The Question of Revolutionary Organization: with Robbie Mahood, Jeff Shantz and Indu Vashist

Edited by Aidan Conway

That we have recently seen an important radicalization can be registered in the rising appeal and relative rejuvenation of anti-capitalist politics and perspectives, particularly in the anti-globalization and anti-war movements. While there has been a notable downturn in the last couple of years, associated with both the “war on terrorism” (at home and abroad) and the contradictions of these movements themselves, the fate of this anti-capitalist radicalization is not a foregone conclusion. Many people would agree that whether or not the movements extend their reach and deepen their roots will depend in part on their ability to organize. But how?

For much of the twentieth century, the most common and influential (though never monolithic), answer to this question was one or another version of the vanguard party. The virtue of Leninism, and the basis for its widespread appeal to revolutionaries around the world, was that it provided a relatively coherent (if seriously flawed) set of answers to the fundamental questions of how to organize for revolutionary social change. It addressed the role of organization, the problem of (uneven) political consciousness, the nature of leadership and democracy, and the basic tasks of revolutionary movements.

For a variety of reasons, notably the degeneration and eclipse of state socialism and the shortcomings of the surviving sectarian left, many in the current generation of anti-capitalists seem to have concluded that “the party’s over” and have begun to search for alternative forms of organization and politics. From the renewal of anarchist and council communist ideas, to experimentation with new federative and de-centralized forms in social movements, anti-capitalists have been attempting to overcome the dangers of vanguardism (elitism, authoritarianism, substitutionism) while trying to provide answers to the questions and problems posed by organizing for radical social change.

For some, revolutionary parties or cadre organizations are done for, and a “movement of movements” coordinated (but not led or directed) by activist networks should take their place. Others maintain that revolutionary organizing on a principled political and even programmatic basis, whatever its concrete form, is essential in order to sustain and go beyond resistance, deepen analysis, and synthesize experiences and insights into shared political strategies and visions for transformative social change.

Organizational questions are always political questions. As such, they should reflect our understanding of what we are fighting for and how we propose to do it. There is a tendency to idealize particular organizational forms or “models” without asking tough questions about their political basis. While there is little agreement about these questions, the way forward lies in principled discussion, debate, and experimentation, not in uncritically repeating formulas and phrases, whether of dogmatic Leninist “party building” or of trendy anti-authoritarian “movement-ism.”

In the spirit of providing a forum for these important debates and discussions, we have asked several people from different traditions and perspectives to suggest ways in which some of these questions can be grappled with. It is our hope that we can provide an ongoing space for the kind of debate that can help to clarify what is at stake and give form to different options for moving forward.

Robbie Mahood is a long-time socialist and member of Socialist Action. He works as a family doctor and lives in Montreal. This interview was conducted in Montreal in February 2005.

UTA: Maybe you could start by outlining your thoughts on what you see as the need for and nature of revolutionary organizations? How should they participate in and relate to broader movements? What are some of the tensions involved in this?

Robbie Mahood: The basic rationale for a revolutionary organization is to gather together people who see the need and possibility for fundamental social transformation and to concentrate their energies and deliberations in an organization that tries to intervene in larger struggles in a disciplined fashion.  Beyond this general purpose,  a revolutionary organization has to go beyond just being a propaganda group and actively participate in  struggles, whatever their dimension, including providing practical leadership to move these struggles forward. All of this requires some form of disciplined, and to a certain extent, centralized organization.

 The traditional accusation of the non-Leninist left  would be that revolutionary organizations come into movements for the sole purpose of recruitment and don’t take responsibility for the agenda of the movement. Of course, this kind of parasitic relationship is always possible, the more so if a revolutionary organization limits itself to a purely propagandistic role. But I believe that on the whole it is false to pose the problem in this manner. It is never possible to insulate social movements from politics, just as it’s impossible to insulate any aspect of life and society from politics. It’s really just a question of how responsibly that’s done and how transparent the relationship is. In any case, movements of consequence quickly take on a mass dynamic of their own which is generally impervious to conscious or unconscious manipulation by small groups.

Of course it is possible for organizations that are disciplined and centralized to play an important  role in social movements out of proportion to their numbers and for this to have a negative impact. Movements may come to rely excessively on the  energies and ideas of a particular organization, such that the movement either is, or is regarded as, a creature of that particular political group or party. Where such a relationship between party and movement prevails, the movement is inevitably weakened. I think it’s incumbent upon any Leninist or other revolutionary organization to avoid the error of substitutionism, and to try to broaden the movement to the greatest extent possible. Admittedly, this error can be easier to point out than to avoid in practice.

