Beginner’s Kata: uncensored stray thoughts on revolutionary organization, by J. Sakai
“Beginner’s mind” is a zen phrase. It reminds us that when we first took this path as beginners, we approached it almost with awe. Self-conscious of knowing so little—knowing nothing, really—we were open for seeing anything. Aware mostly of how unimportant our own little knowledge was. But as we became much more experienced, even became “expert,” it was different. We could separate useful from scrap, what we judge is good from bad, so automatically we hardly needed to pause over it. Our journey became a polished routine. And now we sometimes ask ourselves, is it still a journey?
i was reminded of “beginner’s mind” all over again once, in a very different context. Accidentally tuning past an ongoing discussion between a few marxists and anarchists about the pros and cons of leninism vs. “horizontal” spontaneity in revolutionary organization. It was like people at a dinner party having a familiar argument across the room from you. You can’t catch everything being said, but you know where it’s going anyway.
Seems that every culture has strange traditions. Seemingly illogical , ritual ways of approaching some things. Guess it’s just human. As in the Japanese cartoon world we know as anime, the artistic convention is that the characters are pictured as Caucasians, even though the artists and audience are Japanese. (Critics here guess maybe respecting their art’s origins in the fandom for imported u.s. comic books during the post-1945 Occupation?)
Our left subculture, like in that discussion on leninism & revolutionary organization, is as strange as that. Instead of centering on actual organizations we ourselves might have experimented with, learned from or fought against, by cultural convention the debate often uses the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the conflicting stalinist and anarchist experiences of the 1937 Spanish Civil War as its framework. So discussions on a key subject are familiarly conducted at a remove—using the puppetry of actors and scenarios from almost a century ago, on a different continent; none of it in our living memory or knowledge. This is still a serious political discussion, just as Paris couture fashions are still seriously-intended clothing. But both are heavily stylized and artificial, for unspoken class purposes?
Someone in that small discussion pointed out that leninism and his kind of command organization had played such a large role to this day in modern revolutionary politics, that whether it was negative or positive, good or bad in someone’s opinion, it should be better understood. Unfortunately, put me down as more than skeptical on this.
Only yesterday i had said the exact same thing. But hearing it played back again in someone else’s voice, realized that i don’t really expect it to happen. Useful idea, abstractly, but the left in this country has never been able to successfully do this one specific thing about understanding revolutionary organization, not in a hundred years. Neither anarchists nor marxists. So why would you expect it to happen now? Is it that we’re much smarter all of a sudden? Is everyone more interested in leninism now?[Those words might sound like i’m either dissing Lenin or dissing revs in this country. No, not at all. But his politics have been untranslatable here, because of the complex barrier which divides our realities. Same reason so many people don’t understand his Russian predecessor, the anarchist Bakunin. If time allows, we might touch lightly on this at another turn down the road.]
This is a singular moment in the struggle, where the old left from the 1960s-70s has finally gone, and where the wind-shaken leafs of brand new radicalisms have begun to sprout up, fragile yet driven. As generations go on and off stage, and society is transformed once again by the leap in the means of economic production & distribution. This is a space in the transition between different historic epochs, in the simultaneous unnatural flowering/world collapse of capitalist civilization. Still, in a brutal continental u.s. empire of some 325 millions, it is only ordinary that there are numbers of radical people as well as different groups with revolutionary ideas. But if only temporarily, there is no revolutionary organization yet which is strong enough to impress its ideas upon mainstream politics.
Everyone who has been around radical protest activity for awhile has heard left organizational ideas—anarchist, social-democratic, old marxist-leninist, maoist, eco-survivalist, whatever. To me the first question isn’t any longer which ideas are “best”—which is how the organization question is usually framed—but how true or useful are the assumptions on which our discussions are based? Where are we really when we start to navigate our course?
What i am trying to do here is not to argue one organizational form or another, but to examine how we think about revolutionary organization. What the framework is around everything. To examine how our easy acceptance of so many assumptions could throw us forward or off-track. Because, at least to me, there’s a big gap between the reality and our superficial talk about the shape of revolutionary organizations to come.
