We’re posting the first serious engagement and response to our pamphlet Justice for Oscar Grant: A Lost Opportunity? by comrades in the Oakland chapter of Bring the Ruckus. The response further develops the analysis of the pamphlet and poses further questions and challenges. We appreciate the response and look forward to discussing and debating the important questions of revolutionary praxis found within.
Bring the Struggle, Advance the Ruckus
Bring the Ruckus, Oakland (BR-OAK) welcomes the release of the new pamphlet by Advance the Struggle (AS), entitled “Justice for Oscar Grant: A Lost Opportunity?” In the spirit of comradely and productive critique, we offer the following comments, which we hope will both build upon ideas developed in the pamphlet, and also provoke further reflection on where to go from here.
“Justice for Oscar Grant: A Lost Opportunity?” seeks to critically assess the “organizational tools” available to those who took to the streets in January of 2009. According to AS, these tools primarily consisted of:
- The Coalition Against Police Executions (CAPE) a hastily-assembled grouping composed largely of nonprofit sector leftists, and
- “a self-labeled revolutionary communist organization” (i.e. the Avakianite Revolutionary Communist Party, or RCP) (p. 2).
The major contribution of this pamphlet, we believe, lies in this double-sided critique of two elements, two “organizational tools” which on the surface share very little, but whose subtle similarities could be further developed. While CAPE spent much of its time attempting to restrain the energies of the rebellion and channel these down reformist paths, young RCP cadres were consistently in the streets inciting further mobilization. AS is correct, nevertheless, to highlight the underlying compatibility that both sectors shared.
While we appreciate this useful critique, however, we are left hoping for more vision of how to move revolutionary organizing in the Bay forward. This is not a critique, since we ourselves have not publicly offered a systematic strategic vision of the coming months. This document is an effort to begin to make such a contribution, and to begin to move forward together.
I. Vanguardism, Reformist and “Revolutionary”
AS skillfully recounts the essential moments of the January rebellion, in which the initial intentions of the CAPE organizers were quickly overwhelmed by the “intuitive militancy of the Oakland youth” who—against the claims about “outside agitators” passed from police to the media, and regurgitated by CAPE itself—spearheaded the rebellions on January 7th, 14th, and 30th (p. 5). Against all calls for “moderation” and “rational” dialogue, this “intuitive militancy” demonstrated an astoundingly clear grasp of how the state functions. As C.L.R. James once put it, “The rich are only defeated when running for their lives.” It was only when the City of Oakland and Alameda County found their interests threatened that action was forced on the state and Johannes Mehserle arrested.Despite this irrefutable logic of the rebellion, both objects of the AS critique would in their own way hinder the militancy of this momentary upsurge.
AS discusses how nonprofits function as a “buffer” protecting the state, a role manifested physically on the night of January 14th (i.e. the very day after the state was forced to act for fear of a repeat of the 7th), as the nonprofit security force faced down protesters (notably with their backs to police) to clear them off the streets with a combination of disgusting paternalism (we are here to protect you) and the internalized ideology of self-policing (we must therefore physically remove you for your own good). Members of AS and Ruckus were both at the CAPE meeting when this security strategy was proposed and pursued with near-unanimity, the safety and effectiveness of the movement placed uncritically in the hands of black-clad professional security officers.
In that meeting, decisions had already been made behind closed doors by non-profiteers (some with direct ties to the Dellums campaign), compelled more by the desire to maintain their public image than to represent the righteous anger of those on the street. Predictably, when this force was deployed on the 14th, it found itself forced to repress the very people it claimed to represent, physically pushing them off the street. As one recent analysis describes the scene, CAPE’s security force both sheltered the state in a very material way, “work[ing] with police by fighting protestors,” while simultaneously destroying the solidarity necessary for a successful movement: creating a snitch culture, threatening demonstrators with arrest, “shaming people into nonviolence and passivity,” profiling young people of color to determine if they were capable of thinking for themselves (i.e. resisting becoming the mindless pawns of “outside agitators”), and finally “stripp[ing] away the power and momentum that had been established in the January 7th uprising” (Unfinished Acts, p. 24-25).
But to this critique of the CAPE non-profiteers operating as an arm of the state and who undoubtedly represented the fundamental barrier to continued mobilization, AS adds a critique of the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP). While many on the left refuse to even engage the RCP, the comical nature of their dogma should not prevent us from noting their impact on the ground: many a young radical has joined the RCP due to the absence of serious revolutionary organizations active in the Bay. Given the RCP’s failure to organize systematic campaigns with roots in the community, this means no more and no less than the detachment of young organic intellectuals from the revolutionary struggles that desperately need to be fought. The success of the RCP is therefore not something to be laughed-at or dismissed out-of-hand, since it also represents our failure.
