We are not platformists, we strive to be.

In this post Scott Nappalos surveys a range of current ideas in order to offer further reflections on political organization. Nappalos aims to open a conversation about how to “transition to a a functioning cadre organization,” a topic which in his view has primarily been address merely by “merely theorizing the unity, tightness, and discipline that it would exhibit once we achieve it.” This article stands on its own but is enriched by reading Nappalos’s earlier article posted here.

Towards Theory of Political Organization for Our Time Part II: we are not platformists, we strive to be

by S. Nappalos

In recent times a number of ideological currents from the libertarian communist tradition have inspired a generation to organize, build and reproduce organizations, and struggle around a rethinking of their traditions and future. Much of this theory comes from the period of the greatest waves of proletarian and peasant struggles in the 20th century. That period produced theory of organization based on the protagonists’ position within high points of struggle, its successes and failures.

Coming back to our time, we find ourselves in a situation distinct from say the Friends of Durruti or the Makhnovschina. In our time there are no mass movements that provide a counterpower and pressing threat to capitalism and the state. No significant organizations of revolutionaries are immersed in and drawing from struggle, and no serious revolutionary fascist movements threaten the working class directly at this point[1]. That is to say that there is a serious disanalogy between our reality and that of the high points of revolution, and consequently difficulty in directly applying the theory of that time. While the lessons of those struggles are crucial to understand and build from, what we are missing is our own theory (that of low periods of struggle) that can illuminate not merely how you struggle in times of rupture, but how you grow and develop them. We need a praxis that helps us get from our place to those high points, and consequently need to widen our view of history to look at people who faced similar challenges we do. This article will look at a few of the theories from high points of struggle, attempt to extract lessons of these struggles, while showing how we need to find our own theory that lets us built to the high level of struggle and unity they assume.

The first theory we will look to is synthesism. Synthesism is not necessarily a theory from a high point of struggle so much as a broad current, but one that prompted the development of tighter theories of organization in response to failures coming out of synthesism. Synthesism is an organizational theory and practice which in the US tends to be popular amongst lower case ‘a’ anarchists and activists (actually amongst the Marxist-Leninist left too this is a strong current in a social-democratic form). In fact, synthesism has never really existed as an explicit theory (outside of aberrations and historical footnotes like Faure[2]). No one calls himself or herself a synthesist, but in practice most libertarian organizations have a synthesist character. Synthesism groups together people who do not have a basic level of unity on strategy and often theory. The classic example are the “anarchist federations” (particularly in Europe though also in recent US history with the Social Revolutionary Anarchist Federation[3]) which allow for varying contradictory tendencies to all exist in the same organization without any fundamental unity. One present example would be the French and Italian anarchist federations in the International Anarchist Federation, which are heavily inspired by the synthesis, and join together people based on anarchism broadly conceived to include even individualists.

Synthesism thus groups revolutionaries based on the desire to organize actions/activities, organizational patriotism, or propaganda. This is the one place we do have a level of praxis; many have discussed the theory and experiences of limitations here. The legacy of sub-cultural scenes, activist networks, and protest politics were mainstays of the proto-synthesist milieu. Synthesis has a productive role to play in these contexts, especially in the anti-globalization and anti-war movements. Broad mass activities and upsurges brought people together, and advanced to rethinking direction. In some ways synthesist practice was the theoretical expression of the maturation of that milieu, and its attempt at finding a political solution to the limitations of pure action.

Groupings[4] that emerged from these milieus developed their critiques of the paralyzation of synthesist organizations, lack of education and engagement of its membership, anti-strategic orientation, and its inability to adapt to changing conditions. This, on occasion, led people in North America to look to past ideologies for guidance beyond synthesism, whether it was in the form of Leninism, Maoism, platformism, especifismo, or cadre-organization[5].

There was a move that was made in the 1990s and 2000s. People studied history, worked with organizations abroad, and attempted to apply theory to the concrete problems they found in their organizational work. This step advanced the revolutionary libertarian movements. At the same time, the solutions found were limiting because of a historical gap between the present and the past. The worst examples of this manifest in a kind of “born again” revolutionaries, who repented for their past sins clarified by a new found ideology that answered past problems.[6]

Platformism was one such ideological contribution of Ukrainian, Russian, and later French revolutionaries based on experiences in the anarchist stronghold of Ukraine during the Russian revolution[7]. The platformists emphasized the development of revolutionary organization rooted in and building mass organization, but with a unity of theory, strategy, and tactics. Unlike democratic centralism, platformist organization lacked the top-down higher bodies that could dictate organizational line to the base[8]. Platformism shows promise for rectifying the bureaucratizing tendencies in the Bolsheviks, and the at-times chaotic hamstringing disunity of the revolutionary mass movements and synthesist revolutionary organizations.

