“What are you actually doing?”
This is a fair question. We have a website, whose front image is of a barricade during the 1905 Revolution in Russia. We have a lot of notes about the state of questions of organization, general historical development, and a set of points of unity regarding what we consider correct positions on a level of struggle internationally. All of this might seem a bit grandiose for a group of less than twenty people in a third rate city of the most ridiculous state in the US. This is why, in the same way that it is important for those engaged in the practical politics of Capital to hold tightly to and nurse their illusions (“if the Democrats just get that super majority then we can really have some reform”), for us whose aims are ambitious in the extreme it is necessary to approach things practically.
In previous pieces Donald Parkinson alluded to LARPing (Life Action Role Playing), a pejorative popular among leftcom internet circles used to describe groups whose politics are based around the replication of past historical moments and organizational forms, usually lacking the very necessary historical context to understand how those movements developed in their time. It is easy to simply mock this, but it is also easy to fall into this trap. After all, since there is no clear historical continuity between us and major past revolutionary organizations, doesn’t trying to “bring back” modes of politics that have been abandoned for decades constitute a form of “historical reenactment?” The underlying problematic, of which LARPing is only the most absurd outward manifestation, is of how to realize an emancipatory, anti-capitalist politics in a period of high subsumption like the one we are living in, particularly in the United States. Our group will be no less immune to the dangers of marginalization, sectism, etc. than anyone else. But we believe that if we approach organization in an open manner that retains a certain sense of self-awareness, a sense of humor, along with an honest, clear-eyed analysis, we can hope to avoid the kind of toxic interpersonal environments and needful opportunistic thinking that plagues much of the rest of the phantom left.
I’d like to discuss here in a concrete manner what our organization is, and what we want it to be. For those who want the short (tl;dr) course, right now it’s a discussion group that would like to include more people in the discussion. Now, for the remainder of this piece I’d like to reflect on this in a bit more detail, as well as our broader aspirations to share, develop, and implement these ideas within our particular local circumstances with a sober sensibility and realistic sense of historical scale. The real question that we have is less “what are we doing” and more, “what can we do?”
What is to be done (if anything)
Roughly around 2012, an ex-Occupier, two IWW members and a couple of non-political friends formed a reading group to work through all three volumes of Capital. After this, the group continued to read Marxist texts and expanded the number of people circulating in and out of the reading group. The membership had engaged in differing forms of activism. We had worked together at one point to start a solidarity group and help a man fight his slumlord over bedbug issues. After a couple of years of decreased political activity and intellectual development we decided to form a new organization.
Communist League of Tampa is intended as a platform for us to engage the working class with a Marxist analysis of capitalism and a dialogue about the idea of communism. We seek to do this with a relatively realistic outlook regarding the broader political configurations of the present moment. Given the high degree of subsumption under capital, the massive political-historical defeat of the working class, and the current state of class composition in Tampa, we view it as entirely likely that opportunities to spread these ideas, and general public interest in them, will remain necessarily limited in the foreseeable future. So what do we do with this? Well, for one thing, we intend to focus on activities that are actually enjoyable for those involved. Without the capacity to pay professionals to carry out organizational functions, we must limit ourselves to what our members volunteer to accomplish. And with a limited pool of membership to draw on, one basically has to rely on people’s good will. In circumstances where there doesn’t seem to be a lot of return for time and effort invested, or even a clear, foreseeable future for our politics (i.e. living in a non-revolutionary moment) there is a high risk for burnout, wasted energy, and the loss of perhaps our most precious personal resource: time. In these circumstances, most activist groups use guilt, cult like social pressure, and high turnover in order to ensure themselves a steady pool of what is essentially unpaid labor.
We absolutely reject this sort of “solution” and its attendant voluntarism. We won’t become a mass organization or serious political player simply by trying really hard. Instead we should focus on simpler activities which can function as ends in and of themselves even if they don’t open any doors to new possibilities. To this end we can look toward one of the few other decent organizations in the area, Food Not Bombs, which if nothing else, is at least getting some food and relief to people who need it, and is able to operate on a scale practical to the people participating in it. As for our group, whose task is a bit more amorphous, as long as everyone involved is enjoying themselves and we are honest about the functioning and role of our organization, if we try to keep ourselves open, accessible, and available to more people, then there is nothing wrong with simply being a communist social club for the time being. Since our group as of present is largely made up of self-selected radical nerds, albeit of a largely working class orientation, the real organizational challenge will be to engage a wider section of people with these ideas. We will have to ask ourselves: how do we reach and include those who might not necessarily be inclined towards lengthy discussions of theory and historical material?
The core of our organization is currently based around a weekly reading/discussion group. The conversations tend to progress organically surrounding a text, which leads to different sets of questions to investigate, and new texts that help to expand the analysis of the group generally. There is a core membership that is there nearly every week, with a peripheral set of members who attend less frequently. We are also in the process of developing short classes on Marxist theory to be given through the local “Free Skool” as well as hosting biweekly radical movie screenings.
We have begun focusing on publication, primarily through our website. We have also begun putting together pamphlets for instances in which a physical copy might be a better distributional means for the material (tracts for demos, installation in zine libraries, tabling etc.) Our writings will run the gamut from comments on current events, more in-depth theoretical articulations and polemics, as well as introductory literature aimed at a lay audience.
