Collective Ownership and Self-Defense--Leadership and Distrust for those with Privilege (First Draft)
By Joaquin Cienfuegos
(Anarcho-Communist, Community Organizer, and member of the Southern California Anarchist Federation-Los Angeles)
In the United States the power structure that exists is complicated. To paraphrase bell hooks, its a white supremacist patriarchal imperialist system. This is our reality, and this is what the system of power is rooted in. Any real strategy for revolution has to be rooted in ones own specific conditions. Since we live in the United States and anybody who calls him or herself a revolutionary (or radical) has to seriously look at the situation here in the US (and also within different communities you have different conditions, and with different regions you have different conditions). We have to figure out how we can confront reality to change it, and rely on ourselves as oppressed peoples for that change -- not on the state and not on a vanguard party who claims to know whats in our interests.
So one cannot just talk about the class oppression but you have to look at the entire power relationships -- and how they affect us and you have to adapt those things into your organizing and strategy for social change.
The development of capitalism in the U.S. was based on white Protestantism and the progress of the white male protestant merchants and landowners. Their values, standards and the culture of the rulers are dominant in this society. Their agenda is guided by this culture and the preservation of their rule.
Then if you do not reflect the power structure of imperialism (which is white, capitalist, patriarchal, and heterosexist) you are subjugated by their rule. The power structure is set up to manipulate, control, exploit, imprison, murder, and even exterminate those who do not reflect them.
Oppression in the U.S. and the oppressed is also complex. While there are organizations out there whos rhetoric doesnt go beyond the proletariat (or working class) things are much more complex than that. The oppressed are people who are of color, working class, women, queer people, and young as well. This is because of the power relationships that exist in this country. Where white males through manifest destiny sought to conquer and dominate this land, and saw themselves as chosen people of god. Throughout the history of this country, they have systematically killed, tortured, exploited, exterminated people who did not reflect their power structure, who stood in their way of expansion and more power, and posed a threat to their power and way of life.
The state is used to enforce their system of power and to keep it in tact. The state is made up of the police, the courts, the prison system, their government, government agencies, and even their schools. So anybody that rises up or resists the power structure will be faced with repression and also will have to take on the enforcers of the state. Not only when people rise up, but also in their day-to-day life in communities with third world conditions, the state is used to maintain a culture of fear. They terrorize the people who live there, throw them in prison, and murder them. Historically, the state has been responsible for the extermination of indigenous people, the preservation of racial slavery, the theft of land and the colonization of people (in particular Mexico, Indigenous people, Puerto Rico, and Hawaii), the upholding of patriarchy (where women were and still are subjugate and seen as second class citizens -- to be child bearers and servants to men), and denied the right for queer people to not only marry but to love whom they choose.
The question is how do we organize around all these different and distinct forms of oppression to challenge and change the power structure. How do we allow for autonomy but still have a common plan and strategy for the liberation of the oppressed?
You say Identity Politics -- We call it Autonomy
What kind of organization and how does it look like?
I spoke briefly to how oppression exists in this society, but it is not as simple. There are very unique and specific forms of oppression but there is also intersection. Meaning that all these forms of oppression overlap and affect people in different ways. For example women of color have a different experience and different positions and/or demands than say white women, and working class people of color have a different experience than the white working class (but also people of color and women are systematically forced into a position of wage slavery -- where they work the worst jobs if they can even find a job, for the worst pay, under the worst conditions -- which includes immigrants of color).
In the 60s the idea was that we needed to break up into different camps (where white people organize white people, Black people, organize Black people, Chicanos organize Chicanos, Puerto Ricans organize Puerto Ricans) and when the revolution came we would all form a united front. I do not think its necessary to break up into camps based on your identity, since I spoke to the intersection of our oppression -- and our communities are diverse (especially with Black and Latino communities, in particular in Los Angeles). I do however think it is necessary for the oppressed communities to have autonomy (to have independence, to have self-determination - in terms of their organizing, their vision, their culture, their way of life, and their struggle for liberation). At this point it is important for the oppressed to rely on their own democratic organization to develop their own leadership skills, strategy, and give them practice and experience in self-organization.