The Platformists were dealing with a particular problem in history however. At that time there were mass Bolshevik, Socialist, and Anarchist revolutionary organizations and putting into practice anti-capitalist organization of society. Platformism is a response to this situation, and calls for a unification of libertarian communists to combat those who co-opt and repress revolution, for advancing our ideas and practice, and creating a coherent current in the mass organizations to make libertarian ideology and practice living in popular practice (what Joseph K. of Solidarity Federation and a University of Sussex committee of occupying students call “massification[9]”). The absence of this unity and coherence was one factor that contributed to capitalists and reactionaries repressing and defeating revolution in a number of revolutionary insurrections. Platformism has become merely one name for a whole current. Dual organizationalism in Italy, the Friends of Durruti in Spain, Shifuism in China, etc., all drew similar conclusions during revolutionary periods[10].

The correcting influence of platformism should be welcomed in the present environment lacking clear organized alternatives, but the limitations of straight applicability should be clear. Given the low level of development, the lack of mass organizations, and alienation of the left, platformism presents necessary lessons but is insufficient. It does not give us guidance for how we develop the unity necessary to have a high functioning revolutionary organization. Strategic unity requires strategy. Building a grounded strategy today would requires a level of presence in struggle, learning lessons from such, and expanding confrontation with the state. Instead much of what passes for strategy is largely speculative and based on assumptions of how struggle would proceed, rather than experiences in living struggle.

At the least, we can see a high-functioning unity requires experience and high levels of struggle. Attaining that unity requires that people have the experience in struggle, abilities, and understanding necessary to build both the strategy and the unity, which is exactly what we are lacking. For these reasons much of the organizational theory to emerge from the platformist milieu has been relatively abstract and at the level of principles, or drawing from revolutionary periods. Ultimately platformism is a goal, an end point of revolutionary process. We need a bridge of theory and practice that can take us to the high level of unity necessary in revolutionary times. Platformism then is an important legacy in understanding revolutionary organization, but is insufficient as a theory that can help us build a political capable and tight organization in the present.

Especifismo is related to platformism in that all especifista organizations today are aware of, draw from, and are in dialogue with the platformist current. Especifismo is somewhat of a complicated affair due to conflicting histories in existence. Especifismo means simply specific-ism, or the idea of believing in the need for specific (political) organization. In Uruguay (birth of especifismo) there was a traditional division between anarchists who only believed in mass anarcho-syndicalist organization, and those who believed a political organization was also necessary. Many if not most in North America trace especifismo to the Federacion Anarquista Uruguay founded in the 1950s. The real birth of especifismo as an explicit position of the FAU was in post-dictatorship Uruguay during the 1980s, when the FAU was re-founded, anarchism re-proclaimed, and especifismo put forward as a lesson of the struggle.[11]

Especifismo emphasizes the need for social insertion (revolutionaries should organize as rank-and-file militants in mass movements), trying to build a libertarian character in these movements, organizational unity and discipline combined with a base-democratic federalist model[12]. The FAU, following the dictatorship, has something of a cadre orientation with a long probation period for joining the organization in which the member studies the FAU’s curriculum, builds practice in the mass movements, and develops unity with the organization. Part of this is due to security concerns that are real following the dictatorship in Uruguay. While this method of internal practice is advanced and presents lessons for us, many who identify with especifismo in North America are unaware. It is also unclear who outside of the FAU who has this practice.

The political environmental and history of Uruguay is disanalogous to our circumstances for the same reasons as platformism. While especifismo is not an ideology of revolutionary times (it came out of the collapse of reaction, with an upsurge but not revolution), the level of left-immersion in struggle and organization outpaces significantly our own. The process of radicalization of militants therefore will look significantly different for us, where we have fewer experiences to draw off. Especifismo puts forward the principled development of militants through engagement with the revolutionary organization, and revolutionaries being primarily committed to building libertarian practice in mass movements. What that looks like for us, and how we go about that is largely absent from these questions, and is I believe reflective of the differences in existing struggles between South America and ourselves. Like Platformism, especifismo should be a goal and part of the process of becoming revolutionaries, but is incomplete as a theory of our practice.