So how much have we learned about revolutionary organization? In practical terms, in one way personally i know a lot (certainly much more than we would ever want to spill in public), but in another way i don’t know near enough. Maybe like the backyard guy you know who fixes cars, but isn’t good enough to get a real mechanic’s job at the dealership? So, not nearly enough. But here’s a handful anyway, right or wrong, tossed into the pot, my share towards what we need for starters.
i know that marxist-leninists here are supposed to know so much about this subject, but don’t.
In my political lifetime i’ve seen what felt like dozens of primarily middle-class, white and asian M-L collectives, organizations and so-called parties started in the metropolis, this u.s. empire , and none of them to my knowledge have been successful. That’s a zero. At one point almost the entire, ex-college asian-american movement on the West Coast and New York City emptied itself into fiercely warring “Marxist-Leninist-Mao-Tse-Tung-Thought party-building” organizations and collectives of one kind or another. All long gone now. Most 1960s-70s M-L organizations quickly disappeared. A few “Trotskyist” sects unfortunately lasted it felt like forever, like those fabled cockroaches briskly going about their business immune to the glowing levels of radioactivity in a post-holocaust world (when i think of those groups, there’s a reason a mental picture of radioactive cockroaches comes into my mind).
If you started early enough way back then, we even saw “pragmatic” social-democratic organizations with their yearning for the wealthy welfare state of nice civilian mice sharing the cheese, come and then go in the blink of an eye. Their coming on in the late 1950s was the little stirring before the much larger wave of radical rebellion in the 1960s. Historically a more European than a u.s. empire phenomena, but with Globalization’s merciless neo-liberalism, more and more people are wanting a full frontal welfare state as their best alternative to mass middle-class flight to Canada. In the 2016 “Bernie” breakthrough, that utopian socialist-capitalist reformism became a progressive “happening.” Yeah, been there, done that. Although for this particular discussion it actually lies outside our map, outside the actual combat zone of decisions about revolutionary organization.
i think that we all know scraps of things, but in practice today don’t know enough to do anything successful about revolutionary organization. Which is one good reason why we aren’t doing it.
One big obstacle to us learning more is our habit of covering up our ignorance. Uncle Mao used the term “invincible ignorance” to identify the self-protective reflex of too many leftists. Shying away from bluntly analyzing the political things that they needed to experience. Clinging to the polishing and re-polishing of “classic” politics in order to avoid the humbling uncertainties of the ever-changing struggle.
A typical old example to me was when famous poet Amiri Baraka & Co. formed their would-be “Maoist” party, the LRS (League of Revolutionary Struggle). One of my asian comrades was a member, and pressing me to join up. So i asked her why their would-be “party” would succeed, when Bob Avakian’s RCP, and the Beijing-officially-endorsed October League, and most of the other 1970s “Maoist“ pre-party groups had fallen face-first into the pavement? ( Hard as it may be to believe now, many thousands of young activists had poured into these M-L party-building groups, which had then promptly evaporated in one of the most striking radical happenings of the Sixties generation. i mean, Charles Manson left a bigger footprint ).
“Because they had bad politics and we have good politics”, my asian comrade simplemindedly answered me, completely confident . That sort of left me speechless. Is mercy killing allowed in the movement, i wondered? (guess not, or i would have been cold stone buried ages ago.) Sadly, it isn’t true that there’s a special goddess to protect the clueless.
The old Marxist left here was like an aircraft manufacturer, whose elite, university-educated engineering teams with great theoretical flourish developed 60 or 70 different airplanes. All of them unfortunately crashing on takeoff. Their potential customers have long since split into two feuding camps: the Marxist-Leninists keep insisting, “Our people are so exceptionally experienced, we must buy their next airplane.” (Anarchists reply: “What this proves is that aviation should be banned, unless travelers going to a destination spontaneously meet and piece together some kind of a ‘plane’ out of whatever parts are left around airports.”)
i also think that “democracy” in revolutionary organizations is highly overrated. At its worst, it’s like “patriotism” and “family,” being “the last refuge of scoundrels.”
