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
Media Weapon community
and the Crisis of Theory
Frank explains why he believes that
Frank also describes some of the circumstances
Ben's theoretical views on future classless society,
Frank also describes some of the circumstances
Ben's theoretical views on future classless society,
Media Weapon Community,
and some history
Posted by Frank • November 24, 2005
In my reply to M.F#50 I wrote that
"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.’"I went on to ask if this were not an elitist and sectarian standpoint? But readers might object that this was being unfair: i.e., "Whether or not a leaflet has the address of an interactive website at the bottom, it’s still the same form: ideas written on a piece of paper. Besides this, having interactive exchanges about a leaflet on a website could be better than just having them through verbal discussions with people, correspondence, exchanges on Indymedia, etc. Moreover, behind what you call Ben’s ‘sectarianism’ is a plan that will really advance the revolutionary movement." So, thinking that this objection might be raised, I looked at Ben’s plan some more. It was interesting.
The most striking thing about his Media Weapon Community mission statement (1) is that while it’s purported aim is "to bring to political activists everywhere--and to the working class as a whole--the news that a world without bourgeois rule is both possible and necessary" there is nothing in it on how this news is going to be brought. No matter how skilled the use of software, how democratic the channels, how transparent everything is, etc., this news must come from somewhere else: the experience of the practical struggles of the proletarian masses summed up with materialist dialectics (socialist-revolutionary theory), and the building of the movement around this theory.
Marx studied and took notes from books and manuscripts in the British Museum with a pen he dipped in an ink-well in order to accumulate the materials from which he wrote "Capital"---the work that set socialism on a scientific foundation. He also exchanged letters and had personal discussions with other revolutionary thinkers over various thorny questions that were coming up as he worked, relied on the personal observations he had made through his life till then, etc. But the crux of the work was scientifically studying the materials he had accumulated, and then presenting his conclusions (writing) in a way that a reader could grasp. Today, those of us connected to the web use it as a convenient tool to investigate many historic and present questions, a tool that makes exchange of letters more rapid, etc., but the actual theoretical work---the scientific study of the accumulated materials and organizing of an understandable presentation of the conclusions---must be done off-line.
Secondly, throughout his revolutionary life Marx was a party man. There was no way that revolutionary ideas could not be translated into practical action and further developed through summation of experience, etc., other than through organization. Thus, judging the conditions in the movement of his time, he worked to found various organizations or parties to lead the class struggle (or worked to dissolve them when he assessed they no longer filled the requirements of the times). This involved a lot of running about, letter writing, meetings and congresses, etc. So today, the web is again a convenient tool that we employ to help build revolutionary organization. We use it to carry out much discussion that previously would have taken place at meetings or in hand-written letters, sometimes conduct votes on it, etc. But meetings and personal discussions are still needed, as is working out the actual analysis of the objective situation in order to make conclusions about what kind of organization is possible and necessary---again, off-line work.
So, returning to Ben’s mission, he says: "we will help puncture the suffocating influence of reformism…we will help resolve the crisis of theory…we will help unite revolutionary, progressive and working class activists into a revolutionary mass movement that is politically transparent" (with many words highlighted for effect). Great, but what politics are necessary in order to accomplish this? What methods must be used following what theory? What real organization is being built to accomplish the goals?
Well! "a core of activists who understand and agree with our mission statement and program of action and who work in a principled and consistent manner to carry it out" says Ben. Of course, at "present the mission statement has not yet been discussed, debated or adopted and the ‘core’ group of activists is non-existent", but it may at some point "emerge". So what well its politics be? The politics of the mission statement: competing political organizations, trends and autonomous individuals working to help puncture the suffocating influence of reformism, helping to resolve the crisis of theory, etc.---a vicious circle.
If Ben’s Internet scheme were brought to life and flourished, what would it look like? Every leaflet, manifesto and article produced in the movement would be on the website, along with interactive comments and criticisms, replies to them, etc. Reports from every movement meeting would be there, along with reports of votes taken, explanations by every individual as to why they voted as they did, and so on. In short, it would be a digital reproduction of the entire national and then international movement as it existed---thousands of pages that could be of use to revolutionaries struggling to further develop and popularize revolutionary theory, and to build concrete organization of live people. But it still could not do the actual work to resolve the "crisis of theory" and other work that Ben lists that must be accomplished off-line. So this grandiose project again leads to an impasse insofar as these questions are concerned.
But there’s more to Ben’s project than this. It would have various interactive channels that would "make use of the energy of readers to rate and filter articles and comments so that our audience will be able to easily find the most valuable and interesting content". This would seem to mean that the materials were arranged according to what was most popular at the time; thus, if, for example, Trotskyism were most popular, this is what would be most easily found on the website. Another vicious circle insofar as struggling to actually lead the movement. (Of course, there would be other "filtering" too. The "core group", which was composed of activists divided between different political trends, groups, and schools of thought would presumably delete works that were "obviously insincere", contained personal insults, or that it considered "spam".)
