Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 19, 2017

Assessing an assessment of the defunct Kasama Project

Filed under: revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 10:02 pm

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The article below by “chegitz guevara” is being posted in full since it appeared originally on FB, a medium some people understandably might choose to abjure. The author is a rather ubiquitous figure on the Internet left who might have even been on Marxmail or the Marxism list that preceded it. I honestly can’t remember. He attributes the collapse of Kasama to the decision 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 points made eloquently by Michael Lebowitz. In fact, the Kasama Project was too consumed by the Marxist-Leninist regalia of hammers and sickles to ever emerge out of the communist cocoon. My comments are in italics.

Whither Kasama?

KASAMA PROJECT·WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 18, 2017

by chegitz guevara

(The Kasama Project ceased functioning over a year ago, without issuing any formal statement. This note, by one of its original supporters, represents his own viewpoint only, and is shared as a point of information. The struggle continues.)

At Kasama’s peak, we were the target of an FBI raid and Glenn Beck’s radio and TV ire. We had a million page hits a year on our blog. We had comrades who were part of struggle in living history. We were sending comrades to Nepal and Greece, the Jackson, MS, to investigate the struggles there first hand. We brought together communist and anarchist forces up and down the West Coast for the Everything for Everyone festival. Our comrades played key roles in Occupy around the country (including the Occupied Wall Street Journal). We were in discussions with a number of different organizations for a merger of post Occupy communist organizations. People who weren’t in Kasama, and who were even opposed to our politics said we were the must read communist blog. And then one day, Kasama went silent….

==

It’s been more than a year now since the demise of the Kasama Project. It happened quietly, and to most of the members, unexpectedly and without warning. One day we learned that much of our leadership had quit over the previous months. A handful of us tried to keep going, tried to keep the blog running, but it was only ever a handful of what was left.

Depending on whom you ask, you’ll get a different story as to why things went south. This is mine. If you’re looking for salacious details, for dirt, for sectarian infighting, you’re going to be disappointed. Kasama was the best organization I was ever in. I don’t regret it for a minute.

To understand why Kasama folded, you must understand what K was. Depending on whom you asked, K was: a bunch of hard Maoists, soft Maoists, social democrats, liberals, anarchists, Marxist Leninists, Stalinists, Trotskyites, the RCP-lite, a cult, pigs, or the communist plot behind Occupy (thank you Glenn Beck). None of that was completely true, some of it was completely false, and some of it was a little true.

The truth is, few, if any, ever fully understood K, whether inside or outside the group. Everyone tried to pigeon hole us, figure out what we were. Hell, we didn’t even know what we were. We were an experiment. We were riding the tiger trying to figure it out. If anyone who wasn’t in Kasama tries to tell you what K was, they’re either lying or don’t know what they’re talking about.

For me, the loss of Kasama was both expected, and a bitter blow. If you weren’t around at the beginning, you may not understand today how so many people felt about K, even today, after over a year of relative silence, and years of decreasing activity.

==

When the Kasama Project began, or rather, when it fired it’s shot across the bow of Bob Avakian and his cult, the Revolutionary Communist Party, Facebook wasn’t a factor in people’s lives. The internet left was in their own isolated email groups and on MySpace, on RevLeft.com. The Socialism group on MySpace had 10,000 subscribers, and one day in December of 2007, everyone started discussing Nine Letters to Our Comrades, aka, The 9 Letters.

Unlike many other papers announcing breaks with a previous organization, The Nine Letters didn’t announce a split, the formation of a new organization. It didn’t dish dirt, but talked about systemic problems, a slow degeneration, opportunities missed, mistakes made, and a failure to sum up lessons learned.

The one comment I read again and again from people reading The Nine Letters was, that sounds exactly like my organization. The 9L was a general indictment of the whole of the left, dealing with the problems of one particular organization. And the effect was like Luther nailing his theses to his church door.

