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  1. The role of the revolutionary press

    May 2, 2013

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    Note: This post is based on the transcript of a talk I gave at a recent branch meeting of the International Socialist Organization in Detroit.

    In December 1964, Malcolm X gave a speech at Harlem’s Audubon Ballroom.  In one of his most famous statements, he told his audience,

    If you aren’t careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed and loving the people who are doing the oppressing…[The oppressor] fighting you in the morning, fighting you in the noon, fighting you at night and fighting you all in between, and you still think it’s wrong to fight him back. Why? The press. The newspapers make you look wrong. As long as you take a beating, you’re all right. That’s the press. That’s the image-making press. That thing is dangerous if you don’t guard yourself against it.

    I open with this quote because I feel like it’s the most eloquent and straightforward argument for revolutionaries to control their own press.

    I’m going to spend my time in this talk trying to broadly outline the case for a revolutionary newspaper, to describe its role and its close relationship with the task of building a mass, revolutionary socialist party.  In particular, I want to highlight some notable past examples of revolutionary newspapers, and outline the three elements of the revolutionary socialist press–that is, the newspaper as a collective propagandist, agitator, and organizer.


    There’s a long tradition of revolutionary movements creating their own presses through which to spread their ideas and organize their movement.  During the French Revolution of 1789-1799, Jean-Paul Marat, a famous supporter of the Jacobin Club, founded the paper the L’Ami du peuple (“The Friend of the People”) to argue in favor of continuing the revolutionary struggle.  It quickly became the best selling paper in Paris.

    Leading figures of the revolutionary socialist tradition have always had a close relationship with the revolutionary press, beginning with Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.  Together they the Neue Rheinische Zeitung (“The New Rhenish Newspaper”), to argue in defense of the German revolutionary movement of 1848.  The German revolutionaries Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht founded the paper Die Rote Fahne (“The Red Flag”) during the height of the German Revolution in 1918 as the organ of the Spartacus League, which later became the Communist Party of Germany.  Lenin co-founded the paper Iskra (or “The Spark”) and later Pravda (“The Truth) to lay the political and organization foundations for the Russian revolutionary movement.  The Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci founded the paper L’Ordine Nuovo (“The New order”) in 1919 with union support, and became the organ of the 1920 strike wave and factory occupation movement in the auto-factory town of Turin.  New Order eventually became the official newspaper of the Italian Communist Party, and was later shut down by Mussolini.

    blackpantherThe United States also has its own history of revolutionary newspapers.  William Lloyd Garrison’s paper The Liberator, for instance, explicitly called for the abolition of slavery.  In 1851, the former slave Frederick Douglass began publishing The North Star, an abolitionist paper that not only pursued the rights of Blacks, but also the rights of women, carrying the motto: “Right is of no Sex – Truth is of no Color – God is the Father of us all, and we are all brethren.”

    In 1967 the Black Panther Party started their newspaper The Black Panther.  By 1969 the Party grew to over 10,000 members.  Every member of the organization was expected to read the paper, and sell it at demonstrations, schools, colleges, etc.  Every paper was printed along with the party program, which called for–among other things–free healthcare, free housing, free food, free education, and the exemption of every Black male from service in the U.S. military.  It had a nationwide paper circulation of 250,000 a week.

    Following Detroit’s Great Rebellion of June 1967, a group of Black militants in Detroit began printing Inner City Voice.  The masthead dubbed the paper, “The voice of the revolution,” and “Detroit’s Black community newspaper.”  The founders of the paper had an explicit strategy for using the paper to “articulate what was already in the streets” and act as “a vehicle for political organization, education, and change.”  The paper sought to be a “positive response to the Great Rebellion”–what they referred to as the “general strike of ‘67”–and to “report what was already in the streets.”  They focused heavily on the intersections of racism and class struggle.  Consider this June 1968 front page story:

    “Black workers are tied day in and day out, 8-12 hours a day, to a massive assembly line, an assembly line that one never sees the end or the beginning of but merely fits into a slot and stays there…[T]he white racist and bigoted foremen…[and] the double-faced, back stabbing of the UAW have driven black workers to a near uprising state…In the wildcat strikes the black workers on the lines do not even address themselves to the UAW’s Grievance Procedure.  They realize that their only method of pressing for their demands is to strike and to negotiate at the gates of industry.”

    The ICV had a difficult time finding a willing printer in Detroit, and had to have the paper printed and shipped from Chicago.  But in 1968, supporters of the paper took over the editorial staff of Wayne State University’s student newspaper, The South End.  Supported by public subsidies to the university, The South End was transformed from a normal student paper–reporting the latest details of college sports and Greek life–into an explicitly revolutionary organ.  Two black panthers were placed on the masthead, and the official motto of the paper became, “One Class-Conscious Worker Is Worth 100 Students.”  They did this with a taxpayer subsidized printing budget of over half a million dollars (in today’s US dollar), and an annual salary for the editor-in-chief of over $16,000.

    Far from being a relic of the past, made obsolete by the internet, the tradition of radical, activist journalism continues today. When the Occupy movement broke out, activists quickly organized popular print papers such as the Occupied Wall Street Journal, Occupied Chicago Tribune, Boston Occupier, Occupied Oakland Tribune, and others.



    In the Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels argued that the prevailing ideas in every society are the ideas of the ruling class.  Today this might seem really apparent.  All around us we see apologism for poverty and unemployment, alongside rampant racism, sexism, homophobia, and jingoism–all advanced by the ruling class’s media, press, schools, churches, etc.  But does this that hope for the revolution is doomed?

