We received a critical message regarding our piece on the SFSU occupation from a commentator named “Alejandra.”
As self-reflection and self criticism is just as important as criticism of others, we take these types of comments seriously and hope to continue receiving them from leftists in response to what we post on here.
Just to be clear, folks who participate and post on this blog work in coalition with ISO members (and various other tendencies we have written about) in movements against budget cuts and justice for Oscar Grant. Our criticisms and reflections never preclude working together with these groups in the real world.
Here is the message we received from “Alejandra” (our response follows it)
i´m not a member of the ISO, but i think it should be noted that this AS response fails on many accounts.
if you argued that what made Nov. 20th at Berkeley a success was a synthesis of the General Assembly with direct action, then why wasn´t the SFSU occupation proposed to a general assembly? do you acknowledge the turnout at SFSU in support of the occupation was pretty damn small? why can´t direct actions be done via the process of mass democracy (one person, one vote)?
The occupiers undercut the actual general assembly process at SFSU by making a unilateral decision. but rather than acknowledge this, you simply evade the question.
moreover, you pose a total strawman concerning democracy. nobody has every claimed that democracy means “every person has to approve something before it happens.” ridiculous! in the real world, a democratic process means a majority rules vote. couldn´t there and shouldn´t there have been a discussion and debate and vote on the occupation? if you don´t agree there should have been, you have the obligation to explain why.
lastly, it is a terrible means of debate to respond to a mild criticism with the inflamattory comparison of Corrigan´s critique and the ISO´s. what a great way to cut off discussion! if it´s true you are trying to learn from experience and not be sectarian, why have such a derisory tone and approach to other groups that,whatever your differences may be, are working in the struggle against the budget cuts?
despite all the talk about moving beyond the problems of the left, it seems to me that AS is mired in some of the worst old traditions: sectarianism and ultraleftism.
Reflections on ISO Critique: Response to Readers
I. Possibility of Repression
II. Democracy: Theoretical Confusion
IV. “Sectarianism” vs. Criticism
Comrade Alejandra, first of all your response is very much appreciated! In the spirit of comradely criticism, I’d like to point out where it’s problematic. Primarily this emerges in two ways: a total lack of consideration for the possibility of repression and underlying theoretical confusion over the nature of democracy. These problems, and the conflict between our two approaches in general, are important questions for this struggle; it would be much appreciated if you would continue to engage.
I. Possibility of repression
Your response fails to acknowledge the presence of the state (administrators, police, etc). Proposing an occupation at an SF State general assembly would have exposed not only the plans of the occupation, but the occupiers themselves; this exposure can, depending on the circumstance, result in anything from the mere prevention of the action to brutal state repression. Those who insist that every action be approved by an open democratic space are acting against the working class’s interests for, as we observe above, “it is anti-working class to judge an action by its democratic process. The rubric must be, instead, the degree to which an action tips the balance of class forces in favor of the oppressed.” The Wheeler occupation on Nov. 20th was indeed proposed to a general assembly, but it was done so the night before it was scheduled to happen. In addition, the Wheeler occupation happened within the context of a 3-day strike. At SFSU there is only one union that is in struggle (it’s not even a school-affiliated union, it’s construction workers), and these construction workers have been enthusiastic supporters of the occupation and every other sign of protest they see from students. They aren’t complaining for not being invited to internal planning meetings. Why are you?
II. Democracy: Theoretical Confusion
As we noted in the piece that you are responding to:
“Left out from both criticisms is any definition of what “democratic” actually means. Formal democracy, whereby every person has to approve something before it happens, is a fiction. Democracy does not exist in the abstract.”
Upon reflection, you do point out a minor flaw in the wording of our critique that does in fact make a straw man. It should say: “Formal democracy, whereby the majority of people involved have to approve something before it happens, is a fiction.” With that correction though, the argument still stands that democracy (defined as direct control of happenings by the people involved and affected) is not created only, or even best, by general assemblies. By your rubric, the CA state proposition process, where all registered voters have input into the legalistic decisions of the state, is much more democratic than any class struggle ever could be. As noted above, you can only think that such processes are most democratic if you ignore, consciously or not, the constant intervention of the state into these formally democratic processes. This is the way that you, the ISO and Corrigan share the same theoretically bankrupt understanding of democracy. You replicate the ISO’s misunderstanding without responding to our critique of it!
Needless to say, also absent from your analysis is any mention of the many hundreds of students who were politicized by the occupation and did defend it (YouTube clips of this are easy to find). Not everyone shares your impulse to lead everything. Most of us are happy to support whatever positive forms of resistance folks take on, and are especially supportive of more direct forms. Why are you bitter? Have some solidarity.
Perhaps you missed the mini general assemblies that happened at the entrances to the occupied building where people were discussing plans for building strikes on March 4th as well as building inclusive spaces like general assemblies in the future. You missed the hundreds of students who came to look, and ended up staying and having political conversations about the nature of the budget crisis and the need for class struggle to fight it. Is this outreach unimportant to you? Doesn’t the education of hundreds of students as the crisis we face and the method to fight it matter? If it does matter, then you should recognize the importance even though you didn’t make it happen.
IV. “Sectarianism” vs. Criticism
The claim, with backing arguments, that the ISO, you, and Robert Corrigan of SFSU share a theoretical foundation is not sectarian; it’s either correct or incorrect, and only political arguments, not ad hominem attacks, will change minds about that. We recognize that conservative elements such as yourself have your hearts in the right place . . . but letting that recognition silence principled criticism will retard the movement more than anything.
Occupation polarizes and clarifies the situation for people, as well as providing a platform from which to speak. The SFSU occupiers were talking about class war and the March 4th strike, and hundreds of people heard them and agreed. Organizers at Cal have acknowledged that the General Assemblies there have dwindled and are very stale. Some have criticized themselves for not approaching the general assemblies in a more political way. The proceduralist, apolitical nature of the actually existing general assemblies at Cal has lacked political proposals for the movement and led in practical terms to tailing liberal elements. Had we been more open to debate and to creative action from the beginning we would be much further along the way to radical resistance in the spring. We need a disciplined approach to reaching out to workers of all kinds to strike March 4th, but we also need creative ways to energize communities so that they see March 4th as an exciting POLITICAL event, not just another symbolic expression of disapproval as most protests are these days.
We look forward to considered responses from other tendencies in the movement.
The ISO has a lot of nerve complaining about a lack of democracy and being left out of the planning for the occupation. Their recent display at the October 24th Conference in Berkeley, when ISO members repeatedly pushed their organization’s own agenda–contrary to the democratic decisions of the previous SFSU General Assembly that ISO participated in–exposed them as no more than party-building opportunists. They rely on an endless cycle of naive students to fill their ranks, constantly hawking crusty strategies whose main purpose seems to be to maintain the larger organization that hands down the doctrine. I sympathize with some ISO neophytes because I think they mean well…but so do liberals and a lot of other people who maintain the existing order by holding out false hopes and claiming to be more realistic than anyone to their left. In fact one young ISO man I argued with at the Business School occupation did not deny that he was simply a liberal, nor that he was relatively ignorant of the history of class struggle. At least he was being honest. We could use some more honesty from that organization.
[Moderator Note: This comment is being moderated for its tone. We want to keep things political on here and not subjectivist.]
on democracy: Alejandra calls the decision to occupy “unilateral” but this is merely a matter of scale. it was CONSENSED UPON by the occupiers (and do their voices and desires not matter just becuase they do not share the perspective of “most students” or the ISO???), but not by ALL anti-fee activists. but the actions taken by other activists (like a protest, etc…) were UNILATERAL/”undemocratic” from the perspective of students who are not interested in fighting the fee increases or attending the general assemblies, because they were not included or consulted in the decision.
the people who attempt to say that actions are un-democratic merely seek to re-define the scale at which “democracy” is conceived (who is included in the decision making) so as to ensure that the scope *they* determine has a majority who favor their ideas included in it.
they are manipulative and uninterested in allowing people to express their resistance to UC plans in whatever way they wish, because they’d rather see a movement DIE than see it take on a life of it’s own, that they can’t CONTROL or LEAD like the insipient authorities they are…..
through acting, we learn to act. no one is stopping Alejandra or the ISO from acting but themselves. The occupiers are choosing their path. The “activists” who want to control the struggle have chosen to fight the occupiers because they are an easier target than the UC administration. They need to, as we say in my hood, “put up or shut up.” LEAD BY EXAMPLE, don’t try to tear down other people, keep your anger and criticism reserved for the administration, that is how we WIN!
I am really glad that there is a discussion on what democracy means in class struggle. Alejandra your definition of democracy or a democratic process being a procedure where people discuss and then vote with the majority vote making the decision is a stale and limited idea of what a democratic struggle has to be. Especially if we are talking about revolutionary struggle! Militant direct actions, such as strikes and occupations, where the masses consciousness is elevated as they work and struggle together is one of the most democratic things you can participate in.
This debate brings to mind Trotskys masterpiece “History of the Russian Revolution” where he discusses the democracy of the February Revolution. He writes, “The revolution was carried about upon the initiative and by the strength of ONE city, constituting one-seventy-fifth of the population of the country. You may say, if you will, that this most gigantic democratic act was achieved in a most undemocratic matter. The whole country was placed before a fait accompli.”
So trotsky is responding to some criticisms that it was undemocratic for one city, Petrograd, to lead a revolution and overthrow the monarchy of Russia. I feel like these criticisms parallel yours and the ISO’s criticisms that it was wrong for one group of people to escalate struggle and move forward in an action without voicing it in an open democratic space where everyone can vote on it. It’s like the occupiers are Petrograd and SFSU is Russia as a whole. Well Trotsky has a response to that, which I think is pretty good so here it goes
“The fact that a Constituent Assembly was in prospect does not alter the matter, for the dates and methods of convoking this national representation were determined by institutions which issued from the victorious insurrection of Petrograd. This casts a sharp light on the question of the function of democratic forms in general, and in a revolutionary epoch in particular. Revolutions have always struck such blows at the JUDICIAL FETISHISM of the popular will, and the blows have been more ruthless the deeper, bolder and more democratic the revolutions!”
