Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 19, 2016

Notes on the demise of the Kasama Project

Filed under: Maoism,revolutionary organizing,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 6:43 pm

Screen Shot 2016-06-19 at 2.38.06 PM

I had been suspecting for some time now that the Kasama Project was finished but finally got confirmation of that yesterday from a FB friend named Ben Stevens who I had contact with as Ben Seattle during the early days of Marxmail. The RCP alluded to below in Ben’s post is Bob Avakian’s cult (I use the word advisedly), the Revolutionary Communist Party.

Whatever happened to the Kasama Project?

The Kasama project emerged at a time when the internet was making it possible to bring together many scattered and isolated activists who had been around the RCP, but who had problems with the RCP’s cult-like nature. Kasama emerged boldly proclaiming that it would organize in a more open way, and be accountable to the movement.

But the apple did not fall far from the tree.

Now the project appears to have collapsed–with no accountability whatsoever to the movement concerning what happened and why. Of course, being around for a while, I can guess at the likely scenarios.

Kasama, like most cargo cults, was based on the principle of attempting, as an organization, to keep its political contradictions “secret from the class enemy”. By some strange coincidence, this principle is also useful in concealing the incompetence, hypocrisy, deception and manipulation common to cargo cults.

In practice, this principle requires attempting to keep political contradictions secret from the movement. And, as this happens, the true nature of these contradictions is inevitably concealed from members and supporters–and they cannot be resolved. Eventually there is nothing but gridlock, paralysis, demoralization and depolitization. This is often followed by collapse into (1) passivity, (2) social democracy or (3) sectarianism.

Kasama Project founder Mike Ely showed up on Marxmail in 2007 after Bob Avakian’s name came up in a thread on Maoist critiques of the RCP. In a way, Ely was never able to transcend that approach even though he always claimed that the goal of left unity was uppermost. I don’t think he had a secret agenda only that he was incapable of rising to the occasion. You can even get an idea of the limitations from the very name that is explained on their website: “The name Kasama: In Tagalog, a language of the Philippines, Kasama is the word for the companions who travel the road together — in this case, the revolutionary road.” This sounds nice but it hardly addresses the state of class consciousness in the USA that is so different from the Philippines that has had revolutionary guerrilla movements going back to the Theodore Roosevelt period.

Ely posted excerpts from a critique of Avakian that struck a chord with those of us who had left the American SWP:

Problems of dogmatism, self-isolation and political fantasy — that have always plagued the RCP — are now in command to a new degree. The heart of this is how the RCP’s central leader, Bob Avakian, is seen and promoted.

In place of the mass line, there is a one-sided stress on telling — in patronizing ways. The fetish of the word morphs into the fetish of the leader and tries to “vault over” the complicated processes by which people really decide what to think and how to act.

Leaders dream up grand schemes out of whole cloth — without forming alliances, constituencies or trained networks over time. They don’t have their own base to bring to the process. They “plan” to reach millions without actually organizing thousands. We should be suspicious of such contrivances and “get rich quick” schemes.

So given that kind of analysis, which was reminiscent of what Max Elbaum wrote about the “New Communist Movement” (ie., Maoism) in “Revolution in the Air”, I wondered if Ely might eventually play a role in steering the left out of the sectarian ditch that had made it so ineffective for decades. It was never possible unfortunately. Let me try to explain why:

  1. An inability to fully theorize the “Leninism” question:

Since the Kasama website has fallen into disrepair, some of the key documents there are no longer downloadable. Fortunately, they can be read on the “Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line” section in MIA, including articles by Max Elbaum. That is where you will find Ely’s “Nine Letters to Our Comrades” from which he excerpted passages for Marxmail.

In this 72-page pamphlet, the words “democratic centralism” appear only once and only in a comment that the RCP had a militarized version of what Lenin advocated. Furthermore, the term “Leninism” only comes up as part of the label “Marxism-Leninism-Maoism”, a sign that Ely had not quite gotten to the bottom of what was destroying the left. The term “Marxism-Leninism-Maoism” is nonsensical. Throughout the 9 letters, it is mentioned continuously without once considering the main lesson of Elbaum’s book, namely that a new approach was necessary.