Another contribution to organizational theory is the concept of the cadre-organization of Bring the Ruckus. To my knowledge there is not another organization that has put forward the concept, or at least they’re the first to put it forward so centrally so I will discuss BTR’s conception alone.[13] That being said, BTR brought together existing left practices into the cadre concept, and it’s less new than it is merely BTR’s emphasizing of certain elements within. It is likely that the cadre organization concept is a synthesis of New Left debates around cadre with a libertarian perspective, though this is only speculation based on BTR’s drawing from 60s era left-Marxist currents and libertarian concepts.

Cadre organization is similar to platformism and especifismo in that it emphasizes revolutionary organizational unity and a mass practice of revolutionary politics. BTR’s account of cadre organization emphasizes not just the organizational positions, but also the capabilities and activity of militants. Cadre organization is marked by having highly developed and capable membership and aiming at a unitary strategy. Cadre organization then has every member as a cadre, capable of organizing in the mass movements and with theoretical development in line with the organization. Strategically speaking, the cadre organization attempts to work on only select areas to maximize the impact of cadre based on a strategic analysis. Bring the Ruckus has mandated organizational work, and has criteria for what the work looks like.

“A cadre organization seeks to participate in those grassroots (or “mass”) struggles that it believes has the most revolutionary potential, based on the cadre’s political analysis. At the national level, a cadre organization develops and implements dual power strategies for its members nationwide to participate in. At a local level, the local cadre participates in grassroots struggles that fit within the national strategy, debates their effectiveness in local meetings, reports back to the national organization, and seeks to move the grassroots struggle in a radical direction according to these discussions”[14].

It is worth pointing out that democratic centralist organization is not necessarily cadre, nor is cadre organization necessarily democratic centralist. Cadre organization is defined by its militants and its strategy, and generally speaking most present anarchist and democratic centralist organizations are more uneven in abilities and consciousness. What is most positive in the concept of cadre organization is the role of internal practice. The theory of cadre organizations should push us to question our place in history, prioritizing activity, and developing militants to the level where they can do the work the organization prioritizes. It is a collective and mass orientation, with strategy made from the bottom up, and for this reason I identify it within the broad libertarian communist tradition. Cadre organization then gets much of it right, addressing the crucial lack of discussion around how we develop direction for revolutionary organization. That being said, cadre organization suffers from similar limitations to platformism and especifismo.

The problem is where we are today. The people who are drawn to or recruited into the left do not have a cadre orientation. Much of the left emerges from academia, politicized subcultures, and the institutional forms of the left (unions, NGO, arms of the political parties). Generally militants at the mass level have a deeper understanding of practice than the activists the come into the left. The low level of experience and development in the left is a serious impediment to the development of strategy and a functional militancy. The commitment level is extremely low, people are footloose, and the discipline necessary to sustain the ideological, organizational, and even emotional work of a revolutionary movement is often absent. Worse, these problematic dynamics are rarely posed clearly, let alone sufficiently and consistently carried out.

The challenge then for a cadre organization is how to achieve militancy and unity, while retaining sufficient strength to justify organization. While unified strategy is crucial (and platformism was clear about this as well), we have to question what kind of strategy and at what level we are capable of given the abstraction from practice. People come to our organization at a variety of levels, and we see large gaps between the consciousness, education (taken in a broad auto-didactic sense), and capabilities. If we are not at a very advanced level of unity, there are real methodological questions about how we deal with this unevenness of consciousness, commitment, and capabilities while remaining functioning democratic organizations. A cadre orientation doesn’t automatically give us a method to bring up the level of the left to the unity and strategy we seek. In fact, attempts at building cadre (unlike BTR usually unconscious cadre orientations) in our time have tended to lead either to paper-unity populist organization or sectarian micro-sects. None of this is inevitable, but we need other tools to help us understand that transition to a functioning cadre organization beyond merely theorizing the unity, tightness, and discipline that it would exhibit once we achieve it. I attempt to address these questions in the article Towards Theory of Organization for Our Time[15].

[1] This isn’t to discount the possibility of any revolutionary movement, right or left, arising in short order. With the crisis seemingly expanding and the political balance of forces tipping in reckless directions our present situation could rapidly shift.

[2] Sebastien Faure was a French anarchist who lived in the late 19th and early 20th century, and eventually became an opponent of Platformism. He, alongside Voline, argued instead for a “synthesism” of all anarchist tendencies (individualist, communist, etc) in one organization.

