I wrote almost all of the last post, the piece on what I called trajectories of struggles, then I wrote the following thing, below, putting that piece in dialog with some stuff by my friend Scott Nappalos. Actually, I should say, the thing below tries to put that stuff in *explicit* dialog with Nappalos’s stuff. His writing and our conversations have had a huge shaping role in that trajectories piece. In the piece below I just try to make that very apparent. I won’t try to summarize all of Nappalos’s points here. I want to focus here on a few points I think are important.

People should read Scott Nappalos’s article on what he calls “the intermediate level,” here: http://recompositionblog.wordpress.com/2010/08/29/defining-practice-the-intermediate-level-of-organization-and-struggle/

People interested in this will like also be interested in the discussion here:


One of Nappalos’s goals is to help people set aside “rigid conceptions of the separations of the political and mass organization.” One is that the article offers a correction to mistaken ideas about mass organizations and mass struggles. It is easy to see mass organizations as being simply about “bread and butter” issues or “dollars and cents.” I think this mistake is particularly easy for those of us who came of age politically without much experience of mass struggle and mass organizations.

Not Just Bread And Butter

Mass organizations are not simply about economistic struggles or power relations. In their “Workplace Position Paper,” NEFAC write that “Unions serve as a mediator between the working class and the bosses,” they “negotiate the sale of their members labor power to employers (and, in exchange, they offer workers material benefits: job security, health care, better wages). They seek a fairer form of exploitation under capitalism, rather than an end to exploitation itself.” This is correct. At the same time, we should not mistake means and ends here. Mass organizations consist of people coming together around demands for better lives in the short term, prior to the end of capitalism. Unions for more favorable terms in the sale of labor power (organizations of tenants fight for better housing, etc), but this is not always an end itself for participants in mass organizations. (This is not criticism of NEFAC and I am not saying they make the mistake I describe. Read their position paper here — http://nefac.net/node/2001.) Yes, mass organizations exist for people to exert power collectively, mass struggles are struggles to exert power, but people exert power over the things they care about and people understand this through a variety of perspective. “Workers have their own ideas and logic,” Nappalos writes.

Many people join mass organizations such as unions because of a cost/benefit calculus along the lines of “if I pay dues to this union then I will help win a better contract, and so I will see gains in my wallet.” Organizers in unionization drives sometimes make arguments like that. But more people join mass organizations because of issues of right and wrong, fairness and respect, dignity and justice. That is, people tend to view the world in value-laden ways; people’s values inform their decisions (and people’s actions can sometimes shape their values).

Part of Nappalos’s article is a criticism of understandings of the category of “mass” (as in “mass organization” and what Nappalos calls “the mass level”) which chop up people’s experience. My father has been a lifelong member of a union in the construction trades. He has never really been a union activist. He credits the union with getting the generous health insurance benefit package that paid for extensive dental work one of my siblings needed as a kid. He believes union membership is a sound economic decision. At the same time, I remember many times hearing him complain about things bosses did on job sites. “It’s the principle of the thing!”, he would rant, “I’m not going to be treated this way! I’m going to take this to the union!” And he has always honored picket lines, because scabbing is wrong – scabbing undermines other workers’ economic situation, and it’s wrong to hurt other people. My father belongs to his union and thinks it’s a good investment; he sees all of this in value-laden terms. My father lives in a social world he sees as having both economic and moral elements. Even when my father has been about money – striking for higher pay and so forth – this too has been value-laden. He wanted more money for a variety of value-laden reasons: to have the money to be a certain sort of parent, to be able to buy things to impress his other relatives, to save for a comfortable retirement, etc. Even in fights over money, the money was not really an end in itself; the reason why he wanted that money often had everything to do with his value system. I think this is often the case. People are involved in mass organizations in ways that are tied to their self-understanding and their value system. The mass level is not just a matter of interests. Or rather, interests are value-laden categories, which people understand through ideas and morality. To use E.P. Thompson’s famous phrase, people in struggle have a “moral economy,” they have a culture, expectations, traditions, ideas about right and wrong, ways to legitimize their actions (at least to themselves and each other). To quote Nappalos again, we should pay attention to “the ways in which movements change across time and constitute themselves,” which means we need to recognize that organizations are diverse and are value laden.

