratic control element, which earns them substantial wage premiums, stock options and so on, and also enables them to accumulate things like houses, some small investments, etc.

The hierarchy in skill and knowledge also exists within the working class. There is a minority that is the skilled section of the working class, both blue collar skilled trades and lower-level "professionals" like school teachers and RNs and newspaper reporters. The majority of the working class is the lower working class...people who work in jobs requiring only common skill levels, little training, working in more repetitive types of work, usually under close supervision, and making lower wages than the more skilled layers.

But people in the skilled layer of working people do not effectively participate in the management of ventures or departments, are not part of a boss class, even if sometimes their work involves giving some direction to aides. Their higher wage rates reflect the fact that they are exploited to a lesser degree than the lower working class.

Nor is a person a part of the bureaucratic control class simply by virtue of helping to coordinate the work of others, such as a taxi dispatcher or a "lead." I've worked as a "lead" in a project with six others whose work I helped to coordinate but I had no power to discipline them or force them to go along with what I said. There are some jobs that we can consider to be borderline cases...and sometimes people are called "foremen" or "supervisors" or "assistant managers" but have little real authority over other workers. Some times a particular worker may be given some job of reporting on others as a way of sowing divisions and assisting management in their work.

Now, the proposal for re-integrating the decision-making and skilled tasks, and learning and knowledge that goes with it, with the doing of the physical work...the sort of thing Michael Albert calls "balanced jobs" intended to assure the working population of effective ability to participate roughly as equals in the running of the workplaces and industries...and in society more generally. If people must work 40 hours a week or whatever running a machine, driving trucks, cleaning, whatever, when will they have the time to learn the things needed in order to effectively participate in the running of an industry? They won't be able. They will in practice be subordinate to bosses.

Another feature about the coordinator class is that understanding the basis of this class enables us to answer the question, who were the dominating and exploiting class in the old Soviet Union?

Much of the work of middle management is essentially a police function. This accounts for why the size of the coordinator class varies significantly between advanced capitalist countries. In the USA managers are 15% of the population but non-Anglo-Saxon advanced capitalist countries have a much small bureaucratic bloat.

Managers do some useful tasks that would still need to be done...and coordination is one of these tasks. But this can be combined with a person who does some of the physical work, or does the coordination only for awhile as an elected coordinating committee member, etc. Even more importantly, the expertise and skills needed to run industries need to be broadly shared within the workforce so that there is not a class of people who simply forced to do the donkey work, the least desirable tasks, or the tasks that give the least empowerment, in terms of skill development and effective participation in the industry's direction.

This business about "authority" seems to be derived from some word-games of Engels back in the 19th century. Sensible libertarian Leftists do not say that "all authority is to be abolished." It's a question of how authority is to be re-organized. "Authoritarian" doesn't mean merely "exercise of authority." If people refer to a government as "authoritarian", they mean it is repressive, runs against popular opinion, is despotic in its methods.

Capitalist management is "authoritarian" because it is despotic.

Contrary to Engels, a working class revolution to get rid of the power of the boss classes would not be "authoritarian." It would be an act of liberation. Calling it "authoritarian" is like saying that someone who retrieves a bicycle that was stolen from them by taking it from the thief is a "thief." The process of taking over the capitalists' assets and removing management from power is unlikely to occur with their blessing. It will have to be forced on them. But the idea is not to set up some new authoritarian structure or to substitute some new despotic form of management for the old.

In regard to why Leninism leads to the empowerment of a coordinator class, we can look at the early path pursued by Lenin and the Bolsheviks. What was their trajectory? The local Soviets set up by the Mensheviks were highly top down affairs...controlled top-down by the executive committees, usually members of the "intelligentsia"...plenaries of delegates were treated as a mere rubber stamp. The approach is one we should be familiar with. It's the concept of "representative democracy" where the citizen's only role is to elect people who are given the authority to make the decisions. When the Bolsheviks gained majorities in the soviets they didn't change this...because they shared this assumption with the Mensheviks. The Russian trade unions were also set up as highly centralized bodies controlled top down by their national executive committees. This was why in the revolution Russian workers formed a large independent shop committee movement based on assemblies.

In Nov 1917 the regional organization of factory committees in St Petersburg proposed that the factory committees should gain self-management power over the whole economy and hold a congress to develop from below a plan for the Russian economy. The only political tendencies in the revolution to support that move were the libertarian socialists and syndicalists. The Bolsheviks scotched that idea. Instead once they'd gotten the Congress of Soviets to put them in control of the central government they set up, a Supreme Council of National Economy, entirely appointed from above by the government, to develop, top down, a plan for the national economy. And Lenin vigorously insisted that worker delegates were not to be more than a minority on the regional bodies set up under this planning apparatus. And shortly thereafter in the spring of 1918 you had the beginnings of the move for "one-man management"....appointment of bosses from above...and the creation of a top-down conventional army run by thousands of czarist officers paid nice salaries to do so. Now, what we can see here are the beginnings of an administrative layer with dominant control over the Russian state and economy, that is, over the immediate producers.

