Seizing the Times: Five Theses on Militant Development

Alice Becker-Ho and Guy Debord, Game of War

The ancient Greeks had two notions of time: kronos and kairos. The former marked the linear, progressive march of uneventful time. The latter, however, signaled the momentary quality that time can sometimes take: the tempo at which to best tell a good story, when to let the listener hang in suspense, and the instant at which to deliver the punchline to give it its greatest possible impact. It denotes a window of opportunity that is capable of disappearing before we know it’s gone, perhaps forever.

It should be evident that we are precisely in such a conjuncture. We are confronted by a moment of impossible historical importance where the decisions we make, and the possibilities we seize or do not seize, will define the shape of what all our tomorrows look like. This moment has been produced by the overlapping crises of neoliberalism, social reproduction, climate catastrophe, and the coronavirus pandemic that have articulated and fused into a combined crisis of unfathomable proportions. So long as this objective crisis remains unresolved, a revolutionary opportunity is presented to us, but we must organize ourselves into a subjective force capable of seizing it.

Sheila Fitzpatrick, writing about the dilemma facing the Left in Russia amid the crisis of Tsarist authority in 1917, illustrates the weight of such a historic task: 

In June, at the First National Congress of Soviets, a speaker asked rhetorically whether any political party was prepared to take on the responsibilities of power alone, assuming that the answer was negative. “There is such a party!” Lenin interjected. But to most of the delegates, it sounded more like bravado than a serious challenge.

Of course, history proved otherwise. 

Lacking any organized party apparatus of comparable experience, size, or connectivity to a mass base, the question that faces us today is how we can best prepare to meet the needs of our historic task. While new left-wing political forces and organizational formations have composed since the onset of neoliberalism’s crisis, how can we facilitate the stabilization, strength, and capabilities of these organizations amid an accelerating crisis?

To this end, I propose a set of five theses that I hope will help us move forward to be able to do so. 

Thesis 1: The problem of organization is a central task that faces militants today.

The organization of a coherent subjective force capable of forging a socialist path out of this interregnum is the problem at hand. The question of organization has been the subject of great debate since the advent of socialist politics, no doubt, and it has taken on a new significance since the current cycle of struggles heralded by the movement of the squares. That is, this cycle of struggle has been defined, at least partially, by a more sober assessment of a strict and rigid organizational horizontalism, and a complimentary exploration of more mass forms of organization, including but hardly limited to parties and unions. 

This is evident in the movement away from discourses of spontaneity and organizationlessness and toward organizing and organization. Where once we all found ourselves in the company of “activists,” we are increasingly surrounded by comrades who consider themselves organizers. This discursive movement has been accompanied by a new repertoire of practices geared not so much at direct action, but organization building. It’s not that direct action has been abandoned, but rather that additional tasks have proven themselves key to building more meaningful and politically effective forms of direct action. To this end, organizers are exploring practices geared toward the unorganized, which necessarily entails a number of problems around outreach, leadership development and confidence building, decision-making and organizational evaluation, conflict resolution, and so forth. Where once the primary problem revolved around event-planning, now the problem is fundamentally organization-building.

Alyssa Battistoni has highlighted the painful yet fundamentally transformative process through which this generation of militants are becoming organizers. The problems and trials enumerated by Battistoni are hardly unique; they are the actuality of all militants attempting to make the jump to becoming mass, organized, and capable of meeting a historical objective, made all the more difficult as we abandon the individuated and alienated neoliberal subjectivities into which we’ve been molded, as we attempt to become collective and organized. In this way, we face a generational problem specifically regarding knowledge and know-how. That is, we want to become organized, but the vast majority of us simply do not know how and lack the know-how. No doubt, there are militants in our ranks who have developed this know-how, but this remains largely trapped in the minds of discrete individuals.

Thesis 2: A key problem confronting socialist militants is the question of combat-organizational knowledge.

Inquiries across numerous local contexts reveal that militants struggle to cohere permanent, resilient, and enduring organizations. And this is so despite the particular organizational form they move through or develop. Whether fighting to form autonomous collectives or through graduate student unions, militant organizers struggle to effectively organize: to grow our ranks of membership; to develop meaningful ways to engage fellow workers and build capacities; to develop dialogical procedures that allow members to jointly engage each other, their issues, and their desires; to turn the product of these dialogical engagements into demands and policy proposals that could give greater control over (re)production; to develop transformative campaigns and to design these in a way that deepen systemic and organizational power; to develop structures that reproduce capacities as militants; to forge practices that bring people together across difference, and that mediate conflicts which manifest on the basis of such differences; and to develop organizational mechanisms to ensure that an injury to one would be an injury to all, no matter how small that “one” is relative to that “all.”

Across political contexts, militants often encounter a field of knowledge that is largely practical and methodological in character, but which often fails to either develop or circulate within local organizational processes. In one particular instance I observed, this problem emerged when a divisive fight broke out within currents of the organizing core of my graduate student union, over the question of whether we should be doing “organizing” or not. Of course, to the degree that we were all attempting to collectively pool our labor-power and coordinate its use, all of us were indeed organizing. And, all of us we’re claiming to be doing “organizing,” to the degree it meant “that thing that causes you to be more rather than less effective.” However, for some, myself included, it quickly became clear that we had no idea what that thing – a repertoire of practices and a toolbox of knowledge – was. When we set out to “organize,” we had no idea how to get to it. We didn’t know what to do. Organizing meant listening to our coworkers, but how? It meant identifying issues that would be meaningful to the rank-and-file to struggle over, but how? It meant building alliances, but how? And so on.

What does this make clear? For one, wanting to organize doesn’t mean you know how. Developing the complex apparatuses that a revolutionary scenario requires organizers, but, specifically, organizers who have developed specific qualities and possess certain knowledges. What’s more, no matter one’s location in relation to a grid of power or one’s theoretical sophistication, one can still lack this other knowledge of a combat-organizational character.

In other words, the local experience of exploitation, oppression, and domination – situated knowledge – does not automatically create an effective political capability. And, likewise, deploying a particular theoretical analysis to disentangle the data that the situated experience provides in order to conceptualize relations and structures does not, unfortunately, provide us with political capacities either. 

This makes clear that there is a gap of a particular kind of knowledge that I call combat-organizational knowledge: knowledge that relates to the knowing of practices, techniques, and mechanisms that allow workers to not only organize themselves into a fighting and destructive force, but into an autonomous and creative force capable of wielding operational control of the means of production. The development of combat-organizational knowledge, then, takes something else. The question facing us now is how it may be developed.

Thesis 3: Combat-organizational knowledge can be produced through experience or education. We need to combine these in ways that put the proof on application through concrete political activity.

At risk of saying the obvious, combat-organizational knowledge can be developed in one of two ways (or both in combination). On the one hand, workers organize the attack on their adversary, survive the attack, and become able to constructively engage in dialogical criticism about the results of the attack, thus learning from it. On the other hand, they can be taught.

For example: workers at a worksite can develop combat-organizational knowledge if they organize themselves into a collective form (say, a union) and attempt to increase their operational control over the structure that constitutes their relation. This process necessarily takes time as workers must, as Offe and Wiesenthal remind us, develop dialogical procedures that bring workers into association. We can consider dialogical procedures to be the democratic communicative processes, spaces, and practices that facilitate deliberation between workers over the coordination of collective action. Drawing from Paulo Freire, we can consider these dialogical procedures to be based on communicative processes that are horizontal in the sense that they are based on intercommunication and establish “relations of ‘empathy’ between two ‘poles’ who are engaged in a joint search.” These procedures stand in difference to monological procedures that are anti-dialogical as they are based on vertical relations and dismiss the creation of an empathic relation.

Hence, to develop combat-organizational knowledge, workers must develop and sustain the organizational infrastructure to dialogue about the offensive, defensive, and reproductive processes they carry out. What’s more, these workers must be willing to critically and openly evaluate the effect of these actions and processes, breaking them down to their component parts and bringing them under the scrutiny of collective dialogical critique. This is a necessarily experimental process of trial and error, and, if it is to function, must result in adaptation.

Once again, Freire reminds us of the necessity of workers to not only “engage in reflection on their concrete situation” – that is, the moment in the organizational process that combines situated and theoretical knowledges – but the necessity of this to be combined with “calls to action” that “will constitute an authentic praxis only if its consequences become the object of critical reflection.” This is, essentially, the process of co-research that investigates the situated experience of the worker, theorizes their relation to power and identifies the mechanisms of their subordinate position, and attempts to break out of that position.

No doubt, this production process takes time, and it depends on having sustained the interests and the morale of a particular social base of workers to learn and evaluate from these strategic encounters. What’s more, given the time it takes, it demands stable and long-lasting relations between the specific social base of workers and the structures they are anchored to and fighting against. For example, bus drivers who remain at their worksite over the course of their lives are far more apt, structurally, at producing this than, say, graduate students whose relation to their school is far more momentary. 