The mass level is about people trying to exert power for what they want, and what they want is tied to their value systems. Values are something which the mass level has in common with the intermediate and political levels, something which is sometimes left out of accounts of the mass level and mass organizations. That said, there is something different about the mass level. The difference is what defines the type of unity – what do people come together around? People at the mass level come together to achieve what they want. This requires varying levels of unity – for organizations, every group tends to be begin developing norms and standards of behavior and a group culture – but in general the mass level is about fighting to get something people want. Mass organizations and mass struggles are value laden.

Nappalos defines what he calls the intermediate level as the sorts of practices when “people organize based on some basic level of unity of ideas to develop and coordinate their activity at the mass level.” This is also a matter of values. People participate in mass level activity because of what they want, and what they want is informed by their outlook. People engage in intermediate activity tend to be motivated more explicitly by principles. Think about union stewards: good union stewards are often dedicated to their union as a part of their identity and are often motivated by a sense of solidarity or other ethical notions which are not simply about themselves.

The boundary between mass practices and intermediate practices is very fluid. Here’s an example. Several years ago I was part of an effort to organize janitors. The janitors at one point confronted management over their low pay; this was about interests in a narrow sense though as I’ve said repeatedly, economic interests are informed by (people want economic gains for reasons they interpret via) people’s value systems. The janitors also began to cooperate with other employees in other job classes on actions. In those case,s people participated in collective action as a vehicle for their own gain.

Over the course of that organizing drive, one of the older janitors began to have chest pains at work and so began to work slower. His supervisor began to shout at him and urge him to work faster. He was afraid to lose his job so he worked faster, and had a heart attack at work. The other janitors were disgusted by this and told the supervisor so. After the older janitor recovered, the supervisor again began to hassle him to work faster. The janitors confronted the supervisor as a group and said that this was unacceptable. In another incident, an employee in another job class was fired unfairly; here too the janitors were morally outraged and mobilized with others. These were not actions defined by narrow interests, this was a matter of personal relationships and principles. This sort of action is closer to intermediate level activity. As Nappalos writes, while we can and should draw analytical distinctions between types of activity, “[in] reality, this division is not so clear.” People are dynamic. Indeed, mass activities often lead people to intermediate level activities and perspectives. Through action, people can be transformed – people become not only motivated to act about individual instances of injustice, people can develop a passion for justice and a commitment to it as a principle, people can develop a taste for or a need to fight.

Again, to quote Nappalos, in intermediate level activity “people organize based on some basic level of unity of ideas to develop and coordinate their activity at the mass level.” Just as I have argued that mass activity is value laden, so too I argue that mass level often requires intermediate activity. I don’t mean to challenge the mass/intermediate distinction. What I mean is that at least for organizations, mass organizations require people who act at the intermediate level as part of their participation in mass organizations. I already gave an example of union stewards. Union staff and officers are often a sort of intermediate layer as well – either they are self-interested so that they do what they out of a drive for personal gain (and so are subject to very familiar leftist criticisms), or they are sincere and committed (in which case they are still subject to criticism but the criticisms differ somewhat and are more structural than individaul). That is to say, all mass organizations in struggle – all people in struggle over any kind of sustained period of time – require that at least some of the people involved begin to “organize based on some basic level of unity of ideas to develop and coordinate their activity at the mass level.” Without this, mass struggles and organizations can not last. To put it yet another way, all mass organizations and struggles that persist over time in any way have an internal division of labor where at least some people at least some of the time perform tasks which fit into the category of intermediate level practices. Nappalos argues that revolutionaries should engage in intermediate level practice, namely “bring together the most conscious elements of the mass movements together with the most active and grounded elements of the revolutionary movements to provide continuity, organization, coordination, and education between struggles.” Note here that these most conscious elements already exist within mass movements and organizations. As he puts it, “the intermediate level already exists in struggle.”

