Communism is pre-eminently a movement based on will. Force is the final arbiter, vigorous intervention is the keynote, and victory goes to those who have the courage to see things through to the end.
— Selznick, The Organizational Weapon
In the 1950s the RAND Corporation published The Organizational Weapon, a monograph that examined bolshevik strategies and tactics in depth. The monograph is unique in the amount of detail it gives of bolshevik party operations, and it is useful for those interested in radical politics because many of the tactics exploit vulnerabilities inherent to mass society, and are therefore still relevant today. What follows is a summary of the book’s main points and some contemporary applications for the purposes of rewilding.
The bolsheviks, as a radical group, devised their strategy to overcome a basic problem facing almost all radical groups: how to seize and wield power without popular support. More, because violence is so easily crushed by the state, they had to figure out how to do it more or less nonviolently, which, in the final form, meant seizing power organizationally. The basic bolshevik strategy was one of penetrating and seizing power in a number of organizations — what Selznick calls “the nerve centers of society” — and subordinating them to the political prowess of the party.
They did not, however, exclusively target the kinds of organizations that are typical of political combat. To the contrary, bolsheviks “recognize[d] that power is social, generated in all types of action (not simply the narrowly ‘political’) and latent in all institutions.” Selznick goes on: “Leninism views politics as omnipresent. As a consequence, bolshevik strategy has identified vast areas of political potential in what are usually thought to be non-political special-purpose social institutions and mass organizations. This theory of power has increased the sensitivity of bolshevik strategy to unconventional methods of gaining influence.” In other words, the bolshevik quest for power “is carried on everywhere in the social structure, wherever an increment of power can be squeezed from control of an institution or a portion of it.”
The bolsheviks achieved this through the use of organizational weapons. And an organization becomes a weapon, Selznick argues, “when they are used by a power-seeking elite in a manner unrestrained by the constitutional order of the arena within which the contest takes place.” In other words, when a group takes over the organization and breaks the (normally constitutional) rules that restrain or channel its normal operation of power. Selznick points out that the kinds of power the bolsheviks sought is “latent in every group enterprise… [There is] the capacity of almost any routine activity to be manipulated for personal or political advantage.” He goes on to give a nifty overview of the technique:
- A group of friends within an organization may become a power clique if the by-products of their association (the exchange of information, mutual support, etc.) are exploited systematically. The informal group may become a weapon in a hidden struggle for power, especially if there is some basis for cohesion beyond personal ties and if the interests of the organization as a whole are subordinated to those of the clique.
- In choosing among alternative courses of action, an official often has opportunity to influence the distribution of power, both inside and outside the organization. He may then modify his technical decision so as to choose a policy that will aid his friends and hurt his enemies. From the standpoint of the power struggle, the official position then functions as an organizational weapon.
- Proposals for administrative reorganization are often aimed at disturbing the existing power structure of an organization. An administrative unit seeking to extend its arena of influence may screen its true activities behind proposals for more efficient internal organization or for closer cooperation with outside groups. Among experienced officials it is generally understood, although not always acknowledge, that such proposals will be closely inspected for their potential impact on the informal power structure inside the organization.
- Most political parties, organized to function only in the electoral arena, mobilize their adherents only partially. Such groups are usually content to win a general loyalty and to “get out the vote.” This is consistent with their limited constitutional role. But if a fuller mobilization is attempted, integrating the members so effectively that they become available for continuous deployment in many arenas, a reservoir of energy will be developed that can be used outside the normal framework of political controversy. A source of power is tapped which may be used in conspiratorial ways to gain influence for an elite that cannot compete effectively at the polls.
- Organizations established for limited purposes (trade-unions, civic groups, etc.) develop strength that may be diverted to other, more far-reaching aims. If irresponsible power-seekers gain control, this incidental utility may be exploited without regard to the limitations set by the initial character of the group. Every organization is in some respects useful to such elites, if only because funds, internal education, and jobs may be manipulated to serve a partisan interest.
