August update

Despite being online for only the last two weeks of August we did pretty damn well as far as a new project is concerned. We had 860 views by 513 visitors!

In comparison, and also from my limited knowledge, Socialist Worker (ISO’s newspaper) receives only four thousand views a month in its online format.

We are working on getting some basic articles on what we are and what we are planning to do out shortly. There are people looking for democratic, revolutionary organization dedicated to the movements and we are going to continue to try to do this. To put our goal shortly.

We have received a donation of a web domain and web design services. A much prettier website will be up soon.

Due to our relaunch as a website and the input of a comrade who pointed out the sexist implication of our name we are also attempting to brainstorm a better one. If you have any ideas please let us know.

Lastly but certainly not least, we need writers and people to sit on our editorial board. Neither of these two things necessitates a membership with us. We seriously need some POC and a woman or two on our board.

Advertisements

Why our name

By Jacob Pointon and Jay Jay

Unfortunately we have added a new set to the three letter acronym alphabet soup. This is meant to help explain why our name. Why our existence will come in a later post.

We take the Rosa in our name from Rosa Luxemburg. She was a Polish Jew who was best known for her work in the German Social-Democratic Party (SPD). Specifically, she was a passionate voice against the betrayal of Marxism by some inside the SPD (notably the bureaucrats) and by extension, their betrayal of the working class. Arrested several times for opposition to WWI, she was also well known for her comradely critiques of Lenin and the developments of the Bolshevik Revolution. And when, in 1919, Germany was experiencing a revolutionary upsurge, Rosa was beaten and shot to death for being a de facto leader of the working class. Today she is still known as a martyr of the German Revolution, her voice throttled by those who would openly hand power over to the Nazi Party. It is for all these reasons that we honor her name.

The Debs in our name comes from a man named Eugene Debs. He was an American socialist who helped to found the Socialist Party of America and the Industrial Workers of the World. When he criticized president Wilson for entering WWI, Debs was arrested and imprisoned under the Espionage Act of 1917. Not one to be silenced, Debs ran for President of the United States from his prison cell. His steadfast dedication to anti-capitalism and workers’ power is our reason for honoring his name.

We take them as our name not due to a fanatical and unquestionable loyalty to their theory or practice but because they stood for the working class, were not afraid to critique and even less afraid to suffer for their cause.

A (hopefully) constructive criticism of North Star

by Saturn

For a website named after a navigational symbol, the North Star seems to have lost its way.

To rewind, the North Star was born out of an individual quitting the International Socialist Organization.  There was something special about this.  It acknowledged the strengths of one of the best groups in the USA.  The ISO balances being one of the least insane with being one of the best-built and highest-quality.  While having an over-developed party line is itself problematic, at least the ISO’s emphasis on “socialism from below” in general at least seems to be a much better approach than the cold-hearted tankies who would crush Hungary again, or the traumatized Trotskyists who are torn between the Eastern Bloc and socialism from below.  Of course these days I am open to working with anyone who disagrees with me about Russia, whether in RDN or really anywhere, but in my personal opinion (which I don’t impose on organizations), the ISO has a good analysis.  Also, compared to many other groups, the ISO is also at least somewhat democratic and open to discussion (though that has limits too).  And most importantly, they just have their stuff together incredibly well in terms of a tightly-run ship, and are near-universally acknowledged as effective in the Chicago Teacher’s Union.

So to start the conversation with someone quitting the ISO seemed promising, because the hope was that he would take the best strengths of that organization and carry them into something even newer, more experimental, and just better in every way.

Well, that’s not exactly what happened.

First it started with the relentless sectarian attacks against the ISO.  Many of these were accurate and valid criticisms, but the tone and frequency crossed the line from constructive criticisms to condemnation.  This is a really hard thing to balance, but the point is that this balance was not achieved.

Then we had, on a site that had criticized other groups for the Trotskyist tendency to have a split over every difference in party line, the site’s founder had to of course (by Murphy’s Law) start taking stances on the Left’s most divisive political issue: Syria.

Then, even worse, not only was he taking stances on Syria, but he had to take the most Left-unpopular stance possible which flies in the face of the entire Left’s anti-imperialist common sense: the (capitalist, imperialist) USA should militarily intervene in Syria.

So from the start, the promising beginning was curdled.  But still we faithful readers prayed on that something beautiful would emerge!

