March 4th and the next steps

May 19, 2010

On March 4, students, teachers, faculty, campus workers and community members made their voices heard and their message clear with protests, walkouts and rallies across the state of California. It was the high point so far of a movement that has been organizing since last fall, with hundreds of activists coming together and sharing their ideas for what needs to be done.

After the day of action, activists assessed their work. Here, four members of the International Socialist Organization--Todd Chretien, James Illingworth, Siddharth Patel and Alex Schmaus--respond to one of those assessments and consider the future of the struggle.

THIS ARTICLE comes in response to "Crisis and Consciousness: Reflections and Lessons from March 4th," written by a small Bay Area group of radicals called "Advance the Struggle."

AS's attempt to put forward a "strategic and theoretical framework," as they say, should be welcomed by all serious activists who are fighting to save public education in California and beyond. Further, their willingness to link this particular struggle with the broader goal of the socialist transformation of society is a sign that the current economic crisis is opening up a new generation to the idea that capitalism is not the best of all possible worlds. AS's members are some of the most dedicated activists in the movement, and they have earned a hearing among a layer of students that will no doubt continue to play a role in the Bay Area movement for years to come.

As members of the International Socialist Organization (ISO), we trust that AS agrees that March 4th was a tremendous step forward in the fight to defend public education. After suffering through years of budget cuts, layoffs and tuition hikes, students, faculty, staff, parents and other members of the education community finally found their voices and began to take a stand.

Students from Mission High School joined other San Francisco protesters for a march up Mission Avenue on March 4
Students from Mission High School joined other San Francisco protesters for a march up Mission Avenue on March 4 (David Russitano | SW)

Of course, this was not the first round of budget cuts in California, but the severity of these cuts, driven by the global economic crisis, pushed decisive numbers of people to take action. Far from being an isolated occurrence, we expect that the movement to save public education in California, like the rise of the LGBT and immigrants rights movements, is the leading edge of a new era of struggle in response to capitalism's failures. This new era stands in stark contrast to the last 40 years of defeat and one-sided class war. Of course, their side will not let up, but the difference is that our side is finally beginning to respond.

Socialists and revolutionaries of all sorts have a responsibility to do what we can to encourage this process and do so with the utmost urgency. However, we must also recognize that we are in the very first stages of what will necessarily be a very long struggle (measured in years and decades, not months and weeks). Their side is strong. Our side is weak. Changing the balance of forces will require the lived experience of millions (not hundreds or thousands) of working-class people as we all aim to rebuild student, community and union organizations and relearn the lessons of our radical past. Impatience and dogmatism are enemies of this process.

IT IS in this spirit that we put forward this response to AS's commentary. We hope it will open a process of discussion and debate. But we must be clear that "Crisis and Consciousness" advocates a theory of how revolutionaries should work within mass movements that we believe to be deeply problematic.

Know your enemy--but you also have to know who your friends are and how to work with different kinds of people and organizations or groups. AS puts forward an inaccurate framework of the political forces involved in the movement to defend public education, identifying three trends: "adventurist," "centrist" and "the genuine class struggle left." You can guess which trend they believe they represent. The "adventurists" are primarily anarchists or left autonomists, such as groups like Occupy California or the activists who published After the Fall. The "centrists" are "Trotskyist" groups, which, although never named, refer to the ISO, Socialist Organizer and a couple other smaller groups in the Bay Area.

The label of "centrism" makes no sense when applied to these groups. AS would do well to learn the history of some of the terms it throws around--there is a specific content to the label within the Marxist movement. Centrism was used to describe mass workers' organizations that vacillated between revolutionary politics and reformism. After the Russian Revolution, when revolutionaries throughout the world tried to create revolutionary parties in the heat of worldwide ferment, the revolutionary left opposed "centrism" because it ended up a counter-revolutionary force during that period. We would hope that AS is not lumping the ISO among the counter-revolutionaries.

As for the "adventurists," AS points out, correctly in our view, that they "substitute a purely sensual form of struggle that challenges private property in isolation from the class whose work produces such property to begin with." This means that, angered by the scale of the attack by the powers that be and frustrated with the seemingly slow response by the millions under attack, some activists have resorted to making a fetish out of occupying buildings in the hopes that this will "inspire" others to follow suit.

