A Case Study of Opportunism and a Summation of Efforts by Renters Together in Lawrence, Kansas
by Akio (Written March 2021)
kites received the following from a reader in Lawrence, Kansas in response to Welcome to Splitsvillle. Population: Every Leftist Organization of the Last Decade—A Call for Summations, not Subtweet Recriminations. This article can be viewed in PDF form here.
Communists can’t succeed if our practice and ideas aren’t ever-developing with the political landscape, and we can’t develop as such if we never face our failures. This is precisely the hard lesson that forced Mao Zedong and the Communist Party of China to learn to summarize their experiences and to use their failures to come up with new strategies that would carry them to victory. It’s also the reason I first felt compelled to sit down and start writing this reflection almost two years in retrospect. Because for almost two years, this experience was something I had largely shut out—memories that I considered to be worthless because they belonged to a time before I gained the knowledge and skills that I have now. Failing to sum up this experience denied me the ability to move on from it, to grow politically, and to further refine the political work I do.
To break out of this rut, I needed to re-examine these memories rather than to deny them wholesale. This wasn’t from a desire to stir up old drama or reopen old wounds, but to take what universal and valuable lessons could be gained from the experience. I didn’t initially write this summation to be read by many people, but in response to kites’ recent call for summations1 and in a good old communist spirit, I’ve decided to make a version of it available for everyone—because reviewing our past experiences in organizing (no matter how much it makes us cringe at our old selves) can still teach us some lessons, even if what we learn is only what not to do. At the very least, everyone will now have to cringe alongside me.
Sometimes, You Don’t Know What You’re Getting Yourself Into
The organization that was Renters Together LFK2 (RTLFK) is a dead animal. It unceremoniously dropped dead in November 2019, its owners never even bothering to bury it. The body was just left there, a failed and forgotten project. The decaying remains—its website at renterstogetherlfk.org—have slowly crumbled away to the winds of time. Yet long before its official death, RTLFK had been barely operating as a husk of an organization. While it briefly enjoyed being at the center of the action of its parent organization, the now-defunct Lawrence chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), and was tended to by more than a handful of well-meaning activists, it was nearly entirely vacated within half a year of its inception, limping along in awkward silence until it was finally put out of its misery by the DSA’s collapse. By the end, all those who invested their time, energy, and resources into it got burned. Some moved on, while others quit political work altogether. It never even got one tenant to take one political action save out of narrow self-interest.
It was the first time I had ever worked in a tenant struggle as well as my first time being involved in mass struggle of any kind. Turns out, I picked a hell of a time to get involved in political work in my town. There were no organizing projects of a similar type anywhere in the area, and the town offered very little in its history that we could look to for guidance. Most of the people involved, myself included, had no experience and no clue about how to start something so monumentally new. In the midst of that, a new generation of radlib millennials were jockeying for spots in bourgeois politics, clawing their way in from every conceivable angle. The social democrats in our milieu were no different. Battered around in that storm was RTLFK, a project full of ambition but naively unaware of just how desperate the political terrain was. We were a small group, united in a generally anti-capitalist, anti-landlord way. I hadn’t noticed that we had brought along a passenger, something that travels within all things, which would eventually split the organization in two: contradiction. This contradiction would balloon into full-blown antagonism and an intense line struggle which proved to be the decisive battle that sealed the fate of RTLFK.
I was part of this project till its end. I quit only when it was no longer physically possible to keep going. As with all contradictory phenomena, this experience transformed me—but not in the way I had hoped, at least not immediately. At first, it led me to develop a lot of deep-seated doubts about myself, about my ability to analyze phenomena politically and to understand who people are and what people want. I developed a lot of doubts about whether my commitment to revolution was real. This led me to a deeper study of communism and eventually to Maoism, which provided some solace at first. Only much later did it help me develop a better understanding of dialectical materialism and rekindle my love for the revolutionary struggle.
In the years since, I’ve honestly tried not to think about RTLFK too much. It’s either been too painful to relive the cringeworthy mistakes I made and the failures we endured or too upsetting to think about the ways in which RTLFK was undermined, neglected, and even sabotaged by petty-bourgeois opportunism. I’ve tried to focus on other organizing projects, deepen my knowledge of the world, develop my politics, and elevate my consciousness. And in so many ways, I’ve done that. But as I think more about the tasks of proletarian struggle and the seeming inevitability of needing to re-enter the tenant struggle at some point, I keep returning to RTLFK. It’s been a fear more than anything, I guess, that I’ll repeat the same mistakes I made, fall victim to the same types of NGO heads, suffer the same problems, and relive the same defeats. I am, to this day, not an expert in organizing tenants. All I know is what I learned from my failure. So this is not a guide on how to successfully build a mass organization or win revindications for tenants. This is just a personal reflection on organizing experiences spanning a little over one year, from the fall of 2018 to November 2019. I can no longer run from struggling with this experience internally; I must face it, understand it, and conquer it. The good thing about this particular fear is that RTLFK has been long dead. The bad news is I might have to dig up some graves.