==

I’d personally known Comrade Mike Ely, under whose name The Nine Letters were penned (though he was not the sole author). In Chicago, I’d been part of the New World Resource Center collective, an all-points-of-view-on-the-left bookstore. “Mike the Maoist,” as we all knew him, would come in about once a week or so, and buy a copy of every new communist and socialist paper, and often talk to the comrades in the store. We all liked and respected him, even though we disagreed. He was very respectful to everyone there.

One day at the bookstore, Mike asked me one day what I knew about the Chinese revolution. Now, as a Trotskyist (at the time), I had a position: that it was a anti-colonial, national bourgeois revolution, socialist in name only, blah blah blah. I opened my mouth to say just that, and I realized this was a teaching moment. I had an opportunity to learn something. Instead I said, “Nothing really. What can you tell me about it?”

That was not the answer Mike was expecting and it caught him up short. Then he got this twinkle in his eye like the Coca Cola Kris Kringle and said “wait here.” He went through the bookstore (my bookstore!) finding various books for me to read. That’s the kind of person he is. When he’s talking to you, he’s giving you his full attention. He gives you the kind of respect that you don’t often see from anyone these days. And people respond to that.

Mike encouraged and challenged comrades. When I wrote about the events leading up to the Haymarket Massacre on an email list, he mentioned it a few months later, and said what he liked about it, and then offhandedly mentioned it made him think about something that the article wasn’t about, how natural disasters often give birth to revolutionary struggle. That’s the kind of comrade he was and is. It’s no secret Mike was the heart of Kasama, and probably the driving force.

==

When The Nine Letters came out, I reached out on the blog, talked about what I felt it represented. I engaged on the blog, and there was a very different kind of discussion. On most forums where different tendencies of socialists engaged, then, like on Facebook now, the discussion was typical of the internet. At best, people were talking past each other, cherry picking points to “score” against your “opponent,” engaging in all the worst habits.

On the Kasama blog it was different. People considered each other’s arguments, wrote to each other respectfully, disagreed as comrades. That wasn’t accidental. There was heavy moderation, and the worst excesses were removed, people were gently reminded to engage better.

That manner of discourse began to spread out from Kasama. As I wrote internally at the time, if K only lasts a few years, if we did nothing but change the way communists speak to each other, then it served to advance the struggle. And comrades around the world oriented to that kind of discussion. When the blog went down for renovation, people who did not agree with us, kept asking us when it would be restored. For its first four years, the K blog was averaging a million page hits a year. K mattered.

==

One other important thing Kasama did was to help bring back the word communist. While so much of the left was shamefacedly referring to itself as “revolutionary socialists,” K was openly and proudly communist. Something that Louis Proyect, in his recent obit on K considers an error, a problem, that we need to abandon the term permanently.

Decades ago, after I had split from a tiny Trotskyist sect called The Spark, a comrade I knew from my time in the group told me about her experience at work lunch, where she and the other women would talk about current events. She didn’t call herself a communist, but she expressed a communist point of view.

Eventually one of the other woman at the table said, “You’re a communist!” and got up and left the table. The other women were like, “All that stuff you were talking was communism? You’re a communist?” She said, “Yeah, I’m a communist.” They said, “Tell us more.”

People aren’t stupid. They’ll figure you out. If you’re a communist, but won’t own the word, then you’re ashamed of it, and people will see that too. And I’m not ashamed. I’m proud to be a communist. And Kasama was proudly communist.

That was our politics: communism. Not Maoist communism, not left communism, not Trotskyist communism, but communism. We had ex anarchists, ex Trotskyists, Maoists, left communists. There was no ideological litmus test, no tendency to which we had to swear allegiance. We were communists. We were for the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. We took the “scientific” in scientific socialism seriously. We understood the place that making mistakes and being wrong has in getting to better answers, to a deeper understanding.

