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.