More serious in my view is when a socialist organization adheres to certain misguided political conceptions or  has an unrealistic, or conversely overly pessimistic, view of  what it is possible to achieve and then is able to impose its perspective on a broader movement.  Organizations, Leninist or otherwise, are certainly not immune from political errors. But the best way  of correcting mistaken conceptions is surely not to argue that our organizations should be looser and less disciplined. Organizations with a high level of internal debate and commitment arguably have a greater capacity to correct political errors, provided they are not defined by counterproductive doctrinal fetishes or leadership cults and have a tradition of lively  internal debate. If this is not the case, then open debate between  organizations of the left can sometimes lead to  a better political orientation for broader forces.

I don’t think there is a final answer or formula for how organized revolutionaries should relate to mass movements.  In any case, Leninist groups are no more prone to errors than ideologically looser organizations. Attempts to steer movements towards a more advanced consciousness or demands are quite common impulses and may be quite counterproductive. For example, the efforts of radical or socialist feminists to push the broader women’s movement further to the left may end up narrowing the base of unity in action and weakening the movement’s impact. Another example would be trying to push the anti-war movement to take up an explicitly anti-imperialist stance rather than focus on unitary demands to bring in forces who don’t share this perspective.

UTA: On the other hand, what some people would say is that if you refuse to try to build movements in a more radical direction you may end up being opportunistic and “tailing” the movements.  Do you see that as a danger?

Robbie: Sure, you could end up tailing it. That is, not pushing the movement to win its agenda in a combative way and in a way that advances the struggle. I think groups can be culpable on two sides: on the one hand, of imposing a “too advanced” or narrow sectarian agenda on a mass movement or potential mass movement, and on the other of not taking any responsibility at all for leading that movement and collapsing their politics into a more conservative layer of the movement. In either case, the revolutionary group will try to actively recruit.

It seems to me that every organization wants to win people to its overall perspectives  and recruit new members. And many people, especially the young or those new to activism, are looking for radical political solutions. Joining a political party is far from a bad thing even if we have this image that the new recruit to a revolutionary organization is on the fast track to becoming a political zombie and will be lost to the broader movement.This is not really the case. To be sure, small group loyalties can be divisive. But every revolutionary group or aspiring party has to deal with the reality of the larger movements and struggles in which it intervenes. The organization that recruits in an opportunistic fashion will quickly run up against the limitations of this short sighted approach. Ultimately, groups will be judged by whether they play an effective role in advancing the overall struggle and the maturity of their political judgement.

The fragmentation of the revolutionary left definitely creates problems. Any movement which gains momentum will inevitably be descended upon by competing groups of the left vying for an audience. I tend to think this is a price we pay for the crisis in leadership of the workers movement in which no credible alternative to reformism has emerged and the way forward is open to dispute.

I think it’s compounded in North America as compared to Europe because of the lower level of politicization here. People are not used to interventions from people who are partisan, who have an organizational affiliation and therefore there is a tendency to want to preserve and insulate movements from politics in that sense, from the influence of political organizations, which I think ultimately won’t work. Sometimes it masks an implicit anti-communist agenda: “We don’t want the influence of certain organizations but other organizations are okay,” or “we want to keep the movement disorganized or depoliticized because we ourselves have a political agenda which is reformist.”

As long as a group of revolutionaries, in Marx’s relatively well known dictum, doesn’t have interests apart from or separate from those of the working class as a whole, and takes that seriously as a modus operandi, it seems to me that at least some of those tensions can be dealt with. They have to be acknowledged and discussed in revolutionary organizations, and in a movement as a whole to the extent that they become an issue.

UTA: Returning for a moment to the issue of internal structure and organization in revolutionary groups;  there is a pretty common perception, sometimes a caricature, of Leninism and democratic centralism that survives in part because of the real practice of many of these groups, currently and historically.  What thoughts do you have on this dynamic?

Robbie: The fact that revolutionary groups are very small and isolated tends to aggravate certain dynamics that might not otherwise be so important. For instance, there are splits  around issues that are not really  issues of principle  but that often relate to personalities, local peculiarities or other social factors.  I think this is a product of the weakness of these groups, which tends to fuel small group dynamics which are notoriously unhealthy.

I’m in favor of the right of tendencies, and think that organizations have to  make room for minority perspectives and to offer  minorities the opportunity to win a majority of the organization to their perspective.  At the same time the rule of majority has to be respected.  A majority line has to be implemented in practice and then subjected to criticism and correction if need be. 

These issues are going to be with us no matter what kind of political organization arises, whether it’s the linear growth of a small Leninist group or whether it’s a mass party. I think that any organization is going to have to wrestle with a tension between centralized decision making and loyalty to the central line of a majority leadership, and the rights of minorities. But with the rights of minority comes a certain responsibility to not part company on the basis of unprincipled positions, but on principled historical divides.

