The strategic genius of the Philly Socialists’ Tenants’ Union

chatham court

Tenants and organizers facing off with building management at one of the tenants’ union’s first locations

The Need for Vehicles to Express Class Anger

The genius of the Philly Socialists’ Tenants’ Union (more on why I mention the connection to Philly Socialists later) stems from the need to wage class struggle while acknowledging the extreme difficulties of labor organizing and the extreme limitations of single-issue movements making demands on the state.

It’s 2016.  People have been livid about the economy and their living situation since 2009.  The Left has not done terribly much about it.  We had a big protest called Occupy Wall Street.  That faded.  We’re running this guy called Bernie Sanders.  I still support him but with him losing in New York, it’s looking like time for contingency plans, and we needed to find ways to continue that momentum regardless of the electoral result anyway.  Opinion has shifted dramatically toward socialism, I shouldn’t even have to link to the polls, but here anyway.  Check those “Under 30” stats.

However, we are horribly lacking in vehicles to actually fight class struggle beyond just building socialist groups on the basis of ideology alone (not that this isn’t worthwhile in itself).


Organizational Log-Jams

Traditionally the socialist Left in the USA has looked to the labor movement to be the organic expression of class struggle.  And yet this country’s union density is a joke, especially outside the public sector.  The amount of work stoppages per year has dropped so low that they’ve nearly stopped counting.

A lucky small set of people are positioned in the public sector or other trades to participate in the internal union politics, but most of us work in the non-union private sector, in a continuously shifting environment.  Some of the most public-interactive shops are the highest-turnover small shops.

We need a form of labor movement which the average person who has class anger (ie half of America or more) and wants to express it can get in on it without all these barriers – people who don’t work in the highly specific unionized sectors, people who can’t risk getting fired by trying to start a union in their own shop, etc.  Those who are positioned in the belly of union politics should take what they have and run, fighting within their union to improve it.  But we also need models of organizing for people who don’t have this.

Some examples of this already exist.  For example, the $15 minimum wage movement is one example.  In various places in the country, IWW activists have organized multi-workplace workers’ alliances and solidarity networks based on specific commercial corridors.  “In my view,” the Sanders movement also plays a similar role.

However each of these have limitations.  The Sanders campaign, win or lose, will end.  I respect the work of the IWW activists but we can’t ignore the fact that the organization is often cohered on a very flimsy and unclear political basis (it has a program of sorts but no one really enforces it consistently), leading to low stability and high turnover, and often more of a focus on moralism and dogma than pragmatic strategy.

As mentioned elsewhere, the $15 movement suffers from being a demand on the state.  The goal of the movement has often been to gain a base in low-wage workplaces themselves like fast food chains, but in practice it has tended instead toward being a campus-centered movement making demands on city councils.  This has led to a relative weakness of the movement overrelying on legislative alliances and weakening their own legislation, even unions exempting their own members, for the sake of a symbolic victory.

Anyway, what is needed is a movement centered on people’s units of daily economic circulation.  Even though $15 is a great class demand, it is usually targeted at governments.  When a movement revolves around a macro-institution to which most people are not directly connected (like their own job, housing, transit, school), the only people who tend to get involved are a student-and-activist crowd who tend to have the time, money, ideological background, and inclination to undertake activism.  It doesn’t help that the $15 demand is ambitious enough to be more of a mid-to-long-term demand in many places, rather than one that will succeed in the short term.

I have heard some socialists argue that “campuses are where the radicalization is” but I find this misguided.  Society is where the radicalization is at this point, and if we actually want to build a base for mass class struggle instead of an inward-looking activist scene, we can orient to non-students, former students, and centers of youth outside of college (ie “Millennials” ie “hipster enclaves”), in addition to colleges.

It’s true that the $15 movement could be pursued in a fashion more focused on base-building: it could focus more on the workplaces, but it could also pick specific institutions to target for a minimum wage, such as a specific company like McDonald’s, or specific local institutions like getting a $15 minimum wage for workers on certain campuses (since the movement already seems to have forces there anyway).  In some cases the movement is doing this.  And it’s not like I’m against the $15 movement – I go to the marches when I can.  I have always supported the demand unequivocally.  But I also see some of the shortcomings of the path there as I have seen it implemented.

So if there are issues with everything else, why does the tenants’ union work?


The Tenants’ Union

Tenant organizing involves less risk for participants.

Jobs aren’t widely perceived as human rights, but to kick someone out of their housing is seen as a very awful thing to do.  It’s much easier to get fired for union organizing than to get evicted for tenant organizing.  Laws tend to protect tenants more than workers.  Landlords are also culturally regarded as a more parasitic form of capitalist: business owners provide some kind of good or service, whereas landlords collect rent from merely owning land, in a throwback to feudalism.

Tenant organizing is accessible to anyone.

Most people don’t belong to a union or would find it nearly impossible to begin one.  Furthermore, there are large bureaucratic barriers to supportive non-members giving anything but the most passive support to unions they don’t formally belong to.  A tenants’ union is a wider movement which any tenant can involve themselves in, and where any activist can be directly welcomed into the organizing work of the union itself.