Now the recently-resigned initiator is recently resigned, and North Star is going…where?

International?

That certainly has nothing to do with what attracted the site’s initial audience.  Unless we’re counting people who actually liked Pham Binh’s position on Syria.  I don’t know who those people are and I’m not sure they actually exist beyond a useless handful of contrarians.

Perhaps what has most weakened North Star, from the start, is a hurdle that all websites face: they’re only about dialogue.  There is something strange about human speech: it tends to be disagreeable.  More words come pouring out when people disagree than when they agree.  When people agree, others tends to say “yeah, what s/he said.”  When they disagree, they type or verbalize a lengthy response.  (Sometimes you have the rare bird who agrees-for-other-reasons and adds them on.)

This, in my opinion, is why organization and action tend to be unifying forces instead of only theory, which tends to be more divisive.

And that is North Star’s problem: it is not action.  It is not organization.  It is theory.

Since you need organization to launch or participate in action in any meaningful way, out of those three options the only real choice left is for North Star to become an organization.

Sadly North Star is poorly-equipped for this path.  For one thing, I don’t think North Star is willing to do this, and I suppose a project’s greatest possible weakness is no one wanting to do it.  Second, North Star doesn’t seem to believe it could pull this off even if it wanted to (I’m not precisely sure why).  Thirdly, North Star truly is poorly-equipped for this undertaking.  This is because the closest thing it has to a “leadership” is its editorial board, and that editorial board (to pull no punches) is now becoming very inclined toward highly theoretical, abstract topics written in a language that is overly-meandering and with an atrociously pretentious vocabulary, to the point of being unreadable.  In other words, the exact opposite type of writing from what ordinary people would actually want to read.

This implies that the current editorial board is so out-of-touch with what would actually be a wise way to run an organization that, without a coup d’etat, North Star relaunching itself as an organization would be a disaster from the start, worse than useless, disorienting the Left even worse than it already is.

So the solution to the presented problems is that North Star relaunch itself as an organization, with a different initial leadership than its current editorial board, picking for its provisional central committee those who actually have experience with socialist organizations and working in mass movements.  You can do what you like but I recommend this be an American organization to respect the site’s initial following.

What kind of organization would this new North Star be?  Many various articles on North Star have pointed out some critical problems with American socialist groups, plus some problems that seem to fit the general theme:

  1. They are undemocratic but deceptive about it, with varying levels of sophistication
  2. People are attracted to socialism-in-general but most groups have hyper-specific party lines, explicitly or implicitly, which repel newcomers
  3. They emphasize an only-theoretical connection to the organization, while dismissing the power of human connection
  4. The splintering of the groups is a redundant waste of resources
  5. The splintering of the groups makes the public take no single one of them seriously
  6. Because of the above, no single one of them can ever hope to become The Future Mass Party

So we need an organization which addresses the above.

Unfortunately I do not predict that North Star will rise to this challenge because I think that the current editorial board is disinclined toward it, valuing theory over organization.

This is very sad.  This leaves the new consciousness on the Left, of the existing Left’s limitations, without an organizational embodiment.  But it needs an organizational embodiment.

This is why myself and others are starting the Rosa-Debs Network.  We seek to become precisely that type of organization: inspired by the ISN breakaways from the British SWP, inspired by some of the organizational discussions which have occurred on North Star, and also inspired by (but by no means stealing the thunder of) Philly Socialists’ admirable innovations in organizing.  We also owe a debt to Peter Camejo, one of the first pioneers out of the sectarian swamp into the realm of mainstream socialism, as well as the organization’s namesakes.

We are revolutionary-socialists-in-general, lacking any party line beyond workers’ revolution.  That makes us very multi-tendency (or because we allow dual membership, perhaps a better term would be inter-tendency.)  If RDN stands for anything in distinction from the current socialist tendencies, it would be the following:

  1. Ripping open and re-evaluating the old socialist organizations’ style of operating, in the name of greater democracy, freedom, and membership control, and experimenting with more direct-democratic organizational innovations
  2. Refocusing revolutionary socialists away from their turf war of mutual “criticism” (condemnation), and away from their rather narrow, redundant party-building efforts, in favor of constructing an actual socialist mass party in the contemporary USA

Are we looking for card-carrying members?  Yes!  (Of course we haven’t printed membership cards yet…)  Also we allow dual membership with everything.  If you like, stay in your old groups and be the spark of change within them.  They need it!

