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Communism and Security Culture

Recently, on what is turning out to be an excellent blog, the issue of internet security was addressed.  This is a problem that has bothered me for some time and for two reasons: i) I have been rather open with my politics and have done so in a way that ties these politics to my actual identity; ii) the problem of security directly relates to the problem of organizing.  The first reason is somewhat banal because it has to do with my own identity as a marxist academic––although I probably should have been wiser with my URL and identification on this site, the fact that I have written a dissertation and published on marxist philosophy means that my name is already connected to the politics I express here and so, even if I attempted to obscure my identity here, I would still be identified with revolutionary theory.  The second reason, however, is worth addressing and will form the subject of this post.

Lock it up, comrade!

Let us begin by asserting the primary problem of security that appears, at first glance, as an irreconcilable contradiction: on the one hand the need to avoid state scrutiny demands secrecy; on the other hand the need to organize demands the lack of secrecy.  Thus, every political organization that seeks to confront state power is faced with a dilemma––we need to bring others into such an organization while simultaneously avoiding repression.  But if we are to avoid repression, the question goes, how are we to openly proclaim our existence to the masses?  The fact of repression seems, at first glance, to necessitate complete clandestinity: once an organization openly declares its desire to pursue counter-hegemony is the moment that this organization could be crushed by the repressive arm of the state that is intrinsically intolerant of anything that threatens its supremacy.

Here it is worth identifying two needs that every potential revolutionary organization should accept as fundamental: a) the need to maintain clandestine structures so as to avoid state repression and build a revolutionary movement; b) the need to make the building of such structures known to the masses. Simultaneously there are two errors, connected to the above needs, that these potential revolutionary organizations might commit: a) the error of being too open with one's counter-hegemonic structures so that any attempt to organize against the state is known by the state; b) the error of being too closed and secretive in the pursuit of revolution so that the masses capable of making a counter-hegemonic movement revolutionary are unaware of its existence.

The First Error

The error of openness is an error that tends to hamper the anarchist and "movementist" left.  Although these anti-capitalists are wont to see agents everywhere their politics are such that infiltration is encouraged.  Open spaces, transparency, supposedly "grass-roots" organizing is precisely the strategy that will allow this infiltration; one cannot complain of the existence of agents if the very strategy of organization promotes the entry of said agents.  And though some have argued that a truly "open" structure will neutralize infiltration––the secrecy required of agents cannot thrive in a properly transparent context––it is unclear as to why this is the case.

Any logical assessment of this "transparency" fetishism should lead us to the opposite conclusion: uncritical openness does not produce a culture that is anathematic to infiltration; there is enough empirical evidence to suggest that the opposite is the case.  To assert otherwise is a somewhat religious gesture, and the champions of transparency have never been clear as to why a transparent utopia is capable of preventing infiltration… Will the agents suddenly be evident to everyone else due to their inability to thrive in these "open" contexts?  Will the revelation of every radical produce the immobilization of counter-revolutionaries?  Will the people invested in these spaces develop the supernatural ability to suss out pigs?  These questions cannot be answered by the uncritical endorsement of transparency.  Indeed, I've never seen any answer that makes logical sense.

And yet a very crude understanding of the strategy of insurrection might promote the belief that clandestinity is unnecessary for a revolutionary party.  A protracted legal struggle designed to encourage a general strike and then an insurrection is the kind of struggle that some have been led to believe can happen completely in the open without any need for secrecy.  Yes, infiltration will happen, yes there will be arrests, but as long as nobody is doing anything actually "illegal"––as long as one's militancy is limited to peaceful agitation––then bourgeois freedom will prevail (or so it is believed) and the only moment of illegality will happen on that blessed day of insurrection when the entire legal apparatus is swiftly smashed.  Those who tend to have this approach are also those who balk at anything that defies bourgeois legality, sometimes going so far as to label this "ultra-leftism" as counter-revolutionary.  Such organizations openly proclaim their existence and are little more than theoretical/propaganda talk-shops.  Not only will their gap between theory and praxis prevent them from taking a single step on the road to revolution, they will probably also be infiltrated.

There are also, of course, those thoroughly revisionist organizations that maintain an open movement for entirely different reasons.  After all, if your entire "revolutionary" strategy is to achieve victory through bourgeois elections then you have to be a primarily "open" organization, where anyone can join as long as they agree to the programme, in order to be recognized as a parliamentary party.  The problem of security doesn't apply to these organizations, however, since the state no longer sees them as a threat and would rather spend its time infiltrating those organizations that haven't fully integrated with the politico-legal apparatus.

The Second Error

Complete clandestinity might at first appear as an antidote to the first error in that it is a practice that is devoted to revolutionary security.  If the state does not know who you are or what you are doing, then it is logical to assume that they cannot infiltrate your organization and destroy it from within.  At the same time, it is a good bet that if the state doesn't know who you are then neither do the masses.  This problem is generally labeled blanquism, after Louis Auguste Blanqui who believed that a revolution needed to be carried out by a secret cabal of conspirators who would clandestinely direct the energy of the masses.

