The ancestors of Occupy

December 12, 2011

Paul Le Blanc is a history professor at La Roche College in Pittsburgh and the author of numerous books, including most recently Marx, Lenin, and the Revolutionary Experience: Studies of Communism and Radicalism in an Age of Globalization. In mid-November, he spoke at Occupy Boston, as part of the movement's Howard Zinn Lecture Series.

AS SOMEONE who has been substantially involved in Occupy Pittsburgh, and who has recently returned from London, where I was able to rally with sisters and brothers from the London Occupation (in the face of an enormous police confrontation), it is a genuine pleasure and honor for me to have an opportunity to speak with activists who are part of Occupy Boston.

In London, I heard the working-class singer Billy Bragg being joined by many others in the crowd to sing a wonderful song about the Diggers, an extremely radical movement that was part of the English Revolution of the 1640s. I think it is a great source of strength to be able to draw from one's own revolutionary traditions, from our own history, as we engage in present-day struggles for radical social change.

"We are the 99 percent" is the wonderful slogan of our movement--which recognizes that the wealthy 1 percent that controls the economy and, for all practical purposes, controls the government of our country has interests that are fundamentally different from ours. Our struggle is to replace the tyranny of the 1 percent with a deep and genuine democracy--rule by the people--in which the free development of each person will be the condition for the free development of everyone. We seek a community, animated by liberty and justice for all, and animated by what some would call a spirit of brotherly and sisterly love.

Protester flood into Times Square on global occupy day

This goal will not be achieved quickly or easily, but only by a sustained, massive, multifaceted, powerful social movement. I believe that in order to make our movement as strong and effective as it needs to be, we need to explore and learn from experiences of the past--from struggles and social movements that have actually brought about changes for the better in our country.

It is altogether appropriate to start our exploration with the words of Howard Zinn. "Democracy does not come from the top, it comes from the bottom," Zinn tells us at the beginning of his wonderful film The People Speak. "The mutinous soldiers, the angry women, the rebellious Native Americans, the working people, the agitators, the antiwar protesters, the socialists and anarchists and dissenters of all kinds--the troublemakers, yes, the people who have given us what liberty and democracy we have."

These splendid troublemakers that Zinn tells us about were not the entire 99 percent of their time--they were a militant minority who fought for the interests of the 99 percent, and who did that by reaching out to persuade their sisters and brothers to join them in the struggle for a better world, and to include more and more and more of them in the struggle, a struggle taking place under the shadow of what some refer to as "globalization"--a globalization dominated by multinational corporations that seek to amass huge profits for the 1 percent at the expense of the rest of us.

BACK IN the 1880s, when the American Federation of Labor (AFL) was being founded, labor activists explained in the preamble of their constitution: "A struggle is going on in the nations of the civilized world between the oppressors and the oppressed of all countries, a struggle between capital and labor, which must grow in intensity from year to year and work disastrous results to the toiling millions of all nations if [they are] not combined for mutual protection and benefit."

This is more true now than it was 125 years ago. We must join together--the many millions--to resist and overcome our oppression and exploitation.

The occupation movement that has swept through our country--that millions of us are part of and identify with--consists, of course, of more than those of us who have been able to sleep and eat and live at the various occupation sites. We are many, and our ideas and aspirations are shared by many, many more in our country. According to the polls recently published in the New York Times, about 25 percent of the people in the United States oppose what we stand for, and about 45 percent agree with our ideas, with the other 30 percent not yet knowing enough to decide. It seems to me a worthy goal for our movement is to make that 45 percent solid, add as much of the 30 percet to that as possible, and even win over some of the critical 25 percent.

I think we can learn something of value in the history of earlier social movements. In what follows, I will offer the words from some of past leaders of the labor movement and the civil rights movement.

