I circulated that draft of a thing I wrote on mass work to some comrades and got a few comments in response. Here are some of those comments and what they made me think of. Part of what I’ve got rattling around in my mind is a phrase Adam used when we talked recently about the Furious Five, “building a new base for anarchism.” Also rattling around in my mind are the various things in that diagram on organizational work that I sketched out on note cards to try and get clearer on stuff.

One person made the point there’s an important difference between supporting mass work and carrying out support work vs building and carrying out mass work, even though the two are related. I’m most interested in the second. Some examples of building and carrying out/sustaining mass work is organizing against the people who have power over us in our own immediate lives – against our boss, our landlord. This can be different from working with someone fighting their own boss, their own landlord, but it doesn’t have to be. My friend pointed out that we can be part of building mass work even when not fighting the people who have power of us personally – we can do house visits with people, train them in organizing, and so on. One important point with this is to try as much as possible to not be an outside force or behind the scenes force, but instead to act with people in ways that gets them to act. We want to do this in ways that accomplish a few things. Get them to act in ways develop new capacities for them, deepen their impulse to fight in general, build relationships between them and us so we can continue to work with them after the immediate issue has cooled off, and build organization for the next time there’s a fight.

Another comrade asked what this really amounts to in practice, for example how would we relate to a local struggle that makes reformist demands or are dominated by a few people? I think this is a super important issue. I don’t know the answer, I don’t think there is one answer, it’s all about the context. My impulse is to say that we should not prioritize the issue of what the demands are nor should we prioritize doing behind the scenes work. In some cases one or the other may be necessary, then we should do so. To my mind the top priority should be building relationships with the base of struggles and organizations.

It may seem contradictory to say “don’t fight over the demands” or “don’t do the behind the scenes work” while saying “orient toward the base.” Maybe it is, in some contexts I’m sure it is. On the other hand, in a lot of cases our views of existing mass organizations is that these organizations are run by people who are separated from their base perhaps in interests and often in relationships. That’s the case at least some of the time. When that’s the case, why orient toward the institutional structures that lack relationships with the base, if our goal is to build relationships to the base? If/when there’s a good answer to that, especially an answer that includes “because doing so in this way will help us build ties to the base in the following way….” Then it’s a good idea. If/when there’s not, then it’s not a good idea. (I say “the base” but I think it’s important to point out that I mean specific individuals within the base – we want to build individual personal relationships, one-to-one initially as opposed to one-to-many. What I means is, we want to talk to and listen to people as individuals, that’s what I mean by one-to-one, as opposed to handing out the same newspaper and statement to every person on a picket line, that’s what I meant by one-to-many. That’s not to say that one-to-many has no place, but it’s a different thing.)

Take the example of supporting a strike or picket line. We can get involved in helping set and execute tactics. That can make a big difference and sometimes it’s a good idea. Sometimes it’s really important to shaping the outcomes for the workers lives. On the other hand, it’s really easy to do this work in ways that put us working alongside mostly staff and officers and at most some of the most developed members of the organizations, people who are often not typical of the people who will show up at the picket line sometimes. Again, that’s not always a bad idea, but if our organizational work has us spending the most time alongside those people then it’s clear that it our work puts us developing relationships most with those people rather than the base. (I tried to think a bit about this in this post on my conversation with Todd, distinguishing between things that we think are morally pressing in the short term and things that we think will build stuff in the long term.)

This is, I think, a good simple test: who will this work have us spending the most of our time with? The answer can vary, but we should have an idea of the answer and a justification for why that’s a good thing or an acceptable thing. In some cases it may something like “it puts us talking mostly to the lawyer and talking a fair amount to a few people in that vanguardist group, but the stakes here are so high that it’s worth it.” Totally legit, but we can see the limits to this so that we wouldn’t want *all* our work to have that character.

In doing our mass work I think we should try to prioritize a few things, like I tried to say. We want to take on the role of moving new people into the struggle. We also want to up the commitment of people who are involved but are not as involved as they could be, to make them more like cadre. We want to work with the cadre (who will sometimes be staff and officers and will sometimes be separated from the base). We want to build relationships in each case, long term lasting relationships that will allow us to bring up political ideas so that we can win people to our views and eventually recruit to our political organization. We want to know which of these it is that we’re doing in our different work, and to know that in doing one at any given moment we’re probably not doing the other at that moment, and we should have justification for why what we’re doing at that moment makes the most sense compared to the other possibilities.

Personally, like I said, in general I’m for prioritizing the first one or two of these, getting new people involved and upping the involvement of the less involved. I think that as building mass work, as I used the phrase above.

So, with the example of the picket line and strike support, the stuff I’m suggesting is likely to mean spending more time on the picket line and building relationships with individual picketers than it means going to the picket planning meetings (depending on the make up and dynamics of those meetings). It means talking to and asking questions of and listening to the other picketers, and trying to get contact info to do follow up conversations.

Another comrade suggested that we need to be aware of and read to oppose opportunists and recuperators. I think that makes a lot of sense. I think in this too though we should ask who this involves talking to and spending time with the most, as I said above.

Like I tried to say in the original piece/draft, I think it’s especially important for us to be located as close as possible to the place and times where people have potentially transformative experiences. To use a metaphor, collective action involves conflict, which is friction between two positions in society. This friction generates heat which remolds people somewhat. We want to be as close to that heat as possible when it happens, which means ideally being involved in some way in generating it. To be clear, though, the heat is not on the barricades or on the picket line or whatever. The heat is inside people who at that point. We don’t want to be on the barricades or on the picket line or at the march on the boss. We want to be next to, as close as possible to, the people who are there, particularly people who are there for the first time or have not been there many times (often the people who have done this stuff many, many times don’t find it as transformative – no disrespect intended; we want to maximize our closeness and access to people who undergoing transformative experiences). This of course means we want to be there ourselves, but we don’t want to be there in place of anyone else and our only role is not to keep the person there or make the event or struggle successful. As I’ve been trying to say, one major priority for us should be to be there, tied in to that heat, in a way that best places us to have relationships with people undergoing the transformative experiences and best places us to maximize the transformativeness of the experiences. (This means in part follow up – transformation occurs over time, about as much after experiences as during them.)

Part of what I’m trying to say is that I think we should aim less at people who are already active, who we want to help and struggle alongside, than we should at people who we want to move to be more active, and through that movement try to radicalize them and build ties to them. When we do orient toward people who are already active, we should try to get involved in a building way more than a support way as much as possible, and try to have similar dynamics – orient toward the heat and so on.