Rooting classism out of our organisations

IssueJune - July 2018
Feature by Michael Albert

This is an excerpt from a new book by US activist and thinker Michael Albert. RPS/2044 is an oral history of a revolution in the US, about 25 years from now. The book is made up of interviews (conducted in the future) by ‘Miguel Guevara’ (MG) with the people who helped to make the revolution. They describe how their organisation, ‘Revolutionary Participatory Society’ (RPS), began in 2020, developed over the years, and won its victory in 2044. RPS 2044 connects the movements that exist today with the kind of long-term vision and strategy we need to win social transformation. The section below deals with issues of class and classism.

Miguel Guevara: Mark Feynman, what impact did new understandings of class have on RPS internally. What was the problem to address?

Mark Feynman: The uncontroversial commitment we all shared was to remove the basis of capitalist domination, their ownership of the means by which production occurs – land, equipment, factories, resources – the means of production. That much we all knew with zero reservations. Cooperating workers had to take all that property for self-managed administration. The question we weren’t so sure about was how to eliminate capitalist owners ruling without enshrining a new boss in place of the old one? How could we attract, retain, and elevate working-class members to control economic life, but not lose too many coordinator-class members?

MG: In your local RPS chapter, what did all this translate into and what difficulties had to be overcome even once you were doing the above?

“Sometimes those with the most experience and confidence had to do the less empowering tasks”

MF: Everyone in the chapter had responsibilities such as scheduling meetings, preparing snacks, cleaning up after meetings, preparing an agenda, preparing materials, recruiting, researching for possible campaigns, and, later, developing views and preparing materials for current and future campaigns.

We assigned tasks in a balanced way, or even sometimes we would have those with the most experience and confidence actually do more of the less empowering tasks, to redress the prior imbalance. And self-management wasn’t just about democratic votes, it also focused on the process leading up to voting. We insured that those with greater confidence and prior knowledge did not dominate discussions and that those with less confidence and prior knowledge became steadily more vocal and involved.

We had an unusual rule, for example, that votes could not be taken until working-class members were collectively satisfied they had fully voiced their views and been sincerely heard. In the beginning, this created tension, but the emphasis on attaining real solidarity overrode backsliding.

Words that connect

Part of participating was people becoming knowledgeable about social change and specifically about RPS views and vision. People also had to become skilled in public speaking and in making compelling arguments. So we soon realised we needed internal training and practice....

We did have a big language gap as worker and coordinator members used different words. There was also a big confidence gap and also a big public speaking gap – especially if the speaking had to adhere to coordinator-class norms. But it turned out that, as far as actual understanding and insight, there was no large, one-way gap. And as far as communicating with non-members, worker members were quickly better at it than coordinator-class members.

When we asked a worker to explain, challenge, or support RPS views, he or she typically had a hard time, at first, either not yet knowing the specifics or being too nervous. But when we asked a coordinator class member to do it, the presentation was mostly mechanical.

The coordinator-class person could reel off a bunch of words but couldn’t explain their meaning for daily life situations in a convincing fashion. It was often rote, with little relevant meaning. When working people saw and felt that, they saw a reason to chime in. And as they got more confident, they realised that they brought a level of understanding and experience that the coordinator folks lacked but covered over with fancy words.

These steps therefore proved beneficial not only for worker participation, but for the substance of discussions and understanding. First-hand knowledge had to be shared. Obscure words had to be jettisoned.

80/20 vision

We also had a really demanding recruiting norm. At the outset we had 14 people in my chapter, nine of coordinator background and aspirations, and five who were working-class. So, we talked it through and agreed that RPS would ultimately need to much more closely reflect societal conditions – roughly 80 percent working-class and 20 percent coordinator-class. We did not want to not recruit people, yet we agreed for every new coordinator-class member we would need to recruit at least two new working-class members. We then also assigned recruiting disproportionately to working-class members so that in time the ratio would get still better.

Like everything else, this was difficult for everyone. For the coordinator-class members it meant they could not just go out and recruit friends, family members, and the like, even if those individuals were strongly pro-RPS. Recruiting more coordinators often had to wait. And for the working-class members, it also imposed a burden.

They had to do great recruiting, and they had to push their coordinator-class fellow members to do so as well, but among working-class people. Otherwise everything would stall.

“Votes couldn’t be taken until working-class members were satisfied they’d fully voiced their views and been heard”

RPS was about winning new institutions but along the way, with old institutions in place, we needed new movement focus, style, and composition. When someone would say: ‘But we could be bigger quicker if we ditched these silly requirements,’ we had to not just reject the view, but also to understand their feelings and convince them that being bigger quicker, without classlessness, was not better. Slower the right way was better.

Getting working people to join, attend meetings, and energetically relate was difficult even for those who were eager to do it. How did we provide ways for people with incredibly demanding work and home lives to participate?

The answer was that joining the organisation had to reduce people’s life difficulties. For example, a chapter, much less an organisation, had people with diverse skills and talents. These could be directed at reducing the time working-class members had to spend dealing with bureaucracies. We could collectivise and reduce the costs of certain life tasks, not least food shopping and day care.

We knew scale was critical for all this, and so we proposed to RPS that when chapters grew and divided in two, the assembly of chapters take as a key priority utilising energies and talents across all member chapters on behalf of all the members being able to better participate.

‘Co-ordinator’ class?
by PN staff

In Marxism, there is a capitalist class (who ‘earn’ profits by owning factories, offices and other means of production) and a working class (who earn a living by working in factories, offices and other workplaces). Michael Albert follows other libertarian thinkers in saying there is a third class in between these two groups. He calls this the ‘co-ordinator class’, made up of managers, administrators, doctors, planners, lawyers, engineers, and other highly-educated folk.

Co-ordinators not only have a lot of control over their own working lives, they tend to have control over working-class people also. Co-ordinator class jobs empower, building confidence, high-status skills, and influence. Working-class jobs, not so much.

Albert argues that Leninism is not a form of socialism (in the interests of the working class) but ‘co-ordinatorism’ (in the interests of the co-ordinator class). The Russian Revolution of 1917 was, in his view, about installing the co-ordinator class in power, over the working class and peasantry.