Democracy in society may be a necessity of community life, but democracy in revolutionary organizations is something else entirely different. Among other things, revolutionary organizations are part of society and also not part of it. In the society and also living antagonistically outside its borders. Subject to different laws of physics. Resulting in different structures.
Most discussions of revolutionary organizations right here in the garden of the imperialist metropolis, assume and insist on some variety of “democracy.” It’s definitely something sacred. What does this usually consist of? Something learned from our capitalist bosses. Usually something resembling their bourgeois “democracy.” In which the marxist or anarchist or socialist group is “democratic” because there are meetings in which all members have the theoretical right to speak, vote or consent on its politics and activities. Usually, the handful of leaders have met or communicated privately before that meeting, to decide what the members must do. Often, everything is scripted as much as possible.
There’s nothing strange about this. It’s organizational “democracy” as we know it in the world of the imperialist center, like suburban village government, state-regulated trade union locals, or the bored of trustees for whatever NGO. It’s a certain form that comfortably clothes institutions in this decaying capitalist culture. As such, this “democracy” isn’t anything that i’m up in arms about, either for or against. Why shouldn’t an anarchist organization or a trotskyist “party” operate like the local bridge club if it wants to? It’s just our cultural norm.
But the complete absence of this “democracy” isn’t necessarily a loss, either.
Sometimes doing away with “democracy” can be even more democratic in real terms. In fact, stripping away unnecessary people and organization has worked better than leftists here like to admit in many situations. One reason that so much of what has worked well are individual or small group projects, seriously committed to getting things done on a particular issue or function.
As one example, i like the old Prison News Service (PNS) newspaper project, done in the 1980-1990s by the late Jim Campbell & friends up in Canada. For many years, PNS survived as a very open political forum, primarily written by many, many different prisoners, and read by thousands of prisoners. Particularly for New Afrikan prisoners in the u.s.a., it became a rare meeting place to talk politics with each other, spread news about the ongoing skirmishes between the brothers and sisters versus the prison authorities, and generally make themselves known.
Jim Campbell mostly financed it himself out of his wages, and although he had a handful of co-conspirators on the project, from what i could tell back then Jim basically made most of the decisions. If Jim didn’t think that your letter was that important, flip it went into the dusty files (yes, that happened to me, too—have to laugh about it now). Not only was this close to one-man rule, without any “democratic” structure, but it was one-white-man rule to boot. How about that for a taboo?
Why should one white anarchist up in Canada de facto control so much of how prisoners of color in the u.s. gulag talked to each other? Because no one else wanted to or could do it. (The black liberation army-coordinating committee, to be sure, had its own quite serious political discussion zine, but it was both closed and more specifically defined.) Truth was, neither Black nationalist organizations nor white M-L groups wanted to have that much to do with prisoners except to exploit a few famous names. Who might have been hailed in speeches but were privately considered too troublesome, too hard to control, and too needy.
During those years, the National Committee to Defend Black Political Prisoners was also a small but useful source of political linkage for some of those inside, but that was really done by one dedicated older Asian woman. Who stayed up late at night licking the stamps and sending out mailings paid for by her thin wages as a waitress in Harlem (she told me she took the job partly so that she could act as a message center, where guys who might be ducking the Enemy could pick up “kites” from comrades—and to slip hamburgers to hungry rads without cash.) So Jim wasn’t alone, but was one of a thin line of advanced explorers. An actual modest person-by-person vanguard, if you will, probing the gulags and other human garbage dumps for the future. There are vanguards in the struggle, but maybe it’s not what people usually think.
