A critical reply to Birkhold’s “Grace Lee Boggs’ call for visionary organizing”

In Defense of Struggle: What “Visionary Organizing” Cannot See

A critical reply to Birkhold’s “Grace Lee Boggs’ call for visionary organizing”

Left Turn magazine recently published an article by Matthew Birkhold, a Brooklyn-based writer and activist, entitled “Living by the Clock of the World: Grace Lee BoggsCall for Visionary Organizing.”[1]  The article is an attempt to “clarify” a quote from a recent interview with Grace Lee Boggs in which the 96 year-old movement veteran argues that young activists today should “Turn [their] back on protest organizing” because it leads them into “defensive operations.”[2]  Instead, Boggs argues, activists should practice “visionary” organizing which “gives you the opportunity to encourage the creative capacity in people.”  The interview caused a small stir.  At a time when movements from Egypt to the United States are putting mass struggle back on the agenda, why would anyone argue against it?  “Fans of Grace,” commented Birkhold, treated her argument as “common sense,” while others felt like her position “bordered on conservatism.”

In Boggs’s vocabulary, what most activists engage in—protests, marches, demonstrations and the like—is “rebellion.”  Rebellions are moments of protest that attack the legitimacy of society’s dominant institutions.  Rebellions, however, “cannot lead to the reorganization of society” because people still “see themselves as victims…and the other side as villains.”  “Revolutions,” on the other hand, project a new “notion of a more human human being” and “create societies more conducive to human development.”[3]

So-called “visionary” (or sometimes “transformative”) organizing is therefore a “revolutionary” strategy (in Boggs’s vocabulary) which seeks to break people from “the bourgeois method of thought on which U.S. capitalism is based” by developing alternative institutions and communities—such as community gardens, small businesses and free schools—that facilitate doing “the work of re-imagining ourselves” and helping us “think beyond capitalist categories.”[4]

What both Boggs and Birkhold don’t see, however, is that collective action cannot be separated from the process of creating a new society or transforming people’s consciousness—they are part of the same process of revolutionizing society.  It is not ideas that change the world; it is changing the world that transforms our ideas.  People do not simply “re-imagine” themselves.  The transformation of consciousness is rooted in mass struggle—demonstrations, strikes, etc.—that have the potential to raise people’s expectations, sense of solidarity, and their confidence as agents of historical change.  To lead activists away from collective action (or to mechanically separate it from the actual process of reorganizing society) is to lead people away from the manner by which the working class and the oppressed develop a revolutionary consciousness, and eventually, learn to democratically rule society themselves.


According to Birkhold, the idea of “visionary organizing” has grown from the Boggses’ “dialectical” analysis of U.S. history.  Beginning with the American Revolution, a contradiction was “initiated” in the U.S. “between economic development and political underdevelopment,” i.e. between economic self-interest and social responsibility.  This is the “fundamental” contradiction in U.S. society.  Since then, every social movement in American history has failed because they have been “incorporated into the capitalist system because they have all ended up internalizing capitalist values.”[5]

It is useful to examine, for a moment, the historical-social context out of which so-called “visionary organizing” emerged fully-fledged—in the aftermath of the defeats of the mass movements of the 1960-70s.  These movements, in which the Boggses were deeply central, raised the political aspirations of millions of people across the world, and put the possibility of a social revolution back on the agenda, after the degeneration of the Soviet Union led many into despair.  Detroit, where Grace Lee Boggs has lived and been active since the end of World War II, was a major epicenter of the black rebellion that fueled the protests of the era.  Detroit was not only the location of one the most violent and intense urban rebellions against racism in U.S. history, but the wildcat strikes led by the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) represented one of the most militant expressions of the black power movement.  DRUM’s actions brought the U.S. auto-industry to a standstill and initiated a period of renewed union militancy across the country.[6]

The ruling class initiated a drastic and brutal counter-revolution to crush the growing revolutionary tremor.  Violence was used with increasing frequency to crush protests and rebellions, not just in the U.S., but across the world.  Blacks experienced the most severe punishment for their resistance.  Beginning with President Richard Nixon’s push for “law-and-order,” to the War on Drugs and the “get tough on crime laws” of the 1990s, “a new system of racialized social control was created” through mass incarceration, police brutality, and discrimination in housing, employment and education, “by exploiting the vulnerabilities and racial resentments of poor and working class whites” in a system some have begun to call the “new Jim Crow.”[7]

Faced with such profound reaction and demobilization of the radical movements, following a period in which revolution seemed to be right around the corner, many on the Left fell into disorientation, in-fighting, pessimism and confusion.  Many gave up on revolution altogether.  Others, militant, passionate and fueled by a sense of desperation, chased after the revolution with bombs and guns.

So-called “visionary organizing” emerges out of this whirlwind, on the one hand, from the very sincere desire to change society in the seemingly endless period revolutionary torpor that followed the defeats of the movements of the 1960-70s, a period virtually unprecedented in U.S. history; at the same time, it also reflects a retreat into pessimism and voluntarism that resulted from those defeats.  In spite of Boggs’s sincere appeal for “hope,” at the center of her analysis of U.S. history is a cynical dismissal of the working class and the oppressed in the U.S. as being hopelessly reactionary, and driven into apathy by consumerism.  Rather than seeing the collective action of the working class and oppressed as a source of energy, creativity and transformative power, these groups have become “incorporated into the system.”  Instead, these movements are seen by Boggs as cries of victimization and economic self-interest, rather than struggles against oppression with the potential of creating a better world.

In the Boggses’ analysis, the economic boom that followed the end of World War II spurred  “the conditions for mass consumption which allowed everyday working people to consume at unprecedented rates.”  These conditions gave working class people a stake in the system and eliminated the revolutionary potential of the U.S. working class.[8]  By 1967 James Boggs concluded that the working class could no longer be revolutionary:

Isn’t it obvious that the working classes of Europe and America are like the petty bourgeoisie of Marx’s time and that they collaborate with the power structure and support the system because their high standard of living depends upon the continuation of this power structure and this system?[9]

With such “abundance” in the U.S., the Boggses concluded that revolution in the U.S. had to be rethought, and that “socialism in the U.S. meant putting political and social responsibility in command of economics.”[10]  Because the growing Black movement “almost universally prioritized the question of what it meant to be a human being over economic demands in the 50s and 60s,” Blacks became the new revolutionary social force.  However, after the state and the U.S. ruling class made a series of concessions to the movement following the widespread urban rebellions of the 1960s, the Black movement also became “incorporated” into the capitalist system.[11]  In 1974, James Boggs eulogized the revolutionary potential of the black movement, saying,

The reality, the very sad reality today is that most of our young people have no basis for making decisions except their own momentary feelings, their own immediate selfish interests or their desire not to be unpopular with their peers.  Everyday more black youth are becoming more individualistic, more pleasure-seeking, more unable to tell the difference between correct and incorrect ideas and principles.[12]

The Boggses concluded that the material prosperity of the United States, “where more is stolen in the ghettos everyday than is produced in most African countries during an entire year” as James Boggs put it, along with its expansive military empire, created the conditions where the working class and the oppressed in the United States were able to “advance themselves economically” at the expense of the Global South, creating an “unintentional economic stake in maintaining U.S. hegemony.”  Because these economic and technological advancements have become “a danger to the physical survival of the rest of the world,” making demands for “more things”—such as higher wages, better job security, or increased access to healthcare, jobs for the unemployed, etc.—has become a “fetter on revolutionary development”.  Therefore, “the revolution to be made in the United States will be the first revolution in history to require the masses to make material sacrifices rather than to acquire more things.”[13]

