Le cadre du militant socialiste

Recently, while giving a final exam in one of my French classes, a student raised her hand to ask about the meaning of a word in the reading, a passage on changes in the workplace in France since 1975. “What does ‘cadre’ mean?” Naturally, as an American, she pronounced it as any American socialist would: “KAH-dray”, rather than the French “kɑdʀ”. Given the context of the classroom, and wanting to speed the exam along without getting hung up on simple vocabulary needs, I naturally responded: “Manager”. But I had to stop and chuckle to myself.

You see, I was recently expelled from an organization that had as one of its stated goals to train a socialist “cadre” in preparation for a future (or present?) mass radicalization that would bring about the formation of a mass revolutionary party, to which we would contribute our “cadres”. While the faction of which I was a part developed critiques of many aspects of said organization, what I found increasingly troubling was the difference between the stated (or implied) conception of what socialist militants should be doing, and the reality of what the leadership thought (and thus, directed into reality).

This process started with a document I wrote in late summer 2013 and submitted to the Internal Bulletin. The response from “cadre” occupying a similar position as me was generally quite positive, as they had been pondering the same issues about socialist organization, implantation in the working class, etc. A couple of the regional organizers said they liked it. But the national leadership was silent—something I should have realized at that moment as an indication that they disagreed with it. This actual disagreement only came out in the course of the factional struggle, and usually in subtle ways, overshadowed by the shrillness of the accusations against us of disloyalty, doing the work of the state, etc. The leadership actively tried to obscure the political content of the struggle, which meant that it was only really clarified for those of us in the faction, previously valued as “cadre” but now vilified as enemies.


So what does this have to do with managers? Let’s go back to the text. Had my student read the definition of “cadre” given in the text, she would have seen: “les cadres – ceux qui encadrent d’autres salariés”. Those who give a framework to other workers. Of course, as with so many non-English words, the word “cadre” itself it loaded with shades of meaning that are lost or ignored when the word is forcibly assimilated. “Cadre” means frame or framework, just as much as manager. It is, after all, the manager who gives a “framework” to the operation. This is not even a revolutionary conception, but a basic question of organization.

In the ISO, “cadre” was explained to me at some point as “soldiers who train soldiers”, the necessary milieu without which leaders could not lead, as it was the cadre who were the link with the masses, and thus also the conduit of the masses to the leadership, the medium through which the educators would be educated. It ostensibly arose from Napoleon Bonaparte’s reorganization of the French military along bourgeois lines, and implied the sort of tight comradely relations one might expect inside a combat-oriented organization. The cadre were the trusted boots on the ground, the glue of the whole party apparatus. Or so it seemed.

But what did the ISO leadership really think? The two documents that most clearly laid out the leadership’s position on these questions were Joel Geier’s document on Zinovievism from Pre-Convention Bulletin #1 (first given as a talk at Socialism 2012, then expanded and published in the International Socialist Review), and Paul D’Amato’s document from Pre-Convention Bulletin #5. In between these two publications, and before the announcement of the Renewal Faction, Shaun Joseph responded with a piece on his own blog; part of Paul D’s piece was a polemic against Shaun.

In brief, the leadership documents laid out a conception of the leadership as a (or rather, the) permanent faction; a conception of cadre as the “intermediate layer” between the leadership and the rank-and-file; and a conception of declared factions as a symptom of crisis in the organization. Paul directly criticized Shaun’s characterization of the cadre as being an independent layer of the organization, in a “contradictory” (i.e., dialectical) relationship with the leadership. Taken together, we get a picture of a leadership that gives orders and expects the cadre to carry out those orders. Of course, cadre should think independently and creatively on the ground, and may raise certain, incremental disagreements; however, even these should be made for the sake of perfecting the leadership’s lead. Paul creatively (mis)interpreted Shaun’s argument even further by selecting his preferred meaning of the word “irreverent”—a term that Shaun used in his article to describe the appropriate attitude of rank-and-file cadre to elected leaders in a socialist organization. In Paul’s assessment, “irreverent” was construed to mean “disrespectful.” As though we could not ourselves interpret a dictionary definition (which he provided to support his point), or use word roots to understand the word to mean “lacking reverence”! Within a socialist organization, respect is one thing—but for whom should we have “reverence”? While Shaun’s critique of Joel’s argument was written prior to the announcement of the faction, and as such did not comprise part of the Faction’s Platform per se, it nonetheless informed our thinking about these questions, and about our role as a faction.

In contradistinction to the leadership’s conceptions, we started with a conception of cadre as a layer of independent thinkers and actors whose role as cadre is solidified precisely through their engagement in the class struggle. I remember many conversations with Shaun and other Providence comrades in the period of 2003-2011 about the question of cadre, what it meant, how people became cadre, etc.—and it was on the basis of these discussions and our shared experience in struggle over a decade that we developed a concrete notion of what we meant by “cadre”. It requires this leadership of people beyond the organization, in “external” activity so to speak, on the basis of socialist politics made concrete in struggle, in order for a socialist to develop the life-long commitment to socialism that is the hallmark of a socialist cadre. A cadre is not simply a socialist who’s read a lot of books, nor one who does much of the legwork of branch and movement building; a cadre is an all-around leader, and performs that function in a clear, rooted context (another aspect of the word “cadre” in French). Our conceptions were leading us to draw conclusions (faulty, it turns out) about what the “cadre” of the ISO represented; and to develop directions for that cadre toward a more rooted, relevant future.