The Communist League of Tampa could also act as a platform for intervention in local struggles (or when impoverished enough on this point, pseudo-struggles) that we may not have had a direct hand in organizing. Having a collective voice and platform can help to amplify our influence (or annoyance) as a tendency and help us to think about what might actually be worth engaging in. It can also serve to focus our engagement with these struggles, by bringing an articulated perspective to them. Rather than attending events as individuals in a haphazard uneven manner, seeing business as usual, and then bitching about how dumb everything was afterwards, we can act as a group and attempt to articulate our perspective both in the form of literature and in our actions.
As mentioned previously, a good deal of the membership was involved in an effort to organize a Solidarity Network. Some were also involved in efforts toward direct workplace organization in the mode of the IWW. Though the return we sought on these kind of efforts was not perhaps what we had hoped, we still leave open the possibility for this form of organizing, and we hope to be able to assist in direct labor and proletarian organizing, should the possibility for it open up in the future. As we take stock of our experiences in efforts at local organization, and as both our understanding of communism, and the real movement of the class develops, the forms and types of work through which we attempt to engage the class will change. For now, let us say that we remain committed to some measure of indeterminacy; that the possibility for the recomposition of proletarian organization exists, if only as some kind of latent potential energy.
What education means (for us at least)
In our studies and development, more and more we are coming to the conclusion the real function of a revolutionary organization is educational. Our role in any “real movement” is to work do develop class consciousness. Since we are a part of the working class (and even if we weren’t) this includes ourselves both as individuals and as an organization.
There is still a great deal of theoretical development to be done. The history of proletarian struggle, buried under the trauma of its failure and the cover ups of its existence, is still in a period of excavation facilitated by the rapid information exchange made possible by the internet. This also applies to Marxian economic analysis, whose renewed interest and investigations have been boosted by the increasingly apparent flaws in the “end of history” ideology of late neo-liberalism. Understanding and developing this analysis, often denigrated as intellectual masturbation, in fact carries tremendous implications. We reject this notion that our current historical impasse is simply the result of a lack of political will, the stupidity of the public, or the increasingly absurd sectarianism of the left. These phenomena, poorly characterized but descriptive of something, are much symptoms as they are causes. If we are serious about seeking to abolish capitalism, then it would be helpful to actually understand what capitalism is, and what has happened in the past that lead others attempting the same thing to go astray. Without some measure of theoretical rigor, people fall into activism, grasping on to whatever notions are floating around in their milieu and whatever flatter their prejudices elsewhere. This sort of needful, opportunistic thinking is the basis of the burnout that inevitably occurs after a period of indefinite campaigning.
That our analysis is incomplete should not be a source of discouragement. It is entirely appropriate that the questions of the proletariat today are our questions. We should be open to engaging with emerging movements and points of apparent class struggle. We should also be completely open about our positions, and be as ruthlessly critical of the ideas of other movements as we are of everything else. We are not out to further sectarian division with this, but rather to advocate our ideas and foster a healthy culture of internal debate and educational development. We strive to make our ideas comprehensible to as many people as possible, but we are absolutely uninterested in obscure pedagogical exercises in which we lead potential recruits through the 36 Chambers of the Death of Capitalism until they are ready to pay dues to our awesome cadre. Marxism, like any other strain of science, can be explained to a general audience without watering down or distorting the core content. We obviously reject the ideology of mass lines, or united front induced self-censorship, in which it is concluded that the proletariat has to be deceived before they can be shown the truth. This sort of intellectual dishonesty is an ideology of political opportunism. We need to be as forthright about our aims and ideas as possible and advocate for them today, not the promised tomorrow that never comes. It also presumes that there is some kind of pure ideological understanding held by a core elite. A lot of this is connected to the bureaucratic tendencies in post-comintern political parties which have somehow outlived their historical failure. The “real movement” of the proletariat should inform our analysis, but it must remain within a scientific framework. We acknowledge an inevitable division of labor in the work of communist analysis, but assert that this process, while based upon certain theoretical principles, is dynamic and informed by new developments. It is a process which, in principle, anyone can be a part of.
Towards regional and international organization (eventually)
What of the future? This is always less clear. Many of the questions we have been grappling with in the reading group, including but not limited to: class composition, crisis, the nature of industrial development, surplus populations, ecological horizons, and potential communist societal organization, all have tremendous bearing on this. Unfortunately only time will tell which direction history will take. In the mean time we can engage in research and work to develop our own theoretical frameworks for understanding these phenomena. As our understanding comes more into focus, and if class struggle heats up, it will become easier to make this theoretical knowledge into the basis for practical decision making. To this end it will be necessary for communists to have some basis for organization on which to act at a higher level. This will likely entail having links to the leading actors in class struggle locally, as well as broader organization regionally and internationally.
We should avoid undertaking the latter tasks on too early. In terms of local class struggle, attempting to seek out leading actors would likely consist of talking to tired trade union bureaucrats. The more militant outbursts occasionally seen outside of this, tend to be too spontaneous and dispersed. These moments, like Ferguson or Sanford, are reflective of the pre-political quality of the moment and would be too difficult to reach or influence concretely in advance. As to the matter of regional or international organization, this takes a tremendous amount of work. With a limited membership pool, flimsy relationship to the broader class, and lack of practical tasks in front of it, such organization could easily fall into Fourth International syndrome, if not outright failure. For now we encourage people to develop local groups based upon shared principles and tailored to the needs of their region. Seek out others, develop understanding, and attempt to share it with a broader public. In the immediate future perhaps some conferences or collective publications will be appropriate, and it is my understanding that there are already talks of bringing this into being. The road to a renewed proletarian struggle will not be an easy one, and will likely take a very different path from what we’ve seen before. But if we commit to a basic set of principles, keep an open mind, and exercise a healthy amount of revolutionary patience, we can prepare ourselves for a new beginning.