A Summation of the MRP by Tyler and an exchange with Kenny Lake
In response to our call for summations,1 kites received a summation of the “Maoist Revolutionary Party” (MRP), a short-lived organization in Philadelphia in 2019–20, from Tyler. While this summation offers some insights into the arrogance and lack of revolutionary principles that led to the MRP’s demise, we wanted to dig deeper into the fundamental questions of ideological and political line at the heart of the matter. For this reason, we assigned Kenny Lake to write a reply to Tyler’s summation. While the MRP was not significant in its own right, it is through this particular summation that we hope to illuminate some of the more general political problems among the crop of people who started calling themselves “Maoists” in North America in the last decade, in hopes that some may come out of that morass of dogmatism and arrogance and become real communists. We thank Tyler for being down to engage in a dialogue that is not short on criticism and struggle, but hopefully productive.
You Call This a Party?
The following is an account of one participant in the short history of the so-called “Maoist Revolutionary Party.” This story probably ended definitively over a year ago, although I am so far removed from it now that I can hardly tell whether there remains ongoing threads, or whether the whole ordeal is completely irrelevant. I’m not sure how much can be learned from all this, but I do want to express one thing in general before we even begin: this type of thing happens, and it’s not the end of the world. On a personal level, you might feel extremely foolish, you may have your name associated with reprehensible lines and you might look really stupid along the way. So what? Life goes on! Very few aspects of our situation in 2021 are positive, but we should at least be thankful that most mistakes now lead to embarrassment, alienation from a few social circles and “wasted” time—not destitution, a prison cell or worse. The only thing that can be done is to get over ourselves and get on with it.
One technical note: I’d like to clarify that when I use phrases like “we thought” or “our intentions,” I mean only that this was the dominant line within the organization. There were almost always divergent lines on a particular question, to the point where including them all would be tedious; I have only included specific examples where relevant.
Early Days in Philly
I joined the Philadelphia chapter of For The People (FTP) in the Fall of 2019. For The People – Philadelphia was an “intermediate” organization of the Maoist Communist Party – Organizing Committee (MCP-OC), a since-dissolved pre-Party formation that, to my knowledge, began as a split from the Red Guards project. MCP-OC’s ideological line, and occasionally their external presentation, was strongly focused on negation of perceived negative trends in the US Maoist movement, including white chauvinism and dogmatism. The aspects of their ideology that were not simply negation, it must be said, centered around a confused, eclectic and undoubtedly reformist strategy of mutual aid, community gardens and the like. Within this milieu, however, there were kernels of a class-struggle line, and to me it seemed like they were a group worth getting in contact with.
I was a very new arrival to Philadelphia, and the fact I was put on the path to membership in the group so quickly should have indicated their weakness, rather than (as I arrogantly assumed, to the extent I even thought about it) my persistence. I was so new to the city, in fact, that the other members of the group were among the first people I really met. Immediately it became clear that the “organization” was very small. Within a few weeks, I learned that it was in reality two people, one of whom I didn’t meet for months (“Lauren”) and another who was essentially the main driver behind the group (“Pickles”). I was to be inducted through a candidacy process alongside a small group of other people who I did not know. I would later learn that most, if not all, of these people had been recruited by way of personal friendships and/or the activist scene in the city. This meant that the group as such did not arise from mass work, but rather from the social networks of its initiators. This tended to take the group far more towards the activist/NGO scene than was strictly necessary. The people recruited in this manner, myself included, held petty-bourgeois and anti-Marxist ideas which hampered the group’s development. The initiators had opportunistically expanded—a mistake which was unrecognized at the time and eventually repeated.
The candidacy process, which consisted of group study and discussion of various Marxist and anti-colonial texts, proceeded relatively smoothly for a while. At a certain point, a sub-group within the candidates began to feel strong reservations about Pickles method of leadership and education. They made criticisms to Pickles, which were not revealed to the bulk of the candidates and, to my knowledge, were basically ignored. The criticizing candidates then left abruptly. Later on, when the remaining candidates were able to read a letter from the erstwhile candidates detailing their criticisms, we found a fair amount of it very agreeable (such as their criticism of Pickles idea to wear combat knives while doing mass work as a majority-white organization in a poor Black area, among other things). Those of us who remained, however, did not find the content of the criticisms to be sufficient cause to depart. There was a perception that the authors of the letter were not politically serious—frequently missing events, etc.—and that their emphasis on Pickles errors, which were subsequently acknowledged and addressed internally, exposed Pickles over-enthusiasm and militancy rather than anything fundamentally incorrect in their line. So, we continued on much as before.
Before our candidacy class could even reach its conclusion, however, we were hit by a bombshell. Pickles informed us, in the middle of the night, that they had left or been expelled from the MCP-OC. We called an emergency meeting to sort through what had happened, and what would happen next. Incidentally, it was at this emergency meeting that I first met Lauren, the other founding member of FTP-Philly. Now, at the time the MCP-OC asserted that Pickles, who is white, was expelled for white chauvinism, both in their lines and in their conduct. When we discussed the matter, we considered this perspective and came to the conclusion that this was not the primary reason for Pickles break with the organization. The crux of the issue was Pickles attempt to discuss (you might say push) the idea that some white people did not have inherent power/advantages over Black people. When discussing the situation, we agreed that we did not uphold that line and that it did contain white chauvinist elements, in that it sought to minimize the national oppression of New Afrikans, along with other non-white people in the USA.
Our own interpretation of events ended up focusing on the internal workings of the MCP-OC. None of us had strong connection or loyalty to the MCP-OC as a larger entity, and we believed at the time that Pickles was a pole of commitment to mass struggle within MCP-OC (vs. the dominant economistic NGO and charity work line). Therefore, we came to view the way in which the incident was handled as a bureaucratic attempt by the MCP-OC leadership to consolidate their reformist line, with Pickles chauvinistic errors providing a convenient excuse. I make no claim now as to whether that theory is true or not, but it is in fact what we thought at the time. There had been significant, unprincipled mud-slinging online by both sides in the immediate aftermath of Pickles departure, and so we chose not to release any kind of statement in an attempt to avoid getting sucked into online slapboxing. This, I’m sure, did not help our case among those who thought that we represented one or more white people throwing a tantrum because we couldn’t accept black leadership.
The question then arose, what should we do? We immediately agreed to stick together, as the prospect of a decent-sized group of relatively committed “Maoists” felt too good to throw away. Unfortunately, my notebook from this time was stolen and so I am fuzzy on the exact timeline here, but at some point the idea of developing an alternative pre-Party formation was brought up. The context that makes this a slightly less foolish idea than it sounds (though it was very, very foolish) was that the Omaha, Nebraska branch of FTP had split around the same time as Pickles was expelled/resigned, and was in talks with our group about steps forward. There were other east coast branches as well (allegedly—I had never met any of these people and I still haven’t) who had connections with Pickles and might be won over to “our line,” which in our minds was basically: focus on class struggle, use the mass line, keep most everything else the same. The idea of a number of different groups from across half the country joining us made it feel a lot less ridiculous to entertain the idea of some sort of relatively advanced organization. In my view it is also unquestionable that a petty desire to just do better than the MCP-OC affected our planning. So, we set ourselves the task of calling together as many groups as possible and laying the groundwork for a pre-Party formation. I believe a timeline of a year or two was set to establish a Party. That sentence alone should tell you that we are entering a period of significant, fundamental errors, so I’d like to take a break from the narrative to outline our starting mistakes as I see them.