These strategies are widely practiced by those adept at politics — not only the bolsheviks. For example, the podcast This American Life gives a riveting account of a local school board that was taken over by the Jewish Hasidim of the area, who felt the policies before they took power betrayed the cohesion of their religious group. The Hasidim in question employed many bolshevik-like tactics: in one case, they deferred an important vote until the end of a meeting, which they then kept going for hours upon hours, until anyone who was opposed to the vote had to leave to get on with their lives; the result, of course, was a vote in the Hasidim’s favor. In another case, they employed old, forgotten rules in the board’s constitution and bylaws to subvert opposition efforts. These are both popular tactics the bolsheviks used in infiltrating subsidiary organizations.
Notably, all of these tactics are surrounded with an aura of conspiracy and subversion. They do not depend on electoral politics or bidding for popular support. This is no mistake. Not only are “nonelectoral arenas” advantageous for unpopular radical groups, they are “areas neglected by the major political forces, where the marginal strength of a minority can be most effective.”
Note that the bolshevik orientation shifts the activists focus from simply spreading an ideology to engaging in actual political mechanics. The reasons are clear: effective political parties focus most of their efforts on building an operable machine, not necessarily creating converts. For Lenin, “the task was not so much to spread ‘truth’ as to raise to power a select group of communicants.” Ideology, then, is mostly for the communist activists themselves, a unifier of force and director of energy; but the activist relation to the mass is more manipulation than conversion to specific doctrinal tenets. Lenin writes:
As long as the quest was (and insofar as it still is) one of winning over the vanguard of the proletariat to communism, so long, and to that extent, propaganda took first place… But when it is a question of the practical action of the masses…then propaganda alone, the mere repetition of the truths of ‘pure’ communism, are of no avail.
Selznick sums this up as “the vanguard is persuaded…but the masses are maneuvered…” Importantly, this brings into focus the anatomy of the mass, differentiating the functional elements within it (here Marxist ideas of class are particularly useful for bolshevik ends):
…the party cannot be related to an amorphous mass… the party must seek a path to, or create if they do not exist, specialized groups which are part of the mass and may form a leading segment of it.
(For more on the psychological anatomy of the mass, see Hoffer’s The True Believer.)
There are, of course, several problems with vanguardism as a grand strategy, specifically in relation to rewilding and other anarchistic political ideologies. Nevertheless, vanguardism as Lenin devised it is no doubt potentially useful on small, local scales (recall the school-board example), and many of the tactics used in the course of the bolshevik’s revolutionary quest are applicable to nearly any political radical movement. We will investigate these further.
The Combat Party
The core of Lenin’s vanguard strategy was that of the totalizing, overseeing Party. As just stated, this concept of the party is undesirable and probably, in our age of mass surveillance, impracticable in industrial nations. But the actual workings of the party Lenin envisioned provide invaluable organizational principles for political groups.
Lenin saw the party as consisting of core groups of individuals organized into “cadres” (closely related to the contemporary activist idea of the “affinity group”). These cadres were developed slowly, with conscious intent, sometimes over a period of several years. Historically most cadres organized themselves as study groups or reading circles, so self-indoctrination was an inherent part of the group’s social relations. Importantly, however, the cadres were by necessity engaged in constant political action. Together, the individuals in a cadre would embark on any number of tasks for the revolutionary cause: in the Leninist formulation, they are to be deployed as units for infiltrating organizations, establishing front groups, covertly communicating messages, etc. “For bolshevik cadres cannot be created simply through indoctrination; they are trained and tested in the struggle for power.”
The goal here is to take the typically lazy kind of membership one finds in most organizations and convert members into agents, to make them mobilizable at a moment’s notice. Lenin called these converted individuals “professional revolutionaries,” but Selznick warns:
The idea of the ‘professional revolutionary’ is not to be taken literally. It does not necessarily refer to full-time functionaries. The key element is personal commitment to the point where serious risks are accepted.
