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Revolutionary Socialist Organizations in the 21st Century

Transcript of Tempest event

Panelists on Tempest’s Building the Revolutionary Left Today panel present the questions and takeaways from their experiences in the revolutionary Left.

The following is the transcript from Tempest’s Building the Revolutionary Left Today panel. Panelists present the questions and takeaways from their experiences in the revolutionary Left.

Luis Meiners: Building on some of the experiences and debates that we are having in Argentina, I will try to draw some conclusions that can speak to the challenges of the revolutionary Left from an international perspective. Beyond specific national situations and characteristics, which are always incredibly important, there are also many challenges that are common to a revolutionary socialist Left internationally.

First, we need to define the challenge: How do we build revolutionary organizations that are rooted in the struggles of the working class and the oppressed, and that can organize and influence these broad layers to play a decisive role in the class struggle?

In other words, how do we move from smaller propaganda groups organized around ideological coherence to organizations that can have a broader influence and impact when the situation changes internationally or nationally? How can we organize the thousands that radicalize in specific moments?

One of the challenges of the revolutionary Left is that when the situation is open to its ideas, when sections of the working class and of the mass movements have turned to the left, many of our organizations have not been up to the challenge of meeting the moment. Making the step from a propaganda group to a broader revolutionary one is a common element in all discussions regarding revolutionary organization.

In Argentina, this debate was rooted in the 2001 experience. The Argentinazo was a mass popular uprising where a broad section of the working class, the middle class, students, etc., turned to the left quite radically and quite quickly. This had different expressions.

The popular assemblies (asambleas populares) sprung up all around the country, especially in Buenos Aires, which brought people together in a direct democracy model to debate a whole range of issues in which the Left played a role. There was also the piquetero movement of unemployed workers and the student movement.

In all these movements the revolutionary Left, which was essentially composed of relatively small groups, played a role,. One of these groups was the MST, which had come from the MAS (Movimiento Al Socialismo) – the largest revolutionary party in Argentina during the 1980s which had more than 10,000 members.

Many people occupy an outdoor area to protest a bank they are standing in front of. They are holding up various signs, flowers, and dishware to use to make sound - for example, one person is hitting a spoon against a little metal cup. Two signs read ‘LADRONES - DEVUELVAN LOS DÓLARES’ which in English roughly means, THIEVES - RETURN THE DOLLARS. A third sign reads ‘DEVUELVAN LOS AHORROS EN DOLARES =’ which in English roughly means, RETURN THE SAVINGS IN DOLLARS. A cameraperson stands in the background, filming the scene. Storefronts and a street with various cars, taxis and a bus, are in the background.
Argentine savers demand their money back from the financial Corralito in front of the BankBoston headquarters in Buenos Aires, Argentina. One of the many demonstrations composing the 2001 mass uprising Argentinazo. Photo Credit: Barcex.

But a crisis in that party left behind smaller groups. So, when the Argentinazo happened, the revolutionary Left, composed of these smaller groups, were suddenly playing important roles in the class struggle. For example, the revolutionary socialist Left, the MST, and other organizations won the leadership of the main student federation in the country, the Federación Universitaria de Buenos Aires. This is a student federation that groups together 300,000 students from the biggest university in the country. The Left won decisive influence in several unions, and all of this was driven by relatively small groups.

So, the question is: When there was a mass turn to the left (and despite having managed to play a role and have electoral influence) why couldn’t the revolutionary Left emerge from that process with a mass-based party, a broad vanguard party or something similar that could bring into the organization thousands of radicalizing people?

We did emerge from the 1990s (a period extremely hostile for the revolutionary Left in Argentina and in many parts of the world) and we did grow, but we were not able to fully seize the opening provided by the Argentinazo to make a qualitative leap forward in the task of building a revolutionary organization . This outcome was one of the reasons for the re-composition of the political regime under Nestor Kirchner after the 2001 uprising.

What conclusions were debated in the MST from this experience?

One of the main issues was how to relate to broader radicalizing layers of people who are not coming from the same political background. When people radicalize, they’re not coming from Trotskyism or from revolutionary Marxism. They’re coming from very different places. Also, many people had poor experiences with Stalinist parties, and so there was a certain hostility directed toward the revolutionary Left.

