Writing for reconception: Shaping our communist vision

Mao writing "On Protracted War" in a cave dwelling in Yenan.

Mao writing “On Protracted War” in a cave dwelling in Yenan.

By NAT WINN

When explaining the Kasama Project’s orientation around reconception, our new statement of unity says:

We study history not to confirm what we already think, but to learn from those who have struggled before us. We also know that every revolutionary wave is new and that each generation must reconceive the communist project in the face of new conditions as well as in the light of previous successes and failures. The need for communist reconception is especially important in view of the failures and defeats suffered by the socialist revolutions of the 20th century. We do not believe that there is a ready-made body of revolutionary communist theory just waiting to be picked up and applied by us. We take seriously the need to develop new theory and new practices in response to new conditions.

With this in mind, I have been thinking a lot about what it means to write articles with an orientation toward reconception and an understanding of the necessity to develop new communist theory and practice.

A couple of questions come to mind, along with some initial thinking.

If reconception is an actual goal or function of a collectivity or communist group then how does that relate to how we write and to what type of articles we post on a website or publish in a journal?

Are we looking to just have “interesting new content on our site”?

Or should the articles we produce be consciously attempting to coherently reconceive communist theory?

Are we writing to uphold and discard things in relation to old verdicts, or are we writing to uncover from our social investigation, whether the social practice we reference when we write has created something that we can adapt, learn from, and adopt as part of the new synthesis we are setting out to develop?

Kasama has been grappling with some of these questions, but I think these questions are important for all revolutionary and communist groups who are working toward developing strategy that can lead to a communist organization that can viably contend for political power through revolution.

What is social practice?

When we talk about social investigation, this means going out and seeking to learn from a broad range of social practice.

Social practice refers to the political struggles of various social forces (and classes), but it also refers to a broader range of things. Social practice involves learning from all realms of accumulated human knowledge including from developments in science, philosophy, art, music, military strategy, and much more.

Social investigation can include the recent Baltimore trip that some Kasama comrades took to learn from the people living in West Baltimore. It can mean engaging philosophers like Badiou and Althusser. It can mean going onto college campuses to work with students and professors to learn from their insights into the social (and class) structure of the US, international relations and geopolitics, new developments in biology or physics, or going into factories, WallMarts, or Fastfood joints to learn about struggles in the work place. Historical research is also an important part of social investigation and of learning from previous human experience and knowledge.

All of these different areas of social practice are places where social investigation can be done and of course these are places from which we can forge links with and “fuse” with sections of the people. These are also all areas of human knowledge and practice from which we get the raw material to develop new theory relevant to our revolutionary aims in the 21st century.

What does this mean for communist writing?

It seems to me that when we write with an orientation toward the necessity for reconception (or new communist theory and practice), there are certain things that we should look to avoid and certain things that we should aim for.

I don’t think that at this early stage of a new communist movement that communist journalism should seek to “keep up” with the news cycle of the mainstream capitalist media. Sometimes we will want to speak about powerful events, like the uprisings of poor Black youth against police brutality, the wars in the Middle East, or the struggle of women against patriarchy in India or on college campuses in the United States. This is fine and good. However if our main focus is on developing new theory and strategy, our communist writing should not be focused solely on agitational statements regarding such events, but more on seeking to learn from such events.

What are the ideas and popular slogans emerging from the event? Who are the different social forces in the field? Where are the politically advanced located? What is the potential and opportunity for communist politics to emerge out of the event? What opportunities do imperialist war (including by proxy) present for revolutionary resistance by social forces constituted in response to such wars?

Of course a big part of being able to write like this on such events is immersing ourselves in particular struggles, movements, and communities. The above mentioned trip to Baltimore and a trip by some Kasama comrades to the Rio Grande Valley to talk to some of the immigrants living there are a beginning process of developing an understanding of the potential sites for areas and contradictions with society, that produce forces who are potentially amenable to communist fusion with sections of the people.

Book research and grappling strictly within the realm of theory is also an important part of our work. In relation to more theoretical pieces, I think a similar orientation is necessary. When we are writing about history, philosophy, political economy, science, or art – our framework should not be one of “a defense of previously held verdicts” or “rejection” based on (for example) a conflation of a given theorist’s political affiliations with that theorist’s actual theoretical project. Here an insight of the French philosopher Althusser, what he referred to as a ‘second reading’ becomes critical. This refers to not just reading a text one time filled with our own prejudices, but to go back again and tackle it on its own terms while trying to find the gaps, unspoken questions, etc.

