How to Buy a Religion

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What’s wrong with Sephora’s witch kit?

Is it crass to reduce a religious practice to $40 of mass-manufactured perfumes and Tarot cards? Probably, but haven’t Pagans been debating “pay-to-pray” back and forth for years? Sure, an independent Etsy artisan needs to make a living. But doesn’t Sephora also have to tap new markets to survive? The scale’s different, but what about the essence?

Is the mall any worse than the metaphysical shop?


Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.

Karl Marx

Capitalism alienates.

It takes parts of you and makes commodities out of them. Your time, your physical activity, and your mental energy all get sold on the labor market like Tarot decks and perfume. Your body contains more than itself – it carries your community, the work and care of your loved ones, everything they do to keep you physically and psychologically functional. Without all that, how would you make it out of your door every morning with enough resiliency to work? After all, capital is hungry. A business needs to grow, or else other companies out-compete it in the market and force it into bankruptcy. The ones that can grow, survive. The ones that find more ways and things to eat, grow. They need your ability to work, to produce goods and services they can sell. All of the ingredients that go into your work, they consume.

Capital imposes its needs onto the dispossessed, the ones who don’t own businesses or rental properties and so have nothing to live on but their ability to work. The whole community depends on the money its wage-workers earn, so it has to organize its collective life in whatever way maximizes their employability. Wage-workers are exploited, and they incarnate entire communities of labor, exploited alongside and through them.

Religion is one way the dispossessed survive. Capitalism cuts you off from your basic nature: your capacity to flourish, to form relationships as a free being. It demoralizes in both the current and the older sense: the mindlessness and futility of wage-work, housewifery, and unemployment teach despair and induce depression, but when capital reduces you to an instrument, it de-moralizes you in a larger sense. The more of you that goes to satisfy capital’s hunger, the less of you is left for self-cultivation, creativity, and relationship-building. You are alienated from yourself.


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Pop-culture resurgence: Internet tabloid Vice offers dozens of witchcraft-themed articles. Source

Sephora sells to women.

The social base of religion (Pagan and otherwise) is not only the dispossessed in general, but specifically the specially-oppressed along racial, national, and gender lines. Even when the ministers and bishops are men, it’s women who cook meals for sick parishioners, clean up after services, teach Sunday school, and fill most of the pews. Capitalism, by definition, only pays for waged work. But, the health and functionality of wage-workers is costly; it takes a vast expenditure of unpaid work in the home and the community to feed and support wage-workers, take care of their kids and elders, and ease the emotional strain of their alienation. So, there’s a division of labor between paid and unpaid work, and it falls along the lines of gender. Culture, ideology, and discrimination harmonize with the pervasive reality of anti-woman and anti-LGBT violence, forming an elegantly self-reinforcing feedback loop; gender roles both flow from and reinforce the overall social system. Those who don’t fall in line get hurt.

Religion sits at a key point in the cycle. It allows the racially and nationally oppressed to rely on each other for support, fellowship, and existential meaning without their oppressors in the room for a few hours each week (is it a coincidence that in the US, Black people report being “absolutely certain” of God’s existence at a higher rate than self-identified Christians do?). Religion takes the edge off of alienation, offering a relationship with something bigger than you, your job, and your daily life – a bedrock of connections and values deeper and older than capitalism. At the same time, it transmits gender roles and racial social segregation from generation to generation, helps the dispossessed stay psychologically healthy enough to work, and gives bourgeois clergy a medium to preach patience and forbearance towards oppression rather than revolution and collective action. From time to time, though, it takes on an opposite role, providing mass movements with a moral language and the institutional infrastructure they need. Religion is politically contradictory. It keeps the dispossessed in line – except when it’s helping them liberate themselves.

Paganism has an even sharper gender skew than most religions. After all, it actively encourages women to take on sacerdotal and leadership roles (not to mention its historical ties to lesbian feminism and LGBT culture). Sephora sells to women, so selling women’s religion is an intuitive next step, especially given that pop culture is currently more infatuated with witchcraft than it has been since the 90s. When Sephora sells Paganism, it’s offering more than a deck of cards and some quartz.  Sephora is no less responsible for capitalism’s crushing alienation than any other business. It helped create the ailment. Now, it’s promising a $40 cure.


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Metaphysical shopfront. Source

Unlike most religions, modern Paganism’s basic institutional anchor isn’t the congregation. Rather, it’s the metaphysical shop. Jonathan Wooley explains:

The authors, makers and the shops that stock their wares could operate without moots and open rituals; but moots and open rituals – in their current form – could not exist without the “Pagan Business”.

The point here is not that those who make their living through Paganism are being greedy or venial. On the contrary, writing words, speaking spells, crafting holy things, and making ceremonies that heal, enlighten, and empower is important work, and those working in these ways cannot survive on mere air and good wishes. The problem arises from how we are currently supporting the work that they do, and the centrality of this (commercial) arrangement in our community. Before all else, you have to pay. By relying upon the Market to directly transmit our lore, to fund our gatherings, to supply our goods, we become complicit in it. It means the fortunes of our traditions turn not with the wheel of the year, but with the shifting fashions and stock prices of the global publishing and wellness industries. Our community is directed less by the will of the gods, and more by Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand. The heartbeat at the core of our living traditions becomes the ring of a cash register.

This dominance of the logic of the Market within Paganism is not surprising, even if it is disquieting. Paganism is one of the few religions to have arisen within the Modern Age, when Capitalism was in its ascendency. This has very real consequences for us all. Let us not forget the prototypical “gateway experience” for a seeker – traditionally – was buying a book from an occult book shop. The fact that the internet and Amazon have replaced the knowledgeable local bookseller is to be lamented; but it is not so meteoric shift as we might suppose. Whether your spirituality is expressed through buying knowledge from a kooky shop on Glastonbury High Street, or from Amazon, your spirituality is still being expressed through shopping. Equally, this shift demonstrates the extent to which our infrastructure is dependent upon the vagaries of the market to survive: the rise of the internet has caused many Pagan bookshops to close; depriving local communities of an invaluable opportunity to meet, learn, and socialise. Indeed, it is precisely because we have relied on the Market that this transition – from a friendly, in-community, low-profit enterprise, to a distant, global, high profit one – has taken place. The very means by which our lore is spread has been transformed for the worse by the dictat of the Market.

In other words, Sephora and a PantheaCon vendor don’t differ in essence – only in scale.


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The nitrogen cycle. Source

When Paganism is commercial, it’s filling religion’s conservative role, reconciling the dispossessed to their oppression. After all, if shopping is the way out of alienation, then capitalism, if not benevolent, is at least neutral. Collective action isn’t even on the radar.

But that’s not the only Paganism.

We’re all of us embedded in a living relational web – humans, the biosphere, the land and sea and sky, the gods and the dead. The nitrogen cycle and the water cycle have a sacredness. It’s holy when through death, an organism becomes food, transmuting into new life. The Sun is slowly spending itself. It feeds plants and algae with its energy, and that energy sustains the same animals who then nourish plants when they die and decompose. Gods are at once embodied in and emergent from each nexus of the process, standing at the fulcrums where nature moves humans and is itself moved. Paganism is what the mutually-conditioning cycles of ecology and evolution teach you when you pay attention to them, learn their rhythms, find where you are inside them. Prayer, devotion, myth, and ritual all orient you towards that ground of your being and make a sacrament of your participation in it. Reciprocity is cosmic, both an imperative and a fact. Do ut des, I give so that you may give, is at the heart of both polytheist sacrificial theology and the Mystery that governs the process of life.

You were born with a capacity for eudaimonia: balanced, all-sided human flourishing, the Greatest Good of ethics and philosophy. You can develop eudaimonia if you cultivate virtues: self-knowledge, self-control, justice, and right relationship. Capitalism is a social process that alienates you from that capacity, but it doesn’t destroy it. It does, however, determine the form that it needs to take.

Self-development, ritual and political practice, and reverence for the Gods, the dead, and the natural world are the foundation stones of revolutionary virtue. Paganism holds a radical seed: given the reality of capitalism and empire, the communist organizer, the Stoic sage, and the nature-mystic devotionalist must all become the same person. Each component of revolutionary virtue is incomplete by itself. They need each other, just like plants, decomposers, and nitrifying bacteria.

And it’s all unbuyable. The people trying to sell you Paganism are promising to cure your alienation with more alienation, only in disguise. They can sell you a Scott Cunningham book, a handmade pewter pendant, or a $40 “starter” box, but do those contain the Mystery? At best, they’re dispensable props. At worst, they’ll actively mislead you; like any religion, Paganism can teach you to accept your oppression or it can teach you to fight it.

If you really want to buy something, get Marcus Aurelius or an ecology textbook. Read myths. Go out and see how mosses and lichens grow on trees and how trees that die feed mushrooms and bacteria, fertilizing the soil. The relational web spreads out from there. It reaches to the sun, the atmosphere, the microorganisms, and the gods who take their embodiment in that dynamic interplay. Find your nature, your inborn potential for virtue, eudaimonia, and right relationship. You are in the web. Root yourself. Capitalism uproots you and disrupts your nature. It’s throwing the whole world’s processes so off-kilter that if it isn’t stopped, the ecosphere will endure – but it will be so changed that humans won’t be able to live in it.

