Between the Leninists and the Clowns: Avoiding recklessness and professionalism in revolutionary struggle – 7

VIII.  Democracy and consensus
I am for diversity of tactics, but I am also for very clearly and publicly criticizing foolish tactics that could get us killed.   I am for having some sort of direct democratic organizational formation where we can decide on a strategy together, and then implement it together – we can leave plenty of room for affinity groups to autonomously add tactics that further that overall strategy, but we should also be able to hinder tactics that are objectively reactionary, that could jeopardize the strategy we decided on.
Of course, we should have maximum transparency – people who are outvoted in the meetings that decide on the strategy should be able to publicly disagree with the overall strategy in cases where it is secure enough to do so.
I know this is an unpopular position in the current activist circles – a lot of folks feel we need to present a unified voice to the public because we are under so much attack and so many people want to divide and conquer us.  But if we cannot publicly debate strategy, and if we cannot publicly separate our own positions from positions that are foolish then we will not be trustworthy.   Working class people will not want to join because they will think we are no different than the clowns.
Also, it seems like bad security culture not to be able to debate stuff out publicly.  Tensions could just end up rising within the activist circles to the point where the state could manipulate these divisions.   It is better to air out some of these disagreements in a comradely way.   That being said, we need to maintain our general opposition to sectarianism, because that’s what has made the movement here so vibrant.  We should have some clear expectations in terms of making critiques in a respectful and thoughtful way.
Finally, public debate is a key part of the educational process I talked about earlier – it helps those engaged in the debate grow. This is a key part of preventing the kind of dogmatism that comes from never having your ideas challenged in front of other people.

IX. Cadre Organization? 
To summarize, I’ve argued for an intentionally educational and organizational process of reflection on our struggles.  I’ve argued that we need to recognize when leadership exists instead of pretending it doesn’t.  I’ve argued that we need to create organizational contexts where new leaders can develop, so that we can overcome the capitalist division of labor.
These kinds of positions are often associated with the idea of cadre organization – building a relatively small, specific political organization with a coherent political program, which can prioritize high-level revolutionary education of its members, so that all of its members can take responsibility for difficult revolutionary work.   Black Orchid Collective is an example of an aspiring cadre organization.
Beyond some dogmatic anti-dogmatism, or knee jerk anti-Leninism, I have recently heard some very thoughtful anarchist criticisms of this idea.  In particular, an anarchist comrade argued that cadres tend to focus on developing their own members, at the expense of developing knowledge and leadership more broadly across the movement.
This is a good point, and it is a real risk.  With limited time and energy, do you do a study group with people in the cadre group, or with people in the movement as a whole?   I do think cadre groups are dangerous if they do internal educational work only because they aspire for control of the movement as a whole.  Not only will this mess up the dynamics in the movement, stifling its development and leading to possible sectarian competition among cadres, but it also can create a suffocating and overly professionalized atmosphere inside the cadre group by ratcheting up the membership standards to an unrealistic level.  People start walking around acting like they’re the shit because they’re in a functional organization.   Then they feel like they have no margin of error, no room to experiment and learn from their mistakes, because they have to somehow “represent” this awesome group.   That’s totally poisonous.
To prevent this, cadre groups need to have transparency and porous boundaries with the rest of the movement.  They should meet on their own to provide a space for people with similar politics to strategize and develop their perspectives, but the whole point of doing that should be to advance the overall movement, not to control it.  The cadre group should be publicly experimental – it should be clear it doesn’t have all the answers, and that the interventions it makes are provisional.   People in a cadre group should be constantly learning from discussions, debates, and struggles alongside people outside the group, including people from other tendencies. They should not lose their own individual voices or become simply representatives of the group.
Ultimately, I think we need to build a larger revolutionary network with multiple cadres with in it; that network will be healthier if these multiple cadres each offer their perspectives and suggestions for strategy, but then leave it up to the network as a whole to decide what to do.
The cadre should be outward focused in other ways as well.  The process of education in the cadre group should be “each one, tech one”….. group members study together not to horde that knowledge in order to maintain leadership in the movement, but instead to share it widely in the broader networks to make that leadership unnecessary.   The cadre should be a place where people learn how to most effectively share their skills and methods with others – how to practice a pedagogy of the oppressed.   And because the cadre group is public, it is more accountable and it can learn from criticisms directed against it by other tendencies.   Cadres and affinity groups have many things in common, but this is probably the biggest difference – the public nature of cadre groups mean that the can learn and grow from public critique.

X.  Avoiding the Dinosaur Sponge model of revolutionary organization
The goal of the cadre group should NOT be to gradually recruit members until it grows into a vanguard party.  In Black Orchid Collective, we mock this idea by calling it the “dinosaur sponge method of revolutionary organization building.”   You know those dinosaur sponges you used play with when you were a kid?  They come in these little gel capsules that you throw in the bathtub, and as the capsule dissolves the  sponge expands into a dinosaur.  Many Leninist groups today operate that way.  They imagine that as long as you have the right social conditions, the right “bathwater”, purged of ultraleft impurities, then their small sect will somehow rapidly recruit until it becomes a huge dinosaur- I mean vanguard party.  Hal Draper criticized this idea decades ago in his famous piece “Anatomy of a microsect ”
Any small organization is purely delusional if it thinks that it alone is the vanguard.  The vanguard is simply whatever layer of the working class is moving fastest toward revolution at any given time – for example, a significant section of the Black working class acted like a vanguard during the 1960s.  A small cadre group may aim to become one small part of a much larger vanguard- but it can only do that by advocating for, supporting, merging with, and defending the autonomy of broad working class revolutionary self-activity.  In other words, it can only do this through generalized insurrection.  Any attempt to control this self-activity will either kill the self-activity – or, much more hopefully, will kill the parasitic cadre organization, or make it as irrelevant as a dinosaur.
Ultimately, what we need is an anti-vanguard vanguard.   We need a significant layer of the working class to take up all the things that small cadre organizations currently do, and more –  but at a mass scale, not just among a small exclusive group.  We need this mass layer of the working class to develop its capacity to reflect on its struggle and to lead the rest of the class, while generalizing its leadership abilities until the entire class becomes the vanguard and the concept of the vanguard becomes irrelevant.   This can only happen by challenging any self-proclaimed vanguards that act like condescending saviors.  Small cadre organizations are useful to the extent that they help catalyze this process, and are harmful to the extent that they hold it back.

I believe it is necessary and possible to avoid the problems of disorganization that lead to a situation where working class people think we are sociopathic clowns trying to attack them.   I also believe it is possible to do this without reverting to forms of Leninism that are as outdated as dinosaurs.   Many people are trying to figure out a third option. These debates are going on throughout the movement because these are not abstract questions, they are immediate, pressing issues that are coming up as the struggle sharpens and as repression becomes heavier.  For that reason, I hope we can have a thoughtful and eye-opening debate about the positions that I’ve proposed here, and I’m looking forward to hearing folks’ responses,  critiques, and counter-proposals.
note: This piece is influenced by a text on organization by Don Hamerquist called Lenin, Leninism, and some Leftovers.  While I don’t agree with every point he makes, I would highly recommend reading the text and thinking through the challenges  he poses.

– mamos206

[This is part of a 10-part essay from the blog of our comrades in the Black Orchid Collective. More parts to follow. You can post comments here or to the discussion here:    -a.]    

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