We were more interested in figuring out the questions that needed to be asked, than coming up with a set of ready answers. And that, and communism, were the golden threads running through the blog. It wasn’t just politics. It wasn’t just politics we agreed with. We often posted stuff we disagreed with, in order to engage with it and understand it, and our own thoughts better. People always asked why we let a “reactionary” like Carl Davidson post, but they never saw that people like Carl and others served to help us develop and clarify a revolutionary communist politics, in distinction to reformist politics. And not just politics, but music, art, discussions of movies, scientific advances.

[In my original article, I explained why the word “communist” should be put to rest. Let me restate it succinctly. Marx used the terms socialism and communism interchangeably but after the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, the term communism became synonymous with the Comintern parties that were flawed at the beginning and by 1927 irredeemably so. For most young people, the term is inextricably linked to Stalin, Mao and the leaders of other parties associated with the Soviet bloc. It means political repression, bureaucratic privilege and more importantly for people trying to build a new left a way or organizing that hearkens back to the inflexible and self-destructive “Leninist” model. Frankly, I am not convinced that the term socialism is that useful either now since it is so much associated with the Sanderistas and the Scandinavian countries he identifies with. It is practically synonymous with the welfare state and hardly appealing except as an alternative to the dreadful neoliberalism associated with Blair, Obama, Hollande, et al.

Without going into too much detail, I believe that the name of a new left party will emerge out of the concrete struggle and shaped by the consciousness of its frontline fighters. For example, if Jesse Jackson had been much more like MLK Jr. and had come to the realization that the Democratic Party had been a dead-end, he might have been inspired to create something called The Rainbow Party that would have been a framework for revolutionaries to operate in (not as an entryist tactic but to sincerely build an alternative to the two capitalist parties.) Leaving aside the flaws of Syriza and Podemos, this is the path that the left in Greece and Spain have followed. Obviously, there have been both objective and subjective problems that have made Syriza dysfunctional but as a model for us on the left in the USA, it had much more to offer than small self-declared vanguard formations calling themselves something like the Communist Workers Party with a website festooned with hammers and sickles and red stars.]

==

Internally, at first, Kasama seemed a lot like a hospice for people escaping the cult of Bob Avakian. Whatever those of us outside the Revolutionary Communist Party thought of it pretty much from the 80s onward, those inside were engaged in a serious struggle with capitalist society. The rest of us might be trying to organize workers for better wages and conditions, they were in streets of D.C. in a pitched battle with the police … even in the hospital to which the injured of both sides were taken. They were in one of Chicago’s worst projects, Cabrini Green, organizing people against the evictions and destruction of their homes. The Chicago Police labeled the RCP a criminal gang because of this effort. However disconnected from reality those of outside the RCP thought they were, they were serious. And they were even more serious in the 70s. If people think the apple didn’t fall far from the tree, that we were the RCP without Avakianism, well, that’s not really a bad thing to be.

[This reflects the kind of ultraleftism that plagued the Kasama Project from the start even though for some people this kind of tactical militancy meant much more than theoretical clarity.]

Being in an organization like the RCP does things to you. It was (is) a cult, like much of the revolutionary left. You need time to come to terms with your life, with how you were treated. For the first few years of K’s existence, we didn’t rush to repeat that experience. Rather than purposefully, the organization grew organically. We didn’t order the creation of locals. When the FIRE Collective declared itself a Kasama collective, it was a bit of a shock to me. In my mind, we were still in the, let’s figure out what the fuck happened to communism phase. And then Red Spark was created. And then One Struggle, which wasn’t a Kasama collective, but we all read and discussed Kasama, and several had direct relationships with Kasama. And so on. Each one different, each set of comrades in and around Kasama, figuring out their own way.

I think that openness to experimentation, to allowing comrades to figure out how to contribute to Kasama, to planting that communist flag, was the best thing about K. But it never sat well with some comrades. Both inside Kasama and outside it, there were those comrades who thought we needed a more cadre style organization, and pushed for it. Two years ago, that impulse got a full head of steam.