Coming out of the defeats of the movements of the 1970s, Grace Lee and James Boggs concluded that mass struggle could no longer create the kind of change society needed.  By 1978 James Boggs argued that,

There was no point in trying to mobilize or organize Americans for a revolution against the capitalists as long as the great majority of Americans are still dominated by the same capitalist vision of material and scientific expansion, struggling only to get for themselves material goods that other Americans have. If by some miracle, tomorrow or in the near future, the oppressed in American society were able to take power away from the American capitalists without having overcome our own individualism and materialism, the New America would not be any different from the old.[14]

The Boggses concluded from this that “each of us need to undergo a tremendous philosophical and spiritual transformation,” in which “we see ourselves not mainly as victims but as new men and women.”  Hence, while the various struggles of workers, women, people of color, and LGBT people have helped “to humanize our society overall,” they also contain,

a shadow side in the sense that they have encouraged us to think of ourselves more as determined than as self-determining, more as victims of “isms” (racism, sexism, capitalism, ableism) than as human beings who have the power of choice…it becomes clearer every day that organizing or joining massive protests and demanding new policies fail to sufficiently address the crisis we face. They may demonstrate that we are on the right side politically, but they are not transformative enough. They do not change the cultural images or the symbols that play such a pivotal role in molding us into who we are.[15]


“If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.” – Carl Sagan

As previously established, Birkhold and Boggs view the “primary” contradiction in the United States to be between the U.S.’s economic and technological “overdevelopment” and the “underdevelopment” of people’s social and political responsibility.  Boggs and Birkhold call this “dialectical humanism,” to distinguish it from the “dialectical materialism” of Marxism.   According to Birkhold,

While racism, sexism, and poverty are important contradictions, they can be explained as a consequence of the tendency of Americans to prioritize economic development and individual gain over political and social responsibility. Having become more politically inhumane the more technology advances, Americans have become “a people who have been psychologically and morally damaged by the unlimited opportunities to pursue material happiness provided by the cancerous growth of the productive forces.”[16]

But this analysis explains nothing.  First, without more fundamental analysis, one is left guessing how “economic interests” are defined.  No distinction is made, for instance, between the distinct “economic interests” or “social responsibility” of different classes, which makes it impossible to concretely define either of these categories from the outset, making them useless for any historical or social analysis.  Is a worker who is struggling to shorten the working day, to form a trade union, or earn a living wage pursuing her “economic interests” or pursuing “social responsibility”?  Were early American slave rebellions in pursuit of slaves’ “economic interests” or in pursuit of “social responsibility”?  The answer is obviously that they’re both and the same, but according to Boggs one cannot pursue their own economic interests and social responsibility at the same time.  Finally, Boggs argues that Americans have an “economic stake in in maintaining US hegemony” for instance, but public spending on the U.S. military means that millions of college students are forced to take out expensive loans, or that millions of Americans go without access to basic health services.  So what is it, according to Boggs, which makes wars in the Middle East more in pursuit of “economic interests” than access to decent education and healthcare?

Moreover, “social responsibility” is a vague moral concept that cannot be used to explain historical phenomena.  Placing “social responsibility” in the center of ones historical analysis inevitably leads one down the path of metaphysics or biological determinism, since it can no longer be explained historically.  In other words, it must assume that “social responsibility” as a concept is real and permanent fixture of the universe, existing without interference from anything else.  It must therefore be suspended in spirituality or in the realm of natural biology.  The solution for those who want to create a better world, therefore, is to either discover this eternal spiritual truth—a foredoomed practice in metaphysics and theology—or to permanently change human biology, which is impossible.  That Boggs falls into this trap is evidenced by her consistent references to creating a “more human human” or to our “moral damage.”  In other words, for Boggs, although she doesn’t say it explicitly, there must be an abstract human or moral subject from which we have been corrupted, e.g., God, a Holy Spirit, etc., which we must strive to emulate (i.e., “grow our souls”) in order to create the better society.  What society has really needed this whole time is someone who grasped this eternal truth.

Far be it from a new form of “activism for the twenty-first century,” this strategy for change is so old that it predates even the word “socialism.”  In fact, the first people to call themselves socialists were those, sincerely motivated by the devastation caused by the birth pangs of capitalism, who sought to solve society’s problems through forming intricately planned communities throughout Europe and North America, not unlike what Boggs and Birkhold propose today.[17]

These early socialists were called “utopians” for their elaborately detailed outlines of what a future society would look like.  All manner of different projects were laid out to relieve society’s suffering, including the formation of the cooperative workplaces and agrarian communes.  From here, all that was needed was to convince people—especially rich people and politicians who had the money and resources—to implement the ideas (which isn’t entirely unlike writing grant applications today).

Robert Owen was one of the most successful of these early socialists.  While most utopian projects were unable to get started for lack of funds, as a former industrialist Owen had access to his own money to initiate his projects.  At first he was celebrated by the rich and powerful as a great philanthropist. All of his communes failed within a matter of years, either because of internal strife within the projects, or external pressure caused by land speculation, lack of financing or political pressure.  Eventually he ran out of his own money, and, having become isolated from his former business partners, he turned toward the working class as a base of support.  He became well known as a passionate supporter of the early trade union and cooperative movements.[18]

The utopian socialists were some of the most earliest and most thorough critics of the emergent capitalist society.  The German philosopher and co-founder of revolutionary socialism Friedrich Engels praised the utopian thinker Charles Fourier as “the first to declare that in any given society the degree of women’s emancipation is the natural measure of the general emancipation.”  Likewise, Robert Owen’s work with cooperative workplaces gave “at least given practical proof that the merchant and the manufacturer are socially quite unnecessary.”[19]

But while these early utopian thinkers were widely celebrated for their novel criticism, many of their descendants were bitterly sectarian and reactionary.  As the advance of capitalist society gave rise to the formation of unions and working class struggle, the later utopians were hostile to “all political action on the part of the working class; such action, according to them, can only result from blind unbelief in the new gospel.”[20]  In other words, political action, to the utopians, was seen as being opposed to the real treatment of social problems, which was the formation of alternative communities.  One later utopian thinker, Étienne Cabet, is even reported to have said that “if he held a revolution in the palm of his hand he would close his fingers over it and never open them again.”[21]

Like the utopians, Boggs and Birkhold mistakenly conclude that capitalism is a system founded on “bourgeois methods of thought,” rather than being rooted in real, concrete social practices.[22]  In other words, people are seen as shaping their ideas independent of the practical world, rather than recognizing that consciousness is itself a product of our society.  To Boggs, capitalist exploitation, environmental degradation and racism, are all products of “values.”

Capitalism is not founded on thoughts or ideas, however, but in the way society actually produces and reproduces its own existence.  Capitalist society didn’t historically develop out of the brain, but out of the material conditions of past societies before it.  As it evolved gradually from these past conditions, it violently forced its way through the barriers of the old world, and gave birth to a new one.  As capitalist society matured, new ideas developed that corresponded to changing social and political realities.  The historic revolutions of the late-18th and 19th centuries, such as those in North America and France, were outcomes of the political maturing of this emergent capitalist society.

