Response to Interview Questions For Reimagining Society Project
By Eric Mann at Dec 17, 2009
By Eric Mann and Manuel Criollo
1. At a public talk someone asks you, "okay, I understand what you reject, but I wonder what are you for? What institutions do you favor that will be better than what we have for the economy, polity, gender, race, ecology, or whatever you have vision for?
Eric Mann: To begin with, I have always rejected this question because it often functions to put social movements on the defensive. It risks caricaturing the great rebellions, revolts, and revolutions of all time as simply “fight back” struggles that were somehow limited to being “against” something while “lacking” an alternative vision. As if the great movements against U.S. apartheid and segregation, and against U.S. genocide in Vietnam were “negative,” when in fact they were the positive center of millions of people’s lives for decades. This question’s point of view hides fundamental political differences that need to be clarified. My anti-imperialism and opposition to the U.S. Empire is positive. It is not “positive” to talk about a “new” America. Given (1) that the systems of capitalism and imperialism are built on exploitation and oppression, and (2) that social movements initially arise in response to the atrocities made necessary by an unsustainable economic/political system, my long-held strategic view, and that of the Strategy Center, has been to build a united front against US imperialism. [Our full paper, “Grassroots Organizing for a World Revolution,” elaborates this strategy.] My life work has been against racism and imperialism.
That said, “what I am for” is captured by the slogan, “Countries want independence, nations want liberation, people want revolution.” I believe in socialism as the negation of capitalism and the positive outcome I am ultimately fighting for. I want to see a fundamental revolution to a sustainable economic system with a democratic political system: a socialism for the 21st century, as is currently being developed in Latin America. However, as a transformative organizer, I do not view long term transformation as the alternative to immediate demands for social welfare and to the fundamental immediate demand embraced by many nations and peoples around the world: “U.S. Stop!”
I am part of an organization that wants to “Free the U.S. two million.” That is a positive outcome, given the racism of the mass incarceration system. I am for stopping racism, for shutting down our entire prison system, and that is very concrete. We are asked, “So are you for letting most of the people out of prison?” We say, “Yes, perhaps 90 percent of them to begin with. Drugs should be decriminalized and legalized—along with everything but the most violent crimes. And even then, only with the most humane rehabilitation system and decent prison conditions.” “So, are you saying that society would be better even though many of those in prison did commit acts that we would think are criminal?” I say, “Yes.”
We have two framing slogans that shape our work, “Yes to the social welfare state, no to the police state. Yes to the environmental justice state, no to the warfare state.” We want equality, civil rights, democratic rights and human rights. We want a seven-generation Black reparations package for the sins of slavery, Jim Crow, ‘convict’ slavery, war on drugs and labor exploitation for all people of African descent. We want self-determination for Indigenous Nations with full land rights and sovereignty and with the right to secede. We want the planet earth to survive and thrive, that is, we want the U.S. to end its war on the planet, emitting over 25% of all green house gases into the atmosphere–bringing the planet and its inhabitants, a few degrees Centigrade closer to oblivion. We want independence for Afghanistan, Iraq, Guantanamo, Okinawa, which means we want the U.S. to close its over 800 bases of occupation around the world, along with the misogynistic and oppressive sex trade that accompanies the U.S. military. We want sovereignty for the Cuban, Venezuelan, Bolivian governments and their people, free of U.S. embargos, military intimidation, diplomatic isolation or aggression, as they struggle for a path for true solidarity and forge a socialism that best fits them. We want self-determination for the Chicano/Mexico people, with the right to break open the illegal so-called “US/Mexico” border, and the right to choose their relationship with the U.S. or Mexican state. We want liberation of women and free, safe, legal abortion. We want immediate amnesty for all immigrants living in the U.S. We want a new Left that is dedicated to fighting racism and white chauvinism in the U.S., a new Left that will not replicate the historical, white-settler master narrative of “one nation under god” and “U.S. exceptionalism,” which, inside the Left has too often taken the form of a “colorblind” fight for socialism based on white privilege and the spoils of empire and racism! We want a new Left that will build a movement to weaken, dismantle and ultimately overthrow the U.S. Empire by affirming self-determination for Third World Nations and oppressed nationalities inside the U.S.—which means a new Left of many who are prepared to put their bodies on the line for these principles.
