Mass organization and political organization

This is my comments on an STO paper, towards the revolutionary party

Comments on the STO’s Towards a Revolutionary Party

Consciousness and revolutionaries

The daily struggles of the workers against the capitalists do not develop to the point where the class is sufficiently organized and conscious to undertake the revolutionary reconstruction of society. From this it is clear that the struggle for a socialist revolution is not, ‘inherent’ in the spontaneous class struggle. Whether or not the circumstances and conditions of the daily conflicts between workers and capitalists develop into the basis for revolutionary struggle depends, fundamentally, on the intervention of conscious revolutionaries.”

This is false because:

a. workers have in the past organized spontaneously and launched revolts (say Hungary, France, etc). Whatever these insurrections where they went beyond trade union consciousness and cannot be attributed to the interventions of conscious revolutionaries. One could say that revolutionaries had sewn seeds or some such business, but this is different from the STO/leninist thesis that it is a necessary condition of revolution. Many revolutions had no party and had no centralized strategic intervention. Ones that did were no more successful. I’m not sure what the casuality is, but it ain’t like they say it is.

b. it implicitly accepts the logic that consciousness is external to the class and has to be brought from the outside, which is circular since class is throughout society and therefore problematic as to how we revolutionaries magically break out of our class conditioning to get the truth consciousness.

I actually waffle on this stuff between:

  1. To build a good society, we need people to be able to control and participate in the decision making of society (direct democracy). To do that implies faith that it is possible for the people to self-organize. If people are able to self-organize, they can self-organize revolution and mass movements. If they can’t do that, then we can’t build such a society. If we need revolutionaries to build these, then we can’t build anarchism.

  2. Spontaneous struggles tend to ebb and flow. When they spill over into revolts, They are easily coopted, diffused, and channeled into pre-existing authoritarian foundations. Intervention by organized revolutionaries is needed to disrupt authoritarianism and keep libertarian ideas present in popular movements.

I believe there is no contradiction between the two, but it requires demonstrating that anarchist political organization is a part of the self-organization of the masses, and not an externality. I think we can do this if we understand that the class is not homogenous, but rather is constantly evolving groupings, consciousness, and activity. The society we want to see is an emergence or evolve of society as a system, which is a product of the interaction of all the organized elements in society. I think that answers these problems.

Later they say “The second factor determining the content of working class ideology is the potential of that class to become a ruling class. This potential is manifested in, and demonstrated by, ideas and actions which run counter to the capitalist conception of the world. As has been said, these ideas and actions become mass phenomena during periods of sharp struggle…often being articulated as the explicit basis of the struggle. ”

Which is a contradiction of their earlier thesis, since this brought to its logical conclusion implies the development of revolutionary consciousness (you could still say that ruling class ideas win out without a party, but that merely delays the problem). I believe STO abandoned these positions in the 80s under the influence of autonomia.

It is also not consistent with:

The two essential parts of our approach to the transformation of groups of exploited and oppressed workers into a revolutionary social bloc have now been clarified. The characteristics of the social bloc already exist in the attitudes, ideas, and experiences which are a part of the consciousness of the class. They will not have to be developed from scratch, or lectured into the workers. These autonomous characteristics are generally incorporated within, and subordinated to, the features of working class consciousness which are imprinted on the workers by the dominant ideology and culture, but the development of mass struggle tends to bring them out as competing political tendencies. ”


The party must be in close contact with the day-today life and struggles of the working class in order to "appreciate its tasks." Its intervention in these struggles must always be critical, because, in themselves, they are not sufficient to develop revolutionary class consciousness. ”

They try to bridge it via:

The basic strategic function of the party, then, is to take hold of each of these features of the struggle, clarify its revolutionary implications and the categorical nature of the break with old patterns of thinking and acting which it represents, and incorporate it into a more systematic challenge to capitalism. This is not primarily a job of agitation and propaganda, although clearly they are a part of what must be done. ”

They see the work of revolutionaries less as pedagogy, than with basically building a mass organization on a revolutionary basis (more iww than cnt) and by embodying revolutionary politics in struggle [which is good and i agree with]