Dogmatists and purists attack this position because they call it separatist or they say that to do this were creating divisions. In reality these divisions exist in society, lets be realistic, and we have to directly challenge these oppressive social relationships not avoid them. Society and this power structure has alienated us, it systematically dominates us -- we should not rely on this system for liberation. Revolution means changing the social relationships and power relationships that exist in this society that perpetuates oppression, and self-hatred. These social relationships are also carried over into our organizing or the left because we do not organize in a vacuum -- we are influenced by the dominant culture of the powers that be. In the left we suffer from what Frantz Fanon called internalized oppression (where we recreate and reflect the same oppressive social relationships that exist under capitalism). In the left there is also class-reductionism where all other forms of oppression are ignored except for class.
Class reductionism would attack the autonomous movements of the oppressed and call them identity politics when the privileged leadership of these organizations get challenged and their quest for ruling over the oppressed is threatened.
I think this all comes from whose leading and who is fighting to lead the movement. The politics of any organization will be influenced by who makes up the organization. If you have an organization where the majority of people are from a privileged background then your politics and the political positions of your organization will reflect the social position that is probably less genuine and more liberal. This relates to the left in general in the US today. The vanguard parties are led by people who have privileged positions in society, therefore there are going to want to gravitate to a leadership position and power -- the privileged (white, upper middle class men, who have had the privilege and the time to dig into politics) are usually the ones leading and calling the shots within these vanguard parties and also hold this notion that theyre going to liberate the oppressed which is all rooted in their social position. The same goes for anarchists, who in North America and in particular in the US are influenced by a white middle class male position because the political SCENE is made up of them -- and the ones who dominate within the anarchist organizations (especially within a structure less environment) are those same people.
So how do we organize ourselves, build autonomy, become self-sufficient while at the same time challenge power and change those relationships? These are the main tasks to carry out as revolutionaries: to empower ourselves and oppressed communities, build the structures that give people a glimpse of how things can be different and how we can organize ourselves, build our fighting capacity, integrate ourselves within the communities and mass movements, and build a political and revolutionary base within these communities -- and build the leadership skills, consciousness, and experience in collective struggle within these communities.
Who are these privileged organizations to tell the oppressed how they should organize and struggle? We have much to learn from the masses, as we have to teach the masses.
Although we know the revolutionary project to defeat the system of capitalism and enslavement requires millions of other allies who will help us, we will decide the agenda, the timetable, and the tactics of obtaining freedom. (Lorenzo Komboa Ervin. Anarchism and the Black Revolution. 1994)
The process of developing a praxis that is effective should be important, and we should always have as principal what works for us here while maintaining our autonomy and individual freedom -- and adapting ideas and theories that help guide our organizing to our specific conditions.
The question should be put out there though, why organize amongst the oppressed -- isnt everybody oppressed in a way? Yes in a way this is true, but also there are different social positions within this system and people have different privileges. The politics of the oppressed will always be more genuine if they are involved first-hand in facilitating the process of their own liberation. Anytime you have the majority privileged folks in your organization -- the politics of the organization will become watered down-- because consciously or subconsciously they have more at stake -- they have more to loose. I draw heavily from organizations like the Black Panther Party (where I disagree with their structure as well as other mistakes they made) were one of the most serious organizations in the 60s in terms of revolutionary praxis in their communities, building dual power, fighting for better positioning within the communities, political-and self defense training, and having an understanding/analysis of race and class politics (while seriously trying to deal with gender problems in the organization). They were an organization that was serious enough that it posed the biggest threat to the US government -- so much that the state prioritized smashing them. There are many lessons to draw from that experience and learn from mistakes as well -- but one thing that you can look at is that the organization was a form of self-organization of the oppressed (a top-down self-organization not a horizontal one though) where the politics were adapted to their communities and were more genuine as well. This posed a huge threat to the power structure and the state.