Paganism lives in that knowledge. It’s a method – you learn the context of human life and you choose to act accordingly. Sephora can’t sell it to you, but neither can the vendors at Pagan Pride.

You can’t simply opt out of the alienation capitalism imposes. But, you can choose what to do about it; you are existentially free. Paganism can be a path to knowledge and revolutionary virtue, or it can be an “opiate of the masses.”

Sephora wants to sell you one of those. But you’re free to choose the other.


Sophia Burns

is a communist and polytheist in the US Pacific Northwest. Support her on Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/marxism_lesbianism


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[repost] HELL YES I think We Should Dox Nazis! Is That A Serious Question?

Editorial Note:

This article by Dr. Bones was originally posted at The Conjure House on August 15th, 2018, in response to a Facebook post and some other responses to it.

G&R is reposting it because there is a much needed conversation to be had about where to draw the line between: 1- fascists and potential comrades who don’t agree enough; 2- Silencing and reflection; and 3- the views of G&R members and the views of the G&R collective.

“Gods and Radicals is a collective, and writers are free to write whatever they wish. We have many diverse opinions […]” (From Dr. Bones)

This diversity in opinion doesn’t mean we are willing to tolerate or to work with everybody. We may have different strategies on how to achieve a political goal, but we have the same goal– one which is inherently anti-racist, anti-fascist, anti-transphobic, anti-sexist and anti-capitalist.

The ideological affiliations, theories, strategies or even personalities of our members exist in balance through consensus, not through homogenizing guidelines. Our different tastes and occasional disagreements do not interfere with non-negotiable political principles. These principals are based on disseminating political reflections that aim to combat, not perpetuate, the silencing of marginalized peoples.

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“Maybe one day all the old guys will die off and things will change, ‘cuz it’s officially getting scary over here in America.”
—Hank Williams III

From the moment I started writing I decided that, as long as I had a voice, I would say exactly what I wanted to.

I’ve written about magic, which has pissed off secular radicals. I’ve written about Egoism, which pissed off the Leftists. The largest publisher of Egoist material in turn hates my guts because I don’t think Egoists should waste their time hanging out by themselves and, weirdly enough, should be involved with others in the struggle for liberation.

I’ve also written about violence, my most recent piece going into tactical detail about some of the methods the Taliban has used to confront and defeat the United States military. I‘ve made the case that violent, or at least armed upheaval, is the only thing that puts enough fear into the Powers That Be to effectively get them to back down. I’ve advocated forming bases, getting involved with the community, and above all destroying those that would seek to harm us.

Doxxing Nazis, and other fascists, is absolutely one of the methods available to harm those that harm us. I support this tactic not only because I support whatever avenues for self-defense the people can muster, but also from a purely tactical standpoint it works.

Just How Many Tears Are Shed
By Some Little Word of Anger?

Doxxing has been in vogue on the Right for a long time, and nobody was quite as good as 4chan. 4chan, filled with lonely masturbating men calling each other cucks, had nothing but time on its hands.

Well, that and their dicks.

Channers would often spend all day online, and in doing so we’re able to pull of some astounding feats of intelligence gathering.

Consider Shia Lebouf’s “He Will Not Divide Us” Campaign, where 4channers wanted to remove a flag at an unknown location:

“…viewers used triangulation techniques based on planes seen in the stream to determine the general area. A local then began honking their horn repeatedly while driving in the area, which were picked up by the webcam’s microphone to further narrow the location. Finally, using star maps, 4chan users were able to identify the exact location of the flag on Google Maps…

On August 13th, 2017, the HeWillNotDivide.us stream was relaunched, featuring the flag placed against a white wall at an unknown location. That day, several threads about the livestream were created on 4chan’s /pol/ board, where many users began speculating that the flag was at the Serpentine Gallery in London, England based on an unverified direct message screenshot with Luke Turner.

That day, YouTuber H Drone uploaded a video titled ‘HWNDU Flag: London,’ chronicling how the flag was purportedly discovered at a different location in England by shining a blue light through a window and tracking reflections based on the movement of the sun throughout the day. The video has since been removed. Meanwhile, an image began circulating claiming that a blue light directed through the window of the house was visible on the wall during the livestream…”

This network is just one among many. One nazi in particular, going by the alias Jack “Pale Horse” Corbin, has been especially prolific in doxxing Anti-Racists and Anti-Fascists.

The leaking of this information is usually twofold in purpose: on one hand the hope is that some lone wolf will attack the person, or at least vandalize their property; to force the person’s political alignment into the public spotlight and, in result, create economic and safety issues for said person.

It’s not enough to be painted as Antifa. Most Far Right doxxers will aid false details, claiming the antifascists abuse children or are addicted to drugs. They may print out posters and put it around the person’s workplace in the hopes they get fired. They may call the police and hope the person gets investigated, or possibly even shot.

I know people, personally, who have had the last two happen. And there are plenty of others who have felt the anxiety and fear of having every digital footprint put out in the hopes it results in violence.

https://twitter.com/CrizzlesButtons/status/1029223733179740160

For now I’ve been lucky, though that’s not to say folks haven’t tried.

The admin of the meme page Everything Is Pretty Bad has gone as far as to try to come up with a fake name to pressure me into revealing my own. He’s also attempted to hound and blackmail people sharing my articles to give up my personal facebook profile.

Hell they’ve even made attempts to derail any bit of organizing or reporting I got into, simply because they don’t like me, regardless of how it might affect people. Here’s his former co-admin from “Misanthropic Egoism:”

https://twitter.com/Ole_Bonsey/status/1029107296243249153

So I want to be clear: I know people who have been doxxed, there have been attempts to doxx me. This is a tactic that has harmed people I know and care for.

And I still think it’s an important tool for us to use.

Your Evil Heart Will Be Your Ruin

“‘I’m unplugged from politics,’ Parrott said. ‘I’m done. I’m out. I don’t want to be in The Washington Post anymore. I don’t care to have this humiliating and terrifying ordeal be more public than it already is. . . . There is no more Trad Worker.”
Former member of the Traditionalist Worker’s Party

There is absolutely no question that doxxing nazis, racists, and other foul human slime gets results that other organizing simply doesn’t. There is a reason the Klan wears hoods: vile deeds need darkness to be done. To be well-known is to destroy the ability to work in secret.

The Traditionalist Worker’s Party was one such far-right group absolutely devastated by the release of personal information and addresses. Since the first Unite The Right the entire Alt-Right has been hounded wherever they’re faces could be identified, effectively destroying their ability to organize.

A writer at the alt-right website Right Realist admitted as much in a piece called Why I was Wrong about the Alt-Right:

“Our enemies have seen the opportunity they needed to crush us without looking like the authoritarian monsters they are to the public at large. Nobody in the public is going to step up to defend ‘KKK, Nazi, white supremacists.’”

The Alt-Right depends on a public face and a private face. When those true feelings were exposed they lost all credibility and quickly found themselves the local pariah. Jack “Pale Horse” Corbin has been identified, down to his physical address. Prominent Neo-Nazis on twitter have dropped out of the movement when they merely been threatened with exposure.

Neo-Nazi Andrew Anglin agrees things aren’t looking good. The same asshole who gleefully directed Daily Stormer readers to hang nooses and intimidate a female black student is running scared. He has gone into hiding, and just recently made it clear doxxing by antifascists will “ruin the lives” of anyone treading in the same loathsome, piss-filled ideological pool he himself inhabits:

That’s called results. That’s called victory. A year ago the Charlottesville rally drew hundreds of open neo-nazis, one who felt so emboldened he fucking killed someone. This year it drew twenty. They admit it’s because they don’t feel safe.

They aren’t afraid of being assaulted or thrown in jail. They are afraid of being exposed. By doxxing.

And isn’t that what we want?
Take These Chains From My Heart
and
Set Me Free

Gods and Radicals is a collective, and writers are free to write whatever they wish. We have many diverse opinions and lord knows I’ve given plenty of headaches to the more…pacifistic of my fellow authors. Some have called for me to be fired. Just recently I had a fellow writer call me on the phone, telling me my most recent piece published there made them so uncomfortable they were worried about me.

So it goes.

Folks have written plenty I don’t agree with on Gods and Radicals. We are far, far from some monolithic force.

So let me be crystal clear: anyone who thinks doxxing isn’t working, who thinks this is a tactic the Left should surrender, is living in some alternate world I don’t understand.

The Far-Right isn’t going to stop doxxing us because we put on the kid gloves. You don’t win battles by backing away when your enemy beings to falter and weaken. The cops don’t care who these people are. They hire them!

“In the 2006 bulletin, the FBI detailed the threat of white nationalists and skinheads infiltrating police in order to disrupt investigations against fellow members and recruit other supremacists. The bulletin was released during a period of scandal for many law enforcement agencies throughout the country, including a neo-Nazi gang formed by members of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department who harassed black and Latino communities. Similar investigations revealed officers and entire agencies with hate group ties in Illinois, Ohio and Texas.”

So who exactly is going to bring fascists and their ilk to task if the police, and the courts that are ALWAYS friendly to them, refuse to act?

The goddamn Democrats?

“In a surprise appearance on SNL’s ‘Weekend Update: Summer Edition’ Thursday night, Fey urged Americans not to get into screaming matches with neo-Nazis. Instead, she said, ‘order a cake with the American flag on it … and just eat it.’”

It is often ONLY the tireless work of unnamed antifascists who expose and bring consequences to the monsters among us that brings tangible results.