No doubt capitalism is a system in which greed and selfishness prevail.  But it is not because of these things that capitalism exists.  On the contrary, to paraphrase Voltaire, “If greed did not exist, it would be necessary for capitalism to invent it.”[23]  Capitalism is a system where, first and foremost, a small class of people privately own and control the means by which society produces the things people need to survive, e.g. housing, communications, clothes, food, etc., and exchange those products for more money than was invested in their production, i.e. a profit.  Those capitalists who are not profitable risk losing their class position, as their firms fail or are consumed by their larger, more aggressive competitors, thereby increasing the centralization of capital into gradually fewer hands.  Hence, all capitalists are inevitably disciplined to obey the laws of market competition, regardless of an individual’s temperament.  Therefore, all production under capitalism is based on generating profit instead of satisfying social needs.  Everyone who doesn’t own productive property is forced into competition among each other to sell their own ability to work (“labor-power”) on the open market and thereby become workers in return for wages.  Those who cannot work, or cannot find work, are left to the mercy of the streets or charity for survival.  In order to generate profit, capitalists must purchase employees’ labor-power for less than the value of the commodities they produce with their labor.  The laws of competition therefore drive the capitalists to force their workers to produce as much as possible for as little pay as possible (either by extending the duration or intensity of labor).  Meanwhile, the profit generated is constantly reinvested into introducing new technology in the workplace in order to maximize the productivity of labor and reduce the size of the workforce to its absolute minimum, thus raising the number of workers competing for jobs in the labor market, thereby driving down wages in order to maximize profits, for future reinvestment in the means of production.  In other words, generally speaking, production under capitalism takes place to generate profit that is reinvested as capital back into the means of production to produce even more than before and thereby generate more profit, and so on, ad infinitum.

The imperative for capitalists to drive down wages and the size of their workforce to accumulate profit on the one hand, and the need for workers to survive by seeking out employment and earn a wage on the other, necessitates an ongoing life-or-death struggle between these two classes.  The competition and division among workers periodically disrupts this struggle, but the conditions imposed upon each class forces the periodic eruption of social crises in which these two forces fight for their own existence.

Capitalist production leads to the absurd scenario where unfathomable wealth and resources exist—enough to provide food, clothing and shelter for all of human society, in fact—alongside widespread hunger, homelessness, poverty and misery.  In past societies hunger, for instance, was the result of a real shortage in food—a poor harvest or a natural disaster.  Poverty and unemployment in a capitalist society, however, are strictly artificial, in the sense that poverty isn’t caused by a lack of resources, but by the anarchic, unplanned nature of the economy.  Under capitalism people don’t starve because there isn’t enough food; they starve because ensuring that people are fed isn’t profitable.  For the ruling 1% and the capitalist market, if food can’t be sold for a profit, it should rot instead (and indeed, it often does).  Schools aren’t closed because there aren’t enough teachers or supplies; they’re closed because ensuring that people have access to education isn’t profitable.  People aren’t unemployed because there isn’t productive work to be done, but because it isn’t profitable to employ them.

Rather than choose to recognize the centrality that exploitation and inequality play in our society, Boggs and Birkhold ignore it to their peril.  Rather, all of us are equally culpable for our society, because we all enjoy the “technological and economic advances” that have become a “fetter on developing a revolutionary movement.”  Thus, at a time when the ruling 1% are dispatching riot police and whole armies around the world to crush protests against neoliberal austerity programs with shameless violence, Boggs and Birkhold call on the “masses to make material sacrifices!”[24]  While the spokespeople of neoliberalism say, “Governments shouldn’t do for people what they can do for themselves,” Boggs and Birkhold reply “People should do for themselves what the government doesn’t want to do,” and the 1% goes on reaping unprecedented profits at the expense of both people and the planet.

The capitalist imperative for “accumulation for the sake of accumulation, production for the sake of production”[25] creates, according to the Marxist geographer David Harvey,

a whole ideology centered on the virtues of growth.  Growth is inevitable, growth is good.  Not to grow is to be in crisis.  But endless growth means production for production’s sake, which also means consumption for consumption’s sake.  Anything that gets in the way of growth is bad.  Barriers and limits to growth have to be dissolved.  Environmental problems?  Too bad!  The relation to nature must be transformed.  Social and political problems?  Too bad!  Repress critics and send recalcitrants to jail.  Geopolitical barriers?  Break them down with violence if necessary.[26]

This ideology is advanced and enforced by all the means at the capitalists’ disposal.  Schools, the media, advertising, politics and so on are all set to sing the same capitalist tune.  “The ideas of the ruling class in every epoch are the ruling ideas,” wrote Marx in The German Ideology. “The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it.”[27]

The world is not shaped by people’s consciousness, but rather consciousness is shaped and contoured by how we produce and reproduce our own survival and social existence.  Capitalists have capitalist “values” not because of some moral or spiritual defect, but because they exploit workers, and because their existence as capitalists depends upon being the most brutal exploiter of workers.  So-called “values,” ideas, and so forth serve to justify or explain this social existence, not the other way around.

Yet, ideas are still “real.”  Witchcraft was real to those who blamed it for crop failures and disease in the late-Middle Ages.  Tens of thousands of women were tortured and executed for practicing it, and evidence didn’t prove the executioners otherwise.  Belief in witchcraft helped people make sense of their world at that time, even if it’s an obviously absurd concept for those of us today who live outside of that time and space. [28]

Ideas and ideologies are therefore “real,” and have very definite consequences for our material reality, even if they don’t accurately reflect or explain social phenomena.[29]  But this doesn’t make those ideas in themselves the material or determining factor in shaping society.  As Karl Marx argued in The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,

Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.[30]

The material world and the ideological exist in dialectical relationship.  Yet, ultimately, it is the material realm that plays the determining (i.e. limiting) role.  According to Harvey:

We cannot transform what’s going on around us without transforming ourselves. Conversely, we can’t transform ourselves without transforming everything going on around us…This dialectic, of perpetually transforming oneself by transforming the world and vice versa, is fundamental to understanding the evolution of human societies as well as the evolution of nature itself…Ideas are in some sense wholly natural (this is a position fundamentally at odds with Hegelian idealism)…Our mental conceptions of the world are not divorced from our material experiences, our central engagements with the world, and therefore, they are not independent of those engagements. But there is…an inevitable externalization of an internal relation.[31]

Hence, if we want, as Boggs and Birkhold say, to “repudiate” bourgeois ideology, it’s “cultural images and symbols,” and so on, one must first demand a new society, not a new consciousness transmitted into the present from an imaginary future.

The productive forces that capitalism that have developed under capitalism create the precondition for a new society—having the created the potential to feed, house and clothe everyone on the planet while keeping in harmony with the natural environment—a society based on equality, solidarity and democracy is really possible.  Yet, in the hands of the capitalists these forces of production become tools for exploitation, oppression and rapacious ecological destruction.

It is only with this advanced state of production that the possibilities of creating a really just society can exist.  Only under the conditions where everyone has everything they need to survive can is classlessness possible, lest humanity be doomed to splinter competing over scarce resources all over again.  As Marx explained, the “development of productive forces…is an absolutely necessary practical premise because without it want is merely made general, and with destitution the struggle for necessities and all the old filthy business [Scheiße] would necessarily be reproduced.”[32]

The task for those struggling for this new society is, therefore, liberating the revolutionary potential of these productive forces from the barriers set in place by capitalist society—by seizing them and putting them under the direct, democratic control of the exploited and the oppressed.  That is, eliminating those barriers by overthrowing capitalist society.  The fundamental “nature” of revolution hasn’t changed, than.  People’s ideas may have changed.  The tactics or strategies of the 1% may have changed.  These create new challenges to be overcome, but they do not at all change our general course—the seizure of these productive forces by the working class, and orienting them toward meeting society’s needs in order to liberate humanity from want and starvation once and for all.  The real, material, brutally exploitative and oppressive foundation of this society has not substantively changed one bit, and as such, neither has our revolutionary mission.