While were organizing for autonomy within communities there is a need to connect, communicate, coordinate and work along other communities for the same aims, platform, and/or demands. This is where federalism can help connect not only oppressed communities, but also privileged allies who are organizing within their own communities to link up and build a revolutionary movement that has clear politics, common vision, and strategy.
Collective Ownership of our Community and our Organization
When Bobby Seale and I came together to launch the Black Panther Party, we observed many groups. Most of them were so dedicated to rhetoric and artistic rituals that they had withdrawn from living in the 20th century. Sometimes their analyses were beautiful but they had no practical programs, which would translate these understanding to the people... Any action which does not mobilize the community toward the goal is not revolutionary action. The action might be a marvelous statement of courage, but if it does not mobilize the people toward the goal of a higher manifestation of freedom it is not making a political statement and could even be counterrevolutionary.
-Huey P. Newton
[On the Defection of Eldridge Cleaver from the Black Panther party and the Defection of the Black panther Party from the Community; April 17, 1971; taken from to Die For The People, by Huey P Newton; pg, 46]
Any organization or revolutionary movement in order to succeed has to be owned collectively by those who are involved in that revolutionary organization and movement. By that I mean, people are part of decision making, planning, and have a say so in what gets done.
A way for communities to build their self-organization is through independent community councils, where community members can meet with each other, and organize around issues that are directly affecting them in their community while (through a federation) building solidarity and working towards the same goals with other communities, and regions nationally and internationally.
The federation would be one that is specifically revolutionary -- this of course is hard to do (because realistically just because people come from oppressed communities does not mean they are revolutionary -- there a lot of backward ideas that exist within these communities). Its important for the revolutionary organization to be integrated into the community and develop collective leadership and collective ownership from within the community itself (the organizers would have to not only be familiar with the community but would have to come from within that community). There will always be people who become politicized at different times for different reasons (sometimes because theyre forced by history to step up and resist as in the Los Angeles High School Walk Outs that happened recently March 2006), the role of those people is not to form a new ruling elite within these communities but to organize, raise consciousness, and most importantly DEMOCRATIZE KNOWLEDGE to bridge the gaps as much as possible in understanding and organizing experience. The federation, as a specifically revolutionary organization, with clear principles, politics, vision and strategy (where these things are dynamic and will change through the experimentation of the organization or victories and failures) -- can work within popular movements.
Realistically revolution will not happen through a vanguard party. It will happen through the movement of millions of people. This has been the case in any popular social movement that has been successful anywhere -- the problem has been that the popular movements become co-opted by different interests that do not reflect those of the people in the long run (as in bourgeois nationalists, authoritarian socialists, fascists etc.). The role of the federation shouldnt be to try to place itself in front of the popular struggles, but have some influence within them, to raise consciousness, support, and help in the process of developing other revolutionary organizers for the long term struggle or the overall liberation process.
The community councils are a way where people can build dual power; basically build the structures that would replace this system and power structure within their communities. They would organize to rely on themselves for their needs (and eventually stop relying on the state -- the police especially because they act as an occupying army in our communities). People might look at this and say that why do this -- why not just fight to get state power? This is power -- its a collective distribution of power to those who run the communities -- were cutting out the middle men (the state as in the police, their courts, their schools, and other agencies that make us dependent on them). In a way were retaking the communities (which include the place where we work, associate, and go to school) -- which is where we live, and we could run ourselves anyway.
This is a strategy for social change, where communities are organizing themselves and building a base for the struggle -- and an example of how we can organize ourselves, associate freely, and live according the basic principles of human rights -- including to each according to his ability and to each according to his need. This is real communism in practice.
Where anti-authoritarian socialists disagree with Marxist-Leninists is in the transitional state (where the vanguard party will lead the masses through a stage where they have ultimate power -- into finally a stateless society where them along with the state will magically disappear and they would give up their rule). The underlying structure, and power relations that existed in the Soviet Union, and China set the stage for capitalism to not only be implemented but with a much more oppressive and repressive state.
