Philly Socialists retreat experience: three cheers

People keep asking me “How was the Philly Socialists retreat?” and I keep saying “hold on, I’ll write about it so I only have to do this once.”

Well, first off, pretty damn good.  Better than that fucking Left Forum 2013 certainly.  Sad thing is this was about 1/20th of the size, with something like over 20 people as opposed to 4,000.

I honestly was expecting the talks to be mediocre introductions to the socialist basics, which is what you get out of most broad formations who don’t take a party line.  Boy was I wrong.  Even the talk which really was just an intro to Marxist economics killed it and really covered all the bases explicitly and unapologetically, serving as a perfect crash course for anyone who has no idea what Marx’s critique of capitalism is.  After the talk you would know.

Then OUT OF LEFT FIELD came Anthony Shull’s research into business practices, wisdom gained from business books and literature as well as some academia about strategic planning, informal social relationships within an organization, and using quantitative psychological testing to identify a person’s strongest possible organizational role.  Okay, I’ve heard of literally NO socialist organization that utilizes business practices and it closely mirrors my love of stealing tactics from the bad guys.

Philly Socialists uses the revolutionary concept of basing itself on relationships.  Now, their website and literature defines that despite having no party line they do insist on being explicitly political.  So if you’re asking, what relationships is Philly Socialists based on – relationships based on common values and ideas (political), or relationships based on friendship, hanging out, possibly dating (apolitical) – the answer would be, they can be either, and will probably be both.

Some say this model “has flaws”: for example, not everyone will be friends and it would be silly not to expect that at least some people in the group would even dislike each other.  There’s also the possibility that a group can drift too much toward being fun and friendly and lose political seriousness.  The first possibility can be worked around I think, and the second, well I just see absolutely no threat of that actually happening to Philly Socialists because the seriousness with which they approach political ideas surprised the shit out of me.

The main thing is, I think this has come to grips with a fundamental dishonesty that most party-line organizations have been practicing.  They are all friend crews.  Half the time the people in the group are fucking married to each other.  And yet we insist that membership must be based entirely on political ideas only?  Hogwash.  Bullshit.  And Philly Socialists has called that out.

They talked about applying a network model.  If you imagine people as dots and their relationships as lines, a sparse network is one where people have only a few relationships with each other, so the dots may be connected to one or two other dots but not much.  A dense network is one where most of the dots are connected to many of the other dots, covering the space in many more lines, making it look more like a geometric shape where a line has been drawn between every point (except arranged in a scatter and not a neat shape).  A cult of personality movement would have everyone connected to the one central leader and may or may not have any other “density” (cross-relationships).

How are these relationships accomplished?  It could be formal or informal, political or apolitical, but the point is to assess both the formal/informal lines that already existed and accept them as your operating terrain, and then intentionally set up situations to create lines between the dots that aren’t yet linked.  This applies to so many different issues: breaking racial barriers, creating a sense of community, acknowledging and using informal scenes and hangouts and friendships.  There is also the great idea of creating internal cross-pollenation in the organization not just by finding, using, and expanding the existing formal connections, but by having the different sub-units of the organization occasionally swap or overlap their formal work, or assigning people as “ambassadors” who split their time between two sub-units.

They also discussed the best practices of speaking smoothly with people and active listening.  I admit I did not entirely identify with the talk about being a good listener because I work in customer service/security, and most of the time I just want to rip people’s throats out with my fingernails.  I’m in a job where I don’t have to care so much if I offend “my” customers (and am even often required to), and besides if one thing is true on this earth it is the dark side.  Still, what kind of socialist group focuses on teaching people how to listen?  Most of them just focus on shoving their shit down your throat as loudly, repeatedly, and specifically as possible.  A socialist group that listens!  What a fucking idea!  Seriously, kudos to them for being an ethically better type of person than me.

Philly Socialists, for a non-party line group (again such groups are often ill-defined and naïve compared to their sectarian sisters), was shockingly self-conscious of its strategy and its goals.  They say they have a 40-year plan to build a national mass party, which is exactly the kind of thinking I believe the left needs.  Nietzsche said something like greatness is a long, terrible will.  Rock on.

The “retreat” was, however, physically abusive in a way similar to Left Forum 2013.  More sitting and listening than I can possibly handle.  For a group that values connecting each member with each other member partially by promoting informal interactions, there was surprisingly little time for that (though there was some).  I was so brainwiped by the session-after-session barrage that by the end of the day I took refuge in copious amounts of alcohol to the point of becoming blackout-drunk and apparently vomiting in front of everyone, wiping out on the ground, and being transported via placement on a tarp which required the strength of six men to relocate (not kidding, and I’ve even lost a lot of weight).  I vaguely remember trying to open a Dos Equis bottle with my index finger and still have the gashes.  My impressive ability to form coherent thoughts while under clinical braindeath continued (though I only know this secondhand), as I debated that being laid down in my tent would lead to fatality by vomit-choking.  I remember only the fun and none of the suffering so I suppose it worked out for me, though of course diplomatic relations between Philly Socialists and CUSP are hopelessly terminated.

The harrowing circumstances which led to my excesses, however, are an example of neglecting the needs of the movement’s bio-physical-psychological infrastructure: human beings.  It’s a shame because the organizers actually did a great job making sure we had food, toilet paper, etc, so in many ways actually attended to precisely those needs.  Still, the seeming appearance of the retreat as a camping trip-strategizing hybrid was almost entirely deceptive – it was a classic exhausting leftist conference which merely happened to be in the woods, and not a vacation at all.  I had to insist to even go hiking at Rickett’s Glen legendary waterfall trail, which was immediately nearby.  For anyone who knows what this means, I donned the horns, and even encountered a guy in a red Philmont shirt with the bull on it at the end of our hike, and there was much celebration.

Fucking cool people though, lots of techie nerds and Game of Thrones fans and diehard Reds with Third Period aesthetics, also a surprising number of sane people who are actually socially normal and personable, plus a decent gender balance, and congratulations to Philly Socialists for achieving the careful balance of being Millennial radicals without being disgusting hipsters.  (Or maybe we were just too focused on politics for them to show their true colors, but I have a decent eye for these things, and as far as I could tell, no.)

Singing the Internationale around a campfire while setting off fireworks and holding sparklers and being wasted, now that was seriously sweet.

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One thought on “Philly Socialists retreat experience: three cheers

  1. hey matt, i’m glad you made it out to the retreat and want to thank you for your contributions to the weekend. apropos relationships within the organization, you should definitely check out the section of that book on “multiplex” relationships. there is a lot of interesting research about the interplay of formal/informal relationships within networks and the effects they have on each other.

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