by Roy San Filippo
I am not one of the authors of the statement, but I am in general agreement with the politics, analysis, and strategies it puts forth. On that basis I would like to respond to Wayne and Nicolas' articles. First, I would like to attempt to define the analytical and strategic positions that I feel BTR and NEFAC have principled differences on. Let me clarify one point: BTR is a class war document. NEFAC and BTR do not disagree on the revolutionary potential of the working class nor do we disagree that white workers are exploited and oppressed as workers or that white privilege offers relative benefits compared to non-white workers. In fact a central feature of BTR is precisely to highlight the contradictory role whiteness plays in working-class consciousness.
We have significant disagreement on important questions of theory, strategy, and organization. We disagree on the significance of white privilege and the role whiteness plays as a contradictory and counter-revolutionary force within white working-class consciousness. We believe whiteness to be of central strategic importance, not "so-called" privileges, as Wayne characterized it. We disagree on the role of revolutionary organizations and the relationship between conscious revolutionaries and mass movements. We have reached our conclusions based upon our experiences as activists and through careful study of past struggles. We recognize that other groups and individuals whose opinions and analysis we respect will reach different conclusions.
Open, honest, and critical debate within and between organizations and individuals is crucial for the development of revolutionary politics. There are substantive differences between the politics of BTR, the politics of NEFAC, the Alliance for Freedom and Direct Democracy (AFADD) and other anarchist organizations. A critical debate between ideas and strategies is crucial, but in order to be effective, we need to base that dialogue on what each other's ideas actually are instead of distorting them into straw men to be easily knocked down. While it might be rhetorically useful, this does little to advance a substantive and useful exchange. So first we should clear away all of the straw...
Wayne's characterization of our politics as a two-stage process is a cartoon reduction of the Ruckus document and the politics of white abolitionism. So much so that I wondered if it were simply a rhetorical and sectarian attack rather than a genuine attempt to critically engage our ideas. Nowhere in the BTR document is there a claim to first abolish the white race, establish class unity, and then move on to the fight a class war. Rather BTR argues that in the United States, a crisis in capitalism and the state must be precipitated by a crisis in whiteness. While we do not expect that the white race will be abolished before struggles to smash the state and capitalism can effectively begin, it is essential that enough white workers be won over to the struggle against institutionalized white privilege so that the state can no longer rely on skin color as an effective predictor of who is a friend and who is an enemy of this society. This is not a two-stage process by any means. We propose a strategy to engender a revolutionary crisis in the existing system by attacking the institutions of white supremacy. Wayne's rhetorical characterization of this as a supposed strategy is a backhanded dismissal of our ideas and discourages folks from actually considering them. After all, if it is "supposedly" a strategy and not an actual strategy, why bother engaging it at all? BTR does present a strategy; NEFAC simply disagrees with that strategy. An honest assessment of our ideas would acknowledge that fact.
The Real World
Wayne insinuates the BTR analysis is not rooted in "real life"--again inviting a dismissal of our ideas. BTR analysis is rooted in our analysis of past struggles and our participation in current ones. Take the examples of the Civil Rights movements and the Reconstruction period after the Civil War. In both instances, social struggles grounded in attacks against institutions of white supremacy precipitated broader social struggles. In the case of Reconstruction it brought the United States to the brink of social revolution. We believe that challenging white supremacy today can lead to another revolutionary crisis, opening the way to struggle not just against white supremacy, but all forms of oppression. One may disagree with our analysis, but to dismiss it out right as not being grounded in "real life" is disingenuous and gets us nowhere. Nor do the attempts to paint us with the brush of Stalinism. Wayne states, "Those who invented this theory (Noel Ignatiev and the Sojourner Truth Organization) were Maoists at the time." This is wrong on both counts. My Mao-dar may not be as fully developed as Wayne's, but as I recall, STO was avowedly NOT a Maoist organization. However the point is moot; the claim that STO "invented" these ideas is plainly incorrect as anyone who has read the writings of WEB Du Bois, James Baldwin and other Black theorists upon whom these ideas are based could tell you. There are more productive lines of discussion that could be engaged, instead of pointlessly redbaiting an organization that has been defunct for fifteen years.