What Was Renters Together LFK?
RTLFK was a political organization for the rights and struggles of renters in Lawrence, Kansas. It was founded in late 2018 and announced itself publicly in January 2019. It started as an offshoot project of the local chapter of the DSA as an extension of its “housing working group,” and though, by all accounts, it fully intended to progress on its own into an independent organization, it never grew from its original ten or so members. Nevertheless, it started on a foundation of dedicated activists who had spent a few months researching and preparing the best way to launch a major tenant struggle—an ambitious project in a small city of just over 50% renters.
Before the organization became RTLFK, organizers met for weeks discussing, planning, and preparing to start an organizing project around housing. Vague, to be sure, but at least there seemed to be some agreement that actually talking to everyday people was a way to potentially build a lasting organization. We researched local conditions, powerful local economic and political players, and potential allies and enemies. Most of us were in the DSA (myself included—please don’t stop reading though), but some weren’t. One was a transplant from Manhattan, KS, where they had previously been involved in a tenants’ rights group called Renters Together. From what I could tell, this person was pretty liberal, but I can, at least, say their heart was in it. They weren’t in it to make a name for themselves. And though they weren’t always able to be around, they fought for the good guys whenever they could. I can respect that. Their prior experience and personal dedication to advocacy for poor people was a tremendous source of knowledge in those early days, especially for us just getting involved for the first time. So we adopted the moniker.
RTLFK officially launched in early January 2019 at a gratuitous public meeting, where we invited a couple dozen of our closest buddies to get together and talk generally about our experiences renting before awkwardly “introducing” the idea to the audience that a renter-landlord relationship is a class struggle. (Don’t lose hold of your seats!) Eventually, this mellowed out to having regular meetings to plan the actual work, which ranged from anything between organizing buildings into embryonic tenant unions to putting on a public event. Its meetings usually had around 6–12 people. We functioned this way every week, with very few exceptions, pretty much until it went under. Throughout its life, the kinds of work RTLFK got involved in vacillated wildly, each phenomenon reflecting a changing tide in the development of the two-line struggle.
The Struggle of Hanover Place
Between January and May 2019, RTLFK got involved in a brief struggle at the Hanover Place Apartments that provided us with a lightning strike of potential, leaving us desperately trying to capture and sustain it. It was the closest thing RTLFK ever had to a success. This is the story of the Hanover Place potholes and McCullough Development, Inc. (MDI).
There’s a really self-congratulatory piece on this campaign in the archives of RTLFK’s old website,3 but here’s a more honest version. RTLFK “knocked doors” at dozens of apartment complexes before we ever landed on Hanover Place. When we did, it was because we already knew people who lived there. Even then, there wasn’t an easy way in, but we gave it our best effort. We knocked doors for months, without missing a week. What we wanted out of our canvassing efforts was to get people in that apartment complex to hold meetings about organizing with each other. We had a really eclectic set of underlying motivations for pursuing that, so there wasn’t really a coherent strategy for getting to that point, let alone what to do once we reached it. But we pursued it relentlessly, because it was the best we had.
Conditions at Hanover Place weren’t the best in town—weren’t the worst either—but many people there toughed through them because they were just looking for a cheap place to live. But it did have a wide range of people, which provided some opportunities. The parking lot was in really rough shape, and people were complaining about the potholes banging up their cars. The opportunity was clear: get the people with the worst things to say about the potholes together in a room. RTLFK didn’t really have much to offer them in terms of ideas, but we had found out about the city government’s dormant feature of a complaint form to the rental inspection office. When we finally got a couple of tenants to meet up, RTLFK’s “big ask” for them was to fill out this form. They went along with it, but it wasn’t long before they realized they’d never hear back from the city’s inspection office. The focus quickly moved to getting the management’s attention. Some of the Hanover tenants met again, spray painting the parking lot and displaying a banner that read “Fix the Potholes.” These escalations were put forward by the tenants themselves, and to us, it demonstrated some real potential in mass tenant struggle. Unfortunately, we didn’t understand what that potential was.
