A Critique of the Role of Revolutionary Organization

The Anarchist Federation (UK) published an essay called the Role of the Revolutionary Organization as their primary organizational document. This is my critique of it.

I am pretty friendly to the document generally. I share a number of perspectives with the authors, but like usual depart in a number of heavy ways (I feel like that about most groups, and somehow there are few places of overlap *googly eyes*). The paper begins with a nice attempt at bringing revolutionary discourse forward with a mini-critique of capital that tries to take into account things like how surplus value has chaged, supply and demand, and the shifts in the nature of the State since the collapse of the USSR. They also nicely tie together production with consumption, in a way that shows concretely the idea of society as a social factory and their ideological role that capital can play outside the workplace (if brief or a little sloppy, but good for an organizational paper). 

Yet then the article runs aground on the shoals of oppression. I don’t have a word to describe it, but essentially it is the one sided perspective of capital doing unto us rather than a dynamic between autonomous struggle and capital’s attempts to coopt and contain such. They reject that workplace struggle could overturn capital due to the control capital and the state exerts over it, and instead says "…not all is lost. Urbanization continues to create a vast, displaced, hungry, dispossessed and desperate working class across the globe". This is the tendency of revolutionaries to see potential in the most oppressed and the impossibility of revolution amongst those who have any semblence of options.

Arguments against this are familiar and not worth going into. Briefly: The struggle has a historical dynamic. Autonomous struggle emerges from many  areas, and the workplace connects to other areas of struggle. Capital attempts division, restructuring, and cooptation and the struggle moves on dynamically. Struggle is inherent to the system, and just as revolution is not immanent, neither is struggle necessarily contained.

Nor can we assume the most oppressed are the most revolutionary. Nazi germany should have  put a rest to that theory. There is a wide amount of historical data that show precisely ther complexity of who rebels against what when, and there is no formula, no one you can ignore, and no one so oppressed they will fail to move in reformist directions. There is no purity here, nor are their structural prisons.

The pinnacle of this mistake seems to be the historical materialist-esque "therefore we should not attempt to reverse the process of marginalisation but accelerate it". I fail to see how that could be a strategy for anything.

One of the more interesting aspects of the essay comes under the section "Questions of Consciousness"

"The experiences of working class life constantly lead to the development of ides and actions which question the established order. On the other hand, the ruling class seeks to reinforce and perpetuate the fragmentation of working class solidarity through its control of the media and education and through the perpetuation of racism and sexism. At the same time, different sections of the working class reach different degrees of consciousness. The working class is neither an amorphous mass nor, at the moment, a solid and united class, conscious of itself and its power."

This passage expresses clearly the dynamic between struggle and power, and how framgentation and the exploitation of emergent hierarchies for maintaining capital. Class is seen as a happening or process rather than something you’re born into, can posture as, or something to adopt.  

"The anarchist organisation must always see itself as part of the working class. In order to strengthen this identification it must develop and extend its influence in the class. At the same time, the anarchist organisation must recognise as being in ideological advance of the class as a whole. Ideological advance should not be confused with practical advance because, as we have said, workers everywhere learn new forms of struggle and organisation that can benefit other workers. The anarchist revolutionary organisation must always be ready to learn from the class and should be expected to constantly revise its tactics with the unfolding situation. It should always realise it is not infallible and does not have all the answers all the time. It is transformed as the working class is transformed in the revolutionary process.

Because it is part of the class and at the same time a distinctive tendancy within it, the revolutionary organisation faces a contradiction in its relationship to other working people. Of course, if it is not part of the class then, like other groups, it tends towards elitism, vanguardism and divorce from class reality. Theory and practice must be rooted in concrete conditions. There are dangers in these contradictions and the revolutionary anarchist organisation must be aware of this and derive a practice from this awareness. This contradiction cannot be completely removed until the triumph of libertarian communist society."

This passage addresses the issue of what the revolutionary group is. Rather than a group somehow existing outside of relations of capital, or external to the working class, the organization should be merely a group within the working class that co-evolves and builds a praxis out of the experience of struggle. Yet as a portion of the class, the revolutionary group must consciously address and engage the relation between itself and the class as a whole, as the problem of vanguardism and formalism is endemic to political organization rather than a structural effect. They stress that "it respects the independence and autonomy of working class movements and does not try to subordinate them to revolutionary organization. This does not mean that it does not seek to spread its ideas in these movements." All the discussion above seems crucial, and a solid contribution to anarchist organizational theory.

The rest of the essay explicates the activity of such a grouping:

1. the organization acts as a propaganda group demonstrating revolutionary ideas and praxis agitationally,

2. it gives concrete examples of self-activity in line with anarchist principles,

3. it maintains links internationally to groups and struggles in solidarity,  

4. it engages in mass movements, and tries to create links between struggles that are otherwise independent, 

Besides the fluke in the text of the idea that we can only reclaim ourselves outside capitalist control (even though early they seem to say there is no such space), the text makes clear that the relationship amongst struggles in cpaital is crucial. They note that a revolutionary situation will show the relation between workplace struggles and those outside them. Correspondingly an additional task of the organization would be creating a libertarian front of struggles that connect such issues and draw collaborative experience and praxis, and surely this precisely is missing in America. I think many of us in the IWW feel that from time to time. It’s hard to keep abreast of what is going on outside of workplace stuff, and when I’ve needed help on things like tenants issues there aren’t the resources readily available.

I’m getting kicked out of the library and lack internet at home right now so will have to be short. The section on workplace organization has a fairly mechanical understanding of how that works and seems to repeat the folly of deterministic and formalistic theory. On the otherhand workplace resistance groups share a lot of similarity to solidarity unionism with the exception of not seeking any permanent basis (however that is supposed to work). This essay is a good departure point for discussion about revolutionary organization since it has good critiques (the changes in capital over time, the changed role of the state, critique of traditional organizing, critiques of unions ) and also lays out a good beginning basis of the tasks such revolutionaries could collaborate on. I’m interested in exploring further such gaps and potentials that exist in my work, and seeing the frameworks that have been used, strengths and weaknesses. Sorry to post this without editing. fucking internet.  


5 thoughts on “A Critique of the Role of Revolutionary Organization

  1. It’s actually the Marx thing I was trying to get folks to read w/ me a little bit ago, the unpublished and partially unfinished introduction to A Contribution To A Critique of Political Economy. It’s in the Grundrisse right at the beginning, p80 or so I think, I think it’s the first thing after the translator’s intro, it’s about 30 pages long or so, if that. That link I put in my last comment is the whole of this introduction. The best part in my opinion is where he says that there’s a distribution which is just as important as production, which is the distribution of class positions and of people into class positions. That’s really amenable to how I think we want to read primitive accumulation and the role of the state.

  2. Distribution is distinct from consumption though right? I should just read it 🙂 My second hand understanding of it though was that fordism changed the role of consumption in society (through using it to let steam off struggles). Is that wrong?

  3. That depends on who you ask, really. I’m out to lunch on that. Personally I’m a continue-ist, generally.

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