Levels of Activity and Types of Organization

Nappalos’s article has another important point for radicals today. Not only should we recognize the mass level as value-laden, we need to recognize the actually existing diversity of organizations. We must start from where we are now in terms of struggle and relationships. Organizations and struggles do not fit cleanly into mass vs political, or mass vs political vs intermediate, even though these categories help us analyze. Really there are a great many different organizational types, and each actually existing organization has its own unique cultures and traditions and so on – these are not necessarily important at the level of principle or theory, but they matter for us in acting within them or in relation to them.

Across the levels/types of activity that Nappalos lays out, we see a few organizational types:

1. Political only
2. Intermediate only
3. Exclusively mass
4. Mix of intermediate and political
5. Mix of political, intermediate, mass
6. Mostly mass
7. Mix of intermediate and mass

I will not argue this point in any detail here, but in my view types 1-4 are the most limited of organizational types. As Nappalos writes, “Ultimately the mass level is the lifeblood of all struggles. Without the mass level, the intermediate and political levels are merely chasing winds.” Organizations of type 5-7 are really what we aim to create and sustain, and the differences are primarily ones of degree.

Action Across Levels And Organizations

Nappalos wants revolutionaries to bring together the most advanced people. As I quoted earlier, Nappalos argues that revolutionaries should “bring together the most conscious elements of the mass movements together with the most active and grounded elements of the revolutionary movements to provide continuity, organization, coordination, and education between struggles.” In the picture here, these advanced people or handfuls of people are represented by the black asterisks. Notice that only some of them are in currently existing organizations. They also are only some of the members of currently existing organizations.

The likely reality is that unification of the most advanced will cut across pre-existing organizational lines. It will probably also involve people who have temporarily stepped out of struggles and/or who are not members of current organizations but who have in the past been involved in organizations and/or struggle, as well as some people who are just beginning to radicalize or to become part of militant mass-level fights. The unification of these advanced sectors does not necessarily need to be formalized – its form will be worked out in time and at this point no one can specify its necessary characteristics. As Nappalos writes, struggle can transform organization: “the mass organization itself may change then, and intermediate and political organizations may evolve from those struggles.”

Nappalos identifies two main priorities in moving forward. The main priority is that we “prioritize work that facilitates the radicalization of militants at the mass level.” This means creating more intermediate level militants from out of the mass work. He identifies a second and secondary goal of attempting to get revolutionaries to do mass work. Essentially, Nappalos’s proposal is for people who are already currently revolutionaries and organizers in mass work. The idea is that these people, the most advanced, should emphasize work with three groups:

1. other organizers at the intermediate level who are doing mass work
2. people at the mass level who are doing mass work, and
3. other revolutionaries.
For other organizers at the intermediate level, our goal is to organize and radicalize – to create community, continuity, greater competency, greater retention, and make more revolutionaries.

For people at the mass level the first goal is to make people into intermediate level militants, more organizers. From there, the goal for them is the same as I just described.

With regard to other revolutionaries who are not already organizers, the goal is in many ways the same as it is for people at the mass level: to get people engaged in fights in a real way, to learn the lessons that struggle teaches, to make them into organizers.

It is important to note that people at the political level are not always organizers, in some cases theoretical grasp of the political level and understanding derived without much attendant other practice stands in for other activity. More simply: not all people who think of themselves are revolutionaries have experience or ability at mass work. Part of our task, though not a top priority, is to educate these revolutionaries enough to get them into mass struggle, which will then educate them further and they will become, for the purposes of the schematic approach outlined here, the same as anyone else at the mass level in terms of how we orient toward them. Those who don’t or won’t get involved in such struggle are not of any real concern.

