Between a Trot and a Hard Place: The Debate Within Our Movement

As we get further from March 4th and various groups put out their analysis, we see emerging differences in political line. Some of the primary differences we’ve seen emerge [discussed in our Post-March 4th analysis] stem from our criticisms of the Trotskyist tradition. Recently, Unity & Struggle (U&S), a group we consider to be aligned with our general political orientation wrote a response to two of the Trotskyist responses to our piece put out by Labor’s Militant Voice – LMV and Socialist Organizer – SO. We think U&S’s response piece very clearly illustrates some of the emerging differences that distinguish us from the existing Trotskyist groups. These differences center on the following questions:

How should marxist militants understand the political character of unions? How should militants relate to unions, their leadership and their rank and file? Many Marxists agree that union bureaucrats have been bought off, but there are often disagreements as to why.

How should disciplined revolutionaries relate to, and work within coalitional spaces? How important are general assemblies as organizational forms for the working-class’ political self-activity?

Is there a need for revolutionaries to have independent spaces and organizations outside of both coalitions/united fronts and general assemblies? Or are general assemblies and united fronts the only true legitimate spaces for working-class self activity? If not, what should independent political organizations look like?

How should a marxist ‘cadre’ type organization relate to such a space or organization? Should we help build them to the exclusion of participating in united fronts? Are these forms of organization mutually exclusive?

Furthermore, can the problem facing the working class today be summed up by Leon Trotsky’s assertion in the opening line of his famous work, ‘The Transitional Program’, which states that:  “the world political situation as a whole is chiefly characterized by a historical crisis of leadership of the proletariat”? And, if so, does this mean that the problem facing revolutionaries today is primarily the task of substituting ‘bad leadership’ [read: union bureaucrats] for ‘good leadership’ [read: correct-line trotskyist revolutionaries], or do revolutionaries need to orient in radically different ways that consciously avoid reproducing the same hierarchical structures of authority present in capitalism?

These are all questions that we were thinking about when we wrote our Crisis and Consciousness piece, which analyzed March 4th and the movement that lead up to it.

Unfortunately all of us in AtS are not merely armchair intellectuals [we got jobs and other political work ya’ll!] and thus it has taken us a lil’ while to engage with all the responses that have been put out.

We are also taking time to respond to the Trotskyist responses in a way that moves beyond March 4th, and which moves us in the direction of a more fleshed out articulation of our position on many of the above issues, as political questions in general.

In the meantime, we think people should seriously engage with the piece written by our Seattle comrade from the group  Unity and Struggle.

We were psyched to read U&S’s response to the responses to our piece, because we have been heavily influenced and inspired by the work they do. U&S is a great example of the class-struggle left we describe in Crisis and Consciousness, and we had them in mind when we wrote it. We believe their response to the two Trotskyist responses to our piece (one by Labor’s Militant Voice – LMV and the other by Socialist Organizer – SO), is a very straightforward and accurate, cursory overview of the debate thus far. As we’ve mentioned,  U&S shares many of our critical disagreements with the Trotskyist tradition and its current incarnations.

We look forward to continuing these debates, as they help us develop our own understanding of ourselves and the existing left. We are a new formation and we are trying to develop a fresh analysis of the current conditions, while trying to avoid many of the political mistakes made by revolutionary militants in the past.

We plan to put out more in-depth and detailed analysis on the questions raised above, for which we are studying, reading and discussing with our political milieus. We welcome you to become part of this debate as it unfolds.


The Debate on Strategy in the Anti-Budget Cuts Movement

As an anti-budget cuts organizer in Seattle, I am excited by the important debates Advance the Struggle (AS) has raised with their piece Crisis and Contradictions: Reflections and Lessons from March 4th. I basically agree with the perspective that AS is putting forward;  it confirms and advances a lot of the perspectives that my comrades in Unity and Struggle have been developing, especially with our anti-budget cuts work with Democracy Insurgent in Seattle, with ella pelea! in Austin, and our comrade’s work at Berkley.  For those who don’t know, Unity and Struggle is a revolutionary organization animated by a belief in the self-emancipation of oppressed people; for more info, check out the “About US” section of the Gathering Forces blog.

