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(en) Canada, A&S*, Upping the Anti #1 - A Roundtable II. on Anti-Capitalism and Organization Edited by Aidan Conway

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Sun, 24 Apr 2005 08:22:14 +0200 (CEST)

A - I N F O S N E W S S E R V I C E
News about and of interest to anarchists
http://ainfos.ca/ http://ainfos.ca/index24.html

That we have recently seen an important radicalization can be
registered in the rising appeal and relative rejuvenation of anti-capitalist
politics and perspectives, particularly in the anti-globalization and
anti-war movements. While there has been a notable downturn in
the last couple of years, associated with both the "war on terrorism"
(at home and abroad) and the contradictions of these movements
themselves, the fate of this anti-capitalist radicalization is not a
foregone conclusion. Many people would agree that whether or not
the movements extend their reach and deepen their roots will depend
in part on their ability to organize. But how?
For much of the twentieth century, the most common and
influential (though never monolithic), answer to this question was
one or another version of the vanguard party. The virtue of Leninism,
and the basis for its widespread appeal to revolutionaries around the
world, was that it provided a relatively coherent (if seriously flawed)
set of answers to the fundamental questions of how to organize for
revolutionary social change. It addressed the role of organization, the
problem of (uneven) political consciousness, the nature of leadership
and democracy, and the basic tasks of revolutionary movements.
For a variety of reasons, notably the degeneration and eclipse
of state socialism and the shortcomings of the surviving sectarian
left, many in the current generation of anti-capitalists seem to have
concluded that "the party's over" and have begun to search for
alternative forms of organization and politics. From the renewal
of anarchist and council-communist ideas, to experimentation
with new federative and de-centralized forms in social movements,
anti-capitalists have been attempting to overcome the dangers of
vanguardism (elitism, authoritarianism, substitutionalism) while trying
to provide answers to the questions and problems posed by organizing
for radical social change.
For some, revolutionary parties or cadre organizations are done
for, and a "movement of movements" coordinated (but not led or
directed) by activist networks should take their place. Others maintain
that revolutionary organizing on a principled political and even
programmatic basis, whatever its concrete form, is essential in order
to sustain and go beyond resistance, deepen analysis, and synthesize
experiences and insights into shared political strategies and visions for
transformative social change.
Organizational questions are always political questions. As such,
they should reflect our understanding of what we are fighting for and
how we propose to do it. There is a tendency to idealize particular
organizational forms or "models" without asking tough questions
about their political basis. While there is little agreement about these
questions, the way forward lies in principled discussion, debate, and
experimentation, not in uncritically repeating formulas and phrases,
whether of dogmatic Leninist "party-building" or of trendy anti-
authoritarian "movement-ism."
In the spirit of providing a forum for these important debates and
discussions, we have asked several people from different traditions
and perspectives to suggest ways in which some of these questions can
be grappled with. It is our hope that we can provide an ongoing space
for the kind of debate that can help to clarify what is at stake and give
form to different options for moving forward.


Robbie Mahood is a long-time socialist and member of Socialist Action. He
works as a family doctor and lives in Montreal. This interview was conducted
in Montreal in February 2005.

UTA: Maybe you could start by outlining your thoughts
on what you see as the need for and nature of revolutionary
organizations? How should they participate in and relate to
broader movements? What are some of the tensions involved
in this?
Robbie Mahood: The basic rationale for a revolutionary
organization is to gather together people who see the need and
possibility for fundamental social transformation and to concentrate
their energies and deliberations in an organization that tries to
intervene in larger struggles in a disciplined fashion. Beyond this
general purpose, a revolutionary organization has to go beyond
just being a propaganda group and actively participate in struggles,
whatever their dimension, including providing practical leadership
to move these struggles forward. All of this requires some form of
disciplined, and to a certain extent, centralized organization.
The traditional accusation of the non-Leninist left would be
that revolutionary organizations come into movements for the sole
purpose of recruitment and don't take responsibility for the agenda of
the movement. Of course, this kind of parasitic relationship is always
possible, the more so if a revolutionary organization limits itself to a
purely propagandistic role. But I believe that on the whole it is false
to pose the problem in this manner. It is never possible to insulate
social movements from politics, just as it's impossible to insulate any
aspect of life and society from politics. It's really just a question of how
responsibly that's done and how transparent the relationship is. In any
case, movements of consequence quickly take on a mass dynamic of
their own which is generally impervious to conscious or unconscious
manipulation by small groups.
Of course it is possible for organizations that are disciplined and
centralized to play an important role in social movements out of
proportion to their numbers and for this to have a negative impact.
Movements may come to rely excessively on the energies and ideas
of a particular organization, such that the movement either is, or
is regarded as, a creature of that particular political group or party.
Where such a relationship between party and movement prevails,
the movement is inevitably weakened. I think it's incumbent upon
any Leninist or other revolutionary organization to avoid the error of
substitutionism, and to try to broaden the movement to the greatest
extent possible. Admittedly, this error can be easier to point out than
to avoid in practice.
More serious in my view is when a socialist organization adheres
to certain misguided political conceptions or has an unrealistic, or
conversely overly pessimistic, view of what it is possible to achieve
and then is able to impose its perspective on a broader movement.
Organizations, Leninist or otherwise, are certainly not immune from
political errors. But the best way of correcting mistaken conceptions
is surely not to argue that our organizations should be looser and less
disciplined. Organizations with a high level of internal debate and
commitment arguably have a greater capacity to correct political errors,
provided they are not defined by counterproductive doctrinal fetishes
or leadership cults and have a tradition of lively internal debate. If
this is not the case, then open debate between organizations of the
left can sometimes lead to a better political orientation for broader
I don't think there is a final answer or formula for how organized
revolutionaries should relate to mass movements. In any case,
Leninist groups are no more prone to errors than ideologically looser
organizations. Attempts to steer movements towards a more advanced
consciousness or demands are quite common impulses and may be
quite counterproductive. For example, the efforts of radical or socialist
feminists to push the broader women's movement further to the left
may end up narrowing the base of unity in action and weakening the
movement's impact. Another example would be trying to push the
anti-war movement to take up an explicitly anti-imperialist stance
rather than focus on unitary demands to bring in forces who don't
share this perspective.