But right off the bat, we need to be careful about what we mean by "leaders." As the great socialist and union organizer Eugene Victor Debs put it:

I am not a labor leader; I do not want you to follow me or anyone else; if you are looking for a Moses to lead you out of this capitalist wilderness, you will stay right where you are. I would not lead you into the promised land if I could, because if I led you in, some one else would lead you out. You must use your heads as well as your hands, and get yourself out of your present condition; as it is now the capitalists use your heads and your hands.

Many years later, Ella Baker--who worked with the NAACP, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee--explained her own leadership role in a way that Debs would have liked:

You didn't see me on television, you didn't see news stories about me. The kind of role that I tried to play was to pick up pieces or put together pieces out of which I hoped organization might come. My theory is, strong people don't need strong leaders.

Genuine leaders are those who help more and more people among the 99 percent to think critically and organize themselves effectively. That is a very radical, revolutionary notion. And Ella Baker was a revolutionary. She emphasized that racial integration by itself was not an adequate goal. "In order for us as poor and oppressed people to become part of a society that is meaningful," she explained, "the system under which we now exist has to be radically changed... It means facing a system that does not lend its self to your needs and devising means by which you change that system." What Baker is describing is a power struggle in which the 99 percet are freed, more and more and eventually completely, from the oppressive power of the 1 percent.

Related to these insights are the additional comments of A. Philip Randolph, who played a central role in both the labor and the civil rights movements. "Power and pressure are at the foundation of the march of social justice and reform...Power and pressure do not reside in the few, an intelligentsia, [but instead] they lie in and flow from the masses," Randolph stressed, adding: "Power is the active principle of...the organized masses, the masses united for a definite purpose."

This idea was developed with special eloquence by Martin Luther King, Jr., and it is worth giving attention to how he put it. Here are his words:

The plantation and ghetto were created by those who had power, both to confine those who had no power and to perpetuate their powerlessness. The problem of transforming the ghetto, therefore, is a problem of power-confrontation of the forces of power demanding change and the forces of power dedicated to the preserving of the status quo. Now power properly understood is nothing but the ability to achieve purpose. It is the strength required to bring about social, political and economic change.

Explicitly drawing from the experience of the labor movement, King emphasized:

Power is the ability to make the most powerful...say 'Yes' when they want to say 'No.' That's power...Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love...Let us be dissatisfied until the tragic walls that separate the outer city of wealth and comfort and the inner city of poverty and despair shall be crushed by the battering rams of the forces of justice.

One aspect of these comments from King involved a belief in the need for a radical, even revolutionary, change in the system--what we have seen Ella Baker also calling for. And like Baker, like A. Philip Randolph, like Gene Debs and others we are looking at, King was convinced that the capitalist system, controlled by the top 1 percent, needed to be replaced with political and economic rule by the 99 percent.

His wife Coretta Scott King later recalled that "within the first month or so of our meeting," in 1952, King was talking to her "about working within the framework of democracy to move us toward a kind of socialism," arguing that "a kind of socialism has to be adopted by our society because the way it is, it's simply unjust." As she elaborated: "Democracy means equal justice, equity in every aspect of our society," and she noted that her husband "knew that the basic problem in our society had to do with economic justice, or...the contrast of wealth between the haves and the have-nots."

A SIGNIFICANT difference between the radicalism of the labor and civil rights movements and the radicalism of our own occupation movement is that ours--unlike theirs--does not at present have a practical, immediately winnable, demand or set of demands. The civil rights movement demanded (and eventually won) an end to Jim Crow segregation laws and giving African Americans the right to vote in the Southern states. The trade union movement demanded employer recognition of the unions, plus higher wages, a shorter workday and improved working conditions.

I want to return to that question of our occupation movement not having practical demands, but first, I want to point out a problem with narrowing down the struggle to just so-called "practical demands."

