photo by SG

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Dealing With Leadership

Lots of people who operate in the milieu that I'm down with nowawadays, which I guess could be called the organized anarchist scene, are interested in the idea of leadership. Differing from recent anarchist common sense which sees "leadership" as a static concept that can't be separated from its deployment in hierarchical organizations, I'd say our sense of leadership is more about the actual fact that some people take positions of social leadership in an organization (be it at work, a union, a political organization) through the esteem of their fellow participants. They may be good leaders or bad leaders, or more likely somewhere in between, and its our job as organizers to bring those people over to our cause, work on the bad qualities that they exhibit, and work with them to build up the leadership qualities of their followers. In short, we see leadership as the ultimate goal for every worker, and building the leadership qualities in every worker as a key part of our work.

Okay, so that's what we set out to do. But dealing with leadership once when finds oneself in the position of having it is an interesting problem contend with. I'm finding myself in two positions in my life where I'm now a social leader (work and my IWW local) and am having to think through the next steps of how I carry myself forward. I feel like I have a pretty good idea of how to build other people up to take on leadership positions, I'm less clear about where they/I should go from there, once they have social leadership positions and are organized. How do I act in a way that's accountable to the people who look up to me and see me as a leader? How do I bring them up and focus my work on building their leadership abilities while still carrying out the tasks that I need to do as part of the life of the organization?

Also, on an emotional level, how do we deal with other people looking up to us and looking to us for answers? In some ways, this is a smaller version of a problem that I bring up in a rather confusingly written post from two years ago (Jesus, has it been that long since I've been writing on this thing?) about Lenin and being a leader of a powerful organization. Even at a smaller level though, this still operates. I feel a good bit of apprehension when people in the IWW ask me questions about how they should run their campaigns, as frequently happens to me now from newer members. My first instinct is to go "shit, I don't know, don't ask me!" because I don't want people to make mistakes on my account and then lose their campaigns or their jobs. But fighting through that instinct, which is hard to do, is important to actually providing people ideas they hadn't thought of, usually through asking questions, and pushing the work forwards.

I think there's a quality of dealing with leadership that has to do with confidence. Leaders with too much self-confidence always have the answer, even if that answer is wrong, and will quickly communicate the answer to their followers as soon as they are asked. Leaders with not enough confidence quickly stop providing leadership because they can't help people with the problems that they're confronted with. There seems to be some line in the middle where a leader can both provide ideas and be reflective about the nature of those ideas. How do we walk that line carefully? And maybe even more importantly, how do we foster conversations about leadership with social leaders in our organizations without making those conversations a way of excluding people who don't have access to them?

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Luxemburg and the Unorganized

"On the other hand, it is said that we would be acting prematurely were we to propagate the mass strike in Germany, for we are less ripe for it than the proletariat of other countries. We in Germany have the strongest organizations, the fullest coffers, the largest parliamentary party, and yet we, alone among the whole international proletariat, are not supposed to be ripe? It is said that, despite its strength, our organization is only a minority of the proletariat. According to this notion, we would be ripe only when the last man and the last woman had paid their dues to their constituency associations. This is one wondrous moment for which we need not wait. Whenever we instigate an important action, not only do we count upon those who are organized, but we also assume that they will sweep the unorganized masses along with them. What would be the state of the proletarian straggle if we counted only on the organized!

During the ten-day general strike in Belgium, at least two-thirds of the strikers were not organized. Of course one must not conclude from this that the organization was of no significance. The organization’s power lies in its understanding of how to draw the unorganized into the action at the right time. The exploitation of such situations is a method of bringing about a huge growth in the organizations of the party and trade unions. Recruitment to the strong organizations must be based on a large-scale and forward-looking policy; otherwise the organizations will quietly decay. The history of the party and the trade unions demonstrates that our organizations thrive only on the attack. For then the unorganized flock to our banner. The type of organization that calculates in advance and to the nearest penny the costs necessary for action is worthless; it cannot weather the storm. All this must be made clear, and the dividing line must not be drawn so nicely between the organized and the unorganized."
Rosa Luxemburg, "The Political Mass Strike," speech 1913.

I don't have much to say about this just yet, mostly posting it here so that I can think about it and return to it. One thing that strikes me right away is I'm finding myself really able to access Luxemburg's writings in a way that I have more trouble with from other folks from the "party activist" tradition of Marxism. I think particularly here of Lenin. I know he's an important thinker but when his only reference point to a shared orientation is the party, taken to mean a party of cadre, I don't have a really easily comparable political label. Anarchist political organization? Okay, but they shouldn't really organize like Leninists (as discussed in my centralism entry the other day.)

But Luxemburg frequently speaks about "the party and the trade unions" in one breath, as she does here. This is great for me because what is the IWW if not a party (here read: non-electoral political organization) and a trade union (read: small one!) So placing myself there as a starting point, I can read her analysis a lot more coherently, or at least it relates to my work a lot more coherently.