“In the history of revolutions there come to light contradictions that have ripened for decades and centuries. Life becomes unusually eventful.  The masses, which have always stood in the shade and therefore have often been despised by superficial observers, enter the political arena as active combatants…These masses are making heroic efforts to rise to the occasion and cope with the gigantic tasks of world significance imposed upon them by history; and however great individual defeats may be…nothing will ever compare in importance with this direct training that the masses and the classes receive in the course of the revolutionary struggle itself.” – V.I. Lenin, “What is Happening in Russia?” (1905)

Marx’s statement’s that “the ideas of the ruling class in every epoch are the ruling ideas” may appear hopelessly pessimistic and cynical.  If that’s the case, than how can we ever change society?

People inherit the “ruling ideas” from the ruling class.  These ruling ideas become the “common sense” of that society, as the Italian revolutionary philosopher Antonio Gramsci called it.  These ideas are taken for granted and give people a sense of how the world functions.  While uncritically accepted, because people take part in conceptualizing the world, everyone engages in some kind of “philosophical” activity.  According to Gramsci,

Everyone is a philosopher, though in his own way and unconsciously, since even in the slightest manifestation of any intellectual activity whatever, in ‘language’, there is contained a specific conception of the world, one then moves on to the second level, which is that of awareness and criticism.[33]

For those who are looking to change the world, people need to be made conscious and critical of the ruling ideas they’ve uncritically absorbed from the ruling class.  For our purposes, the basis for this criticism must already exist, since it can’t be given to people from outside the world of our practical activities.  This basis exists because people inherit, along with the ruling ideas, a fractured consciousness, based on the contradictions actually existing in society.

The active man-in-the-mass has a practical activity, but has no clear theoretical consciousness of his practical activity, which nonetheless involves understanding the world in so far as it transforms it. His theoretical consciousness can indeed be historically in opposition to his activity. One might almost say that he has two theoretical consciousness’s (or one contradictory consciousness): one which is implicit in his activity and which in reality unites him with all his fellow workers in the practical transformation of the real world; and one, superficially explicit or verbal, which he has inherited from the past and uncritically absorbed.[34]

While people inherit the ideas of the ruling class, those ideas are in contradiction with the reality of oppression and exploitation that people experience, but don’t conceptualize theoretically.  According to Gramsci, this “contradictory consciousness” can have disastrous results, as it can leave one without direction and push one toward apathy and passivity.  However, “critical understanding” of one’s consciousness can become worked out in the conflict between competing political forces: between the exploiter and the exploited.

While the prevailing ideas in every society are the ideas of the ruling class, those ideas cannot contain the need for struggle that is time-to-time felt by the exploited and oppressed in society.  Oppression breeds resistance.  But resistance does not always manifest itself in the most advanced or sophisticated form.  Revolutionary consciousness is developed through the course of action.

The foundation for a new, revolutionary conception of the world already exists.  But the discovery of this revolutionary consciousness isn’t automatic. Revolutionary ideas, therefore, are not injected into struggle from without, but already exist within the movement itself, and need to be parsed from the old ideas.  This requires the work of the “conscious leadership,” which already exists in every struggle, to intentionally organize together to help distinguish and distill the new, revolutionary ideas from the old ones.  This organization of “conscious leadership” is what Gramsci called “the modern prince”—or the revolutionary party.[35]

Emergent social movements have the potential to form the basis of a real revolutionary force, even when the demands or grievances raised by the movement appear weak or moderate.  “Those who expect a pure revolution will never live to see one,” as Lenin put it[36].  Put another way, in his autobiography The Long Haul, Myles Horton explains that,

In a social movement we are clearly part of a collective struggle that encourages us to increase our demands…In a social movement, the demands escalate, because your success encourages and emboldens you to demand more.  I became convinced that the seeds of the civil rights movement lay in the Montgomery bus boycott, because I’d seen the demands for fixed seating escalate to demands for blacks to be able to sit wherever they wanted.  And then, when I saw the demands for blacks to be able to set anywhere they wanted escalate to a demand for black drivers, I said, “This is the beginning of a social movement.”  The ante went up and finally escalated into demands that they do away with all public segregation.[37]

The civil rights movement grew into the motivating force behind all the struggles of the 1960s and 1970s—against U.S. imperialism, for women’s liberation, black and brown power, gay liberation, and it ushered in a whole new wave of labor militancy, that created all manners of new revolutionary possibilities.

People join movements as they are, not as we wish them to be, for their own reasons, with their own motivations, and their own varying degrees of political consciousness.  Economic crises, the outbreak of war, an act of sexual violence, a tuition hike, or a racist murder, all have the potential to sweep people into political activity to demand reforms, or vent their anger and frustrations.  These motivations, although not “revolutionary,” are the starting points for most people in developing a new revolutionary consciousness.  Through the course of struggle, people become more aware of society’s real contours, and gain confidence in their own creativity and potential to transform the world as part of a movement.  Instead of rejecting these social movements and cutting ourselves off from them, revolutionaries should be in the center of them; encouraging their development and helping to distill the revolutionary ideas from the ruling ideas that enter into every social movement and seek forestall the movement’s escalation.  It is a grave error to reject the potential of these movements, and completely wrong to argue, as Boggs does, that social movements fail to “change the cultural images or the symbols” that shape people, i.e. to challenge the ruling ideas of society and transform people’s political consciousness.  Social movements are, in fact, the only way to successfully fight society’s ruling ideas, and replace them with new, revolutionary conceptions of the world.

We cannot not win a new world simply by “re-imagining” the old one away.  Our revolution must be made with the stuff capitalism gives us to work with, with people and conditions as they really are.  As Marx wrote, criticizing the so-called “utopian Socialists” of his time:

Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence…“Liberation” is an historical and not a mental act, and it is brought about by historical conditions…In reality and for the practical materialist, i.e. the communist, it is a question of revolutionizing the existing world, of practically attacking and changing existing things.[38]

We have to make the new society from the stuff that the present gives us to work with.  In the course of attacking capitalist society, its policies, its wars, and its violence, people begin to transform themselves, and begin to take their seat as the rulers of the future society.  In other words, the act of the destruction of capitalist society is it self a part of the creative process of forming a new society.  The “revolution is necessary,” Marx said, “not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew.”[39]  This is precisely why the “the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself.”[40]


Many activists, including Boggs and Birkhold, separate the struggle against capitalism and the struggle for a new society.  According to this perspective, sometimes activists are attacking and dismantling the old system through protest, or other kinds of mass collective action; other times we’re building the new society through building alternative institutions that anticipate the forms of the future society in the present.  According to Birkhold, James Boggs called this the “two-prong” strategy, which combined the struggle against the “internal” enemy, alongside the struggle against the “external” enemy.[41]  Often times, however, what appears as two things is in fact just one.  There’s steam and there’s ice, but really there is only water; there’s heat and there’s light, but all you have is energy, and so on.  Similar is our case here.

A two-pronged strategy meant, for example, recognizing the need for a national health care system while recognizing the need to practice preventative health care.  For another example, Boggs explained that while we should be resisting the attempts of corporations to “destroy communities by closing down our places of work,” we should also create our own jobs through opening “locally owned stores…so that we can buy our necessities locally and our young people can see stores not just as places where you spend money…but as places where people are working to meet the needs of the community.”  Hence, Boggs suggests, “In every neighborhood there should be a bakery where families can purchase freshly baked bread and children can stop by after school to buy their sweets.”  Birkhold commented on this by suggesting that, for activists, “protesting various laws that create barriers to business creation might be useful here.”[42]

While many would likely reject the suggestion that one should spend resources supporting small business development—and rightfully so, as small businesses are subject to the same laws of capitalist competition, and are guided by these principles to exploit labor and accumulate capital just as much as any monopoly capitalist—this principle of the “two-pronged” approach is common among anarchists and some revolutionary socialists[43].  Sometimes we attack the system; other times we build the future society.

