Real organization cannot be built on a foundation of sand
If we can create a mass anti-imperialist organization where decisions and struggle are based on mass democracy -- then we will capture the imagination of serious activists everywhere -- and be in a position to change the dynamics of the entire antiwar movement. • Ben Seattle
his attempt to ban Ben
On Monthly Forum #50 • November 13
Frank replies to Ben's public criticism
Frank also explains why he proposed banning Ben
And Frank explains why he retreated from his proposal:
Frank also explains why he proposed banning Ben
And Frank explains why he retreated from his proposal:
Posted by Frank • November 13, 2005
(Ben has sent this article to some activists, like me, who are not registered for his lists. Since it mystifies numerous issues, incites opinion, and provides some rare jewels that I must thank Ben for, I thought it useful to respond.--Fk.)
On Indymedia, and via other Internet channels, Ben has been saying that I wanted to “ban” him from SAIC meetings, or that I didn’t want to work with him, etc., with no explanation of what this was about. Well, now in MF # 50 we finally see that this wasn’t because I was being some kind of dictator out to ban the good and put-upon democrat, Ben. No, Ben had placed himself above everyone else in the committee. He would be in his words an “informal” member and “advisor” … but would not dirty his hands passing out committee leaflets or putting up its posters (no matter how good their political content) if they did not have the address of an interactive website on them. That we were being interactive with people on the streets, or in correspondence, or on Seattle Indymedia were irrelevant when measured beside this high principle. And, please note, Ben was raising this demand right from the first meeting. We had to set up this website NOW…or else!
So we see that Ben had already “informally” banned himself from both committee membership and committee work even though he fully participated in all committee meetings. When I became aware that this situation was continuing (after being absent from several of the meetings following the initial one), I wrote an October 13 letter to SAIC comrades suggesting that he be excluded from meetings. In it I said that “This may seem harsh, but I think maintaining some sort of organizational integrity outweighs any loss suffered by Ben not being in attendance. Besides, if he's really concerned with our work, he'll continue to make comments on it---public, or other.”
Given the circumstance, I don’t think this was an unreasonable stand to take.
But I also wanted everyone to have time to carefully think over the matter. Thus the letter ended “I don't think this question should be settled arbitrarily, or settled before Nov. 2. In other words, I don't think we should try to come to a conclusion on it (or other matters related to membership) at our next meeting because of the things we have to accomplish before the 2nd. But I'm sending this out now because the issue has been raised and I would like everyone (including Ben) to consider my and other comments on the subject in advance.” Well, these words weren’t meant merely for others. I too further thought about the issues involved, and concluded that it would be wrong to exclude Ben from publicly-advertised meetings of the group. Why I changed my mind is something I would like to further explain.
I think we want people militating around the SAIC who believe in its anti-imperialist work and ideas, and want to advance them. And this can be done in various ways: leafleting, putting up posters, discussions with fellow workers or students, posting things on the Internet or participating in forums there, street theatre, etc. But Ben counter-poses one form of written agitation to another, and in such a way as to totally negate the value of the form that 99.9% of activists all over this country and world use. Thus he writes that “I am a slave to principles. My principles require that I not endorse anything which is useless or corrupt. There is too much real work to be done for me to get involved in handing out literature that does not give readers an opportunity to post their public response. There is no excuse for this”.
So no matter how valuable of role a leaflet might play in advancing a struggle of the oppressed, or no matter how many people were inspired to begin studying revolutionary theory by it, etc., this doesn’t represent “real” work. In fact, according to Ben, it represents useless or even corrupt work.
Dear reader, does not this appear to be a brazenly elitist and sectarian standpoint? But perhaps we shouldn’t rush to hasty judgments. Ben has more to say…
“SAIC has no commitment to a long-term program of work to capture the attention and imagination of serious activists on a national scale”. More, it’s a hasty attempt to put together a dysfunctional organization, whereas Ben wants “to help put together a REAL organization -- an organization with the ability to capture the attention and imagination of activists everywhere…. an organization which can help set the hearts of antiwar activists on fire.” Of course, Ben has all the keys that we can use to unlock the doors to this wondrous world, but before looking at them, an aside:
Here we are, in the muck and mire, struggling to unite Seattle anti-imperialists into an organizational form through which they can more effectively build and influence the anti-war movement than they can as scattered individuals or groups; and, here we are, struggling to crystallize our ideas into slogans and leaflets, struggling to outline a program of work for just a couple of months in advance, etc., but horrors, we don’t have a long-term program of work! And we’ve forgotten about the national movement! How could we have been so hasty?
Yet the SAIC is united around the idea of building the movement against imperialism---in our time, conditions, and place---and we realize that this necessitates taking up a multiplicity of tasks. In other words we are committed to a long-term program of work. And whether this work inspires activists elsewhere fundamentally depends on how successful we are in the struggles taking place in Seattle’s “muck and mire”. Moreover, there are also a couple of vexing questions: (1) Ben has plenty to say on how anti-imperialist organization should be built and has been arguing his ideas on the Internet for years, but why has he yet to unite with others to build the kind of organization that meets his standards? (2) Why wasn’t it Ben who put out the call for militant street demonstrations after U.S. imperialism launched war on Afghanistan, or Ben who united with Edward and/or others to put out the call to build an anti-imperialist contingent for the September 24 demonstration? (Seattle CVO members would certainly have helped build the such an effort initiated by others had it occurred.)