Selznick argues that this commitment is acquired through the twin processes of “insulation and absorption.” Insulation of the individual is
party ideological… the creation of a separate moral and intellectual world for the party member. The emphasis on theory extends to all realms of thought, not simply political strategy and tactics. This is one of the significant organizational functions of Marxist philosophy, sociology, and economics, and helps to explain the heavy emphasis upon this type of doctrine. In a bolshevik organization, all leaders should be willing and ready to discuss problems of philosophy so as to give prestige to levels of thought which in most action groups would be relegated to the limbo of ‘long-haired impracticality.’
Other means of insulating the member include conspiratorial activity — which helps reinforce the ‘separate moral…world for the party member” — and the endless list of tasks the party has ready at all times. “…[T]he seizure of power somewhere is always on the agenda, and realistic opportunities for the exercise of authority are afforded [always].” This “high pitch of involvement” absorbs members further into the organization and “gives the member a sense of meaningful activity.”
The Party Press
Of course, the question is always how to start. One cannot simply start with a highly organized party network from the beginning. For the bolsheviks, the starting point was the party publication. We need not defer to Selznick’s analysis here, since Lenin explains the strategy quite thoroughly on his own. He writes:
A paper is not merely a collective propagandist and collective agitation, but also a collective organizer… With the aid of, and around a paper, there will automatically develop an organization that will be concerned, not only with local activities, but also with regular, general work; it will teach its members carefully to watch political events, to estimate their importance and their influence on the various sections of the population, and to devise suitable methods to influence these events through the revolutionary party. The mere technical problem of procuring a regular supply of material for the newspaper and its regular distribution will make it necessary to create a network of agents of a united party, who will be in close contact with each other, will be acquainted with the general situations, will be accustomed to fulfill the detailed functions of the national (All-Russian) work, and who will test their strength in the organization of various kinds of revolutionary activities.
To train a network of agents for the rapid and correct distribution of literature, leaflets, proclamations, etc., is to perform the greater half of the work of preparation for an eventual demonstration, uprising. It is too late to start organizing literature distribution at a moment of interest, a strike, or ferment; it must be done gradually, distribution being made twice or even three times a month… The distribution machine must in no case be allowed to remain idle. We must try to bring the machine to such a pitch of perfection that the whole working class population can be advised, and, so to speak, mobilized overnight.
Because bolshevik strategy relied so much on subordination and coordination of subsidiary organizational bodies, the organizational character of the principle party was crucial. It has to be consistent and cohesive. Selznick explains that “the ‘character’ of an organization may be regarded as a product of its ingrained methods of work, its natural allies, its stake in the course of events, the predisposition of its personnel… These characteristics reflect the organization’s controlling roles and purposes; they generate those established patterns of expectation with which the organization is uniquely identified.”
Indeed, for contemporary applications of bolshevik strategy, which will have to rely on the inherently less cohesive networked form of organization, character definition is all the more important so that the only loosely connected units of the political effort can coordinate effectively. This has been a principle problem for all “leaderless resistance” movements. Selznick writes:
One of the advantages of a firmly established organizational character is the possibility of increasing decentralization without sacrificing unity of policy or stability of command. There is a normal tendency in organizations to permit a loosening of formal central controls after the character of the organization has been established. In the cadre party, with its heavy emphasis on indoctrination and institutional character-formation, this means that party members may be relied on to carry out party policy even under conditions which do not permit direct control over the member by regular party organs.
(See also my notes on ideology in the essay “Organization.”)
