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Articles Issue 6

For Diverse Politics; For Diverse Tactics

A coordinator of the CC Committee on Anti-Racism synthesizes the committee’s investigation into abolitionist and anti-imperialist praxis, arguing that a response to proletarian disorganization necessitates the study of diverse political traditions.

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Divide and rule is a fundamental principle in the governance of bourgeois society. Capital’s rule over the world, therefore, involves an abundance of foreign wars, genocides, sanctions, coups, structural adjustment programs, and transnational movements of capital, which decimate and impoverish millions while concentrating wealth in the hands of the few. Some peoples are poor, and others are relatively richer, depending on how capital makes use of them. Capital’s domestic rule in the United States, meanwhile, involves more covert uses of force: violence must be perpetrated behind prison walls, within peripheral neighborhoods, on reservations, at border detention facilities, through matrices of gender, queerness, and disability, or slowly, through hunger, homelessness, and despair. As such, different populations are differentially politicized by the state and capital–they are exposed to distinct methods of control and coercion. 

As communists, we seek to abolish and transcend the rule of capitalist imperialism. The task here is to elaborate a knowledge procedure which will make this goal a realistic possibility. We need a procedure which can produce practical strategies and tactics while at the same time affording the invention of new social possibilities. In short, the task is to define a communist praxis. At the outset, we must reckon our praxis with the diverse heterogeneity of the global proletariat. People would manifest social differences even if we did not live in a world divided by capitalism. However, given capitalism’s ability to divide the masses against themselves, comprehending the different ways in which politics can be known becomes crucial. In fact, acknowledging the distinct political traditions among the masses will afford us manifold political practices and ideas, which may allow us to outthink our capitalist foes. The more we engage with the broader organized left, I argue, the better our ability to discern when and in what ways our concepts and practices are useful. In what follows, I present a formulation of communist praxis, and show how radical politics in our time benefits concretely from our engagement with diverse political traditions.

Politics can be said in many ways. As communists, we draw upon the history of real political movements: movements like Marxism, Pan-Africanism, Anarchism, Feminism, and Indigenism. These terms themselves are all contested; political traditions are in themselves sites of, and forged through, contestations. A political tradition–whereby thought intervenes upon the social world, and thereby upon itself–is by necessity internally heterogeneous. A political tradition involves a multitude of distinct subjectivities, and these subjectivities posit ideas which are true, false, and otherwise. In other words, these collective historical experiences posit bodies of knowledge which are internally diverse. Nevertheless, they can be known—both from the standpoint of a given tradition itself (internally) and from a position which is posterior to the particular tradition (externally). Note that the posterior standpoint must comprehend the specificity of each political tradition, for otherwise its knowledge will be abstract and false. When we properly grasp the specificity and novelty of these political traditions, we take up the communist standpoint.

For instance, in order to comprehend Marxism, it is not enough to be acquainted with a set of theoretical claims attributed to Marx and his compatriots. As Marxists have made their own history, individual Marxists have disagreed over the meaning of Marxism. They have disagreed over strategy, tactics, organizational questions, and fundamental principles. Moreover, it would be too simple to advance one true theoretical heir to Marx in some given historical period. Many theoretical advances in Marxism have been made against Marx. For instance, Lenin’s formulation of the party as a vehicle for communist politics in What is to be Done? contradicts Marx’s customary remarks that economic forces would spontaneously beget such politics. More can be said, too, about the subsequent controversies over the role and nature of the party in Marxism. With that said, the crucial point is that Marxism is not a set of theoretical posits. It isn’t even necessary to acknowledge the claims I’ve made in order to be a Marxist. Instead, comprehending Marxism really entails an individual’s immersion in a social world: it means contact with a form of social life which draws its ideas from the collective history of Marxist political struggles. 

