Strategy and Tactics

11
Feb

 

By Rod Such

The prominent Palestinian intellectual Edward Said, author of Orientalism and The Question of Palestine, admired the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci for his views on cultural hegemony. What might have transpired if these two intellectual giants were able to collaborate on strategy and tactics for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement launched by Palestinian civil society in 2005, two years after Said’s death and 68 years after Gramsci’s?

This essay explores Gramsci’s concepts of moral leadership, common sense and good sense, cultural hegemony, superstructure, “taking inventory,” “war of position,” and the philosophy of praxis, their influence on Said’s thinking, and their relevance to the BDS movement. Underpinning this exploration, I seek to answer whether a Marxist or socialist perspective on BDS is even needed, let alone desired. Why is it not enough that socialists simply answer the call of Palestinian civil society and find ways to support the BDS movement in practical activity? Does Marxist theory contribute anything of importance to this movement? The conclusion reached is that both Gramsci and Said left behind a legacy that provides invaluable insights and reasons for why and how BDS can succeed in Western capitalist countries, particularly the United States, and become part of a global Intifada that works in tandem with Palestinian resistance on the ground in Palestine.

Marxism is unique as a philosophy that goes beyond merely interpreting the world by announcing that its intention is to change the world. This essay, therefore, also explores a three-year-long BDS campaign in Portland, Oregon. The goal is to determine if the Gramscian-Said legacy might have helped guide it. A dialectical relationship exists between theory and practice in which neither is complete without the other. Theory guides practice, and practice in turn deepens, corrects, and enriches theory. Theoretical precepts, according to this view, must be tested in the laboratory of human activity.

Moral Leadership, Hegemony, and ‘Good Sense ‘vs. ‘Common Sense’

Gramsci’s concept of “moral leadership” is apt in this context. For Gramsci the working class was “economist” if it spoke only for itself. He urged Italy’s Socialist Party and later its Communist Party to take up the “Southern Question”—that is, the plight of the peasantry, particularly in the less-industrialized southern part of Italy. But Gramsci was not content with just a worker-peasant alliance. He called for the working-class parties to provide “moral leadership” for all “subalterns,” who he defined as anyone in a subordinate position in capitalist society or what today we would call the 99 percent.

Similarly, in his book Orientalism Said stakes out a viewpoint of moral leadership in his underlying theme of challenging the way Western colonialism and its literature dehumanized and denied agency to colonized peoples. Said’s critique of the West’s conception of the Orient is ultimately based on a radical understanding and rejection of the notion of superior cultures, placing the “Orientalist” framework firmly in the context of colonialism and imperialism.

Gramsci’s notions of common sense and good sense are intimately linked to his idea of cultural hegemony and superstructure. For Gramsci the advanced capitalist countries enforced their rule and control not just through the repressive state apparatus—the police, the courts, the prisons, the military—but also through the institutions that emerge in civil society. The state apparatus is primarily based on force and coercion to maintain capitalist rule while institutions of civil society—ranging from trade unions to churches to the media to what we call today nongovernmental organizations—often help manufacture consent with the established order of things rather than challenge that order.

The notion of cultural hegemony derives in part from Marx’s famous dictum in The German Ideology: “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.”

Gramsci pondered why workers succumb to these ruling ideas when their class interests are diametrically opposed to those of the capitalists. He invoked the ideas of common sense and superstructure to explain how ruling class ideas establish hegemony over society at large and make it seem as though the capitalist order is merely the common sense outcome of human affairs.

In a sense Gramsci anticipated by nearly 100 years Thomas Frank’s exploration in his best-selling What’s the Matter with Kansas of why voters in the state of Kansas, once a center of abolitionism and agrarian socialism, voted against their own economic interests by embracing the Republican Party’s social agenda.

To establish this cultural hegemony and to keep it functioning smoothly, the ruling class also helps sustain a superstructure, such as the academy, civil society organizations, and the media, to ensure that its ideas remain supreme. The chief architects of “common sense”are our media and academic pundits who manage to disguise or obscure the systemic nature of capitalist oppression and exploitation. People learn to embrace and accept ideas contrary to their own interests because they are surrounded daily by a virtual gestalt of hegemonic ideas that must be true because seemingly everyone believes them to be true. To be controversial is to be dissident, an outlier from the established order of common sense.

Edward Said and Common Sense

In The Question of Palestine and The Politics of Dispossession, Said deconstructs the “common sense” ideas that have buttressed the Israeli narrative for decades and made the existence of a Jewish state seem reasonable to many people. These include the argument that the crimes of the Holocaust left the Jewish people with no alternative but to establish a Jewish state of their own for their own protection and refuge. Palestinian resistance to Zionist displacement in the “common sense” narrative then became simply a continuation of the persecution of the Jews. Israel became heroic David to the Goliath of surrounding Arab countries, according to this hegemonic narrative.

To counter this narrative, Said applied “good sense,” as opposed to the prevailing “common sense,” unerringly dissecting every hypocrisy, lie, and contradiction within the Israeli narrative by showing how they contravened established ideas of human rights and democracy. In doing so, Said, along with many others, established the Palestinian narrative as a hegemonic alternative to the dominant paradigms.