In his study "Before Stalinism" Sam Farber, by way of explaining these tendencies, points out that Russian Marxism, in both its Menshevik and Bolshevik forms, never really believed in direct democracy, or building direct participation by rank and file people, they didn't see this as important. What was the important thing in their view was gaining control of the central government. Their conception of democracy was representative democracy...election of people to make decisions for you, not direct participation by people affected in charting the decisions. Thus Trotsky, for example, to defend one-man management and the hierarchical army he organized, made an analogy with a trade union. He said that just as workers control of the union was in election of officers, the election by the working class of the Bolshevik party in Oct 1917 was a form of worker control. Note that he conceives of democracy in a union totally in terms of representative democracy, not the members making the decisions.

This view that democracy is representative democracy was one of the main influences on political Marxism....the Marxist the years before World war I. Organized political Marxism did not put an emphasis on direct democracy or self-management....those were ideas developed by the libertarian Left.

Thus we can see that 19th century liberalism contributed significantly to the weaknesses of the left. In the case of the anarchist left, some anarchists were influenced by the liberal idea of "autonomy" to the point of veering off in individualistic directions. But the debilitating influence of 19th century liberalism on organized Marxism was its poverty-stricken conception of democracy.

Now, I have no beef with Marxism as a set of ideas. When I first got involved in the radical left in the late '60s/early '70s, I participated in a Marx study group and read and was influenced by various Marxists...such as G.D.H. Cole's "The Meaning of Marxism." I still have my well-worn copy of that and it's been re-read numerous times. The first radical group I belonged to defined itself as "socialist-feminist". Around that time a member of the Los Angeles group "The Resistance" sort of converted me to anarcho-syndicalism, and brought my attention to the Spanish revolution and the role of anarcho-syndicalism in that revolution. So in the '70s and '80s I ended up working in an anarcho-syndicalist group...but I continued to agree with Marx's ideas, including his theory of history. My viewpoint in that period was sort of "libertarian-syndicalist-Marxist-feminist." Since then I've developed some more criticisms of things like Marx's theory of history but I still agree with a number of ideas from Marxism. The truth is, anarcho-syndicalism and the more working class-oriented wing of anarchism share a number of ideas in common with Marxism. So, as I say, my beef isn't with Marxist ideas.

However, Marxism historically has had a kind of dual meaning. On the one hand there are the social ideas. And, on the other hand, there is a political tradition....of Marxist political organizations. The thing about the history of political Marxism is that its main strategic orientation has been partyist. That is, the idea is that socialism is to be achieved by building up a political party that rallies behind it the oppressed groups of society and then uses this social force to capture control of a state (either the existing state or a new one built for this purpose) to implement its program top-down through the hierarchies of the state. Of course the two historic forms of partyism are social-democracy and Leninism.

I think that neither social-democracy nor Leninism is capable of being a path to the self-emancipation of the working class. The very fact they must work through the state in a top-down way will tend to favor and empower a coordinator or bureaucratic control class.

An alternative to partyism would be to think in terms of social change being driven from below by mass social movements, mass organizations, such as worker organizations and other kinds of social movement organizations, forming some sort of alliance and working out a common aim or program, what Steve D'Arcy calls a "common front".

One of the problems I have with much of the "Reimagining Society" discussion is that the focus is so much on the "vision" or program for a new society that what can be lost sight of is the process of self-emancipation, that is, the strategic path of change. Marx held that a revolution is necessary because it is only through a process of struggle that the working class...the majority of the population...change themselves, develop their knowledge, consciousness, confidence, "fit" themselves to take over the running of society. And on this point I am in agreement with Marx.


Re: Disorganizing Principles

By Carl Davidson

We don't want anything to become 'entrenched.'

But we do want leaders to have authority. If they lead anyway, but without authority, they're called tyrants.


Re: Authoritarian vs. Whom?

By Carl Davidson

Tom, the point made by Engels was that working-class revolution was authoritarian toward the other side, even dictatorial. That’s why it’s called the dictatorship of the proletariat, i.e., it emancipates one class and forcibly suppresses another.

But regarding your longer exposition here, I simply don't know any factories or firms that can run the way you suggest. I'm simply not an anarchist, at least since my early 20s, because I've learned that any projects of any scale, factories or otherwise, simply don't work that way.

With just one example. I ran an enterprise, and computer recycling and training project for some 30 recent ex-offenders and prisoners on work release. I was both coordinator and teacher, reporting to a board of six ex-offenders and one lawyer.