[3] See the unpublished account of one participant on anarchistblackcat forums http://www.anarchistblackcat.org/index.php?topic=2157.0 For an alternative view see Mike Hargis’ account of these two organizations on the Anarcho-Syndicalist Review website http://www.syndicalist.org/archives/llr14-24/22i.shtml

[4] I’ve been told from some participants that in North America platformism was a response to the de facto synthesism of the protest movements of the late 90s, but I can’t verify that personally. For one perspective, see the semi-official North East Federation of Anarchist Communist history entitled We Learn as We Walk: looking back on 5 years of NEFAC http://nefac.net/node/1702

[5] The break up of the Love and Rage Anarchist Federation is the obvious example here which produced a new Maoist group (Fire by Night, which merged with Freedom Road Socialist Organization later), a platformist organization NEFAC, and a cadre libertarian organization Bring the Ruckus, along with other less known initiatives. See the Love & Rage Archive for more http://www.loveandrage.org/

[6] The crassest example of this was Chris Day’s The Historical Failure of Anarchism in the wake of the break up of the Love and Rage Anarchist Federation. Day attempts to rectify real problems encountered broadly in political organization by attempting to fit left history into a neat narrative that follows traditions (Marxist and anarchist). History speaks for itself as to where that line of thinking leads you (apparently social democratic variants of Maoism). Similar moves are made by platformist attempts on occasion to rehabilitate the anarchist tradition via a narrative of lineage. The interesting question isn’t who was right, but rather how do we answer contradictions in our practice in current conditions.

[7] A collection of writings on the platform is here http://anarchistplatform.wordpress.com/ The French and Italian traditions are particularly strong in this regard and Fontenis’ Manifesto of Libertarian Communism should be considered. Barry Pateman’s A History of the French Anarchist Movement: 1917-1945 is a good historical resource for the debate around the platform, and its life beyond the Ukrainians.

[8] See the newest translation of the Organizational Platform of the General Union of Anarchists here http://www.anarkismo.net/newswire.php?story_id=1000

[9] From Mobilisation to Massification. A pamphlet from a University of Sussex occupation. http://libcom.org/library/mobilisation-massification

[10] See the Anarchist Communist Federation of Italy’s article Anarchist Communism: A question of class and Adam Weaver’s Building a Revolutionary Movement: Why anarchist-communism for a summary of the history of this current.

[11] The FAU was nearly exterminated during the dictatorship; though its decentralized nature helped it fare better than many left organizations. The majority of the leadership however turned to Anarcho-guevarism before being murdered. A split in the movement developed and a significant section of the FAU created the PVP, a libertarian-influenced social democratic party in the present ruling government. Old militants combined with new libertarian youth radicalized in the environment of crumbling old-left and crumbling dictatorship to found the new FAU.

[12] See the English translation of Huerta Grande by the-then-Marxist influenced FAU in 1972 under the dictatorship. http://www.anarkismo.net/article/14691 While this work prefigured the FAU’s transformation in the Partido para Victoria del Pueblo (which eventually became a bizarre libertarian social democratic party), some concepts made it’s way to the FAU re-founded under anarchist principles. Adam Weaver’s article on especifismo for a good outline of especifista principles, though the historical account conflates a number of distinct time periods http://www.anarkismo.net/newswire.php?story_id=2999

[13] Searching the literature will turn up “cadre organization” as a discourse within Leninist, and often Maoist circles. In most cases, this does not differ from democratic centralism and Mao’s notion of putting politics at the head of one’s life. Lenin argued for paid professional revolutionaries as cadre, and this concept took on a life of it’s own under Stalin and Mao’s distinct interpretations of discipline, and professionalism of cadre. BTR however took the concept from a completely different angle, and so I separate it out as a distinct tendency.

[14] What is Cadre Organization. Bring the Ruckus. Accessed 9/25/10 http://bringtheruckus.org/?q=node/31

[15] http://miamiautonomyandsolidarity.wordpress.com/2011/01/16/towards-theory-of-political-organization-for-our-time-trajectories-of-struggle-the-intermediate-level-and-political-rapprochement/


26 Responses to “We are not platformists, we strive to be.”

  1. “Cadre organization is marked by having highly developed and capable membership”

    That’s a big claim. Do you really think they do? Could you elaborate?

  2. Good point. I’d like to know what Scott thinks on this too. I took this to mean “any genuine cadre organization would have this”, which doesn’t mean that actually existing (or so-called) cadre organizations have this.