As for North Star, we seriously hope it re-navigates and corrects course before the star implodes and becomes a black hole of pointless arguing, clogging up the Internet and adding one more news feed distraction contributing to the national attention deficit.

Our position

Our political principles are very short. So short that one sentence encapsulates them: We stand for working class revolution and rule across the globe. There is a lot that flows from that principle and this is to explain what we mean.

The working class is the vast majority here in the United States. It is everyone who sells their labor for a wage or in some cases, a salary. Proletarians are a subset of the working class who generate surplus value. Surplus value is where all profit arises from. Workers have a unique ability to paralyze any business, institution or even all of society by denying it its labor. In particularly heated battles this is also where they come into conflict with the repressive force of the state in the form of the military and police. It is from these conflicts, among others, that the working class learns of both its power to and the necessity of systematic change (ie revolution).

The road to revolution lies not only in the working class’ realization that they run society but also with warfare against racism (both institutional and personal), patriarchy (the system that perpetuates sexism), heterosexism (the oppression of LGBTQ people), ableism, ageism and many more. These divisions are propagated by the media (read rich) in the greater extent and individuals in the lesser sense. Such ideas serve the rich with an ability to pit us against one another to lower wages for everyone and therefore, make more profit. In the fights for better wages, against police brutality and in defense of women’s health clinics we begin the process of overcoming these divisions. Society cannot be systematically changed so long as these ideas are dominant and their full destruction can only be with the full resources of our whole society.

Revolution for a Marxist means something very different from how most make it appear. For a Marxist, a revolution is the vast majority of the working class rising up and replacing the dictatorship of the rich (or bourgeosie) with the dictatorship of the working class (democracy). Peacefully if we can, violently if we must. It is up to the rich. While the rich rule through control of the land, factories and the media, the working class can only rule through democracy because the workplace cannot be parceled out to each and every worker. This democracy will be realized not in glorious halls filled with careerists but in the workplaces, schools and neighborhoods. All representative positions shall be paid no more than a worker and be instantly re-callable by those they represent.

The US government is the largest purveyor of counterrevolutionary violence in the world. The bases and supply lines it maintains serve to guard and expand the wealth of the rich by massive exploitation of labor and resources of all lands it touches. There is no such thing as “humanitarian intervention” and we oppose all wars and interventions as a result. In opposition to this we support the right to self-determination to all nations and peoples. Revolution and the creation of a workers’ state cannot survive in a world system dominated by capitalism without the support of its sisters and brothers

As for us, our first steps are rather clear. We must join with the movements and work to constantly broaden the size and raise the level politically. In the process we will develop a cadre (experienced Marxist organizers) that can do this even more effectively. Eventually whole sections of the working class will realize the absolute necessity of a revolutionary workers party and we will join them to build it. Our organizational forms to do this all are up to the participants. Through trial and error we shall find the best formulations.

If you agree with what we are saying broadly please contact us about joining our organization and/or participating in our founding conference call. We have no party line besides that first statement. We demand only that you fight and learn.

Charitable Outreach: a response

By JayJay in response to Philly Socialists’ service model: outreach disguised as charity?

Comrade Saturn makes some good points on the value of charitable outreach. My goal with this response is to put that tactic on a more solid basis for the more skeptical Marxists.

All tactics must be looked at through the eyes of he working class, its activity more specifically. The main advantage for this type of outreach is the creation of areas where movement activity can more easily reach a working class audience if we make effort to provide a wide variety of movement materials (pamphlets, leaflets etc). If done systematically it can also prove to be key support for the working class in the event of strikes, demonstrations and economic lulls.

It is also important to note that the early Marxist movement in Russia at the turn of the nineteenth employed similar tactics in the form of teaching workers to read and write. Out of these classes the first worker-Marxists were recruited to the movement. More importantly it created a strong working class current in society and encouraged comradely debate between those among it. This became the foundation on which the Russia Social Democratic Labor Party (as Marxists were known as at the time) was built.

Philly Socialists’ service model: outreach disguised as charity?

by Saturn

Philly Socialists is what would appear to be an unassuming local socialist group. If you are familiar with them, you may have heard of their service projects including food handouts, community gardens, English classes, and free Internet. At first glance this would seem to be a naïve mistaking of charity for socialism. As I’ve learned firsthand, though, appearances can be deceiving: beneath Philly Socialists’ friendly, simple exterior is a group of razor-edged political operators with a killer instinct for strategy.