In China, anarchists discussed the idea of social transformation, and the challenging of what was oppressive in the traditional Chinese culture, which Mao learned from and the Cultural Revolution was waged by students and peasants in China, but because of the power dynamics -- the revolution did not succeed. When Mao died in the mid-70s, the four other members of the central committee were put in prison -- the people were not empowered enough to distinguish between the different factions that were fighting for power, and afterwards the most feudal and oppressive social relationships returned to China.
This would have not of happened if there been different power relationships and power was distributed -- and the masses of oppressed people (the peasants, working class, women, oppressed nationalities) had real ownership of the struggle and were leading.
Self-Defense and Revolutionary Struggle
Our insistence on military action, defensive and retaliatory, has nothing to do with romanticism or precipitous idealist fervor. We want to be effective. We want to live. Our history teaches us that the successful liberation struggles require an armed people, actively participating in the struggle for their liberty!
-George Jackson (Blood in My Eye)
In the US we have what we call a low intensity war against poor people of color, women and queer people in particular but all people in general. The government is attempting to move society in more right wing fascist direction today, but since its inception they have been killing, terrorizing, imprisoning, and exploiting anybody who did not represent the power structure. Overall they are killing oppressed people everyday and they have been doing it for over 400 years. Not only that, they are destroying the planet that gives us life, that we need to live -- all in their endless pursuit of profit and power.
Since this country was founded on expansion and imperialism oppressed communities have always been a semi-colony or neo-colony. This is because they have historically and systematically (day to day from day one) have been kept in third-world conditions here inside the empire itself, within the richest country in the world. People from these communities face unemployment, instability in their living situation, homelessness, prisons, drugs, police brutality, gentrification, poor education, and the list can go on and on. In Los Angles in particular, which I can speak of from my own experience, we can see this in communities like Pico Union, Watts, Compton, South Central, East Los Angeles, and in other parts of this country we can see this in communities like Oakland, Fresno, New Orleans, Brooklyn, Philadelphia and so on.
It is important to realize that there is a war being waged against the oppressed and has been going on and it is intensifying here. It is important to get into the question of revolutionary struggle and what that means.
I personally feel that the revolutionary struggle in order to succeed would have to be made up by a multi-faceted approach and through different tactics and a strategy (that is being developed through our experience). The community councils will not win out on their own, especially if were concentrated in urban areas and have no support and allies from white radicals and revolutionaries and the middle class and other privileged sectors. Also from the forgotten rural communities where people are also isolated.
As we do this we have to build our fighting potential within our own communities and among ourselves. Theres also the real case of the state coming down on us and trying to destroy what were creating in our communities. It is a threat to them to create autonomous communities within their state. So what then, do we not fight back?
I have a lot of unity with George Jacksons (of the Black Panther Party) strategy. Where you build dual power within your community, at the same time while youre gaining popular support within these communities, youre preparing and training to defend yourself from the state -- because most likely they will try to smash us. Through the collective experiences of struggle of the people within the communities they would support each other and carry out a social revolution -- and this will probably turn into a civil war between the state along the enforcers and supporters of this system and the popular movements, and the federation of revolutionary community councils.
The idea of an armed people was also put to practice by anarchists in the Ukraine during the Russian Revolution through militias -- where they elected their own officers, who defended and were made up of people from the community councils. One of the organizers from that period was Nestor Makhno who later helped write the anarchist platform. At the end there were some failures with this as well.
In any military aspect of organizing theres a need for expertise (as in people who have experience and training in military strategy and other aspects needed for self defense), in Chiapas the EZLN makes up the military component of their autonomous communities, and the army is under direct control of the bodies of community decision making. I think learning from all these different things would is important.
