What is now Portland Maoist Group and Mass Action Rose City started about one and a half years ago. From our initial formation as a group and our ensuing operations we have had many enlightening experiences. Below you will find a summation of our first year of organizing, self-criticism and lessons we’ve learned from our experience.
When we first began to organize as a group, we reached out to several Marxist-Leninist- Maoist (MLM) organizations across the country for advice. We were told by members of these organizations that forming a mass org was a good starting point. Before we even had a name, we had a small group of people together and decided to hand out donations of clothing and basic essentials to houseless people in our area. We had no clear plan of what we were doing, and we did not carry out the proper amount of investigation before launching this effort. It led to us having bad ideas about how best to serve our community, and who we should be organizing alongside. We developed working relationships with people we should not have, despite concerns from our own members and others. As Maoists, we deem it necessary to put forth a summation of the false starts, failed projects, and lessons learned from this past year.
On the Primary Error in our Organizing
Our first and primary error in all our organizing was in deciding to start a mass org before a cadre org which resulted in a failure and an inability to place politics in command of our organizing. As a product of this failure our organizational structure was poorly thought out and this had ramifications for every task we set out to do. We had no clear path forward, and little to do other than hand out free stuff. By not implementing a proper Marxist-Leninist-Maoist framework for mass work, which requires cadrefication, our effectiveness as an organization was limited to null. We were not advancing in theory, and without a cadre it was impossible for us to truly do so. This in turn was reflected in our poor practice and our mishandling of organizational responsibilities.
Organized democratic centralist structure is necessary. Without centralist organizing members did not follow through on tasks we had set. Our communication, both within the org and outside of it, was poor. We did not have any protocol on what to do with people’s contact information and other information gathered at the meetings. Communications on the behalf of the group were scattered and disjointed. Our political lines were disjointed and we operated as a group of Maoists as opposed to a Maoist group. “Just do stuff” became the prevailing line and this prevented politically lead and revolutionary work from happening. We have learned that effective action must be clearly thought out and planned on a political basis. Without this, stagnation manifests. By refusing to form a politicized cadre group before embarking on mass work, we threw democratic centralism to the wind and our efforts suffered.
Externally, we were encouraged to pursue mass work first by various Maoists. Internally a contradiction existed between pragmatism and MLM as the ideology guiding our work. In our work a “pragmatic” approach was dominant over the pursuit of a firm MLM line.
There are three steps to the mass line, as formulated by Mao Zedong:
- Gathering the ideas from the masses
- Synthesizing those ideas through then ML-MZT, now MLM
- Returning this synthesis to the masses as a revolutionary political line/plan of action guided by proletarian politics.
This cycle builds the mass movement and builds the party. It orients the cadre towards revolution and brings out the advanced elements of the working class who will constitute the vanguard. Without a developed cadre, there is no basis by which to synthesize a centralized political line. Without a centralized, revolutionary, political line, a group cannot hope to bring up masses or facilitate the advancement of their struggles. By omitting any step, one undermines the development of the mass line. This is not revolutionary Maoist practice.
Running behind what the masses are doing and want or while holding red flags is not party building. Using subjectivism to determine what projects to take on is “groping in the dark”. It is an idealist conception of party building, that the vanguard can be brought into existence through sheer willpower.
Our error of “mass org first” has set us back by a full year. Our work has not been Maoist work. And our putting cadre organization and political unity on the “back burner” exacerbated uneven theoretical development within the group.
Over the last few months, we have embarked on cadrefication process. We have developed and consolidated ideologically and defined continued centralized ideological development as a necessary element of revolutionary work.
One of our initial attempts at mass work was to collect donations and give them out to houseless people. We drove around and handed out donations as an org, and some of us went out with Jessie Sponberg to hand out donations as well. We decided we needed to work towards opening a free store on a regular basis as a form of mass work, emulating Serve the People.
When we held public meetings this idea was received well, but we did not grow our membership and were ultimately unable to get the plan off the ground. We did not stop to think about the efficacy of such an effort, especially as a mass org without a cadre. We were unable to offer people any real political solutions to their problems when we did hand out donations, and as such were little more than a “red charity” and a poorly operated one at that.