UTA: On the other hand, what some people would say is
that if you refuse to try to build movements in a more radical
direction you may end up being opportunistic and "tailing"
the movements. Do you see that as a danger?
RM: Sure, you could end up tailing it. That is, not pushing the
movement to win its agenda in a combative way and in a way that
advances the struggle. I think groups can be culpable on two sides:
on the one hand, of imposing a "too-advanced" or narrow sectarian
agenda on a mass movement or potential mass movement, and on the
other of not taking any responsibility at all for leading that movement
and collapsing their politics into a more conservative layer of the
movement. In either case, the revolutionary group will try to actively
It seems to me that every organization wants to win people to
its overall perspectives and recruit new members. And many people,
especially the young or those new to activism, are looking for radical
political solutions. Joining a political party is far from a bad thing
even if we have this image that the new recruit to a revolutionary
organization is on the fast track to becoming a political zombie and will
be lost to the broader movement.This is not really the case. To be sure,
small group loyalties can be divisive. But every revolutionary group or
aspiring party has to deal with the reality of the larger movements
and struggles in which it intervenes. The organization that recruits
in an opportunistic fashion will quickly run up against the limitations
of this short-sighted approach. Ultimately, groups will be judged by
whether they play an effective role in advancing the overall struggle
and the maturity of their political judgement.
The fragmentation of the revolutionary left definitely creates
problems. Any movement which gains momentum will inevitably be
descended upon by competing groups of the left vying for an audience.
I tend to think this is a price we pay for the crisis in leadership of the
workers movement in which no credible alternative to reformism has
emerged and the way forward is open to dispute.
I think it's compounded in North America as compared to
Europe because of the lower level of politicization here. People are
not used to interventions from people who are partisan, who have
an organizational affiliation and therefore there is a tendency to want
to preserve and insulate movements from politics in that sense, from
the influence of political organizations, which I think ultimately
won't work. Sometimes it masks an implicit anti-communist agenda:
"We don't want the influence of certain organizations but other
organizations are okay, or we want to keep the movement disorganized
or depoliticized because we ourselves have a political agenda which is
As long as a group of revolutionaries, in Marx's relatively well
known dictum, doesn't have interests apart from or separate from
those of the working class as a whole, and takes that seriously as a
modus operandi, it seems to me that at least some of those tensions
can be dealt with. They have to be acknowledged and discussed in
revolutionary organizations, and in a movement as a whole to the
extent that they become an issue.

UTA: Returning for a moment to the issue of internal
structure and organization in revolutionary groups; there
is a pretty common perception, sometimes a caricature,
of Leninism and democratic centralism that survives in
part because of the real practice of many of these groups,
currently and historically. What thoughts do you have on this
RM: The fact that revolutionary groups are very small and isolated
tends to aggravate certain dynamics that might not otherwise be so
important. For instance, there are splits around issues that are not
really issues of principle but that often relate to personalities, local
peculiarities or other social factors. I think this is a product of the
weakness of these groups, which tends to fuel small group dynamics
which are notoriously unhealthy.
I'm in favor of the right of tendencies, and think that organizations
have to make room for minority perspectives and to offer minorities
the opportunity to win a majority of the organization to their
perspective. At the same time the rule of majority has to be respected.
A majority line has to be implemented in practice and then subjected
to criticism and correction if need be.
These issues are going to be with us no matter what kind of political
organization arises, whether it's the linear growth of a small Leninist
group or whether it's a mass party. I think that any organization is
going to have to wrestle with a tension between centralized decision-
making and loyalty to the central line of a majority leadership, and the
rights of minorities. But with the rights of minority comes a certain
responsibility to not part company on the basis of unprincipled
positions, but on principled historical divides.
What we're talking about is the concept of a combat party
(of which Lenin was the foremost exponent), a party that acts as a
repository for the historical lessons, memory if you will, of the working
class movement, and one that also debates its ongoing intervention in a
structured and disciplined fashion. It holds its leadership accountable
and it also allows the leadership to function. I think those are things
that are not necessarily unique to Leninism but can be applied no
matter what the organizational form.