  3. Scott Nappalos Says:

    No, the point of the part on cadre organization is that we can’t think about it outside of history & that in essence attempts to shoe horn the existing left into any model based on immediate tight unity will likely fail.

    “A cadre orientation doesn’t automatically give us a method to bring up the level of the left to the unity and strategy we seek. In fact, attempts at building cadre (unlike BTR, usually unconscious cadre orientations) in our time have tended to lead either to paper-unity populist organization or sectarian micro-sects.”

  4. Why a cadre organization at all? How does that form enhance libertarian ideas and practice? Cadre organizations ultimately become command and control set-ups. I would love for someone to provide some links of past or current libertarian cadre organizations.

  5. P. Gage Says:

    I`m not sure I`m as sold on Cadre organisation as Scott is but I`m not sure the problem is that is a barrier libertarian practices. In fact I think having a group with that requires a high level of commitment and unity can actually allow for more conscious and democratic development of values.

    As opposed to say in our IWW branch where everyone reads and discusses but it is all done informally and there are huge differences in the political education of members. I don`t think this is a problem in a radical union but in a political organisation I think at least some characteristics of cadre based groups should be a goal.

    I`m not sure what a list of libertarian cadre organisations would accomplish unless what you are looking for is some kind of confirmation of anarchist credentials. However I think one striking example is the Anarchist Communist group in Gulai-Polye that Makhno came out of. His biographical work details an incredibly disciplined organisation that set the bar very high for membership and consciously intervened in struggles across their city, When members deviated from the group line they were recalled and replaced with new ones until their mandate ran up. They had rigorous political education and very high expectations from their members.

  6. Obviously the context is different from today and revolutionary fervor of Russia in the late teens is pretty highm but I’m curious to know more about the political ed and standards of membership for the group Makhno was part of. P. Gage, would you be able to detail this some more or point towards an online reference? Thanks!

  7. Scott Nappalos Says:

    I’m not sure why people are focusing on the cadre aspect of the article as it is relatively small, and people are misreading it. Perhaps I wrote my perspective poorly, but based on Mitch’s comments I doubt that people are actually reading the essay. Even just looking at the quote I reposted above clarifies this (a 3rd time)

    “In fact, attempts at building cadre (unlike BTR, usually unconscious cadre orientations) in our time have tended to lead either to paper-unity populist organization or sectarian micro-sects.”

    I’m not promoting cadre organization. I don’t share those concerns about cadre being inherently authoritarian though either. To me it’s not a matter of structure but of method. The reality is that it is very difficult for any tight highly developed organization to unify and maintain itself in our place in history, and trying to force that and grow artificially is bound to fail. At the same time, I think it’s worth recognizing that libertarian cadre groups, BTR stands to mind, do some things well despite other more objective limitations in our place in history and we can learn from them.

  8. Scott Nappalos Says:

    Adam, on makhno’s group you must read “The Russian Revolution in Ukraine” vol 1 of makhno’s memoirs from Black Cat Press. Just buy the book.

  9. So, Scott, you’re saying that the thing for revolutionaries to do is immediately create tight highly developed organization of unified cadre, at all times and in all places, and that this effort can only succeed.

  10. P. Gage, I’m more curious to learn about the groups than their “credentials”. Now, we may ultimately differ, but I am more interested in the practice, their history and so forth.
    In all the years I’ve been active (more than 30), I don’t know of such libertarian “cadre” organizations. That, of course, doesn’t mean they haven’t existed and I’m unaware of.

    Groups that read and discuss, that make attempts to keep pushing members forward doesn’t, IMHO, mean they are “cadre” to me. Perhaps we use the term differently. But I see no value in using that term or thinking in a “cadre” way.

    “in a political organisation I think at least some characteristics of cadre based groups should be a goal. ”

    OK, kinda I’m lost here. What specifically am I missing? If you mean certain tightness and higher level of political and intellectual development, ok, I don’t see that as being cadre.

    In terms of being able to extract on an even and consistent basis across the miles in a larger organization, there are challenges. I think it’s possible to work towards that end, but it takes work and patience.

  11. Syndicalist, I can’t tell what you mean by “cadre” and “cadre organization.” Can you lay that out? What does “thinking in a “cadre” way” mean for you? I also can’t tell how what you’re saying relates to what Scott’s saying.