I would consider Unity and Struggle and a lot of the milleiu around Gathering Forces to be part of  the “class struggle Left” tendency that AS outlines and calls for; like AS we are attempting to chart a third path that is independent from both the centrists (the “we need to meet people where they are at” folks) and the adventurists (the “Occupy Everything Demand Nothing” folks).  We appreciate the chance to dialogue with AS and other  like-minded activists around the country and we also appreciate the chance to have principled debate with comrades from the other two tendencies.

The response pieces written by Socialist Organizer (SO) and Labors Militant Voice (LMV), raise some important challenges to this third tendency and highlight some key differences between us and the centrist tendency.  It is important to note that LMV’s piece raises important critiques of SO’s piece and I engage with those here  – I have no intention of lumping them together.   I offer my notes on these responses  in the hope of furthering the debate.

What I write here is relatively unsystematic because my comrades and I are  in the middle of organizing for a strike at the University of Washington on May 3rd so I don’t have a lot of time to flesh this out. I hope comrades will forgive and correct any points here that are underdeveloped , inaccurate, or unclear. I am writing this from a first person perspective rather than formally representing Democracy Insurgent or Unity and Struggle, the groups I am a part of.   I imagine that most people in both groups would agree with the spirit of what I put forward here but we simply don’t have the time to collectively write and edit a formal response right now because of all of our organizing and study groups.

Unions, Strikes, and Working Class Consciousness

I agree with SO that tactics need to be based (among other things) on analysis of the objective conditions. I also agree tactics need to be based on an understanding of where the entire working class is at, not just its vanguard (most radical) elements. However, we can’t base our understanding of where the class is at on where the union bureaucracy  is at. The rank and file of the working class often goes a lot farther than the bureaucracy. I am not sure if Socialist Organizer would equate the consciousness of workers with the positions of the bureaucracy (my sense is no because they criticize AS for allegedly doing exactly that, which I think is inaccurate). At University of Washington , however various centrist organizers have cited the positions of the bureaucracy as examples of the supposedly low level of class struggle on campus; they have used this supposed fact as the basis for their judgement that the campus is not yet ready for strikes. They don’t understand the role of rank and file worker-leaders within the campus unions who have been the ones at the forefront of the workers struggle; these leaders are organizing themselves in and around International Workers and Students for Justice (IWSJ), For a Democratic University (FADU), and informal workgroups and networks of workers who communicate through break meetings and department meetings. If centrist activists were out there at these meetings talking and listening to more of the rank and file on a day to day basis they would be hearing calls for much more radical action, including strikes, which the union bureaucrats are squeamish about.

To make it clear, I’m not trying to bait my centrist coalition partners as being middle class or anything – some of them are workers on and off campus who do good work agitating in their unions and workplaces and in some cases building opposition caucuses. I’m just saying they don’t orient consistently toward the rank and file workers who are frustrated with the bureaucracy, they don’t consistently prioritize supporting these workers’ leadership.

All that being said, I agree with S.O. that the labor bureaucracy is not the only thing holding back workers from striking. Workers also lack confidence after 30 years of employers offensives codified in near totalitarian labor law. For that reason we can’t focus ONLY on critiquing the bureaucracies’ arguments against strikes, we need to build up our confidence as workers through a series of smaller job actions that might not take the form of strikes. I don’t see why we can’t do that while at the same time agitating around the need for a strikes; we can do this by calling for strikes on big days of action like March 4th and if we get outvoted and workers don’t end up striking at least we’ve gotten the idea out there, as AS argued when they endorsed LMV’s work around the Local 444 resolution calling for a strike.

