What is a comrade in a 21st-century socialist organization?
In the 20th Century it meant you were “under discipline,” a cadre in an organization of “professional revolutionaries.” But many of these organizations were based on a centralized, hierarchical model developed in Czarist Russia. They evolved hierarchies within structures of white supremacy, hierarchies that advantaged hetero-masculinity, and Eurocentric education systems. People of all “races” struggled to create the first wave of socialist revolutions, with huge successes and monumental failures.
Thankfully, we have learned a lot from the failures of collective organization from the past century, especially its manifestations of racism, misogyny, gender violence, chauvinism, patriarchy, and the maintaining of White, hetero-masculine supremacy. Or have we?
Last week, a member of the Lower St. Paul DSA regional group shared an article entitled, “Why Misogynists Make Great Informants: How Gender Violence on the Left Enables State Violence in Radical Movements,” by Courtney Desiree Morris. Presenting the legacy of gender violence and Leftist misogyny in the organizing of the 1960s and 70s, Morris presents a tripartite call to action: “First, we must support women and queer people in our movements who have experienced interpersonal violence and engage in a collective process of healing. Second, we must initiate a collective dialogue about how we want our communities to look and how to make them safe for everyone. Third, we must develop a model for collective accountability that truly treats the personal as political and helps us to begin practicing justice in our communities.”
We draw upon Morris’ call for a queer, radical, feminist “ethic of accountability,” presented against the historical backdrop of socialist organizing that relies on hierarchical patterns that dominate and subordinate and recent conversations on dismantling White supremacy culture within Twin Cities DSA, to propose an ongoing series of articles for The Little Red Letter. Letters may address topics such as: how the patterns mentioned above corrode and destroy both organizations and individuals; how we can overcome capitalist ways of relating by struggling to build mutual respect and cooperation; how we support those within our movement who have experienced violence; and how we approach the collective processes of dialogue and healing. The article below is the first in this series on how hierarchical patterns are reproduced within Left organizations, and how we might challenge them as we imagine an inclusive and collective future.
– Flora K. and Robbie O.
In the spring of 1975, many of us were elated by the victory of the Southeast Asian peoples against US imperialism and its allies in Vietnam. The Portuguese colonialists were defeated in Africa. Nixon had been forced out of office. We were sure the revolution was just around the corner.
Just graduated from college in Iowa, I went looking for that revolution. I arrived in St. Paul as the Coop Wars broke into the open. A group of Marxists had organized in a number of the food coops and the People’s Warehouse, the central distribution center for bulk foods. They called themselves the Coop Organization (CO) and demanded changes to the loosely organized, largely White, and hippy run coops so they would serve the needs of the working-class and people of color. The anti-war movement was over. The Black liberation movement was devastated. The era of mass demonstrations was over but we were confident it would soon return. So organizing the working class seemed to be the right answer and I joined in the People’s Coop Movement.
The CO organized both open and closed forms. It held public meetings, discussions and demonstrations as well as secret study groups, from which it recruited and and built a secure network of cadre. It used militant tactics like occupying the People’s warehouse, infiltrating and taking over Left organizations and intimidating opponents. Both sides engaged in some violence. The CO used Marxist dialectics to intensify the struggle and force people to choose sides, for or against transformation of the hippy coops into working class organizations.
The debate split the White Twin Cities Left. The Women’s Union, New American Movement (one of DSA’s predecessors), Vietnam Veterans Against the War, Elizabeth Blackwell Women’s Health Center, multiple coop stores, and other left-oriented cultural and political groups were torn in two. Some leftists accused the CO of being police agents and purposely sabotaging the Twin Cities left. With its aggressive tactics and hierarchical culture, the CO was incredibly destructive to the anti-war, women’s, and coop movements during a critical period. But having been in the CO for 17 years, I saw no evidence that the CO was a false-flag operation.
One thing the CO was about was personal and societal change, internal and external transformation. It was organized by a man known as Smitty. He had been a protégé of James Foreman, the long-time Executive Director of SNCC (Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee). SNCC was one of the core organizations of the Civil Rights movement. It was crucial to the organizing done during Mississippi Freedom Summer as well as the voter registration and desegregation campaigns throughout the Jim Crow South. Foreman was a born organizer. He along with many other dedicated leaders like Dianne Nash, Fannie Lou Hamer and John Lewis developed a cadre of trained organizers. They knew how to build a coherent group and create targeted campaigns with strategy and clearly defined tactics. One of those organizers was Smitty, a short Black man with a winning smile.