UTA: This relates in part to the question of leadership,
which is a controversial one for many in today's radical
movements which tend to be suspicious of formal leadership
and any indirect forms of democracy. What do you think about
RM: I was involved in the 1960's New Left in Canada. This was
a radical current that, despite its healthy rejection of the Stalinist
monolithism of much of the old left, tended to conflate leadership
with elitism. Unfortunately, in denying the importance or even the
existence of leaders, the New Left tended to foster informal and even
manipulative leaderships which were not accountable to the rank and
file of the movement.
There is no magic to creating a vibrant internal democracy in
an organization. It is always a work in progress and it requires the
continual education of the members through debate and discussion.
On the other hand, an organization cannot be just a debating club. Its
purpose is to concentrate the efforts of its members towards concrete
political tasks. For a revolutionary organization to be effective
requires among other things a degree of professionalism and even an
apparatus appropriate to the size of the organization and the scope of
its activities.
Revolutionary organizations have to wrestle with how they
develop leadership, particularly in relationship to people who have not
traditionally been welcomed into leadership positions, for example,
women, workers or persons from marginalized or oppressed groups.
There are ways in which an organization can consciously promote
leaders from the front lines of struggles against oppression or working
class struggle, and it's incumbent on our organizations to do that.
Its also incumbent on organizations to establish acceptable norms
in terms of inter-personal conduct even if we recognize that its not
possible to overcome all the effects of class society on the individual
The counter argument to all of this is that we don't need any kind
of disciplined organization, which is a very `spontaneist' view of how
capitalism could be overcome and transformed.

UTA: What do you see as the main shortcomings of these
kinds of `spontaneist' approaches? What is this perspective
not taking seriously?
RM: Well at one level it doesn't take seriously the question of
politics, in the sense of the question of state power and the need to
replace the capitalist state with a different kind of state. In some
cases it even dismisses that historical question and says we don't need
to take power. So you have a kind of autonomist tradition, which
has enjoyed a certain amount of prominence in the last decade, for
example based on the Zapatista movement, that basically says that
capitalist society can be transformed by incremental little islands of
resistance and micro-mobilization of the community, so that we don't
need to pose the overall taking of power.
By absenting ourselves from the question of power and the
revolutionary transformation of the state we leave the field open to
reformism and also expose any enclaves of alternative class power to the
repressive forces of the capitalist state. This is where the spontaneist
vision and also anarchism fall far short of the mark in my view.

UTA: How about this tension between revolutionary
organization and movement building? Where is the line
between trying to take initiative and exercise leadership within
a movement and substituting yourself for the movement?
RM: It's hard to talk about this in a schematic fashion, so it's
more useful to examine specific instances in a given time and place.
We might point to the early years of the Canadian Communist Party,
for example, which is the subject of the Ian Angus's study Canadian
Bolsheviks. During the 1920's, Canadian communists were instrumental
in launching a Canadian Labour Party which succeeded for a time in
bringing in forces beyond those of the CP. It seems that this initiative
was not just a classic front group or appendage of the revolutionary
organization and that the early CP in Canada knew how to reach out
to broader numbers of activists who were not revolutionaries and
engage them in common political projects which moved the working
class movement forward. I think we have to accept that political
organizations have a place in movements or larger formations and
indeed may be instrumental to their initiation and development.

