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November 1971: Letter to the Liberated Guardian Printer Friendly Version

[Prefatory Note, June 2007:  This letter pretty much speaks for itself. The only thing I need to comment on here regards my remarks about the Weather underground. I was excited about this development at first, and endorsed it. But only for a few months. I rapidly worked out a critique. Or rather, I realized that such a strategy could never "radicalize" the majority of Americans. It was instead massively alienating them. And the hope for this radicalization was about the only thing justifying it. Anyway, I caught hell for raising the mild questions below. The paper split the very next month anyway.]

Letter to the Liberated Guardian

James Herod
November 1971

  The last two months in Boston seem to have put a million miles between me and New York, and several million more between me and the movement. The movement is very dead. The indications come from everywhere. This is hard to see from New York. It would be foolish to speculate on how long it will stay dead, but for now it is gone. You just don't meet anyone hardly who is still involved in political work or who is even planning to be involved in the foreseeable future, or at least that is the way it seems from Boston. It is abundantly clear to me that we have entered a new and very different phase of the struggle. This has some relevance perhaps to the question of the paper. When lots of things are happening you can get by with just covering the latest action. None of us ever felt that was enough, but that's about all we ever managed. But in a period of quiet this simply won't do, or so it seems to me. The focus has to shift from week-to-week events to the long haul, if only because the week to week things aren't there anymore. And there must be some point to the long haul, that is, there must be a clearly worked out set of political priorities that are being pursued. Otherwise there will be nothing to sustain the effort. It is encouraging to see so many new people working on the paper. There is one possible danger in this, however, and this is that it might allow the continuation of a week-to-week, month-to-month mentality, without ever coming to terms with the long range issues. It seems to me pointless to merely hang on for another six months, and then perhaps for another few months, with essentially a temporary orientation. I have no way of knowing whether this is the current mood or not. But if it looks as if the paper and the collective can't be retooled and put on a permanent footing it might be just as well to chuck it now. Another six months would help some, of course, but the very same questions would have to be faced at the end of that period. It is not my intention to throw a wet towel on things. It just seems to me that the possibilities for the paper are very different now than they were a year and a half ago, when, contrary to current popular autopsies, the movement was still kicking.

  I have been reminded in the last couple of months, in the most direct way possible, of the centrality of work, of having to work for money, and of my own deep hatred of wage-labor. The waste of one's life energies in `working for a living' is really unbearable. I have worked in six or seven different factories in Boston recently, in a meat packing plant, in a distillery, in a warehouse, in a bindery. People hate their jobs. They hate to work. They hate the grind, the unrelenting grind. But they have a thousand rationalizations for it. ``It is part of life,'' they say. It is a ``necessary evil.'' It is remarkable to me that the movement never spoke to this deep and widespread hatred of the job, and never tried to convince people that there was a way to rearrange things to alleviate this central and overbearing oppression. In fact, at one point in the recent past it was widely argued in the movement that people would be worse off after the revolution than they are now, at least in terms of their standard of living. Small wonder then that workers were skeptical. We attacked people for their shortcomings, for racism, sexism, and national chauvinism, but there was never a sustained focus on the oppression of wage-labor, although there were efforts around health care and a few other issues concerned with improving the quality of life. It is clear to me that this hatred of the job is the only emotional force capable of detonating a revolt by the vast majority: this enormous pent-up hatred that millions of people have for the drudgery involved in `earning a living'. But this is a complicated thing. It involves a leap of the imagination, and a very big leap, to even conceive of a system where many of the oppressive aspects of work could be eliminated. It requires an ability to see the society as a totality, as a system of relationships that could be rearranged. The movement never presented a coherent picture of an alternative. People asked, ``Well, how would you set things up?'' All they ever got was vague answers. The inability, or at times the refusal, to project a concrete image of the alternative is central I think to our failure to touch a responsive cord in the lives of most people in this country (in addition of course to the objective socio-historical forces that keep people integrated and unresponsive to the Left). Also, the failure to project, discuss, and agree upon a goal is very central to our continuing failure to be able to define any coherent strategy. If you don't have a clear goal, how can you have a clear strategy for getting there, or a program? The movement never had a program. We had complaints about a lot of things – the war, conditions in prisons, police brutality, discrimination against blacks, oppression of women, destruction of the environment, and so forth. We also had a lot of general principles for the new society, mainly that it would be a place without all of the above oppressive features, but somehow these principles never jelled out into a concrete program.