I agree with SO that we can make a tactical orientation toward pushing certain unions in current contract negotiations to strike.  That is what we are doing here in Seattle by timing the May 3rd student strike with the end of UAW local 4121’s contract negotiations on the UW campus.   However, we shouldn’t confine ourselves only to that kind of work because as the economic crisis deepens we could see wildcat strikes outside of contract negotiations or strikes among non-unionized workers and we need to support such actions.  If we think only in terms of legal strikes we’ll miss these developments and working class self-activity will catch the Left by surprise and surpass it which has happened numerous times in history.

Also, I agree with LMV that unionized workers lack of confidence to strike can also be blamed on the bureaucracy. If the considerable resources of the bureaucracy were at the disposal of and under the control of the rank and file then the rank and file might have the confidence to strike. We have heard rank and file workers say that if  lower-level elected officials who are well respected by the ranks would call a meeting and announce a strike then everyone would walk out, but these official are being effectively gagged and silenced by the bureaucracy so they cannot do that. I agree with LMV it’s important to point out WHY the ranks lack this confidence and not to blame it on the members or accuse them of having false consciousness.

I doubt AS is actually arguing AGAINST unions or conflating the entire union with the bureaucracy.   It’s not fair of S.O. to accuse them of making arguments that support capitalist union busting. We have been accused of the same thing in Seattle for simply mobilizing the rank and file to build strong fighting unions!  Rank and file mobilizations, even mobilizations to defend the union itself against the onslaught on union busting budget cuts, have threatened bureaucrats here and the bureaucrats themselves have responded in a sectarian way, accusing us of sabotaging the union, trying to prevent workers from meeting with each other or with students, red-baiting us, vocally repeating and agreeing when racist cops suggested we might be terrorists, and writing opportunistic attacks on organizers which management posted at the clock in stations leading workers to believe the bureaucrats are in bed with their bosses. We have heard progressives and liberals say we are dividing the workforce and playing into management’s hands by supporting these rank and file struggles against the bureaucracy. In reality the bureaucrats have ALREADY divided the workforce along lines of race, ethnicity, nationality, language, skill level, and factional allegiances, and are already playing into management’s hands, and all we are doing is trying to heal these wounds through rank and file, shop floor solidarity across these lines of divisions… and for that we are accused of being ultraleft and dual unionist! None of these accusations have stuck because they are ridiculous, and contrary to S.O.’s predictions, the worker militants among us have not gotten isolated from our coworkers, and the rest of the workforce does not think we’re the boys and girls who cried wolf because we are talking about strikes and direct action. If anything, people respect us more because we stand up to the bureaucrats they dislike and because we take them seriously when they do what they push as far as they can to fight management.

We recognize that these experiences are not isolated incidents. They are a result of the fact that the union bureaucracy represents, as Antonio Gramsci argued, a truce between labor and capital. The bureaucracy records the past gains of workers struggles’ to sell their labor at a higher wage on the capitalist market. However, as the Johnson-Forrest Tendency pointed out, the capitalists offered the unions gains in wages and benefits but in return expected the unions to increase productivity by helping to manage the working class. You see this today when unions have nothing to say about the “do more with less” mandate the bosses are pushing through to speed up the work process using budget cuts as an excuse. What we are dealing with is not just the corruption or prejudice of one union boss or another but a systematic tendency toward class collaborationism , a systematic block to workers’ attempts to control production. Yes its better to have unions than not to have them; its’ great if workers can sell their wages at a higher rate and can get some basic protections against arbitrary firing… but when it comes to budget cuts we’re talking about the very types of issues the unions are least suited to fight – issues of who controls the budget, who controls layoffs and hiring, how many people work on a particular shift, how fast they work, how their work is organized, etc.  Almost every major issue the UW custodians need to fight right now seems not to be protected by the contract so the shop stewards can’t do a lot about it. When that happens the unions need to be supplemented with new forms of organization, which is what we’re trying to build.