  1. Ultraleftism

Despite his on-target critique of the RCP, Ely carried a lot of its baggage with him, particularly a fetish over militancy. For him, revolution was synonymous with violent protests. He romanticized guns, particularly the urban guerrilla mystique of the Black Panther Party. Oddly enough, he reminded me a bit of Farrell Dobbs, the leader of the SWP who was largely responsible for the “turn toward industry”. Peter Camejo once told me that Dobbs could never get over the idea that the radicalization that would finally culminate in the overthrow of American capitalism would largely have the characteristics of the 1930s CIO organizing drives in which he played a key role as Teamsters organizer.

When Ely would reminisce about the Panthers, SDS street battles, etc., he struck me as embodying 1960s nostalgia in the same way Dobbs related to the 1930s. I would say that unless you are open to the specific characteristics of the class struggle in the period you live in, you will inevitably go wrong.

  1. Clandestine norms

Five years ago Ely and fellow Kasama Project notable Eric Ribellarsi were giving a talk at the now defunct Brecht Forum in NYC, a victim of rising real estate prices rather than dogmatism, that was meant to introduce the project to a broader audience. I took the trouble to bring my video camera down there with me to record the event and help publicize it but Ely nixed it because it might be used by the cops. The idea that the FBI had no idea what Ely and Ribellarsi were up to was nonsense. Furthermore, they were not like Syrians or Iranians whose identity had to be protected. Instead it was just a silly acting out of notions of what it meant to “go up against the man”. Ely also could have given me the green light to record the audio but probably preferred to sustain the illusion that they were operating in Czarist Russia in 1902 or something.

I should add that Ely’s talk betrayed the ultraleftism that would keep the Kasama Project from reaching its potential. He talked about how the Greek left was “getting things done”, which meant how some guy drove a car through the front door of a bank. Considering the horrible disunity in Greece that makes effective action against the austerity regime so difficult, the last thing that is needed is tactical militancy. Instead it is figuring out how to create a united front of the ex-members of Syriza still committed to socialism, the KKE, Antarsya and the anarchists so that the social power of the masses can be effective. For that you need a mastery of Marxism and a subtle understanding of strategy and tactics, not driving a car into a bank.

  1. Grandiosity

It was rather telling that the Kasama Project started to sink into oblivion at the very moment it was issuing proclamations that had all the sorry pretensions of all past attempts at launching a new Leninist party. Timed with a new version of the website, it was filled with embarrassing bombast:

Organization, Regroupment, and Strategic Conceptions

The oppressed and exploited majority of humanity cannot win liberation, the communist future cannot be conquered, without revolutionary communist organization. The kinds of organization that we will need will vary depending on the tasks and the time. We draw on the rich and varied organizational experiences of previous generations of revolutionaries but also understand that the forms we develop must answer to the new and radically changed conditions that confront us in the 21st century.

We are committed to building a country-wide and multi-national organization of communist revolutionaries within the U.S. that is both serious and flexible, disciplined and anti-dogmatic, grounded in history and alive to what is new in this world. We do not believe that we are that organization yet or even that we necessarily constitute its nucleus. But we are seeking to help bring it into existence. We seek to regroup scattered revolutionary communist forces, not just the remnants of previous efforts but also, and more importantly, the new ones propelled forward by new struggles, and to forge along with them the organization that we need.

Serve the people, power to the people

We are guided by love for the people. We seek to embody a different way of living, the possibility of a different future. Communists should promote a style and aesthetic of humility, caring, militancy, universalism, a living radicalism, critical thinking, a deep practicality, and a respect for the planet’s life — its people, its many species and its biosphere generally. We should make a movement for total human emancipation seem like the most practical, radical, and loving thing in the world.

Only the people in their millions can make a socialist revolution in the United States. The organization we need will require the fusion of presently scattered conscious revolutionaries with whole sections of the oppressed in a process of mutual transformation to constitute a revolutionary people. We strive to identify the faultlines in this society along which struggles that have the potential to facilitate such a fusion are likely to break out and, as our forces permit, to support and initiate organizing projects to begin that process.