Remember: the leaked conversations, the interviews, fascists are admitting that doxxing is destroying them. And it isn’t because we’re lying about them. The minute their actual beliefs are exposed, who they really are, the people usually find them repulsive.

Seriously, it’d be one thing if we’re having a conversation about Leftists attacking one another, or even people being misidentified. Fash-jacketing is a real thing, and the mob-mentality so often prevalent in the digital world can ruin people’s lives. We can even talk about the very problematic cheering of tech giants as they remove alt-righters—and then move on to leftist platforms like Telesur. Or how Facebook now requires leftists to register with extremely personal information to run ads in an effort to combat “fake news.”

Hell, I’ll even say we could talk about how some of the working people who voted for Trump are simply ignorant, and need to be reached out to.

Some.

But as for the out-and-out people talking about wiping out every face darker than a jar of mayonnaise?

Who gives a fuck?

Andrew Anglin could have his head removed with a chainsaw, moving from his groin towards his neck, finally culminating in total separation…and I wouldn’t care.

David Duke could be attacked by a pack of rabid dogs and spend the next four hours being slowly torn to pieces…and I wouldn’t shed a tear.

Jason Kessler could be on fire and I wouldn’t PISS on him to put him out. My laughter would mix with his shrill cries for water as his once solid frame melted into a pool of charred bone and liquid fat.

I’d sleep like a goddamn baby.

Let them suffer. Let them be afraid. These people want to kill us. If they had the chance, they would. They admit this and harass us at every opportunity with networks far outstripping our own. Why should we feel bad or even consider their feelings? Why is a tactic so clearly effective something we can’t use?

This isn’t some grand web of karma where the most advanced, peaceful people win by default. This is a rough, ruthless planet where baby animals get ripped open everyday, where innocent children get blown up and turned into smoldering goo.

Doxxing stops actual, real world violence before it starts because the enemy is afraid. Keep him afraid and he becomes paralyzed. Unable to act. Isn’t that what we want?

Are we combating fascism or are we in a conversation with it? If you find a moral issue with doxxing I’d love to hear what forms of combat you’d prefer instead.

And if you say voting I swear to god I will take off my pants and shit in your shoes.

Nobody else is going to stop these people. It is up to us. Doxxing works, doxxing will continue to work, and in an open war regarding personal information…we’d only be hurting ourselves by giving up our strongest weapon.


DR. BONES

20171014_152252Dr. Bones is a Hoodoo-slingin’ Florida native and Egoist-Communist spitting pure vitriol and sorcerous wisdom at a world gone mad. He lives with his loving wife, a herd of cats, and a house full of spirits.

His poltergasmic politics and gonzo journalism can be found at Gods & Radicals and The Conjure House. He can be reached by email, twitter, or facebook. Want to do him a favor? Help keep him alive for as little as $4.99 a month.


Here’s the link to our donation page to help pay writers such as Dr. Bones. Thank you!

Why Do You Care About Alex Jones?

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Should Alex Jones be on Facebook?

Last week, the company announced that it’s taking down his pages. The reading public will have to go elsewhere to learn about the perils of routine vaccinations and the undoubtedly-many uses of a “latent iodine survival shield.” Now, given his conspiracy theories, homophobia, and more-or-less explicit white nationalism, Jones does not cut a sympathetic figure. But should the Left support his free speech rights anyway, because the same mechanisms that removed Alex Jones are also turned against leftists? Or should anti-fascists rejoice that a hard-right demagogue has lost a platform?

Leftist and social-justice social media’s been arguing the case all week. But, while the debate’s touched on free speech, no-platforming, and the power of tech companies, one question’s been lost in the shuffle:

Why does it matter?

Should we support Facebook’s action? What does “support” even mean? Will commenting on Facebook about the company’s decision change its policies, towards Alex Jones or anyone else? Facebook does as it pleases. The Left can’t change that any more than it can convince Alex Jones that floods aren’t caused by the Air Force.

So, is the issue important? The question’s empty. There are no stakes. There’s no political practice involved other than the discourse itself. It’s isolated from any kind of social power. Does it feel meaningful? Sure, but the feeling is fake – simulated politics. It’s catharsis without the trouble of leaving your front door.


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Ideas are not political.

Politics is power. It’s about deciding the shape of collective life. Talking about how things should be isn’t political if it’s outside the context of organizing for power. So, neither side of the Jones debate has a political position. After all, is there anything at stake besides whether to type “this is good” or “this is bad” into a comments thread?

Social media platforms seek to maximize their own economic good as individual businesses (by engaging more people for longer, they increase the number of eyes on each ad they sell). Every post you make about whether Facebook should have deleted Alex Jones increases Facebook’s user engagement and, therefore, its profitability. But as they compete for ad revenue, social media companies also maximize the political good of the entire capitalist class: if you scratch your political itch by liking and sharing, you’re that much less likely to feel the need to stir up real-life trouble.

But why should it be either/or? Why not do politics both in person and on social media – can’t you walk and chew gum at the same time?

Well, social media “politics” isn’t zero-impact. The cost goes deeper than emotional exhaustion and wasted time – social media rewards certain styles of interaction. Controversy and hostility lead to more attention and engagement (not to mention favorable treatment from the algorithm!). It’s easy to form endlessly-specific insider cliques, and drama within them just pushes user engagement even higher. So, companies deliberately design their platforms to encourage all that.

In the field, though, that sort of behavior wrecks a fledgling project faster than you can realize it’s happening. I know a self-defense instructor who won’t let trainees directly hand each other the fake gun prop after they practice disarming a shooter – if you do it in practice, you’ll find yourself doing it in real life. The same goes for how you approach other people and form relationships. If you keep handing the algorithm the inflammatory statements and flame wars it loves, you’ll find yourself acting that way when you organize in real life. Social media takes your organizing skills and makes them worse.

You don’t have to take part. You’ll be a better organizer if you don’t.

Talk to your co-workers, your fellow-renters, your co-religionists, and your neighbors. What communities of interest are you part of? Anyone can organize their community but if you don’t do it, how will it happen? Reach out. Find your common interests. Get organized. Take collective action. Serve the people.

And then, when you’re doing real politics, it won’t matter what Facebook thinks.

 


Sophia Burns

is a communist and polytheist in the US Pacific Northwest. Support her on Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/marxism_lesbianism


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The Purpose of a Movement Is What It Does

Sophia Burns argues that opportunism comes not from bad ideas, but from practical and contextual needs.

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Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Three weeks ago, DSA member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won a primary against a high-ranking Democratic congressman, earning her widespread popularity among leftists around the country.

Last week, many of those same leftists were horrified to see her walk back her previous criticism of Israel’s occupation of Palestine. During an interview, a PBS journalist brought up the killing of dozens of protesters by Israeli soldiers in May, which Ocasio-Cortez had called “a massacre” with “no justification.” When the interviewer claimed thatof course the dynamic there in terms of geopolitics and the Middle East is very different from people expressing their First Amendment right to protest,” Ocasio-Cortez answered, “Well, yes,” and promised to “learn and evolve” on the issue.

Why did Ocasio-Cortez’s unequivocal stance soften, bringing it in line with the standard Democratic position? After all, her district is so overwhelmingly Democratic that whoever wins the primary, wins the office – she has no need to moderate for the general election. So, why the shift in her position?

Where do opportunistic ideas come from?


According to the cybernetician, the purpose of a system is what it does. This is a basic dictum. It stands for bald fact, which makes a better starting point in seeking understanding than the familiar attributions of good intention, prejudices about expectations, moral judgment, or sheer ignorance of circumstances.

Stafford Beer

Bernie Sanders made his name winning against a series of Democrats in Burlington, VT in the 80s. So why did he become a Democrat in all but name, supported by the Vermont Democratic Party and supporting it in return, starting in 1990?

SYRIZA, the Greek socialist party, came to power in 2015 on an anti-austerity platform. Why did it go on to implement those same austerity policies once in office?

The purpose of a system is what it does. A political organization is a complex system. To understand it, you can’t take its stated goals at face value. Its choices don’t simply follow from its ideas.

Instead, its internal dynamics interact with the demands of its external circumstances to create its strategic attitude – the general stance it takes towards other political actors, the framework within which it makes decisions. That doesn’t exist at the level of conscious ideology. Instead, it forms the taken-for-granted assumptions about what doing politics entails. Whatever ideology it follows in words matters less than the guiding assumptions embodied in a strategic attitude. By and large, a party’s official philosophy is just the particular language it uses to justify its choices post hoc – ideas are not the basis on which organizations make decisions. The internal and external pressures and feedback loops that do form that basis all operate regardless of its claimed ideology. Blue Dog Democrats and Green Party members might wave different protest signs, but politics means voting and going to rallies for them both.

So, why did Sanders become a Democrat?

His “movement” was centered around his career as an individual politician. During the 80s, being an independent allowed him to defeat city-level Democratic competitors. But then, when he ran first for governor and then for Congress in ’86 and ’88, the experience of losing taught him that he needed the Party’s support to advance beyond local office. So, he formed a “special working relationship” with the Vermont Democrats because he needed to. However, he never recanted his third-partyist ideas. Rather, he used them to justify his choices by continuing to nominally self-identify as an independent.

