The Intermediate Moment (Part One)

cropped-Blog-Banner-New1republished from

by Adelita Kahlo and Tyler Zee

*The perspectives advanced below are those of the authors and do not represent an official “line” of U&S.  U&S, as will be seen below, does not have formal positions.  While many of the ideas will be common starting points for U&S, there will be nuanced differences and perhaps some disagreements according to individuals and locales.



This piece is the result of many conversations and has been informed by engagement with a cross section of various nodes of activity.  We, the authors, have learned so much through these conversations; many assumptions we held prior to this effort have now been either thrown out or complicated.  While a number of questions remain, a few starting points have been clarified.

As a consequence of these conversations, the scope of this piece has also changed from one tailored primarily to debates within the solnet milieu, since the two of us have been doing aspects of solnet organizing for a while now, to being fundamentally about the intermediate concept and its strategic merits for revolutionaries in the current moment that takes the solnet (and others) as a kind of case study.  While the scope has shifted we very much want to enter into more systematic exchange with the above folks and others that are grappling with these and parallel questions.

Part one of the piece is geared toward making sense of the current moment and elaborating on concepts the writers have used to do so.  This also means a discussion that might appear as tangential but what for us represent an attempt to have a holistic, systematic, and rigorous approach.  The conclusions drawn here are of necessity temporal and are toward the ends of building the bridge between the present and the medium-term future.  So as “scientific” as we have tried to be, there are limits to this piece both in scope and in the factors entering our analysis.

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Inveighing Gramsci into the Marxist-Feminist Critique of Intersectionality.


“I would perhaps suggest that a Gramscian approach to feminism may be even more useful than the Marxist variety she proposes. Yuval-Davis’ suggestion to locate the historical conditions that construct social divisions reminded me of the Gramscian tendency to centre historical processes in any analysis. The Gramscian assumption that production creates the material basis for all forms of social existence functions as a means of centering materiality. What is unique about Gramsci, however, was his insistence on looking at both materiality and ideas – “Ideas and materialism are always bound together, mutually reinforcing one another, and not reducible to one another.” In other words, understanding gender means unpacking the ways in which gender as an ideology resulting from the material forces of production produces and is produced by gender as a set of ideas that are constructed. This, by definition, requires a historical approach. Context is important, as is clear from his emphasis on historical specificity.”

Pretty good piece that does a great job engaging with Eve Mitchell’s critique of intersectionality.  The author is drawing on the categories of Gramsci as a way to get past the abstract and ahistorical framework of intersectionality theory.  I remarked that it is very important that we draw from Gramsci on these questions only I critique what I believe to be a Kautskyist conception of the object/subject absorbed by Gramsci (and virtually the whole of Third International Communism).  Specifically I discuss Gramsci’s problematic critique of the base/superstructure and his Kautskyist conception of it.

I’ve pasted my response below.

Yo, this is dope!

Your critique is a very serious and thoughtful engagement with this piece and a fair presentation of the argument. Guess I’m used to a ruthless Left that makes a polemic of everything.  We need more serious textual and disciplined dialogue to take place between militants.

I also really like that you inveigh Gramsci in your critique.  I think there is a lot we can take from Gramsci that is useful toward these conversations.  I don’t know if you are a militant/organizer/revolutionary–and I’m writing as one and not as an academic–but it is the work of Gramsci, Marx, Luxemburg, Dunayevskaya, Fanon, Biko, etc. that for me represent the distillation of mass activity into revolutionary theory toward liberation.  Without a social praxis or PRACTICAL-critical activity, a practice that is self-critical these debates become absorbed by the mental and manual division of labor that is the very basis of our struggle to begin with.

I am part of a small propaganda circle of Marxist organizers in the US called Unity and Struggle with Eve Mitchell.  We collaborated in the past on some questions that come here as well as in my response below that you should feel free to skim sometime.  It specifically makes a defense of Marxist-feminism against the base/superstructure argument used by some Marxists to say rigidly separate women’s reproductive health from women’s reproductive labor.  The link is here:

You make some interesting points around the centrality of the production of knowledge.  I think this is critical, particularly for the above reference about the mental and manual division of labor.  For Marx, the separation of thinking from acting was absolutely required for the development of bourgeois social relations.  It is this, not the distribution of wealth or private ownership that was the starting point.

So it is good that Gramsci is being introduced here.  But I want to say some things about the way you juxtapose Gramsci and Marx as well as better contexualize Gramsci as a way of helping to both bolster your argument but also counter where I think it is limited.

For one, Gramsci was a Marxist.  But he was a Marxist of a certain historical period in European history.  Gramsci like most early 20th century Marxists came out of the left split in International Social Democracy and the formation of the Communist Party of Italy in 1921.  He like the rest broke with the political and some of the theoretical foundations of social democracy, particularly their nationalism and their reformist parliamentary practice.  However, there was not a categorical break with Kautskyism, particularly the theory that socialism and the workers movement are separate and that revolutionary ideas come from theorists that are injected into the movement from outside.  For Kautsky, party was subject, proletariat was object.  This carried over into the International Communist movement.

You may know, being the fan of Gramsci that you are, that he attempted a rupture with the base/superstructure thesis of social democracy, what they all (social dems, communists, and Gramci alike) thought came from Marx.  The base was said to be the material structure of capitalism and superstructure the political activity and ideas of people.  Gramsci, accepting this as Marx’s thesis (it was really distilled into theory by Engels and Kautsky), argued similarly to you, that ideology and not just “economics” is also a determinant of social relations activity.  Gramsci uses the Church as way to support his argument, that the material basis for religion was long overthrown but persists in the ideas of the working class.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t a real rupture with the base/superstructure or the object/subject split of Kautsky, though it was an honest attempt to make sense of the powerful force of ideas.  It wasn’t a break because it still maintained a duality between the object, “economics” and the subject, again, a party that would wage a war of position or ideas for the allegiance of the class in the lead up to the war of maneuver or struggle for state power.  Rather the object/subject is an internal contradiction of the working class, not external to it  Furthermore, the Church STILL has a material basis not only as the financial and political power of the Vatican, but by the very nature of capitalist society where human beings appear as abstract individuals rather than as part of a social totality.  This base/superstructure and object/subject duality wasn’t actually what Marx argued in the one time he used those categories (the Preface).

