(Note: This is purely an individual reflection, not any kind of official or collective statement.)
The Left needs a better culture of self-reflection, as opposed to boosteristic self-praise (or hyperbolic “self-criticism” focused on individual moral failings rather than collective decisions, good and bad). So, in that spirit, here are 4 failures and 3 successes from Seattle Communists’s first full year as an independent CLP chapter.
SC has focused on:
- re-establishing Q-Patrol as our first mass work project;
- building ourselves into a fully-logistically-developed organization with a functional democratic process;
- developing internal political education;
- establishing a presence in general as what is (to my knowledge) the only nondenominational revolutionary group in our city;
- towards the end of the year, establishing a mutual aid grocery delivery program (Serve the People).
First, our mistakes:
- Q-Patrol should not have started out as organizationally independent. There was no material need to develop two parallel organizational structures (SC and Q-Patrol) simultaneously, especially given the heavy overlap of individuals. Writing a constitution for Q-Patrol sucked up a lot of time and energy early on that would have been better spent on other things. Instead, it should have just been a program directly under the SC aegis and not spun off until it was developed enough for that to make sense. And while Q-Patrol, by now, is at a point where being a discrete organization is no longer over-structuring, that still slowed it down for several months and cost the project some of its initial momentum (thankfully, not enough to actually derail it, and not so bad as to be unfixable).
- The Neighborhood Action Councils were founded after the election as a nominally-municipalist left-liberal coalition project, dedicated to direct action and mutual aid. After a few months, though, the Democrat faction had taken control, and now the NACs are yet another Democrat front group (that is, “progressive nonprofit”). More than one SC member was among their co-founders. But, out of misplaced scruples about looking like entryists, SC didn’t throw ourselves into NAC work collectively and wholeheartedly. We didn’t politically advocate against the liberals within the NACs except as individuals, and we didn’t collectively develop base-building projects through the NACs. Why did the liberals win the faction fight? Well, the revolutionaries had no material basis to win it, since we failed to build an alternative to conventional-activist practice. Thousands of people initially got involved in the NACs when their stated mission was direct action and mutual aid without electoralism, and when it turned out that the promised alternative to activism wasn’t actually on offer, nearly all of them dropped out. That was an enormous missed opportunity. But, in our eagerness to avoid the appearance of entryism, we didn’t allow ourselves to effectively resist the actual entryism being carried out by the Democratic Party.
- Our cadre development has been uneven. Recruits new to organized politics (which is to say, most of our recruits) have generally gotten a strong grounding in basic organizing techniques. However, that’s just because we’ve been good about plugging them into our projects and helping/encouraging them take on responsibilities. That’s positive as far as it goes (though more formal training in addition to learning “on the job” would be beneficial). But, we haven’t raised everyone’s theoretical level to the same extent. Some recruits have developed a good grasp of theory and strategy. Others have not. Fortunately, our education director is rectifying this through a new education program that’s integrated into our regular meetings and accommodates a variety of learning styles. But, for most of 2017, our core education activity was a reading group. That was much more attractive to members with a prior grounding in theory and, due to its format, didn’t lend itself well to being integrated into SC’s other activities. That led to a situation where a few members weren’t as clear as they should have been on the difference between communist mass work and “progressive activism,” along with too much sympathy for liberal approaches to identity. (Thankfully, though, that’s not most members, or even most politically-inexperienced ones.)
- As mentioned, most of our recruits have been new to organized politics. However, our outreach has still relied much too heavily on members’ preexisting social networks and, if not the activist subculture outright, then the activist-adjacent mostly-white LGBTQ scene. This has given us a heavy demographic skew, albeit not the one most lefty groups have — but the fact that a majority of people at most SC meetings aren’t cis isn’t good. It doesn’t mean we’re doing a good job of “centering marginalized voices,” like a liberal would say. It means we’re unrepresentative of the working class in Seattle and, therefore, that our base-building and outreach work needs improvement. A membership and a periphery =/= a base. Most lefty groups might be content with the former, but that doesn’t mean it’s acceptable. It just means that too much of the US Left has made peace with being marginal. However, as the new year has started, we’ve re-launched our outreach program with a heavy emphasis on canvassing, directly contacting residents of a geographically-specific base area, and avoiding doing too much “activist networking.”
Now, our successes:
- In one year, we went from a 4-person study group to a collective with nearly 30 registered members, a well-respected mass work project developing according to plan, a second mass work project launching, a functional and democratic organizational infrastructure, a political education program, and a culture of comradely and nonsectarian behavior — even among members who identify with different historical leftist traditions. I’ve been a socialist for 15 years. I’ve almost never seen a new group become established like this right out of the gate, especially without an established national group to provide external support. There’s something special going on when you have an organization where a self-identified Maoist and a self-identified Bookchinite can discuss their substantive political beliefs (rather than sectarian buzzwords) and find they have sufficient agreement to exist in the group together. I’m personally incredibly proud of all our members and supporters.
- We’ve largely avoided the ambulance-chasing, sign-waving activist hamster wheel. Q-Patrol delivers — it gives the community martial arts training, other practical education (know your rights, security culture, etc training), and is on schedule to have a sufficient number of people sufficiently highly-trained to begin patrolling within a few months. It’s meeting the timeline that we estimated when we started it, despite having spent too much time early on designing its structure. The Serve the People grocery program delivers — literally. We don’t go to marches hawking newspapers. We aren’t trying to piggyback on the Democrats’ base. We are offering something different from and better than the activist subculture.
- Our nonsectarian outlook has allowed us to develop positive relationships with other revolutionaries in the city, anarchist and Marxist. Few US communist collectives can claim to be on good terms with revolutionaries from different ideological backgrounds (or, often, even with those of the same background). However, when SC identifies as nonsectarian, we mean it, and the people who interact with us can see it.
On balance, SC has had a positive year. I’m particularly heartened by the concrete steps we’re taking to correct our shortcomings, and I have high hopes for 2018!