Another question was on how to broaden the democratic aspects of democratic centralism in our organizations and make them as democratic as possible to be able to incorporate the radicalizing layers of people and their experiences into our organizations.

In 2006, for example, MST reformed the internal statutes of the party to try to incorporate some of these conclusions and debates. We needed to change some of the ways in which democratic centralism was put into practice. Stalinism completely distorted democratic centralism, and some of these distortions had been inherited by trotskyist currents; like the idea of needing to have absolute complete political unity, bureaucratic centralism, etc. to build organizations. This idea also related to international experiences and a period in which the revolutionary socialist Left was in a very small minority and in a very hostile environment in different parts of the world. We thought it was very important to keep the flame alive, to keep alive the ideas of revolutionary socialism against currents of socialism-from-above in its different expressions, which were on the rise.

There had evolved certain defensive modes of organization in which any small difference led to a rupture within the organizations. This led to monolithic organization in which complete political and ideological unity was necessary before anything else. This model hampered the possibility of moving from a small propaganda organization to something that had broader political influence. So, a second question really is about the need to move away from this defensive model.

The third question is internationalism, as a practical consideration, and not only as a theoretical position or a moral stance. Beyond the fundamental principle of solidarity with the oppressed and exploited people all over the world, we also have to build international organizations.

The problems that revolutionary socialists face cannot be resolved by an isolated group, we are better equipped to face them if we work together with comrades from different parts of the world. If we build international organizations, within them, we can incorporate different views from different traditions that have shaped the revolutionary socialist movement today.

Today, there is no single current within the revolutionary socialist movement internationally that can claim to have the answers to all these questions. The answers to some of these questions are going to come from the convergence of different revolutionary socialist traditions that have been built for the last 50 to 60 years.

There is a need to build broad international organizations. There is also a need to debate how we can build revolutionary organizations so that we can move away from being small propaganda groups and meet the moments of broader radicalization.

Rabab Elnaiem: I always have to start by giving glory to the Martyrs of Sudan and saying “Long Live the Struggle for the People of Sudan.” It’s exciting to be among the Left in Sudan right now. And it’s also very challenging and sometimes very frustrating.
Around 2013, we had the first wave of the revolution. Within the span of three days, we had lost around 200 people who were killed in the streets of Khartoum and other cities around Sudan. And ever since, we’ve seen different strains of a second wave of the revolution in Sudan in terms of building revolutionary organizations.

We’ve seen a lot of organizations that are made up of younger people that are trying to break away from older political parties within Sudan. This was not an initiative on the part of the new organizations. Instead, it was a reaction and an expression of frustration with the absence of a political will – seeing all the conditions of the revolution, and yet no action for revolution.

Within all of this, we’ve seen a lot of voluntary work: a lot of people trying to build more of a dual power situation, but doing so without an ideology, without a radicalized working class or radicalized everyday people. People were trying to build a substitute state by doing a lot of volunteer-NGO-type of work.

In 2018, we saw the rise of the Sudanese Professional [Nurses] Association. Their first big intervention into the public sphere in Sudan was based on a minimum wage study. Within the second wave of the revolution of December 2018, we saw the people taking to the streets demanding bread and better health services, but at the same time waiting for some type of leadership. And so, the Professional Nurses Association was basically thrown into that situation without necessarily having the right ideology or theory, and they have been trying to lead the people in the streets.

One of the first lessons that we’ve learned is that Sudan’s Professional Association is a part of the formal economy. But at the same time, large sections of the Sudanese economy is based on the informal sector, the services sector, rather than the productive sector. Sudan’s Professional Association, although they do speak for a lot of workers, they don’t have a build-up-from-below approach.

From 2013 to 2018 and up to today, we’ve seen the rise of resistance committees based on neighborhoods and workplaces. But within these are the same groups that were trying to break away from politics, as if politics or having a radical ideology or being radicalized is frowned upon. And that’s why we’ve seen the first slogan of the revolution being “Just Fall.” It does not speak of building.

What do we want after the fall of the previous regime? Do we want socialism? Do we want state capitalism? What are we trying to achieve? We’ve seen the development of slogans, but I think one of the lessons that we need to focus on right now in Sudan, and around the world, is how to radicalize everyday people.

Everyday people are already engaged with slogans, but we need to do the work of translating the slogan into a political movement with a very clear bias towards socialism, toward building institutions from below.