Or, Ben again: "My hypothesis is that this future mass revolutionary organization will emerge from a program of common work to create a revolutionary communications channel that will connect serious activists with one another--and to the masses--and which will harness the energy of the masses to help resolve the inevitable disputes between revolutionary activists." Why, it almost looks like Lenin’s plan to build up the revolutionary movement through an all-Russian newspaper (Iskra), a plan that indeed helped (along with objective crises) a mass revolutionary organization to emerge: the R.S.D.L.P. But there are some slight differences: Iskra was the organ of a defined political group in the R.S.D.L.P., a group that had come into being through years of fighting to uphold, defend and further develop a definite theory: Marxism. Rather than trying to unite with various trends, groups or autonomous individuals within the movement who called themselves revolutionary, the Iskraists insisted that clear lines of demarcation be drawn against all that was rotten, backward, and sham-Marxist (revisionist) before attempting to launch their project. And one of the biggest lines of demarcation they fought to establish was against those who bowed before spontaneity, and threw the movement as it was against those taking up the theoretical and organizational tasks necessary for further developing that movement.
The logical extension of the line the latter people took was that activists should become good trade union secretaries. The logical extension of Ben’s line is that we should good secretaries putting together a huge interactive website to serve the movement as it is. If one worries over how, between these secretarial duties, that we have time to actually solve various theoretical and other questions that currently vex us, Ben has the answer:
"The great problem of the present time is that there exists no genuinely revolutionary organization that commands respect; that is deserving of the trust of activists; that has its feet on the ground and, to continue this analogy, does not have its head shoved into a place that can't be reached by sunlight."It‘s great how all these decisive tasks are going to be taken up by an organization that emerges in the future, isn’t it? But, meanwhile, not to worry, we’ve actually had a man beside us all this time who really is quite the theoretician, perhaps even a man capable of bringing "the news that a world without bourgeois rule is both possible and necessary" (sounds rather evangelical, or perhaps like Paul Harvey, doesn’t it?). While we slave away building the website to lead millions, he’ll be busy writing new tracts on his outstanding theoretical break-through: we’re in theoretical crisis!
For more than a dozen years Ben has been shouting this, and he would like us all to shout it in unison with him. Thus, in SAIA he argued hard for this phrase to be included in a leaflet, and in another leaflet that he cut-and-pasted together for a short-lived anti-war group of that time he made sure it was included. (There was a rush, with Ben basically imposing this leaflet and this formulation onto the group.) But does the constant repetition of this slogan inspire people to look deeper into Marxist-Leninist theory, or to use the method of Marx and Lenin to resolve perplexing questions being confronted by the movement, or even to correct aspects of this theory where it has erred; or does it act to cast doubt or suspicion on this whole body of integrally-connected scientific work, the main aspects of which have been proven, and are being proven, over and over again?
I tend to think it’s the latter, and a review of some history may help explain why.
12-13 years ago marked the final crisis and dissolution of the anti-revisionist Marxist-Leninist-Party (MLP). In the conditions of the defeats and great lull in the mass movements that marked the ‘80s and early ‘90s revolutionary organizing was tough. The party was not only suffering an attrition of members, but factories it had been organizing in for years were closed down because of capitalist reorganization, comrades were thrown out of work, etc., resulting in a weakening of its ties to the class. Many developed a mood of despair.
The MLP recognized the bad situation it was in, and, as a party of revolutionaries, it strove to take advantage of the lull in the movements to press forward its theoretical work, much of which has stood the test of time and is valuable to revolutionaries even today. (For example, the work to elaborate what Leninist united front tactics really are, work on the African American question, work on summing up what the CPUSA did rightly and wrongly in the auto industry, mines, and among the unemployed in the 1920s and ‘30s, work against Stalinism, work on socialism, imperialism, and other questions ---some of which we hope to have available on the CVO website soon.) But the despairing mood began to undermine this work (one of the real hallmarks of the party) too. The majority of comrades wanted to give up, but as people who had devoted 10, 20, or more years to revolutionary work this was hard for them to admit even to themselves. So they fell into numerous bourgeois or revisionist theories to justify giving up, and resorted to bourgeois or revisionist methods to defend this. And one of the things they did was cry out that the more we pursued work to resolve a vexing theoretical question the more that new questions arose: "forget about all the work of the past, theoretical crisis is everywhere, and nothing can be done! " Of course, the real crisis was over whether to continue pursuing theoretical work, or to grab onto various ideas to justify giving it up.
This liquidationist current in the party eventually comprised two-thirds of the membership. How do we know this? Well, for among other reasons, Ben and I were at the dissolution congress---not as members, but as invited supporters of the party---and we were participants in the only real controversy that arose there: whether to accept a proposal to put out a temporary theoretical journal that would publicly continue the debate and discussion over the theoretical questions that had arisen. But the liquidationist leaders wanted to bury such discussion, and they were able to unite 2/3 of the people at the meeting to vote this proposal down. And our champion of openness, accountability, and principled debate, Ben, mocked this proposal as "Joseph’s journal", and objectively sided with the liquidators’ attempt to bury debate.