As communists, we ought to be investigating every situation and analyzing every effort in a scientific way in order to understand what is useful and what is effective. We did not do this, and over the year we drifted further into stagnation. Mass work without a political program does not advance proletarian struggle. If giving out donations was all it took to overcome capitalism and imperialism, then the NGOs would be much better equipped for revolution than communists. Yet we know this is not the case. Placing bandages on the wounds inflicted by capitalism cannot be treated as the central task by revolutionaries. It is our goal as communists to overthrow this violent, corrupt, neglectful global system and bring forth the new world.
As such, we must resist the pull of misplaced urgency and the “do something now” style of work; we must analyze all contradictions carefully and deliberately. In order to do this, we must create strong, functional organizations with clear, revolutionary goals and scientifically derived means to achieve them. Our efforts now are centered on building such an organization and such a mass movement in order to march forward with our task of destroying the old world and building a new one.
Springwater Trail Sweeps
The biggest endeavor we took up in our first year was action around the Springwater Trail sweeps. Springwater Trail is a park-like area and bike path which spans 21 miles across the Portland metro area. Up until the point of the sweeps it was one of the largest houseless communities, by population, in the country.
Timeline of our Involvement
July 15th 2016- the City of Portland announced it would be running sweeps to displace the houseless communities along the Springwater Trail. We immediately began pushing for an interorganizational response within hours of the announcement. We decided to organize an event on July 18th with the intent of forming an interorganizational committee with the goal of going down to the trail and investigating the conditions and the needs of the residents. The call quickly spread outside of our network, leading to people offering to bring residents of the trail to the open meeting.
July 18th – The meeting drew in representatives of about a dozen different organizations, 10 or so interested individuals and about 10-15 residents from the trail. We turned away one individual, Vahid Brown due to IOW policy as well as our own stance against pig work, as Vahid has openly worked with the FBI doing counter-terrorist education.
We first briefly presented our original presentation on the reasons we called on other organizations and then recommended and stressed a principled, political approach to the situation. After the presentation we opened the meeting to the community members of the Springwater Trail area, inviting them to share their demands and aspirations in regard to the announced sweeps. We then gave the organizations who were already invested in the community there the opportunity to speak about their connection and involvement with the houseless.
We then took a break then reconvened to consolidate what the present organizations could contribute to any effort. At the request of the community we set a meeting to clean up sections of the trail at the request of the residents and decided on a date and time to do the investigation cleanup, which ended up being the 23rd of that same month. Following the meeting we created a Facebook event for the cleanup on that day.
July 23rd – Members of our group showed up to find that people had began organizing early and Vahid Brown, who was disallowed from the initial meeting had began facilitating the meeting. We then proceeded independently to reach out to the community. While cleaning, we found that Portland Tenants United had announced a follow-up meeting the following day to consolidate everyone’s interactions as well as to organize more solidarity efforts with the houseless community. After several hours of service on the trail, including helping a couple reach the hospital, we were approached by Vahid Brown who offered to meet with us. We didn’t accept nor decline the request, though in time we would not end up meeting with him. Shortly after this, a lot of the homeless advocacy groups stopped contacting us.
July 24th – PTU held their post event meeting. All that was determined was that further meetings would be held at different spots on the trail.
July 27th – The City of Portland announced that they would push the sweeps back by another month due to threat of legal action as well as community pressure. Portland Tenants United held a rally in solidarity with the houseless community on the 28th. A member of our group later spoke to a contact within Portland Tenants United and found they had been organizing separate of us and had not sent communiques to us, which reflects a deliberate attempt to cut us from the organizing efforts.
In approaching Springwater we had a multi-step plan roughly in the form of: assemble the masses & our comrades, investigate the trail situation and speak with the residents, then reconvene to form a plan of action. What ended up happening was that we assembled the liberal left, then we ended up tailing their lines in trying to organize with them. These groups came with their own preset lines and intent and as a small group we could not intervene or provide new direction.