So it was lucky that Jim Campbell identified so personally with the pain and isolation of prisoners, and was so determined to break down the walls to the extent that he and a few other comrades personally could. PNS definitely had the effect of spreading liberation, enabling radical political discussion among some of the oppressed. Which wasn’t ideal, sure wasn’t everything, but was pretty democratic. The how they did it was less important. Democracy isn’t in the ritual forms, in our little rules. It’s in the politics of what we do or don’t do.
Which brings us to data-mining the past. Taking lessons from the past is inescapable, for me as well as everyone else. But check this out: We “know” a lot from all our snatch & grab at the past that isn’t what we think it is.
One immediate suggestion i do have is to take some of the emotion and value judgements out of it. As one of my old martial arts teachers used to say at our annual class evaluations, “Just take it in as information.” One by one, we had to step forward onto the floor and go through our moves, and then were critiqued on the spot by classmates and instructors. “Don’t think of what you’re being told as positive or negative,” he advised us. “It’s just information.” You’ll see what i mean by the next story. [Oh, and to prevent miscues—i’m not any martial artist. Any more than when as kids we played pickup football games in the park with much enthusiasm, that didn’t make us what everyone means by football players.]
When we look through the past as revolutionaries, there’s a natural tendency to focus on examples that verify our existing beliefs. This is a natural but really dangerous habit. For example: for many years i “knew” that Stalin and his damned commissars were responsible for losing the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War to the fascists. The stalinists’ violent repression of the anarchists and independent socialists there had stabbed the most militant center of the working class in the back, and thus fatally weakened the ground-breaking class war. i mean, not that i knew much or anything at all about Spanish history, but like so many others i had read George Orwell’s moving first-hand account of the war, Homage to Catalonia, and it all fit as neatly as a cherry on top of a banana split. A one-book education. i never questioned it.
By karma, back then i knew an older Maoist comrade who actually had been a young soldier with the International Brigades fighting in that Spanish Civil War. Thinking it strange that up to then we’d freely talked about our own confused 1960s movement politics, but he had never brought up his war experiences in Spain, one afternoon i asked him what he thought of Orwell’s book. My friend jumped to his feet and started cursing. He thought that Orwell was a dishonest asshole, and his self-serving version of the anti-fascist Civil War a fabric of clever novelistic half-truths and distortions. The way this older comrade described his war came from a completely different angle than any i’d thought of before then. It really took me aback.
He told me: “In the field hospital I saw wounded die for nothing, freezing to death in the cold overnight without blankets, because someone had fucked up the supply list. Do you think Stalin had blankets withheld to increase his power? ” My Maoist friend’s angry sarcasm had a sharp point: that the whole war was fucked. To him the two sides in Spain, fascist-clericalist versus liberal and left Republican, unfortunately were also the militarily competent versus the idealistic but not-yet competent. He said that all the revolutionaries, the socialists and communists no less than the anarchists, were stumbling around trying to learn how to build a new kind of society there for the first time with the clock running. While with the other hand also fighting a new type of total war against an advancing, experienced mercenary colonialist army, with plenty of guns, artillery and air squadrons.
To him this was a tragic loss in a far deeper way than abstractly our team versus their team. It was his experiences in Spain, my friend said, that made him an early Maoist sympathizer. Since it was a sign of real hope to him and his comrades in Spain that while their flickering progressive Republic was being inexorably crushed by the fascists, in remote regions of China that Red Army was solving the problem of survival in combat against even the largest capitalist armies. No small thing to my friend, after losing so badly, with more real life casualties he knew than he wanted to remember.
He also said that contrary to what Orwell wrote about, anarchism was a real military problem in Spain. To my surprise, he wasn’t talking about the Durruti Column or other legendary anarchist workers’ formations. He was talking about what he considered latent or basic anarchism within the International Brigades, which was stalinist, remember. Like most wars, that one was fought by the young, in many cases teenagers no older than fifteen or sixteen years old (the Canadian naturalist R.D. Lawrence had enlisted as a Spanish anti-fascist infantryman back then when he was only fourteen. He was so short that his rifle slung over the shoulder kept almost bumping the ground—but as he said, “no one cared how old you were if you could shoot a gun.”)
