Front Groups Kill the Revolution

  • Posted on: 27 January 2017
  • By: Anonymous (not verified)

From Gods and Radicals

Activism, Honesty, and Radical Tactics

I’M SITTING IN a gay bar in Austin. We’ve just ended a planning session for an LGBT rights action by a group that claims to be independent, non-partisan, and strictly focused on queer and trans equality. Someone there is from the soft-Trotskyist International Socialist Organization. They commit the ISO as an co-endorser on the spot. Someone else talks about how they just paid their first month’s ISO dues. The website for the LGBT organization has bios for many of the leaders; most of them just happen to contain the phrase “…is a member of the International Socialist Organization.”

Not everyone in the set of organizational networks and social scenes we call “the US activist community” calls themselves revolutionary. However, those that do have a rainbow of radical organizations to join, with more shades of anarchism, socialism, and communism than most people will ever hear of. Given the radical population’s limited size, competition is fierce, both for already-converted leftists and the as-yet-uninitiated.

However, these organizations are faced with a problem. Few people get involved with activism because they want to be recruited by an ideological formation; issue-based work is what draws the crowds. So what is an ambitious, forward-looking sect to do?

I’m sitting in a meeting with the leaders of a left-wing transgender group I’ve been working with for months. In theory, it welcomes adherents of any philosophy, so long as they’re for socialism. However, I’ve noticed that the group seems to be focusing an enormous amount of time on projects initiated by a tiny Maoist sect. A few weeks earlier, the trans organization had denounced an anarchist bookstore (and anarchism in general) when the bookstore told the Maoists they couldn’t recruit there. The Maoist group and the trans group seem to be co-sponsoring all of each other’s events, too. I ask what’s up with that – aren’t we supposed to be non-sectarian? I’m told that any trans radical, Maoist or not, can join and “struggle their line” (Maoist jargon for “advocate for a political position”). However, they claim, anarchists who join “tend to stop being anarchists,” and they admit they’d sanction any member who publicly disagreed with their official positions for being “unprincipled.”

sophia-pullThe nature of a sect is to treat its own existence as self-justifying. The opinions of its members are uniquely true, and that qualifies them to lead the people. It doesn’t matter whether the ideology is vanguardist or anarchist, communist or liberal. A sect is a sociological phenomenon, regardless of the particular jargon it uses. Instead of emerging from the real-life struggles of working-class communities against business and government oppression, sects work out in advance how things are “supposed” to go. When real life doesn’t cooperate, they become marginal. Sometimes that’s self-imposed: they might ignore causes they deem impure. More often, though, it’s because most people can smell bullshit. They don’t appreciate the self-appointed “leadership” of a groupuscule with a messiah complex. By themselves, few sects would be able to attract enough support to sustain themselves for any length of time. At the same time, they’re often astute enough to notice the radical potential of movements not of their own making (not to mention those movements’ often-substantial popular support).

So, a solution begins to present itself.

It’s 2005 and I’m talking with someone who wants to organize a high school walkout. The call is from what’s ostensibly a big-tent movement to “drive out the Bush regime.” Of course, the anti-Bush flyers and walkout information aren’t all this person has – they’re also passing out materials that explain that to really beat the Bush agenda, the only solution is revolution. And serious revolutionaries know, of course, that we need serious revolutionary leadership. Luckily, the organizer has found that leader: a dorky-looking white guy from Berkeley who likes it when you call him “the Chairman.”

Most activists get involved in the scene because they want to do work on one or another specific cause. The bulk of that work happens under the auspices of narrowly-focused, single-issue nonprofits. Logically enough, it’s therefore to those that activists generally look. Tight-knit ideological sects can rarely fill a room. So, they imitate the NGOs that can. A front group is independent in form and subordinate in practice. Because of that subordination, it necessarily has little internal democracy. Luckily for their parent groups, though, neither do other nonprofits – a well-organized front looks at first glance like any other activist campaign. From a rank-and-file activist’s perspective, there are only a few meaningful differences.

One of those differences is that, with a liberal campaign group, the liberalism that’s practiced is also preached. The Sierra Club does not want to replace the fundamental institutions of the economy and the government. It doesn’t claim to want to, and indeed it never could. However, the ANSWER Coalition does appear to endorse a form of revolutionary politics. The difference, of course, is that ANSWER belongs to a self-styled vanguard called the Party for Socialism and Liberation.