    Consciousness is not a static, frozen thing.  People have a mixed consciousness, shaped on the one hand by tools of the ruling class, but by people’s concrete experiences on the other.  For the mass of exploited and oppressed people, it is these experiences that give them the potential to develop a revolutionary class consciousness that can prepare them to struggle for their own emancipation and rebuild and lead a new society.  It is because of this potential that we have seen a gradual upsurge in struggle over the past couple of years that is pushing forward people’s class consciousness.

    But this doesn’t at all guarantee that revolution is inevitable–the spontaneous, rebellious energy of exploited and oppressed people does not automatically lead to revolution.  If that were true then we would already be living under socialism.  Occupy would have grown into a massive revolutionary movement, etc.

    Because consciousness isn’t fixed and static, the ruling class is constantly in a battle for the hearts and minds of the working class and oppressed.  If revolutionaries aren’t organized to fight for their ideas, than other people’s ideas will win out and contain the struggle.  Whose ideas?  The Democrats, the conservative trade union bureaucrats, non-profits married to the Democratic Party, etc.

    Spontaneous energy creates the potential for revolutionary consciousness, therefore, but those revolutionary elements have to be organized into a cohesive force that successfully compete with other forces, and bring all the more timid elements forward.  Those revolutionary forces have to organize wider and broader sections of society in order to match and overcome the power of the ruling class.

    This isn’t just a task for future generations of revolutionary activists, but the task immediately facing us today, with real stakes in today’s struggles.

    Consider, for instance, if we had an organization of 50 or 100 socialists, rooted in struggle, active during the protests against right-to-work.  Recall the anger on display at the protests as union members confronted police, and right wing counter protestors.  There was real potential for a far more militant confrontation than what the conservative union bureaucrats were willing to commit themselves to.  With a stronger, more organized network of revolutionaries, things could have been very different, but without that kind of organization, influence over the protest was maintained by the union leadership and the protests and anger were contained into voting for Democrats again in 2014.

    We can think of plenty of other instances, too.  Consider if we had 50 or 100 militants organized during the beginning of the local Occupy movement, or during the protests against the murder of Trayvon Martin, etc., etc.

    So it’s clear that the work we do has a real impact in the here-and-now, and the task of building a revolutionary organization is immediately on the agenda.

    In order to build that kind of organization, revolutionaries have to connect their ideas with the experience of that militant layer of the oppressed and exploited people–what we can call a vanguard element. As we know, this is a layer that is now starting to grow.  The experiences of the past several years: the economic crisis, austerity, the resurgence of protests and strikes, disappointment with the Democrats, etc., have created a whole new layer of people looking for a new direction.  There are lots of different places to meet these folks: on the street or at a demonstration.

    The paper is a tool for connecting our ideas with these militants’ experiences.  Marxism the theory of working class self emancipation.  It is a scientific theory rooted in the experience of the working class and oppressed.  Because of that it is much more capable of explaining working class people’s experience than that of the liberal and bourgeois presses.  Therefore, the revolutionary press must be rooted in Marxist theory.

    How we connect our ideas to people’s experiences will be different at different times–depending on a number of factors: the balance of class forces, the level of organization, whether working-class and oppressed people are on the defensive, or on the offensive, etc.  (There is a whole lot of history and theory behind revolutionary journalism that is incredibly fascinating, but falls out of the range of this particular discussion.)

    It is not enough for the paper to simply explain the world. It must also be a guide to action.  The paper should intervene in the debates facing the movements of the day, and this is why the paper has to be more than simply observations from the sideline.  Contributors to the paper should be activists in the struggle, commenting on the movement’s developments, and arguing for the way forward.

    Finally, we want to do more than just win people over to the idea of socialism, or to more militant activism.  The revolutionary press needs to be a tool for organizing the readership into a political force that can have an impact on today’s struggles, take them forward, and build a revolutionary movement.  This is why Lenin called the revolutionary press not just a “collective propagandist and a collective agitator,” but also a “collective organizer.”  As Lenin put it,

    “In this last respect it may be likened to the scaffolding around a building under construction, which marks the contours of the structure and facilitates communication between the builders, enabling them to distribute the work and to view the common results achieved by their organised labour.”

    In other words, the paper not only brings developing militants into the organized socialist movement, but also develops those who are already cadre by giving them a whole view of the organization and the movements on the ground, so they can assess the work, develop their own ideas and project arguments for how to take the movement forward.

    The revolutionary press provides a consistent flow of communication between militants separated geographically, helps them to generalize the different experiences of those militants, and also provides a consistent outlet for militants to go out and engage their audience outside–to find out what people are thinking and saying on the street: are they open to socialist ideas? Are they hostile to them? What kind of questions do they have? Are they for “bread-and-butter issues,” but hesitant to fight against racism or sexism?, etc.  This is why regular public sales of the paper are critical for socialists.  The paper is not simply a propaganda tool, like “We have the answers that you ‘the masses’ need to hear.”  We actually want (and need!) to have a dialogue with people–both those who agree with our ideas, and those who disagree.

    So we see that there’s a synthesis of three different aspects of the paper, all in a close interrelation between each other, and with the revolutionary socialist organization: it is a collective propagandist–that is, it puts forward revolutionary ideas; it is a collective agitator–it puts forward concrete action to take those ideas into practice; and it is a collective organizer–it is a tool of organizing and coordinating that action into a coherent force.  It’s the synthesis of all these different elements that makes a paper like Socialist Worker distinct from other good and even Marxist publications such as Jacobin, for instance.