Tenants’ unions revolve around people’s units of daily economic circulation…

The rootedness of a tenants’ union in local fights around specific buildings and specific landlords ensures it does not get lost in the social democratic vortex of watering itself down in order to make itself electable.  It also, as stated above, engages ordinary people who would never before conceive of themselves as activists, who have no previous exposure to politics or ideology, and extend far beyond the usual campus-and-activist scene.

…while still allowing for citywide legislative battles.

Focusing on local struggles only can also come with its own disadvantages: the fight is never big enough for any kind of inspiring critical mass or major issues to be at stake, there is rarely any energizing cross-pollenation between different groups of people from different local struggles.  The dual nature of a tenants’ union in being based in both local struggles and citywide legislative campaigns allows it to stay anchored in a base of people motivated by working-class economic self-interest, while also having enough interaction with macro-politics to achieve and sustain larger momentums.

Rent control is a possibly-winnable, somewhat less ambitious demand.

Rent control is a slightly less ambitious demand than, say, a $15 minimum wage.  It simply asks that people’s rent stays the same rather than being hiked from lease to lease, rather than for some kind of huge increase in expense for the capitalist.  New York already has rent control so it’s not inconceivable it could spread to other East Coast cities and elsewhere.

Tenants’ union organizing is direct class struggle.

Poll after poll shows that since the Recession, the top issue of concern among the population has been the economy.  With many people’s incomes decreased or stagnating, everyone is feeling the squeeze.  Sanders went from being a sideshow freak to a main contender by relentlessly beating the drum of class anger, standard-of-living issues, and wealth inequality.  Fighting for tenants’ rights and rent control are directly relevant to the entire proletariat, from the lower-income and lumpenproletarian, to the working majority and white-collar slaves.  It affects housing issues we live with every day, and most importantly, the stakes often take the form of literal dollars and cents in people’s pockets, the most motivating thing of all.

It’s connected to Philly Socialists.

Several of Philly Socialists’ activities have been similar to serve-the-people projects and tenants’ unions that emerged in New York out of Occupy Wall Street, except they were largely connected only to the dwindling Occupy scene itself or to the informally-organized anarchist scene.  The obvious strength of Philly Socialists’ efforts, in comparison, is that they are connected to a socialist party-building effort, so that the organizing skills and accumulated resources don’t dwindle away or stay confined to movementism.  At some point we have to move beyond merely fighting bosses and landlords, and actually abolish them.  This is something that requires the construction an explicitly political and ideological organization, which has a vision of a new system that organizes economic activity at the social scale, rather than merely tearing authorities down.

being a post-apocalyptic radical

This is what all the video games are about: R(A)GE, Red Faction: Guerilla, Fallout to an extent, etc.  Maybe The Hunger Games too but I haven’t read it.  So this article is inspired by those, as well as the book Disrupted Cities.

This scenario would have the USA in a post-consumerist situation, where instead of the nation being one giant mass welded together by solid, saturated lines of production, distribution, and communication, the US would return to being more of a network of semi-self-reliant communities.

The strength of marxist revolution is typically in that it does not fight a war against the infrastructure, but attempts to galvanize the working class to fight over the infrastructure, against the infrastructure’s current owners.  In a situation where the infrastructure has been badly damaged, these assumptions might go out the window.

Rather than being a base-line assumption, advanced infrastructure might become the domain of the privileged.  In that scenario, attacks on the infrastructure could seem much more justified.

It is really impossible to know what any of us would do in a scenario of infrastructural collapse, much like the tough guys who say they’d fight to the death in the Holocaust.  However I think I would still counsel pro-infrastructure views.  I think I’d attempt to find ways of achieving political change which avoid damaging the remaining infrastructure, or even utilize the independent construction of infrastructure as a subversive force.

In this scenario we would have to understand both facets – both infrastructural development itself as progressive, and also the role of infrastructure in acting as a neo-feudalist Capitol City that uses its relative technological advancement as a launching pad for a physically-enforced domestic imperialism over the other communities.  What had once been simply the police and military, in a scenario of infrastructural fragmentation, become much more literally/obviously the Capitol’s occupation force.  The character of the managing force in both the Capitol(s) and the other communities would truly be a contemporary return to feudalism, with that managing force being alternately formed out of the old military/police, gangs (old and new), a community-generated military caste, or revolutionist guerrillas (who may not differ in practice very much from the rest, because of the low level of economics – good intentions can’t make food).

A technocratic element may occur as well, with certain practical specialists such as doctors, electricians, agricultural specialists or mechanics becoming all-important.  This is critical for marxists.  I think one of the primary tasks of marxists in a post-collapse scenario is to assist the process of infrastructural development.  That means find a mentor, or look for old-world information sources and become a specialist yourself.  It also means assisting the specialists as much as possible — become their errand-runner, find them materials they need, etc.  But of course there is also a political question: infrastructure for whom?  Obviously marxists must insist that the infrastructure be used to benefit all, though in survival situations, this may either be a non-argument (of course save everyone!) or impossible (we don’t even have enough to do that!).  More politically, I believe that the mere construction of infrastructure off the Capitol’s grid creates a pole of opposition.