What we’re talking about  is the concept of a combat party (of which Lenin was the foremost exponent), a party that acts as a  repository for  the historical lessons, memory if you will, of the working class movement, and one that also debates its ongoing intervention in a structured and disciplined fashion. It holds its leadership accountable and it also allows the leadership to function.  I think those are things that are not necessarily unique to Leninism but can be applied no matter what the organizational form.

UTA: This relates in part to the question of leadership, which is a controversial one for many in today’s radical movements which tend to be suspicious of formal leadership and any indirect forms of democracy. What do you think about this?

Robbie: I was involved in the 1960’s New Left in Canada. This was a radical current that, despite its healthy rejection of the Stalinist monolithism of much of the old left, tended to conflate leadership with elitism. Unfortunately, in denying the importance or even the existence of leaders, the New Left tended to foster informal and even manipulative leaderships which were not accountable to  the rank and file of the movement.   

There is no magic to creating a vibrant internal democracy in an organization. It  is always a work in progress and it requires the continual education of the members through debate and discussion. On the other hand, an organization cannot be just a debating club. Its purpose is to concentrate the efforts of its members towards concrete political tasks. For a revolutionary organization to be effective requires among other things a degree of professionalism and even an apparatus appropriate to the size of the organization and the scope of its activities.

 Revolutionary organizations have to wrestle with how they develop leadership, particularly in relationship to people who have not traditionally been welcomed into leadership positions, for example, women, workers or persons from marginalized or oppressed groups. There are ways in which an organization can consciously promote leaders from the front lines of struggles against oppression or working class struggle, and it’s incumbent on our organizations to do that. Its also incumbent on organizations to establish acceptable norms in terms of inter-personal conduct even if we recognize that its not possible to overcome all the effects of class society on the individual personality.

The counter argument to all of this is that we don’t need any kind of disciplined organization, which is a very ‘spontaneist’ view of how capitalism could be overcome and transformed.

UTA: What do you see as the main shortcomings of these kinds of ‘spontaneist’ approaches?  What is this perspective not taking seriously?

Robbie: Well at one level it doesn’t take seriously the question of politics, in the sense of the question of state power and the need to replace the capitalist state with a different kind of state.  In some cases it even dismisses that historical question and says we don’t need to take power. So you have a kind of autonomist tradition, which has enjoyed a certain amount of prominence in the last decade, for example based on the Zapatista movement, that basically says that capitalist society can be transformed by incremental little islands of resistance and micro-mobilization of the community, so that we don’t need to pose the overall taking of power.

By absenting ourselves from the question of power and the revolutionary transformation of the state we leave the field open to reformism and also expose any enclaves of alternative class power to the repressive forces of the capitalist state. This is where the spontaneist vision and also anarchism fall far short of the mark in my view.

UTA: How about this tension between revolutionary organization and movement building?  Where is the line between trying to take initiative and exercise leadership within a movement and substituting yourself for the movement?

Robbie: It’s hard to talk about this in a schematic fashion, so it’s more useful to examine specific instances in a given time and place. We might point to the early years of the Canadian Communist Party, for example, which is the subject of  the Ian Angus’s study Canadian Bolsheviks. During the 1920’s, Canadian communists were instrumental in launching a Canadian Labour Party which succeeded for a time in bringing in forces beyond those of the CP. It seems that this initiative was not just a classic front group or appendage of the revolutionary organization and that the early CP in Canada  knew how to reach out to broader numbers of  activists who were not revolutionaries and engage them in common political projects which moved the working class movement forward. I think we have to accept that political organizations have a place in movements or larger formations and indeed may be instrumental to their initiation and development.

UTA: Do you see that example as contrasting to what is going on today among Leninist groups in terms of making it a priority to engage in building those kinds of broader structures and capacities, instead of a more narrow focus on linear “party building”?

Robbie: Yes, in my opinion any Leninist organization worth its salt will try to stimulate mobilization and organization of broad masses around specific campaigns or political projects. Groups that are strictly propaganda groups can be characterized, I suppose, as subscribing to a linear model of growth of their organization. But there are lots of examples of groups that have engaged in mass work and also tried to recruit from these initiatives. Granted, recently, there have been some interesting attempts to break out of this linear model of “party building” and to adopt a model of ‘regroupment’.  I’m thinking of Respect in the UK, the Scottish Socialist Party and the Socialist Alliance in Australia. These developments reflect the advanced crisis in the traditional reformist leaderships of the working class movement  by which I include both Social Democracy which is more and more indistinguishable from social Liberalism and also the Stalinist parties which were thrown into disarray by the fall of the USSR.  

