Thoughts on ‘Which Way Is Left?’ by FRSO

April 10, 2009 Note: Right-wing bloggers  quote and link this article in their attempt to attack individual members of some of the left-wing organizations discussed below. This blog condemns these shameful acts of McCarthy-esque red-baiting and in no way supports them.

Below are some thoughts on what seems to be a minor upstart today in third-world Maoism drawing inspiration from the New Communist Movement. Here I offer some thoughts on this through commentary on the Freedom Road Socialist Organization and the now defunct Bay Area-based STORM. I close with a few thoughts on an November 3, 2007 forum FRSO held to discuss their recently released “Which Way Is Left?” pamplet. Also see the link for the audio panel at the 2007 US World Social Forum held in Atlanta, GA which featured former or current members of these orgs. -AW

Download a PDF of “Which Way Is Left?”

US Social Forum Panel on Revolutionary Strategy ~>lin

Image

Perhaps an interesting development on the left is a flare up of discussion and effort on the part of those on the left who identify as revolutionaries and Marxist, yet are independent of the traditional left parties such as Communist Party-USA, the New Communist Movement (NCM) [1] or the fractured family of Trotskyist parties that descend from the Socialist Workers Party. Many are late 20’s to early 30’s activists involved in recent bursts of social movements over the last decade and include many people of color. I don’t see it as a large discussion, but it certainly has the ears of certain layers of radical activists across the country who feeling stronger affinity and interest in revolutionary politics, though who don’t identify with any particular strand of revolutionary politics specifically.

Freedom Road Socialist Organization/Organización Socialista del Camino para la Libertad [2] (or just FRSO for short, not to be confused with a more hard-line split several years ago FRSO- Fight Back! based largely in the Mid-west) is maybe the only organization that managed to catch a certain layer of these folks into their ranks. To give an example of this, if you remember following the break up of Love and Rage Anarchist Federation in 1998,[3] a small group emerged called Fire by Night Organizing Committee. This included members of L&R who were part of the working class student organizing at SUNY and after criticizing anarchism[4] wound up merging into FRSO. The politics of the group are a sort of “Mao-light” if you will. They have origins in a merger between several NCM groups, but have adopted a more pluralistic set of politics which draw from Gramsci, Fanon and feminism among others. Like many Maoists they carry a more nuanced perspective on popular organizing then much of the Marxist left, but their main emphasis is the process they call Left Refoundation, whereby left socialist organizations build political and practical unity in an effort to reach a future merger into a larger party formation or umbrella type organization (they are open to where the process might take them).

While there have been perhaps other very small and lesser known efforts of local level groups, the only one that has managed to have made a splash and left a legacy was Bay Area based STORM (Standing Together to Organize a Revolutionary Movement).[5] Their politics were never very clearly defined, but drew heavily on Marxism and especially Mao, along with ideas popular during the NCM, including third world Marxism and elements of revolutionary nationalism. In their early years, the group even included a few anarchists, but became decisively third world Marxist in their later years. One of the more frustrating aspects of their politics was their tendency to fall into very vulgar and crude uses of Marxist analysis and theory (often justified as making Marxism accessible and of course laden with the assumption that oppressed people cannot think deeply)[6] which coupled with overconfidence and leading roles in movements such a Proposition 98, led to conflict and distrust with other organizers.

Although never reaching more than 20 members, the group at their height in the late 90’s had tremendous influence as nearly every member was a non-profit staff organizer for various groups. They had direct or indirect influence over a near empire of non-profit movement groups. When the group dissolved in 2002, acrimony around their influence and their sometimes domineering leadership in the movement had reached a high point. Yet despite a somewhat controversial lifespan, there is an effort by former members and admirers to put forward a positive legacy[7] (though superficially critical I would argue) and a large number of activists are currently engaged in study groups on revolutionary organization in the Bay Area and NYC with partly initiated by some of their former members and those close to them (listen for Harmony and Mei-Ying in the audio recording below).

What is most interesting about STORM is that nearly all members had never been part of a previous revolutionary organization and the group maintained quotas of 60% women and 75% people of color, though many were non-natives to the Bay Are drawn to the regions top schools such as Stanford and University of California Berkeley. But undoubtedly STORM has left a legacy in the Bay Area of a largely people of color oriented brand of third world Marxism.

An interesting point about this whole current of discussion is I believe it is partly facilitated by the publishing of recent works such as “Legacy of Liberation” edited by Fred Ho,[8] which has a number of contributors discussing personal involvement with the NCM, but especially “Revolution in the Air” by Max Elbaum,[9] which is the first detailed study of the NCM and by an excellent writer as well as participant (I’m interested to hear people’s thoughts on other factors in this trend, though I suspect several periods and instanced of mass mobilization followed by downturn has many searching for deeper answers). Ironically, while both books have played into efforts to trumpet the legacy of the NCM (certainly intended by Ho and somewhat present in Elbaum’s portrayal), those of us on in the anarchist camp of revolutionary organizers can find in both of these works ample evidence to reinforce our criticism of the Leninist vanguard party model. In fact, Elbaum’s work reads as a sort of critical assessment of the deeply sectarian and sometimes outright authoritarian culture prevalent in the NCM which facilitated its near complete implosion by the mid-1908’s; though I would argue he is not critical enough in assessing NCM activists relationship with social movements in which they were involved.