Trotsky makes a great point when he encourages us to be critical of democratic forms in revolutionary struggle. He warns against “judicial fetishism” which I see happening on campus with the fetishism of the general assembly being the sole way to build a mass democratic movement. Why is it undemocratic when a group of individuals or an organization are able to understand and interpret the objective conditions, create demands or solutions to the conditions, and advance struggles that will bring in the masses and elevate their consciousness. Trotsky writes that the vanguards of the revolutionary class (the proletariat) often resides in the Capitals of countries or city centers, therefore “in the initiatory role of the centers there is no violation of democracy, but rather its dynamic realization.” The occupiers at SFSU were not behaving undemocratically, but actually acting in a way that brought SFSU students and workers to struggle together, which is democracy fully realized. It was also a dynamic political way for the SFSU community to come together and have conversations about capitalism and education, and to excite people to build for a strike on March 4th.
I would suggest that the ISO revisit my man Trotsky’s famous work and analyse his words. Especially this sentence, “Revolutions have always struck such blows at the JUDICIAL FETISHISM of the popular will, and the blows have been more ruthless the deeper, bolder and more democratic the revolutions!” A proceduralist fetishization of the General Assembly as the sole way to sustain and advance a democratic movement is what really is harmful in the left today.
I think Rebelde is mixing metaphors and losing historical context…like those that call for “General Strikes” without a clue how general strikes develop or their historical context.
Trotsky’s argument is against the purveyors of the Constituent Assembly…because in fact it resulted in a revolution; in fact, it represented (Petrograd) still representing over half the proletariat of Russia; and that the revolutionary will of the *entire* working class population of that city was in motion and for the overthrow, with resulting demonstrations after the fact in every major Russian city from Odessa to Moscow to Kiev to Vladivostok.
To think that students occupying a business school (the Russian workers organized into *soviets* knew where the power was: the ADMINISTRATION of the state, the government, not the local business school) represents any sort of metaphorical or even worse, analogous, political “act” is the height of arrogance.
What is clear, and clearer, is the response and analysis of the Bolsheviks to something slightly by 1/1000 of a degree closer to the occupation at SFSU and that is the July Days a few months after the February revolution where a majority of the city, AGAIN, went out to make the soviets (the actual DEMOCRATIC expression of the mass of the working class) the actual power in Russia thinking it would ignite an All-Russian workers revolution. Even the Bolsheviks own city cadre came into this. Rebelde does the term “premature” mean anything to you? This is exactly how Trotsky (and Lenin) characterized this ill-fated but genuine revolutionary expression. The leadership of the Party correctly, 100% correctly, *opposed this*. Unlike the occupation at SFSU that had 3% of the student body out there in support (including me at one point) the July days had genunie mass support: and still it was mistake.
The Soviets represented, however, a democratic expression of the masses in motion. In this way, the General Assemblies represent a “small mass of the activists” and of course, the students *as a whole* are certainly not in motion…not at ONE campus or public school in the entire state. But at least the GAs represented that base, far better than some activists spouting, as I hear “..the bourgeoisie…” from a megaphone from the occupied building (without a SINGLE demand around budget cuts being screamed out). I also saw no ONE demand on any of banners being held by activists in front.
To the degree you want get the 30,000 students at SFSU involved (and at every school and university)…then you involve them. If you don’t, you continue the antics that occurred that day. If you want to the majority of the students and workers involved in the movement to save public education and against fee hikes and layoffs, you help build institutions and movements that actually involve them organically, not pretend revolutionary acts involving a very tiny minority of those effected. If you are serious about the movement you build for March 4 as best you can. If you are interested in symbolism, then go put on a play.
Basically what I hear from some you here is the typical Ivory Tower leftist tripe about “we can do what we want and light a match.”. It’s called petty-bourgeois vanguardism and has little to do with the Russian Revolution, Marxism or…the student struggle against the budget cuts. The “Spirit of ’68”? That one, at SFSU, had 24,000 students out in the quad. How close were you?
The art of politics is knowing what do next. You don’t.
Carolina S. D-L.
I don’t have time to respond to all of the distortions that “Carolina” brings up, but I do want to point out that the last line concentrates her ignorance about bay area student struggle (despite an air of authority that she seems to feel entitled to.)
Carolina states: ‘The “Spirit of ‘68″? That one, at SFSU, had 24,000 students out in the quad. How close were you?’
This is historically false, and seems politically dishonest. At its HEIGHT the sf state strike of 1968/69 had no more than 2,000 students on strike. The strength of the strike laid not in the quantitative number of students because clearly they were outnumbered by a significant minority AGAINST the strike, and the bulk of the student population which remained passively neutral in one way or another.
The strength of this minority (remember, 2000 students at its height) lay not in them being the FORMAL MAJORITY (again, see the bourgeois conception of formal democracy creeping in) but rather in their militancy and relations with teachers on campus and members of bay area working class communities of color.
Carolina, it seems you could benefit from studying the struggles of communities of color and students in the bay area a bit more closely before speaking in their name . . .
i think the Conclusion section of this response to Alejandra is right on point. i have been in conversation with folks who have been part of the General Assemblies at Berkeley, and they share ya’ll’s critiques. i do believe it’s time for more militant action. i think it will draw in more workers and attract those students who are tired of endless meetings. i believe we are seeing this with the workers’ struggles at the University of Washington in Seattle. As meetings drag on for months, less and less workers are attending. But, with the announcement of directly confronting the abusive managers, i’ve sensed a revitalization of energy. Also, students who weren’t sure how to be part of the struggle before, now have something concrete to do.
i appreciate the debate and analysis.
Every report, and if you’ve been the commemorations of the strike, show, clearly the overwhelming majority of the SFSC (as it was called then) represented involvement of almost the entire student body (and most of the staff). If you’ve talked to any about the day city administration addressed *10,000* students to boos and catcalls, you will see that no strike of “2000” would of been able to achieve anything.
These strikes involved thousands of student and more often than not, 10s of thousands. The 1965 vietnam war teach-in was reported to have involved over 30,000 over 5 days.
You think, perhaps, small dedicated groups of revolutionaries are going to achieve the kind of change you think is needed. It will not. It never has. Only be involve the majority of the students or, at worse, a very large minority of students will we win.
Endless meetings that push the struggle forward, don’t provide the organization tools to extend the strike and are just ‘talk shops’ are indeed, IMO, a waste of time and useless. But if the exist to give voice to those involved in organizing, then the meetings are worth it. Make them worth it.
One other point. It is true that during the SFSC strike the background of the Vietnam War had built a movement, flowing directly out of free speech and civil rights movements that existed a priori to the ’68 srikes…in one way, ’68 was the result or high point of this whole, larger movement. There were actually day strikes of even more students in the 1969-1971 period where *every* student walked…not just in SF but around the country and, in some cases, around the world.
The point of any strike is to involve the greatest number of effected participants, to reach out to other campuses, unions, community organizations. It is not to stand around in a small group that sets itself off from the students they are trying to reach.
I always wondered why (and I asked) the students why they didn’t occupy the Administration building which really does shut down the university. I think they made a similar mistake at UCB (but correctly at UCSC). The answer I got was “This was easier” (which it true, the Bus.bldg is one of the smallest buildings with class rooms on campus with only four entrances). However the political point is to confront the administration and *effect* the whole campus. At any rate, I rate this occupation as a failure: 20 students on the inside, a hundred on theoutside at most, 20,000 walking by glancing over. Why were not the 20,000 involved?
Carolina S. D-L.
I find it disturbing that Carolina and others have been so eager to declare an action like the SFSU occupation a “failure.” As I read it, the idea is that it “failed” if it did not draw the participation of a particular number or percentage of the students and workers, and if it did not effectively disrupt or interrupt the operation of the campus administration, according to the judgment of the naysayers. Further, to call it a “failure” in a broader sense raises serious questions about collective advancement.
The mass demonstrations and occupations of years past no doubt grew out of smaller, more isolated actions that raised the stakes and broke through the glass ceiling of proscribed and acceptable avenues of struggle. Today, we once again face conditions in which the majority of people imagine that the process of making significant change in society involves a series of non-disruptive practices which attempt to win concessions through claiming a moral high ground and presenting rational arguments to those in power. Thus, we march, sign petitions, rally, lobby, and hold candles. Slight concessions from the powerful to the demands of activists enagaged in these activities have whetted the hopes of people that more of the same will eventually result in significant and permanent structural change, even though evidence suggests a pattern of “one step forward, two steps back.”
I believe that critical reflection of the strengths and weaknesses of any action like the SFSU occupation is a valuable part of building even stronger and more effective actions in the future, but this is not what i read in Carolina’s post. Instead, I recognize in it some elements of a set of talking points (the emphasis on numbers, the charge of “arrogance” and “elitism,” the evocation of “alienation”, the lack of demands, etc) that I have been hearing from others lately who seem more intent on discrediting the action completely than reflecting on it constructively. I have started to wonder if the occupations themselves are any more “alienating” to people than the very insistence on calling them “alienating” is turning out to be. Indeed, many of us know that on our own campuses, there is a taboo against ANY disruptive action that isn’t tacitly supported by the very power structure it is meant to target. This taboo is incredibly powerful for the many people confronting budget cuts for whom this struggle is their first experience of collective political action.
The occupations mark an opportunity for eliminating such taboos, and broadening and shifting the parameters of discussion about how power is built in struggle. Pre-emptively calling off that potential by aggressively shit-talking the students who have organized occupations forecloses the option of discussing a wide range of tactics with new participants in movement-building, and a general development of analysis of the appropriateness, or lack thereof, of particular strategies and tactics in the context of the conditions we face in our various campuses, communities, and workplaces.
Sure, it may be “easier” to hold the business building than the administration building, but it is even easier than that to snipe about the occupation from the sidelines for being a “failure” than to demonstrate solidarity with those willing to push the envelope and inspire others to go beyond the acceptable parameters of collective political action.
In addition, it is far too early to call ANY action a success or failure at this stage. It is through cumulative action, reflection, and movement that we win. I am convinced that very often we ultimately meet some failures where we thought we would find success, and successes from sources we had no faith in at the start.
Katy, you may well be right that the issue of “taboos” is at the heart of this. I don’t know if that’s the case, per se. I think it’s not too soon to evaluate any of these actions based on their own merits. Either an action…broke a taboo or it didn’t. Either it galvanized more students or did not. I’m not trying to shit on any one, least of all the students involved in the occupation. I’m wondering, however, what the view of the 99% of the other students who barely gave this event notice at that campus on that day thought?
You could also well be correct, Katy about vigils, marches, etc. I think all of them have a place to play if in fact students have been reached out to and participated in them. In my view, in the Bay Area, the majority of students have abstained from actions at all, direct, passive or in flying colors. We are not at that stage in which the the masses of student, faculty and education workers are yet involved.
For me…how do we reach that stage? How do we get to the situation in 1968 or even during the anti-apartheid struggles in 1984? We can make an evaluation based on *comparing* different events, such as the relative success of the recent occupation following a 2 day strike at UCB vs that at SFSU.