First was our low actually-existing ideological development and basis of unity. I think the fact that we had all come from within the same organization, although we had only been in it together a few months, gave us an inflated sense of shared ideology and mindset. The fact was, once we broached basic questions like “what is a Party in the Leninist sense?”—to say nothing of “how do we run our organization so that we advance towards that goal?”—we discovered both how little we knew and how divergent our views were. This shouldn’t have even really been a problem—there was no reason we couldn’t have taken time to seriously study these questions and advance on a firmer footing. But we had chosen to think of ourselves as actually on the road to a pre-Party. We didn’t think we had to answer those questions before moving forward with anything. We were good enough, smart enough, had studied enough to just iron out the details as we went along. For us, the main challenges were administrative: setting up internal rules, funding infrastructure and the like. Monumental hubris, to be sure, but it should be noted that we had just come out of a premature pre-Party formation.2 Our mistakes were our own, but we had precious few positive reference points. Still, breaking from a premature pre-Party formation without recognizing pre-maturity as a fundamental problem led us to repeat the error to an even greater extent than the group we had left.
Second, when we began to discuss the relevant political questions, which were much bigger than we initially thought, we stumbled on a significant problem. As the additional branches never panned out and Omaha remained barely in contact, not only were we confined to one city, we were not actually strong enough to overcome any departures. If someone decided they didn’t like the outcome of our ideological struggle and wanted to leave, we would be stretched thin or disintegrate altogether. We were all at least dimly aware of this, and in several cases members did actually threaten to leave when a debate went against them (for example, the issue of revealing the identity of cadre to mass organization members). We had no choice but to reconcile in these cases, or see the group crippled or dissolved altogether. So, at the exact moment when we should have been hammering out a strong, shared understanding of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism and our contemporary political tasks, we had to shy away from struggle for fear of crossing a red line with someone and sinking the whole venture. The interaction that this dynamic had with our previously-mentioned petty-bourgeois ideas and theories was poisonous.
Third, and related, was our voluntarism. We were convinced that the small number of us had the tools to overcome these challenges, simply by commitment and energy. We did not take a serious accounting of our subjective limitations: physical, social, political, etc. We never really addressed our objective situation (for example, being a majority-white organization trying to do mass work in an almost-entirely Black neighborhood) and the limitations it might put on our ability to advance. Had we done so, we may have thought twice before setting ourselves such lofty goals. We did genuinely throw ourselves into our work, for a while, but once it became clear that our stated ambitions were unrealistic, one by one we became discouraged or despondent over how far it seemed like we were falling.
It was on these shaky foundations that we set out. Pickles was removed from leadership as a result of their conduct during the separation from MCP-OC, but they remained a huge driving force within the group. Their energy and work-rate was far and away the highest of anyone in the group, and they were the only one that lived in the neighborhood we had chosen to organize in, which meant that they could influence our internal narrative quite a bit. In other words, if Pickles said they had a conversation with neighbor X or observed event Y which made them think we should change our political course, we were obliged to rely on this as our only serious source of information within our chosen area of work.
As I mentioned earlier, we consciously outlined our tasks in this period as principally administrative, in order to lay the groundwork for an effective initiation of mass work later on. Even at this point, there was already frustration over our lack of capacity, although it was interpreted through the lens of individual members not working hard enough. The work we undertook included the drafting of a branch constitution, the continuation of communications with Omaha and other groups, the initiation of small fundraising activities, the creation of an internal sexual misconduct/violence policy and a taskforce for enforcing it, and the release of a statement outlining our views and our plan moving forward.3
Another key factor at this time was our connection with the New Afrikan Black Panther Party (NABPP) out of Newark, New Jersey. This connection had been fostered, through Pickles , during their time with MCP-OC, and it remained strong—they even published our initial statement on their website. All of us held the NABPP in high esteem, less for its particular eclectic ideology than the fact that theirs was an all-Black organization, led by energetic current and former prisoners, in a poor Black area. Pickles had been talking to NABPP during the split with MCP-OC, and shortly after the dust settled they offered Pickles a membership in a mass organization led by the NABPP known as the Marilyn Buck Brigade (MBB, an organization intended to organize white people under the leadership of the NABPP). The debate over whether this offer should be accepted, and indeed whether all our group members should join MBB or its counterpart organizations in the United Panther Movement (UPM, an umbrella of “mass organizations” loosely divided by race and formally led by the NABPP), touched on our own deep lack of clarity regarding our tasks. In the end, we chose to accept the offer for Pickles to join MBB, and without too much more discussion this would later creep into the rest of us joining the UPM as well. We chose not to liquidate our own group into the MBB, which would have at least simplified matters from an organizational perspective, because (I think to our credit) the internal camp which was skeptical of the NABPP’s intercommunalist, extinction-of-nations theory4 dwarfed those who wanted to embrace it.
It is my view that we took the offer out of respect for what we perceived to be a vote of confidence from a Black organization, while significantly underplaying the organizational and political confusion that accepting it would create. The question of how we were supposed to develop from two groups with bizarre cross-memberships into one coherent structure, to say nothing of putting ourselves on a path towards a Marxist-Leninist-Maoist Party, was never definitively answered. We wanted to be, and and to be seen as being, connected with the NABPP, and so we accepted their offer with basically ad hoc justifications. We also failed to properly evaluate the NABPP, preferring to evaluate it on the terms of demographics rather than organizational stability and unity, its methods of work and its notions of defeating white chauvinism by administering a whites-only organization, to name a few key elements. Here again, when we should have been clarifying our internal politics and structure, we were getting far ahead of ourselves—willfully muddying the waters by entering into an ill-conceived bond with a distant organization whose politics we had major problems with. Doing so probably sealed our fate as an “independent” organization. When things started to break down in our own circle, the idea of liquidation into the UPM/NABPP was already right there, half-completed already and offering an easy way out.
As 2020 began, we started to move from mainly administrative work in the direction of practical work. This took two forms: social investigation and clandestine work. We had no specific idea of what kind of struggle we were looking for in the neighborhood, so we regularly walked the blocks, talking to people and trying to find a thread to pull on. We also did block clean-ups as often as we could, as a way to talk to people and also demonstrate our commitment to serving the neighborhood and its people. At the same time we made initial efforts to quantitatively map out the area; landowners and landlords were compiled by the size of their holdings, average block income was noted and lists of small businesses were compiled in the hopes they could be called upon for donations. Our clandestine work consisted of tagging slogans and wheatpasting posters in the area. The idea was, first, to build our own capacity to successfully engage in simple clandestine work and, second, to create a visible “revolutionary” presence in the neighborhood. Since we had no active mass work, our slogans were necessarily very general—the hope was that they would be refined as our own work started to get going. Although we were never able to find or develop a mass struggle, these would be the basic building blocks of our practical work until our group collapsed.
