It is often taken for granted that the United States is one of the most despotic authoritarian powers in the world. The absolute dictatorship of capital is ever-present in our daily lives, from the advertisements decorating every freeway to the police dotting every major city. Our environment is perhaps the easiest to cope with in comparison to the conditions created by American military intervention in foreign countries— entire eras and ways of life have been brought to brutal ends by the American war machine, fueled by the ever-increasing demands of capital.
This system of violence and coercion brings to mind one word: power. Indeed, the U.S. is called a superpower. Its authority on the world stage is unquestioned and its role in shaping history is undeniable. The United States and its military forces have been at the helm of some of the greatest injustices in historical memory. Where there is injustice, however, there is resistance— and resistance movements, in their formation, are forced to grapple with the unavoidable question of power. Who possesses it? How do we exercise it? To what ends do we wield it?
The question of power is one that has elicited various answers from various revolutionaries over the years, from the formative works of Friedrich Engels, to the debates between Vladimir Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg, to the internal problems of the Civil Rights and feminist movements. The predominant attitude of many left-wing activists in the United States is that power, like the police, racism, sexism, and capitalism, must be abolished. This way of thinking has given rise to various ways of organizing— “various” because they resist any specific definitions by way of remaining largely informal. What cannot be formally recognized is difficult to define.
It is common for power to be conflated with oppression; the logic goes that any exercise of power necessitates coercion or force. Because hierarchy makes power structures recognizable and enables those at the top to use power against those at the bottom, hierarchies must be avoided in an effort to abolish power. Radical organizations envision a world that is stateless, classless, and moneyless; a world where all contradictions, as Marx argued, would be resolved. This vision of the future guides organizing in the present. Radicals want a world without power, and so in our own circles, the argument goes, we structure ourselves in such a way that no one can wield it.
This begs the question: is power even inherently bad? Can power be exercised in good ways?
In her 1970 work The Tyranny of Structurelessness, feminist Jo Freedman argues that power is not inherently oppressive, and this hard turn away from structure in leftist organizations is misguided. To Freedman, structure is a basic fact of human socialization; “it will be formed regardless of the abilities, personalities, and intentions of the people involved. The very fact that we are individuals with different talents, predispositions, and backgrounds makes this inevitable.” Moreso than just our differences that predispose people towards organization, it’s also our relationships with one another that can form the basis of power. Those who we rely on, who we turn to, who we seek approval from, all wield some degree of power over us. This fact is not a contradiction and does not necessitate abolition.
What is a contradiction is the way that informal structures take shape in “structureless” groups. Freedman describes the process of friend groups or “in” groups taking over, not through any democratic means but simply by way of knowing one another and leveraging those relationships to rule the group. Where lack of formal structure previously signified a commitment to radical visions, it simply “becomes a way of masking power.” Leaving an organization unstructured is not the same as abolishing hierarchy; the lack of clear authority leaves only the tethers of friendship to regulate the group, and the people we organize with are not necessarily the same people we’d like to be friends with. With no leadership, personality conflicts trump points of unity.
Power and structure, then, come back into the fold. We cannot reasonably expect a group to be self-regulating without policies and procedures, along with formal processes to carry out those policies and procedures. It is through democracy that organizations can leverage power and structure in positive ways.
Freedman’s most important point, in my opinion, surrounds the clarity of structure— “the rules of decision-making must be open and available to everyone, and this can only happen if they are formalised.” Informal structure is destined to remain unclear and difficult to navigate for newcomers. Group dynamics take time and engagement to understand, and not everyone has that luxury, especially those who work full-time, or raise children, or have any number of other important commitments. Having rules, policies, a constitution, a platform, or anything that members can refer to in order to understand how the group functions internally puts everyone on an equal playing field.
Creating a structure not only sets a standard for how members should behave, but how leaders should behave as well. Structures can entail processes by which leaders are held to account. Many leftists assume that hierarchy necessarily follows the template of the capitalist firm, where the only group keeping the boss in check is the stakeholders and underlings have no power. The truth is that this is only one model of hierarchy, the one that is most expedient for fulfilling the profit motive. Leftists have different aims and must leverage power and hierarchy in the ways we see fit. What we cannot do is refuse to exercise authority.
The Left is socially fragmented for numerous reasons, not least among them being the legacy of interference and sabotage from intelligence and law enforcement agencies in the 20th century. Not only is the Left fragmented due to external influence, but we also live in the center of capital, arguably the epicenter of an alienated society. Our relations inevitably reflect this. While we may take comfort in raising consciousness with and amongst our friends, it will not be a ragtag group of close-knit radicals that overthrow capitalism. It will be a massive effort of the workers, united as a class.