Instead he saw social relations and social activity as a concrete totality.  “Base” or economics is abstract and purely ideal when separated from this totality and for Marx, the truth is the whole.  Toward the conclusion of your essay you contrast capital on one side to social relations on the other.  However, Marx saw capital itself as a social relation.  Political economy, social democracy and Stalinism treated capital and economics as an object and while it does take objectified form in money, credit, money capital, and means of production, it actually conceals a social relation, a relation between workers whose combined social labor time gives it its value.  The objectified form of value then dominates and determines its makers rather than the makers determining it.  Capital appears to move on its own having an inherent value.  But this appearance is not just ideological although it is reflected in the heads of people.  This appearance of self-movement and inherent value is actually concrete and material in the value-form or when one commodity is exchanged for another.  Two unlike things are equated and seem to relate to each other, but this conceals the reality that what makes them alike is that they are products of human labor.  But we think that is just the way things are.  We think we are isolated individuals because in bourgeois society we exist as individuals who live and work in isolated, private spheres meanwhile behind our backs exists a social metabolism and equilibrium that mediates this individual activity.

Marx was not a vulgar materialist, rather he represented a synthesis of idealism and materialism.  He saw the inherent unity of ideas and activity only he started on the footed of activity.  He did this for the very reason Gramsci contrasts good/common sense with praxis.  Because what people think of themselves does not tell us really about who they are.  The world doesn’t just happen to human beings, they experience it, they change it (labor), and they experience their own objectified labor in the world, not just as objects for consumption but as part of the material conditions of labor itself.  Labor for Marx is just another way of saying “human activity” which doesn’t stop when people are painting, or developing categories of knowledge, making music, or having sex.

Gramsci did however make some very critical developments toward grappling with the dynamic and contradiction of consciousness.  His categories of good and common sense, his posing of individuals’ formal or professed politics against their sometimes revolutionary activity, etc.  Of course, to me, his writings on workers councils, his distinction between wage earner and producer, his insight into forms of workers organization as the social basis to leap into the new society can’t be missed and unfortunately is missed in the academy that wants to divest Gramsci of the revolutionary kernel of his thinking just like they do to many Marxist thinkers that become the new vogue (see C.L.R. James).  They fetishize his writings on ideas and culture at the expense of his ideas on workers organization and struggle.

Gramsci also silenced the opposition of Trotskyists and the Communist Left to the encroaching grip of the Stalin model of party organization that emphasized the centralism side of democratic centralism at the expense of its democracy.  And after his death, the party he helped build was responsible for containing the very struggles that wanted to overturn the existing order.  He definitely fucked up.  But that doesn’t mean he didn’t make fundamental contributions to Marxism and liberation.

Anyhow, this is writing is great.  Bringing in Gramsci is super critical.  I think it just needs to be more firmly rooted in Marx’s categories (not Marxist–lol) and likewise with Gramsci, he has to be situated within the Marxist tradition not only formally but also actually.  Gramsci’s Kautskyianism has to be confronted and overcome as way to strengthen the Marxist method, the way his writings on consciousness and workers organization has done.  And since you’re into Italian thinkers, Bordiga completely destroys Gramsci and questions of revolutionary organization.  However, Gramsci is pretty unmatched on workers self-activity and organization.  In Unity and Struggle we read the two as a debate and are aiming to make a partial synthesis of them into the methodology of Marx.

Tyler Zee

“Next Time, We’ll Get it Right: Race and Women’s Liberation in America” (2009)

whitewomensrightsWomen in the US have the right to vote, can run for and hold office, have access to public education, and have a certain degree of financial independence from men, but women are not free.  While women today have attained certain formal equalities and enjoy a few gains as a result of their self-organization and resistance, these gains have turned into their opposite and have served as a more advanced justification for patriarchy.  Furthermore, women’s liberation has been a combined and uneven development, not a linear one, and has time and again hinged on how women chose to respond to the question of race.

At the close of the Civil War and the passage of the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments, a section of the women’s movement who had been supportive of the cause of abolition broke ranks and opposed voting rights for people of color; the most infamous being Susan B. Anthony, a stalwart abolitionist who later criticized Frederick Douglass for his marriage to a white woman.  Such racism would have disastrous consequences for the women’s movement for decades to come; consequences which not only ensured white supremacy’s victory and the continued subjugation of people of color, but which had the irony of binding women ever closer to their own virtual enslavement.

It was precisely because of this racist opportunism within the women’s movement that women were allowed the franchise sixty years after black freedmen in the South.  White women now married to the forces of white supremacy, Reconstruction and the gains that came with it eventually fell.  This failure to recognize the centrality of race in the maintenance of women’s oppression and the crown jewel in their own movement, delayed the hopes for freedom for all for another hundred years.

During the 1950s, a period of ascendancy in wages and technological expansion, women were told by everyone from official society to advertisers that they were never freer.  Feminists like Betty Friedan propagated that a woman’s entry into the official labor force would be her emancipation.  How could this be when men, as wage laborers, were being brutalized by automation; were generating vast sums of surplus value for which they had no decision in how it would be generated or how the resultant wealth would be appropriated?  Though she correctly spoke to their subordination in the home and their unhappiness in being merely a tool for the servicing male labor power in The Feminine Mystique, she failed to see how women were not outside it, but integral to the capitalist mode of production. The only reason men were able to perform such grueling work in the first place was because their own labor power was being reproduced by women with whom they lived.  Their laundry, their food, their homes, their children, etc. were all prepared and cared for and provided men with the capacity to return to work for another day.  Not only that, but women were supplying the wage labor of the future who would eventually be exploited capital.

Women saw what “real” work was doing to men who were no happier.  Some women believed that housework was every bit as valid and productive as so-called productive labor and that the State should be providing wages for it.  After all, they figured, when a capitalist hires a worker he gets two for the price of one.  During the war when they filled factories that had contracts with the State, daycare was provided to women free of charge.  And while many supported equal access to jobs in the new post-war “prosperity”, they knew that the work of housekeeping and child rearing would still fall on them.