Every nonprofit is, in practice, a profit-generating capitalist company. Sectarian fronts are no exception. However, their parent organizations’ ostensible commitment to revolution (not reform) creates a unique internal contradiction: where most NGOs pay lip service to “deep and systemic change” and try to sell you the notion that their work is directly contributing to that, for the front group “radical change” comes from joining the parent organization. They simultaneously hawk reform and the belief that reform is, at best, inadequate. Of course, if they said that too openly, they wouldn’t be able to do their job. Imagine if Refuse Fascism were to say outright: “to really oppose Trump, you need to join the Revolutionary Communist Party”—how long do you think the flow of recruits and foot soldiers would last?

And so, these groups end up in a position where their purpose (recruiting for the parent organization) and their methods (agitating, liberal-style, for specific reforms) are ultimately at odds. If one should join the Party (or anarchist anti-party) and reject reformism, then why get involved with a single-issue reform project? If reform campaigns are correct political practice, why sign up with the would-be revolutionary leaders?

Clearly, something has to give. Usually, it’s honesty.

“Hide nothing from the masses of our people. Tell no lies. Expose lies whenever they are told.”

Amílcar Cabral

IF MOST revolutionary groups could successfully appeal to the general public under their own banner, they would not bother creating front groups. While front groups do attract many more people than their sponsors, simple membership in a front is not generally enough to get most people comfortable with the “leadership” of (say) Maoists or Trotskyists. Were the front’s leaders to entirely conceal their affiliation with the sponsor, however, they wouldn’t be able to use the front for recruiting. So, what do they do?

When one asks, it’s always an innocent coincidence that the front’s officers all just happen to be members of whichever party—there’s nothing dishonest or undemocratic if members of that party, by chance, are the same ones who are doing the front’s wonderful work, because they’re just so selflessly committed to the cause. Without that ambient mendacity, the entire sect/front scheme would collapse. Deniability only works if it seems plausible.

And that has a broader effect on the organized Left. Why should revolutionary politics mean zero transparency, no public dissent from within a group, and general evasiveness when asked for too many details (like what the actual membership numbers are for any of the self-described “largest revolutionary organizations in the US”)? The use of front groups helps normalize the sects’ loose attitude towards the truth.

Through their fronts, supposedly anti-capitalist organizations enter the fundamentally capitalist NGO world. They compete in a literal marketplace, selling their political work to consumers in exchange for donations and volunteer hours. Why does everyone pay lip service to “left unity,” then split and squabble in practice? Well, how much unity would you expect between Pepsi and Coke? They’re fighting for each other’s customers. Sure, this disrupts the movement the sects all claim to want. But as any socialist should know, material interests have a way of edging out subjective beliefs. For instance, working-class people have a material interest in collective empowerment through solidarity. Because that inherently puts them into conflict with capitalist businesses, business and the state must spend astronomical sums each year on propaganda, miseducation, union-busting, and advertising to convince them otherwise. Since Left sects operate as businesses in spite of their intentions, reality pits them against their own stated goals.

Actually-existing revolutionary activism is profoundly counter-revolutionary.

“For them the sect is not an unfortunate necessity due to the absence of a real movement: it is their movement…they are not inhibited by the prejudice that a ‘party’ needs much of a rank and file.”

– Hal Draper, Anatomy of the Micro-Sect

It won’t be controversial to admit that the activist subculture is not very appealing for most people outside of it. Even those of us in it know how deeply off-putting it is when the newspaper-hawkers or urban guerrilla wannabes show up. Now, there’s plenty going on there – the “movement’s” subculturalism and middle-class, anti-worker orientation have many sources. Most of those were not caused by the behavior of revolutionaries. After all, it’s not socialists who invented the politics of insularity and performance, or who put academia at the activist world’s center (although they’ve certainly come to embrace those phenomena).

But that’s not good enough. Revolutionaries need a higher standard than being only second-tier offenders. If conduct across the activist community turns people away from progressive politics in general, then bad revolutionary behavior not only contributes to the overall problem, but also undermines socialism in particular. The self-serving dishonesty of front groups provides one particular example. Others follow from the culture of dissimulation and sectarianism that the front group model helps create and reproduce.

sophia-pullThe consequences of sectism extend beyond the sects themselves, too. Currently, the sects maintain a functional monopoly on the ideas of socialism, communism, and anarchism. When they drive away people who should be natural comrades (and everyone who’s ever been screwed over by the boss should be a natural comrade), they don’t just discredit themselves. They discredit revolution. They make it even harder than it needs to be to create a mass socialist movement. And while plenty of them will agree that the organized Left is rife with bad behavior, few of them see the problem as sectism and frontism per se. Rather, they blame it on all those other sects, whose particular shibboleths about Russia, China, and the best forms of socialist heraldry are just so wrong. As David Rovics sings:

“I am not sectarian. It’s all the rest who are. I work fine in coalitions – as long as I’m the shining star.”