The trail residents had strong ties with the groups who serve them and those groups were strongly behind Vahid Brown. As a point of principle and security we refuse to work with or in proximity to Vahid Brown. Vahid Brown’s history is openly available online however, in brief, they were an instructor for the FBI and still professionally advertise their experience in counter terrorism. In other words, Vahid has an established history of pig work.
Our refusal to work with Vahid lead to a divide between us and the houseless organizers and houseless community. Other organizations involved were more interested charity and some in incorporating facile shows of support for the houseless (marching) into their programing than establishing political ties and support for the houseless community. We found that we lacked the capacity to direct the people involved and learned quickly prerequisites of Maoist oriented mass work.
Specifically, we understand that a developed cadre is necessary to organize and apply the mass line. Furthermore the formation of the mass line must have the abstracted process of from the masses, to synthesis of mass line, to execution of the mass line by a revolutionary organization. Forming a coalition of the masses is much different than leading the mass line through a properly oriented revolutionary organization. This style of work leads to hair pulling and backtracking.
To rectify these errors we had to step back and re-evaluate our organization. Through the process of line struggle it was determined that our organization was upside down and that we needed to put the organization right side up via forming cadre by uniting our political lines and organizing a democratic centralist formation to lead the mass org.
Specifically in regards to Springwater, we learned that we need to do more thorough social investigation and class analysis into situations and the communities and organizations around them before jumping into work. We can’t expect the masses to execute the mass line at our directive but rather that we need to direct the application of the mass line through a mass organization while applying step 2 of the mass line among cadre. These issues stem from our primary error of trying to start a mass org before a cadre org which can put politics in command.
Proletarian Feminist Study Group
Toward the end of 2016, we set ourselves the task of organizing a study group around Anuradha Ghandy’s seminal work; Philosophical Trends in the Feminist Movement. We assigned different members with various responsibilities to make this a reality. While in the end this turned out to be a successful effort, we were hampered by failures to follow through with these responsibilities. In particular we encountered unexpected difficulty in printing out physical copies.
One member had been tasked with printing copies of the book and ran into obstacles yet failed to properly notify the group, leaving the rest of us to scramble to print off enough copies. Some people were forced to share copies of the book at times. The meetings turned out to be very productive, but we felt this was owed in large part to luck and understand that things could easily have gone poorly given the level of our disorganization.
The study group came about as part of the rectification of patriarchy within our group and displays qualities of the contradiction between our former lack of organizing and our new integration of proper democratic centralism. While issues and impediments did arise in the planning and execution of the study group, the study group simply would not have happened if not for the new direction of our organizing. We credit the success in planning and executing the study group to our orientation towards democratic centralist organizing. The event went well despite our setbacks.
On Reactionary, Bad Elements
When we first decided to organize, we were introduced to Samuel Erbs by one of our members. Sam presented themselves as having worked with Trotskyist and student organizations around Portland State University (PSU). From the start of our relations with Sam their behavior was immature and worrying but they seemed very interested in our organization. Over time we started to notice a pattern of manipulative and reactionary behaviors from Sam. They would say or do something inappropriate/reactionary, and then when approached over these actions they would act humble and apologetic while not grasping for the root of their mistakes.
Sam’s online behavior was particularly disturbing to us. On Facebook, they would post reactionary and immature content that one shouldn’t have to worry about, much less from someone who calls themselves a “revolutionary.” They would aggressively defend themselves against criticism on these posts online, but act remorseful and responsive when approached in person. It quickly became exhausting to keep up with the ridiculous things Sam would say online. During the short time they were coming to our meetings we observed the following behaviours:
- Repeated posting of inappropriate, misogynist, and racist content on Facebook.
- Failure to receive criticism and aggressive responses to those who criticized them.
- When responding to criticism in person, Sam would adopt a conciliatory attitude that was more about making criticism go away than actually reflecting upon it.
- Deliberately obscuring what organizations they worked with and why they left [in truth were removed from] those organizations.
