Party/movement-building as a tapestry of multiple approaches


The clear bead at the center changes everything,
There are no edges to my loving now

— Rumi

Left groups expend energy proclaiming their organizing approach is best as they compete over market share of potential recruits.  None of that might matter at all.  All methods might be valid simultaneously.  Rather than an idealistic hippie handwave, though, I’m going to visit each one and prove it below.

First, when some Leftists speak of the formation of the “historic Party,” we mean something like “the revolutionary subject,” ie a theoretical future emergence of an organized mass demographic capable of overturning capitalism and building socialism.  It could eventually merge into one organization; in practice it may remain formally divided into a webwork or movement of many semi-cooperating groups.

All efforts serve the role of bringing and keeping different scenes of people together, ultimately into one vast movement capable of systemic change.

Now, I’ll break the approaches into three categories, and then go into how all of them fit into the big picture.

Category 1: Traditional, Political-Organizing Approaches

  • Education
  • Organizing study circles, largely on campuses
  • Agitation, ie leafleting in workplaces
  • Organizing demographic-specific movements
  • Unions, solidarity networks, tenants’ unions
  • Reform campaigns
  • Organizing and distributing a publication – newspaper, magazine, website
  • Demonstrations
  • Writing & polemics
  • Unions as insurance organizations
  • Long-term construction of an organization
  • Interfaith, age groups, rural focus
  • Tabling, leafleting, canvasing, doorknocking
  • Elections as one of many, but not the only defining, tactic
  •               — Front with another party, or standing alone as your own

I have shied away from engaging in much of these traditional organization-building tactics too much myself lately, seeing them as either inherently futile, inherently impossible and inaccessible for ordinary people, or inherently corrupt, but I still think they’re partially okay, and will explore my conflicted relationship with them after I touch on all three categories.

Many of these tactics were lifted from the book Building the Party, about building the Bolsheviks in the buildup to the Russian revolution.  The core insights I got from that book were as follows:

  1. have a group that actually specifies having a clear radical political ideology instead of a vague scene with no specific ideology that just does activist issues
  2. have this group actually ask people to join as formal members
  3. view this as a decades-long project
  4. understand that capitalism undergoes cyclic economic, political and social crises that will take groups that undergo small, slow growth for long periods of time, and blow them up into mass organizations suddenly over a short period of time
  5. fight for reforms but don’t water your shit down with reformist liberalism

To be clear these “mass organizations” are not necessarily electoral parties (though they can participate in elections as one of many tactics)…for example the main purpose of being a member of the Bolsheviks was not to vote, it was to do labor organizing and ultimately to seize the means of production.  They did still, sometimes, vote; it just wasn’t their core reason for existing.

Category 2: Non-Traditional, Politicized-Socializing Approaches

  • politicized socializing
  • protest as a form of entertainment/partying
  • militant disruptive demonstrations with militants
  • peaceful marches with liberals
  • partying as a form of politics
  • nihilistic lefting Internet shitposting social networking and memeing
  • drama and conflict, themselves, are also forms of party/movement-building, energizing communities around debates, shit-talking, and while split in half, nonetheless strengthen themselves as two very coherent communities

Categories 2 and 3 work because of something called “social network theory,” linked to here.

social network theory

Category 3: pure spontaneity and immersion

As Leftists, we spread our ideology through our mere life processes of our personal circulation, socialization, dialogue, proximity, osmosis, contagion, exposure, and encounter with others.

This literally means, don’t even do anything.  Just be yourself.  Just be a person.  Do what you do.  Go to work, or don’t.  Just do whatever you do as a person.  Have the conversations you have, the conversations you would have anyway.  Don’t even try.  Because you don’t even have to try.  You are a leftist, and as such, you are contagious spontaneously.

walking dead zombie blood
Go with the flow, blend in with the herd

Sometimes it makes sense for Leftists to expend a lot of energy – and sometimes they make the mistake of expending nearly all their energy – on debates and advocacy about what direction a movement should be going.

Instead sometimes it makes sense, instead, to take the exact dead opposite approach, and completely abandon any care or control over what direction a movement goes, and simply immerse yourself completely in it, to build relationships in it as deeply as possible by delving yourself in it as deeply in its activity as possible by utterly abandoning all other routines.  This builds genuine deep connections that will from then on last a lifetime, and cohere an actual Left demographic out of shared experiences of significant real events.

Don’t worry about the direction.  Just help it do whatever it’s doing.  Just be part of it.  Become it.  Organized leftists who are part of groups often feel like outsiders looking in on the big spontaneous movements that happen.  You don’t have to.  You can just abandon all reserve and sink yourself as deep into the center as you can sink, forgetting all other political responsibilities.  Become it.  That’s how it’s done.

Most tactics are pointless/some tactics may have unpredictable success/all tactics are networking

I have wavered back and forth between Leninism and nihilist communism in my organizational theory/strategy, ie, build the party (category 1) vs. don’t even try (category 3).  Somewhere in the middle is a sort of grey area, ie build the party by socializing (category 2).  The main thing I believe in unwaveringly is building the historic Party, it’s just a question of which technique.

