Tuesday, August 02, 2022

Sheer Pragmatism: J. Sakai, "Beginner’s Kata: Uncensored Stray Thoughts on Revolutionary Organization"

This 32-page digest-sized pamphlet published by Quebecois imprint Kersplebedeb was an excellent read to follow Maxim Raevsky’s Anarcho-Syndicalism and the IWW. I love reading materials from various times in radical history, and I ascribe them sizable inspirational, practical, and romantic value. I view such writers and subjects as heroes of history. 

Sakai’s slim volume, which is also available in full text—for free—on Kersplebedeb’s Web site, called me on the carpet and took me to task for doing so, encouraging me to apply the Zen concept of beginner’s mind to my political activism and labor organizing. Instead of relying on potentially outmoded and perhaps unsuccessful forms of organizing, we should focus on the modern day and sheer pragmatism: What tactics and techniques, what strategies, will help us accomplish our goals with the people, organizations, and structures we’re working with today?

In fact, Sakai cautions against defaulting to heroic moments such as the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the Spanish Civil War of 1937 as our frameworks and models for success. They might have succeeded, but not in a sustainable way. “[T]here are numbers of radical people as well as different groups with revolutionary ideas,” Sakai writes. “But if only temporarily, there is no revolutionary organization yet which is strong enough to impress its ideas against mainstream politics.”

If we presume that we don’t know anything about successful revolutionary organizing, what can we do? Sakai offers several ideas:

  • Learn to stop covering up your ignorance—readily admit when you don’t know something

  • Apply democracy selectively in organizations—Sakai suggests that the most effective work is often done in purely personal projects such as Jim Campbell’s Prison News Service and the National Committee to Defend Black Political Prisoners, which was largely run by one woman. Small group projects also show promise along these lines: “[Strip] away unnecessary people and organization… .”

  • Minimize emotional response and value judgments related to your work—instead of being thrown by events or feedback, just consider it as information: “Don’t think of what you’re being told as positive or negative. It’s just information.”

  • Avoid focusing on examples from the past that confirm or verify your existing beliefs or biases

  • Concentrate on building alternative structures

Sakai spends the rest of the pamphlet exploring that idea. They caution against merely criticizing or critiquing opponents, as well as falling prey to hopelessness. “We revs are always way outgunned and outnumbered by the mercenary forces of the capitalist state, until the final stages of the struggle,” Sakai writes. “Everything we do, our tactics and strategies, our organizations and subcultures, all assume great imbalances in strength between us and the capitalist ruling class.”

Small collectives, intellectual journals, and zines—even blogs—might not be enough. We need to reframe our thinking about revolutionary organization in terms of building revolutionary organizations. Easier said than done, but thought-provoking and inspiring all the same. What would that look like? How would it work? Who would you involve? What would you do?

“[Y]ou cannot be an individual revolutionary in any meaningful sense,” Sakai challenges. “[I]t is only complex revolutionary organization that lets our full political thoughts and intentions become full sails of reality.”

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