While it is necessary to recognize that young RCP members were consistently present on the streets, through a detailed and subtle analysis of a series of school walk-outs, AS convincingly demonstrates the simultaneous ineffectiveness and even dangers of the RCP approach to mobilizing. According to AS, the RCP “fetishizes” the function of having the “correct political line,” drawing their own motivation from the unquestioned line provided by Bob Avakian. The result is a mode of political organizing which often looks more like evangelism, “a tautological (circular) form” in which the RCP mobilizes the community not for community needs, but to bolster their own ranks and readership. Struggles which do not fit into this pre-ordained circularity, AS scathingly notes, are dismissed as “economistic,” and abandoned to nonprofits (p. 18).
The peculiar complementarity existing between the RCP and nonprofits is then this: they constitute circuit whereby “revolutionaries” refuse to engage community struggles while those who do engage such struggles are far from revolutionary (i.e. nonprofit-led campaigns). Here, AS is on point: “We are criticizing them [the RCP], because in exalting themselves as representatives of communism and revolution they discredit these worthy goals” (p. 19). AS therefore offers a simultaneous critique of “reformist” and “revolutionary” tendencies, despite the fact that the CAPE nonprofits and the RCP “revolutionaries” played very different roles on the streets. This double-critique is useful, and here we would just like to draw out the inherent similarity of the two positions, both of which mobilize popular resentment for their own dubious ends (increased membership for the RCP; bargaining power with the state and cushy jobs for the non-profiteers). The existence of organizations dedicated to mobilizing anger only to harness it toward their own ends has a long history, one which long predates the nonprofit industrial complex, and which constitutes a threat inherent to all efforts at revolutionary change, and which must be borne in mind constantly if we are to minimize its harmful effects.
In his Reflections on Violence, French syndicalist Georges Sorel condemned the behavior of the parliamentary socialists during the 1906 general strike. Their strategy, according to Sorel, was to “skillfully manipulate the specter of revolution,” mobilizing the masses in order to frighten the bosses while positioning themselves as the unquestioned representatives of those masses, who they would quickly sell up the river. Some six decades later, Frantz Fanon would confront a similar situation in the Algerian Revolution, condemning in Wretched of the Earth the mainstream, nationalist political parties as “violent in their words and reformist in their attitudes.” This ambiguity toward violence results from the very position of such reformists: as mediators between the people and the state, they require a violent upsurge from below (seeing this as a “godsend,” and indeed “brandish[ing] the threat of mass mobilization as a decisive weapon”), but they also require that this upsurge stay within their control (and fear that they will be “swept away” in the struggle, which is to say, swept out of their privileged position). In both cases, the mediators and moderates whip up violence only in an effort to shut it down, in so doing demonstrating their credentials as negotiators and compromisers. They mediate because they are moderate, and they are moderate in order to guarantee their privileged position as mediators.
This fundamental complicity between radical nonprofits and vanguardist revolutionaries appears as clear as day once we take a close look at the recent history of Bay Area radicalism, and specifically the history and legacy of STORM (Standing Together to Organize a Revolutionary Movement). Here was a self-professed revolutionary organization of the 1990s which has given rise to nearly every radical nonprofit currently congesting the horizon of the Bay Area. While we don’t want to unilaterally condemn all of the work carried out by such organizations, we must not confuse them with revolutionary organizations, and when they become barriers to struggle (as they most certainly did in January), they must be opposed relentlessly and critiqued ruthlessly.
What is it that ties vanguardist revolutionaries to reformist nonprofiteers? Firstly, there is the circuit that AS rightly points out: the overtly non-revolutionary nature of the nonprofits drive hungry young radicals into the RCP (and on into disillusionment), while the RCP’s lack of roots in the community leaves the nonprofits intact in their self-appointed role as spokespeople for that community. But secondly, and arguably more important, is the fact that the two often share a form of vanguardism. Both tend to assume that they represent and speak for the people (after all, nonprofits have already decided which form of struggle works: reformism), and this conceit can lead as much to revolutionary maximalism as easily as to reformist minimalism.
Speaking directly to STORM’s history, it is clear that vanguardism did not lead directly to reformism, but rather made the organization, its members, and their politics susceptible to the logic of the nonprofit world: if you appoint yourself leader, there is no one that can possibly dissuade you from making strategic concessions to the state and its nonprofit extensions once you have made such a strategic calculation. And as we saw during the January rebellions, self-appointed leaders are all the more likely to cherish the role of mediator and negotiator, a role for which nonprofits—as para-state institutions—are uniquely situated. The degree to which the logic of the nonprofit world can permeate such organizations was visible in the September 2008 resignation of the entire staff of the School of Unity and Liberation (SOUL, itself an outgrowth of STORM), in part over the clashes with board members over the respective importance of nonprofit work vs. radical political work.
