Ben Seattle
We Need Mass Democracy
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Ben Seattle replies to Michael in Portland:
Make Hay while the Sun Shines

Building the movement
on a solid foundation requires
accountability and political transparency


The proverb "Make Hay while the Sun Shines" means:
Take advantage of favorable circumstances; they may not last

We need a security culture to protect activists,
and the movement, from harassment and intimidation
from the state and from employers.

But we can't let this stop us from taking advantage
of the current window of opportunity, in which
we have the democratic rights of speech and organization,
to openly share our experience and build focus on
the principles that will make our movement powerful:

1. We must break from the stranglehold of reformist thinking and tactics
2. Powerful actions are based on mass action and the mass movement
3. Political disagreements must be openly discussed and debated

-- Contents --

1. Michael's comments May 14
2. Ben Seattle replies May 20
3. Mass Action and secrecy (a further comment) May 25
4. Comments from readers (and from you)

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1. Michael's comments

Michael Portland Carpenter Anti-Imperialist
Sunday 14-May-2006 12:38 pm # 483-4002

What do you think of the ideas in Ben's letter to Edward ?
I really disliked some sections

Michael's comments:
Are you committed to a process of accountability with the Seattle Anti-Imperialist Committee or are you solely a critic of their work?

Have you ever done any work that threatens the existing political powers to the extent that that it required secrecy?

What do you know about the principle of accountability? Have you ever taken direct action?

Have you ever broken the law for the social justice movement? If not, do you feel that the laws of this government represent social justice?

Likes: Your interest in working across struggles, and building a movement against imperialism.

Doesn't like: The secterian drive to slant public opinion regarding the internal workings of groups. You are not accountable.

Question: When are you going to stop expecting accountability from a movement you are not accountable too?

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2. Ben Seattle replies

Saturday May 20, 2006

<Michael> Are you committed to a process of accountability with the Seattle Anti-Imperialist Committee or are you solely a critic of their work?

<Ben> I am fully committed to being accountable to the Seattle Anti-Imperialist Committee, and the antiwar movement, and to the progressive movement in general, for my actions and my public writing.

Of course different activists might have different conceptions of what is meant by a "process of accountability" (more on that below).

Am I solely a critic of SAIC's work? No.

I am a supporter of SAIC and also a critic of SAIC.

Being both a supporter and a critic of an organization may seem strange today because many of the traditions in the movement are corrupt and there is often an attitude that: "you are either with us or against us".

I believe, however, that we can never build a mass movement with the power to overthrow the system of imperialism as long as we are constrained by these kinds of bullshit "norms" (ie: principles).

On the contrary: we must create healthier principles. We must build a movement on the principle that activists have the right to know the real politics and the real political contradictions of all organizations which claim to represent the interests of the movement. Only in this way will activists be able to play a conscious role in shaping the movement.

How do I support SAIC?

I played a role in bringing the committee together, by making contact with Edward and helping Edward understand that it would be valuable for him to make contact with Frank.

I have assisted in the editing (ie: by making a number of useful suggestions) of most of SAIC's leaflets (ie: those leaflets which focused on the war in Iraq and the antiwar movement). I have not helped edit leafets:
(1) which were on topics which I knew little about
     -- such as the struggle for immigrant rights,
(2) which were written quickly -- since I often must go many days at a time
     without doing political work or checking my email,
(3) where I disagreed with the orientation -- such as SAIC's Mayday leaflet

Initially I refused to assist in distribution of these leaflets because SAIC did not have an interactive website where readers could respond with questions and criticisms. I believed that there was no excuse for SAIC not to have such a website -- and I offered to set up such a website -- using the software that you used to ask these questions -- but SAIC comrades did not like the software I had created and prefered to have a website that was not interactive until they could install software which they liked better.

Recently SAIC made its website interactive (using software which they liked) and since that time I have assisted in distribution of their leaflets. For example, on May 1, I distributed about a thousand SAIC leaflets on the struggle for immigrant rights.

I also consider my criticism of SAIC to be a form of support although the SAIC comrades (and, obviously, yourself) do not see it that way.

<Michael> Have you ever done any work that threatens the existing political powers to the extent that that it required secrecy?

<Ben> Yes.

