Communist Strategies for the Tenants Movement, a debate

The ATUN Convention party winds down on the block of the 2nd Street Tenants Association in Boyle Heights, Los Angeles, June 25th, 2022.

On Sunday June 26th, 2022, at the second day of the first convention of the Autonomous Tenant Union Network occurring in the flesh, two comrades from the Bay Area’s Tenant and Neighborhood Councils engaged in a brief debate over communist strategy which opened into a larger discussion. The convention program described what was to occur as follows:

This session will begin with two tenant union comrades from TANC debating tenant movement strategy based on respective pieces they have written (Buying Time: Evictions and Tenant Organizing at the Pandemic Slow End and Abolish Rent: For a Communist Tenants’ Movement). What is the most essential element of a communist tenant movement strategy: the content of rent abolition, or the form of the tenant union? After this brief debate, they will facilitate general discussion on communist strategy for the tenant movement.

You can listen to a recording of this debate and discussion here and read my initial remarks below.

Those in the autonomous unionist tendency of the tenants movement increasingly agree on our ultimate objective—rent abolition, the end of landlordism, etc. This rising consensus, a generalizing communist orientation in a significant part of the movement, has at least three interrelated causes—first, the proliferation of tactics like rent strikes, land and home expropriation, and to a lesser exent anti-landlord sabotage, which variously challenge the social relation of rent, second, the near universal adoption by the broader tenants movement of the pandemic demand to cancel rent, and third, the deliberate culitivation by movement participants of the discourse of rent abolition, partially in recognition of but also anticipating the vistas opened up by the aforementioned situations. With communist ends for the movement, it is the task of militants to develop strategic means to match.

Among self-described socialists, communists, and anarchists in our movement, whom for the sake of simplicity I will all call communists, there are at least four strategic positions. There are those who emphasize social housing and the path through state power, the statists, those who emphasize organizing tenant unions toward the development of independent proletarian institutions, the base builders, those who also emphasize organizing tenant unions but toward the development of neighborhood self-determination, the autonomists, and finally, those who reject the path of the state but do not emphasize a particular organizational form instead emphasizing a range of methods and tactics while prefering all of those which most intensify the tenants’ side in their social conflict with landlords, i.e. the insurrectionists. Although these strategies are conceptually discrete, many adopt them in combination; nonetheless, typically one comes to fore. I will not discuss the statist strategy further since while it is dominant in the non-profit and DSA sectors of the movement, I have found it uncommon among autonomist tenant unionists. The insurrectionist position is also uncommon in our movement, in part because many insurrectionist communists, mostly anarchists, maintain a firm critique of formal organizations like tenant unions, but it is the closest to my own position, though I hold it without rejecting formal organizing.

Base builders say that the weakness of the left derives from proletarian disorganization, responding that rebuilding revolutionary prospects requires recomposing independent class organization from sites of struggle like workplaces and homes. Here enter organizations like labor and tenant unions. But base builders often do not clarify how the class independence of these organizations will be preserved in the medium term nor is it clear how their strategy can orient such organizations toward militantly securing the means of collective survival in a revolutionary situation; they also often do not offer clear guidance on how to relate to disciplinary and repressive state apparatuses. Base building seems sharpest as near term guidance.

Autonomists focus on matters of social control—reducing and eliminating the neglectful and punishing control of landlords, capitalists, and the state, while growing spaces of collective proletarian self-determination, often from sites in neighborhoods where some collectivity already exists. Organizations like tenant unions and practices like mutual aid and transformative justice are among the autonomists’ means. Due to the oppresive impact and violence of the police, including ICE, this strategy may be particularly appealing to BIPOC tenants and abolitionists. I have not encountered enough autonomists to fairly represent the strategy’s gaps, but from what I understand, a significant weakness seems to be the focus on the prefigurative quality of achieving autonomy, and potentially, therefore, undertheorizing the means by which practice of the strategy could spread to new places. Autonomy seems sharpest as medium term guidance.

In the context of the US tenants movement, base building and autonomy share at least one further challenge—the demographic fact that in most of the country tenants are a minority; without incorporating a developed approach to coalition building, which for the base builders can endanger class independence and for the autonomists autonomy itself, these are effectively only endgame strategies for tenants in cities where they are a majority.

Imperfections and all, I suspect we cannot really do without the base building and the autonomist strategies. Nonetheless, the neglect of the insurrectionist strategy within our movement leads me to stress its importance in discussions like this. Insurrectionists are focused on developing, proliferating, and sustaining direct confrontation with capitalists, landlords, and the state, and rejecting compromise; while, as already mentioned, historically, those adopting this position have often rejected formal organizations like unions and parties, a softer spin would evaluate the compatibilty of particular organizations with insurrectionism on a case by case basis, and, I argue, should embrace autonomous tenant unions precisely because their independence from capitalist institutions and the state make them amenable to this kind of orientation toward conflict. Two significant drawbacks of insurrectionism include the comparative abstractness of the strategy—what aside from direct action should one do? one might wonder—and the fact that, particularly in interations that eschew formal organizations, aside from direct actions themselves, propaganda and everyday social life are the only means of spreading the strategy culturally. Insurrectionism seems sharpest as end term guidance.

Rent abolition as a communist revolutionary horizon, increasingly that of the autonomous tenant unionist tendency of the tenants movement offers a clarity of vision which needs its match in clear strategies for practice. To this end, I invite communist tenants to theorize a new synthesis of base building, autonomism, and insurrectionism, one which I think is to a significant degree already latent in the practice of member unions of the Autonomous Tenant Union Network. Such a synthesis would, through insistent and direct conflict and the rejection of compromise with our enemies, encourage the development of independent class organizations and the creation of social spaces autonomous from capitalist, landlord, and state control. I look forward to discussing this further with Dani and the rest of you today.

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