So what’s the way out? Should revolutionaries just sit mass movements out? Should we quit organizing?

Hell no.

THERE ARE healthy, helpful, and honest ways to do revolutionary organizing. You don’t have to be an inward-looking, deceptive sect to do radical work. Instead, we can do things to build institutions that empower the people without hurting our cause more than we hurt capitalism:

  1. Tell the truth. If a supposedly independent organization is actually a front, say so! Don’t humor its leaders (and sponsor). If a group is acting badly, acknowledge it, even if you’re a member. Don’t go along to get along. Organizational secrecy isn’t always a matter of security culture. Don’t pretend it is. Lying and tolerating lying are never radical. Sure, most groups that fetishize their own lack of transparency likely don’t have skeletons quite as horrific as the rape scandals that have torn through the Socialist Workers Party (UK), the International Socialist Organization, and Freedom Road Socialist Organization (Fight Back). Even so, the underlying logic of deception is the same, and there are many shades of destructive misconduct.
  2. Don’t confuse ideology, identity, morality, and class. What’s the point of being a revolutionary? It’s to build up power and freedom for the exploited through participatory democracy, in the economy and everywhere else. The point isn’t to get your ideas perfectly right and denigrate anyone who disagrees. If someone’s ideas are the same as yours, it doesn’t automatically mean their conduct isn’t harmful. If someone has a marginalized identity, it doesn’t mean their ideas are necessarily correct. If someone disagrees with you, they may still be a good and ethical person. And class—one’s position within the economy, in which only those who own businesses have real power and exploit everyone else—is something else entirely. We can’t afford to try for a movement of the insightful and correct. Instead, we need to organize the working class (broadly defined) because that’s what has the structural ability to change the system. Now, if that is to happen, then all types of bigotry and oppression within the class must be challenged and uprooted, or else the revolution will never succeed. Working to break down racism, patriarchy, ableism, and homophobia/transphobia are central forms of class struggle. However, you don’t have to understand that to be part of the working class. You just have to be someone who does waged (and/or unwaged) labor and lacks the structural power of business ownership. The basic question is always: “Do you have power over business, or does business have power over you?”
  3. Class beats subculture. The ability to challenge the ruling class does not come from suffering or being marginalized. It comes from collectively doing the work that creates everything. (That includes not just goods and services sold on the market, but also the everyday work of reproducing the social fabric. Even unemployed and unemployable people do that. You don’t have to have a job to be a worker.) Conversely, the ruling class – the business owners – has power over that work and the people who do it. Therefore, the working class has a material stake in changing the system (it currently does everything and controls nothing). Further, it has the ability to actually do so if it acts collectively: by starting to do that work in a democratically self-determined way, ignoring the ruling class’s orders, and defending itself when the ruling class tries to force it to obey. We should be in this to win, not to perform righteousness. That means we must be ethically upright, but without confusing morality with anything but itself. That also means that while organized revolutionary groups may or may not serve a useful purpose in a given situation, they’re never the point. They aren’t inherently valuable (and what matters is whether you treat them as ends in themselves in practice, not whether you affirm it in words). Frontism, naturally, implies the latter. That helps kill movements before they can be properly born (or worse, twists them into something actively dangerous). After all, the activist subculture fixates on correctness of ideas rather than working-class power for a reason. It’s dominated by professors, students, and nonprofits. Academia is capitalism’s idea factory, and obsessing over rightness makes perfect sense for professional academics. After all, their job is literally to prove themselves right and their competitors wrong! Their market share, their career success, depends on it. So, it’s only natural that they act as if staking out your one and only truth and trying to exile everyone else is a sensible strategy. But in real life, it’s not. Don’t buy it when someone claims it is.
  4. Participatory democracy beats being right. Don’t mistake radical words for authentic radicalism. A shibboleth is never helpful. A sect is just a shibboleth with an organization as its body. A project is useful only to the extent that it’s controlled by the people who benefit from it and by the rank-and-file people who do the ground-level work. Sure, express your revolutionary beliefs while you build institutions like that. You can even (if the circumstances warrant) establish a formal group with others. But you’re one participant among many, not a vanguard. Your ideas don’t give you the right to take over.
  5. Don’t tolerate entryism. What is entryism? A working definition is the way some ideological sects infiltrate larger organizations with an eye towards taking them over. Entryism means turning a pre-existing campaign into a front group, instead of starting one from scratch. It’s rampant – the entire socialist, communist, and anarchist spectrum is rife with it. It’s also inherently dishonest and antidemocratic. Those who engage in it are revolutionary in words and reactionary in deeds. And seeing it happen without publicly naming it and working to stop makes you complicit.
  6. Pluralism is revolutionary. When everyone working on something agrees with each other, or shares a limited personal background, the project is weaker for lack of dissent and experimentation. Front groups and sectarianism inherently incline towards that weakness, as does the toleration of racism, sexism, and chauvinism in general. Don’t engage in those. Don’t accept them. And conversely, don’t turn your particular ways of opposing them into shibboleths that lead to exclusionary moralism, either. As Pagans, we know how sterile narrow orthodoxy is. The Left needs to learn it too.