The early 1970s saw a new wave in feminism, a tendency of which foregrounded a clear anti-racist politics.  Just as “Black power” in the predominately male factories benefited white workers when the former would slow down the line in response to a racist insult by a foreman or union boss, easing the pace of work for everyone, white women saw that the Black struggle and the women fighting to lead it were raising demands that benefited them also.  This movement, though not a monolith, looked to address race head-on and to link women’s emancipation with the overthrow of white supremacy as well as to bring all forms of labor under the control of the workers themselves.

Not only were women in this period struggling for wages for housework, for a more democratic distribution of household responsibilities, and for control over household labor, they also wanted control over their own bodies.  Women formed consciousness-raising groups to discuss their struggles at home, to educate themselves about their own bodies (that was then exclusively a male profession), and for final decision over unwanted pregnancies.  Women for years were pressured into marriage, pressured into sex, many times raped, and then were called immoral for wanting abortions.  With the victory of Roe v. Wade after over a hundred of years of violent struggle, women have access to these procedures, though they are constantly under attack both directly in terms of its reversal and indirectly in terms of defining limits to abortion.

With family planning clinics now offering abortion procedures, we should reflect again on the uneven development of women’s liberation.  Advocated by Margaret Sanger who contributed to the creation of birth control and contraceptives and advocated women’s knowledge of their bodies, these clinics were to initially serve both the purposes of birth control as well as sterilization of women of color.  Black women were thought to be a rung above chimpanzees and that it was the duty of civilized women to tame them.

For some feminists, institutional recognition alone means victory; having women gynecologists alone is a victory.  Anti-racist and Black feminists have argued that these laws and the specialization of these functions while a significant milestone, is not enough.  It is has only been when women had full control and full knowledge of their bodies from below that they had made any inroads into their own liberation.  In the years leading up to the passage of Roe v. Wade, the Jane Collective was responsible for providing women access to doctors who would perform the procedures to women for a nominal or sliding fee.  The demand became so large that eventually the doctors taught the women how to safely perform them.  It was a huge step forward in the self governing capacities of women.

Unfortunately, this new wave in feminism, like all of the movements of the period, failed to overcome its own contradictions.  Nevertheless, it provides an inspiring context to women’s struggles today as well as to the labor movement in general in our attempt to create a truly democratic society.  At at time when our society is on the brink of collapse, our only hope is for a resurgence of popular energies and mass movements which take the reins of society and lead us out of modern barbarism.

Unity and Struggle Organization Document

imagesWe just added a page to the Unity and Struggle blog that will be designated for our Organization Document.  The Organization Document is the product of three years of study of Marx, the Marxist tradition, and organization.  The document itself will consist of three chapters, the first of which is called “A partial synthesis of Marx,” and has already been written.  We’ve chosen to serialize this first chapter over a few months to allow readers to engage with it more specifically rather than publish the document in whole which could restrict conversation to abstract generalizations.

The second chapter “Critique of the history of revolutionary organization,” we’re in the process of writing now.  My specific contributions will be to Luxemburg’s “Mass Strike” and “Leninism or Marxism” essays but the whole of it will include Lenin and Luxemburg on the debate around party and class, Gramsci and Bordiga on the form and content of the party, Pannekoek and Mattick’s perspectives on worker organization, and the ulraleft including Communization and Value Form Theory.  It aims to situate Marxist as well as anarchist organization, unions, and the anarchist theory of the intermediate layer in the categories of Marx rather than Engels, Lenin, or Trotsky, though the organizational contributions of Lenin and Trotsky will be partially synthesized as well.

Chapter 3, or “Provisional thoughts on revolutionary organization today,” likely won’t be written until later this year or next year.


Table of Contents

Chapter 1. Partial synthesis of Marx

Section 1: The Communist Theory of Marx

Section 2: History and the Social Forms of Existence

Section 3: Capitalism and the Value-Form (forthcoming)

Chapter 2. Critique of the history of revolutionary organization

Chapter 3. Provisional thoughts on the need for organization today

Repost: “Advancing the Immigration Struggle in Texas” (2010)

counterprotest austin 1This will likely be the last in the series of reposts I’ve made on here.  Again, check out the original link to the U&S blog below for great discussion of this piece.


On Saturday June 12th, a hundred anti-racist and democratic-minded folks descended on the south gate of the Texas State Capitol, protesting a rally held by supporters of Arizona’s SB 1070 and who want to enact a similar law in Texas. Supporters numbered around 200-250 and were made up of Republicans, Tea Party folks, Texas Nationalists, and a sprinkling of fascists. The counterprotest and others like it speak to a growing minority tendency of the immigrant rights movement who are ready for confrontation with supporters of white supremacy and which has added new dimension to the debate over the road the movement should take.

Counterprotest in Context

Before the State of Arizona passed SB 1070 and a following bill banning ethnic studies and teachers with accents, Texas made a major encroachment upon public school curriculum which removed historic figures such as Thurgood Marshall and Cesar Chavez and will place more emphasis on the non-violent tendencies of the Civil Rights movement and in opposition to organizational experiences such as the Black Panther Party.

Such attacks remind us that we’re not living merely through the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression, but also the deepest political crisis in likely 100 years. All of the old concessions the rulers have formerly used to coopt mass struggle: better wages, pensions, free and public education, public hospitals, ethnic studies programs, etc. are being removed from the table. There are hardly vestiges of the organs of struggle that working people built in the early 20th century, the 1930s, and 1960s to put the rulers in check and build the independent power of workers, women, and people of color.

Political struggle has been narrowed to either liberal and progressive NGOs and non-profits or spontaneous bursts of mass activity to emerge every few years and that go far beyond the limits of the established organizations. It is this spontaneity that has yet to find permanent organizational form and that can carry it during the highs and lows mass rebellion and consign liberals and progressives to obscurity.

