Mike Ely’s Three Tier Model of Communist Mobilization

Mike Ely of Kasama has a great post, “What a Communist Beginning Might Look Like”, describing his “three tier” model of communist organization. The model is based on three different “levels of projects” that, while relatively independent, would feed into and mutually support each other.

He calls the first level the “Iskra project”, after the pre-Soviet Russian socialist newspaper. The purpose of this project is to provide a forum for “conscious revolutionaries” to engage each other in theoretical and strategic discussion, to “clarify their levels of unity and their forms of organization”. It would furthermore serve as an attractive force for marginal and inchoate radicals, drawing them into explicit and relatively unified organizational activity.

He clarifies the way this would relate to existing leftist segmentarity in the comments:

A new revolutionary movement will not (cannot) emerge from some “unity of the existing left” project — for all kinds of reasons that are worth discussing. … I don’t think we are limited to two choices: a) try to unite the current existing trends into one mash, or b) stay divided up along the currently existing silos.

On the contrary, I think both of those approaches would be a deadend and a waste of time. And i think that most of the “raw material” for a new revolutionary movement is outside the existing left silos. And I think the form and functioning of those silos make it harder to connect with many people. …

The truly hard part is not reproducing the forms that have seem familiar and comfortable for us, i.e. for the “left activists.” Once you climb out of a once-attractive silo — there is a strong pull to re-form something quite like it. And many people joined organizations assuming that someone (somewhere?) had figured out what to do — and realizing that wasn’t so means assuming a great deal of new responsibility.

I find that a great many people have never really confronted what it means when you don’t yet have a revolutionary movement or an organized revolutionary core — because suddenly the initiation (and before that the preconception) is itself a difficult series of conceptual and collective tasks. No autopilot here.

While I agree that both unification and coalition of existing leftist factions are basically bankrupt strategies, I think he’s a bit too heavy-handed in his treatment of the faction-problem here (and to be fair, that may be out of haste). I absolutely agree that, for the most part, allying oneself with a faction defined by a hard-set theoretico-strategic core is a weak move, a way of avoiding the real burden of collectively negotiating strategy and revising theoretical attitudes in the process of revolutionary organization (what Kasama has referred to as the “reconceive as we regroup” strategy). If there is one non-negotiable commitment at the core of communist politics, one that I hope could be shared across libertarian-socialist spectrum, it is that the form of revolutionary organization can only be determined collectively by those involved in its emergence. (Even hardcore Leninists hold this commitment, be it in a qualified form.) The sectarian temptation is ultimately a betrayal of this core commitment, insofar as it discharges this burden by exempting certain commitments from collective evaluation, and thereby isolating those holding said commitments from a possible collective organization of the revolutionary movement at large. The foundation of the Iskra project must be, as Ely suggests, a forum in which a commitment to collective “unity” (although that word might be a bit strong) takes precedence over all other commitments. This certainly doesn’t mean that there cannot be disagreements about strategic and organizational matters, nor that such disagreements must be resolved either by democratic majority decision or by consensus-building.

Nonetheless, I think Ely is hasty when he says that “most of the “raw material” for a new revolutionary movement is outside the existing left silos.” I don’t think building a unified radical left based on more than a minimal common ground amongst different antagonistic sects must require the abandonment of sectarianized positions. Rather, there are compelling and potentially valuable ideas within almost all of these positions, ideas that should not be prejudicially dismissed but that should be tested, revised, and retested by a non-sectarian movement. Thus, while I agree with Ely that the alternative of either a new popular front or continuing sectarian division is a false choice, I don’t think his option of building a new movement outside these positions that can gradually draw people away from their sectarian commitments is quite right either. Rather, I think we need to encourage radicals to “weaken the walls” of their silos, to undermine the sectarian tendency while recovering potentially valuable elements of their position; and even to undermine their sectarianism on the basis of such elements, to discover non-sectarian commitments implicit in their positions. The Iskra forum should be a place in which leftists of different orientations can share the bases of their different commitments without needing to exempt these commitments from revision, and without fearing prejudicial rejection. It should resemble a front, but only insofar as the different positions it brings together undergo a gradual erosion of their divisive boundaries. (This is easier said than done, but that’s no reason not to try.)

