In relation to demands, that is.

A friend wrote up something trying to clarify the perspective of some people we know, to boil that perspective down. It goes something like this: communists should not pose demands short of communism. Now, as working class people, we do still take part in the struggles of our fellow workers. But we should not try to impose on those struggles, or substitute ourselves for others. We need to respect the autonomy and self-organization of our fellow workers. We can and should still participate and give our views, and demands ought to broaden the struggle and avoid creating divisions among workers.

I’m not sure if I’ve seen this stated quite so directly by adherents. I have seen it put pretty close to this and I’m pretty sure I’ve run into people who have gut level impulses along these lines. Which is to say, I don’t think this is a straw man, I think it’s a pretty fair and charitable reconstruction of a really existing view. I think in particular contexts there’s a lot of good to this perspective, against views that overestimate particular demands or demands as such. As a principle, though, instead of something to decide on for reasons relative to the situation in question, this perspective is a mistake.

First off, this perspective contradicts itself I think, or pushes us into some mighty difficult tensions. The implication is that communists as communists should participate in the struggles of our class. Not participating is understandable and forgivable under all sorts of circumstances but it’s clearly not as good as participation according to this perspective. So there’s a first imperative here for communists about how to act: be involved. The second imperative follows quickly behind the first, and is “don’t try to push things on people” or something like that. The thing is, in some contexts anyway, there will be other people who are trying to push things on people. That is, this second imperative (“don’t impose”) is specifically an imperative on communists as communists. Participate, but don’t impose, that’s the pair. But in some cases, effective participation means imposing on people, as other people involved struggles will sometimes try to do. It seems to me that issue is not “don’t impose” and of course it’s not “do impose” but rather, when and why and how to impose, and when and why not do so. Those are likely to be fairly context specific, the only general principles I can think of are about developing cadre balanced with the success of the effort, and one other that I’ll come back to in a second.

I think this perspective is particularly artificial if we’re talking about working class communists. If this is the perspective then I don’t see what the point of communists and their organizations would be. At the very least, if that was the perspective then I personally would not be much interested in the communist milieu(s), rather I want to be part of a network or organization of working class people involved in working class movements and organizations.

As an example, let’s say a member of a communist group or network lives in an apartment building that is being converted to condos, so that person and their fellow tenants are going to get evicted. The person turns to their comrades for help in demanding a halt on the eviction proceedings. In my opinion the comrades are likely to be on average more experienced at fights of this sort than most members of the working class. (There are of course exceptions, but surely this is what the communist milieu ought to consist in, people with experiences and abilities in struggles.) So their comrages will be some help to the other member and their fellow tenants. And if they don’t participate in this effort, they let their down and fail in various other ways. (This could be forgivable depending on circumstances but is cleary a failing or an imperfection – it’d be better if they could and did help out.) Onecould say “yes, but they don’t participate *as pro-revolutionaries* specifically.” In that case, I don’t see the point of the distinction. They’d participate in a fashion that made use of the skills they deliberately cultivated as communists (some skills they picked up through the communist milieu and some skills they cultivated in order to be better communists), and in a fashion that made use of relationships they built through their activitiy and so on. So I don’t see what the point of “as communists we have no demands but revolution.” Rather, I’d want to say “as communists, our over all goal is revolution, and we do our best to make our activity feed into that long term goal.”

I also think that the idea that demands should broaden the struggle and avoid creating divisions among workers contradicts the rest of the point. This point is a result of the value system we have as communists (not unique to us, but we’re likely to be among the working class people who are clearest on this point). Some working class people at least some of the time want demands that limit the movement and that do divide the class. We oppose that. At least in part because we’re communists, and at least some of the time we ought to be willing to sabotage the autonomy of sections of the class or of organizations over this if need be (like in cases of hate strikes, for instance). Don Hamerquist has good points about this in his piece on Lenin here.

He talks about some “general principles for the relationship of communists to the mass struggles of working people” detailed in the Communist Manifesto, which he describes as “communists should ‘represent’ the interests of the whole in the movements of parts, and they should ‘represent’ the interests of the future in the movements of the present.” For my own use, I’m going to quote some of my notes on/response to the Lenin essay, from this post.

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. [Note from july 2010, this issue of meeting people where they’re at – how it’s both crucial but can be used in a bad way that leads us to not try (to neglect our responsibilities) to change where people are at – is discussed in this excellent post at Gathering Forces on student struggles and on similar issues of the role of communists in mass struggles. I still need to turn my on-paper notes on all that into typed up thoughts.] 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.