I took a whole mess of notes on Don Hamerquist’s recent essay on Lenin and contemporary radical organization. Then I beat those notes into a slightly less jumbled thing, trying to work out what I think is going on in the piece and what I think of it.

The essay is doing a lot.

I’m convinced by a very weak version of Hamerquist’s historical argument to take Lenin and the early 20th century Russian experience more seriously. I think I ought to know more about all of that than I do, and the same goes for anyone who is like me, because of Lenin’s historical importance. I’m sympathetic to a weak version of the political argument to take Lenin seriously – Lenin accomplish impressive things, thus radicals should try to learn from him. But I’m not convinced of a strong version of either argument – I’ve got no sense of the relative importance of Lenin and the Russian experience in relation to other historical moments, and no sense of the importance of Lenin in relation to other people who’ve built organizations and so on (though I can’t think of any other examples along these lines, except the little bits of stuff I’ve read by the WSM in Ireland the FdCA in Italy, smaller organizations with less world historical importance I admit). There’s more in the essay, a lot more, a lot of which I appreciate – the criticisms of Lenin, for instance, and of the USSR and so forth, but as an anarchist those parts don’t have much force for me. The Lenin stuff faces at least two directions, trying to get people reject Lenin to take him more seriously and trying to get people who think they take Lenin seriously to have a more critical and nuanced Leninism. I’m in the first camp, so the latter stuff is a bit of a non sequitur for me. That’s it for me and the piece in relation to Lenin. The real force of the piece for me is elsewhere than the Lenin question (as either historical or political issue, or both).

I’m open to a project that the piece suggests a few times but doesn’t develop, though I’m only partly open. It refers to “necessary discussions and joint initiatives within and between circles that should be able to move ahead” among the left today, as part of “the development of a working political and intellectual framework for the distressingly small cadre of radicals that are committed to liberatory working class revolution.” I agree that we need “the collective political practice necessary to test and evaluate alternative strategic initiatives.” The problem is who is “we” and who ought to be. The piece suggests someone or some people “self-conscioulsy bring together social anarchists and those Marxists and Leninists that could live with the lower case ‘m’ and ‘l’.” I’m open to that, depending on the terms of the bringing together. I think more dialog is good, and more comradely and respectful relationships despite differences. At the level of political unity and real organization, however, I’m pessimistic about the prospects for this. This is in part becase of some disconnects I have with the piece, and in part because I’m pessimistic about the level of political agreement needed for practical collaboration.

I have two main disconnects with the piece. One of these is a strong disagreement, the other a milder one. I’ll cover that first. As far as I can tell, Hamerquist is still for the seizure of state power. If I’m wrong, then great. If I’m right, then I don’t agree, and I think this will set some limits to the collaboration that Don seems to want, limits that I’m okay with but may be short of what he wants, I don’t know. I don’t have a strong argument here, I admit, I just don’t buy seizing the state as emancipatory project. Don says that “The real test of whether a seizure of power has initiated a trajectory towards socialism is whether working class and popular self organization and self rule is expanding.” This includes “the essential requirement that there be significant concrete steps toward replacing the administration of people with the administration of things.” I think a common anarchist assumption is that no seizure of power could in the long run meet this test. That’s a hypothetical, I don’t know how to prove it. I could imagine a philosophical argument along the lines of “the state is a form of alienation akin to what Marx described and what’s more it’s a contagious and inertial one that resists withering away” but I’m already bored by the prospect of trying to make an argument like that, and it’d be cheap as well. For now all I’ll say is that I think the seizure of the state as key piece in a project of liberation is a hypothetical as is “seizing the state is incompatible with all projects of real liberation.” I don’t know how to assess these against each other and I’m pessimistic about the prospects of fruitful discussion that could do so.

The other disconnect is about insurrection. I’m not sure what to make of this issue, or how to discuss it. This is I think one of the key political issues in the piece and that Hamerquist wants to discuss. He refers to “rapid, but temporary and reversible shifts in political potentials in epistemological break situations, particularly those with insurrectionary possibilities.” I’m of two minds here. On the one hand, this doesn’t speak to me at all. On the other, it does. I’ll start with the disconnect and come back to the other version of this later.