We agree with Lenin’s argument that we need to work within the trade unions, even reactionary ones, and to challenge the leadership within these formations, rather than abstaining from union politics completely. But when we actually do that we are accused of being ultraleft. The key question is HOW do you actually do what Lenin calls for? In our view, building opposition caucuses or union reform movements is not enough. We are trying to build groups of rank and file union members that can act independently of the bureaucracy to do things like flying squad pickets, direct action on the job, workers newsletters, etc. At times these groups may try to push the bureaucracy to the Left (for example, we passed resolutions supporting March 4th), but most times these groups will also need to take action without passing resolutions or getting permission from elected union officials. For example, here in Seattle students and workers opposed speed up by storming the worksites of mangers that enforce higher production rates through harassment and retaliation. Workers also organized a memorial service in remembrance of a custodian who burned himself alive, possibly in protest of poor working conditions, and pressed the administration for an investigation even when the union bureaucracy was afraid to do so. The bureaucrats organized their own ceremony 100 yards away which only a handful of workers came to; most of the workers came to the one organized by the rank and file.

So many union members are frustrated with the bureaucratic process and alienated from union meetings that to orient to reform activities in union meetings alone would actually be sectarian and would create fewer opportunities for mass participation, especially among workers who speak English as a second language and are not versed in Roberts Rules of Order. When the members move on certain questions without consulting the bureaucrats it forces the bureaucrats to start moving, and union reform could be a welcome byproduct of increased class struggle against the bosses. But on some questions such as control of the work pace the union CANNOT reform itself because the union structure itself is ill equipped to take up these struggles. For a more fleshed out perspective on this question I highly suggest reading Sojourner Truth Organization’s Workplace Papers.

S.O. may agree with some of what I’m arguing here , I am not sure. I agree with this statement they write, at least in theory: “The Marxist approach… is to “outflank” the misleaders by focusing our attacks on the bosses, consistently calling on labor leaders to politically break with the capitalists, while, at the same time, helping to organize the ranks from below. In other words, it is necessary to combine the “united front from below” with the “united front from above.””  I would have to see what this looks like in practice though. Is it confined simply to opposition caucusing in the unions or does it also involve organizing workers who are disillusioned with union politics to fight the bosses and to fight the union bureaucrats if the bureaucrats try to defend the bosses? Is it overly focused on replacing “bad” leadership with “good” leadership, or is it about developing deeper and broader layers of rank and file leaders so that every worker can govern?

S.O. calls AS abstentionist for criticizing the labor bureaucracy. But I don’t see AS calling for abstention from union politics, only for supporting and initiating rank and file struggles. Their endorsement of LMV’s strategy around the AFSCME 444 resolution is not abstentionist at all. S.O. accuses AS of being abstentionist but then they accuse them of intervening TOO much by supporting LMV’s strategy. This is contradictory.

Militant mass minorities and the working class

S.O. cites Lenin to argue revolutionaries need to be working with the entire working class, not just its vanguard. While Lenin is right on this point, we also can’t base our actions on the lowest common denominator or the “average” of various workers’ opinions. That would be undialectical. We also don’t always need to win over the majority of a workplace or university before we call a strike. There is a long history of successful wildcats initiated by a significant mass minority of a given workplace. Should the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers in Detroit have waited until more white workers were on board before they started wildcat striking against racism in the auto plants ? In reality, they started the wildcats and some white workers came around afterwards when they saw that rank and file Black workers were more serious than the UAW bureaucracy about fighting speed up and safety violations. I agree with S.O . that we can’t just imagine a small minority “inspiring” the rest of the class, but I don’t think this is what AS is saying (in fact that call such a perspective “adventurist” and they critique folks who treat workers like dry wood waiting for a spark). From what I understand, AS is arguing that the militant minority should build actions and organizational vehicles which can try to win over the majority through mass action, not just through spectacle. I agree strongly with this.