Getting back to FRSO, they recently released their pamphlet “Which Way is Left?” (blurb and link below), which, avoiding pretentiousness, jots an analysis of the global picture of capitalism and resistance movements and puts forward their program of the need for revolutionary organization and Left Refoundation. It’s a humble program of sorts if you will. While I’m a bit enamored with the style, appreciated some of the analysis in place, the politics of course rested on the problematic and wrongheaded foundations that I see in most Marxists.

While I’m hoping to write some effort of a criticism/response to the pamphlet in the future, in the meantime I’ll offer some cursory thoughts on the recent November 3, 2007 San Francisco forum they had to discuss their proposal. These are based partly on my own presence for the last fifteen minutes, but largely from talking with folks present…

-From talking with K, an irony that he pointed out was that it seemed that not even the pro-party people seemed convinced of the need to build a party. Many other seemed skeptical at best. But perhaps this reflects partly a fear/ambivalence towards more coherent political organization (whether a party or not), as well as people being turned off, rightly, by the history of Marxist parties as sectarian, etc.

-I noticed a conflation of “the left” with Marxist parties in a comment acknowledging the history of parties abusing or acting opportunistically in relation to worker/social movements.

-Another interesting point was no discussion of anarchism or other revolutionary currents outside of the Marxist party building stripe. While the pamphlet made short mention of anarchism, a current commentary piece[10] on FRSO’s website, written by I believe one of the panelists, takes this question on for a paragraph or so. His comments on the world social forum subtly lament anarchist/libertarian-influenced ideas as the dominant currant on the revolutionary left and Marxism more at the margins. But the panel had no mention of this.

-A point stressed several times on the role of a vanguard party was creation of a "unified voice of the oppressed." I agree with them about not falling into the trap of post-modernism in seeing the world, movement and possibility for revolution; but frankly this is scary. There are different voices because there are different needs and different movements speak to those for particular folks. This does not preclude coming together with a shared vision for radical social transformation (revolution) that respect different voices at all though. There is something else underlining this “need.”

-A Formula for revolution...

Social Movements: have the masses, energy, but no vision;

+

Party Left: small, but have the vision that social movements need;

=

Therefore, the social movement and party left need to come together.

Kapow, you have a revolution! (gross simplicifcation and exageration here) There is a very real reason surrounding the legacy of this divide and it is largely due to the track record of vanguard parties. While other countries legacies in this respect are far worse (Mexico for instance), a simple read of Elbaum’s work for past examples or google searches for criticisms of the behavior of the International Socialist Organization or the Worker’s World Party in the anti-war movement would explain.

What is funny here is that while FSRO claims to take influence from Italian communist Antonio Gramsci. [11] While Gramsci was certainly a Leninist, his value is exactly that so many of his ideas were outside the box of Leninism. While he did talk on the needed unity between revolutionaries and the workers movement (“the perfect adhesion” see my fortune cookie post for the full quote), one of the things I enjoy most about him is his discussion on the revolutionary nature of the proletarian consciousness itself. Lenin and Kautsky represent the mainstream Marxist view  (which are still prevailant with nearly all Leninist Marxists today) holding that socialism was something originating outside of the working class and its struggles and therefore must be brought in from the outside to them (Elbaum has a great quote on this, but I don't have the book on hand). According to Lenin, because of the inherent reformism of the workers struggle, a key role played by a revolutionary party is to prevent workers from constantly slipping back into the reformism of bourgeoise ideology. Gramsci on the other hand posited that revolutionary conceptions are always part of working class consciousness (“good sense”) and exist exactly because of their everyday experience of oppression and their actions which rebel against it; though this exists along side and in competition to a great number of other recieved ideas, many reactionary (“common sense”), which serve as ideological justification for the rule of the dominant classes (“hegemony”). Whether Gramsci understood the implications of his ideas in relation to Leninism or not (keep in mind he spent nearly 11 years imprisoned and will plenty of time to rethink his ideas) is another discussion, suffice it say we can be sure academics will continue debating this for another 70 years after his death.


Though in all fairness, I imagine members of FRSO would respond that their view of the relationship between the political organizations and the social movements is more complicated than the vulgar assessment of Lenin: “The working class by itself can only attain trade union [reformist, non-revolutionary] consciousness.” Though likely they have some older hard-line members who would agree with this. But my assessment would be that it’s not simple coincidence how close to each other Lenin’s quote and their ideas sound.