I hired two former students to help me. From the 30, I selected four more to help them. I interviewed every student in depth to see what they wanted from the class and the work; we sold recycled computers at cost to other nonprofits, but as I often told the student-workers, our main product was the skills gained between their ears.

I set industry-wide standards for them, and used trial tests so they could get certified as repair techs. Those who discovered they didn't want to be techs, but were interested in working in an office or becoming a webmaster, my leading team developed an alternate curriculum and work projects for them.

My teaching methods were hands-on; learn by doing, with individual attention.

But a third of my students ended up going back to jail (which was a success, since two-thirds is the norm otherwise). I had to put some out of the class, and fire one of the teacher-helpers, mainly for drug abuse. But a decent number succeeded in their own lives with new their new skills, not to mention the community groups that got decent equipment.

I had authority in this work, as did my team. We were not 'entrenched,' but could be replaced or removed if the board wanted too. I also had meetings, to explain tasks and methods. Everyone spoke, and sometimes we made improvements and changes from the students suggestions. But in the course of each session, I would explain our tasks, and what each had to do to succeed at getting them done. I gave orders and directions. I was one of your dreaded coordinators.

There is no way this project could function as you outline. I had another friend who ran a similar program as mine, but at 10 times the scale. Certainly no way for that one, either.

I use this example because the discipline and division of labor required for this operation to succeed was minimal and relatively loose. At other places I’ve worked, the notion of foreman or 'team leaders' or whatever you want to call them, even if they were elected, being without the authority to give an order or a directive, is laughable.

I believe in both worker ownership and workplace democracy. Worker assemblies to hire and fire managers, to set basic policy and direction that's in the interest of all, are essential to my vision of a good society. Not just annual sessions, but more frequently. But the idea of abolishing authority or coordinators as a class, is simply a non-starter for me. I'm simply not convinced that it can ever work or even get off the ground on any serious scale.


By Tom Wetzel

I didn't say I was for "abolishing authority"....I said the opposite. I also didn't say people should never be in a position to "give directives." If a person is coordinating work of others, they are giving directives. The issue was different: I'm talking about a class power relationship. This is where in a society there is a relative monopolization of decision-making authority and key expertise related to planning and decision-making in the hands of a few. Those few will thus dominate workers under them. This is in fact the structure that exists in the Mondragon coops, this existed under Yugoslav fake "self-management", and it exists as a subordinate class within corporate capitalism. So long as this *class* exists, workers will not be free. It's as simple as that.

Management doesn't just "issue directives." They decide on the technologies in use, how jobs are defined, who gets what job, policies that govern the workplace, have authority to hire and fire people, they monitor people and track their work and discipline them for infractions. Because they can fire people or re-assign them to less desirable jobs or suspend them, they are in a position to threaten them. And hence they exercise coercive authority over them. This is not the same kind of "authority" as someone who is a lead or "supervisor" without authority to hire and fire who simply coordinates.

I was not the person who introduced the word "authority" into this discussion. You did.

Now, what job balancing means is that these kinds of tasks and skills are broadly distributed within the working class. And thus we're talking not about something that can be achieved within capitalism, but something that a socialist society needs to embark upon at the outset. Within a libertarian socialist society, the point is to have a systematic approach to education and job design that realizes this aim.

Within such an arrangement, the useful tasks that are now done by the coordinator class would still be done...including coordination of work, developing plans, dealing with friction and personal conflicts in the workplace.

Now as to its allegedly being impossible to run workplaces this way, during the Spanish revolution the former shop stewards committees were converted into administrative committees and assemblies of the union sections became the regular worker assemblies. The administrative committee was responsible for coordination, but often members of this committee also continued to work at least part of the time at their old job. For example, a Revolutionary Railway Federation was created to run the railways. They hired an executive director but the national coordinating committee consisted of 12 delegates who continued in their old jobs. In each railway terminal there were assemblies every two weeks. The elected delegates who coordinated the work had to give reports and could be removed at any time if the workers were dissatisfied. This sort of structure is just a beginning because there also needs to be a process of training rank and file workers to do engineering and other skilled jobs and to understand finances and planning and other tasks related to administration. Even so, they did what you say can't be done.

In regard to Engels' word games, I know that Engels was pointing out that the capitalists (and I'd add, managers) are forcibly removed from power, from their ownership of assets. But my point is that he was calling this "authoritarian" as a way to criticize the libertarian Left....and this is what you're doing too. The problem is, the libertarian Left would agree that force is used in this case....but they aren't being inconsistent since they don't use "authoritarian" to refer to "any use of force" or "any situation in which someone is forced to do something." If that were so, every possible society would be "authoritarian" because in any feasible social arrangement the society's governance system will have rules and ability to enforce those rules, and this means use of force.

