Organizational Materialism Expanded: Introduction & Self Criticism

by Jean Allen

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Organizational Materialism remains, to me, the intellectual project I am most proud of.  It came just at the beginning of a massive reorientation in US leftist politics (one which continues on as of the writing of this introduction), and predicted many of the developments which occurred since.  More and more, irrelevant distinctions seem to be fading as thousands of leftists engage in practical activity and tens of thousands develop socialist politics. At the convention of the Democratic Socialists of America, a comrade of mine, whom I have been friends with for years and who had long had anarchist politics, told me that “I have not become less of an anarchist after joining DSA, if anything I’m more of an anarchist.  I’ve just been spending the last few years learning what that means.” This is the meaning of this period to the whole of US leftism: learning how to make socialism, anarchism, Marxism, into verbs rather than adjectives.  To understand how our politics determine the process of our work and their immediate goals instead of slapping those words onto whatever we are already doing.  This is a huge step forwards in the maturity of US socialism that we have not seen in generations, and to the extent that this essay has been a part of that I could not be prouder of it.  This introduction is a self criticism, but it is a criticism of a project I still wholeheartedly embrace.

The most major criticism I would have is the naivete with which I approached mutual aid as a uniquely good practice the left should follow.  This claim needs to be placed in its context–during the period of 2011-2016 outside of some anarchist circles (for whom ‘mutual aid’ had descended into self parody) and some isolated Maoist groups the US left had largely ignored mutual aid.  My particular situation, working at a Catholic Workers soup kitchen with several comrades of largely radical politics and thinking of how this program could be expanded, partially explained my naivete. I still think that the US Left has a lot to learn from the huge successes that the conservative Evangelical movement in the US and Islamist movement have had in the last couple decades and the mutual aid structures that led to their successes, but I no longer think that mutual aid solely allows for a movement to avoid state interaction.

Indeed, part of the logic present in this work is that no strategy, no practice, no mode of acting is inherently immune to cooptation or defeat.   The existence around us of vestigial forms, decayed workers institutions of all kinds, proves this.  What I ignored was that mutual aid organizations are just as vulnerable to this due to how resource intensive they are, and require interaction with other practices to retain their independence and vitality just as much as other practices.  The left should still engage in mutual aid just as much as it should organize workers along production and reproduction, but we should do so with eyes unclouded with naivete or moralism, and I failed in this regard.

Another aspect I would focus on for criticism is the agnosticism with which I approached several questions of politics which I fear gave some readers a false impression.  I feel an intense need to stress this: organizational materialism is not a politics, it is an analysis of the forces which create politics.  Its agnosticism was intended as a way to make it accessible, to allow me to criticize my own actions, and to keep inflections of partisanism out of this work.  It was not intended as a rejection of taking positions. No more than Capital was intended as a tool by which one can reverse engineer a functioning firm, Organizational Materialism is not intended as a tool by which one can reverse engineer a politics.  

There was, undoubtedly, a lot of criticism of what I now call ‘positionism’, the idea that positions have their own momentum and morality and that politics is merely the agglomeration of good positions.  I still believe this because this analysis is at the heart of a deeply unhelpful ultra-left tendency which remains in the international and US left far past the point of usefulness in our context, an ultra-leftism which seems to have little practice besides dunking on other comrades on social media.  But this ultra-leftism does not emerge from nowhere, it comes from years upon years where we on the Left felt we had no agency, and thus retreated into utopian and largely moralistic schemas in order to retain our sanity in a world which seemed so cold, when our victories were so scarce. As an example: during the beginning of this reorientation of the left there were several articles written within circles I frequent praising base building as a strategy, and while I still believe in the base building model, it is clear now that many saw it as a magic bullet which inherently promised success or leftist purity.  This was mistaken, and that mistake has driven some of these comrades into precisely this ultra-leftism.  We need to critically reexamine our actions for why this occurred, but I, perhaps, made the opposite mistake: rather than creating an analysis which divided the left into increasingly small portions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, I bent the stick too far with my criticism of positionism leading myself into a situation where I was incapable (through the methods I developed but not necessarily through my on intuition and sentiments) of determining whether positions were good or bad, at least without the external use of my own experience and principles.

Comrades, I beg of you: do not repeat this mistake!  Do not let the criticism of holding abstract positions bring you to a belief that positions are generally wrong.  We need to reexamine our history, not as a series of dead guys who debated, but as a bewilderingly massive archive of tactics, practices, strategies, and analyses to be used for our own context.  What we end up using might be determined by our own sentiments, but this is not a bad thing or something to be ashamed of! We are entering a new period where useless distinctions are dying out, but that does not mean there are no distinctions within our movement, no contradictions to be worked out, and there is no benefit to be had in falsely and prematurely claiming that there is some sutured left unity.  Figuring out what our politics and theories mean in practice doesn’t mean the abolition of politics or theory, but the more full embrace of them. I still believe in the ‘dual power strategy’ as one among many, because the task of building institutions of & for the working class is of absolute immanence. We need new unions, new tenants associations, new newspapers, new forms of struggle, and we need all of these very quickly.  But there is no benefit to pretending this is easy, or to thinking that merely building these institutions will create a radical politics all its own. These are important projects but they are long term projects and we are surrounded by both those who would destroy us and those who would coopt us. In such a situation we will quickly find ourselves strangled by the veil of apoliticism we used to protect our projects in the short term.

I would like to make yet another mea culpa.  Organizational Materialism largely concerns itself with the history of continentual European leftism and the history of the US left.  This was not by design, but is a product of the limited time and resources I had to research this paper as a service worker, which forced me to use my preexisting knowledge which largely revolved around the typical leftist canon and my own knowledge of US leftist history.  The histories of Asian, African, Caribbean, Oceanian, and Latin American leftisms are not, in any way, irrelevant to this project, but uncover assumptions I made in order to avoid turning Organizational Materialism into a 300 page book. Among those assumptions was the existence of liberal democracy and nominal democratic rights which structures the kinds of practices I detailed.  The situation of a dictatorship does not, in any way, cease the suffering/oppression/exploitation which leads people into the Left, but it does create utterly different circumstances which, for instance, changes the way ‘electoral’ practice works. Same thing for the situation of a civil war or an insurgency. In a similar spirit that I gave above, the inclusion of other situations and experiences into organizational materialism can do nothing but advance it.  Seeing it critiqued and appraised in other contexts, from Great Britain to Argentina to the Republic of Korea, has filled my heart with so much joy. There was a time when the Left existed internationally, and while exchanging notes is by far too small an activity for the kind of task ahead of us, it is a start.  

Lastly, I would like to note that the work I have done since cannot be viewed in any regard as an individual venture.  I wrote it myself, yes, but since the fall of 2017 my writing has been marked by the work I have done with Rochester DSA, which for all my writings is the first organization I have truly worked with since college.  These later essays have as much been the product of conversations and actions with comrades at ROCDSA as they have been the product of further conversations with comrades in the Marxist Center. I cannot thank them enough for the experience I have had over the last two years.

This collection will include Organizational Materialism, which I wrote from the summer of 2016 to the spring of 2017 with the original intent that it be one part of a broader essay which would include an analysis of the state and the machine politics in the US which create the mainstream politics of this country.  I rapidly discovered that it would require far more time, resources, and access to information that I would ever potentially have as a humble service worker, and thus dropped this project, although I still think that a clear eyed analysis of our ‘enemy’ is just as important as a clear analysis of ourselves. It then includes the essays I wrote from 2017-2019 to ‘expand’ organizational materialism as I became involved in the DSA.  

Next section: Interlude →

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