Imagine a protest that never ends. It simply continues existing, somewhere in your neighborhood – perhaps not so noisy, but always present. You see it every time you walk down your block. And eventually, after the hundredth time of walking past it, you inevitably cave and ask the people in it what it’s all about.This is exactly what Philly Socialists’ community garden is: a recruiting-and-retention tool disguised as a friendly service project. (“Disguised” may be the wrong word, however, because it’s actually much more honest than that, for reasons I will explain later.) It’s always there. It never goes away. And anyone who approaches it to talk will quickly learn that it’s not just a row of tomatoes, but it’s a row of tomatoes run by commies. That has an incredible seductive power of humanizing people like us, who hold what is often seen as a sinister ideology. Well, people think to themselves, we’re just growing tomatoes; we can’t be so bad. And in fact they may get a hankering for those tomatoes (fastest way to the heart is the stomach!) or they may even want to help grow and tend to those tomatoes, for no other reason than to be good neighbors and make friends in a heinously lonely capitalist world.

Another example of Philly Socialists’ service projects, the food handout they titled the Red Plenty, reveals why “disguise” was the wrong word. The use of directly providing services is not particularly new, but was used by the Black Panthers to embarrass the entire capitalist government when they provided free breakfast for children. This caused such an uproar that the capitalist state itself began the school breakfast programs which we all now accept as normal. So rather than some foolish attempt to establish an island of socialism in a sea of capitalism, such as starting a commune, the direct action of providing food turned out to be a pivotal tactic for changing public policy. The continuing political nature of such projects was forced into contemporary view when the Philadelphia city government responded to the charity network that Red Plenty was part of by trying to ban open-air food distribution!

The absolute best reason for the service project model, in my opinion, has been saved for last: Philly Socialists has enlisted the use of cutting-edge sociological theory in deciding to base its entire organizational model on human relationships, and they believe that this more than makes up for their rejection of the typical party-line model of leftist organization. (For the record, though, they are not a bunch of feel-good fluffy bunnies with no knowledge of politics; actually their leaders tend to be well-developed Marxists of one tendency or another who declined the party-line model with both eyes open.) For the nerds who know what this means, you could say the service projects are a Gramscian tactic for reinforcing a formal political movement by creating a politicized informal community. The Philly Socialists use a “dense network” model of organizing, in which they attempt to maximize the amount of connections that each member has with each other member. In some organizations you might only really know, work with, or hang out with one or two other members. Philly Socialists wants to arrange both its organizational structures, as well as its more casual interactions, so that everyone knows, works with, or hangs out with everyone.

Another Philly Socialists project, free English classes, seems like just a very kind thing to do. However, it also serves as a way to intentionally bridge the gap between the typical Leftist scene of white Millennials, with one of the USA’s other most radical demographics: Latino immigrants. Besides drawing a line of connection across the demographics, each service project also serves to reinforce the organization’s own cohesion by giving members one more space to share and work collectively. And of course all the countless interactions which occur over the course of an English class help build not one, but a whole enmeshed webwork of relationships across the two disparate demographics, ensuring that the bridging attempt will be reliable and not tenuous.

The political use of charity and service projects has a long tradition. If you haven’t been living under a rock, you may have heard of the not-unimportant grouping known as the Muslim Brotherhood. Such tactics were also used with great success by an obscure German sect known as the Nazis. Yep, that’s right – the brownshirts ran soup kitchens and made a lot of inroads with them. Of course, Philly Socialists’ service projects may be driven by a far less Machiavellian impulse. Maybe they just want to care about human need in a direct, individual sort of way instead of always insisting on being systemic and political. This would make their projects indistinguishable from the average soup kitchen, of course, but I understand that not everyone’s heart has yet been turned to stone by the murderous logic of capitalism, so such mushiness is forgivable I suppose. But then it’s not so simple. Because there are now people all over Philadelphia, who when asked, will say the socialists gave me food, the socialists grew my lettuce, the socialists gave me Internet, the socialists – taught me English! And that is seriously dangerous.

Electoral Activity: A Necessary Revolutionary Tactic

by Saturn

Huge opportunities present themselves to the socialist movement which have not been properly met. Occupy Wall Street came and went, raising tremendous class anger but leaving the masses it mobilized drifting in frustration without a plan or an organization. A 2012 Gallup poll revealed that 39% of Americans see socialism as a positive word. In a country of roughly 310 million people, that is something like 120 million budding socialists. So the mentality in which existing socialist groups have settled, tolerating membership figures of a few hundred active members or some thousands of paper members, is totally unacceptable.

