Confronting the debates in Occupy

February 16, 2012

Oakland residents Todd Chretien and Jessie Muldoon take up a discussion about the future direction of the Occupy movement.

BUILDING AN effective Occupy movement requires not only anger, but effective strategy and tactics. That is a discussion that has gripped the Oakland movement since the January 28 demonstration aimed at a building takeover that ended in hundreds of arrests and late-night small actions, including the vandalism of City Hall, that gave city officials an opening to smear the movement.

There are many questions that arise from the experience of January 28 and the Occupy actions that came before, but the sharpest debate today is about the politics and tactics of an ultra-left trend that relies on the anarchist-influenced and elitist idea of the propaganda of the deed to radicalize the masses.

We believe the movement needs to go in the opposite direction, with the aim of involving broader layers of people by mobilizing around the concrete needs of workers, students and community members.

What Is Ultra-Leftism?

Of course, the corporate media speaks as if Nancy Pelosi is an ultra-leftist, but the term has a much more specific meaning in the history of radical social movements. In a nutshell, ultra-leftism refers to a political practice that substitutes the desire of a small group of radicals for revolutionary change for the reality of the self-activity of the working class.

Tens of thousands on the march during Oakland's day of action November 2
Demonstrators march on the Oakland docks on November 2

Sometimes ultra-leftism can be a sign of an inexperienced and healthy movement that is mistaking its own self-confidence for the self-confidence of the mass of ordinary people to fight for their rights. This dynamic should be welcomed because it means that many people without prior experience are joining the movement, and it remains open to learning its own lessons.

Other times, ultra-leftism can refer to a hardened political theory that rejects strategies aimed at involving the greatest number of workers, students and community members in the fight to win their rights and improve their conditions in favor of the actions taken by a self-selected minority of activists.

This sort of ultra-leftism can ruin the most promising of social movements if left unchallenged.

We would all rather be much closer to getting rid of capitalism than we are, but without a clear-sighted assessment of our strengths and weaknesses, and the other side's strengths and weaknesses, we will fail.

As the Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin put it, "It is far more difficult--and far more useful--to be a revolutionary when the conditions for direct, open, really mass and really revolutionary struggle do not yet exist."

Ultra-leftism in Oakland

We've lived in Oakland for 14 years, and we are thrilled that Occupy is putting up a fight.

The public school our daughter attends suffers constant budget cuts. One of the authors is a teacher, and the school district has imposed a crappy contract on her union, continuing a long wage freeze. The city's infrastructure is crumbling, foreclosures dot every single block in the flatlands, double-digit unemployment reigns, and we have a racist police force that is out of control.

Thankfully, we also have a relatively strong union movement, a long record of civil rights activism and opposition to police brutality, and a vibrant immigrant community. Just five years ago, perhaps 30,000 or 40,000 predominantly Latino immigrants marched on May Day.

All of this means that Occupy Oakland has a potential audience of tens--if not hundreds--of thousands of people, just within our city. We saw the very beginnings of this possibility during the November 2 general strike action, when 20,000 or 25,000 people participated in one way or another.

In order to get back to that level of mobilization and to surpass it, Occupy Oakland will have to radically change its strategic and tactical orientation. In order to do this, an ultra-left current in Occupy Oakland must be challenged.

Postings by "Oakland Commune" (the pseudonym taken by a writer or group of writers) on the anti-capitalist website perhaps most purely crystallize the dangers of ultra-leftist theory and practice.

After a ludicrous distinction between "the working class" and "proletarians," Oakland Commune asserts that "the strike no longer appears only as the voluntary withdrawal of labor form a workplace by those employed there, but as the blockade, suppression (or ever sabotage or destruction) of that workplace by proletarians who are alien to it."

From this internal logic, although completely divorced from the logic of the class struggle, the author continues: "The coming intensification of struggles both inside and outside the workplace will find no success in attempting to revitalize the moribund unions."

While they pull back from entirely writing off today's unions (nearly 15 million working-class people), the Advance the Struggle group agrees with Oakland Commune that the "precarious proletariat" was the key to shutting down the Oakland docks on December 12, 2011.

Worse still, they counterpose the slogan of "the 89 percent" to the Occupy movement's slogan of the 99 percent.