To Fight or Not to Fight

With the defeat of HR 4437 aka the Sensenbrenner Bill in 2006, no doubt due to popular insurgency through mobilizations, strikes, and walkouts, the struggle over immigration, like gay marriage, is being fought out on a state level. Many are hearkening back to the Freedom Summer of 1964 where civil rights organizers from the North spent a summer in the Deep South, with some staying even longer, organizing voter registration drives and desegregation campaigns, and the need to recreate a similar initiative in Arizona. While such a project is important, what SB 1070 demonstrates is that the fight is where we already are. As lawmakers propose and launch comparable attacks on people of color elsewhere in the South, we need to build fighting organizations in our state, our own cities, and our own communities.

The debate over the way forward for the immigrant rights struggle has been radically changing ever since the sit-in at Senator McCain’s back in May of this year. Defying the terms of struggle and the logic informing it, three students have risked their livelihoods and residency by sitting in and demanding support for the DREAM Act which if passed would offer conditional, permanent residency to undocumented students.

The established immigrant rights organizations are asking those who want to engage in this type of direct confrontation with their oppressors to take a back seat to their leadership. Some of them claim they are in support of amnesty but that it isn’t the right time to introduce such a demand and that it runs the risk of alienating politicians who would then not support the DREAM Act or Comprehensive Immigration Reform. Furthermore, they fear that radical approaches that break the law would confirm the perspective of the racists that immigrants are criminals.

Others, many of them radicals in the academy, suggest that undocumented peoples should abstain from some or all direct action because they face greater economic and political uncertainty. Many can go into great theoretical detail about the institutions of white supremacy and the inequality of capitalist society but find themselves beholden to the narrow parameters such a society offers us to participate in politics. In short, they talk left and walk right.

Yet another tendency, though small, rejects such condescending liberalism. They feel an urgent desperation after years of organizing, beginning with the 2003 immigrant freedom rides, that our liberation is not the burden of citizens or white folks or liberal organizations whose leadership is merely biding its time until they win political office. They aren’t afraid of calling attacks on undocumented workers what it is: white supremacy. They see the struggle of immigrants as bound up with that of all people of color, queer folks, and women and their methods of struggle correspond to their perspectives.


It is in this spirit that a counterprotest was organized to confront the white supremacists who want to extend and centralize the powers of the state despite their claims to be desiring of “small government.” The organizers of the rally encouraged folks to not bring racial signs or make racial statements, yet many yelled at counterprotestors that it has “nothing to do with race” alongside others armed with automatic weapons yelling “Go home, wetbacks!” As much as they tried to police their own racism, it was for not.

The counterprotest kicked off at noon. After a few minutes of introductory speeches and chants to get the crowd hyped, we marched onto the Capitol grounds directly toward the protest. We were instantly cut off by the Capitol police. We employed a variety of tactical formations, from marching to different sides of the protest, to conducting a picket line, to opening a space for anyone who wanted to say something to do so. We had the effect of being louder than their music performances and their speakers to the point where one speaker lost his cool and began screaming at us to “shut up” as the above link indicates. Eventually, the police threatened us with confiscation of our bullhorns and arrest if we continued to use them but it didn’t stop us.

Many had never spoken in front of others before and learned the strength of their own voice. Some high schoolers had remarked that this was the first political action or had never participated in anything like it. Others got the chance to debate individually and as a group with supporters of SB 1070 which went a long way towards developing their debating and polemical skills.

How It was Organized

It is understandable why some advocate the Left working together. They are tired of the sectarianism that isolates the Left from mass struggle, creates a culture of divisiveness, and throws up barriers to fighting alongside each other. The stick can be bent too far in this direction however, where the Left champions working together at the expense of their own principles or where there is no objective basis for unity; meaning no organizing is taking place that creates terms of struggle and unity.

With no large and bureaucratic coalition structure, several groups came together, including ¡ella pelea!, MEChA, Anti-Racist Action and others, to organize the counterprotest in a temporary organizing committee. The committee was majority women and people of color and largely queer. While the groups were disparate in politics and in focus, we agreed to the terms of a united front which ensured a democratic respect for folks to bring their own signs and flyers and employ a variety of tactics. This prevented “movement cops” from policing the actions of others as we see all too often in popular front-type coalitions. Instead we used the committee space to share and coordinate different tactical approaches. It was a real high note of Left solidarity that was grounded in organizing.

Critiques by the Left

There have been criticisms coming from elements both here in Austin and nationally about what the merits and points are of such counterprotests. While there are numerous points above that speak to the strength of the counterprotest, let’s take them up one by one.

The liberals say we become equated with the Right when we confront them directly, chant and yell at them or debate them individually. Others limited their critiques to more trivial issues, such as numbers; you need this many or that many to do this or that. Still others on the Left contrast organizing counterprotests to building the from-below power of undocumented workers and their organizations.

For the liberals, their conflation of principles and tactics doesn’t allow them to see the most obvious differences between white supremacy and anti-racism. An undocumented worker who yells in the face of a racist is not the same as a racist calling them a wetback. The number crunchers assume the reasoning of petitioning, that the more who sign on to a “cause” give it more legitimacy. I think for those of us who chose to show on June 12th, the struggle against white supremacy is a valid struggle in and of itself. We didn’t feel the need to wait for everyone else to give us their okay. Numbers are important in so far as strategy and tactics are concerned. The organizers of the event didn’t plan for a physical confrontation with the Right or the cops, not out of principle, but because of the odds stacked against the counterprotestors.

For those that contrast counterprotests and building organization, how are such counterprotests antithetical to developing the political power of undocumented workers and students? It is precisely in such confrontation where folks can overcome the perceived omnipotence of the racists, build their confidence and capacity to fight, discuss organizational and protest strategy and tactics, etc. This is giving them the experience to lead in all areas of the struggle. Counterprotests are not the full extent of the immigrant rights movement, but it is an arena of struggle that can’t be ignored or dissed.

We need to begin setting up the chess pieces for larger and more direct forms of confrontation as the struggle begins to advance. We need folks organizing for civil defense against ICE raids and minute men attacks, defending and expanding ethnic studies and immigrant access to universities, as well as on-the-job action against racist bosses. In ALL of these areas, confrontation is an indispensable component and they will go hand-in-hand with creating the kind of strong, dynamic organizations that are needed to win.