In fact, the leadership of the old American Federation of Labor tended to narrow the whole struggle down to such "pure and simple" practicality. Pennsylvania Federation of Labor president James Maurer (himself a dedicated socialist) has left this record of one of AFL President Samuel Gompers's speeches:

If a workingman gets a dollar and a half for 10 hours' work, he lives up to that standard of a dollar and a half, and he knows that a dollar seventy-five would improve his standard of living, and he naturally strives to get that dollar and seventy-five. After that he wants two dollars and more time for leisure, and he struggles to get it. Not satisfied with two dollars he wants more; not only two and a quarter, but a nine-hour workday. And so he will keep on getting more and more until he gets it all or the full value of all he produces.

Despite rhetoric that retained something of the ardor and implications associated with the old revolutionary orientation in the AFL preamble, however, a growing number of AFL leaders--including Gompers himself--began to pull in a different direction that enabled them to adapt to the prejudices of some skilled workers (against the unskilled, against new immigrants, against Blacks and Asians and other people of color, against female wage-workers) and also to make far-reaching compromises with some of the more astute representatives of the capitalist system. Much of the labor movement became moderate, conservative, undemocratic and corrupt.

Such things--rooted in the disconnect between the original sweeping ideals and radical-democratic commitments and the narrower day-to-day practical struggles--contributed to the decline of the spirit and the power of unions in this country.

In stark contrast to this was the uncompromising radicalism of the Industrial Workers of the World, which in 1905 declared:

The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of the working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life. Between these two classes a struggle must go on until the workers of the world organize as a class, take possession of the means of production, abolish the wage system, and live in harmony with the Earth.

IWW organizer Elizabeth Gurley Flynn explained what she and other radical labor organizers saw as the necessary link between practical struggles and revolutionary spirit:

What is a labor victory? I maintain that it is a twofold thing. Workers must gain economic advantage, but they must also gain revolutionary spirit, in order to achieve a complete victory. For workers to gain a few cents more a day, a few minutes less a day, and go back to work with the same psychology, the same attitude toward society is to achieve a temporary gain and not a lasting victory. For workers to go back with a class-conscious spirit, with an organized and determined attitude toward society means that even if they have made no economic gain, they have the possibility of gaining in the future. In other words, a labor victory must be economic, and it must be revolutionizing.

THIS OUTLOOK animated many of the organizers and activists in the three big general strikes of 1934--in Toledo, Minneapolis, and San Francisco--that during the Great Depression helped pave the way for the Congress of Industrial Organizations (the CIO). These three victories rocked the labor movement, particularly due to the revolutionary orientation of the strikes' leadership.

"Our policy was to organize and build strong unions so workers could have something to say about their own lives and assist in changing the present order into a socialist society," Minneapolis strike leader Vincent Raymond Dunne matter of factly commented. On the West Coast, Harry Bridges, heading up the great longshoremen's strike, offered the view that "the capitalistic form of society...means the exploitation of a lot of people for a profit and a complete disregard of their interests for that profit, [and] I haven't much use for that."

Coming out of the Toledo struggle, A.J. Muste commented:

[I]n every strike situation, the policy of drawing in the broadest forces--all the unions, unemployed organizations, political parties and groups--must be carried out in order to break down trade union provincialism; to politicalize the struggle; develop class consciousness; face the workers with the problems of conflict with capitalist governmental agencies, etc."

Each of these strikes--and many others during the 1930s--were successful because they benefited from significant backup (a rich pool of experience, skills, analyses and other resources) from a variety of organizations and institutions.

The same holds true for the later civil rights movement. Aldon D. Morris, in his fine study The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement, has emphasized the role of what he calls "movement halfway houses." He describes these as having "a relative isolation from the larger society" and not having a mass membership, but as "developing a battery of social change resources such as skilled activists, tactical knowledge, media contacts, workshops, knowledge of past movements and a vision of a future society."

Among those institutions that he identifies in this manner, and as playing a vital role in the origins of the civil rights movement, are the religious-pacifist Fellowship of Reconciliation, the radical educational center known as the Highlander Folk School (which also played a role in labor efforts of the 1930s), and the Southern Conference Educational Fund. Organizations and parties of the left (particularly those of the Socialists and Communists) also played a significant role.