In Orientalism, Said acknowledges the influence of Gramsci, calling out in particular the distinction Gramsci made between civil society and state institutions and the role played by civil society in establishing cultural hegemony. Said writes:

“Gramsci has made the useful analytic distinction between civil and political society in which the former is made up of voluntary (or at least rational and noncoercive) affiliations like schools, families, and unions, the latter of state institutions (the army, the police, the central bureaucracy) whose role in the polity is direct domination. Culture, of course, is to be found operating within civil society, where the influence of ideas, of institutions, and of other persons works not through domination but by what Gramsci calls consent. In any society not totalitarian, then, certain cultural forms predominate over others, just as certain ideas are more influential than others; the form of this cultural leadership is what Gramsci has identified as hegemony, an indispensable concept for any understanding of cultural life in the industrial West. It is hegemony, or rather the result of cultural hegemony at work, that gives Orientalism the durability and the strength I have been speaking about so far.”  continue

Category : Hegemony | Middle East | Strategy and Tactics | Blog
1
Nov

Bacon and rebels vs Virginia aristocrats

Theodore W. Allen’s Legacy

By Jeffrey B. Perry
Solidarity

THEODORE W. “TED” Allen (1919-2005) was an anti-white supremacist, working-class intellectual and activist, whose work on the centrality of struggle against white supremacy is growing in importance and influene 98 years after his birth.

With its focus on racial oppression and social control, Allen’s two-volume The Invention of the White Race (1994, 1997: Verso Books, new expanded edition 2012) is one of the 20th-century’s major contributions to historical understanding.

Allen’s study presents a full-scale challenge to what he refers to as “The Great White Assumption” — the unquestioning acceptance of the “white race” and “white” identity as skin color-based and natural attributes rather than as social and political constructions.

His thesis on the origin, nature and maintenance of the “white race” and his contenion that slavery in the Anglo-American plantation colonies was capitalist and that enslaved Black laborers were proletarians, provide the basis of a revolutionary approach to United States labor history.

On the back cover of the 1994 edition of Volume 1, subtitled Racial Oppression and Social Control, Allen boldly asserted “When the first Africans arrived in Virginia in 1619, there were no ‘white’ people there; nor, according to the colonial records, would there be for another sixty years.”

That statement, based on 20-plus years of primary research in Virginia’s colonial records, reflected the fact that Allen found no instance of the official use of the word “white” as a token of social status prior to its appearance in a Virginia law passed in 1691.

As he later explained, “Others living in the colony at that time were English; they had been English when they left England, and naturally they and their Virginia-born children were English, they were not ‘white.’ White identity had to be carefully taught, and it would be only after the passage of some six crucial decades” that the word “would appear as a synonym for European-American.”

In this context Allen offers his major thesis — that the “white race” was invented as a ruling-class social control formation in response to labor solidarity as manifested in the later (civil war) stages of Bacon’s Rebellion (1676-77).

To this he adds two important corollaries: 1) the ruling elite deliberately instituted a system of racial privileges to define and maintain the “white race” and to implement a system of racial oppression, and 2) the consequence was not only ruinous to the interest of African Americans, but was also disastrous for European-American workers.

The Story of an Invention

Volume II, The Origin of Racial Oppression in Anglo-America, tells the story of the invention of the “white race” and the development of the system of racial oppression in the late 17th and early 18th century Anglo-American plantation colonies.

Allen’s primary focus is on the pattern-setting Virginia colony. He pays special attention to how tenants and wage-laborers in the predominantely English labor force were reduced to the status of chattel bond-servants beginning in the 1620s. In so doing, he emphasizes that this was a qualitative break from the condition of laborers in England and from long established English labor law.

He argues that this was not a feudal carryover, rather that it was imposed under capitalism, and an essential precondition of the emergence of the lifetime hereditary chattel bond-servitude imposed upon African-American laborers under the system of racial slavery.

Allen describes how, throughout much of the 17th century, the status of African Americans was indeterminate (because it was still being fought out) and he details the similarity of conditions for African-American and European-American laborers and bond-servants.

He also documents many significant instances of labor solidarity and unrest, especially during the 1660s and 1670s. Of great significance is his analysis of the civil war stage of Bacon’s Rebellion when thousands of laboring people took up arms against the ruling plantation elite, the capital Jamestown was burned to the ground, rebels controlled sixth-sevenths of the Virginia colony, and Afro- and Euro-American bond-servants fought side by side demanding an end to their bondage.

It was in the period after Bacon’s Rebellion that the “white race” was invented. Allen describes systematic ruling-class policies, conferring “white race” privileges on European Americans while imposing harsher disabilities on African Americans resulting in a system of racial slavery, a form of racial oppression that also imposed severe racial proscriptions on free African Americans.

He emphasizes that when free African Americans were deprived of their long-held right to vote in Virginia, and Governor William Gooch explained in 1735 that the Virginia Assembly had decided upon this curtailment of the franchise in order “to fix a perpetual Brand upon Free Negros & Mulattos,” this was no “unthinking decision.”

Rather, it was a deliberate act by the plantation bourgeoisie and a conscious decision taken in the process of establishing a system of racial oppression, even though it entailed repealing an electoral principle that had existed in Virginia for more than a century.

The “White Race” — A Ruling-Class Social Control Formation

Key to understanding the virulent racial oppression that develops in Virginia, Allen argues, is the formation of the intermediate social control buffer stratum, which serves the interests of the ruling class.

In Virginia, any persons of discernible non-European ancestry after Bacon’s Rebellion were denied a role in the social control buffer group, the bulk of which was made up of laboring-class “whites.” In the Anglo-Caribbean, by contrast, under a similar Anglo ruling elite, “mulattos” were included in the social control stratum and were promoted into middle-class status.