At the beginning of the movement, back in September, there was a kernel of truth to this position. Anger was very high, and any action seemed better than nothing. Occupations in Santa Cruz, Berkeley, SFSU and a few other campuses really did help push the movement ahead, especially after police attacked with disproportionate force on the orders of supposedly liberal campus administrators. The high point of this phase of the movement was probably the November occupation of Wheeler Hall at UC Berkeley, when over 1,500 students surrounded the building to defend the 50 or so occupiers.

To be clear, there is a difference between "adventurism" and direct action. For instance, the African American students who sat in at lunch counters, starting in Greensboro, N.C., in February 1960, did not wait for a vote by the mass of Black people in the South to take their action. They were a militant minority, but their action was based on an analysis of the overwhelming opposition to segregation by millions of people. More recently and on an entirely different scale, the occupation of the SFSU administration building on November 18 and the business building on December 9 were both carried out with the understanding that a large part of the campus community would, and in fact did, support them. Neither of those actions were "adventurist."

However, these initial occupations did not lead to more and bigger occupations. ISO members helped plan some of them and took part in defending nearly all of them, whether or not we were inside. First, because they were correct tactically at a certain time. Second, because we always oppose repression against occupations, even when we think they are ill-timed. Of course, this didn't stop AS from slandering the ISO by comparing us to cops and administrators simply because we thought these occupations would have been stronger had they been linked to the democratic decision-making processes of general assemblies. We hope that AS will outgrow this nasty habit of lashing out at people who should be allies.

THE PROBLEM comes when some activists make a fetish out of secretly planned, small, "militant" actions. These have less and less to do with building the mass movement. Instead they are more and more based on pessimism about moving larger groups of students and workers into action. Perhaps the best example of this was the attempt by a handful of students at SFSU to take over the Student Center on April 14. Needless to say, they were met by overwhelming police force and easily prevented from taking their action.

Occupations are not a principle. They are a tactic that depends for their success on sufficient support, both direct participation inside and strong solidarity outside. An ill-timed occupation can allow campus authorities to drive a wedge between a smaller number of activists and the larger number of students and workers not yet willing to take such action.

While AS appears to agree with this analysis in "Crisis and Consciousness," in fact, they very often follow similar tactics to the "adventurists" they are critiquing. For instance, on September 24--the first big day of protests at UC Berkeley and other campuses--AS assisted a small number of activists in an attempt to physically blockade hundreds of students meeting in a general assembly inside Wheeler Hall by locking the doors in order to impose (they might say "provoke") an occupation. Needless to say, the other students were generally not very impressed by this tactic. Instead of forthrightly admitting that it was partially responsible for it, AS merely notes that "some participants felt 'entrapped' in the September 24th occupation that was called during (and around!) a UC Berkeley general assembly." By whom, AS does not say.

If this were the one instance of AS "adventurism," it would be water under the bridge. In fact, AS has consistently pursued such a line.

At the October 24 conference at UC Berkeley, 800 students, faculty and staff met to plan for the day of strikes and protests that was set for March 4, along with other actions. One important political debate there was whether to call for only a "strike" on March 4 or a broader "Strike and Day of Action." AS advocated calling for a "strike" and was disappointed when the vast majority voted (something AS leaves out of its account, preferring instead to assert that "centrists" somehow undemocratically hijacked the conference) for the "strike and day of action."

AS believed that this decision "represented a lost opportunity to consciously politicize the question of tactics." We think this formulation is dead wrong. The responsibility of revolutionaries in a movement is not to "politicize" tactics (whatever that means) but to try to choose tactics that will help the movement win its goals based on mobilizing the largest possible number of students and workers around actions that will strengthen the organization and confidence of the movement, and its independence from political forces that seek to co-opt or derail it. Simultaneously, revolutionaries should put forward socialist ideas in order to try to win over a minority within that movement. But most people will radicalize by directly participating in a winning movement, not by propaganda alone.

Here, AS mixes apples and oranges, and hopes that by "attempting to speed up the radicalization of workers and students," they can, well, advance the struggle. In other words, they choose tactics based on what they believe will "speed up the radicalization" of a minority of workers (in reality, they mostly work with students) and not on what will actually draw more people into the field of action, where they can learn and participate in the movement for themselves. This is essentially an idealist conception of tactics as propaganda, which shares more in common with the anarchist concept of "propaganda of the deed" than it does with a Marxist understanding of how consciousness develops.

