Why national marches still matter

August 22, 2013

M.B.'S RECENT letter ("Limitations of the united front") opens up an important debate on how to think about strategy in the current political moment.

It's certainly true that the idea that all answers to questions of strategy can be found in Lenin's Collected Works is, to put it charitably, a strange one. Indeed, I would argue that the value of the German and Russian examples is not primarily in helping understand moments like ours, but in understanding the strategic dilemmas we are likely to face further down the road. And I also agree that more discussion of U.S. history would be of aid in understanding our moment.

However, I also thought M.B. put forward arguments that actually risk cutting us off from struggle even more than the "What Would Lenin Do?" stance that revolutionary left groups fall into all too often.

Specifically, the argument that "large, hierarchical national marches may leave people feeling disempowered and eventually uninterested in collective struggle just as often as they radicalize people" seems to me to skip over a number of crucial points in evaluating the impact of national marches.

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To understand why, I think it's useful to step back and ask ourselves a deceptively simple question: What are mass national protests for? Undoubtedly, there are a lot of answers to this question, and I'd be very interested in hearing other people's answers. As I see it, the key answer in our current moment is that national marches break down the sense of atomization people inevitably feel as a consequence of living in a period of low struggle.

The structure of capitalism, in which, in order to survive, workers must individually sell their labor power on the market in competition with other workers, reinforces this sense of atomization in a profound way. For people who are outraged at something like racism, imagining collective solutions, let alone collective solutions based on mass struggle, becomes a very tall order. Collective action simply isn't the commonsense response to injustice.

Large national marches help break down this sense of atomization by showing people that there are actually thousands of other people outraged and willing to take action over injustice. They can help instill a sense of confidence that something beyond individual solutions really is possible.

Now, the degree to which they do this is obviously dependent upon a number of aspects of the march, and a democratic and representative march agenda is going to do a better job than one stage-managed behind the scenes. But it's important to recognize that even the latter sort of march plays an important role in a moment like ours in combating atomization.

Here, it's also worth pointing out that having a well-organized and energetic contingent, raising radical chants, can do a lot to change individual people's experience of the march. What is stage-managed and dull from the front can be something else entirely in the back.

IN THINKING about these questions, I'll always remember an Occupy march I was on a few years ago.

We were going across the Brooklyn Bridge (the pedestrian part, not the car part), and marching at a slow pace, with no chanting. I was with a number of International Socialist Organization comrades, and all of us felt like the march was a dud. It was very low energy, and had the pointless route of crossing the bridge and then dispersing in Brooklyn, which hadn't been decided democratically at all. We felt dispirited.

However, when we began talking to people around us, we discovered that they felt they were on an incredible march, one that showed how much support the movement had and really energized them. Those of us hoping for a more rambunctious and democratic march had missed what the march was actually doing for the people we wanted to be talking to.

And while the form of a march plays a role in what people take from it, I think the ideas people take from the march often play a more decisive role. In 2003, for example, the liberal organizations that led the massive February 15 protests against the Iraq war told people those protests were going to demonstrate that the country didn't want war, and that George W. Bush would have to listen to such a demonstration of popular will.

When Bush showed that--surprise, surprise--he didn't give a damn about popular will and went to war anyways, those rallies became disempowering for people not primarily because they were hierarchical, but because people didn't have a framework beyond the milquetoast democratic pluralism being spooned out by the organizers. They thought that the marches showed protest didn't work, because the protests had made their voices clear, and Bush didn't listen.

If the ideas people take from a large national march play such an important role, it's obviously crucial that revolutionaries be there to try and make sure as many people as possible come away from the march with the ideas that are going to prepare them for further struggle.

Indeed, this is why M.B.'s question of whether we should sometimes forego national marches in favor of local organizing seems to me a misguided one in this context. Now on the one hand, national marches clearly aren't a matter of principle, and there may indeed be times that we should concentrate on local activism at the cost of national mobilization. However, it also seem crystal clear to me that this is not one of those times.

This march is coming on the heels of a series of local actions across the country after Trayvon Martin's murderer was set free. Those marches were incredibly inspiring and, for me personally, played a major role in helping to overcome the feeling of powerlessness I felt after hearing about the verdict. But as local actions against what is clearly a national problem, they confronted an inherent limitation. The march this weekend offers us a chance to overcome that limitation and bring together people fighting for justice for Ramarley Graham in New York with Dream Defenders in Florida.

That is what overcoming atomization looks like, on an even larger scale. Whether those connections are made, however, depends on people being at the march with goal of making them.
Paul Heideman, Newark, N.J.

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