The overwhelming task of trying to hold Sam accountable to their actions and frequent violations of boundaries lead us to slowly and silently drop Sam from our group and isolate them from ourselves. We feel an obligation to self-criticize regarding our treatment of Sam and acknowledge we failed to handle their expulsion in a principled and forward manner. Instead of confronting Sam publicly about their behaviors and expelling them we silently isolated them. We inaccurately analyzed their dangerous and anti-people behaviors.
Since their expulsion, they have largely blamed the deterioration of their relationship with us on our sole female member, sometimes referring to her as the “queen” of MLM in Portland. They also used Facebook alts to keep tabs on her after she had blocked them.
We know that in the handling of patriarchal and misogynist tendencies and other anti-people behaviours, criticism, rectification or expulsion processes should be administered as soon as possible. Our non-response cannot be considered proper handling of the situation. As a consequence of our inaction, Sam’s behaviour continued and seemingly accelerated, falling upon other groups in Portland as well as other comrades on “leftbook.”
We would first like to apologize to those who have suffered Sam due to our inaction and further apologize for not taking direct actions related to confronting Sam. We attribute our failure in this regard to informal processes of rectification and expulsion which are a direct result of disorganization and a lack of centralism. While these events took place in the period of our coalescing as a group, the informal handling of these matters left us, and then others, without a foundation from which to confront Sam over their white chauvinist, misogynist and otherwise anti-people behaviors and actions. In the time between then and now we have adopted policies around such behaviors and also gone through rectification processes with other members. We also participated in a multi-org write up addressing and making public Sam’s behaviors.
Around the time we started organizing, a few of us were friendly with a local activist named Jessie Sponberg. Though he often had bizarre and reactionary outbursts, those of us friendly toward him believed he was still worth working with under certain circumstances and that he could ultimately be brought around after his outbursts. He was running for mayor at the time and had longstanding ties to the neighborhood that several of our members are from.
There were many red flags that Sponberg was not a safe person to be around, and we ignored them. We instead chose to work with him handing out donations to the houseless population during the winter. This relationship was ended after we became fully aware of his patriarchal abuse and manipulation of women.
While we cut ties with him, it did not happen soon enough. There were numerous warnings and people had previously expressed to us that he was potentially unsafe. A member within our organization even told us we should be weary of him, yet we continued our relationship for far too long.
We should have investigated upon hearing that he was a bad element rather than continuing to contact him while essentially waiting for him to “mess up” bad enough that we cut ties. This error has multiple roots. Primarily it was an error made out of patriarchal liberalism. We must always seek to identify and root out patriarchal behavior and attitudes amongst ourselves and others. We did not treat patriarchal contradictions with the urgency required. The “mass work first” error laid the groundwork for this error.
Organizing ought to be intentional and well-thought-out, paying close attention to the contradictions that arise in our midst. Adopting the attitude of action first led to the obfuscation of misogyny within our ranks. Since isolating ourselves from Sponberg the members responsible for these lines have been subject to line struggle and rectification processes, including but not limited to assisting in the execution of our proletarian feminist study group.
Relationship With RGA
Around the beginning of our coalescing as a group we established some diplomatic ties with Red Guards Austin (RGA), these ties were deepened after the exposure of the Liaison Committee as a patriarchal organization. Over that time our relationship with RGA was marked by constant hostility and bad faith on their part. Our relationship officially started with us going to them for advice about our mass org.
Initially they directed us to start a mass organization. Though there had been some tense moments with one of their members, hostilities didn’t really erupt until after May Day 2016. They wrote us a sharp criticism of our support of the May Day 2016 events in Portland, specifically our support for the lack of a march on the behalf of undocumented and other legally at-risk peoples. Hurling accusations of chauvinism without investigating the situation, they assumed we had some paternalistic view towards the masses of undocumented people.
On May Day 2015 the official march was taken over and misdirected by the organization Don’t Shoot Portland who lead the crowd into several ill conceived and poorly executed standoffs with the Portland Police, putting children and undocumented attendees at risk. The decision to not march in 2016 was the direct result of major organizers in Portland’s undocumented community’s desire to not march in face of the previous year’s events and we support them in their decision. The task fell on us to clarify the situation under uninvestigated and unfounded accusations. Upon the release of a piece published to pacify RGA’s outrage they calmed down.
