A Critique of Spontaneous Action

by Xavier

All across social media, growing calls for a general strike amidst the increasingly discontented working class can be heard. The sentiment and idea are entirely understandable considering  the pressure of unsustainable wages and a rising cost of living, as well as the  increasing number of strikes in individual industries such as the strikes carried out or authorized by Kellogs workers, John Deere workers, and film workers under the IATSE union.

In the IATSE union, only the threat of the strike was enough to force concessions. The concessions won were largely inadequate, and this process has illustrated the growing division between an increasingly militant rank and file union membership and leadership which is unwilling to take a strong stance in defense of workers’ rights. However, this has also demonstrated the strength of working class organization, of what we can accomplish when we abandon delusions of a spontaneous uprising smashing the capitalist machinery and do the work necessary to build a strong and organized working class movement.

However, the calls for a general strike, such as the most recent one for October 15th, are based on some flawed principles. The common characteristic of the recent calls for a general strike is one advocating spontaneous action. That is, rather than coming from the working class and unions, these calls for a general strike are coming from individuals who hope to instigate the action through the spontaneous participation of the working class; this is an important distinction to make.

As some background information, the general strike was being organized primarily over a now-defunct discord server, which is a communications platform, and which has since been purchased by the far-right propaganda group “The Victims of Communism Foundation.” Aside from that, the other social media platform that featured heavily in what planning took place was TikTok, a video-based social media platform. While much of the content and related accounts have been taken down or lost in the endless stream of new content, this video by Sampson Spadafore, also known as @trans_agenda on TikTok, summarizes many of the issues that were present.

For a general strike to work there needs to be a variety of factors that simply are not present at the moment. There needs to be support among the general union rank and file. There needs to be a strike support fund. There needs to be prolonged discussion on the work floor among coworkers, as well as discussion across industries. None of these are present in public discourse. Instead, what we see are random calls to action with little-to-no planning, organization, or preexisting support among vital industries or even the general population.

This is only the most recent example in a long history of individualism and idealism within the US. People focus on the role of individuals, rather than on the role of the collective, and on pre-existing ideas of what the world should look like and what actions should be taken, rather than on the real material conditions that exist in society. This attitude and approach have had serious consequences, particularly on the effectiveness of the general US left.

To look back a bit further, the Pacific Northwest is another example of the dangers and consequences of this individualism and idealism. CHAZ (Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone), later called CHOP (Capitol Hill Occupied Protest), was an anarchist attempt at establishing an autonomous, self-sustaining community covering six city blocks and one park in the middle of Seattle, which had a variety of conflicting goals.

A small number of the people involved aimed to establish a long-standing community, hoping to inspire similar attempts across the country which they hoped would result in the overthrow of the US state. A larger number united behind three demands: cutting Seattle’s budget by 50%, reallocating that money to community services in historically Black communities, and ensuring that protestors did not get charged with crimes.

In the case of the first group, this was a clear failure. There was no widespread emergence of autonomous zones, and even in the neighboring state of Oregon when a few protestors tried to organize a similar project outside of the Justice Center, their attempts failed.  A lack of preexisting local support meant that they were fighting an uphill battle from the start. They were not integrated into the local community, so were coming in as strangers, and establishing an autonomous zone conflicted with the goals and plans of some local grassroots organizations such as Black Unity, which was not aiming for such a militant action and was still aiming to consolidate a power base. In the case of the second group, there were more mixed results. They demanded a 50% cut in police budgets which would have meant a bit over $200 million cuts. However, in 2021 Seattle only cut $12 million from their police budget for a $30 million participatory budget, where community input would help direct its use. In other words, they only achieved 6% of the budget cuts they were trying to get. And protestors were still charged with crimes after the occupied zone was dispersed by police under a month later.

For both groups, it is clear that spontaneous action resulting from individualist and idealist approaches which neglect to consider the ultimate role of the collective or the real material conditions we exist within failed to produce the desired results. CHAZ/CHOP could not defend its existence against state repression, did not come even close to achieving its conflicting demands, and ultimately the controversy surrounding the project caused more problems for general organizational efforts than it was worth.

