Putting March 4th in context

May 11, 2010

THANKS FIRST off to both Nick Kardahji ("Next steps in the fight against California cuts") and Andy Libson ("On the defensive after March 4") for their articles and letters regarding the state of the budget cuts movement.

Reading that debate has got me thinking about how we understand the current state of the movement.

Terms like "offensive," "defensive" and "retreat" are drawn from the realm of military theory. I will not claim to be an expert of any sort on this topic, but I've been doing a little reading lately of the writings of someone who was. (As the old saying goes, "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing." I hope that will not prove to be the case here.)

Carl Philipp Gottlieb von Clausewitz was a Prussian soldier and military theorist of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. His most famous work was called On War. Revolutionaries have, over time, borrowed the military terminology for use as a way to understand and talk about the prevailing balance of forces and dynamics of a given movement, at a given moment. From which, it should be possible to devise the appropriate strategy and tactics.

In chapter six of On War, Clausewitz begins by laying out a definition of "defense":

What is defense in conception? The warding off a blow. What is then its characteristic sign? The state of expectancy (or of waiting for this blow)...

But inasmuch as an absolute defense completely contradicts the idea of war, because there would then be war carried on by one side only, it follows that the defense in war can only be relative and the above distinguishing signs must therefore only be applied to the essential idea or general conception: it does not apply to all the separate acts which compose the war...

We can, therefore, in a defensive campaign fight offensively, in a defensive battle, we may use some divisions for offensive purposes, and lastly, while remaining in position awaiting the enemy's onslaught, we still make use of the offensive by sending at the same time balls into the enemy's ranks. The defensive form in war is therefore no mere shield, but a shield formed of blows delivered with skill.

In short, building a large rally or united day of action (e.g. March 4th) is not necessarily the same as "going on the offensive." Rather, it may be a form of defense--"a shield formed of blows delivered with skill."

Clausewitz elsewhere writes about the different objectives of defense and offense:

What is the object of defense? To preserve. To preserve is easier than to acquire; from which follows at once that the means on both sides being supposed equal, the defensive is easier than the offensive.

It has been already observed in a general way that the defensive is easier than the offensive; but as the defensive has a negative object, that of preserving, and the offensive a positive object, that of conquering, and as the latter increases our own means of carrying on war, but the preserving does not, therefore in order to express ourselves distinctly, we must say, that the defensive form of war is in itself stronger than the offensive. [Emphasis in the original]

THE MOVEMENT against budget cuts in California originates as a defensive movement, aimed at preserving access to education that is currently being threatened. It remains on the defensive now. In fact, using Clausewitz's definitions, most, if not all, of our movements at present are defensive.

The recent upsurge in the immigrant rights movement against SB 1070 in Arizona is at present a defensive movement--and a movement that is also on the rise.

The explosion of activism following the passage of Proposition 8 in 2008 in California is another example of a defensive movement. In the build-up to the National Equality March in October, that movement went onto the offensive to demand and organize for full federal equality. This posture is still very much in its nascent stages, and it remains an open question whether it can be sustained and developed.

I think that rather than conceiving of the anti-budget cuts movement as either being in a "lull," as Nick suggests, or as a movement that has shifted from offense to defense, as Andy argues, we should understand that the movement has been a defensive one since its inception. That does not preclude it from being a movement on the rise, and one that is radicalizing thousands of people.

The tens of thousands of people who participated in March 4th actions in California and around the country went into action driven by outrage over the attacks and by the desire to stop them. This is a positive development--it is an active response to a blatant attack in the form of fee hikes, layoffs and concessions.

We are not yet at a moment in which the movement has gone onto the offensive--say, to win free university education and fully funded schools--or, as Clausewitz might say, "to conquer new ground."

I think the most precise way to describe where we're at post-March 4th is as a time of regroupment. By this, I mean that the movement currently has to make sense of its own actions in March and in the preceding months, and to gather its forces for the next steps.

What are the next steps in building the fight to stop the cuts and fee hikes? How do we organize for that, and what are the political ideas that are necessary to guide this fight? These are the key questions at present.

Within that are a host of other questions, such as: How do we build the left wing of the movement? How best do we work with other groups? And how do we get the larger liberal forces to move their bases into action?

It's important for us to understand that defense does not equal decline, and that a movement does not necessarily have to be on the offensive to grow. Though it may sound contradictory at first, I believe that the anti-budget cuts movement is a defensive movement that seems to be on a rising trajectory in the long term; but is currently needing to reconsolidate its forces for further efforts.

Educators, students and others have rallied and gone into motion to defend their jobs and access to education. The current phase of regroupment can be the basis for a renewed and strengthened revival of struggle in the fall.
Roger Dyer, San Francisco

Further Reading

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