“Be patient” is Ben’s obvious answer to the first question. And, although less obvious, it’s also the answer to the second. When Ben writes that “creating organization must be at the center of all of our activity” he means this, and it is the center of all his activity. Thus he busies himself arguing for various organizational principles and rules all over the Internet. Once he has gotten enough agreement from others to concretely build the kind of organization he pictures in his mind, then he’ll be able to focus on solving the concrete needs of the movement as it exists. Until then he writes off our efforts as amateurish, useless, dysfunctional, hasty, etc.…Just be patient!
The practical line being followed is not to build organization in the movement as it exists, but to try to build it on the side via the Internet. When the latter fails, and others are striving to build organization in the movement, Ben can only “not endorse” their efforts. Is not this sectarian?
So let’s now look at Ben’s organizational ideas a little more closely.
(1) His first principle is mass democracy. Yet to have this an organization must lead in upholding democratic principles, including in debate. But Ben doesn’t do this. Rather than thoughtful and scientific methods of debate, he sets up straw bogeymen and then flails away at them. Thus, in a letter to people around the SAIC he charged that CVO members are only “paying lip service to the goal of building an anti-imperialist pole of attraction and that their actual agenda is (a) to use SAIC to recruit into their group and consolidate those activists who are new on the scene and looking for some trend to hook up with and (b) to then liquidate SAIC once it has served this purpose. This is what happened with SAIC's predecessor, SAIA (Seattle Anti-Imperialist Alliance). And this is the real reason, in my view, that Frank is advocating that I be excluded from the activity of SAIC." (I’ll come back to this a little later.) Or in M.F. #50 he literally screams against the CVO’s (allegedly) mechanical formulae regarding democracy: “winner take all”, “bloc voting and no accountability to activists in the movement”, “love it or leave it”, etc. So let’s examine how much of a straw man this is.
The facts are as follow: (1) From the beginning, the CVO members and all other members of the SAIC have striven to reach consensus on the issues we’ve addressed (and there have so far been no votes taken). (2) The CVO members have put up or passed out hundreds of the SAIC poster and leaflet, plus hundreds of their own leaflet calling for activists to “join or otherwise find ways to work with” the SAIC, plus being active on the Internet calling for the same thing. In other words, work that, if successful, can only ensure that we’re a small minority in the SAIC. (3) The two CVO members of the late Seattle Anti-Imperialist Alliance (SAIA) also acted democratically.
Ben hotly contests the latter. He can’t say that we didn’t thoroughly discuss the issue of dissolving the group, and then voted---which was democratic, and was what we did. So he raises the issue that we went back on our commitment to make “serious criticisms of us public". But we didn’t think Ben’s criticism was serious. He denounced the dissolution of the alliance as “liquidation”, but the stated aim of the dissolution statement was to continue anti-imperialist work using a different organizational form, and history has proven that these were not empty words on our part. More importantly, he provided no arguments as to why we should work to continue the particular organizational form of SAIA in the particular situation in the movement then (and with the particular situation of its internal dynamics).
After the dissolution Ben published his “SAIA Recoils--then Liquidates itself”. But this dealt with building an organization with a different program than SAIA’s was, i.e., one with “clear focus” on “what is our alternative to imperialist war?", or it dealt with Ben’s ideas about a "revolutionary communications channel". However, we didn’t consider the latter idea serious, not because we might not ourselves at some point take up building such a channel (or at least think that others doing so would be a service to the movement), but because we didn’t think it was a factor in whether we should or shouldn’t continue trying to build SAIA. For example, Ben had already been propagating his “revolutionary communications channel” ideas to the movement for a long time, and it seemed that the people were already deciding: no takers. So how could SAIA + this channel solve the problem of building the alliance? It would be easy for Ben to prove that we were wrong, i.e., that his criticism was serious, if after 3 1/2 more years of his arguing that this channel should be set up he could now point to it, and point to its accomplishments.
But there’s more to Ben’s “seriousness” than this. In his 2002 letter to the movement he said that all but him “recently decided to dissolve SAIA and continue their work in the movement under the direction of the organization they support: the Communist Voice Organization…”. He couldn’t have written that two more SAIA members had joined the SCSG, which was founded by the two local CVO members who struggled to lead the study group. No, he had to conjure up images of the CVO “directing” these comrades. In 2002 he also said that “it was not unexpected that the other comrades in SAIA would see little value in working with me--since they disagree with me that these two tasks are decisive or even important”. But, as we’ve seen, one of these tasks was focusing on the alternative to imperialist war, i.e., socialist theory regarding what capitalist society must be replaced with, and further development of this theory. And one of the tasks of the SCSG has focused on is precisely this, as has the CVO from its inception. In fact the emphasis of the CVO group is on theory, and what we’ve so far accomplished on the question of the transition from capitalist to communist society, and on what communist society is, can be seen on our website. Lastly, Ben seriously mystifies why the majority voted to dissolve SAIA even today.