Furthermore, any effort to fairly distribute resources – even a dearth of resources – will probably be far superior to what the Capitol is doing.  The Capitol will typically only attempt to maintain “order” in a military/policing sense without providing aid in any serious way, if US disaster response in Katrina and Haiti are any future indication.  So rather than just trying to get electricity back online, radicals should be part of post-collapse efforts to salvage supplies and distribute relief, as well – perhaps even initiating these networks.  The “Followers of the Apocalypse” from Fallout: New Vegas were a network of doctors and medical staff influenced by anarchism whose activities created a civil pole of opposition to the brutes of New Vegas, the Legion, the raiders, and the New California Republic.  However we don’t have to resort to fiction here.  The Black Panther Party got the entire federal government to start feeding children breakfast by doing it themselves first and causing embarrassment.  A food distribution network which Philly Socialists was part of caused such a ruckus that the Philly city government attempted to ban open-air food distribution!  And then of course there is Occupy Sandy, the hurricane response team which de-legitimized the state by providing more immediate relief.

So should we simply fight the Capitol with guerrilla warfare, until it keeps to itself and the rest of the land is left to a sort of anarchy?  Or should we fight for revolution and re-organization within the Capitol, recasting it from an oppressive center to a gem and hub of economic, cultural, and technological progress?

This would really depend on what exactly the Capitol was like.  If the Capitol was little more than a glorified military base, serving only a repressive role, then it really ought to be destroyed entirely, with the hope of future progress falling to the rest of the communities.  If a Capitol merely becomes an economic center and doesn’t oppress anyone, then it’s a completely different story; rather than oppose it, marxists should then join it, operate politically within it, and become part of the next Renaissance.  Another possibility is that the Capitol be a confused hybrid of both military and infrastructural power.  The critical point here would be the forging of personal, organizational, and military links between the Capitol and non-Capitol resistance.  Internal sabotage would be an extension of countryside guerrilla warfare.  The brave resistance of the guerrillas would inspire the truly more critical Capitol resistance.  Because people in low levels of infrastructure and emergency-mode often forego democracy, let alone socialism, the political resistance inside the Capitol will often take the form of a pro-democracy rebellion against martial law (though the authorities may be careful to pretend that the martial law is democracy).  In fact, resistance in the center is so vitally important that post-collapse marxists should strongly consider relocating to the Capitol.  Whether resistance in the Capitol becomes a matter of urban guerrilla insurrectionism, or organizing and civil mass-protest, depends largely on what kind of Capitol you’re up against; the civil route gains importance in proportion to the more developed the Capitol is, and the larger the number of civilians living there.  Of course one strategy may bleed into the other (literally), but it’s important to build legitimacy by attempting civil methods first.  The closer the Capitol is to re-attaining modernity, the more we should use modern (civil) methods.  If we are dealing with not simply a Capitol but an entire developed region (New California Republic), then it makes sense to pursue classic civilian-only organizing, just on a more microcosmic scale, and possibly even opposing the imperialism of your own region with the post-collapse version of a domestic antiwar movement.  The Maoist idea of Protracted People’s War, with guerrillas and protesters being all part of one resistance, makes sense in post-collapse, in a way that it does not make sense in the contemporary USA.

The USA would be plunged into the dilemmas faced by third-world revolutionaries such as Maoists or even to an extent the Russian Revolution.  Can you build socialism without an already-existing strong/industrialized economic foundation?  Can you have a political faction who believes in socialism take over the state, be as humane and democratic as possible for now, while leading that society toward infrastructural development which would make a country more properly socialist, in the classic Marxist sense?  It would certainly be more progressive than leaving the old state in place, but ultimately the revolutionary political faction would face the problem of itself becoming a new ruling class (orthodox Trotskyist dogmatism aside, as if bureaucrats cannot be rulers, what idiocy).  Ultimately that new ruling class would probably have to be overthrown later down the line, like the Chinese Communist Party.  But was the Chinese (or Cuban) revolution progressive, despite the troubling trajectory of attempting socialism in a country that isn’t even capitalist?  Despite my libertarian tendencies, I think it was at least progressive, if not properly socialist.

What all of this really underscores is that we should be thankful we live in times of rampant development, where more and more of the third world is brought online into capitalist commodity production rather than pre-capitalist family agriculture, and many of the first-world countries are not only super-productive but are even “over-productive” to the point that they have more output than they can sell.  We should not entertain stupid ideas of a “revocalypse.”  Of course the revolution will feel apocalyptic; it will feel like an All-Overthrowing Reckoning.  But it’s important to attack the power structure, not the infrastructure.

for a new organization to even function

In order for a new organization to even function, it has to alienate impractical people and disruptors from the start, by rejecting impractical methods and keeping out disruptors (by getting security to bar them at the front gate, or by doing it yourself).  In fact I think this is so critical that leaders and administrators should feel the responsibility to do it without needing democratic approval, because once again, without these measures, a new organization will not even be able to function.

(Disruptors can mean different things but what I have in mind right now are people whose entire political method is to make denunciations and high-horse differentiations…of course it can also be more obvious, like people who start shouting over everyone else at a meeting and do not stop, or people who are so ridiculous or hostile that they are repellent to most newcomers who then avoid the group.)