But the counterprotest has a greater import beyond what it did for the folks who organized and participated in it. Most of us acknowledge the dynamism of the Right today; their perspectives, strategies, and organizing are cutting edge and far advanced of stale liberal and social democratic talking points. But what was clear on this day is that they were out-organized. What was a Saturday afternoon picnic of a protest for them was a spirited, organized, and dynamic counterprotest for us. What was stale and pale for them was youthful, militant, and diverse with people of color clearly taking the lead.

Links to articles, photos/video

Repost: “Whither Copwatch?” (2009)

copwatch-0508This is a repost of a blog from 2009 on the Unity & Struggle blog.  The original link is below and I highly recommend folks read it because of the very rich conversation that follows it from folks who have a lot of knowledge, perspective, and firsthand experience on the question.


Within the last decade, small groups of individual activists, some part of radical or revolutionary Left organizations, have taken part in organizing “copwatches” in cities across the US and Canada.  Presently, none of us around Gathering Forces are involved in such work (still if we’ve had our share of run-ins with the police in other struggles), though it is a form of organization we are supportive of and believe necessary.  But because of this lack of experience and existing information out there, this post will have more questions than answers.

What copwatching formally entails is observing the actions of the police in the process of routine traffic stops or other encounters, documenting their activity in writing and on video, and collecting names and badge numbers of the officers involved where necessary.  Some may follow this up independently or with other organizations by making complaints or protesting through civilian review boards.  Additionally, some groups do “know your rights” trainings or pass out relevant literature, but it is unclear if most copwatch activities go much beyond this.

The Berkeley Copwatch website claims it is the original copwatch, starting in 1990, but even they have their antecedents.  The historical inspiration for copwatching has no doubt come from the practices of the Black Panther Party, though the Deacons for Defense and the NAACP branch in Monroe, North Carolina led by Robert F Williams had their own forms of armed intervention that was coupled with fighting the Klan and defending civil rights activists.

The Panthers achieved a notorious reputation from both the State, the Left, and the Right through the organized and armed policing of cops in the city of Oakland.  But what can’t be forgotten is that the Panthers were the product of the most powerful revolt of the Black community of its time against white supremacy and the State; the Watts Riots of 1965.  In addition to the collective fist of Black people in ’65 were the words and philosophy of Malcolm X who espoused a philosophy of armed self-defense and revolutionary internationalism at a time when it wasn’t as popular.  However brave and intimidating the personality of Huey P. Newton, a co-founder of the Panthers, it was the movement of ordinary Black people that sits at the backdrop of the BPP.   The uniqueness of the Panthers were in how they carried out Malcolm’s vision by giving a kind of political and organizational form to this growing rebellion.

At the time of the Panthers’ earliest interventions, it was still legal in the State of California (I think) to carry certain unloaded firearms in full display.  Later a bill was passed into law which barred such use and which was directly due to its exercise by the Panthers.  But regardless of what the legal limitations imposed on the Panthers consisted of, the point wasn’t to merely carry guns to prove how badass they were (which they were), nor was it to catch the police in the act of misconduct and pursue recourse through the legal system.  The point was to mobilize the Black community which it was relatively successful at doing until the general decline of the Black Power movement.

The Panthers had a vision not of good and righteous police but of a society where ordinary people were self-governing in judicial and all other affairs.   Had police followed the letter of the law, it would not have undercut the need for community resistance since legally the police have the right to patrol, question, search, arrest, and even kill individuals.  And should they step beyond what is legally permissible, between the police code of silence (which certainly gives an ironic character to the anti-”stop snitching” talk) and a legal system that is either supportive or indifferent at best, the police will emerge unscathed.  In fact, what we learned in 1992 is that it isn’t until people of color are willing to raze an entire metropole that the State is willing to prosecute police, let alone make any sort of reforms.

The practice of the Panthers was not limited to policing police, in fact they were responsible for providing food, educational, and medical assistance where they were either destitute or did not exist in the black community.

But the Panthers and the Deacons no longer exist.  While it is important to make sense of the demise of these critical organizational experiences, for now we’ll have to leave it at the fact that they are not around anymore.  Copwatches are trying to fill their shoes outside of a mass movement and this presents certain questions and challenges.

Drawing on information available, it appears that much of copwatching is wrapped up in catching or exposing the police.  This is bound up with the notion that the camera in particular both vindicates the need for copwatch and holds police accountable presumably through its use as evidence that can be surrendered in the trying of police who injure or kill people of color.

What I find particularly ironic about this is that every night for the past two decades America has watched police as they harass, beat, and murder people of color and all the while can enjoy a bag of popcorn and a can of beer.  It’s a television show called “Cops.”  Furthermore, the advent of dash cams hasn’t done anything to “hold police accountable” but has been a way that police can directly control video and use it to their own political and legal ends.  Due to technological changes in media, copwatching has become informalized and individualized where cell phone videos of police violence and murder are shared on the web.  And while this can have a powerful unintended effect (see Oscar Grant),  it seems to make cameras for organized copwatch groups somewhat superfluous and drives home the urgency for a different approach.

While I’m not opposed to activists who are involved or are thinking of becoming involved in copwatch exploring what legal options they have that may allow them to carry weapons in plain view, it isn’t simply about displaying arms.  First, the danger of this kind of approach is in the adventurism it may encourage or still worse the wrath of the police if not sufficiently backed with community support.  The Panthers had the benefit of a black community in motion.  In 1960 a few black students could walk into a Southern lunch counter, take a seat, be hauled off to jail, and then thousands of others would follow in their place.  Today, we don’t have the luxury of those circumstances and an armed copwatch group being arrested or shot at can’t expect the community to either follow suit or come to their defense unless they are a well established organization with wide links to the community.  It will have to be gauged and the conditions where this kind of tactic can be effective may not exist without a movement.

We know we do not live in movement times (though we are certainly seeing hopeful signs right now), but besides this what are among the principal reasons for the lack of success or longevity on the part of many copwatch groups?

To begin with, why is information beyond the superficial, such as organizational dynamics, links with other community or political groups, strategy and tactics, politics, etc. so limited on copwatch blogs and websites?  Is this due to internal weaknesses, fear of reprisals, or other unknown reasons?