UTA: Do you see that example as contrasting to what is
going on today among Leninist groups in terms of making
it a priority to engage in building those kinds of broader
structures and capacities, instead of a more narrow focus on
linear "party building"?
RM: Yes, in my opinion any Leninist organization worth its salt
will try to stimulate mobilization and organization of broad masses
around specific campaigns or political projects. Groups that are strictly
propaganda groups can be characterized, I suppose, as subscribing to
a linear model of growth of their organization. But there are lots of
examples of groups that have engaged in mass work and also tried
to recruit from these initiatives. Granted, recently, there have been
some interesting attempts to break out of this linear model of "party
building" and to adopt a model of `regroupment'. I'm thinking of
Respect in the UK, the Scottish Socialist Party and the Socialist
Alliance in Australia. These developments reflect the advanced crisis
in the traditional reformist leaderships of the working class movement
by which I include both Social Democracy which is more and more
indistinguishable from social Liberalism and also the Stalinist parties
which were thrown into disarray by the fall of the USSR.
The difficulty of launching new mass parties or potential mass
working-class parties does not stem only or even principally from the
sectarian orientation of small groupuscules, whether self-identified
as Leninist or not, but more importantly from the domination of
working-class politics by overtly reformist forces. Breaking the mass
of workers from the grip of these pro-capitalist leaderships is crucial to
the re-launching of mass revolutionary parties at least in the advanced
capitalist states ( in some cases, notably the USA, there has never been
a political break even towards working class reformist politics). The
mass of workers breaks very reluctantly and in times of crisis with
these leaderships, no matter how compromised they are, towards a
more radical and longer-term perspective. So I think it's complex, and
it's not like you can do everything. You have to play with the cards that
history has dealt you and I think the hold of reformism on politically
conscious workers is still quite strong
You can see this reflected in English-speaking Canada where
previous waves of working class radicalization led to a mass party of
the social democratic type but one which was unable to win more
than a minority position within the working class as a whole. It's not
impossible to bypass a weak and degenerate New Democratic Party
(NDP) but not without a significant rise in class struggles and the
testing out of of political alternatives in real life. In North America
the working class movement is on the defensive and hardly able to
to combat the neoliberal offensive anywhere. So I think that the
weakness of the NDP to some extent circumscribes the possibilities
for launching viable alternatives to the left of the NDP in English
Canada. This can't hold forever, of course, but I think it continues to
be a limiting factor on the possibilities for organizational regroupment
or the capacity for building revolutionary currents as such.
In Québec it's a bit of a different question because of the
national question, which has meant the domination of the national
movement by a bourgeois nationalist party, the Parti Québecois, and
the historical absence of any significant social democratic, or for
that matter Stalinist, current within the working class. The tasks are
necessarily posed somewhat differently in Québec, but speaking of
English Canada, I think that the NDP is a fact of life and it needs
to be taken seriously by revolutionaries. Do we see the possibilities
of regrouping currents to the left of the NDP? Perhaps, but I'm not
greatly impressed with the organizational results of such regroupment
perspectives over the last 25 years.
It's been a long time now that a large segment of the independent
left in Canada, which is disinclined to intervene in the NDP, has also
been hesitant about of throwing its lot in with one or another of the
Leninist or other revolutionary tendencies. The positive balance sheet
of the efforts of the centrist left is a very miniscule one to date. I don't
rule it out but I'm yet to be impressed with those possibilities. You can
also pose the possibility of regrouping the small revolutionary groups
on the left, but for a variety of reasons it hasn't taken place. We don't
have the same regroupment projects off and running that you see in
Britain or Australia.