[1]http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_communist_movement2http://www.freedomroad.org/

3 See archive site www.loveandrage.org and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Love_and_Rage

4 After Winter Must Come Spring document: http://loveandrage.org/?q=afterwinter

5 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Standing_Together_to_Organize_a_Revolutionary_Movement6http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vulgar_Marxism#Historical_materialism7See their 2004 summation document: http://www.leftspot.com/blog/files/docs/STORMSummation.pdf8http://books.google.com/books?id=GTshSVYCYJgC&dq=%22legacy+of+liberation%22+ho9 Official website: http://www.revolutionintheair.com/and http://books.google.com/books?id=uqhnJT-LvjMC&dq=%22revolution+in+the+air%22

10 http://freedomroad.org/content/view/467/1/lang,en/

11 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gramsci

Below is the announcement of “Which Way is Left?” from the FRSO website:

Since the beginning of 2007, the period since FRSO/OSCL’s most recent congress, our organization’s strategy has been different from any in the past. In the previous three-year period between FRSO/OSCL congresses (2003-2006), the US Left faced chaotic and quickly changing political conditions–the US war on Iraq; the US-backed invasion of Lebanon by Israel; the devastation and displacement caused by Hurricane Katrina , with the attendant racism and criminal negligence of the state; and the extreme immigrant backlash leading to the mobilization and uprising of immigrants. From these conditions and from our continued belief in the need for greater organization by the Left, we believe that if we truly want to build a revolutionary movement in the United States, the Left cannot continue to function as it has.To build such a movement, we must develop a real revolutionary organization–an organized vehicle and plan for moving forward that is based among all the oppressed. While we continue to engage and organize among sectors such as workers, oppressed nationalities, youth and students; in the anti-war movement; in Katrina survivor solidarity; for immigrant rights; etc., we will do so with an eye towards building stronger relationships and alliances among the social movements and the organized Left.Towards that end, our new strategy document Which Way Is Left? Theory, Politics, Organization and 21st-Century Socialism gives an analysis of the current period and the challenges we face. It details the lessons learned from previous socialist experiments. And it argues for the crucial need to build a revolutionary party based on these lessons that can struggle for a socialism of the 21st century.That said, we want to talk to you–those engaged in the struggle against capitalism and imperialism! We want to hear your ideas about what it is going to take to build a stronger Left, what forms of organization are needed, and what issues or concerns you may have about building revolutionary organization.

Download a PDF of “Which Way Is Left?”

Also worthwhile is this audio recording with speakers from five revolutionary orgs (link at bottom). It gives you some idea of the politics of these organizations, what they are thinking about and even if the speakers are fairly rhetorical…

At the US Social Forum one of the most popular workshops was titled “Building Revolutionary Strategy and Organization in the 21st Century: A Multi-Generational Dialogue.” This session was hosted by five organizations:

  • Freedom Road Socialist Organization/Organización Socialista del Camino para la Libertad
  • Solidarity
  • Bring the Ruckus
  • League of Revolutionaries for a New America
  • The Labor Community Strategy Center

The workshop overflowed into the hall with more than 200 attendees. It sought to provide a structure and space for organizations and people on the left and in progressive social movements to discuss a number of big questions in front of us, including:

  • Analysis of the current political moment
  • Ideas about a broader vision for revolutionary social transformation
  • The steps and types of organizations needed for that process
  • What we can put in place, in the here and now, to begin to lay the path to achieve revolutionary change

An audio recording of the workshop session

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5 Responses

  1. Leave them alone!
    Leave Freedom Road alone!
    (with the leave britney alone dude’s voice..)

  2. The best thing to do is to refrain from simplictic formulatons. Which Way is Left does not boil down to the summation in the above. There are sections of the left that has their strengths and weaknesses. Left refoundation is about making a summation of this reality and building on the strengths of the various sectors. It is not about merging various sectors. It is about building organization that can articulate a unifying vison for the defeat of capitalism.

  3. Femi,

    You’re right, I didn’t give the piece much justice; and hell, I only used three sentances. Same goes for Left Refoundation. I can only promise to give a better and more detailsed summary in some future piece.

    But to quickly respond, you state the goal of Left Refoundation as “building organization that can articulate a unifying vison for the defeat of capitalism” and by organization you mean a vanguard party (or parties). So LR is in essence FSRO’s strategy/vision of a process to build a vaguard party… which is not too far off from what I said. If this piece leaves this blog, I’ll be sure to articulate this better though.

  4. just wanted to correct one thing.
    you say,
    “their main emphasis is the process they call Left Refoundation, whereby left socialist organizations build political and practical unity in an effort to reach a future merger into a larger party formation or umbrella type organization”

    That is not left refoundation at all. My understanding is that LR is rebuilding the left and bringing in more forces to the left. LR is not re-grouping already existing left groups together, but instead pulling many more people to the left.

  5. [...] me look back on my own attempt to respond to the resurgence of party building attempts in the left, which can be found here and is sorely in need of a re-write. While I have major differences with the proposals put forward [...]

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