I would propose that whenever we are writing about theory we should be looking at things with an eye toward what ideas we can adapt or learn from in developing our new theory. Such theoretical writing should also be a collective enterprise and should seek to reference past articles and discussions, within our own organizations and those of other communist groups as part of a process of developing deeper unity and synthesis and of working toward a collective sense of strategy and stronger forms of organization.

Finally

To say that there is a need to develop new theory and new practice in order to develop the type of organization and strategy needed to make revolution in our current times, and to cohere around a project that sees the development of such theory and practice as one of its main aims, creates certain implications about what we write and how we engage in writing.

Writing with an orientation toward the need for reconception is about engaging the broad range of accumulated human knowledge and practice and on the basis of that, making proposals within a collective framework about what areas of knowledge and practice can be adapted, learned from, and adopted within a new communist synthesis. This is a process that can work both within and across organizations as part of working toward a communist organization that can truly contest in the realm of real politics.

4 thoughts on “Writing for reconception: Shaping our communist vision

  1. I think it would be nice to use this piece to begin a discussion around what an actual strategy based on social investigation would look like. I have a lot of agreement with Nat’s piece, but I have a few questions, as well. The biggest I think is: how do we move from social investigations around faultlines (like Baltimore, the RGV) to fusing with the resistance movements that grow out of them?

    I think that there’s another point in this piece that is worth discussion. Nat wrote, “I would propose that whenever we are writing about theory we should be looking at things with an eye toward what ideas we can adapt or learn from in developing our new theory.” I agree with this, but I think I would like to take it a bit further. When we engage past theoretical works, should we not write also with an eye towards developing an actual strategy for on-the-ground reconception and regroupment? Specifically, I mean that, should we be writing new theory as not just theory in an abstract sense, but rather with direct, contemporary implications? There is an understandable reticence towards writing prescriptive theory, but at the same time, that is what I think of when I think of new theory and reconception.

  2. Ryan,

    These are great questions. I’m do not see that I have any real disagreement with where you seem to be going. For instance in the next paragraph after the sentence you quote I write:

    Kasama has been grappling with some of these questions, but I think these questions are important for all revolutionary and communist groups who are working toward developing strategy that can lead to a communist organization that can viably contend for political power through revolution.

    So theory oriented toward regroupment and reconception is certainly what the article has in mind.

    In terms of your question, ” how do we move from social investigations around faultlines (like Baltimore, the RGV) to fusing with the resistance movements that grow out of them?” – well, here are my thoughts.

    I think that part of our social investigation should involve active participation in the resistance movements. I don’t believe that there is such an easy dichotomy between investigation and participation in resistance movements. In a sense theory and practice should themselves fuse into one another, they are interconnected, and “can turn into their opposite” in a certain matter of speaking.

    And I’m not sure that the idea is that “we” fuse with the resistance movement per se, but that communist ideas are able to “fuse” with the advanced sections in resistance movements, cohorts of people that are already thinking on the level of “how do we change this is whole fucking society” and are ready to make sacrifices toward that objective.

    And we can’t do that from the sidelines. We have to “run to the sound of the shots fired.” At the same time the investigative part of that is always looking out for those cohorts of fighters (the advanced) that we can connect up with in the process of deepening our strategy and organizational strength.

    This work assumes other theoretical problems. How do we identify the advanced? How do we understand the concept of mass line that is written into our statement of unity? Who are the social forces within the resistance movement that we most want to connect with? And many more.

    Part of answering these questions involves some book research and grappling with “abstract theory” and alot of it involves participation in particular struggles (or communities) where we think revolutionary communists can get a potential hearing.

    To end this particular comment, I think there are a number of forms of social practice to draw from in developing communist theory. Social investigation is one form of social practice, and it is vitally important but it is also not sufficient for all we need to know and do. I hope to write a follow up article soon that will touch on different types of social practice and why they are important to our reconception and regroupment work.

  3. I think Mr. Winn has raised a good number of questions regards the role and development of revolutionary literature in relation to the building of a newer communist paradigm and organizational matrix. I must admit that some of the questions were so large in regards theory and praxis that I don’t know where to begin other then a few first thoughts on how we can break the larger framework down into smaller variants . Perhaps the initial examination regards theory can be breaking down a theoretical frame into macro and micro, both in relation to historical fact and ideological interpretations. Let’s face it, we all have predispositions to “believe” a certain idea, an interpretation, a historical “fact.” Even what we accept as a historical fact has a wide range of variables and subjective inclinations to construct a truth. Praxis, of course, is more understandable when broken down initially into strategy and tactics.

