On the Importance of Theory in the Prison Movement; Opportunism and Revolutionary Leadership
“Without a revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement. This cannot be insisted upon too strongly at a time when the fashionable preaching of opportunism combined with absorption in the narrowest forms of practical activity.” - V. I. Lenin
Often times the first half of this quote is misrepresented by people not really knowing the context. Well-meaning comrades will repeat this political axiom when calling for others to pick up their theoretical game (grasp of revolutionary science), for reasons having to do with the obvious need for revolutionary theory to influence and propagate our revolutionary practice. Yet it was in the process of struggle and heated political debate that Lenin first made this now famous statement. These struggles and other political debates were recalled by Lenin in eir book What is to be Done?; a book about communist organization and discipline. More to my point, in this book, Lenin addressed the importance that revolutionary theory should play in informing the revolutionary movement, in part for the purpose of combating various erroneous tendencies.
The main tendency which Lenin devoted the better part of this book to was the problem of opportunism. Opportunism can be defined as the conscious or unconscious watering down of political line in order to garner more sympathy for your cause or movement. It can also be said that opportunism can be described as the glossing over of contradictions within the revolutionary movement so as to not offend or turn away your social base. A perfect example of opportunism would be to tell Amerikans that they are the revolutionary vehicle which we call the proletariat instead of telling them the truth: that they are by and large the objective enemies of the international proletariat – parasites which we call the labor aristocracy.
One example of how opportunism can work its way into the revolutionary prison movement is thru a philosophical belief called pragmatism. To be a pragmatist means to worship the tactics of whatever works at the present time. While there may be occasions in which we must do what is most effective at that particular instance/moment, we must do so in a way that doesn’t have us sacrificing our political principles or political line, all for the sake of practical results. Pragmatism as a strategic orientation is a danger to revolutionary movements because it can cause us to shift focus from our strategic goals in favor of the immediacy of tactical results. While tactical wins are a good thing for the oppressed, we will be in error if we confuse a tactical gain for strategic victory. A real world example of the negative effects of pragmatism is how many prisoners who participated in the California hunger strikes first initiated in 2011 abandoned the struggle for humyn rights in favor of material concessions and a more comfortable oppression.
Other more nuanced examples of how opportunism has come to dominate political organizing behind prison walls come in the form of “friendship groups” and “elites.” Both are hazards to the prison movement because of the seemingly casual nature of the two and the Liberalism that underlies them.
Friendship groups are the more obvious of the two. Friendship groups can be defined as: “A group of friends who also happen to participate in the same political activities. Most of these groups’ members participate within the group because they like the people in them and not because they have the correct political line.”
Elites can be defined as: “A small group of people who have power over a larger group of which they are a part of, usually without a direct responsibility to that larger group and often without their knowledge or consent.”
Friendship groups function on an external level and so many prisoners will surely recognize one when they see them, as most LOs have these types of groups functioning in one capacity or another. Elites on the other hand, while being dialectically related to the friendship group are the opposite and function on an internal level. One thing which both these groups share in common is their popularization and use of false logic as a method of accomplishing their objectives. This false logic can be best understood as sophism; a method of argument that fake philosophers use to fool the masses by exploiting to their own advantage any situation they encounter or create. One such method of the professional sophist is the ad hominem attack. Ad hominen attacks are marked by appeals to feelings or prejudices rather than to intellect. For example, if one persyn doesn’t like another persyn’s politics, but can’t correctly argue against eir political line, the aggressor might use an ad hominem attack instead. The ad hominem attack might be accusing the persyn of violating an established taboo, such as stealing from another persyn.
Opportunism will find its way into revolutionary movements and organizations if both the masses and the leadership do not have a strong grasp or even an elementary understanding of revolutionary theory. This can allow for various dishonest and incorrect elements to find their way into our structures, which as a result can cause our movements to falter and perish. This is why as revolutionaries we put such a high premium on the study of revolutionary science not only amongst the prison leadership but the prison masses. Furthermore, in making this point we cannot over-emphasize the dialectical relation between study and practice, as a correct grasp of one will inevitably lead to a correct grasp of the other.
To re-iterate, preventative measures are essential in order to safe-guard our movements from taking up opportunism and watering down their revolutionary agendas. We must strongly advocate and fight for the study and production of both revolutionary theory and practice not only to effectively meet the demands and goals of revolutionary organizing, but to navigate our movements thru the sea and fog of bourgeois Liberalism. Our practice will grope in the dark unless its path is illuminated by the most advanced revolutionary theory.
Last, but certainly not least, i would like to speak to other challenges of revolutionary organizing behind prison walls. When working with the lumpen and attempting to organize for our collective liberation it is only natural that we will run into a variety of problems that may end with us in frustration. However, we should not blithely dismiss the prison masses as incapable of listening to our message because they are supposedly too “ignorant”, “backward” or “apolitical” to understand what the so-called “revolutionary” might regard as “complex,” as this has more to do with the revolutionary’s own ignorance, inability and incapability to either understand the masses or effectively communicate to them the correct political line. More likely than not, when any movement, strike or action fails to materialize or develop it is not due to the low level of consciousness of the masses, but to the revolutionaries’ own lack of profundity and insight into the movement of the masses which they often claim some sort of near spiritual connection to.
We must continue to find better ways to correct our approach and understanding of the masses, correct our shortcomings, and stop blaming the masses. Likewise, neither should we fear the masses or their criticism, as the acceptance of criticism and self-criticism is integral to establishing the correct revolutionary line. Do not fear the masses because they are the way forward, and do not fear their criticism because often times they prove to be correct, if even just a bit, for whosoever fears the criticism of the masses only proves that what they really fear is revolution. Above all, always remember that revolutionaries are not above the masses in any way, shape or form. We are but the advanced detachment of the prison movement, nothing more, nothing less. Whoever does not believe this is not a Maoist.
In writing this missive a relevant story comes to mind. When the masses in socialist China were struggling for control of their country against the capitalist roaders during the period of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, many so-called “revolutionaries” felt that the masses were out of control, and that they weren’t yet ready to share state power with the communist party. Many of these revolutionaries advocated an end to this “anarchy,” accusing the masses of being too backward to run the country. To this Mao Zedong and Lin Biao responded:
“The assumption of power by ideological means is absolutely necessary if consolidation of the working class’s power and hegemony is the goal… To accomplish the decisive political leap, the leading role must revert to the masses; this has nothing to do as it is generally believed in the West to do with any form of spontaneity. The role of the party in destroying ‘spontaneous’ illusions lies in the quality of leadership which consists in transforming dispersed rebel movements into a revolutionary current capable of overcoming contradictions. Lin Biao says that the mass revolutionary movement is naturally correct; for among the masses, right and left-wing deviationist groups may exist, but the main current of the mass movement always corresponds to the development of that society involved and is always correct. Revolution is the resolution of contradictions.”(1)