This difference was rooted in a number of social control-related factors, one of the most important of which was that in the Anglo-Caribbean there were “too few” poor and laboring-class Europeans to embody an adequate petit bourgeoisie, while in the continental colonies there were “too many” to be accommodated in the ranks of that class.

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Category : Marxism | Racism | Slavery | Strategy and Tactics | US History | Blog
5
Oct


We need a socialism that goes beyond capitalism. And not just for moral reasons


By Joseph M. Schwartz and Bhaskar Sunkara
Jacobin

Oct 3, 2017 – John Judis has all the right intentions. He’s looking at the resurgence of openly democratic socialist currents in the United States with a mix of excitement and trepidation. Excitement, because he knows how desperately the country’s workers need social reforms. Trepidation, because he worries that the new left might fall into the familiar traps of insularity and sectarianism.

But while Judis wants us to change society for the better, his response to the failures of twentieth-century state socialism would lead us into the dead end of twentieth-century social democracy.

In his New Republic essay “The Socialism America Needs Now,” Judis makes a passionate plea for the rebuilding of a social-democratic movement — or what he calls “liberal socialism.” He contends that the welfare state and democratic regulation of a capitalist economy should be the end goal for socialists, as past efforts at top-down nationalization and planning yielded the repressive societies and stagnant economies of the Soviet bloc. In contrast, Judis argues, the Scandinavian states are dynamic capitalist economies that are still far more equitable and humane than the United States.

For him, socialism — democratic control over workplaces and the economy — consists of “old nostrums” whose days have past.

Of course, we urgently need the reforms that Judis and the movement around Bernie Sanders advocate for. No democratic socialist could oppose efforts to guarantee public provision of basic needs and take key aspects of economic and social life like education, health care, and housing out of the market. It would, as Judis writes, “bring immeasurable benefit to ordinary Americans.”

But we have moral reasons to demand something more. After all, we can’t have real political democracy without economic democracy. Corporations are “private governments” that exercise tyrannical power over workers and society writ large. The corporate hierarchy decides how we produce, what we produce, and what we do with the profits that workers collectively make.

To embrace radical democracy is to believe that any decision that has a binding effect on its members — say, the power to hire or fire or control over one’s work hours — should be made by all those affected by it. What touches all, should be determined by all.

At minimum, we should demand an economy in which various forms of ownership (worker-owned firms, as well as state-owned natural monopolies and financial institutions) are coordinated by a regulated market — an economy that enables society to be governed democratically. In an undemocratic capitalist economy, managers hire and fire workers; in a democratic socialist economy, workers would hire those managers deemed necessary to build a content and productive firm.

They Won’t Let Us Keep Nice Things

This, however, isn’t a debate about the contours of the world we would like to see. While Judis rejects the desire of socialists (and the historic goal of social democracy itself) to create a radical democracy after capitalism, he does so largely on pragmatic grounds. The old vision, for him, is “not remotely viable.”

Yet history shows us that achieving a stable welfare state while leaving capital’s power over the economy largely intact is itself far from viable. Even if we wanted to stop at socialism within capitalism, it’s not clear that we could.

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Category : Democracy | Socialism | Strategy and Tactics | Blog
13
Dec

David Harvey: ‘The Left Has to Rethink Its Theoretical and Tactical Apparatus.’

FROM ROAR MAGAZINE. David Harvey, one of the leading Marxist thinkers of our times, sits down with the activist collective AK Malabocas to discuss the transformations in the mode of capital accumulation, the centrality of the urban terrain in contemporary class struggles, and the implications of all this for anti-capitalist organizing.

AK Malabocas: In the last forty years, the mode of capital accumulation has changed globally. What do these changes mean for the struggle against capitalism?

David Harvey: From a macro-perspective, any mode of production tends to generate a very distinctive kind of opposition, which is a curious mirrored image of itself. If you look back to the 1960s or 1970s, when capital was organized in big corporatist, hierarchical forms, you had oppositional structures that were corporatist, unionist kinds of political apparatuses. In other words, a Fordist system generated a Fordist kind of opposition.

With the breakdown of this form of industrial organization, particularly in the advanced capitalist countries, you ended up with a much more decentralized configuration of capital: more fluid over space and time than previously thought. At the same time we saw the emergence of an opposition that is about networking and decentralization and that doesn’t like hierarchy and the previous Fordist forms of opposition.

So, in a funny sort of way, the leftists reorganize themselves in the same way capital accumulation is reorganized. If we understand that the left is a mirror image of what we are criticizing, then maybe what we should do is to break the mirror and get out of this symbiotic relationship with what we are criticizing.


In the Fordist era, the factory was the main site of resistance. Where can we find it now that capital has moved away from the factory floor towards the urban terrain?

First of all, the factory-form has not disappeared—you still find factories in Bangladesh or in China. What is interesting is how the mode of production in the core cities changed. For example, the logistics sector has undergone a huge expansion: UPS, DHL and all of these delivery workers are producing enormous values nowadays.

In the last decades, a huge shift has occurred in the service sector as well: the biggest employers of labor in the 1970s in the US were General Motors, Ford and US Steel. The biggest employers of labor today are McDonalds, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Walmart. Back then, the factory was the center of the working class, but today we find the working class mainly in the service sector. And why would we say that producing cars is more important than producing hamburgers?

