This is a slightly edited and expanded version of what I said in my notes, about Ignatiev’s piece as part of the Hamerquist Lenin discussion. I tried to post it as a comment over there but it didn’t work so I’m posting it here.

Ignatiev’s piece is about CLR James and organization. Ignatiev begins by noting that James both rejected the idea of the vanguard party and retained a commitment to organization. What’s that organizations for, though? Ignatiev lays out a few answers to this question from James’ works:

– record positive developments that happen (presumably this recording involved the idea of presenting these developments back to people in the hope that doing so would aid those developments by deepening them or spreading them)
Ignatiev spends a lot of time on the views of Facing Reality, James’ organization, about race relations and black workers, and speculates that the left in the US might productively spend a lot of time working on prisoners’ right to vote. Aside from the historical particulars, Ignatiev notes that the specific organizational functions stressed here are to educate workers (mainly but not solely through its newspaper), and will maintain “a resolute determination to bring all aspects of the question into the open, within the context of the recognition that the new society exists and that it carries within itself much of the sores and diseases of the old.”

Ignatiev gives an example of a walkout at a workplace, and radicals responding to that by pushing for discussions on how the walkout could become “the starting point of a new shop-floor organization based on direct action.” I’m sympathetic to this. But do the radicals know how to build a new organization like this? I mean, do they have anything to contribute? If so, how did they learn it? By watching others? Or by participating? If they participated, is that recognizing and recording, or something else? And if they don’t have anything to contribute to the new organization, why should anyone listen to them anyway?

There’s a real disconnect from my experience with this example. I’ve got little experience with the sequence implied here, that sequence being the existence of a group of radicals, then the actions of a group of workers largely on their own initiative, then the radicals respond by trying to move the process a step further or to retain the positive developments. I’ve got much more experience in situations of radicals playing a large (but by no means exclusive) role in generating the initiative – or the tissues of relationships and emotional responses and ideas that lead to the initiative – to take the workplace action. After that the sequence proceeds basically the same and can eventually lead to situations of less politicized workers taking their own initiative without the conscious intervention of radicals. (And as noted in my notes on this other piece by Tom Wetzel and in my trying to get clearer on mass work, this stuff can also, I think, lead to more workers becoming radicals.)

About the anecdotes of workers bringing guns to work to kill foremen…. to some extent I appreciate the empathy expressed there, but only partially. And I can’t shake a strong negative reaction to the anecdotes. I mean, yeah, defending people and spreading the idea of defending people is great. But it’s also really really limited – the shooter’s life is still pretty messed up, for one thing. I think the League of Revolutionary Black Workers is an important organization that more people should know about and we should have more experiments in trying to build things like that today. I also think their work in defense of James Johnson for killing his foreman shows that they had their hearts in the right place and that they had a good lawyer, but it’s hardly the most inspiring thing they did. This hardly sounds to me like an inspiring example for radicals to aim for (”if we work really hard, we can see that workers who get desperate and shoot their bosses don’t executed but instead get committed!”) and the League did so much more, why just focus on this example. And what’s more, from what I’ve read about the League they were not a “recognize and record” group, they were a “let’s intervene!” group, as far as I know (I’m open to being challenged on the facts here, with evidence). So, it’s cool that the League used the Chicago group’s flyer and all, but surely what the League had built in Detroit – through active intervention, I think – helped make the effective use of that flyer possible. In that case, thinking about it, I’m not convinced that this is *really* an example of the political power of “recognize and record” so much as an example of the political power of “organize!”

I also don’t get what the stuff about Jimmy and Maurice is supposed to mean. Is this supposed to be like one of those “the workers know better” moments, where the revolutionary learns a lesson from the masses? I don’t know what else it’s supposed to mean here, but I don’t know what the lesson is. It seems to me that Jimmy’s attitude toward Maurice’s actions was a stupid one. Until he got laid off one of my brothers worked as a welder in some really lousey places, lots of racism against him and so on. Let’s say hypothetically my brother brought a gun to work, I’d want someone to stop him from killing the foreman. That’s so obvious that I don’t know what else to say. I also have a hard time seeing a new society in the event (with a 1% chance) that the other workers would defend the guy who kills the foreman. I see instead a laudable gesture of empathy that gets crushed and the guy still goes to prison or an institution. That Jimmy thought “Maurice’s life was already a prison that could be salvaged by one dramatic NO, regardless of the consequences” seems to me like an argument *against* the “recognize and record” line.