Even in its early history, an individualistic and anarchistic approach was wholly ineffective and downright dangerous. In Spain, the CNT’s lack of significant organization led to a series of failures, internal instability, and splitting behavior towards the Spanish Republicans which ultimately contributed to Franco’s victory. Not only the CNT, but the Trotskyist POUM exhibited the same sort of behavior, illustrating the individualist and ultraleftist nature of Trotskyism, as well as highlighting the dangers posed by those tendencies.

Even elsewhere, in Russia, the anarchists directly opposed the Soviets in the middle of a civil war against the Tsarists. They threatened to destabilize the overwhelmingly popular Bolshevik revolution, which would have ultimately restored the Tsarists to power. Accusing the Bolsheviks of stealing from the people even as they robbed trains for grain headed to be distributed to the people, crying out about the worship of leadership among the Soviets even as they named their project Makhnovia after their military leader Nestor Makhno, they once again posed no threat to even the Feudalistic system in Russia, let alone capitalism, and in fact, served towards their interests rather than the interests of the working class. And ultimately, their efforts resulted in a project lasting only three years.

The fact is all organizational efforts must be aimed at dismantling capitalism and replacing it with socialism. This is a goal that, over the last 100 years of organizing and engaging in the class struggle, has not been realized in the US. It is time for those of us within the anti-capitalist movement at large–particularly those individualists and idealists who neglect collective organizing and material conditions and who are not in a party–to analyze the causes of this failure. One of the causes is the pervading fetishization of spontaneous action which plagues the contemporary left. While many of those individuals involved in these efforts are well-intentioned, impact and results are more important than intentions. And the impact of these approaches and of these anarchist and individualist ideologies is an ineffective approach to combating capitalism, which has largely alienated the working class community and not created a significant working class movement. In order for us to successfully organize in the class struggle, we must cast off and struggle against these bourgeois ideological restraints which prevent us from organizing with power.

The Ideological Roots of Spontaneity

To understand the issue of spontaneity in a worker’s movement we must consider both the ideological roots of spontaneous actions and the class basis of those ideologies. Lenin best summarized the problems with Spontaneity in What Is To Be Done? when he said:

“All those who talk about ‘overrating the importance of ideology,’ about exaggerating the role of the conscious element, etc., imagine that the labour movement pure and simple can elaborate, and will elaborate, an independent ideology for itself, if only the workers ‘wrest their fate from the hands of the leaders.’ But this is a profound mistake.”

In short, the desire for a spontaneous movement stems from the belief that a labor movement devoid of any ideological influence will develop the correct ideology on its own terms. The laws of social development, however, do not allow for that to happen. For one, what movement was ever allowed to develop independently, free from outside influence? If a vanguard of the working class movement does not form and does not guide the worker’s movement both practically and ideologically then other influences will.

We learned our lessons from history when the trade union movement in the USA fell victim to McCarthyism and red baiting and decided to cut all ties with anyone suspected of Communist affiliation. What happened? Reactionary forces, those with reformist and bourgeois ideologies who would foster complacency, and opportunists who had been waiting in the wings were able to take power in the union movement because there was no strong force organized to oppose them. As a result, the trade union movement suffered a heavy blow, dropping from 35% membership density in the US in 1954 to a mere 10.8% in 2020.

And the twist of irony is, despite supposedly advocating for a “spontaneous development of ideology and tactics” among the working class movement, anarchists are themselves attempting to influence the development of ideology and tactics among the working class movements. They engage in ideological struggle, and they encourage their own view of how things should be done. How do they act differently from a vanguard except in the sense that they are less effectively organized?

This theory of spontaneous action coming from anarchism, which is itself an ideology firmly rooted in the grounds of the universities,  has little connection to the wider working class. It has not taken root in the working class because it cannot, and it cannot because it is not rooted in the interests of the working class.

While anarchism may claim to be for the working class, and many anarchists may be genuinely attempting to challenge capitalism, the real implementation of anarchist theory does not challenge capitalism to any serious extent, and even beyond that the theory simply does not resonate with or come from the working class. The theory of anarchism is a petty-bourgeois one, which has taken root primarily in the petty bourgeoisie.