In the former students gathered together and *decided* to do an occupation. They used their general assembly, open to *everyone* on campus, to debate and discuss it. My understanding is this did not happen at SFSU. The students who occupied decided to occupy without much other input from the student or teacher body. Maybe I’m wrong. I hope so.
Secondly, at UCB there was a mass organization of students as part of the decision to occupy, to surround & protect those inside (I believe the occupation was not much bigger in participation than at SFSU in fact) by those outside students, because it including all the people involved in the previously struggle, showed up and protected the students inside. I would still hold, personally, they chose the wrong place to do it *tactically* but its of a secondary concern. But that relationship to hundreds and thousands of students who showed up, showed mass involvement of groups, individuals and community in this occupation. It was the way an occupation *should be done*.
My criticisms therefore are not a squat & shit exerize in whining on my part, but a serious political evaluation of the events at SFSU compared to other more valuable ‘breaking the taboo’ type direct actions. I think we need to get off this “It’s allll gooood” kind of sentimental evaluations and get serious about how to move forward *politically*. I’m all for breaking taboos, it’s the how and when that I’m concerned with.
Carolina S. D-L.
katy’s excellent post sums up the spirit or perspective that i think is lacking from the sfsu occupation naysayers.
most of those nay-sayers are setting up a rigid dichotomization between the good USB occupation and the bad SFSU one. the good/bad split seems to be based on primarily on the question of general assembly/ no general assembly. this is a false dichotomy.
SFSU, like its elite counterpart across the bay in Berkeley, has also had general assemblies. the communists at sfsu like their generally more privileged counterparts at ucb have participated in these general assemblies and likewise dominated the “democratic” outcome. for the record, the democratic outcome at UCB was “strike or day of action,” whereas the democratic outcome at SFSU a few days prior was “general strike.” in my mind, this makes the UCB general assmbly more of a failure than that the one/s at sfsu in terms of consciousness.
i see the major difference between sfsu and ucb in terms of the student/worker relationship as based on objective factors, not subjective ones. its much harder for sfsu or any CSU or CC student activists to build bridges with the workers because the unions that represent them are less active. in general the unions that repersent the various sections of campus employees are stronger and more active at berkeley than at sfsu. this difference of strength has nothing to do with communists, as universally communists and other radicals are intentionally excluded from the union movement by their class traitor leaders (bureacrats and unfortunately, (co-opted) shop stewards alike).
its easy for UC centric student activists to hold their situation up as the *good* standard because of the relatively more active unions they have to work with. the difference of the unions should be reflected upon.
why are the unions at CSU’s and Community Colleges so noticably less active than those at the UC? to be materialist about the question of worker-student alliances we should analyze this question more in depth. my first instinct is to say that they are positioned differently in the mode of production. the UC workers have more bargaining power because they are one step more directly linked to production. UCB is an institution that directly produces research and technology for the military-industrial complex, for example.
this fact of UCB being more integrated into the core of capitalist-imperialist production is true of the UC students as well. this is a sort of privilege that doesnt get talked about enough. but when carolina calls the efforts of the more peripheral working class (and (coincidentally?) more overtly political) CSU students a *failure* she shows her elitist true colors. she breaks solidarity. constructive criticism is always valuable. angry/ jealous condemnation of less privileged -yet struggling!- sectors is not.
on another conditions-related point… carolina’s whole project of comparing sfsu 2009 against sfsc 1968 in order to denounce the occupation is dishonest and flawed. the twlf was anything but open to all and democratic. for example, they hoo-rided on the editorial of the sf state newspaper and smashed it for spreading slanderous anti-black and brown and anti-working class lies. they didnt plan that in a general assembly, yet we would all agree that the action was important in polarizing the situation on campus and drawing class lines, forcing students and workers to decide which side they were on. they were notoriously closed in their organizing decision making spaces. if your claim that 100% or close to it of the student popultion participated in the 68 strike, it is more an affirmation of the merits of secretive organizing than a condemnation of it.
luckily, the occupiers at sfsu are not so exclusive as those of 68. the facts dont need to be repeated by me here, but they do demonstrate that the occupation was not totally secretive and that the OVERALL OCCUPATION EXPERIENCE was very participatory and very political, thus a NET POSITIVE. sorry, carolina if your standards are too high for puny SFSU with its inactive unions and more oppressed students (evidenced in the racial composition which is at least 50% non-white and also by the 40,000 applicants who were rejected this year due to budget cuts) and workers (one evidence is the predominance of lecturers who have NO CONTRACT!!! and are subject to re-hire every semester!). no im not sorry – you are a typical punk whining about something that at worst was too radical for the general population to handle. if you consider yourself a revolutionary, you should do some soul searching cuz you’re anything but.
despite or because of these material differences in the CSU conditions vs. the UC conditions, at the SFSU occupation, March 4th was discussed predominantly in terms of a STRIKE, which is different from what the UCB general assembly has been promoting (it includes the convoluted “and day of action” phrase that confused trotskyist facilitators concocted to hedge their bets against being too radical) the connection to other facets of proletarian oppression such as the prison industrial complex and the wars in the middle east were not only included in the demands but integrated into all the analyses put forward by occupiers and activists on the outside. conversely, the UCB occupation was strictly promoted in what lenin would refer to as “economistic” terms that lack an appreciation of the system in its totality. if we are to compare, i’d say that sfsu would come out favorably against ucb in terms of revolutionary politics. im not trying to bow to this dichotomization between the two occupations though. i think they were both shining successes.
you call the sfsu occupation a failure carolina, but this only reveals your own failure as a revolutionary to look at conditions as they exist AND (this is crucial) make the dynamic moves to take people beyond where they are already at. people in general are at a low level of consciousness. this occupation, as i can attest personally because i was there and i engaged the crowd in dialog, opened windows in people’s minds that allows them in the future to not only resist budget cuts, but to fight the totality that is the capitalist world (which, sorry to say, includes racist prisons and imperialist wars, although many (marxist!) critics of the sfsu occuaption find the inclusion of these points to be a liability and not an asset).
without a doubt, this was the most successful action at SFSU in years if not decades. if that is not saying much, let that be a condemnation of the unions, liberals, and lite-socialists that have been there the whole time along letting the capitalist system have its way with public institutions that have to some extent been shaped from below by the oppressed (1968 producing SFSU’s College Ethnic Studies for one example). dont blame these brave and creative budding revolutionaries for leftist failures of the recent past – a past that has handed them little to work with, and which you only reproduce by summing the experience up as a *failure.*
[AS note: Yo, this stuff has been getting intense and polemical, which has been lacking from mass movements for a while and is great. With that in mind, the tone has turned (to quote an on-looker) to “leftist in-fighting”, which isn’t a dynamic AS seeks to reproduce. We’ve moderated a serious reply from a Socialist Organizer activist until we could get in contact with the author re: organizational critiques that were too specific for the blogosphere. Finally happened, some changes were made, and let’s wrap this up with a greater understanding of the points of conflict between our political tendencies. ]
Reply from an Activist in Socialist Organizer
I appreciate the AS response, which has the merit of clearly spelling out some of our real differences in strategy. For the record, our organization –- Socialist Organizer — supported the SFSU occupation, brought folks to the picketline, etc. We have not denounced the SFSU occupation, but rather have tried to argue about how future actions can be done better – i.e. discuss strategy and tactics for the struggle against the cuts. Here is my (individual) reply to some of the points raised:
1) On repression:
The best way to counter repression is not by secrecy or via elaborate barricade techniques, but by mobilizing masses of people inside and outside. It’s a question of the balance of forces. All occupiers know ahead of time that they are risking repression – but as Nov. 20 at UCB shows, the best way to prevent repression is by mobilizing as many people as possible.
Moreover, to occupy a classroom building like the Business Building or Wheeler (which are open during the day) requires no secrecy: a mass meeting or rally of hundreds or thousands could literally just walk inside and take the building at any point; in virtually all countries this is how mass occupations take place — UNAM 1999, France 2006, etc, it is also how the November UCSC occupation took place.
But this requires numbers, which requires building a mass movement, which requires mass democracy to allow the maximum amount of people to “take ownership” over the struggle. This has not been AS and SUP´s strategy at SFSU and it has real consequences.
AS correctly argued that what was important about Nov. 20th at UCB was the synthesis between mass democracy and militant actions – then AS and SUP members went on to implement a whole different practice by not proposing the militant action to the existing space for mass decision-making at SFSU.
You probably could have won the general assembly over to the idea of an occupation (and thus involved and empowered more people), don´t you agree? But you didn’t try. Why not? What harm could it have done? Moreover, you prevented the actual general assembly from taking place, which is very problematic if we are trying to build an open and democratic united-front movement, and not alienate folks and organizations you are working with.
The main difference between our organizations is not whether the SFSU occupation was a success (clearly it was the biggest and most important action at SFSU this year) but whether or not radicals should be trying to build a mass democratic movement or not and whether the SFSU occupation was organized in a manner that contributed or not to building such a movement.
(P.S. If a General Assembly had taken place to discuss the occupation, the valid point that it makes more sense to occupy admin buildings could at least have been discussed collectively.)
2) On democracy:
Your formulations on democracy are extremely confused (as is Rebelde´s analogy between Petrograd 1917 and SFSU 2009!) Democracy and organizational forms are a means to an end – advancing the struggle of the exploited. Of course, we shouldn´t fetishize any democratic procedure. But the whole history of the class struggle, without exception, testifies to the need for mass collective decision-making as a means
a) for the vanguard to link up with and win over the majority
b) to empower the majority to “take ownership of the struggle” and their destinies
c) to overcome both the class-collaborationist bureacrats (and the ultraleftists) who prefer acting with no mass mandate
d) to implement the mandate of the majority, collectively figure out how best to move the struggle forward and draw lessons from past actions and
e) to unify the struggle and the various different political currents and organizations that are involved.
If you argue against having mass democratic structures and processes (which can take the form of strike committtees, open union meetings, general assemblies, etc.) as the main forms through which a mass movement should be organized, what is your alternative? Based on the SFSU actions, your alternative (which has been most consistently promoted by anarchists so far) appears to be that “everybody should do their own thing.”
This method of organizing is fine for building small actions by radicals – indeed, as you know, it the concious political strategy of most occupationists and anarchists. But when has “everybody doing their own thing” ever built mass protests, mass organizations, or mass strikes? That individualistic strategy is a form of organizing that atomizes movements, that fails to provide a space for the majority of students and workers to get involved and feel that this “is their movement.”