  It seems to me that if the LG wants to play a useful role in coming months it must push relentlessly on these two fronts: the goal and the strategy. To focus on these things, and on the new phase of the movement, and on the long haul, does not mean that the struggle is any less in the here and now than before, but only that the tasks before us are slightly different. The focus has shifted. This is a time for highlighting all those struggles and fights that are going on, but also a time (since there are fewer of these fights than there were before) for striving for a qualitatively higher level of struggle so that when the next round of intense fighting comes around we will face it with greater resources than we did last time. The question of the goal (the kind of society we are trying to establish with the revolution), and the question of strategy are inseparable. And in fact, much of the current neo-Stalinism and the continuing elitism of the movement stems in part at least (in addition to all the historical reasons) from the failure to push through to a clear view of the goal, to a clear view of an egalitarian, democratically organized, stateless, classless society. The image is simply not there. Far from it. We are instead presented most of the time with ludicrous distortions: a society without technology; a society where everyone lives on rural farming communes; and so forth. The worst of these distortions is the one that sees a socialist society merely as one which has a socialist government in power in Washington. Thus people continue to talk about ``seizing state power.'' The NAM proposal clearly implies this: they do not see themselves as ``the final vehicle for taking state power for working people.'' But I guess some day they expect there will be a final vehicle.

  The main features of a just, egalitarian, democratic, socialist society are certainly identifiable and available, although the theory of democratic communism has yet to be worked out in a really thorough and adequate way. The central idea revolves around a system of workers councils federated at the local, regional, and interregional levels, where basic policy is set by the people through direct democracy (that is, by direct votes by everyone). Such a system could only be instituted through a massive takeover of the factories and offices of the country. To talk then of a ``final vehicle for taking state power for working people'' is utter nonsense. The final vehicle can only be the people themselves, organized and armed locally, setting up their own system of coordination and federation throughout the country.

  We always agreed in principle that it was necessary to focus more on these questions, especially on the strategy question. But in practice it never happened. Part of the difficulty was in our confused and contradictory definition of the role of the paper. We saw the paper as a grass-roots paper, one which grew out of the movement, belonged to the movement, and reflected the movement. Consequently we were reluctant to write articles ourselves but instead sought to get copy from people who were out there on the local level involved in the real struggle. We only sought to be mediators. As a result we were often being caught in a bind and left high and dry, sometimes not being able to find the copy we wanted on the grass-roots level but yet refusing to write it ourselves. But of course we never did in fact merely reflect the movement. And we constantly got letters to remind us of this (``You aren't giving enough coverage to Berrigan;'' ``Or to April 24;'' ``Why do you print so much on the underground?'' ``What about civil-disobedience?'' ``Electoral strategies?''). It is impossible to publish a paper without a policy behind it. The selection of articles, the pictures, the layout, the headlines, all reflect some kind of politics. They may be wishy-washy politics, or inconsistent or eclectic politics, supporting all kinds of divergent and contradictory things, but eclecticism and toleration are forms of politics. I think the error in our outlook, which became clear last year as we worked through issue after issue, was to confuse a bottom-up, grass-roots revolution, which is a possible and desirable goal, with a bottom-up, grass-roots newspaper, which is a contradictory and impossible thing which has not and never will exist. By and large we covered those aspects of the movement that we thought were good and healthy and remained silent or openly criticized the other tendencies. And that's the only way it could be. This does not mean that I think we should start writing all our own copy. That would be a total disaster. The advantages of getting people who are directly involved in struggles and events to write up their own experiences hardly needs to be argued. It is obvious though that the process of selecting events and selecting people to write about them is clearly editorial policy and constitutes a political stand of our own. In no way can it be described as grass-roots or bottom-up.

