Species of Revolt: On Revolutionary Organization

by A member of the Red Spark Collective on August 28, 2012

Taken from Advance the Struggle.

Last week’s Everything for Everyone (E4E) conference provided an opportunity for people from diverse tendencies across the country to engage in political discussions and debates in comradely ways.  Seattle was the hosting city of the conference, and it’s also a city in which the past year of struggle has produced a positive culture among diverse revolutionary tendencies that emphasizes in-person discussion of political differences, common work among people with diverging politics, and a holistic infusion of art and culture within the movement.  We all learned a lot from engaging with folks in the Northwest and appreciated the careful attention and labor that comrades have put into maintaining and developing the radical networks that exist.

What follows is a contribution to the discussions around revolutionary organizations and networks that didn’t start in Seattle, but which took important steps forward through the engagement of people from across the country.  Written by a member of the Red Spark Collective, the following piece attempts to address several questions raised by documents discussed at E4E, in addition to debate unleashed during the plenary at the end of the festival.

Species of Revolt

Since everyone’s been talking about revolutionary organizations lately, I’d like to lay out a few thoughts of my own on the subject.  I think it’s important that other members of Red Spark do the same, as we ourselves have key disagreements that need to be openly aired and productively debated.

1. We should approach the role of revolutionary organizations as we might the role of single species within an ecosystem.

It is important to have a great diversity of species in that ecosystem, a few large and complex megafauna, as well as a vast majority of other organisms that are more dispersed, liquid and dense, like the abundant networks of bacteria or fungi undergirding a forest.  No matter what, that revolutionary ecosystem relies on this horizontal network of basic community more than anything.  The disciplined revolutionary organization is, like the vertebrate animal or the flowering plant, a minority when it comes to biomass or number of species—but it has an undeniable ability to expand the bounds of its ecosystem and to cause sea-changes in the basic forms of life possible within it.

The old theory of the vanguard sought to make one species dominant—to grow that species until it incorporated all others.  The result, of course, is a cancer, followed by the intrusion of the desert.  The humans shoot all the wolves and the green fire goes out in their eyes and then the deer overgraze the mountain and starve in next year’s famine, leaving their bones to dry in a dust-locked wasteland. 

The desert always seeks to spread—and we do not counteract it with stillness.  A revolutionary ecosystem, vibrant and alive, seeks to spread as well.  It expands into the desert and reclaims it, not just extending its own species but also germinating the seeds left dormant underneath the sand.

But this is not a simple linear process.  The spreading of the total system is driven as much by healthy conflict as by gentle complement.  Different revolutionary organizations will disagree—the networks undergirding them may, at various points, starve out the organizations or the organizations may overuse their underlying networks, resulting in a progressive turnover and adaptation in species.  We must accept this, and never pretend that any single organization has the answers or that the basic networks underneath could spread without the organizations helping to seed them outward.  Every revolutionary organization must be humble, because eventually it must be destroyed and its corpse eaten by beetles and bacteria.

This metaphor also helps us understand that there are not such harsh distinctions between an organization, affinity group or network.  They co-exist, not just alongside each other but often mixed together.  The mammal makes a nest in the flora while microorganisms exchange nutrients in its breath.  Affinity groups exist within and across collectives, while all draw on the primary energy of basic community networks.  Borders do exist, some more permeable than others.  And every organization, adapted to its particular niche, is going to be more or less permeable depending on the conditions in which it might flourish.

I believe in the essential usefulness of revolutionary networks, affinity groups, communes, organizations, and everything in between.  But every organization must have its own death inscribed into its very essence—none are immortal, save through their participation in the vibrant, exploding life of the ecosystem itself.

And not only organizations participate in this immortality, since it is embedded in the very abrupt discontinuity that marks the growth of the whole ecosystem—something pushed forward in events of insurrection and generalized non-compliance.

2. I frequently ask myself whether Red Spark operates at this moment more as an organization or as a commune (in the Invisible Committee sense of the word). 

We are certainly not “an aspiring cadre organization.”  But we hold to certain rigidity and principle of discipline, and try to further our own education as revolutionaries through active agitation, research and open engagement. We do sometimes seem to fit the description of a commune, with its principles of free exchange, mutual aid, informal discipline through affinity.  We also try not to define ourselves “by what’s inside and what’s outside […] but by the density of ties at [our] core.”  Yet this definition, drawn from The Coming Insurrection, is only partial.  The commune as such extends into the network, into the affinity group, into the individual squatted house as well as the fleeting moment of a riot and the formal meeting of an anarchist international.

Honestly, I think the idea of the commune gets very much at what organizations such as Red Spark or loose networks like Kasama are trying to do.  The goal is not to incorporate everything into our network or our organization—recruitment is an ancillary function, and the organization is not the active mover in the process.  Individuals volunteer to be a part of the organization or network, if they are attracted to them.  We still organize with people from various tendencies who are willing to put effort toward a certain action.  Our study groups include people who are not in Red Spark and probably will never want to be.

The principle behind this is that organizations can function in an active and intentional manner to make the entire community more responsive, and therefore more prone to spontaneous acts of revolt and self-organization.  This is not equivalent to the organization acting as a vanguard to “lead” that community.  “All Power to the Communes” does not mean “All Power to the Party.”

We must remember that revolutionary episodes such as occurred in Spain in the 1930s were often preceded by multiple generations of radical intervention which helped to set up large swaths of antagonistic infrastructure and a general culture of critique and rebellion.  Anarchism was formally introduced to Spain in the 1870s, supposedly by an Italian named Giuseppe Fanelli from Bakunin’s crew who did not speak a word of Spanish.

