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You Have to Deliver

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Black Panther Party free sickle cell testing in Boston, 1973. [Credit: It’s About Time BPP]

Always bear in mind that the people are not fighting for ideas, for the things in anyone’s head. They are fighting to win material benefits, to live better and in peace, to see their lives go forward, to guarantee the future of their children.

Amílcar Cabral

The US Left is having a renaissance. It’s more visible now than it has been for generations. Left ideas have wide exposure and most Millennials oppose capitalism.

So why is the Left so weak?

The Left’s growth hasn’t translated into concrete power for the working class. It hasn’t developed a mass base of participation (at least outside of the pre-existing protest subculture and the “weird Twitter/Facebook” corners of the internet).

Now, some of that can’t yet be helped. After barely existing for decades, the Left has re-emerged into an environment dominated by neoliberalism. But ultimately, external conditions don’t excuse its failure. Yes, the rules of the game are stacked against it. You can curse that fact all day and all night, but in the end, leftists have not adapted to a situation that they know will remain hostile. Sure, they’re hampered by unfriendly conditions – but the Left’s internal problems are what prevent it from meeting that challenge. Unless revolutionaries change their political practice, they will remain what they are now: visible and ineffective.

But what can radicals do differently?


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Despite his ideas, this man is not being taken seriously. [“The Morning Ride,” James-Jacques-Joseph Tissot, 1898]

Your ideas do not entitle you to be taken seriously.

Socialists know their theory and they know their Russian history. So what? That by itself does no one any good. Nobody owes you a hearing – the people you want to organize don’t owe you a single thing.

How many times have you seen socialists show up for something they have no prior connection to, thinking that they’ll “explain the revolutionary perspective” and then, somehow, be welcomed as leaders on the sheer strength of their ideas? Activists keep hopping from cause to cause based on whatever’s currently getting media attention. Does that develop collective power for anyone? Political ambulance chasing is fine for NGOs (and the micro-sect fronts that impersonate them). Unless they’re on top of whatever’s in the news, they’re at a disadvantage in competing for donors. Besides, the lack of deep and sustained community work lets the activist scene’s big fish keep their pond nice and small. But revolutionaries aren’t after careers in the nonprofit-industrial complex. If you want a mass revolutionary movement, you can’t afford that provincialism.


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Are these symbols outdated? That isn’t the right question to be asking.

This isn’t about branding. Should radicals say “communism,” “socialism,” or a euphemism like “economic democracy?” Should they drop 20th-century leftist iconography? Who cares? The issue isn’t which symbols the Left uses. Rather, it’s the way radical organizing so rarely commits to specific communities, stays for the long haul, builds up useful institutions, and lays the groundwork to expand them.

Sure, it’s better to have compelling rhetoric than not; neither talking down to people nor academic obscurantism does leftists any favors. The dichotomy between impenetrable theory-speak and over-simplified sloganeering both proceeds from and reinforces the distance between most socialists and the constituencies they seek. Those are bad habits not only of speech, but also of thought. If you don’t talk like a human being to people, it doesn’t matter if what you’re saying is true. It ends up irrelevant to real life, and it makes you sound like a jackass.

In the end, though, language and presentation aren’t the root issues. Your ideology isn’t necessarily what you believe. It’s what you’ve internalized through practice. If that mostly consists of debating on Facebook and reading articles, then your language and thought patterns will reflect that. Intentionally or not, you learn to think and speak in the way that works best for what you’re actually doing. Similarly, if most of your activism involves going to protests with liberals, then you’ll learn to be concerned with how to make radical ideas sound good to moderate ears. Why wouldn’t you bend over backwards to avoid scary words like “communism?” (Of course, that does mean other activists will think you’ve got something to hide. They aren’t fools – if you aren’t quite saying what you mean, then people will treat you accordingly. Trying to dodge the stigma attached to radicalism rather than confronting it just comes off as dishonest.)

That said, though, revolutionary leftism does still carry a lot of stigma. Most people’s default attitude towards it is skepticism. But if innovative rhetoric isn’t enough to push past that, what is?

What does get taken seriously?


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You have to deliver results. You have to prove that when you act on your ideas, your community’s life gets better. You have credibility only to the extent that when you organize a project, it gives people more power and a better conditions in a concrete, tangible, material way. If you put that off until after the revolution (or after your socialist candidate wins), your revolution will never arrive. No one will support you besides a few political hobbyists – and why should they?

Are your ideas insightful and true? Prove it. If you can’t deliver, your ideas are wrong. No one will or should listen to your arguments unless you show, in practice, that they mean something (no matter how hostile the external conditions).