Whenever a fascist offensive somewhere would start, many of the eager young volunteers would spontaneously “desert to the Front.” Taking their rifle and hitching rides on supply trucks or trains to wherever the most intense fighting was. Abruptly leaving their own units short of soldiers. Training plans and readiness and new moves on its own front upset.
Since it is hard to successfully plan an overall war that way, “deserting to the Front” was quickly banned. Soldiers were talked to about revolutionary discipline, etc. etc. Nevertheless, just like with sex, when romanticism and adrenalin flood the heart, young dudes aren’t always thinking ahead to the larger picture. And the men who did this felt that no blame could be attached to any individual who decided to just go off more bravely by themselves into the fighting. Spontaneous soldiering just went on.
Finally, the commanders decided that a sobering line had to be drawn. The next time it happened, a pretty blameless but undisciplined young American revolutionary was selected for charges, court-martialed, and then executed by his own buddies. Their shooting was understandably bad and the condemned comrade was badly wounded, not cleanly killed. So their unit’s commissar (a young tough guy from Brooklyn, my comrade recalled) had to step up, draw his pistol and finish him. Then the commissar wrote the soldier’s parents a letter of condolence, saying that their son had died bravely fighting the fascists. But when their unit returned home, the working class stalinist commissar used his pistol once more and committed suicide. The whole thing was hushed up by the movement. Isn’t it always? (Yes, i know that there were probably a dozen better ways to handle that problem politically, not by coercive authority, but that’s the kind of thing many normally confused macho men did right then—or even now.)
Was that first-hand view all true, or just my friend stretching memories to defend the integrity of the revolutionary band of his youth? He had only one person’s experiences, but think he had an important part of the truth, anyway. i don’t know about the whole deal, but i do believe that the Moscow-directed repressing of so many of the most militant Spanish workers was textbook stalinist anti-revolutionary maneuver 101. So i’m definitely not going to want any stalinist anything around at the next revolution. But give us a break, that’s kind of like, duh. Maybe hot shit as an insight in 1929 or 1939, but pretty small change as a lesson about revolutionary organization now in the 21st century. We should have easily learned that a long time ago, and much, much more.
The question isn’t whether the stalinists or the socialists or the anarchists were right or wrong or in what ways in the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War. That’s one series of questions, but is that the main lesson we can learn from that past? In radical debates things can get pretty black and white awful fast, lots of tunnel vision, i think. But in the actual struggle with millions of real people freeing themselves, rushing around trying to do things they themselves have never seen before, there are always layers of reality. i mean, not just one true thing, but many true factors of varying meaning, shifting in time. To me what my older comrade said struck a note that went towards the practical heart of things.
Sometimes we can be technically right about something – and still miss the main point.
One very smart anarchist comrade that i told this to, about Spain, came back immediately with: “No, it was the arms. The lack of arms. See, France and Britain wouldn’t sell arms to us. And Stalin cut us off. He wouldn’t give us enough arms.” Actually, i’ve heard that line more than once as an explanation. Which only sounds reasonable until you start to think about it, in terms not of liberal “fairness” but of revolutionary organization. This is something my friend was obviously just repeating from someone else, not something he ever had to work out bit by bit for himself.
Let’s see, the anarchists and independent socialists back then in Spain were saying that Stalin was running a bloodthirsty dictatorship which needed to be overthrown, with the stalinist sycophants and criminal bureaucrats needing to be put before workers courts and firing squads? And yet, they really expected that the same lumpen Joe Stalin was going to pour shiploads of weapons into their hands like the hip-hop Insane Santa Claus? How unreal was that as strategy? That’s like some homeless dude sleeping rough under a bridge, but expecting every freezing night that Obama’s limo will soon be pulling up to take him to his lush bedroom in the new mansion.