Mass decision-making is needed once masses of people are involved; perhaps at SFSU this isn´t yet apparent, because the main group – SUP — has not yet had a central orientation towards building General Assemblies (resulting in the reality that there aren´t that many more people at the average General Assembly than the average SUP meeting; so maybe the differences between the two forms of organizing are not readily apparent.)
Rebelde mentions Russia 1917. But he or she fails to mention that the central organizational form of the struggle in Russia was PRECISELY MASS GENERAL ASSEMBLIES (i.e. soviets or workers´councils).
Reread anything Lenin, Trotsky, or the Bolsheviks ever wrote about the role and importance of the soviets–workers councils — and you will see that it directly contradicts your basic arguments concerning democracy in the movement and, in particular, the role of General Assemblies.
In particular, I would suggest reading the following text by Trotsky, What Next, where he polemicizes with the Stalinists in Germany in the early 1930s, who at that moment were on an ultraleft political kick, in which they put forward anti-democratic arguments extremely similar to the ones you have put forward:
3) More on Democracy:
The Marxist critique of bourgeois democracy is that the formal democracy of capitalist elections (majority rules, etc.) is negated by the fact that the state and economy is actually a dictatorship of big business. Marxists counterpose to the fake democracy of capitalism, the real mass bottom-up democracy of the working-class, the highest form of which is workers’ councils (i.e. mass general assemblies.)
The problem is not majority-rules voting as such, but that the real mandate of the majority cannot be implemented by the capitalist state. But mass movements can and must implement the will of the majority. Do you disagree with this statement? If you agree with this statement, what form other than mass decisionmaking can guarantee that the will of the majority be respected?
Thus to put an equal sign between the formal/fake democracy of capitalism and the real/mass democracy of mass movements and the working-class is a huge error, with serious political consequences. That is why your argument that we share a similar theoretical framework with Corrigan is so off base: our critique is that AS and SUP and the “occupy everything” folks, at best, significantly under-appreciate the importance of bottom-up mass democracy (not fake capitalist democracy). Your theoretical justifications have explicitly and fully confirmed our critique.
You all should re(read) State and Revolution by Lenin (or Infantile Leftism by Lenin). If you disagree with the Marxist tradition on this point, fine. But it’s probably better to reconsider your formulations, which are by far the weakest point of your response.
Lastly, in regards to Rebelde´s analogy between Russia 1917 and SFSU 2009: The analogy doesn´t hold up at all. The relationship between the central working-class cityin Russia and a large peasant country is not the same as the relationship between a small group of radicals at SFSU and the overwhelming majority of the working class and youth. In fact, Trotsky and Lenin consistently insisted on the need for the Bolsheviks to win the majority of the Soviets in Petrograd as a PRECONDITION for fighting for state power. Has SUP come even close to winning the support of the majority of folks at SFSU? Lenin and Trotsky consistently argued against adventuristic, premature direct actions (e.g. the July Days) that would subject the vanguard to repression before it had won the majority. This is a longer discussion, but suffice it to say that when Lenin and Trotsky formed the Third International, their main debates inside it were against ultralefts who underestimated the united front, the importance of patient political mobilizing around minimum demands, who fetishized direct actions, who raised ultraradical demands that were too advanced for the masses, etc.
Here´s an article we wrote on the United Front that deals with many of these questions:
4) On “sectarianism”:
We have argued that aspects of AS and SUP politics and practice have been sectarian and ultraleft not because you have written critiques of other groups but because, among other things:
a) your political perspective — as expressed, for example, in this recent exchange on the SFSU occupation — significantly underestimates the importance of mass democratic and united-front organizing
b) you have underestimated the need for radicals to try to orient to mobilizing the masses of non-radical students and workers around the minimum demands of stopping the cuts, layoffs, and fee hikes; instead, you seem to be trying to build a movement built around radical anti-imperialist demands that the majority of students and workers (unfortunately) are not yet ready to mobilize around; which in practice means isolating the radicals from the majority and failing to build a mass movement
c) you have underestimated the importance of orienting to the trade unions and
d) you have at times treated other Marxist groups and militants that are heavily involved in the struggle against the cuts as sell-out enemies that need to be exposed, rather than comrades with whom you have political differences.
The significant difference in level of mobilization and political impact between organizing at UC Berkeley and SFSU this Fall, testifies in the real world to the differences in practice between our strategies. Of course, mistakes have been made at all schools and in all organizations (this is inevitable) and there have been ups and downs in the General Assemblies and mass movement, but particularly at UCB much momentum has been gained and many, many new people have been drawn into activity and, in this process, been radicalized.
AS and SUP militants are very sincere, dedicated, and sharp revolutionary militants with whom we have worked well with in the past and with whom we hope we can continue to work well with in the future. I hope that through the process of collectively building for a strike on March 4, AS and SUP will come to a better understanding of the need for an orientation to mobilize the majority in a mass democratic movement – and begin/return to treating militants in other Marxists organizations as comrades with whom it’s possible to discuss in a friendly manner.
It would be appreciated if you post this response on the front of the AS blog, so folks can see it.
In solidarity and feliz año nuevo,
– An activist in Socialist Organizer (writing in a personal capacity)
“…a revolutionary critique of the student situation is currently taboo on the official Left..”
—from “On the Poverty of Student Life”
This is as true today — in the build up to an indefinite general strike on March 4th — as it was in 1966 when militant students at the University of Strasbourg in France, along with members of the Situationist International, wrote the above pamphlet (the full title is “On the Poverty of Student Life: Considered in its Economic, Political, Psychological, Sexual, and Particularly Intellectual Aspects with a Modest Proposal for its Remedy,” available here: http://www.bopsecrets.org/SI/poverty.htm). Those students had taken control of the student union, used university funds to print 10,000 copies, which were distributed at the official ceremony marking the beginning of the academic year. The student union was promptly closed by court order. Here’s the judge’s summation:
The pamphlet discusses the role of students in capitalist reproduction, stating: “The requirements of modern capitalism determine that most students will become mere low-level functionaries, serving functions comparable to those of skilled workers in the nineteenth century.” It draws on the examples of rebellious youth, like Dutch “Provos,” the Zengakuren in Japan who united militant students and workers to fight in the thousands in the streets and advocate an advanced revolutionary position, and the pamphlet critiques the lack of a class analysis of the American New Left, while praising the agitation at Berkeley, reaching its stride in 1964 with the Free Speech Movement, saying: “By revolting against their studies, the American students have directly called in question a society that needs such studies. And their revolt (in Berkeley and elsewhere) against the university hierarchy has from the start asserted itself as a revolt against the whole social system based on hierarchy and on the dictatorship of the economy and the state. By refusing to accept the business and institutional roles for which their specialized studies have been designed to prepare them, they are profoundly calling in question a system of production that alienates all activity and its products from their producers.” The pamphlet calls for a critique of the commodity system, alienation, and commodified labor, referring to the brilliant analysis in Georg Lukács’s book “History and Class Consciousness.”
Drawing a balance sheet of all hitherto revolutionary movements, “On the Poverty of Student Life” finishes with:
* * * * *
All the sectarian Leftist groups jockeying to recruit new members and “run the show” on March 4th, just as they used parliamentary maneuvering to stack the vote at UC Berkeley on October 24th, are part of this dead ideology of the Old Left and its fatal flaw of separating theory and practice. Endless debates about Trotsky said this…, or Lenin did that.., or the Bolsheviks decided to do this…, Stalin shouldn’t have done that…,, are all irrelevant moot points that need to be relegated to the dustbin of history. Russian in 1917 had a population of 180,000,000, of whom only 7 or 8,000,000 were industrial workers. The overwhelming majority of whom were peasants, so what the historical situation forced the Bolsheviks to do then has almost NO relevance for what we need to be doing in the U.S. in 2010, in midst of the decay of the most economically advanced capitalist empire that has ever existed. The U.S. economy is post-industrial and work is more defined by the prevalence of the service economy than anything even approaching the level of underdevelopment that was characteristic in Russia in 1917. Rather than revisiting the debates of the February and October Revolutions, we’ve got to develop a critique of the political economy of today and how its collapse is immiserating the working class, as well as causing planetary ecological destruction.
Better examples for our struggles today would be looking at how soon after the 1966 agitation at the University of Strasbourg, in 1968 students occupied the administration building at the University of Nanterre in Paris, beginning the March 22nd Movement. Those conflicts spilled over to Sorbonne University at the beginning of May and within days students were fighting all night to defend the Latin Quarter, erecting barricades often in the same place as they had been in the 1871 Paris Commune. From there it took off like wildfire and the general strike amongst high school and college students became a wildcat general strike of over 10,000,000 workers throughout France — the largest work stoppage to ever occur in an advanced capitalist country. See the excellent account by the European Marxist group Mouvement Communist here: http://www.mouvement-communiste.com/pdf/booklet/booklet_may_68.pdf
Other actions by students also led to workers joining them to fight back:
=>1987 nationwide protests in South Korea against the Chun Doo Hwan military dictatorship on university campuses resulted in the police killing of Lee Han Yeol, a Yonsei University student, the protest of which involved 1,000,000 people surrounding Seoul City Hall. Soon after there were 3,475 strikes from June to September, completely paralyzing the South Korean economy.
=>1989 Tienanmen Square protests began with a student occupation and led to mass work stoppages and the bloodbath of workers who replaced the students occupying Tienanmen Square. See the excellent accounts in “A Moment of Truth: Workers’ Participation in China’s 1989 Democracy Movement and the Emergence of Independent Unions,” published in 1990 by the Asian Monitor Resource Center in Hong Kong.
=>1989 the Velvet Revolution in the former Czechoslovakia started with protesting students and led to mass and general strikes.
=>More recently: university occupations in Oaxaca, the Greek uprising over the killing of high school student Alexis Grigoropoulos in Exarchia, the Athens neighborhood of the Polytechnic University, site of the massacre in 1967, that led to mass strikes, attacks on police stations, and occupations of schools, universities, union offices, and even radio and TV stations.
There are countless other examples; these are the most relevant ones I could think of off the top of my head.
=>One example of a strike exclusively involving students was the 1970 Student Strike in the U.S. It was sparked by the U.S. military invasion of Cambodia, the recent killing of 4 students at Kent State and 2 at Jackson State Universities, and the pending Panther 21 trial. It involved over 4,000,000 students, who shut down nearly 500 high school and college campuses and resulted in the U.S. State mobilizing the National Guard to be on the ready to suppress them in at least 16 states. It came at the culmination of many activities in the Sixties, like the recent Columbia University occupation the the 5-month strike at SF State.