Ely seems to lean in my direction to some extent in his description of Iskra, despite the ambiguity of his clarification:

The Iskra audience is conscious or aspiring revolutionaries. It provides a scaffolding alongside which organization can be developed. It starts as a process of discussions among revolutionaries — within which a communist pole can be seen and out of which distinct trends can develop — where radical views can be seen in engaged contradiction to each other, and where such clarifications can (hopefully) help a whole new generation of radicals develop their views and build  organized formations to implement and test those views.

Moving on, the second level is the “Pravda project”, also named after a Russian socialist newspaper. Yet whereas Iskra is concerned with intra-revolutionary theoretical and organizational concerns, Pravda’s purpose is to branch out beyond “conscious and aspiring revolutionaries” to those who are not committed to revolutionary change, but who ought to see such change as being in their interest.

we need to develop a popular way of delivering news and analysis to large numbers of people in a way that connects with them and helps bring them to an increasingly revolutionary understanding of the world and their own role.

Pravda aims to awaken and cultivate working class consciousness. Its goal is the dissemination of propaganda, or information whose intention is to influence the attitudes of its audience toward a particular position. Yet rather than relying on misinformation or the perpetuation of irrational, unjustified prejudices, Pravda’s propaganda should rely on strictly factual content presented so as to show how revolutionary change is in the rational interest* of working people (and ultimately, all people). The wager here is that while opinions are often irrational, that people can be persuaded to adopt rationally justified opinions.

Ely leaves the structure of Pravda even less determined than that of Iskra, stating only that we must determine how it will differ from more mainstream leftist media sources, as well as from those that “preach to the converted”, publications intended for those already committed to radical politics. He does stipulate, however, that a crucial task of initiating this Pravda project will be

[t]he discovery of a really-existing potential audience … you can’t start to apply the mass line on a broad scale without the accretion of a revolutionary people out of real cracks, pockets and radical divergences within the political landscape.

The third level would be composed of “a series of Faultline projects”,

in which communists and revolutionaries organize (and reorganize) themselves to deeply engage the struggles of oppressed people along key (objectively existing) faultlines of the society.

Such organization will depend on the internal strategic coherence produced by the Iskra, applying it to positive engagement with external concerns. The goal, moreover, is not to takeover struggles, insisting on the imposition of its own terms, but on providing assistance and encouraging the exacerbation of these struggles. Ely’s words here are perfect:

It is a matter of actually engaging, participating in, building, where necessary initiating and helping to transform the struggles against key crimes of this system — especially those that have the potential for actually drawing significant sections of the people into political life (in ways that collide with this system and its status quo). Revolution requires material force overthrowing material force — and revolutionaries need to actually organize material forces (prepare minds and organize forces) even in a non-revolutionary situation. Preparation for future crisis is not solely (or even mainly) a mental/theoretical preparation among revolutionaries — but also involves preparing networks, connections, alliances, core forces, as well as ideas that can bind millions under unforeseen new situations.

All in all, I think Ely’s strategic schema is immensely interesting and worthy of further development, discussion, and attempted implementation. While it isn’t perfect and needs modifications, I think this is more a result of its incompleteness than serious structural flaws. I hope to see some further developments.

* Rational interest is by no means equivalent to “rational self-interest”. It requires more philosophical justification than I can provide at the moment, but one of the wagers of my interpretation of Marx is that construing “rationality” in individualistic terms of utility maximization is an illegitimate distortion of the concept and its whole Enlightenment legacy. While self-interest is non-negligible, it ultimately supervenes on collective interest, which itself relies on the abstract scaffolding of the formal collectivity of all possible rational agents, or the “institution of rationality” in general. I’ve written a bit on this in the past, and hope to develop it in greater detail in my doctoral research. Nonetheless, I hope it suffices for the time being to insist that rationality is irreducible to individualist prejudices.

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6 Responses to Mike Ely’s Three Tier Model of Communist Mobilization

  1. Mike E says:

    I’m glad you found this discussion of interest. And I’m looking forward to digging into your views on this.

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