Organizational character was a particularly striking problem for the radical conservation organization, Earth First! In the end, the debate over character definition in Earth First! led to its fracture into two groups, one of which retained the organization’s name and resources, the other going on to spearhead the science of conservation biology and the idea of rewilding. A similar thing happened between the 19th-century socialists, who split between the bolsheviks and mensheviks. Both examples point to an important point regarding character definition: in regards to irresolvable differences between membership factions, a split will almost always be more beneficial than forced unity. It was only because the early founders and their allies left Earth First! that the science of conservation biology — and even the idea of biodiversity — made such headway for radical environmentalism; and it was only because the bolsheviks effectively split from the mensheviks that they were able to operate so efficiently as a revolutionary party. Per the typical bolshevik mentality, politics, especially those of a small and unpopular group, should always focus first on quality of members, and only after quantity. Keep in mind that the bolsheviks only numbered in the 8000s at the beginning of the second Russian Revolution, and it was with that membership that they took over the whole of Russia.
Selznick argues that conspiratorial activity was an essential part of bolshevik strategy. Here he does not mean exclusively illegal conspiratorial work, but tends to emphasize that aspect. However, as he notes, more important to bolsheviks was maintaining access to power centers of society, and for the sake of access it may decrease its reliance on conspiratorial work, at least publicly. For example:
Although the communists were overtly more ‘red’ in the 1920s than in the 30s, it is probably that the relative weight of illegal work was much greater in the later period than in the earlier. During the 1920s, the communists were largely isolated, using strongly leftist phraseology and talking openly about illegal activity. But…later, when new opportunities and methods permitted the party to break through the isolation, gaining access to noncommunist groups, the need for covert organizational practices was more pressing. Naturally enough, conspiratorial phraseology became a handicap when there was real work to be done.
Once again, then, the bolsheviks curtailed the now-ubiquitous problem of radical activity becoming an identity and an aesthetic by emphasizing, first and foremost, the quest for political power and its inherent focus on political mechanics.
The Operational Code
At the end of Selznick’s analysis of the combat party structures, he gives an “operational code” that is worth quoting in full:
- The objective of bolshevik party organization is the creation of a highly manipulable skeleton organization of trained participants. This organization is sustained by continuous political combat and is linked to the mass movement as its members become leaders of wider groups in the community.
- Adherents, giving only partial consent, are to be transformed into agents from whom total conformance can be demanded.
- The party, through activity and indoctrination, absorbs and insulates the member, severing his ties to the outside world and maximizing his commitment to the movement.
- To avoid the divisive and action-frustrating nature of democratic participation, bolshevism requires that political contention within the party be minimized. Power centers which challenge the official leadership are prohibited.
- The keynotes of party organization are mobilization and manipulation. Everything must be subordinated to maximizing these values, for they define the combat character of the party.
- The full potentialities of Marxist ideology for morale-building are to be exploited, but “dialectical” adaptations of doctrine to the requirements of the tactical situation are desirable. At the same time, Leninist organizational and strategic principles are to be maintained.
- The party is to be safeguarded against the twin inherent dangers of liquidation and isolation. Consequently there is constant emphasis on maintaining the integrity of the party organization and its access to the sources of power in society.
- The party organization can be maintained only be a continuous struggle for power in every conceivable arena.
- The party engages in conspiratorial activity regardless of fluctuations in the respectability of its immediate program and irrespective of the degree of political freedom in the arena. This is required by the aim of subordinating target groups to the party organization.
- Public (legal) activity is always to be combined with conspiratorial (illegal) work, the latter supporting and advancing the former. The struggle for legal standing, the right to have an open communist organization, is therefore an essential part of community activity.
Employing the Organizational Weapon
Put simply, the bolshevik strategy meant creating a political machine, integrating as many organizations into it as possible. Thus the primary means by which bolsheviks gained power were peripheral organizations: groups they had infiltrated and front groups that they created to conceal their communist character.
Front groups, because of their use for concealment, functioned primarily as a means to maneuver the energy of other groups unsympathetic to communism. They are especially useful when the target groups cannot be infiltrated, but when an alliance with the target groups is desirable, either to mobilize its membership or to engage in pressure tactics for more abstract political campaigns. During the 1999 WTO meeting, for example, anarchists used the large, and in many respects non-radical, membership of the Direct Action Network to fill the streets of Seattle during the event. The massive influx of people created enough confusion to conceal the work of smaller radical groups who, employing black bloc tactics, instigated the famous riots.