Our movement has not yet reached the military stage yet, but that does not mean we should not discuss this question seriously or leave our guard down. Armed struggle, as in non-violence, is a tactic in an overall strategy for systemic change. We not only have to look at it when it comes to self-defense (which is the ultimate reason for militias and democratic military) but that armed struggle in opposition to US imperialism is justified not only because they are killing us on a day to day basis here (and it is a struggle for our survival -- as oppressed people in particular and humanity in general), they are also killing millions more around the world through its military and its free market.
At the same time we should not uphold and romanticize the culture of violence or the culture of the gun (but see it as a tactic to within the overall revolutionary movement). On the other hand oppressed communities will decide ultimately what kind of tactics they would take up and carry out. To paraphrase War Churchill, its chauvinistic for someone who is privileged in America telling colonized people how they should be fighting for their liberation.
On Leadership and Creating a Culture of Resistance
In terms of leadership, I feel that the best way to lead is by example. If your organization is truly integrated with the people -- and you're sincere in the revolutionary process, youre building solid relationships, building a base united in tactics and strategy, and building real structures that will replace this system -- then people will join the movement and revolutionary organization.
Illegitimate authority is people imposing themselves and self-appointing themselves as the leadership -- who act as representatives for the rulers of this political, economic and social system.
Theres also a need for specifically revolutionary organization to provide the individual development of organizers and raise the level of consciousness through different forms of education (in particular popular education). Creating a culture of resistance means creating an atmosphere in society where new ideas and new forms of relating to each other is being discussed and practiced and is not hidden from people. Doing this will challenge many people to change themselves in the process of changing society.
Creating a culture of resistance does not mean creating counter culture that is isolated from people. It means creating something new, while integrating ideas to peoples history and experiences. Many anarchists do not have an understanding of the importance of adapting the ideas of anarchism to culture and specific conditions -- again because of their position in society and because European anarchists historically have opposed the association of culture and anarchism. (wikipedia.org) They want to make anarchism out to be something that was just discovered by our founding fathers Bakunin and Kropotking, when in reality all of these socialists studied indigenous cultures who practiced communism without calling themselves communists, when successful revolutions and the most successful anarchists have been the ones where they adapt their ideas and integrate them to the indigenous cultures. While claiming that traditional anarchism is one thing and not really analyzing how not only things have changed, but why is it that the anarchist scene is dominated by privileged people. Anarchists or other organizations who do not take these politics seriously or dont want to develop an analysis on these questions, I consider no more than a historical re-enactment society and club (trying to relive history). I do not take them seriously, I see them as bourgeois and liberal anarchists who intend to make these ideas inaccessible to the oppressed today -- but that does not rule out the possibility for people to develop and grow through their own trials and failures.
In terms of building a culture of resistance there is a lot to learn from the Chinese anarchists. Mao Tse-Tung co-opted principles and ideas from the Chinese Anarchists. They promoted popular education -- where they broke down complex theories for peasants (of course we have to do it where we don't patronize people). To do this is much harder than to just regurgitate what you've read in a book. You need a real grasp an understanding of our vision, our strategy and our program. This is much harder than to just spit out dates and numbers to people -- and just repeat what you've read somewhere.
It was anarchists who first pointed to the crucial role that the peasants must play in any serious revolutionary attempt in China, and Anarchists were the first to engage in any serious attempts to organize the peasants. (wikipedia.org)
Chinese students studying in Tokyo formed a group rooted its anarchism in political traditions native to Asia and advocated a peasant-based society built around democratically run villages organized into a free federation for mutual aid and defense. (wikepedia.org)
There were some problems with a different Chinese anarchist group that studied in Paris which was influenced by European anarchism. Who took a traditional obscure anarchist position on the nation-state and that there wasnt a need to integrate your politics to your specific conditions and the culture locally. While consistent with the stance of the global Anarchist movement at the time, this position elicits mixed responses from modern Anarchists, many of who see revolutionary potential in the struggles of oppressed ethnic and racial groups. In terms of the Revolutionary project in China, Ward Churchill cites the declarations of support for ethnic self-determination for Chinas ethnic minorities which the Communist movement made as key to winning their movement the support of those groups; which was to prove decisive during the later civil war between the Chinese Communist Party and the Nationalists. It is ironic that Anarchist movement, which is based on the idea of local political and economic self-determination and thus fulfills the autonomist aspirations of those groups - was unable to articulate to minority communities how their desire for self-determination would be realized within the context of an Anarchist society. (wikipedia.org)
Distrust for those with Privilege
As far as Im concerned the only reasonable conclusion would be to first realize the enemy, realize the plan, and then when something happens in the black colony-when were attacked or ambushed in the black colony-then the white revolutionary students and intellectuals and all the other whites who support the colony should respond by defending us, by attacking the enemy in their community...