Unfortunately the left is not comfortable with the idea of organizing fast-food workers. Its picture of the classical working class doesn’t fit with value production of the service workers, the delivery workers, the restaurant workers, the supermarket workers.

The proletariat did not disappear, but there is a new proletariat which has very different characteristics from the traditional one the left used to identify as the vanguard of the working class. In this sense, the McDonalds workers became the steel workers of the twenty-first century

If this is what the new proletariat is about, where are the places to organize resistance now?

It’s very difficult to organize in the workplaces. For example, delivery drivers are moving all over the place. So this population could maybe be better organized outside the working place, meaning in their neighborhood structures.

There is already an interesting phrase in Gramsci’s work from 1919 saying that organizing in the workplace and having workplace councils is all well, but we should have neighborhood councils, too. And the neighborhood councils, he said, have a better understanding of what the conditions of the whole working class are compared to the sectoral understanding of workplace organizing.

Workplace organizers used to know very well what a steelworker was, but they didn’t understand what the proletariat was about as a whole. The neighborhood organization would then include for example the street cleaners, the house workers, the delivery drivers. Gramsci never really took this up and said: ‘come on, the Communist Party should organize neighborhood assemblies!’

Nevertheless, there are a few exceptions in the European context where Communist Parties did in fact organize neighborhood councils—because they couldn’t organize in the workplace, like in Spain for example. In the 1960s this was a very powerful form of organizing. Therefore—as I have argued for a very long time—we should look at the organization of neighborhoods as a form of class organization. Gramsci only mentioned it once in his writings and he never pursued it further.

In Britain in the 1980s, there were forms of organizing labor in city-wide platforms on the basis of trades councils, which were doing what Gramsci suggested. But within the union movement these trades councils were always regarded as inferior forms of organizing labor. They were never treated as being foundational to how the union movement should operate.

In fact, it turned out that the trades councils were often much more radical than the conventional trade unions and that was because they were rooted in the conditions of the whole working class, not only the often privileged sectors of the working-class. So, to the extent that they had a much broader definition of the working class, the trades councils tended to have much more radical politics. But this was never valorized by the trade union movement in general—it was always regarded as a space where the radicals could play.

The advantages of this form of organizing are obvious: it overcomes the split between sectoral organizing, it includes all kinds of “deterritorialized” labor, and it is very suitable to new forms of community and assembly-based organization, as Murray Bookchin was advocating, for example.

In the recent waves of protest—in Spain and Greece, for instance, or in the Occupy movement—you can find this idea of “localizing resistance.” It seems that these movements tend to organize around issues of everyday life, rather than the big ideological questions that the traditional left used to focus on.

Why would you say that organizing around everyday life is not one of the big questions? I think it is one of the big questions. More than half of the world’s population lives in cities, and everyday life in cities is what people are exposed to and have their difficulties in. These difficulties reside as much in the sphere of the realization of value as in the sphere of the production of value.

This is one of my very important theoretical arguments: everybody reads Volume I of Capital and nobody reads Volume II. Volume I is about the production of value, Volume II is about the realization of value. Focusing on Volume II, you clearly see that the conditions of realization are just as important as the conditions of production.

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Category : Capitalism | Marxism | Organizing | Solidarity Economy | Strategy and Tactics | Working Class | Blog
4
Jul

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

An occasional message from Peter Dreier 

This message is all about the Bernie Sanders campaign, but since it is a national holiday about patriotism, I wanted to include this piece by Dick Flacks and me, "How Progressives Should Celebrate This July 4th," linking it to the recent Supreme Court ruling on same-President Obama’s oration last week in Charleston.
The Sanders campaign is surging, surprising everyone with the large turnouts in Iowa, New Hampshire, Wisconsin (over 10,000 people at a rally in Madison a few days ago), and elsewhere.  He has raised much more money, mostly in small donations, than anyone expected.  He is attracting lots of people eager to volunteer for his campaign, hiring more staff, and picking up some significant endorsements. He is closing the gap in the polls with Hillary Clinton, including in key states with early primaries and caucuses. His campaign is based on a principled progressive agenda that, unlike any other figure in American politics (with the exception of Elizabeth Warren), he is able to explain in straightforward language that has a broad appeal. 
As a result of all this, Sanders is getting lots of media attention. The right-wing media echo chamber (Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, the Weekly Standard, etc) is demonizing him as a dangerous radical but also hoping that his growing appeal will hurt Clinton and help a Republican win the presidency.  The mainstream media (NYT, ABC, Newsweek, etc) is taking advantage of the Sanders surge to create the drama of a political horse race, while asking whether a strong Sanders showing will help or hurt Clinton’s chances to win the White House. The progressive media (The Nation, The Progressive, American Prospect, MSNBC, etc) and blogosphere is greeting the Sanders surge with enthusiasm and excitement but also raising questions about whether he’s in it to win or to push Hillary to the left, whether he can raise enough money to mount a credible national campaign, and whether his presidential campaign, win or lose, can also help strengthen the progressive movement (and the Democratic Party’s progressive wing) for the long haul.

The Sanders campaign has surged so quickly, and things are changing so rapidly, that it may be difficult to grasp what it means.  With that in mind, here is a reading list (all from 2015 unless indicated otherwise) that may be useful for those who want to understand what is happening and to put it in historical perspective. You can also find out more at the Sanders campaign website.