    This is why, even in the worst of times, the paper is crucial for maintaining an active network of revolutionary cadre and carrying them through.


    A frequent criticism of the revolutionary newspaper goes something like, “Well, maybe that was good for Lenin’s time but today news travels at the speed of light now and print is dead.”  There’s a couple of responses to this.

    I think the internet has caused a real crisis for the capitalist press and their print media.  But I think for us, it’s a bit different, because we see the paper as a tool for organizing and movement building.  Blogs, social media, etc., are excellent tools for communicating our ideas, and aren’t in competition with our print publications.  We should use every weapon at our disposal in the battle of ideas with the ruling class.

    But I don’t think it’s true that people don’t want print media, I think this depends a lot on the political moment and climate.  We already mentioned how local Occupy movements rapidly began producing their own print media to communicate their ideas with those outside the movement.  But even still, it wasn’t just the Occupied Wall Street Journal that was circulating around the encampment in Zucotti Park.  Other print papers, including Socialist Worker were incredibly popular during the peak of the Occupy movement.

    I think there’s a couple of reasons for this.  The paper is not just a collection of isolated articles, but actually puts forward a whole worldview, from our analysis to of different current events and questions facing the movement, to harder political analysis, arguments for revolutionary organization, etc.  Which is communicated much more clearly in a print newspaper than in a web browser, or in individually isolated articles printed up and handed out to people.

    Additionally, I think there is something important about the concrete connection made between people in a conversation over the paper.  Lenin once remarked somewhere that the newspaper wouldn’t overthrow the Tsar, and the same is true today for the battle we face.  The paper is a tool for building a real organization, a movement–which has to get outside of the realm of the website, comment threads, and Facebook debates.

    But we’ve seen that ruling class won’t guarantee access to the internet or to cell phones.  In the midst of the Arab Spring, for instance, the Egyptian dictatorship shut down the internet.   The Chinese government is notorious for censoring the internet.  Here in the U.S., we’re not at quite the stage of needing to worry about Socialist Worker being shut down–but the state is clearly willing to censor the Internet and it wouldn’t be the first time that they used their power to try to shut down revolutionaries from communicating their message.


    To wrap it up: Revolution is not guaranteed.  Different forces compete for influence over the ideas of the working class.  In order to build a successful revolutionary movement, revolutionaries need to be organized in order to put their ideas out there, and organize people into a coherent political force.  The paper is a tool for both projecting those ideas, spurring action, and organizing that action into a force.

    The way the paper looks, how its written, how the ideas are reads, what kind of reception it receives, etc., will change and be different over time.  There is not one way to produce a paper for all moments, etc.  The paper itself will look and be read differently depending on the political moment we’re in.

    Nevertheless, the paper itself is a critical tool for the building of such a mass, revolutionary political organization–a formation that is crucially needed to put an end to everything from the destruction of the planet, to the march to war, to grueling exploitation, and oppression.  Building the foundations of such an organization starts today.

  2. Detroit: The Athens of the Midwest

    March 2, 2013


    Detroit was once called the “Paris of the Midwest,” but following yesterday’s announcement by Republican Governor Rick Snyder that Detroit will run by an emergency manager, Detroit may be more accurately compared to Athens.

    In 2009, the troika–a political body made up of Europe’s most powerful financial institutions–demanded that the Greek government pass a series of harsh austerity measures.  When George Papandreou, acting as Prime Minister at the time, put the measures up for to a popular vote, the troika simply removed him and replaced him with a banking executive.  Following the removal of Papandreou, the BBC commented that, “for whatever reasons, George Papandreou was standing up for democracy.”

    While it’s an admittedly weak analogy–maybe putting style ahead of substance–the imposition of an emergency manager to oversee Detroit is not totally dissimilar from the troika‘s takeover of Greece.  Austerity measures have been imposed on a crisis laden government without the slightest illusion of democracy in the name of averting further crises.  In Greece, as in Detroit, unemployment and poverty levels have skyrocketed to jawdropping levels, and yet further sacrifices are demanded from the poor and working class populations who benefit the most from the programs being cut.

    Michigan’s emergency manager law is likely the most extreme austerity measure in the United States.  The original law was enacted in 1988 during the administration of Democrat James Blanchard to allow for state intervention in local governments facing bankruptcy. The law was expanded in 1990 to encompass school districts.  Emergency managers were rare, however, until the administration of Democratic governor Jennifer Granholm.  Under Granholm, it was used to take over the cities of Highland Park, Benton Harbor, Ecorse, Pontiac, as well as the Detroit Public School system (all majority Black cities or districts).  Granholm’s ready use of emergency managers beat the path for Governor Snyder’s expansion of the law after he was elected in 2010.  Since then Snyder has used emergency manager law to take over the cities of Flint, Allen Park, and the Muskegon Heights and the Highland Park school system (which were both handed over to private charter school operators last year).

    In November 2012, Michigan residents voted in favor of a ballot referendum that would eliminate the emergency manager law altogether.  That December, however, state legislators voted to enact a new emergency manager law, in spite of the electorate’s efforts.

    Under an emergency manager, the power of local elected officials is suspended after the governor declares a city to be in a financial emergency.  The manager than takes control of the municipality’s finances and resources.

