Basebuilding means making revolutionary politics relevant
Red Braid members made two presentations at the Marxist Center’s 2021 Convention: on “basebuilding,” a unifying concept for Marxist Center, and on the future of Marxist Center. The Volcano is publishing these two presentations in order to share our perspectives on basic problems of terminology that, we believe, underlie many of the discussions related to the network. See more here.
I want to start with a quote from a book I recently read, Lenin: A Study on the Unity of His Thought by Georg Lukacs. Lukacs opens with this sentence: “Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.” In reading Lenin’s revolutionary praxis, Lukacs makes clear that a theory of proletarian revolution is not a theory of the gradual evolution from capitalism to socialism, which he locates firmly as a social-democratic distortion.
I want to use the concept of “the actuality of revolution” to clarify how the Marxist Center should think about base-building.
By the actuality of revolution, what I mean is the latent capacity of the working class, Indigenous people, and nations and communities oppressed by imperialism to actualize freedom right now by disrupting the social relations that define, produce, and reproduce their exploitation and oppression.
… revolutionary actuality is the “tendenc[y] towards proletarian revolution” that vibrates beneath the “appearances of bourgeois society.”
Revolutionary possibilities fluctuate based on historical conditions, standpoints, and the movement of classes, but I want to argue that they are always present – in Lukacs’s words, revolutionary actuality is the “tendenc[y] towards proletarian revolution” that vibrates beneath the “appearances of bourgeois society.”
The existing actuality
At a recent press conference Red Braid organized in a low-income apartment building, a poor, disabled, Indigenous tenant said, “I feel like I live in a prison.” That stirring of emotion he expressed is a reflection of a social truth: the rent relation that confines him, with all its trappings, is a barrier to his freedom: his freedom to move and seek shelter on lands occupied by a colonial invader.
But he might also feel at some level that it is his fault that he is poor and therefore there is something “natural” or “reasonable” about his relationship to his landlord. Consciousness is complex and contradictory – it’s not merely a reflection of agency but is also shaped by the social constraints of the nightmare world we live in. But to say that there is a revolutionary actuality that people feel and sense beneath the appearance of bourgeois society is to say that the goal of the revolutionary organization is to help create an avenue for people to, in this case, feel and act like market housing is a prison – to actualize those tendencies toward revolution.
I want to contrast that with feeling and acting like it’s your fault that you’re poor, which I think actualizes a reformist tendency, premised on bourgeois ideology.
That’s why Lukacs contrasts the concept of revolutionary actuality with social democratic politics – what he calls “vulgar Marxism” or what I would call reformist politics. To a “vulgar Marxist,” he argues, “the foundations of bourgeois society are so unshakeable that, even when they are most visibly shaking, he only hopes and prays for a return to ‘normality’, sees its crises as temporary episodes, and regards a struggle even at such times as an irrational and irresponsible rebellion against the ever-invincible capitalist system.”
Bourgeois ideology – ideas, worldviews, meaning systems – tells us that capitalism is invincible and that power is static, rather than produced and reproduced through social relations. In contrast to that revolutionary actuality, I want to give an example of how middle class activists responded to calls for a rent strike following the outbreak of Covid-19 in Vancouver. Certain middle class activists flatly argued that rent strikes are “unsafe” for poor people and so they shouldn’t be pursued, which I think actualized bourgeois ideology and a tendency toward reform rather than freedom.
… base-building means making revolutionary politics relevant, useful, and available to communities in struggle.
I want to argue that the Marxist Center should hone our definition of base building in opposition to both reformist and substitutionist takes on “organizing the unorganized.” By “substitution” I mean substituting the organic energy of working class, Indigenous, and oppressed people for activist providers, inscribing the relationship between organization and base as a middle class-coded project of “uplift”. By reformism, I mean “organizing the disorganized” in order to petition the state for reforms.
Instead, I think base-building means making revolutionary politics relevant, useful, and available to communities in struggle. The base-building organization locates, expands, responds to, and is shaped and reshaped by the actuality of revolution. I think we can break down that cyclical process into three key moments:
- We locate the imminent actuality of revolution in the everyday problems and survival struggles of the working class and nations and peoples oppressed by imperialism and colonialism, which for us in the imperial core, are constitutive of capitalism;
- We develop a revolutionary analysis with our social bases – an analysis that demystifies bourgeois ideology and uncovers the multi-faceted, historically-produced, and imminent truth of their hopes and pains;
- We organize actions that make revolutionary truths socially real: real in terms of feeling real to the people who are most desperately in need of the demystification of ideology, and real in terms of improving people’s lives by nurturing, socializing, and strengthening the revolutionary possibilities already embedded in their survival struggles.
Locating the actuality
“Actuality of revolution” can feel abstract or remote, but I think about it as a kind of pressure point, like how if you apply pressure to the back of a knee it hinges the leg. A person might stand right back up after being knocked in the back of the knee, but these points, when pressed on, disrupt the processes that produce and reproduce exploitative and oppressive power.