First, it must develop programs of activity and forms of mass organization which incorporate these features of working class consciousness as unifying and activating principles — as the basis for continuing the struggle. Second, the party must link these fragmentary elements together into a revolutionary dual power. In this fashion the party can begin to teach the working class that socialism is within its power. ”

Domination of ruling class ideas

Finally, despite the growing crisis and the heightened level of mass struggle, the great bulk of the people are still under the sway of capitalist ideology. On the surface, this might not appear to be the case since it is true that there is a growing alienation from official and orthodox values, particularly within the Black community and among the youth. And beyond this more-or-less conscious alienation, a general disaffection affects the entire working class.

However, rejection of the official culture is not usually linked to the mass affirmation of a clear positive alternative worldview and lifestyle. Though there has been a tremendous growth in the numbers of those who are alienated from major features of capitalist culture, few have sufficiently escaped from capitalist ideological domination to be able to see the practicability of an alternative society.”

National Liberation struggles– they failed to see how these struggles would be easily recooperated within global capital. Some of these truly were threatening, but the statist nature of these revolutions allowed them to be coopted by the USSR and western powers.

Failure to develop mass organizations

The lack of continuing popular participation in struggle, which truly mass organizations would make possible, increases the difficulties of unifying the sections of the working class which are presently divided from, and more or less hostile to, each other. Without such forms the mass movement takes on a sporadic character with peaks of activity in some areas cancelled out by fragmentation and demoralization in others.”

I like this.

The Ruling Class

The first point to understand is that the capitalist class controls the state apparatus and dominates, sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly, the entire institutional framework of capitalist society… The capitalists also read Marx, Lenin, and Mao. To a degree they are class conscious and thus they are aware of the instability of their class rule, and have developed a variety of programs, to maintain their dominance. This does not mean that capitalist rule is purely rational and calculated. On the contrary, the partial and selfish interests of sections of the class, and the pressures of objective limitations on capitalist policy alternatives, as well as errors and prejudices, each enter into the determination of the specific content of class rule. Despite such limitations, the capitalist class is constantly implementing programs to undermine, divert, divide, isolate, and repress any potential revolutionary opposition, and to absorb and contain this opposition’s potential social base. Naturally, this is particularly true in periods of crisis.”

Their descriptions give a picture of capital as a conscious body of people plotting oppression. I think this is true to an extent, but distorting. I’d say that capital is largely an emergent product of decision makers and property owners. At the level of a class they act united, coopt, etc. But if you look at it on the ground you’d see diversity. They make a gesture towards this, but their focus remains on having unitary ideas and actions.

I also think that cooptation can autonomously from any overt efforts of the ruling class. The unions, racist movements, patriarchal movements, etc., arise from working class struggles. Hence the need to appeal to “false consciousness”. It makes more sense to just talk about how people can reproduce ideas and ways of behaving (which can come from any class), and that there are emergent forces that come out of the interactions of groups.

The necessity of organization

However, one conclusion is possible. Whatever the improvements in the prospects for a revolution due to the development of a capitalist crisis, these will not be sufficient to insure the victory of the working class without definite organizational and ideological conditions that have been laid prior to its onset. A revolutionary opposition with the ability and the will to fight for power will not develop by itself during a crisis, nor can it built from scratch during such a period. ”

I’m split on this. If true we have troubles. If it’s necessary to build prefigurative experiences on a mass scale, then we have to have the resources and space to lay that foundation that can give revolutionary education to people. Yet, if we’re living under capitalism, any foundation big enough to have such an effect would be such a great threat, it would take a revolution to maintain it.