II. Where Next?
If we agree with AS’s two-pronged critique of vanguardist nonprofits and vanguardist “revolutionaries,” then what do we think of their positive program? Where does “Justice for Oscar Grant: A Lost Opportunity?” take us next? Here AS is rightly modest: their goal was to emphasize critique so that we might avoid making the same errors next time around. “Criticism of existing organizations is a necessary step in the direction of building the type of organization that can respond to movements of the oppressed and help guide them in a revolutionary direction, instead of fumbling or capitulating to the system” (p. 20). An atheistic Amen.
Further, AS correctly argues that developing a “correct line” is not, as the RCP would have it, to create a self-referential and dogmatic belief system regarding the course the struggle must and will take, but nor is it the opportunistic anti-correct-line of nonprofits (which itself, as we have seen, implies a vanguardist line of its own, which became viscerally obvious on the night of the 14th). “Both can and will be overrun and shoved aside by the spontaneous militancy of the people,” and our objective as revolutionaries should not be to merely corral or channel this spontaneity into our own organizations, but instead to self-reflexively allow our organizations to respond to radical demands: “The challenge is to develop an organization that can match its strategy and tactics to the mood of the masses and infuse the spontaneous movements that develop from that mood with a more conscious and political view of their world” (p. 21). (Note: we find this formulation more precise and useful than the initial call for “new leadership” at the beginning the pamphlet (p. 2). While we do not doubt that AS means only the best and most self-reflexive form of “leadership,” one with deep roots in the struggle and a clarity of vision as to where that struggle must move, we fear that the term “leadership” is unnecessarily ambiguous and can allow for vanguardist interpretations.)
AS closes its pamphlet with a touch of nostalgia for the spirit of the 1946 general strike in Oakland, wondering aloud why we have not seen a similar coalescence of union support for the Oscar Grant rebellions. A similar nostalgia is evident for the Black Panther Party, the other side of Oakland’s revolutionary coin (one which AS rightly shows to be in some ways connected to workplace organizing). Nostalgia is a useful tool, pointing us as it does in the right direction, but it does so only partially. We need to figure out the rest. We believe that AS recognizes that its answers are partial (indeed, no answers are ever complete). We would like to therefore prod the organization to push harder on their overarching conclusion. Why did the Oscar Grant rebellions fizzle out? For AS, “There was no organization” (p. 25). Meaning that there was no serious mechanism paralleling the union movements of the 1940s or the Black Panthers of the 1970s. Our provocation is to ask what it was that unions and the Black Panthers represented? What was the basis of their support, the durability of their revolutionary organizations, and the challenge
(and threat) they posed to the state?
Bring the Ruckus would respond by saying that both sought to create structures that were both strategic and lasting. As we have seen above, the post-STORM nonprofits have certainly built lasting institutions, but institutions which by virtue of their funding streams and intrinsic logics have lost their strategic teeth and no longer represent a threat to the state. And while organizations like the RCP may at moments engage in strategic action, their vanguardism, dogmatism, and adventurism prevent the building of stable institutions in the community (and as AS has shown, they frequently burn more bridges than they build). While there are many terms that can describe the existence of stable and strategic revolutionary institutions, we prefer the term dual power. Dual power institutions are those that simultaneously challenge the racist-capitalist status quo (in a strategic manner) while prefiguring the new society (thereby creating a basis for lasting institutions). This dual power vision is precisely what revolutionary workplace struggles of the past and the Black Panthers embodied, the only difference being that in the former dual power is located in the workplace while in the latter it is located geographically, or as Eldridge Cleaver put it, “in the streets.” While both are necessary, this is a division in dual power strategies and among workers more generally that must be overcome.
In this vein, we celebrate the fact that Oakland Copwatch is, after some false starts, off and running, since the police are a primary mechanism that the state uses to divide workers along race lines while preventing meaningful self-determination in the Black and Latino community. We also celebrate those union members who have been actively involved in the struggle around Oscar Grant’s death, although there is clearly much more to be done in this direction. We look forward, moreover, to the flourishing of strategic, dual power struggles as the economic crisis deepens: as homeowners refuse to heed foreclosures and become homeless, as students refuse to accept budget cuts, as healthcare workers and patients refuse to accept higher mortality as the “natural” result of capitalist crisis, and as migrant workers organize themselves to resist increasingly-frequent ICE raids. We believe that AS and others will agree that, if Johannes Mehserle is eventually acquitted or given a slap on the wrist, it is the development of such lasting and strategic organizational structures that will determine whether what we see next time is “just another riot” or something altogether more momentous.
