Excerpts from “What is a Cadre Organization?” by Joel Olson, with my notes sprinkled in. (By the way, folk should read his article “Between Infoshops and Insurrection.” I disagree with some of it but it makes some very good points.)
What is a cadre group?
A cadre organization is a group of committed, active, revolutionary intellectuals who share a common politics and who come together to develop revolutionary thought and practice and test it out in struggle. By “active” I mean one who is involved in political struggle, not merely a book reader. By “intellectual” I don’t mean someone with a college degree but one who makes a serious, ongoing commitment to understanding the world in order to better agitate within it.
A cadre group is not a mass group like Janitors for Justice, Critical Resistance, Copwatch, or Communities United, although its members should be active in such groups. Nor does it presume to be leaders of these groups, although its members may assume leadership roles if they deserve them. It does not seek to co-opt or use these groups for its own ends (that’s called a front group), although it definitely participates democratically in struggles over their purpose and direction. Rather, a cadre group seeks to participate in those mass struggles that have the best chance to blow the lid off this society, and it seeks to make those struggles as radical and democratic as possible. [I disagree with this last sentence. I think the point should be to participate in mass work to create more revolutionaries, at least for the time being. I also think that this is more important than trying to steer struggles in a radical or democratic direction. I think we should prioritize individual relationships with people in mass work, in ways that radicalize them.]
What is a cadre group for?
The purpose of a cadre group is to encourage the development of a revolutionary working class in the United States. A cadre group seeks to understand the world it lives in, identify the forces in it that are struggling in radical ways, and develop those forces in a way that is consistent with the cadre’s politics.
[I have a concern about this as well. I'm all for looking to what some people are already doing and trying to build ties to them. Basically that's a matter of trying to build relationships with struggles that come up independent of the cadre group, which the cadre group is initially outside of. Personally, I think it's equally or more important to orient toward people who are currently not engaged in struggle and to move them to act. Basically, I think the cadre should be organizers.]
Marx argues in the Communist Manifesto that the purpose of a cadre group is to radicalize and internationalize working class struggles. That is, a cadre should help the working class in one area connect its struggle to struggles in other areas, as well as overcome religious, ethnic, and other distinctions that prevent working class unity. A cadre group should also help show the working class the inherently radical nature of their actions, which might otherwise seem reformist (such as the struggle to reduce the length of the working day to ten hours).
For C.L.R. James, the purpose of a cadre organization is to “observe and record.” That is, it should observe working-class struggles and record them (via a newspaper) so that the working class can see for itself what it is doing and the radical nature of its struggle.
I think Marx and James are essentially correct, except I would add that a cadre group should also participate in those struggles that we think have the most revolutionary potential. Thus, the function of a cadre group like BTR is to observe, record, and participate in working class struggles that have the potential to bring about a free world.
[I disagree with this assessment of looking for what is most revolutionary or most potentially revolutionary, at least for the time being when there are not massive and radical struggles already existing.]
What is the role of political analysis in a cadre group?
A cadre exists first and foremost for the benefit of revolutionaries. It seeks to organize the revolutionaries, not the masses. (Organizing mass movements is the job of larger grassroots organizations, of which cadre members should participate in.) Its benefit to ordinary folks and non-revolutionary activists is at best indirect—at least up until the barricades go up and people are actively looking for new ideas and new ways to organize the world. Thus, a cadre group seeks to develop a political line and the politics of its members in the service of revolutionary struggle.
[I disagree with some of this, the second sentence. I think there are mass cadre (people who are experience and effective in the work of building mass organizations) and political cadre, which is not an absolute distinction. I think a political organization should seek to develop political cadre, but I think that these people should be mass cadre as much as possible and should do organizing work.]
Excerpt from “Bring the Ruckus“
Neither the Vanguard nor the Network
A revolutionary organization for the 21st century needs to forge a path between the Leninist vanguard party favored by traditional Marxist parties and the loose “network” model of organizing favored by many anarchists and activists today. The purpose of a revolutionary organization is to act as a cadre group that develops politics and strategies that contribute to mass movements toward a free society.
It is not a vanguard group. It does not seek to control any organization or movement, nor does it pretend that it is the most advanced section of a struggle and thus has the right to act in the interests of the masses. Instead, it assumes that the masses are typically the most advanced section of a struggle and that the cadre perpetually strives to learn from and identify with the masses. At the same time, a cadre organization does not pretend it doesn’t provide leadership for larger movements, nor does it pretend that leadership is inherently authoritarian. A cadre organization does not seek to control any organization or movement, it aims to help lead it by providing it with a radical perspective and committed members dedicated to developing its autonomous revolutionary potential. A cadre group should debate those politics and strategies that best imagine and lead to a free society and then fight to enact them in mass-oriented organizations and movements.
A cadre is not an umbrella organization. It does not participate in any and all kinds of progressive social activism. Instead, a cadre group seeks out, helps develop, and supports those forms of agitation that undermine the rule of official society and that in some way prefigure the new society. In other words, the organization would not actively support any kind of activism but only those struggles that hold the potential of building a dual power. We imagine that such a revolutionary organization would be to contemporary movements what the FAI was to the CNT in Spain or the First International was to the European working class movements: a membership organization of like-minded persons committed to developing and encouraging the autonomous revolutionary tendencies in our present society.