Regarding the question, “what institutions do you favor that will be better,” we want a social welfare state, not a police state. However, we do not believe that capitalism is a sustainable system; we do not believe that the state that protects U.S. imperialist interests will reform itself even under great pressure. We believe democratic reforms must be won through popular struggle. With regard to the forms of organizations we build, I believe in building strong left institutions—institutions that can organize oppressed nationality working-class peoples and fight for the radical expansion of rights under the present system while modeling the democratic participation that will lead us into the future. I believe in training new Left leaders dedicated to mass participation of the people they organize, the people who are the human scaffolding of a future anti-imperialist, socialist movement. I have seen times when we at the Strategy Center articulate a very detailed revolutionary reform program, such as “freeing the U.S. 2 million” prisoners, only to be met with content-less generalities by some “socialists” who proclaim, “Yes, but we need a society where the wealth is shared, we need a society not based on the exploitation of labor” as if that general sentiment is a “higher form of discourse” than breaking down the powerful racist, classist institution of the U.S. prison system. We are for an anti-imperialist, anti-racist socialism, but disagree with an uncritical, populist, set of abstract socialist proclamations, saying things that are obvious, such as “we all deserve something better than the exploitative system of capitalism,” yet not delving into a critical scientific, historical, and material analysis of the nature of U.S. imperialism and the historical crises for 20th century socialism.
2. Next, someone at the same event asks, "Why do you do what you do? That is, you are speaking to us, and I know you write, and maybe you organize, but why do you do that? What do you think it accomplishes? What is your goal for your coming year, or for your next ten years?
Manuel Criollo: In our opening essay (“Grassroots Organizing for a World Revolution”), Eric Mann and I were trying to make a constructive challenge to the pre-cursors of the new Left movement we all want to bring into being. We believe that we must change the character of the U.S. Left; a new Left must be rooted in and born out of the social movements of Black, Latino, API working class peoples and white anti-racist working people. My own practice led me to this theory, and this theory has guided me as I have joined an organization, the Labor/Community Strategy Center, and, after graduating from college, situated myself within the very working-class community I have lived in all my life. That is why I do what I do.
Some people have been critical of Eric and me for focusing so much in our essay on the practice of the Strategy Center, arguing that it appears self-promoting. We were surprised by this criticism, and yet, sadly, it does reflect a political disagreement over how important it is for everyone to have a vital on-the-ground practice, so that anyone saying they have ideas for the future of the U.S. left is doing organizing work of which they are proud. It reflects an important reason that we don’t have a coherent left Movement: We think there is too much self-promotion by people who do not have any practice or do not hold their theory or practice up to a critical and self-critical light. The reason we/I spent so much time in our paper discussing our work is that we believe our work not only accomplishes concrete historical advances for working people but also provides the basis for the collective struggle for clarity that our movements so desperately need.
This is not the first time that social movements for radical change have developed within the U.S., therefore we need to see leading theories tested in practice. We need opportunities for common practice to create the possibility for greater unity built on lessons we share. I think what we are doing at the Strategy Center is among the best work in the country—in theory and in practice. I am proud of that work and tried to write a paper that would bring to life the many leaders attracted to and born out of that the practice. Imagine a multi-racial, multi-generational, multi-lingual group working together in Spanish, Korean, and English to make a social revolution. Imagine changing the entire transportation system of a county of 10 milion people, forcing the Los Angeles MTA to invest $3 billion in a new clean fuel bus system for the urban poor of color—against their will for sure, even though now they advertise on every bus—“The largest clean fuel fleet in the United States”—and everyone in LA laughs and observes, “Sure, MTA, because the Bus Riders Union created it, forced you to buy the buses, demanded, ‘Stop the lying, start the buying’ and finally you bought 2,500 clean CNG buses, each one at a cost of $300,000 or more, hired more drivers and mechanics, creating real Green Jobs. Many on the left come to LA to tell us it is our practice that gives power to our theory of the anti-racist, anti-imperialist united front, and how open and aboveboard we are with this practice to a mass constituency of bus riders, working-class high school students, universities, and the media.