In my view, all mass organizations include some functions or internal sections which do intermediate level activity in service of the organization and the mass level struggle. To put it another way, every mass organization has internal organs and some of these are sorts of intermediate organizations which are entirely contained by and loyal to the mass organization. Without these, mass organizations tend not to last, or to even be formed at all.

The diagram above tries to represent some of the division of labor or differentiation of function within a mass organization. The blue block is a single mass organization. Within it there are people playing a variety of roles, represented by the smallest colored shapes. There are members who don’t really participate, represented here by white circles. There are staff (not all mass organizations have staff, of course, though often there are volunteers who play roles analogous to staff in other organzations), represented here by purple circles. There are active members who participate in the life of the organizations, represented here by yellow rectangles, and there are officers, represented here by green squares. There is sometimes crossover among these categories as well – people can move between being active members, staff, and officers. The larger orange and pink rectangles represent organizational projects in which different people interact. These could be organizing drives, member education initiatives, or conflicts that take various institutional and extra-institutional forms (around elections, for example; or around actions against employers and other opponents, actions that may have varying degrees of support among different constituencies in an organization – such as unauthorized work stoppages). Within a project, staff, members, and officers can interact and relate in various ways and these relationships change over time. These things happen within the life of an organization and often many of these co-exist and overlap, interacting with each other in complicated ways. A member of a union may all at the same time take part in as a volunteer helping with an organizing drive at a non-union workplace (and in that case have positive interaction with staff and officers and other members, and perhaps have some tensions if people are jealous of each others’ work and abilities and relationships), work on a union election (and in that case have good relationships with some officers and members and conflict with others), and take part in an unauthorized work stoppage in their own workplace (and in that case have good relationships with fellow members and be in conflict with staff and officers). There are numerous other possibilities. In all of these hypothetical examples, people are engaged in their activities primarily out of values and relationships, not primarily out of self-interest narrowly defined, in a “bread and butter” sense. Numerous actors within any given mass organization are at what Nappalos calls the intermediate level. That intermediate level activity is crucial to the making, maintenance, and growth of the organization. It is hard to imagine examples of mass organizations that don’t have people like this, unless they are entirely hollowed out shells. I’m belaboring this because the analytical distinction here between levels should not be understood as requiring a spatial or organizational difference. I want to stress the overlap of the categories – the intermediate is within the mass, much of the time, wherever mass activity exists.

Nappalos argues for intermediate organization as a step toward mass movements and organizations. This is important; people doing intermediate activity need to improve in various ways, I discuss this again later, and we can best do so via a combination of organization and struggle. At the same time, it must be repeated that “Ultimately the mass level is the lifeblood of all struggles. Without the mass level, the intermediate and political levels are merely chasing winds.” While Nappalos is somewhat pessimistic about our ability to successfully build and maintain mass organizations in the present, doing so is a necessary task. Mass level struggles are what make intermediate levels activity matter. Intermediate-level organizations that try to take themselves as self-sufficient, or are excessively self-involved instead of getting involved in mass work, are a dead end. Some organizations that see themselves as revolutionary political organizations are actually this sort of intermediate organizations. Our route, then, is from the intermediate level to the mass level and back again, in a self-expanding spiral. To quote Nappalos again, “people are transformed in struggle and organizations can be built through these transformations”, which in turn engage in transformative struggle and expand or rebuild organizations, which engage in struggle… and so forth.

It is worth noting again that this perspective preserves the crucial emphasis on doing mass work, but it also emphasizes that we do not judge success simply by victory in the mass work. From this perspective, success is judged by increase in the quality and quantity of militants as much or more than success in the aims of mass struggle. That’s what I was on about in my discussion piece on trajectories of struggles.

One additional note here: the point about intermediate level organization should be a matter of how we measure success as much as a matter of our other practices. Intermediate level organization is crucial to the success of mass organization as I tried to discuss above and, in his essay “A New Workers Movement in the US: A proposal for a refoundation through the intermediate level”, here: