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Cultivating Organic Leadership: A Critique of Anarchism Within BLM

During the George Floyd rebellion, anarchist politics inspired a brand of “leaderless” organizing which was counterposed to the Democrat/NGO model of the “peaceful protest.” While a horizontalist politics of revolt is a welcome departure from liberal moralizing against those who defend themselves against the capitalist state, it has proved insufficient to the historic challenges we face. Instead, socialists and anti-racists need to build democratic organizations that can formulate strategic perspectives and mobilize masses of people according to a common program.

Zach Frailey Escobar

December 29, 2020
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US soldiers stand uniformed wearing helmets facing protesters on the right during the BLM uprisings.
PHOTO: Alli Jarrar / Amnesty International

Subservience to spontaneity seems to inspire a fear of taking even one step away from what is “accessible” to the masses, a fear of rising too high above mere attendance on the immediate and direct requirement of the masses. Have no fear, gentlemen [sic]! Remember that we stand so low on the plane of organisation that the very idea that we could rise too high is absurd!

V.I. Lenin

The Anti-authoritarian Moment

Anarchism is on everyone’s lips these days. In the run up to his election defeat, Donald Trump declared cities from Portland to New York to be “anarchist jurisdictions” in a revanchist attempt to rile up his white suburban base against people of color and the Left. On the other hand, the uprisings against police brutality have taken up anarchist-influenced ideas favoring horizontalist, “leaderless” organizing.

While this development represents a step forward from the liberal politics of the “peaceful protest,” a purely “leaderless” model has proved insufficient for taking on the repression unleashed by the state and converting the shift in public consciousness against the police into concrete gains. To even ask whether we should have movements without leaders is already to get ahead of ourselves — the real question is whether we can have movements without leaders. Bitter experience reveals the answer to be a resounding no. What have been the fruits of the so-called horizontalist method? Fracture, exhaustion, erosion of our forces and momentum.

It is important to situate this critique within the context of an ideological assault from the entire ruling class, including the Democratic Party. The party and its representatives in the cities that rose in revolt have ruthlessly attacked the protesters, both by unleashing their police forces against us and with slanderous statements in the media. During the day, they would take a knee or pose for photo ops with protesters, and when the sun went down a few hours later they would unleash police terror against the same people. They praised “peaceful protest” but demonized those who would defend themselves against the police violence unleashed by Democrat-controlled cities. This is the Democratic strategy: funnel as much energy as possible back into electing “progressive” bourgeois politicians who pay lip service to racial justice, and crush those who refuse to go along.

No quarter can be given to those who morally condemn the demonstrations because of their alleged violence. Whatever harm came to police or businesses during these protests pales in comparison with the violence and oppression inflicted on Black people every day. But moral clarity on this question only raises the stakes of the strategic issues. If leadership of the militant minority is left to those who refuse to take the idea of leadership seriously, our enemies in the ruling class will succeed.

The Poison Fruits of “Leaderless” Organizing

To illustrate this point, let us examine the example I know best in San Diego. Things really kicked off locally on May 29, four days after the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Protesters took over the I-8 freeway and subsequently surrounded a police station in the La Mesa neighborhood in protest of the Floyd’s murder and a local case in which police harassed and wrongfully arrested Amaurie Johnson. Predictably, the cops took the opportunity to start a riot, indiscriminately firing tear gas and rubber bullets into the crowd. They got more than they bargained for, though. People fought back with rocks and whatever else they could get their hands on, and by the end of the night the windows of the police station were smashed, a bank and a veterans’ building had been burned to the ground, and the local supermarket had been looted.

There were no organized groups behind this protest. All it took was one individual to make a Facebook post to turn up thousands of people ready to fight, most of whom were brand new to any kind of political action. This was a crucial juncture for the movement — either the spontaneous energy of these masses of people would find a vehicle through which to manifest itself, or it would dissipate.

Each week in June brought multiple significant protests, many of which blocked freeways. There were many smaller clashes with police, but nothing reached the scale of May 30. With each passing week, numbers and energy dwindled. By July, the massively disruptive protests were over, and there was a split between larger, “peaceful” marches, and smaller groups turning out to verbally abuse the cops. By August, the June momentum had been completely squandered.