While some clandestine groups might organize various fronts that are not understood as fronts by the people involved––that is, spaces in which they can secretly direct the revolutionary potential of the masses––and while the name of these groups might be abstractly known by some, the fact that no one involved in these ultra-mediated fronts can connect the organization that they recognize with a secret organization they might not have heard of is the problem with this approach.  If the people and the people alone make history, then to keep them out of the production of history by directing them from the shadows and all the while hoping they will be won over to a line they barely know exists is wishful thinking.

Some organizations have fetishized clandestinity to such a degree that it serves as a smokescreen for their possible lack of praxis and growth.  For when the occasional spokesperson of these uber-clandestine organizations emerges from the abyss of secrecy (though usually on the internet and mediated by multiple pseudonyms) is asked about what hir group has practically accomplished, s/he usually complains that such a question is "agent behaviour" and that s/he does not have to justify the praxis of hir organization since such justification would amount to a security breech.  But if you cannot speak even generally about your group's growth and what it has accomplished––if no one is even clear on whether not this group is just a few people on the internet doing nothing but making clever arguments––then you probably are not growing.  For who is going to join a party that is so secret that its activities are unknown?  Why should the masses even care about your existence if you cannot prove to them that you are struggling in their name?  It's hard to see the state even caring, either, since an organization that does not appear to be organizing (and cannot organize effectively because barely anyone knows that it exists let alone how to join) is not a significant threat.

Thus, in order for a revolutionary organization to actually pursue revolution it is necessary for people to not only know that it exists in the first place, but to be generally aware of its activities.  Such an organization can only grow if people are won over to a political line by seeing the party prove itself in class struggle and thus join this party so that it becomes stronger.  Extreme clandestinity thus produces a disconnect between theory and practice: you cannot agitate for a communist party if you are always acting as if you are not agitating for this party.  A secret clique of fellow conspirators is incapable of becoming a vanguard party; it is telling that the two world historical socialist revolutions to date did not practice blanquism and were, in fact, opposed to this politics.

Between Openness and Secrecy

The point, then, is that revolutionary organizations need to creatively navigate between openness and secrecy.  The masses need to know that they exist and see the proof of their existence in class struggle; simultaneously, core revolutionary structures need to be clandestine.  Historically, this balance, despite its necessity, has been difficult to strike and every revolutionary organization has had to deal with the repercussions produces by this necessity: i) a certain level of infiltration and arrests; ii) complaints about secrecy on the part of some people who overly fetishize transparency and want to know everything about the organization they plan to support.

Although I am unclear, due to the position I am in, of how to pursue this balance, I cannot say much more on this issue besides the fact that it is necessary.  After all, as someone who has made my politics public I am guilty of being too open with my ideology––an openness that is produced by the fact that I am a marxist academic with specific concerns––and so am not the type of person who would know very much about the practice of clandestinity aside from the fact that, at a certain level, it is necessary.  What I do know, however, is that the necessary practice of security must always be balanced by the necessary fact of agitating on behalf of a party that desires to be known and embraced by the masses.

In these days, where the state has further developed its skills in surveillance and infiltration, a revolutionary party that seeks to be both open and clandestine must also be forced to develop new methods that will enable it to remain at a level of openness while also maintaining a clandestine core without being crushed.  Our existence and the general direction of our activities must be readily accessible to the masses while keeping ourselves as free as possible from infiltration and surveillance.  This dilemma should be obvious from any rational investigation into the problem of security; how to solve it is something that, also by necessity, is impossible to discuss here.


  1. I remember reading a reflection by members of a New Communist group in the U.S. that said, on the topic of security, that "the workers think of us as a secretive, conspiratorial organization, but the FBI knows everything we're doing."

    -Brendan Campisi

  2. I have partially reposted this article at maosoleum, thank you for the kind words - an excellent and necessary elaboration on the topic.

    One comment would be to address rather directly why by necessity certains things cannot be discussed here: that is precisely one of the tasks of a revolutionary party.

    That is, one of the conditions that necessitate the existence of the revolutionary party is precisely the need to develop collective and individual security practices that are effective. This is in part

    I know you agree, but I am a fan of stressing thing point: individualism is not only a problem of politics (ie of eclecticism etc) but a problem of security. Being a communist and not being organized, or at least, under the aegis of an organizational project that is undisciplined and semi-spontaneous, puts people at risk.

    While being organized or a sympathizer is no insurance against repression (And might, in fact, attract some of it), it does better the chances of developing individual and collective habits, as well as providing a safety net, than being an atomized individual. A communist without organization is half of a communist.

  3. Of course I agree with your additional points. These are implicit and I think I intended them to be more explicit when I first started to write this piece, but my mental exhaustion is such these days that I often forget what I initially intended to include in some of these posts. But I've constantly stressed on this blog the need to be part of a revolutionary organization (and I was going to write yet another post about this soon), and I think this post was specifically addressed at organizations and not individuals.


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