This speaks to an important point about political tactics: “The potential value of a mass organization…is largely independent of the ideological program to which the members of the organization subscribe.” Indeed, through the use of front groups, a political group can mobilize potentially very large populations who are ambivalent or even opposed to the group’s aims. And, of course, in the case of sympathetic populations, a front group provides an avenue for organizing what might otherwise be an unorganized, and therefore unmaneuverable, portion of the mass: “The party does not merely link itself to the masses, but in a significant sense ‘creates’ them. It does so by establishing organs of access and control which transform a diffuse population into a mobilizable source of power.”
In addition, front groups seemed to have been a heavy source of funding for the communist party:
…much of the activity of such groups consists of fundraising, and it has been held to be ‘the considered opinion of all responsible investigations that not more than 50 percent, and frequently much less, of all funds raised by these front groups ever goes to the cause for which the group publicly is working. In some cases funds raised for a so-called worthy cause are diverted to the Community Party by direct theft and dishonest bookkeeping transactions. In other cases money is diverted by payment of large sums to communist agents, lawyers, publicists, and workers within the particular group, who turn over substantial amounts of their wages and fees to the party.
The latter tactic of giving donated or granted money to individuals loyal to some cause is a common organizational tactic for many political groups, even non-radical ones.
Infiltrating organizations is a little more tricky, because the already established organizational character and membership have to be considered. Front groups can technically exist only on paper, but to infiltrate an organization a political group needs to deploy at least one or two individuals. In general, the best means of infiltrating a group is getting a loyal individual elected as the membership secretary, giving the infiltrating organization access to the target’s membership records, minutes, and other important paperwork. For pure fundraising purposes, and for pressure during administrative maneuvers, the treasurer is an important position. President Pro Tempore (PPT) is important for maneuvering meetings in the infiltrating elite’s favor: when, for example, there is an objection to this or that ruling or vote, the PPT can vote in the elite’s favor. Perhaps least important of the notable organizational positions is the president. The public role of course affords the infiltrating elite a lot of power over the public face of the organization, and helps grant its ideas legitimacy; but it is precisely the public nature of the president that makes the position a disadvantage. Mistakes during tactical maneuvers or any revelation of infiltration in the case of absolute secrecy can throw the whole project off.
Once an organization is effectively infiltrated, the elite may use any number of tactics to subordinate it to larger political aims. They may, like the aforementioned Hasidim, use old constitutional laws, propose administrative reorganizations, extend meetings, defer votes, or just use the old and simple method of social pressure. They may choose to remain concealed, to engage in the organization openly, or do both at the same time. And so on. It is precisely in this micro-arena of political work that prowess, creativity, and responsiveness are required; there is no precise formula, since the appropriate tactics depend largely on the goals in question and the material available.
Selznick points out that gaining access to an organization might be a mere practical problem; maintaining it, however, requires social awareness, especially in regards to legitimacy:
The rule is: those who wield power must establish their right to do so. This is not a pious wish, or a peculiarly democratic canon, but a general political necessity. Every ruling group…must identify itself with a principle acceptable to the community as justification for the exercise of power. Such doctrinal tenets are known as principles of legitimacy.
Reiterating the distinction between ideological sympathy and mobilization, Selznick distinguishes between the principle of legitimacy the bolsheviks wish to establish and the principles that they must appeal to in order to gain access. Once again, there must always be a distinction between the short term tactics of gaining access and power, and the long term strategy to be employed once access has been successfully established.