One of the biggest problems that the piece is concerned with is the relationship between insurrections and organizations (between spontaneous and willed activity?), but it only partially engages with this issue. It more seems to just say “This is a problem that needs to be dealt with” than saying much on how to deal with the problem, or giving examples of way this has been dealt with in the past. The main engine for changing people (as far as I can see) articulated in the piece is insurrection. I don’t think this is because Hamerquist thinks that’s all that changes people, I think it’s a matter of scale – those things will change more people more, if organizations are around to capitalize on them.

This is one of the biggest disconnects for me in the piece, the issue of insurrection, the scope of the implied stuff the piece can imagine. Maybe this is just me being conservative or maybe limits of my experience but smaller scale fights seem hard enough (perhaps I’m a crypto-gradualist) and I don’t think I’ve ever experienced the large sort of tectonic shifts that the piece seems to suggest are possible and which communists need to be prepared to take advantage of. I’ve not read much about previous insurrections and attempts to respond to them, and those that I’ve heard others talk about seem frankly over-rated to me. I might not be being fair here, though, as my in my head I’m equating all this insurrection talk with spontaneism and with struggle chasing – there’s an upsurge so we lefties rush to get there; for every new development there’s the new question “how do we radicals relate to it?” Of course that’s valid, but with the little I know about about examples I’m interested in of big conflagrations it seems to me there’s often some long term behind the scenes stuff that happens. I’m much, much more interested in – and think that our class has much greater need of – that sort of work than in the “how do we as radicals relate to this?”, a question tied in my experience to often relatively short term (say, 6-12 months at the longest) stints of doing political work. A lot of conflicts with management (successful ones that add to the ability to fight management better in the future) involve a lot of planning and preparation prior to the beginning of the conflict (think of the work that goes into preparing for a boxing match vs the time of the match itself). I’m more interested in that preparation to fight management kind of work than I am in the “the strike is on, we need an emergency flying squad meeting” kind of work.

As I think I said, maybe I misunderstand Don on insurrection, maybe it’s not spontaneism or anything like that. Even if it’s not, I’m pretty sure I *do* understand him right in that the insurrection stuff involves ideas of big groups of workers changing their minds at once. I can’t rule out that possibility but I’m deeply pessimistic about it. I don’t have anything like Don’s breadth and depth of experience or knowledge of history, but I feel like I’ve never experienced anything like what he’s describing or intimating in the stuff on insurrection, the ““rapid, but temporary and reversible shifts in political potentials in epistemological break situations” involving a great many people. I’m tempted again to formulate a hypothetical principle with regard to my gut level impulses and my trust… this principle would refer back to Don’s communists from the Manifesto, the ones who represent the future of the class or as I put it the ones oriented toward the class for itself (perhaps belonging to the proto- class for itself?), it would go like this: communists can count only on growth that they (we?) create through communists’ efforts; furthermore, individual conversation and relationship building between existing communists and noncommunists is key to this process; thus there is a rate of growth to expect which would be a function of the number of communists, the time they put in, and the degree of efficacy they have, working with noncommunists patiently and as individuals, and there’s a level of time required to work on noncommunists to move them in the way they need to be moved. Expectations about change above that level or outside the scope of these efforts can’t be eliminated, but can’t be proven. Don might say that this principle (I haven’t committed to it, it’s a hypothetical) would abandon the idea that the class enacts its own emancipation. I don’t think that’d be true, though, as the communists in question are working class ones, creating new working class communists.

I’m wandering. In short, I don’t trust there to be meaningful seismic shifts among the class in itself. Don will probably say I’m not even engaging then with the problem he’s after, and am a gradualist. Maybe so. Short of evidence that I’m wrong, I’ll stick with my pessimism for now. I suspect that a lot this is simply generational. I was born in the late 70s, I came of age really in the early 00s. My frame of reference is smaller and I’ve just never lived through anything that I can think of at all approaching an insurrection, a potential one, or a general offensive by the working class.

All of that said, there is a way in which I like very much what Don says about insurrection, but in a way that I think makes it no longer about insurrection. I’ll get back to this.

The parts of the piece that most spoke to me are the discussions of democracy and participation, and of the “general principles for the relationship of communists to the mass struggles of working people.” (Oh, and the stuff on workplace activity. I agree with that stuff entirely and so have nothing to say on it except that I wish it was longer and that more people would read it and take on that perspective.)