After the congress Ben repeatedly made efforts to form blocs with the liquidationist majority that was bitterly opposed to the continuation of revolutionary work (with emphasis on theoretical work) by the minority---work first expressed in the Chicago Workers‘ Voice, and then in Communist Voice, both of which continued public exposure and theoretical discussion of the controversies that had arisen in the MLP. (Since these really were people intent on becoming politically passive---or becoming union officials or D.P. functionaries in a couple cases---these blocs invariably died.) The liquidationist swamp was his milieu. But none of this should be taken as meaning that Ben was opposed to having theoretical discussion and debate in the movement. No, he only opposed the minority because it insisted on proceeding from a Marxist-Leninist framework, demanded that new theoretical ideas be based on analysis of facts, and so on. What he wanted was another kind of debate, one not based on any kind of scientific rigor, and one where anything went. And he made a "mark" for himself by writing long and repetitive articles to the ex-MLP circles, and then on his websites, from this "new and liberated" framework.
As Ben saw it, the key to the future was to be able to better explain what communist society will look like. There is a certain truth in this, and often in our practical work we’re involved in explaining how revisionist state capitalism has nothing to do with real communism, and explaining what Marxists envision a communist society will be like after the necessary steps are taken to achieve it. But, being able to explain these things better aren’t, in themselves, going to solve other theoretical and practical problems we’re confronted with, nor, can a picture of the communist (classless) society of the future be painted with other than the broadest of strokes. To try to do so is to depart from materialism.
The CVO has been grappling with this problem from its inception. If we’ve dwelt most on the preliminary steps to achieve a truly communist society it’s both because this is the most immediate issue, and because, given the wealth of experience of the proletariat in the early years of the USSR, it’s something we can most materially analyze. But Ben preferred to leap over the thorny questions of organizing the transition to communism. Just guarantee in advance that all parties---including parties of the bourgeoisie, no matter what they do---will be able to organize and the question is apparently solved for him. Instead he used his unbiased imagination to paint us an inspiring picture of what classless society would look like.
This dream of the future, which he called "co-operative anarchy" (3), turned out to be a nightmarish reproduction of the kind of society we have today---minus the state and (allegedly) commodity production and the market place. Rather than a society with a central economic-planning apparatus that all people by second-nature were part of and participated in, it was one based on independent economic units in competition with each other. When pressed on this by members of our trend he was forced to allow that there "might be different and opposing" economic planning bodies, or even that there might only be one such apparatus---but one that was in a state of constant civil war between "opposing and competing political, economic or cultural philosophies". When asked where the co-operation in this society came from he couldn’t get away from "invisible hand" of the marketplace ideas. When asked how differences between the competing economic units were settled he wrote that "the answer is kind of simple: the various sides fight it out. This would be kind of like a war…", and he waxed eloquently over how various production units would wage these wars, presumably eternally.
So, when stripped of its long-windedness, Ben’s picture of communism was in essence a reproduction of the society that now exists---minus the state and all "formal" authority. It was an anarchist vision. That he maintains the same outlook today is reflected in his plan to digitally reproduce the current anti-imperialist movement as it exists on an interactive website, or his wanting to collect the existing trends in this movement into his core group (or the SAIC) where something good, somehow, will come out of their competition. And he continues his anathema to centralization (or central planning). Such ideas as that revolutionary centralism (not bureaucracy) is necessary if the movement is to further develop, and that this kind of centralism is impossible without democracy, and that this centralism is necessary if there is to be mass democracy on an ever-expanding scale are replaced with philosophizing about an anti-imperialist pole in the anti-war movement that is not a pole, rather, it’s a bunch of avowed and real anti-imperialist trends engaged in endless competition.
But there was more to Ben’s co-operative anarchy than that the various competing economic units fought it out "kind of like a war". He was still confronted with the problem that there might be minority opinions or people who disagreed. So he labeled them as "recalcitrants" or "iconoclasts" who lived in a "severely polluted…mental-emotional environment" and he worried over ways to "expedite the disintegration and dispersal of the recalcitrant dysfunction". (With this approach it’s easy to envision what the "principled" nature of the war Ben would wage against them would be like.) So today, in the conditions where Ben labels CVO people as people who only pay "lip service to the goal of building an anti-imperialist pole of attraction…" because "their actual agenda is to use SAIC to recruit into their group… and to then liquidate SAIC once it has served this purpose", I think it would be mistaken to look to him as a defender of minority rights. Similarly, when he proposes that we demand of activists explain yourself! (your vote) in at least 25 words. Similarly, when he calls the work of the SAIC "useless or corrupt".
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