What does it mean to be rooted? What I meant by “rooted” or “implanted” was (or seemed) simple: a socialist militant is “implanted” to the extent that their daily life, including the means by which he or she earns a living, brings the militant into frequent and meaningful contact (including but not limited to political contact) with a relatively stable group of fellow workers, colleagues, students, etc. It provides him or her with a natural, organic link to the larger working class, and provides the organization with one of the “inputs” which is so crucial to formulating good, concrete perspectives. Construed more broadly, it can include other aspects of a socialist militant’s life and political work than simply a workplace, such as a campus, neighborhood, social movement, etc. In essence: the socialist “cadre” is not simply an individual militant, but rather a member of a revolutionary organization who is at one and the same time an organic member of the proletarian vanguard—assuming that such a thing exists. And if it does not?  Then it is the task of the socialist militant (or a group of socialist militants) to sink their roots within the class, and to develop a larger layer of proletarian militants, whether members of a socialist organization or not, whose experience as leaders of actual class struggles will convince them of the necessity of socialist revolution.

But is it possible for this “rooting” to happen with members of an ostensibly “Leninist” organization, given what that term has meant since the last phase of far-left “party-building” began in the post-1968 era? While writing the document on ISO “city” branches, it might well have given me pause that Joel Geier talked about having to retrain IS cadre as “trade-union cadre”; clearly, there was a sharp distinction between “cadre” whose time was dedicated to the organization, and those who were “forced” to commit their time and energy to the direct class struggle within their unions. Of course, within the ISO, there was never any open acknowledgement, at least prior to the faction’s formation, that there was such a sharp distinction to be drawn between rooted and unrooted cadre. It took more the form of comrades saying one thing, but in practice talking about how difficult it was to stay involved in the ISO with job, kids, etc.—unless, of course, a “cadre” was hired by the organization, or somehow found funding.

Given the various reactions to the question, and in particular to my document, I concluded that there was a wide range of views on “implantation”—and that fundamentally, the leadership of the organization, whatever they might say in Socialism talks, actually viewed it with disdain. The New York comrades who responded tended to view “implantation” in terms of neighborhoods. That view was completely rejected by the Seattle comrades, who stated that neoliberalism had so destroyed neighborhoods and rearranged workplaces, such that class-wide movements are the thing to look for. What accounts for this disagreement? Precisely that neoliberal restructuring has taken very different forms in different places. Neighborhoods still represent something socially coherent in New York City, but in most other U.S. cities those very neighborhoods have been rearranged, destroyed, new ones conjured up—or in many cases, the traditional neighborhood replaced by urban sprawl. The point simply reinforced what the faction called for: that branches should first analyze concretely the local conditions in which they were operating, and focus their efforts where implantation made most sense. This done, the branches should then convey the political lessons of their experiences back to the rest of the organization. In other words: federalize the initiative, centralize the political lessons.

What all the comrades who responded appeared to do, however, was to reject the centrality—or for that matter, even the possibility—of a focus on the workplace. For Marxists, it should be axiomatic that the workplace has a certain primacy in our analysis of the working class, and in our organizational practice. This does not imply that we should adopt the sort of “industrialization” perspective held by much of the far left in the 1970s, nor that we should transplant entire branches from the North to small industrial towns in the South, as Lee Sustar caricatured our argument. It does imply that a group of socialist militants should start with an account of where they work, where young socialists could go to look for work, and what sort of collective plan they could develop to support comrades in the course of workplace work.

In contrast, all the comrades who responded in one way or another found ways to discount the workplace as too difficult, too isolated, too atomized or neoliberally reorganized, etc. Amy Muldoon pointed to the admission in our Providence experience that our Verizon SW sale collapsed after the demoralizing contract defeat as proof of the point. But part of the problem for us, a mistake we made, was precisely that we did not take seriously developing relationships and eventually a plan around the workplace, such that we could continue a connection even after the defeat. We were too focused on the simple propagandism of selling the Socialist Worker on the basis of what was in it, when we should have been developing a plan around the Verizon hub—and then building our activism at Verizon around this plan. Perhaps if we had more members and fellow travelers in Providence—or for that matter, perhaps if we had more than one or maybe two members at Verizon in New York City, with a plan for the organization to support their work at the rank-and-file level over a decade—we would have had some greater influence over the course of the contract fight as a result of broader connections with the rank and file.