Students and Workers; Students as Workers

S.O. is right, it’s harder for workers to strike than for students to strike and it is harder for workers to pass out leaflets calling for strikes than it is for students to do so.   I  don’t see anything AS has written that would indicate they are unaware of this difference.  AS’s call for student strikes is not an attempt to replace working class self activity with student self activity and it is not an attempt to naively blur the material differences between working class students and other workers as SO implies. SO should read “Students as Positive Proletarian Actors” again more carefully, including the discussions on AS’s site about it.  Yes, many students are future workers.  Yes, many students are currently working part time jobs.  Yes many students are from working class backgrounds.  This is true of most of the student members of AS and also  Unity and Struggle.  It is not fair to bait AS as somehow separate from the working class because they emphasize these things.  It is possible to emphasize these points and still recognize the key strategic location that proletarian workers have at the point of production and to prioritize their self-emancipation.  What we need to do is unite the class struggle on campus with the class struggle off campus, as AS has argued repeatedly and has attempted to put into practice.  They write: “Students have a responsibility to spread news of their own rebellion, to encourage workers to rebel, and to help build the proletarian struggle wherever it erupts.”
One way students can do this is to call student strikes in which rank and file workers can participate, which will raise the idea of a strike among wider layers of the working class and will help back up rank and file worker militants who know the class needs strikes to stop concessions and budget cuts. This is our strategy at UW in Seattle. March 4th was a student strike but lots of custodians, tradespeople, and academic student employees came out because we organize with them and are friends with them. By calling it a student strike instead of a student walkout we were able to raise question of when to strike more sharply among workers. Every time workers said “this is amazing there are so many people here” we said “if ya’ll strike we’ll do it again in solidarity with you.”

That is exactly what we’re doing on May 3rd. Academic student employees (ASEs) in UAW local 4121 are facing tough contract negotiations and UW is demanding concessions and layoffs which will lead to overwork for Teaching and Research Assistants and large class sizes for undergraduates. We’re planning a student strike the first day the UAW contract expires, which is May 3rd. Rank and file student employees are agitating within and outside the union for an official strike. If the UAW bureaucracy does not authorize it, some rank and file ASEs may strike anyway if they have enough support. When we first started planning this there was a short wave of small wildcat strikes within WA state AFSCME/ WFSE locals against proposed statewide healthcare cuts and local budget cuts…. the legislature decided to reverse the healthcare cuts but if they had pushed them through we would have supported proposals from some of the rank and file WFSE workers for a UW wildcat or a furlough-out/ sick out and would have linked the student strike to a WFSE strike. If students want to be positive proletarian actors they need to think about how their own actions can back up other workers who want to move; by striking, students can solidify their relationships with broader layers of workers.

Revolutionary Organization and Mass Struggle

SO is right that people learn and advance their consciousness through struggle, not just through Leftist propaganda and ideological struggle between radicals and liberals. I imagine AS would agree with this; it seems like SO is misunderstanding where AS is coming from based on this one piece, without looking at AS’s overall practice which is far from confined to polemics against other Leftists. If this were really where AS is coming from why would SO call them some of the most talented and dedicated militants in the Bay Area? How would they have been able to play such a major role in the Oakland March 4th committee and elsewhere if they were focused only on polemicizing against other Leftists?

It’s hard for me to put my finger on this point, but I am sensing there is a crucial issue somewhere in this debate over the relationship between revolutionary organization and mass organization. Correct me if I’m misunderstanding this, but SO seems to assume a large distance between these two. They say that the role of revolutionaries should be to put forward correct strategic/ tactical perspectives inside mass organizations to prove to the class that socialists are the most dedicated fighters, and from that the vanguard layers of the class will join the revolutionary party.  For one, this seems to focus too much on finding the correct leadership, on replacing good leadership with bad leadership, as if the class would be stronger if only more socialists said the right thing in coalition meetings.  What about building off of and reinforcing the militant consciousness that non-socialists bring to the table in these meetings?