UTA: In conclusion, let's pick up some of the things we've
discussed with respect to the anti-war movement. Several
political currents have argued that the thing to do is push the
movement as a whole to identify imperialism as what we are
talking about. A similar question arises with respect to "anti-
capitalism" in the anti-globalization movement. What do you
think about this?
RM: There are some lessons for me in the anti-war movement of
the sixties. The movement against the Vietnam war also produced a
strong anti-imperialist discourse and groups who wanted to transform
the anti-war movement into an anti-imperialist front. Carrying red
flags and calling for victory to the NLF was attractive to thousands
of radicalizing youth around the globe, myself included. Some of the
Leninist groups of the day, notably the American Socialist Workers
Party, argued against this perspective in favour of more concrete
demands such as "US Out" around which the greatest unity could be
built and which, if won, would mean a significant defeat for imperialism.
I think the SWP had the best of that argument.
How does that translate into the anti-war movement of today? Well,
I think we should strive for the greatest possible unity that principled
anti-imperialism will allow. That doesn't mean insisting that an anti-
imperialist analysis is a pre-condition for joining the movement. The
focus should be on demands for immediate and complete withdrawal
and against Canadian complicity. There is nothing wrong with raising
anti-imperialist positions at marches or in the educational activities
of the anti-war movement. But as to the central mobilizing demands,
these have to be kept concrete, principled and unifying.
Having said that, the anti-war movement needs to have its own
internal discussion as well as promote public debate and analysis on
the concrete history of imperialism in the Middle East as well as
specific developments in the war without compromising unity with
other groups that are not necessarily anti-capitalist but are opposed
the to war and want to disengage imperialist forces or oppose Canadian
I think the question with the anti-war movement, the anti-
globalization movement and with movements generally is: At what
point do they have a perspective about how to engage other political
forces in their work? To work out such a perspective in relation to the
trade union movement or the women's movement is very important
because otherwise you're adrift without a clear class perspective, and
that can't go on forever. It seems to me that movements which are
going to generalize their influence in a society have to at some point
begin to engage with these fundamental social and institutional forces
despite the many obstacles.
But again I think revolutionary organizations can provide a
certain perspective for doing that, which is a valuable contribution
they can make to the building of the anti-war movement , the anti-
globalization movement as well as other movements.
Indu Viashistink is an activist with experience in revolutionary
organizing and a variety of anti-capitalist movements on the West Coast. She
currently lives in Montreal and is completing a Mater's degree in History at
Concordia university. This interview was conducted in Montreal in February
UTA: In general terms, how do you understand to be
the relationship between revolutionary organizations and
broader anti-capitalist movements?
Indu Viashistink: First of all, I think it's important to define
and clarify what we're talking about. When I think of "anti-capitalist"
movements I think of movements that consist of many different
individuals and organizations without an ideological commonality.
In terms of revolutionary organizations, the way I generally perceive
them is that there is an ideological continuity. They operate within
anti-capitalist movements in which there is a wide variety of ideas,
where individuals or organizations interact in different ways to
convince people of their ideas.
Because they are made up of individuals in a wide range of
organizations, movements tend to be pretty amorphous and change
their shape and momentum very easily. So there's a lot of meetings,
and consensus decision-making is generally the way that things are
worked out. Within consensus decision-making there is an attempt
to move forward by trying to find common ground amongst people
working with very different ideological frameworks. Movements tend
to contain a variety of people and of views and sometimes to support a
diversity of tactics, which I think is an interesting thing.
One of the problems, though, is the fact that the organizing is
very ad hoc and it doesn't leave any political memory behind. The
result is that any time there is an upsurge, you have to reinvent what
it's going to look like. Some people would argue that that's the way it
really should be because everything should change in the course of the
struggle. I find being involved in the same meetings with the same
people over and over again and to be always reinventing everything
kind of frustrating. The other side is that you're not really reinventing
and are just pretending that you are. So people will say "Two years ago
we did this and it worked really well so let's try this again," but there
is no structured or formal way of recording the history of how things
have worked, so it becomes frustrating.
In anti-capitalist movements there is a drive that comes from
certain people but not from a group as a whole, so there are certain
leaders that do emerge but generally it's an informal leadership. This
can create a strong tension between organizations that believe in
leadership and those that don't.
Within revolutionary organizations, because people think they
come from ideologically the same place, decision-making is done in
a much more structured manner. Not that consensus doesn't have a
place, but I mean structured in that generally there's a committee that
drives the organization and is responsible for where the organization
is at. Conversely, with revolutionary organizations, I think that they
can be too solid and that often there isn't enough room for change in
terms of dealing with a new political context.
I think it would be interesting to think about how to negotiate
between these two forms of organization and to find ways to have
structures that are more permanent, that will keep some sort of
memory, understandings of tactics, and analysis and make sure there is
a process for interpreting what's going on, so it's not every person for
themselves. In terms of organizing, we're not very good at interpreting
what's going on within our own organizations and what's happening
within our own movements and in our own interpersonal dynamics.
We exist in a capitalist society, but we're trying to be anti-capitalist, so
how do we overturn the social relations that we have between us?
I think that marrying the two ideas might help to come up with
ways that are more sustainable in terms of moving forward. It's hard to
say, because ideological rifts make it hard for people to work together
for extended periods of time. I don't know if that can be overcome but
I'm hopeful. There are definite benefits to both kinds of organizing,
but there are also definite tensions between them.

UTA: How about the tension between movement building
and revolutionary organizing? You have some experience in a
revolutionary socialist organization: what did you find worked
in terms of the approach and what didn't? What lessons did
you take from that?
IV: What I really enjoyed about being involved in a revolutionary
organization was the importance placed on analysis and education.
People in the organization had a vast amount of knowledge, and
people were interested in ideas and hungry for analysis and there was
a heavy level of debate at the time that I was involved. If people didn't
agree with the analysis of the leadership it was challenged.
I feel that in some of the anti-capitalist organizing that I've been
involved in, debate happens in a very passive aggressive way. It's not
done openly, so the competition of ideas gets very skewed in some
ways. It's often like "Oh, but we have to build a demo on the 20th, so
we don't have time to talk about this or that," so debate is left by the
wayside until it culminates and suddenly you have one organization
"hating" another organization, etc. That's one of the contradictions
I've seen a lot.
Within anti-capitalist structures, or rather informal/ non-
structures, there is not much common analysis beyond the idea
that we're working towards a vague common goal, and maybe that's
just "anti-capitalism," you know, getting rid of capitalism and we'll
figure it all out later. But there's not much room for debate because
the strongest personalities will say what they have to say and there's
no time or energy put into making discussions like this happen. It's
frustrating because I don't know what person X sitting next to me
thinks, and maybe that person believes in tactics that I don't believe
in, but the culture discourages the asking and resolution of those
That kind of debate is always very much under the surface and it
often leads to a kind of concentration or hierarchy of people at different
levels in anti-capitalist organizing. One level of people will know that
this or that is going to happen, or people say "we know that this group
and that group won't get along and so we won't tell them and we'll hide
it under `security culture'." I've seen it happen more than once where
it's like: "We can't let everyone know about this tactic because what
if the cops find out." But you need to be clear with the people that
you're organizing with. The whole idea is that we're standing shoulder
to shoulder, but because it's not worked out and not discussed it ends
up producing hierarchies. Hierarchies of knowledge and information,
hierarchies of "radicalism" and hierarchies of tactics. I think that this
is a result of not having those discussions in a structured way in order
to try to deal with disagreements.