However, today’s revolutionary socialist groups may have simply hit a wall with how far they can grow, without using alternative strategies and tactics. Fortunately alternative strategies and tactics exist, which they can utilize and partake in. But first we really need to explore the problem of hyper-specific party lines more thoroughly (or groups which claim to have limited party lines, but actually have an unwritten encyclopedia of positions which members are expected to support).

It is possible that the model of groups with hyper-specific party lines which engage with protest movements can attract their enthusiastic core of a few hundred people, but beyond that, such groups are simply not going to be interesting to the millions of brand new socialists. The newbies may be eager to hear a well-refined specific socialist ideology, but they are certainly not interested in committing to it, because they’ve just heard this stuff for the first time, if even that. In fact this may remain the nature of American socialists even as the masses proceed into political maturity: their ideas and stances maybe become more specific and better in general, but the masses may remain interested in primarily only socialism, and shy away from groups which expect them to pin down a stance on every issue under the sun.

Many Leninists are tempted to draw the lines early, in advance of the new socialist masses’ own path of development. It may seem logically consistent to us that “you can’t be a real socialist unless you also think X, Y, and Z; otherwise it’s just self-contradictory.” But what they think is more important than what we think. Take it far enough, and ideological walls end up becoming organizational walls between the radicals and the real living movement. It’s true that you can take positions while still engaging with people who don’t share them. However it runs into diminishing returns. Drawing too many party lines seems farsighted, but actually prevents us from being in meaningful dialogue with the masses during their process of ideological transformation.

So what do we do? People usually respond to organizational rigidity by turning toward social movements, typically demonstration-based coalitions and such. While these are an important piece of the puzzle, they are one that the Left already knows and practices while still slogging in irrelevance, so the answer does not lie precisely in protest movements either. We’ve already raised hell with movements of various kinds: Occupy, outrage against the killings of Black people, union workers in Wisconsin, various protests against budget cuts in California and elsewhere. But to what extent have we even slowed the 1%’s offensive against our standard of living – let alone reversed that into an offensive of our own, as we should? The movements matter, if only because the mass-outpourings help people realize they are not alone. But in truth even the most successful waves of protest have only changed public opinion, not public policy, and have done almost nothing to establish lasting centers of working-class power and organization.

To get to the point, we need a socialist party – and not another little one, but a truly national mass party. Previously people would scoff, “yes, that’s the goal, but how do we get there?” However, to imply that we must still rely on indirect routes to that goal, and still cannot pursue it directly as a possibility in the present, places you horribly behind the times – as the Gallup statistics indicate. It’s amazing how much the socialist movement has unscientifically ignored the quantitative evidence that we are horribly lagging behind our potential, and we have chosen against the proof to remain in our corner of obscurity.

The little socialist groups can continue bashing each other, if that satisfies them, but we need them to put aside those differences tactically for the sake of supporting each other in electoral campaigns. For better or for worse, millions of people who don’t care at all about marching in issue-based demonstrations become energized and interested when they hear someone is running for office. We need to smack ourselves out of our irrelevance and actually learn how elections and campaigns work, a skill set of which protest-oriented socialists are grossly lacking. We need to stop having six different socialist meetings in one city every time some big topic hits the news or we cover basic matters – we need to pool resources. We might even start buying ads. And of course the existing socialist electoral efforts need some work – many just seem completely unserious, while others focus entirely on building the ultra-narrow group they are sponsored by. We need to drill two things into our heads and everyone else’s:

(1) We should not run just for the sake of running but can now raise our expectations toward ambitious expansion and growth.

(2) To do this, we need to overcome the fragmentation which makes all socialist groups appear futile and unserious to newcomers, and we need to start pooling our resources.

This is not giving up on revolution. Revolutionists must be involved in the broad party, and in fact revolutionists must lead the way in founding the broad party, starting now – starting yesterday, really. Of course if some future force within the broad party ever asks us to silence our revolutionist goals, we must fight back against the censorship and win – but that is a problem for when we get there! No, this is not giving up on revolution – this is the best, possibly the only way to actually bring socialist politics into the mainstream, and along with it a space for our revolutionist message.