How could things have gone differently? The beginnings of an answer are to be found in the first days after the La Mesa riot. On May 31, people were back in the streets, this time in downtown San Diego, and took the freeway again. Local Black Lives Matter activists gave speeches from the front of the demonstration. The rhetoric was familiar: they talked about nonviolence and the need for police reforms and accountability to the community. But then something different happened. Voices from the crowd — Black voices — shouted them down. “We have a Community Review Board, they don’t do shit!” “We need to defend ourselves!” “We keep talking about reforms while they keep killing us!” The boilerplate speeches turned into a shouting match at the front of the demonstration, and the debate spiraled outward as marchers argued with one another. The ideological split became manifested physically — the march organizers wanted to go back downtown, but a smaller group broke off to try to take the demonstration to the wealthy Coronado neighborhood. Whatever the relative merits of each tactical position, the broader significance was clear: the movement had fractured between those for whom the George Floyd explosion was merely to provide grist for the mill of activism as usual, and those who were fed up with symbolic protest and were searching for a way to build real power.

This ideological struggle would play out continually over the subsequent weeks and months. The result was not a victory for either group, but, to repurpose a phrase from Marx, the mutual destruction of the contending sides. It would be difficult to overstate the disorienting whiplash effect that this dynamic generated. There were marches up to 10,000 strong that would be led for miles, going nowhere in particular, and then dispersed. The next day, small groups of frustrated revolutionaries would show up in black bloc to confront the cops and get beaten up or arrested. The few less experienced demonstrators who showed up to these smaller protests looking for direction never found any, and often left quickly. Mutual animosity festered within and between each camp as numbers dwindled, to the point that physical fights broke out between protesters on our side in full view of the cops and news cameras.

Most of the people who were disaffected with the strategy and tactics of the typical “activist community” were brand new to political demonstration of any kind. There was an opportunity to bring hundreds, maybe thousands of people into organized political struggle. Those of us committed to a politics of building power against the state, rather than pressuring the state and its bourgeois parties, were unable to effectively seize the moment.

This failure can be attributed, at least in part, to a culture on the Left that expresses hostility to the very idea of leadership, while in actuality adopting organizing practices that are as elitist as they are ineffective. Rather than trying to build mechanisms through which to construct a fighting consensus, activists with experience and connections complained to one another or moralized on social media about the failures of their liberal counterparts, or worse, the “performative” activism of those who, not knowing what else to do, only showed up to marches and then went home. Despite these complaints and condemnations, our anti-authoritarian friends were themselves unwilling to take any responsibility. These small groups almost always called their protests anonymously, often with no clear goal. This emphasis on anonymity and organizing through small cliques is invariably justified in fine democratic language about eliminating hierarchy and cults of personality. But in practice it provides no way for the uninitiated to engage in political action, except as foot soldiers in a fight that they do not understand. Are we here to burn shit down? To block traffic? To hold signs and make noise? Who knows — there are no organizers!

“There are no organizers.” This oft-repeated refrain is a lie. These demonstrations are not purely spontaneous; they are called in advance through social media or Signal networks. It’s just that those responsible prefer not to be seen as having responsibility. Far from eliminating abuses of leadership, this practice leads to a total lack of accountability. No one needs to answer for tactical errors, because no one knows who is making decisions (except, of course, for the small clique whose members already all agree with one another). Even worse, it leaves no mechanism for making collective decisions in the face of chaotic confrontations with the police. The following pattern emerges: Protests become shouting matches between black bloc activists who want to yell at the cops outside their station, and local busybodies with aspirations to elected office who want to march away from the station. Others get confused and just leave. Some come back the next day, but fewer and fewer each time. As the crowds diminish, the cops get bolder, and the bravest fighters are arrested. The movement is crushed.

Humiliation is the worst outcome that can befall a political movement — it demoralizes supporters, scares off waverers, and encourages enemies. Make no mistake: the uprising was humiliated in the period from July to August as numbers dwindled, fights erupted within our ranks, and the police picked us off easily. During the nadir of this period, a BLM demonstration went back to La Mesa only to be outnumbered by hundreds of racists calling themselves “Defend East County.” What was the response of the organizers of this event? Not to apologize for miscalculating the balance of forces and leading people into a nightmare, but to berate those who, witnessing the total impossibility of any kind of victory, made the perfectly reasonable decision to go home!

Cultivating Organic Leadership

What was the alternative to this fiasco? It would be utopian to claim that the entirety of the George Floyd explosion could have been given a coherent form and direction. The level of organization at the beginning of the uprising was simply too low to incorporate numbers at that scale. But the fact that the task is difficult and cannot be accomplished at one stroke is no excuse for refusing to even begin.