This is not how the leadership saw the question. In the Providence pre-convention discussion, Jen Roesch specifically dismissed the notion of focusing on the workplace because work can be “demoralizing”, and such a focus would allow demoralization into the organization. The problem is precisely that the “demoralization” of the workplace is part of the experience of the class; it is one of those crucial “inputs” that we require in order to formulate more precise perspectives. This is why we argued to factor the life circumstances of ISO members into the perspectives and priorities of the local branches, rather than requiring members to structure their lives around the priorities of the branch. This latter option becomes more difficult as members of a socialist group age; and moreover, it can have the effect of cutting the members off from their coworkers, whose lives are not structured around politics, and who would have a difficult time restructuring their lives to do so. Yet again, however, Jen disagreed with this assertion, as it would lower the bar for membership in the organization, in her estimation. But if the bar is set so high that it cuts us off from the class, isn’t that a greater problem?

Of course, a single socialist is going to be limited in his or her ability and effectiveness in leading others in struggle; collective struggle and collective leadership are always more effective, and so to the extent possible, we should always aim to have multiple socialist militants involved in leading particular struggles and/or being implanted in a particular workplace or sector. In theory, the ultimate goal of this orientation is to develop workplace cells or branches, so that groups of comrades can carry out coordinated political work much more effectively. This aspiration, though, runs up against the reality that in most cases, ISO members who are actually rooted in particular workplaces or sectors are likely to be on their own. In this instance, it should be the role of a community branch to provide a space where such comrades can share their experiences, get feedback and support from other comrades, and continue their daily political work in ways that make sense to their situation. This is quite different from the experience of a coordinated fraction or campus group, and would be different from the work of a workplace or sector-based branch; but it is also what objectively fits the situation of a small radical organization in a situation in which the vanguard of the working class has yet to develop.

None of this is to deprecate “class-wide” movements, nor movement work in general: when there are movements, we should obviously participate. But we should understand that workplaces, and more generally on-going “movement”-type work around particular sectors, have a solid material foundation that general social movements tend to lack (particularly when the Left is broadly unrooted in the working  class). In that sense, “implantation in movements” does not have the solidity of implantation in workplaces; it can dry up completely, leaving us to start from square one.

And this is the point about a socialist “cadre”; they require a milieu in which to work over long periods of time, a stable material element–and a high level of class struggle–that grounds their work. This is fundamentally different from the conception of a movement activist, of an organization functionary, etc. This is what the ISO leadership failed to understand, and in fact rejected—perhaps because such a layer of independent socialist militants could provide an actual counterweight to the moderating demands of running a left-wing publishing house. In the meantime, it appears that a socialist “cadre” operating in decidedly non-revolutionary conditions (and with a deeply propagandistic method) becomes nothing more than a distribution manager for left-wing publications.


These conceptions come out of the period of the faction fight—and as such, I think some of them are valuable but also require development in a new context, and not the context of the socialist sect. What is now required is not organization of people with revolutionary ideas and convictions into a “cadre organization”. The future “cadres” of a revolutionary party require a “cadre”, a framework within which they could operate as organic proletarian militants with an experience in the class struggle that molds and modifies their ideas about revolutionary organization—not the other way around.

To that end, I propose that we ditch the notion that we are building “revolutionary cadres”—particularly in an extended period of a historically low level of class struggle. We should instead strive to develop socialist militants, i.e. people with socialist ideas and education whose primary concern is to develop the class struggle, albeit at a very basic level, within their own personal context. If they can link up with other socialists in their workplaces, all the better—but even more important is to work with co-workers, whatever set of ideas those co-workers may have in their heads, in order to push back against the boss. Even better if these socialist militants can network with each other in their localities; develop discussions about the state of the class struggle locally, nationally, and internationally; and put their analyses together in written form (though not the form of a ready-made “All-Russian” newspaper).

There are clearly further questions about the development of socialist militants and socialist organization. I remain, by conviction, a Leninist who believes that the success of the revolution in the future will depend on the emergence of a mass revolutionary party whose members are drawn from the vanguard of the working class. But political conceptions, especially those concerned with organization, must correspond to material conditions. I don’t think that we can simply throw ourselves into building a mass revolutionary party at all phases of history. The lessons of the first four Congresses of the Comintern are invaluable, but they are not easily applied to contemporary conditions, which are wildly different. The question “What is to Be Done?” does not have the same answer at all moments. For now, we must start with the criticism and destruction of notions inherited from the post-1968 phase of socialist organization, conceptions which have run their course and exhausted their usefulness. And we must do this while moving forward with concrete engagement in the class struggle, doing our part to transform ourselves into a leading layer of the class, but with  the humility that our aspirations do not substitute for the work of mobilizing our fellow workers and winning their confidence in the course of struggle.

Brian Chidester

2 thoughts on “Le cadre du militant socialiste

  1. This piece is the best External Bulletin yet!!! This is the basis for serious discussion. Through this bulletin, we can identify where the ISO puts forward incorrect line, based on an idealist analysis of the present conditions. The author gets at some very important contradictions, i.e., relationship of cadre to leadership and the masses; recognizing that material conditions may be different in different locations, thereby calling for different tactics and strategy–but based on Marxist analysis; immersing cadre in the working class struggles (again based on concrete analysis of concrete conditions); Leninism vs anti-Leninism;, et al.
    This article I recommend as a document for collective study. rf

    Date: Tue, 1 Jul 2014 14:21:43 +0000
    To: ralfforchewn@hotmail.com

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