SYRIZA, on the other hand, arose in the midst of a years-long recession, during which the European Union forced Greece to implement harsh cuts to social services in exchange for needed cash bailouts. But, that provoked a massive protest response – young Greeks, with heavy anarchist and Marxist participation, took to the public squares of Athens, camping out and fighting the police. SYRIZA successfully channeled their anger into electoral politics, but that tied them to the viability of the Greek state and its institutions. After all, what other mechanism did they have for exercising social power? SYRIZA didn’t have the option of sacrificing the Greek state’s well-being, even at the cost of its core principles.

When a pro-Palestine democratic socialist finds herself bound for Congress, she must accommodate herself to the program of the Democratic Party. Otherwise, without the Party’s support, where would she find the allies she’ll need to effectively push for her list of reforms? So, unable to deliver on her voters’ priorities, she’d risk being punished by them, just like her predecessor.

Opportunistic ideas come from practice.


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Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras of SYRIZA. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Where does that leave revolutionaries?

Understanding why you shouldn’t be an opportunist isn’t enough. Bernie Sanders understands the bankruptcy of the two-party system – he’s built an entire personal brand around opposing it. That hasn’t kept him from taking part. Politics is made of something deeper than beliefs.

When opportunism is a viable option in terms of an organization’s internal dynamics and a useful option in terms of its external situation, then revolutionary ideas won’t fend it off. Opportunism is born from practice. Ideas play catch-up.

So, you can’t fight it just with ideas. If you don’t practice the alternative before you argue for it, then winning the debate just means you get to choose how opportunism will be justified. To win, a revolutionary orientation has to show itself, on the ground, to be at least as useful as an opportunistic one.

Ideology matters, but it lives in what you do, not in the words you say. So, you can’t win opportunists over by educating them. You have to develop a revolutionary practice. You have to show that building institutions outside of the state and against it offers a more effective road to social power than protests and elections.

Otherwise, the opportunists will have proven you wrong, instead.


Sophia Burns

is a Communist and polytheist in the US Pacific Northwest. Support her on Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/marxism_lesbianism


Support our work here.

 

Radical Beginnings

“… keep going. We are in this together.”

From Niki Ruggiero

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Do you ever feel overwhelmed when you turn on the news? Or look at social media? Or look out the window? Everything is awful, it’s getting worse, and mainstream liberals keep telling us if we just drive a Prius, or bring our own bags to the store, or “lean in” we can be part of the change we hope to see in the world.

It’s lies. All lies. We cannot buy our way out of this mess. Our individual actions are not to blame for the systemic crumbling of our freedoms and the ravaging of our planet. Large corporations engage in and promote the very things that we are being asked to manage. We are told to reduce/reuse/recycle; corporations continue to make things disposable, unfixable, and wrapped in wasteful packaging. We are told to eat more veggies, but our soil is poisoned, as is our water; food “deserts” are very real; and ingredients companies know are toxic are included in our food. We are told to drive less, but car companies refuse to decrease gas consumption in vehicles, oil companies get massive tax breaks, and few cities are developing true community-wide public transportation systems. And so on.

But we cannot just throw all efforts into the wind and stop giving a fuck. We still have our individual agency. Sure, not all of us can be Rhyd Wildermuth or Dr. Conjure. Where does one begin? If you’re reading Gods & Radicals, you’re likely ten steps ahead of most people. We all started somewhere. One step led us to another and another.

I didn’t always identify as an anti-capitalist. I still don’t feel like I’m doing enough to make positive change in this world. Yet, I look back at my life and I realize that the small steps I took led to bigger steps, and that this is possible for the people in our lives who might not yet identify as radical.

Below are a list of actions and choices that can lead to other steps. Some of these are relevant to some people, some are out of reach for others. Some of us do some of these things out of necessity, for others certain of these items might be life changing. This is not a complete list, but there is no complete list. As we saw with the popularity of Rhyd’s magical article “Garlic Bread of the Revolution,” there is a strong desire among us to begin where we are. Below is an incomplete list of ways to inspire you to begin!

Barter
Read new literature – explore writers from other parts of the world; ask your favorite writers who they read
Use and support libraries
Walk/bike/utilize and support public transportation
Own less stuff
Share tools/start a tool library
Buy what you can locally
Homeschool/Unschool and/or support alternative forms of education in your community

Get healthy and strong, inside and out
Find help for your trauma
Join a mutual support group
Learn to shoot
Learn a martial art

Use cloth menstrual products and/or menstrual cup
Use cloth diapers
Homebirth and/or support midwives
Breastfeed
Babysit for a working family/babysit for meetings so working families can attend
Use cloth toilet paper
Compost
Grow your own food
Support Community Supported Agriculture/utilize or support community gardens
Share land
Share housing
Work for equitable housing
Host a clothing swap
Make your own beauty supplies
Learn first aid
Make your own food
Teach someone to cook

Support artists/crafters/thinkers/organizers
Support trans rights and inclusion
Support Black Lives Matter
Support prison abolition
Support the demilitarization of our police forces
Support indigenous rights and decolonization
Support disability rights

Practice polytheism, Paganism, witchcraft – remember that other religions also have radical communities within them
Cast spells for the overthrow of oppressive systems
Cast spells for liberation
Cast spells for the protection of people on the front lines
Cast spells for the protection of people supporting those on the front lines

Network with other like-minded folk, especially those engaged in projects different from yours
Engage in mutual aid whenever possible
Amplify voices that might not otherwise be heard
Be quiet and listen to voices that are different from your own

Judge less, practice more

If you have, GIVE
If you need, ASK

Many of these things do not look radical at all. Plenty of non-radical people do some of these things. Engage those people, because they are one step closer to being radical than they (or you) might think.

Most important of all: get rid of “all or nothing” thinking and start where you are. For those of you doing a few, some, most, or all of these things: keep going. We are in this together.


Niki Whiting Ruggiero

is a witch, polytheist, and mother of three.


Support our work here.

Revolution Is Not a Metaphor: A Response to Critics

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A barricade in the Paris Commune. March 18, 1871. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Leftists love youth organizing.

Why shouldn’t they? Contemporary activism descends directly from the youth and student movements of the 60s, so anything that recalls the glory days inspires activists. It gives them a sense that the US’s long rightward drift might be reversed.

No wonder so many of them cheered for March’s pro-gun-control “March for Our Lives” rallies. In the wake of a school shooting, what could be more uplifting than high schoolers coming together, launching a protest movement, and responding to their experience of violence with political organization? How could any leftist not support that?

But the “movement” was stage-managed by the Democratic Party. The protests were choreographed media spectacles focused on boosting Democratic voter turnout in the midterms. Further, the students’ demands were outright reactionary, calling for more police in high schools, the expansion of mass incarceration, and the loss of medical privacy rights for people with mental health diagnoses.

Political substance matters. The form taken by the March for Our Lives (“youth organizing”) drew leftist support, but the actual content was antithetical to everything the Left claims to value.

 


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Émile Friant, “Political Discussion.” Source: Wikimedia Commons

This week, two people have published critiques of my work, using it as a stand-in for the political tendency I’m part of: revolutionary base-building, exemplified by the Marxist Center network, Cooperation Jackson, and parts of DSA Refoundation. Revolutionary base-building means rejecting “activist networking” in favor of organizing the unorganized outside of elections. It involves independent workplace organizations, tenant unions, community self-defense, and mutual aid.

Antonio Balmer argues that base-building is just empty populism. He compares it to the Narodnik movement of 19th-century Russia, which saw middle-class anti-monarchists “go to the people” by moving to peasant villages and occasionally assassinating aristocrats. Balmer contrasts them with the Bolsheviks, who built an organized political party capable of leading a revolution, and suggests that base-builders pay too little attention to Marxist theory and revolutionary leadership.

Shamus Cooke takes a different angle. He quotes Lenin’s pamphlet Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder to claim that I reject class struggle in favor of a depoliticized mutualism. (Mutualism is a flavor of anarchism that calls for worker-owned co-ops to peacefully replace capitalism by out-competing traditional firms in the marketplace.) According to Cooke:

Burns’ gradualist approach ignores the fact that revolutionary situations are often brief, requiring a battle for power at all levels of society. Nearly all revolutions begin as massive, mostly-spontaneous mobilizations, so it would behoove a revolutionary to understand the abc’s of organizing mobilizations. Mass mobilization, however, barely registers as an activity that Burns believes a revolutionary should engage in.

The term class war implies there is an open struggle between the classes. Burns wants us to only engage in guerrilla tactics that don’t attract the attention of the establishment. But if ever such tactics actually succeed in challenging power, the ruling class would aggressively respond, since their economic and political power would actually be threatened, at which point Burns’ approach would be rendered useless, requiring a completely different strategy.

The “completely different strategy” he advocates involves combining base-building methods, electoral work, and conventional activism to shift “the balance of forces” against “the establishment.” What does that look like concretely? Cooke repeatedly cites the city-level electoral and lobbying efforts of his own organization, Portland Tenants United.

Balmer and Cooke agree: revolutionary base-builders are anti-theory, anti-political, don’t believe in party-building, don’t believe in class confrontation, and don’t have a vision for socialism or revolution. Base-building means mutual aid, and mutual aid is another word for depoliticized charity work. Base-builders say they want socialism, but don’t have the stomach to fight for it.