In case any communists who work with my brother are reading this, if a situation like this breaks out where y’all work, don’t record. Act. Tell my brother that the abuses he’s endured in his life as a working class latino in the US are *not* going to be salvaged by one dramatic no. Please don’t tell him that his life is already a prison so it’s okay if he goes to, you know, real prison, and if any of his co-workers say this please tell argue with them. Also please don’t tell him that if he kills the foreman there’s a chance his coworkers might defend him against the cops and in the process they might all help produce a new society. Tell him that if he really wants to change things at work there a few other things he could do which are constructive and might help produce a new society and which are less likely to get him killed, imprisoned, or committed. Or, if he really can’t take the job anymore, tell him to get himself fired and to try to collect unemployment benefits. Thanks.

I mean, let me try it this way:
It’s great that the League helped defend this guy, and their partial victory, that’s great too. But what would have been even greater still is if, instead of killing his foreman and getting committed, if someone from the League had been able to help the guy become an active participant in the Revolutionary Union Movement organizations based in each plant, to channel his anger and frustration into building something. Surely that would have been an even better outcome. In a way, then, this guy’s story could be taken as a sad example of what happens when revolutionaries don’t manage to get to people first, an example to say “we need to organize even more and even faster! if the RUMs had been bigger and badder and more widespread, maybe someone could have gotten to this guy and he’d have had a much better life!”

Ignatiev ends with this paragraph – “The task of revolutionaries is not to organize the workers but to organize themselves to discover those patterns of activity and forms of organization that have sprung up out of the struggle and that embody the new society, and to help them grow stronger, more confident, and more conscious of their direction.”

I disagree, as will be obvious I think. And I think there’s a bit of a logical slip or something here. I don’t see an argument here that the task of radical is not to organize, I just see an assertion. An assertion based largely on “James and his group saw it this way.” That doesn’t convince me. I suppose there are circumstances where this description of revolutinaries’ tasks is right. But I don’t see why this description should be right for all circumstances. Surely it stands to reason that there are instances when things would be better if workers organize, and yet workers don’t (leaving aside, of course, the moments of workers spontaneously fighting cops to defend coworkers who kill foremen). In that case, if there are radicals present who don’t even try to organize, well, that’s just got to be a failing on the part of those radicals.

And, there’s an implication here of a distinction between radicals and workers. Some radicals aren’t workers, and the reverse is certainly true (many workers aren’t radicals). What about radical workers, though? Some of us are working class people who are politically radical. Surely one of our tasks *is* to organize our fellow workers – to organize with them if they’re already organizing, but to get them organizing if they’re not already doing so; the long term goal being to get people to the point where we can genuinely organize with them as equals, and they have the capacity to really take on struggles on their own initiative. Put another way, “disciplined spontaneity,” as Ignatiev calls it, doesn’t always have to be left to produce itself or otherwise be produced without the conscious initiative of anyone.

Finally, about recognizing and recording vs organizing… there’s a weirdness here, I’m not sure how to put it. On the one hand, the argument pushes toward a strong version of the self-sufficiency of the working class: “workers don’t need the radical left to organize them, the workers are already in motion, they bear the seeds of a new society!” On the other hand, the argument pushes toward a strong version of the insufficiency of the working class: workers need radicals to discover the patterns and organizational forms inchoate within the workers’ activity. The workers do stuff, the radicals look at the stuff and see which bits of the stuff are the new society starting to emerge, and then the radicals point it out and say “these bits here! these are awesome! these are the emergent new society! well done! do more of that!” I’m not against this per se, I think this is one use of radicals, but I think workers are capable of that themselves (my own version of the sufficiency of the class) so I wouldn’t call it “an essential contribution” of radicals, and I also think that radicals who know how to organize have a responsibility to organize, and whats more, to make sure more workers learn how to organize (my own version of the insufficiency of the class).