Rather, "authoritarian" is used as a description of institutions and how institutions are run. Institutions are "authoritarian" to the degree that they are despotic in their relation to the people they govern. Also, policies or political practices could be deemed "authoritarian" to the degree they propose undemocratic, despotic methods. Removing a despotic regime in which a minority dominate and exploit others does not count as "authoritarian" insofar as it falls out of a democratic mass movement and is working towards the creation of social democratization. If you want to say that "it is authoritarian towards the capitalists", I will simply point out that this is not how "anti-authoritarians" use the word "authoritarian." That's why it's playing games, which is not very helpful.


By Michael McGehee

Carl, I am going to go out on a limb here and ask a question: Are you or have you ever been a foreman or plant manager?


By Carl Davidson

No, Michael, but I've worked where I had a foreman, a plant supervisor and a manager. All of them could be replaced as individuals by democratic elections picking people from the shop floor, but they were also needed, as coordinators and organizers of production, to have the place run well. None of them had a 'monopoly' on their jobs and none of them held any ownership shares--but they got two or three times more than the average wage as salary.

I described the teacher and coordinator position that I did hold for a few years below. Since it was a classroom as well as a production unit, I wouldn't use the term 'foreman' here, but if you wanted to stretch it, I suppose one could.

As for Tom, we're back to the quote from Alice. Plus the Spanish anarchist example doesn't go very far. They were crushed, after all.


By Tom Wetzel

Briefly, the Spanish revolution went further than any other in history in creation of an economy directly managed by workers, and workers ran the industries for two and half years. For Carl, however, their example can be dismissed because "they were crushed." But worker management of the economy was successful. It was the people's army that was defeated...after the Communist Party gained control of it. It was defeated partly due to overwhelming advantage in foreign military aid to the fascist side from Hitler and Mussolini (as documented by Gerald Howson) and mismanagement and demoralization of the army by the Communists, as described in Antony Beever's "The Battle for Spain" and in some of the interviews in "Blood of Spain." But worker management of the transport systems, which I mentioned, was quite successful.

Carl, you advocate managerial hierarchies, market governance of society and the continued existence of the hierarchical state apparatus. That looks pretty much like what we have now. It seems to me you are proposing various reforms within capitalism...some of which I might agree with you on...but in terms of socialism, your vision seems to me just changing who the bosses are. Why the heck should the working class fight a revolution for that?


By Carl Davidson

Tom, don't get carried away here.

First, I think plants need managers, preferably hired and fired by the workers themselves. with workers setting strategic policy in assemblies. If that means 'managerial hierarchies' to you, so be it. But I doubt if many workers would think so.

Second, I think society should govern markets, not 'market governance of society.' I think some markets can be abolished, some restricted and others regulated by a working-class government. If that means 'market governance of society' to you, that's also very odd, to say the least.

Third, yes, I think we need democratic government, participatory at the base, and representative beyond localities. It's a big country, so that's several levels, which makes a hierarchy. I've said many times, I am a Marxist and a socialist, with a vision of fully automated communism a hundred years or so down the pike. I am not an anarchist, so on this one, I'll just plead guilty. We'll need to coerce enemies who want to illegally bring back the old order, as well as criminals that prey on society. That's what states do. People do not become angels under socialism, although they can do better than they do under the current order.

I do indeed work for radical reforms within capitalism, and my socialism certainly does 'change who the bosses are.' It puts the workers in charge. It makes them the owners of their firms, where they can hire and fire the managers as a transitional society to one were both workers and managers are abolished, or at least reduced to near zero.

I can think of long lists of reasons why many of the more forward thinking workers today would favor such things, and I know many who do, but certainly not enough of them, so far away. But I've yet to meet an actual factory worker today who espouses anarchism. I know students who do, and I'm not saying there aren't any. But in the last 40 years, I've yet to meet one.

And yes, I think there are coordinators--good, bad and indifferent. But I don't think there is any such thing as a 'coordinator class'


By Michael McGehee

CD: First, I think plants need managers, preferably hired and fired by the workers themselves, with workers setting strategic policy in assemblies. If that means 'managerial hierarchies' to you, so be it. But I doubt if many workers would think so.

< Carl, you have yet to explain this "need." I get that you "think" it but I want to know why and how that means an end to alienated and hierarchically divided is impossible. Managers hire, fire and plan, so if workers are hiring, firing and planning then why and the hell would they need a manager to do what they are already doing? If you see management as some facilitation job not imposing on workers then maybe there is something to discuss (and at which point I would argue in favor those facilitation tasks being balanced throughout a workplace), but saying we need managers yet we can and should do what they do is perplexing to say the least.

CD: Second, I think society should govern markets, not 'market governance of society.' I think some markets can be abolished, some restricted and others regulated by a working-class government. If that means 'market governance of society' to you, that's also very odd, to say the least.