    According to the Detroit Free Press when asked if local elections for city council and mayor would continue under an emergency manager the paper responded that “Detroiters will have a primary in August and a general election in November. What powers those elected officials will have — and their salaries — ultimately will be up to the EFM.” [Emphasis mine.]

    In addition to overriding local democratic institutions, the emergency manager will have the power to restructure or eliminate city services and departments, impose new labor terms, sell and privatize public assets, institute layoffs, and declare bankruptcy (thereby taking the city out of its obligation to retirees).

    With Detroit under an emergency manager, over half of the state’s Black population will have no say in local government–objectively rendering their votes meaningless.  The law relies racist dog whistles that appear colorblind, but fall into the tradition of racist stereotypes of Black people, e.g. “financial irresponsibility,” combating “entitlements,” etc.  The emergency manager law, therefore, has specifically targeted majority Black cities in the state.  The only majority white city to be under an emergency manager, Allen Park, asked for an emergency manager.

    Of course, while there can be no doubt that city of Detroit is clearly in a state of crisis, and has been for decades–over half the city is unemployed, and nearly 40% of the city lives below the poverty line–the city’s financial problems have been wildly misrepresented in the mainstream press.  The city’s monumental debt is not the result of overspending or even financial “mismanagement” per se, but the result of tax-free interest bearing debt owed to bond holders–banks like UBS, for instance, which was implicated in last years Libor scandal.  Furthermore, during periods of economic crisis, its expected that municipal governments will run into a deficit.  But both of these things have already been acknowledged in both the mainstream press and even by Governor Snyder’s own appointees–yet both the local press and the administration continue to clamor for emergency management.

    The fact is that this has never had anything to do with fiscal “mismangement.”  Rather, it is part of the general trend of deflecting responsibility for the economic crisis onto the backs of the most vulnerable in our society–something which cannot be left up to democracy, since rarely do people ever vote to slit their own throats.

    Detroit’s Democratic Mayor Dave Bing put it plainly when he insisted that he does, in fact, have a plan for restructuring the city, and that therefore no emergency manager is needed.  The only problem, he said, is that he’s “hindered by several factors, including the City Charter, labor agreements, litigation, [and] governmental structure.”

    Put another way, in his book A Brief History of Neoliberalism, Harvey argues that democracy is a luxury for the few in an age of neoliberalism.  He sums up the ideological foundation for the emergency manager law when he says that democracy is reserved only for,

    conditions of relative affluence coupled with a strong middle-class presence to guarantee political stability. Neoliberals therefore tend to favour governance by experts and elites. A strong preference exists for government by executive order and by judicial decision rather than democratic and parliamentary decision-making.

    While this is a crisis for democracy, the emergency manager law has to be seen in the context of the more general (and global) crisis of austerity.  This is perhaps best illustrated that, only hours after Governor Rick Snyder announced his plan to appoint an emergency manager over Detroit, President Obama signed the order to begin cutting $85 billion dollars from the federal budget–the so-called “sequester.”

    This points us toward the need to not only oppose the emergency manager, but to fight against the austerity agenda in general, no matter who is cramming it down our throats,  whether it be the democratically elected city council cutting their staff’s pay, or an emergency manager privatizing city services.  The 1% can abide democracy as long as it works in their favor–what they cannot accept is a barrier to their profit.  Unwavering opposition to austerity has to be central to our campaign.

    In Greece, austerity has been met with a heroic struggle in the streets: since the crisis hit almost 20 general strikes have been called, the old government of pro-austerity social democrats has been tossed into the dustbin of history, a new coalition of radical Leftists and revolutionaries has surged in the polls, and broad alliances of Greek and immigrant workers have been formed to combat the rising specter of extreme right-wing racism and xenophobia.

    We in Detroit are a far way away from that level of resistance. However, there are lessons we can take.  Voting for Democrats cannot be a solution to this crisis since they set the stage for this crisis.  They are just as willing to use emergency management to dissect public education or privatize public services as the Republicans are.  Neither is the ballot a solution: the government doesn’t even pretend to respect our vote, as we saw in December.

    Our fight back in Detroit has to be rooted in the streets–and cannot be limited to the narrow scope of lawsuits, referenda, or elections.  The only fight that can restore democracy is a broad, mass struggle aimed at smashing austerity using every means at our disposal. In short: Greek-style austerity must be met with a Greek-style fightback.

  3. Can you change yourself to change the world?: On utopias and “prefigurative” politics.

    August 24, 2012

    PREFACE:This blog is based on the transcript of a recent talk I gave at a meeting this week.  I made some minor formatting edits, etc., but it more or less reflects what was said during my talk. Therefore, the structure may seem informal and it may make references to “my talk,” etc.


    “Be the change you want to see in the world” is an age old maxim for social change, that goes back thousands of years, and continues to be a popular proposal today to those who wish to see a better society.  In this talk I’m aiming to break down this concept, explore it’s political content, and explain what I believe are some of it’s limitations, and propose an alternative approach based on revolutionary socialism.


    First, I want to explain some of the challenges that we face today, to emphasize why we urgently need to construct a political project to change society.

    As this November’s elections approach, the Democrats and the Republicans are stuck in a game of “Good Cop/Bad Cop.”  The candidates of the two parties may differ in demeanor and tone, but are virtually indistinguishable politically.  Whoever wins, we know what’s coming: more attacks on unions; more cuts to public services like schools, and assistance for the poor; more wars; more attacks on women; more attacks on LGBT people; more police brutality in poor black neighborhoods; continued expansion of mass incarceration; and continued devastation to the natural environment, and so on.

