My new year’s resolution: to write more than one post in 2016.
But what is a resolution? If I resolve to do something, the matter is not resolved until I have accomplished the intention, in practice. Thus, the malaise of any individual revolutionary who is a consistent materialist in analysis, and thus cannot but be frustrated with his or her own personal limitations, one individual in a world of over 7 billion people, unable to stop the inexorable march of capitalism toward environmental devastation and the potential eradication of the species (and many others besides our own as well).
But at the very least, with the publication of this missive, I’ll be half-way to accomplishing my wish.
A blog requires an audience, and a purpose in engaging that audience: to entertain, to inform, to lead. In previous years, the purpose of this blog was all three, aimed primarily at educators and education activists in Rhode Island, and generally those associated with the Coalition to Defend Public Education. That organization had, at various times, a larger or smaller membership and/or periphery. The posts made more (or perhaps less) sense to that audience, at a time when the audience was more coherent, in greater motion, in general more focused on creating change in public education. Without providing any sort of analysis, suffice it to say that this audience is no longer so coherent as it once was. This is the way of struggle. And perhaps: it is more coherent but among others, with whom I am not connected.
The question leans toward my own trajectory over this time: a committed activist, member of a small radical group that provided the framework for my activism for the first two years in CDPE. I have no regrets, but I will admit that I likely had a more directing, perhaps domineering style, a way of focusing the outlook and the activity of the group that aimed at keeping the group principled, but may not have always allowed for the greatest democracy within the group.
Then came the episode of the faction: within the radical group, my co-thinkers and I waged an argument about the redirection of the group in particular ways. That period provided me tremendous political lessons, but was also without a doubt the most stressful period of my life. There is still much to digest from that period, lessons to be drawn. I fear that I will, for the rest of my life, have to come back to that experience and draw out those lessons—that perhaps I have not done so enough, nor will it ever be enough until the questions raised by that experience are resolved in practice.
In the almost two years since the closure of that episode, I have watched from afar the trajectory of that organization as its leading teacher union activist member broke socialist principle and the leadership of that group remained mum (and worse: told its members who were critical of the hypocrisy to shut up). That organization had no plan for its members who outgrew the student activist mode and went into real activity in the workplace. It’s not a coincidence that the bulk of those members—myself included—went from being student activists, largely at private, four-year colleges, to being teachers and teacher union activists. It was an organic development, but one to which the organization itself had no coherent approach. It was not the goal nor the ability of a cynical leadership whose material anchor is their 501(c)3, to give direction to people who are directly part of the working class of this country.
Thinking back on my own theoretical framework from the period of June 2013-December 2014, I posed an alternative to this non-plan, and was met with radio silence from the leadership. This is the sign that they actually disagree. Of course, if you try to disagree “the right way”, as I did with my initial document, you get silence. If you disagree “the wrong way” and have a “bad tone”, you are ostracized and pilloried. When we joined forces to disagree openly and “in the wrong way”, we became public enemy #1, but also a useful foil for the sect, which apparently still mischaracterizes our political positions in order to score points in their own internal documents. ¡Vaya con Diós!
But I wonder if my plan was not actually, even had the organization eventually agreed with it, impractical. There is no mass radicalization, not in this country nor on a global scale, not in my lifetime. The world has moved and changed, the contradictions of capitalism have developed, but the level of class struggle—or rather, the level of working-class resistance—remains historically, devastatingly low. In this situation, there is great pressure on practical radicals to take positions in union leadership. But a position of official leadership in a union brings with it all sorts of pressures to accommodate—most importantly to the boss, but also to the union bureaucracy, and also to the union rank-and-file, who are without exception to the right of the practical radical. How then do you lead your coworkers to the left, while being in a position that pulls you to the right? One solution is to be part of a propagandist sect that says nothing when you shill for a Democrat and break socialist principle altogether. But what if you want to remain principled?