Hamerquist makes what are to my mind really good points about democracy and participation. He points a view that tends to see “greater democratic participation as the answer to most problems without fully appreciating its limitations and the resulting importance that revolutionaries collectively formulate and advance their own positions and confront the underlying issues in their own name.” He writes later that “[m]ost episodes of mass and class struggle include elements of a struggle for ‘better terms’ within capitalism, for reforms, as well as at least an implicit struggle against the capitalist system. Clearly moments occur in mass struggles when participatory majorities tacitly or explicitly acknowledge their subordination in exchange for selective concessions and a circumscribed security.” Hamerquist notes that radicals are usually in the numerical minority most of the time. He agrees with anarchists that there can be no “substitute for the actual change in the collective understanding of what is and what is possible” on the part of large groups of people. This can only occur “through the experience of active resistance to the power of capital and from the construction out of this resistance of a popular alternative.” He says that “The introduction of notions of general ‘objective’ interests of some broader social group in so situations can sometimes be helpful or even necessary, but it is no substitute for decisions that the actual participants in the struggle can recognize as their own.”

I think it’s important that “recognize as their own” is not the same as “make for themselves.” He says “Participatory majorities” in this sense are not necessarily numerical majorities. He adds that “even in early stages of struggle formally democratic procedures within it will not always promote the expansion and intensification of the struggle.” I think that is absolutely correct. In at least some contexts “a democratic and participatory approach will result in decisions that will not move the struggle forward, at least not in the opinion of the revolutionary grouping. So there may be moments in a struggle when a confrontation with democratically expressed ‘common sense’ is important.” Some of the time formal democracy can “substitute lowest common denominator approaches that accept the logic of capital for much less comfortable and less popular initiatives that might challenge this logic.” He points out that this does not “mean that revolutionary groups should always urge the fight forward.” There are times when digging in an holding ground is the better move for the long range than always pressing onward. We should be aware that “waves of enthusiasm can promote tactics that are not sustainable and objectives that are not attainable,” which “can result in significant and predictable setbacks.” It is possible that there can be “militant majorities that do not properly calculate the gaps and unevenness between what they are willing to do at a given moment and what they and others, possibly not so directly involved, will support over time.” This means “there will be (and have been) points where it may be necessary and important to retrench, to consolidate advances and accept necessary losses, even while additional victories still seem attainable to many participants in the movement. It will be certainly be unpopular, but it may be right to question or even challenge a militant majority under such conditions.”

About those general principles for communists in mass struggles, these are tied to the issue of democratic participation. It seems to me that at least some of the issue here is about what the class is that we orient to. That sounds clunky, of course. What I mean is, I think this is about how we work out our relationship to the class in itself and the class for itself. We have to work with and deal with people where we find them and be able to build relationships with people. We have to take people as we find them. At the same time, as radicals we can’t leave people as we find them. Our goal has to be to make people different. (I’ve tried to address this a bit in some blog posts occasionally, trying to think in my limited way about – and hopefully in a way that helps me be a bit better in – my limited experiences with doing some of this stuff, and have gotten a bit of feedback.)

That goal can sit uncomfortably with our democratic sensibilities. One version of a democratic sensibility involves consent – people affected by a decision should get to make the decision. That’s a sound principle. Like many sound principles, it has its limits. This issue of making people different is one area where we can see such a limit. How can someone consent to being made different? There are some ways, I suppose, but … if someone is not yet who they could and should be, and who they could and should be is a lot better than who they are, then, really, they’re not qualified to make the decision not to achieve their potential. (I had a much loved family member try to commit suicide once. That family member simply was not qualified to make the decision to die. Period, end of discussion.) I’m tempted to posit a hypothetical principle here, an inverse proportion between the change needed and the ability of the person needing the change to consent to it – people who most need their views changed are least qualified to consent to having their views changed. This is true for the class as well – we don’t ask the class in itself to give permission to the class for itself to come out and play.