After several months of this work, things seemed like they beginning to move in some kind of forward direction. Unfortunately, two decisions were made around this time which eventually had a seriously destabilizing effect on our group. First, we decided to begin a candidacy class for a group of women who were friends with a member of our group, “John,” and who had been collectively studying Marxism-Leninism-Maoism – Basic Course by the Communist Party of India (Maoist) for several months. John had been elected branch leader with Pickles demotion, and though he had already expressed personal frustration with Pickles, it was decided that the pair of them would lead the candidacy course. The course would follow a similar format as the one we had undergone ourselves in FTP/MCP-OC, with essentially the same material.
The decision to pursue induction for these candidates, who if successfully integrated would double the size of our group, was made for two reasons, both of which represented faulty political thinking. First, it was hoped that a quantitative increase in numbers would allow us to expand our organizational capacity. Second, it was thought that a chance to unite with a group of majority non-white women was “too good an opportunity to pass up.” This was a mechanical way of viewing expansion, which put politics on the back burner. These candidates had activist backgrounds, had no connection to our chosen area of work and though several were unionized workers, they were not the poorest masses we were ostensibly targeting. We thought that we could expand our capacity, but we didn’t consider that we were diluting our already-weak political unity by introducing a bloc of relative strangers with just a few months “cadrefication.” Even if they imbibed our own confused ideological lessons without question, it was only John who really knew these people. The rest of us simply had to trust that they would be able to integrate into collective political life, even as the original group had not fully consolidated its political understanding or organizational form.
The second decision was a choice to plan a clandestine action which had a significantly higher risk profile than “wall painting” or postering. This was originally intended as a May Day show of force, but after this proved impossible it would bounce around our group as an idea until our collapse. In my view, this plan was never evaluated in objective terms. We had no mass support at this moment, nor any struggle to link the action to. We were small and unstable. We may not have even been technically able to accomplish it using only our members (a proposed solution to this was to partner with one member’s friends from a previous direct action group, complete strangers to the rest of us). The maximum reward for an action like this, in our context, was probably some news coverage and a morale boost for ourselves and other sympathizers. The maximum risk for this action was, without question, the destruction of our group and the removal of many of the participants from political action. Let me give a metaphor: if you’re betting on a boxing match, and you bet on the heavy favorite, you will only stand to win a relatively small amount of money, because everyone thinks the favorite is going to win. However, if that heavy favorite winds up losing in a shock defeat, you stand to lose everything you wagered. The outlook for this action was similar: much to lose, little to gain. Instead of thinking about it in these terms, those of us who were skeptical were brought on board by assurances that in reality the chances of failure were quite low. This sentiment, along with what I would characterize as a childish desire to “do something” that was universal in our group, allowed us to seriously entertain this plan for a very long time.
The planning of this action put more strain on our collective life than it could handle, with disagreements frequently degenerating into petty personal spats which hacked away at the confidence we had in each other. It also revealed still-unresolved holes in our political unity. For example, a line emerged that such an action was worthwhile even with no mass support, for no strategic reason other than a moral obligation to strike a blow at the oppressors. This comes very close to the adventurist perspective criticized by Lenin in What Is To Be Done?, and stands in complete disagreement with the Maoist principle that all political action must be consciously assessed in the strategic framework of developing a proletarian Party and People’s War. Anyone can “strike a blow” at the oppressor by throwing themselves in front of a tank, thereby slowing the tank down for a few seconds as they are crushed. Does this mean it is always a good idea, i.e., one that will move us closer to proletarian revolution? No. Thankfully, this action was never carried out. But its conception reveals a great deal about our organization and its failures.
The fuses on these organizational time-bombs were lit right as Covid-19 hit Philadelphia. As is probably true for many groups, the onset of the pandemic had an immediate detrimental effect on our organization. Out of an abundance of caution, we quickly stopped canvassing the neighborhood. Our plans for more block clean-ups and a cookout to meet and talk to the community were scrapped. In-person meetings were paused, and we had no idea when it might be safe to resume them, so we were forced into using “secure” web conferencing services. Lack of face-to-face time made it much harder to have productive discussions, and personal disagreements began to sharpen. In addition, we were basically incapable of analyzing the unprecedented and rapidly-changing situation. With no serious mass contacts and seemingly no safe way to generate them, we couldn’t keep our ear to the ground in the neighborhood. We had no cohesive analysis of the political situation in the city through which to filter events. We also had no understanding of how a crisis like this might be handled, which actors might play which roles, and what constituted a meaningful development from a historical materialist perspective vs. useless noise or sensationalized news. As a result, when we tried to make progressive slogans for our “wall painting” (the only practical work we felt we could undertake), they remained very general, or they called for things that were already happening, partially or completely.
After a few weeks adjusting to this new reality, another problem arose. It came out that the members of the all-women taskforce responsible for enforcing the sexual misconduct/violence policy had met in a social setting, and one of them had acted in a manner which actually violated that very policy. Two lines emerged on the question of how to respond. The first line, led by John, called for an immediate expulsion of the offending member based on a zero-tolerance attitude towards sexual misconduct. The second line, led by Lauren, the other member of the taskforce and the recipient of the sexual misconduct, called for suspension and rehabilitation. The line of suspension and rehabilitation won out, I believe based on a deference to Lauren as an author of the actual policy, and an opportunistic desire to not make our group even smaller.
This marked the beginning of the end for John, who had some difficulties with Pickles while teaching the candidacy course in the following few weeks and then quit the group altogether, leaving us without a formal leader. With John gone, the candidates quickly decided to leave as well. While investigating what was happening with the candidacy course, the rest of the group learned that Pickles had been repeatedly communicating with external groups about our group without seeking authorization or discussing what was being said. At this point, we were in complete disarray. There were barely enough people active and not under censure for us to be considered a “circle,” and the will of anyone to continue on our current path, or indeed any path together, was crumbling. Previously-unspoken ideas about liquidating into other organizations were now openly voiced. Individuals began reaching out to these groups, based on their own ideological leanings and without collective approval. “MRP” was always a dead letter, but now our small group could not function on any basis whatsoever. Attempts to build collective study or carry out small actions during the George Floyd protests only served to demonstrate how exhausted the project was. From split to collapse, our group had lasted about half a year.
“MRP” was a house built on political sand. Once we had accepted the premise that we could proceed quickly to a pre-Party formation based on our subjective condition at the time of our split with MCP-OC (encompassing organizational strength, political unity, etc.), there was really no question of where the whole thing would go. We conceived ourselves as an already-existing proletarian nucleus based on our book-worshipping, subjective understanding of Marxist theory, not on our position relative to proletarian struggle. The tasks we set out for ourselves basically tended to take us further away from this imperative, and (insofar as we succeeded) involved setting up an apparatus which was contrived from our own ideas of what was necessary and not from a mass line perspective. The dialectic of Party construction was something we at least superficially discussed, but we misunderstood this as a largely mechanical relationship between our group (presumed to be a vanguard of some kind) and the masses, instead of a process in which militants submerge themselves in the class struggle, and the real vanguard is both discovered and developed until it can assume the form of a Party and engage in the People’s War for power. It should be said, then, that even if we had been more successful in our organizational efforts, and called a significant number of activists to our fold, we would have been no closer to a pre-Party, a Party, or anything of worth to the proletarian movement.