Groan.

I have a complete different take on the tasks facing the left. To start with, we have to drop the term communism once and for all no matter how much that will disappoint Jodi Dean.

We have to speak to people in terms that make sense to them. Socialism does not have the connotations that communism does even though for Marx and Engels they are interchangeable. But even if socialism is a more viable way of describing your goals, it is much better to articulate a program that focuses on the failure of the capitalist system to provide for our needs—in other words the kind of proposal just adopted by the Green Party.

We also have to recognize that organizational initiatives have to be based on objective conditions. The most urgent need right now is a broad left party that can begin to draw in the millions of people that have grown sick of the two-party system. If nothing else, the Sanders campaign indicated the dynamics at work that make such a goal realizable. It takes a committed core of a thousand or so people to move that process forward. It is the goal that the North Star website tries to promote and that is consistent with the state of class consciousness in the USA.

My recommendation for those who agree with that perspective is to check out the Socialist Convergence conference in Philadelphia being organized by the Philly Socialists, a group that is in the vanguard of political organizing today—in the genuine sense of the word.

 

26 Comments »

  1. Nicely done.

    Comment by Brandy Baker — June 19, 2016 @ 6:58 pm

  2. The link to the Socialist Convergence conference in Philadelphia doesn’t work.

    Comment by Mike Schlosser — June 19, 2016 @ 8:18 pm

  3. Link is fixed now.

    Comment by louisproyect — June 19, 2016 @ 8:37 pm

  4. […] Notes on the demise of the Kasama Project Notes on the demise of the Kasama Project […]

    Pingback by ► Whatever happened to the Kasama Project? – [WQ2.16.06.19] « The War for Quadrant Two — June 20, 2016 @ 2:03 am

  5. First, thanks to Louis for mentioning me. I wrote extensively about the Kasama Project in 2010 and 2011. My work was generally not allowed on the main Kasama blog. Here is a link to a blog post which gives further links to about a dozen lengthy posts I made at the time, as well as more than a dozen of the associated graphics:

    Whatever happened to the Kasama Project?
    https://warforquadranttwo.wordpress.com/2016/06/19/kasama-obituary/

    — Ben Seattle

    Comment by Ben Seattle — June 20, 2016 @ 2:24 am

  6. Mike Ely was, until he dropped off of Facebook recently for personal reasons, part of the exSWP group Partido, one of the few people there that had no history with the SWP. Like Doug G he was non-sectarian and decidely unpretentious, helping to advance the understanding of political questions through comradely discussion.

    Comment by Sue Sponte — June 20, 2016 @ 8:45 pm

  7. He might have been unpretentious in normal conversation but the Kasama manifesto I quoted above is anything but.

    Comment by louisproyect — June 20, 2016 @ 8:47 pm

  8. One of the topics that sometimes comes up, in a situation like this, concerns how much of a difference is made by someone’s personal qualities–for example whether their conduct is characterized by humility or by arrogance. Clearly, personal qualities can make a significant difference–but, in my view, this is nearly always greatly outweighed by the fundamental principles that motivate someone’s actions.

    My own experience with Mike (over the internet) was not good. In his defense, however, I should add that he was probably under a lot of pressure–because he was attempting to do something that was doomed to fail–which can be frustrating.

    Mike’s basic approach was to create an organization where he was the head honcho–and made the most fundamental decisions–and would have the ability to silence the voice of his critics (such as me).

    But that is not the kind of organization which our movement needs. Our movement needs organization which is fundamentally democratic (not just for show–but to its core). This requires both openness and political transparency. Any project which is not based on these principles will eventually reach a point of stagnation because activists will be able to sense, at one level or another, that there is something unhealthy about it–and they will limit their support of the project. Activists do not want to see their life energy squandered.

    So the issue in Kasama’s failure is not Mike’s shortcomings as a person. Because if the project had been organized in a more democratic way–then someone else would have been able to step up and shoulder the load in instances Mike was weak. Rather, the problem was that the project was organized in such a way that it ended up revolving around Mike’s limitations. And the problem is that Mike (like anyone in such a situation) is only human.