The relation between staying together (organization) across strategic encounters (combat) over time and learning is one of the critical lessons of Lenin’s “Left-Wing” Communism – An Infantile Disorder. Lenin establishes the foundation of Bolshevik success by emphasizing experience, experience, experience. How did the party create a disciplined and capable fighting force? Through the development of militant worker subjectivity, the ability to maintain a firm and lasting connection with working-class bases, and the evaluation of strategy and tactics via the experience of struggle. This combat-organizational capacity was only developed through “prolonged effort and hard-won experience.” It’s creation was “facilitated by a correct revolutionary theory, which, in its turn, is not dogma, but assumes final shape only in close connection with the practical activity of a truly mass and a truly revolutionary movement.” Lenin emphasizes “the agony…experienced in the course of half a century of unparalleled torment and sacrifice,” the testing of “all programmatical and tactical views” by the action of the masses, “learning how to attack” and “how to retreat in good order,” “how to work legally in the most reactionary parliaments, in the most reactionary trade unions,” etc.

What is critical to underscore, once more, is the development of a “correct theory” garnered through the results of a necessarily experimental practice. This is a point that Mao repeats in his treatise “On Practice,” in which the initial stages of class struggle are defined by loss and defeat. It is only through “the experience of battles won and especially of battles lost” that militants are enabled “to comprehend the inner thread of the whole war, namely, the laws of that specific war, to understand its strategy and tactics, and consequently to direct the war with confidence.” It was this emphasis on experiment and adaptation – on practicing and correcting, on walking and chewing bubble gum, as Fred Hampton explained – that allowed the Black Panther Party to develop innovative infrastructures like their famed breakfast programs. 

Are we doomed to 50 years of “prolonged effort and hard-won experience,” as Lenin and his cohort were? Undoubtedly, but that doesn’t mean this process can’t be sped up a bit. As Jane McAlevey maintains, workplace organizing (what we can consider a subsection of combat-organizational knowledge) is “a whole skill set,” a “whole craft” that can be taught. Citing William Z. Foster’s Organizing Methods in the Steel Industry, she writes that “organizers do not know how to organize by instinct, but must be carefully taught.” The history of the Left provides numerous examples of how organizational infrastructures capable of circulating this knowledge can be developed through different organizational forms.

Thesis 4: Organs and institutions of combat-organizational knowledge played pivotal roles in previous cycles of struggle. We need to build our own, articulate them, and adapt the teachings according to lessons learned.

While for Lenin, the organizational apparatus that develops this combat-organizational knowledge was itself the Party, a variety of organizational formations have proven capable of developing such knowledge. Without a doubt, it is not the singular Communist Party that must develop it; rather, any organization that is going to be politically effective will have to do it. As Agustín Guillamón elaborates in his history of the CNT’s defense committees in Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War, Spanish anarchists through organization were able to develop elaborate and sophisticated organizational structures, which were put in place in case of revolution, just a few years before the war broke out. Such organizational structures included processes in which entire cities were divided into precincts, to which a committee was assigned to map not only the people there – by identifying those living in the different blocks as well as their political and ideological affiliations – but the physical terrains that would be of interest in case of a revolutionary scenario. What we see here is the translation of shop-floor organizing methods to the city itself – all the more interesting considering the military origins of the capitalist organization of the shop floor. Unions, in fact, are as capable as parties of creating the procedures necessary to adapt combat-organizational knowledge for the task at hand.

Beyond parties and unions, the example of the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee during the Great Depression provides yet another form through which combat-organizational knowledge has been produced and distributed. Premised on the popular turn-of-the-century folk schools of Denmark, Highlander sought to train leaders drawn from the ranks of industrial and agricultural workers in the South. After much trial and error, Highlander became a critical component of organizational infrastructure in the broader ecology of class struggle in the American South and an early staging site of school desegregation drives. Indeed, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s (SNCC) leadership included several members who had coursed through Highlander, and they themselves created their own infrastructures for the circulation of combat-organizational knowledge through the development of Freedom Schools.

However, the existence of a school for movement building does not mean combat-organizational knowledge is put into circulation. Such organs must be articulated to social movement processes. Aldon D. Morris highlights the ways in which the Highlander Folk School functioned as a “halfway house” for social movements, helping them “develop a battery of social change resources such as skilled activists, tactical knowledge, media contacts, workshops, knowledge of past movements, and a vision of a future society.” He explains that they “are valuable to emerging movements because they can provide additional resources” that can “assist the movement in rapidly developing the internal organization necessary to engage in sustained collective action.” However, since these movement halfway houses “are only partially integrated into the larger society,” given their “relative isolation from the larger society and the absence of a mass base,” they must be actively knit into other processes. It is therefore when organizations for political action and organizations for combat-organizational knowledge articulate that a process of organizational stabilization and militant capability can accelerate

The point is that infrastructures capable of producing and circulating combat-organizational knowledge are varied and exist to greater or lesser capacity within and between organizations. Organizations can develop divisions of infrastructural labor to produce and circulate the knowledge internally while others can specialize in that particular function and circulate it outwards. When we look back at those moments of incredible historical transformation, such structures proved essential to the development of transformative political processes.

