Sunday Hot Takes, March 28th, 2021

Anarchist ABCs. TINA. Vive la commune! Angela Davis and abolitionism.

Multi-tendency Political Education Emerson Bannon Cutri, Miami University

Political education should have two primary purposes: empowering members within the organization, giving them the tools and words to break the monopoly of information; and furthering work and life outside the organization by improving their know-how and analysis. Theory has its uses, allowing us to view beyond the horizon of what has already happened, and analyze the present. Like many people point out, history is important as well, but so are strategy and organizing concepts, especially for creating a dynamic and informed membership. The other thing very relevant to DSA’s nature that should factor into its political education is being a multi-tendency organization, which means incorporating a variety of perspectives in a robust program.

I view three primary ideological spheres within DSA: a democratic socialist and socialist-democratic sphere; a Marxist sphere; and an anarchist/libertarian socialist sphere. None of these are mutually exclusive with each other, but together they provide a simple way to imagine an ideologically balanced program in DSA. In creating a new member orientation for my chapter, I have tried to keep elements from each of these perspectives. As a libertarian socialist, I have a number of theorists I prefer, but I recognize that a successful political education program should empower members, not indoctrinate them into my position. Beyond that, I also have made sure to include more items on social justice, abolition, and environmental issues. An eye towards accessibility means respecting people’s learning styles and creating sessions that don’t exclude people. This is, I think, a successful formula for a multi-tendency political education program.

If you are curious about my chapter’s political education or would like recommendations on any ecosocialist, antifascist, anarchist, or libertarian socialist texts (the areas I’m most familiar with) to incorporate into political education, please reach out.

A few good titles

There is no alternative Griffin Mahon, University of Virginia

Grace Fors of Socialist Alternative recently wrote an article about electoral strategy directed at a DSA caucus. It’s not the first such inter-organizational critique but it is more direct, which is to be expected since SAlt’s “turn to DSA.”

Fors charges Collective Power Network with “an unrealistic perspective of reforming capitalism.” It’s a claim that’s difficult to substantiate so far, perhaps with the exception of the CPN argument that “When we engage in electoral politics on any level, our goal must be victory,” specifically “material victories for the working class.” When we’re such a small political minority, we should not always expect material victories to be forthcoming — so we’d better figure out something else for our representatives to do. Still, SAlt takes issue with the assertion that the electoral success of the socialist movement is a result of tactically using the Democratic Party ballot line, a limited but incontrovertible fact, as I wrote previously

But we could just as easily charge SAlt with an unrealistic perspective of revolutioning capitalism. Founded in 1986, SAlt’s politics are the product of a historic low tide in the socialist movement globally. Of necessity, SAlt’s one electoral example is the city councilor Kshama Sawant, who is truly impressive and was a figurehead for the Left right before its resurgence in the 2010s. 

Unfortunately, SAlt was not able to generalize the importance of electoral campaigns and holding office, even after the Bernie campaigns. As a result, many of its members left for DSA. To accommodate this pressure, SAlt changed its stance toward the Bernie campaign and, recently, toward DSA.

The Bernie campaign was a nationwide electoral campaign in a Democratic primary. SAlt took this tutorial in an odd direction. The electoral campaign it boosted? Joshua for Congress. The “nationwide” “movements” it championed? Rent Strike 2020 and #ForceTheVote. 

Instead of tailing social movements — street protests and student fads — SAlt evolved: now it tails the socialist movement. At the end of last year, SAlt announced that some of their members would join DSA. Then last month, Sawant herself announced that she was joining DSA. Whether they become productive members remains to be seen. Their main objective may still be poaching “the fresher layers” of DSA (note: they don’t want the more experienced or smarter layers).

When the average person hears “revolutionary socialism” or “socialism from below,” they probably take the adjectives as markers of enthusiasm, not strategic signifiers. A useful definition of sectarianism is not working together because of disagreements. A corollary to this might be maintaining separate organizations despite mostly agreeing. Is it a rare opinion in DSA that socialism requires a break with capitalism? Unlikely. 