    Comment by Ben Seattle — June 20, 2016 @ 11:07 pm

  9. Thanks for the piece, Louis. Two points:

    1) “we have to drop the term communism once and for all [. . .] We have to speak to people in terms that make sense to them. Socialism does not have the connotations that communism does even though for Marx and Engels they are interchangeable”. So, for you, is this solely a terminological dispute or is it also a conceptual one, concerning what the communising process is & what communist society necessarily consists in?; &

    2) “even if socialism is a more viable way of describing your goals, it is much better to articulate a program that focuses on the failure of the capitalist system to provide for our needs—in other words the kind of proposal just adopted by the Green Party”. So,

    a) a focus on the failures of the present is needed, granted, but a programme for the future also has to focus just as much on what we aim to put in its place. People may know life is onerous, but they need to be convinced that there are institutions, with principles of practice, that are not just better but feasible. Unfortunately, on feasibility, anti-capitalists have persistently failed to come up with plausible evidenced arguments. It’s not practical politics to expect the mass of people, even if they are exploited &/or oppressed, to take a political movement on trust, join hands, & take a leap into the dark just because they don’t like the present. The politics of even prolonged upheaval & societal dislocation, that it’ll all be worth it, has to be addressed up-front, & we can help make our desired future more likely by trying to develop the arguments now, in these calmer times; &

    b) what’s the content of the Greens’ recent proposal? Couldn’t find it on their site. Do you have a link, please?

    Comment by Jara Handala — June 23, 2016 @ 1:28 pm

  10. As a Trotskyist I valued the openness of Mike Ely and the Kasame Project and am sad to note its demise. He took Grover Furr sternly to task for his appalling defence of Stalin’s purges and ridiculous charges against Trotsky. I am currently doing a piece on Maoism or Trotskyism by Joshua Moufawad-Paul and referred to Mike Ely in passing because of this which is why I ended up here. Really don’t agree with dropping the term ‘communist’ in favopur of socialist but I could see you could call your project socialist in line with the Sanders surge. It has many similarities to the British Corby surge, a second wave has come in response to the second leadership election and thye prospect of a split in Labour. And I absolutely do not agree with joining the Greens; they are a capitalist party, albeit petty bourgeois and minor but definitely not a labour movement body. The call for a Party of Labor on the trade union bureaucracies is now the correct one in the USA to appeal to the disappointed followers of Sanders.

    Comment by socialistfight — July 31, 2016 @ 2:53 pm

  11. Reblogged this on Socialist Fight and commented:
    As a Trotskyist I valued the openness of Mike Ely and the Kasame Project and am sad to note its demise. He took Grover Furr sternly to task for his appalling defence of Stalin’s purges and ridiculous charges against Trotsky. I am currently doing a piece on Maoism or Trotskyism by Joshua Moufawad-Paul and referred to Mike Ely in passing because of this which is why I ended up here. Really don’t agree with dropping the term ‘communist’ in favopur of socialist but I could see you could call your project socialist in line with the Sanders surge. It has many similarities to the British Corby surge, a second wave has come in response to the second leadership election and thye prospect of a split in Labour. And I absolutely do not agree with joining the Greens; they are a capitalist party, albeit petty bourgeois and minor but definitely not a labour movement body. The call for a Party of Labor on the trade union bureaucracies is now the correct one in the USA to appeal to the disappointed followers of Sanders.

    Comment by socialistfight — July 31, 2016 @ 2:53 pm

  12. Really don’t agree with dropping the term ‘communist’ in favopur of socialist but I could see you could call your project socialist in line with the Sanders surge.

    It has nothing to do with that. Instead it is in keeping with Michael Lebowitz’s analysis:

    “The term communism communicated something different when Marx wrote in the nineteenth century. Communism was the name Marx used to describe the society of free and associated producers — “an association of free men, working with the means of production held in common, and expending their many different forms of labour-power in full self-awareness as one single social labour force.” But very few people think of communism that way now. In fact, people hardly think of communism as an economic system, as a way in which producers organize to produce for the needs of all! Rather, as the result of the understanding of the experiences of the last century, communism is now viewed as a political system — in particular, as a state that stands over and above society and oppresses working people.”

