by Patrick Ryan
[Note: Revolutionary Initiative does not have a position on Freedom Road Socialist Organization and cannot vouch for the accuracy of the author's criticisms of that particular organization. However, the letter raises many important issues for people and organizations committed to making revolution in imperialist countries, particularly regarding how engaging in mass work relates to building a revolutionary movement.]
“All resistance is a rupture with what is. And every rupture begins, for those engaged in it, through a rupture with oneself.” — Alain Badiou.
This is a letter to all those who genuinely want to build a movement to overthrow oppression and establish a new society that aims for the transition to communism.
At present Freedom Road Socialist Organization is not on the path to accomplishing these goals, but rather finds itself focused tightly on partial demands, base building and Democratic Party politics that do not ultimately help organize and lead a movement to overthrow this capitalist and imperialist system. It leads us and the people deeper and deeper into the logic and rationalizations of bourgeois democracy.
After two years of being an active member, I have concluded that the current political trajectory of FRSO will only yield further from the goal of liberation and I now resign from that organization.
At the heart of this trajectory exists a bundle of assumptions about how fundamental radical social transformation can occur, and how we understand the role of the liberal-capitalist Democratic Party. This line promotes only structural reforms and defense of the capitalist welfare state, while obfuscating line differences within the organization. In practice this has meant concentration of cadres in NGOs, as board members in progressive nonprofits, and as union bureaucracies. This line is encapsulated in the statement:
“If the people don’t vote it [socialism] in or bring it about through mass national strikes and other popular forms, it will not happen!” 1
This political line cannot imagine rebellions, insurrections, and protracted conflicts that would make the old system ungovernable. Instead, stubbornly insists that voting or mass strikes will be the only possible methods for achieving state power. In a revisionist CP-style politics, we are told to “beat the far-right,” when in practice we know this always meant that we capitulate to liberals and surrender any radical or revolutionary aims. The enemy is defined as the far-right Republicans and Tea Party drones, and not the capitalist system and its empire.
FRSO promotes a “municipal socialism” that is treated as “new” and an advancement for revolutionary practice. In reality they are moribund ideas repackaged as developments. Freedom Road brings this idea to living practice by keeping the reformist mass movements functioning and humming. The goal of communism – the real goal of revolutionaries – is nothing in that schema, and socialism, our immediate goal, is reduced to a set of structural reforms.
The leadership of FRSO/OSCL has played pivotal roles in social-democratic organizations like Progressives for Obama, the Jesse Jackson campaigns of 1984 and 1988, and aligned itself with like minded groups such as Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, the Democratic Socialists, and the Communist Party, USA in mass work which is dominated ideologically by a line of “Added-Value” Social-Democracy.
This means that cadres “pitch” and “sell” socialism and Marxism as something to add value to current struggles. This framework, it must be said is unapologetically revisionist and contrary to actually building a revolutionary movement that will someday contend for state power. It is highly similar to the formulations of the (revisionist) CPUSA. The term “communist plus” was associated specifically with Gus Hall.
The result is that social movements and unions get led by the nose into the Democratic Party. For example, the purpose of Freedom Road’s participation in mass organizations such as Right to the City is not to promote Marxism in the movement, but to promote uncritically bourgeois electoral politics. Right to the City attempts to organize around the issue of urban diaspora with the framework of an Alinskyist model that shuns radical politics in practice.
Alongside this is the New Working Class Organization model, which is chock full of irony, including the sentence describing it as “often confused with social democracy”…because it is just that. It is notable that this article critiques the Alinskyist organizing model while at the same time using Alinskyist framework. 
What will this win? At best, it will win more seats for Democrats and leave the capitalist-imperialist system unscathed. This line is a reflection of pessimism toward actually achieving radical change in the United States. What is worse is that the promoters of this line attempt to substitute themselves for movements. They present their vocabulary, social norms, diet, style of dress, etc as an “activist community” that stands in for actual movements.
What is more, this mass work leaves no room to think. Studies among districts are put off and de-prioritized. Cadres exhaust themselves maintaining and servicing these “movements”.
The advanced, according to FRSO are defined as those most ‘active’. That is the most willing to operate and move NGOs, union campaigns and electoral movements. With this definition of the ‘advanced’ there is no importance of ideologically breaking with old ideas, mainly bourgeois politics. This vague pedaling of socialism leads to wildly different and confused interpretations about what the organization is about. This can only appropriately be described as liberalism. Attempts to clarify “what is socialism?” are met with great hesitation and vagueness, or are answered in a post-modern way “socialism is what you think it is.”
This is an important reason why I believe that if a truly revolutionary situation developed, Freedom Road would not have the political tools and tight organization necessary to contend for power, and would simply collapse.
Where is the Revolution?
Debates within Freedom Road consist of a constant balancing act between movementism and electoralism – as if either has yielded anything but a continued acceptance of non-revolutionary politics in the last few decades. Differences of line are treated as irrelevant, so long as you are pushing those mass movements along. Never are strategic questions like how to make revolution in this county asked. Nowhere – I repeat, nowhere in the strategy documents of the last congress is there any discussion of how the current work will help bring in a situation where there can begin to be the building of a revolutionary movement. It simply assumed (again) that after we “get big” new problems will simply present themselves.