Come summer they decreased contact with us and seemed to discourage us from our work (even telling us to hold off until our comrade who was attending their cadre school returned). Despite our request for clear instruction on what is expected from an STP, such guidelines were never established. We went forward with our work, and they became increasingly hostile toward us. Over this time two of their members/affiliates’ online behavior became more and more of a concern, along with the overall group’s inability to treat differences in organizing and politics in a non-antagonistic and comradely manner.
Wishing to approach them diplomatically about these issue for we reached out to RGLA to ask how we should approach them about these issues and to determine if they had similar experiences to us. Around this same time we became preoccupied with Springwater and the resulting fallout and put our relationship with RGA on the backburner. Upon learning of our intent to deliver criticisms to them, RGA sent a criticism to us.
In this document RGA made grand accusations that we were out to get them and trying to secretly stir and influence the MLM movement to move away from Red Guards. The majority of their criticisms were constructed blatantly out of paranoia and without due investigation. It included an interpretation of an investigation by one of our members into accusations made against them (which turned out to be unsubstantiated) as “a quest for ammunition”, speculative criticisms of our Springwater program in which they had never inquired with us about, and construing contacting RGLA about our concerns and problems with their behaviours as trying to secretly organize against them. They simply assumed we were out to get them and were trying to influence the MLM movement to move away from Red Guards while constantly making assumptions about us and our work without consulting us first.
We wrote a short response to these criticisms, and at this point were exhausted with dealing with them. They asked us to change our name and we did, and since then there has not been any official communication between our orgs.
Our member who was an attendee of their cadre school returned with directives from RGA that were concealed from the rest of the group. The directives were to become leadership and to covertly force a member they had problems with, in part due to that member’s diagnosing of certain RGA members racism, out of the group. There was an expectation of weekly report-backs to RGA about our group by this comrade while they simultaneously neglected the rest of the group. They were not seeking to communicate with this comrade as a representative of the organization, but as someone loyal to the RGA.
When they felt the need to finalize the severing of their relationship with the rest of the group they advised this comrade to leave the group, gather new Maoists and form their own collective, with the intent that the new collective would be more loyal to them and the assumption that the existing group would collapse. This can be understood as wreckerism. Trying to get multiple people at different times to leave the group, for unprincipled reasons, one time with the hope of it collapsing, is uncomradely meddling. We hope that the RGA will work to rectify this style of work and the thinking behind it.
The principle lesson we have learned thus far is that launching a mass org without a cadre org is useless to the revolutionary objective. We have learned through our relationships with RGA and others to not tail the advice or leadership of other organizations without investigating and analyzing the lines presented before us. In the case of RGA we learned how trigger happy sectarian organizations treat non-antagonistic contradictions as antagonistic, pursue hegemonism without clear purpose, and do not proceed in their relationships with other orgs from a place of investigation.
We also learned via our dealings with Sponberg, Erbs, and other patriarchal bad elements not mentioned in the summation due to the peripheral, private or ongoing nature of our relationship with the situations, how endemic and penetrating the contradictions of patriarchy are within the left. The task of combating patriarchal chauvinism is an ongoing struggle. In fact, as Maoists who uphold waging class struggle in ideology continually until the withering of the state, we know that the proletarian feminist task within and without our organizations is never complete and of the foremost importance. We seek to move forward steadfast against patriarchy and we are prepared to drop any unreformable patriarchal bad elements we encounter or more intimate measures as we see fit.
Through failure we learned the necessity of the structural basis for the mass line. We proceed with the task of applying the mass line, and of working with our comrades across the country in the party building effort. We will continue to summarize as our struggle develops.
Going forward we intend to immediately study the question of the mass line and mass work with the aim of forming a concise and political plan of action to bring life to our mass organization and mass organizing. Upon the completion of this study we will launch ourselves into this work, hopefully leading up to this year’s May Day events and following May Day up with a strong program.
We will continue to have failures
we will have successes
we will make gains
we will win.