You might imagine they are referring to the richest 11 percent of the population, which is overwhelming composed of managers, professionals, small business owners, etc. In fact, they are directing this slogan against unionized workers and positing that the real radical movement must be composed of non-unionized workers (they take no account of the fact that their 89 percent, by excluding unionized workers, would necessarily include a higher percentage of the richest 10 percent of the population than the 99 percent slogan, but that is another matter).

An article put out in the name of the Black Orchid Collective, but to which Advance the Struggle members contributed, claims it does not "mean to suggest that the 11 percent of union workers are our enemy."

It does, however, argue that "it is hard to tell poor, unemployed, undocumented, immigrants, people of color, that we, too, have a stake in the struggles of union workers, especially relatively privileged workers... But really, what materially is in the struggle to defend union workers in Madison and Longview?"

Although dressed up in a defense of people of color and undocumented immigrants, the authors take no account of the fact that unions were a part of the 2006 May Day mobilizations that defeated the Sensenbrenner anti-immigrant bill. They also conveniently ignore the fact that women make up almost exactly half of union members today, while Black, Latino and Asian workers are almost a quarter of labor's ranks.

Theories that counsel hostility to existing unions and make no attempt to reach out to the tens of thousands of sympathetic workers in Oakland, lead directly to adventurous political practice.

Commenting on the much-discussed January 28 protests and battles with police, Oakland Commune glories in the "intensely beautiful" confrontation: "The pigs set their line...we push forward. They launch flash bangs and bean-bags and gas. We respond with rocks and flares and bottles. The shields move forward. Another volley from the swine." And so forth.

After the arrests comes "vengeance time. People break into City Hall. Everything that can be trashed is trashed... An insurrectionary process is the one that emboldens these relationships and multiplies the frequency with which the commune emerges to interrupt the empty forward-thrust of capitalist history."

Clearly lost in their romantic imaginings of Paris 1968 or Tahrir Square 2011, they overlook some small details.

Ten million workers struck in May 1968, and more than a million people battled the police in Tahrir, as well as many other cities besides. In Oakland on January 28, there were, generously, 1,500 people at the main march. After a diversion through the narrow pathways of Laney College, we were down to fewer than 1,000, who then gathered at an intersection near the Kaiser Convention Center. There were perhaps 100 "street fighters," with homemade shields--easily over-matched by the police.

Is the Ultra-Left Just a Fringe in Occupy Oakland

Some activists in Occupy Oakland may want to dismiss these ultra-left currents as unrepresentative--and perhaps they are extreme--but these types of ideas are currently voiced by the majority (or at least a very large portion) of the General Assembly in Oakland.

The official statement of the Move-In Assembly that organized the January 28 protest and that remains featured on Oakland Occupy's website argues that "there is no question that we demonstrated militant resistance to the police." The statement admits only criticism of specific streets tactics as legitimate, but laments, "We are dumbfounded by those who accuse us of working solely to create a spectacle."

These sentiments were echoed by Kristof Lopaur, a prominent member of Occupy Oakland, in a debate with left-wing journalist Chris Hedges on KPFA on February 8. Lopaur stated:

Liberals say Occupy needs to operate on the level of debate of free speech, that we need to prostrate ourselves before the security apparatus and allow ourselves to be beat up in order for our message to be heard...When I go out into the streets, I see exactly the opposite. We are not submitting to the violence and when we don't submit, our message gets heard...

You don't do anything for two months, and no one's talking about Occupy, and then there's a dramatic demonstration like this, and everyone's talking about it again...For whatever reason, the militants come out as the militants do, and now there's a flurry of media and people are talking...and Occupy Oakland looks like it's growing again and getting more support.

This is a very clear distillation of ultra-leftism and a belief in the propaganda of the deed: "the militants come out" for a "dramatic demonstration" and then "Occupy Oakland looks like it's growing."

There was an element of truth to this dynamic back in the fall, but now, the opposite is true. The events of January 28 have not expanded our base. In fact, Occupy Oakland now needs to rebuild.

The police assault on Occupy Oakland and the near-fatal attack on Iraq war veteran Scott Olsen on October 25 led to a near-spontaneous outburst of solidarity on November 2. But November 2 only showed our potential, not our organized strength, and a strategy which relies on the continuous recreation of "dramatic demonstrations" is clearly not sustainable.