< I think you are failing to take into account market pressures on people's behavior. To say society can resist the intrinsically antisocial features of markets doesn’t make much sense. Structure nurtures behavior.

CD: Third, yes, I think we need democratic government, participatory at the base, and representative beyond localities. It's a big country, so that's several levels, which makes a hierarchy. I've said many times, I am a Marxist and a socialist, with a vision of fully automated communism a hundred years or so down the pike. I am not an anarchist, so on this one, I'll just plead guilty. We'll need to coerce enemies who want to illegally bring back the old order, as well as criminals that prey on society. That's what states do. People do not become angels under socialism, although they can do better than they do under the current order.

< For the most part I agree. Your polity description is pretty similar to Shaloms parpolity - face-to-face deliberation for local issues and delegated nested councils for broader issues. On the issue of forcibly resisting "enemies" that may be but that’s now what I take opposition to. I take opposition to the incorporation of some of the most important features we need to replace to make a Good Society: markets, class divisions, private enterprise, etc. I realize we can’t overcome them over night but the sooner we incorporate participatory planning, self-management and social ownership into the institutions and movements we build the sooner we will overcome them. Including the very things we oppose into our visions and strategy for expediency has two disturbing drawbacks: 1) the undermining of our goals; and 2) unnecessarily putting off the attaining of those goals.

CD: I do indeed work for radical reforms within capitalism, and my socialism certainly does 'change who the bosses are.' It puts the workers in charge. It makes them the owners of their firms, where they can hire and fire the managers as a transitional society to one were both workers and managers are abolished, or at least reduced to near zero.

< You’re playing word games again, Carl. By changing bosses we are talking about leaving the very structures in place that perpetuate the problems we are trying to overcome. "Meet the new boss / Same as the old boss" ~ The Who

Workers control is not changing bosses, its changing the very structure. Again, back to your "first" point. If workers can hire, fire and plan - which are the tasks of management - then there is no need for management or "bosses"

CD: I can think of long lists of reasons why many of the more forward thinking workers today would favor such things, and I know many who do, but certainly not enough of them, so far away. But I've yet to meet an actual factory worker today who espouses anarchism. I know students who do, and I'm not saying there aren't any. But in the last 40 years, I've yet to meet one.

< That hardly validates the argument. 95% of the world believes in the supernatural but that doesn’t mean its true.

CD: And yes, I think there are coordinators--good, bad and indifferent. But I don't think there is any such thing as a 'coordinator class'

< Again, you "think" so but you don’t offer anything to show for it. Coordinators have considerable separate interests from the rank and file and as such that qualifies as a separate class.


By Tom Wetzel

I'm not sure how useful this dialogue is since you continue to repeat yourself, Carl. The name "coordinator class" is possibly misleading. I’ve found this to be the case in discussions with people. Sometimes people make the same mistake Carl makes here of supposing that the "coordinator class" is simply defined as "people who do coordination of work". To repeat my example, a taxi dispatcher might have no managerial power but coordinate the work of the drivers. She's not a member of the "coordinator class." Okay, so let's use the term I sometimes substitute, the "bureaucratic control class." I think we know who this class is.

Over the past century corporate capitalism has evolved and developed a particular division of labor for the control and exploitation of workers. In persistent de-skilling and re-org-ing of work they developed an elaborate managerial hierarchy...people who are not capital owners but who the working class is subordinate to, and controlled by, in the workplaces. This includes the legions of middle-managers and the various "professions"...which often didn't exist in the mid-19th engineering, accountants and financial officers, architects, corporate lawyers and so on, who work directly with management in helping them with running the enterprise, developing plans and defending the legal and other interests of the firm. This layer in the companies and the state is the bureaucratic control class, as I call it; it's what Albert & Hahnel call the coordinator class. Again, as I pointed out before, this is not all "professionals." There is an even larger group of "professionals" who I regard as being a part of the skilled segment of the working class. Where they fall has to do with the participation in the power of management decision-making and planning and so on.

The working class cannot be free, but will continue to be dominated and exploited, as long as they are subordinate to this class. The Communist countries all had economies controlled by this sort of class. This is precisely at the heart of Communism's failure. We need to absorb and understand the lessons of that failure.

What we need to do, then, is to analyze what this class does, and figure out what is actually needed and what is there only because it is required by a system of domination and exploitation of the immediate producers. What would need to happen in a revolutionary process is to re-organize the structure of decision-making and the definition of the jobs and the nature of education and training, as it applies to workers, to empower the working class to be able to directly manage the industries themselves.