Identity is an obvious means of establishing legitimacy. For example, after the communists successfully infiltrated the International Worker’s Order, they utilized the primarily U.S. nationality of its membership to apply pressure tactics on U.S. industry. In contemporary politics, so thoroughly saturated with discussions of identity, this tactic holds special importance. But even beyond the typical identities that grant legitimacy — like those involving race, nationality, or class — there is a lot of legitimacy to be found simply in the social position a portion of the mass might hold. For example, the student identity is particularly useful for any political effort. Young people are sympathetic in both rhetoric and appearance, and the whole aura of the student grants a certain forgiving attitude toward any outlandish or radical ideas the individual might endorse. The student movements in the 60s are the obvious example, granting larger movements around anti-colonialism and race a sympathetic in-road to the mainstream media, and exacerbating tension with the police when the police happened to mistreat student protesters.
Selznick points out that simple hard work can be enough to establish legitimacy. “In every organization which they seek to capture, the communists are the readiest volunteers, the most devoted committee workers, the most alert and active participants. In many groups, this is in itself sufficient to gain the leadership; it is almost always enough to justify candidacy.”
He also emphasizes that bolsheviks did not need to appear powerful. “In many contexts, tolerance of the party may be won if the belief is held that it has little influence.”
From a propaganda standpoint, probably the most effective principle of legitimacy promulgated by the communists is that based on the distinction between ultimate and immediate aims. The right to participate, to have access to centers where power is created and transferred, is decisive for organizational weapons. This is aided by a doctrine of apparent compromise, the communists claiming that, although their program is ultimately the best, they will go along with lesser achievements.
…Equally important is the consequence that the communists come to be viewed as standing at one end of a political continuum; they come to be thought of as favoring the social ideals of the liberals, ‘only more so.’ This is an important psychological victory, for then the communists are accepted as being within the same basic community as all ‘progressives’ and hence rightful participants in its work.
Related are “indiscriminate attacks upon all left-wing movements…as ‘communist,'” since this only further binds together the communists and other left groups.
After establishing a sufficient network of peripheral organizations, the bolsheviks went on to employ more ambitious political tactics such as the united front, or a general political line to which many different political groups proclaimed allegiance. This is only a magnified version of establishing front groups, but it is precisely its large-scale quality that allows for more sophisticated tactics, ones that could influence national politics instead of merely influencing a target organization. Utilizing the united front tactic will be even more important for contemporary political groups, since, because of surveillance and the now global nature of political conflict, they must rely more on ideological and dispositional unity between groups than on the traditional hierarchical command structure of the bolsheviks.
Defending Organizational Territory
“What is really urgent is that the other left-wing movements compete for the same social base as do the communists.”
The bolshevik approach to power has implications for the actual targets of political attack. Often “…the communists seek opportunities to win control over a mass base created by some other leadership,” even unsympathetic ones:
The main enemy, the target, of [bolshevik] strategy is not the class of power-holders (feudalists, monarchists, capitalists, etc.) but rather that group which competes for the control of the proletariat and the peasantry. In each of Stalin’s stages ‘the main blow’ is directed against liberals, democrats, and socialists.’
This is not a matter of emotional response but of the hard coin of politics. Programmatically the communists may declare that the ‘bankers and bosses’ or the ‘imperialists’ are the enemy. But these forces do not challenge the communists at the source of power; they do not compete for the leadership of unions, they do not make appeals for the goodwill of liberal intellectuals, and above all they are not equipped to expose the communists as corrupters of the very ideals they claim to represent.
It is important to note that this aspect of Leninist politics is in some need of modification, for both ideological and practical reasons. In terms of ideology, much of the Leninist struggle for power against other, similar groups was rooted in their authoritarian aims: seize control of the state and reorganize society from the top down. The starkly opposite aims of anti-industrialism — to disrupt the technological and economic infrastructure of society, and restore the disrupted territory to wild nature — will necessarily give their political efforts a different character. Specifically, anti-industrial groups will be more focused on disrupting bases of hierarchical power rather than competing in that arena much at all. Where rival but, in terms of power, comparable groups do have authoritarian aims, it will often be enough to divert their energy to some beneficial task without totally disrupting their organization, much like bolsheviks did through front groups. Again, the surveilling nature of contemporary mass society means radical groups must focus less on accumulating and centralizing power than on figuring out how to utilize already organized bases of power.