The Move-In Assembly statement after January 28 opens the door to this discussion when it says, "We realize we have a ways to go, and need to continue outreach, build (and repair) bridges and expand our movement...We welcome your feedback and constructive criticisms as we learn from our missteps and move forward together."

This is a healthy impulse, but the problem is that it comes only after an unwavering defense of the whole strategy of relying on "dramatic demonstrations." It seems as if the problem was that there weren't enough flyers distributed before the action--when what's needed is a reconsideration of the action's whole focus on a small (perhaps 3 or 4 percent of those who came out on November 2) minority's "militant resistance" to recreate mass mobilizations.

Scott J. encapsulates this analysis in a February 13 piece in the Occupied Oakland Tribune when he writes, "Everybody is comfortable with marching up and down Market Street holding signs...We are now carrying out mass actions that actually have an impact politically and economically, and are therefore new territory for everybody. Had we retreated from the Kaiser Center quicker on J28 and taken another building, we might all now be heroes."

We have to admit that after shutting down the docks twice in the fall and watching the police and the mayor stumble around blindly for the past few months, we, too, were taken in by this feeling on January 28.

It was wonderful to march through the streets where we had marched for Oscar Grant and for immigrant rights and against budget cuts and for LGBT rights, and to imagine for a moment: "Hey, maybe 1,000 of us can take over this massive building and open it up to the people. Fingers crossed."

Maybe we sobered up a little faster because we had our daughter marching beside us, and we realized in the middle of Laney College that we were way too small, way overmatched and not thinking clearly--and that we had put ourselves and the whole movement in danger by walking into a trap as we were surrounded by high cement walls, a tidal river and geared-up police, with our only escape being over a small footbridge.

We were fortunate that the police did not spring their trap then. If they had, serious injuries would have no doubt resulted.

But they sprang their trap later that evening, after we were even smaller, and rather than shocking Oakland's working class into action, this has allowed the mayor, the city council and the liberals to drive a wedge into our movement--between core activists and those who should be with us.

The state learns as fast as we do, and they demonstrated in no uncertain terms that if we want to challenge their power, we need to go back to the drawing board...and quick.

Mass Actions as the Alternative

Fortunately, there are signs that a significant layer of activists are starting this conversation. Articles in magazine offer insightful analyses of January 28 and the need to reorient the movement.

Activities that can broaden support for Occupy are underway. The February 20 protest at San Quentin is designed to build alliances with prisoners' families and prison activists. The Occupy Education committee in Oakland is bringing together a wide array of union teachers, college instructors, students, staff and parents to plan for the statewide day of action against education cuts on March 1 and the plans to occupy the state Capitol building in Sacramento on March 5.

But ultra-leftism remains very strong in Occupy Oakland. The biggest example of this is the call for a "global general strike" on May Day this year.

We should certainly organize actions on May Day, but there are disturbing aspects of the call for a "global general strike," including the fact that the gap between our organized forces and the dynamics of a general strike are profound.

There are other disturbing aspects of the Occupy Oakland May Day call as well. After counterposing the 11 percent of unionized workers to "what these figures leave out"--which comes dangerously close to echoing Advance the Struggle's 89 percent slogan--the call states, "We must re-imagine a general strike for an age where most workers do not belong to labor unions, and where most of us are fighting for the privilege to work rather than for marginal improvements in working conditions."

But there has never been a time when most of the U.S. working class belonged to labor unions, and almost all successful general strikes in history were organized precisely in support for "marginal improvements in working conditions." Those certainly animated the 1934 and 1946 general strikes in San Francisco and Oakland.

So once again, the danger is that the May Day general strike is not conceived of as action carried out by tens of thousands of workers themselves, but a "dramatic demonstration" that substitutes blockades for strikes and street fighting for mass mobilization.

Rather than simply ignoring the unions, Occupy needs a united front approach where we attempt to make concrete agreements with sympathetic union leaders as well as rank-and-file activists.

More sensibly, May Day should be reconceived as the culmination of eight or nine weeks of base-building, systematic work against evictions, school closures and a demand for a jobs program (or perhaps other concrete aims besides).

There will not be a general strike this May Day, barring some new gigantic development well beyond the control of Occupy Oakland, and acting as if we think there will be only denigrates the idea itself. Rather, we need replace the desire for mass actions right now with the hard work that will prepare for such actions in the coming months and years.

Further Reading

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