In Washington State, Tacoma Clinic Defense believes that anti-abortion fundamentalists should not be allowed to picket in front of clinics. Its participants began claiming that when anti-choicers are marginalized and isolated, life improves for the whole community. So, they went out to prove it: they physically placed themselves in front of the protesters at reproductive health clinics. By providing a calm, positive, and visible pro-choice presence, they functioned as a “lightning rod,” drawing the anti-choicers’ attention away from their intended targets. They did so every time the fundamentalists showed up – and, over time, the picketers got demoralized. Fewer and fewer of them turned out, and those who did became less bold. Now, after several years of attrition, the fundamentalists no longer come to the clinics at all. They’ve been reduced to holding small, silent prayer circles several blocks away, out of sight of the patients. People respect Tacoma Clinic Defense and its ideas – it got results. It went into the field and proved its ideas true.

How many socialist groups can say the same?


And a lot of people will tell you, by the way, Well, the people don’t have any theory, they need some theory. They need some theory even if they don’t have any practice. And the Black Panther Party tells you that if a man tells you that he’s the type of man who has you buying candy bars and eating the wrapping and throwing the candy away, he’d have you walking East when you’re supposed to be walking West. Its true. If you listen to what the pig says, you be walkin’ outside when the sun is shining with your umbrella over your head. And when it’s raining you’ll be goin’ outside leaving your umbrella inside. That’s right. You gotta get it together. I’m saying that’s what they have you doing.

Now, what do WE do? We say that the Breakfast For Children program is a socialistic program. It teaches the people basically that by practice, we thought up and let them practice that theory and inspect that theory. What’s more important? You learn something just like everybody else.

Fred Hampton

Why do so many working-class people align with Protestant fundamentalism?

Christian Right churches give them reasons to join. Their safety net often out-competes the government’s; they offer food and clothing and shelter, community, existential purpose, social support, help with childcare and elder care, and even mental health services (through pastoral counseling and 12-step groups). That’s how the Christian Right has gotten such a massive and well-organized base. Its network of parallel institutions allows it to wield disproportionate power. In Texas, for instance, the Christian Right dominates state politics – but only 31% of Texans are evangelical Protestants! There is power in a base of autonomous institutions.

The revolutionary Left doesn’t offer much competition. Why not learn from the enemy? Radicals can prove through practice that they can build programs that not only improve people’s material conditions, but also operate according to participatory democracy (which Christian Right churches do not). If that alternative was there, how many more poor and working people might become radical? Most people don’t choose to become socialists because socialism isn’t offering them anything they need. It’s perfectly reasonable to reject an ideology that talks big but isn’t actually improving your life.

If you want support, build something that works.


Nothing better defines Trump’s appeal, nor Obama’s before it, than a feeling of finally being heard. Though Trump made some memorable campaign promises (the wall, the travel ban, etc.), he offered participation in an affect — despair where Obama once offered “hope” — more than he appealed with plausible political proposals. And the liberal reaction to the Trump presidency continues in this political mode. When liberals insist that the point of protest is to “have your voice be heard,” they are actually describing the fascist mode of political participation. To be satisfied with “feeling heard” in and of itself, as the goal of political activity, without pointing that expression toward building real material power, is to be a contented fascist subject.

Willie Osterweil

Ideas come from social practice. Whether or not you’re conscious of it, your worldview is made of the lessons your practice has taught you. For instance, most working-class people reject electoral politics not due to revolutionary theory, but because it’s shown itself to be useless – no matter which politicians win, things keep getting worse. Until revolutionaries start delivering actual results, the class they want to organize will not embrace their ideas, either. All the rhetoric in the world means nothing if it can’t help feed your kids.

The approach most US leftists take isn’t working. However, a few groups have found success by taking a different approach:

Don’t believe it when people say that there could never be a mass revolutionary movement in the US. It won’t be easy to create one. The Left will be struggling every step of the way, since larger political conditions do make a difference. But so do conditions within the Left. The US Left may not succeed. But, if it adopts a strategy of institution-building through confrontation, construction, and deep organizing, then it will, at least, stand a chance.

The only alternative is to keep failing.


Sophia Burns is a communist and polytheist in the US Pacific Northwest. Click here to support her on Patreon.

 

8 Comments »

  1. I really don’t “have” to do anything whatsoever. If people want to improve their living conditions, they’re perfectly capable of doing it without my help. One of the many reasons why I am no longer a left-anarchist is because I got fed up with others among their ranks telling me what I “have” to do. The logic of duty, obligation, and self-sacrifice that is woven into the very fabric of the so-called “Left” needs to be actively rejected and resisted. Just as no one is obligated to listen to what the leftist “organizer” has to say, I am not obligated to expend my energy trying to alleviate the oppression of other people. If other people want my help and the scope of my own autonomy will be expanded in the process, then I am more than happy to give it. However, if the expectation is that I have to sacrifice everything on the altar of the “mass movement” and get nothing in return then, sorry, but I’m not interested.