So SAlt’s real proprietary feature is its ideology and its related organizational form — which has never actually produced (or taken advantage of) a revolution. Sure, national liberation movement officer coups and peasant guerrilla warfare are revolutionary socialism. But, as the late Ed Rooksby pointed out, a totally distinct and therefore easy-to-avoid “reformism” is something of a myth, especially in democratic capitalist countries.

AUX MORTS DE LA COMMUNE Andrew Pfannkuche, Illinois State University

On the first day I ever spent in France, I went to the Cimetière du Père-Lachaise in Paris. There, in a far corner that can only be found by those searching, is a simple plaque on the external wall of the cemetery that declares “AUX MORTS DE LA COMMUNE.” Le Mur des Fédérés is otherwise blank except for some ivy. Across from the plaque is a large tree that could easily shade for a small crowd. There is no bench but a small patch of grass provides a comfortable seat to rest and reflect. While sitting I noticed a well-kept memorial to Spanish republicans; an anonymous comrade had recently tied a republican ribbon to it. I am told that Père-Lachaise is the most visited cemetery in the world, but you would not know it from this empty corner.

In that back corner it was just me and the ghosts of those 147 comrades who were murdered by the forces d’ordre 150 years ago. I couldn’t control myself, I wanted to speak to them. I started saying, over and over, “Je suis désolé” wishing that they could hear me. 

I still do not know what I am sorry for, how have I failed them? But all I could do was cry. I stayed at this little wall for over an hour, weeping, and the whole time there was not a single soul in sight. Oh how they had given their lives for a damn plaque!

Then and now I thought of two quotes that I will ask you to reflect upon as we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Paris Commune. I invite you to remember our comrades and, if you are ever in Paris, to visit them. 

The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. – The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte by Karl Marx

There is a painting by Klee called Angelus Novus. An angel is depicted there who looks as though he were about to distance himself from something which he is staring at. His eyes are opened wide, his mouth stands open and his wings are outstretched. The Angel of History must look just so. His face is turned towards the past. Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet. He would like to pause for a moment so fair, to awaken the dead and to piece together what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise, it has caught itself up in his wings and is so strong that the Angel can no longer close them. The storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the rubble-heap before him grows sky-high. That which we call progress, is this storm. – Thesis IX of “On the Concept of History” by Walter Benjamin

This Won’t Work  Elias Khoury, University of Michigan

I think Angela Davis is great. She does a lot of good work and has written some truly remarkable literature. I’ve been told to read Are Prisons Obsolete? more times than I’ve been told to read Das Kapital. So I did.

Davis writes well and I give the book relatively high marks. I’m not sure anyone does a better job of exposing the callousness and irrationality of the American prison system. But, like anything, Are Prisons Obsolete? isn’t perfect. In particular, I take issue with the book’s final chapter titled ‘Abolitionist Alternatives.’

Therein, Davis tells the story of American Fulbright scholar Amy Biehl. “In 1993, when South Africa was on the cusp of its transition, Amy Biehl was devoting a significant amount of her time as a foreign student to the work of rebuilding South Africa.” Good for her. Biehl was practicing the sort of international solidarity that socialists believe is necessary to liberate all of humankind. But here’s where things take a turn:

“On August 25, Biehl was driving several black friends to their home… when a crowd shouting antiwhite slogans confronted her, and some of them stoned and stabbed her to death.” Tragic.

To honor their late daughter’s memory, Biehl’s parents established a foundation in her name — and hired her killers as staff. What’s more, Biehl’s mother bought the killers land upon which to build houses following her husband’s death in 2002. “Linda Biehl, when asked how she feels about the men who killed her daughter, said, ‘I have a lot of love for them.’”

Davis uses this anecdote to show what justice-based alternatives to prison might look like in practice. And, indeed, the Biehl family’s mercy and lack of vindictiveness is a breath of fresh air — perhaps even admirable. But we simply cannot expect others to emulate their conduct.

Giving goodies to those who murder your family members is not a sustainable model. It is so grossly unpopular, and so infeasible to implement on a grand scale, that it verges, I am afraid, on absurdity. This won’t work. Back to the drawing board…

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