RTLFK decided to capitalize on this escalation by expanding its mass base to other apartment complexes owned by MDI, namely the West Hills apartments. RTLFK saw its momentum at Hanover and deduced that it was that specific series of steps—of giving tenants the complaint form then asking them to meet with their neighbors—that produced that success. In the minds of many in the organization, including my own, we had a narrow window of time to build on this momentum by expanding it. The only problem was West Hills had a different set of circumstances. It was slightly nicer, the conditions weren’t as bad, and more importantly, it had a much stronger middle-class population. Around half the tenants were petty-bourgeois college students. Sure, people had complaints if you asked, but almost all were petty inconveniences and none that really fit together in a collective demand. RTLFK pushed tenants at West Hills to consider the conditions of their parking lot, which, to be sure, had some potholes, but nothing they were prepared to go to war over. Nevertheless, we were sure our plan had to work, because it worked before. We continued to knock doors every week for months. To further entice the West Hills tenants to talk to us, we held a barbecue picnic in the courtyard of the complex and invited a few of the tenants from Hanover. A few people who lived there filtered in and out, but it didn’t achieve the result we wanted. We did manage to catch the glare of the 19-year-old management office staff, so we chalked that up as a victory, convincing ourselves that we didn’t go home empty-handed.
Despite our relentless attempts at it, organizing West Hills wasn’t panning out, and the prospect of failure started to attack my conscience. I developed a lot of anxiety over RTLFK’s stagnation. I began to compulsively reach out to the handful of individuals that we managed to bring in, trying to force myself to be friends with them just so that they’d come to meetings and inflate our damaged egos. We tried widening our canvassing even farther, knocking doors at a third apartment complex, which failed even harder than West Hills. We pressed on with the potholes demand, keeping up our presence at West Hills, because we didn’t know how to admit defeat. We went on like this for several weeks before eventually turning our attention to other projects.
In the summer of 2019, without warning, the crumbling concrete at Hanover Place and West Hills was stripped and repaved. According to MDI, they had a plan to repave the parking lots at all their properties all along. Was that the truth? Did we have something to do with it? Did we light a fire under their asses or scare them into fixing the potholes? To be honest, I still don’t know. RTLFK was exhausted, and we took it as a victory to console ourselves. We plastered this victory all over RTLFK’s website and social media. We bragged about it in our presentations on security deposits. We told a reporter for Kansas Public Radio. I did my fair share of selling this victory, but deep down I was just glad that it was over.
In the end, RTLFK never firmly established an organized union of tenants, nor did it exhibit any political leadership over that struggle, whether that leadership be communist or otherwise. In fact, everything we did only dampened whatever mass energy was put forward by the tenants at Hanover. We also didn’t gain any new, regular members of RTLFK. We conducted no internal analysis, no self-criticism, no appraisal of the events of the half-year that we poured our energy into; we simply accepted a hollow victory and paraded it around in hopes that it would one day turn into a real winning strategy. It’s no wonder the masses never came to believe in us; we hardly even believed our own words.
Some of the mistakes we encountered are pretty easy to spot. For one, we had a total misunderstanding of the fundamentals of organizing. We’d learned some of the basic steps of developing a campaign, but we reduced the mechanics of organizing to the sum of its individual parts: knocking doors, conducting surveys, giving tenants an “ask,” following up on the ask, and holding tenant meetings. We were technically putting together the right parts, only without knowing how they actually go together. Another big issue was not being able to develop any qualitative understanding of the conditions we were organizing in. Social investigation and class analysis was not a concept that had been introduced to us yet, and we didn’t yet have the intuition to try to analyze conditions while we were trying to change them. This left us with no choice but to double down on the only tools we had, which was a first-grade understanding of how to canvas and facilitate meetings.
It’s important to point out that RTLFK’s main error wasn’t our mechanical attitude towards organizing, our lack of experience, our lack of social investigation and class analysis, or any other basic oversight—it was a refusal to really embed ourselves among the masses. The struggle was right there, all around us, begging to be led. The decisive factor in the struggle against MDI was not whether a majority of tenants were opposed to them, but rather the intensity of the contradiction with a segment of its tenants who were prepared to put it on the line. But we couldn’t detect a contradiction if our lives depended on it. What resulted was that while RTLFK was stuck trying to mechanically formulate a plan, our base at Hanover was already ahead of us. And the more we faltered in this regard, the more we tried to force things back on track by increasing the mechanical character of our approach. Even though in words we served the people and in form we tried to conduct mass meetings, our practice showed that we did not have any faith in our own base. To RTLFK, the masses were not the makers of history—we were. Had we trusted the Hanover tenants a bit—had we actually taken their ideas, systematized them, and given them the organizational tools to fully bring them into reality—there might’ve been a chance to forge the bonds to ignite a real mass organization, an actual tenants’ union. And by actually knowing how to apply the mass line and collectively struggling, RTLFK might’ve transformed into a qualitatively different animal—a revolutionary proletarian organization. But who knows?