However, these forms of struggle are not mechanically separated, but are dialectically unified, with mass struggle at the center.  The laws of capitalist accumulation, market competition, and the conditions created by various forms of oppression, make it impossible for one to meaningfully “prefigure” the future society in the present through building experimental projects.  Without transforming the hostile terrain, all prefigurative institutions inevitably suffer the same fate as Robert Owen’s utopian experimental communities of the past.  As Rosa Luxemburg, the German revolutionary socialist, warned,

The workers forming a co-operative…are obliged to take toward themselves the role of capitalist entrepreneur – a contradiction that accounts for the usual failure of production co-operatives which either become pure capitalist enterprises or, if the workers’ interests continue to predominate, end by dissolving.[44]

Indeed, as one member of the enormous Mondragon cooperative system in Spain lamented, cooperatives cannot “flourish as a cooperative island in a capitalist world.”[45]  “Alternative” institutions must either accommodate to the laws of capitalism if they want to survive, or collapse in spite of them.  Like many of the utopians in the past, many projects today must remain beholden to either wealthy individuals or foundations for money to survive, and be ever careful not to bite the hand that feeds.  The most revolutionary experiments are inevitably crushed by the state.  In other words, if we want to win a socialist society, than we have to transform the terrain hostile to those socialist values—solidarity, democracy, equality and so forth—rather than simply try and wish it away.

The method for building the new world cannot come from simply “prefiguring” the future society and transmitting it into the present.  “We do not dogmatically anticipate the world” wrote Marx,  “but only want to find the new world through criticism of the old one.”  That is, we should not predict and build all the forms and features of the future society, as the utopians tried, but instead we should try discover basis of the new society through revolutionizing the present.  “In thinking about the gradualness of the coming-to-be of something,” wrote Hegel, “it is ordinarily assumed that what comes to be is already sensibly or actually in existence; it is not yet perceptible only because of its smallness.”[46]  At times appearing static and slow to change, these forms may be so miniscule that they seem invisible, but they become clearer to see at the moment unrest breaks out; just as one cannot see water vaporizing into gas in a pot of water sitting still at room temperature, but it becomes clear to see as steam when the water is heated and begins to boil.

The term “dual power” is often used to describe the strategy of building alternative institutions—Birkhold provides examples such as time banks and small businesses, but often times this could include so-called free schools, workers’ cooperatives and so on—that aim to challenge the legitimacy of the dominant ruling class institutions and provide an alternative.  “Dual power” is borrowed from the history of the Russian Revolution, in which workers’ councils called “soviets” in Russian, competed for political power with the Tsarist state.

The workers’ councils first emerged during the failed 1905 Russian Revolution as a spontaneous formation that emerged from the mass revolutionary struggle during a wave of general strikes.  Initially they sprung up in order to coordinate keeping essential workplaces operating during general strikes, but under workers’ control.  They weren’t conjured up by a group of radicals reflecting on how the world ought to be, but were instead a direct result of the practical needs of an escalating class struggle.  However, the Russian revolutionary Lenin, hardly a notable figure at the time of writing, immediately recognized the significance of this new body, writing,

I may be wrong, but I believe…that politically the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies should be regarded as the embryo of a provisional revolutionary government. I think the Soviet should proclaim itself the provisional revolutionary government of the whole of Russia as early as possible, or should set up a provisional revolutionary government.[47]

Heeding the lessons that Marx and Engels drew from the experience of the Paris Commune that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes,” Lenin saw in these workers’ councils the basis for a new kind of government based “not on a law enacted by a centralized state power…but [on] the direct initiative of the people from below, in their local areas—direct ‘seizure,’ to use a current expression”.[48]

In the course of the revolutionary struggle that erupted in February 1917 the soviet form reemerged, this time more widespread and entrenched as a self-active form of working class political power.  It was at this moment that the dual power situation emerged in Russia, between February and October 1917, when the revolutionary and counter-revolutionary struggles were virtually equal in their power.  The ruling class could not suppress the revolutionary movement, but the revolutionary movement was not yet powerful enough to abolish the old state and put their new form of power in its place.

Even though the soviets emerged as an institution of workers power in the course of struggle, it was hardly taken for granted by other socialists that the soviets should constitute a new form of political power, the basis for a new kind of state.  Many of the moderate socialists simply saw the soviets as temporary formations that could help to bolster new parties into the seat of government, leaving the old capitalist state in tact.  These moderates held the majority of delegate seats in the soviets practically right up to the October Revolution in 1917.  But rather than direct the soviet toward increasing struggle, these moderate socialists sought continuously to compromise with the provisional government of the ruling class, and steered the soviets toward purposeless busy work.  As one revolutionary socialist complained, “The entire work of our soviet…lost all meaning…At a meeting of the Executive Committee we would yawn from boredom till it became indecent.”[49]  Existing primarily as an institution of struggle for workers’ power, the soviet could not survive without this struggle.  People had to be won, politically, in the course of this struggle, to the idea that soviets should be permanent bodies that can abolish the old capitalist state and constitute a new form of workers’ government.

The new form of workers’ government founded on the soviets would be charged with the task of socializing the means of production in the hands of the working class; reorganizing the economy and society in general along socialist lines; and defending the revolution from the counter-revolutionary attacks of the old order.  Following the October Revolution of 1917, in which the soviets successfully overthrew the provisional government of the capitalist class, an explosive event that inspired people across the country, the new soviet power immediately began this work.  The soviets announced workers’ control of the factories and the peasants’ seizure of the farmland; Russia declared peace and announced the end of its involvement in the World War; separation of church and state was declared and full freedom of religion was guaranteed, effectively ending the legal end of Jewish oppression that blighted Russia for centuries; education was made free and a literacy campaign was begun across the country; welfare was guaranteed to the poorest Russians for the first time; homosexuality and abortion were completely decriminalized[50]; partners could divorce at the request of either partner[51]; arts and culture erupted in a burst of creative energy.

Dual power is a revolutionary moment of political crisis—not a “strategy”—in which the self-active institutions of working class political power are in a life-or-death competition with the dominant political institutions of the ruling class.  The social crisis of dual power represents a moment in which the contradictions of capitalist society are brought to a pitch—where the revolutionary future is struggling to smash through the reactionary barriers of the outmoded capitalist past.  Time-banks, small businesses, community gardens, communes or workers’ co-ops are not the modern equivalents of soviet power.


“We fight for better days; it shall rise from the ashes.”

Rather than needing to be “reimagined,” the mission of revolutionary socialism is perhaps more relevant than ever. As the planet moves ever closer to ecological catastrophe; as Black youth across America are shot dead by the police or thrown into crowded prisons; as schools are turned into for-profit businesses and homes are snatched up by banks.  As more and more people suffer, and starve, while unbelievable wealth is hoarded by a tiny 1% of the population, the classically posed question: “Socialism or Barbarism?” stares us squarely in the face.  Given the resurgence of mass movements on a world scale—only most notably in Egypt, the United States, and Greece—it appears that humanity is not willing to accept the latter.

The 1% will literally stop at nothing in their lust for profit.  If there is a dollar to be made they must have it, even if it means the destruction of the whole planet.  They cannot help it.  It is not a matter of their lack of reason or morals. It is a matter of their social existence.  Their existence depends it.  Today’s real-life ruling class in the United States is far more sinister than any fantastic super villain.  Tony Hayward could make The Joker blush.  Any U.S. president would put the most dedicated genocidal maniac in Gotham City to shame.