Also, from the start, you have to alienate the people who disagreed with the impractical people and disliked the disruptors, but still believe that the idealists deserved a compromise and the disruptors should have been tolerated.

So from the start you already create a bad taste with (1) impractical people (2) disruptors (3) middle-ground fallacy people who give too much credit to the first two, and want to treat them with kid gloves.

To be clear, only disruptors should be barred from the start.  Impractical people should merely have their proposals debated against and defeated democratically.  However, if you fail to do this, the new organization will quickly become completely paralyzed and collapse, triggering demoralization and cynicism among anyone involved.  So you have a responsibility to make these arguments and make them hard.

Depending on the venue, for example if you cannot yet meet in person, democratic debate is not really democratic but is really more like a spat between a few people in one-at-a-time communications that cannot possibly represent a group decision.  In this case, the leaders should just make the decision that is practical, which actually allows the organization to even exist, and if anyone really is so horrified by this, then they are completely free to independently pursue the group’s goals by their own methods if they must.

What you realize is that #3 is actually a softer subcategory of #1, and if impractical people are too insistent they effectively become disruptors, by leaning too hard on some high-horse principle instead of cutting through the radical fads to the red meat that will actually attract the working majority.

my Left Forum 2013 misadventure

Left Forum 2013!  You’ve all been DYING to hear my thoughts, I’m sure!  This is how I pretend I’m not a loser at a keyboard screaming into the void.  So stay faithful and true, my hypothetical audience.

First and foremost, I faced two fitting contradictions.  (1) The Left Forum was about “Economic and Ecological Transformation,” and I could not economically afford the hotels in the area.  (2) The Left Forum was about “Economic and Ecological Transformation,” and a ridiculous storm was halting me from getting there until almost a day late.  So the forum, whatever its other shortcomings, was topical.  I was broke, and messed-up nature was messing me up in turn.

Also I should preface that this was my first Left Forum, and previously the only comparable things I had attended were the National Conference on Organized Resistance (NCOR) in DC when I was an anarchist teenager, and the ISO’s Socialism national and regional conferences.  I went to a lot more of the ISO’s stuff, maybe a total of seven or so, and I will write about how the Left Forum and the ISO events compare elsewhere.

So my trip up is already complicated by things like sleep (I work night shift) and I was made late to my train because apparently towns change the names to streets without Google Maps ever being informed.  But after hours of white-knuckle speeding in which I used Sith mind domination on police officers in order to evade tickets and infinite train boredom, I arrive.

Oh, the sheer dark side power of New York City!  I’m sorry Philadelphia, maybe I’m not meant for you.  In Philly, despite it being one of America’s top five largest cities, it still has really no place where there is a continual flow of foot traffic, just spurts of pedestrians here and there.  In lower Manhattan, I could literally not find a sidewalk that was not uncomfortably crowded.  It was hard to find a place to walk, the subways were more crowded, people kept bumping into each other, and I got this sense that everyone was just slightly more pissed off than they are anywhere else.  Like when I ask people for help they give it, with seeming good intentions, but curtly and gruffly like I sort of annoyed them by even asking even though they know I mean no harm.  Also I heard possibly almost as much Spanish and unidentified Asian being spoken as English, and I’m sure that kind of cross-cultural mish-mash in an environment that’s already a pressure cooker can really piss off the white racists and lead to all sorts of hostility and tension.  When I asked some New Yorkers about the city’s sinister air, they began trying to justify and explain it, and I had to clarify, no – I like it.

So it’s a short walk from the World Trade Center PATH stop to Pace University, home of the Left Forum.  And oh no, it begins.  These fucking people start bombarding me with “literature.”  Literature, so much fucking literature shoved in my face that I took it all home and had a fire in my backyard.  I’m not kidding, I just did that today.  Most of it was just a “Maoist” (Bob Avakian) analysis of this or that, so much of it was socialist newspapers that all say the same shit and I already read on the Internet anyway.  I’m there on a mission to promote socialist convergence so I don’t want to offend people by refusing their papers, but deep down I just really do not want their fucking papers, and most of the time the “deep down” part of me won out.

There was an unfriendly “volunteer” making me wait too long to even get the door and get my nametag which would allow me in and out of the door.  My nametag was premade which sucked, because I wanted to write Saturn instead of my real name because really most people at the Forum who already knew of me know me as Saturn because Internet.

Oh yeah – I met a lot of people in person who I have only known via Facebook or whatever.  Pretty much none of them looked precisely how I expected, even though Facebook has pictures.  Weird.

The way the Forum was organized was curious.  Often times each panel was organized by one of the specific Leftist groups.  This was odd; rather than it being a united forum, this often made it feel as if it was just a bunch of meetings by individual groups which happened to be in the same building, with much of the self-segregation of the Left persisting.  That would be an overstatement, though; it had more cross-pollenation than really any event I’ve ever seen.  Especially at North Star panels, since North Star doesn’t really have members and just tended to host people of various opinions.