Smitty had followed Foreman through SNCC’s merger with the Black Panther Party and into the Black Workers Congress. In 1969 COINTELPRO accelerated its attacks on the US left. Progressive leaders were jailed and murdered. As external oppression mounted and the American War in Vietnam escalated, tension rose in movement organizations. Egos flared. And factionalism caused splits in SDS, the Black Panther Party, and other groups.
Most organizations were led by men who had no understanding of how male supremacy aligned with racism and class oppression to keep people divided. James Foreman was one of the few male leaders who understood the need for women’s liberation. When Smitty began organizing in the Twin Cities he focused his efforts on working-class women in the coops. He built the CO as a Leninist organization where only the chosen few knew that he was the leader. The inner circle organized circles in the coop and organizations they were a part of.
The CO brought sympathizers into study groups where people were evaluated. After a course of study, those who could be trusted were introduced to Smitty at a social event. If he agreed they were later assigned contact and brought under discipline. People under discipline had to be committed to collective living and to engage in criticism, self-criticism, or struggle sessions. These sessions were similar to consciousness-raising groups but tended to be more confrontational. The struggle aimed to decompose attitudes and habits of male and White supremacy and class domination. Women who subordinated were also struggled with to push them to take leadership. A key CO slogan was Criticism. Struggle. Transformation. It followed James Foreman’s theory of Control, Conflict and Change.
Born at the Right Time
In the 1960s, Black people and their allies stood up against Jim Crow, legalized racism. Along with the global anti-colonialist movement, they delegitimized the 400-year-old dogma of White supremacy. Yet within Black liberation and anti-war movements, women were assumed to be note-takers, coffee-makers, and willing sexual objects to support radical men. Instead, they launched the Women’s Liberation movement, which spawned LGBTQ liberation and deep changes in our thinking. Still, relationships based on domination persist.The cultural and social revolutionaries of these movements have spawned a wealth of knowledge and skills on combating White supremacy and male supremacy. James Foreman, the longtime executive secretary of SNCC (Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee) wrote a pamphlet in 1973 called Control. Conflict. And Change. It foreshadowed the works of bell hooks, Ibram X. Kendi and many other great thinkers and writers, too many to acknowledge here, but in short, their message is:
- Controls are ingrained in our minds and bodies.
- Controls can be decomposed and overcome through struggle.
- We are human and we can change.
A very brief summary of their theories would include the following points:
- Capitalist relationships are built on the social controls of class, race, and gender oppression, and all systems of domination and subordination: Competition for dominance is foundational to capitalist culture and society.
- Social controls are sociological, cultural, and psychological patterns that condition the way we think and act and relate to each other. These social controls are based on White supremacy, Euro-centric thinking, gender hierarchy, and class.
- These controls create disunity and prevent cooperation and solidarity between people opposing capitalism. To be successful in building a new world we must create organizations that are the opposite of White male supremacy and capitalist individualism (personal dominance).
- All forms of social oppression are based on four pillars:
- Othering – distinguishing an in-group and an out-group
- Superiority – convincing the in-group they are superior (easy with a few crumbs of exploiting the outgroup)
- Inferiority – convincing the out-group they are inferior (a lot harder, which is where #4 comes into place)
- Social controls up to and including murder – (psychological and personal put-downs, other social, cultural, religious controls, sanctioned violence by the dominant group including state armed forces)
- All of us are raised with these habits, social patterns, and modes of thinking.
- Without struggle, we recreate relationships of domination and subordination relationships based on class, race, and gender oppression within our families, workplaces, schools, and social organizations.
- With struggle and support, we can change our modes of thinking and habits, we can transform relationships poisoned with competition for dominance to those of mutual respect and cooperation.
- While we struggle to build a new society we must create models of how that new society will work. We must create organizations that provide mutual benefits for oppressed people and these organizations must be based on equality, solidarity, and liberty for each person to determine their own pattern.
In 2020, millions of USAmericans confronted the virus of entrenched racism in our society, our culture and our own minds and bodies. Twin Cities DSA is struggling with the issue of White supremacy culture. Women and LGBTQ comrades have struggled all their lives with male supremacy. And we all struggle with our inherited culture of capitalist individualism, which can also be named personal supremacy.
Socialists in 2021 now have the knowledge and the associated tools to struggle against these viruses. Will we choose to inoculate ourseleves and our organization?
– Robbie O.