Where the working class’s interests are rooted in the ability to organize, to seize power from the capitalists, and centralize the economy based on fulfilling our needs rather than attaining higher profits, the petty bourgeoisie’s interests are rooted in both the prioritization of the individual over the collective so that they may exercise the privileges afforded to them by their class to the fullest extent. They are also rooted in prioritizing the struggle against the state over the struggle against the capitalist class because, as a class, they primarily witness hostile interactions with the state rather than with the capitalist class as a whole, and so maintain a too narrow view of the overall struggle.

The truth of the matter is that these concepts have taken root in the popular movements of the US not due to any fault of the working class, but due to brutal repression by the US state against Communists during the McCarthyist period and Red Scare, which continues to a lesser extent to this day. Just as nature abhors a vacuum, so too does the worker’s movement, and it was just as soon as the repression took its toll that the anarchists and democratic socialists attempted to fill that vacuum.

That is to say, it is not a personal failing of anybody who has been caught up in these false ideologies. We live in one of the most fiercely anti-communist countries on Earth and have a hard battle ahead of us when it comes to correcting our understanding of politics and the world. However, it is the responsibility of any who call themselves a revolutionary, who call themselves a Communist or socialist, who claim to fight for a better future to struggle against the incorrect ideas that exist within our popular movements, both within themselves and with others.

The Role of the Party

ll of this begs the question: what is the solution? Like the title of Lenin’s book, many among us wonder what is to be done? The answer can be learned from history and by reading theory from those who have led revolutionary movements before us such as Marx, Lenin, and Stalin. However, we must have an answer in plain terms applied to our current times.

On the question of spontaneity, the role of the party is simple: We must assume the role of ideological and practical leadership among the broad working class movement. The issue of spontaneity is one of ideological infancy, of a lack of structure, of a lack of organization. The solution to those things can be found in their opposites; if a lack of something is the source of a problem, the solution is to obtain that something.

And so what does the Party do? The Party must both learn and teach. All cadre must diligently study theory and history from the great Communist projects that have preceded us. Additionally, we each must diligently partake in the active work done by the Party and work to strengthen our understanding of the applied principles of the science of Marxism-Leninism, not hesitating to take on those roles which must be filled and gain the experience, knowledge, and wisdom from fulfilling them.

This function is also filled in a greater sense through the Party-initiated school, the Peoples’ School for Marxist-Leninist Studies, where we attempt to reach the broader masses and educate them on the principles of Marxism-Leninism, and our publications where we attempt to do the same in a different way.

However, simple education and administrative work are not enough. We must also immerse ourselves in the common mass struggle, unite with the working masses along their interests, and show them through our works that what we say is correct. Experience is the best teacher, and only through actively engaging in struggle side-by-side with the oppressed and downtrodden masses can we simultaneously connect with them, learn from their experiences, and guide them in their struggle while taking on a leadership role.

These are all roles that only a vanguard party can fulfill. How can individuals working on their own, or in loose collective organizations with no real structure or way to assign responsibility, effectively fulfill these needs? There is a need for education, but when a thousand voices are speaking out of unison it creates a discordance that makes it impossible to find direction. Through a democratic centralist organizing method a thousand voices are effectively unified as one, collectively discarding that which was incorrectly held by individuals and maintaining that which was collectively found to be correctly held, further educating both themselves and the masses using that unified voice.

Much in the same way that a thousand voices unified as one is louder than each speaking separately, a hundred fists is stronger than a thousand fingers, and organizing our work on those same principles allows for the strongest and most effective work. Rather than a thousand different groups and individuals acting on their own interests and ideas, those thousand become one, acting in unison to achieve whatever task is set before us.

The vanguard party is the organizing vehicle for the most advanced segments of the working class and is used to establish the Dictatorship of the Proletariat so that we may build socialism and achieve Communism as explained by Lenin. It is the method by which the individual voices and actions among the working class become one, and by which we will be able to strongly oppose the capitalists in our class struggle. For those who have found the individualist and idealist tendencies popular among our present movement insufficient and who are ready to attempt a more collective and materialist approach, join us at the Party of Communists USA.