Let’s say its smaller then. What ensures that the people who are or aren’t experiencing it with act in the interest of society as a whole? This isn’t a problem for leninists since they have faith that communist-lead masses will lead to a ruling class for the workers (they don’t distinguish between of- and for-). But as anarchists, who see the potential of a new oppressive power arising, we have a problem. No minority can drag a majority to power. So either:

  1. we can sew a base large enough to prefigure anarchist society (which would probably be crushed)

  2. we gain space for ourselves through neutralizing our oppressors, then we can build it (i.e. The transition period, Malatesta/FdCA… which has the problem of how to transition out and how to retain our freedom and movement with the emergence of a non-capitalist state, and if that’s even possible)

  3. The conditions that would repress our movement are removed objectively (determinism, aka faith)

  4. Spontaneously consciousness will be developed in a grand rupture (faith?)

So we’re stuck between spontaneity, determinism, the reemergence of the state, or impending destruction?

Status Quo:

It seems that the main determinant of the political stance of Marxist groups is their size and influence – or lack of same – rather than matters of political position, it is tempting to credit this to opportunism, but, without denying the reality of opportunism, this process is so general that opportunism of a deliberate and conscious variety can only be a part of the explanation. The basic cause is to be found in common notions of the strategic functions of the party that are accepted by a great variety of different, even hostile, groups.”

Yup. This is true of anarchists too. Whether through attaining leadership positions in the unions, or seperating themselves from the class via joining the union and NGO bureaucracies, the basic revolutionary work becomes distorted by the organizations they become integrated with. The cause though i don’t think is the political orientations of radicals (STO’s thesis) but rather the power dynamics of institutions of power themselves. Cooptation is emergent from the hierarchies and structures in these bodies (chomsky shows this well in manufacturing dissent about journalists). Our position should be to avoid positions of leadership in hierarchical organizations and to avoid working in these service organizations of the class that coopt authonomous movements.


I read this as an indictment of the strategy of anarchists to radicalize the business unions in the US too.

The CP strategy is:

-the party intervenes in the mass struggle in order to link the classes and strata that are objectively oppressed by monopoly capital into an anti-monopoly coalition. [could read it as unite the class into broadest possible organs of struggle, i.e. unions]

-At first, this coalition would be organized around a basic reform program to ‘curb’ monopoly power, but in the course of the struggle more and more of the participants in the coalition will begin to see the necessity of a struggle for working class power. [at first the struggles are on bread and butter issues but direct action and democracy in the unions bring more and more people to libertarian consciousness]

-The C.P. perspective is divided into two distinct parts. First, a broad coalition is organized. This coalition seeks ‘to curb monopoly’ It is not socialist or even implicitly anti-capitalist. Second, the development of this coalition makes it possible for the party to successfully raise the issue of the necessity and possibility of a socialist revolution.”

STO’s Critique

-Since the formation of the coalition is so vital, the question of how (and whether) it may be formed becomes an urgent one.

-Unifying these disparate elements with such major internal contradictions will depend heavily on the ability of the party to pull the major components of the coalition together. [History does not favor this task. Unions as they develop politics crush opposition, and are prone to destructive splits]

-In other words, the only plausible road to the antimonopoly coalition depends on the C.P.’s winning stable organizational control over the most important elements of the desired coalition, and, in particular, over the trade unions. [hence the movement of some anarchists to attempt to run slates and win leadership in union locals]

-A number of problems are presented by this reliance on organizational control. It provides a strong pressure towards maneuvering and manipulating, towards unprincipled and, in our view, ultimately self-defeating alliances and arrangements. The whole period of uneasy alliance between the C.P. leadership and the CIO ‘center’ during the late thirties and early forties provides many examples of this. [it’s hard to see how an anarchist movement within the unions would end differently]

-The problem for the C.P. is that it must compete for mass leadership on essentially reformist grounds – who can ‘win’ the most – in order to make the first steps toward implementing its perspective. This entails a general exaggeration of the importance of reform victories and thus attempts to steer struggles into areas were the victories come easier because the power of capital is less endangered. It leads to the path of least resistance, lowest common denominator mode of organizing; to caution and conservatism; to a glorification of the routine conflict between labor and capital; to a picture of the struggle progressing inexorably ‘step by step’ – just as rapidly as is ‘realistic.’ [oh snap!]

-In practice the role of the C.P. is to move all struggles to the right by pushing common denominator tactics and demands; that is, tactics that are more ‘legitimate’, and demands which are more ‘realistic.’