  I often got the feeling that we were afraid to make such policy decisions. (The failure to do so also stemmed from certain interpersonal relations – political positions – within the collective.) We were afraid to take the initiative because we thought we would then end up as elitists in relation to the rest of the movement. (Who were we to use our control of the newspaper to impose a view on the movement?). We were afraid that we would thus end up as heavies, the very thing that we all hate so much and claim to be fighting against. This fear is surely based on a gross confusion. It is abundantly clear to me that someone has to take the initiative to fight toward an egalitarian, socialist revolution. To fail to do so is to hand over the future on a golden platter to the enemy. Those of us who want an egalitarian struggle and a grass-roots victory must assert ourselves or else be swamped by the elitists. This is the real significance of the events of the last few years. The movement in this country has time and time again refused to go along with elitist practices, only to relapse again and again into a mass, into a state of disorganization and disintegration. Just like the workers in Petrograd, unable to cast up an alternative egalitarian form of organization for the movement we fall victim time and again to the attempts of heavies to organize us, only to once again rebuff them and then fall into a period of disintegration. The leaders are busy doing their work. They are now at it again in NAM. It is our own failure to push an alternative strategy that we have to blame. Our fight must be directed against all those tendencies in the movement which are merely trying to `seize power', or to prepare the way for a seizure of state power (that is, all the vanguard, elitist organizing efforts), when it is clear that the way in which these people are going about making the revolution would merely result in one ruling class (the capitalists) being replaced by another (the vanguard party, the leaders of the revolution, soon to become the new state bureaucracy). The revolution must not be directed at capturing the state machinery, but at destroying it from the outset, directly, simultaneously with the revolution, through the creation of an entirely new and egalitarian set of institutions. So the grass roots struggle must be directed against the elitists within our own ranks, and toward or into a program for transcending the distinction between leader and followers, party and masses, dominant and passive. The struggle is for a program to develop the collective practices and consciousness of the people in this country, which would lead to a capacity in people to make a revolution directly, without a vanguard party, through a massive takeover of the means of production, by setting up a system of workers councils to exercise power in the country in a direct democracy. It seems to me that this kind of initiative is justifiable and necessary. In fact we will never reach a democratic, socialist society without it. It's certainly not going to happen by accident and simply fall into our laps. Such a strategy is aimed at the destruction of the hierarchy altogether, not merely at the replacement of the capitalists now at the helm with the vanguard party. Of course vanguard parties always say they will establish democracy after the revolution, but that is impossible in fact, and has never yet been done.

  I recently read a new and really excellent short history of the Russian Revolution by a Marxian historian, Marcel Liebman. Although it was not the author's intention, it became clear to me as the story progressed that the degeneration of the Russian Revolution did not set in with Stalin. It was a failure from the very outset. It was totally embedded within the framework of leaders-followers, although there were consistent attempts to break out of it. But they simply couldn't do it. The historical conditions (the capacities of the people) did not even put that option on the agenda. The workers themselves did not have the capacity to see how they could assume power directly. They had completely destroyed the power of the old regime. On several occasions they were actually in complete control directly themselves, but only as a mass, in the streets, in mobs and crowds, not as an organized and effective body or collective. The workers were only a chaotic and amorphous mass (in spite of the fact that they had a lot of factory councils), and hence could assert their dominance only temporarily in the streets. Consequently, the vanguard party eventually seized control of the state in a relatively quiet, well planned, secret insurrection, since that was better than giving the country back to the capitalists. They fully intended of course to turn over full power to the workers councils, but it was too late. The workers had not seized power themselves and organized themselves into a system of government. They were not ready, not capable of that. So the vanguard party merely replaced the old rulers at the top of the hierarchy, a hierarchy that has remained ever since and would require another revolution to overthrow. Power, it seems, is not given to anyone. It is taken, or not had at all. And therein lies the fallacy of the vanguard party. The vanguard can never give power to the people. It is not in the nature of things. People must take power for themselves without leaders. The collective must assert its domination over all heavies and would-be heavies, and not merely limit its role to that of assisting the would-be heavies to win in their struggle for domination.