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The opinions expressed are mine alone and do not reflect the opinions of Occidental College or its employees. Occidental College is not responsible for the content of this communication.

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Category : Elections | Organizing | Strategy and Tactics | Blog
8
Mar

Black Youth Project 100 action to #DecriminalizeBlack (Photo Credit: Sarah Jane Rhee)

By Bernardine Dohrn

Praxis Center

“Those who kill their own children and discriminate daily against them because of the color of their skin; those who let the murderers of blacks remain free, protecting them, and furthermore punishing the black population because they demand their legitimate rights as free men—how can those who do this consider themselves guardians of freedom?”

Che Guevara, Before the United Nations, 12-11-1964

March 4, 2015 – In my lifetime young people rose up to challenge and change the world in Little Rock and Birmingham, in Soweto and Tiananmen, in Palestine and Chiapas. In the last decade we saw the rise of Arab Spring and Occupy, and now we are in the midst of vivid mass resistance to the police killing of unarmed Black men and women spurred by the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Now and historically, it is the youth who reject taken-for-granted injustices.[1] In this moment, young people are the social actors – the leadership, catalysts,  the activists, and the organizers – who seized and defined a continuing travesty of North American life: the police murder of Black lives. Rising up against the thickening layers of institutionalized white supremacy, young people are insisting that Black Lives Matter.

With their radical impulse to revolt, that spirit of hopefulness and possibility, the laser-like insight of adolescents into the hypocrisies of the adult world, propel youth to break the rules, resist together, and transcend the immoral status quo. Inspired by the courage and determination of Ferguson youth, young people across the nation walked out of schools, sat-in, died-in, blocked highways and bridges – becoming the fresh, searing forces for equality, racial justice, and dignity.

Youth were not unaware of the risks they were taking by challenging police violence. In fact, it is young people who were painfully and brutally aware of the police targeting of Black youth, and pervasive US institutionalized de-valuing of Black lives.

Though many young activists had already been challenging police violence and the criminalization of Black lives in their own communities, the harrowing, police stalking and shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown on August 9, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri, became the spark that generated a fresh wave of youth uprisings. This new movement in the long struggle for racial justice brought young people together across the country to become more than the sum of their parts.

The activism of the Black Lives Matter movement not only illustrates the brilliance and clarity of young people, but also flies in the face of popular currency that children and youth are less competent, less thoughtful, less wise and more dangerous than adults. The continuing reality of young people as social actors stands in opposition to official policies of silencing, suppressing, expelling and punishing our youth, depriving them of an education and denying their creativity and right to be heard.

Think of young peoples’ loss of rights, for example, through truancy laws; school censorship of high school newspapers, email communication and graduation speeches; the banning of books; relentless harassment and violence against LGTBQ and trans youth; school locker searches and drug testing without reasonable suspicion or due process; school zero tolerance policies that include punishments, school suspensions and expulsions, gang terrorism profiling, stop and frisk, and the calling of police for minor misbehavior. Control, cameras, drug searches, testing, arrests, and school exclusion have replaced dignity.

Rights vs. protections and the myth of the “Superpredator”

Children and youth, in fact, are whole persons who bear human and constitutional rights. They are inevitably an active part of their time and place, their culture and community, their race, class, and ethnicity, and their extended family. Simultaneously, they may also be more vulnerable, more easily manipulated and used by adults, such that they must be, to the extent possible, protected, sheltered and insulated from serious harm, both from their own impulses, and adults who might prey upon them or use youth for their own purposes. This is why human rights activists, for example, advocate for children to be protected from the harshest consequences of war and hazardous labor and family violence.

Of course, young people are becoming-persons, not yet fully adults; but what kind of a person is a child? In considering children as social actors, this contradiction is worthy of continuing deliberation and nuance. How can society heed this paradox – rights versus protections – and tilt toward children as bearers of rights while taking the responsibility for providing youth with equal access, due process, Constitutional rights, economic rights, and human rights? Are youth not right to see the adult world as compromised, duplicitous, and worst of all—indifferent to the crimes and suffering around them? (Continued)

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Category : Organizing | Racism | Strategy and Tactics | Youth | Blog
21
Feb

By N’Tanya Lee, Cinthya Muñoz, Maria Poblet, Josh Warren-White, and Steve Williams on behalf of the LeftRoots Coordinating Committee

We are living in times of great instability and crisis. Everywhere there are troubling signs of collapse: mass shootings; widespread unemployment; potentially irreversible ecological devastation; and the consolidation of wealth into fewer and fewer hands. The interpenetrating crises within the economic system, the ecological system, and the system of empire are pushing the 1% to implement massive austerity programs, militarization, and further disenfranchisement of oppressed communities. But not everything is gloom and doom. In the face of the ruling class’ savage attacks, heroic struggles are breaking out around the world against the manifestations of imperialism, capitalism, white supremacy, and patriarchy.

While these crises have called the legitimacy of ruling class hegemony into question, it is by no means guaranteed that popular forces will succeed in rescuing the world from the tyranny of the 1%. We are living in a period in which, as Antonio Gramsci once observed, the old order is dying while the new phase is still struggling to be born.

Even though the ruling class faces instability and internal strife, they are armed to the teeth and are committed to holding onto power at any cost. What happens in the next period of history will determine the future of the planet and humankind.