Thesis 5: The components needed to create apparatuses of combat-organizational knowledge are already here. We need to articulate them to share resources and produce transnational cohorts of militants.

Without such explicit institutions, structures, and practices that congeal data from the field of struggle into combat-organizational knowledge, this learning fails to circulate, and the lessons of struggle remain trapped in the minds of discrete individual participants. Without a doubt, these individuals play their part in the circulation of struggles “in which similar organizational forms and repertoires of action emerge simultaneously across many different contexts,” as Keir Milburn reminds us. The knowledges and practices that people bring from translocal and transnational processes can and do greatly aid local processes. But less easily circulated are the micro-practices and -lessons of these struggles, which pertain to the intricacies of organization and political combat.

If we are to rise to the occasion of our historical moment, we must develop such structures so that we do not rely only on individuals with know-how, nor wait for longer processes to play out. We need to develop institutions and infrastructures dedicated to the production and circulation of combat-organizational knowledge now, and, given the ticking Doomsday Clock hanging over our heads, it is all the more urgent that we articulate a coherent, intentional network of knowledge-circulation capable of sustaining efforts to destroy capital and collectively manage society.

Eco-socialist hegemony is an epochal imperative if we want to impede climate catastrophe. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change gave us until 2030 to reign in carbon emissions if we want to avoid planetary collapse – a catastrophe that does not occur as a single event but as a long process of calamity and misery, inflicted not only on humanity but on the planetary life-systems as a whole. We see this already underway and having the most brutal impact on racialized populations of the Global South in particular and the working class more generally. Between now and then, and in the context of this articulated crisis, we need to develop cohorts of militants capable of diffusing the knowledge necessary to seize the decade before midnight strikes.

From the perspective of combat-organizational knowledge, this will necessarily require that working-class vehicles develop the procedures and infrastructures to develop and circulate this knowledge within their own rank-and-file, and between these vehicles. At the same time, to the degree that our struggle is one of controlling and dominating the bourgeoisie, this combat-organizational knowledge also takes on a political and democratic-managerial character. That is, it regards combat and organization at the level of the specific neighborhood or the workplace, but also at the level of society and the working class as a whole. To this end, combat-organizational knowledge must also pertain to the field of policy and instruments of the state and collective self-management if it is to contribute to programs of collective, democratic, and ecological management wielded as instruments against the bourgeoisie.

That is, every cook possesses the potential to govern, but that does not mean, given the complexity of the problems we are facing, that every cook already has the capacity to do so. To this end, the historical imperative demands that we create our own, popular programs of learning and skill development, independent of bourgeois academies and educational processes dedicated to producing elites and vocationally competent workers. One of our many jobs, then, is to develop and circulate capacities and skills, not so that workers meet some elite standard of privilege or prestige, but so that they are able to conduct struggle no matter the scenario or battlefield.

We need a militancy of quality that is capable of developing an effective class struggle on the one hand and a functional and liberatory socialist art of government on the other. Luckily, such infrastructures exist in virtual suspension; their articulation simply needs to be actualized. Think tanks like Autonomy and Common Wealth provide toolboxes of policy proposals that can help us reimagine what left social organization and governmentality can look like. Meanwhile, institutions like the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung and the European Community Organizing Network are proving instrumental in disseminating and circulating combat-organizational knowledge across the globe. Movement schools like Training for Change in Philadelphia and Tools for Change in Toronto already play active roles in training militants, while the New Economy Organizers Network shows what training could do to prepare militants for engagements in a hostile media environment. Mass membership organizations like DSA, Die Linke, and Momentum have already built impressive bases with transformative aspirations. At the same time, networks like Symbiosis and the Progessive International pool together political organizations and media outlets. 

A vast pool of labor-power and capacity is already there; it is a matter of recombining already existing elements, and experimenting to see if this recombination can be actualized toward the ends that the conjuncture demands.

Author of the article

is a member of DIE LINKE and CounterPower/ContraPoder, as well as a co-founder of Werkstatt für Bewegungsbildung. Through his work at the Werkstatt, he trains workers in the arts and sciences of class struggle. A doctoral candidate at Freie Universität Berlin, his research generally focuses on worker organization, power, and strategy.