And yet, this is the real world, with real suffering.  These are real lives, and real stakes.  And they call for real action based on an analysis of our real conditions.  Not imaginary solutions and visions of what the world ought to be like; but real conclusions drawn from the way the world actually is right now.

Although motivated by sincere desire to change society, “visionary” organizing simply doesn’t measure up to task for those seeking to change the world.  The society of the 1% isn’t founded on corrupt values, but in a particular process of production. And people’s ideas don’t change in an isolated vacuum, separated from mass struggles, left to the same old conditions of exploitation, competition and oppression.  If we want to transform consciousness, we need to transform the world.  We cannot change ourselves to change the world; rather, we must change the world to change ourselves.

“Alternative” institutions, planted in the hostile soil of capitalist exploitation, competition, and oppression, fail to take root and flourish.  They are inevitably suffocated by these conditions, either adapting to the norms of capitalist society, or breaking apart in spite of them.  Without an alternative direction for their energy, many activists burn out, voluntaristically trying time and again to form new projects that model the future society in the stifling conditions of the present.  The lesson, then, is not that society is just waiting for the right utopian experiment, nor that change is impossible, but rather that we must transform these suffocating conditions through mass collective action. This struggle may not be possible at all times, changing social conditions can make it more or less likely.  But capitalist society inevitably breeds the conditions for a struggle between exploiter and exploited, oppressed and oppressor, that can erupt with new revolutionary potential.

However, “visionary organizing” ill prepares activists for these moments of revolutionary potential.  By telling people to “turn their backs” on mass struggles, “visionary organizing” isolates and divides sincere revolutionaries.  In one example, as the Occupy movement began to erupt in Detroit, attracting more than 800 people to its first general assembly, activists influenced by so-called “visionary” organizing wrote an open letter explicitly attacking the new movement.  The open letter said that Detroit—a city which suffers an official poverty rate of almost 30% and an unemployment rate of over 50%–is a city which is already “modeling life after capitalism” and that has “moved beyond protest.”  Far be it from a city left “on the margins” of the capitalist system, Detroit is an exemplary capitalist city.  Yet every day, according to the letter’s authors, Detroit is re-defininng “what ‘revolution’ [sic] looks like” (they couldn’t help but put the word revolution in quotations).  The impact of the letter was disorienting for the emergent movement, and discouraging to the hundreds of newly engaged activists.[52]

With this 40-year long onslaught by the 1% provoking only the pettiest responses, it is expected that some would give up the ghost in the absence of mass social movements.  But as the experiences of Madison, Occupy and Egypt show us—struggle cannot be avoided, whether we want to it not.  Through their neoliberal programs, the ruling class has pushed the contradictions of the system to a fever pitch.  In 2008, the nature of this system was laid out and made plain for all to see, and ushered in a new era of mass struggle.  Now, try as they might in the United States, Greece or Egypt, the genie will not go back in the bottle.  Obama and the Democrats offer us no solutions, and they never have.  In their cowardice and desire to please their corporate masters, they moved so far to the right that the only thing the Republicans can do to distinguish themselves is embrace the most backwards Medieval politics, pushing the contradictions of the system even further.  If there is to be a real solution to the crisis of the system, if there is to be any future, it has to come from the streets, independent of the two capitalist parties.  “Power never takes a step back – only in the face of more power.”

With the experience of mass struggle placed back on the agenda after its temporary hiatus, tens of thousands across the country are learning first hand the lesson Fredrick Douglass taught us in 1857, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.”  The ubiquitous cynicism in humanity that seemed to characterize the 2000s is starting to be washed away by waves of popular protest, and the real contours of our society are becoming clearer to people every day.  Men and women, blacks and whites, Copts and Muslims:  their common cause is beginning to emerge as people start to see their struggles as common, struggle against the divisions imposed upon them, and reject the old ideas they inherited.  “The muck of ages” is being washed away, as it must be, without prejudice.  In Madison, thousands of people—neither hardened internationalists, nor socialists, nor anarchists—looked toward Cairo and saw a familiar face in the revolution against their US-backed dictatorship.  Thousands looked and said for the first time, “I am too.”  The anti-war movement of the Bush-era had tried desperately to create this kind of solidarity for almost a decade, with few results.  But this experience shows us that this wasn’t because the American working class is one big reactionary mass, bent on getting their iPhones and Hummers whatever the expense to all the poorer, darker nations.  This international solidarity virtually erupted once both the Egyptians and the American working class were pitted against their common oppressor, the 1%.

A new world is beginning, slowly, to emerge “through the criticism of the old one.”  It may seem to be a faint light, but anyone who cannot see it simply isn’t paying attention.  Millions across the world are learning the meaning of solidarity, of courage, of power—their own power that they build together—in the theater of practice and mass collective action.  Rather than stand outside of this struggle, revolutionaries must be in the center of it.  One cannot change society by standing outside of it.  It is through this process that the forms of the new world begin to emerge, not from a blue print of how the world ought to be conjured up and imposed on the present, but from the practical necessities of a struggle that is inherit to our society.  The new world cannot be invented; rather, it must be discovered.

[1] Matthew Birkhold. “Living by the Clock of the World: Grace Lee Boggs’ Call for Visionary Organizing.” Left Turn. 2012. http://www.leftturn.org/grace-lee-boggs-visionary-organizing

[2] Momo Chang. “Reimagining Revolution: Q & A with Grace Lee Boggs.” Hyphen. 2012. http://www.hyphenmagazine.com/blog/archive/2012/03/reimagining-revolution-qa-grace-lee-boggs

[3] Birkhold, op. cit.

[4] Ibid.

[5] IbidOne wonders what it means to become “incorporated” into capitalist society.  For example, trade unions, which are by no means revolutionary, have nonetheless been under a constant assault by the ruling class.  With right-to-work laws, and numerous attacks threatening the very existence of trade unions today, it’s clear that, as weak as they are, the ruling class would rather be done with them altogether.  Even the most conservative trade union still remains a thorn in the side of the 1%.

[6] For more on DRUM see the forthcoming reissue of Dan Georgakas and Marvin Surkin’s Detroit: I Do Mind Dying: A Study in Urban Revolution. Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books, 2012.

[7] Michelle Alexander. The new Jim Crow mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness. New York, N.Y.: New Press, 2012.

[8] Ibid.

[9] James Boggs and Stephen Ward. Pages from a Black Radical’s Notebook: A James Boggs Reader. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2010. p 173.

[10] In The American Revolution, James Boggs explains that, according to his interpretation of Marx, the period of transition between capitalism and a classless society, i.e. socialism, is meant to develop the forces of production to the point of creating enough abundance to make a classless society possible.  Since American society had already produced such abundance, Boggs concluded, the conditions for communism already exist in American society and the transitional phase is no longer necessary.  See, Boggs & Ward, pp. 106 – 109.  This confusion of Marxism is repeated throughout the Boggs’s work.  For Marx and Engels, it was this abundance that made communism possible.  The so-called “transitional” period between capitalism and communism is necessary for overthrowing the ruling class, socializing the means of production, reorganizing society, defending the revolution from reactionary forces. Without having first a socialist revolution, one makes the same mistake as the earlier utopian socialists, which will be discussed further down.

[11] Birkhold op. cit.

[12] Boggs & Ward, op. cit. p. 272.

[13] Birkhold op. cit.

[14] Boggs & Ward, op. cit. p. 305.

[15] Grace Lee Boggs and Scott Kurashige. The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century. Minneapolis: University of California Press, 2011. http://www.ucpress.edu/excerpt.php?isbn=9780520269248#readchapter1

[16] Birkhold op. cit.