The struggle of African Americans for civil rights and Black liberation during the 1950s through the early 1970s provides an illustration of mass radicalization in the context of struggle. The fight for civil equality and basic democratic rights (voting rights, and equal access to schools and public facilities) formed the framework for the first period, the civil rights movement. Most of the activists and leaders in the civil rights period believed that their demands could be met by reforms (whether laws passed by Congress or assistance from federal authorities to desegregate).

But the bitter experience of the struggle for equality--savage police repression, white racist terror, indifference and betrayal by the Democratic Party--as well as the realization that legal equality didn't overcome economic inequality and oppression led to a radicalization of wide sections of the movement. Black Power became the new framework, and the questions and demands raised by that movement openly challenged capitalism and the American government. By 1970, almost one-third of Black soldiers in the Vietnam War said they "planned to join a group like the Black Panther Party when they returned home."

Historical examples such as these show why the Marxist approach to strategy and tactics depends crucially on the relationship between struggle and consciousness.

AT THE October 24 Berkeley conference, the ISO and Socialist Organizer, along with other UC Berkeley socialist activists that AS likewise blames for a "centrist orientation," all supported the "Strike and Day of Action" formula. We judged that this would give the greatest scope for maximum participation and offer activists the best hope for forming united fronts for actions with unions and community and student groups--whereas calling only for a "strike" would limit participation dramatically and give the unions an excuse to remain passive.

Beyond these tactical considerations, we took the realistic view that the forces of the left and the organized radicals on campuses and in the education unions were not nearly strong enough, nor was consciousness among the mass of students and workers prepared, to organize widespread strikes. What was possible, in our judgment, was roughly what ended up happening on March 4th--a huge day of action, including a couple instances of student strikes (UC Santa Cruz) and limited (unofficial) job actions (San Francisco schools). Unfortunately, true to its analysis on October 24, AS pursued a consistently adventurist strategy throughout the build-up and on March 4th. What follows are a few examples.

At Laney College, despite the fact that an open, democratic coalition had been meeting since early January, AS initiated secret meetings in February that attempted to exclude other activists on the grounds of "security concerns." Ostensibly, these meetings were to plan an occupation, but the only thing that came of them was the attempt to--as they admit in "Crisis and Consciousness-- lead a "breakaway march" to the financial aid center which "lasted for about 10 minutes." Rather than respecting the two months of work that the Laney Coalition had done in planning for a rally (to say nothing of helping other activists make the rally bigger by participating in the organizing beforehand), AS dismisses the protest as only being a "long list of speakers"--from which it attempted to lead people away.

At SFSU, where AS has its main base, AS again attempted to counterpose its own "militant" actions (a small picket line of a few dozen and a brief blockade of 19th Avenue) to the larger picket lines and noon-time rally organized by the faculty union. The attempt to "out-militant" the main actions on campus showed that AS shared more in common with the "adventurists" than they care to admit. For instance, while it correctly points out that the Students, Faculty, and Staff United coalition at SFSU became a "sectarian battleground," AS fails to note that it bears a large part of the responsibility for this because it was not able to collaborate with the faculty union and other student left forces.

While AS didn't counterpose an "adventurist" building occupation to the large faculty union actions, it followed the same method they pursued at Laney, trying to lead a minority of students away from the "centrist" action and toward their purer, more militant "left" action.

Perhaps the most absurd assertion in "Crisis and Consciousness" is that AS's strategy "successfully involved masses of working people" in Oakland, while in San Francisco "participants were more spectators than actors" in the 15,000-20,000 strong march and rally.

The first thing to say is that the Oakland rally was great, with perhaps 3,000 people (about half Berkeley and Laney students, about 1,000 high school students and another 500 workers and community members). This hardly constitutes "masses of working people," but it's nothing to sneeze at. Everyone who worked on it should be proud of their efforts.