Sixty years later, the ideas had spread so widely, so much new thought and organization had been invented, so many revolts had been attempted and so much infrastructure had been set up that the wide-ranging radical community, when faced with a fascist coup, were able to arm themselves, seize farms and factories and fight back, even though they were gradually starved out by the Soviets and liberal democrats.

We shouldn’t pretend like organization—under whatever name—played no part in spreading the initial seeds for this blooming of revolutionary energy.  Nor should we pretend that one organization or one individual, like Fanelli, ever could have done it alone.  Clearly, these ideas quickly began to seep in from everywhere, and a thoroughly fucked-over class of poor peasants, miners, and factory laborers seized onto whatever emancipatory thought was nearest them.

We need to engage in complex theory as well as on the ground practice, but the point is never to make sure that the underclass “gets the right ideology” to later use in revolution.  The point is just that whatever emancipatory thought is nearest needs to provide good material to be melted down and forged into a weapon to destroy our rulers—and then that same weapon modified into a tool to bury capitalism’s corpse and plant flowers in the fields made rich by its rot.

3. My participation in Red Spark and in Kasama are driven by these ideas.

I hope that a network like Kasama can encourage critical dialogue between people who hold diverse views, helping them to better their own understanding and helping to seed new networks and organizations all over the country.  I hope that an organization like Red Spark can intervene on a local level, both helping to build the basic networks and infrastructure necessary to bring life back into necrotized capitalist communities, as well as helping to spark conflagrations of revolt, to deepen all ruptures with the status quo.

At the same time, the function of an organization like Red Spark should also be to push for self-discipline and critical research.  We must learn in detail the flows of money and goods through our region.  Who makes the food that we eat?  The goods shipped through our port?  We must learn the details of ownership—which rich men have paid for what and which politicians are employed by which millionaire?  These are the things that a disciplined core of people can band together to find out, immediately spreading that knowledge to others.  This discipline and participation in research also help build that special density necessary to the commune—a characteristic that is key to its territorial victory over the liquid space of capital.

Yet when I say discipline, I do not mean an imposed discipline.  I do not mean the discipline of the master, nor even the soft discipline of the teacher.  I mean instead a type of communal self-discipline.  The discipline of struggle and of friendship.

4. In the end, we must remember that every organization must ultimately die.

This humility is inscribed in Red Spark’s basic structure, built on disagreement and the acknowledgement that we are but one among many.  This organization will one day die, and we can only hope that its corpse offers rich food to new organizations, networks and communes, which together can rise like a green fire over the desert, spilling to its depths and outermost edges.  Drawing up water from the hollows of the earth.  Blooming.

  • David Berger

    Much of this strikes me, as a Marxist of many years standing, as just plain weird. Could you describe, as an example, a significant action that Red Spark engaged in? This will help to judge the relationship between theory and practice.

    David Berger

  • David Berger

    As an interesting point, in the Red Spark Collective Unity Statement posted by Mike E on April 15, 2011 on Kasama, we read:
    Against the plethora of ways people are oppressed, they find a million ways to resist.  From rebellion against murder by the police, to prison strikes for better conditions, to flash mobs, sit-ins, protests, counter-culture, art, the internet, zines, parallel-economy, cop-watches, solidarity networks, fights for reform, law suits, and countless others.

    http://kasamaproject.org/2011/04/15/red-spark-collective-unity-statement/

    It’s instructive that among the “million ways to resist,” apparently strikes or other actions by the working class as the working class do not play a role.”

    David Berger

  • NPC

    David,
    Red Spark participated in the whole gamut of Occupy here in Seattle, from bank occupations to the port shutdown. Unfortunately, that unity statement is outdated, and a new one is on the way.

    Many of us also work with SeaSol to do labor solidarity organizing, which includes strike support for workers. You can read our story on the Davis Wire strike here:
    http://www.redsprk.org/post/27603964815/note-the-names-of-individual-workers-have-been

    Some of us also have organized workers’ councils in our own workplaces and are pushing for the formation of a foodservice federation in Seattle. The goal, in following this sort of program, is first and foremost to experiment–this means participating in a wide range of actions, from pushing for strikes in our own workplaces to cultivating guerrilla gardens in our neighborhoods. And it also means intervening in mass movements like Occupy.

    I admit that the old unity statement did not focus on productive labor much, which is one of the reasons why we are re-writing it. Ultimately, though, I do largely disagree that only the sector of the working class engaged in primary or secondary production plays a key role in struggle. Just as often, elements that vulgar Marxism relegated to the “lumpen” or “surplus” portion of the proletariat acted as the very stimulus which set off cycles of revolution.

    • http://www.planetanarchy.net Pham Binh of Occupy Wall Street, Class War Camp

      Thanks for posting. Before Occupy, I was starting to explore Seattle Solidarity Network’s (SeaSol) organizing model, which I think has a lot going for it.

      Organizing workers “at the point of production” today must also include at the point of sale, distribution, and service. Maybe that’s what you mean by “secondary production”?

      I think what you are saying re: “lumpen” or “surplus” populations is important. A revolutionary movement is one that is well-rounded and organizes everywhere, in every nook and cranny of society, where ever working and oppressed people are, not just or primarily at the point of production. This is especially true when so many of us are unemployed or under-employed. Organizing at the point of production does nothing for the person who has been out of a job for 2+ years whose unemployment is about to run out.

      The old German Social Democratic Party used to have chess clubs and gardens, and the pre-Hitler Communist Party owned taverns for workers to hang out in, talk politics, and grab a beer. They created a subterranean, “proletarian culture” (for lack of a better term, which I know is loaded), and I see co-ops and other initiatives today in the same vein. The difficulty lies in keeping those initiatives linked to the militant organizing and actions (strikes, occupations).

      Whenever that new statement is done, please sent it to thenorthstar.info [at] gmail.com so it can be cross-posted here.

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