To go back to the statement that I started with: It is exciting to be on the Left in Sudan. It’s also the most frustrating time because there is a lot of drift, a lot of disconnect within the Left itself. There is a lot of talk of people waiting for a revolutionary party as if that revolutionary party is going to come out of nothing or just be built overnight.

Regardless of the political parties that exist right now and that are adopting the three slogans of the revolution (whether it was the first slogan of the revolution “Just Fall,” the second slogan of “Freedom, Peace and Justice”, or the “Three No’s”: no negotiation, no compromise and no legitimacy for the Army), there is a frustration and the lack of an ability to see one’s personal struggle within the bigger struggle. This creates a disconnect that doesn’t allow a lot of room for building revolutionary organizations from below.

For example, we see this a lot within the feminist agenda. We have a younger population, whose struggle is not necessarily aligned within the larger struggle. They don’t see their struggle within the broader struggle. So, we are at risk of recreating the same mistake that happened in 2013. We are in this state of trying to radicalize based on a very clear ideology but we’re trying to build so many organizations. This will create a big disconnect within the Left and lead nowhere.

Some people think we already have a revolutionary party. Some people think that this party is not revolutionary enough. But at the same time, they’re not necessarily working to radicalize the party itself or building another alternative. If one doesn’t want to work within a given party, one can build an alternative, right?

The lesson from more than three years of the Sudanese revolution is whenever we come up with a slogan which is adopted, and has a basis in daily life, we need to do the work of [realizing] those slogans. What do we mean by “freedom,” “peace,” and “justice”? What does that mean in terms of economic policies? Are we going to break away from neo-liberal policies? Will that translate into “freedom”? What is “peace”? Do we build peace from above? Or do we build it from below through the redistribution of wealth and power to different areas within Sudan?

Many Sudanese people stand on top of, in, and around about six cars of a yellow train. Some wave the Sudanese flag. In the forefront are several people watching and taking photos of the train.
Sudanese demonstrators with the ‘freedom train,’a Sudanese Railways train they commandeered and rode to a mass sit-in at the General Command of the Sudanese army in Khartoum. One of the demonstrations of the Sudanese revolutions. Photo Credit: Manula Amin.

What do we mean by “justice”? Is “justice” sustainable without having “peace” and “freedom”? Whenever someone is taking to the street and chanting the slogan of “Freedom, Peace, and Justice,” that person has their own radical agenda for how we are going to [move toward] “freedom,” “peace,” and “justice.”

Whenever we have that radicalization of the slogan itself by bringing it into the daily life of the people, we are closer to a dual power situation. We are technically in a dual power situation today, but at the same time, we don’t have a strong enough revolutionary organization built from below.

Andreu Coll: The main political experience I’ll explain is the building of Podemos and why and how we left that initiative when it turned to the political mainstream.

Podemos arose from a very particular political and economic situation during the crisis of 2008. There was a very severe regime crisis here in Spain. The monarchy, the main political parties, the judiciary, and the national question were all in a very big political crisis.

Podemos had two premises. One was the indignados movement in 2011, which was a radical revolt against the economic and political system which included the main parties and unions. They joined due to the passive attitudes toward the crisis on the part of the government. The other was the Syriza hypothesis. This was a new sort of independent party, non-sectarian and independent from the socialist party, that had strong links with social movements.

We were, at the time of the indignados movement, one of the currents of the Marxist Left that had an active role in that movement. Other organized currents were very critical and denounced the movement as petty-bourgeois.

In this framework, we always insisted on the need to have, in political terms, a medium-term approach of trying to transform this revolt into a concrete program and project. From this point of view, we had to fight a double illusion. When we had the rise of the movement, we had to insist on countering a movementist, anti-party illusion; in Bensaid’s words, a social illusion – to think that the movement is enough in itself as an alternative.

On the other hand, later there was the electoralist, governist, reformist, and political illusions, as Bensaid said, when we built Podemos. In some cases, the same comrades went from one side, and then to the other. We had to bend the stick on this issue too against the careerists in the movement, and later when we built the new party.

Our role was to try to build a new radical party linked to new generations. And this was a result of an agreement with Pablo Iglesias—and his very close team of comrades—and our organization at the time. Although they later presented us only having had an interest in building with them after the initiative, this was false. We were part of the building of Podemos from the start.