The problem in this kind of thinking goes deeper still than that. Whether the anti-capitalist forces in Spain didn’t get enough arms because of Stalin or Wall Street conspiracies or because the boat was late, or whatever, the net practical effect was the same. That the progressive Republic was outgunned by the mercenary forces of General Franco and his eager German and Italian fascist mentors. Skip past the back story and get to where the rubber meets the road. Let’s say that they were outgunned two to one, three to one, or even worse. So? What’s the big deal? i mean, it’s a nice-sounding civilian excuse, but it doesn’t mean much in terms of revolutionary practice.
We revs are always way outgunned and outnumbered by the mercenary forces of the capitalist state, until the final stages of the struggle. In Old China way back then, the communist Red Army was outnumbered and outgunned more like five or ten to one, by both the rightist Chinese armies and the Japanese invaders, for many harsh years. True everywhere for anti-capitalist guerrillas, too, not just that particular Spain. It’s not an excuse, it’s just the usual violent environment of capitalist hegemony everywhere that we must to learn to survive in and grow in.
Everything we do, our tactics and strategies, our organizations and subcultures, all assume great imbalances in strength between us and the capitalist ruling class. Whether of mainstream propaganda, numbers, experience, money, guns, whatever. If it were only a contest of morality and justice, the capitalists would have been kicked out long ago. We all know all this, too. We just don’t always absorb the full meaning.
The lesson that really strikes home to me from that experience back then was not only the brilliant courage of those people overturning backward oppressive society, but also our own lack of revolutionary development in the broadest sense. And tragically what it meant when we had to put it to the test in real life, in real time, with the lives of millions involved. Right now we are used to laughing at the incompetence of Big Capitalism, reeling from setback to setback, from Trump the Reality TV Government to their hopelessly lost but unbelievably lethal misadventures in the Muslim world.
But we conveniently forget how even this crumbling chunks-falling-off-of-it Big Capitalism has accumulated within its structures centuries of learning-by-experience knowledge of how to run society part by part their way. Too often, we think that criticizing them well is equal to having enough know-how to design up and successfully operate our own oppositional counter-cultures and societies. While in practice these two things are many miles apart.
Acknowledging that we anti-capitalist revolutionaries are only beginners, are in historical terms still a young culture, still just starting to learn how to build, is to me a healthy first step in better revolutionary organizations. (What we now know as industrial capitalism took 900 years, historians tell us, to evolve out into a dominant social system—oh, don’t worry, my mom’s a dangerously wild driver and we revs are going to take a much shorter route.)
One thing that i learned the last time around is never to expect evolution to just repeat itself. In the early 1960s, what was that era’s old left and new left overlapped briefly, and the disarray was tragi-comical.
Still active veterans of the great 1930s industrial unionism battles in workplaces and factories, watched with bewilderment as 1960s kids staged small, really personal rallies in the middle of a campus, to support a fellow college student holding up and then burning his draft card. Reading aloud his own individual statement of rejecting the draft and the Vietnam War. And accepting soon going into federal prison. Meanwhile, we marched proudly out of Black communities, crossing borders now not as friends but as reluctant enemies, bitterly into the hate-filled euro-settler working class neighborhoods. The old left veterans from the 1930s were horror-stricken, since they had always believed in the revival of mass euro-settler industrial unionism as the central event in radical social change, like in their own idealistic youth way back when dinosaurs roamed the earth. We felt so sorry for them, because they didn’t get it that our future would never look like them. We knew instinctively what Dylan was singing about: “You don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?”
But for everyone now, too, the fault lines have shifted once more. The passing of the old, euro-colonial economies and the thermal fusing of national imperialisms have been as tectonic plates, grinding deep underneath the earth. Reshaping the political surface into a surprising geography which brings the labor of massive Chinese and Mexican proletariats popping right up into every neighborhood. While the great archipelago of the New Afrikan major cities built up by accretion like coral reefs during the 20th century, is being physically pounded down and broken up, one after another. As New Afrikans of the “dangerous class” are forced to disperse, to keep moving, keep moving, once again. Many to the prison kamps of the u.s. empire’s vast gulag, while others to the isolated suburban exile townships.