-However, if the goal of a socialist revolution is not projected within the struggle for immediate demands, how will its possibility and necessity ever be understood? And who will project such a goal, if not the revolutionaries?

The role of the party

In our view, the primary role of the party in the mass movement is to discover and articulate the patterns of thought, action, and organization which embody the potential of workers to make a revolution. These patterns are manifested, embryonically, in the course of every genuine struggle. This characteristic content of mass struggle provides the only possible social basis for integrating the experiences of masses of workers into a coherent revolutionary ideology and culture. ”

I agree with this with the qualifier that the political organization is subservient to the mass organization (Within limits) and that the party is merely one element of many within the class arguing for and demonstrating the revolutionary practice, and not seeking to take leadership over the movement.

The real work of the party involves linking these fragmentary autonomous elements and socializing them into a new culture of struggle. ”

via the mass organization.

The strike

STO pick out two features {demands and tactics}, they say that “once the ritual posturing of the union leadership is ended by the beginning of the strike, the demands generally turn out to be far less than what the workers need to make any real change in their situations.”, and that “…the main feature of the strike tactics of the union leadership are reliance on cooperation with management and the state to discourage or control mass participation and any attempts to generalize the struggle beyond the specific plant or industry. ” This is uncontroversial, it is just what happens. Whether we can change it is where anarchists disagree.

STO points to the internal organization of unions as a locus of cooptation. “Real struggle over demands and tactics are kept inside the inner-leadership caucuses in the union, and confrontation with management is limited to the top union-management bargaining meetings. The mass of the workers have no way to participate in or even to directly influence, these aspects of the strike. For them the entire process grows more institutionalized and alienated, more a matter of formal than substantive struggle. ”

Prefigurative struggle and consciousness are suppressed since “the present union leadership would combine with management to actively oppose it. But the more important obstacle is the entire institution of collective bargaining of which the normal strike is just a part. Collective bargaining is an inherently hostile terrain for the development of autonomous working class consciousness and organization, since its essence is the legal acceptance by the workers of the sanctity of the capitalist’s ownership of his capital. By tying themselves to a ‘better contract’ as the goal of the struggle, the workers bind themselves to capitalism”.

Upping the Ante

I like this section since it shows the problematic element of “militancy” without corresponding radicalization of the class. Militancy without popular support is merely blanquism.


""…does it not often happen that there is a contradiction between the intellectual fact and the norm of conduct? What then will the real conception of the world be: the one which is logically affirmed as an intellectual fact, or the one which is implicit in his actions? And since actions are always political actions, can we not say that the real philosophy of anyone is contained in his politics? This conflict between thought and action, that is, the coexistence of two conceptions of the world, one affirmed in words and the other explaining itself in effective actions, is not always due to bad faith. Bad faith can be a satisfactory explanation for some individuals taken singly, or even for more or less numerous groups, _ but it is not satisfactory when the contrast shows itself in the life of large masses; then it cannot be other than the expression of more profound contradictions of an historical and social order. It means that a social group, which has its own conception of the world, even though embryonic (which shows itself in actions, and so only spasmodically, occasionally, that is, when such a group moves as an organic unity) has, as a result of intellectual subordination and submission, borrowed a conception it also believes it is following, because it does follow it in ‘normal’ times, when its conduct is not independent and autonomous, but precisely subordinate and submissive." (Gramsci, THE MODERN PRINCE, page 61.)"

Couple things. I don’t dig Gramsci in part because of his leninist approach to consciousness. Here you can see that with the embryonic bit, except that I read that as tokenism? Is that merely tossing a bone to lenin? Like, really workers have revolutionary consciousness but i’ll call it embryonic to avoid being purged?

Also is he saying that workers follow ruling class ideas (which are alien to the class) during normal times because we are subjugated? Then in times of struggle when there’s more autonomy we can think our ideas?

What kind of freedom is it that frees up our ideas? What element of subjugation represses these ideas? Isn’t it more that these ideas are always there, but they become more prevalent during struggle? If that’s the case maybe they aren’t prevalent not because of repression, but because of lack of struggle which demonstrates them or makes them compelling. But then ideas aren’t about hegemony, but rather about modes of behaving.