The same must be said for Pan-Africanism, Anarchism, Feminism, Indigenism, and other traditions. Therefore, if we want to produce political thinking through comprehension of these traditions, we must not do so abstractly; we must engage with political traditions concretely, literally in-person. We must, first of all, organize, and then inhabit political organizations and the larger political ecology of our social world. Pulling off this maneuver requires that we detach ourselves from terminology, proper names, and theorizations which obstruct engagement with our diverse world. We cannot let our received ideas, nor our membership in particular organizations, obstruct our access to real political phenomena. We must conduct political inquiry in order to actively produce political knowledge, not in order to reify a hitherto consecrated system of beliefs. Political inquiry at the present time informs our experimentation with organizational methods–it informs praxis.

Politics—defined in opposition to capitalism—entails working on the social relations which undergird our world. Politics organizes the masses; it creates new social ties and solidarities. Capitalism creates and destroys social relations, too, in order to facilitate its development ability. The conflict between communism and capitalism is thus, formally, a contradiction on the terrain of social organization. Bourgeois society is characterized by the fact that social goods and harms are incidental to the accumulation of surplus value. The dynamism of communist politics, meanwhile, results from praxis—that communism enjoins people to think through the material problems of their everyday lives, in order to collectively construct solutions to those problems. People build organizations while concurrently developing practices which negate the logics of the capitalist state. People then iterate on these practices as they are reproduced and generalized—a procedure which fosters political innovations. As such, we become habituated to political thinking, as we also gain the confidence to enter into conflict with capitalist and state forces. In other words, struggle is the crucible in which new political subjects are forged. 

In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire claims that his “defense of praxis implies no dichotomy by which praxis could be divided into a prior stage of reflection and a subsequent stage of action”[1]. This remains true in the present analysis. Thought and practice must be understood as two aspects of praxis–in terms of its essential logic, praxis is thought-practice. Politics as praxis, therefore, has both pedagogical and practical aspects. Politics is practical insofar as it produces a higher degree of proletarian organization–it organizes the masses and enlists them in the construction of new autonomous institutions, or the revitalization of older ones. Politics is also practical insofar as it materially leverages capitalist and state entities and forces them to concede to the people’s demands. 

Meanwhile, politics is pedagogical insofar as it exposes the nature of the capitalist social totality and insofar as it produces expertise among the practitioners of mass work. Praxis, that is, must be devised in order to clarify the prevailing social relations of bourgeois society in the minds of the masses–for example, when a landlord calls the police on tenants during a rent strike, this reveals something about the relationship between real estate capital and policing to tenants and onlookers. It is also through concrete actions that organizers–workers, tenants, migrants, and prisoners among them–develop their skills. Win or lose, the organizers carry their experiences forward to deploy in future struggles. 

By our working definition, the strike is the clearest example of a political phenomenon. To be sure, not all work stoppages are successful, and certainly not all of them are political. Even so, strikes are the most legible means workers have for asserting control over their own lives. Consider the practical and pedagogical aspects of a strike. Practically, workers who withhold their labor from a firm impact its profits. Given that the fundamental imperative of a capitalist firm is to generate profits, workers can use a strike in order to enforce their demands. Moreover, strikes afford an opportunity for workers to organize themselves. Solidarity forges social bonds among the workers, and new forms of collective activity emerge. Historically, strike actions have led to higher levels of labor organization. As Rawick notes, the American strike waves of the 1930s and 40s expanded the unions and, importantly, this all occurred “not because the older unions attempted to organize industrial workers, but in spite of these unions and even against their opposition”[2]. This runs contrary to the notion that labor unions themselves dictate when and how strikes occur–worker self-activity, class struggle, and therefore the strike itself, is the prime mover of the labor movement. 

As the workers organize themselves, moreover, they develop practical and theoretical expertise. Workers come to understand how their personal needs and desires are situated vis-a-vis capital; how to have organizing conversations with their fellow workers; how to facilitate meetings; how to strategize; how to build a political culture; and how to experiment with organizational forms and tactics. Within specific formations, the workers may learn through struggle that certain elements of the union are their adversaries—this, too, is an aspect of the prevailing bourgeois social order. On the other hand, organized workers themselves may conceive of their activities in economistic terms, not comprehending the fact that exploitation is a general phenomenon under capitalist imperialism. A strike in these terms is depoliticized—what it lacks is precisely the pedagogical aspect of praxis. Political thinking and experimentation is highly precarious in any case. Now consider that there are a variety of means by which the state and capital obstruct the ability of the masses to think and learn for themselves.