Now, if you reduce revolutionary base-building to mutual aid, you’re misrepresenting it. Workplace and tenant organizing (along with community self-defense) account for much more of what base-builders actually do than mutual aid. But, it’s true that “base-building” is itself not a political strategy; it’s a set of techniques.

So, what defines revolutionary base-building? Is it just methods? Are Balmer and Cooke right – do base-builders really expect to win socialism without a strategy, without the bother of class struggle?

 


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Tools. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Means and Ends

Anyone can base-build.

How does any organization develop a base of support? It organizes previously-unorganized people. It campaigns against their enemies while offering mutual-aid, cultural, and social activities. It puts its own work above networking with the already-converted. Churches, businesses, political parties, and fan clubs all use some variant of the formula. Base-building methods, in that sense, are just how you build an effective organization.

Since revolutionary base-builders use those techniques and most of the activist Left doesn’t, they provide the tendency’s form. They don’t provide its content. Base-building is a tool, nothing more. A hammer can help you make a table; it can also smash a flowerpot. “Youth organizing” can mean the March for Our Lives. It can also mean the Black Panther Party. Without the methodology of base-building, you can’t organize a constituency capable of exercising social power. But who are you organizing? What is that social power for?

We are revolutionaries. That’s literal.

We seek “the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions.” That includes the private ownership of economically productive property; the division of labor and benefits according to white supremacy, patriarchy, and empire; and the existence of the capitalist government.

That won’t happen by winning elections or voting for socialism. It won’t happen through one-cooperative-at-a-time mutualism, either. Rather, it means building up revolutionary capacity by cultivating a mass base within the working class. When the conditions are right, it will mean launching a revolutionary uprising to establish a monopoly on the legitimate use of force by participatory-democratic organs of the working class. It will mean restructuring the economy according to a democratic, ecological, and scientific plan based on production for human use, not private profit.

Our ideas don’t make us revolutionary. Ideology runs deeper than the things you think. What’s the long-term trajectory implied by what you’re actually doing? That’s your ideology. We build institutions of class confrontation and mutual aid outside of the state, against the state, and in order displace the state. That trajectory makes us revolutionary – what we are, not what we say. Electioneering, lobbying, and waving signs may well involve revolutionary slogans, taking the form of radical politics. But, they lack the content. What happens when activist leftists have a mass movement? They tie it institutionally to the state, cutting off its ability to exercise social power directly, on its own terms. That road doesn’t lead to collective power – just brokerage within the existing order.

We don’t base-build for the sake of base-building. Our practice flows from and, in turn, shapes our revolutionary agenda. We are not cultivating an electorate for “movement” politicians. Revolutionary base-building is a process of preparation for collective self-government, for the seizure of power by the working class. Sure, delivering here-and-now gains does matter, but it’s never the point. Socialism means more than “a chicken in every pot.”

 


 

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A line in the sand. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Drawing Lines

Government socialism can’t end capitalism. Structurally speaking, the capitalist state can’t be separated from its function; it serves the ruling class, bottom to top. Expanding it doesn’t advance socialism. At best, it just rearranges exploitation (while institutionally tying the Left to the survival and success of the state). The impulse to deliver real gains, even if they’re small, make sense, but government socialists squeeze the revolutionary essence, the political content, out of socialism.

Protest militancy isn’t up to the task either. Small-group heroics don’t make history. Organized power does. Confrontational protests feel “more revolutionary” to their participants because they’re more disruptive. But do they lead to oppressed people becoming organized in a durable way? Do they increase their long-term capacity to exercise collective power?

Government socialists want tangible benefits and ignore or defer revolutionary ideas. Protest militants treat their ideas as a substitute for mass organization. Revolutionary base-builders, though, synthesize organizing for tangible gains with the long-game commitment to literal revolution. That synthesis doesn’t mean talking like protest militants and behaving like government socialists, though. Rather, it’s built into the process of organizing the unorganized to change their own conditions and confront their enemies themselves, rather than mediating it through the nonprofits or the state. (Indeed, the Marxist Center network takes its name from the course between those two possible distortions.)

Base-building methods aren’t conventional activism. That matters, if only because “base-building” is another word for “organizational techniques that actually work” – but revolutionary base-builders are after more than just a social base. No matter what Bernie Sanders says, political revolution means replacing the government, not reforming it.

The point is to create organizational structures through which power can be transferred from the few to the many, from the ownership class to the dispossessed. That transfer doesn’t happen piecemeal. It isn’t a gradual process where reforms (or mutualist co-ops!) stack on top of each other until one morning, you wake up to find that capitalism is gone. The capitalist state can’t not uphold the rule of the capitalist class. Base-building just to create another electoral or activist constituency, without that revolutionary goal and opposition to the state, has nothing to do with socialism. It doesn’t weaken capitalism. It just creates another avenue for capitalist politics, even if you call it “socialism,” even if it takes the form of base-building.

And for revolutionary base-builders, that will never be enough.

 


Sophia Burns is a polytheist and communist in the US Pacific Northwest. Support her on Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/marxism_lesbianism

The Socialist Case Against Medicare for All

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Source: Wikimedia Commons

Nursing assistants often resent their clients.

I worked in assisted living. My co-workers would complain about residents who blew up if they got breakfast at 8:10 instead of 8 – never mind that each of us had 8 or 9 other residents also demanding breakfast at 8. Sometimes, they did worse than chew us out. For most people, getting hit by clients from time to time isn’t “just part of the job.” For CNAs, it is.

However, the residents who lashed out had cause to feel isolated and powerless. Social programming for long-term care residents is inadequate in many facilities (if it’s offered at all). Facility life is profoundly lonely; worse, facilities rarely treat their clients as adults with a right to dignity and bodily autonomy. And, of course, plenty of them don’t even meet their residents’ bare physical needs.

Was that the CNAs’ fault? We did the best we could under conditions not of our making. But, frustrated residents still took out their grievances on us, the only representatives of the facility with whom they had any regular contact. It made sense for them to blame us for their situation, just as it made sense for us to blame them for mistreating us.

But management decided how the place was run. They created a situation in which mutual scapegoating was a logical decision for both CNAs and residents. Meanwhile, the company could cut costs and accumulate profit, at the expense of clients and workers both.

Residents and their families were rarely the ones who paid. Assisted living costs thousands of dollars per month; few can afford it out-of-pocket. So, most residents at most facilities are there only because their health insurance covers it. If insurance doesn’t pay, the resident doesn’t stay.

That gives management an incentive to keep residents healthy enough to live for a long time, but never so healthy that they need a less intensive level of care (since that would mean less billable treatment). From a patient’s point of view, the best-case outcome is to recover enough to require less intensive care. But for the facility, the best case is that the resident never stops having more health problems to treat, so insurance never runs out.


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Source: DSA for Medicare for All

At its 2017 convention, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) declared Medicare for All (M4A) its highest priority.

Single-payer healthcare has long been a leftist and liberal priority. While Democrats tend to view M4A as an end in itself, socialists approach it as a springboard to a fully-nationalized, UK-style system. As Timothy Faust wrote in Jacobin:

In other words, a single-payer program is not the goal. Single-payer on its own cannot be the goal. Single-payer does not solve the biggest sin of commodified health care: that taking care of sick people isn’t profitable, and any profit-driven insurance system thus disregards the most vulnerable.

Single-payer alone does not solve these problems. But it gives us a fighting chance to square up against them.

Further, given that Bernie Sanders made it a key campaign promise, many leftists view M4A as the ideal “winning issue.” What could be better than a “universal public good” that enjoys majority support in the polls and already gets significant media coverage?

So, is there a leftist critique of M4A to be made? What socialist would oppose universal healthcare?

M4A, though, isn’t universal healthcare access in the abstract. Medicare is a specific program. M4A calls for it to be expanded in specific ways. M4A is not the general principle of a right to healthcare. It’s a concrete policy proposal and should be evaluated as such, just as criticizing a particular play doesn’t mean condemning the theatre in general. In critiquing M4A, I am not attacking the principle of universal healthcare. Rather, I am arguing that this particular reform campaign is flawed to the point that socialists shouldn’t take part in it.


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Source: DSA for Medicare for All

Neither lack of access nor commodification is US healthcare’s deepest problem.

It’s more than how it’s paid for or to whom it belongs. The issue is in its bones: how people get diagnosed, how treatments get prescribed, and how care gets delivered. US healthcare serves two primary purposes: it keeps workers healthy enough to go to work, and it warehouses disabled people as cheaply and expeditiously as possible. Those imperatives aren’t simply imposed by individual corporations. After all, the process of diagnosis, prescription, and treatment works no differently in a state-owned or nonprofit clinic than in a private one. When the process itself artificially pits patients and workers against each other, neither more comprehensive insurance nor nationalization deals with the root cause. It’s not about who gets healthcare. It’s not even about who owns healthcare. It’s about what healthcare is for.

Why else is long-term eldercare is so often institutionalized neglect (or worse), even if it’s state-run – especially if it’s state-run? Why else is inpatient psychiatric care rife with organized physical, emotional, and chemical violence? M4A demands greater access to something that, in certain situations, is actively harmful. For instance, a former EMT in Washington recently told me:

Many of the psychiatric facilities our ambulance visited were understaffed, filthy, and frequently spared little regard for patients’ wellbeing. Staff members often referred to patients with contempt and disgust (sometimes within their hearing). I observed that patients’ medical needs were often neglected for days at a time, which was frequently the reason for our visits. On multiple occasions I had reason to suspect that facilities were manipulating their documentation in order to maintain patients’ involuntary commitment status. (I only had limited interactions in my capacity as an EMT because we were only there when they called us.)