Maybe a lot of struggles under capitalism aren’t as doomed as I think they are.  Still, I’ll provoke you with the idea that a lot of them are.  This means that most activism is just deceptive social networking with zero hope of achieving its stated aims, accomplishing nothing EXCEPT gathering, consolidating, maintaining, and expanding the Left demographic, but VITAL for that reason alone.

So paradoxically — most activism is pointless for its stated purpose, but actually pretty useful for a completely different, coincidentally all-important purpose.  That works out, I guess.

nihilist exhausting

It’s also true that, in reality, we will never know how successful a movement really will be until it succeeds or fails.  We don’t know the future.  Movements may be pointless, or they may be fruitful.  There’s no point in moralizing with people for not showing up or working hard at them, because they may all be for nothing.  There’s no point in calling people crazy or misguided for throwing themselves completely into them, because they may be completely right, all their work may pay off.  We truly have no clue.  These things are decided chaotically by chance circumstances of history – no one can predict whether a movement will spontaneously explode into mass character, or when, etc.

Likewise, if a “socialist” group is “doing work” but not actually going into depth and providing clarity for people, perhaps it is consolidating a vague “demographic” but not actually sharpening what that demographic stands for, then perhaps all the “work they’re doing” doesn’t mean anything at all and is just a lot of effort being expended for nothing.  We must not make a religion out of doing work for the sake of doing work, if that work is not connected to a deepening of in-depth, explicitly anti-capitalist literacy.  After all, yes, we must go into depth, because there is no substitute for working-class self-government.  Lots of Christian and liberal organizations do charity work for example, and lots of liberal groups and nonprofit groups do single-issue activist work, but none of this brings us any closer to the real systemic change we need.

When more approaches are appreciated, no group can dominate

One thing recognizing the validity of all approaches accomplishes is, on the one hand, a non-divisive acknowledgement that everyone contributes something.  However, it also serves as a counterweight against leading groups who get top dog syndrome, get too full of themselves, and begin to boss the rest of the Left around.  They begin to smoke their own supply and tell themselves that their method is the One Way, Truth and the Light, and bossily insist to everyone else that it is, too.  Recognizing the validity of every method allows such victims of star sickness to be circumvented and the balance of the community to be restored.


Whoever happens to be top dog changes from day to day.  Whoever this framework happens to be useful against, or useful for, will continuously shift.

It requires you to find balance:

If you think what you are doing is important, because you are adding to the overall picture, then it will reaffirm you.

If you think what you are doing is important, because you are the special unique only one, it might plant seeds of doubt, or force you to double-check and make sure you’re certain of that.  Maybe it turns out you’re just one more contributor among many, and you need to accept this as a vitally necessary role.

Tactical Literacy

What we really need is for everyone in the movement, to have a well-rounded critical understanding of every single approach, both its benefits and its limitations, what is radical about it and where it falls short, and where extra pressure or criticism needs to be applied.

Does this sounds excessive?  Every single person understand every single tactic?

No, it’s really not.  This is what it means to have a democratic movement.  A movement can’t be democratic unless everyone is fully capable of strategizing.  A person can’t be capable of strategizing unless they understand all the tools in the toolbox.

Is this a bit perfectionist?  Yes.  And we should always appreciate partial improvements, partial victories.  If a group is only doing some of this, but doing it well, or even half-decently, that’s to be celebrated.  If a person only understands some of these things, or you teach them part of it but not all of it, that’s a victory too.

But ultimately we should continually keep up the pressure to push for that well-rounded understanding of everything.  Perhaps it will be done organically, just by keeping up a culture of informal discussion and shooting the shit at the bar after meetings.  Even if we never fully get there, maximizing our awareness of the full potential that is possible will create maximum improvement in that direction.  Visualizing higher possibilities motivates better results.

The Tapestry

At about 45:40, you can hear Anand Gopal say what I transcribed below during his speech at the Jacobin forum Anti-Inauguration.

“A single protest, as important as they are, has never changed anything.  The social movements that have linked protest, that is the lifeblood of resistance.  That is the only thing that has ultimately ever changed anything.  By that I mean

  • Civil disobedience
  • Boycotts
  • Sit-ins
  • Prison solidary networks
  • Abortion funds
  • Sanctuary spaces

All of it, because resistance isn’t a moment, resistance, isn’t a state of mind.  Resistance is a tapestry, which is collective and enduring.  It’s so enduring that the status quo cannot sleep at night.  At the height of the Vietnam war, when LBJ was campaigning, every place that he went, every public appearance he made, there were protests and sit-ins, to the point that he couldn’t make public appearances anymore, and it was in the context of public opinion quickly turning again him.  And he decided not to run for re-election.  That is what resistance looks like.  That is what we need.”

When it comes to party/movement-building, repeated or persistent action may, or may not, produce exponential results.  Examine past data, conditions, and instances.

Some methods are especially pointless, and sometimes you just can’t bite your tongue.  But to denounce your non-preferred approaches can be unnecessarily divisive at other times, because all of us form a complementary whole that succeeds in reaching out to different people through different methods.  There are unique groups of people, all of whom are best reached by each unique method, meaning each method apparently matters in some way, somehow, by connecting to someone out there.

All the particles form a pattern.


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