FROM RESISTANCE TO STRATEGY DEVELOPMENT

In response to the worsening conditions in our communities, and driven by a deep desire to change the systems that have made conditions so bad for our people, many social movement activists have taken up the work of organizing resistance. This work is critical. But it’s not enough. We need our fights to add up to something beyond resistance.

So often activists in reform fights say, “I don’t think that we’ll ever achieve liberation, but I want to do what I can.” The problem with this attitude is that it closes us off to seeing and seizing opportunities to take unimagined leaps forward. After all, who would have dreamed in the beginning of 2011 that by the end of the year people across the country would be occupying public space denouncing the tyranny of the 1%? Or that fast food workers across the country would be walking off their jobs to demand a living wage? Or, that undocumented youth would be intentionally getting detained so they could organize resistance inside detention centers? Or that there would be a well organized national mass movement against police violence growing out of another police murder of a Black youth?

Holding onto the hope that we could win, that we could radically transform society is difficult, but vital. That hope and audacity can change the way that we organize, fight, and build movements. The problem is that it is almost impossible to keep hope alive if we don’t have a plan to win.

Strategy is one of the fundamental building blocks for all successful revolutionary movements. In revolutionary periods throughout history well-developed strategy has enabled organizers to cohere different sectors of society into a unified movement of movements that was able to defy the odds and transform society. Each of these strategies were as unique as the conditions from which they emerged, and the most successful evolved over time as those conditions changed.

There are no successful cookie-cutter strategies. What worked in one place, at one time, will not necessarily work in another. That said, while every strategy must grow out of its own particular time, place, and conditions, there are some common features of successful revolutionary strategies. Broadly speaking, they:   

  • •  Articulate a vision of a transformed society;
     
  • •   Examine the characteristics and conditions of society’s social and economic groupings;
      
  • •  Project a revolutionary historic bloc by assessing which social sectors have the most vested interest in transforming society, which might support that vision, and which have the power to carry out that transformation;
  • •     Evaluate the balance of power between organizations and the interests those organizations represent;
      
  • •  Assess the cultural, social, economic, and political hegemony;
        Name collective goals to be achieved by advancing the larger strategy; and
        Identify key fights in which to concentrate forces.

THE NEED FOR THE LEFT

Historically, it has been Leftists from different resistance struggles that have come together to forge a broader strategy for liberation. Although Left forces in many parts of the world are taking bold steps to navigate the twists and turns of the current period with effective strategy, such a Left does not exist in the United States today. There are important Left organizations and formations in this country, but a coherent and audacious Left in the United States will have to be re-constituted if this role is to be fulfilled. (Continued)

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Category : Left Unity | Organizing | Strategy and Tactics | Blog
31
Dec

Black Panther liberation school, a main instrument of counter-hegemony.

Section IV of Towards the War of Position:


Gramsci in Continuity and Rupture  with Marxism-Leninism

[Full document available as PDF download HERE]

By Amil K.
Revolutionary Initiative / Canada

Sept 10, 2013 – The main concern of the prison notebooks is the development of “the philosophy of praxis”1 with the aim of rejuvenating communist strategy in light of the failures and setbacks in Gramsci’s period. However fragmentary the passages of the notebooks are, they compose a totalizing system of thought in which a major focal point is the question of strategy. While there is so much more to the prison notebooks in terms of Gramsci’s intellectual contributions than questions of class war and strategy – hence, the Gramsci being a treasure trove for liberal academics – many of the notes point back to what Gramsci calls the war of position. But this concept can only be appreciated by unpacking some of the conceptual apparatus built up around it throughout the prison notebooks, which includes concepts such as the historical bloc; the ‘analysis of situations’; hegemony; Gramsci’s concept of philosophy and the organic intellectual; his distinct notion of the Party;and finally, his explanation of civil society.

Understanding the Historical Bloc

One of the core concepts of Gramsci’s prison notebooks is the ‘historical bloc’. While the term is only scarcely mentioned in the prison notebooks, given the concept’s role in framing much of Gramsci’s conceptual apparatus it can be argued that Gramsci’s prison notebooks are a long-running elaboration of the concept. There is no section dedicated to the historical bloc, only a couple short passages:

    Concept of ‘historical bloc’, i.e. unity between nature and spirit (structure and superstructure) unity of opposites and of distincts (137).

Structures and superstructures form an ‘historical bloc’. That is to say the complex, contradictory and discordant ensemble of the superstructures is the reflection of the ensemble of the social relations of production (366).

If I may take the liberty to flesh this out somewhat, in light of my reading of the prison notebooks, the historical bloc is the organic but contradictory unity between the dominant and subaltern social groups in a given historical period, the relations of which are historically emergent and need to be understood as such in order to understand the nature of the relations among these social groups in the present. Whereas ‘nature’ here is considered relatively fixed and generally changes only over much longer periods, the ‘Spirit’ is the contradictory unity between structural and super-structural elements in a bloc of time. On the one hand, the concept of the historical bloc is a rather orthodox reformulation of Marx’s historical materialism, a principle thesis of which Gramsci paraphrases at certain points throughout the prison notebooks: “1. That no social formation disappears as long as the productive forces which have developed within it still find room for further forward movement; that a society does not set itself tasks for whose solution the necessary conditions have not already been incubated” (106).