  It seems to me that there has been at the LG basic agreement, more or less, on these matters. I'm not sure how things stand now. But if basic agreement can be reached then I think the LG should push hard on these two fronts: an egalitarian workers-council image of the alternative and an anti-elitist strategy for the struggle (in addition to its normal functions of publishing information about local struggles, helping people in one place to link up with struggles in another place, providing grass-roots news, helping to accumulate and articulate the experiences of the struggle, and so forth).

  To this end I would like to see us establish two workshops: one on the alternative and a second on the strategy. These should be groups which would work out positions on these things over the next few months (the sooner the better). Together these two position papers would constitute a program that would give us a political foundation.

  In the meantime we should publish a thorough critique of the NAM statement and current NAM tendencies, focusing especially on the implied elitism. We could support what is good in it (there is quite a bit, but it is so thoroughly muddled, as if they had missed completely the significance of the last three or four years). It is conceivable that their stress might shift some under the pressure they will undoubtedly get from people who will be at the conference. On the other hand, they sounded pretty determined. At the same time we should launch a broadside at the coming nonsense in San Diego. There simply must be a voice for the revolutionary left in this country. In fact, I think we should disassociate ourselves from a whole range of tendencies in the old movement. It is perhaps only because the old movement has disintegrated so thoroughly that this is now possible and desirable. These battles are clearly over now, in the sense that many of these tendencies or sub-movements no longer have any revolutionary significance whatsoever. These tendencies taken together no longer form a part of a coherent whole, of a movement in any sense of the word. It is necessary therefore to redefine the boundaries of the revolutionary left. Now is as good a time as any to start this process. This disassociation can be carried out with varying degrees of intensity. But we must do it somehow, perhaps in critiques of one type or another, or maybe only through short statements (but not merely silence). I would include the following in the list of those from whom the paper should openly dissociate itself:

   1. Jesus freaks
   2. Farm/organic food/anti-technology freaks
   3. Astrologists and all forms of occultism
   4. Pacifists
   5. Civil-disobedience-only freaks
   6. Progressive Labor Party
   7. Socialist Workers Party (and YSA, and SMC)
   8. You-have-to-be-gay-to-be revolutionary freaks
   9. Liberals posed as radicals
  10. The food co-op/free clinic/bookstore/free garage syndrome (serve-the-people freaks)
  11. Acadmic Marxists/research institute freaks
  13. Elitists of all kinds, but especially vanguard party freaks
  14. McCarthy/McGovern freaks

Two years ago, or even one year ago, I argued against those who wanted to limit or narrow the boundaries of the movement, a policy which was then advocated mainly by PL and SWP and other dogmatic groups. They apparently had difficulty admitting that the movement was broader than themselves. They wrote off everyone who didn't accept their line (but it is not their defense of their line that I object to but to the fact that it is wrong), all the while trying to take credit for the revolutionary impact on the society of all these other groups, tendencies, and rebellions. But things are very different now. Most of the various rebellions have been more or less integrated and co-opted and are now often openly serving the status quo, or else are hopelessly reformist, or are clearly off on a wrong-headed tangent. It is really essential to stake out clearly where the revolutionary left is at, and to part ways with much of the nonsense that was formerly embraced within the boundaries of the movement.

  This is one other topic that I would like to bring up before going on to the matter of organization and to a summary outline of what I think should happen. This is the question of the underground. It seems to me that it is way past time to develop an adequate defense of the underground as part of a revolutionary strategy in an industrialized capitalist country. This has never been done and represents a very, very serious failing. We have expressed sympathy for the underground, and enthusiasm, giving it a lot of attention and coverage. But this is simply not sufficient. It won't do. To be unable to defend theoretically a practice and strategy so eagerly embraced is just the worst kind of blind activism, and utterly unacceptable. With the exception of a few underground papers like the LG virtually every publication on the Left has explicitly and often savagely disavowed the Weather underground – Socialist Revolution, Monthly Review, Telos, Liberation, Radical America, Ramparts. The New Left Review has been the most sympathetic, and even openly supportive, of guerrilla strategies the world over. But even so, they have published the most serious critique or skepticism about the applicability of urban guerrilla strategies to advance capitalist societies to appear so far (Holloway's review of Neuberg's Armed Insurrection). These critiques have never been answered in any serious way by us or anyone else sympathetic to the Weather underground. The whole issue is very complex but the role of the underground cannot continue to remain a matter of instinct, gut reaction, sympathy, or what have you. A coherent defense of it as a part of the overall strategy simply must be formulated, or else, if it proves impossible to do that, the whole question has to be reopened. I would like to see the LG undertake such a task.