Also the last sentence here is I think really great: "All this must be made clear, and the dividing line must not be drawn so nicely between the organized and the unorganized." Here Luxemburg is posing a powerful critique that plenty of modern day organizers and radicals should really think on. Who are the unorganized? Outside of the unions, the social movements, the political organizations? How do the unorganized become organized? Often we say they do when they join a party or a union. But what I draw from Luxemburg's arguments here, and maybe to push them a bit further, is that organized, as a state of being, is less about your card and more about who you are and even more importantly what you do.

But as she says, it's not that the organization isn't important because its members represent a minority within the movement. This is the mistake of the anti-organizationalist tendency in modern day anarchism and I strongly believe it continues to be one of the biggest mistakes that anarchists make. But Luxemburg suggests that we need to think about how the organization moves and deliberates in a sea of unorganized workers who move forward and backwards on their own (though not wholly on their own, even a small organization can shape the way that the unorganized think and act). Her suggestion, attack, is I think a solid one, though it also carries the concern that we might resemble the squawking activist yelling for revolution through his bullhorn without anyone listen. Sometimes people take "attack" to mean "suggest that we attack," I think this is an ongoing problem in the Trotskyist milieu today. The organization matters because we debate and organize "to draw the unorganized into the action at the right time" and outside organization we can't.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Luxemburg and Organizational Centralism

I read this tonight and it's really gotten me thinking and I'm trying to respond to it here because it's an issue that I often talk about in the context of the IWW.

"Centralism in the socialist sense is not an absolute thing applicable to any phase whatsoever of the labor movement. It is a tendency, which becomes real in proportion to the development and political training acquired by the working masses in the course of their struggle." -Rosa Luxemburg, "Organizational Questions of Russian Social Democracy," 1904

Luxemburg here is responding to Lenin and the Iskra group's ideas about centralism as a way of dealing with the ineffectiveness and lack of organization of the Russian Marxist movement of the time. Lenin proposes a kind of centralism which makes all the parts of the party subservient to a Central Committee in all the decisions that it makes. As history shows, he ended up achieving his aim and the bloody story of Stalinism is part of that legacy. But this isn't just an "I told you so" prediction by Luxemburg that later-day radicals can cheer about, as we so often do about Bakunin's similarly prescient statements about Marx and his party-form organization. Luxemburg is responding to a real concern and she's doing so in a way that I think is really smart.

As I understand it, the revolutionary movement in Russia at the time was very divided and tiny, much of it underground and completely autonomous from other branches within the same party. Since the failure of substitutionist terror campaigns of the Narodniks in the 1870s, the political wing of the revolutionary movement was weak, while economic actions by workers and peasants were on the upswing. Likely, though I can't prove it, the Social Democrats in a certain city or region had more contact with other revolutionaries in other groups within their area than with the party across the country. I think this is likely due to the underground nature of their organizations due to the repressive atmosphere of the Tsarist regime at the time. I'd also guess that part of that isolation came with a lack of an idea of how a national party could act, which is what Lenin was trying to answer with his proposal of ultra-centralism.

In this way, though the analogy is a bit clunky, the situation resembles our own a bit. Since the substitutionism of the New Left failed in the 1970s, we have been divided and tiny, mostly speaking with people in our own cities, often across different radical movements, with limited national or international coordination. Repression is not our primary issue for English-speaking North America at this time (though we shouldn't pretend it doesn't happen to us and our comrades) but we also lack a sense of how a national or international organization could work. Like the Russian Social Democrats, we have a formal organization that connects us, the IWW, but only in limited ways do we actually use that organization. Or said better, the IWW sometimes has weak organizational ties across branches, leading us to pursue localism instead of internationalism.

What Luxemburg proposes as centralism is very different from Lenin's proposal and I think it's really interesting to see centralism as a tendency instead of a policy. Tendencies expand and contract, they provide a pole to think around and about, made up of different individuals at different times for different reasons. Favorably comparing her German party to the Russians later in the article, she comments upon how the German organization can be "supple, yet firm." A centralist tendency, not used like a capitalized Tendency in a party, but in the sense of "I tend to like waking up early on weekends but not on week days" is a movement, in the sense of walking, towards a kind of decision-making within an organization. I've long joked that I'm an anarcho-centralist in the IWW, without really knowing what that means, but I'm pleased to hear that one hundred years earlier, Luxemburg was seriously proposing centralism as something like it.

I also like that she says that it becomes real in proportion to the nature of struggle and the participants in struggle. For Luxemburg here centralism, which is itself a complicated word with lots of bad connotations there days, becomes useful when the participants in class struggle find it useful, not when it is decided by leadership that it is useful. Here again, the "development and political training" that makes centralism useful to the working class movement does not come from intellectuals in the party, but from lived experience of struggle.

I've been thinking and talking a lot recently with my fellow workers about ways to improve our local branch's administration and organizational culture. We may not agree on many details of that yet, but I definitely think that we are moving towards a shared idea of what Luxemburg might call centralism, though I doubt calling it that in our union would be a popular move. Still, what I think she does well and what I hope to incorporate into my thinking is explaining a level upon which centralism, and more broadly the question of organization itself, depends on the kinds of experiences of struggle that workers have and the kinds of organs they create based on those struggles. Rather than looking to ideology to pick an organizational form that suits us, we should look to our experiences and draw from them conclusions about the ways that we can move forward and build up our organizations.