[17] For more on the history and Marxist critique of the early utopian socialist see Socialism: Utopian and Scientific (1880) by Friedrich Engels. http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1880/soc-utop/index.htm

[18] Marx, Karl, Friedrich Engels, and Robert C Tucker. “Socialism: Utopian & Scientific.” In The Marx-Engels reader. New York: Norton, 1978. http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1880/soc-utop/index.htm.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. “Manifesto of the Communist Party.” Marxist Internet Archive. 1848. http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/index.htm

[21]Bertell Ollman. “The Utopian Vision of the Future (Then and Now): A Marxist Critique.” Monthly Review, August 2005. http://monthlyreview.org/2005/07/01/the-utopian-vision-of-the-future-then-and-now-a-marxist-critique.

[22] Birkhold, op. cit.

[23] Voltaire, a philosopher of the French enlightenment, once famously stated that “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.”

[24] Birkhold, op. cit.

[25] Marx, Capital.

[26] David Harvey. A companion to Marx’s Capital. London: Verso, 2010.

[27] Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels. The German ideology. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1998. http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/german-ideology/.

[28] Silvia Federici. Caliban and the witch: women, the body and primitive accumulation. New York; London: Autonomedia; Pluto, 2003. Silvia Federici argues that the Great Witch Hunt of the late Middle Ages in Europe were the result of the rise of capitalism in late feudal society and the necessity for capital to discipline the body as a precondition for its own further development.

[29] See Barbara Jeanne Fields on ideologies. “Slavery, Race and Ideology in the United States of America” www.solidarity-us.org/pdfs/cadreschool/fields.pdf.

[30] Karl Marx. “18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.” Marxist Internet Archive. March 1852. http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1852/18th-brumaire/index.htm.

[31] Harvey, op. cit.

[32] Marx, The German Ideology.

[33] Antonio Gramsci. “Some Preliminary Points of Reference.” In Selections from the Prison notebooks of Antonio Gramsci. New York: International Publishers, 2005.  Cited in Chris Harman. “International Socialism: Gramsci, the Prison Notebooks and Philosophy.” International Socialism, April 2007. http://www.isj.org.uk/?id=308.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Harman, op. cit.  Left without this organization, however, one is left either to assume either that movements for reform inevitably evolve on their own into a revolutionary movement that can overthrow capitalism (since the reformist struggle is left without a consciously revolutionary element that can build and grow a revolutionary pole), or on the other hand, one must assume that the overthrow of capitalism is simply unnecessary.

[36] V.I. Lenin. “Lenin: The Discussion On Self-Determination Summed Up”, July 1916. http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1916/jul/x01.htm.

[37] Myles Horton. The long haul: an autobiography. New York: Teachers College Press, 1997.

[38] Karl Marx, The German Ideology.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels, The Manifesto of the Communist Party.

[41] Birkhold, op. cit.       

[42] Birkhold, op. cit.       

[43] For an example see, “An Introduction to Dual Power Strategy” by Brian Dominick, where he says “not only must we form alternative institutions, but also counter institutions to resist and assault the status quo” http://sandiego.indymedia.org/en/2002/09/2403.shtml.

[44] Rosa Luxemburg, and Helen Scott. “Reform or Revolution.” In The essential Rosa Luxemburg: Reform or revolution & the mass strike. Chicago, Ill.: Haymarket Books, 2008. http://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1900/reform-revolution/index.htm.

[45] The experience of the Mondragon cooperative system serves as a perfect example of Luxemburg’s warning: that cooperatives cannot escape the coercive laws of capitalist competition.  Forced to compete in the global marketplace starting in the 1990s, Mondragon centralized its leadership and began hiring non-co-op employees in low wage countries like Egypt and Morocco, just like their traditional capitalist counterparts.  By the late 1990s almost 1/3rd of its employees were not co-op members, and any individual co-op could hire up to 40% non-co-op employees, who are dispensable and have no voice in the operation of their workplace.  One council member of Mondragon’s largest cooperative, Fagor, even lamented in the late-90s that “cooperativism doesn’t work” but could not offer an alternative to the market pressures being put on the coop system.  See Tim Huet, “Can Coops Go Global?” Dollars & Sense. December 1997. http://www.dollarsandsense.org/archives/1997/1197huet.html.

[46] Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Hegel’s science of logic. Amherst, N.Y.: Humanity Books, 1998. http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/hegel/works/hl/hlbeing.htm#HL1_368.  Sharing the whole quote may be clarifying here. I must quote at length:

“It is said, natura non facit saltum [there are no leaps in nature]; and ordinary thinking when it has to grasp a coming-to-be or a ceasing-to-be, fancies it has done so by representing it as a gradual emergence or disappearance. But we have seen that the alterations of being in general are not only the transition of one magnitude into another, but a transition from quality into quantity and vice versa, a becoming-other which is an interruption of gradualness and the production of something qualitatively different from the reality which preceded it. Water, in cooling, does not gradually harden as if it thickened like porridge, gradually solidifying until it reached the consistency of ice; it suddenly solidifies, all at once. It can remain quite fluid even at freezing point if it is standing undisturbed, and then a slight shock will bring it into the solid state…

In thinking about the gradualness of the coming-to-be of something, it is ordinarily assumed that what comes to be is already sensibly or actually in existence; it is not yet perceptible only because of its smallness. Similarly with the gradual disappearance of something, the non-being or other which takes its place is likewise assumed to be really there, only not observable, and there, too, not in the sense of being implicitly or ideally contained in the first something, but really there, only not observable.”

[47] V.I. Lenin. “Lenin: Our Tasks and the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies.” Marxist Internet Archive, November 1905. http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1905/nov/04b.htm.

[48] V.I. Lenin. “The Dual Power.” Marxist Internet Archive. April 1917. http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/apr/09.htm. Emphasis in the original. It’s especially interesting to note his careful use of the word “seizure” here.

[49] Leon Trotsky, and Max Eastman. History of the Russian Revolution. Chicago, Ill.: Haymarket Books, 2008. http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1930/hrr/ch35.htm.

[50] Sherry Wolf. “The Roots of Gay Oppression.” International Socialist Review. http://www.isreview.org/issues/37/gay_oppression.shtml. A quote used in this article from from the Russian Revolutionary Gregorii Baktis reads: “The present sexual legislation in the Soviet Union is the work of the October revolution. This revolution is important not only as a political phenomenon which secures the political role of the working class, but also for the revolutions which evolving from it reach out into all areas of life…. [Soviet legislation] declares the absolute non-involvement of state and society in sexual relations, provided they harm no one and infringe upon no one’s interests…. Homosexuality, sodomy and various other forms of sexual gratification set forth in European legislation as offences against public morality are treated by Soviet legislation exactly as is so called “natural” intercourse.”

[51] Alexandra Kollontai. “Sexual Relations and the Class Struggle.” Marxist Internet Archive, 1921. http://www.marxists.org/archive/kollonta/1921/sex-class-struggle.htm.  From this article: “History has never seen such a variety of personal relationships–indissoluble marriage with its “stable family,” “free unions,” secret adultery; a girl living quite openly with her lover in so-called “wild marriage”; pair marriage, marriage in threes and even the complicated marriage of four people–not to talk of the various forms of commercial prostitution.”

[52] Yusef Bunchy Shakur. “Dear Occupy Detroit”, February 2011. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/yusef-bunchy-shakur/occupy-detroit_b_1086421.html.

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6 Responses to A critical reply to Birkhold’s “Grace Lee Boggs’ call for visionary organizing”

  1. Good response. It reminded me of this quote from the early Marx: “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.” Grace Lee Boggs falls into exactly the kind of elitism that Marx warned against in the Theses on Feuerbach.