Above I quoted Ben charging that the “real reason” I wanted to exclude him from SAIC meetings: the CVO only pays "lip service" to building an anti-imperialist pole of attraction in the anti-war movement in order to "recruit into their group", and "then to liquidate SAIC once it has served this purpose". The "proof" he offered of this was mythology about why SAIA was dissolved. In a reply to people who had attended SAIC meetings I characterized these charges as slander (something that wrongly casts suspicion on members of a group or movement, and thereby undermines or divides it), and as part of showing how this was so I discussed some of the history of SAIA. Excerpts from this letter follow:
“I think the disbanding statement at
‘We're not attracting new members, which would be O.K. given the overall state of the movement, but because of the political inclinations of our membership we think we can say and do all we've been saying and doing through other organizational forms, and also be more direct about it. For example, because of the limited capabilities of all of us we've found it difficult to develop both the SAIA agitation and organizational work, plus the direct work for communism which we also think is needed. Therefore five of the six of us have decided to work through the Seattle Communist Study Group to accomplish this.’
“Perhaps this is not the clearest of statements, so I'll provide some history and further explanation.
“After a couple larger initial meetings, SAIA became a grouping of 7 people: 2 CVO, 1 Redcritique (Trotskyist), Ben, 1 person who had just joined the CVO-led study group but who could in no way be considered a CVO member, 2 people who were as close to Ben as they were to the CVO. Thus ‘alliance’ accurately described what it was. After a fairly short time the Redcritique person became completely passive and left. And after several months of long struggles in which Ben had several ideas rejected (including rejection of an interactive website that we initially said go ahead and construct) he was becoming passive too, particularly on the question of distributing literature. (Unlike now, he didn't flat-out refuse to do the latter unless he got a website of his liking. Nor did he say the SAIA work was ‘useless or corrupt’ if it didn't have this.) Meanwhile, the other people were becoming more interested in CVO politics and wanted to work more closely with us. Finally, there is the issue of that the CVO comrades just didn't have the strength to help develop SAIA leaflet drafts (which I did most of) and to develop our own leaflets (which could develop issues that an anti-imperialist group wasn't united around) too. We had to retreat.
“So we could have kept SAIA, with a leaflet coming out once in a blue moon. But this would have been pretty fraudulent: (1) it would no longer have been the kind of fighting organization we had initially called for (and which it actually was), (2) with Ben's growing passivity and the political motion of the 3 other people toward the CVO people the very concept of it being an "alliance" was breaking down. Thus we opted to continue the anti-imperialist work through another form of organization. Wanting to get rid of Ben had nothing to do with this. (In fact, during SAIA's existence I had several times argued against comrades who felt dealing with his proposals was so disruptive, and his agenda so sectarian, that we should expel him.)
“Ben writes that the CVO only pays ‘lip service to the goal of building an anti-imperialist pole of attraction....etc.’ Yet the CV Journal and the scores of thousands of leaflets we've distributed in the past few years have consistently done ideological work that tries to lead readers to the conclusion that this is necessary, they've done explanatory work for it, and sometimes directly advocated it (with ideas on how to do it). And we know that people read our leaflets and CV, and that ideas consistent with class interests have power. So this is real political work to build the movement. Ben thinks he can just dismiss it: you see, we're all about recruitment. But by negating the positive influences our work actually has in building the movement he exposes an elitist and sectarian standpoint.
“All political trends, groups and parties recruit; it goes with politics. But if the CVO recruits someone Ben casts this in the sectarian light that we allegedly take people out of the progressive movements, and destroy organizations that we've worked so hard to build to serve these movements once our evil ends are achieved. Reality doesn't phase him. If the SAIA comrades who joined our group now distribute thousands of leaflets that, among other things, are part of work to build an anti-imperialist backbone in the anti-war movement, he ignores it. If they write such leaflets (and they have written SCSG leaflets), it's ignored. If they work to build the SAIC, put up posters, etc., he ignores the political content of the posters and slurs it as "useless or corrupt" activity if the group doesn't have a website to his liking, and on his schedule…”.
Note that in this letter I said that “wanting to get rid of Ben had nothing to do with” our decision to disband SAIA”, and I pointed out that I had argued against comrades who felt dealing with his proposals was so disruptive, and his agenda so sectarian, that we should expel him. (These comrades were not members of the CVO.) The latter is entirely accurate, but the former is not. Wanting to get rid of Ben was not my motivation for voting as I did, and I argued with others that their views on his participation were really not the issue in whether SAIA should be dissolved or not. But a (now) CVO member who is also active in the SAIC says that the reasons he voted as he did indeed had to do with not wanting to work with Ben. In a letter to SAIC circles (written after mine) he writes as follows:
“Ben is good at slinging mud and insinuation. He has an interpretation of what happened with SAIA which is conveniently self-serving (and wrong), and he has made it into a rule for all of the behavior of CVO. Before the question of dissolving SAIA was ever raised, Ben demanded and we all agreed to read two works Ben suggested (‘Left-wing neo-conservatives’ and ‘Anti-Joseph‘, a debate between Joseph of the CVO and Ben respectively, both articles available on the web). Ben put them forward to further his desire for a showdown with the CVO, and I agreed because I was inclined to Ben's side of the debate at the time, but (or because) I had never delved into it. By the time everyone had read the two pieces, we were all so disgusted with the vacuousness and self-promotion in Ben's writing (a 100 page article he himself suggested as the very best presentation of his arguments) that there no longer seemed any value to discussing the articles, so the ‘showdown’ never happened. We (new and unaffiliated members of SAIA, as well as affiliated ones) disbanded SAIA, with Ben's vote the single dissenting one, at the point when everyone else in the organization concluded that Ben's agenda (to hash and rehash his opposition to the CVO from his pretty-bourgeois anarcho-communist perspective) differed from everyone else's agenda (to see what constructive proletarian work we could do after the movement went into an extended lull following the Afghan war). Notice, however, an important distinction which Ben tries to obscure: At the time we voted to disband SAIA (after discussion and debate, no secret backroom maneuvers), the movement had gone into a lull, and the spur for it to pick back up again was absent (the Afghan war was over, the Iraq war was not starting yet), we were left with a choice: be held hostage by Ben's agenda, or to stop working with him, which we chose to do by disbanding SAIA.”