I think this is the same issue, I’m not entirely sure. I’ve been in situations working with people who I see are formally my equal (they get a vote, they get equal rights, etc) but who I don’t see as substantive equals. Let’s say me and another comrade work together and we have a lot of experience with workplace struggle and revolutionary ideas. Let’s say we work with a group of people who have varying levels of experience less than we do (and people with more too, what the hell). There’s a balance to be struck with less experienced people. There is a sort of managed transparency, so to speak. If a first effort by a comrade and coworker is absolutely useless or counterproductive I think it’s still important to find a way to say something constructive, for the sake of developing that person or at the very least to help them really take the criticism on board. This means a conscious effort to find ways to sincerely express a silver lining along with criticisms. There are also discussions that have to happen sometimes, something like – “how do we get this comrade to be less socially awkward?” “maybe the issue is lack of confidence” “that could be, let’s push the comrade to speak publicly a few times, to feel less shy” “do you think they’ll succeed?” “At first? No. But if we have a plan to deal with the aftermath and give the right feedback, then yes, eventually.” This kind of thing has to be approached in a circuitous fashion and not directly through democratic means.

As Hamerquist puts it, there is an “unevenness in consciousness and development in the working class.” He see this as something he has in common with Tom Wetzel (I think Tom is quite good on this point, leadership development and so forth, and the need to recognize and actively take steps to work against informal hierarchies based on what people walked in the door with). For Don this is why there’s a “need for an organized minority to motivate and consolidate organizing projects that advance and expand the general struggle.” The piece says that this requires “a degree of ‘representation’ of the interests and potentials of social groups that are not organized and politically unified by a revolutionary organization that hopefully is.” I agree. But I don’t see what we gain by calling this representation. To be totally honest I wonder if this is partly a sort of, well, I don’t want to call it a trick but I can’t think of a better word. It wonder if this is an attempt to square democratic impulses with the discomfort of the fact that in some instances full transparency and democracy would be a mistake.

It’s on this stuff about the class for itself and about participation that I find that Hamerquist’s remarks about insurrection do resonate with me very much. At the end of the piece he states that “The development of mass revolutionary sentiment is not an extended and uniform process, but the result of sharp breaks and new normals that produce a strata of revolutionaries today that may not even have been the reformists of yesterday. These are not people who are discovered through a process of patiently arguing and convincing, but people who create and discover themselves through the unexpected leaps in perception and self conception that happen in actions, fights, struggles.” The “revolutionary organization should work to precipitate” this kind of occurence, he argues. At a large scope, I’m pessimistic, as I said. But at a smaller scope – a much smaller one, one so small that Don may be annoyed that I connect it with his remarks on insurrection – this describes exactly my orientation toward mass work.

People are not made communists head first, at least not all are and those who are made head first often have to have their feet and guts and hearts catch up. Many people are made communists first below the neck, and their ideas catch up. I think in saying that, in a way I’m agreeing with some of what Don is saying: “people (…) create and discover themselves through the unexpected leaps in perception and self conception that happen in actions, fights, struggles.” Personally, I think even more so when one is in the fight because one has a direct/material/economic stake in it, and deep human ties to people who have such a stake in it. There is a heat that is generated by struggles, and the closeness of a struggle to the heart of one’s social position/social existence, the higher one’s potential to experience this heat. Standing in solidarity with someone else’s workplace action is great and transformative. Taking action on one’s own job can be even more so – at least the first few times anyway. I say this because it seems to me relevant to what I mentioned before and only clumsily articulated, about the difference between relating to struggles that are happening vs the slow work of building struggles (on this, I find the term social insertion really annoying, as an aside), and because I’ve known radicals who put lots of time into various conflicts where others risk a great deal, which is great and necessary, but who aren’t themselves in conflicts facing at all analogous risks. (The working class radical movement I’d like to see is one mainly of people facing such risks connecting up with each other.) Maybe I’m just being moralistic.

Anyway, about struggles transforming people… one thing I learned from the STO’s writings is that it’s a mistake (one I used to make) to just leave it to the struggle to change people. Struggle is a necessary raw material, but not a sufficient one. Radicals have to relate to nonradical people who experience struggles, to make sure the right lessons happen (for the radicals too). It also seems to me that at levels much smaller in scale than insurrection, we can create these situations. We can build walkouts and other job actions and strikes. We build them in terms and conditions not of our choosing, but we can build them. I’ve seen this at an admittedly micro scale within my involvement in the IWW. This to my mind is what radicals should be doing, at least in work with people my and younger generations and the strata I’m familiar with.