So in the past two years, I continued to be active in my union, working with coworkers on issues in our building, filing grievances, and eventually running for and winning office as vice-president of my local. Like all positions in my local, I am still 100% on the shop floor. More importantly for me as VP, I am in more of a position to work with my fellow union members, and in less of a position to have to talk to and negotiate with the administration (at least for the moment). It means that the main pressure I deal with is the inertia of my colleagues. This is a mixed bag—frustrating when people don’t want to fight, infuriating when colleagues betray and undermine their fellow teachers, interesting when people start to get upset, gratifying to see the sparks of a deeper subterranean fire, and always confusing when it comes to discussing larger political issues not directly tied to the workplace. It means really working on building a base within the union, something that happens concretely when colleagues struggle, but that struggle must be prepared through slow work, individual interactions and grievances, organizing discussions, clarifying contract issues, having disagreements that remain unresolved until they can be worked out in practice (through action—job action). This work has been even slower than I thought it would be when I ran for VP last spring. It requires much more of a plan than I have been able to formulate and to propagate among my colleagues. It also means that my audience, as a radical blogger, has shifted.
In addition to my union activism, my connection to public education has developed from the parent angle. As a parent of children in the public schools, in the district in which I teach, I wear multiple hats. The last year brought a series of conversations with parents about the PARCC test and opting our children out of the tests. It brought letters, school committee meetings, meetings in our living room, etc. Again, another manifestation of the struggle, a different area of my experience, a different group of people to reach out to. We opted our child out of the test, but the test happened, the school committee wrote a policy, Pearson revised the test, and the issue will come up again. The tests are still here despite the resistance, and the question is as yet still unresolved.
Lastly, my interaction with my elders. My ejection from the propagandist sect is related to the fact that over the past eight years, I developed relationships with—and respect for—my elders. My elders: those old radicals from the 60s and 70s, those retired teachers, those who cannot believe the tales I tell them of the workplace and who remember a time when things were different. Not necessarily better in all ways, but at least better in the sense that teachers had more power on the job, that the public sector was not under such a sustained attack, that they began their careers in a time when building relations as a radical with coworkers was generally easier. I must admit that I have not had regular contact with this group, nor enough contact. I do not know how to organize it. But I value it.
I intend, from this point forward, to return to this blog as part of a project of developing radical politics and action—my own, but also that of my comrades in struggle, my colleagues, my fellow parents, my fellow education activists, and my elders. On the plane of ideas, I think it likely that only the latter group would actually agree with most of my politics from the outset. But then this is what I have learned about “comrades”: they are not those people who share your political principles, necessarily. The more important aspect is that comrades are those who have your back in a fight. Lutter, c’est vivre.
I intend, first off, to collect here my writings on the role of the practical radical, the workplace militant, and the need for a growing practical collaboration among socialists in various economic and social sectors. I intend to re-evaluate and expand on this work.
I intend to re-connect with a larger perspective on public education. I must admit to having fallen off the wagon as my local issues have become more pressing, and my day-to-day focus is on the interactions with individuals in my building. I get emails from NEA praising the new education act, and emails from activists I respect decrying the betrayal. I tend to think the latter, but I admit I haven’t read closely enough.
I intend to connect with my district colleagues, with concerned parents, and with teachers throughout Rhode Island who are concerned with public education, everyday democracy, and social, racial, and economic justice. We need greater communication and collaboration.
I intend to take up issues that are broader than public education, in particular Black Lives Matter and the radical environmental movement. I have great admiration for these young activists, people who are directly involved in the struggle.
I do not intend to write about Election 2016. I probably will, at some point—I’ll probably have to. But I cannot stand the electoral circus, which I think is really just a distraction from building the shop-floor, grassroots struggle. Bernie is leading the left back into the Democratic Party and profaning the name of socialism in the process. FTS.
I intend, lastly, to write pieces that illuminate my personal, local situation with a connection to a broader outlook. I hope that this work will be read, not only by my elders and political co-thinkers, but also by my colleagues and fellow parents. I fear they may also be read by administrators, ed reformers, and other enemies in general, but alas, one cannot always choose one’s audience. What is most important is that the questions be clarified, the lines drawn, and the struggle continue.
These are my resolutions, unresolved.