This fate was most likely avoidable had we done some basic investigating first, and I’m not just talking about a surface-level glance at the facts. Do your due diligence first: look at history and background, look at the surrounding areas, and look for signs of proletarian populations. Worry less about the number of doors you knock; worry about whose doors you’re knocking. To be clear, you shouldn’t deny your organization a wide pool to work with, and you do need a healthy variety of responses when you do your investigation and inquiry. But don’t mistake the forest for the trees. No amount of knocking doors will make petty-bourgeois living conditions produce a proletarian consciousness. You can’t spreadsheet your way to revolution.
Small Claims, Smaller Dreams
In the spring of 2019, RTLFK was running out of steam. Since our attempt at building a mass campaign sputtered out, we struggled to find consistent areas of work to get involved in. During this time, we stumbled around looking for any project that would sufficiently occupy our time. Eventually we settled for “Sarah”.
Sarah was a young white woman who lived at Hanover Place. We had met her months before while doing our initial canvassing at Hanover, but we largely had forgotten about her after she moved out. She was poor, recently separated from her partner, and out of work. Her partner had moved out and stuck her with rent she couldn’t afford. We met her at a time when she was living through a cold winter in isolation, struggling with her mental health and broken windows in her apartment. After she terminated her lease early and moved back in with her parents, she was hit with several serious fines by management: months of back rent, one for early termination, and other miscellaneous charges for damages. Sarah was going to owe several hundred dollars that she didn’t have. She reached back out asking for help to one of our members who had initially canvassed her, and she became the first “person from the doors” to enter our meetings. We felt bad for her situation, and without other strong prospects for campaigns, helping her case seemed the logical thing to do.
RTLFK promised her a lot, but in truth, none of us knew what the hell we were doing. We couldn’t do much about the early termination or back rent—they were related to what was written into a legally binding agreement. We weren’t repairmen and we didn’t know any. We didn’t really have any mass support. We had already left behind all of our contacts from our failed Hanover campaign, so there wasn’t an option to rally mass support around her. What we did have was a handful of social democrats at the helm, who delighted at the opportunity to steer the organization in a more legalist, reformist direction. RTLFK’s most senior organizer—the DSA’s devout Italian-American chieftain who worked as a lawyer—was hellbent on selling the idea that tenants could be guaranteed their full deposit back, plus extra cash, if they went to court. None of us besides him knew anything about law, but without better ideas, we all accepted that that would be the plan. Sarah was headed to court, being unofficially advised by a political organization whose members were either inexperienced, diabolically opportunist, or both.
Sarah’s day in court was brief. The judge, probably bored out of his mind, stated that both parties had enough arguments to cancel each other out. They’d owe each other nothing, he ruled. Sarah received nowhere near the full deposit she was promised. We strung her along for months, dragged her to countless meetings, pushed her to shell out even more cash to file in civil court, and she got literally nothing out of it. This didn’t seem to phase the DSA lawyer (we’ll call him “Tony”), who tried to convince Sarah on her way out of the courthouse that this was actually a “big victory” for her. Tony then proceeded to rope her into the DSA’s Bernie 2020 campaign. (You can see why I’m so cynical about this stuff.)
Throughout our time working with her, Sarah was a top priority for RTLFK for no other reason than the fact that she was the only physical evidence that we had a functioning organization. During a time when we were treading water, her being in communication with us was proof that we were doing something. We needed to prove that to ourselves and to the outside world, and all the ways in which we interacted with her reflected that. We asked her to come to our meetings, to commit to pursuing other campaigns with us, to talk to a reporter for us, even to speak in front of a small crowd for a presentation on suing for your security deposit in small claims court. RTLFK trotted her out in front of Lawrence and told the press that she had triumphed over her oppressors when, in reality, all we did was shove her in front of a judge and hail Mary.
This particularity signified a general phenomenon: substituting isolated, apolitical projects for mass politics. We repeated this sort of project multiple times, each time as fruitless as the last. Someone would reach out to us online, we’d talk with them about their situation, then send them to court. We eventually figured out that you don’t even need a law degree to reach the exact same outcome. It was pretty easy, but it took us further and further away from mass struggle. We weren’t really “organizing,” and we sure didn’t have any “mass” anything. We were just helping one individual person in an individual situation, get some sort of personal benefit. Not that it’s necessarily wrong to do from a moral standpoint—in fact, it was a place of compassion (from those of us who weren’t trying to manipulate her into the Bernie camp anyway) that the driving force of this campaign came from. But it didn’t do anything to help any tenants—let alone any exploited or oppressed people—build political power for themselves or develop a proletarian consciousness.