The difficulty of launching new mass parties or potential mass working class parties does not stem only or even principally from the sectarian orientation of small groupuscules, whether self-identified as Leninist or not, but more importantly from the domination of working class politics by overtly reformist forces. Breaking the mass of workers from the grip of these pro-capitalist leaderships is crucial to the re-launching of mass revolutionary parties at least in the advanced capitalist states ( in some cases, notably the USA, there has never been a political break even towards working class reformist politics). The mass of workers breaks very reluctantly and in times of crisis with these leaderships, no matter how compromised they are, towards a more radical and longer term perspective. So I think it’s complex, and it’s not like you can do everything.  You have to play with the cards that history has dealt you, and I think the hold of reformism on politically conscious workers is still quite strong  

You can see this reflected in English speaking Canada where previous waves of working class radicalization led to a mass party of the social democratic type but one which was unable to win more than a minority position within the working class as a whole. It’s not impossible to bypass a weak and degenerate New Democratic Party (NDP) but not without a significant rise in class struggles and the testing out of of political alternatives in real life. In North America the working class movement is on the defensive and hardly able to to combat the neoliberal offensive anywhere. So I think that the weakness of the NDP to some extent circumscribes the possibilities for launching viable alternatives to the left of the NDP in English Canada. This can’t hold forever, of course, but I think it continues to be a limiting factor on the possibilities for organizational regroupment or the capacity for building revolutionary currents as such.

In Québec it’s a bit of a different question because of the national question, which has meant the domination of the national movement by a bourgeois nationalist party, the Parti Québecois, and the historical absence of any significant social democratic, or for that matter Stalinist, current within the working class. The tasks are necessarily posed somewhat differently in Québec, but speaking of English Canada, I think that the NDP is a fact of life and it needs to be taken seriously by revolutionaries. Do we see the possibilities of regrouping currents to the left of the NDP?  Perhaps, but I’m not greatly impressed with the organizational results of such regroupment perspectives over the last 25 years.

It’s been a long time now that a large segment of the independent left in Canada, which is disinclined to intervene in the NDP, has also been hesitant about of throwing its lot in with one or another of the Leninist or other revolutionary tendencies. The positive balance sheet of the efforts of the centrist left is a very miniscule one to date. I don’t rule it out but I’m yet to be impressed with those possibilities. You can also pose the possibility of regrouping the small revolutionary groups on the left, but for a variety of reasons it hasn’t taken place. We don’t have the same regroupment projects off and running that you see in Britain or Australia.

UTA: In conclusion, let’s pick up some of the things we’ve discussed with respect to the anti-war movement.  Several political currents have argued that the thing to do is push the movement as a whole to identify imperialism as the problem. A similar question arises with respect to “anti-capitalism” in the anti-globalization movement. What do you think about this?

 Robbie: There are some lessons for me in the anti-war movement of the sixties. The movement against the Vietnam war also produced a strong anti-imperialist discourse and groups who wanted to transform the anti-war movement into an anti-imperialist front. Carrying red flags and calling for victory to the NLF was attractive to thousands of radicalizing youth around the globe, myself included. Some of the Leninist groups of the day, notably the American Socialist Workers Party, argued against this perspective in favour of more concrete demands such as “US Out” around which the greatest unity could be built and which, if won, would mean a significant defeat for imperialism. I think the SWP had the best of that argument.

How does that translate into the anti-war movement of today? Well, I think we should strive for the greatest possible unity that principled anti-imperialism will allow. That doesn’t mean insisting that an anti-imperialist analysis is a pre-condition for joining the movement. The focus should be on demands for immediate and complete withdrawal and against Canadian complicity.  There is nothing wrong with raising anti-imperialist positions at marches or in the educational activities of the anti-war movement. But as to the central mobilizing demands, these have to be kept concrete, principled and unifying.

Having said that, the anti-war movement needs to have its own internal discussion as well as promote public debate and analysis  on the concrete history of imperialism in the Middle East as well as specific developments in the war without compromising unity with other groups that are not necessarily anti-capitalist but are opposed the to war and want to disengage imperialist forces or oppose Canadian complicity.

I think the question with the anti-war movement, the anti-globalization movement and with movements generally is: At what point do they have a perspective about how to engage other political forces in their work? To work out such a perspective in relation to the trade union movement or the women’s movement is very important because otherwise you’re adrift without a clear  class perspective, and that can’t go on forever. It seems to me that movements which are going to generalize their influence in a society have to at some point begin to engage with these fundamental social and institutional forces despite the many obstacles.

But again I think revolutionary organizations can provide a certain perspective for doing that, which is a valuable contribution they can make to the building of the anti-war movement, the anti-globalization movement as well as other movements. 

Indu Vashist is an activist with experience in revolutionary organizing and a variety of anti-capitalist movements on the West Coast. She currently lives in Montreal and is completing a Mater’s degree in History at Concordia university. This interview was conducted in Montreal in February 2005.