The main problem was that once they met with conflict with the system, with the media, with the establishment, they had a very moderate and defensive attitude. They didn’t benefit from the strong political crisis that allowed us to build an alternative common sense, breaking with all the neoliberal prejudices that were very rooted in society at the time. Unfortunately, this moderate turn towards the right allowed other parties such as Ciudadanos to tip the balance away from Podemos, emptying any critique of neoliberal order.

One of the main critiques we held at the time was this theorization of Podemos as an electoral war machine, as both [Íñigo] Errejón and Pablo Iglesias developed at the time. They also posed a false opposition between new and old politics. This was useful against the main establishment, but it was also useful to direct criticism at a more militant left that had a more democratic procedure and internal organic existence.

In the meantime, they developed this Bonapartism, one could say, which was also opposed to internal democracy and to clearer procedures such as having proportional leadership bodies, etc. And they were constantly counterposing an electoralist urgency to a patient party of building, educating, and structuring over the medium term.

From the beginning we had these two souls in Podemos (later we would have three): the Eurocommunist view of Iglesias and his team and the more populist view of Errejón.

Our main battle was always to emphasize the centrality of a new party outside of parliament as well as the task of renewing labor and social movements as a whole. This was our main approach. Our theory and aim were the need for a broad, pluralistic movement party. We were defeated maybe because we underestimated the strength of the Bonapartist role played by the central leaders and their media influence.

But the main strategic perspective for us was to have total independence from social liberal parties (mainly the PSOE – Partido Socialista Obrera de España) and a critical balance sheet of the defeat of the Syriza government in Greece. We thought that if they had been defeated in Greece with a moderate orientation, and if we were ever to have any chance of reaching power as Podemos, the reaction of the establishment, the European Union, would be even more harsh and radical against any change.

Unfortunately, the leadership of Podemos had the total opposite view: the view that Spain is far too important to be treated in the same manner as the Greek people. So, there was no critical assessment of the lessons of Greece. Unfortunately, that accelerated the adaptation of the leadership to the political regime, accepting a capitalist economy, and the EU framework.

From then on, we had to struggle, to regroup as many comrades as possible to break away because we couldn’t have any political coherence remaining inside Podemos if they joined the government, which they eventually did.

We survived because we always struggled to maintain an independent revolutionary organization with strong strategic reference points alongside the prioritization of education through our summer universities like the Socialism conference in the U.S. We were able to engage with many new activists who didn’t share our political background but were able to understand our critiques which were always concrete, offering concrete choices and orientations, and never abstract or ideological in the worst sense of the term.

Although we were defeated, Anticapitalistas is a stronger party. We have a stronger and renewed leadership that has been able to integrate the lessons from our mistakes in Podemos. We’re more strongly rooted. We have some comrades with an important mass influence even in the media, especially Miguel Urbán and Teresa Rodriguez (the mayor of Cadiz). We have the means for real electoral capability, going further than propaganda campaigns in upcoming electoral initiatives.

The main tasks today for Anticapitalistas are to improve labor militancy in new struggles and campaigns around pensions, salaries, and against inflation, and finally to relaunch our feminist and youth activity.

Natalia Tylim:I’m going to talk about the U.S. and use the experience and some of the perspectives of the Tempest Collective to inform some of my points.

In the U.S., there’s a need to reassert a baseline argument about the need for revolutionary organization and to clarify that needing revolutionary organization doesn’t mean you do that instead of the work you’re a part of in movements, in unions at the workplace, or in broader political formations. Rather, it’s a necessary precondition of the work that we do if we want broader organizing to be able to build toward a socialist project, independent class power, and an end to this world system that is driven by the imperatives of the market and is pushing humanity and the earth itself to the precipice.

This sounds like a very basic starting point, but in the last number of years in the U.S. I’ve seen how necessary it is to clarify and assert very basic principles. Horizons matter. And some of the horizons on the U.S. Left have become very limited in the last several years.

But the horizons express themselves in day-to-day political work. And we urgently need more organized democratic spaces that bring together comrades who share a general base of politics so that we can debate perspective, strategy, and tactics. This is necessary to win people to our politics, perspectives and strategies and it is the only way we can effectively be involved in this urgent, broader work that’s going on all around us. And every one of us needs to find a way to be involved in organizing. Everywhere we are, the Tempest Collective sees ourselves as a product of the weaknesses and inroads that the last generation of the revolutionary Left faced.