I worked with the Marxist-Leninist Party (MLP) from 1979 until the time of its collapse in 1993. The organization practiced a fairly thorough security culture. We would, to give an example, use pay phones to call one another.

Was this security culture really necessary?

Yes and no.

Because the political movement was in decline during the period I was around the MLP, there was little direct harassment and intimidation from the state -- which did not feel that our work represented much of a threat to their interests. If the movement had entered a period of upsurge -- then this security culture would have proven its value. But, unfortunately, there was no upsurge.

However, our security culture was certainly necessary in the workplaces in which we organized -- because the capitalist bosses were very much threatened by our work. One of our local comrades, for example, was fired from the shipyards and blacklisted by the corrupt union president when it was eventually discovered that he supported the party. This reflected the fact that our work was effective: Even workers who hated us felt it necessary to read our leaflets in order to know what was going on -- because our leaflets were the only source of accurate and reliable information about the workplace struggles.

We distributed leaflets at the gates of plants where we organized -- and we also built secret internal distribution networks where our comrades inside (and a section of workers who supported our work) would risk their jobs by giving leaflets, on a very selective basis, to other workers. We had to be cautious, in particular, that the corrupt trade union apparatus did not discover who we were -- since they would finger us to the capitalist owners so that they could fire us.

However in some cases the security culture went beyond what was necessary -- and hurt our work -- or our personal lives.

For example, I let myself be pressured, to my great regret, into breaking off counseling sessions with my Dad. My party unit felt that talking to a counselor represented a security risk. I was relatively young and politically inexperienced at the time -- and I caved-in to pressure from comrades who knew a hundred times more than I did about political organizing. I wish now that I had stood my ground and fought - even if this would have risked expulsion from the party. My dad was the person who was closest to me all the time I was growing up. The counseling was my one shot at overcoming the estrangement that resulted from my becoming political and rejecting the path in life which my dad had always assumed I would follow. My dad died without the barriers between us ever being overcome.

The excesses of our security culture also had a harmful political effect in making it more difficult for members and supporters of our party to understand the political disagreements that were threatening the continued existence of our organization (and which would soon lead to its collapse). I wrote about one example of this in 1998:

7a. How centralization and secrecy slow
      the rate of information metabolism

When the group which I supported (the late MLP) discussed, in 1991, a report on what took place at the 10th Congress of Lenin's party--each copy of the report was numbered and kept track of--to ensure that they could all eventually be rounded up and destroyed. See, we didn't want any loose reports to leak out--so we instituted measures of secrecy (concerning events that had taken place 70 years earlier). And these measures were very effective. When our party made a major ideological turn (and we made several), we had the ability to conduct our discussion in secret, develop unity at our own pace and, when we were ready, make our positions public. And in many ways, the ability to act in such a disciplined manner as this had advantages in making our positions clear--and opposing the rumor-mongering, half-truths and confusion that would have otherwise have been propagated by our political opponents in the bitter sectarian atmosphere that saturates the hard-core left.
From: Centralism in the Service of Democracy,
Chapter 7 of How to Build the Party of the Future

I argued (in other sections of the work I quote above) that keeping political differences secret slows down the rate at which political activists can absorb and understand information (ie: "information metabolism") and that this is an unhealthy practice that is becoming increasingly obsolete in a century in which the class struggle will find expression in mass-based information war.

Of course this is not to argue that there is no need to keep time-sensitive tactical information related to mass actions secret. Nor is this an argument that there is no need at all for a security culture. (Intimidation and harassment from the state is at a low level now. It will not be that way forever.)

Rather I am simply saying that although we need a security culture -- it would be an grave error to make a fetish of this security culture to the point where it seriously interferes with us doing what needs to be done.

If we don't do what needs to be done -- then the state wins without needing to shoot us -- because we are already politically dead -- or politically crippled. There are many countries where activists face daily threat of imprisonment, torture and death. We have a window of opportunity at the present time to make use of the democratic rights of speech and organization which currently exist. We may not have this opportunity forever. We must make hay while the sun shines.

For more on my views on a possible timeframe, circumstances and outcome of major repression here in the U.S. -- you may be interested in looking at: A scenario for the overthrow of bourgeois rule in the U.S. in the middle of the 21st century.