Ideologically resigned to being “socialists” that fight for some kind of radical defense of the capitalist welfare state – and not – revolutionary communists that fight for the overthrow of all oppressive social relations, Freedom Road finds itself continuously more alienated from the “lower and deeper” sections of the working class, the people it seeks to develop roots among. Instead the organization cultivates contacts with people already fully prepared to accept the political status quo of the Democratic Party. Left Refoundation has in practice attempted to pull more groups and movements into this electoralism. Marxism does indeed need a re-founding and re-conception, but certainly not on one that places radical movements and people in the hands of the Democratic Party, to be used as political capital to maneuver and wager.
Van Jones should have been a warning for this kind of political thinking and line. Van Jones was the worst kind of opportunist and yet this leadership continues to promote electoral schemes that are akin to the opportunism of Van Jones.
The ship is sinking. The ruling class has been and will continue to punish the working masses for their crisis. No amount of base building will get them to reconsider.
A formation that truly wants to overthrow oppression and liberate people must be prepared to fight in many ways, especially ideologically. Freedom Road does not promote Marxism – or any kind of Maoism, despite its FAQ page. While the split in 1999 cast off the dogmato-religious ideologues (“the tankies”), what remained was a broken and ineffective understanding of Marxism.
I am not calling for a teaching of Marx, Lenin and Mao that is pedantic or does not fully engage Marxism as a living science. Rather, I am insisting that Maoism remains the most advanced theory for liberation to date.
This includes affirming the Mass Line (in a way that is not simply tailing or only concerned with the immediate welfare of the masses), the continuation of class struggle under socialism, protracted people’s war in countries dominated by imperialism, and the experiences of the Cultural Revolution.
We need to uphold and promote the revolutionary movements in India, Nepal, Turkey and the Philippines. We should learn from the attempts at liberation by the Black Panther Party and other revolutionary forces. We should keep our precious slogans of “serve the people”, “dare to struggle; dare to win!” and “it is right to rebel against reactionaries!” But with these slogans we need to find ways to fuse communism with the oppressed while preparing minds and organizing forces for revolution.3
With that said, we must also confess that Maoism as it stands today is inadequate to fully guide the liberation of humanity from capitalism-imperialism without a fresh start. By a fresh start I mean a shedding of acquired verdicts and assumptions, together with a critical and honest critique of centuries of fighting for liberation, from the Paris Commune on.
This work requires a high level of understanding of the works of the “classics” but also a wide and broad range of thinking that has emerged. As we cannot be resigned to simply being good progressives attempting to move the Democratic Party to the Left, we cannot be content with the simple wearing of aging Mao badges that have lost their shine.
Rupturing from Deception
There is an absence in this country of real communist work. Ignoring this fact or permissively accepting reformist efforts as “good enough” is deceptive, both to us and to the masses. We need to sharply break with old ideas. The new revolutionaries of this period are rightfully skeptical of worn out forms and ideologies of the past – everything from the WWP, FRSO, PSL, ISO, etc. These are dying forms and the youth can sense it. They are in large part theoretically hungry and curious as seen in the popularity of communist thinkers like Zizek and Badiou.
New revolutionary blogs have sprouted that demand theoretical nourishment and development, like Kasama, Advance the Struggle, Gathering Forces, Frontlines of Revolutionary Struggle, etc. These young people see the options that the Left currently offers them: selling newspapers, breaking windows, or going to work for an NGO. They know this is useless and this is why they flirt with the Left but never join it or seriously take it up. They are waiting for the new to develop from the old.
To capture and develop this potential, we need:
- To form study groups to develop a new communist coherency. The FIRE Collective in Houston, TX is leading this example. Studies should introduce communist politics to new audiences with the process of study, engagement, affirmation and negation of past experiences. We need to look at new ideas that are being introduced. Study groups, blogs, and many other forms will have a role to play in developing a new communist coherency.
- To vociferously promote the revolutionary struggles internationally, specifically the most advanced movements in Nepal, India, Philippines, and Turkey. We need to organize and educate people about the oppression and struggles of the tribal people in India and the repression of Operation Greenhunt. This has been done in San Francisco. Both of these points have the intended message that communism is not dead, but remains the solution to our problems.
- To expose loudly every instance of injustice that occurs at the hands of this system such as the Oscar Grant murder. We need to interact, exchange and debate with other revolutionaries. Kasama has hosted many such interactions and debates.
I call on those who still intend to fight and not get pulled again by reformism to join me in creating something determined to find a way to help the millions of oppressed people in this country fight for genuinely revolutionary transformation. Mass reform projects may win temporary victories for us, but they cannot lead us out of the continued oppression we face. This is an argument for communist theory and ideas and putting politics in command. It is an argument for not getting dragged into an empirical practice that leads away from that. We need to raise communism as the specter that haunts the rulers and their lackeys once more and we need to fiercely break with what we know will not accomplish this.
1. How Do We Take This Bad Boy Off? A Thesis Statement on Social Transformation in the United States by FRSO/OSCL published October 21st 2008. This document was never emphasized but was rather unceremoniously accepted as the line of the organization.
2. New Kids on the Historic Bloc – Workers’ Centers and Municipal Socialism – A Summary and Postscript published on Organizing Upgrade on April 7th, 2010.