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    • Then if you are content never seeing socialism coming to fruition, more people embracing personal spiritual enlightenment and Pagan paths, expanded civil liberties, societal restructuring or indeed, any change at all, then you are choosing the right path. However, some of us are not so egotistical, and will be fighting for all of the above should you change your mind and wish to join us.

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      • I fundamentally reject the premise that “mass movements” are the sole (or even the most desirable) route to radical social change in opposition to global capitalism and coercive authority. That being the case, I have no interest in “joining” whatever “Us” that you perceive yourself as belonging to. As for “civil liberties,” these are nothing but the crumbs that the state apparatus sprinkles at the feet of discontented people to pacify more radical forms of resistance. I don’t want to make “demands” at the table of political power. I don’t want the state to do anything for me aside from cease to exist. The only people with whom I would consider collaborating on radical projects are people who refuse to sacrifice their own desire for liberation on behalf of some alienated “Greater Good.” I share no basis of affinity with anyone else and am quite content not to participate in their “movements.”

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    • But how will you force the state into non-existence, alone and powerless as you are? You reject all human organization because it will not satisfy your whim, yet do not realize your powerlessness before an apparatus that will choose the conditions of your existence for you whilst you assert your independence from its workings. This is flawed beyond belief. In order to break the state it must first be subverted, in order to subvert the state its mechanisms of power must first be removed, and in order to remove its mechanisms of power, the people must be convinced to reject their authority and refuse to submit to them. Standing alone accomplishes nothing but your own gratification at philosophically choosing to ignore other people, exactly as they shall decide your fate for you by the simple fact that you depend on them for your existence.

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  2. Who said anything about standing alone? I stated outright that I’m perfectly willing to collaborate on projects with people who refuse to sacrifice their own desire for liberation for the sake of some “Greater Good.” Abandon the idea that there is some binary choice between mass movements and solipsistic inaction. No such choice exists.

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    • But by collaborating you are ultimately required to subsume your own desires and impulses in order to work conguently with others towards a goal, some pre-determined ‘Greater Good’. Either you act as a group or you act as an individual, there is a clear partition, since if all members of a group act individually it can no longer function as a coherent unit and merely becomes an ideological association. Furthermore, your impression that complete subsumation of the ego is necessary for action towards a larger goal as a group is flawed. If an idea within a group is no longer satisfactory, it can be corrected, abandoned, or fought against just as surely as worked towards within a group context by individuals to other individuals on a personal basis, with no subsumation of individual ego. Your position is inconsistent.

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  3. “But by collaborating you are ultimately required to subsume your own desires and impulses in order to work conguently with others towards a goal, some pre-determined ‘Greater Good’.”

    I disagree. It is not the bare act of associating with others that necessitates the subsumption of individual desires into a broader imperative, but the reification of that act into a unified collective identity that vies for the allegiance of its members. It is entirely possible to collaborate with others on a shared project without the presupposition of a reified collective identity to hold the group together. And, in the event that such a presupposition emerges among any of the individuals involved, the association has outlived its usefulness and needs to be disbanded.

    “Either you act as a group or you act as an individual, there is a clear partition…”

    Again, I disagree. Furthermore, it’s worth pointing out that this is an ontological disagreement prior to any question of “ethics” or “morals.” The core issue here is a fundamental disagreement regarding the status of the Subject/Object divide that is the basis of ontological dualism. I reject the very idea that the identity of “the Subject” that stands at a distance from “the Object” and perceives it in an “objective” manner has any a priori basis whatsoever. Neither Subject nor Object come ready-made in any encounter but, rather, co-emerge precisely through that very encounter.

    “Furthermore, your impression that complete subsumation of the ego is necessary for action towards a larger goal as a group is flawed.”

    Perhaps this is true to a limited extent, but the presupposition of a reified collective identity that exists independently of its parts makes any attempt to resist this subsumption a needlessly uphill battle.

    “If an idea within a group is no longer satisfactory, it can be corrected, abandoned, or fought against just as surely as worked towards within a group context by individuals to other individuals on a personal basis, with no subsumation of individual ego.”

    The distinction that you don’t seem to be getting here is between “the group” as an association of living, breathing individuals and “the Group Identity” as an abstract concept. No one, least of all myself, is saying anything against individuals associating with each other in groups to perform certain tasks. My critique is of the manner in which the bare act of associating with others becomes confused with an abstract identity that only enters the picture at a later stage to provide a retroactive explanation (in a falsified manner) of how the group came to exist and to provide a justification for its activities.

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  4. totally agree with the sentiment expressed here. about to read the linked article about the non-profit industrial complex and hope that it doesn’t tell me to not become a charity; which is something i’ve been considering as a way to make change but also a simple living.(my other angle is that i want to be a therapist/clinical psychologist, because that can make a big difference in empowering individuals going through emotional or mental problems, but it’s not totally decided yet and won’t be for a long time.)

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