The debate in our movement

March 29, 2010

Doug Singsen is a student at the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center and an activist in the struggle against budget cuts and tuition increases. This article is based on two letters he wrote as part of a discussion of events that took place at CUNY's Hunter College in New York City during the March 4 Day of Action to defend public education.

During the March 4 protest, a group of students calling themselves "insurrectionists" from Hunter, the New School and New York University (NYU) attempted to seize control of a democratically planned rally, shouting down speakers, hurling sexist insults and physically assaulting other activists.

THE EVENTS that took place at Hunter College on March 4 have brought a whole series of important political issues to the surface that need to be discussed by the New York City student activist community.

While the actions of certain individuals in disrupting the protest have received much attention and condemnation, little attention has been paid so far to the political ideas that lie behind their actions--ideas that, for the health of the student movement, need to be critically examined.

Based on their affiliation with the Take the City blog, the individuals who initiated the disruptive behavior at Hunter appear to be adherents of the slogans "Occupy Everything" and "Demand Nothing," which in New York have been raised most vigorously, but not exclusively, by activists at the New School and NYU. Their ideas are a combination of elements of anarchism, autonomism, situationism and other political philosophies.

The main ideas represented by the slogans "Occupy Everything" and "Demand Nothing" are: 1) that occupation is an end in itself, not a means to the end of winning our demands; and 2) that demands are inherently reformist and play into the hands of the ruling class. Both of these ideas are political poison for movements. The insurrectionists' ideas were tested at the New School and NYU in the 2008-09 academic year, and in both cases, they ran initially promising movements into the ground.

Hunter College students, faculty and staff rallied during the March 4 Day of Action
Hunter College students, faculty and staff rallied during the March 4 Day of Action (SW)

Now, New School, NYU and a small handful of CUNY activists are attempting to import these failed strategies into the movement to defend public education.

THE SLOGAN "Demand Nothing" indicates quite plainly that the insurrectionists are not interested in fighting for and winning demands. In this, they differ from most activists at CUNY and other public schools, who are quite serious about winning their demands to defend public education.

Our demands are not playthings. We demand no budget cuts, no tuition hikes, no school closings, no layoffs and no compensation reductions. We demand the restoration of the free student Metrocard, which the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority is threatening to cancel. We demand no union-busting and no privatization of public education. We demand free, quality public education for all, from pre-K to graduate school.

When CCNY students occupied university buildings in 1969, they presented university administrators and elected officials with a list of five demands, including for CUNY to open its doors to students of color and for the creation of Black and Puerto Rican Studies departments. They won those demands, which made it possible for hundreds of thousands of students of color to receive a higher education that otherwise would have been denied them.

The many occupations that CUNY students initiated over the following decades were always done with the goal of winning demands to keep a quality education within reach of New York City working-class students and students of color.

One reason the insurrectionists believe that demands aren't necessary is because they think that it's possible for protesters to bypass university administrators and elected officials, and somehow execute their own demands. As one insurrectionist explained on a public listserve:

"Occupy Everything, Demand Nothing" is utilized to suggest that the universities have nothing to give us, that we must take control ourselves and democratically decide what is to be done. Whether one is asking for something or demanding something, a demand is still putting the power into the hands of the administrators, who might throw us a few crumbs from under the table.

The first problem with this argument is that it's not true that universities have nothing we want, and it's even less true of legislatures, governors, city councils and mayors. They have control of resources: money for schools, student services, and salary and benefits for teachers and workers; control of hiring and firing; and more.

Second, demanding reforms doesn't put power into the hands of administrators. The power is already in their hands before we raise any demands. Building a movement that can win demands takes some of that power away from administrators and politicians, and puts it into our hands.

Third, as long as the state controls the university's budget, the students and workers will have to bargain with the state. As long as we live in a capitalist society, there's no way to avoid dealing with the state.

The insurrectionists also believe that immediate demands undercut the goal of revolution, a position that is both historically and theoretically wrong. Fighting for demands doesn't reduce the appetite for revolution. It whets it, as Rosa Luxembourg famously argued in "Reform or Revolution."

Revolutionaries fight for immediate demands under capitalism both because we want to reduce the oppression and exploitation of workers, and because doing so builds the political consciousness and organization of the working class that are necessary to eventually challenge capitalism and replace it with a better world.

One concrete example of this is the way that the non-revolutionary civil rights movement laid the foundation for the revolutionary Black Power movement. Even the term "Black power" was coined by Stokely Carmichael (later known as Kwame Toure), a leader of the civil rights movement, to describe what he saw as the necessary next stage for the movement. Rather than reducing the demand for a revolutionary alternative to capitalism, therefore, the civil rights movement created the political foundation for such an alternative to emerge.

The insurrectionists' rejection of all demands means that they also reject the basis on which every social movement in history has been built, including the labor, civil rights, Black Power, feminist and LGBTQ movements. This should be a sobering fact for anyone interested in the insurrectionists' ideas who is truly concerned about achieving real political change.