This was also very much the case in the union struggles of the 1930s. A veteran of the Women's Emergency Brigade, which emerged during the great Flint sit-down strike of 1937 and helped to build the United Auto Workers (UAW) once commented: "I know that there was a Socialist Party and Communist Party helping to organize. Although I never belonged to a Party, I feel that had it not been for the education and the know-how that they gave us, we wouldn't have been able to do it."

BEFORE SUMMING up some of what emerges from these explorations, I want to come back to the point raised a few minutes ago in these remarks--the lack of specific, practical demands in today's occupation movement. This has been a focal point for some critics of our movement.

But it is not clear to me that this is a fatal flaw. It seems to me that we can, in fact, find precedents in the struggles of the past. I want to give one example.

In 1877, there was a massive labor uprising of railroad workers and working-class sympathizers and communities, from Martinsburg, West Virginia, to Chicago and Baltimore, a big explosion in Pittsburgh, from St. Louis to New York and elsewhere. As the experienced labor activist J.P. McDonnell explained: "The strike is a result of desperation. There was no concerted action at the start. It spread because the workmen of Pittsburgh felt the same oppression that was felt by the workmen of West Virginia." Local police, state militia, and federal troops were used to violently put down the rebellion.

Even though it did not have focused practical demands, the uprising gave vibrant expression to the rage and indignation of the working-class over the assaults on their living standards, their dignity and their communities by the railroad corporations and other industrial robber barons who ruled the U.S. economy. The uprising was defeated, but the working class was not demoralized, but energized. According to Samuel Gompers, "the railroad strike of 1877 was the tocsin [the alarm bell] that sounded a ringing message of hope to us all."

Coming out of that amazing and transformative experience was a new mood, a new consciousness, a new politics, and new layers of organizers and activists who went on to build powerful movements, organizations and struggles on behalf of the working-class majority over the coming decades. And that is true of our own rebellion, this amazing uprising represented by the occupation movement. Dozens and hundreds and thousands and more people involved in our movement all across the United States are helping change the consciousness and politics of our country, and will be playing an essential role in the struggles and the victories of the future.

In those future struggles, we can learn much from the past movements that we have been focusing on here. Those who were most effective and were able to remain true to the struggle for liberation first of all had a clear understanding of the existing power structure and a vision of an alternative that would give political and economic power to the people.

There was an understanding that the conscious, militant minority must not set itself up as self-proclaimed leaders or condescending saviors. Nor is the job of the radical minority to develop ingrown "perfect" communities that will be a present-day alternative to the corrupt order of the wealthy and powerful 1 percent. Nor can we afford to become disunited so that some fragments of the 99 percent seek to realize their individual desires or improve their material conditions, while forgetting about the needs and the dignity and the rights of all.

Instead, we must be reaching out to help spread consciousness and skills among more and more and more people--to help build mass struggles in which ever-larger segments of the oppressed majority will develop the ability to push back various aspects of their own oppression, ultimately liberating themselves and all of society from the power of the wealthy, profiteering 1 percent. To help sustain such efforts, we must build institutions and organizations that can make available social change resources such as skilled activists, tactical knowledge, media contacts, workshops, knowledge of past movements and a vision of a future society.

There is a need for practical struggles and demands that can win relatively modest, but often life-enhancing, improvements in the here and now. But no less important is the need to strengthen the spirit of those who must continue the struggle--giving people more than short-term improvements, giving them a clear understanding of what's wrong with the status quo, giving them skills and inspiration and motivation to do something about that.

In explaining that "power concedes nothing without a demand," the great anti-slavery leader Frederick Douglass added an incredibly important insight. "Find out just what a people will submit to," he pointed out, "and you have found out the exact amount of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them." He concluded: "The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress."

Flowing out of our occupation movement must be ongoing efforts to build the consciousness, the understanding, the organizational skills and the capacity for unified and uncompromising struggle that will put an end to such submission and tyranny giving greater and greater understanding and strength to the majority of our people. That must be the goal of our movement.

Further Reading

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