Note: Bringing this back with a revised version. This commentary piece was removed after the attacks by right-wing blog and media sites on Van Jones intensified and led up to Obama washing his hands of Jones with his resignation. Right-wing sites cited “left wing blogger Machete408” as further ‘proof’ of Obama’s undercover socialist credentials (read an actual socialist refute this total non-sense here). As for Jones’ himself, he’s likely made some major political transitions. A mentor of his touts the “pro-business, market-based ideas Van has promoted for years, including in his best-selling book, The Green Collar Economy.” (link) Though I think it’s fair to say that the tendency on the revolutionary left, Van Jones formerly included, which views alliances and involvement with the state and electoral politics—state power if you will— as a strategic orientation is alive and well. (See link, link, link and critique, critique) See also my follow up piece “On Van Jones’ Resignation.”
Did anyone catch the news that Van Jones of Green Jobs for All, and formerly of the Ella Baker Center in Oakland and a revolutionary organization in the Bay Area, was recently tapped by the Obama administration to serve as an advisor around green jobs? The position was officially dubbed the Special Advisor for Green Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation on the White House Council on Environmental Quality, that is before Obama accepted Jones’ resignation following attacks by the right-wing blogosphere and Glen Beck on his radical past.
I’ll get back to that in a minute. I was having a conversation with a friend the other night about the legacy of sixties revolutionaries and Marxists who attempted to “proletarianize” themselves or as some called it “colonize the working class.” Many of these radicals, who were largely from more middle-class backgrounds and college graduates (or those who after becoming radicalized dropped out of college), got jobs in factories and various industries with the goal of bringing the messages of socialism and revolutionary politics to the working class. (For more on this see Max Elbaum’s excellent history of the sixties communist left with Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin, Che and Mao) Many of them also became active in the unions at these workplace, whom were largely conservative bureaucracies if not outright reactionary.
We asked each other, “So what is the legacy of all the sixties radicals who entered the unions?” We contemplated, scratching our heads for a few minutes. Our only answers are that the legions of ex-radicals and ‘those-who-would-like-to-still-see-themselves-as-radicals’ who populate various staff and leadership positions in unions and are often largely indistinguishable between the non-radicals who occupy these same positions. Perhaps the union locals that they lead attend the local anti-war demos and pass some strongly worded resolutions on progressive causes (sometimes sarcastically referred to as ‘resolutionary’ unionism). Perhaps they, as paid officials or staff, are part of a or aligned with a ‘rank-and-file’ group that opposes the evils of the paid officials higher up the hierarchy than them. But in the end, as a whole or in part, mainstream unions are largely the same institutions, operating in the same ways that make them an impediment to working class action or consciousness.
Returning to Van Jones, with all the shimmer associated with a rising star (perhaps now a dimmer star following the vicious public outing by Glen Beck), many forget that a man now advising the president was a member of a revolutionary organization in the SF Bay Area called STORM (Standing Together to Organize a Revolutionary Movement). Throughout the group’s history, Van Jones was seen as a public figure within the Bay Area left and a leading member of the organization.
STORM had its roots in a grouping of people of color organizing against the Gulf War in the early 1990’s and was formally founded in 1994. The group’s politics had a number of influences, including revolutionary nationalism as well as some aspects of broad anti-authoritarianism, but evolved towards a more formal third world Marxist/Maoist politics. The group grew in influence until its disbanding in 2002 amid problems of internal dynamics and especially the controversy that grew around the leadership roles members played in with social movement left, especially the Bay Area youth movement (such as the fight against Proposition 21). STORM held sway over near empire of social movement non-profits in the Bay Area, which nearly all members were staff members. The legacy still continues today as almost a decade after their dissolution, STORM’s legacy has “given rise to nearly every radical nonprofit currently congesting the horizon of the Bay Area.” (link) Others activists and organizers in the youth movement, as well as other arenas, began to resent members of STORM and their regular heavy handed leadership in movements, which was dismissive of the leadership roles of social movement leaders and organizations independent of their political orbit. Some of the organizations closest to STORM were Third Eye Movement, SOUL or School of Unity and Liberation, and Youth Force Coalition.
But getting back to the topic of revolutionaries in high places- though I think it is doubtful that Jones still holds revolutionary politics dear to him, as a onetime advisor to Obama what was or could have been achieved? Does the left having allies in high places or the ability to have real dialogue with Obama’s administration grant a tangible opportunity? Has Van Jones “sold out?”
If Obama chose to follow his advice instead of throwing Jones under the bus to placate the right, I’m sure his administration would have make decisions and implemented programs creating more jobs in emerging ‘green’ industries. Though Obama has also promoted ‘clean coal’ which is not a green industry by any stretch of the imagination. Working class folks getting pushed out of the manufacturing sector or looking to step out of the low wage service sector would benefit from re-training and new job opportunities. But will any of this change from above transform the way institutions operate or build power among working class people and communities of color? Will this particular advisor to the President be distinguishable from the myriad of other advisors to the President? Taking a cue from the previous generation of radicals now sitting in seats of ‘power’ in the labor movement, my answer would be ‘no.’
For more on STORM as an organization see “Reclaiming Revolution: History, Summation, and Lessons from the Work of Standing Together to Organize a Revolutionary Movement (STORM)” (PDF File), a 2004 document by former members reflecting on their work, politics and pitfalls. See also the classic piece “Where was the color in Seattle?: Looking for reasons why the Great Battle was so white,” originally published in ColorLines (Volume 3, Number 1, Spring 2000) where Elizabeth ‘Betita’ Martinez interviews Van Jones. This is, I believe, the only public reference to Van Jones’ membership in STORM. For more on the legacy of STORM in the context of police brutality struggles in the Bay Area see “Bring the Ruckus Responds to Advance the Struggle on the Oscar Grant Rebellion.”
For more on the left tendency which views alliances and involvement with the state and electoral politics—state power if you will— as a strategic orientation see Progressives for Obama (renamed Progressive America Rising), discussions by Freedom Road Socialist Organization (FRSO/OSCL) and Organizing Upgrade, a site that includes contributors who are former members of STORM and those in the same political milieu. As well see a piece discussing revolutionary left political organization which contains a critique of these perspectives, “Toward Theory of Political Organization for Our Time Part III: nature of our period” by S. Nappalos of Miami Autonomy and Solidarity.
Filed under: current events, Left Organizations, the left, Uncategorized | Tagged: Labor, Max Elbaum, radicals, Revolution in the Air, Standing Together to Organize Revolutionary Movements, unions, Van Jones |