Also what makes ideas inherently ours or not ours? Likewise can our ideas really be classified into a binary like that? I’d go out on a limb and say that even ruling class ideas are heterogeneous and contradictory. It seems like we don’t have object sets of ideas, but instead diverse ideas that arise out of social organization and experience, and that ebb and flow with our activities (and struggle).

Otherwise you won’t be able to explain things like fascism, white supremacy, multicultural bourgeoisie, etc


Their analysis of the degeneration of communist parties is simplistic and crude. Rather than recognizing the role of power relations (or the possibility of a 3rd alternative between loose federation of individuals and centralized party), they believe it is not prioritized and that if we adopt it as our ideas it would be better (which contrasts with their assessment of unions).

Why is it then that most Leninist party organizations, and particularly those communist parties which model themselves after the CPSU, are rightly notorious both for their bureaucratic leadership and their a-critical membership?

There is really no mystery. While it is generally agreed that a critical membership and a genuinely collective organization are desirable goals, they are not seen as absolute necessities. ”

They persist in seeing these as issues of conception rather than form and merely assert the contradiction between an active engage group and centralized decision making power/discipline. Decisions must be carried out with "iron discipline", but at the same time, every aspect of the work of the party must be under constant criticism. ”



2 thoughts on “Mass organization and political organization

  1. Hey there,

    Someone sent me the link to this, and I wanted to give you some feedback. In case you didn’t know, I’m a revolutionary anarchist researching the history of STO. (I’m also a friend of Nate’s, and an occasional poster on ABC.)

    To be honest, I think a lot of it is muddled, but I guess that’s just the nature of note-taking. Still, I think you need to be more clear about some things, and in other areas I think you misunderstand where STO was headed.

    First, this piece was originally written in 1971, at the beginning of the group’s existence. You make a comment that you believe STO changed its views in the 80’s “under the influence of autonomia.” Assuming you mean the Italian autonomist Marxist tradition, you are correct to some extent, although the influence of this tradition was already felt within STO at the time TARP was written, not long after the Hot Autumn of 1969. That was one of the major reasons why STO’s analysis of what the “party” should look like was fundamentally different from the vision of almost every other Leninist organization that existed in the US at the time. That they clung to the language of “party” at all was more about their origins in the demise of the new left than it was an indicator of where they were headed politically. When I read this document, I generally tend to substitute the term “revolutionary organization” for “party,” and it has no real effect on the argument.

    I think your assessment of the potential for spontaneous revolt is simply wrong. I don’t believe in the Leninist conception of “trade union consciousness,” but the examples you offer (Hungary and France) both erupted in part because of the well-documented participation of conscious revolutionaries. “Spontaneous” events only appear as such from a certain distance; up close, it is always clear that some groups and/or individuals pushed situations of generalized discontent in a particular direction. This is a very different argument from the traditional What-Is-To-Be-Done Leninist argument that the party is the exclusive source of all revolutions. In the end, STO’s position is really not far removed from the especifista view of social insertion, or from the FdCA’s idea of organizational dualism. To the extent that any anarchist revolutionary argues for maintaining specifically anarchist organizations and then engaging directly with social movements, they are replicating most of the organizational approach STO advocated in TARP. (The political content of that engagement is a different question, of course.)

    You are correct that there is a contradiction in TARP between the WITBD approach and the dual consciousness analysis. This was reflective of a tension inside STO that led to the group’s first major split, when the traditionalist defenders of WITBD left en masse in 1973. But this contradiction is to a large extent one-sided: the positive references to WITBD come off almost as obligatory, while the analysis of dual consciousness and the “potential of the class to become a ruling class” is detailed and impassioned.