UTA: In general terms, how do you understand to be the relationship between revolutionary organizations and broader anti-capitalist movements?

Indu Vashist: First of all, I think it’s important to define and clarify what we’re talking about. When I think of “anti-capitalist” movements I think of movements that consist of many different individuals and organizations without an ideological commonality. In terms of revolutionary organizations, the way I generally perceive them is that there is an ideological continuity. They operate within anti-capitalist movements in which there is a wide variety of ideas, where individuals or organizations interact in different ways to convince people of their ideas.

Because they are made up of individuals in a wide range of organizations, movements tend to be pretty amorphous and change their shape and momentum very easily. So there’s a lot of meetings, and consensus decision making is generally the way that things are worked out. Within consensus decision making there is an attempt to move forward by trying to find common ground amongst people working with very different ideological frameworks. Movements tend to contain a variety of people and of views and sometimes to support a diversity of tactics, which I think is an interesting thing.

One of the problems, though, is the fact that the organizing is very ad hoc and it doesn’t leave any political memory behind. The result is that any time there is an upsurge, you have to reinvent what it’s going to look like. Some people would argue that that’s the way it really should be because everything should change in the course of the struggle. I find being involved in the same meetings with the same people over and over again and to be always reinventing everything kind of frustrating. The other side is that you’re not really reinventing and are just pretending that you are. So people will say “Two years ago we did this and it worked really well so let’s try this again,” but there is no structured or formal way of recording the history of how things have worked, so it becomes frustrating.

In anti-capitalist movements there is a drive that comes from certain people but not from a group as a whole, so there are certain leaders that do emerge but generally it’s an informal leadership. This can create a strong tension between organizations that believe in leadership and those that don’t.

Within revolutionary organizations, because people think they come from ideologically the same place, decision making is done in a much more structured manner. Not that consensus doesn’t have a place, but I mean structured in that generally there’s a committee that drives the organization and is responsible for where the organization is at. Conversely, with revolutionary organizations, I think that they can be too solid and that often there isn’t enough room for change in terms of dealing with a new political context.

I think it would be interesting to think about how to negotiate between these two forms of organization and to find ways to have structures that are more permanent, that will keep some sort of memory, understandings of tactics, and analysis and make sure there is a process for interpreting what’s going on, so it’s not every person for themselves. In terms of organizing, we’re not very good at interpreting what’s going on within our own organizations and what’s happening within our own movements and in our own interpersonal dynamics. We exist in a capitalist society, but we’re trying to be anti-capitalist, so how do we overturn the social relations that we have between us?

I think that marrying the two ideas might help to come up with ways that are more sustainable in terms of moving forward. It’s hard to say, because ideological rifts make it hard for people to work together for extended periods of time. I don’t know if that can be overcome but I’m hopeful. There are definite benefits to both kinds of organizing, but there are also definite tensions between them.

UTA: How about the tension between movement building and revolutionary organizing? You have some experience in a revolutionary socialist organization: what did you find worked in terms of the approach and what didn’t? What lessons did you take from that?

Indu: What I really enjoyed about being involved in a revolutionary organization was the importance placed on analysis and education. People in the organization had a vast amount of knowledge, and people were interested in ideas and hungry for analysis and there was a high level of debate at the time that I was involved. If people didn’t agree with the analysis of the leadership it was challenged.

I feel that in some of the anti-capitalist organizing that I’ve been involved in, debate happens in a very passive aggressive way. It’s not done openly, so the competition of ideas gets very skewed in some ways. It’s often like “Oh, but we have to build a demo on the 20th, so we don’t have time to talk about this or that,” so debate is left by the wayside until it culminates and suddenly you have one organization “hating” another organization, etc. That’s one of the contradictions I’ve seen a lot.

Within anti-capitalist structures, or rather informal/ non-structures, there is not much common analysis beyond the idea that we’re working towards a vague common goal, and maybe that’s just “anti-capitalism,” you know, getting rid of capitalism and we’ll figure it all out later. But there’s not much room for debate because the strongest personalities will say what they have to say and there’s no time or energy put into making discussions like this happen. It’s frustrating because I don’t know what person X sitting next to me thinks, and maybe that person believes in tactics that I don’t believe in, but the culture discourages the asking and resolution of those questions.

That kind of debate is always very much under the surface and it often leads to a kind of concentration or hierarchy of people at different levels in anti-capitalist organizing. One level of people will know that this or that is going to happen, or people say “we know that this group and that group won’t get along and so we won’t tell them and we’ll hide it under ‘security culture’.” I’ve seen it happen more than once where it’s like: “We can’t let everyone know about this tactic because what if the cops find out.” But you need to be clear with the people that you’re organizing with. The whole idea is that we’re standing shoulder to shoulder, but because it’s not worked out and not discussed it ends up producing hierarchies. Hierarchies of knowledge and information, hierarchies of “radicalism” and hierarchies of tactics. I think that this is a result of not having those discussions in a structured way in order to try to deal with disagreements.