In any case, when a political group does need to enact a proactive defense of its organizational territory, it will use pretty much the same kind of political thinking it used to infiltrate organizations:
The task of destroying a rival organization is one to which the organizational maneuverability of the cadre party is especially adapted. The target is penetrated and a communist fraction is established. This group then foments a factional struggle which ultimately leads to a split, the communist fraction leaving and taking with it a small number of individuals who have been won over. In the meantime, as a consequence of the internal conflict, a large number of members will have left, repelled by the atmosphere of bitter contention.
Similarly, the political group might establish “a formal center to isolate the captured areas from the official leadership, as the basis for a split if that should become necessary.” The communists did this several times when trying to gain access to a portion of membership under a national or global organization, establishing informal “headquarters” within the target organization. Anarchists employed a similar tactic when getting involved in early Earth First!, establishing a rival journal to Earth First! Journal, entitled Live Wild or Die. Martha Lee writes extensively of this factional conflict in her book, Earth First!: Environmental Apocalypse.
The Climax: Employing Dual Power
“…where the allegiance of groups and institutions is divided among polarized contenders for supreme authority, a condition of dual power emerges.”
Selznick argues that the end-game of dual power is to eventually enact a coup d’etat. For contemporary applications we will have to take coup d’etat in the most general sense as a final seizure of power, specifically over a territory. This is the aspect of bolshevik strategy that is currently least relevant, but it must absolutely be emphasized that no radical movement will ever make headway unless it remains aware of the eventual need to acquire power over territory, not merely abstract social power. Alone abstract social power can enact, at best, temporary cultural changes; territory, on the other hand, involves the fundamental infrastructure of a society and can enact lasting social changes. The Zapatistas, for example, used then-new internet technologies and NGOs as pressure groups to support their seizure of territory in Chiapas. Their political prowess enabled their rebellion to result in only a handful of deaths. In the U.S. there is potential for similar tactics by indigenous people and conservationists, especially the latter, who already have a mechanism for delineating territory through The Wilderness Act, and a means of seizing it through their ubiquitous presence in the National Park Service and other agencies.
(For more on the end-game of organizational infiltration and manipulation, see Malaparte’s Coup D’Etat: Technique of Revolution.)
In more abstract terms, the eventual goal of the bolshevik network of peripheral organizations is to establish a basis for “dual power”:
…the bolshevik view that the substance of power is not contained only in the formal institutions of government, that it can be generated in new ways and assume many guises. A government that loses its legitimacy or its monopoly of organized violence may cease to speak with authority in the community; its commands will cease to be obeyed.
Again, there are multiple territories and populations among whom the federal government holds little to no legitimacy: indigenous people, mountain towns, some rural conservatives, urban anarchists, bioregionalists like those in Cascadia…
It follows that dual power may be created without the generation of new social forms. It may result from new combinations of disaffected institutions. The capture of local governments, agencies of a central government, or of labor federations permits the construction of a new state apparatus prepared to displace the old.
Of course, this need not necessarily involve establishing a new state, although perhaps something like it. The main point is that the network of peripheral organizations can eventually become a concrete “super-organization,” even if only on a local scale: “When this directing group decides to assume total power, it has only to formalize its relations with the captured institutions.”
In trying to apply Selznick’s analysis to contemporary politics, it is important to keep two things in mind. First, Selznick, as an outside analyst, and an unsympathetic one at that, portrays the bolshevik strategy in almost purely mechanical terms. Words like “manipulation,” “indoctrination,” and “instrumental” litter the whole text. In one sense this is why the text is so valuable. Unlike more sympathetic texts on radical political strategy, Selznick offers an honest realpolitik perspective, something sorely lacking in most activist circles. On the other hand, no activist organization could survive if it bred the purely Machiavellian outlook Selznick suggests all bolsheviks had. Functional political groups — more, beneficial ones — will be rooted in the actual psychological realities and social needs of its members. There will always, of course, be some kind of balance in any political organization, but certainly the bolsheviks would not have succeeded at retaining their membership so well if they had all treated each other as instrumentally as Selznick seems to suggest.