Within this mistaken plan, it is possible to identify a number of smaller errors which prevented us from correcting towards a more progressive path. Our failure to create a vibrant collective life stands out, for example. Collective study only happened in the candidacy courses, which were necessarily didactic and not focused on the development of a political line. As such, we never learned how to study political questions as a group. Our decision-making process remained extremely informal throughout the lifespan of the group, which in fairness may have prevented bureaucratization but was a method of work which we fell into and didn’t take as a conscious decision. In the end, this informality was in accord with our general lack of discipline, and in fact allowed questions to drag on and become personal affairs rather than organizational-political decisions.
Another problem was our lack of unity on an anti-sexual harassment/abuse line, a failure which must rest significantly on the organization’s men, myself included. Most of the discussion on this question had been left to the internal policy task force, possibly out of a desire not to sully the policy with male chauvinism in some way, with the broader organization rubber-stamping the policy when it was delivered. We failed to account for the fact that the organization as a whole would be the policy’s executor, and so when an actual violation emerged we were stuck dealing with differences in line that should have been resolved before the policy was even approved. Lax discipline and uneven commitment were also regular problems, often clashing with the voluntarist current in our group. This created an atmosphere in which lack of enthusiasm or discipline could be blamed for our slow progress, discouraging us from considering the possibility that we might fundamentally be in error.
Finally, it must be said that our understanding and implementation of criticism and self-criticism was limited. For instance, many of us had a tendency to label personal mistakes as “left-opportunist,” “right-liquidationist,” or the like. This was ostensibly a political analysis, but in reality ended up being more of a moral self-flagellation in political garb and an opportunity to socially enforce voluntarism. Actual identification of opportunism and political errors within our ranks would have only been possible with more complete ideological unity, more studied militants, and a willingness to criticize organizational trends (and their ideological/philosophical roots) rather than personal errors. While personal errors do form a significant part of this narrative, they occurred in a dysfunctional framework which allowed them to pop up unexpectedly, fester, and corrode the bonds holding our group together.
I personally made countless mistakes throughout this experience, but some in particular should be noted in the hopes that others don’t repeat them. First, I attempted to immerse myself in serious political work very shortly after arriving in Philadelphia. I didn’t know the city, I didn’t know the people I was meeting, and I was separated from the political and social support structure in my previous city. The people I was organizing with were some of the only people I knew in Philadelphia, and I didn’t know them that well. I was in no shape to be diving into any kind of serious political work, let alone communist work, but I impatiently and arrogantly did so anyway. Second, I judged my preparedness for communist work on book-knowledge. When I made contact with For The People, I had been “politicized” for a few years and had been studying Lenin and Mao seriously on my own for about six months. I had even read Capital Vol. 1! None of that really stopped me from enthusiastically participating in the farce which followed. I simply had no experience in identifying, synthesizing and applying the universal aspects of what I had read, so I floundered. It must be said as well that I had virtually no experience in class struggle or with serious political organizations. Knowing one’s own political level is a difficult thing, but in my view it can only be assessed in the dynamic process of interacting with other militants, the masses, and the international communist movement through the course of struggle. Avoiding arrogance and over-confidence is essential. And from my perspective the process of assuming the role of a communist in the proletarian movement will almost always be on a timescale of years and decades, not weeks or months.
There are some positive aspects of this experience. I believe that our drive towards struggle-based mass work was a correct impulse, albeit filtered through and adorned with incorrect ideas. In the process of engaging with the NABPP, we were able to deepen our own understanding of national oppression (particularly of New Afrikans) and its role in imperialism. We were correct to focus on combating sexual violence and misogyny from the very beginning, even if our methods were ill-conceived. This sequence allowed the participants to gain experience in political conversations with strangers, administrative work, clandestine work, and a number of other skills which are useful in service to the proletarian movement. We experienced the failure of a project we co-authored, some of us for the first time and some of us for yet another time. That is a necessary experience which should, hopefully, make us savvy instead of cynical. Every failure offers lessons, even failures that happen quite quickly. Like all good aspiring communists, I’m tempted to end with a striking quotation from Mao or Gonzalo or someone here, but if I’m honest I don’t think we’ve earned it. So, I’ll just say thank you for reading this, comrades and friends. I hope we meet again on a sunnier day.
You Can’t Cure the Patient by Only Looking at the Symptoms
By Kenny Lake
First off, I want to acknowledge the fact that you put in the energy to write a summation and made an attempt at criticism / self-criticism. No one else coming out of this experience (broadly speaking, including the MRP and the people grouped around the NABPP) has taken the responsibility to write a political summation, and this is a big part of why nothing good has yet to come out of the experience.
But second, I want to state from the outset that this reply is going to be unsparingly critical. The reason for that is, given your evident seriousness about summing up and moving forward, a thoroughly critical reply is the most comradely response we can offer to help you rupture with that experience and become a communist, and to write a summation that really gets at the heart of the line questions. The latter point hints at the principal problem with your summation as it is: its criticisms remain at the surface level of practical matters and personalities rather than cutting to the heart of the line questions, and its political and theoretical discourse remains within the confines of Leftist thinking (which may adopt Maoist terminology, but remains an internal discourse, divorced from the masses, class struggle, or, fuck, the real world, among people who think they know Maoism because they read about it online).
So here’s an attempt to identify the fundamental line questions which are not really tackled in your summation. On these line questions, there is no fundamental difference between the MRP and most other organizations or individuals calling themselves “Maoists” in the US today, or, for that matter, most Leftists. The appearance of differences, and obnoxious attempts to turn these appearances into theoretical positions, flow not from essential line differences but from different shades of the same shit and from personalities and arrogance.
Postmodernist identity politics
From your summation, it seems clear that members of the MRP masked a fundamental allegiance to postmodernist identity politics in Maoist lingo (and the same could be said for almost all other so-called “Maoists” in the US). This comes through especially in relation to how the MRP sought to stake legitimacy on approval from Black revolutionaries, namely the New Afrikan Black Panther Party (NABPP). The ideology, politics, and organization of the NABPP was clearly a secondary question to the appearance that their approval would provide, namely: the legitimacy of a couple Black proletarian men who became revolutionaries in prison. This fundamentally postmodernist identarian approach by the MRP was then dressed up in “Maoist” theoretical talk about the Black national question. Talk about “white chauvinism” probably mostly came from this position. And when the NABPP leadership in Newark proved to be more about posturing than revolution, the people around its orbit, including MRP members, were ill-equipped to make any criticism of it beyond personality, which is why the political line guiding it—the same old “mutual aid” and “community” postmodernist politics that the rest of the Left practices—has never been subjected to any substantive criticism.
And while the MRP being a mostly white organization trying to organize in a mostly Black proletarian neighborhood might pose some challenges at first, the real problem was that the MRP’s allegiance to postmodernist identity politics prevented it from getting to know Black proletarians. Even short of being able to organize people in said neighborhood, had MRP members ruptured with postmodernism, they could have at least gained the valuable and transformative experience of integrating with the masses. Instead, we are left with largely nonsensical theoretical debates about the Black national question divorced from getting to know Black people and joining struggles against the oppression of Black people. Example: despite US “Maoists” making “mass work” all about people’s survival needs, it seems to have never occurred to any of them to do “mass work” around Black people’s survival need not to get killed by the police.