Now, it is in fact quite instructive to look at the Mondragon see what is not an adequate solution. Their cooperatives may provide certain benefits for the communities as a reform in the context of capitalist society...but they are no model for workers management. This is because superimposed on a nominally democratic structure of election and assemblies is the same hierarchical division of labor as we find in capitalist corporations. We find workers working 40 hours a week running a machine in the Fagor stove factory or doing cleaning or other physical labor. But they have no time to learn financial planning or engineering...and in Sharryn Kasmir's interviews they complained of this and of being treated as subordinates by the managers.

The way jobs are organized isn't just about how to produce the also has effects on the people. If some people are in charge and giving orders and doing the planning, this empowers them, and they develop a sense of confidence and of entitlement to be making the decisions. These are "empowerment effects", in the language of Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel.

What we need to do is to re-design the jobs so as to distribute these empowerment effects. There needs to a re-design of the jobs so as to ensure that skills and conceptual work and decision-making tasks are more broadly shared. It's not only "anarchists" or Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel who advocate this. There are also some writers and thinkers in the Marxist tradition who advocate this. Harry Braverman advocated this. Michael Yates advocates something like this at the end of his book "Naming the System."

As I pointed out, some of what "managers" do is a kind of police work...tracking and monitoring and pushing, for purposes of labor exploitation. This is what accounts for the huge growth in the proportion of managers in the USA since the ' 15% of the workforce. Some of the work they do is still needed. But to retain the same titles as under the capitalist division of labor is to imply continuation of the class relations. In other words, when you say that there needs to be a "plant manager" in a factory, this assumes that the job description that goes with what a manager does in a capitalist corporation would still apply even after a revolution. This means the relations to the workers would be the same. And I think that is unacceptable.

As I pointed out in the case of the revolution in Spain in the '30s, the workers didn't have some powerful individual with the same title as the old managers in the industries they expropriated. Typically the former shop stewards council was converted into an administrative council. The elected delegates did have coordinating or orchestrating roles. And this was merely in the initial stage of a transition.

I've had discussions with co-workers over the years about workers managing without bosses...and people understand what I'm talking about. Social anarchism or anarcho-syndicalism does not have huge numbers of activists in the USA, so I can understand why you might never have run into any in factories...but they do exist. In the '80s my organization had groups in the meatpacking industry in the upper Midwest and in the textile and garment industry in the New York area. Nowadays our membership is more concentrated in healthcare, education and retail. Of course in countries where there are more working class anarchists you will encounter anarchists in Spain or Brazil for example.

I've worked in blue collar jobs and professional jobs. I've worked in gas stations, in newspaper production, in college teaching, in computer hardware manufacturing and the software industry. As part of various writing tasks over the years I've interviewed workers in various industries. I've also done numerous interviews with workers in the course of various writing projects. I think I know what managers do.

Why the focus on factories? The bureaucratic control structure and division of labor is the same in public utilities, transportation, retail and healthcare to what exists in factories.

Nowadays the same Taylorist methods are used and the same managerial despotism exists there.

Presumably you are suggesting there is little current support for eliminating the managerial hierarchy among factory workers. I think that the extent to which such ideas take hold depends upon the development of class consciousness and libertarian socialist ideas within the working class. But the issues for factories are not fundamentally different than for transit systems or distribution or other areas of the economy. If you're a Marxist you should be familiar with the concept of "class formation"...of the process of the working class moving from being a class "in itself" to a class "for itself", in Marx's terms.

In regard to the state, there is not a single unified theory that Marxists have agreed to...and the same is true of anarchists. Engels presented the view that the state came into existence with the emergence of class society and is an administrative layer that is separated from effective popular control, standing over society. Now, I agree with that conception of what a state is. A political governance system for a society doesn't have to be a state in this sense. I already agreed that there is some inevitable element of representation in governance over a large territory...but we can ask what the relationship is to the base of society. Are these non-professional delegates who still work a regular job part of the time? are key issues or controversial questions referred back to the assemblies at the base for decision? is the ultimate armed force based on a democratic organization controlled by the people...the armed people? or is it some professional hierarchical standing army beyond actual popular control?

The fact that a political governance structure exercises coercive force against external enemies or criminal elements does not make it a state...that is obfuscatory. I already agreed that it will be necessary for the governance system to do this. Even tribal organization of society in early hunter/gatherer bands could do this...and these were forms of social organization where there was no state according to Engels. But of course you can continue to repeat the same formulas over and over again if you wish....


By Carl Davidson

I agree we've about played this out--and the conclusion is that Marxists and anarchists differ on many things, and are not the same.

For the record:

The ability of a body of people with authority to put some people in prison or its equivalent for breaking the law, i.e., to forcibly deprive them of their freedom, is the core of what makes a state. States are coercive, and it makes no sense to prettify them, whatever their form--limited powers or absolutist, democratic or fascist. That's the position held by Marxists, and many others as well.