  I remain convinced (but now mildly skeptical) that the underground is critically important, and I base that opinion on an estimate of the enormous integrative powers of advanced capitalism and of the necessity of declaring total war on this system. It is a reflection of the difficulty (if not the impossibility) of being in the system but not of it, and of the difficulty of resisting from within (but this is the route that the vast majority will have to follow it seems), because of the incredibly tight system of interlocking constraints that has been erected throughout the society. The underground is a way of clearing some psychological, moral, spiritual, political, ideological, and intellectual space. It is a way of staking out a piece of integrity free from the mendacity that now pollutes every nook and cranny of the country. The underground's sole purpose however is to work toward the radicalization of the vast majority, by reestablishing enough integrity to enable people to breakout of the all encompassing myths that now bind the people into an amorphous mass. But to achieve such a radicalization the underground would have to survive over the long run, and be a thousand times more powerful and sophisticated than it is now. It would take tremendous actions over three to five years to be able to overpower the system's capacity to contain the underground in the minds of the majority, as terrorist groups, three to five years of really spectacular actions, season after season, for it to be able to get through to people's consciousnesses that there is a power in the country that is not contained by the status quo, and that exists outside the system. This would be mind blowing. But it is an open question whether such a feat can in fact be accomplished in a society with the surveillance and police capacities that this one has. The goal however must never be to work toward the seizure of state power, but to refuse to do that even if it were possible (which it never will be in this society). Rather, the goal must be to transform the consciousness of the people and to develop the capacity for a direct takeover of the society by the people themselves. I for one feel very uneasy with our present pattern of enthusiastically printing all the Weather Communiques but refusing to deal in any explicit or systematic way with the strategy questions involved. Okay, so much for that.

  What I am trying to say at bottom I guess is that a major new initiative is urgently needed in the left and that we should pull together a group of people to do it. This raises at least two questions: Why us? What form of organization should it take?

  On the question of why us? Why not us? Who else? We're the ones who want to move the country toward revolution. It just seems to me that this is a cop out question. People who want an egalitarian society have to fight for one, take some initiative, put their program forward, and assert themselves. There is a fairly wide network of people surrounding the paper who have more or less shared these views and who continue to feel impotent and frustrated in face of the rampant vanguard party mentality and the continued dominance of national heavies and all the misguided tendencies. At least I do. We have to speak out. We continue to be swamped and outflanked by people we disagree with. I am not suggesting that the paper as such take on a role like this. It seems to be mistaken to ask, ``What role can the paper play in the movement?'' There is no necessary reason why the paper should play any role, why it should continue at all, certainly not just because it exists and presumably needs therefore to be kept alive. Rather, we must ask what has to be done to move the country toward a socialist revolution, and then ask whether there is any need for a newspaper.

  What is needed is this new initiative that I've been talking about. Someone has to put forward an egalitarian and militant alternative. The people who have tuned in to the LG are probably one of the most important identifiable constituencies in the country. They stand close to the center of the revolutionary left. It seems to me there are enough of us in this circle of people to be able to pull together a loose association of fifty to seventy-five people to launch a new initiative, something along the lines outlined above (I would hope). In this case the paper would become the organ of such a new initiative and would cease to function in a political vacuum, as it will continue to do as long as it does not have an initiative and political goal of its own but merely tries to reflect or cover the movement (those sections of it which it likes). The paper must be a part of such an initiative, must be an organ of a political grouping, or it will continue to be ineffective and relatively insignificant. This initiative is needed not to save the LG but in order to advance the revolution. In short, it is one thing to build a good newspaper, radical or otherwise, working hard to get good copy and distribute the paper to as many people as possible. It is quite another thing to be a firm and active presence in the New Left in this country. This second orientation is the only justifiable one, in my view.