    All that being said, I have very few suggestions on how to deal with these large and necessary concerns. We’re not talking about having an option in relation to time and history. The capitalists are destroying the world. We have to concretely examine and resolve the problems facing building a new communist organization ( in relation to a mass base) in a serious and ongoing way as immediately as we can. I’m not a dooms-dayer but perhaps because of age, the immediacy of the task shines even more brightly.

    Mr Winn’s concerns as a writer are mine. I am a visual artist and for years have been trying to break the old parameters of revolutionary art. During the anti-war movements (all of them ) and demonstrations I left saying, “If I see another fucking dove, I’ll puke.” Unfortunately I think the post-modern techies idea of how a meme is developed in unfortunately true. Often times the repetition of symbols diminishes the initial power of the symbol as in becomes known in a mass way. Its a strange dialectic. The response in some ways becomes kind of automatic. I guess that has good points and bad.

    For years I have been trying to think of how the visual image of the clenched fist effects people. It is a human gesture that in itself represents resistance, power, militancy and solidarity . The is how the image so easily empowers and reflects the art. Its a human gesture that springs forth when the need to resist etc comes to the fore. Every time you see that image I think your body actually physically understands the symbol because the symbol is of the body. Not an object or idea as the dove in relation to peace. The dove is not visceral in the same way . It appeals to an idealization. Though, honestly as an artist, I am a bit tired of having to use the image. I have struggled to find a way around it but have not. Nothing I do inspires that same gut feeling of standing firm and fighting back as that raised clinched fist.

    I hope we in building this new communist movement can widen our artistic horizons. I think we need to actually trust the masses and common folks around the world to have more artistic sense then we give them. The idea of visually “talking down” to the masses has been a real problem in Left propaganda generally. I think folks have a wider artistic sensibility and appreciation than most commie artists think. Not everything has to be spelled out. Folks are smarter than you think. They can put things together.

    The capitalist use a wide range of images, styles, designs, and art to sell desire. There is no reason not to use the same diversity and variety of images, styles ,etc, in creating interest in an idea and social system. Realism, as a style, is not the only way to attract the eye, make the person want to look at an image or poster or page or website. And truthfully that is the real task of the political artist. Once Soviet Socialist Realism (about 1936 I think) became the accepted style the human imagination was put in fetters. What was the thing Mao said about ten thousand flowers in relation to ending up with 6 approved ballets. Once more the human imagination was fettered.

    I often look to the Russian Constructivist for inspiration. Here were these avant-guard artists, who became fervent revolutionaries, trying to explain ideas, attract attention, and inspire action to a population who was probably seventy five per cent illiterate. Yet they did it. Not only did they inspire the masses they created an art that inspires the world. Design has never been the same, typography has never been the same, painting has never been the same. I could rave on but I won’t.

    I guess, Mr Winn, we can say at least you got the pot boiling.

    Let’s kick out the jams artistically and in literature. Let’s re-dream, re-imagine, re-vision the idea of Proletarian Art. I think its time the propagandist on the left trust the Masses to be savvy in their ability to understand a wide range styles and types of art and music and politics. Write poems , paint , dance, bake bread for a new world. Joy and Bread
    M.

  4. In his comments Ryan states:

    When we engage past theoretical works, should we not write also with an eye towards developing an actual strategy for on-the-ground reconception and regroupment? Specifically, I mean that, should we be writing new theory as not just theory in an abstract sense, but rather with direct, contemporary implications? There is an understandable reticence towards writing prescriptive theory, but at the same time, that is what I think of when I think of new theory and reconception.

    While I agree with this sentiment, I also want to point out that we should not as a matter of practice separate abstract theory from developing strategy. (I’m not sure that this is what Ryan was trying to do or say.) In another conversation I came across this passage on “abstract theory” in an article by Mike Ely and I thought it would be good to post it here for further thought and reflection. Ely says:

    I often hear people use the word “abstract” as a dismissal and putdown. As if it is bad to be abstract (and infinitely better to be concrete, I assume)

    This is very one-sided. It is part of inherited Comintern disdain for nuanced theory. In that historical movement the word “concrete” was practically worshipped as inherently proletarian. And it also (in our context) very much “typical American” (in that John Wayne, man of action, sense) — where the culture promotes a visceral distrust of thought and theory.

    By contrast, we need abstractions, we fight hard to develop them, and we need to help our working class brothers and sisters to learn to deftly handle and generate abstractions (or else they will never be able to lead, or distinguish between the capitalist and the communist roads).

    There is a living dynamic between the abstract and the concrete — that we need to respect and handle well.

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