I wasn’t specifically opposed to it. But I always felt that impulse was more ideologically driven, ‘this is what a communist organization should be,’ rather than being driven by, ‘this is our analysis of the moment, this is what we think the organization needs to be to respond to that moment.’ As K geared up to have its first convention, I asked the questions, ‘why this? why now?’ and never received an answer.

From the very beginning there was a problem with that plan. The size of Kasama had been over estimated. The willingness of comrades who couldn’t make the convention to switch to a cadre mode of organizing wasn’t that great (the fact they couldn’t rearrange everything to come to a conference should have been a clue). The new leadership and the membership had two different realities. And as that dawned on the new leaders, they began to drift away, one by one.

I’m not saying some of them weren’t engaged in difficult, and emotionally draining work. They misjudged the organization’s membership, as well as the political moment in the U.S.

==

I’ve shared this with others, and I’d like to add a bit about the push for a more cadre organization, as has been explained to me. Hopefully I’ll do it some justice. From what comrades who knew more than I, Kasama was reaching the limits of what it could do organizationally, and was beginning to slowly fade. Some people left, some of those who stayed were either never that active or began to lose energy (we had not a few grey heads). Even I noticed that.

What the hope was, was to change Kasama into more of an Iskra type organization, with more investigation of struggle, using the blog to do “revolutionary social investigation,” investigate the fault lines in this society, and aid struggle there. But, we lacked the capacity to do so. The people with the knowledge to do this didn’t have the time or energy, and those with the time and energy didn’t know how to do this, therefore, we needed more of a cadre type organization to build our capacity.

Another, and much more serious issue also needed to be addressed, that of male chauvinism and supremacy. Towards the end, there were a couple serious cases that had to be investigated and dealt with. I wasn’t part of the process, so I can’t tell you anything about it, but all of those who were on the investigative committee resigned. They engaged in their work with the seriousness and commitment such a task requires, and in the end, it drained them.

With their resignations, we discovered that only two of the original seven chosen at the convention to lead the organization were still in the organization. More people drifted away, with only a handful desperately scurrying to try and hold things together. But that was a task beyond us.

[I can’t add much to this since it is stated in a somewhat cryptic manner that I tend to associate with the Kasama Project unfortunately. But it is clear to me that the comrades never understood that Kasama should have never operated as a group per se. The most promising thing about it was its open-endedness that they obviously decided to ditch in favor of forming RCP II. I have been at this “regroupment” business for 33 years now and expect to be at it until I die. In many ways, it is nothing but a continuation of what Bert Cochran and Harry Braverman were trying to do in the 1950s. If you don’t take the long view of history, you will burn out rapidly.]

==

You might ask, where was Mike in all of this. Part of the reason for the convention and the election of new leadership was to give Mike a break from running Kasama. Mike announced he was taking some time off running the blog to write a book or two. This all happened in his absence. And let’s face it, if we couldn’t manage to keep the organization going without him, there wasn’t an organization even if he had been there.

I’m not putting the blame on the membership. And I’m not putting the blame on the leadership for the failure of the organization (though abandoning us when things got tough, I’m still upset about that).

Kasama outlived, just barely, the political moment that gave birth to it. It was an expression of what led to Occupy, a revolt, not just against the system, but against the tired, stale, ossified, sects that claimed to be communist, or, “revolutionary socialist.” Dozens of new anti-capitalist collectives appeared just before and in the wake of Occupy, and Kasama was the north star of that moment.

==

All of that is a sort of history of Kasama, tho. It doesn’t tell you what we were about. Why were we so vital? And what was the real weakness that lead to it’s demise.

An anarchist friend of mine describes the fall of the USSR as a blow from which the world has yet to recover. He likens it to being hit by a blow which knocks you senseless, in which you’re completely disassociated with reality. You’re not even trying to get back up, yet, you’re still unaware of what’s just happened.