So this comrade---who was originally inclined toward Ben, and who couldn’t have been motivated by a desire to recruit to the CVO and then liquidate the alliance because he himself only joined the CVO much later---says that we had a choice: “be held hostage by Ben's agenda, or to stop working with him, which we chose to do by disbanding SAIA.” But this comrade could also have chosen to move to simply expel Ben and continue the SAIA (which would have still formally been an alliance because even then the majority of the actual membership were not CVO members)---something I would have voted against. Still, he thought there were other issues involved too, and he points to one of them: the lull that occurred in the movement when the Afghan war was winding down, and seeing “what constructive proletarian work we could do” in this context. This likely explains why he didn’t press for expulsion rather dissolution.
I too was concerned about the temporary decline in the movement, but being a CVO member, I was also was acutely aware of its over-extension---something this comrade wasn’t as aware of, and hadn’t been struggling to resolve. Moreover, I didn’t view Ben’s continued participation as disruptive, or worry that he would hold us hostage to his agenda. As a matter of fact, he was becoming less active in alliance work, and, I believe, gave us an explanation as to why this was. Therefore my vote, and perhaps the other CVO member’s vote, was not motivated by a desire to no longer work with Ben. It was motivated by the ideas expressed in the dissolution statement quoted above.
By the way, this brief statement ended as follows:
“Therefore five of the six of us have decided to work through the Seattle Communist Study Group to accomplish this. (The SCSG is organized by the Communist Voice Organization---see communistvoice.org . It was a member of the latter who put out the call which resulted in the original formation of SAIA.) The other member is going to continue his ‘Internet-based work’ described at http://struggle.net/ben.
“Building the anti-imperialist movement remains on our agenda.
“Adopted by a vote of 5 to 1, July 2002”
Thus we see that the statement (which was sent to the mailing list) has a link to Ben on it. Anyone curious about the dissenting member’s plans or views could go to it.
I would address one last issue that Ben raises regarding SAIA. He says that we made “one decision that was completely screwball (i.e.: to eliminate the web pages which contained copies of all the SAIA leaflets) and for which, to this day, they have never given me any explanation of why this screwball decision was made (other than that they were the majority and could do whatever they damn well wanted)”.
Well, no one ever told him that “we were the majority and could do whatever we damn well wanted”. That’s just Ben inciting opinion.. And, if he remembers it, I did later tell him that we had put the website back up because we thought it might be valuable to have there after all. Further, whether one calls it a screwball mistake, or just a mistake, it was a mistake. Why was it made? For my part the answer is pretty simple: At the time I was fairly unfamiliar with web pages in general. For example, I had only started looking at Indymedia and others 6-7 months before this. And I didn’t really understand the value that an archive of a no longer existing organization might have. I simply viewed the SAIA page as another organizing tool, and since the organization no longer existed there was no longer a reason to have it up. But the brief comments of Ben and a CVO comrade in the East convinced me that this was probably wrong, and my own subsequent experience has convinced me that it certainly was wrong---screwball, if you will. (I, myself have found the archive very useful when I wanted to see what we said in various of our leaflets. Others apparently have too. For example, although it’s also archived on another site---Communist Voice---I recently received a request from a woman in Thailand for information about who wrote the article on the Philippines because she wanted to cite it in something she was writing.)
Returning to Ben’s organizational ideas, none of them are going to guarantee that the SAIC is democratic, and some may act as handicaps to democracy really flourishing.
For example, while Ben insists on the value of an interactive website in ensuring democracy, I think that he would want to banish more comments as “spam” than I would. This is because in a discussion outside a SAIC meeting he argued that one of the values of having our own website was that we could delete comments like several of those that appeared under the SAIC article that was featured on Seattle Indymedia. I, on the other hand, thought it was valuable to see all the comments, and would have opposed deleting anything from the thread. Moreover, according to his proposal, we would have to delete posts that contained personal insults or were “obviously insincere”. Yet do we really mind personal insults if a post also addresses pertinent issues concerning the movement, or our activity in it? And who is to judge what is “obviously insincere”? In fact, getting bogged down in making decisions over what was “spam” would detract from working out and implementing our anti-imperialist ideas in our main arena of activity, it would detract from our actually implementing democracy in what we‘re united around.
(2) Another example is Ben’s proposed rules for how the SAIC or other groups should operate.
One of these is that “No vote will be valid except when the voter explains, using at least 25 words on the "vote issue" page, the reasons for his or her vote. Members who vote will not be required to post their reasons using their normal pseudonyms. They can use "X1247" or anything else they want. However, we will encourage them to use their normal pseudonyms…”
Christ! Why not 19 words or 30, Ben? Does he even realize how much the bureaucrat he sounds? Yes, we obviously want to unite people with deep convictions into the SAIC, people who fearlessly defend their ideas, etc. But we’re not a representative institution with representatives reporting back to their constituencies, nor competing politicians trying to impress our “voters”. And, if we want to spend the time “using at least 25 words” explaining something, let it be explaining among the masses the content of some decision we’ve taken.