UTA: One criticism that you sometimes hear is that while a lot of anti-capitalist organizing operates with an anti-leadership orientation, in practice there is a leadership, it’s just that it’s informal and shifting so it’s often unclear to people what is going on. What do you think?

Indu: I think the leadership question is very important. What happens is that, yes, an informal leadership is created, but the people that are ordained leaders don’t necessarily want it, so that creates a pretty interesting dynamic. I think that there is definitely this tension. We do create leaders, but on the other hand sometimes people outside the anti-capitalist movement, who don’t understand the idea of not having leaders, reporters or whatever, will be like “Who’s in charge?” That might be the media liaison but that’s not the person in charge. People don’t get that that’s how we function so there’s also an outside imposition of leaders.

It’s a misleading process. We really need to figure out a way to have discussion and structure so it’s not just one person that’s speaking for the movement but there’s actually some kind of level of consensus when people are speaking. This relates to another part of the movement we haven’t touched on, which is the question of individualism versus collectivity. There’s this idea that movement building is building a collective of individuals. I don’t know if I would necessarily agree with that, if we have some kind of political connection and we work more as a collective than as individuals. I think that has a lot to do with the leadership question. A lot of people that actually are leaders say “I’m speaking as an individual,” but in fact everyone knows they’re speaking for a collective, or we may not know it but that’s how it’s perceived. So there is this negotiation that needs to be done. I don’t know where we’ll have the time and space to make these discussions happen, but it’s important to make this happen.

UTA: You mentioned that by default those who end up acting as leaders are those that are most active, in the activist sense, in movements. Do you think that this prevents finding sustainable levels of activity that can appeal to a broader layer of people, since not everybody can afford to be a full time activist?

Indu: That’s the most important question, and I don’t know what that balance is. I like to think that we can find that balance, but the way that things are structured in the organizations that I see it often seems like an all or nothing proposition, and that’s a serious problem. I think that causes some of the boom and bust cycles that are going on. People see this person putting in 15 hours a day and people think that others expect that of them. That is a model that’s out there, and the “uber-activist” dynamic that this ends up creating within the movement itself is interesting.

When people burn out other people are forced to step up or you’re told that you have to step up, so it does circulate leadership in a way. We tend to have this intense fear of not wanting to be overrun by things, but at the same time of being very committed and excited. I think there needs to be ways of doing open organizing where people can insert themselves and contribute as much as they can or want. Maybe there’s a way forward and maybe in a downturn these things are going to get worked out, in terms of figuring out sustainable levels of commitment over the long term.

In the revolutionary organization I was involved in, I put in a lot of energy and was very vocal. I’ve come to realize that this is partly why my ideas were taken into account. That’s why I think the consensus model is a very good thing, to the extent that it allows for more people to get into debates. Democratic centralization tends to be centralized first, and democratized afterwards, so I think there are definite benefits to other forms.

UTA: Do you have any final thoughts?

Indu: A combination between consensus decision making and democratic centralism would be super exciting. If I were ever to be a part of another revolutionary organization, that would have to be an important part of it. A really interesting thing is how decision making happens in movements. Consensus was developed in the 1970s, in the context of identity politics, and democratic centralism was developed way before that, in a very different context. One of our profound failures is that we haven’t developed a mechanism or a method to make decisions and be clear and open and honest with each other and by default we’ve fallen into other practices.

I’ve seen great things happen organically. I was involved in a coalition that was attempting to use consensus but almost all the members of the coalition were different union locals that didn’t know how to use consensus. There was this organic decision making process that was developed out of it. It was totally flawed in every way but it was also amazing to see it happen week by week. At every meeting you would see these union guys trying to “twinkle” and you would see the chair try to “call to order.” People were trying to understand each other and that’s exciting. If we keep working in those kinds of ways we can develop a method where decision making and leadership have a very close correlation, and if we start working on it we can see that there might be ways to develop an organic synthesis.

I’ve learned that in moments of struggle the most amazing things can happen in terms of organizing because we adapt to our context. We just need to tap into that a little more, be aware of what our context is, and not be so goal oriented in terms of our next rally or whatever. We have to begin to think long term, we have to build sustainable organizations and coalitions that don’t fall apart after a year. The way to do it is to look at longevity and also what’s going to be sustainable in every way, as well as to develop mechanisms to preserve that sustainability. Whether it’s decision making or anything else, we need to be more creative in the ways we interact with each other. 

