This afterword to After Winter Must Come Spring: A Self-Critical Evaluation of the Love and Rage Revolutionary Anarchist Federation by the Fire by Night Organizing Committee was unfortunately not included in one of the two versions of the document that have appeared in print. It appears here in it's original version.
Today’s movements and future endeavors to build revolutionary organizations have much to learn from the experiences of organizations and revolutionary projects that have come before us. That is why we are publishing this pamphlet.
Today, many “cadre” or voluntary organizations, as opposed to non-profits, seem to have very limited life spans. If we are to make revolutionary change, this phenomenon pushes the question of organization to the forefront. But by summing up our experience and our critique of anarchism, we hope to have a bigger impact and to use our demise to contribute to organization-building and organizational theory.
Every former member will have slightly different assessments of what happened and why, however there are a number of things that we collectively agreed were fundamental contradictions. From those contradictions we find lessons to draw from our modest attempt at building a new revolutionary, non-sectarian, multi-tendency organization. First and possibly foremost was the tension between our political position on white supremacy, our beginnings as a small all-white organization, our position (not simply a desire) on becoming a multiracial organization, and white opportunist errors that we made. Related to that, although an obstacle that many organizations have overcome through hard work, is the problem of being a small organization with very large ambitions. Lastly is the relationship between “cadre” organizations and other left and community based organizations. Fire by Night, as a membership-only organization that demanded a high level of commitment and discipline of its members, existed at a time when cadre organizations were few and far between. This situation led to some members of FbN questioning their role in a cadre organization and its relationship with other organizations.
Fire by Night began in 1998 following the dissolution of Love and Rage. The founders of FbN determined that the organization would be a “provisional”, or temporary organization, until it was clear that there was the impetus and energy to truly embark on an organization-building project of greater caliber – one with a multi-racial/multi-national origin.
The first six months were spent primarily in discussions and studies to determine our organizing orientations (a clear point of unity from the beginning was that FbN would be an organization of organizers), structure and points of unity. It was a time of immense political development for the members, who were engaged in training, intensive studies and leadership development. Later came our organizing, which differed on each coast. In the San Francisco Bay Area, members worked with the Eviction Defense Network and the North Beach Public Housing Tenants Union. These two organizations were involved in a fight to stop the displacement of public housing tenants from North Beach, a neighborhood in San Francisco which was of great value to the tenants and, unfortunately, also of enormous financial value to developers and city officials. FbNers in New York continued their work from their time in Love & Rage, working in the student movement and specifically around campaigns to preserve open admissions with the Student Liberation Action Movement (SLAM) at Hunter College.
In August of 1999 FbN met in the Bay Area to develop a more formal structure, discuss and agree on an analysis of the current period, strategic tasks for the left and FbN, and determine three-year goals related to organizing, recruitment and internal development. We also completed the Fire by Night Points of Unity, the first public document of the organization. We came out of our week of discussions with a very specific and ambitious plan for moving forward as an organization.
And move forward we did. Slowly but surely we began implementing our plans around organizational development, and organizing, primarily in student movements on the east and west coasts. We began to put into action our plan of initiating a national student organizer training institute. This project later came to be known as Study & Struggle: Student Organizer Training Institute.
In January of 2000 the newly formed Organizing Committee of Study & Struggle came together to discuss the project and a timeline for implementing the project. The Organizing Committee was made up of students as well as former student organizers, with more than half of the committee made up of people not in Fire by Night. FbN felt strongly that the project should have a truly independent character, with no particular organization controlling the project. However, by initiating and having heavy involvement in its organizing, the project was in effect a FbN project. That could have changed over time, as the committee and its members’ commitments to the project developed, but at that early stage, it was an FbN-conceived and –organized project.
The people that were approached to be on the Organizing Committee were contacts that we had through our previous organizing experiences. They were also in organizations, although we approached them primarily as individuals and not as representatives of organizations. That initially was due to wanting to keep Study & Struggle an independent project, but upon reflection was also motivated by our specific FbN organizational goals and desires. We wanted the project to be a success and we wanted FbN, as a major player in the project, to gain a reputation as a tight, together organization that could pull off something like this.
FbN made some very real errors in the formation of the Study & Struggle Organizing Committee. The primary error was in relationship to SLAM, one of the foremost people of color led, multi-racial student organizations in the country. Although SLAM should have been a major player in a project like Study & Struggle, FbN chose to approach individual members of SLAM, rather than the organization, seemingly to preserve the independence of Study & Struggle, but also to advance the goals of FbN. Many folks in SLAM were not aware of the project until the Organizing Committee meeting at Hunter College. This method of wanting to involve SLAM, but not respecting SLAM’s organizational integrity and internal process, rightly upset many members of SLAM. They felt not only politically disrespected, but also hurt by FbN-people who were considered friends and comrades by many people in SLAM. The experience was also difficult for FbN, particularly the East Coast members. We were forced to painfully confront our own white opportunism and chauvinism. The experience set into motion a whole host of internal doubts about FbN, and the way in which we had gone about building revolutionary organization and the way in which we engaged in our organizing practice. Many of those doubts existed in one form or another prior to the crisis, however they were not brought forward and dealt with. The Study & Struggle crisis surfaced many important and hard questions about our direction and future as an organization.
In February of that year, the New York branch of Fire by Night decided to dissolve. The branch communicated this to the Bay Area members. They told us that the West Coast was free to do what we wanted with the organization and the name. We were very unhappy with New York’s decision, but unclear about how to move forward as the only remaining “branch” of FbN. We eventually determined that we could not carry out a plan for a “national” organization, and decided to fold Fire by Night. However, for months following the dissolution, we remained as a small collective, continuing to organize and study together.
In a statement written shortly before the New York branch of FbN dissolved, they state, “Any time that a cadre-type organization like Fire By Night participates in mass struggles it must confront the contradictions that inevitably arise between the needs of the mass struggle and its own organizational goals.” Fire by Night engaged in a lot of principled work that played a small role in the overall movement for social justice. We felt that we were very conscious of past and present mistakes of organizations who put their own needs and goals ahead of the needs and goals of the movement. However, in the situation with Study & Struggle, we made the mistake of thinking too much of ourselves, and not enough of SLAM or larger questions of the multi-racial student movement.
Months after the dissolution of FbN, former West Coast members were approached by Freedom Road Socialist Organization (FRSO) to discuss joining FRSO. In May of 2000 we joined Freedom Road. Many folks may be asking how a group of people who came from such an anarchist background could have ended up in an organization like Freedom Road Socialist Organization. Much of that shift occurred in an analysis that developed while in FbN. As the New York branch statement notes, “Our turn away from anarchism and towards revolutionary socialism was in part the consequence of our participation in the CUNY movement and the realization of the crying need for a more serious and disciplined kind of revolutionary organization than was consistent with our previous anarchist outlook.”
Although we recognize the mistakes and contradictions of 20th century socialism, we also don’t think the baby should be thrown out with the bath water. The revolutionary socialist tradition provides a framework from which to analyze and fight for a just future society. Although we continue to hold some tenets of anarchism (open democratic processes and community building) as important, we do not believe that anarchism as a whole can provide the tools necessary to build a renewed revolutionary movement today. We hope that some of our conclusions are useful and relevant for future endeavors to build revolutionary organization, and we invite any thoughts about the content of this pamphlet. People learn through struggle and we learned a lot about organization building and practice from our experience in Love and Rage and Fire by Night.
Yours in Struggle,
Former Members of Fire by Night Organizing Committee