Luis spoke to a similar dynamic: the failure of smaller, revolutionary socialist organizations to relate to and be part of the radicalization. We are a product of the explosive political openings that exist in the period since the world financial crisis of 2008. This crisis is not simply a contingent set of circumstances in the United States based on who the presidential candidates were over the last two election cycles. It’s an international phenomenon.

At the founding of the Tempest Collective in the summer of 2020, most of our membership came either from the ISO, (the International Socialist Organization) which collapsed in 2019, and from the organization Solidarity.

Two years later, about half of our membership doesn’t come from either of those organizations. A lot of the newer members have politicized more recently, either through the DSA (Democratic Socialists of America), or through the George Floyd uprising and more recent touchpoints of struggle.

Those of us who come from the ISO and Solidarity have a lot to say about our experience in the revolutionary Left and the lessons and assessments we’ve taken from that. Among us there are different assessments of those experiences. It has been challenging to develop a shared assessment of what the lessons are. It has also been challenging to bring those experiences together with newer members who don’t share that same history or the same language in which older members have been trained or developed.

We’re finally beginning the process of being able to develop a more collective balance sheet of these things. We’re only at the start of this process. There is a general consensus in Tempest that whatever the factors were regarding the life (or in one case, the collapse) of our former organizations, there’s something really important that’s happening more generally (and internationally) in terms of radicalization and polarization.

Multiple people are seated and facing ahead, with the camera capturing the backs of their heads. The wall they are facing has a large white banner that reads ‘revolutionary politics, debate, and entertainment. SOCIALISM. SOCIALISMCONFERENCE.ORG.’ The word SOCIALISM is in red. It seems like attendees are watching speakers.
Discussion of revolutionary socialist organizations was held at the Socialism Conference of 2022 in the U.S. Photo Credit: Annabella D.

We launched our website in early August of 2020. At this time, the COVID-19 pandemic had already killed 150,000 people in the U.S. The murder of George Floyd had just unleashed two months of historic multiracial, anti-racist rebellion. There were 20 million people in the streets that summer in defense of Black bodies and with openly abolitionist horizons.

We saw the natural disaster of COVID and the George Floyd rebellion as the most recent examples and expressions of this international multi-sided crisis in the U.S. These developments followed the rise of the Bernie Sanders campaign and the election of Donald Trump which were expressions of the same crises. There was the important, but episodic, rise of labor struggles with both wins and losses.

In Tempest, we didn’t see all these as U.S.-specific phenomena; they were part of an international experience that includes the debt crisis in Greece and Spain; the rebirth of reformism with a populist face like Corbyn, Melenchon, and Iglesias; the political revolutions and the subsequent reactions to them in the Middle East and North Africa; and the contradictory role of the Pink Tide governments in South America.

To understand the moment, I’ll quote from an editorial when Tempest launched:

The socialist movement in this country has not always been an outside, negligible force. For decades in the last century, it was an integral part of working class communities, politics, and struggle. It was the force which built the labor movement, which later helped, support and sustain civil rights struggles, which ensured that the New Deal concessions from the ruling class had to be made and opposed decades of bipartisan imperial policies. It was the relentless internationalism and principled opposition to all forms of oppression that made these and other victories possible. The coerced separation of our movement from our class is a wound from the middle of the last century; yet it is a live wound which makes itself felt broadly in our organizing and in our personal lives.

The editorial concluded,

If there is a single imperative which drives the Tempest project, it is not letting this opportunity be lost. The Left must lay the foundations for independent and democratic organizations of self-activity and struggle and must ensure that these organizations are deep-rooted and organically reflect and represent the working class. To do this also requires us helping re-cohere a resurgent revolutionary current.

This editorial pointed to a silver lining in a growing objective crisis we face: the growing audience for radical abolitionist, socialist, and revolutionary politics. It also points toward an issue that has followed us most of our political lives and that the Left has faced in this country for decades: the historic shortage of a class-conscious layer of fighters. Some call this the “militant minority” who can be won to socialist politics and outlooks and who would facilitate the development of a strong politically independent organization of the working class and the oppressed.