So a lot of my problems with Left Forum were summarized by this one panel, “Occupy and the Future of the Left.”  It involved Frances Fox Piven, who wrote a good book once and has this great thesis about how disruption and attack are necessary but is pretty much a useless academic who IMO has writings which can too easily be interpreted to mean a dismissal of organization.  It also involved Joe Schwartz, a Temple professor I’d frequently encountered at Occupy Philly who is consistently the best speaker of whatever events he’s at simply because he discusses the standard of living and class warfare in detailed, empirical, statistical terms (see Red Meat).  Schwartz also made fun of Stalinists by saying his mother was such a ridiculous hardliner, that she thought the only thing wrong with the USSR was Gorbachaev.

Present was none other than Bhaskar Sunkara, editor of Jacobin magazine, who is a fine fellow but honestly I was a little disappointed with.  I think that deep in his heart he is a revolutionist but he turned out to be much more of a Social Democrat in person than he ever seems to be in his writing.  (Ah, hell, maybe I was just hoping that and his writings totally give it away.)  But the real disappointing thing was, despite his/Jacobin’s call for socialist regroupment AKA a re-merger, he seemed pessimistic in general.  He did not seem to think the forces exist to even bother with such an attempt, which is the opposite of my own opinion.

Partially implied and partially explicitly stated, it seems the only “solution” he really offers is some kind of socialist entrance into the Democratic Party, which is actually not a solution, but our biggest problem.  Sunkara also pissed me off by saying “I don’t have the answers, and I wouldn’t trust anyone who claims to.”  He wasn’t the only one to say that – many other panelists and academics said the same useless shit.  You know what?  We sit here and listen to you for hours.  In fact in some cases you’re a professor who gets paid to have answers for society, and what’s worse, not just paid to do that, but paid by public tax dollars.  We sit here and patiently listen.  You get paid.  What, do you think you’re being cool and hip with your non-committal stance?  FUCK YOU, I DON’T TRAVEL FOUR HOURS TO HEAR PHILOSOPHICAL WANDERINGS, I DO IT TO GET SOME ANSWERS.  I DO IT BECAUSE SOMEONE SHOULD PROVIDE ME WITH A PLAN FOR ACTION, THAT AS A CONSCIOUS BEING I CAN JUDGE AND ACCEPT OR REJECT FOR MYSELF.  YOU USELESS TURD.  This is not really directed at Sunkara but the whole of the Left Forum.

Let me be clear, however, that Bhaskar was actually a fairly funny fellow and certainly not the biggest disappointment of the panel.  One of the biggest disappointments was the hyper-authoritarian format which Sunkara actually opposes, as he brought up on a different panel.  It was Question and Answer, meaning that after an hour of listening to four different panelists talk, every single question (or typically comment as people gave the rules the finger) was followed by panelist response – sometimes all the panelists.  At this panel, only seven people from the audience spoke!!!  But, as for Sunkara’s shining moment: when some sectarian from the audience (more on them later) started screaming at Sunkara about how Social Democrats (which seems to include all socialist groups but the speaker’s own) are the spawn of Satan and other stupid epithets, and went on to list the Social Democrats’ historic crimes, Sunkara said in a completely even voice and straight face, “Actually you’re forgetting the worst thing we’ve done.  We killed Rosa Luxemberg.”  I think me and my friend Tom were the only people in the audience who understood that Sunkara was trolling and burst out into hysterics.  Oh, world…smh.

However, the worst part of that panel was none of that.  It was this one piece of shit guy from the magazine Tidal, which seems to be the literary incarnation of Occupy Wall Street’s NYC remnant.  Having lost its mass character, Occupy is now a roach infestation of the worst type of verbose, pretentiously-worded anarcho-postmodernists.

Of course, it also happens to be that one of my college roommates, Mike Tracey, ran a lame leftist magazine that I really should not have helped start.  And of course this roommate also liked making political speeches in extremely pretentious language with lots of aimless meandering, and had annoying politics, and of course, of course this guy looked EXACTLY like my roommate Mike Tracey down to that fucking beard, and I really had to double check to make sure it actually was not him.  But apparently no, the world just makes copies of certain kinds of people, and I have yet to meet my own clone (besides my father), but I am sure when that actually happens we will see what happens when an immovable object meets an unstoppable force.

So this guy spoke so pretentiously and meaninglessly, and the little that came out clearly was so fucking stupid and politically useless or counterproductive, that I really want to just take his head and smack it on his podium again and again, and I think the audience near me knew I felt this way.  Sometimes in the past I felt this way about Mike Tracey, and the whole thing felt oddly like home.  The redeeming quality, though, was that a woman from the audience resembling Roseanne Barr started screaming at him that his magazine is sectarian because it only allows a strictly horizontalist perspective, whereas she and, as she rightfully claimed, many people in New York’s working class would have preferred a more clear, efficient, majority-democratic structure that would allow 9-to-5ers to actually participate.  She made this rant clearly and articulately and with furious indignant righteous justice, to audience applause.  It felt like the assholes who ran Occupy into the ground finally getting their comeuppance.  Apparently her project is called OccuEvolve.