This shift toward weak, reformist, apolitical work directly corresponded to a decline in our mass work. As soon as RTLFK lost its footing at Hanover Place, our attention turned to individuals. And it isn’t that the struggles of individual people are unsuitable for generating mass campaigns. Had we actually maintained the mass contacts we had at Hanover and applied the same kind of energy to Sarah’s struggle, we could have made something resembling political action. But coming off a labor-intensive failure, we couldn’t muster the will. So we settled for a lazy, ineffectual style of work that we could accept, not just because of our lack of experience, but because of the dominant class outlook in our organization. Petty-bourgeois consciousness is so universally linked to middle-class conditions on this continent that it’s understandable that activists here fall into this mindset. Thus, we see organizations begging the public to donate to a struggling person’s PayPal or spending time and money running errands for random people. This is lower than red charity—it’s damn near social work.
By mid summer of 2019, RTLFK’s focus had pretty much entirely shifted away from mass struggle. Door knocking continued in form, but it was devoid of all political content. The organization’s opportunist camp had all but dropped its façade of being in favor of mass work, plowing full steam ahead toward petty-bourgeois liberal activism. In May 2019, RTLFK participated in a popular demonstration against a proposal for luxury downtown apartments, an event that was led by hundreds from among the small proprietors and the university milieu of Lawrence. RTLFK shared a happy slice of that spotlight, and many became dazzled by the power of “official recognition.” For the opportunist camp, the waning attempts at mass organizing was their moment in the sun. This began 3–4 months of heavy NGOism, which took shape during those big events in which RTLFK struggled to assert itself in the “official” bourgeois scene. It put on public events and presentations, dressed itself up as an advocacy group and information resource, and even attempted to wedge itself into the local election cycle. Though there were numerous events that demonstrated this shift from bad to worse throughout 2019, the events that best exemplified it were the security deposit presentation and the electoral candidate forum.
It was June, and RTLFK decided that it would pursue putting on a major public event for the organization: a standalone presentation on getting back your security deposit through court. We spent the weeks leading up to it building the presentation: we planned every detail of the agenda, wrote speeches, researched all relevant aspects of the law on security deposits, and prepared a slideshow with pictures. One among the opportunist camp—themselves a property manager for a local housing co-op—accidentally showed their own ass by using the co-op’s own houses in photos meant to demonstrate poor living conditions. RTLFK publicized the event as much as it could, making use of a membership overlap it had with the co-op and the DSA and presenting it as a coalition in a weak attempt to legitimize the event. This really didn’t help it reach its target audience, though. The vast majority of the attendees were not poor renters, but people in RTLFK and their friends—members of the local activist scene who serve as the “reserve army” of social reinforcements called in whenever one of their own needs to pad their image. There were, at best, two or three unaffiliated people who turned out after stumbling across a Facebook flyer as well as one elderly landlady with a personal reactionary vendetta.
The presentation got off to a rocky start. The room looked half-empty, which was made all the more comical by the mics and oversized projector setup. Members of RTLFK who tried to will themselves to follow through with the presentation decided at the last minute they didn’t want to do it, which, looking back, I’m almost glad they didn’t. Tony, the DSA lawyer, and the co-op’s manager took turns prancing around and showcasing their NGO cred, shouting down a 70-year-old landlady and threatening to personally help any tenant sue her in court. (We’ve seen Tony in action in the previous campaign, remember, and he isn’t exactly batting .300.) Some of the unaffiliated people who showed up asked a few questions, which RTLFK didn’t really have answers to, but, of course, the presenters made sure to redirect them to other NGOs in order to flex their industry connections. After this, no one in the general public gave RTLFK any attention. Not that it mattered anyway, since, as far as the presenters were concerned, they had put on quite the infomercial.
Fast forward to October. By this time, pretty much all enthusiasm for RTLFK had ceased both inside and outside the organization. Canvassing had basically been buried, save for a few last-ditch attempts to return to some old door-knocking sites that were overlooked in the Hanover Place heyday. The organization was deadlocked in line struggle, so there was little communication within RTLFK, rendering all meetings hollow formalities. These being the conditions, the opportunists went ahead and announced that RTLFK would be putting on a public forum for the candidates running for city commission—in “coalition” with a smattering of other organizations that conveniently had the exact same leaders. This event, of course, did nothing for tenant organizing—but RTLFK was long past that. Instead, this was in service of its leaders’ careers and the careers of their buddies who were running for local office. To be clear, this wasn’t even a winning formula, since they eventually got clobbered at the polls. But their phony coalition-building did manage to help them draw the established liberal bourgeois political scene to one of their events. The goalposts inched slightly closer to social democracy, momentarily. You could say it was the opportunists’ crowning achievement of that year.