    Scott says “Cadre organization is marked by having highly developed and capable membership and aiming at a unitary strategy. Cadre organization then has every member as a cadre, capable of organizing in the mass movements and with theoretical development in line with the organization. Strategically speaking, the cadre organization attempts to work on only select areas to maximize the impact of cadre based on a strategic analysis.”

    and he says this is basically right but is hard to achieve right now so we need to be more flexible (if I understand him right, he says this orientation is basically right but the movement is not there yet, so this orientation is a goal rather than a current starting place).

    I can’t tell if you’re disagreeing with Scott and saying that we shouldn’t aim for that kind of organization, or if you’re saying “I use the terms ‘cadre’ and ‘cadre organization’ in a different way.” Or both?

    Can you clarify please? Thanks.

    Also, for what it’s worth, here’s some of that Bring the Ruckus article that Scott’s piece links to. The article says that a cadre organization is one made up of people who make “a serious, ongoing commitment to understanding the world in order to better agitate within it.” The cadre organization, according to that piece, is a group made up of active, committed revolutionaries “who share a common politics and who come together to develop revolutionary thought and practice and test it out in struggle. The piece continues, “The purpose of a cadre group is to encourage the development of a revolutionary working class in the United States. A cadre group seeks to understand the world it lives in, identify the forces in it that are struggling in radical ways, and develop those forces in a way that is consistent with the cadre’s politics.”

    That’s the Bring the Ruckus definition of a cadre organization. The piece also adds that “a cadre group should also participate in those struggles that we think have the most revolutionary potential.” The piece suggests that this only something that some cadre groups do – a cadre group could decide not to have a “what is the most revolutionary struggle?” outlook.

    Like I said, I can’t tell what your disagreement is with Scott, I’d also like to know if you disagree with those bits of the Ruckus article or if you’ve got something else in mind.


  12. Well, let me say that I think the use of the term cadre has a different meaning for me and, perhaps, those of us who experianced “cadre” organization and the command and control structures that the new communist movement (moaists) promoted.

    It may be a matter of symantics. It’s not a language that I’m compfortable with, regardless of what the concept might be.
    But that’s me.

  13. The word “cadre” means the key group of officers and enlisted personnel necessary to establish and train a new military unit. The term implies military-like hierarchy. Historically, its main use in a political context has been by Leninist organizations, who often use the term cadre to refer to their professional revolutionaries. Most people who advocate cadre use the term in an authoritarian sense. To try to redefine the term ‘cadre’ to make it compatible with libertarianism is to invite misunderstanding and confusion. It also opens a back door to authoritarianism, since cadre in the authoritarian sense could be mistaken for cadre in the libertarian sense and thereby aid authoritarians in gaining support.

  14. Scott Nappalos Says:

    I don’t like the word cadre either, but my goal is to learn so we can build a better movement. If some anti-authoritarians use the term and do interesting things with it, let’s discuss it. The semantic argument about history of terms is much less interesting that our method and practices. I’d hoped there’d be more discussion of the content of the article here.

  15. Scott, in one respect, I agree with you, that it’s not an interesting conversation discussing terms. But the language we use, conveys what we are trying to say and how we view our work.

    On point, small, tight local pre-exisiting groups work better than the concept of building a federation of small tight local groups. I may very well turn out to be absolutely wrong,but my observations have been that localized groups tend to become insular in ways and manners and this becomes harder to translate into a broader organization…even one with similiar goals and so forth.

    “Cadre organization is marked by having highly developed and capable membership and aiming at a unitary strategy.”—BTR

    I’m not sure this will always work. Perhaps there are basic parameters for agreed upon work. But even within that work there are going to be differences to local conditions and even over the question of some tactics. Also, I think that in some areas, where militants are far and few, the building of a local group takes on a different shape.

    Well, good luck with the explorations and project comrades.

  16. adamfreedom said:
    Obviously the context is different from today and revolutionary fervor of Russia in the late teens is pretty high but I’m curious to know more about the political ed and standards of membership for the group Makhno was part of. P. Gage, would you be able to detail this some more or point towards an online reference? Thanks!

    Scott said:
    No, the point of the part on cadre organization is that we can’t think about it outside of history & that in essence attempts to shoe horn the existing left into any model based on immediate tight unity will likely fail.

    i think these are excellent starting points for thinking about the how’s and why’s of organization. following this line of thought i have a couple basic questions:

    1. there is an assumption that political organization is necessary. why is it necessary? what does it do?