We have a responsibility to think strategically. How will the police be defunded, disarmed, and defeated? Certainly not by state-sanctioned community review boards, but also not by small groups of youth clad in black. Tactics must correspond to the balance of forces. Too often in the George Floyd uprising, precisely the opposite played out: thousands-strong marches were led along surface streets for hours, and small handfuls of demonstrators went toe-to-toe with the cops or stormed freeways. Rather than browbeating those who turn up for marches but decline to fight the cops or take over freeways, a strategic outlook must examine how the gap can be bridged. The May 29 riot, like the burning of the police precinct in Minneapolis, showed that masses of people are prepared to fight back, even in a sleepy beach town like San Diego. But rage can fuel action only for so long — a movement needs direction, it needs something to struggle for, and it needs victories in order to sustain itself. A political orientation that rejects organizational structure cannot meet these requirements. The fault lies not with those who, having thrown themselves into action for the first time, left confused and exhausted, but with those of us who ought to have known better.

The explosive debates that erupted in May and June between the liberal and radical wings of the movement need not have been limited to shouting matches. A political culture that is used to debates and polemics as opposed to call-outs, that encourages rather than fears the cultivation of spokespeople for opposing sides, would have clarified the arguments.

In a vacuum, political arguments are unlikely to move people, but the powerful experience of the rebellion itself opened a space to make a real impact at every level of consciousness. In the broader culture, it was common in the early days of the uprising to hear people on the street say things like “I can’t believe how brutally the police are behaving!” A clear majority of Americans supported torching the aforementioned Minneapolis police precinct. The shift penetrated even into layers of people who had already been politicized. On the day of the La Mesa riot, I had a conversation that typified this shift. A demonstrator told me he had been to a few protests, but that they didn’t accomplish anything. As we marched onto the interstate, however, he said, “Now we’re really doing something!” In the following days and weeks debates along these lines unfolded among street demonstrations at an unprecedented scale in the San Diego area. Rather than allowing everyone to be heard, “leaderless” organizing ensured that the people coming to political action for the first time — the people who matter the most — never heard a clear political argument over the cacophony of competing voices.

A successful movement against police terror in the U.S. will necessarily be led by Black people, who exist at the bleeding edge of police repression. But the leadership of the oppressed will not appear automatically. The vast majority of the most oppressed in this country recognize, essentially correctly, that the political process has nothing to do with their input. For the most part, they prioritize their survival over symbolic acts like voting or protest. In order to actualize the power of the working class at the point of production and in the streets, these masses of people will have to come into contact with, merge into, and ultimately take charge of a Left that knows how to conduct debates and make collective decisions. So, a politics genuinely concerned with elevating the voices of the most conscious among the oppressed would not leave things to chaotic street shouting matches, in which oppressed people on both sides are tokenized and pitted against one another (It was typical in these scenarios to have opposing groups yelling at one another to “listen to Black women!”). Instead, we must deliberately build the channels through which different political currents can emerge, challenge one another for influence, and reach as broad an audience as possible. This cannot be accomplished through secretive cliques or individualistic posturing.

The only way to open a space in a capitalist and white supremacist society for the genuine leadership of the oppressed is to build organization on a mass scale. The issue must be tackled at multiple levels. We need to build broad democratic assemblies open to as many people as possible who are willing to commit to racial justice. But even this is not enough. For political currents, especially revolutionary ones, to cohere and find expression, we need party-type organizations, built around a shared political perspective, whose members can act in concert. Mass assemblies will incorporate broad layers of people (many of whom will have some backward ideas) in the decision-making process. The formation of organized political currents will necessitate formal membership, procedures for debates and voting, the collection of dues, and accountability to decisions democratically arrived at. In other words, what we need is everything that is anathema to the anarchists.

Democracy and Its Enemies: Social Movement Discipline vs. “Diversity of Tactics”

Why is it essential to submit to democratic decisions? Aren’t we fighting for freedom, after all? Of course we are, but we must recognize that a fight is the opposite of freedom. In a pitched battle, immediate obedience to commands is the difference between life and death. This analogy is not to suggest that the means by which the police and the bourgeois state will be overthrown will be a straightforward military confrontation (obviously that would be laughable), but to emphasize that we are in a struggle that is no less serious, and which will therefore require a high degree of discipline.