knowledgebreakchainssoviet
“Knowledge will break the chains of slavery.” Bolshevik poster by Alexei Radakov.

Do you want a revolution?

Be honest. Be ethical. Be pluralist and democratic. Don’t put up with front groups or sectarian nonsense – unless you’re fine with an insular, hostile, and elitist subculture. As we can see, that state of affairs is only good for perpetuating itself. Of course, that suits the ruling class just fine. They want an opposition that undermines itself.

We can do better. After all, we have a duty to win. So let’s get our act together – the coming years under President Trump will give us much less leeway to screw around than we’re used to.

We can’t afford to wait.


Sophia Burns

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Comments

As unbelievably fucking annoying as tankie entryism can be, any kind of "non-sectarian" organizing is going to entail working with people who have different beliefs and agendas (and let's not pretend we don't have an agenda when we show up). After a lot of years of organizing, I have a hard time blaming them for a nefarious plot to show up and be helpful. I've seen anarchists play the same trick, and it works. Shockingly, people give credit for shit like that, and honestly, they should. No matter how brilliant a theory is, I'm gonna take it with a grain of salt if the only action it motivates is staying home and bitching.

The the politicos in Babylon babble on like the reified monkeys that they are. Also, you can do a lot by staying at home particularly when you find others who do the same thing. Co-creative stay at home endeavors can develop.

Yes... as long as the stay-at-homes don't do anything outside of home and keep circle-jerking their egos, this will do a lot.

...actually the point is to do nothing. So it doesn't matter if we do a lot.

Logic is "Leftist", remmeber?

Sometimes late at night, when I'm at home doing nothing, I think about ziggy and touch myself.

Exactly. Of course, this assumes an anarchist praxis of actually trying to accomplish something by working with other people, I would go so far as to say actual anarchism. On this website, you might be led to believe that half-baked readings of stirner by self aggrandizing armchair/keyboard types represent a serious alternative.

One sect which makes me feel there is no future other than a regurgitating recycling of crass petty evil in this world are those ones where the members obsess over miniature dogs, pampered, shampooed, blow-waved, hair dyed dressed in silk and diamonds etc.which indirectly commit more evil in this world than the good ol' fire and brimstone doom and gloom megalomaniac ruled sects which at least have a vein of menacing danger running through their reputation, something for the adrenaline junkies amongst us to relate to.
Sometimes I find myself fantasizing about having about 50 anarchists under my tutelage in a remote forest,,,,but what's the point, they'd whine and hurt themselves or die if taken away from civ and iPod for too long, sigh,,,,,,

"Sometimes I find myself fantasizing about having about 50 anarchists under my tutelage in a remote forest"

From the horse's mouth....

Fuck David Rovics … that guy is a huge douche.

I find it similar to how the word 'terrorism' is used. It is better known as a tactic, a means to an ends, than as a representation of political values. Being for the 'rev,' is akin to fighting a war on 'terror.' Vague terms intended to obscure purposes.