Let me again state that the Q&A format is really horrible and undemocratic.  The panelists get to talk enough; other than perhaps a closing at the end, the rest of the time should belong to the audience forming its own democratic dialogue, with comments not questions (which must inherently revolve around the panelists).  Because of the harsh limit on the amount of audience speakers, half of the few who squeaked in ended up being screaming sectarians there only to denounce everything.

Those freaking sectarians need to be physically driven out of the movement.  Also I’m not sure if I classify the Avakianist RCP in the same category, but it’s pretty close.  I’m really just not sure if anyone can take the Left seriously if there is actually a group walking around talking about their glorious leader Bob Avakian.  Seriously, they never even stated why Avakian was so great; they just dropped his name a lot and hoped it would stick?  I understand if you have some attraction to Maoism; Mao was a pretty serious dude who came to power over a whole giant country, and Maoism has some interesting theories which make it unique from any other school of Marxism.  Okay I get that.  But this whole unsubstantiated promotion of Avakian just makes you look god damn ridiculous, and makes the rest of us look ridiculous too, for even standing near you or breathing the same air.  I think the Left needs to be beaten into a shape that will cause the working majority to actually identify with it, and that beating may sometimes have to be literal.  These people need to go away, and to feel like it’s not physically safe for them to come back, it’s the only way.

Back to reality: I was going to stay at my cousin’s, and he was going to let me into his place.  Well my cousin fell asleep.  I called him four times and couldn’t get in.  I started panicking and looked for hotels in the area.  The only one within walking distance was $220 per night for last-minute walk-ins, which a $9/hr slave such as myself simply cannot do.  I seriously considered finding an alley to sleep in.  Finally I just started yelling up at my cousin’s window until it woke his him up and he let me in.  The transaction was fast.  I gave him the promised beer.  He showed me around.  I showered, otherwise hygiened, and slept.  I woke and left before he was even awake.  So it goes.

A lot of the rest is really incidental and episodic.  I’d been handling out Socialist Convergence Campaign quarter-sheets that say “We need an American SYRIZA!”  During a third party strategy panel, a guy sitting next to me grabbed one and wrote on the back “I am in NY SYRIZA.”  I gave him the that-makes-literally-no-sense-face until he explained to me that he’s Greek and NYC has a SYRIZA chapter for Greek immigrants.  He took my number, word up.  I met a lot of the North Star crew, and had a really great conversation with Dario.  I was really impressed by Tim Horras’ knowledge of third party history, too; really it was beastly.

I also met Carl Davidson, whose event I had sort of accidentally trolled on Facebook, but we could at least be civil.  He is/was way too much of a Democrat for my liking but made a good point about how the Left is going nowhere until every leftist knows what a precinct captain knows: everyone in your neighborhood, their names, their birthdays, their problems, whether they are registered to vote, if they’re not registered how likely is it you could get them to register, “plus/minus/zero” (are they for your/against you/neutral)?  Despite my disagreements with a good deal of his politics, he dropped a quotable that really sums up where I am in politics and life: “We can’t achieve socialism through elections, but we can only achieve it through elections, that is, by utilizing them and exhausting them in the eyes of the public.”

I had good conversations with members of Socialist Alternative and the Green Party, one of whom promised to give me training in the law and process of working in elections, and made an NJ contact with the Greens that way.  I had some awkward run-ins with New York ISOers, the tendency I just recently quietly exited, but it was more awkward silence than any kind of hostility.  My old organizer Shaun Harkin had a nice chat though.  He ran an apparently awesome panel on Thatcher and the Irish which I had to skip because of a third party strategy panel, but for anyone wondering from my old school TCNJ, Shaun Harkin is still a babe, and let me be clear that I’m a straight guy…mostly…except when I’m around Shaun Harkin…  I learned some disturbing things about climate change, like the OECD says that even though capitalism is actually lifting some of the global population out of poverty, the environmental catastrophe which is inevitable with our current CO2 emissions will wipe out any such gains by driving 2-3 billion people back into deep poverty.  I got to see an old acquaintance Mike McCabe also tear Occupy’s silliness a new one and put forward a better, more realistic model for how to build the Left.  He mocked consensus: if it can’t manage a movement, or even a single decision, how can it manage a society?  He described its time-consuming, impractical nature as a “dystopian utopia.”

But still, something was missing…



I was hoping that more people at the Left Forum would identify with the strategy I was putting forward.  Actually no, I was hoping for more – I was hoping that people who had previously made noises about regroupment or convergence before, like Jacobin and North Star, would bring it up first and I could be a voice in support.

No, turns out that nobody brought it up, I always had to break the ice, and in the tiny 90-second increment I was typically given to speak, I could never really bring it up in a sophisticated way.  This caused many people to dismiss my introduction of socialist convergence as “oh just another noobie who would feel good if everybody got together” and not as an actually complex position based on the need for socialists to project visibility and the historical irrelevance that results from their fragmentation, a rift that cannot be healed by merely collaborating in movements.

The darkness bless Jodi Dean for being the only one who backed me up in person.  Read her piece here.

