The contradictions of August 24
I GREATLY appreciated your recent editorial on the upcoming March on Washington ("Why we're still marching"). As a member of the International Socialist Organization (publisher of SocialistWorker.org), I felt that this contribution addressed critical issues around the liberal politics of the organizers that were neglected in our earlier motivations for the March, including in your previous editorial ("Actions speak louder than words") and the ISO's internal bulletin, which I sharply criticized elsewhere.
Your latest piece does, in my view, a much better job of exploring the contradictions in the liberals' position and outlining the opportunities for radical and socialist anti-racists.
On this firmer political basis, I would like to initiate what will hopefully be a constructive dialogue about our approach to the march. As someone who has mobilized for more than a few large national marches--and is, of course, mobilizing for this one--I would like to see us avoid some of the mistakes we have made in the past (at the branch level if not "officially").
These include, I think, seeing every mass demonstration as necessarily/automatically "transformative" of the political situation; considering criticism of an event to be inimical to effectively building it; or making a too-stark separation between what platform speakers say "from above" and what rank-and-file attendees think "from below."
Let me take up just the last point. Your editorial points out that "the speeches from the platform in Washington will be less important than the convictions and aspirations of the thousands of people who will attend the march." That is true and essential. What is also true, however, is that the "speeches from the platform," taken in conjunction with all the other methods that liberals have for conveying their ideas, influence these convictions and aspirations.
Indeed, the liberal organizers' influence is much greater than ours; if it weren't, then their support for an anti-racist demonstration wouldn't be such an important and welcome development. In other words, the same liberal "reach" that will increase the numbers on the March will also be used to lower people's expectations. The liberals' schemes are not fated to either success or failure, but socialists must understand that it is happening and devise tactics to subvert it.
I'll offer a concrete example. A July 30 press release from the National Action Network (NAN) states that "march organizers will push for immediate action from Congress" [emphasis added] and fails to mention federal charges against Zimmerman. This statement was released the day after March organizers--including the leaders of NAN, the NAACP, and the Urban League--met with President Obama and Attorney General Holder at the White House.
Only a completely naive person would not assume that the administration did not pressure the organizers to quietly "drop" the demand for federal charges--a demand that Obama Mission Control can satisfy at will, as opposed to Congressional action that everyone knows is impossible on virtually any issue. This is how Democrats use liberals to deflect attention away from their own opportunism, redirecting people's legitimate anger into narrow partisan channels.
Under these circumstances, a "narrow" demand for federal charges may in fact be more radical than a "broad" demand for sweeping reforms from Congress. This is all the more true because the demand for federal charges was initially championed by the liberals themselves, before being rebuffed by the White House. Should socialists take the lead in raising--or rather re-raising--this demand? Naturally this shouldn't be counterposed to organizing an explicitly socialist presence, with literature explaining our full positions on all the key issues, and so on. But could this demand play a useful role in our overall intervention?
With not many days left before August 24, and much practical work to do, there may not be time to discuss or even raise all the questions tied up with the March. That is fine; still, I hope we will at least mark out a handful of issues for further reflection, in the interests of improving our revolutionary practice.
Shaun Joseph, Boston