In those cases, the only way out of institutional abuse is for someone’s insurance to run out. What happens when M4A guarantees it never will?

Now, DSA’s fifth M4A demand – “job training/placement assistance for people currently employed by the private health insurance industry” – already looks beyond simply expanding insurance access. However, nothing in the campaign even implicitly critiques the process of healthcare provision itself.

If M4A requires a jobs program, shouldn’t it also require that people in long-term care and people with mental health diagnoses get the right to refuse unwanted treatment? After all, other categories of patients have the legal right to decline care, even if that means the patient’s death. A psychiatric diagnosis, however, means that police can detain a person and physically force them to receive treatment against their will – and at least a quarter of police shooting victims have a mental health condition, while involuntary psychiatric commitment rates exhibit a racial bias.

Shouldn’t M4A demand an end to abusive and eugenicist practices? For instance, guaranteed coverage of Applied Behavioral Analysis isn’t a good thing for autistic minors – ABA applies physically and emotionally punitive techniques developed for anti-gay conversion therapy to suppress common autistic mannerisms, such as hand-flapping and avoiding eye contact.

Shouldn’t M4A call for healthcare workers and patients to exercise control over their facilities, rather than bureaucratic managers (either private or state-sector)?

Instead, M4A demands universal healthcare without those reforms. Sure, some individual supporters of M4A support them as well. But, M4A the campaign does not make reference to them. Neither DSA nor any other M4A organization is pushing for them, even in a non-M4A context. They aren’t part of the M4A package. Even if M4A is the first step on the road to a national healthcare system, that doesn’t address the issue – every one of these problems is embedded in government-run and nonprofit healthcare facilities, not just for-profit ones.

Is a “winning issue” so worth pursuing that there’s no need to address the key contradictions it contains (except with a jobs guarantee)? Socialism depends on leadership across differences, not lowest-common-denominator single-issue coalitions.

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The state isn’t neutral.

Every state belongs to a class. In medieval Europe, the state belonged to aristocratic landowners. In ancient Rome, it belonged to slave-owning patricians.

The US government belongs to the capitalists – that is, the owners of the physical and organizational machinery that workers use to create goods and services.

It doesn’t belong to them because politicians are corrupt. This isn’t a matter of “money in politics” – it’s the way the state itself is set up. No matter who holds office, the structure of the state means that it can’t help but enforce capitalist class rule. From the day-to-day activities of municipal civil servants to the highest levels of the Executive Branch, everything the government does in some way contributes to that task. It makes sure that contracts are enforced, infrastructure carries goods and services, markets operate smoothly, threats to private property are neutralized, and – above all – that workers keep going to work every day. The state uses force to defend the “public order” of capitalism; in practice, that also means white supremacy, empire, and patriarchy. It regulates businesses to protect the business class’s long-term stability. It runs social services to keep the working class healthy enough to be exploited. It allows radicals to participate in elections to pre-empt their inclination to build revolutionary institutions of their own. It grants concessions to movement demands to de-fang their revolutionary potential and coax them into patronage politics.

This is an inherently capitalist state. Changing that would mean completely redesigning and restructuring it, bottom to top, from the Constitution to common law to the bureaucracy. In other words, it would have to be smashed. A new system would have to be built in its place.

Revolutionary socialism, both Marxist and anarchist, begins by recognizing that. Government socialism begins by denying it. Government socialists, like conservatives and liberals, treat the government as a “public sphere.” Supposedly, it does (or at least could) belong to “the people” in general, not just the ruling class. It can act in the “general interest.” Socialism, therefore, just means more government! State universities are socialist. Roads and sewers are socialist. Parks are socialist. According to a few government socialists, the NSA, the NYPD, and the United States Marines are, too. And “universal public good” redistributive programs – like an expanded Medicare – are the most socialist things of all.

The problem, of course, is that the institutional machinery of the US government can’t be divorced from its role in defending white supremacy, imperialism, and the ruling class. To expand that machinery, even if it does some good in some people’s lives, necessarily strengthens those things.


It is one thing to set up a day care centre the way we want it, and demand that the State pay for it. It is quite another thing to deliver our children to the State and ask the State to control them, discipline them, teach them to honour the American flag not for five hours, but for fifteen or twenty-four hours. It is one thing to organise communally the way we want to eat (by ourselves, in groups, etc.) and then ask the State to pay for it, and it is the opposite thing to ask the State to organise our meals. In one case we regain some control over our lives, in the other we extend the State’s control over us.

Silvia Federici

Until the government disbanded it in 1954, the Communist Party ran a group called the International Workers Order. The IWO provided its nearly 200,000 members with health, dental, and life insurance, and its 19,000 branches ran clinics and summer camps of their own (all in addition to a wealth of cultural and educational activities). The Communists built it all during the Great Depression, when working-class people had far fewer resources than they do now. A generation later, the Black Panther Party and its allies followed the IWO’s lead, establishing clinics and social services of their own.

The state didn’t establish the IWO. It didn’t run the Panthers’ clinics. Revolutionaries created those services themselves. They operated them on their own terms, under their own control.

The point of socialism is mass power, in every sphere of life. It’s not a bigger federal government.


Therefore, we repeat, state ownership and control is not necessarily Socialism – if it were, then the Army, the Navy, the Police, the Judges, the Gaolers, the Informers, and the Hangmen, all would all be Socialist functionaries, as they are State officials – but the ownership by the State of all the land and materials for labour, combined with the co-operative control by the workers of such land and materials, would be Socialism.

Schemes of state and municipal ownership, if unaccompanied by this co-operative principle, are but schemes for the perfectioning of the mechanism of capitalist government-schemes to make the capitalist regime respectable and efficient for the purposes of the capitalist

James Connolly

Don’t campaign for M4A.

Address healthcare like any other issue: organize the workers in that industry. Use mutual-aid programs to grow revolutionary capacity. Government socialists claim that for something on the scale of healthcare, mutual aid just isn’t a workable approach. But even setting aside the IWO and other counter-examples, mutual aid is still more workable than M4A.

M4A can’t happen without a Democrat in the White House, a filibuster-proof Democratic majority in Congress, and (most of all) those Democrats’ willingness to actually make it policy. Now, all of the Democratic 2020 presidential hopefuls recently co-sponsored an M4A bill. That’s only symbolic. It’s red meat for primary voters, but they don’t intend it to ever actually lead to policy. It’s no different than the millionaires’ tax that the New Jersey Democrats supported in opposition, but oppose now that they’re in power.

DSA has the numbers (if not the will) to launch an IWO-style mutual-aid health program. But do they think they’ll be able to win over the federal leadership of the Democratic Party – the same people who made sure that the most popular politician in the country lost his primary fight to one of the least popular, who couldn’t even stomach Keith Ellison as DNC chair, and who just spent eight years in office administering war and neoliberalism? What do they think the Democratic Party is?

 

The US working class doesn’t yet exist as what Marx called a “class-for-itself” – it isn’t an autonomous political force in its own right, organized through its own base of institutions and capable of contesting for social power against other classes. The most important job for revolutionaries right now is to help it become a class-for-itself. Government-socialist and left-populist reforms can’t do that. Organizing the unorganized, building up the institutions through which an independent base can exist, can.

That won’t come from Medicare for All.


Sophia Burns

is a communist and polytheist in the US Pacific Northwest. Support her work on Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/marxism_lesbianism

Strategize, Don’t Moralize

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Source: Wikimedia Commons

Shortly after Trump’s election, I’m in a mass meeting. Several hundred people have gathered to establish a new organization meant to channel outrage into sustainable direct action, mutual aid, and radical municipalist politics. People are talking – expressing not only their fears about ICE and healthcare, but also their hope that our work can create something better. Several of them say it’s important to acknowledge “the people who’ve been doing this good and important work all along” (that is, established activists and nonprofit staffers).

No one asks why, if their work is so good, it didn’t keep Donald Trump out of office. No one asks what, exactly, that work is meant to accomplish – or, if its goals are worth supporting, how it envisions achieving them.


 

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Source: Wikimedia Commons

If you start nailing boards together without a plan, will that get you a house?

When you build a house, there’s a very specific goal: the physical structure needs to match the architect’s blueprint. The design’s details, in turn, depend on the concrete conditions, both current (e.g. available land and budget) and future (e.g. the number of people meant to live there). Then, the construction process itself is structured by clearly-defined intermediate goals and benchmarks. You first lay a foundation, then erect a frame, then install plumbing and wiring, and so on.

That’s strategy. You don’t begin with the notion that you want some vague, indeterminate kind of house. You have a concrete ultimate goal in the blueprint, with definite intermediate goals along the way. Now, unexpected disruptions might make you change your plan; what if you lose half your budget, say, or find an archeological site? But, that doesn’t mean you throw the blueprint away.  It means you revise it in response to changing conditions, because without the plan you can’t carry out the work. Strategizing means figuring out not only where you want to go, but how, precisely, you intend to get there.

The US far left loves to debate tactics (Is it OK to punch Nazis? Is the Black Bloc counter-productive? Is mutual aid just charity?). But how does it approach strategy?


 

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Source: Wikimedia Commons

Tactics follows strategy.