To answer the question in the debate above about the SF State “Shut It Down!” strike, the numbers of protesters aren’t that important because as the strike entered its 3rd month in January, faculty from the AFT had a picket line that had SF Labor Council sanction, so
Students supporting the Black Student Union and Third World Liberation Front strike at times joined and bolstered the faculty pickets and very few crossed these lines. It also kept the center of campus fairly deserted and avoided the bloody battles of thousands of students and as many as 600 SFPD riot pigs that occurred nearly daily in December.
* * * * *
You don’t really know any of us, so I’ll give you a very brief bio of my experience. Most important to my understanding of “how general strikes develop” was meeting 3 comrades, Evelyn and Val Schaaf and Earl Watkins (the latter 2 subsequently passed away), all of whom participated in the last general strike to occur in the U..S., the Oakland General Strike in 1946. When I met them, all of them were 86 years old and would still get all excited and giddy in talking about the “euphoria” they experienced in ’46. And even more amazingly, I discovered that Earl was born in SF’s Fillmore and watched the ’34 San Francisco General Strike with his African American working class family who fully supported it. Evelyn grew up in the Excelsior and her Irish American working class family participated in and supported it too. (See here for more details on Oakland in ’46: http://flyingpicket.org/node/36)
So I’ve had the great fortune to meet people who not only participated in a general strike, but actually lived through 2! I personally lived through a general strike myself, but in South Korea in 1996-1997 and my participation was only marginal, but as a guest worker there I did participate by going out in solidarity. It lasted nearly a month, but peaked in its first few days with about 600,000 workers from at least 150 sectors out. It’s weakness was the way the umbrella labor federation, KCTU, tried to contain and stage-manage it. When workers were able to form strike committee to run it themselves, it had its greatest success..
And this is confirmed in Rosa Luxemburg’s brilliant book, “The Mass Strike,” an account of the wave of strikes in Russia and Poland, beginning in 1896 and continuing and culminating in the creation of the St.. Petersburg Soviet in 1905. She details the “dialectic of development” where she warns against the “specialization of professional activity” leading to “bureaucratism,” causing “the overvaluation of the organization, which from a means has gradually been changed into an end in itself…” — think here the fetish for form over content in the call for endless General Assemblies here in the Bay Area — “…to which the interests of the struggle should be subordinated” (p. 87). What works instead? You guessed it: working-class self-activity — shown when she states: “If the mass strike, or rather, mass strikes, and the mass struggle are to be successful they must become a real ‘people’s movement,’ that is, the widest sections of the proletariat must be drawn into the fight” (p. 65).
Rosa drives home the idea that the content of the struggle must “organically” give rise to the form proper to it. Not the other way around, which amounts to “cookie-cutter” organizations placing their off-the-shelf bureaucratic programs at the lead, putting their rigid ideology “over” social reality — expeditiously brushing away the messy crumbs outside the cut — and trying to implement the ideas of 1917 and dealing with a peasant-based semi-feudal society to the needs of advanced capitalism under the rule of the law of value and globalized fictitious capital. A very, very bad match!
Another historical example of pushing for a general strike comes from the Albion Hall group, named for the place in SF’s Mission district where a group started meeting in 1933 to try to organize a militant union on the waterfront. This is from an online account:
By 1934 their agitation led to the 83-day West Coast Maritime Strike, shutting down many ports, the reopening of which led to the deaths of 2 workers in SF on “Bloody Thursday” July 5, 1934 and within days the 4-day general strike had begun. As Luxemburg pointed out in “The Mass Strike,” these things aren’t called by dictate, but begin though working-class self-activity.. Groups like the one from Albion Hall can be the catalyst for the explosive potential that already exists within the working class.
What I liked best in Advance the Struggles account above, defending the occupations at UC Berkeley and SF State, was the call for “creative action from the beginning.” That’s what the Albion Hall group was about; that’s how Oakland was shut down in ’46 with “No one leading it” except the spontaneous strike committees; it’s how an administration building occupation at Nanterre University led to history’s greatest wildcat general strike in France in 1968; it’s how the spontaneous self-activity of the class began the Great Strike in 1987 and General Strike in 1996-7 in South Korea; and it’s how the working class invented — seemingly out of nowhere — the workers’ councils as part of the St. Petersburg Soviet in 1905. That act of creativity is a model from the type of indefinite general strike we should be building for on March 4th.
All Power to the March 4 General Strike!
PS I’m sorry for hogging up so much space on the Advance the Struggle blog. I felt it was completely necessary to refute some of the sectarian disinformation above, as well as share what I know about student and worker struggles and general strikes.
APPENDIX to above posts. The longer block quotes I was trying to use didn’t go through, so I’m posting them below.
Quote from the Strasbourg Affair in 1966, shutting down the student union:
=> “The accused have never denied the charge of misusing the funds of the student union. Indeed, they openly admit to having made the union pay some $1500 for the printing and distribution of 10,000 pamphlets, not to mention the cost of other literature inspired by ‘Internationale Situationniste’. These publications express ideas and aspirations which, to put it mildly, have nothing to do with the aims of a student union. One has only to read what the accused have written, for it is obvious that these five students, scarcely more than adolescents, lacking all experience of real life, their minds confused by ill-digested philosophical, social, political and economic theories, and perplexed by the drab monotony of their everyday life, make the empty, arrogant, and pathetic claim to pass definitive judgments, sinking to outright abuse, on their fellow-students, their teachers, God, religion, the clergy, the governments and political systems of the whole world. Rejecting all morality and restraint, these cynics do not hesitate to commend theft, the destruction of scholarship, the abolition of work, total subversion, and a world-wide proletarian revolution with ‘unlicensed pleasure’ as its only goal.”
Quotes from the “On the Poverty of Student Life.” This are place here to engage in comradely dialogue, not to polemicize against any other tendency. The revolutionary traditions of the world are rich and multi-varied and have much to learn from each other. Here’s the quote from the pamphlet:
=> “The rock on which the old revolutionary movement foundered was the separation of theory and practice. Only the supreme moments of proletarian struggles overcame this split and discovered their own truth. No organization has yet bridged this gap. Ideology, no matter how ‘revolutionary’ it may be, always serves the rulers; it is the alarm signal revealing the presence of the enemy fifth column. This is why the critique of ideology must in the final analysis be the central problem of revolutionary organization. Lies are a product of the alienated world; they cannot appear within an organization claiming to bear the social truth without that organization thereby becoming one more lie in a world of lies.
“All the positive aspects of the power of workers councils must already be embryonically present in any revolutionary organization aiming at their realization. Such an organization must wage a mortal struggle against the Leninist theory of organization. The 1905 revolution and the Russian workers’ spontaneous self-organization into soviets was already a critique in acts of that baneful theory. But the Bolshevik movement persisted in believing that working-class spontaneity could not go beyond ‘trade-union consciousness’ and was thus incapable of grasping ‘the totality.’ This amounted to decapitating the proletariat so that the Party could put itself at the ‘head’ of the revolution. Contesting the proletariat’s historical capacity to liberate itself, as Lenin did so ruthlessly, means contesting its capacity to totally run the future society. In such a perspective, the slogan ‘All power to the soviets’ meant nothing more than the conquest of the soviets by the Party and the installation of the party state in place of the withering-away ‘state’ of the armed proletariat.
“‘All power to the soviets’ must once again be our slogan, but literally this time, without the Bolshevik ulterior motives. The proletariat can play the game of revolution only if the stakes are the whole world; otherwise it is nothing.”
The following quote is from the pamphlet “San Francisco State College in Crisis” (1970), supporting the fact that the intent of the strike was to “Shut It Down!” and that they reached their desired effect when other sectors of the working class honored their picket lines and made the functioning of the college very difficult:
=> “…there was no food service on campus, as truckers honored the sanctioned AFT picket lines. Not only were AFT members out of class, but other teachers either discontinued class or taught off campus…[after January 6, 1969]..The campus was nearly deserted” (p. 10).
And lastly, this quote from an “Internet Encyclopedia” text, shows how the Albion Hall Group that was prefigurative to the 1934 San Francisco General Strike by encouraging direct action as a means of organizing, showing the influence of earlier traditions of rank-and-file-led revolutionary organizations like the I.W.W.:
=> “The Albion Hall group stressed the self-help tactics of syndicalism, urging workers [mostly longshoremen, sailors and other maritime workers; some from the Communist Party, others former Wobblies] to organize by taking part in strikes and slowdowns, rather than depending on governmental assistance under the NIRA. It also campaigned for membership participation in the new ILA local, which had not bothered to hold any membership meetings. Finally, the group started laying the groundwork for organizing on a coastwide basis, meeting with activists from Portland, Oregon and Seattle, Washington and organizing a federation of all of the different unions that represented maritime workers..”
The Bay Area is unique in the U.S., sharing the distinction of having had 2 general strikes with only Philadelphia and Chicago. So attempting a region-wide general strike on March 4th is not only entirely possible, but it would historically situate us fully within this area’s own tradition of militant working class self-activity.
For the Abolition of Class Society,
I have to agree with the AS person who introduced the Socialist Organizer comments. I agree. This should be toned down. We ALL (I believe) want a successful March 4 event. if it becomes “generalized”…as the poster above this one above noted…all the better!
Perhaps our immediate goals are the same and differences get smoothed out as they go. If you looked at the 1916 polemics between Lenin and Trotsky (and others) who would of thought they would be in the same revolutionary organization less than a year later? Revolution, the Great Blender.
I’m very glad, personally, Hieronymoush mentioned the 1934 *West Coast Maritime Strike*. Too many radicals thing this was ‘simply’ a SF event that culminated in a general strike. Few people it seems actually get this. Hieronymoush did. Two points for historical accuracy! A really really good book on this is Ottilie Markholts “Maritime solidarity: Pacific Coast unionism, 1929-1938”. It gives a Wobbly POV on the strike (the IWW was VERY active in this strike even if they were written out of the history by some). The strike actually did not culminate with the general strike but continued on for another 2 months by militant merchant seamen. Markholt was active in the strike out of the Tacoma ILA local and was married to the president of the local there.
Anyway, I might differ from the Socialist Organizer commentator above on their assessment of the two occupations but we all agree that we want March 4th to succeed and be as wide spread and general as possible. A few thoughts just on the “General Strike” idea. First, I never capitalize “General Strike”. Partly because I think people over emphasize it as a ‘thing to achieve’ rather than a tactic or strategy to achieve a goal. The goal for students is to fight back against the cuts, make the rich pay, democratize if possible, the UC/CSU/CC system. But the fee increase and the layoffs/furloughs cutbacks are the immediate goal of the students.