    2. i see the question of a cadre group (or whatever type you prefer) as a particular form of organization, but what then is the content? are there universal tasks that all political organizations do? are there tasks of political organization that are unique to the contemporary moment in the US?

  17. P. Gage Says:

    I think I’m pretty close to Jubayr on this. I think whether a political organisation is neccessary really depends on the context you are in. My IWW branch started for me as a council communist reading group but we quickly moved beyond a narrow ideological focus. I also wonder if organising around shared political views (political level) as opposed to organising around shared political interests (mass level) might have a different dynamic. It certainly seems political groups based around shared doctrine are much more prone to splits that disrupt the work. On the other hand often mass groups tend to have the level of debate decline over time.

    I see some incredible work being done by some Political groups, like Common Cause and their involvement in OCAP, the Postal Workers Strike and other struggles. MAS has contributed in a major way to the theory on this blog. However, I think it is telling that we often have places with very strong active mass organisations and weak political organisations or the other way around. For years OCAP dwarfed any other group in Toronto, the IWW in Edmonton does the same. Part of this is duplication of tasks, but also this shit is just messy. Still though dual organisationalism on paper looks good, and historically there are lots of good big examples. But right now in North America I can’t think of very many places where two organisations complement each other very well.

    On the Makhno stuff, I don’t know where to find stuff online but you can order the first two volumes of Makhno’s memoirs from here:


  18. Good morning comrades! I want you to know I’m trying to get out the door to go for a run and you’re screwing that up. 😉

    I just want to say real quick so I don’t forget this thought — Phinneas, I find this very clarifying/thought provoking: “organising around shared political views (political level) as opposed to organising around shared political interests (mass level) might have a different dynamic.”

    I think that’s helpful because it breaks things up a bit – instead of choosing between organizational forms or picking what’s best this gets at there being just different logics in some situations. I think that there’s a lot of overlap of course, and that’s part of the issue I think with what you said about how there are few examples of the co-existence right now of groups of both types, it tends to be one or the other. I think there’s like a common set of needs that some people have and there’s a core of those needs that are met by both types of organization, and perhaps some that are only met by one or the other. And, importantly, they’re met in different ways and there are different dynamics between each group. So it’s hard to have a clear simple balance sheet about what’s best across situations. That’s how I take Scott’s over-all point about historical-ness, it’s important to look at context. The best answer in one locale for one set of priorities isn’t the best answer in all locales for all priorities. So what we need instead is some kind of movement-wide/class-wide process that is diverse/differentiated locally (and industrially?) in terms of organizational form and priorities. (Uh oh… diversity of tactics?!) But stuff should also work well together relatively harmoniously across locales/industries and consciouslly try to build connections interpersonally and learn from each other across those differences. One of the Kasama cats has talked about using an ecosystem as a metaphor – people want to build a movement and build organizations and do so in a way that is mutually reinforcing, I find the ecosystem metaphor useful for that. Okay gotta run now (literally).
    Have a good day y’all.


  19. Scott Nappalos Says:

    Thanks jubayr for opening up the discussion. One interesting counter point to Phineas’ picture is this blog. All of us were radicals who went head first into mass work for years and years, and unintentionally and unconsciously ended up creating spaces like this. That experience is perhaps the best model for political organization that I know of as it arose from concrete needs and perspectives developed in struggle when a number of militants put their heads together to try to understand what they had done & want to do. It hasn’t produced homogeneity though as you can see from us debating fiercely on this site.

    One thing I’ve had to modify in my own understanding is that there are moods in organizing. In many places, especially in regions or sections of the class which have long been abandoned by the institutional left, building up a fighting spirit requires more than just 1-on-1s and flyering. In my previous work, agitation had been enough. When it’s not, or when mass work does not readily develop, I think political organization is necessary to sustain people for the long fight needed for mass organization. In the same vein, in places where mass work is readily propagated, there is a dual necessity of defending that work from impending integration/populism and for consolidating the lessons & developing leaders in those struggles.

  20. Scott Nappalos Says:

    (oh and I really like the bit about differing methods/means of doing work based on the local conditions of struggle. We need to figure out how to understand that & work not just from what actually happens, but also push ourselves towards where we want to be in 10 years say. What would that mean from a pluralistic organizing perspective?).

  21. Thanks Scott for a thoughtful article and everyone else for a stimulating discussion. What I find striking about all of the named positions is that none of them explicitly wrestle with what I think of as one of the central organizational questions: How do we nurture and sustain leaders? And here I don’t mean leaders in the hierarchical sense but rather leaders within the sense of people who are capable of effectively initiating and supporting organizing and organizations. It seems to me that the cadre position comes closest to thinking about this problem but I agree that their language is terrible.