    You quote the part about the “basic strategic function of the party,” and suggest this places them in line with the IWW in terms of developing a mass organization. The early years of the IWW were very influential on STO’s thinking, but it’s clear in TARP that the group did not foresee itself developing into a mass organization. They did, however, spend a lot of effort attempting to create what they called mass independent workplace organizations that looked an awful lot like worker’s councils. Founding member Don Hamerquist assess those efforts in the long paper “Trade Unions/Independent Organizations,” which can be read here:

    STO saw its own role as one of clarification, analysis, and strategic intervention. Again, not too different from the FAU or the FdCA, as far as I can tell. And not particularly Leninist, at least not in the WITBD sense. (I normally describe STO as having been “unorthodox Leninists.”)

    You stretch things when you connect STO’s critique of other Marxist groups based on their size to apply to anarchist groups. Few anarchist groups accept the “common notions of the strategic functions of the party” that STO identified as the source of the problem. I also think you are wrong to say that the issue is the nature of the “institutions of power,” because this begs the question: Larger Marxist organizations become institutions of power because of the combination of size and their self-understanding. Anarchist groups, even larger ones, have a different self-understanding, and do not normally succumb to the same sort of opportunism. Perhaps as a result, your final sentence here about avoiding particular forms of engagement with mass organizations strikes me as a non-sequiter. (It also strikes me as profoundly wrong-headed: if we “avoid working in” “service organizations of the class that coopt autonomous movements” then we guarantee both our own isolation and very cooptation we are opposed to. I’m not a huge fan of radicals liquidating themselves into mainstream labor unions, but on the level of community organizations I think the equation is often very very different.)

    I’m not getting your closing comments on centralization. What is wrong with their assertion that most Leninist party organizations have rejected “critical membership and a genuinely collective organization?” I don’t understand your distinction between issues of conception and those of form. Isn’t the difference between especifista organizations (for example) and Leninist parties one of conception?

    Finally, I think you muddle the question of consciousness, which I have long taken to be the central insight of the TARP. Hegemony is to my mind an immensely powerful tool for understanding the disconnect between our desires and the reality of a capitalist world. (You also referenced Chomsky favorably earlier, and his analysis of manufactured consent is strongly reminiscent of Gramscian hegemony theory.) You ask “is he saying that workers follow ruling class ideas during normal times because we are subjugated?” But this is exactly backwards: according to Gramsci, and STO (and me!), workers are subjugated because we follow ruling class ideas. This is why militant struggles, which tend to bring revolutionary ideas to the fore, hold the potential for challenging our subjugation.

    Also, you mischaracterize STO’s understanding of consciousness earlier on when you describe it as “false consciousness.” TARP deliberately avoided this formulation, and offered dual consciousness instead as a way of articulating the conflict internal to the self-understanding of the class. Of course ruling class ideas are also heterogeneous and contradictory, but you might replace “revolutionary consciousness” and “bourgeois consciousness” here with “correct ideas” and “incorrect ideas.” Yes it’s a standard imposed from outside, but all revolutionaries partake in that kind of assessment.

    I don’t think there’s any difficulty in explaining fascism (a particularly awful sort of anti-bourgeois revolutionary consciousness), white supremacy (old-school bourgeois consciousness), or a multicultural bourgeoisie (new-era bourgeois consciousness) using this rough schematic. Of course it’s a bit wooden, but it’s far superior to the primary alternatives peddled by revolutionaries, including lots of anarchists. Of these, the two most common are, 1) the false consciousness analysis that argues workers have effectively been brainwashed by capitalism/religion/racism/the state, and 2) the idea that everyone already agrees on the broad desirability of freedom and liberation, but thinks of it as merely impractical or unworkable. Compared to this one-dimensional approaches to “why hasn’t the revolution happened yet?” sorts of questions, the dual consciousness idea is really quite sophisticated.

    Okay, that’s enough for now. I’d be happy to hear what you think about my response, although I’m very busy with work and family and research and organizing, and I can’t guarantee that I’ll continue the conversation. Thanks for taking a serious look at an under-appreciated document.


  2. hey mike, thanks for the reply. i think it helps me clarify the STO position a bit. I was trying to take TRP as an isolated document for a reading group (i have read the later stuff which i like better). I will write a thorough reply soon.


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