The Role of Revolutionary Organizations
In addition to our disagreements on analysis and strategy, NEFAC and BTR disagree on the role of revolutionary organizations and their relationship to mass movements. A cadre is a revolutionary formation of individuals who come together around a set of common politics to develop revolutionary strategy and theory based upon study, debate, and a consistent analysis of political practice. A cadre is defined not by this process, but by the commitment of its members to building revolutionary struggles and waging class war. As Nicolas points out, cadre presupposes that there are non-cadre. I would also add that revolutionaries presuppose that there are non-revolutionaries. There are significant differences between cadre and non-cadre just as there are significant differences between revolutionaries and non-revolutionaries. Though I would stress that this difference does not imply a hierarchy, if we are to successfully confront the challenges revolutionaries face in participating in mass movements composed largely of non-revolutionaries with reformist goals, we must acknowledge this and understand the contradictions it poses for the revolutionary process. Nicolas states that NEFAC participates in social struggles as "members of the class not as outside agitators." Surely, this is not entirely true; NEFAC members are both "members of the class" and "outside agitators." It is incumbent upon revolutionaries to confront this contradiction, not pretend that it doesn't exist.
It is true that we argue for our politics within broader organizations that we participate in. However, I could not disagree more with Nicolas's claim that this amounts to undermining the capacity of mass movements to develop their own politics. There is a difference between groups and individuals who make principled arguments for their own politics and ideas within organizations and movements and those who seek to undemocratically dominate those movements and organizations. NEFAC seemingly sees no distinction between the two. What would be the point of developing a strategy if we refused to argue for it in broader movements? Indeed, what would be the point of having an organization or even politics at all? How does NEFAC relate to broader movements and organizations if it does not argue for its particular positions, strategies and politics? Nicolas argues that our desire to develop our own politics and strategies is evidence that we are not interested in broader movements developing their own autonomous politics and strategies. Are we to presume from this that NEFAC doesn't develop its own politics and strategies?
Every organization I have worked with-anarchist or not, cadre or not, revolutionary or not-has developed a set of politics, and then argued for their positions in the context of broader organizations and movements. Not only does this NOT undermine the capacity of movements to develop autonomous politics, it is a central part of the process by which they will develop them. Not only is this not indicative of a belief that ordinary workers are "too dumb to develop politics," it embraces the idea that workers are smart enough to distinguish bad ideas from good ones. We do not believe that we have "oh-so perfect ideas" nor do we believe we possess any kind of truth or correct ideas about struggle. We do believe that we have useful ideas, however flawed they might be. As a cadre organization, we seek to develop an internal, democratic, collective process by which we can develop, test and apply these flawed but useful ideas through study and debate, and to disseminate those ideas in broader movements so that they may in turn be tested and developed through struggle and debated amongst other ideas and tendencies. Through this process, we hope to develop ideas that are less flawed and more useful.
The Problems of Knowing; The Importance of Acting
At play here is more than a critique of a cadre organization but a deeper problem of anarchist epistemology. Anarchists have rightly critiqued the notion embraced by many Marxist-Leninists that there are 'scientific principles' of revolutionary struggle and through their application one can arrive at 'correct' forms of struggle and absolute Truths. (The best articulation of this is Ron Tabor's A Look at Leninism.) The authoritarian implications of this are obvious and should be rejected by anyone interested in promoting democratic principles. The mistake made by many anarchists is to apply this critique of the Marxist-Leninist theory of knowledge so broadly that advocating any political position or strategy is tainted with authoritarianism. Though NEFAC as an organization thankfully does not argue this, the temptation to implicitly embrace this position can be seen in Nicolas' argument against cadre organizations. He argues against the notion of a cadre group internally debating politics and strategies and then fighting to enact them in mass-oriented organizations because doing so implicitly prevents mass movements from developing autonomous politics. This view does more than undermine our capacity to act; it provides us with an excuse not to. It is all too easy to blame this or that "authoritarian" tendency for the failures of anarchist struggles, especially when we continually ignore our responsibility to fight for our politics and take leadership in broader movements and struggles. Such a position on organization relegates anarchism to the role of perpetual gadfly that offers no more than passing critiques of existing movements and struggles rather than being an essential force in shaping a new and better world.
Roy San Filippo is the editor of A New World in Our Hearts: Eight Years of Writing from the Love and Rage Revolutionary Anarchist Federation (AK Press). He is a member of Bring the Ruckus in Los Angeles.