[I disagree with this. This sounds to me like they're saying "work in the most revolutionary struggles." I think that's a mistake. Rather than look for where we think struggle is objectively most advanced, we should do mass work in ways that radicalizes people.]
The proposed federation should recognize that political theory, no matter how strong, can accomplish little if it is not combined with effective strategy. The actions taken by the organization, its involvement in mass movements, and its public statements should all be determined on a strategic basis. The focus of our work should be involving ourselves in movements and activism where there is the potential to work toward the building of a dual power. Social reforms won by progressive movements may be important, but if they do not work toward a dual power they are not the concerns of a revolutionary organization. For example, animal liberation is a worthy cause. However, it is difficult to imagine how a campaign for animal liberation could threaten state power and foreshadow a new society. Thus, while a revolutionary organization may applaud animal liberation activities, it would not devote energy toward animal rights. On the other hand, a program to develop local Copwatch chapters could represent a dual power strategy, since monitoring the police undermines state power by disrupting the cops’ ability to enforce class and color lines and also foreshadows a new society in which ordinary people take responsibility for ensuring the safety of their communities.
Thus, campaigns developed by the organization that do not contribute toward the building of a dual power should be abandoned. If a popular protest movement has little hope of building a dual power, it is not one we should be collectively involved in. We may morally and politically approve of such movements but as a small group with limited resources, we must reject the liberalism of reform activism and concern ourselves with revolutionary strategy.
[I think the emphasis on dual power is a mistake. I think instead the emphasis should be on activity which most reaches out to people who are not already in struggle. I think there are two basic directions: move out, as in broaden, or move up, as in intensify. There is getting more people involved in the struggle and there is getting the struggle to be hotter. I think the first is more important than the second. What's more, I think that if one sector gets really hot really quick in certain ways then it can become a barrier to other people getting involved. Put another way, if a struggle moves up, intensifies, really quickly then it can be harder for the struggle to broaden. I'm not saying we should try to cool things down, but I am saying that building outward, getting more people involved who aren't yet involved in struggle, should be the top priority.]
Tom W, a comrade and fellow WSA member, said this on a discussion on a forum site, I thought it was worth quoting as a reminder to myself to come back to it later.
In regard to the discussion of cadre, I think something fundamental is left out. Capitalist production doesn’t just produce commodities. It also produces the class relations, including how these are rooted in people’s psyches and in the skills they get to develop. People of the coordinator class…high-end professionals like engineers and lawyers and managers…tend to have a strong sense of entitlement to make decisions. They tend to gain expertise from the jobs they do. After a century of taylorism and de-skilling, working class jobs often offer little for personal development. Within the working class itself, there is a lot of differentiation in levels of skill, education, self-confidence, and other things that people call “leadership ability.”
Because the class position of the coordinator class is based on a relative monopolization of key kinds of expertize and decision-making authority, we have to keep in mind that monopolization of expertise and decision-making…and taking the domination of the people with existing “leadership skills” for granted…has a tendency to lead to bureaucratization…it’s a reason for union bureaucratization…and also prefigures a society where there is an empowered, skilled group with the expertise and decsion-making authority…in other words, the continued existence of a class system.
Thus a central aim of a libertarian Left movement, a movement for working class self-emancipation, has to be to work at developing the knowledge, self-confidence and “leadership skills” of ordinary people, so that movements do not become dependent on certain people, and as part of the process of empowerment and development of the ability of people to effectively participate in running movements now, and running society and their workplaces later. We’re not going to be able to entirely remove the inequality in personal capacities and leadership ability, but we can have a movement that is tending and workin in that direction…so that it prefigures a society where this becomes entrenched in new institutions, a new way of life.
Thus it’s a mistake to simply take for granted any existing level of leadership skills within the mass movement or mass organizations, as if “cadre” and “mass” (or whatever the contrasting term is) were a static relationship.
Tom W on leadership
we can’t take the distribution of “leadership skills” for granted. that distribution is affected by the class and other power structures of society, which lead working class people and women to not have self-confidence while the educated “middle class” have a sense of entitlement to make decisions.
there really does need to be a systematic effort to develop knowledge, skills like public speaking, how to theorize one’s experience etc. leadership development also comes from learning through doing, as when workers are brought into struggle and gain confidence when they’ve successfully challenged managers and won things thru their initiative.
so it’s really about building the capacity for effective participation in making decisions and influencing what happens. we shouldn’t want to encourage others to simply follow us, and then become dependent on us…on what a particular organizer has learned etc. that leads to the kind of bureaucratic political machines we see in unions. so formal hierarchy can be built up out of the informal hierarchy of differential ability to take initiative and influence others. the ability to take initiative and influence others is presumably what we mean by “leadership” in the sense where we think leadership is necessary. we differentiate that from some formal power hierarchy. but we need to be thinking always about democratization of skills and knowledge…building more leaders, if you will. “leader” isn’t such a great term because it is slippery, it has multiple meanings, and this is what trips up some anarchists who say they’re against leadership. they’re thinking of the power hierarchy.
but the ability to get things going, influence what happens, influence others, speak up, etc…that’s leadership also. it would be nifty if we had a different word for this.