When we first took this path, when we joined our lives with the struggle, we were conscious of knowing so very little. One good reason we were so attracted to this revolutionary organization or that one. Not only to find rads we could run with, but to find mentors and a busy hive of experience we hoped to take cues from. What never occurred to us is that those organizations might know next to nothing, too.
Here’s a cellphone snapshot that comes to mind: One of the liveliest cultural gate-crashers of the 1960s was the sudden popularity of Eastern philosophy and arts. Which was a lot more than the Beatles going to India to try out meditation. The most nitty-gritty among that being the craze for the Eastern martial arts. Even before Bruce Lee’s great Enter the Dragon, young guys Black and Latino as well as Asian were haunting the cheap rerun movie theaters that showed the Hong Kong martial arts flicks. My dumpy baby sister became a changed teenager, as angular and menacing as the Praying Mantis forms she would train at day after day. All good.
This enthusiasm swept through revolutionary organizations and protest movements as well. Whether it was the desire to help protect our marches from street attacks by the white racists, or just the pull of wanting to be strong physically in the struggle, this was something everyone understood. It was a pretty pathetic new revolutionary organization which didn’t have its martial arts class on the side. Or at least its favorite local dojo where its people tended to go. i knew it was really cresting when an enthusiastic white friend told me he had decided to join a rapidly growing local Marxist group, “because their karate class is so good! You should come and try it out!!”
You get the contradiction, the slightly crooked picture. On the one hand, we had so many young revolutionaries sworn to tear down the old American way of life, and most especially all the old left crap. Pushing forward with new radical organizations that were formed next to spontaneously, on the fly, shaped by the dynamite blast of the latest page in the struggle. Often more or less blessed only by a quick papal reading of some “heavy” left text or another. It didn’t matter which one, really, since most of us hardly understood any of them.
But when it came to serious business, to being personally able to really fight, many of the same youth eagerly embraced the legendary training of Eastern martial arts. Which is more traditional and top-down in its teaching than death, with students in the dojo learning forms and sparring painstakingly developed and then tested over generations. Overseen and directed by the black-belt instructor, whose every decision was law on the class floor. Nothing spontaneous or doing whatever-new-you-felt-like there.
To me the double message was definitely signaling something. While youth were in revolt against old oppressive authority, we were hungry for authority in the other sense. For finding empowering knowledge that came from the doing. Learning from those who had actually done it and learned to do it well. Like, you wouldn’t want to learn plumbing from a person who read to you out of some textbook, but who themselves had never picked up a wrench or gotten shit all over themselves.
One thing was for sure. Since there were no already worked out blueprints for organizations back there and then, we had to borrow from incomplete old histories, from any dusty zombie organizations still stumbling about, and mostly from our own imaginations to improvise organizations best we could (pretending, naturally, that we knew much more than we did). To predictable good and not so good results: neat breakthroughs and equally mass running out of gas and abandoned cars scattered on the freeway.
There were hundreds of thousands of people improvising, trying on and remaking and breaking radical organizations of all kinds in the 1960s-70s New Left. From GI anti-war newspapers and off-base coffee shops to the usual mass protest coalitions owned by nationally famous ministers and charismatic male lumpen hustlers. There were countless local student radical groups running on the horizontal principle of “participatory democracy,” as well as at least one nationwide underground of thousands also trying to grow itself by spreading “participatory democracy” local groups well into armed struggle. There were study groups and informal self-defense circles everywhere, way too many to ever keep track of.