These attempts to claim legitimacy by attachment to Black revolutionaries run deep among US Leftists, and should in no way be confused with the real need for US revolutionaries of all nationalities to study the history of the Black liberation struggle. Among those identifying as communists, we see this “legitimacy by attachment” through the fixation on Harry Haywood’s memoir while failing to study the long and impressive history of the involvement of genuine communists, of different nationalities, in struggles against the oppression of Black people, from the CP’s decisive organizing efforts against legal and extra-legal lynching in the 1930s to the RCP’s pivotal role in struggles against police brutality, for Mumia Abu-Jamal, and against the demolition of public housing in the 1990s. Haywood’s Black Bolshevik is, of course, a part of that history to be studied, but the almost sole fixation on it among US “communists” is indicative of their desire for legitimacy based on postmodernist identity politics rather than a determination to end the oppression of Black people through revolution.
I also feel the need to ask: why have you decided on the term “New Afrikans” for Black people in the US? This is a term that very few Black people use. There are a few Black nationalists who use the term New Afrikans, and we should of course respect their decision to do so. But we have an obligation to speak and write in language that resonates with the masses, and the term Black people (always capitalized to designate it as an oppressed nation) has both mass use and longstanding use by communists and many revolutionary Black nationalists.
Allegiance to postmodernist identity politics likewise appears to have defined the MRP’s approach to the oppression of women. Trying to deal with the potential for patriarchal behavior within the organization by making it the responsibility of an all-women taskforce is the worst of both ends of postmodernist identity politics: it let men off the hook from the responsibility to struggle against patriarchal behavior (that’s what all “allyship” does), and it presumed that women members would automatically be correct on this question for the sole fact that they are women. Notably, there appeared to be no recruitment standards that would have weeded out the potential for sexual misconduct within the organization. People joining communist organizations are never going to be perfect, but they should have passed the test and be known well enough to be confident they will not be engaging in patriarchal behavior. You can read the Organization of Communist Revolutionaries’ Membership Constitution (available at ocrev.org) for a sense of standards when it comes to recruitment.
Judging from your summation, the real manifestation of white chauvinism in the MRP, among not only its white members, had to do not with any theoretical position or personality, but with the fact that the organization presumed, a priori, that Black proletarians in Philadelphia care more about the cleanliness of their streets than they do about Mumia Abu-Jamal. Among Black proletarians in Philadelphia, there is a deep reservoir of love for Mumia and an understanding of how his case represents the larger oppression of Black people in the US. This reservoir may have diminished somewhat since the mid-2000s as the movement for Mumia declined, but it is no doubt still there. The fact that “Maoists” in Philly seem to have never thought that talking to Black people about Mumia might be a good idea is indicative of how thoroughly out of touch with the masses they are and of a failure to recognize the actual (not abstractly theoretical in the worst sense of the term) concentration points of the oppression of Black people. And their failure to go talk to Pam Africa and Ramona Africa, two fierce fighters with considerable political sophistication and years of experience and personal sacrifice, is furthermore indicative of a profound arrogance.
What this points to is a fundamentally anti-masses mentality among the supposedly “Maoist” members of the MRP (and again, I’m not singling out the MRP, as the same could be said for virtually any “Maoist” in the US). The masses are consigned to only be concerned with their immediate community and their immediate survival, and the “Maoists” appeal to them on that basis. They never really try to get to know them, get to know what they think, and get to know the contradictions among them. From your summation, it sounds like MRP members were busy doing internet research into landlords rather than asking the masses about their landlords, about which cops fuck with them the most, about which small businesses treat them with respect and which petty proprietors act like petty tyrants, etc. Nothing in your summation indicates that the masses were ever treated as a source of knowledge and ideas. It might be good to address whether the MRP ever learned anything from the masses, and if so, what. Why so many people who call themselves Maoists and talk about the mass line have such condescending, fundamentally anti-masses attitudes remains a mystery, and if your summation can offer insight into that mystery, that would be most valuable.
Dogmatism and mechanical thinking
Your summation has not ruptured with the dogmatism and mechanical thinking that defines all so-called “Maoists” in the US today. You speak of “mass work” as if it’s a panacea against wrong lines. First, what is your concept of “mass work”? As noted above, mass work is invariably treated by so-called “Maoists” in the US as condescension towards the masses and consigning them to only be concerned with their most narrow, immediate interests. Second, doing mass work, even in the properly Maoist sense of the concept, does not magically guarantee that an organization will get or stay on the revolutionary road. Plenty of revisionist parties had mass followings and could be said to do (revisionist) mass work. There is always a question of line, of which direction the mass work is going in. And while communists need to be immersed among the masses for their own remolding and need to bring forward the masses as a revolutionary people, this must be done in relation to the all-around work of building a vanguard party and the subjective forces for revolution around it.
Your summation argues that it was a problem that MRP members came together through the social networks of the couple people who founded it rather than through “mass work.” How else would you expect an organization to initially come together except through existing contacts? The mistake was in not making immersing the initial membership in the proletariat an immediate priority. Yes, it is a problem that political organizations these days tend to start as social cliques, or, worse yet, social media debate clubs. Things were far better twenty years ago when political organizations tended to come together or recruit people through political struggles, which at least bound people together through a common experience centered on struggle against injustice. But waiting for the immaculate conception that begets a communist party is not much different than Christian fundamentalists waiting for the second coming of Jesus. Instead of dogmatically imagining some ideal beginning, we have to take people who have a desire for radical change and make communists out of them, with immersion in the proletariat and involvement in mass struggle as crucial to that process, in addition to theoretical training that is connected to practice.
Speaking of making people communists: this seems to have been conceived by the MRP as a matter of reading the CPI(Maoist)’s primer on MLM and attending study sessions led by someone arrogantly talking out of his ass but convinced of his grand expertise. This is a recipe for dogmatism, plain and simple. On the flip side, your summation often talks about the problem of “not knowing” the people the MRP was trying to recruit, which suggests a social clique mentality. If you don’t know people, get to know them by involving them in public political work and talking to them, and, of course, develop organizational procedures for working with and getting to know people. The glaring problem is that recruitment never seems to have come from a place of “this person really wants revolution,” “this person has a burning hatred for the system,” and “this person has a deep love for the masses and a great rebel spirit”—the raw ingredients that, when combined with theory, practice, and democratic centralist organization, make a communist.
You make a self-criticism about diving into an organization and organizing right after moving to Philly. There was a real problem of joining an organization without discerning line, but that’s mainly a matter of inexperience seeing as there is no culture of discerning line among US Leftists. My question is: what else were you supposed to do? Isn’t the best way to get to know a city to dive in, explore what political organizations are out there, talk to the masses, go to cultural events, and follow the local news?