    Comment by louisproyect — July 31, 2016 @ 3:01 pm

  13. […] [10] Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist, June 19, 2016, Notes on the demise of the Kasama Project, https://louisproyect.org/2016/06/19/notes-on-the-demise-of-the-kasama-project/ […]

    Pingback by In Defence of Revolutionary Socialism, i.e. Trotskyism | Socialist Fight — August 26, 2016 @ 7:26 pm

  14. This works well as a catch up. Thanks. Sort of like a series review between box sets – can only binge on the Rcp/Lasagne stuff for a while then need a break. Hence the catch up aspect is perfect for me.

    http://museumofnonvisibleart.com/interviews/john-hutnyk/

    Comment by john hutnyk — October 11, 2016 @ 10:23 pm

  15. Fact is that trolls attacked the Kasama site demanding a debate and coming with evidence to support their claims. Ely and Kasama backed down because they were afraid to debate openly. Kasama ended up blocking commenting as they lost control of the narrative, which ended up killing the site. The trolls successfully demonstrated that the Ferguson riots were fomented by Obama and Soros and that Michael Brown was a criminal. The site quickly folded as Kasama feared debate and thought they were under attack by law enforcement. This was not the case. It was trolls. Trullz Win.

    Comment by Trullz — January 17, 2017 @ 3:09 pm

  16. https://www.facebook.com/notes/kasama-project/whither-kasama/10154761681261224

    A friend of mine wrote a firsthand account of what the group was like and the reasons behind their decline and fall. I think it adds a lot to this conversation.

    Comment by Hedrigal — January 19, 2017 @ 3:32 am

  17. […] made to turn it into a cadre organization. Surprise, surprise. He also takes issue with my article (https://louisproyect.org/2016/06/19/notes-on-the-demise-of-the-kasama-project/) that questions the use of the word communist, an argument I have made on occasions after reading […]

    Pingback by Assessing an assessment of the defunct Kasama Project | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — January 19, 2017 @ 10:02 pm

  18. Interestingly, the site flded quickly after the trolls began making connection between Kasama, BLM and George Soros. It’s interesting to note Kasama’s involvement with Occupy which is another Soros project. This helps to confirm the trolls assertion that Kasama (and RCP) are Soros fronts.

    Comment by Trullz — January 21, 2017 @ 4:00 am

  19. Yes, the Jews…

    Comment by louisproyect — January 21, 2017 @ 12:57 pm

  20. Who do you think is bankrolling the whole resist J20 you fucking faggot? That shit isn’t coming out of the protestors’ welfare checks.

    Comment by Trullz — January 22, 2017 @ 3:41 am

  21. Deray McKesson lives in Soros’ fucking basement: http://www.theamericanmirror.com/blacklivesmatter-leader-deray-lives-home-owned-by-soros-connected/

    BLM gets $30M+ from Soros: http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2015/jan/14/george-soros-funds-ferguson-protests-hopes-to-spur/

    Your whole fucking movement is paid for by the establishment. Soros, DNC, Obama.. BTW he’s not a “Jew” because he hates Israel, just like you.

    Comment by Trullz — January 22, 2017 @ 3:56 am

  22. As far as I know, the million plus people who demonstrated yesterday did not rely on Soros money. Maybe the chemtrails that will be used in a color revolution led by Chris Matthews and the CIA against Trump will be but that’s another story.

    Comment by louisproyect — January 22, 2017 @ 1:37 pm

  23. You leftards are “good at” dry humor quips, not so good at evaluating information objectively. Perhaps you should pull the dicks out of your eyes and have a read and a think..

    Comment by Trullz — January 23, 2017 @ 2:28 am

  24. Why would the moron who wrote the article create a website with a URL that might be confused with the NY Times? Oh, I know. Because that might make her drooling utterances seem legitimate–at least to a schmuck like Trullz.

    Comment by louisproyect — January 23, 2017 @ 2:32 am


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