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:
- 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.
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.
- 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.
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.
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.