There are some other sides of the question too---probably obvious to all but Ben. (1) If one really wants to know what people think about something you don’t demand that they explain themselves…in 5 words or a 100! That’s why secret ballots are even a better way of determining this. (2) Even though we want militant people, such a rule would likely act against many people voting at all. Where would our democracy then be? (3) The rule would also probably act against people joining the committee. I, for one, would be chary of a group with principles like this! (4) Some of the votes taken may be on matters that an individual didn’t think that important, or that they thought pretty straight-forward. And I can even imagine myself rebelling against the idea of writing 25 words on such an important matter as a leaflet. (5) Ben parades as a defender of minority rights, yet this rule infringes on the democratic right of an individual to not explain why s/he voted yea or nay on anything!
Thus, it seems that this rule doesn’t reflect a desire to defend democratic principles, but a desire to impose bureaucracy.
(3) Another Ben rule is that “to discourage the common practice of bloc voting…a vote will not become valid unless supported by two-thirds of the membership.” On the face of it, this is nonsense: i.e., the rule would mean that a bloc of just one third of the membership could control the activity of the entire organization simply by voting no. Is this what Ben wants?
Well, no. Not now, at least. The “bloc” that concerns him are the CVO members of the SAIC who presently are near being a majority….why, they can “control every word…”! I have to smile and surround “bloc” with quotation marks because the CVO members have never gotten together before a SAIC meeting to decide what we should struggle for there or the like, nor did we discuss whether I should meet with Edward and work out the call for the S-24 Contingent with him, etc. Further, Ben knows from his own experience in SAIC discussions that the CVO members, like everyone else, have freely participated in the give and take, put forward ideas only to later reject them because someone else showed that the original idea wasn’t so good, and another idea better, etc. More, we often had different ideas on various issues regarding the slogans or in the leaflet or on other matters, and, if discussion had been stopped for a vote, we probably would have voted on opposite sides.
We’ve acted in these ways because the CVO line since its inception has been to build the movement against imperialism; fight against the ideological and organizational roadblocks put up by the liberals, opportunists and counterfeit Marxists that hold back this movement; rely on rallying the masses rather than placing vain hopes on some section of the establishment; and to build organization. Thus our line on these questions is the same as that of the SAIC; and when we help work out, implement and defend the SAIC’s basic ideas and activity we’re just putting our own ideas into practice---ideas that are shared by others in the movement. More, we’ve acted in these ways because we don’t think we know everything. And, if there has been a problem it‘s probably been that we haven‘t discussed the SAIC enough---not its general politics and orientation, those we completely agree with, but detailed discussion of what activists are thinking, what ideas are preventing various people from uniting with the committee, how we can better address their concerns in our agitation, etc. In other words, if the dreaded “bloc” has made an error, it’s that it hasn’t met enough to work out stratagems, approaches, etc., that, if correct, and carefully implemented, would ultimately reduce its ability to “control every word of every leaflet…etc.”: we would be a small minority.
Of course Ben could help us with this reduction by passing out SAIC leaflets, putting up its posters, etc., but his principles won’t allow him to do such “useless or corrupt” work. Nor do these principles allow him to support the SAIC in his own leaflet.
In the last SAIC meeting it was me, not Ben, who briefly commented that there might be an issue of how to handle voting if the committee grew to include people from more organizations. I raised this because my experience in opportunist coalitions. There, when an issue of controversy arose, one or another group would often pack a meeting with people we had never seen before in order to win a vote. But, after pondering this more, I think our committee already has the answer: (1) a person can’t vote in their first meeting (the small part of the answer), (2) it’s committee members who are allowed to vote, and to be a member one must be active in propagating SAIC’s ideas and otherwise working to build it (the big part of the answer) Thus, one person, one vote, seems the democratic thing to do in the present situation. If we grew to include large groups, say of 8 people, and a whole group was obviously working to build the committee but only sent one or two representatives to meetings, then there would be an issue of allowing them 8 votes. But this is presently a moot question.
(4) I would say the following on Ben’s proposed two-thirds rule per se:
We all agree that its better to talk things out and have unanimity around a decision because it’s then more likely to be militantly implemented. But we also realize that sometimes the class struggle presses, and that even though differences may still exist, a vote must be taken if we are to get anything done in it---and 2/3 agreement is obviously better than 51% in this regard. So while none of us would like to proceed with just a slim majority, conditions could conceivably exist where we thought we had to. (And, if a mistake were made, it might actually be easier to correct one made by 51% than one made by 2/3.) Furthermore, our practice has so far shown that even though we wanted to do things like get the leaflet out much earlier, we actually waited until there was consensus.
The other side of this is that one third of the group can hang up everything. In slow times things can generally be talked through, compromises reached, and so on. But when some pressing issue arises this one-third minority could sideline us from the struggle.
So I favor SAIC using the democratic principle of acting by the will of the majority. But I also have a lot of faith in movement activists. If they think a two-thirds majority should be required on some questions, or even all questions, I would go along.
Related to voting is the question of an interactive website.