Jeff Shantz is a member of Punching Out-NEFAC (North-Eastern Federation of Anarchist Communists) and lives in Toronto. This interview was conducted electronically and is based on Jeff’s article “‘Platformism’ and Organization” submitted to Upping the Anti in March 2005.

UTA: To begin with, maybe you could outline your general perspective on why there is a need for revolutionary organization?

Jeff Shantz: NEFAC members believe that achieving a classless, stateless and non-hierarchical society (that is, anarchy) requires a social revolution, which will only emerge through autonomous social movements and the revolutionary self-activity of the working class. This distinguishes us from some versions of social anarchism, which, drawing most notably on the works of Kropotkin, for example, view the development towards anarchy as an ongoing trend within human social development that requires little effort by anarchists beyond the propaganda of anarchist ideas.

While we draw upon the diverse histories, movements and theorists of anarchism, NEFAC is inspired most significantly by the tradition within anarchist communism known as “platformism.” The platformist tradition emerged following the Russian Revolution through the efforts of a group of Russian and Ukrainian anarchists in exile who sought to analyze why the anarchists had fared so badly during the revolution in comparison with the Bolsheviks. Their conclusion was that despite their vastly better social and political analysis the anarchists lacked effective organizations.

In order that anarchists not make the same mistake in future generations, the Dielo Truda group wrote a position paper, The Organizational Platform for a General Union of Anarchists, in which they laid out some points that might serve as a guide in developing effective revolutionary organizations. More than 75 years after it was written and a decade after the fall of the U.S.S.R. the platform has enjoyed a stunning revival. From Ireland and Lebanon to South Africa and Canada, a number of groups have taken up the platform. At a time when anarchist movements are growing, the platform – which was only ever intended as an outline for action – has provided a useful starting point for anarchists looking “to rally all the militants of the organized anarchist movement.”

Unlike the original platformists, who focused their energies on gathering the majority of anarchists to their perspective, NEFAC has been more concerned with moving beyond activist circles and building a real grounding in working class communities and organizations. Obviously, however, we remain a small force and have no illusions about our success in doing this up to now. It remains a long and ongoing process.

UTA: How do you, as a relatively small revolutionary organization, relate to these broader movements, whether particular social movements and community struggles, or the workers’ movement more generally?

Jeff: In order to most effectively direct our limited resources, NEFAC has decided as a federation to focus on three primary areas of struggle: anti-racism and anti-fascism, anti-poverty struggles, and workplace organizing. Regarding the first area, we are involved not just in street scraps with fascists, but in trying to work against the US/Canada border enforcement, and in stopping the increasing detention of migrants. Our anti-poverty work in several cities has dug us into tenants unions and other community based organizations, as well as contributing to campaigns aimed at winning what we realize to be very limited demands from the state, such as the Raise the Rates campaign spearheaded by the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty in Ontario.

It is in labour struggles that we have really been innovators, doing things that are quite atypical for many North American anarchist organizations. Indeed the goal of developing anarchist perspectives within unions and other workplace organizations is one that contemporary North American anarchists have generally neglected. Unlike left groups that have focused their energies on running opposition slates in union elections or forming opposition caucuses, NEFAC unionists work to develop rank and file organization and militance. We take the position that regardless of the union leadership, until we build a militant and mobilized rank and file movement, across locals and workplaces, the real power of organized labour will remain unrealized.

A few of the efforts our members have been involved in include flying squads rapid response networks of union members prepared to take direct solidarity actions – and alternative or minority unions like the Downtown Workers Union in Montpelier, Vermont which organizes service workers citywide. In Toronto, Punching Out has been active in forming an autonomous flying squad to co-ordinate strike support and help build workers’ self-organization and solidarity. The flying squad is autonomous from all official union structures and is open to rank and file workers who hold no union position or workers in unorganized workplaces or who are unemployed. The flying squad supports direct action against bosses of all types. Based on these examples, NEFAC members in Peterborough and Montreal have recently taken part in developing flying squad networks in their cities. The Precarious Workers Network coalescing in Montreal is primarily organizing among unorganized and unemployed workers.

UTA: How does this work relate to your attempt to build an “effective revolutionary organization”? What are the principles on which you organize as such?

Jeff: The anarchist organization is a place to come together to reflect on, revise and advance work being done. It offers the opportunity to examine and refine one’s practices and develop alternatives through the sharing of resources and the evaluation of experiences from different collectives in different areas of our region.

NEFAC’s commitment to local autonomy means that collectives have the final say on which of these struggles they will involve themselves in and what sorts of activities they will take up. At the same time, we are a federation and we do discuss, debate and plan federation wide initiatives. Our cohesion as a federation is based on “theoretical and tactical unity” and in order to develop this in a vital way, in addition to federal campaigns, we also prepare position papers on our areas of intervention, which are reviewed and accepted (or not) by the federation as a whole.