Politics as praxis comes in many forms. It may look like a picket line, a sit-down strike, a rent strike, a demonstration, a sit-in, a hunger strike, seizure of a prison by its inmates, sabotage, a land occupation, community defense programs, mutual aid programs, or—what tends to be the historical rule—decolonial or civil war. From the standpoint of political organization, however, these events and activities are only the surface culmination of months or decades of quotidian work. The preparation for a rent strike entails meetings, social events, canvassing, political education, power mapping, more social events and more meetings. A land occupation entails meetings, trainings, vigils, social events, and all sorts of creative efforts. Finally, there is no action more tedious than a war—it consists largely of tedium punctuated by frenetic violence. In all cases, what is required are organizers and militants with genuine expertise, devoid of bravado and pretense which would preclude their participation in mass work.

Political organizations and movements foster people’s ability to collectively deliberate and solve problems among themselves. To be clear, collective deliberation is not a parliamentary process. Liberalism obscures the nature of thought by portraying human beings as abstract entities, alienated from their everyday engagement with the existing social world. Politics arises from everyday conditions, and political solutions are formulated to address concrete problems. As such, legislative processes and academic conferences do not exemplify collective deliberation. To be sure, voting is sometimes a procedure for collective deliberation, but voting is neither necessary nor sufficient for it to take place. Collective deliberation sometimes involves manifold administrative procedures, facilitation, meeting rooms, and consent agendas. Sometimes it requires only the courage to speak truth to power. Given that people think, politics requires us to call forth this latent potential from the masses. Practically, what sustains a political formation is the ability of its members to think together, to disagree, to argue with one another, and to retain solidarity regardless.

For DSA Communist Caucus, “The historical problem of our time is proletarian disorganization. We have lost the class institutions and political habits of organized struggle.”[3] As we construct a new politics, we must reckon with the fact that we do so after a decades-long counterrevolution. The lack of mass organizations with an antagonistic orientation towards capital and the state is the first obstacle we must address before an authentic communist politics can emerge. Consider what this means in practice—the vast majority of people suffering under capitalism conceive of their problems as individual, or at most parochial, problems. This falsehood will persist so long as people remain disorganized. Additionally, people lack the political habits necessary in order to participate in collective endeavors. Consider that, for a new member of a tenant union, being wrong in front of dozens of people can be a mortifying experience. For an experienced organizer, meanwhile, this is a mundane event—it is simply part of the process of collective deliberation. Through struggle as a member of a political organization, then, a person comes to realize their own initiative and its efficacy in the world.

Through organizing, the masses can begin to think for themselves, independent from state and capitalist institutions. In other words, for communists, disorganization poses an epistemological or pedagogical problem: the masses are alienated from their ability to think, and they are alienated from the political knowledge developed through the historical experience of the struggle against capitalist imperialism. In fact, revolutionaries have been assassinated or incarcerated, and organizations destroyed, in order to sever these links of knowledge which connect us with the past. Let us consider the ways in which organization affords us knowledge of our social reality. According to the Subset of Theoretical Practice (STP),

What matters to a collective organization can be different than what matters to us individually. For example, someone might say that their life was left unchanged by the election of an authoritarian government, but if by chance they start organizing, for whatever reason, with people for whom the new governmental politics makes a strong difference, the mediating collective now confronts them with a new relevant feature of the world.[4]

Consider other examples. For instance, participation in a labor union might acquaint an individual with gender-based harassment in their workplace which they might never know about otherwise. An organizer can learn about the racist nature of their landlord’s exploitation of tenants through their tenant union. A prisoner can learn that their brutalization by a prison guard is not an exceptional occurrence—and that there is one particular prison guard who is a common culprit. The point is that merely participating in a collective organization affords us political knowledge.