(5) I’ve never been against this “on principle”. No, I’ve expressed concerns on two issues: (1) the time consumed setting it up and monitoring it taking away from work I consider more vital, i.e., working out the content of its activity among the masses; (2) either getting sucked into abstract debates on it that are really not related to SAIC’s work, or placing too much value on the importance of Internet debates in themselves even when they are “on topic”. I would add that if the majority wanted to set up this kind of site despite my concerns, then I would want it very simple, without a lot of pages that one has to click here, there and everywhere to see, and without a lot of rules. Further, I don’t think we should spend our time worrying over whether a post is sincere or not, or whether a writer is personally insulting one of us, or what is “spam”. If problems come up, decide what to do about them then.
But since the question of an interactive website is what Ben has in reality split with the SAIC over, and since me and the CVO are such terrible people ( i.e., according to Ben, our attitude is “Well the minority has the right to hit the road. End of story. Love it or leave it.) then it would be logical for me to be arguing for a two-thirds vote. What better way to prevent such a website? Problem is that I’m willing to abide by the desire of the majority in SAIC, even when I think it’s mistaken---as I would if it embarked on setting up a grandiose interactive website. But Ben won’t abide by the will of the majority. He doesn’t say that we’ve so far been mistaken because we haven’t chosen to set up a website while he continues to build the committee. He doesn’t say that it’s good that you participate on the interactive Indymedia website, but my way is even better. No, he splits, and not only does he split, but he begins hurling slanderous insinuations ( CVO members are only “paying lip service to the goal of building an anti-imperialist pole of attraction”…“in order to recruit”, etc.)
So it seems that Ben is following the principle “I get my way or its war!”, and many of us consider this activity sectarian, and its standpoint anarchist.
(6) I would like to address one last example of how Ben’s proposals would act as handicaps to democracy, the seemingly innocuous “anyone who opposes the war must be welcome to come and observe and have their say” in SAIC meetings.
To have mass democracy you must also have centralism. In other words, if anti-imperialist are to work out plans of action, develop anti-imperialist agitation that they take to the masses, break through the bureaucratic strangle-hold that the liberal-opportunist-revisionist alliances impose on the anti-war movement, etc., and through this work unleash the democracy of the masses, we need organization---not just any organization, but democratic organization of anti-imperialists themselves. Said another way: We love the people in the anti-war movement, even though they my have illusions about Kucinich or Nader or the Libertarians, they may have anarchist ideas, may have pacifist ideas, and so on, and to address these people we need to hammer out many questions through meetings. But Ben’s innocuous proposal would act against this.
“Anyone who opposes the war” is likely to have quite different ideas than anti-imperialists do about what should be done to build the movement. And if s/he was not a passive observer, and really did stand up to have her/his say, then the meetings would be turned into forums for patient explanations, discussion and debate with “Anyone…”. This would mean that our democracy was being undermined, and thereby the whole movement‘s. Taken to its logical conclusion (several “anyones” coming to have their say) this is a proposal for outright liquidation. (Well, Ben has the latter covered with yet another rule: At a SAIC meeting he proposed that 15-20 minutes be allowed for this. So you welcome people to come have their say and then you cut them off because of the rules? Why, one might conclude that there was some kind of bureaucratic scheme involved in this.)
(7) Oh! I’ve found yet another Ben rule: “Each member of the organization will commit to a certain number of minutes per week or per month (for example: 45 minutes per week) in order to help achieve our SLA.” The reader must please excuse me, I was only worrying over the time spent setting up and monitoring Ben’s website for “spam”, etc. Now I see that according to Ben’s scheme of things, as a SAIC member, I would be “committed to distributing on a national (and, eventually, international) scale by digital means” and “will work to systematically build up a syndication channel that makes use of Indymedia sites, leftist or antiwar email lists and other internet-based forums. We will build this channel in an interactive way -- where we develop the ability to systematically respond to serious comments, questions and criticisms that respond to our posted agitation”. (This is from a man who explains to us “What I do -- is to keep matters in perspective.”)
Lordy, lord! While we try to squeeze 45 more minutes into our schedules in order to worry over the approaches taken in our leaflets, and how we might explain things better; or to actually get our agitation into the hands of more workers (an issue many of us also are worrying over), we must now squeeze out another 45 minutes for this. If we don’t, according to Ben, we will be using an “obsolete form of agitation” anyway. If we don’t, we’ll be showing that we don’t have a “commitment to a long-term program of work to capture the attention and imagination of serious activists on a national scale”… “and, eventually, international”. If we don’t, we’ll never organize the “hundreds of thousands” and “millions” that Ben constantly refers to in his writings.
Perhaps Ben should go find Majdur Travail. Majdur would certainly like to lead the world revolution using Internet techniques. And if Majdur has converted from Maoism to Islamic fundamentalism, that shouldn’t worry Ben very much. Ben has his own religion: the power of the Internet. Politics? Don’t worry, they’ll work themselves out, somehow.
But, let me not wander any farther into Ben’s writings.
From what I’ve written above, one might retort to Ben, “whose really paying lip service, etc., you’re really only interested in recruiting people for discussion on your pof lists!”…“who would be the real liquidator?”, etc. But I think that could lead us astray. Ben does a little bit despite himself. Or, if you disagree with this view, most activists probably wouldn’t see it that way. This brings me back to the issue I started with.