    Some statistics to illustrate the present situation:

    • The Malcolm X Grassroots movement recently estimated that in the first six months of 2012, at least one black person was murdered by the police every 36 hours.
    • According to the Guttmacher Institute, in the first half of 2012 there have been 95 new provisions related to reproductive health and rights passed by state governments, including 39 new restrictions to abortion access.
    • Both Highland Park and Muskegon Heights in Michigan became the first school districts to completely hand control over their public school system to privately managed charter companies.
    • The Democratic Mayor of Detroit Dave Bing recently announced a plan to fire 81% of the employees of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, and hand over significant portions of the department to private contractors.
    • Meanwhile, two years after slashing and burning union wages and receiving a federal bailout, last February General Motors announced record-breaking profits of $7.6 billion dollars.
    • Finally, recent reports from the European Union found that Summer sea ice in the arctic has dropped by 50% between 2004 and 2012, leading one researcher to comment that “Very soon we may…look at satellite images and see no sea ice coverage in the Arctic, just open water.”

    We know what the Republicans think about all this.

    We’ve likely all heard what Todd Akin, the Republican candidate for Senator in Minnesota, thinks: He recently said that pregnancy can’t result from “legitimate rape” because women’s bodies have ways of “shutting that whole thing down.”

    We can figure out what multimillionaires Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan think.  The federal budget plan proposed by Ryan, who called medicare a “ponzi scheme” and cites the free market fundamentalist Ayn Rand as his chief inspiration for entering politics, wants to cap taxes on the wealthy at 25% and cut all spending on everything except medicare, Social Security and—of course—defense spending, by 91%.

    But on the other side of the aisle, we see a mirror image.  Alongside his “hopeful” demeanor Barack Obama says that the Democrats don’t get enough credit for their willingness to cut spending on medicare and social security.

    In response to Romney campaign ads attacking Obama on welfare reform, rather than defending welfare, a spokesperson for Obama’s campaign fired back at Romney for being soft on welfare recipients.  The spokesperson charged that Romney “petitioned the federal government for waivers that would have let people stay on welfare for an indefinite period, ending welfare reform as we know it, and even created a program that handed out free cars to welfare recipients.”

    When he has something to say about race relations in the United States, he’s generally channeling Reagan’s “welfare queen” rhetoric.  Earlier this month in Chicago, Obama offered his solution to the Black community. “We need better role models,” he said, “we have to provide stronger role models than the gang-banger on the corner.”

    In March of this year Obama stated proudly that under his administration “America is producing more oil today than at any time in the last eight years,” and that “As long as [he’s] president, [he’s] going to keep on encouraging oil development and infrastructure.”

    So we can see that no matter who wins in November we know that the 1% will win and the 99% will lose, unless we organize to fight back and struggle for a better future.

    Hence, I think that the urgency of the moment we’re demands sincerely examining and debating activist strategies and tactics.


    This concept of “being the change you want to see in the world” is taken generally to mean that we have to reflect the kind of society we’re fighting for in our lifestyle, organizations, movements, etc.  Another term used by many activists today to describe this concept is “prefigurative politics.”

    Activist and author Andy Cornell defines prefigurative politics as “the principle that activists and social-change organizations should model in their present-day lives and work the new values, institutions and social relationships they advocate for on a broader scale, as part of their strategy for bringing about that change.”

    There is a wide range of movements, tendencies and institutions that are variously classified under or advocate “prefigurative politics.”

    For example, the anarchist Emma Goldman argued, “No revolution can ever succeed as a factor of liberation unless the means used to further it be identical in spirit and tendency with the purposes to be achieved.”  Likewise the Industrial Workers of the World, or “Wobblies,” proclaimed that they were “forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old.”  Today, many claimed that the encampments in Occupy were an attempt to model the future society we wanted to see.

    So, central to the idea of prefigurative politics is the idea that the means used by revolutionaries need to be in strict harmony with their ends.

    There are plenty of good reasons that people are attracted to this approach: for one thing, it’s very intuitive. But more importantly, in my opinion, picturing and thinking about how you want the world to look can be a motivating and inspirational practice.  I do it all the time. And attempting to model the future society can make people feel hopeful and encouraged that a better world really is possible in their lifetime.

    However, it can also be misleading and restrictive. For one, we cannot start our struggle for a better society by simply counter-posing how the world ought to be with how the world is.  Rather, we have to begin our struggle with an analysis of the present conditions, and examining what possibilities they offer for changing our society in the future.  From there we can select the appropriate means, strategies and tactics for building our struggle to change society.  In other words, to paraphrase the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, before we can justify our means we first have to justify our ends, first.


    Among the first interventions into socialist movement made by the nineteenth century German revolutionaries Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were around the question of how we determine the ends of our revolutionary struggle.

    In their day, most socialists occupied themselves with drafting blueprints of what they believed the future society should look like.  People like Charles Fourier and Robert Owen believed that through their pamphlets, books and experimental communities, they would be able to convince enough people of their vision.

    Marx and Engels actually had very little to say one way or the other on the utopian’s actual vision for a new society.  Instead, their criticism emphasized the utopian’s analysis of society and strategy to change it.  The utopian’s analysis for the most part was a moral criticism of society, and thus emphasized a moral vision of the future.