In San Francisco, activists in the teachers union (principally the rank-and-file Educators for a Democratic Union caucus within the UESF) pushed their leadership to endorse March 4th, which the union initially opposed. When the labor council called for the 5 p.m. rally, EDU organized to build a march down Mission Street that would begin during work hours. They succeeded in uniting 5,000 teachers, students and parents in the largest single work action of the day. Rather than trying to counterpose their "real" action to the labor council's 5 p.m. rally, EDU used the structures of the union and the legitimacy given to March 4th by the labor council to bring out thousands.

Of course, the platform at Civic Center was tightly controlled by union leaders. But it is untenable to claim that this important walkout reinforced the "9-5 work discipline." Instead, AS apparently decided to omit this action because it flies in the face of its analysis, which argues that Oakland was "militant" and San Francisco was "centrist." The San Francisco action was a model for the real unity and base-building that will be a necessary part of organizing any future strike actions in the schools. That the San Francisco March 4th committee was "overwhelmed" by this energy and unable to build its midday rally should have been a clue that the most "radical" tactic does not always equal the most revolutionary practice.

Meanwhile, in Oakland, AS helped to steer the East Bay March 4th committee towards exactly the wrong strategy for building a united front with the aim of maximizing working-class participation. This was not accidental, but flowed directly from AS's dismissal of labor unions as "instruments of bourgeois hegemony." By prematurely cutting off all attempts to get the Alameda Labor Council to call an official action on March 4th and unilaterally calling for a noon-time rally, the East Bay committee simply let the labor council leadership off the hook. Instead of having access to the unions' resources to mobilize, East Bay unions did very little, with the exception of the teachers union.

AS has no base within any of these unions so there would have been very little they could do to shift this. Fundamentally, though, it seemed more important for AS to issue a de facto strike call for propagandistic purposes in order to "radicalize" people than to develop a realistic strategy for mobilizing the maximum number of East Bay teachers, students and other workers.

Finally, AS's assertion that there was some relationship between its strategy in the East Bay committee and the Oakland teachers' strike vote for a one-day walkout in late April is simply baseless. In fact, the teachers have been without a contract for two years, and the strike vote was timed according to the bargaining timetable. Because of labor law, the only condition under which the union was going to strike on March 4 was if it was legally "ready" based on the fact-finder's report, which did not come out until a couple weeks after March 4. Unfortunately, confusion around this reality led some East Bay organizers to bank their March 4th strategy and expectations on wishful thinking rather than the facts of the bargaining calendar.

Most Oakland teachers, though, did participate in March 4, along with 10,000 to 20,000 students (in addition to the 1,000 who walked out) and hundreds of parents. They did so by holding fire drills at their schools in the morning and turning them into political actions. While these were not strikes, they did build up the confidence of teachers who successfully mobilized for a one-day strike on April 29.

AS activists worked very hard to mobilize Oakland students and the East Bay committee put on a good rally. But to ignore the far greater number of Oakland people who participated on March 4th--in actions organized by "bureaucrats," as AS would say--and to claim that Oakland was more radical than San Francisco only shows that AS judges the success of the movement not by real actions that workers and students actually undertake, but by how many people follow them, and then declaring that only the people who follow them are militant.

AS FOR the strike at Santa Cruz, which AS argues was, in addition to Oakland, the other major success of March 4, there are some major inaccuracies in "Crisis and Consciousness," and also a lot of confusion about the correct methods for revolutionaries involved in the budget cuts movement.

"March 4th at UC Santa Cruz exhibits all of the best characteristics of Left and adventurist organizing," writes AS. In fact, most of the forces AS refers to as "adventurist"--the insurrectionary anarchists, left communists, and autonomists grouped around the OccupyCA blog--played almost no role in building the strike. They consciously abstained from the Strike Committee and instead tried to "build excitement" for March 4 with a series of poorly-attended dance parties and abortive "direct actions."

AS states further that "[a]t Santa Cruz...student organizers related directly to rank-and-file workers and bypassed union bureaucracies." Again, this is simply inaccurate. Certainly, the Strike Committee did reach out to rank-and-file workers. It wrote and distributed thousands of copies of an open letter to campus workers, explaining the political logic behind the strike. It also made direct contact with rank-and-file members of AFSCME 3299 in particular.