There’s something really interesting to be said about the internal dynamics of RTLFK during this period, as it sank deeper and deeper into its death spiral. For those who were genuine about the tenant struggle, or organizing in general, each attempt crushed their spirits. People who had dedicated countless hours and really wanted to build a fighting movement became smaller and smaller as they watched the possibility of doing so being carried away into the election cycle. But for those that led this opportunist charge, the public flattery bolstered their resolve and massively inflated their already huge heads. Activities like these aren’t all that hard to pull off: all you need to do is pay money to reserve publicly available space, slap together the names of all the organizations you’re in, post about it on social media, invite the press, and insert a generic platform that panders to a liberal audience. If you’re at all clever, you’ll invite their own friends and allies to pack the room. Half of this is doable without even going outside. It does not require any substance and does nothing to politicize any struggle. It does, however, construct a veneer of political activity that inflates the egos of wannabe political influencers. In RTLFK, the opportunists themselves admitted behind closed doors that they intentionally wield the dozens of phony social media pages at their disposal to create an optical illusion of mass support for whatever grift they happen to be running. The public image of RTLFK rested entirely on the personal whims of a couple of radlib careerists.
In general, this clout-focused NGOism is a form of “organizing” that is growing ever more popular. And it’s a phenomenon that already gets criticized a lot by revolutionaries around the continent, so I’ll try not to harp on it too much here. But what I will say is that the forms of organizing you’re engaged in do often reflect the essence of what you are as a force in class struggle. It’s all too easy to start up a Facebook or Instagram page, design a trendy logo with your art school buddies, go “official” and declare an organization, announce some generic public events and demonstrations, and generate a small following. In the two decades since the internet became a force for social interaction, this has pretty much become the established formula for activist politics around here. But as useful as these tools can be in reaching a mass audience, their ready-made access and availability doesn’t automatically make them productive weapons of proletarian struggle. Establishing a public-facing political organization and announcing yourselves to the world might often be a knee-jerk reflex when embarking on a new political project—I’ve seen it happen over and over in Lawrence and pretty much everywhere else in the Empire—but there’s a reason why all of these projects are radlib or petty-bourgeois offshoots of stale liberal or socialist parties. There’s gotta be a reason why we have not witnessed one single proletarian organization get its start by launching a Facebook page and website, recruiting online, openly announcing its activity, or trending.
I’d like to think it’s because these tools and their systems are tailor-made to promote bourgeois values. They are designed to indulge people’s individual desires, and they often reward behaviors that place personal acclaim and notoriety at the forefront of one’s politics. Of course, NGOism, lukewarm political demonstrations, and clout chasing have been around long before the internet went live, but it has certainly helped strengthen their appeal by making the tools available to virtually every middle-class brat with a smartphone. Trying to build something revolutionary with this practice as your foundation is an indication that you’ve yet to break out of the old mold and start something really new. Without being firmly rooted in the life of the masses, these tools become not weapons to give life to the ideas of the revolutionary class, but a crutch to prop up the petty-bourgeois concerns of a lone, struggling activist. There’s no such thing as “proletarian clout,” because the very principles that are embodied in these actions do not come from proletarian culture. A “socialist” or “communist” group can’t afford to behave this way. If it don’t immediately spell anti-proletarian politics right off the bat, expect that organization to head in that direction the longer it stays on those tracks.
Maybe this development of RTLFK’s short history was unavoidable. The opportunist camp was there from the very beginning, lying in wait. Part of me believes that there should’ve been a way for us to combat this opportunism in our midst. It should’ve been during the height of our Hanover organizing, when we were closest to any kind of mass line. Had we known better at the time, had we dedicated ourselves to real proletarian struggle, maybe we could’ve kicked out bourgeois politics early on. But I wasn’t at that level yet. Like many of the communists that worked on RTLFK, I didn’t have the political understanding necessary to bring this contradiction to a head and overcome the reactionary wing—not yet. But I would develop it throughout the course of RTLFK’s life and death. The contradiction within RTLFK would elevate my political consciousness, teaching me through struggle the necessity of true dedication to the oppressed.