I agree that revolutionary organizations and mass organizations are not the same thing and we shouldn’t try to turn every coalition, strike committee, union, etc into a revolutionary group .  I also agree that we need specifically revolutionary organizations that can put forward particularly revolutionary ideas if we want to avoid mass work being swalowed back up into economism or reformism.  BUT, what about raising perspectives in mass organizations that draw out the revolutionary possibilities latent in the current mass struggle? From what I understand, adventurists in California have been doing this and they are attracting broad layers of people who were liberals in the fall and are now ultraleft Marxist or anarchists. Doesn’t this say something about people’s radical disillusionment with capitalism and the need to agitate against capitalism within the radicalizing milieu of the anti-budget cuts movement?  (I’m talking now about activities and conversations among the millieu of the activists and the circles surrounding them, not necessarily every mass meeting or coalition program or flyer). What about recognizing, recording, intervening in, and advancing the current self-activity of the working class (including working class students), showing how it points toward things like the overthrow of management, workers’ control of the workplace, etc.? How can revolutionaries support and mentor organic militant-intellecutals from various workplaces and schools who get involved in the struggle with us? What forms of pedagogy and organization support this? These are the kinds of questions I see AS asking. It goes much further than simply proposing the right set of demands or the right strategy in a mass organization or coalition meeting. I have seen many Trotskyists systematically putting forward the right line in meetings but they still end up shutting out a lot of the new people who come around and they don’t follow up with them outside the meetings to support them and build their leadership.

I guess this comes back to an old debate about Lenin’s What is To Be Done? If Lenin is right and the working class can only achieve trade union consciousness in mass organizations then the only vehicle for developing revolutionary consciousness is the vanguard party. If that were true then revolutions should focus on a) shaping mass organizations and b) recuriting members to revolutioanry groups. If Lenin is right then revolutionary cadre should focus on building new revolutionary leaders among people who have ALREADY joined the party. But I disagree with this formulation from What is To Be Done (and Lenin himself retracted it later in his life). The working class does develop organic militants and organic intellectuals who go beyond the limits of trade union consciousness so revolutionaries need to build intermediate organizations, what Hal Draper called “centers”, which can engage with these militants and grow with them in struggle. That includes learning from them (here is where I have a growing appreciation for AS’s critical revamping of Pedagogy of the Oppressed).

In Seattle, Unity and Struggle members are building the local of our revolutionary organization but we are not trying to recruit every worker and student militant immediately into Unity and Struggle. There is a broader milleiu of revolutionary workers and students around us who have come to revolutionary consciousness through the struggle and through their life experiences. Yes we would love if as many of them as possible join Unity and Struggle but we are not assuming that they need to do that in order to be revolutionaries. We are trying to “meet them where they’re at” by supporting their revolutionary self-activity in groups like DI, IWSJ, and FADU so we can move forward together from there. I agree with how Labor’s Militant Voice put it in their response to the AS and SO pieces: ” Our role is to integrate with this movement from below, seek out the most combative and thinking layers, conduct a dialogue with these forces from which we will learn and they will learn and help organize these most thoughtful and combative layers into a cohesive fighting force.” Yes – we need to gather our forces. However, LMV incorrectly counterposes this to AS’s concept of pedagogy. As far as I can tell this is exactly what AS means by pedagogy, though AS members can clarify this better than I can.

What is success and what are we fighting for? (Thoughts on the transitional program)

I agree generally with SO that we need a transitional method that bridges the gap between reform struggles and revolution, though I imagine I would have major disagreements with them over how to apply this in practice. I dont really see how a transitional method is different from what AS is putting forward (I’ll leave it to AS members to clarify this). I agree we need to fight for reform demands but also need to expose the fact that capitalism cannot meet these reform demands, so in order for the working class to live, capitalism must die. The budget cuts fight is a crucial way to show this – I agree, it is the largest response so far to the economic crisis. Because of the crisis the system cannot do anything but cut the budget further.  We’re in for a long struggle.   So the more we fight the budget cuts the more the folks in this struggle around us will either get disllusioned and drop out of the movement or become revolutionary.  It’s our job to equip them with the theoretical tools to do the latter rather than the former and critically revamping the transitional program is part of this.