Imagine a self-identified left organization, the Strategy Center in LA, negotiating with every mayor of LA who knows us by our first names—the late Tom Bradley, Richard Riordan, James Hahn, and Antonio Villariagosa—and winning reforms from all of them. Even when we at times took them on frontally, we always kept lines of communication open because in the end, our goal was not to denounce them; our goal was to create the conditions under which they would change policies in favor of the Black and Latino communities, the multi-national working class led by the Black and Latino workers.
My goal for the near future is to work with Eric to continue building this work and this organization, along with Francisca Porchas, Barbara Lott Holland, Sunyoung Yang, Esperanza Martinez, Kendra Williby, Grandma Kim, Woodrow Coleman, Tammy Luu, Damon Azali-Rojas, and dozens more of the great organizers at the Strategy Center. We have 3 major campaigns challenging the very fabric of a county of 10 million people: our Clean Air/Global Warming Campaign, Bus Riders Union “Fight Transit Racism” campaign now in its 16th year and going strong, and our Community Rights Campaign getting kids out of the pre-prison complex in the high schools.
If we want to build a united front against U.S. imperialism, we must build organizations, left institutions, coalitions, federations, large mass events. Toward this end the Strategy Center is part of the coalition, Grassroots Global Justice, and actively participates in the Social Forum process. In 2010 at least 20,000 people will be at the U.S. Social Forum in Detroit. One key theme for the conference that we will be involved with will be, “How do we confront the Obama machine, free the U.S. 2 million, end the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, stop CIA efforts to overthrow Chavez and other elected and popular leaders in Latin America?”
3. You are at home and you get an email that says a new organization is trying to form, internationally, federating national chapters, etc. It asks you to join the effort. Can you imagine plausible conditions under which you would say, "yes, I will give my energies to making it happen along with the rest of you who are already involved?" If so, what are those conditions? Or - do you think instead that regardless of the content of the agenda and make up of the participants, the idea can't be worthy, now, or perhaps ever. If so, why?
Eric Mann: This is a great question. I have always been an anti-imperialist internationalist, in support of international campaigns such as U.S. Out of Vietnam and Boycott Apartheid South Africa as well as the historic efforts of the world communist movement to form international organizations. Based on lessons from these experiences, I believe the conditions for successful international work are based on support for the right of self-determination for oppressed nations and protection of the strength and integrity of constituent organizations. I do not view this as a question to individuals but to organizations. I have always been part of an organization—from CORE to SDS to League of Revolutionary Struggle, to the New Directions Movement of the United Auto Workers, to the Strategy Center. Each organization has had many international relationships.
But not every invitation is positive or will have a positive outcome. The Strategy Center would respond to any invitation but would not participate in any initiative to form a single international organization (in which currently independent organizations become subordinate as “chapters” to the international) or any initiative based on the subordination of national sovereignty of nations and peoples oppressed by U.S. and European imperialism in the name of an abstract, colorblind, “working class” that considers movements of national liberation a threat.
That said, the Strategy Center has had many successful international relationships—as an NGO at the UN World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, and the UN World Conference on Sustainable Development, in Johannesburg, where we worked on the NGO organizing committee and I spoke to the UN on behalf of the NGO organizations against a theory of “partnerships” between NGOs and polluting corporations. There we developed relations with the African National Congress (ANC), Congress of South African Trade Unions, (COSATU) and the South African Communist Party (SACP). The Strategy Center has been invited and sent delegations to Cuba, Chiapas, the SUTAUR-100 (Mexico), France, Germany, Italy, and South Korea. We have allied with trade union organizations and environmental justice/indigenous peoples campaigns. We have participated in the World Social Forums in Venezuela and Brazil.
The Strategy Center has also allied in many nation-wide coalitions—some based on significant strategic and tactical agreement, such as the First and Second People of Color Environmental Justice Leadership Summits, the Black Radical Congress, and Grassroots Global Justice (each initiated by other organizations) and the current Transit Riders for Public Transportation (which we initiated). We also have sought participation in formations with much broader temporary unities, such as the Boston Social Forum, the US Social Forum in Atlanta and, coming in 2010, in Detroit. We have also participated in explicit nation-wide left-building projects within the United States, with grassroots organizations as well as with anti-imperialist and socialist organizations—Freedom Road Socialist Organization, League of Revolutionaries for a New America, and other organizations with whom we had significant disagreements but wanted to pursue a long-term strategic unity. We want to see organizations coalesce but envision coalitions and federations of organizations, not an international or national single organization of individuals gathering in regional chapters.