The contradiction was always present. Actual struggle between the two sides, however, didn’t really kick off until the fall of 2019. The first sign I saw was during RTLFK’s periodic discussions on incorporation, bylaws, and the DSA. Discussions like these cropped up a handful of times throughout the first half of 2019, but as mass work slowed down, they began intensifying drastically. It was usually beneath the surface, behind the veneer of false unity, but whenever we talked about bylaws or the DSA, the cracks really started to show. These discussions had clearly defined fault lines, with opposing viewpoints on either side never reaching a real compromise. There was a constant push to incorporate the organization and get it a bank account. Going “official” and electing a board of directors was a big selling point from the opportunist camp attempting to disguise their maneuvering into more leadership positions. At the time, I wasn’t really opposed to the idea of putting up a legal organization and getting a bank account (maybe then I wouldn’t need to spend so much of my own money!), but I just didn’t know where to even begin with all of it. For one thing, I didn’t feel too great about proclaiming who we were as an organization if we weren’t actually doing a whole lot. Bylaws seemed like a monumental task to define, quantify, and parameterize for a tenant movement that, at that moment, did not exist. It seemed to me like we were tackling the wrong problem at the wrong time.
Quick side note: from what I’ve seen, discussions about “defining the organization,” lofty ideations about “the future of the organization,” and so on always tend to come up anytime organizations lose their grasp on mass work and are no longer busy running campaigns and getting things done. Without something to ground you in reality, you get stuck in your head. These discussions end up being cyclical, going nowhere, or sliding backward into revisionism.
Of course, it’s not that discussing the goals or the future of your organization is a bad thing; there are times where it is critical to have these discussions. But a fixation for these sorts of discussions during times when there is little to no outside work going on is a sign that your organization’s sense of direction may be growing disconnected from the concrete struggle it’s supposed to serve. In my observations, these situations are also when organizations are at their most vulnerable to opportunist takeovers, which is pretty much what happened in RTLFK.
At a meeting in August about bylaws, we got all of four words written down before the discussion derailed into an intense struggle. Tony, who had been entirely absent from the organization for over a month to run the DSA’s Bernie campaign, relentlessly demanded that RTLFK be entirely under the DSA’s political control and steered by DSA leadership. He wanted RTLFK to funnel members and dues payments directly into the DSA while pipelining tenants from their doorsteps into volunteering for Bernie 2020. Bylaws and incorporation were vital parts of this plan, for the only way to ensure that “official” leadership in RTLFK could be conquered by the DSA’s loyal ideologues was to create a tiny, powerless bourgeois institution within which they could elect themselves to its board of directors. Tony then revealed that he had been coordinating with DSA chapters elsewhere in Kansas to start their own Renters Together puppet organizations, as he intended to use the Renters Together brand to establish a statewide NGO network (and, unlike the DSA being a national organization, Renters Together would be a scheme that was all under his control). Tony’s diabolical master plan had its first grand unveiling. Too bad about the reception it got.
We did our best to reject all those notions, demanding that RTLFK be allowed to serve the interests of the tenants, not the DSA. For one thing, some of the people present were not even members of the DSA at all and had no interest in it. Hell, even one of RTLFK’s founders had always refused to join the DSA. Some of us yelled and fought, others just sat still, afraid to leave. Needless to say, no bylaws were ever written, and the organization stopped meeting shortly after that. Tony pulled one member aside afterwards to further manipulate them into forgiving him, but there was no hope of reconciling after that. Communication between the two camps ceased almost entirely. We weren’t sure if there was any chance to save RTLFK at that point, but we were damn sure who had just killed it.
Self-Criticisms and Some Points of Assessment
Looking back, it’s hard to believe that I didn’t see this coming, because the signs were all over the place. It took me almost until the very end to fully see what was going on. But in reality, the development of this contradiction was more complicated than in my memories. In fact, for at least half a year, there was actually quite a bit of unity in RTLFK—only it was a false unity, a unity between opposites where one calls the shots while the other lacks the capacity or the will to challenge the status quo. At first, I didn’t really see any clear distinction between the opportunists and ourselves. Sure, I could tell that interests were diverging, and I could feel internally that something was going wrong. But I mistook these phenomena for problems within myself, for my own incompetence, that I needed to make up for by increasing quantitative output. I thought that a developing contradiction within RTLFK meant that I was responsible for synthesizing some common program, and the fact that I couldn’t fix RTLFK’s issues was crushing. I placed an enormous psychological burden on myself, and it really shook my confidence in political work for a long time. I’m still not convinced I’ve fully gotten past it. I probably wouldn’t still be writing this if I had.
That isn’t to say I wasn’t wrong about how I went about dealing with the perceived issues. Yes, the opportunism of the DSA reactionaries was the principal aspect of the contradiction in the two-line struggle. It was their insatiable careerism that ultimately tore RTLFK apart at its seams. But all contradictions have secondary aspects. My actions, my intents and aspirations, were no less petty-bourgeois. If the careerists were taking command, I made way for them. If they turned their attentions away toward other projects, I felt the need to take their places. What I wanted to achieve was to be their equal—to match their ability to influence people, to “lead.” Even though I was in contradiction with them politically, I still wanted to be like them. I measured my self-worth—and the success of the organization as a whole—by my ability to replicate the outward forms of organizing: in number of doors knocked, number of positive responses, and in setting and achieving goals to pad an imaginary resumé. I allowed and enabled their opportunism over and over, hoping it would lead to RTLFK’s growth, but it didn’t. And the more it didn’t, the more discouraged I became about the viability of tenant struggle at all in this city.