Pretty much every group that I hoped would bring up regroupment either didn’t even bring it up, or worse, as in Sunkara’s case, actually made the ridiculous claim that a third party would be premature.  Of course the speakers of the existing socialist groups either said the same thing or trotted (perhaps Trot-ted) out the tired old line that groups with different ideas and methods can’t work together.

One of my SCC compatriots has helped me come to a certain conclusion about that.  Socialist leaders say “build movements” as if to say “never you mind the big picture, little grunt, leave that to the experts.”  This is comparable to the method of union bureaucrats who tell their organizers and members to focus on doing organizing work and to never question anything strategic such as organizing style, or party politics issues like the Democrat alignment.

It is an emphasis on struggle, which seems productive but goes ultimately nowhere without the right kind of organization to carry it to an expansionist, confrontational, or revolutionary conclusion.

It is an emphasis on just building their current organization, instead of questioning where that whole project is going – isn’t that just supposed to be a subfaction of some larger formation, and not forever remain a freestanding organization unto itself?  It’s it completely ridiculous to think it will bloom into a mass party by itself, rather than just being a catalyst for one?

So the strategies provided by the entire combined panelists of the Left Forum involved the following three ideas: (1) reject the horizontalist silliness of Occupy (2) build movements (3) build one of the existing fragmented hyper-opinionated socialist groups.

I agree with the first two, anyway, but they still don’t answer the question of organization.  In fact the first two are so obvious to anyone who has been in the movements that they hardly even need stating.  Across the entire Left Forum, really then, the question of strategy went entirely unanswered.  All in all, the leaders failed to lead.

The only remotely sane line being put forward came from the Green Party, who is at least trying to fill the vacuum even if it’s with liberal-progressivism, and Socialist Alternative, who is also at least running in elections, even if they’re probably trying to become The Electoral Alternative themselves with the other socialist groups in tow and not as partners.  Still, their ambition does us all good by actually getting the race for socialist electoralism kicked off.

Is that not enough for you?  Yeah, it’s definitely not enough for me either.  Check out the Socialist Convergence Campaign, and maybe get involved.

Physically evict the sectarians

So it’s one thing, when some trolls come onto your webpage or whatever, and they start screaming about how their specific Fourth International is the One, the True, the Only, and start wailing about how all socialist groups are fake socialists and social democrats and take the wrong position on Syria etc.

Typically there’s only so much damage they can do, and then you can ban them with a click of your mouse or two.  Easy peasy.

It is, of course, important that you actually do make those few clicks and purge them out.  This is because any leftists who want to bring new people on board (which is the whole idea) will have their whole project stymied by the shitstorm caused by the shitheads.  New people get confused – is there a grain of truth to their screamed, scathing insults?  Do I even want to be in an environment where people are so counterproductive and denunciatory?  Should I get out while I can?

Of course the groups which the sectarians attack are typically nowhere near as denunciatory and hostile as the sectarians who are on the offensive, even if they do get critical of each other, as Left groups often do excessively.  However, new people can often be so shell-shocked by the negativity (and not just negativity, but futile fratricidal negativity) that they don’t discriminate as to whose fault the bickering is, and prefer to simply remove themselves from the situation.

But what about in-person events and environments where these idiots pull the same shit?

I write this coming out of the 2013 Left Forum, which already did not lend itself very well to discussion from the “audience.”  However, this was made all the worse by the fact that, in the few tiny slots when the audience members were permitted to get a word in edgewise, the persistent little sectarians made sure to take the mic and immediately spend it on vigorously denouncing the speakers and, often as not, any socialist group who happened to be prevalent even if not related to the topic of conversation.  This often included but was not limited to DSA, the ISO, SPUSA, Solidarity, the Green Party, and Socialist Alternative, all of whom I include on my axis of sanity.

If I was a new leftist, and I witnessed the shrill counterproductive yelps of these Sparts and Spart clones, I would march out in disgust and not come back.  Like Ben Campbell of North Star, I’d throw my hands in the air and wash them of all you time-wasting neurotic fucks.

Actually truth is, I’ve been a radical leftist for ten years, and a half-decent organizer for six, and I still don’t really want to go back to the Left Forum, a big reason being these fucking sectarian shitheads.

As usual, there is one solution: revolution.

On the Internet, we can remove the sectarians with the click of a button.  In person, it will take some shoving.

Yes, I am serious, we should treat them as almost comparable to the neo-Nazis who sometimes protest our events or pollute our streets.  We should get them out of here.

First we have to be clear about something.  Is anyone who disagrees with you a sectarian?  No.  Is anyone who splits their group or asserts their needs to start a new, small group a sectarian?  Well, technically maybe, but they’re not the harmful people that I’m talking about.  Debate is not what should be stifled, because you can debate in an even tone.  It’s true, some criticisms need to be made, and as long as you can objectively balance what is wrong with certain groups or people, with the fact that they are indeed a leftist and contribute somehow, then it’s fair game.  Even if you think the division is so fundamental that they belong somewhere else (perhaps Democrats for example), you can explain that to everyone calmly and may indeed make your point better that way.   By sectarian I mean the people who come to events for the sole purpose of attacking, discrediting, and yelling at other groups, not every poor bastard tabling outside, and if you go to these events, you will sure know who I am talking about when you see them.