<Michael> What do you know about the principle of accountability? Have you ever taken direct action?

<Ben> Based on your comments and questions it appears likely that you and I have a different view of what is meant by the principle of accountability. You assert that I do not respect this principle. Yet you do not appear (and I have read your comments many times) to explain what this principle means to you.

But if a principle is important -- then it should be explained.

I believe that being accountable means that we must be accountable to the movement for our actions. This includes being responsive (given limits of time and practicality) to other serious activists who criticize us. And this also includes being open about weaknesses in the organizations which we believe are deserving of support.

Some people people that being accountable means agreeing to keep so-called "dirty laundry" hidden. I am not going to assume that this is your view. But I would like to know what your view is.

I have not participated in direct action. I believe that there are occasions when direct action is both a useful and necessary tactic. But I make an effort to maintain a certain perspective on this kind of thing.

Direct action becomes possible when we have a large and politically conscious (ie: militant) movement that is breaking, on a mass scale, away from the restraints of the reformist tactics and ideology. In these conditions all kinds of tactics become possible that are not possible today. It is important here to distinguish between cause and effect -- and to recognize the fundamental factor of mass political consciousness. Direct action, and other tactics involving mass resistance, in turn can greatly assist the conscious factor.

<Michael> Have you ever broken the law for the social justice movement? If not, do you feel that the laws of this government represent social justice?

<Ben> Well if I had broken the law in any major way it would be kind of foolish to talk about it on the internet. Homeland security can trace our ip addresses and get our identities from our internet service providers. I would not ask you or anyone such a question on the internet.

However, the case is that my law-breaking, so to speak, has been very minor. I got picked up and put in handcuffs many years ago for illegal postering. I was working with a look-out who was assigned to keep a watch for cops -- but I did not know that he was blind as a bat. I was not carrying ID and after they tried to question me and could not get any information -- they let me walk out of the station. They never got my real name.

Like thousands of others I have also marched in the street, without a permit, at mass actions.

I have no problem, in principle, with breaking the law. However I consider it important to keep practical and tactical considerations in mind. For example many of the MLP comrades were in jail for a while (this was well before I was around) at a critical time in the development of the movement (I think they were arrested in a demonstration). It would have benefited the movement more if they had been out of jail and able to organize. I think they summed up that it would have been better to execute a retreat and avoid arrest in that incident.

There was another incident, here in Seattle, in January 1978, where 7 of our comrades got into a big fight with the cops at a public meeting that was being used to launch racist attacks under the cover of "anti-busing". In this case the fight, and arrests, was well worth it. The racist organization that was being launched (ie: the so-called "Citizens for Voluntary Intergration Committee") collapsed in disgrace when it became obvious, as a result of the fight and the massive news coverage which followed, that most of its members were cops. I saw the articles in the paper and it confirmed for me that the local comrades, whom I had met at political meetings and had been quite impressed by, were very serious. Soon afterward, I was helping them distribute their leaflets.

I believe that I am of more benefit to the movement if I avoid arrest and instead hang on to my job and my apartment and have a stable life so that I can more effectively carry out necessary political work. Obviously in situations where mass confrontation with authority is necessary -- then some people will need to step forward and take risks. Each person, in such a situation, must decide how to balance this question and I respect the courage of those who place themselves at risk of injury and other serious consequences.

More generally however, as I have already discussed above, I consider it important to understand that the overwhelming majority of the work that must be done is completely legal. This must be our focus. The exceptions to legal work (ie: mass defiance of authority at a picket line or mass actions) are real but are relatively less common.

Do the laws of our current government represent social justice?

Possibly I am being emotional here but this strikes me as a question which is somewhat condescending. Maybe I am reading too much into this.

The laws of our present, bourgeois, government represent "social justice" for the ruling bourgeoisie. We must, in my view, create a different kind of state where there exists justice for the working class and liberation for the oppressed (that will be the first stage -- eventually there will be no need for any kind of state at all -- or any central authority with the ability to order anyone around). So justice is best understood, in my view, in class terms rather than as something that stands above classes or above class interests. Our work and discussion, in my view, should reflect this class view. We cannot have real justice as long as the bourgeoisie rule society. It is not just the government. It is fundamentally a question of which class rules.