Bring the Ruckus is a national organization of revolutionaries organizing to fight white supremacy and build dual power.
There’s a bit of stereotyped anarchist writing (hey, we’re all entitled to our clichés) re: condemnation of “vanguardism.”
From their summation document, and from knowing the participants themselves, STORM never professed to be the vanguard. The composition of the group was too varied to have the commitment to a pre-existing politics, and were generally jaundiced against socialist organization (and still are).
The term that STORM uses in their summation documents for both their aim and function was that of an “avant garde.”
This is telling in that it describes a certain logical fallacy: if the “vanguard” is bad because it is at the head of the movement, how much worse is an avant garde which to a large degree sees masses as something to be left behind in the dust?
Actually, the most telling thing about STORM is what legacy they seem to have left behind: liberalism and collaboration with the state. The political trajectory of STORM seems to lead directly towards the non-profit coalition which is critiqued in this piece . . . POWER, SOUL, and all the rest were apparently part and parcel to this supposed “avante garde” of the movement for Justice for Oscar Grant.
Very dissapointing, especially since the rhetoric in that “summation” document makes it seem like the racial/gender composition of STORM made it stand out from the white socialist organizations that they critique/borderline race-bait.
Just one example of why the racial/gender composition of your organizations isn’t the sole determinant of the radicalism of your politics. Seems that the struggle for a real revolutionary formation would seek to match its of-color/womyn/queer membership composition with a correspondingly revolutionary program and practice, aka avoiding collaboration with the state apparatus in the name of “being realistic” or avoiding “sectarianism.”
Just some thoughts-
There’s an unsupported teleology to your line of criticism, Hijole. STORM broke up nearly a decade ago, and people went all sorts of directions. A number who wrote the summation are no longer even in the Bay Area. So please – go ahead and criticize people who had absolutely no role in this conversation.
If this is the approach one takes, I certainly hope that neither Advance the Struggle nor Bring the Ruckus ever has a member who starts to get cold feet about rioting, lest the next generation be just as dismissive of how both of your organizations were always a bunch of (fill in the blank)ers.
No investigation, no right to speak…
Hege, the point isn’t about members getting cold feet – it’s a question of politics. Are our politics one which anticipates and appreciates resistance against state oppression (as Mao said, oppression breeds resistance, and it’s right to rebel against reactionaries!) or do we want to mediate and thereby squash this type of rebellion and resistance?
It’s not about cold feet – it’s politics!
Are we there with the people as single sparks start prairie fires, or are we firemen trying to put the fire out?
The legacy of groups like STORM should, of course, be fleshed out and looked at seriously – as you seemingly suggest when you say I promote unfounded teleologies. And, perhaps knowing people who have come out of that group, you should contribute to documenting that history. However, by simply accusing me of a “unsupported teleology” you have not actually articulated a political disagreement with what I’ve said.
Did the groups which this document labels as sneakily “vanguardist” participate in the Oakland rebellions on the side of the people, or on the side of the police? Perhaps somehwere in between? The next question is – WHY did they do so? I argue it’s because of their politics, and again not because of “cold feet.”
I think that you seem to be defensively defending the legacy of STORM. I apologize if my tone contributed to this defensiveness. There are important issues to be dealing with and we should be doing so with clear heads!
While I agree that STORM led to reformism, that’s hardly all it led to. My point in discussing teleology is that you are presenting those politics as if they simply project from point A to point B.
Part of the rigor of Marxism, though, is understanding the complexity of how ideas develop – in particular, how unities exist among lines totally opposite one another, and how that united whole reaches contradiction and negation, divides and hence gives the spiral “shape” which is discernable within dialectics.
In the case of STORM, I believe it is clear that the one divided into two – STORM the revolutionary organization and STORM the network of institutions divided in both theory and practice, and people felt that it necessary to move on.
Beyond this, with regard strictly to BTR’s analysis, I believe this is a matter of right church/wrong pew – indeed, STORM’s understanding of the role revolutionaries play vis-a-vis the movement had its deficiencies, and these deficiencies play out in its legacy. But that deficiency was not in playing a vanguard role (which they did at times, especially in doing some very important work re: criminalization of youth and the prison industrial complex), but where they took a too-distant role.
In other words, is it a problem to do (as a vanguard, properly does) lead from the front of a movement, where the clashes are fiercest and where clear vision is necessary? Or is it not more problematic to try to, on the one hand:
• go ahead of the movement – what an avant garde (or, more properly speaking, adventurist) does;
• or, on the other hand, try to apply the brakes to the movement from behind it (the old problem of tailism and right-opportunism)?