UTA: That brings me to another thing I wanted to ask
about. One criticism that you sometimes hear is that while
a lot of anti-capitalist organizing operates with an anti-
leadership orientation, in practice there is a leadership, it's
just that it's informal and shifting so it's often unclear to
people what is going on. What do you think?
IV: I think the leadership question is very important. What
happens is that, yes, an informal leadership is created, but the people
that are ordained leaders don't necessarily want it, so that creates a
pretty interesting dynamic. I think that there is definitely this tension.
We do create leaders, but on the other hand sometimes people outside
the anti-capitalist movement, who don't understand the idea of not
having leaders, reporters or whatever, will be like "Who's in charge?"
That might be the media liaison but that's not the person in charge.
People don't get that that's how we function so there's also an outside
imposition of leaders.
It's a misleading process. We really need to figure out a way to have
discussion and structure so it's not just one person that's speaking for
the movement but there's actually some kind of level of consensus when
people are speaking. This relates to another part of the movement
we haven't touched on, which is the question of individualism versus
collectivity. There's this idea that movement building is building a
collective of individuals. I don't know if I would necessarily agree with
that, if we have some kind of political connection and we work more
as a collective than as individuals. I think that has a lot to do with
the leadership question. A lot of people that actually are leaders say
"I'm speaking as an individual," but in fact everyone knows they're
speaking for a collective, or we may not know it but that's how it's
perceived. So there is this negotiation that needs to be done. I don't
know where we'll have the time and space to make these discussions
happen, but it's important to make this happen.

UTA: You mentioned that by default those who end up
acting as leaders are those that are most active, in the activist
sense, in movements. Do you think that this prevents finding
sustainable levels of activity that can appeal to a broader layer
of people, since not everybody can afford to be a full-time
IV: That's the most important question, and I don't know what
that balance is. I like to think that we can find that balance, but the
way that things are structured in the organizations that I see it often
seems like an all or nothing proposition, and that's a serious problem.
I think that causes some of the boom and bust cycles that are going
on. People see this person putting in 15 hours a day and people think
that others expect that of them. That is a model that's out there,
and the "uber-activist" dynamic that this ends up creating within the
movement itself is interesting.
When people burn out other people are forced to step up or
you're told that you have to step up, so it does circulate leadership in
a way. We tend to have this intense fear of not wanting to be overrun
by things, but at the same time of being very committed and excited.
I think there needs to be ways of doing open organizing where people
can insert themselves and contribute as much as they can or want.
Maybe there's a way forward and maybe in a downturn these things
are going to get worked out, in terms of figuring out sustainable levels
of commitment over the long term.
In the revolutionary organization I was involved in, I put in
a lot of energy and was very vocal. I've come to realize that this is
partly why my ideas were taken into account. That's why I think the
consensus model is a very good thing, to the extent that it allows for
more people to get into debates. Democratic centralization tends to
be centralized first, and democratized afterwards, so I think there are
definite benefits to other forms.

UTA: Do you have any final thoughts?
IV: A combination between consensus decision-making and
democratic centralism would be super exciting. If I were ever to be a
part of another revolutionary organization, that would have to be an
important part of it. A really interesting thing is how decision-making
happens in movements. Consensus was developed in the 70s, in the
context of identity politics, and democratic centralism was developed
way before that, in a very different context. One of our profound
failures is that we haven't developed a mechanism or a method to
make decisions and be clear and open and honest with each other and
by default we've fallen into other practices.
I've seen great things happen organically. I was involved in a
coalition that was attempting to use consensus but almost all the
members of the coalition were different union locals that didn't know
how to use consensus. There was this organic decision-making process
that was developed out of it. It was totally flawed in every way but it
was also amazing to see it happen week by week. At every meeting
you would see these union guys trying to "twinkle" and you would see
the chair try to "call to order." People were trying to understand each
other and that's exciting. If we keep working in those kinds of ways
we can develop a method where decision-making and leadership have
a very close correlation, and if we start working on it we can see that
there might be ways to develop an organic synthesis.
I've learned that in moments of struggle the most amazing
things can happen in terms of organizing because we adapt to our
context. We just need to tap into that a little more, be aware of what
our context is, and not be so goal oriented in terms of our next rally
or whatever. We have to begin to think long term, we have to build
sustainable organizations and coalitions that don't fall apart after a
year. The way to do it is to look at longevity and also what's going to be
sustainable in every way, as well as to develop mechanisms to preserve
that sustainability. Whether it's decision-making or anything else, we
need to be more creative in the ways we interact with each other.

Jeff Shantz is a member of Punching Out-NEFAC (North-Eastern
Federation of Anarchist Communists) and lives in Toronto. This interview
was conducted electronically and is based on Jeff 's article "`Platformism' and
Organization" submitted to Upping the Anti in March 2005.