<Michael> Likes: Your interest in working across struggles, and building a movement against imperialism.

<Ben> Well I appreciate that you can see a positive side to my work.

<Michael> Doesn't like: The sectarian drive to slant public opinion regarding the internal workings of groups. You are not accountable.

<Ben> I consider sectarianism to be a vicious disease which is as serious as a heart attack or cancer. We must oppose this disease relentlessly and have zero tolerance for it.

The problem is that not everyone agrees on what sectarianism is.

Is it true that I am slanting public opinion concerning the internal workings of SAIC?

You believe that I am (and so do the SAIC comrades).

I have a different view. I believe my views are correct and accurate. I can't be more specific because you have not been more specific in your criticisms.

I made up my mind a long time ago that I would tell the activists in the movement what I think about the issues that are most important. And issues related to the principles which must guide the kind of mass organization which we need -- are among the most important of all issues.

Many of the SAIC comrades considered my actions towards SAIC's predecessor organization (ie: SAIA -- the Seattle Anti-Imperialist Alliance) to be "parasitism". They thought that I was taking advantage of their hard work to promote myself. It appears to me that they may have a similar attitude concerning my actions toward SAIC.

So I will talk about this.

I believe that such a view fails to see what is important. It is kind of like looking at a donut and seeing only the hole.

I work very openly to promote the organizational principles which I have concluded the movement needs in order to overthrow the political and economic system of imperialism. I have the right to comment on any political event or organization for this purpose. I also have the responsibility to make every reasonable effort to make my comments accurate and all-sided.

So first -- there is nothing whatsoever wrong with my discussing SAIC and using this discussion as a vehicle to promote awareness of key principles. SAIC does not "own", so to speak, the right to discuss SAIC. Rather, SAIC's work belongs to the movement and all activists have the right to discuss this work and draw conclusions from it (just as all activists have a similar reponsibility to make efforts to avoid misrepresentation of SAIC and its work). So the argument (and I am not claiming that this is your argument, Michael) that my actions to use SAIC's work and experience as a vehicle to promote key principles -- represent "parasitism" -- would only be a valid argument if I was failing to make every reasonable effort to make my comments accurate and all-sided.

Nor do I see any problems with discussing SAIC's "internal workings". SAIC's internal life also belongs to the movement -- not to SAIC itself or to SAIC members -- because this internal life is not property but represents a claim for an organization model that serves the needs of the movement and therefore is a legitimate topic of public discussion. (Of course this does not mean that SAIC members or supporters do not have privacy rights or that there is no need for a security culture. It does means that privacy rights and the legitimate need for a security culture cannot be used as an excuse to avoid public discussion of SAIC's shortcomings or internal political contradictions.)

So that brings us to my second point. If am supposedly misrepresenting or slanting SAIC's work or experience -- then the criticism of my supposed misrepresentation, in order to carry weight and be effective, would need to be specific.

Any real mass organization which intends to make a significant contribution to the overthrow of imperialism is going to have to get used to people talking about it. I will go further than this and say that any such organization would want people to talk about it. Any mass organization that engenders discussion from a lot of people is going to see many comments that some members or supporters disagree with. This is part of normal political struggle (ie: there is nothing unprincipled about this) and, over time, the truth and validity of various views will become clear.

My comments were clearly upsetting to SAIC members, who don't like what I have to say. But this does not prove that my views are incorrect or even slanted.

SAIC is one of the most advanced organizations in the U.S., in my view. It understands the need to do consistent and protracted work to assist activists in breaking from the suffocating reformist influence. SAIC creates and distributes thousands of leaflets dealing with topics and struggles of interest to activists. SAIC now also has an interactive website where any reader can post a public question or criticism and this, also, I consider to be highly significant.

But even if SAIC were the best group of its kind in the U.S. or the even the world -- this would not mean that its work, experience and methods should not be discussed and criticised. It is the other way around: we need an organization that every activist considers to be his or her organization. (This does not mean that every activist would be able to vote or otherwise decide on the course of the organization -- but that every activist would find the work of the organization and the internal conflicts within the organization as being important and significant and as more important, interesting and deserving of discussion and debate than the crap which is on TV.) We need this because a truly mass organziation needs assistance from activists outside of it who can help to keep it on the right path by means of public comment.