Second, no contemporary application can try to reproduce the whole operation of the Russian revolution. No matter how relevant bolshevik strategies are to modern political efforts, we live in a different historical era and face rather different conditions, particularly those related to high technology (computing, information technology, etc.). As stated before, vanguardism as a grand strategy, apart from almost inevitably leading to a totalitarian end-game, is nearly impossible in the age of mass surveillance. Any radical political effort that tries to mimic the administrative character of more legitimate political parties will quickly fall apart from disruption by government or industry. Indeed, perhaps the foremost modification of the bolshevik strategy is a shift from a hierarchical, administrative party to a networked one. See “Contemporary Applications of Networks and Netwar” (forthcoming).
That said, almost the entirely of bolshevik strategy, even its administrative components, can be effectively applied to local political efforts. Probably the strategy is most useful for small, cohesive towns and university student politics. In the former case, the centers of power are almost always clear to any long-term inhabitant of the area: networks of business owners, local government, small businesses, civic and community organizations. In the latter case, the formally structured but in-practice chaotic network of student groups, combined with the typically inattentive membership of most student organizations, provide an ideal environment for elite groups to infiltrate and coordinate large numbers of social bodies. This is especially useful for anti-industrial and rewilding efforts, since, as one paper puts it, ‘Since the 1970s, research universities have been widely recognized as the core of this nation’s science and technology system.’ In addition, university computer networks are linked to many of the nation’s major technological infrastructures, and students in a handful of crucial majors often have appallingly high levels of access to these.
Of course, bolsehvik strategy also has some degree of relevance on a national and global scale, especially for environmental efforts. Among the post-Marxist left there is often talk of the ineffectiveness of old revolutionary strategies: precarity, or constant joblessness or paycheck-to-paycheck living, combined with the end of trade-unions, have together obliterated the old base of Marxist power. There simply isn’t an organized proletariat to maneuver, they say. But the case for environmental politics is much different. Environmental organizations are proliferating, globally, and could easily fulfill the same role trade-unions did for the bolsheviks. Networked “party” structures that consciously maneuver themselves into these organizations may be able to mobilize them for all sorts of political activities.
Environmentalism is similarly positioned in the ideological terrain. Like Marxist ideology, human ecology, at least in theory, touches nearly every aspect of human life: political organization, economics, geographical influence, childrearing, even philosophy and morality. Paul Shepard, the founder of the field, writes “human ecology will be healthiest when it is running out in all directions.” In other words, at least in the Western world, radical environmentalist ideology has the same potential for insulation and absorption as Marxist theory, and can be functionally employed in like manner.
Finally, the question, as always, is where to begin; for Lenin it was the party press. Today, because of the sorry state of media, this is an unlikely starting point. Should a group try to mimic the Leninist strategy of a party press, they will likely find themselves facing the same problems as any small-media project: funding issues, problems with selling print editions, readership issues, revenue issues for online counterparts, etc. These are not, of course, insurmountable. Earth First! still coordinates its groups through the Earth First! Journal; Occupy had Adbusters; the anarchist collective CrimethInc. once had Rolling Thunder; the new socialists have the uniquely successful Jacobin; even the Jihadis have Inspire, which is exclusively online. But probably a radical group will have to start with another kind of project — a printing press, a coffee shop, a bookstore, a brewery — anything that offers the same advantages the party press did to the Leninists, namely, an automatic creation of a coordinated group and distribution network. Once again, these will almost always function most effectively on the local scale, at best a national one.