First, you set your ultimate goal, whether it’s building a house or social revolution. Once you’ve analyzed your conditions and resources, you put together a series of intermediate goals. You don’t pick them haphazardly – each of them has to set you up to advance to the next while, simultaneously, making you more capable of eventually reaching the end goal. Particular tactical decisions work the same way, but on a smaller scale. Is a tactic good? Well, is it the best way to achieve your next intermediate goal (while building up your overall capacity)?

To build a house’s frame, you first have to lay a foundation. To install the wiring and plumbing, you first have to build the frame. You might be excited about the carpentry and unhappy about mixing concrete and waiting for it to set, but if you skip the foundation the frame won’t survive. Does that make carpentry ineffective? Of course not – as long as you use it in the right context.

What makes Nazi-punching, Black Blocs, or mutual aid any different? Is your immediate goal to disrupt an alt-right event? If so, a Black Bloc might be a sensible tactic, but showing up with bags of groceries probably isn’t. But if you’re trying to establish a positive presence in a neighborhood with high food insecurity, groceries are going to work a lot better than hanging out on the sidewalk waiting for Richard Spencer to walk by.

When the Left debates tactics in the abstract, it sacrifices evaluating them strategically. You might decide that having plenty of outlets is what you want most in a house. Does that mean you can go ahead and install them before you’ve built the walls? When radicals draw lines of demarcation based on individual tactics, then supporting mutual aid (or antifa, or union work, etc) effectively stands in for a more holistic strategic analysis.

But what tactic is effective outside the right strategic context? Mutual aid without a larger political project is charity; it doesn’t build power. Antifa separated from mass work is self-isolating catharsis politics. Outlets only work when they’re wired into a wall.


 

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Tintoretto, “Allegory of the morality of earthly things,” 1585. Via Wikimedia Commons

US leftists tend to think in moralistic, rather than strategic, terms. To be clear, “moralistic” doesn’t mean wanting to be ethical. Rather, it’s the impulse to reduce every political question to an abstract, absolute, and non-contextual value judgment. Is it Good or is it Problematic to smash a Starbucks window or change people’s brake lights for free?

But when you isolate a tactic from its strategic context, it loses its meaning. No tactic is good or bad in itself. What counts is its ability to accomplish a particular goal in a particular situation.

Counter-strategic moralizing generally comes in three flavors:

  1. Inherent good. Every group has a limited number of person-hours and a finite amount of money. How should it choose what to do with them? “Inherent good” moralizers don’t ask what is most likely to bring a social revolution closer – instead, they look at whatever idea is in front of them and try to evaluate it in a vacuum. If it seems good in the short term, they’ll do it, whether or not it builds towards a long-term goal. Often, they’re “pragmatic” reformers, social democrats/Berniecrats, or Alinsky-style “community organizers” (for whom organizing is itself the point, never mind towards what end!).
  2. Representation. This means asking not “how does this fit into our strategy,” but “who is getting credit for it?” Whether in the form of identity liberalism or straightforward sectarianism, it reflects the career aspirations of media figures, academics, and professional-activist NGO staffers who need political credibility to enhance their personal brands.
  3. Catharsis. “Catharsis moralizers” chase the feeling of mass politics (whether it’s real or not). They’re drawn to emotionally-intense peak experiences, street demonstrations above all. Often, they’re “alphabet soup” sect-Marxists, riot-porn anarchists, or the protest scene’s radical fringe in general.

 

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Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

Communist theory discusses objective conditions and subjective conditions. A political group can’t control the objective conditions – is the economy in a boom or a bust? What’s the relative strength of other social forces? Objective conditions are the environment within which a political actor moves.

Subjective conditions, though, are under the group’s control – how good is its strategy? How effective are its tactics? Is it correctly analyzing the objective conditions and acting accordingly?

When both objective and subjective conditions are good, a movement can succeed. Otherwise, it fails.

US leftists have no mass base inherited from their precursors. However, for the first time in decades, the overall objective conditions are favorable: most Millennials would rather live in a socialist or communist society. They overwhelmingly support and/or participate in the labor movement. Liberalism and conservatism are both struggling to break out of a sustained crisis of legitimacy. If there ever was a ripe time to revive mass socialism in the United States, it’s now.

But, the subjective conditions are caught in a negative feedback loop. Because of counter-strategic moralizing, revolutionaries aren’t able to strategize how to make their movement a meaningful presence in working-class life. That, in turn, keeps socialists disconnected from the working class at large – and without that living connection, there’s nothing to force revolutionaries away from moralizing. It’s like having the supplies and equipment to build a house, but never having learned how to use the tools.


 

If capitalist realism is so seamless, and if current forms of resistance are so hopeless and impotent, where can an effective challenge come from? A moral critique of capitalism, emphasizing the ways in which it leads to suffering, only reinforces capitalist realism. Poverty, famine and war can be presented as an inevitable part of reality, while the hope that these forms of suffering could be eliminated easily painted as naive utopianism. Capitalist realism can only be threatened if it is shown to be in some way inconsistent or untenable; if, that is to say, capitalism’s ostensible ‘realism’ turns out to be nothing of the sort.

Mark Fisher

 

… it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.

Fredric Jameson

Do you believe revolution is possible?

Mark Fisher talks about “capitalist realism” – the sneaking sense that even if socialism would be a better system than capitalism, it’s never actually going to happen. Not here. Not really. Capitalism seems like it’s built into the real world, as natural as the rhythm of the seasons, not like something contingent, fragile, and temporary. Mass socialism (rather than hobbyist socialism, fringe socialism) does not currently exist in the US. So, the prospect of a revolution – a literal, overthrow-the-government working-class uprising – holds a place in the radical psyche similar to that of the Second Coming for mainline Protestants. It may be an article of faith, but it’s comfortably hypothetical. It isn’t actually meant to leave the indeterminate but distant future (and “after the revolution…” is how you start a joke).

So, why strategize for revolution? Capitalism is not, of course, a law of nature. It’s loose and limited in ways that “capitalist realism” can’t admit. Socialist revolution is possible; it’s happened before and it will happen again. But, contemporary leftists haven’t gotten to learn through practice that the working class can organize towards a revolutionary goal, creating institutions, parties, and a culture of solidarity and struggle. And without that, socialism is just an idea in their heads, not a living reality straining to come into being.

Before 2008, socialism was marginal because the objective conditions prevented a revival of the mass revolutionary movement. That was true for decades – and from that context, there emerged the subjective conditions that still define the Left. Why is organized leftism so disproportionately academic and middle-class? Well, academics manipulate ideas for a living, but don’t have to translate them into social realities. Of course they and their students gravitated towards Marxism. Before 2008, who else would have? Since then, though, the objective conditions have changed. Mass socialism is possible again.

So, how can the Left break out of its self-isolating feedback loop? It begins with dropping conventional activism and finding ways to build institutions that can weave into working and unemployed people’s daily lives. It begins with taking on small projects that win credibility and expand capacity (then using that expanded credibility and capacity to take on larger and more daring projects, repeating the cycle and growing a base). It begins with strategy.


 

Sophia Burns is a communist and polytheist in the US Pacific Northwest. Support her on Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/marxism_lesbianism

Chasing Ambulances

 

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Source: Wikimedia Commons

Demonstrators flooded streets across the globe in public protests on Saturday, calling for action against gun violence. Hundreds of thousands of marchers turned out, in the most ambitious show of force yet from a student-driven movement that emerged after the recent massacre at a South Florida high school.

The student activists emphasized that they would soon have access to the ballot box as they hope to build support for candidates who support universal background checks and bans on assault-style weapons.

[Source: New York Times]

How should leftists have engaged with this weekend’s March for Our Lives?

Over a million people attended nationally-coordinated rallies calling for federal laws restricting the sale of firearms. Students who survived the recent school shooting in Parkland, FL headlined the main Washington, DC march (alongside performances by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Miley Cyrus, and other celebrities). Meanwhile, more than 800 satellite events featured Democratic office-holders, from Senators Elizabeth Warren and Sherrod Brown to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. Plenty of socialists showed up as well, hoping to “put forward an alternative to this system that is built on violence at its core.”

Similarly, the recent teachers’ strike in West Virginia inspired enthusiastic leftist support, with radicals “stand[ing] in solidarity with the teachers of the state in their fight for better pay and better healthcare and offer[ing] our full support.” However, few of the leftist groups either attending the marches or urging solidarity with the teachers had done any prior work to speak of among either anti-gun high schoolers or West Virginian teachers. So what did “fully supporting” or “putting forward an alternative” concretely mean?

Any time a protest event receives significant media coverage, radical groups put out similar statements. Where does that impulse to endorse come from? Does responding in the same way every time obscure deeper differences between one self-declared “movement” and another?

What place should this “support” have in revolutionary strategy?


 

A political group employing an activist-networking approach is looking for a new campaign. They read the news to find “hot issues” that are being reported on in the media. Once they’ve determined the issue they want to agitate around, they look for an NGO they can “partner” with, providing warm bodies to show up at the NGO’s events and to help actuate the already-existing strategy of the NGO. Often this looks like showing up to City Hall or the state capitol, as part of a coalition of “the usual suspects,” to lobby legislators to support or oppose a particular bill, or showing up at a rally put on by the NGO in command of the campaign. Usually the passage of a law is the primary goal of these campaigns.