My understanding is that everyone wants a strike but not everyone is able to go out on strike. We’re seeing that it’s nut just bureaucratic union structures that prevent this but a lack of generalized consiousness to make a strike work, even locally. I think the October 24 majority realized that. General strikes are rarely spontaneously called. Hieronymoush makes some excellent points, I think. But if you actually look at the 1946 general strike, called by AFL, not CIO, unions, it was the culmination of a series of strikes starting with the Sears retail clerks strike. It took weeks and even months, and part of the largest strike wave in US history in reaction to the post-War recession to get to the point where it was a general strike.
In 1934, it was also true, and took the cop murder of a longshormen and merchant seaman to bring what was already a massive strike movement into fruition as a ‘general’ strike.
The 1934 Minneapolis Teamster Strike, lead by dissent communist-Trotskyists, faced a similar situation. They in *effect* already had a general strike, but only ‘called’ one to up the anty on the State gov’t that was siding with the bosses. When the Communist Party people tried to left-flank the other communists in the teamsters, with “call a general strike now!” the union militants rejected this earlier call as a pre-mature and totally unnecessary slogan that found little resonance at the beginning of the strike.
This is why all these things: strikes, occupations, “general strikes”, petitions, vigils, mass rallies, civil disobedience, etc are, in this women’s opinion, all are worth considering tactically. Let’s do it!
Carolina S. D-L.
Carolina wrote: “But if you actually look at the 1946 general strike, called by AFL, not CIO, unions, it was the culmination of a series of strikes starting with the Sears retail clerks strike.”
Yes, it’s true that AFL unions “called” the General Strike, but that was on Tuesday, December 3rd, well after it had begun. The teamsters (almost as an encore performance to how they went out first in ’34) and many of the Key Route transit operators had already gone out the day before, Monday the 2nd. And the skirmishes that were the catalyst for all this agitation had the been the police scabherding of the day before that, Sunday, December 1st. The “official” trade union account of calling the strike has to allege that the Teamsters. transit workers and others “jumped the gun.” That’s nonsense, because they’re the ones that actually started it. Stan Weir, who participated in the strike and wrote about it, makes that clear at the end of this text:http://flyingpicket.org/node/19 (entitled: “Class War Lessons: From Direct Action on the Job to the ’46 Oakland General Strike” — now available as a pamphlet from the Insane Dialectical Posse), saying that the strike committees that spontaneously formed are who led the strike — that is until the union bureaucrats did everything they could to end it as quickly as possible.
Also, see George Lipsitz’s excellent book “Rainbow at Midnight” about how nearly all of the 4,895 strikes in 1946, as well as the 6 citywide general strikes, began as wildcats. The union bureaucrats in the post-World War II period were clearly unprepared for the working class anger, especially because many people remembered the post-WWI open shop drive, as well as how they sold them out with near-universal “no-strike pledges” during the war. The union bureaucrats thought the rank-and-file would be satisfied with collective bargaining agreements and class collaborationist politics, which has defined unions ever since. The working class clearly wasn’t.
Actually in the fall of ’46 the Retail Clerks International Association Local 1265 was attempting was to organize all 28 department stores in the Retail Merchants Association who were taking a hardline “open shop” position. The prior success hadn’t been at Sears (which remained unorganized), but at 22 downtown Oakland shoe stores in the spring where they achieved a contract guaranteeing workers at least $42 a week wage. The shoe clerks as Hastings Men’s Store (which along with the larger Kahn’s Department Store was on strike across the street in the triangle of Telegraph and Broadway) were only making $28 a week.
And the much more important catalyst for the Oakland General Strike was the defeat of the “Stormy Petrels” of West Coast labor, the machinists in the strange sister alliance of San Francisco’s AFL-IAM Lodge #68 and Oakland’s CIO-Steel Workers Organizing Committee Local #1304 (the latter kicked out of the AFL in the late ’30s for leading wildcat strikes). Richard Boyden has written several articles and a Ph.D. dissertation about the class-based struggles of these machinists and how it took the collaboration of the U.S. military, the FBI, and local ruling class, as well as class collaborationist union bureaucrats in the AFL and the CIO to finally defeat the shop-floor rank-and-file militancy of the Stormy Petrels. These two sister unions had more strikes, head-on against the agenda of no-strike pledges that they refused, during World War II than any others in the U.S. Boyden makes the point that their defeat in the fall of 1946 released a rage that consummated itself in the Oakland General Strike.
And I don’t equate wildcat strikes with pure spontaneity, but with a willingness to use creative imaginative tactics and having the audacity to “vote with your feet.” An incredible amount of organizing (check out Stan Weir’s many writings on Informal Work Groups) groundwork often has already been laid down before a wildcat. A fetish for formal democracy will get you clocklike adherence to Robert’s Rules, but is that how we plan to micromanage our self-liberation? Not me!
Hieronymous, we’re not arguing really. The strikes were complex and not just unions calling out “general strike”. The point was that the build up to all those strikes was just that: a build up. It also, generally (and I’ve never found any evidence to the contrary) that even the most ‘spontaneous’ participants in ’46 were well organized through rank and file ‘action’ committees, ‘progressive committees’ and other mass *democratic* actions. They reflected the participation of whole shops, everyone walking out (or even sit-ins).
My only point, and you make it in the last sentence of the second to last paragraph is that this huge set of strikes and subsequent defeats (although there were notable victories as well) that resulted in a general strike. But the point wasn’t “For a general strike”, it is what flowed out of the class struggle organically from workers involved, and angry. Votes WERE taken to walk (see the ATU vote that shut the buses in Oakland) and from my own talks with veterans of that struggle the was a *mass participatory* democracy involved…votes, hand raising, committees and assemblies. Not unlike the massive sitdown strikes in the 1930s that started with the spark of the ’34 strikes.
Self-liberation doesn’t mean you liberating me.it doesn’t mean you acting for me. It means we collectively decide what to do, like they did in Spain in ’36 and in every revolution and act in the class struggle. That’s what happened in ’46 and in virtually every labor struggle.
What I never heard of was a small group of workers, say one shop, walking *expecting* every other set of workers to walk in the same enterprise (the closest thing I can thing of to ‘spontaneity’). It certainly wasn’t the case in Minneapolis, SF or Toledo.
C St. D-L
Hi Carolina (& others),
Earlier you mentioned Ottilie Markholt’s “Maritime Solidarity” and hearing this filled me with joy. That’s my favorite book about class struggle on the West Coast. The militancy on the San Francisco waterfront is also one of my favorite subjects. This past summer I was a panelist and gave a presentation about the I.W.W. influences in maritime that led up to the ’34 General Strike, as part of a commemoration of its 75th anniversary. Many people don’t realize it, but Oakland was shut just as tightly as SF during the General Strike — but that becomes important below.
Poet Kenneth Rexroth, who was close to the circle of anarchists and anti-World War II pacifists who founded KPFA in 1949 and earlier had been a soapboxer who wrote for the “Waterfront Worker” when he worked as an organizer, once said about the pre-World War II period:
“…the basic tradition on the West Coast was IWW”
An interesting dynamic in SF was also having all these militant maritime workers, who were bringing radical ideas from around the world, being a short walk from the vibrant intellectual life of the Bohemians of North Beach, much like the stimulating environment of Greenwich Village in New York around the same time. This vibrant cross-fertilization between working class politics and the powerful creative imagination of artists and writers made San Francisco the most radical port city in the U.S., if not the world. By the turn of the century in 1900, it was also the most organized city in the world.
Here’s what the Italian Marxist Sergio Bologna had to say about the relevance of the Wobblies, when he wrote in the 1967 essay “Class Composition and the Theory of the Party at the Origins of the of the Workers’ Councils Movement” (available here: http://libcom.org/library/class-composition-sergio-bologna):
“The IWW succeeded in creating an absolutely original type of agitator: not the mole digging for decades within the single factory or proletarian neighborhood, but the type of agitator who swims within the stream of proletarian struggles, who moves from one end to the other of the enormous American continent and who rides the seismic wave of the struggle, overcoming national boundaries and sailing the oceans before organizing conventions to found sister organizations. The Wobblies’ concern with transportation workers and longshoremen, their constant determination to strike at capital as an international market, their intuitive understanding of the mobile proletariat – employed today, unemployed tomorrow – as a virus of social insubordination, as the agent of the ‘social wildcat’: all these things make the IWW a class organization which anticipated present-day forms of struggle.”
[Bologna meant the worldwide wildcat strike wave that began in the late 1960s and lasted until the mid-1970s]
Class struggle in SF was always extremely violent. The first sailors’ strike was in 1850 and by 1853 they began to organize onshore. In this dynamic “labor was pitted against all of capital.” 1866 marked the first attempt to create a horizontal organization that united all waterfront unions. The first strike of all waterfront workers was in 1886, which also drew in striking brewery workers. It led to the formation of the Coast Seaman’s Union of all sailors on the Pacific Coast in 1891, the first of its kind in the world. This caused bosses to create an all-inclusive group called the “Board of Manufacturers” in response.
The 2nd Waterfront Strike of 1893 lost because a bomb was set off on Christmas in front of a non-union boarding house, killing 10. It weakened union strength and was a victory for the bosses. Klondike Gold and the Spanish-American War brought an end to the depression and stimulated the SF economy soon after.
A milestone event was the formation in 1901 of the City Front Federation that included 13,000 waterfront workers from the Sailors Union of the Pacific, the Teamsters, and the various longshore unions. The bosses responded with the Employers Council. The 1901 Waterfront Strike erupted with a lock-out of the Teamsters and grew into a tangle of sympathy strikes that crippled the harbor for 3 months. It grew violent and 5 were killed and 300 assaults were reported. It ended in a negotiated settlement by the orders of Governor Gate. It ended in the maintenance of the status quo but was a victory for labor because it came out of the strike stronger than it started.
The 1916 San Francisco Longshore Strike succeeded in tying up $2.5 million in exports. A longshoreman was murdered, which tipped popular opinion in the strikers’ favor. But the Preparedness Day bombing, which killed 10 and seriously injured 40, quickly ended support for the strike. In the reaction, city voters passed an anti-picketing ordinance. Worse still, Tom Mooney was framed for the bombing and served 22 years in prison before being pardoned. In many ways it was San Francisco’s Haymarket, but Mooney’s eventual release is a testament to the strength of the local working class and the international campaign for his release.