UTA: To begin with, maybe you could outline your
general perspective on why there is a need for revolutionary
Jeff Shantz: NEFAC members believe that achieving a classless,
stateless and non-hierarchical society (that is, anarchy) requires a
social revolution, which will only emerge through autonomous social
movements and the revolutionary self-activity of the working class.
This distinguishes us from some versions of social anarchism, which,
drawing most notably on the works of Kropotkin, for example, view
the development towards anarchy as an ongoing trend within human
social development that requires little effort by anarchists beyond the
propaganda of anarchist ideas.
While we draw upon the diverse histories, movements and
theorists of anarchism, NEFAC is inspired most significantly by
the tradition within anarchist communism known as "platformism."
The platformist tradition emerged following the Russian Revolution
through the efforts of a group of Russian and Ukrainian anarchists
in exile who sought to analyze why the anarchists had fared so badly
during the revolution in comparison with the Bolsheviks. Their
conclusion was that despite their vastly better social and political
analysis the anarchists lacked effective organizations.
In order that anarchists not make the same mistake in future
generations, the Dielo Truda group wrote a position paper, The
Organizational Platform for a General Union of Anarchists, in which they
laid out some points that might serve as a guide in developing effective
revolutionary organizations. More than 75 years after it was written
and a decade after the fall of the U.S.S.R. the platform has enjoyed
a stunning revival. From Ireland and Lebanon to South Africa and
Canada, a number of groups have taken up the platform. At a time
when anarchist movements are growing, the platform ­ which was
only ever intended as an outline for action ­ has provided a useful
starting point for anarchists looking "to rally all the militants of the
organized anarchist movement."
Unlike the original platformists, who focused their energies on
gathering the majority of anarchists to their perspective, NEFAC has
been more concerned with moving beyond activist circles and building
a real grounding in working class communities and organizations.
Obviously, however, we remain a small force and have no illusions
about our success in doing this up to now. It remains a long and
ongoing process.

UTA: How do you, as a relatively small revolutionary
organization, relate to these broader movements, whether
particular social movements and community struggles, or
the workers' movement more generally?
JS: In order to most effectively direct our limited resources,
NEFAC has decided as a federation to focus on three primary areas
of struggle: anti-racism and anti-fascism, anti-poverty struggles, and
workplace organizing. Regarding the first area, we are involved not
just in street scraps with fascists, but in trying to work against the US/
Canada border enforcement, and in stopping the increasing detention
of migrants. Our anti-poverty work in several cities has dug us into
tenants unions and other community-based organizations, as well as
contributing to campaigns aimed at winning what we realize to be very
limited demands from the state, such as the Raise the Rates campaign
spearheaded by the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty in Ontario.
It is in labour struggles that we have really been innovators, doing
things that are quite atypical for many North American anarchist
organizations. Indeed the goal of developing anarchist perspectives
within unions and other workplace organizations is one that
contemporary North American anarchists have generally neglected.
Unlike left groups that have focused their energies on running
opposition slates in union elections or forming opposition caucuses,
NEFAC unionists work to develop rank-and-file organization and
militance. We take the position that regardless of the union leadership,
until we build a militant and mobilized rank-and-file movement, across
locals and workplaces, the real power of organized labour will remain
A few of the efforts our members have been involved in include
flying squads -rapid-response networks of union members prepared
to take direct solidarity actions­ and alternative or minority unions
like the Downtown Workers Union in Montpelier, Vermont which
organizes service workers citywide. In Toronto, Punching Out has
been active in forming an autonomous flying squad to co-ordinate
strike support and help build workers' self-organization and solidarity.
The flying squad is autonomous from all official union structures and is
open to rank-and-file workers who hold no union position or workers
in unorganized workplaces or who are unemployed. The flying squad
supports direct action against bosses of all types. Based on these
examples, NEFAC members in Peterborough and Montreal have
recently taken part in developing flying squad networks in their cities.
The Precarious Workers Network coalescing in Montreal is primarily
organizing among unorganized and unemployed workers.