There’s a mechanical categorical thinking throughout your summation that gets especially bad when combined with the schematism that guided the MRP. For example, for some reason you feel compelled to call “wall painting” “clandestine work.” Why not just call it doing “wall painting”? Why is there this urge to make more of it than it actually was by equating it with the work of communists who, owing to conditions of repression, had to find ways to connect with the masses clandestinely? For a real look at the communist practice of clandestine work, you can read Cecilia Bobrovskaya’s Twenty Years in Underground Russia: Memoirs of a Rank-and-File Bolshevik or study the experiences of Iranian Maoists. But more importantly: integrate with the masses and organize them in class struggle, and you will soon experience surveillance by the police and have to learn how get to meetings without a tail (getting off and right back on a highway and seeing if any car behind you does the same; taking the first subway car, getting off at a stop before your destination and walking along the entire platform and then getting on the last car of the next subway and seeing if you have any followers; changing clothes in a public restroom after you’ve done the preceding actions to ensure you’re not being followed, etc.). And let’s be honest: doing “wall painting” was probably 10% desire to do something badass (I don’t mean that in a bad way), 90% not wanting to talk to the masses (I definitely mean that in a bad way).
Arrogance and stubborn immaturity
One thing that does come through in your summation is the fundamental arrogance and stubborn immaturity of particularly but not only the leadership of the MRP. You provide numerous anecdotes that reveal this. It would be good to attempt to theorize it more deeply, especially the petty-bourgeois class outlook at the root of it. This arrogance and stubborn immaturity seems particularly pronounced among those who became “Maoists” (or any other shade of Leftists) in the last ten years, among whom there is an obnoxious belief that if you read some things online you are now a great expert in a set of politics. The “theory” people learn winds up being a house of cards, as it is divorced from any application to class struggle. You at one point state that the MRP did not have any examples to learn from. While it is true that the subjective factor is abysmal right now, the arrogance of MRP members clearly got in the way of really learning MLM, learning from prior generations of revolutionaries, and learning from comrades and organizations internationally. The desire for grand schemes blocked any sense of humility. And when MRP members did meet at least a couple communists with considerable and impressive experience, they displayed no interest in learning from them. As long as would-be communists continue in this cycle of arrogance followed by failure, nothing will be learned, no significant political work among the masses will take place, no substantial class struggle will be sparked, and no communist cadre will emerge from the experience.
Furthermore, the widespread culture of arrogance and stubborn immaturity leaves people and organizations wide open to the efforts of the political police, up to and including infiltration. As a matter of principle and security procedure, it is crucial to not speculate about individuals without serious investigation, including because such speculation can be played on (and is sometimes fostered by) the political police. However, it is important to take note of actions that raise security concerns, such as repeated advocacy for provocative activity. Unfortunately, the conduct of many Leftists these days is not much different than police agents (gossip, posturing, clout-building, shallow politics, sexual opportunism, etc.), making it all the more difficult to assess security concerns. One of the best defenses against the work of the political police remains a culture of principled struggle over questions of political line.
Your title is excellent in calling attention to the arrogance of proclaiming a Party. It would be good to theorize more deeply why there was this desire on the part of the MRP to proclaim themselves a Party. Was there anything positive in it as far as the recognition of the need for serious organization and communist leadership? Was it all arrogance and posturing? What did people think functioning by democratic centralism was? Why did the MRP believe that if people called themselves Maoists, they were Maoists, and recruit them on that basis? We have observed that the grandiose proclamations of “we are forming a Party” have given way, over the last year and a half, to would-be communists simply forming social cliques and social media followings with no stated attempts to build organizations. This flip from Party posturing to staying mere social cliques seems yet another example of Lenin’s excellent phrase “opposite ends of the same stupidity,” with anti-vanguardism and an anti-masses outlook at the root of both. So my question to you is: how do we show people another way, a genuine approach to cultivating communist cadre and building a real vanguard?
Response to Criticism
I want to thank Kenny Lake and the kites editorial committee deeply for publishing my initial summation, providing a criticism, and allowing me space to answer that criticism. My response is a series of bullet points, numbered to correspond to paragraphs in Kenny Lake’s criticism. It will not flow like a traditional essay, and I apologize for that, but I wanted to touch on Kenny’s points as clearly as possible. Thanks for reading.
Postmodernist Identity Politics
(Paragraph 4) I partially agree with this paragraph, although I am confused on how you come to the conclusion that we used the Black national question in particular as cover for postmodernism. The national question, on whatever metaphysical or abstract plane we were considering it, was a sticking point for us, as we felt that the NABPP was essentially liquidating discussion of Black oppression as such by dismissing the national aspect. If you mean that the weight we attached to the Black national question led us to believe that we had to link up with Black “revolutionary” organizations, without seriously considering their politics or practice, then I think there is some truth to that. However, it should be said that we were reaching out to a number of groups, most of which were not not majority-Black. NABPP was one of the only ones that consistently responded to our overtures, and they were close enough to meet in person, which helped bring our two groups together. There were plenty of Black “revolutionary” organizations in our own city with dubious politics who we could have contacted, if a desire to ride Black revolutionary coattails was the only thing guiding our thinking. So, I take your point but I would urge readers not to disregard the role of opportunistic and premature unity in the story of our relationship with the NABPP.
(5) I think you misunderstand our situation slightly here. At the same time that we were indeed mired in postmodern thinking in regards to the NABPP, we were having a fair amount of (I thought) productive conversations with the mostly Black masses in our chosen area of work. Our thinking with regards to the NABPP did not really hamper us in this regard, as far as I can tell. I would like to hear your thoughts, but to me it seems like you are conflating our specific feelings towards the NABPP with our conduct towards the masses, calling it all postmodern without much elaboration and moving on.
(7) The term “New Afrikans” is one I used because that was the term I frequently heard used when I talked to and read contemporary Black revolutionaries. It is one that was used in MRP internal discussions (take that as you will). I have no particular attachment to it; I think if it were replaced with “Black nation” or “Black people” it would have no effect on the content of my summation. I appreciate the need to use language which resonates with the masses, however, since this article will be published in a communist theoretical journal, presumably read almost exclusively by communists and their sympathizers, I don’t personally see the distinction as all that pressing.
(8) I fully agree with regards to our internal policy on sexual violence and the oppression of women. As regards recruiting standards, there were almost none of any weight whatsoever, as far as I know. It is possible that leadership was meeting people and refusing them, but I never personally met a single potential member who was subsequently denied based on some disqualifying factor.
(9) I’ll start this section by saying that yes, without a doubt we were almost completely out of touch with the Black masses of Philadelphia. That aside, I’m a little confused by this line of questioning. Do you mean to suggest that our work was economist, or politically shallow – i.e., that we should have been talking to the masses about more significant political questions? We were by no means opposed to talking about Mumia or any other significant Black political prisoner, but we didn’t think it was correct to push any one particular focus while we were just beginning the processing of searching for struggles in our area in which we could intervene. On the Free Mumia movement itself, most of our members had been politically active in Philadelphia for a significant period of time, and had personally known people involved with the Free Mumia movement or been involved themselves. I believe there was a sense that this movement had degenerated into a circuit of seminars and small protests, which was itself contained within a circle of already-politicized activists. Members of our group did attend some of these Mumia-focused events during the lifespan of our group, and as I said we would have been happy to talk about his case and the movement surrounding him if it had come up in our conversations with people in the neighborhood. We didn’t choose to focus on clean streets over Mumia when talking to Black people in the neighborhood; we never got to a point where we chose a struggle to devote our energies to.