How do radicals and revolutionaries who take up the work of copwatch fight off the dynamic of the militant superman and woman?  This was something that even the Panthers were criticized for.  To ask this question more specifically, in a time of severe repression where striking a police officer can result in long years behind bars, where people are understandably afraid of the police, how can working people be convinced to fight back?  Even where folks resist the police (which happens daily, especially among Black people) it is done so on isolated, individual terms and with no consequences and where one can face certain death.

Where instances of police violence are displayed, what does or can the copwatchers do beyond filming?  Does the existence of small copwatch groups mean that activity must be confined to merely filming police?  How can they engage with the larger community and draw them in during copwatch patrols?  Do copwatchers ever knock on residents’ doors during acts of police violence and encourage people to come outside?  Do they draw attention with megaphones and militant chants?  What are ways for the community to have a sense of ownership over what happens in their neighborhoods?

How can the work of copwatch be pushed beyond only policing cops?  What strategies and tactics have worked in terms of keeping the police out of the community or preventing attacks or reprisals?  One tactic that the Berkeley Copwatch raises is suggesting alternatives to calling the police.  Depending on what this means, it can have the effect of broadening and politicizing the work and it hinders the ability of the police.  Bring the Ruckus, on their blog, see copwatch as having the capacity to act as a dual power institution though it isn’t elaborated on what this looks like or how successful it has been.

As one example of broadening the work of copwatch, the International People’s Democratic Uhuru Movement in April responded to a campaign by the St Petersburg police department in Florida to offer $1500 to anyone in the Black community who informed on another for possession of weapons which lead to a conviction.  This kind of blatant hypocrisy and divide and conquer tactics by St Petersburg police were countered brilliantly by InPDUM who offered an equivalent bounty to any police officer that offered testimony leading to the conviction of another police officer implicated in the murder of anyone in the Black community.  Any copwatch in St Petersburg should be reaching out to InPDUM and others who are willing to militantly oppose the police.

Another challenge for some copwatches is the dynamic of exclusively white groups.  Without a multiracial, people of color-led organization there is no hope for a copwatch to move beyond isolation or adventurism.  This should be pretty self-evident.

Whatever the current limitations are of this practice it can’t be written off.  They are attempts at free association and they demonstrate the capacity for workers and people of color to be self-governing.  Activists and pissed-off people are right to not sit back and wait for the next mass rebellion but to act and demonstrate what is possible now.   Necessarily the successes will be limited in the absence of a movement, but that doesn’t mean that new strategies and tactics can’t be implemented in the present.  The task is to push in the direction of widening the struggle numerically and politically, place front and center the community’s need to be self-governing, and subordinate the legal aspects (video, documentation) to everything else.

It would be great to hear from copwatch groups or individuals involved with them in terms of how they organize and what successes or challenges they’ve faced or what other tactics, if any, they use aside from video or going through different legal machinations.

Repost: “The League of Revolutionary Black Workers for Militants Today” (2011)

leagueAnother co-written essay with my comrade, Semaj.  This was written for an assignment of his but we tried as much as possible to put our research toward militant organizing ends.  We put this up originally on the ¡ella pelea! blog.

It also posted here with some discussion:

Jun. 10, 2011



The League of Revolutionary Black Workers emerged in Detroit in the late 1960s, a period of growing dissatisfaction with the mainstream integrationist civil rights organizations and the failures of the Democratic Party to address the subjugation of black people in a comprehensive way.  A new movement which came to be known as Black Power or Black Liberation, grew out of these failures and gave birth to a new identity and a number of new mass and revolutionary organizations, one of the most advanced being the Revolutionary Union Movement and the League.

The Black Power movement also conceptualized the oppression of black people domestically within an international context of white supremacy, capitalism, and imperialism.  It looked toward and drew inspiration from the national liberation movements that were happening in Cuba, Algeria, and Vietnam as well as the Cultural Revolution in China as a model for what black liberation in the United States could look like.  The League was no exception in this regard.

Catalyzed by the Great Rebellion of 1967, an upheaval of Detroit’s black poor against police brutality, poor living conditions, and limited jobs, the League saw the necessity of organizing black workers.  Formed by a core of organizers who worked in the auto industry, they were also instrumental in organizing the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM), in the Dodge Main auto plant and which pushed for addressing atrocious workplace conditions, speed-up, and the extension of the working day as well as their racist implications.  Some DRUM militants were a part of previous civil rights groups but were discontented with the politics and took a more radical political stand that contextualized white supremacy through the framework of capitalist social relations.

The Failed Anti-Racism of the Civil Rights Movement

One of the central critiques of civil rights groups made by black power militants was that it was largely beholden to the Democratic Party and Federal Government for mitigating the conditions of the black southerners.  Certainly, the new mass activity that the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) organized around help bring new life to the civil rights struggle as they broke with the conservative politics and organizing approaches of the NAACP.  This was demonstrated by the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955 which saw the creation of a completely autonomous and self-organized system of mass transit.  While this was not completely directed from the top, SCLC organizers were a positive force that fused with this self-organization and gave it a more conscious purpose.[1]

In the long-term, they were incapable of safeguarding the self-activity of blacks as they strove to draw all of it under the wing of the SCLC leadership.  Such an orientation is the reason that Ella Baker left the organization and advocated for the wildcat sit-ins of 1960 by black students to remain independent.  She saw the bureaucratizing effect SCLC had played on the movement and the new vitality black students brought to it with the sit-ins.  This led to the formation of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) which served as an organizational bridge and transition from civil rights to black liberation.[2]

The influence of the federal government precipitated a split in SNCC between desegregation campaigns on the one hand and voter registration on the other.  The Kennedy Administration refused to intervene in the brutal attacks by random whites on black and white freedom riders in 1961 unless SNCC shifted their focus onto voter registration and end their desegregation work.  While the organizing done by SNCC around voter registration was very dynamic, it also served to buttress the Democratic Party who could parlay that organizing into votes for their candidates.[3]

Ultimately, the black power movement saw that organizing in this fashion is not an effective anti-racist strategy in that it hinders the movement from making demands that would challenge white hegemony.