    To the utopians, therefore, much like religious leaders or theologists, morality was viewed as something eternal and permanently fixed within universe, independent of time and space. Moral truths were “self-evident.”  Correct morals for guiding humanity and society, therefore, only needed to be correctly understood by an enlightened intellectual and then put into practice.  As Engels explained, according to the utopians:

    If pure reason and justice have not, hitherto, ruled the world, this has been the case only because men have not rightly understood them. What was wanted was the individual man of genius…He might just as well have been born 500 years earlier, and might then have spared humanity 500 years of…suffering.

    By examining society in this way the utopians were able to thoroughly illustrate the evils of capitalist society.  However, guided only by a moral criticism of the present, the utopians were unable to explain neither capitalism’s origins nor it’s demise.

    Without money or political power to put their vision of the future into practice the utopians became isolated. They quickly went to the working class for help – but not because they saw the workers as having any particularly revolutionary potential.  Rather, the utopians believed, because they were the most oppressed the workers would be the most attentive to the socialist vision.

    For this reason, the American revolutionary socialist Hal Draper labeled the utopian socialists as part of the camp that advocates “socialism-from-above.”  The utopians knew the truth and all the working class needed to do was listen and put the truth into practice.

    Marxism, on the other hand, according to Draper, argues that the working class must be the leaders of their own liberation.  As Marx himself wrote in a letter to a colleague:

    “We do not confront the world in a doctrinaire way with a new principle: Here is the truth, kneel down before it! We develop new principles      for the world out of the world’s own principles. We do not say to the world: Cease your struggles, they are foolish; we will give you the true slogan of struggle. We merely show the world what it is really fighting for, and consciousness is something that it has to acquire, even if it does not want to.”


    Even though the debate between Marx’s and the utopians took place well over a century and a half ago, we can still learn valuable lessons from them to guide our work today.

    Alternative institutions or utopian experiments that aim to “prefigure” and anticipate what the future socialist society will look like are limited in their potential to win a new society.  These projects exist as seeds of socialism planted in hostile capitalist soil, which either smothers the seeds before they can sprout, or poisons the fruit they bring to bear.

    For example, institutions such as workers cooperatives are unable to mount a strong enough challenge to the capitalists.  As the twentieth century German socialist Rosa Luxemburg stated, workers forming a cooperative are under pressure from competition in the market and must rule over “themselves with the utmost absolutism” forcing them to either “become pure capitalist enterprises,” or dissolve if they hold on to their principles.

    The Mondragon cooperative federation in Spain is exemplary.  Because of it’s wild success, in the mid-1990s Mondragon began to come into competition with multinational corporations.  In order to survive the competition the cooperative federation began to change its policies.  It started opening factories in low wage countries like Egypt, Morocco and Mexico.  None of the employees in these factories are cooperative members and have no say in the operation of their workplaces.  Furthermore, cooperatives could now apply to hire up to 40% non-member employees in order to remain competitive.  At the time these changes led one cooperative member to lament that Mondragon could not “flourish as a cooperative island in a capitalist world.”

    Like the fate of the utopians, movements today that attempt to “prefigure” the future society find it difficult to grow or make progress.  By trying to emulate the future instead of dealing with the present these organizations can tend to become “encapsulated” as they replace perfecting their own internal relations for engaging with people beyond their own circle.

    For instance, perfecting decision-making processes in movements can often become a substitute for building a movement for real democracy outside.  This was the case at many Occupy general assemblies where needlessly complex processes made meetings last as long as 3 – 6 hours a day pushing away literally hundreds of people.  Members at meetings sometimes started to resemble “Dennis the Constitutional Peasant” from Monty Python’s Holy Grail.

    To provide another example, combating racism can come to be seen as primarily a matter of individual attitude (sometimes resembling many liberal and even conservative attitudes about racism): “checking privilege,” “call out culture,” and so on, can begin to replace the work of building a mass movement that is strong enough to overthrow the racist, oppressive social structure outside the movement.

    I saw a good example of this a couple months ago: I visited a building that Occupy Chicago was using during the NATO protests last May.  Someone had hung a poster on a door with the heading “How to Fight Racism.”  The poster had a list of things people can do to fight racism, such as not using racist language, opening up space for people of color to participate at meetings, etc.  Of course, these are all crucial things that people need to do if we’re going to build a successful, multi-racial movement against racism, exploitation and oppression.  But things like mass incarceration, police brutality, or discrimination in housing, education or employment, were all noticeably absent from the list!

    Inevitably, movements that begin to replace dealing with the world of the present with anticipating the world of the future become isolated, stagnate, shrink, and collapse.

    Ultimately, any project (prefigurative or not) that lasts and grows large enough to become a nuisance to the capitalists (like Occupy, for example) has to deal with the power of the state and will be crushed unless the movement is large and organized well enough to defend itself.


    Marx and Engels’ vision of the future society began not from a moral conception of a “good society” juxtaposed to the present “bad society” but rather from a study of the present and what potential it offers us for making change.  This is why it is sometimes said that socialism was not an idea “invented” out of the human brain but rather something that was “discovered” within the real, material world.

    Marx wasn’t fascinated with capitalism because of its particular horrors like the utopians were.  Rather his interest in capitalism was in the unique potential that it held.  In previous societies, socialism would have simply equalized poverty, starvation and misery, and society would have quickly retreated back to a class society as people competed among themselves over scarce resources.

    But under capitalism something is different.  Individual capitalists are forced to constantly discover new ways of producing things more quickly and cheaply in order to reduce labor costs, maximize their profits, and outdo each other in competition in the market, lest their more aggressive counterparts swallow them up.