The invocation of Sorel, by the way, is another stumbling block I have altogether, which I’m not going to have time to get into today.
I think I am myself split on the middle on this question, it seems to me that the Bay Area’s “Line of March” (if want to track line befor STORM) offshots have largely always had the tendency towards thinking up new forms of “revolutionary reformist” (as many would articulate it) work, and this has casted the shape for the political scene in the Bay for a long time, and probably has taken on a more liberal character after STORM – there is no doubt that certain noteworthy people have gone into becoming the ethical attitude of the State from that formation, like Van Jones.
But where are we to figure out formations like POWER and others of a more radical color in this milieu of STORM NGO children? Is it proper to say they’re merely in collaboration with the State? Definitely some, but I am not convince its so clear cut as this and that we might take a more apt approach to figure out what are the “contradictions amongst the masses of people” (to give Mao a word on it).
One thing I united with this critique on was in part of its criticism on “vanguardism” it mentions various organizational formations that posit themselves as the leaders of more or less rebellious upsure only to try to sell out the movement for its own position, showing reference to French Socialist Party of the early 20th century and various nationalist parties that Fanon commented on. It strikes me this has less an issue to do with “Vanguardism” (the Anarchist’s version of the Trotskyist “Stalinism”) but actually the politics of those organizations altogether. They try to lead with essentially liberal politics, no matter what the rhetoric.
Whats striking in both this response to the A/S critique and the A/S critique is that the critique of the RCP is weaker and takes up less detail than the critique of CAPE and NGOs’. Can we honestly say that the problem with the RCP is their “vanguardism?” or is it more or less their method of work amongst people they’re “amongst, their actual lack of leadership?
Its nearly the same here in NYC, RCP or “black block” anarchists break out from the ANWSER-IAC march, they either become marginalized amongst themselves or find themselves finding traction amongst people. If they ever find traction, same old happens, we all are roddy, march around tossing stones at police, garbage cans get flipped – and then it fizzles and some kids get arrested whose names never get known…until a next young brother or sister is shot.
So here is the kick – how don’t we end up like CAPE type coalitions or RCP? It seems to me that we’re really just asking to find the median, and I am not sure that will cut it.
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“So here is the kick – how don’t we end up like CAPE type coalitions or RCP? It seems to me that we’re really just asking to find the median, and I am not sure that will cut it.”
StP you have hit the nail on the head here. we have to be aware, though, that if one could offer the correct answer to this, it would represent a watershed in radical american politics, so we have to put AS’s shortcoming in the area of providing a more concrete proposal in the proper context: the left is so polarized between those that sucked into the hegemony of the state on one hand, and those that are doomed to permanent marginalization on the other, that in actuality, BOTH poles diffuse radical impulses by misleading the people in so many charades (of militancy) in the case of the former, and farces (of revolution) in the case of the latter. by diffusing radical impulses, they share a conservative social function and reinforce existing class relations.
the alternative is for us to prioritize the challenging of existing class relations. traditionally, this has been done at the point of production, which is ostensibly the place where “class” happens. on this blog, we have had healthy debate about the question of what type of workplaces to orient toward (factories? campuses? ), what models to adopt (union leadership, opposition caucus, of non-profit worker’s center?), and what politics to bring to the whole thing. we have agreed that class happens in many other spheres outside of the workplace and these offer valuable sites of struggle as well. However, i would say that the deficiency of organizing on the basis of workers as workers independently of the unions, democrats, or non-profits (guided by a revolutionary multidimensional politics) over the past 35 years has been the single biggest failure of the left.
rather than seek the median between marginalized dogmatic left group and an NGO that is incorporated into the state, i would suggest we need a League of Revolutionary Black Workers type approach. that is, one that is led by people from within the working class, dedicated to demonstrating working class agency to workers themselves with bold direct action, an intellectual culture and regular literature distribution, and student and community dimensions to their work that compliment the worker organizing. in referencing the League, i am NOT endorsing their various “lines” and i do NOT care to argue about specific positions of theirs or actions they took. these particulars should not distract us from their model and method, which are what i am trying to highlight here. the League’s model and method offer us good starting points from which to develop an alternative to left wing outside extremists and ngo reformists, beyond striking a mere median between the two.
hopefully AS will issue a piece that lays out a more concrete alternative to “just asking to find the median” between CAPE and RCP type organizations. raising the question was just step number one. number two is figuring out a model that works to some extent. presenting that model as an alternative to the status quo would be number three. having criticized the existing models, AS now has the responsibility to build something unique.
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