The post World War I agitation that led to the 1919 “Seattle Commune,” the general strike where a committee of the working class ran the city for 5 days, was influenced by the cross-polination of class struggle up and down the West Coast, and led to the 6-week General Strike in Winnipeg Canada.
When the 83-day West Coast Maritime Strike led to attempts of the National Guard to force open the SF waterfront by force, resulting in 2 deaths, the first union to go out in what became the General Strike were the Teamsters. The 1901 Waterfront Strike was sparked by Teamsters, who were soon joined by longshore workers and maritime workers because of their unity in the City Front Federation, so in ’34 they were returning the favor — in an amazing demonstration of working class memory.
Strangely, one person lived through this whole period and played a constant counter-revolutionary role. He was Dave Beck, who had risen up to be the Teamster leader in the West (the leader of the Teamster international through much of the same period was Dan Tobin), based in Seattle. Basically, he was a thug and a crook. He broke his teeth as a 24-year old member of the faction of Teamsters opposed to the General Strike. In ’34, as a Teamster leader in the West, he encouraged Teamster to scab on other workers in the SF General Strike. But he showed his true colors in ’46 in demanding that Teamsters in Oakland NOT take part in the General Strike, even though they helped start it. In the Parmount News newsreel footage of the Oakland General Strike, Dave Beck said that it was “… a lot of foolishness and more like a revolution than an industrial dispute.”
That pretty much sums up the way labor bureaucrat subsequently treat any kind of class-based movement in general and rank-and-file militancy in particular. And you can really get a sense of what really went on in the Oakland General Strike by listening to an audio interview with Stan Weir here (just click on the link that says: “Play the Entire Tape” and follow the prompts):
Also some comrades uploaded this 1976 KPFA radio show with interviews with first-hand participants in the Oakland General Strike:
And here I’ve got to make a confession: I co-guide a walk every summer as part of LaborFest to the sites of the Oakland General Strike. It will be on Saturday, July 24, 2010 at 10:30 a.m. Meet at Latham Square, the triangle where Broadway and Telegraph merge — and where the 2 department stores that sparked the strike used to face each other. I’m also working on a draft of a book about the Oakland General Strike.
Based on my extensive research, I have to disagree with Carolina that there were “rank and file ‘action’ committees, ‘progressive committees’ and other mass *democratic* actions,” nor was there: ” *mass participatory* democracy involved…votes, hand raising, committees and assemblies.” Please listen to Stan Weir and the KPFA show and judge for yourselves. Or read accounts in links 1-3 here: http://flyingpicket.org/node/20
But to convince you, this is from Stan Weir’s “Informal Work Groups” essay:
“It was in that period right after I met her [his future wife Mary] that the Oakland general strike occurred. The Oakland general strike was called by no leader. It was unique, I think, in general strikes in this country. There was a strike of women who were the clerks at Kahn’s and at Hastings’ department stores and it had been going on for months. The Teamsters had begun to refuse to make deliveries to those department stores and the department stores needed commodities badly. [the Christmas holiday was approaching and the store shelves were running empty]
Not many people had cars right after the war and you took public transportation to work in the morning. You had to go downtown to the center of Oakland and then out in the direction of your work place. So thousands and thousands of people traveled through the heart of town every morning on the way to work, on public transportation. Very early one morning, here were the policemen of Oakland herding in a string of trucks, operated by a scab trucking firm in Los Angeles, with supplies for these department stores. Some truck driver or some bus driver or street car conductor asked some policeman about the trucks (this is now part of the mythology) and the policeman told him, ‘This is a scab trucking firm coming in from L.A. to take stuff to Kahn’s and Hastings’.’ Well, that truck driver, that bus driver, or that street car conductor, didn’t get back on his vehicle. Truck drivers got off their trucks and that increased till those trucks and those buses and those street cars just piled up and thousands of people were stranded in town.
In a small way it was a holiday. The normal criteria for what was acceptable conduct disappeared. No one knew what to do and there were no leaders. No one called it. Pretty soon the strikers began forming into committees on the street comers. Certain shopkeepers were told to shut down and drug stores to stay open. Bars could stay open if they didn’t serve hard liquor, and they had to put their juke boxes out on the sidewalk. People were literally dancing in the streets in anticipation of some kind of new day. Soon the strikers began to direct traffic and only let union people into town and keep out those who it was feared might be against the strike. It lasted fifty-four hours.”
The Oakland General Strike was sparked by the cops scabherding goods being delivered by a non-union professional strikebreaking trucking firm. The response was instantaneous and spontaneous. An erroneous myth has Al Brown disabling his streetcar controls and sparking the strike on Sunday, December 1, 1946. The only problem was that Brown was a “piecard,” a non-working union official. First-hand accounts that satisfy me say that it was another rank-and-file streetcar operator who did what Brown was alleged to have done. This sparked wildcat actions the next day, Monday December 2, as streetcar operators once again disabled their cars, along with bus driver and truck drivers, and self-organized others to do the same (this is Weir’s version of events above), stranding thousands of working class people in downtown Oakland. Teamsters were prominent in joining this and as many as 10,000 workers were marching through downtown. Meanwhile, Labor Council bureaucrats were debating whether to sanction the event. Some, like the Teamsters, were forbade from doing so because of Beck’s prohibition against strikes. Also, the local Teamster leader was the corrupt Republican Charles Real. Fortunately, he was out of town; president of Teamster local 70 was James Marshall, who was not only for the idea of a general strike, but called other bureaucrats “chicken” if they didn’t endorse it too. But many of the union leaders had to answer to international unions, most of whom were adamantly against the strike, rather than to their angry and super-militant rank-and-file.
So on the strike’s first full-blown day, Monday, December 2, the Labor Council declared a General Strike for the following day, Tuesday, December 3 at 5:00 a.m. But while international union officials breathing down their necks, as well as trying to negotiate its end behind the scenes, the local union leaders just as quickly tried to end the strike.
There was a mass meeting during the General Strike at the Civic Auditorium on Lake Merritt, which had already been arranged as community meeting to support the department store workers’ strike. It ended up being a huge meeting of over 15,000, but it occurred on the evening of Wednesday, December 4th, a full 3 days since the scabbing incident on Sunday that sparked the strike. The strike was already well under way. This is clearly a fact of the strike: there were NO mass meetings, votes, collective decisions or democratic processes in the build-up to the General Strike. Things were much too fluid and events moved too quickly for such proceduralism — and that’s how most radical/revolutionary events dialectically unfold.
The behind-closed-doors, settlement between union bureaucrats and Oakland’s ruling class to bring the General Strike to an end didn’t result in any negotiated gains. It was a bitter betrayal to the mostly woman workforce at the striking department stores. But its unmeasurable success was the continued confidence and militancy of working class people in the Bay Area. And its legacy to us as we attempt our own General Strike on March 4th are these principles:
1. Working class people support each other as equals: “An Injury to One Is an Injury to All.”
2. It must be cross-sectoral to succeed. The attempts to have horizontal federations led to efforts to unite ALL workers in San Francisco in 1886, 1893, 1901, 1916, and 1934. The consciousness of these efforts remained with many workers in the 1945-1946 wildcat strike wave, but the chaos of the population displacement of the war made creating the appropriate political forms next to impossible (in Oakland in ’46 there was NOT a rank-and-file run strike committee; in ’34 in SF, the only radical on the strike committee was longshoreman Harry Bridges, who had an uphill battle fighting all the other conservative bureaucrats on the strike committee). Although limited mostly to Latinos, this is what workers were doing on May Day 2006. Our efforts should try to go beyond geographical limitations of localism and spread as far as possible.
3. It must be self-organized and strive toward class consciousness. If that’s done properly, the appropriate organizational forms and decision making processes will develop organically out of the struggle (think here about the 1896 through 1905 cycle of strikes in Russia and Poland and how their “dialectic of development” resulted in the invention of “soviets,” or workers’ councils).
4. Within a coherent strategic vision, the tactics adopted must remain creative and imaginative. Compare the Seattles: 1919 and the workers running the city themselves and 1999 and the liberals arguing with the activists about smashing or not smashing Starbucks and Niketown. 1999, despite admirable tactical innovations in shutting down the WTO meeting, was like a giant citywide Critical Mass. 1919 was like a citywide Soviet. We should be striving for the latter. In the above audio interview, Stan Weir describe says that: “It’s in the crowd that there’s the most genius!”
Personally, I’d put the November 20th occupation at UC Berkeley and the December 10th occupation at SF State as the opening salvos of this initial phase of the class war. I hope militant, creative actions continue and augment and propel students, educational workers, public and private sector workers to a General Strike on March 4th, and then push toward mass collective actions that radicalize and go even beyond California…
So Carolina you’re right, we’re not arguing. Instead we’re engaged in political debate and the sharing of ideas that we all should benefit from. I’ve said much too much, so I’ll stand aside for a while and let others have their say.
The 11th paragraph above opens with: “When the 83-day West Coast Maritime Strike,” but the year 1934 should have been added.
The link to the audio upload of the 1976 KPFA radio show commemorating the 30th anniversary of the Oakland General Strike should have been:
[audio src="http://www.indybay.org/olduploads/oakland_gstrike.mp3" /]
Im not in any group but I do consider myself a Marxist and Ive recently entered the budget cut movement and have been talking with different activists and groups. Ive been political for a while, I just turned 42, so Ive seen how Socialist Organizer has crystallized class collaborationist politics, with their “hold” on the SF labor council. They have some nerve attacking other young groups who are trying to figure out political struggle and willing to explore a radical domain with an open imagination. Thats what the 60s was composed of. My friends spoke highly of the SFSU occupation. Socialist Organizer is in bed with the worst union bueacrats and I have never seen them do anything radical or class struggle based (Im not saying they haven’t, I just haven’t seen it). Judge groups and individuals by their deeds not their words. The fallowing link is mostly a critique of Jeff Mackler from Socialist Action but Socialist Organizer played a similar role.
thanks for that lesson in Labor History a la ’46. It was really quite interesting and I learned a lot.
My understanding of is that the actual retail strike had a LOT of meetings, including a vote to go out strike, well before the general strike. I know the Steelworkers had mass meetings and…you mentioned yourself 15000 gathered at Lake Merrit. My real point was that the strike did not come out of nowhere, it was a build up after many months. This is true for each of the ’34 strikes.
On ’34…and Markholt describes in her book, as as much as the Quin book, and many others do, maritime workers had a HUGE tradition of very LONG and lengthily meetings. The CP always had a problem with this because they used to use the tactic of making meetings go on forever in *other* industries and they’d stay and win a ‘vote’. Not so in maritime. EVERYONE stayed.