Another major critique of the civil rights movement is that they actively sought out white liberal participation. This hindered the movement largely due to the fact white liberals were more hesitant to address white supremacy outside its Jim Crow manifestations and this sacrificed the more comprehensive ways black folks experienced white supremacy.  This spoke to the  civil rights movement predominately middle class composition.  Organizing black workers around their specific concrete oppressions were not a part of the platform for these groups.  SCLC and CORE viewed black freedom as having suffrage and being integrated in the same school with white folks. The demands that these groups organized around largely benefited just the black middle class who weren’t facing the “niggermation” of River Rouge.

The Dynamics of Race in 1960s Detroit and Urban Insurrection


The 1965 Watts riot and the rebellions of the late 1960s concretely connected the State’s role in the oppression of black workers at home and abroad and threw open the door on the limitations of civil rights organizations.  These rebellions also spoke to racial tensions among the working class itself and these manifested in an uneven and contradictory way in Detroit.

In Detroit the established Polish community, no doubt having deep class struggle roots, had long been reined in by the Polish patronage apparatus that bargained for access to officialdom in exchange for controlling and stamping out independent rank and file initiative.  They received the better jobs in the factory and were less subjected to the 90 days rotation,[4] though they were exploited just as black workers.  The factories had a policy that it could legally fire an employee anytime before a 90 trial period and black workers more so than other workers were the target for this egregious policy.

In the 1960s, white Appalachians began to immigrate into the Midwest and although these workers were not embraced by the Polish and other established white ethnic groups, they were more tolerated than their black counterparts.  Their contradictory position meant that, on the one hand, they shared the body politics of Polish workers who were more open to association with them than with black workers, and on the other hand, they existed outside the ethnic patronage machine and shared a similar class position with black workers which led to a confusion as to who the enemy was.  At times they fell into the seductive proto-fascism of George Wallace who talked about the rich stealing from the working man in collusion with the nigger.  Yet during the Great Rebellion, they took part alongside urban blacks in the destruction and looting of capitalist property.  Some even acted as snipers, shooting the cops who inflicted similar harassment and violent upon them as blacks.

The RUMs’ Challenge to White Supremacy

On May 2, 1968, production workers at Detroit’s Dodge Main facility walked out in protest of the increased speed of the line, without the approval United Auto Workers local leadership.  With the Great Rebellion still fresh on their minds, a group of black workers participating in the mainly black wildcat strike proposed the formation of a new autonomous organization called DRUM, the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement. Within a matter of months, similar RUM units proliferated throughout Detroit and reaching as far away as New Jersey.

The experience of the Revolutionary Union Movements provided an effective anti-racist framework in that it organized black workers into autonomous workplace units independent of company and union influence. It challenged the white supremacist model that stratified black workers and kept them in the most dangerous and dirtiest jobs and prevented the safety and health and even advancement of blacks into better positions due to the collusion of union and management and the massive profits generated from this exploitation.

Though the RUMs were preceded by forms of autonomous black working class organization in the 1910s and 20s, the predominance of reformism in the late 1950s and early 1960s, as indicated above, effectively harnessed black workers to the State and to capital. The UAW hierarchy’s support for the work of the SCLC and other mainstream civil rights groups meant that black workers fighting against the racist UAW in the plants found no support from SCLC, whose would have alienated their liberal union benefactors. The influence of the federal government in the organizing strategies of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee meant wedding black organization to the designs of the federal government. Inside the plants, however, the prevalence of black union caucuses were unable to seriously challenge the condition of blacks in the workplace. This was due primarily to two reasons.

One, the company and union were so hostile to black representation, despite their ostensible support for civil rights, that they often resorted to illegal tactics to prevent blacks from occupying official posts in the union.  Two, and most importantly, the historic absorption of trade unions into production meant their collaboration with capital and mediation of rank and file struggles.  The early CIO, for example, turned the autonomous activity of workers who struggled for control over the pace and organization of work into concessions that benefited workers outside the workplace.  Meanwhile, what goes on inside the plant, “the transformation of sweat and blood, literally, into finished products,”[1] continued to be determined by the interests of capital.

The strikes of black workers in the late 1960s were completely outside of and against the trade union structure precisely because they struck at the process of production itself.  This more effectively challenged the racism of management and union and broke the stranglehold of the reformism of caucuses.  The limitations of black union caucuses were in their orientation to the union bureaucracy rather than to the rank and file.  In Detroit’s Eldon Avenue Gear and Axle plant, Jordan Sims, a respected black unionist, pursued such a strategy with little results in the 1960s.

The RUMs were a completely new subjectivity that broke with this form of activity and it substituted the free association of workers over the machinations of the bureaucracy which was restricted to the terms of the contract.  In this way, their anti-racist strategy threw up the limitations of both the civil rights groups which organized outside the workplace and black caucuses that organized from within but confined their demands to the “fruits of labor” rather than self-activity of the workers themselves.

The League of Revolutionary Black Workers and the Pivot of Labor in Anti-Racism


The League of Revolutionary Black Workers rode the wave of black insurgency in the factories set in motion by Detroit’s “Great Rebellion” of 1967. Though League cadre were active years before the Great Rebellion, their radicalism had a new currency with the growing tide of militancy among black workers who constituted the RUM organizations. The Great Rebellion gave a new legitimacy to forms of struggle and confrontation with capitalist property and state power that the civil rights establishment opposed. Additionally, it led to the emergence of a black working class identity that largely stood in the shadow of the middle class in the civil rights era.

Unique to the League’s perspective was the intensity of exploitation of black workers particularly resulting in the immense profits of the “Big Three” auto companies, Ford, GM, and Chrysler. They placed this within a historic narrative that linked the chattel slavery of the antebellum South to the contemporary wage slavery of the industrialized North. The negligible investment into the reproduction of slave labor led to massive returns in the cotton trade which laid the basis for and funded the industrialization of the 19th century. League militants were able to link race and class in a dynamic fashion that neither black nationalists nor white class reductionists could appreciate:

“Black workers have historically been the foundation stone upon which the American industrial empire has been built and sustained. It began with slavery over 400 years ago…That is, the capital which was used to build industry in Europe and America essentially came out of the cotton trade…We’re essential, and key, to the continued operation and continued smooth functioning of a highly industrialized, highly complicated machine.”[2]

The auto companies attributed their increased output in the late 1960s to new, more efficient machinery and automation.  The reality was much different.  The auto manufacturers were merely increasing the pace of the line, while the UAW looked away, a process black workers called “niggermation.”  The League’s forefronting of niggermation put class struggle on an anti-racist basis.