    On the one hand, this creates unprecedented chaos, confusion, suffering, ecological destruction, and misery.  Whole new concepts had to be developed to describe and make sense of this new world. “Unemployment” (the idea that somebody had no work to do), for example, was literally unthinkable in earlier human societies.

    On the other hand, the increase in overall productivity of society and creates, alongside unspeakable poverty, unimaginable wealth. Under capitalism, enough is produced to feed, house, educate, clothe, and care for everyone in human society.

    In other words, under capitalism, virtually all poverty is artificial.  Poverty and hunger in previous societies was typically the resulted from natural disasters like a flood or a drought.  But today, these things are the result of a society that is organized strictly for the purposes of enriching the few at the expense of the many.

    So today, for example, while there are over 1 billion people across the world living in “food insecurity”—a euphemism for starvation—40% of this year’s corn crop is to be turned into biofuels, and food prices are skyrocketing due to unchecked financial speculation (banks are buying up food and refusing to sell it in order to drive prices up).

    However, we can take advantage of this productivity and these resources and use them to meet everyone’s needs, but doing that requires overthrowing the power of the ruling 1% and taking control of the tools of production to meet our own needs.  That is what socialism is.

    That new society can’t simply be “prefigured” in the present (since you can’t “prefigure” an end to poverty or homelessness, for instance).  That type of society can only be realized by placing the vast majority of society, the working class, in control of society’s resources and productive tools.

    This movement has to be led by the working class, not only because we’re the largest class in society but also because we have a material interest in taking the fight all the way.  The working class is also in the strategic position to cut off the source of the 1%’s power by shutting down the factories, offices and workplaces that enrich the 1%.


    However, if you go out and say to the average person on the street: “Hey, I’m a worker, you’re a worker, let’s go out and strike and take over the means of production,” that person will look at you like you’re a lunatic.

    Most people aren’t prepared for that kind of struggle, yet.  Most people in the working class in the United States don’t even think of themselves as workers.  That’s because the capitalists control most of the means of education, media, cultural production and so on, and because of hat, their ideas tend to prevail: capitalism is inevitable; it’s human nature; there is no alternative; we’re too powerless; gays and straights, blacks and whites, men and women, all have competing interests; the working class can’t unite, etc.

    However, the capitalists sew the seeds of their own overthrow.  Since they rely on the exploitation and oppression of the working-class and oppressed people they create conditions for ongoing resistance and struggle.  While there are periods of relative social stability, as long as the capitalists continue to exploit and oppress, people will want to organize to fight back—trade unions, community organizations, and other formations.  Through these struggles—no matter if they’re for better wages, against police brutality, or to stop sexual assault—people can start to sort through the various contradictory ideas and develop a revolutionary worldview.

    But while struggle is inevitable, revolution is not.

    Revolutionaries cannot be content to sit on their hands waiting for the revolution to come knocking.  There are various forces between the ruling class and the oppressed competing for political influence: Democrats, Republicans (and even fascists, like in Greece, for example).  Therefore, the people who become revolutionary first need to organize together and agitate within the struggles that exist in the present to win people over to a revolutionary program and build the foundations for a revolutionary movement that can radically change society.  That is, they need to build a revolutionary party.


    The revolutionary party, therefore, does not exist as “the embryo” of the future society or future state, but rather, it exists as a tool for organizing revolutionaries to study and deal with the world of the present.

    But does this mean that a revolutionary organization can be undemocratic or deceptive?  Or do whatever it wants as long as it’s in the name of the revolution or the working class?

    Of course not.

    Only the working class can win a socialist society.  Nobody can do it for them.  As the American revolutionary socialist Eugene Debs said: “[I] would not lead the workers out [of bondage] if I could; for if you could be led out, you could be led back again.”

    Therefore, a premium has to be put on those things that actually unite the working class, raise the people’s political consciousness, their self-confidence and their leadership participation in struggle.

    So, for example, this means that socialists not only need to be absolutely vigilant in arguing against racist or bigoted behavior in the movements they work in; socialists also need to elevate struggles against racism, sexism, and all forms of oppression to the center of all the movements they’re active in, since it’s only by building that sort of broad movement that we can build the solidarity necessary for overthrowing the power of the capitalists and winning a new society.

    Likewise, socialists need to be disciplined in arguing against undemocratic practices in movements since these harm people’s ability to lead in the struggle themselves, debate their strategies and tactics, and learn lessons from their own struggle and therefore grow politically.

    For one final example, socialists should generally argue against tactics like smashing coffee shop windows at protests or needlessly, since it’s needlessly provokes state repression and therefore deter people’s political radicalization.

    But these aren’t arguments from humanitarian or moral sentimentality, e.g. we do these things because they’re “the right thing to do.”  Rather, they’re based on the actual conditions we face in the real world, and political necessities winning the fight against oppression, exploitation, and planetary destruction.

    On the other hand, if we were in Greece, for example, where the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party (who recently won over a dozen seats in Greece’s parliament with massive electoral support from the Greek police) has been organizing street-level attacks against immigrant communities, it would be criminally irresponsible to reject the use of physical force in defending our immigrant brothers and sisters, or in stopping the threat of rising neo-Nazi influence.

    The means we use in struggle, therefore, are not selected based on self-evident truths or eternal morality, but rather, on the concrete conditions of the struggle we face here-and-now.