  2. ethan young says:

    The Boggses tried to branch off from Johnson-Forest (CLR James & Raya Dunayevskaya) by reasserting the role of visionary leadership, but another step beyond J-F’s critique of Bolshevism and its endless variations. The problem is that the road to the promised land is through the sewer of present-day society, with its customs, institutions, alienation and soul-crushing endless mazes. There is no shining path. But experiments are good: people learn what’s possible and impossible, if they can remember they live in the world that needs changing.

  3. Pingback: A Better World is Probable: “In Defense of Struggle: What “Visionary Organizing” Cannot See”

  4. kzaidan says:

    I am really grateful for this piece, even if I don’t totally agree with it. I believe that the distinction between protest politics and visionary organizing is completely central to the success of a unified left movement, and these conversations are few and far between. So thank you for for a well-reasoned and frank article.

    I have long thought that the left does not currently devote enough attention to prefigurative politics. Struggle does indeed shape politics, but how does this occur in the absence of a concrete vision? In my experience, protest movements are universally defensive, and often serve to demoralize and burn people out just as you say the “visionary organizing” does.

    I have been doing organizing for a number of years, and I must say that your depiction of the U.S. working class chomping at the bit to fight back against brutality and oppression seems mischaracterized at best. Protest movements seem to either a) spring up around some tragedy or horrific legislation and die out before the politics have a chance to solidify, b) are comprised of almost entirely white, educated young people and completely culturally homogeneous and therefor marginal, or c) get absorbed into the non-profit industrial complex where they are competing for the crumbs of the capitalist system, lobbying for mediocre legislative reforms, and electing democrats into office.

    The few mass-based organizations I know of who claim to be organizing working class people of color depict themselves in public as having huge memberships and much movement activity, but in reality have few committed members, their own struggles with infighting and navel gazing, and are sometimes driven by extreme cults of personality and delusions of grandeur. The labor movement represents a full 11% of US workers, and most of the union leadership lie just to the left of Arlen Spectre. That may be a generous comparison. Meanwhile, the rank and file remains disengaged at best, hostile to the union at worst.

    My point is that to me, of course the US left is miniscule and irrelevant. We are asking people to join the revolutionary army of something that may be marginally better than what we’ve got. In this revolutionary army, we will either lose or compromise so much that our original demands are unrecognizable. Sounds appealing, right?

    Internal strife, external pressure, lack of financing and political pressure describe the pitfalls of every protest movement I have been involved with to date. This is where I see Bogg’s crisis of values becoming relevant: we are shaped by capitalist values, and we will need to confront these in our organizations, prefigurative, protest, or otherwise. I think your article puts a little too much emphasis on Bogg’s position on values and come across as semantical. It is a nature or nurture kind of argument, and to me the answer is probably “both, duh.” But maybe I have little patience for philosophical quabbling when there are real battles to win in the streets and in our communities.

    In summary, I think the left will not be successful until we build the kinds of institutions we believe can exist in the world. When people see that these institutions can be successful, they will be more likely to fight for something they can see themselves benefiting from either materially or spiritually.

    • Aaron Ptkf says:

      Hey there, I think you raise some excellent points. I really appreciate your response.

      My purpose wasn’t to argue that the working class and oppressed people are “chomping at the bit” for a revolution. Far from it. Rather I only wanted to argue two things: 1) that a struggle between exploited and oppressed people and their exploiter is inevitable if they want to survive, and 2) that this struggle, if sustained long enough and escalates far enough, can create the foundations of a new society (and therefore “prefigurative” politics and protest/struggle aren’t mechanically separated, but are intricately connected, with collective action as the pivoting point).

      The imperative for the ruling 1% to profit at the expense of the working class and the oppressed in capitalist society inevitably creates a life-or-death dilemma for the working class and the oppressed as well as the 1%. I think there are a number of factors, which, for the past several decades, have made the realization of a large struggle led by exploited and oppressed people very, very difficult… Instead the 1% has gone on a free-for-all, slashing and burning everything that got in the way of profit: so-called “entitlements” that have been won through past struggles, e.g., public education, healthcare, housing, welfare, unions, etc. State repression (especially against against labor and the Black community) and other divisions within the working class and the oppressed, stoked through said repression as well as by the media and other channels of propaganda, have also created a barrier to successful struggle. With all these defeats, people’s confidence in struggle has been decimated. Over the past 4 decades, any suggestion that people should fight back was met with the utmost cynicism and dismissal. Boggs is responding largely to this defeat and difficulty in building a successful fightback, however, I think her response is misleading…instead of arguing against people’s cynicism about struggle, she confirms it, and then suggests that instead people should simply transform themselves, but while remaining subject to the same hostile conditions of capitalist society (with it’s oppression, exploitation, poverty, etc). I think this is voluntaristic…it suggests that while we’re shaped by capitalist values, but we can simply escape that socialization without changing those original conditions.

      The society shaped by the 1% means that the kind of institutions we want to see are actually impossible without overthrowing capitalist society. Everything else, is at the very best, a foredoomed approximation. Capitalist society makes it impossible to have a successful genuinely socialist or classless workers cooperative, as Rosa Luxemburg describes in the quote I used in the previous article. They cannot “exist as islands of cooperation in a sea of capitalist competition.” Cooperatives and other experiments are either crushed by the market, or compromise their principles to adapt to it (as the Mondragon system of cooperatives also illustrates). If the markets don’t handle the cooperatives or other experiments, the state eventually will. If, therefore, we are waiting to impress people with our “successful” prefigurative projects, we will be waiting indefinitely… We have to find another source for inspiration, and confidence. I think that source is found within mass collective action.

      Through protest, struggle, etc., people can gain new confidence in their power to change society, to struggle further, and transform themselves in the process. I think this has been hard to see because of the absence of protest and struggle for the past several decades, but I think we’re starting to see that edifice crack, with the eruptions of Occupy, protests against racism that followed the murder of Trayvon Martin, protests against victim blaming and sexism, etc…I also think these protests have a kind of feedback into and from the labor movement, despite it’s conservativism.

      The occupation of the Capitol building in Madison, for example, wouldn’t have been possible without the participation of big trade unions like AFSCME, even though they eventually caved to political pressure and supported an ineffectual recall campaign…Those initial protests however, led to a sustained occupation and a fight that had a major effect, in my opinion, in leading toward the Occupy movement, which I think has started to usher in a new visibility and acceptance of protest and collective action. These kind of actions, can then feedback into the rank-and-file, help boost their confidence, and pit them against the dead weight of the old bureaucratic leadership. But it doesn’t happen all at once. This is obviously not a comprehensive analysis of the past 6 decades of dead trade unionism that we’ve had in the US…but I’ll give a quick example of where I think we’re starting to see this happen. Steelworkers in Findlay, OH were recently locked out by their employers for voting down a concessionary contract proposed to them by the management of their company. They’ve been accepting concessions for almost a decade now. When asked why they chose to vote down this contract they said that Madison, Occupy and the fight against SB5 (a piece of anti-union legislation that was defeated in a referendum) gave them the confidence to fight back. They lost (although the worst parts of the contract were taken out), eventually, when the leadership refused to take the fight as far as it needed to go. However, I think this starts to create the conditions in which rank-and-file, raising in their confidence, can start to shake up some of the dead, crystallized bureaucracy. Or consider the possibility of a teachers’ strike in Chicago in August…recent visibility of protest, etc., have had a boon on chicago teachers’ willingness to fight, such that the rank-and-file voted well over 90% to authorize strike action…

  5. Pingback: Critique of Grace Lee Boggs and visionary organizing in the ISR | a better world is probable

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