For example, when homeless people self-organize and create tent cities, they are immediately actualizing a freedom that is otherwise smothered and suppressed by the state. Pigs, bylaws, social workers, and other workers of social wage institutions all create a social relation that robs freedom from poor people and street communities. But the tent city violates bourgeois and colonial property law and in doing so, knocks against the back of the knee of the state – if we understand the state as a verb, or a social relation. In this circumstance, homeless people’s self-activity functions as a prefigurative freedom. If the state is a social relation, then the actuality of revolution is the possibility of disrupting that relation through our activities in the here and now.
The role of an organization is to help wedge open the space for collectives to exercise freedom…
The role of an organization is to help wedge open the space for collectives to exercise freedom and autonomy from the state, to encourage those possibilities to go as far forward as they can, toward their revolutionary ends.
My second example of the actuality of revolution is Covid-19, which revealed possibilities for revolutionary action and ruptures in consciousness.
Canada’s Covid-19 public health measures didn’t just leave homeless people out, they actively reduced access to resources: food kitchens stopped serving meals, shelters froze access to beds, and public facilities like washrooms, libraries, and community centers shut down. The NGO-operated institutional, carceral housing that poor people live in unilaterally banned guests, meaning that people were using drugs alone, which meant that overdose deaths in British Columbia in 2020 were double what they were in 2019.
Red Braid felt that this was a moment rich with revolutionary actuality because of the contradiction between Canada’s story about the “public health emergency” and the pre-existing emergency of the housing crisis, which was naturalized to make Covid-19 seem like an exceptional crisis.
How do we develop a revolutionary analysis of this moment? We have to scale our sense of historical possibility to the level of consciousness so that we can communicate with our social bases.
At the first press conference we organized to respond to the impact of the state’s Covid-19 policies on street communities, a homeless man, Andrew, said, “We shouldn’t be sleeping on the streets when there are loads of empty, abandoned buildings around.”
As you can imagine, we agreed! And it was easy for us to explain to Andrew what our analysis is: that shelter is everywhere, but what’s stopping homeless people from saving their own lives right now are bourgeois and colonial property relations, which mandate that an empty building is, first and foremost and above all else, private property. To actualize the truth that lives matter more than property because people are dying preventable deaths every day, we felt that we should organize some squats.
The actually multiple
But I also want to speak to the limitations that are always present in our analysis because conditions are always changing and history unfolding. As we were organizing our first squat, Red Braid’s Indigenous Leadership Council (ILC) pointed out that we were reverting to a “poverty reductionist” framework in how we politicized the impacts of Covid-19. By “poverty reductionist” I mean that we were thinking and treating Indigenous people as poor people, which blotted out the particularities of their experiences of colonialism.
The ILC’s critique insisted that despite the common experience of poverty, for Indigenous people, the spread of Covid-19 and the colonial state’s management of it had a colonial character, and as such, Indigenous resistance had a decolonial character, or a decolonial actuality.
The gift of this critique was that it put a stick in the spinning wheel of a class reductionist approach to organizing.
The gift of this critique was that it put a stick in the spinning wheel of a class reductionist approach to organizing. Our rapid response was, itself, a reflection of the vibrations of our social base, and I think we were right to detect that movement and seek to bump it from one orbital to another. But our faulty theory – our reliance on poverty reductionism – blinded us to the distinctly decolonial actuality of the moment.
We often say, in Red Braid, that all we have to offer people are our politics. But our politics are not a fixed thing, and I think the ILC’s intervention highlights where our revolutionary analysis must come from: not armchair activists but the relationship between our organization and our social bases.
In response to the critique of our poverty reductionism, Red Braid supported our Indigenous Leadership Council to hold a meeting of Indigenous women in our social base. They produced an analysis of Covid-19 that took into account both the distinctly genocidal, colonial violence that Canada visits upon Indigenous people through Covid-19, as well as an analysis of the shared experiences of Indigenous and non-Indigenous street kin, the material basis of which did mean that a common struggle was necessary.
What I want to emphasize is that the theory work these poor, Indigenous women did changed how our organizing played out. In response we created infrastructure for Indigenous leadership in our squats and altered our analysis to grasp the decolonial actuality of the Covid-19 moment, which existed as part of, but not subsumed by the socialist actuality.
The political actual
The goal of base building organizations should always be to close the gap between our bases and our organizations, without losing our awareness of the critical distinction between classes as a whole and our organization, which Patrick spoke to in his presentation.
Red Braid needs to do that ourselves by embedding ourselves in our social bases, developing a sense of what our social bases are feeling and thinking and bringing out the revolutionary actuality of their thoughts, desires, and pains. The Marxist Center can’t close that gap for us, but it can help make sure we’re not limited by provincialism and the deeply local nature of our work. Because while people’s thoughts and desires and feelings are also international – they are the product of an interaction between global forces and the movement of capital and local conditions and individual agency. The work of analyzing our local conditions can only be done by affiliates, but the Marxist Center can buttress that work by offering an infrastructure where affiliates can take our particular and local experiences and the theories they produce and test them against and with others’, locating affinities across different places that might help us sound out revolutionary actualities on a grander scale.
Sounding out revolutionary actualities on a grander scale means locating opportunities to demystify bourgeois ideologies and partial understandings of the world through activities that make real and true the revolutionary truth that freedom is possible now – that in order to wedge open the space we need to breath and push back against the constraints on our liberation, we need to act like freedom is attainable and that it is the self-activity of the exploited and oppressed that can summon it in its mixed, partial forms into social truth.