<Michael> Question: When are you going to stop expecting accountability from a movement you are not accountable too?

<Ben> With all respect, Michael, I consider this to be kind of a loaded question. Kind of like: "When are you going to stop beating your wife?"

I do not expect accountability from the movement. I consider myself to be accountable to the movement. No one is above the movement. Any person, or any organization, which imagines that it is above the movement -- is going to have a rough road ahead.

That concludes my reply Michael. I don't know whether it is clear from my comments, but I have great respect for you and your work in Portland just as I have great respect for the dedicated and hard-working comrades in SAIC.

Sincerely and revolutionary regards,
Ben Seattle, Saturday May 20, 2006 (updated: May 21)

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3. Mass Action and Secrecy

A further comment by Ben Wednesday May 25, 2006

My comments above reflect an opinion of "direct action" based on what I observed and heard about in relation to the successful anti-WTO actions here in Seattle in 1999 and the powerful mass actions in Toronto from that same period. It is possible that others may use the term "direct action" to refer to other kinds of actions. In particular, I have seen, in the news, and on Portland indymedia, references to other kinds of actions, such as those now subject to government persecution and the related "green scare" (ie: activists jailed for months for refusal to talk to secret grand juries, prosecutions based on fabricated testimony by paid informants and, above all, an attempt by the government to create a climate of fear and paranoia).

Since this is related to the topics above I thought a further comment might be useful.

I believe that, historically, actions of all kinds (whether legal or illegal) that have been successful have been related to mass action.

Actions by individuals, or small groups of individuals, rarely have significant and long-term social impact unless these actions are closely connected to mass movements. So the power of those actions which are successful originates in the mass actions and the mass movement.

Illegal actions by small groups that are not closely connected to mass actions and the mass movement have historically been, as far as I am aware, either completely ineffective -- or easily suppressed when the state mobilizes its resources and brings out the big hammers (police investigations, jail and a climate of hysteria created by the capitalist-controlled mass media).

I think that this is related to the topic of secrecy discussed above. There are two valid reasons for secrecy:

  1. To protect activists and the movement from harassment and intimidation
    (or, on occasion, worse) from the state and/or employers. This includes protection against state-sponsored or connected neo-nazi gangs or other forms of extra-legal violence that have historically been used against activists.

  2. To protect time-sensitive tactical information related to actions
    (whether legal or illegal or in the gray area between legal and illegal)
    at mass actions or picket lines.
Secrecy which extends beyond the points above -- and which requires that political disagreements be kept hidden or secret -- does not serve the movement (on the contrary it tends to slow down the process of summing up experience and drawing conclusions) and is usually a symptom of a mistaken or confused orientation.

I view the illegal actions of small, isolated groups as representing both what is weak and what is strong. The weakness (ie: being either ineffective or easily surpressed once the state has time to marshal its resources) I have discussed above. The strength -- is that it represents an attempt (even if a primitive or naive one) to break free from the stranglehold of reformist thinking and tactics -- which revolve around the need for "respectibility" and help from "saviors" from within the establishment (ie: alliances with a section of the bourgeois political machine).

Breaking free of the reformist straightjacket is not a simple process. The reformists pretend to represent the thinking of the masses -- and the reformists have plenty of resources (ie: political alliances with the powerful, access to and promotion by a section of the media -- and the support of all the main themes of bourgeois culture, TV, movies, progressive celebrities, etc) to promote this deception.

The key to a more developed and powerful break from reformist ideology and tactics -- is to recognize the immense potential that is hidden in the masses. This is the great secret of capitalist society. This is what the bourgeois media, and all the manuevers of the sophisticated bourgeois political machine, does so much on every front to hide.

I am not speaking as an expert (when I was around the MLP I was known as someone who would not be able to organize himself out of a wet paper bag). I am simply pointing to the historial experience of the movements in this country and elsewhere. The real sources of our strength have always been mass action and the mass movements. Effective struggle on all fronts: economic, political, theoretical and organizational -- has always revolved around mass action and the mass movements -- because our actions have power to the extent that they rely on the masses, draw their strength from the masses, represent the class interests of the masses and draw the masses into active, conscious struggle.

Sincerely and revolutionary regards,
Ben Seattle

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