One issue that always becomes a sticking point for us, especially in left unity proposals, is the crucial struggle to identify our differences. In our view, this critical process is currently beset by a self-defeating tendency to declare the most principled political discussions and debates “sectarian” and a frightening and ineffective effort to paper over important differences in the name of “unity.” Given the historical debates in the Left and the past 30 years of anti-Left counterrevolution, it’s only fair to assume that people and organizations are coming from very distinct positions. But often in the eagerness to grow the Left, there has been a tendency to say, “Let’s not be negative and dwell on our differences. Aren’t we all left? We hate capitalism, we all think racism is bad and we need an alternative. Besides, we don’t want sectarianism.” But in fact, many of those groups do not work together in the real world because our actual politics are so different that even when we are in the same city we are not day-to-day allies against a common enemy.
What any group sees as the strategic objective will impact its choices on the ground. So without a real, grounded set of discussions and, yes, even debates to clarify differences, an inter-organizational project can foster a superficial unity, lead to frustration, and ultimately misunderstanding, which can only retard the movement further. We need to struggle to clarify our differences, not to divide us, but in order to clearly understand what will be the points of unity, the main challenges toward working together, and “what’s still up for grabs.”
We also must consider the source of the call. Time is currency for the Left and there are some organizations that ask for the time of social movements in implementing ill-thought-out, marginal, or disconnected ventures. If I got something in the mail from a person I didn’t know or trust, I would say no. If I received an abstract “call,” no matter how brilliant I would say no. On the other hand, if a group with a strong base on the ground and an exciting theoretical paper gave the call, even if we didn’t know them we would be interested. But the reality is that we think we know almost all the front-line organizations in the movement right now. There are not that many of them, sadly, and those that have grown in stature and have a social base have sought each other out for many regional and national alliances. In practice, we have always said yes to strong proposals, organizers and organizations.
Getting to Yes. What are some components that we at the Strategy Center value in alliances:
- Unity on demand development (counter-hegemonic demands);
- Tactical sense of agreement on an exciting tactical plan—a sense of how to operate in a united front, how to struggle, build unity;
- A shared history of work, so that we know how people will behave and find them reliable allies;
- High level of personal and organizational trust—when problems develop there must be a basis to solve things with good intentions and good will;
- Having a base on the ground;
- Oppressed nationality leadership and majority—Black and Latino organizations at the heart of a multi-racial movement;
- An anti-racist culture and training for white organizers;
- Black and Latino working class leadership;
- Women’s leadership;
- It’s a class struggle, a race struggle, a women’s struggle—identity and unity in the same person;
- A niche that is real, that fills a need.
4. Do you think efforts to organize movements, projects, and our own organizations should embody the seeds of the future in the present? If not, why not? If yes, can you say what, very roughly, you think some of the implications would be for an organization you would favor?
Manuel Criollo: Our strategy is to build the anti-racist, anti-fascist, anti-imperialist united front. For us questions of organizations, movements, and projects are all in the realm of tactics. We think the main seed of the future is effective coalitional and allied cooperation in the present. Definitely, we strive to cultivate seeds of the future in the present.
For us, this challenge begins with our own organization. The following are key aspects:
- Racial composition would be a crucial criterion in building an organization: majority Black and Latino, working class, women, urban poor;
- Collective decision making—toleration of and respect for minority views.
- Mutually agreed upon hierarchies, that is to say, at every level it is agreed upon who are the top leaders and organizers. Of course they consult and often have direct votes but often they do not. From the beginning, our organizers asserted, “We go into battle with powerful enemies, so we want leaders who are accountable, have a track record of success, but on the spot have the full support to make critical decisions in the heat of battle.”
- A combination of strict accountability and a strong work ethic. Minimize the “economic whip” and emphasize moral and political unity and incentives.