On the other hand, Gramsci’s elaboration of the architecture of the historic bloc (without actually referencing the term) throughout the prison notebooks reveals an awareness of the incredibly dynamic and ever-shifting character of the relationships among the “discordant…ensemble of the social relations of production” (366). The acute awareness of the dynamism at play amongst various levels of relations of force is a feature of Gramsci’s thinking that makes his analyses of history so penetrating and his overall method of historical and political analysis such a force of rejuvenation for “the philosophy of praxis” and the communist movement. Of particular importance for Gramsci, and for any communist movement, is a comprehensive study of the oppressed and exploited classes within their own historical bloc.

In his note “History of the Subaltern Classes: Methodological Criteria”, Gramsci provides a schema for what such a historical reconnaissance actually consists of when it comes to the “subaltern classes.” Whereas the historical unity of the ruling classes is realized in the State (and therefore its historical development can be traced through the development of the State as well),

    The subaltern classes, by definition, are not unified and cannot unite until they are able to become a “State”: their history, therefore, is intertwined with that of civil society, and thereby with the history of States and groups of States. Hence it is necessary to study: 1. The objective formation of subaltern social groups, by developments and transformations occurring in the sphere of economic production; their quantitative diffusion and their origins in pre-existing social groups, whose mentality, ideology, and aims they conserve for a time; 2. their active or passive affiliation to the dominant social formation, their attempts to influence the programmes of these formations in order to press claims of their own… 3. the birth of new parties of the dominant groups, intended to conserve the assent of the subaltern groups and to maintain control over them; 4. the formations which the subaltern groups themselves produce, in order to press claims of a limited and partial character; 5. those new formations which assert the autonomy of the subaltern groups, but within the old framework; 6. those formations which assert the integral autonomy (52).

This schematic outline for studying the subaltern is a major component for understanding the historical bloc. This method of historical analysis is the means by which a communist formation ultimately determines whether or not a favourable situation exists for the subaltern social groups to accumulate revolutionary forces and whether the situation is favourable to them becoming the ruling class at a given conjuncture of history; in other words, the essence of this historiographical method reduces to the question of whether the situation is favourable for revolution in the present historical bloc.

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Category : Hegemony | Intellectuals | Strategy and Tactics | Blog
27
Sep
 

Occupy Wall Street protest, two days after dismantling of Zuccotti Park camp (Christopher Smith)

By Mark Engler and Paul Engler

Dissent Magazine, September 4, 2014

Cross-posted from Waging Nonviolence.

Those who get involved in social movements share a common experience: sometimes, when an issue captures the public eye or an unexpected event triggers a wave of mass protest, there can be periods of intense activity, when new members rush to join the cause and movement energy swells. But these extraordinary times are often followed by long, fallow stretches when activists’ numbers dwindle and advocates struggle to draw any attention at all.

During these lulls, those who have tasted the euphoria of a peak moment feel discouraged and pessimistic. The ups and downs of social movements can be hard to take.

Certainly, activists fighting around issues of inequality and economic justice have seen this pattern in the wake of Occupy Wall Street. Many working to combat climate change have encountered their own periods of dejection after large protests in recent years. And even members of movements that have been very successful—such as the immigrant students who compelled the Obama administration to implement a de facto version of the Dream Act—have gone through periods of deflation despite making great advances. Further back in history, a sense of failure and frustration could be seen among civil rights activists following the landmark 1964 Freedom Summer campaign.

After intensive uprisings have cooled, many participants simply give up and move on to other pursuits. Even those committed to ongoing activism wonder how they can keep more people involved over the long haul.

Unfortunately, the fluctuating cycles of popular movements cannot be avoided. Unlike community organizing, which focuses on the slow and steady building of organizational structures, a boom-and-bust pattern is inherent in mass protest movements. Wide-scale uprisings can make a major impact on public consciousness, but they can never be sustained for long. The fact that they fade from view does not mean they lack value—the civil rights movement, for one, scored many of its biggest wins as a result of mass mobilization and the innovative use of nonviolent direct action. But it does present a challenge: Without an understanding of movement cycles, it is difficult to combat despondency.

So how, then, do we know when movements have died—and when are they primed to revive? And how do activists translate periods of peak activity into substantive and enduring social change?

For Bill Moyer, a trainer and strategist who experienced first hand some of the landmark movement cycles of the 1960s and ’70s, grappling with these questions became a life’s work. Moyer’s legacy is an eight-stage model for how movements can overcome despair and marginality to change society—a framework known as the Movement Action Plan, or MAP. Nearly three decades after it was first developed, the MAP continues to offer insights into problems that, while new to fresh generations of activists, in fact have a long lineage.

The Moyer map

Moyer was born in 1933 and grew up as the son of a TV repairman in northeast Philadelphia. As a child, he aspired to one day become a Presbyterian missionary in Africa. But a trouble-making spirit would ultimately get in the way. As he told it, “In March 1959 I was voted out of the Presbyterian Church because I invited a Catholic and a Jew to talk to the youth group.”

The expulsion led him into the arms of the Quakers. At the time, Moyer was just three years out of Penn State, working as a management systems engineer and searching for more “meaning.” Through Philadelphia’s active Quaker meetinghouse, Moyer came in contact with a vibrant circle of socially engaged peers, and an elder couple tutored him in theories of nonviolence. These encounters forever altered his life. “I had no idea that it was the start of ‘the sixties,’” Moyer later wrote, “and never suspected that I was beginning my new profession as a full-time activist.”

Without models that looked at the long arc of protest movements, Moyer contended, activists became stuck in their thinking, repeating past tactics and failing to strategize for how to effectively move their campaigns forward.