Discipline in democratic mass organizations is not the same thing as its counterpart in bourgeois institutions. To begin with, it is based on a voluntary, shared commitment. Decisions are made as much as possible by the group as a whole, and where delegation to leadership is necessary, the leadership is always chosen democratically. Decisions are reviewed after execution, and advocates of mistaken positions are held accountable. This formula is antithetical not only to the authoritarianism of bourgeois military and police forces, but also those of liberal NGOs and anarchist affinity groups, all of which limit real decision-making to small groups.

The anarchists — who project themselves to the rest of the movement as the most serious fighters — reject the very idea of discipline as a form of “policing.” This conflation of movement discipline and policing not only obfuscates the real class and racial dynamics of policing as such, but actually has a paralyzing effect on our movements. Far from liberating the creative energy of demonstrations, the “do what you want” approach to organizing limits their capacities in the long run, by making coordinated action effectively impossible and facilitating the cops’ strategy of driving a wedge between the more radical (and more reckless) wing of the movement and the more conservative (and more tepid) wing.

Spontaneous explosions like the May 29 riot are possible only on rare occasions. If relying on them as a basis for political action becomes a mode of organizing, we will be waiting for far too long. Real, sustained action requires large groups of people who are prepared to fight in a sustained way, according to the same plan. That means willingness to go as far as the plan requires, but also willingness not to go farther and jeopardize the plan through recklessness.

The mutual trust required to engage in genuinely democratic movement organization at a mass scale does not yet exist, and it cannot appear overnight. To reach a point where collective decision-making and evaluation are possible, we must first overcome the individualistic politics which rejects democratic leadership as inherently authoritarian and which fetishizes an eclectic “diversity of tactics” over strategic thinking. This is a question of life and death for our movements; fears about infighting or appearing “sectarian” will have to be put aside in order to fight for a clear position. In the long run, we must understand that those who fail to learn the important lessons are a disorganizing force. As Engels put it,

Either [the anti-authoritarians] don’t know what they’re talking about, in which case they are creating nothing but confusion; or they do know, and in that case they are betraying the movement of the proletariat. In either case they serve the reaction.

What Is to Be Done?

As new organizational practices and capacities develop, new possibilities for action emerge. Two items should be at the top of the priorities list: integrating the labor movement with the social movements, and creating a political program by and for the working class. Political strikes have been stymied for decades by the legalistic approach of the Democrat-dominated business unions, but exceptions like the dock workers’ strike in solidarity with Black Lives Matter show that it is possible to overcome bureaucratic inertia. Mass organizations have the capacity to mobilize thousands of workers within their own unions, but also across multiple unions and outside official unions altogether. As undeniably powerful as the riots after George Floyd’s murder were, the reality is that a one-day general strike can do more damage to the machinery of racial capitalism and win more for our side than 10 days of rioting.

With the emergence of mass organizations of the Left, it would become possible to form a political program with real collective input from broad layers of the working class. Unlike the platforms of the Democratic and Republican parties, such a program would be built by and for the working class, not their supposed representatives in bourgeois parties. A workers’ program — which is to say, a socialist program — would serve as a guide to action for the organized, an alternative to the status quo to pose to the unorganized, and a standard with which to hold those who would represent workers within the bourgeois state accountable.

Despite the admirable demands contained in documents like the Vision for Black Lives, no such democratically generated program exists anywhere on the Left. Despite the electoral success of some DSA members and the new leftward direction of its most recent convention, we have clearly seen the limitations of a program to which not even members, let alone endorsees, are actually beholden. Good politics mean very little on a piece of paper; they mean everything when they are wedded to a deep and broad organizational structure.

The ouster of Trump and his particular brand of reactionary sadism from the White House will probably stifle the spontaneous expressions of rage we have seen in the past year, at least for a while. But with the end of the pandemic still a long way off, and economic recovery nowhere in sight, the lessons of the George Floyd rebellion will have to be absorbed and acted on quickly if we are going to be ready for the next explosion. These spontaneous eruptions are precious moments for our side, but we must not fetishize spontaneity for its own sake — taking full advantage of them will require the long, slow work of organization building.

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Zach Frailey Escobar

Zach Frailey Escobar is a communist dock worker and sociology student living in San Diego. You can find more of his work at redhorizon.home.blog

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