In addition to the League’s perspective on the white supremacy inherent in capitalism, they focused on organizing black industrial workers because of the strategic position they occupied in the economy: heavy industry, transportation, and distribution.  In several plants, blacks were an overwhelming majority as the auto companies saw they could exploit their labor to a higher degree.  A broad organization of black workers independent of the union bureaucracy could cripple the functioning of white supremacist capitalism through a general strike, the on-the-job actions of individual workplaces being a prelude to such a strike.

The role the union bureaucracy played in the capitalist system which ensured the stratification of black workers meant that the struggle had to be independent:“The organization…must be free from political and financial ties to the union hierarchy which prevents independent action of the part of the rank and file.”[3]

This method contrasted then with what was largely an overemphasis in the black power movement on confronting the means of dominating labor (the State) leading to an under appreciation of fighting the means of exploiting labor (capital) upon which the State is based.  While the League leadership tended to vacillate on their orientation to the State, their focus on the centrality of labor better positioned them to fight white supremacy as it manifested in production.  While the Black Panther Party attempted to organize the black lumpen as a paramilitary unit outside the workplace, the League had a more holistic approach to organizing black workers and unemployed that didn’t depend on the adventurism that often plagued the Panthers, valid as their work was.

Yet while the League was able to circumvent such adventurism and the cult of personality of the Panthers, the lack of clarification on the role of the union bureaucracy and the content of the RUMs is what partially facilitated the break-up of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers.  Throughout their existence they held a line between trying to capture the union bureaucracy though “revolutionary slates,” on the one hand, and building and strengthening independent black organization on the other.   While such a strategy differed in form from traditional black caucuses due to the anti-capitalist politics of the League, its content was consistent with its emphasis on “bad leadership,” no matter how militant it sounded.

Nevertheless, the League refused to narrow their work to electoralism as they positively oriented to the wildcat strikes, praising them and striving to give them a broad political character.  This manifested, for instance, in linking the war in Vietnam to the war inside in the plants.  They deaths inside the plant due to company negligence, faulty equipment, and speed-up led to more workers dying in the plants every year than in the war itself.

They argued that a pure class struggle is an illusion and that if there’s any hope to displace and destroy capitalist social relationships, the rank and file labor movement had consciously take up and support independent black demands and attack the hierarchy of labor powers in how it set different layers of the working class in competition with each other.

The Failure of the League on the Centrality of Patriarchy

The League of Revolutionary Black Workers’ failed for a number of important reasons, yet one of the most important of these reasons that historians of the League have not sufficiently explained, was their theory and practice as it related to patriarchy.  While the program of the Black Workers Congress, a new organization that appeared in the early 1970s and to which a number of League members belonged, pointed to the sexual harassment many black women faced in the plants, they catastrophically failed to integrate patriarchy into an overarching analysis of value production as well as take serious the development of black women militants and support their independent demands and struggles.  At worst they were guilty of sexual harassment and misogyny in their day-to-day relationships with women workers as the experience of ELRUM, the Eldon Avenue Revolutionary Union Movement, indicated.

John Watson in the introduction to the League’s 1970 documentary, Finally Got the News, was able to dynamically elaborate the historic and contemporary relationship of race and class in America unlike any black nationalist or white socialist.  But the inability to situate patriarchy into that narrative constituted a monumental weak point that the resulting repression and capital offensive coming down on the working class used to their advantage.

How did this collapse to patriarchy spell doom for an effective anti-racism?  For one, it didn’t see  how the oppression of women in general and black women in particular hinged on the continued oppression of black men and women in production.  This evolved historically out of the separation of productive and reproductive labor.  Yet this separation constituted a gendered form, confining women to the production and reproduction of labor power itself.  But what is central about this is that the labor power exploited in service of that purpose was seen as not having value and as such was unwaged.

Chattel slavery was also unwaged but this didn’t prevent the League from seeing the relationship of unwaged labor in the production of value.  While they didn’t fall into class reductionist arguments of orthodox Marxism that American slavery was not capitalist or was at best auxiliary to the struggle of waged workers, they like most other revolutionary men were eluded by the fetishism and hidden nature of women’s reproductive work (cooking, cleaning, laundry, sex, caring work, etc.) which daily provided capital with fresh, rejuvenated labor power to be set in motion another day.  As Selma James argued in Sex, Race, and Class, “the capitalist got two laborers for the price of one.”[4]

Women’s work went beyond confinement to reproduction.  When men went on strike, court injunctions preventing their continued disruption of production saw women doing picket duty and fighting police and company thugs.  They have historically been central not only to men’s ability to continue producing value, but in their concrete workplace struggles that women were seen as alien to.

This theoretical and practical weakness of the League meant their incapacity to integrate the oppression of women more fully into their program and in prioritizing the development of women militants at home and in the workplace. Their dynamic anti-racism was nullified by their failure to fit patriarchy into capitalist social relations. Had they done this, it is possible that the decline of the RUMs due to company repression could have been circumvented by a concerted effort of the League to organize black women at home.

This makes their view that there is no pure class struggle all the more ironic and tragic in that they oriented to women not much different than white labor, socialists, and communists oriented to black workers.  Militants today can draw much inspiration from the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, but it is our task to pay close attention to their pitfalls so as to ensure the success of new movements for liberation in the future.



[1] James, C.L.R., Negro Americans Take the Lead, Facing Reality Press 1963.

[2] Carson, Clayborne, In Struggle, 1984.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Georgakas, Dan and Marvin Surkin, Detroit: I Do Mind Dying, p. ?

[5] Watson, John, Finally Got the News, Black Star Productions, 1970

[6] Ibid.

[7] Geschwender, James, Class, Race, and Worker Insurgency, 1977.

[8] James, Selma, Sex, Race, and Class, 1975.