Here’s a few of the universal lessons that I took away from my experiences in RTLFK. This isn’t necessarily the final word on RTLFK, only the most constructive elements of what I learned from it. These are things that I wish someone would’ve said to me while I was going through it:
1. Building any mass political organization requires that you start with the masses. The campaigns you run, as well as the political beliefs and practice you develop, are entirely dependent on how you view, talk to, and treat the masses of people you are trying to serve. This doesn’t mean that any contact with the masses leads to success or that more contact is better contact. It’s extremely important how you interact with them, how they’re treated, and what you actually do with the ideas they put forward in your campaigns. And, of course, if you neglect mass work altogether, your work ceases to have political content and becomes irrelevant to the people you’re supposedly fighting for. If the masses aren’t at the heart of what your organization does, then what are you even building one for?
2. Get familiar with the environment the first few times you enter a site of struggle. You’ll have an easier time understanding why something’s working or not working if you understand the particular struggles in that area. Study before you go, keep your eyes peeled when you’re there, and make summations and self-criticisms after each session. This way, you’ll be able to analyze conditions while you are working to change them. Religiously sticking to your guns might leave you furiously trying to force a broken strategy where it won’t go.
3. If you see small success, hone your practice. Don’t change your tactics just yet. Get a more intimate understanding of a developing campaign by immersing yourself further in it. That doesn’t mean you have to put it all on the line at this point, but if something’s working, understand where that success is coming from before you try and change things.
4. Don’t worry too much about “officialdom” and bourgeois cred. The power of a proletarian organization flows from the masses; it’s not bestowed by public recognition. If you’re just starting out, don’t worry about setting up a “public face” that is known to anyone other than your mass base, at least not yet. You are a not a PR company, and you don’t owe “the public” anything. This doesn’t mean never be public, use media, or establish organizations. There are times when these tools become a weapon instead of a crutch. For example, the concept of establishing a network of Renters Togethers led by political organizations is not so dissimilar to the way a communist organization might establish tenant unions and use tenant organizing to develop everyday organizers into politically educated communist cadre. The key differences are not just the ideological beliefs that set communists apart from the rest, but also how these moves are made and prioritized and, most importantly, the relationship to the masses.
5. Be wary of anyone who shows up to your activity promising the help of an established organization. Especially anyone who says they can help “reach more people,” get you access to fancy programs, put on big public events, get you in touch with the government, or partner you with NGOs. These people are more than likely just trying to pump and dump another project to boost their careers. Again, your organization’s power will not come from outside, but from the masses.
6. You can do it. This is the most important lesson I’ve learned. I was someone with no experience in a terminally unrevolutionary organization, and despite all that, I glimpsed success. If those conditions could, for a brief moment, stir up a tenant struggle, imagine what could be done with the proper tools in hand.
It’s come to my attention that some old die-hards of the DSA are attempting to resurrect the corpse of the Renters Together project in Lawrence this fall, using the exact same broken formula—the same slogans, strategies, and style of work—to recruit a new generation of earnest young activists. It’s only a matter of time before this initiative repeats the same failures under the force of the same kind of opportunism. The fact that there are those still clinging to this formula is just further evidence of the urgent task of communists to sum up our work. We’ve got to learn, because no one else will learn for us.
If there’s any message that gets through to the young people who’ve gotten involved in this project, it should be this: if you are serious about building a real fighting movement in the wake of the current eviction crisis, pay close attention to the style of work that is taking root around you. Learn from the mistakes of the past, embed yourselves firmly among the deepest, broadest, and most exploited sections of the masses, and struggle with them to establish revolutionary fighting organizations. Uphold this proletarian line by struggling against the reformist schemes of the DSA’s opportunists at every turn. Wrest Renters Together away from them wherever you can. And most of all, no matter what failures or setbacks you encounter, seriously reflect on and sum up your experiences.
- See “Welcome to Splitsville. Population: Every Leftist Organization of the Last Decade—A Call for Summations, Not Subtweet Recriminations” in kites #4.
- LFK, which stands for “Lawrence Fucking Kansas,” is a cheeky abbreviation that’s popular among Lawrence townies.
- Though the domain has since expired, this post can still be viewed through the internet archives at renterstogetherlfk.org/posts/hanover.html.