- Winning things in the real world, so that people can look to the hiring of women, better wages, 2500 new compressed natural gas buses, less police on campus, reduction in greenhouse gases, increase in infant nutrition, more staffing at emergency rooms, 1,000 more buses, 1,000 less police. Historically, “the socialist, communist, and anti-imperialist Left” defeated fascism, carried out the Russian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Cuban, and Venezuelan revolutions, ended slavery and Jim Crow, built the CIO, and now is challenged with ending the mass incarceration of Black and Latino youth, and ending the bloody U.S. invasions of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.
In short, the organization should be majority Black, Latino, AP/I (which already reflects the population of California, and the future of the country) and should have an overrepresentation of oppressed nationality peoples, majority or more women, majority working class, and strong LGBTYQ participation in its composition. Social composition isn’t everything but if that foundation does not exist an organization has no chance to succeed, whereas if it does exist, then an organization has a solid foundation for future success.
The organization should treat other organizations and people with whom they disagree with dignity and respect and fight for agreements and struggle toward clarity of differences, no matter how small, to unite all who can be united against a common enemy, even on a specific issue or day or hour in history.
In terms of the seeds for a future political program, I want to reference an excerpt of the Strategy Center document Toward a Program of Resistance to answer this question, on how we approach our organizational forms, demands, and future aspirations:
“The Program Demand Group, born out of this history of common work, is applying this approach in an effort to devise ideological and structural challenges to the foundations of empire. As we present the strategic demands that follow, we want to explain the framework we are using in demand development.
A . Anti-imperialism. We select demands that situate a specific campaign within an international framework of opposition to U.S. imperialism in order to confront structural racism, national oppression, xenophobia, patriarchy and suffering from indignity that is perpetrated throughout the world by the country in which we live and work.
B. New constituencies for a strategic alliance. We select demands that coalesce new constituencies to expand the base of working class people of color who are capable of leading a strategic alliance of the multiracial, multinational working class and the oppressed peoples' movements for liberation.
C. Unity in diversity. We select demands that have the potential to build unity within the multiracial working class in the U.S. while addressing the specificity of needs of different peoples. We select demands that create opportunities for oppressed nationalities, women, and immigrants to expand consciousness and lead struggles.
D. Learning through new forms of counterhegemonic struggle. We select demands that create new forms of struggle that break out of a culture of accommodation to expand space for antagonistic, adversarial negotiation with corporations and the government. We select demands with counterhegemonic content that can challenge the domination of capitalist ideology. We select demands that create collective learning experiences that expose the complex interrelationships of the U.S. political system we are challenging and create the basis for ideological transformation.
E. Institution building. We select demands that create new forms of organization as platforms for expanding power from which to demand greater rights, power and influence.
F. Redistribution of resources/Redress and reparations. We select demands that, if won, would radically redistribute power and resources to the oppressed. We select demands that, if won, would redress the wrongs of historic oppression and superexploitation specific to peoples who have suffered from the brutality of U.S. imperialist expansion.”
5. Why did you answer this interview? Why do you think others did not answer it?
Eric Mann & Manuel Criollo: It’s simple. If you chose to write an essay about “where is the movement going” (in our case, “Grassroots Organizing for a World Revolution”), then the least you could do is take seriously as an organizer the requests for further participation that Mike Albert, Bill Fletcher, and others have encouraged. In our work if our allies ask for money, we donate. If people ask for a subscription, we subscribe. If people ask us to fill out a questionnaire and it is central to how they think the process can move forward, we do it. If people who are our allies ask us to attend a rally, demonstration, program, fundraising dinner, we do so. This is the most minimum currency of left unity.
It is especially important for organizations to respond. The process allows us to clarify our views and to put them forth into a conversation with other organizations. The views of individuals are often readily available through print and web publications. For us, we see the Labor/Community Strategy Center as a movement-building organization and want to support the work of RESOC and other movement building initiatives. We don’t know why others did not respond since it doesn’t make sense to say the RESOC process is valuable enough to warrant submitting an essay but not valuable enough to answer a questionnaire despite 10 very patient reminders from Mike.
Again, great respect for Mike Albert and others who are managing this project. It is a pleasure to be part of it.