Likewise for Marxists, class is about one's relation to ownership, or not, of the means of production. Workers are alienated from owning the means of production, small producers own their own tools, and capitalists own the means of production and hire workers to use them to generate surplus value, which they, the capitalists, appropriate.

It's useful to examine and describe the groupings and subdivisions within each class and across classes in various ways--all young people, all women, nationalities, bureaucratic layers, higher-paid strata, VALS market groups ( Values and Life Styles), blue collar and white collar occupations, university-trained workers, and, yes, the coordinator strata as well. But none of these are classes in the Marxist sense of the term. Of course, you're free to come up with your own definition of a class, or even several of them, and use them just as you please. I just don't find that approach very helpful.

You and a few others can claim that workers in Mondragon can't move out of their positions. But the fact is that thousands of them do take courses in their worker-owned Mondragon university, enhance their skills, and then take new and different positions. That's built into the system, and it works. Current enrollment is 4000, and you can visit and talk to them. I'm sure many workers there still choose not to, and use their leisure time in other ways, but that's another matter.

You can likewise claim that they have a 'managerial hierarchy' like any other. But it's common knowledge that Mondragon firms have far fewer levels of hierarchy than their capitalist rivals. It's commonly used to explain MCC's competitive advantage, i.e., that worker self-management means they have fewer supervisors to pay. Not no supervisors, but fewer. And it's also widely known that in the MCC firms, workers hire and fire managers and managers do not hire and fire the worker-owners. It doesn't mean there's no hierarchy; it just means it's not the same as the rule we know.

I'm sure you won't be happy with MCC anyway. It goes against your anarchist theories, so you have to oppose it if you continue clinging to them.

But I'm an advocate of spreading the core MCC 'model' or 'organizing principles’ far and wide, including in the US. It's starting to happen in a number of workplaces and related institutions, which I endorse.

This is what our theoretical difference means in practice. Ideas have consequences, and we are accountable for ours. So we are left with a better understanding of each other, hopefully, and we just have to agree to disagree, and fight it out in the battleground of building left organization.


Original Post:

Reimagining Revolutionary

Left Organizing

August 11, 2009

By Mark Evans

[Contribution to the Reimagining Society Project hosted by ZCommunications]

A twenty first century revolutionary left organization established to facilitate the building of a popular movement should do all it can to learn lessons from its own history.

Lesson 1: Reject Democratic Centralism

One of the most important of these lessons is that the elimination of capitalism does not, by itself, lead to a classless society. We can be anti-capitalist and still be opposed to classlessness. This is possible because, despite what the Marxists teach us, there are more than two classes - the working class and the capitalist class. Due to the hierarchical division of labor an elite can monopolize empowering tasks within society. The monopolization of empowering tasks and decision-making authority distinguishes this minority from the general public - thus creating a new class sometimes referred to as the "professional managerial class" or "coordinator class".

Because Marxists are blind to this third class they tend to structure their anti-capitalist organizations along democratic centralist lines. But because democratic centralism institutionalizes a hierarchical division of labor Marxist organizations elevate the coordinator class to positions of authority - thus duplicating existing class relations.

Lesson 2: Reject Monist and Pluralist Approaches to Organizing

Another important lesson (relating to the first) is that none of the major social spheres (community, politics, economics, kinship) should be seen as of more importance than the others. To prioritize one sphere over all others should be understood as saying that one form of oppression is more important than other forms. So for example, Marxists tend to elevate class exploitation within the economic sphere as of primary concern. From this outlook it follows that oppression within other spheres (for example sexism in the kinship sphere) are of secondary importance - at best.

This "monist" approach to organizing has typified much of the revolutionary left throughout the twentieth century even though such an approach can only weaken the movement. However some sectors of the revolutionary left recognized this problem and tried to overcome it by synthesizing their different theories. One example of this is Marxism-feminism. However, this "pluralist" approach still tends to prioritize the struggles taking place within the economic and kinship spheres over those taking place in the community and political spheres. Another example of pluralist organizing is anarcho-syndicalism which seems to prioritize the struggles within the economic and political spheres over those taking place within the kinship and community spheres.

From the first lesson we learn that it is necessary to reject democratic centralism as an internal structure and decision-making process because it elevates the coordinator class to positions of authority within the movement. From the second lesson we learn that we must reject monist and pluralist approaches to organizing because they wrongly prioritize some forms of oppression over others.

Rejecting democratic centralism and monist / pluralist approaches to organizing is a good start because, as we have seen, these features divide and weaken the movement leading to stagnation. But of course we need to replace these features with alternative ones that promote unity, growth and strength whilst also avoiding the dangers of sectarianism.