In 1970, capitalism was on the ropes. One third of the world’s people lived under socialist government, revolutions were winning around the world. In the imperialist centers, there were massive antiimperialist movements and struggles against the old order. It would be impossible to conceive at that moment, the situation in which we are today, with the world’s first workers’ revolution overthrown, with capitalism ruling in China, Vietnam, and the United States victorious and straddling the globe like a colossus.

Kasama set its primary task the question of, what happened? How did we go from winning to total defeat in the span of a generation? What was there to learn from twentieth century socialism, both positive and negative? How can we build a twenty first century communist movement?

All the old ideas had failed, regardless of their theoretical and explanatory power. Old dogmas needed to be shed. We needed to relook at everything. Retest ideas we thought were solid. Look at old ideas once rejected. Consider the context of everything. Examine what worked and why, what failed and why, and what has changed.

Unlike every other communist organization, Kasama didn’t pretend to have THE answers. We had questions. This was Kasama’s power, why it was so appealing to so many.

==

Kasama’s power was also its weakness. An organization with answers can organize people around those answers. It’s much harder to organize around a question. A lot of people called Kasama a talk shop, and that’s not completely unfair. Given the state of people recovering from the Avakian cult, the fact that most of us didn’t live anywhere where Kasama had more than a couple comrades, Kasama was often largely a virtual network.

Many of us were also stuck in our previous modes of organizing and thinking. If Kasama didn’t pretend to have THE answers, many comrades in Kasama still operated as if we already had the answers, answers we’d learned in previous groups, when we needed radical new thinking. This is a weakness we never overcame, and I think the change Kasama made was rooted in this failure to overcome outmoded ideas.  As time went on, it became more and more difficult to make Kasama move. It was becoming ossified in its own form of disorganization. Kasama needed to change, but the change and the discussion were rushed in some ways, and rather than being healthy, ultimately broke the network.

I think the change we made was a mistake. I think Kasama functioned best as a network of comrades who participated in the struggle in their own ways, as way of putting ideas and culture back into the communist left, as an ideal to strive for. We needed to change, but we made change the wrong way.

[This is the takeaway from this article. “I think Kasama functioned best as a network of comrades who participated in the struggle in their own ways, as way of putting ideas and culture back into the communist left, as an ideal to strive for.” That is exactly what was needed and it is too bad that the Kasama Project lost sight of that.]

==

Everything has a birth, growth, decline, and end. Revolutionary organizations are no different (and some of them need to realize that). If an organization exists for more than a couple decades without participating in a revolution, it’s ceased being an organization for revolution, and has become an organization for self-perpetuation. It’s become its own reason for existing. While I am sad Kasama is no more, I am glad it ended well before it became its own purpose.

It’s said in show business you should end leaving your audience wanting more. Kasama did that. We ended before we became a stale, ossified sect. But we still need a Kasama. The tasks Kasama tried to carry out still need to be carried out. The revolution waits for no one.

Lal salaam, comrades!

Post Script: I want to mention a last word here about organizational security. In Louis Proyect’s laughable obit on Kasama (to which this is a rather belated response), he calls us obsessed with paranoia and security.

[I will never get over Mike Ely telling me not to videotape him at the Brecht Forum as if he would end up in Guantanamo if I put it up on Youtube. Pure infantile ultraleftism, as demonstrated further in his talk when he or his comrade Eric thought that driving a car through the front door of a bank in Greece amounted to anything.]

Like I mentioned at the beginning, Kasama got raided by the FBI when the Feds were going after the anarchists in the Northwest. In fact, K was the first raided. Glenn Beck was regularly calling out the name of one of our comrades on his program, as the mastermind behind Occupy and the link with The Coming Insurrection. And that’s just the stuff I’m gonna mention.

And not all the threats to K were from the state or the right. Some very disturbed, left wing individuals made credible threats against the lives of some of our members. A comrade’s mother was doxxed, by a “comrade.” And that’s just the stuff from the left I’m gonna mention.

And two people very close to us were murdered (though not for political reasons).

As Louis should remember well from his own life, revolutionary politics is not a game, even if some so-called comrades don’t take it seriously.

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