    Additionally, I think it might be helpful to articulate the specific questions that we hope organizational theory might answer. That might give us some shared criteria for evaluating theory and organizations.

  22. In terms of what theory and ideas can take us through this low-movement time, I personally take a lot from what I have read about the Civi Rights movement and primarily the early organizing of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.

    The whitewashed version of this history I got when I was younger told a story of MLK leading masses of faceless black people to take a moral stand and forced everybody to get over their racism yadda yadda. I had little understanding of the tireless and constant work of SNCC organizers (and people who came before them!). They canvassed tirelessly and sometimes had little to show for it. In one case they talked to over one hundred people one day and had ten agree to come out to register to vote. Only three showed ended up showing up at the registrar’s office and they all got ran off by the cops.

    Anyways, one thing I took that I think is worth discussing: a number of writers have argued that many (but not all of course) local people went along with SNCCs program not so much because of their political line or analysis, but that SNCC organizers were principled people who earned the respect and trust of the communities they were in. They were brave, they demonstrated standing up to fascist authority and people transformed themselves rising to the expectations of SNCC workers.

    Anyways I am not arguing we all need to make friends with everybody we organize with, or that our primary problem is we are all unprincipled scumbags. I do think the focus on building strong relationships is key though and we do need to lead principled lives (I know that is a very broad statement).

    I guess I am just encouraging more of us to read about the Civil Rights movement as well. I think there are a lot of lessons for us in it. Please don’t consider this all a derail of the conversation!

    PS: As I write this I realize that another major factor that counted in SNCC’s favor was the already established networks of Black organizers and militants throughout the South. Organizers and groups in the 40s and 50s were putting in work that few of us know anything about – the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the Regional Council of Negro Leadership etc. When SNCC came on the scene they were able to tap into these networks and I think it was a huge contribution to their efforts. They knew the political lay out of towns across the south, possible contacts in new towns, who to talk to and who to avoid and so on and so on. Maybe what we should take from this is that in this day and age we need to be explicit that one of our jobs is building up these new networks, and that we very well might not be the generation to get things really popping again. It could help shape our work knowing we are laying the groundwork, and help fight against discouragement and demoralization.

    This is a great site.

  23. Scott Nappalos Says:

    Sorry for the brevity and delay. This is a great response. I agree about the civil rights movement, any texts you would recommend or better would you be willing to contribute a piece? This resonates with me because my mother was recruited by CORE organizers during such a low point in the early sixties and it changed her life, and probably contributed to my own political development. This also connects to a point the editors on this blog share which is that often mass struggles are less about economic interest than respect, dignity, relationships, and values (something we’ve seen in our workplace work). We also need to reflect and discuss the role of morale in such periods.

  24. Sure I’d love to write something, though it would take me a while. Were you suggesting something on lessons from the Civil Rights movement?

    Also what sort of recommendations were you asking about? A few books off the top of my head that I think are excellent:

    “I’ve got the Light of Freedom” by Charles Payne – Details SNCCs work in Mississippi. It really gives you a great look on what SNCC folks did day to day and how they organized towns across Mississippi from the bottom-up. One of my favorite political type books.

    “Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement” by Barbara Ransby – Excellent biography on one of the most important, talented and unsung organizers in the Civil Rights movement. Ella Baker was worked for the NAACP, SCLC and helped found and mentor SNCC. Though she was not an anarchist, I think anarchists should and could take a lot from her work… Ransby also does a great job giving a rounded out history of the movement with a good gender and class analysis of how things really went down.

    “Daybreak of Freedom: The Montgomery Bus Boycott” edited by Stewart Burns – An awesome documentary history of the boycott, made up of meeting notes of the Montgomery Improvement Association, personal letters, court testimony, contemporary news articles and interviews and diary entries. Reading it is like going in a time machine and seeing day in and day out nature of the boycott as it actually happened.

    “The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement” by Aldon Morris – I haven’t read it for a while but I can say it is an excellent overview of the bulk of the movement in the South and is just a great go-to book to get started.

  25. […] viWe Are Not Platformists, We Strive To Be. Scott Nappalos. Recomposition Blog. Accessed 12/15/11. https://recompositionblog.wordpress.com/2011/06/21/we-are-not-platformists-we-strive-to-be/ […]

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