UTA: How does this work relate to your attempt to build
an "effective revolutionary organization"? What are the
principles on which you organize as such?
JS: The anarchist organization is a place to come together to reflect
on, revise and advance work being done. It offers the opportunity to
examine and refine one's practices and develop alternatives through
the sharing of resources and the evaluation of experiences from
different collectives in different areas of our region.
NEFAC's commitment to local autonomy means that collectives
have the final say on which of these struggles they will involve
themselves in and what sorts of activities they will take up. At the
same time, we are a federation and we do discuss, debate and plan
federation-wide initiatives. Our cohesion as a federation is based on
"theoretical and tactical unity" and in order to develop this in a vital
way, in addition to federal campaigns, we also prepare position papers
on our areas of intervention, which are reviewed and accepted (or not)
by the federation as a whole.
As a platformist organization NEFAC seeks a substantive,
rather than symbolic, unity based on shared action and reflection. By
"theoretical and tactical unity" we mean a focused sharing of resources
and energies that brings otherwise limited anarchist forces together
rather than dissipating our efforts. Theoretical and tactical unity in no
way implies that members have to read the same sources or agree on
all points. While there has to be some agreement on basic ideas, these
positions are only determined collectively, through open debate and
discussion, rooted in actual practice.
As a federation, we meet twice a year for federal congresses,
which serve as the highest decision-making body in NEFAC. These
congresses are open to all NEFAC members and supporters and
decisions on federation-wide projects are taken on the basis of majority
vote by members/collectives with supporters having indicative votes.
Between congresses, federal decisions are made in a democratic
manner through our Federation Council consisting of one delegate per
collective. Delegates are responsible for bringing proposals to their
collective for discussion and vote. If a majority of collectives agrees to
the proposal, it passes. Once a decision is taken by the federation as
a whole, it is expected that members and collectives will responsibly
carry out those decisions.

UTA: What do you see as the role of revolutionaries/
revolutionary organizations in relation to broader community
struggles, social movements, and the workers' movement
more generally?
JS: We are not a vanguardist or substitutionist organization,
but we do believe that a successful revolution will be preceded by
organizations capable of radicalizing mass movements and community
struggles while opposing reformist or authoritarian tendencies. We
provide a venue in which militants can analyze experiences and put
ideas into practice while making anarchist communist ideas relevant.
As an active minority within the working class, we work to provide
a rallying point, through example and ideas, in struggles against capital
and the state as well as standing against authoritarian ideologies or
practices in working class organizations. We remain small and certainly
have no illusions about "leading" the anarchist movement, let alone
the working class more broadly. We try to maintain relationships of
solidarity and mutual aid with anarchists who take different strategic
and tactical approaches.

UTA: What do you see as the potential contradictions or
tensions that can/ do arise between building revolutionary
organizations and "movement building"? How can these
tensions be negotiated and overcome?
JS: Given the marginalized position of anarchist and communist
ideas within the working class in North America at this point in time
we do have to spend a fair bit of effort getting our perspectives out
there. Thus we do focus on developing agitational materials like our
theoretical magazine "The Northeastern Anarchist" and our newspaper
"Strike!" There are many important lessons from anarchist history
that we need to learn, revive and share. At the same time, the work
we have put into building rank-and-file workers' committees, flying
squads, precarious workers' networks and tenant/base unions shows
that, despite our numbers, we can make real material contributions to
building the capacities of our class for struggle. These interventions
are not made in a vanguardist way to build our organization or recruit
members but in a principled way to help build class-wide resources
and win material gains.
This gets at your larger question around contradictions or
tensions. First, I think it is mistaken to speak of a "pure" or "essential"
movement that is somehow free from or untouched by revolutionary
organizations. Movements are made up of diverse organizations and
involve participation from people who are also active in a variety of
organizations, including revolutionary ones. This includes both formal
organizations and, often more significantly, the informal organizations,
including cliques, social networks and friendship groups that often
operate behind the scenes to impact movements dramatically. The
interplay of perspectives and practices that participants bring to
movements shapes their emergence and development. The question
then is how people approach their involvement in specific movements.
It is clearly a mistake to approach movements either as recruitment
grounds (as more formal organizations often do) or as social clubs (as
is more typical for informal groups). For us the key is to be involved in
a principled way that prioritizes building working class strength in our
communities, neighbourhoods and workplaces rather than building
our specific organization. Developing our particular organization is
worthwhile only in as much as it contributes to that larger goal.

UTA: Do you have any final thoughts?
JS: Much of anarchist activity in North America is still
characterized by this description from Dielo Trouda in 1926: "local
organizations advocating contradictory theories and practices, having
no perspectives for the future, nor of a continuity in militant work,
and habitually disappearing, hardly leaving the slightest trace behind
them." Many of these short lived projects are based on the `synthesist'
model ­ a mish-mash of ideas and practices ­ of which platformists
have always been wary. Such groupings work relatively well if the
task remains at the level of running a bookstore or free school (both
worthy projects in themselves). Yet, the absence of durable anarchist
organizations, rooted in working class organizations and communities,
still contributes to demoralization or a retreat into subculturalism.
As anarchist movements face possibilities of growth, as happened
after Seattle in 1999, questions of organization and the relation of
various anarchist activities to each other and to broader movements
for social change will only become more pressing and significant. As
PJ Lilley and I have suggested elsewhere: "If anarchists are to seize
the opportunities presented by recent upsurges in anarchist activity
and build anarchism in movements that have resonance in wider
struggles, then we must face seriously the challenges of organization,
of combining and coordinating our efforts effectively. We will be aided
in this by drawing upon the lessons of past experiences and avoiding,
as much as possible, past errors."
* A&S - Autonomy & Solidarity is an anticapitalist antiauthoritarian
revolutionary network in Canada.]

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