Maybe the group might try to recruit one or two participants from the action, but since most of these people are already organized and are members of one of the larger groups, only a handful of people are brought into the organization. As enthusiasm inevitably drains from the campaign in the face of setbacks, participation bleeds away, so the group ends up back at square one, or worse, end up with fewer people involved than they started with. At this point, groups usually cut their losses and look for the new “hot issue” of the day, thus repeating the cycle.

Tim Horras

While their desire to support popular movements is well-meaning, activist leftists are basically ambulance chasers. When they see the media cover something politically exciting, their instinct is to show up offering “leadership” and “the socialist perspective.” Generally, no one takes them particularly seriously when they do. Why should they? The radicals have no pre-existing relationship with them and haven’t shown why they deserve anyone’s attention. So, the socialists’ efforts go nowhere. They lose a few people, pick up a few more, rinse, and repeat. They come to exist for the sake of existing rather than serving a particularly useful role. If an organization’s practice boils down to providing “boots on the ground” for “movement” nonprofits’ campaigns and rallies, why bother with the organization at all? Isn’t it easier to just work with the nonprofits directly? That’s why so few people in a given movement join any of the socialist organizations that try to involve themselves. When a group has made itself superfluous, people can tell. So, leftists continue to exist on the margins of the activist subculture, never realizing that they’ve no one but themselves to blame for their irrelevance.

Your ideology is not the beliefs you affirm. It’s what your actions show that you value. If your practice consists of listening to podcasts and arguing on Facebook, then that’s the substance of your ideology, not the particular ideas you agree with. If you mostly wave signs at protests and issue calls for things you can’t deliver, then your ideology is about bearing moral witness within the activist scene (which, don’t forget, is just the organized infrastructure of the Democratic Party).

You are always promoting your ideology to the people around you. That doesn’t mean you’re telling them your opinions. Ideology isn’t made of opinions. Rather, you’re teaching them through example what you actually consider important – and that’s what will determine their perception of radical politics. Ambulance chasing teaches that leftists are basically flaky: they make promises they can’t keep and don’t stick around after the news cycle moves on. People learn that socialism offers them nothing because your actions have taught them that it means talking big and not following through.


 

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West Virginia teachers on strike. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The March for Our Lives and the West Virginia teachers’ strike were fundamentally different phenomena.

The former was a choreographed, slickly-branded rally organized and promoted by Democratic Party front groups, especially Everytown for Gun Safety and Giffords (named after a retired Democratic member of Congress). The teenagers from Florida weren’t actually calling the shots; the whole thing was run by a nonprofit called the March for Our Lives Action Fund, whose decisions were made by a board of professional Democrats (albeit in consultation with a powerless “student advisory board”), and the satellite marches prominently featured sitting Democratic politicians. That’s why they so heavily emphasized voting in the midterms for candidates who support the Democratic Party’s legislative priorities around gun control, and why explicitly left-wing and anti-police demands from student groups without the official March for Our Lives franchise (such as those in Chicago and Philadelphia) were generally ignored. The Democratic platform, after all, is more amenable to outright reactionary policies like the expansion of police presence in poor, working-class, and non-white schools and the abolition of basic legal rights for people with psychiatric diagnoses.

Conversely, the teachers’ strike was collective action, not media spectacle. West Virginia’s unionized teachers, not Democratic fronts or politicians, organized it themselves. It was a non-symbolic, illegal strike. The point was not media coverage or Democratic voter turnout. The teachers wanted better pay and benefits, so they withheld their labor until they got it. They used their access to meaningful social and economic power to improve their lives. They didn’t have to trust Democratic candidates to keep their campaign promises. Collective action works because class struggle defines class society. But high-profile Democratic Party rallies, like the March for Our Lives and the Women’s March, ultimately only benefit the Party itself.

However, leftist conversations about the strike and the march mirrored each other closely. Are their demands sufficiently radical? How much criticism is too much? How can leftists help? In both cases, the Left offered its support reflexively because “organizing is good.” But there was a category difference between the events. Where was the corresponding category difference between left-wing responses to them?

Well, when you’re an ambulance chaser, you lack a meaningful social base. You act as a club for hobbyists within the protest scene who happen to prefer a socialist or anarchist brand to a liberal one. So, whether it’s a Democratic media event or an actual instance of class struggle, you find yourself on the outside looking in. In either case, your “support” consists of waving placards at demonstrations and publishing official statements until the news cycle moves on. Ideology is practice and for you, there is no practical difference. So, your ideology considers them equivalent. Anything that feels like mass politics is equally attractive, whether that feeling is just PR (as with the March for Our Lives or the Women’s March) or has a basis in something real (as with the West Virginia strike).


 

A crisis will only catalyze a well-formed communications network. If such networks are embryonically developed or only partially co-optable, the potentially active individuals in them must be linked together by someone . . . In other words, people must be organized. Social movements do not simply occur.

Jo Freeman

When a constituency mobilizes (whether it’s for a strike, a march, or a show at a nightclub), it’s not because all of the individuals involved just happened to show up at the same time. Just as a venue, sound equipment, etc have to be acquired and set up beforehand, attendance and participation have to be deliberately organized. When the West Virginia teachers struck, they did so through preexisting organizing networks: their union and a private Facebook group. When people attended the March for Our Lives, that was also done through preexisting networks: activist, religious, and campus-based groups went together as groups, and the march’s sponsors hired publicists to reach out to the unaffiliated. Similarly, the crowd at a show mobilizes through friendship networks of clubgoers, performers’ fan bases, and promoters’ advertising efforts.

The importance of organizing networks doesn’t mean that a constituency can’t act for itself on its own initiative, “from below.” Rather, an infrastructure of organizing networks is the means by which it’s able to do so. Leadership doesn’t impose itself from outside. It happens when people within those networks persuade others to act collectively. Distinct from leadership, organizing means constructing those networks in the first place.

Leftists often want to be leaders. They should instead prioritize being organizers. After all, by the time a strike or a rally is on TV, the participants don’t need radicals. They already have their organizing networks and their leadership within them. At that point, revolutionaries can express support in words, but from the point of view of the people mobilizing, they’re unnecessary. It makes perfect sense to ignore them. Then, when the leftists realize their efforts are getting no traction, why wouldn’t they move on to something else? So, radicals are always moving on. They never develop long-term political relationships or a stable base. That keeps them extraneous, marginal, and ineffective.

That’s the ambulance-chasing cycle. It needs to be broken.


 

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The mass line: a basic communist technique of social investigation and leadership. Source: Hope & Timmel, Training for Transformation: A Handbook for Community Workers, Book 1, via Revolutionary Initiative

Do you want to spread revolutionary ideas?

Remember what ideology is. It isn’t words – it’s a living, physical thing. It’s practice and what practice teaches. Don’t take words at face value, not even your own. The ideology you spread is the ideology you practice (whether you realize you’re practicing it or not).

Is a teachers’ strike important and exciting? Sure. Does that mean most leftists can participate in a meaningful way? By and large, no. They aren’t needed, so why should the strikers care what they have to say? Trying to piggyback on someone else’s organizing and leadership is opportunistic, and people can tell. So, they quite reasonably conclude that radicals are opportunists, not long-haul organizers. The same goes for events like the March for Our Lives (although the weakness of socialists at Democratic media spectacles is probably a good thing on balance. Leftists have no business supporting reactionary goals in the first place).

Being a revolutionary should mean, before anything else, building a revolutionary base. That means identifying a constituency in a neighborhood or industry and making a long-term commitment. Do you have even a small group of friends or fellow radicals interested in doing political work together? That’s enough to start! Go out and talk to people in your target constituency. Find out what their lives are like. What are their needs and aspirations? Then, come up with ideas for programs that tangibly address their lives, have a low barrier to entry (so that as many people as possible can participate), and that can grow your group’s membership and organizational capacity. Reach out – canvass, hold cookouts and potlucks, have public meetings for people to express their needs and views. Build organizing networks. Make promises and follow through. Win credibility. Then, in five or ten years, you’ll have a base of your own. You’ll have created the networks and you’ll have earned enough respect to provide leadership within them. You’ll be the ones putting together exciting mobilizations, and other groups will be the opportunists trying to tag along.

Working and unemployed people don’t need to be told they’re oppressed. They live it out every day – those from specially-oppressed demographics, even more so. But that doesn’t mean revolutionaries don’t have a central role to play! As feminist writer Jo Freeman says, “[P]eople must be organized. Social movements do not simply occur.”

No constituency automatically becomes a revolutionary base. Because liberalism and conservatism enjoy cultural hegemony – they’re so widely accepted that most people don’t realize there are alternatives – social movements tend to become conservative or liberal by default. But, if socialists, communists, and anarchists create the organizing networks through which a constituency can act collectively, then provide effective leadership within them, a movement can be revolutionary instead. Revolutionaries are just as capable of proving, through practice, the value of their ideology as conservatives and liberals. If that’s what your actions teach, that’s what people will learn.

But that means being more than “boots on the ground.” It means taking on the slow, patient work of knitting together a base, year by year, project by project. It means earning the ability to lead, not claiming to have it already.

And no amount of external “support” for the teachers’ strike, the March for Our Lives, or anything else can replace that.


Sophia Burns is a communist and polytheist in the US Pacific Northwest. Support her on Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/marxism_lesbianism


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