As far as our party is concerned, the Black Panther Party is an all black party, because we feel as Malcolm X felt that there can be no black-white unity until there first is black unity. We have a problem in the black colony that is particular to the colony, but were willing to accept aid from the mother country as long as the mother country [white] radicals realize that we have, as Eldridge Cleaver says in Soul on Ice, a mind of our own. Weve regained our mind that was taken away from us and we will decide the political as well as the practical stand that well take. Well make the theory and well carry out the practice. Its the duty of the white revolutionary to aid us in this.
-Huey P. Newton
[Huey Newton talks to the Movement about the Black Panther Party, Cultural Nationalism, SNCC, Liberals and white revolutionaries.; taken from The Black Panthers Speak, edited by Philip S. Foner.]
In oppressed communities there is what I feel is distrust for people who they see reflect the power structure or their direct oppressor. People of color distrust white people, women distrust men, and workers distrust middle management. Whether this comes from a place of consciousness or not it is something that has been built based on our own experiences. That is real, personally every authority figure I have dealt with has been white (and have had other forms of privilege as well). So this is ingrained in the psychology of colonized and oppressed people that we have to follow the white male capitalist authorities. This distrust is seen by oppressed people as a means for their own survival as well.
So how can we work together? I feel that people who have a privileged position in society have to gain the trust of the oppressed communities. They have to prove themselves through their actions not just their words that they are in solidarity and they are real allies.
What has been my experience is that some sincere white middle class person has done things that have unconsciously been racist. As in this one case, an ex friend was picking me up, from my neighborhood in Boyle Heights -- and she wanted to get some liquor. She was coming from Westwood, so she tells me I should just get it over there, usually they have liquor stores in the `bad areas. So I called her out on it because she was basically suggesting that Westwood is the good area and where I live in my community is the bad area. Finally she got defensive and called me a reversed racist -- not understanding that racism is institutionalize and has to do with power and white supremacy (so we stopped being friends after that).
I do not have the position that white people or privileged people are born evil or are devils -- they are socialized. The problem is the system of capitalism and these fucked up social relationships. Realistically though, this socialization of people is something that is real and that is ingrained in the psyche of the privileged. There are feelings of superiority and hostility towards people of color that is deeply ingrained into the minds of white people. With that white males have a self-imposed right to power.
Also its been our experience in anarchist organizations, working with privileged white middle class activists -- that when every time the situation becomes real for them, where the state comes down on the organization they pull out, or they do things which have repercussions within oppressed communities without having to suffer the consequences for their actions -- but people of color, working class and women do. Before they leave they had tried to position themselves in the leadership, which comes from the socialization of white males to lead in society in general.
White upper-middle class men need to take responsibility and challenge their privilege-- not just in words but also through their actions and their conscious participation and organizing other privileged people to do the same. Their role is to be in solidarity with the oppressed -- not to lead their struggles.
Through a federation we can organize with each other and have autonomy as well -- the responsibility falls on each other to organize within our own communities and support each other in fighting for liberation.These questions are huge and we need to dig into them more -- as in building a real movement for systemic change -- and the role that revolutionary anarchists can play in adding a revolutionary platform for the popular movement and organizations in our communities.