    At a certain stage in every revolutionary struggle the movement will have to face the dilemma of political power, that is, how to enforce the aims and objectives of the working class upon the capitalists.  That is, how do we actually defeat the capitalists, their state and their counter-revolution, which will seek to ruthlessly crush any and all opposition.  We’ve already seen the ruthlessness they’ve had with the Occupy movement, which, relatively speaking, has been very minor.  It is these moments in a revolutionary crisis where there is no room for needlessly restricting the tools we use against the oppressor, and in fact, must use whatever means we have at our disposal.  As the anarchist-turned-revolutionary socialist Victor Serge said, in these moments “victory means life; defeat means death.”

    Indeed, this was no exaggeration.  It was the failure of revolutionaries to deal with the capitalist counter offensive in places like Italy, Germany, Spain and Chile that allowed for Mussolini, Hitler, Franco, and Augusto Pinochet to rise to power (and we are beginning to see the germ of this in Greece right now).

    It becomes necessary, therefore, at a certain point, for the revolutionary movement to take hold of political power and use that power to enforce their revolutionary aims over those of the capitalist state and the counter-revolution.

    However, the state as it exists today was designed by and for the capitalists to administer a their own society.  Therefore the present state cannot simply be taken hold of and used for the purposes of the working class to administer a socialist society.  We have to dismantle the old state, and replace it with institutions of our own political power, deeply integrated in the site of workers power, i.e. the workplace.

    These sorts of institutions have existed at different moments throughout history and emerge during intense moments of revolutionary fervor, and the old organizations of workers power (trade unions, for instance) no longer suffice to carry the struggle forward.  They’ve been called different things: the Commune in Paris, soviets in the Russian Revolution, workers’ councils during the German Revolution of 1918, the factory councils in France in May 1968, shoras during the Iranian Revolution, or cordones in Chile, etc.

    These institutions serve a dual function, however.  They are not only organs of workers’ struggle, but also exist as the “embryo” of the future workers state, to use Lenin’s description.  Through these organizations the working class can escalate the level of struggle, but also gain the confidence and develop the political maturity to democratically rule the future socialist society.  Finally, by bringing the whole working class together and posing the question of power, these “workers’ councils” can coordinate workers’ self-defense that can fight and eventually defeat the counter-revolution.


    Does this mean that revolutionaries should only ever involve themselves in building mass movements?

    I don’t think so.  While mass movements are the foundation and the determining factor in building a movement for revolutionary change, I think there is room to be flexible.  Plenty of important movements in the past (and the present) have been involved in “service” style organizations.  Consider the Black Panther Party’s programs for “survival pending revolution.”  Or today, members of the radical left SYRIZA party in Greece (which is likely soon to become the dominant political party in parliament) are “organizing neighborhood assemblies, maintaining ‘solidarity kitchens’ and bazaars, [and] working in medical social centers.”  The German Communist Party during the revolutionary period of 1918 – 1921 organized their own schools and cultural organizations.  The Communist Party in the U.S. formed councils of unemployed workers during the Great Depression (which is an experience worth thinking about, whatever the CP’s problems with Stalinism).  Civil rights activists organized Freedom Schools, and so on.

    Sometimes people classify these kinds of institutions as “prefigurative.”  For instance, the veteran activist George Lakey frequently cites the Black Panther’s free breakfast program as a case study in prefigurative politics throughout his work.

    But I think this is inaccurate.

    Let’s consider the Black Panther Party.  The BPP had over 40 different service organizations for “survival pending revolution,” with the free breakfast program being the most popular.  At its peak, in Oakland, the Panthers were serving over 10,000 children free breakfast every day.

    There were probably dozens of different takes within the Panthers over exactly what these survival programs were, and whether or not they were modeled off the kind of society we want to win.  But in my opinion, the free breakfast program are more successful seen as a tool building their party, and raising political consciousness, not as institutions anticipating the future.

    Huey Newton himself expressed this view of the survival programs, saying,

    “These programs satisfy the deep needs of the community but they are not solutions to our problems. That is why we call them survival programs, meaning survival pending revolution. We say that the survival program of the Black Panther Party is like the survival kit of a sailor stranded on a raft. It helps him to sustain himself until he can get completely out of that situation…When consciousness and understanding is raised to a high level then the community will seize the time and deliver themselves from the boot of their oppressors.”

    Likewise, David Hilliard, another leader of the Black Panther Party said that:

    “The [free breakfast program] serves a double purpose, providing sustenance but also function as an organizing tool: people enter the office when they come by, take some leaflets, sit in on an elementary [political education] class, talk to cadre, and exchange ideas.”

    So for Newton and Hilliard, these survival programs were not intended to reflect the future society, but rather, to simply to provide a means for serving the community, and more importantly (since Panthers were not a charity) for building a mass movement that could eliminate the need for survival organizations altogether.

    It’s important to keep in mind, I think, that while the Panthers fed 10,000 children a day in Oakland, the main thrust of the BPP’s work was on building a mass revolutionary party.  While they were feeding kids, they were also printing a revolutionary newspaper that had a circulation of over 250,000+ every week across the country, and organizing dozens of local campaigns from fight against substandard housing in the Black communities, to combating police brutality, and running candidates in local elections.


    So, while I believe that there’s room for flexibility, the question comes down to this: what kind of movement do we need to build in order to win a new society, and what kinds of tools, strategies and tactics does that struggle need in order to win?

    While we may wonder and fantasize about a better world, and be motivated by visions of what our future society can look like, we cannot let our imagination cannot become a substitute for dealing concretely with the present.

    Rather, we have to begin our work based on a study of the present and organize ourselves based around how the world is rather than around how the world is ought to be.