OCCUPATIONS are central to the insurrectionists' politics, but the insurrectionists don't actually have a strong understanding of how to use occupations to strengthen a movement. Occupations are one of the most important weapons at our disposal, but to be successful, they must have a sound tactical and strategic plan.

Occupations have to be supported by the majority of the student body to avoid a backlash, so if students are not educated about the issues being protested or do not support them, an occupation will fail strategically even if it succeeds tactically. The students undertaking an occupation need to be prepared politically, mentally and physically, and understand what they're getting into. They need to have a tactical security plan to hold the space they are occupying, and they need to arrange for a support rally outside to defend the occupation. These are just a few of the issues that need to be considered when planning an occupation.

The insurrectionists typically give little thought to these issues when planning an occupation. For them, it's always time to occupy something, regardless of what effect that will have on the overall development of the movement.

When occupations are carried out poorly, rather than taking a movement forward, they can instead set it back. This is what happened following two New School occupations and one NYU occupation in 2009. The outcome of these actions discredited their respective movements, rather than strengthening them.

The fact that insurrectionists place such a premium on occupations above all else leads them to denigrate all other forms of action, including protests, which they deride as "boring" and "PR events for the left." This negative assessment of the value of protests should be transparently absurd to anyone familiar with the history of social movements.

Another component of the insurrectionists' political philosophy is that they demand to be entertained at all times. The insurrectionists repeatedly complain about attending "boring" rallies and "boring" meetings, and listening to "boring" speeches. Unfortunately, organizing is not always fun, exciting or glamorous. It requires long, patient work attending meetings, talking to potential supporters and allies, putting up fliers, tabling in public spaces, and so on and so forth. This is how social movements are built.

The insurrectionists, however, have no patience for such things. They want to leap immediately into occupations without bothering with the annoying task of building a movement. The insurrectionists' position that demands only perpetuate the system rather than replacing it likewise attempts to skip over the "boring" step of building a movement, and go straight to revolution.

One group of New York City insurrectionists recently wrote, "We cannot sit on our hands until 'the masses' decide to act." According to this formulation, activists have two choices: wait around for the masses or act immediately on their own. A third choice, that of consistent, patient movement-building, which is the essential task of organizers, goes unmentioned.

THE INSURRECTIONISTS also claim to be opposed to activists who try to "control" the movement. However, as Chris Gunderson--a former Hunter activist who is now a doctoral student at CUNY Graduate Center, and who is not a member of the ISO--points out in a response to a statement by Take the City posted on Facebook, the insurrectionists' behavior in the CUNY movement has been more domineering and aggressive than anybody else's. Gunderson writes that:

You want to lead the movement, indeed feel entitled to do so, but you don't want to be burdened with the responsibilities of leadership, of having to patiently build coalitions with people you disagree with, of being held accountable for your actions, of actually gauging what people are ready to do, instead of simply projecting your own desires onto them and then denouncing them for falling into line...

You claim to have "no desire to lead anything" but the actions of your crew strongly indicate otherwise. You can call it "self-organization" or "energizing" if you want to evade the question, but what you were doing was aggressively contesting for leadership of the movement and people didn't want to follow you.

Daniel Tasripin, another longtime CUNY activist and also not an ISO member, wrote on the same site, "This is beyond even the most authoritarian of M-L [Marxist-Leninist] groups." Gunderson echoes this sentiment, writing that "right now, you guys come off as more obnoxiously arrogant than the Spartacist League." Gunderson further writes that the insurrectionists:

seem to be under the mistaken impression that the essence of anti-sectarianism is calling other people sectarians, refusing to work in coalition with them, and thinking everybody shares your views. That isn't anti-sectarianism, it's the essence of sectarianism. Socialists and communists of various stripes have been a fixture of Hunter student politics for at least 70 years because students in the process of radicalization are drawn to those politics--not because they were bitten by "zombies."

Gunderson is right that if this movement is to grow and succeed, it's essential that organizers from different political viewpoints learn to work together productively. This doesn't mean that we have to agree on everything, or that we shouldn't debate politics, strategy and tactics, but it does mean that we need to observe the principles of mutual respect, accountability, open organizing and democracy.

A model for this type of organizing is the "Open Letter to the Student Movement," written by a group of leading Hunter activists following the March 4 events at Hunter. If we can't learn to work together, the movement is inevitably going to fragment and break down into sectarian infighting (the leftist circular firing squad), as happened a year ago at Hunter.

I think that the current discussion about tactics, strategy and political ideas is a very good and important one for us to be having. Hopefully, the movement will be able to emerge out of this debate with an agreement on minimal points of unity for open, democratic, respectful organizing, and we can learn to work together to beat back the attacks that are threatening CUNY and public education as a whole.

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