Without such a layer and without such organizations, it’s hard to imagine the type of sustained struggle that can overthrow the rule of capital. Socialists in the U.S. have not figured out how to meet the challenge of the impasse. In addition, the organizational expressions of the last generation of revolutionaries who attempted to do so have also left much to be desired.

In country after country, revolutionary organizations have split. The forces of the revolutionary Left have weakened. Organizational crises are not just about individual organizations or individual countries.

There are three things that I think are relevant lessons that require more discussion. These are issues that have often proven existential for organizations. All these underlined weaknesses in an organizational form that developed in periods of low-level defensive struggle. They hampered our ability to relate to the radicalization that was unleashed after the 2008 financial crisis. To be clear, this is not about a specific organization. Instead, these are generalizations from the revolutionary Left internationally.

First, there is a misunderstanding of the Leninist tradition, or what is meant by “Leninism.” Leninism is a rich and adaptive political tradition, but it has too often become defined as a fetishized organizational form: a bureaucratized democratic centralism. At heart, Leninism is defined by something most of us will probably find uncontroversial: that organizations should have democratic decision-making and centralized action. This notion didn’t start with Lenin. But what came to define the Leninist political tradition was a bizarre form where unity of action too often gave way to an unhealthy and uncritical unity of thinking.

Second, there has been a failure to fully grapple with and digest the dynamics around politics of gender, sexual violence, and social reproduction. Some of this consists of unresolved theoretical questions which came up during the 1970s feminist movement, but a lot of it consists of new issues that have been brought to the fore because of the ways neoliberalism produced revolutions, upheavals, and movements in response to the heightened social reproductive burden and the growth of the right.

Within our organizations, some of this crisis of sexual violence was experienced as a political opening for accountability that was never fully digested, which made it much harder to address these issues within our organizations with a common framework when they appeared. And they will continue to appear. It is not an “if” but a “when,” because they are so embedded in society. For some organizations, there’s been an effort to reject the need for a reckoning with these questions at all, seeing them as concessions to so-called “identity politics.”

Third, there’s been a failure to fully grapple with the problem of revolutionary organization, which David McNally has written about for Tempest (following Hal Draper and Duncan Hallas from earlier generations), regarding the challenges of the lack of an actual working class vanguard in all of its diversity in the United States and in much of the world. We have to start by advocating the possibility of such a vanguard instead of being able to point to what it does in its might. This is intimately tied with how we understand our goals, and how we build in a non-sectarian manner, with a modesty about what we do represents in our context as small groups of revolutionaries.

Regardless of the challenge we face of not yet having a vanguard, we need subjective revolutionaries to come together into explicitly revolutionary formations. We need revolutionaries to be organized together, not to the exclusion of the broader political work, but because of the broader political work.

Organizing with small groups of people is not the same thing as organizing in a sectarian way. On the flip side, we should not privilege small-group life over the prioritization of also building broader formations. The Left is healthier with a broad, healthy socialist milieu, and we welcome and defend that.

It’s a mistake to reject with a single stroke the broad party experiences in the U.S. DSA was an element of that broad party experience here, and we have much more to learn from other countries about this.

Tempest has felt the weight of the COVID moment. For years, we’ve been limited to online forums, which are important, but which also are self-selecting and make it hard to be able to develop the type of audience that we know is out there for revolutionary politics. Moving towards more local work is where we’re starting to make inroads.

Tempest does not have it all figured out. But we believe urgently in the need to be able to address these questions and to figure them out together. We don’t think you can figure them out as individuals in the broader movement. We need more spaces like this to have these discussions and I welcome anybody who’s interested to join Tempest if this project sounds like what you’re looking for.

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Luis Meiners, Rabab Elnaiem, Andreu Coll, and Natalia Tylim View All

Luis Meiners is a socialist activist and sociologist from Argentina, currently living in New York City. He is a member of the Tempest Collective and the Movimiento Socialista de Trabajadores (MST), the Argentinian section of the ISL.

Rabab Elnaiem is the former spokesperson for the Sudanese Workers Alliance for the Restoration of Trade Unions and the co-founder of the Ta Marbuta podcast.

Andreu Coll is an Anticapitalistas militant in the Spanish state, a member of the FI Bureau, a contributor to Viento Sur, founder of Salón Editorial, and a history teacher.

Natalia Tylim is based in New York and is a founding member of the Tempest Collective.