As a platformist organization NEFAC seeks a substantive, rather than symbolic, unity based on shared action and reflection. By “theoretical and tactical unity” we mean a focused sharing of resources and energies that brings otherwise limited anarchist forces together rather than dissipating our efforts. Theoretical and tactical unity in no way implies that members have to read the same sources or agree on all points. While there has to be some agreement on basic ideas, these positions are only determined collectively, through open debate and discussion, rooted in actual practice.

As a federation, we meet twice a year for federal congresses, which serve as the highest decision making body in NEFAC. These congresses are open to all NEFAC members and supporters and decisions on federation wide projects are taken on the basis of majority vote by members/collectives with supporters having indicative votes. Between congresses, federal decisions are made in a democratic manner through our Federation Council consisting of one delegate per collective. Delegates are responsible for bringing proposals to their collective for discussion and vote. If a majority of collectives agrees to the proposal, it passes. Once a decision is taken by the federation as a whole, it is expected that members and collectives will responsibly carry out those decisions.

UTA: What do you see as the role of revolutionaries/ revolutionary organizations in relation to broader community struggles, social movements, and the workers’ movement more generally?

Jeff: We are not a vanguardist or substitutionist organization, but we do believe that a successful revolution will be preceded by organizations capable of radicalizing mass movements and community struggles while opposing reformist or authoritarian tendencies. We provide a venue in which militants can analyze experiences and put ideas into practice while making anarchist communist ideas relevant.

As an active minority within the working class, we work to provide a rallying point, through example and ideas, in struggles against capital and the state as well as standing against authoritarian ideologies or practices in working class organizations. We remain small and certainly have no illusions about “leading” the anarchist movement, let alone the working class more broadly. We try to maintain relationships of solidarity and mutual aid with anarchists who take different strategic and tactical approaches.

UTA: What do you see as the potential contradictions or tensions that can arise between building revolutionary organizations and “movement building”? How can these tensions be negotiated and overcome?

Jeff: Given the marginalized position of anarchist and communist ideas within the working class in North America at this point in time we do have to spend a fair bit of effort getting our perspectives out there. Thus we do focus on developing agitational materials like our theoretical magazine “The Northeastern Anarchist” and our newspaper “Strike!” There are many important lessons from anarchist history that we need to learn, revive and share. At the same time, the work we have put into building rank and file workers’ committees, flying squads, precarious workers’ networks and tenant/base unions shows that, despite our numbers, we can make real material contributions to building the capacities of our class for struggle. These interventions are not made in a vanguardist way to build our organization or recruit members but in a principled way to help build class wide resources and win material gains.

This gets at your larger question around contradictions or tensions. First, I think it is mistaken to speak of a “pure” or “essential” movement that is somehow free from or untouched by revolutionary organizations. Movements are made up of diverse organizations and involve participation from people who are also active in a variety of organizations, including revolutionary ones. This includes both formal organizations and, often more significantly, the informal organizations, including cliques, social networks and friendship groups that often operate behind the scenes to impact movements dramatically. The interplay of perspectives and practices that participants bring to movements shapes their emergence and development. The question then is how people approach their involvement in specific movements. It is clearly a mistake to approach movements either as recruitment grounds (as more formal organizations often do) or as social clubs (as is more typical for informal groups). For us the key is to be involved in a principled way that prioritizes building working class strength in our communities, neighbourhoods and workplaces rather than building our specific organization. Developing our particular organization is worthwhile only in as much as it contributes to that larger goal.

UTA: Do you have any final thoughts?

Jeff: Much of anarchist activity in North America is still characterized by this description from Dielo Trouda in 1926: “local organizations advocating contradictory theories and practices, having no perspectives for the future, nor of a continuity in militant work, and habitually disappearing, hardly leaving the slightest trace behind them.” Many of these short lived projects are based on the ‘synthesist’ model – a mish-mash of ideas and practices – of which platformists have always been wary. Such groupings work relatively well if the task remains at the level of running a bookstore or free school (both worthy projects in themselves). Yet, the absence of durable anarchist organizations, rooted in working class organizations and communities, still contributes to demoralization or a retreat into subculturalism.

As anarchist movements face possibilities of growth, as happened after Seattle in 1999, questions of organization and the relation of various anarchist activities to each other and to broader movements for social change will only become more pressing and significant. As PJ Lilley and I have suggested elsewhere: “If anarchists are to seize the opportunities presented by recent upsurges in anarchist activity and build anarchism in movements that have resonance in wider struggles, then we must face seriously the challenges of organization, of combining and coordinating our efforts effectively. We will be aided in this by drawing upon the lessons of past experiences and avoiding, as much as possible, past errors.”