But in both of these cases we worked with the existing structures of the unions. We took the idea of the open letter to the University Labor United (ULU) coalition, which brings together leaders and activists from all the campus unions, and we were assisted in reaching out to AFSCME workers by a sympathetic staffer from that union.

Indeed, given the state of the labor movement at UCSC, it would have been folly on our part to attempt to "bypass the union bureaucracy." And we actually received pretty solid support from the union leaderships. From the beginning, shop stewards, local officials and staff members from UAW, CUE and AFT attended Strike Committee meetings. The UAW statewide leadership provided money for picket line supplies and logistics. The ULU coalition, impressed with the seriousness of our organizing, pledged to "treat the student strike like an official labor action." We believe the CUE leadership encouraged its members to take furlough days on March 4. These are hardly the actions of a conservative and sclerotic bureaucracy.

AS also mentions what they perceive as "the differential approaches activists in the same Trotskyist organizations have taken in different geographical locations, specifically between UC Berkeley and UC Santa Cruz." They argue that "in Santa Cruz... individuals associated with organizations that exhibit centrist tendencies elsewhere...manifested 'genuine class struggle left' tendencies." This is a clear reference to the ISO, and it is total nonsense. The ISO pursued the same general tactical perspectives wherever our members were building for March 4. If the results were uneven it was only because the political development of the movement is itself uneven.

AS writes further that "Santa Cruz built a strike committee that was focused not [on] abstract actions but [on] a concrete strike at UC Santa Cruz." This is correct. The UCSC Strike Committee brought together activists from a variety of political traditions--Marxist, anarchist, liberal, progressive, etc--in order to build for a concrete action in defense of the immediate interests of all students. In other words, the Strike Committee was a united front formation.

It was not necessary for revolutionaries working in the Committee to water down our politics: we were free to advance criticisms of the Democratic Party, for example, and to advertise our own events and ideas. At the same time, revolutionaries in the Strike Committee could appeal to an organic desire for unity amongst most radicalizing students and workers. We did not make a fetish of the political differences that separate us from other activists, and thus appear as an obstacle to cooperation and coordination around specific objectives. This is the real lesson of March 4 at UCSC: the importance of the united front method.

THE LAST act of this phase of the movement was the April 24 statewide mobilizing conference in LA. The last-minute scrambling to change the location from Fresno to LA inevitably meant that the conference ended up being small and unrepresentative of the movement as a whole. Nonetheless, the conference was a step forward, and some key players in the movement did come together.

Along with the expected fractious debates, the conference set two important dates: a statewide day of action on October 7, to be followed by a statewide conference on October 16 at SFSU. Now that a date has been set far in advance, at a campus with a strong activist base, it will be possible for the volunteer conference committee to build a truly representative mass conference.

AS's actions at the April 24 conference, however, bordered on irresponsibility. After supporting the idea of the October 16 conference, AS opposed holding the conference at SF State (where it has a base) due to allegedly "inadequate facilities"--a truly puzzling and frankly false claim.We have reason to believe that AS's hesitations had something to do with their uncertainty about collaborating with so-called "centrists" at SF State.

After the conference majority voted to hold the next conference at SF State, AS walked out, only to return a few minutes later. We have yet to hear an explanation of AS's position on the statewide conference and whether or not they will help organize it. We hope that AS contributes to this effort, and we are certain that the faculty union and student activists and organizations at SFSU and statewide will be more than happy to build a conference that can take the movement to the next level of strength and confidence.

In a nutshell, AS based its strategy on an entirely wrong framework in which it saw itself standing between "adventurists" and "centrists." This leaves out the vast majority of people who wanted to protest on March 4--campus unions, many official student groups, the bulk of the faculty and the overwhelming number of newly politicized students and workers who had never before taken action. By dismissing as unimportant the task of attempting to relate to the thousands of people who stood to their right but who also wanted to take action, AS ended up simply tailing the very "adventurists" they were supposedly critiquing.

AS has participated in the last nine months of anti-budget cuts work and has led constructive concrete actions in a few instances. However, we have to disagree with the claim in "Crisis and Consciousness" that they represent a "genuine class struggle left," in opposition to other forces in the movement. As we have shown above, insofar as AS has developed and applied its own theory, they belong squarely in the "adventurist" camp they claim to criticize. Practice speaks louder than words.

Further Reading

From the archives