I find that liberals & communists often want to lay claim to this term "revolution." But many, if not most, revolutions were not done in the pursuit of communization nor liberal western values. It was odd to see liberals in the second decade of the 21st century throw praise upon the Arab Spring, for example. Those were conservative religious movements overthrowing liberal western style governments. When conservative religious groups in the US try to influence, or attempt at independence, the terminology suddenly shifts to fascism, nazism, cults, militias, white-nationalism, et cetera. It perhaps goes some way to showing how little liberals care about the subjects of their diversity fetishes. They merely view arabs & muslims as uniquely exotic pets aiding in the curation of their multicultural totalitarian terrariums.

Now witness the denial of what is going with the soft revolution of Trump & associates taking control of half of the US political system within one year, and then proceeding to get Trump elected President. There is much howling & gnashing of teeth amongst the left and parts of the right, accompanied by a simultaneous denial that something revolutionary is happening. Well, a rev has been happening, its been happening for over a year, and it's been televised. But the blindspot & willful denial persists from collectivist dimwits of cognitive dissonance.

both 'revolution' and 'the war on terror' are attacks on 'symptoms' rather than 'source'. Western colonizers aka slave-masters will not admit that colonizer oppression is the source of pushback that is labelled 'terrorism' and attributed to 'evil agency' that jumpstarts from the interior of 'terrorists'; i.e. the war on terror is an attack on 'symptoms' deriving from the relational dynamics of the global collective ["it takes a global village to raise a terrorist"]

the same applies to 'revolution' [the lesser jihad aimed at 'what is going on out there']; a game of snakes and ladders where (a) ... the underdogs rise up and overthrow the top dogs, making the deposed topdogs underdogs ...GOTO (a) and repeat indefinitely.

why spend time and energy opposing and trying to bring down insanely-egotistical TRUMP? surely this is merely the symptom of a deeper insanity, that of creating the conditions whereby ONE PERSON is given AUTHORITY of millions of others.

i.e. the greater jihad (revolution) is aimed at 'what is going on in here'.

Just as the leaders of colonization will not admit that colonizer oppression is the root source of terrorism, so it is that people who rally to overthrow Trump will not admit that it is insane to create the conditions where a single individual is given the reins of authority and control over millions?

the greater jihad is that which orients to 'what is going on in here'; i.e. the root source of the insanity 'is us. we have seen the insanity in the world out there and it is our insanity.

Curious as to which states overthrown in the Arab Spring you consider "liberal western style governments"?

Gaddafi, (egypt), (tunisia), Hussein, Assad, etc. I list others because the observation applies beyond arab spring. These were west-friendly, western style governments. Depending who you ask, they'd be framed as nationalists, secularists, puppets or dictators. But their connection to the west shouldn't be discounted. Compare to the cultures, caliphates & kingdoms which preceded them in each locale.

You're just backing Emile's complete confusionnist bullshit here... These regimes were in no way Western liberal types of governments, but dictatorships based on a single leader, and his gang. The Ba'ath were the worse, and started out as products of Nazi German imperialism.

yeah this is absolute nonsense.

and just because islamists took advantage of these situations does not mean that the original struggle was islamist. like seriously what are you even talking about

What was the original struggle about?

pick one.

often something like government corruption.

you're on an anarchist website. struggles are always limited, until they aren't.

Yep I saw the Trump rev card being slid from the bottom of the pack a year ago (pun not intended) I like your summary.

Anyone know where to find a comprehensive up-to-date list of all/most of these front groups? Or are they too marginal to be concerned about? Anyone know what recent activities they've been involved in?

They're difficult to keep up with, as they're constantly reforming around the issue du jour, and usually obscure their relationship to the parent organization. The most obvious tell is when a group is using quasi revolutionary rhetoric but acts like activist liberals in practice.

It's also inevitably connected to academia, industry & philanthropy, which refill their coffers with funding and their ranks with graduates & volunteers. In this sense its partially built into the "system." Most people are just trying to find jobs, pay bills, gain institutional notoriety, gain references, climb academic ranks and find new/different social strata. It might seem conspiratorial at times, and perhaps some of it is, but the constant reformation and founding of psuedo-statist socialist & marxist projects are partially a result of what I've described. It's very similar to what you might see in business startups & entrepreneurship, because they're all feeding from the same trough.

So is it that academia, industry & philanthropy have no objection to Trotskyists and Maoists as such? Or is it that academia, industry & philanthropy are just exploiting the reds for their own gain?

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