I have no particular insight as to why Pam or Ramona Africa were not contacted. Everyone in the “MRP” was well-acquainted with the MOVE massacre, the persecution of MOVE members, and their place in Philadelphia’s political history. My opinion is that we did not reach out to them because, insofar as we considered the prospect, we didn’t think they would be interested in talking or offering guidance to a small group of self-proclaimed Maoists who nobody had every heard of.
Again, my original summation appears to have been lacking. As I said earlier, we were regularly talking and listening to people on the blocks around us. I do state in my summation that we walked the blocks and did neighborhood clean-ups for the purpose of talking to people and listening to their ideas and complaints. We did ask about landlords, the cops, and local business-owners. We did that for about three months, and were slowly ramping it up when Covid hit and stopped everything. We never found anything that led us to a significant area of struggle, which was either bad luck, poor investigation, or simply a reflection of the time and effort it takes to locate something like that. Data research was intended to aid and give context to the conversations we were having in the neighborhood, not the other way around. For example, we had our eyes peeled for a tenant struggle, so we looked for areas around us with a large number of holdings by the same landlord, so we could walk those blocks instead of blocks with more dispersed building ownership. This made sense to us, because we did not want to follow the Seattle Solidarity Network, “rent-a-crowd” route of substituting ourselves for the masses to help one person fix a busted toilet, for example. Not that we had any particular problem with working around a grievance that particular, but we wanted to aim for something with more collective pull. We wanted to find a common grievance that could mobilize some number of people, however small, into a movement against some class enemy, which we could then struggle within.
Dogmatism and mechanical thinking
(11) This is an interesting and important criticism, I think. First, let me say that while it is true that “MRP” had a simplistic view of mass work and mass struggle, I believe that was mostly down to the fact that we were taking our first steps as a political organization. I don’t believe, and I didn’t intend to suggest, that we had constructed a theory of mass work whereby (a) any kind of contact with the masses would solve all our problems or (b) there was a hyper-focus on the immediate material concerns of the masses—we never got that far. Second, I can briefly outline my views on mass work.
I would personally consider any contact by a political nucleus (communist, progressive, revisionist or otherwise) with the masses to be mass work, and in general I think focusing on defining its boundaries is pedantic and unhelpful. However, at any given political juncture there are certain tasks within mass work for an aspirational communist nucleus, which will aid in the development of the subjective and objective conditions for proletarian revolution. Whether a group’s mass work is moving towards the fulfillment of these tasks is the “direction” of mass work that I believe you refer to. In present-day America, I believe that mass work around points of collective struggle for the proletariat and potentially allied classes (tenant fights, labor struggles, anti-police violence movements, etc.) is an imperative for a number of reasons. Just to name a few: communists must gain experience in class combat; they must meet, learn from, and win over the non-communists involved with and leading these struggles (since these are potential or already-existing proletarian leaders); and they must lend their efforts towards broadening the scope of these struggles. Within the uniquely dynamic context of class struggle, agitation and propaganda to fuel a particular struggle and raise the political/ideological level of its participants (as much as possible, beyond the realm of the immediate struggle!) must be conducted. All this has to, and can only, be done with a continuous dialectical interaction between the ideas of the struggling masses and the theory of the communist movement.
Now, to return to my first point, I don’t think “MRP” could have agreed on even the very limited outline I’ve just given. We had an untheorized impulse towards class-struggle mass work, which is shared by many groups. This is why I think it is extremely important for groups to share summations, including deep self-criticism and analysis, of their attempts at conducting mass work. I think that “Maoists” in the US often gloss over the minute details of mass work, which actually form the foundation of any successful communist movement. Who are the advanced, intermediate, and backward masses in our context? How do we identify sympathizers? How do we know who to focus propaganda on? How much should we be focusing on propaganda vs. agitation? And so on. These are all questions which I know “MRP” had not developed any answers to, and frankly which I don’t see many other groups in the US as having either. In my view, this is part of the reason why “Maoists” do condescend to the masses—no one has any idea what the tasks are within mass work, or how to go about achieving them. To the extent that kites and other journals are attempting to discuss this, I applaud them.
(12) This is a question of effective size, and when it makes sense to stop leaning on your existing contacts and begin the submersion of the organization in the proletariat. I don’t have the answer for that. The correct size is probably not two people, so that’s a fair point. I would like to hear a more detailed explanation of “immersion in the proletariat” from your perspective. Should all or some of us have tried to get jobs at a large proletarian hub, like the airport or logistics depots? Should all or some of us have tried to move to the same majority-proletarian neighborhood? Would it have been enough to participate in some small mass struggle, in some capacity? I’m not necessarily opposed to any of that (though I’m not sure the former options would have been possible with the our group’s level of internal trust, which is part of the problem), but here again I think we are glossing over the details, when we should be examining them. So that I’m not asking without giving, I’ll say that my idea of immersion in the proletariat is essentially practicing the “Three Withs” (live with, work with, struggle with the masses)5 to the greatest extent possible, and making adjustments by changing areas, workplaces, or other aspects of a politicized life as necessary for the political tasks of the nucleus. (Note: If you have described your views on this elsewhere, I do apologize and would appreciate being directed towards that text.)
(13) I think this is a basically fair summary of our “cadrefication” process. As I say in the summation, our idea of political study was didactic—from leadership to us. Humility, from everyone but especially our leadership, would have allowed us to craft a collective study that was linked with mass work and centered around developing a collective line rather than absorbing the lessons of an individual. As for getting to know the people in our group, I think you are basically correct. We did try to get to know people through public political practice, but this was limited by our own lack of mass work (particularly combative mass work!) and by the fact that, due to our navigation of the chaotic break with MCP-OC, everyone who had been a candidate became a full member literally overnight. How much can you really get to know whether someone has your back while standing behind a folding table selling zines and pins to college students? And as I mention in the text, we were terrified of actually pruning our already-existing membership. Especially since when we set out on our own everyone was a full member, I don’t think anyone felt confident enough about themselves or the group to say “Person X or Y is not up to the standards required for this work.”
(14) The problem is that I did not really explore other organizations, talk to the masses or follow the news before I joined the organization in question. I toured the city on my own, tried to talk with people that I met, and went to a Philly Socialists meeting, regarding them as a backup if I couldn’t hook up with a “Maoist” group. But the bottom line is, I got to Philly in late summer and by early fall I was already in the candidate class. In my view, this cut short my independent efforts to get to know the city and its people, and magnified my already-existing inability to contextualize what was happening in MCP-OC Philadelphia and later, “MRP.”
(15) I appreciate this criticism; I personally chose to call our “wall painting” and postering work “clandestine” because I thought it fell under the umbrella of illegal activity for which we might hypothetically face repercussions/repression, albeit at the extreme low-risk end of the spectrum. It was not my intention to give ourselves more credit than we deserve, and I hope the rest of my summation is sufficiently deprecating for readers to appreciate that.