For all of the reasons discussed above, I think it’s obvious that Ben doesn’t support the SAIC effort. From his standpoint it presently does useless work, its dysfunctional, it shouldn’t be supported in his leaflet, and so on. He also has bureaucratic proposals that would allegedly improve it, but actually lead toward its isolation or even liquidation. And he sows division in SAIC ranks, as well as division between the SAIC and activists outside it with his unsubstantiated charges (slander) against the CVO members, etc. But we want people coming to meetings who are at least interested in building the project, and to us, Ben doesn’t seem to fill the bill (even though we might want to continue to work with him on this or that). However, preventing someone from entering a meeting requires a convincing explanation to others who come to attend, many of whom may never have heard of Ben, much less studied his writings or activities. So a long explanation would be needed, and would it really be worth it? No, let Ben come and do his little bit of good (which is all any of us can do), as well as try to do his little bit of bad if he so wants. As a hypothetical example of a bad, if he goes on about his wondrous scheme for an interactive website to the point that no one wants to hear it, that can obviously be democratically dealt with. Although we would not put it this way, if someone were to shout “sit down!” (or worse) that would be mass democracy in action: that’s what mass democracy looks like. Frank
This letter is public domain. (Hence, no one has to ask my permission to post it anywhere.)
Some quotations from Ben are not cited. Most who read this will already have the works or letters they’re taken from, and I did not want to take time to look for the passages again.
Will I reply to Ben’s response? Ponder over why I think doing so might be getting diverted from building mass democracy in this world, i.e., objectively engaging in anti-democracy.
Posted by Frank • November 18, 2005
In re-reading my reply to M.F.#50 I noticed that it said that “to have mass democracy you must also have centralism”. This was immediately followed by the clarification that “if anti-imperialist are to work out plans of action, develop anti-imperialist agitation that they take to the masses, break through the bureaucratic strangle-hold that the liberal-opportunist-revisionist alliances impose on the anti-war movement, etc., and through this work unleash the democracy of the masses, we need organization---not just any organization, but democratic organization of anti-imperialists themselves.”
I think this clarification addresses the heart of the matter under discussion, and that it’s trying to clarify a correct statement if this statement’s context is remembered, i.e., that not only in society at large is democracy hemmed in, restricted, and suppressed at every turn, but that this is also true within the anti-war movement. But it may also be taken out of context. Therefore, before anyone begins to leap and shout over this formulation, let me further explain what I was trying to get at.
During any spontaneous upsurge of the masses one sees mass democracy in action: people debating what to do, what tactics should be used, etc., and then acting. And, if one looks into it a little more deeply, one finds that the debates take place upon the framework of the prevailing ideas in the society, and that these ideas ultimately have a source in its various political trends, which are organized into parties, and groups. If the best representatives of the revolutionary class in this society are organized and active in the mass upsurge, their ideas too will be part of the mass debate.
So here centralism is represented on one hand, by the class organizations of the dominant class (and ultimately its state) which work to suppress mass democracy, and on the other hand by the spontaneous upsurge, which is divided into various schools of thought that can ultimately be traced back to centralized political forces. Hence it has many centers. But, by it’s nature as a spontaneous upsurge the prevailing ideas will still be those of the dominant class it’s rebelling against.
Anarchism and opportunist socialism bow before this mass democracy that comes with such a spontaneously developing movement (which many of them idealize as “pure” movements). Real Marxists, on the other hand, work to change the framework upon which the debate over what to do is taking place, i.e., from one where the prevailing ideas in society dominate to one where debate over the ideas that best represent the interests of the proletariat and others oppressed by capital is the framework. The latter framework for mass democracy can only ultimately be established through revolution and the dictatorship of the proletariat, yet we see seeds of it in our movements today, and we want to facilitate their development.
So when we say we want to develop an anti-imperialist pole of attraction in the anti-war movement (which requires democratically organizing the energy of anti-imperialists to further build their movement and thereby assist expansion of mass democracy in the anti-war movement, and society overall) this is not an end in itself. No, our aim is to ultimately lead the entire movement, have our pole of attraction be the pole the masses are united around, something that is very unlikely until the eve of the revolution itself. But for those who bow before spontaneity and its democracy (many poles, or many “points of control”) this is an abominable violation of all they hold dear, a violation of principle.
I think this has relevance to what we’re trying to accomplish with the SAIC. For example, Ben writes as follows:
“Why use the phrase ‘pole of attraction’ rather than ‘trend’ or ‘organization’? Because we want to convey the idea that we want to put something together that includes multiple trends that will compete with and struggle against one another as well as cooperate. This is what happens in any movement or organization which has a genuinely mass character. As the movement polarizes, various trends (and parts of trends -- as some trends break apart as the field strength, so to speak, increases) will be drawn to the anti-imperialist pole. The contradictions between the trends which gravitate to the anti-imperialist pole will not disappear -- but rather will become more concentrated and will likely manifest themselves in more visible ways. It will be necessary that we recognize the inevitability of the struggle between trends and take steps to assist the development of this struggle so that it takes place in conditions most suitable to the development and raising of consciousness” (http://struggle.net/ben/2005/mass_democracy.htm).
Obviously, movements or organizations with a genuinely mass character most often have multiple political trends that struggle against each other, as well as cooperate. But Ben refuses to look any deeper into this truthful observation. What do these trends represent in relation to either the aims of the organization or of the overall movement? He says they compete with each other, but is vague on the issue of the ways these contradictions between trends might be resolved. He firmly concludes that we should assist the development of the struggle between trends but then again becomes vague: “so that it takes place in conditions most suitable to the development and raising of consciousness”.