Political organization also affords us knowledge through praxis. That is, knowledge which is a direct result of struggle—knowledge from strike actions, sit-ins, and all the practices mentioned above. Praxis is a tool for testing social reality by transforming it. As Mao says, “If you want to know the taste of the pear, you must change the pear by eating it yourself.”[5]

The nature of the organization involved in the action, moreover, can itself produce distinct kinds of knowledge. Consider, for instance, how the occupation of a school by students protesting a lack of funding might be organized. Depending on whether the school occupation is undertaken by an anarchist group, or one which develops its strategies through assemblies with other nearby schools, this will set different parameters on what methods and tactics the campaign employs. The anarchist group would be more decentralized and more prepared to perform insurrectionist tactics. The assembly-based group would be relatively more coordinated and prepared to build a constituency among parents and teachers—however, this group might be prone to lapse into depoliticized advocacy work. Crucially, these different organizational forms produce different viewpoints on the social reality of the school administration, the city government, and the lack of funding for the school. Through their different strategic orientations and tactics, they can determine distinct leverage points or bottlenecks within the state institutions they confront.

Different political knowledge can also be produced depending upon how the group of protestors is composed. As STP writes, “A school occupation organized by poor black students in a peripheral neighborhood will […] serve as a much better ‘social sensor’ to the presence or absence of police cars than the occupation of middle class white students.”[6] On the other hand, if the school occupation is organized by students who are primarily migrants, they will serve as a better social sensor to the presence of border patrol and immigration forces. If one of their classmates gets deported, this will layer a contradiction on top of the antagonism caused by school defunding. Different populations, that is, are differentially politicized by the state and capital. Different sectors of the working class are exposed to distinct methods of domination. This follows from the fact that divide and rule is a fundamental principle in the governance of bourgeois society. Rather than letting this strategy divide us, however, we communists must maintain solidarity with all populations among the masses and use the fact of differential treatment under capitalism to inform our own strategies.

We are aware, therefore, of how membership in an organization affords us knowledge of the world we live in. Let us now consider the ways in which political knowledge comes from outside of our particular organization. The first kind of knowledge is historical knowledge—we must be informed by the collective historical experience of the struggle against capitalist imperialism. There are a number of ways to access this knowledge, such as reading texts which document this history or compose a part of this history itself, or listening to our political elders as they discuss their past experiences. We will have better or worse access to this history depending upon our own conceptual schemas and our immersion within a particular political tradition.

For example, membership in a Marxist organization entails that a person organizes in a Marxist political lineage. The concept of “class struggle” makes particular social phenomena—such as labor strikes and rent strikes—more legible as political struggles to the Marxist mind. The concept of “decolonization,” meanwhile, makes the struggle against police terror and mass incarceration more legible to the Black political mind. The latter claim is demonstrated by the fact that there are no serious Black political organizations which do not organize against police violence to some extent, and the relative lack of Marxist organizing on this front. Membership in a particular political organization—Marxist or otherwise—should not limit our conceptual schema or what phenomena are politically salient to us. This runs counter to the pedagogical practices of some organizations, which require their membership to profess this or that theoretical dogma. Organizations to this day belabor the question “What is Marxist, really?” like politics at the present time demands our urgent answer. The better question is: how can we use Marxist concepts to understand social phenomena, in order to inform our strategies for political struggle? The point is that we should take advantage of our immersion in a political tradition to facilitate our access to the best knowledge that the tradition can afford us. We should not let our conceptual schema limit our access to phenomena which are unaccounted for by the schema.

The final kind of political knowledge comes from our engagement with political organizations and traditions outside of our own. Once we are practically involved in organizing, it is necessary to make contact with the rest of our social world to the greatest degree possible. As STP puts it, “a political organization is capable of producing new points of view on the social world […] in direct proportion to this organization’s connection to a political ecology or a larger political movement”[7]. Consider an example. Insofar as we maintain relationships with indigenous political movements, they can help us sharpen our analysis of capitalist ecological devastation and the resistance to it. The Dakota and Lakota peoples who resisted the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock, for instance, have theoretical and practical expertise which ought to inform the communist movement as a whole. As such, we should learn from them and fight alongside them when new struggles break out. To be clear, we must not fetishize a mystical indigenous connection to the land—which would entail substituting an abstract conception of Native people for the real work involved in maintaining concrete relationships with them. We must, instead, acknowledge the expertise of indigenous peoples, and credit their historical experience before and during colonization, in order to access the body of indigenous revolutionary knowledge which Native peoples have developed over time.