There were socialists replacing their college dormitories with a “party” form in which they rented large apartments together in inner city neighborhoods, functioning as community activists together while using their group homes as busy political theory schools. And always there were new seemingly spontaneous grassroots direct actions happening. From mass walkouts closing entire city public school systems (covertly guided in at least one major city by New Afrikan revolutionary nationalist cells quietly working with major youth “gangs”) to the “leaderless resistance” of one hundred anti-war firebombings of Bank of America branches by primarily white youth in California, to the many lumpen militant street organizations. To say nothing of the background murmur of various Old Left “parties” or their copycats trying to carry on traditional euro-agendas.[It goes almost without saying that a disproportionate number of the most dramatic breakthroughs in the 1950s-70s here came from the u.s. empire’s inner colonies—called the ghetto, inner city, rez, barrios or communidad.]
Looking back, the rich diversity of mass organizational experience was too large to easily describe. Little of which was analyzed or passed on as learning experiences. That’s how disorganized and uneducated we were, despite the university intellectuals who composed much of the movement’s leadership. Hope comrades doing lift-off now do much better at that.
Here’s a thought to share: People sometimes talk about revolutionary organizations as if they were all varieties of one thing, like different gasoline engines to drop under the hood of your same compact car. V6 or straight 4? Which they aren’t. There are broadly two very different types of what we mean when we say “revolutionary organizations.” The most familiar is like the small left collective or intellectual journal or zine. Sometimes in the outward form of a local anti-war group or whatever. Like an antifa group or like one of the “parties” keeping alive the flicker of someone’s ideas. Or it could be the local radical caucuses in the teachers union. And so on.
These are what we are used to seeing sprouting here in the garden of the imperialist metropolis. In other words, meaning “revolutionary organization” as an organization of revolutionaries, promoting anti-capitalist ideas and activity. To help people survive or reinforce protest movements. Usually pretty public and acting more or less legally or with official tolerance, since why not? Such organizations are by their nature transitory, and any one will probably be long gone by the time capitalism is overthrown. There is nothing wrong with this, obviously.
That’s not an organization that actually makes a revolution itself, though. Overthrowing the old society and its state. While there have been many Marxist ”parties” here (put this in quotes because they are free to call themselves anything they like, but most here haven’t met the real definition of a party) claiming that they were going to carry on and on forever until someday they would overthrow capitalism, revs can safely assume that this stuff is largely delusional.
The other kind of revolutionary organization is simply, directly that. Engaged to actually make the revolution against capitalism and its state. To carry out revolutionary transfer of power. These organizations are by their fundamental nature illegal and usually clandestine instruments of warfare. Always popping up from the lower depths, always being repressed and hunted. They are widely present though with different results in the developing neo-colonial periphery, from Mexico to India, but real examples are scarce here in the imperialist metropolis, for obvious reasons, except among the oppressed neo-colonies. Don’t think i need to explain that.
One thought that keeps coming up in every generation, is to narrow the gap between these two kinds of organizations. Exploring just how much terrain, of what kinds, revolutionaries could take over and remake now in daily life in the structures of capitalist society?
Like all complex mechanisms, like a hospital emergency room or a tank brigade, actual revolutionary organizations are super high maintenance. If you’ve never been in one, know that they are a big pain in the ass to keep going. They are also obviously highly dangerous, more dangerous than sex work is or a contract firefighting crew is, or being a clueless u.s. army private somewhere. For sure. So they had better be worth it.
In this violent capitalist end zone of unlimited war and repression, the question of organization suddenly becomes drastically changed for us. Because there you cannot be an individual revolutionary in any meaningful sense. There a lone revolutionary is like being a lone firefighter. You can be as good as you can be, but you are outclassed in the scale of events. Then it is only complex revolutionary organization that lets our full political thoughts and intentions become sails full of reality. This is often lost right now in the garden of the imperial metropolis, where middle-class people so easily deceive themselves that agreeing with this radical idea or that one, makes you a revolutionary. No, it only makes you someone who likes ideas. (And as that lesbian philosopher once said: “Theories are like assholes, everybody has one.”)
This has just been an initial re-examination; a walking over of the uneven ground that structures might be built on. There are obviously tons of critical stuff, most things, really, on anti-capitalist organization that i never got around to here. So take this as a restart button. A beginner’s mind isn’t a bad thing to have.
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