So now that we know who we’re talking about, are they really that bad?  Well, think about it.  Who does more damage to the Left on a routine basis, denying it recruits and causing it internal trauma and fatigue?  The neo-Nazis, who have not yet assembled a commie-smashing army and rarely even do anything, or the sectarians, who poison and demoralize our every single event?

Correct answer: the sectarians.

Sometimes security or the police are around.  This may preclude us from getting our British football hooligan club together for physically dragging them out.  In such a case, there’s still tons of harassment we can do!  We can grab their shitty papers out of their hands and throw them in the trash – they’re already shoving them in our faces, it will be easy enough.  We can flip their tables over and watch all their denunciatory pamphlets scatter across the ground like 52-card pickup.  If we can’t touch them with our hands, we can at least bring out the water balloons and supersoakers, maybe involve some paint.  We can dance around them in circles singing “Pop Goes the Weasel.”  Later, away from the eyes of the authorities, we can beat the shit out of them the way they have historically been known to physically attack us when they could.  We can locate and invade their meetings and disrupt them for a change.  We can break their willingness, and their organizational ability, to ever show up and scare the public away from our events ever again.

The sectarians are in a constant war with us and have been for a long time.  It’s time we fired back, and not with words, which is just playing their game.  Time we actually owned the space in our own fucking house and enforced it with our bodies.

Will this process be pretty?  No, it will be ugly.  It may be just as bad, or worse than, the sectarian harassment in terms of traumatizing new people and scaring them away.  But this is a temporary purge against a historic problem.  In order to gain a widespread audience, people are going to have to be able to take the Left seriously.  That means our meetings can’t be contaminated by haters and wreckers.  It has to have a rebirth in fire, and swat away the flies.

Besides, it will be totally fun and you know you want to anyway.

Edit: someone wisely pointed out that, if it’s your private event, maybe you can just get security to escort them out.  Less fun but something to consider.

democratic centralism: is speech an action?

So the typical line among groups which employ democratic centralism is: freely debate, follow the majority decision in action.

First, I agree with this method only some of the time.  Groups need to pick essential issues over which there is unity in action, and others around which disparate or even opposing action is permitted.  For example, the US group Solidarity apparently had two different positions on the Syrian civil war.  I’m totally okay with that.  Variation of opinion is normal, natural, healthy.  Not every difference in opinion has to be followed by a split in organization; otherwise you get this.

However, sometimes there are critical issues around which united action is necessary.  What are they?  How do we pick which is which?  As a rule of thumb, I tend to favor issues directly related to class warfare and spreading radical ideas.  But people may have different ideas of what is critical, and that can be democratically debated and decided.

I’ve been in a group that uses democratic centralism and let me tell you, sometimes there are so many unwritten rules over what stance you are obligated to take on every issue that the range of debate is pretty microscopic and meaningless.  Maybe that’s a separate issue?

But anyway, if democratic centralism means “free debate, unity in action,” there’s a big issue.  So much of politics is itself speech!  We, the working majority, do not own and control the means of production.  For now we have nothing to govern, neither businesses nor governments.  So when we are debating what to do, often it is simply a matter of figuring out what criticism of the system we are raising for maximum resonance with the general population or whatever subset demographic we may be honing in on.

There becomes an issue: what, precisely, does democratic centralism govern?  Does it govern the coordinated speech of a group — its publications, websites, printing presses, its sponsored books?  I suppose it does govern demonstrations, which while speech, are the closest thing to an “action” that left activists can really perform to alter society’s ideas.  (I tend to be dismiss low-numbers “direct action” because we’re not exactly at the stage where “attacking the state” makes any economic sense, and the best way to develop strength and credibility with the overall population is large events which are inclusive by not focusing on illegal activities.  This is a numbers game.)

But what about when a democratic-centralist decision creates a situation where you are not even allowed to bring things up in discussion?

Something like this recently happened with the British SWP, where the leadership pretty much issued a gag order on discussions of the sexual assault scandal.  But then to be fair, I’m not sure the gag order specifically was truly a “democratic centralist” decision, or just a centralist-only command sent down from the bureaucracy.

This would be a clear example of democratic centralism governing even the individual speech of its members.

To be fair I think some speech should be discouraged, you know, like the n-word.  I don’t really know what kind of leftist you are if you’re cool with that; that’s just obvious baseline shit.

But I don’t know how an organization is ever supposed to be democratic if members are discouraged from campaigning for a certain position within the organization, both within their localities and across the inter/national network.  Again this may be where the law of unstated rules comes into play: if you are formally allowed to do something, but there is such a strong organizational culture against doing it, then it’s not actually allowed.

Sometimes it may even go to the point of publicly, not “internally,” disagreeing with your group.  After all, these are the tactics that leninist groups tend to use on everyone else: air their dirty laundry, create mass pressure from both within and outside the group.  It seems most “leninist” groups (though I think they misinterpret leninism) will tolerate this approach against anyone but themselves.  This article gives a very good idea of the way “internal” speech was actually handled by the bolsheviks (by granting it full freedom and making everything public) and serves as a good guideline for organizing today.