  Now on the question of the organization of the initiative. It seems to me that this is a less serious question at the moment than the substance of the initiative. A variety of organizational forms could be used as long as they are not hierarchically organized and do not aim at seizing state power themselves. Thus an underground, perhaps even a hierarchically organized underground, could put forward such a program, provided its goals were not to seize power but to radicalize the population. A national organization based on a structure of direct democracy could do it. I think all we need at this point though, and this is what we should aim for, is a loose association of people, something of a project type set up, probably on the East Coast mainly, but hopefully elsewhere as well – people who would be clearly identified with and committed to the project but who would hold no formal membership. What is needed now are people who would participate in the workshops to draft the position papers and help publicize them and undertake other work as it emerges. There should not be any national conference but only small meetings around the country.

  To be quite blunt about it, in the absence of an initiative of this type (at least in the propaganda realm but hopefully expanding beyond that) by the people associated with the paper, I don't think there is much point in continuing to publish it.

  Okay, how do you publicize and fight for a program? This is a tough question and is equally as important as everything I have talked about so far. Working this out would probably lead to a whole new conception of the use of the paper. But I insist that this question is second. You can't push a program you don't have. And if you do, it is an obvious exercise in futility. If we had a program, or were even planning to get one, it would be absolutely essential to devise more militant ways of reaching out (reaching out to various constituencies with special issues, linking up with local struggles all over, aggressive forms of distribution, setting up a litmobile, strengthening ties to bookstores and distributors, tying in to movement study group habits). I have fewer ideas on this and I confess that this is a serious failing. It does little good to have a clear goal and strategy if you are unable to reach people with it. Our failure at the present juncture is a double one however. We have failed to reach the people with a nongoal and a nonstrategy.

  I would like to try now to summarize in outline form where I think we (as opposed to the paper) should be headed.

  1. We should start an initiative (go on the offensive). (a) We should work out a clear image of the structure of a socialist alternative, and a coherent egalitarian strategy to reach the goal. (b) We should devise ways of publicizing these views within the movement and outside it, moving to a more militant form of propaganda with close links to decentralized, autonomous, local organizing efforts, especially those at the workplace. (c) We should launch simultaneously a sustained critique of all elitist tendencies in the left.

  2. To this end we should pull together a loose association of fifty to seventy-five people (including ourselves). There are more people working on the paper now and it is conceivable that the present group could undertake some watered down version of what I have been talking about. But I think it would be better to draw more people into the process.

  3. During the next few months workshops should be undertaken to hammer out two position papers on goals and strategy, that is, to formulate a program.

  4. We should devise and develop a capacity for pushing this program, linking it up with local organizing efforts. This might involve such things as: a litmobile; distribution of special issues at workplaces where things are happening; a firm and active presence at movement sessions; an unrelenting search for acts of resistance and copy written by the people doing it (this is really crucial; there are numerous and daily examples of heroic struggles against this society, but no one knows about them); a greater stress on small political distributors who use the paper in their own political work; and perhaps closer, more lasting ties with some of these local struggles, lending our skills to their struggle on some mutually acceptable basis.

  5. The paper would then serve as an organ, perhaps the main organ, of such an initiative.

  6. We should disassociate the politics of the paper from a wide range of former movement elements which have ceased to be relevant.

  7. We should put the paper on a monthly basis to reflect the slower, newer phase of the movement and to reflect a long-haul orientation. We should expand it to 36-40 pages per issue to allow more space for theoretical articles on goals and strategies, and critiques, in addition to the present coverage.

  8. We should change the name to Breakout.

  9. We should expand the current supplementary publications list many fold to include useful books and pamphlets on revolutionary socialist theory and practice.

  10. We should include in each issue several pages of analysis of events or developments in the system, and develop the capacity to get this analysis done. What has happened in the system (New Economic Policy, Nixon's trip to China, admission of China to the United Nations, the international monetary crisis), and what does it all mean?

Yours in struggle,