Participatory Democracy

As an alternative to democratic centralism I would like to suggest participatory democracy. Unlike democratic centralism participatory democracy has no hierarchical division of labor. Instead, to ensure an anti-elitist culture, a participatory democracy strives to distribute empowering and desirable tasks out evenly amongst its members. Also, in contrast to democratic centralism, a participatory democratic organization runs by the principle that members have a say in decisions in proportion to how much they are affected by the outcome of that decision. So for example, if a decision only affects members of the organization in a particular "chapter" or "branch" then they make that decision without interference from members in other chapters / branches.

Complimentary Holism

As an alternative to monist or pluralist approaches to organizing I suggest a "complimentary holistic" approach. Such an approach means understanding that struggles for liberation within the kinship, community, political and economic spheres are all equally important. Moreover, the complimentary holistic approach to movement building also highlights the need for the organizing within each sphere to re-enforce that of the other spheres.

I have suggested participatory democracy as a suitable decision-making process because it avoids duplicating class relations inside our organization. I have also suggested adopting a complimentary and holistic approach as a remedy to overcoming narrower and less respectful outlooks to organizing. These are suggested as basic features for a new international revolutionary left organization. But what might be some of the basic functions of such an organization?

Developing Shared Vision

One of the arguments used to justify the authoritarianism of democratic centralism is that it is necessary to organize that way in order to produce unity of action. Without centralism and hierarchy there is no effective action and therefore no hope for successful revolution.

A libertarian alternative means of creating unity of action that avoids the dangers of centralism and hierarchy is developing shared vision. By developing shared vision I mean the collective identification of the long-term objectives of the organization.

The development of shared vision would take place in accordance with the principles of participatory democracy and in line with the complimentary holistic outlook as sketched out above.

Because the shared vision of the organization affects all members equally this means that all members have an equal say in formulating the long-term objectives of the organization. Such activities could primarily taken place in local chapters filtering up to deliberative groups at the regional, National and international levels. The object of this process would be to identify shared vision that all members can work with and towards. However, the vision identified should not be seen as written in stone. An on going process of refinement and further development should remain a primary function of this organization.

Developing Diverse Strategy

One of the main reasons that developing shared long-term vision is so important is because it helps to guide our strategy. But our strategy should also be informed by the realities on the ground today. And because the realities on the ground vary from time and place this means our strategies must also vary. So diverse strategy is unavoidable. However, because our strategies are guided by our shared vision any danger of contradiction within the diversity should be minimized.

Like the development of our vision the development of our strategies will take place within a participatory democratic and complimentary holistic framework. This, for example, means that National strategies could vary considerably from one Nation to another. It also means that whilst criticism of specific strategy is welcome such diversity must be respected.

In addition to developing diverse strategies the popularization of the shared vision will be one of the primary activities of the organization. Advocating the shared vision will create opportunities for existing members to engage with the general public. Members of the general public who are sufficiently convinced by what they hear may join the organization. On joining these new members are then able to participate with other members in the development and advocacy of shared vision. This process creates a health and open relationship between the organization and the general public. The objective is to try to generate a non-elitist and non-sectarian dynamic between the organization and the public whilst also taking into account the inevitability of unevenness in the development of social consciousness and awareness of alternative ideas.

Solidarity Work

Another primary activity that members may want to get involved in is working in solidarity with other organizations on joint campaigns. Again, such activities create opportunities for members to meet others to discuss vision and strategy in ways that create a healthy and non-sectarian dynamic.

As with all other strategic considerations working in solidarity with other organizations will be subjected to the participatory democratic process. So if a member of a local chapter of the organization wants his or her chapter to work with other local groups in their area then all members of that chapter has a say in whether or not they support that action. The same goes with proposals to work in solidarity at the National and International levels.

Getting Started

Fortunately for people interested in establishing a new international organization as described above there is no need to start from scratch. A small number of thinker-activists have, over the past decades, been focusing their efforts on the development of participatory vision in the various social spheres. For example we have Cynthia Peters and Lydian Sargent work on participatory kinship; Stephen Shalom and Julio Chavez on participatory politics; Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel on participatory economics and Justin Podur and Mandisi Majavu on participatory community. I think it therefore makes sense that initial members use this work as a starting point for advocacy, debate and further development.

We should assume that few, if any, individual members will agree 100% with the vision and strategy developed and advocated by the organization as a whole. But we should also remember that all members have the same opportunity to influence the development of the organizations vision and strategy. From this we can expect that there will be a lively intellectual culture inside this new organization.

The organizational features described above are designed to encourage and celebrate free-thinking and dissent whilst also recognizing the need for serious organizing and united action. It is hoped that such an organization will avoid (or at least minimize) the dangers of elitism, dogmatism and sectarianism. By avoiding these dangers that have plagued so much of the revolutionary left in the past I believe we can establish a new and vibrant international organization with a growth dynamic capable of generating a popular movement.

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