’34 was dominated by class struggle unions actually have meetings, deciding on what to do. That’s a good thing especially as it was part of the co-ordinating actions of the many different unions involved. That unions are, organs of class power against the boss. That is what they *should* be. They are often not, as we know.
The seaman’s unions in particular had a long tradition of meetings with their headquarters…sometimes in an office over a bar where the bar became the meeting room, as the organizing centers. I will say there is this almost a-historical dislike of taking ‘votes’ on this forum that simply doesn’t jive with history. If you’ve been on the walking tours, then you were on the ones for Labor Fest for the ’34 strike: massive workers democracy in action. And of course the fusion of democracy and the class: massive strike actions.
The ’34 teamster strikes had mass meetings *everynight*. The took votes and not just on proposals for the contract, but at every single level. The P-9 strikers in the 1980s in Austin, MN. resurrected their 1933 organizing methods and had daily strike meetings every night as well, with 90% attendance. When workers act as one, they usually discuss and decide what to do. That is my own limited experience in unions worth anything.
Good point about Dave Beck. I think your description is very apt. Its not unlike Jimmy Hoffa, who besides betraying the organizes of the ’34 teamster strike nevertheless learned serious organizing tips from the Trots that lead that strike. Dave Back did too for better and worse. In fact Beck began to get worried as radicalized midwest over-the-road truckers organized out of Butte and Fargo as part of the Central Conference of the IBT, starting encroaching on ‘his’ territory in ’37 and ’38. I only know that anecdotally from Jake Cooper who passed away a bout 10 years ago but was part of the ’34 strike and a “street fighter leader” of it. I never read anything, however, that detailed it.
I hadn’t known about his role (Becks) in ’34, that’s interesting. Mostly what I know about him is spin off from the Midwest organizing drives and books written about it. The 1901 strike, interestingly, was a teamster strike (and that went along with it including the anti-Asian racist nature of that strike in part).
I think there are a LOT of things that are worth examining about ’34 and ’46 and the periods they took place in.
One of the stranger developments of that Tacoma local was that when the ILWU was formed as the CIO affiliated maritime union on the West Coast, the very radical, Wobbly influenced local there stayed with the wretched ILA and was the only outpost of the ILA on the West Coast when it eventually became an ILWU local in the 60’s I think. I don’t know it’s later history. During the ’50s and the gov’t investigations into Mafia control over the ILA, it became a lone, indendent union local,then back into the ILA later, but by this time it was forced by geography to co-operate closely with the Seattle ILWU and international.
Interestingly too, is that long term militant in the ILWU, Shaun Melony, eventually became president of the Seattle ILWU local. Melony was one of the truckers shot in the ’34 Mpls Teamster strikes! He left during WWII to work in maritime in the NW after that strike.
When I get back to the Bay Area, if ever, I hope to participate in the local events if they are still going on.
Carolina St. D-L
Here in Seattle we are not nearly as developed as SUP and we don’t have the kind of mass movement dynamics that California in general has. However, we anticipate these may break out soon with a new rounds of cuts coming down. So we are watching this debate closely and trying to glean from it some insights about what we should do. In that spirit, here are a few questions and comments for ATS, SUP, Socialist Organizer, and ISO folks down there. If ya’ll have time I’d appreciate critical feedback since it will help us immensely.
1) If General Assemblies don’t yet exist on our campus do ya’ll suggest we try to build them? What is the benefit of building general assemblies as opposed to mass democratic united front coalitions, strike committees, and mass meetings in workers’ breakrooms, etc.? If I am hearing correctly one of the problems with General Assemblies is there is a high turnover rate – the same folks don’t come to each Assembly so it ends up being more a pseudo- legislative body without real power rather than a place where newly politicized students can become organizers and can build towards actions that actually contend for power. Given that, would it make more sense for us to keep building up the united front coalition we’re building here in Seattle and to flyer and chalk for open mass coalition meetings before specific actions so that more folks can come out to the coalition to join together to plan very specific things like a day of action or hopefully down the road a strike? That way we don’t have to go through the difficult process of forging a points of unity for a general assembly, we can simply focus discussion on what we all want to DO together in the near future.
2) I agree with the perspective ATS laid out in various essays this fall: avoid tailism and adventurism by advocating for occupations and militant direct action within general assemblies and coalitions. It seems the debate going on right now is whether or not SUP is doing that in practice in the context of the SFSU occupation. I’ll stay out of that debate because I don’t know enough of what’s going on on the ground there to judge. All I’ll say is I do agree with the strategy ATS originally laid out and that’s what we want to pursue here in Seattle (we are using ATS’s essays in our reading groups).
One thing I’ll further develop is I think the debate about formal democratic procedures in mass organizations vs. independent/ autonomous direct action is a bit off. Can’t you critique bureaucratic formalism in general assemblies but still engage with them? In other words, the struggle between the “democracy” of Roberts Rules of Order vs. the real democracy of insurgent mass participation can happen WITHIN general assemblies themselves, not just in the debate between GAs and direct action. For example, if the student government liberals or tailist Leftists are acting in an authoritarian way to dominate the general assemblies, why not organize to flood these assemblies with militant students and workers and then rally the crowd to remove any facilitators who are being overly formalistic or who are shutting out poc, women, or workers’ demands? It sounds like this is necessary to do if direct actions and good solid transitional demands are actually going to get on the agenda at these mass meetings. Maybe folks in ATS have been trying to do that, which is great. If so, I’m looking forward to hearing more how you do it because I am sure we will find ourselves in the same situation up here.
3) On the united front vs. the popular front. I agree we need mass participation and we need to create mass organizations that can democratically facilitate this participation. Strike Committees, occupation committees, and general assemblies are all examples of this and in my mind none of them are inherently more or less democratic than the others…. it just depends, as ATS has been point out, which form encourages deeper mass participation and self-activity by workers and students. It also matters which encourages participation by people of color, women, queer folks, and people with disabilities.
To do this, these mass organizations need to function as united fronts not popular fronts. Meaning the militants shouldn’t be asked to subordinate and hide their politics in order to keep from scaring away the liberals. Requiring that would be undemocratic and sectarian on the part of progressives who tail the liberals. If you end up with a General Assembly that is numerically dominated by liberals and operates on the basis of one-person one vote AND if you assert the principle that every action needs to be approved by a GA before it’s taken then aren’t you setting up a popular front? Aren’t you silencing the more militant students and workers? This is where I think it is important to assert the strategy of “march separately strike together”. Or we could revamp this to say “deliberate together, debate together, then march separately so we CAN strike together.” I think radicals should generally propose militant actions in mass meetings and should try to win over at least a sizable minority of the crowd but I don’t think they should be asked to seek approval from a numerical majority before acting. When I say this I’m not advocating an individualistic “everyone do their own thing”. it is simply a practical necessity if we’re going to build a multi-tendency united front coalition that brings together militants and liberals. Yes, it would be ultraleft under current conditions if radicals say to hell with mass organizations we are only going to take action with a handful of people and we’re only going to plan all of our actions clandestinely. But the only way to avoid this is for all progressives and radicals to agree that any mass organization we build together needs to allow for a diversity of tactics and for radicals to fight for this within the general assemblies/ other mass orgs. Can’t we try to build a mass coalition that allows its individual groups to do actions both with the coalition AND outside it? In other words, groups can argue in mass democratic coalition meetings for the whole mass organization to do an action but if it is voted down they can still do it on their own, just not in the name of the coalition?
4) In conclusion, I think it’s important to keep building a radical tendency within these mass organizations/ GAs/ coalitions. At first it might be a minority tendency but it could grow over time as folks’ confidence to resist grows. In any case, this tendency can be larger than simply organizations like SUP or Democracy Insurgent here in Seattle. If we organize with these broader layers of students and workers hopefully we won’t have to rely on clandestine action because we’ll be able to resist repression through force of numbers. I imagine getting there involves not only building up the coalition/ mass organization but also working both inside and outside of it, having side conversations with closer coalition partners, hitting the streets and the campus on a daily basis to flyer/ table/ chalk, going to meet more workers on their breaks, etc., building up a social life and culture around the campaign that extends beyond the boundaries of our organizations, etc. The questions is then how to balance all the various facets of such a complicated strategy with few resources and so much work to be done.
In any case, thank ya’ll again for reflecting so much in real time on what you’re doing down there, it is incredibly useful to help us spread the movement to new places.
I wanted to give quick but serious props to Mamos’s comment. That’s some dope analysis, I’m especially feeling three points:
1. Breaking down the oppositional dichotomy between bureaucratic general assemblies and independently organized direct actions.
2. noticing the problems with thinking mechanically that the organizational forms under discussion are inherently democratic or antidemocratic
3. the detailed thinking on how radicals can/should orient towards such spaces
definitely something I hope folks read and reflect on!
Back in Hilo…
Ideally the GAs are the political organization of the mass actions (defined how you want). The goal of any action is either win out right (like a strike) or, to galvanize and build bigger, better and more effective actions that will win. The best ‘actions’ are those OF the masses themselves…that is if one believes that only the working class can liberate themselves, then the actions of smaller ‘vanguard’ groups, can work against that. Or not. It could be that the smaller action brings more and more people in. Or not.
Anyone…and I mean anyone who has worked in unions and been involved in strike at the work place understands that *only* buy in from the majority..and usually a real *large* majority, will bring victory. This is how the mass-organizing into unions occurred in the 1930s.
GAs tend to carry a larger “imprimatur” of the mass movement as opposed to
more ad-hoc committees. They have to be geared toward actions. Like workers councils in Italy in 1920 and the Soviets in Russia and Germany after WWI. They are simply the organic expression of the mass movement deciding (and yes, the used “votes”) to go for power. “Committees” tend to be more permanent institutions sort of like unions.
Figure out what is going on locally and how much support there is for the demands of the students and/or workers. The GAs that have existed grew because of the mass movement, they didn’t start a priori, necessarily. Be clear on your goals.
I like what The Fish bubbled: “1. Breaking down the oppositional dichotomy between bureaucratic general assemblies and independently organized direct actions.” Truer words couldn’t be said.
Any chance you can tell me how i can acess older posts? Think i’m having a blonde moment!
Moderator Note: If you scroll to the bottom of the page there is a link that says “older posts” . . . click that for older posts.
Can I use paypal to pay for this?
Pingback: Crisis and Consciousness: Reflections and Lessons from March 4th « Advance the Struggle