In the 1960s, Moyer would take a job with the American Friends Service Committee in Chicago, helping to convince Martin Luther King to launch an open housing campaign in the city. Moyer then worked on King’s last drive, the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign in Washington, D.C. In the decade that followed, he spent his energies protesting the Vietnam War, supporting American Indian Movement activists at Wounded Knee, and promoting the newly emerging movement against nuclear power.

As he increasingly began training other activists, Moyer saw a gap. “How-to-do-it models and manuals provide step-by-step guidelines for most human activity,” he wrote in 1987, “from baking a cake and playing tennis to having a relationship and winning a war.” Within the world of activism, however, such material was harder to come by.

Saul Alinsky and his followers had created training manuals for their specific brand of community organizing. Likewise, materials drawing from Gandhi and King were available for instructing people in how to create individual nonviolent confrontations. But Moyer believed that there was a lack of models that looked at the long arc of protest movements, materials that accounted for the highs and lows experienced by participants. The result, he contended, was that activists became stuck in their thinking, always repeating the past tactics and failing to strategize for how to effectively move their campaigns forward.

Moyer’s MAP aimed to address this need. It was initially printed in 1986 in the movement journal Dandelion, with twelve-thousand newsprint copies distributed through grassroots channels. Subsequently, it became an underground hit. The plan would continue to be circulated by hand, translated into other languages, and shared at trainings for well over a decade, before taking its final form in the 2002 book Doing Democracy, published shortly before Moyer’s death.

Every good movement”

Of course, creating social change is a lot trickier than baking a cake. And Moyer was not the only person to propose that movements progress in stages.

Within the academic field of social movement theory, which experienced significant growth in the 1970s and ’80s, scholars were increasingly appreciating how social change happens through what sociologist Sidney Tarrow calls “cycles of contention.” Drawing on the work of theorists including Herbert Blumer and Charles Tilly, the standard academic account holds that movements pass through four stages: emergence, coalescence, bureaucratization, and decline. The last stage is not necessarily negative: movements sometimes are defeated or repressed, but other times they fade away because they have won their key demands.

Outside of academia, a variety of activists have offered thoughts of their own. In the March 9, 1921 edition of Young India, Mohandas Gandhi wrote, “Every good movement passes through five stages: indifference, ridicule, abuse, repression, and respect.” Because Gandhi’s take highlights the likelihood that resistance will be met with a crackdown by authorities, the prospect of progressing through his stages seems less inviting than riding out the academics’ model. But Gandhi believed that dissidents are strengthened by the trials they endure. “Every movement that survives repression, mild or severe, invariably commands respect,” he contended, “which is another name for success.”

In recent years British author and activist Tim Gee has gone so far to propose a four-stage model based on a popular maxim that mirrors Gandhi’s sentiment (and is often misattributed to him): “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”

All of these different models have some value, but they also present problems.

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Category : Organizing | Strategy and Tactics | Blog
18
May

 

Can Frances Fox Piven’s theory of disruptive power create the next Occupy?

Frances Fox Piven at at a national teach-in at Judson Memorial Church in New York in 2011. (Flickr/Pat Arnow)

Frances Fox Piven at at a national teach-in at Judson Memorial Church in New York in 2011. (© Pat Arnow)

By Mark Engler and Paul Engler

Waging Nonviolence, May 7, 2014

Social movements can be fast, and they can be slow.

Mostly, the work of social change is a slow process. It involves patiently building movement institutions, cultivating leadership, organizing campaigns and leveraging power to secure small gains. If you want to see your efforts produce results, it helps to have a long-term commitment.

And yet, sometimes things move more quickly. Every once in a while we see outbreaks of mass protest, periods of peak activity when the accepted rules of political affairs seem to be suspended. As one sociologist writes, these are extraordinary moments when ordinary people “rise up in anger and hope, defy the rules that ordinarily govern their lives, and, by doing so, disrupt the workings of the institutions in which they are enmeshed.” The impact of these uprisings can be profound. “The drama of such events, combined with the disorder that results, propels new issues to the center of political debate” and drives forward reforms as panicked “political leaders try to restore order.”

These are the words of Frances Fox Piven, the 81-year-old Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Sociology at the City University of New York Graduate Center. As co-author, with Richard Cloward, of the classic 1977 treatise, Poor People’s Movements, Piven has made landmark contributions to the study of how people who lack both financial resources and influence in conventional politics can nevertheless create momentous revolts. Few scholars have done as much to describe how widespread disruptive action can change history, and few have offered more provocative suggestions about the times when movements — instead of crawling forward with incremental demands — can break into full sprint.

In recent years, Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring have created renewed interest in such moments of unusual activity. These uprisings have spawned discussion about how activists might provoke and guide other periods of intensive unrest, and also how these mobilizations can complement longer-term organizing. Those coming out of traditions of strategic nonviolence and “civil resistance,” in particular, can find striking parallels between their methods for sparking insurgency and Piven’s theory of disruptive power.

Zuccotti Park is now quiet. The small, sanitized plaza in lower Manhattan has long since returned to being a place where a few employees in the financial district take their lunch. But when it was the home of the founding Occupy encampment, Poor People’s Movements was one of the most fitting titles to be found on the shelves of its free library. And for those interested in refilling America’s public plazas with defiant citizens, the book continues to offer insights difficult to find elsewhere in the literature on social movements.

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Category : Intellectuals | Organizing | Strategy and Tactics | Blog