So lets look at this a little more closely.
Political “trends” and “organizations” are real (but different) existing things. Ben places them beside the descriptive idea “pole of attraction”, and then refers to all three---the two different kinds of things, and the descriptive idea---as mere phrases. (He, of course, prefers the latter phrase because “we want to convey the idea…” that we want to put together numerous trends that compete with each other, etc.) Yet for the descriptive idea “pole of attraction” to have meaning there really must be a pole, i.e., not just scattered people with anti-imperialist ideas, perhaps debating among themselves and in the broader movement---these only form the basis for building the pole. The pole must be something more concrete: an anti-imperialist banner and contingent at an anti-war demonstration, an anti-imperialist demonstration or meetings, and, with these kind of real things, concrete anti-imperialist organization that activists can involve themselves in building so as to have more concrete activity among the masses.
But in the paragraph being dwelt on Ben mystifies the question of an organization of anti-imperialists. Instead, he writes of the interminable struggles between trends being drawn to or gravitating toward an abstract anti-imperialist pole which itself consists of multiple trends whose contradictions won’t go away. Yet building organization, a political trend, or a mass movement always involves resolving contradictions at every turn. This is what gives forward motion. For example, the present members the SAIC have certain differing ideas on the question of the national bourgeoisie in various dependent countries: what is the national bourgeoisie?; what is it’s stand vis-a-vis imperialism (or the stand of sections of it)?; if it (or sections of it) are waging a fight against imperialism, what is it fighting for, and how?; what attitude should the workers and poor take toward this fight, and what should be their tactics regarding it?; other related issues. I think these differences, which are presently pretty vague, can certainly be traced back to different political trends: Maoism with one person, at least, and anti-revisionism as organized into the CVO with some others. Further, the political trends themselves, and the methodology they use to arrive at their political conclusions can ultimately be traced back to distinct classes (or sections of those classes). But none of the latter means that we can’t resolve this difference (contradiction). All we have to do is, from the anti-imperialist standpoint of the workers and poor, scientifically investigate and study what the national bourgeoisie of a particular country in question is actually doing vis-à-vis both imperialism and the toilers, and, using materialist dialectics, draw the conclusions that we can. The conclusions might confirm one or another of our current shades of opinion, or they might be a little different from any of those now existing in our group, but is there any reason that we all couldn’t unite around the conclusions, and thereby resolve the difference?
Well, if the SAIC grows, wouldn’t these resolved differences reappear? No doubt. But because we had done the work to resolve the issue once, and achieved a unified line, wouldn’t it then be that much easier to put forward persuasive arguments as to why one of the schools of thought (or trend) was wrong?
The same principle applies insofar as the movement as a whole is concerned. People will gravitate to an anti-imperialist formation because of the resolution of contradictions, i.e., their experience combined with their changing ideas---changing because contradictions in their thinking are being resolved (something we want to play a role in)---tell them that this is what needs to be done.
Ben speaks of the movement polarizing between the anti-imperialists and reformists, and, of course, the same polarization will occur between genuine and sham anti-imperialism. As the struggle develops some trends calling themselves anti-imperialist will reveal themselves to be half-hearted, vacillating and, in the final analysis, sham anti-imperialists. But will this revealing occur spontaneously (therefore taking eons), or can organized groups of people help it along? Revolutionaries answer in the second way. The most whole-hearted and consistent anti-imperialists should unite ever more closely to expose and defeat such trends among the masses. This will help clear the way to overthrowing and smashing the imperialist system forever. True, their organization(s) will inevitably have contradictions within it, but these will be among the most consistent and theoretically clear people. And, yes, if the SAIC were to grow large, there would inevitably be members holding on to some of the ideas of the sham anti-imperialists trends outside of it. But, because it had been waging the fight against the false anti-imperialists, two things would derive: (1) the new members coming in were making a conscious choice (even though some might still maintain remnants of the old thinking), (2) because we had been waging the fight against false anti-imperialism our own consciousness and persuasive powers would have immeasurably increased.
But Ben presents a quite different picture: we should “convey the idea that we want to put something together that includes multiple trends that will compete with and struggle against one another as well as cooperate.” I, on the other hand, think the idea we want to convey (because it is what we believe) is that there is the trend of anti-imperialism that we want to get better organized, and that there is sham anti-imperialism, which we must fight against if we’re to do this. And, from its inception the SAIC has been exposing that support for Saddam Hussein or the fundamentalist and Baathist resistance leaders in Iraq is not anti-imperialist, nor is refusing to expose and oppose the liberal imperialists, and so on. Our aim should not be to put (for example) the RCP, ISO, SA, FSP, MIM, PSL, WWP, etc., into one big tent, a coalition called the SAIC to compete and struggle against one another as well as cooperate. Rather, our aim should be to build our anti-imperialist trend and our organization in the struggle against imperialism, while cooperating with these inconsistent or sham anti-imperialists when possible if our assessment in any particular situation is that it serves the overall struggle. (Hence, temporary coalitions with them, ad hoc committees with them, etc.)
Building an organized expression of the anti-imperialist trend like the SAIC is the road to raising consciousness---the “condition most suitable” for it. And successes in its work will contribute to building mass democracy.
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