The purpose of the organized party is not only to raise consciousness, but to support and encourage action. Mass action often comes about as disruption or reaction to specific instances of oppression. These spontaneous struggles are integral to the revolutionary movement, but they are not the only aspect; there must be structures in place to advance the struggle forward into sustained activity. The issue of spontaneity is discussed at length in Poor People’s Movements by Frances Fox Piven and David Cloward as well as Organizational Questions of Russian Social Democracy by Rosa Luxemburg.
Piven and Cloward take the position that it is not the formal organizations that won victories for the lower classes, but the lower classes themselves, directly engaged in struggles against the state. They argue that the priorities of those who set up formal organizations have historically not been helpful to the advancement of disruptive movements: “when workers erupted in strikes, organizers collected dues cards; when tenants refused to pay rent and stood off marshals, organizers formed building committees; when people were burning and looting, organizers used that "moment of madness" to draft constitutions.” There is something about instituting leadership structures, argue Piven and Cloward, that leads to stagnation instead of advancement, and valuable time and effort are wasted on creating organizations when those organizations do not last.
While the U.S. is a unique context and the conditions of this nation cannot necessarily be compared to others, it must be said that Europe, Asia, and South America all have long histories of leftist activism and long-standing leftist organizations that have stood for decades, and are still very active in the political sphere. This tendency to try and establish organizations doesn’t just come from a dogmatic commitment to orthodoxy but living examples of these organizations existing elsewhere.
I also must ask Piven and Cloward— what is the alternative? The spontaneous eruption of conflict and the rage of the lower classes certainly strikes fear into the ruling class, and that fear drives the electoral or parliamentary road to concessions. But if we expect the road to a new society to be paved with outbursts of revolutionary energy, we are still left with the question of sustainability. Regardless of whether or not someone starts collecting dues cards or forming committees, moments of struggle do not contain boundless energy and potential. These moments open up revolutionary horizons, but revolution is precisely that: a horizon. One cannot run full speed at the sun and expect to reach its surface. It takes a large cohort of organized people, with all of their knowledge pooled together, each knowing their respective responsibilities and performing them well in order to launch the rocket ship.
The rocket ship metaphor perhaps fails to account for the fact that revolutionary outbreaks are, in many respects, collective. But the essence of what I’m trying to say is that organizations can maintain their purpose for longer periods of time, which is important for long-term struggle, and that the people in those organizations can better articulate and work towards goals because of solid leadership structures.
The context and development of struggle is important. Rosa Luxemburg’s Organizational Questions of Russian Social Democracy is a polemic essay written in response to Vladimir Lenin’s argument for “hyper-centralism” in the Russian revolutionary movement. Luxemburg argues that the task of the Russian Social Democrats, because the bourgeoisie hadn’t yet come to power in Russia, was to “miss out a stage in the historical process through deliberate intervention” and create a proletarian movement instead of simply engaging in existing class struggle. Luxemburg’s issue with Lenin’s argument was that he seemed to separate the party from the masses; the two were only “linked” in his writing, while she argued that the party should be an embodiment of the mass, and that embodiment is achieved through bottom-up democracy: “It [the party] be none other than the authoritative expression of the will of the conscious and militant vanguard of the workers… it is, as it were, a "self-centralism" of the leading stratum of the proletariat, the rule of its majority within the confines of its own party organization.”
Luxemburg makes the interesting point that because capitalism has centralizing tendencies (such as the tendency towards monopoly), there is “a strong inclination toward centralism is inherent in social democracy as a whole.” I would like to posit the following: because capitalism is at a fragmented stage, where production and distribution are not efficiently coordinated and firms are isolated from one another, the current state of organizing reflects this. While the activist justification for decentralization and structurelessness is to stand in opposition to the centralizing tendencies of capital, one must consider that anarchy of production reigns in the free market. The economy is rife with overconsumption and underproduction which creates chaos for those who have to live through it.
A counter-argument to the justification for structurelessness would be material or economic analysis: what if, instead of standing in opposition to centralization, unstructured organizations are modeling the chaos and inefficiency of the market? What if these organizations are not pushing the struggle forward, but engaging in reaction to the crimes of the ruling class?
Freedman describes the feminist movement as being in “elementary stages of development.” This is also the case for the general movement for social and economic justice in the United States. It is in its elementary stages of development and has been for decades. Our institutions at home move ever more towards the right while keeping up campaigns of terror abroad. While American leftists have won significant victories in the past 100 years, there is still a task that remains unfinished, and that task is to build a strong, lasting revolutionary force.
Relying on intermittent disruptions as a reaction to oppression does not set any foundation for the creation of a new social order; instead, we find ourselves standing only in opposition to the system which already exists, with no system of our own. We rely on the initiatives of the enemy to spur our activity. We must begin relying on ourselves, building our own institutions, and seeking allyship with revolutionary forces internationally. The lasting revolutionary force will not be made up of uncoordinated, radical affinity groups; it will be a mass party, a vanguard, that advances the movement toward new horizons. It is our responsibility to build that party and achieve the historical necessity of communism.
By Ava H.