Arrogance and stubborn immaturity
(17) The question of why “MRP” was in such a rush to declare ourselves a Party is a good one, I think. Recognition of the need for serious, communist organization may have played a part, but I don’t want to be overly generous here and I think my description of our history says enough about what we thought counted as “serious.” The push to declare a Party came from certain corners, and was centered around an unspecific need for national or regionally coordinated organization. The idea was that we could initiate our mass work and be on the road to a national pre-Party organization at the same time, which I don’t think is technically impossible but was clearly not something we should have been considering. I believe the rest of us, including myself, acquiesced because we were too theoretically weak and confused to propose an alternative path.
Our understanding of democratic centralism could be summed up in three phrases; freedom of criticism and unity of action, minority subordinated to majority, and lower bodies subordinated to higher bodies. As I hint at in the summation, there was never any formal implementation of these (simplistic) principles and the group operated on a de facto consensus model. It was the stated desire of everyone involved to achieve a functioning democratic centralism, but this was put on the back burner while everything was moving “smoothly.” The only gesture in this direction involved, in our last weeks as an organization, what I can only describe as malicious propositions to vote on matters surrounding irrelevant, and largely personal, disputes.
We took people at their word about being “Maoists” because, in my view, we were desperate to undertake (what we viewed as) serious political work and we took our own word that we were Maoists, or at least on the road to being Maoists. It comes back to our arrogance: how could we identify political and ideological inadequacies in others when we were, from the start, blind to them in ourselves?
A great thanks, again, to Kenny Lake and the kites editorial committee for engaging in this dialogue. Thank you to anyone who has read this. I wish you all the best.
The Trojan Horse of Eclectics and the Tin Man Maoists Who Aren’t Looking for a Heart
By Kenny Lake
Lenin emphasized that wrong lines are almost never asserted openly and honestly but, rather, through eclectics. Eclectics, in communist theory, means failing to recognize the principal aspect and instead asserting secondary aspects over what is principal. It’s why, when people who call themselves communists renege on core principles such as the need for revolution, the dictatorship of the proletariat, and the vanguard party, they usually do so through petty amendments (“maybe elections can be utilized to…,” “21st-century socialism will be different,” “the Bolsheviks were part of the RSDLP,” etc.), to which an appropriate response is: “you say that to say what?”
Of course, when you mention the idea of a principal contradiction to today’s so-called “Maoists” in the US, the best they can do is dogmatically assert that “the principal contradiction in the world is between imperialism and the oppressed nations,” which, for them, only serves as an implicit or explicit justification for why revolution isn’t really possible in the US, and as a way of tailing postmodernist identity politics with a Maoist veneer. For Lenin and Mao, understanding the principal aspect in a process was always a matter of being dialectical, being able to cut through the bullshit, and navigating the challenges of making revolution.
Your reply is a case study in eclectics. Attempts to cut to the heart of the essential line questions are rationalized away with “but we were doing this,” “but we were trying to apply this Maoist principle we learned,” and “but this was what were thinking.” You’re still justifying street-sweeping as a way to get to know the masses, just as good as (i.e, eclectically failing to distinguishing principal from secondary) talking to the masses in Philadelphia about Mumia. (Mumia is for Leftists, whereas clean streets is for Black proletarians? Is that the “mass line”?). The point of my criticism was not to argue what the MRP should have focused on, but to point out that the instinct to sweep the streets (which, by the way, would have caused the masses to assume you were from a church or working for a politician) flowed from an outlook towards the masses that presumed them to be only motivated by or concerned with their most narrow interests, i.e., an anti-masses outlook. And, judging by the lack of any summation of what the masses thought, there still appears to be nothing learned from the masses through any of the MRP’s efforts (contrast this with the social investigation reports published in kites #5-6).
This eclectics can be justified by obsessing over theoretical positions rather than dealing with reality and the primacy of practice. That will lead you to some bizarre positions, such as, for example, that the New Afrikan Black Panther Party “was essentially liquidating discussion of Black oppression as such by dismissing the national aspect,” as if it’s in any way possible for an organization started by a couple Black proletarians in prison to liquidate discussion of Black oppression (they live it). Eclectics will also lead you to ignore the larger ideological conditions that impact everyone in society. As kites has repeatedly pointed out,6 postmodernism has achieved a dominant ideological position in the US in academia and activist movements, and no one with experience in either can rupture with it except through conscious struggle. Adopting some Maoist phraseology will not do the trick, and being surprised to hear that your politics are postmodernist is usually indicative of the failure to recognize the pernicious impact of postmodernism.
As you ask for solutions, you seem to be looking for just the right formula, rehashing the right Maoist phrases, and thinking if we get it just right then we shall magically solve the contradictions. This calls to mind the problem of Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz—he works if you oil him, but what he really needs is a heart. Unfortunately, unlike Tin Man, all of those in the US who started calling themselves “Maoists” in the last decade don’t even recognize they don’t have a heart. They don’t have that love for the masses that Mao emphasized, they don’t have that burning desire to overthrow the bourgeoisie no matter how difficult it is and whatever the sacrifice, they don’t naturally gravitate to functioning with real discipline and subordinating their lives to revolution, and they don’t have the humility to learn from all those who came before them. They think it’s good enough to construct an edifice built of correct phraseology learned from the internet. Not surprisingly, when this edifice sets off to find the Emerald City (go to the masses, organize class struggle, build a communist organization), it collapses because it has no heart.
It was Tin Man’s recognition that he didn’t have a heart that made him act like he had heart. To make any real contributions to revolution, anyone in the US who started calling themselves a “Maoist” in the last decade will have to forget and repudiate everything they think they know about Maoism through a process of criticism, self-criticism, ideological rupture, and transformation. They will have to connect with the actual Maoist tradition, which stretches from Maoist China to the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement and other genuine Maoist forces to the few remaining Maoist parties, organizations, and individuals with lineage back to the tradition. And they will have to rupture with dogmatism and definitions, connect with the masses not as an identity politics category or through some bullshit charity approach, get serious about what democratic centralist organization means, and stop learning politics from social media and google searches.
1. “Welcome to Splitsville. Population: Every Leftist Organization of the Last Decade. A Call for Summations, Not Subtweet Recriminations,” kites #4 (2021).
2.See “Public Resolutions from the Second Conference of the Maoist Communist Party-Organizing Committee” https://peoples-voice.org/2021/01/02/public-resolutions-from-the-second-conference-of-the-maoist-communist-party-organizing-committee/ and For The People-Boston, “Marxism or Idealism? Once Again on Party Building and our Tasks” https://forthepeopleboston.wordpress.com/2021/05/17/marxism-or-idealism-once-again-on-party-building-and-our-tasks/.
3. “Intent to Constitute the Maoist Revolutionary Party” https://rashidmod.com/?p=2745. A note on this statement from Tyler: it is my understanding that, although their city’s name was attached to the end of the document, the contents of the statement were never actually shared with Omaha before release, and both its publication and contents took them completely by surprise.
4. Kevin ‘Rashid’ Johnson, “Black Liberation in the 21st Century: A Revolutionary Reassessment of Black Nationalism” 2010. https://rashidmod.com/?p=301. Note from kites: Kevin ‘Rashid’ Johnson, a revolutionary prisoner and writer, has since left NABPP and founded the Revolutionary Intercommmunal Black Panther Party.
5. Communist Party of Peru, General Political Line, 1988.
6. See especially “Kick ‘Em While They’re Down” in kites #3 (2021).
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