The forces of capitalist development which attack indigenous peoples are the same forces which attack the natural environment. With few exceptions, the practices of indigenous peoples facilitate an understanding that the land cannot be commodified. As Subcomandante Marcos of the EZLN claims, for indigenous people “the land is not merchandise, but it has cultural, religious, and historic connotations.”[8] The cultural practices of indigenous peoples literally embed them in the earth: as Tasunka Witko, Crazy Horse, said “My land is where my dead lie buried.” So understood, the land and the beings who inhabit it have a fundamental significance. But capitalism must eliminate any social force which would contest the land’s enclosure. Thus, #NoDAPL was a struggle over the meaning of the land. As Nick Estes writes, “Because Native people remain barriers to capitalist development, their bodies needed to be removed—both from beneath and atop the soil—therefore eliminating their rightful relationship with the land” [9].

My suggestion is that Marxists should literally seek to hold meetings and actions with indigenous organizers, to the extent it is practically feasible for both parties. We must engage in praxis alongside Native people. Marxists must organize the masses and engage concretely with political milieus outside of their own. Marxism at its best has been enlightened by manifold international political traditions. At the same time, the Black radical tradition, feminist and queer politics, and decolonial movements worldwide have drawn upon Marxist praxis. The social distinction between Marxism and other revolutionary movements at the present time is, in fact, a symptom of Marxism’s contemporary disorganization. Ultimately, we must adopt the communist standpoint which allows unfettered movement between different political traditions, in order to access the theoretical and practical techniques they can provide to us.  

Openness to different political traditions does not, however, authorize our being intellectually or practically permissive. All political traditions produce organizations which ape the aesthetics and linguistic signifiers of that tradition, without producing praxis. In fact, depoliticized organizations—organizations which specifically do not connect with a larger political movement—come from all political lineages. Our ability to discern whether or not a specific organization is political will actually improve as we continue to investigate diverse political forms and theorizations. Additionally, the growing strength of our political organizations will allow us to hold more and more contradictions within each group, and within the larger political movement as a whole. In other words, for a political organization, the extent of the camaraderie among its members, the commitment of its organizers, and its accumulated practical and theoretical expertise, is what dictates its ability to overcome the obstacles posed by capitalism. The same is true on a larger scale for the movement against the capitalist empire as a whole. Therefore, we must cultivate relationships across various organizations and traditions, and construct concrete practices which bring together different elements of the movement.

Edit: go to the DSA forums to continue the discussion! https://discussion.dsausa.org/t/for-diverse-politics-for-diverse-tactics/32640


[1] Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968), p. 123.

[2] George Rawick, “Working Class Self-Activity” (1969), A “Radical America” Reader, p. 145.

[3] DSA Communist Caucus, “Our Moment: Disorganization as the Problem of Our Time” (2022). Available from: https://communistcaucus.com/our-moment/

[4] Subset of Theoretical Practice, “Working Through Political Organization: Current Results of the Subset of Theoretical Practice (2021–2022),” p. 348. Available from: https://www.crisiscritique.org/storage/app/media/nov-25/subset-of-theoretical-practice.pdf

[5] Mao Zedong, “On Practice” (1937). Available from: https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/mao/selected-works/volume-1/mswv1_16.htm

[6] Subset of Theoretical Practice, ibid., p. 354.

[7] Subset of Theoretical Practice, ibid., p. 352.

[8] Subcomandante Marcos, “Chiapas: the Thirteenth Stele – Part Two: A Death” (2003). Available from: https://www.narconews.com/Issue31/article833.html

[9] Nick Estes, Our History is the Future: Standing Rock versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance (2019), p. 47.

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