However, I think it’s important that the transitional program include demands and actions which increase working class control, not just demands for economic gains like public education and healthcare. We need to be saying, “look, in the 1930s we won all sorts of social programs but we lost control over them…. the bosses gave us union contracts and health care and in response they told us to stop trying to control our workplaces. Without that control, they could turn around and dismantle these social programs and these union contracts from the 1970s onward. This time around when we demand these things we need to make sure we have control over them so they can’t be taken away.” We need to be fighting for democratic education, not just public education; we need to be fighting for the right of students, workers, and community members to make the budget and to shape the curriculum and the work process on campus, not the bureaucrats.  And, we even need a healthy dose of what the adventurists remind us of: education and work should not be separate from play, adventure, imagination, etc.  Hell, if we can’t imagine this struggle leading to a world where work and play are not as separate as they are under capitalism, then why they hell should we be revolutionaries in the first place?

Rallies and Days of Action

I agree with SO that rallies are not as bad as lobbying… lobbying is co-optation, whereas rallies can build working class confidence. I agree we can’t fetishize strikes as the only way to advance the struggle (again I don’t think AS is doing this). But the question then is WHAT KIND of rallies? Rallies where professional activists and politicians speak at a bored crowd for an hour and then go home? Or rallies in which youth, workers, and oppressed peoples take the lead, get on the megaphone, take spontaneous actions, speak out, and build their leadership, electrifying the crowd in the process? S.O. seems to downplay the difference between these; they correctly point out the main problem with bureaucratic rallies is the Democratic Party politics represented on the stage, but that liberal capitalist hegemony is almost always also reflected by a movement cop type ethos the organizers impose on the crowd. I’m not in California and I don’t know exactly what went down in San Francisco on the 4th but the way SO describes the 3 PM high school walkout sounds great, just like AS’s description of the Oakland rally sounds great. I’d say we can support these kinds of rallies, but I don’t think it’s ultraleft to refuse to waste our limited time and resources to organize for boring rallies that that will be controlled by union bureaucrats and politicians if we have a chance to organize other more engaging actions on the same day.  The bureaucrats can’t guilt us into running errands for them in the name of “building the movement.”

At times it will make tactical sense to go to those kinds of bureaucratic rallies and try to support mass minorities in the crowd who want to go further than the people on the stage want them to. My comrades and I have done that at Palestine and anti-war rallies, and some Trotskyists have accused us of being ultraleft for doing it even when we’ve been able to win over the majority of the crowd to move independently of the bureaucratic leaders. AS advocated a similar approach in their pamphlet on the Oscar Grant uprising. This is far from abstentionist – in fact, my guess is a lot of the centrists would say it is TOO interventionist.

In Unity and Struggle we agree with AS’s perspective of pushing for strikes but our comrades in Austin organized a rally knowing that a strike was not yet on the table (the subjective and objective conditions were not ripe yet). But the Austin rally was also more rowdy, more militant, and more fun because ellea pelea! encouraged marching through buildings,  something which centrists there were wary of (see My sense is AS’s basic challenge against centrism applies in situations where strikes are not necessarily on the table; AS is raising questions about method, not just tactics.  Our comrades in Austin built off of AS’s framework even in a situation where a strike wasn’t even discussed.

Coalition Building

I already commented on this in the comments section over on the AS site. Like SO, I am for building united front coalitions, and Democracy Insurgent does participate in the Student Worker coalition at UW which is a united font. At the same time we are trying to build “radical organizing bodies” like International Workers and Students for Justice, For a Democratic University, and Student Liberation Front which do a lot of the things that the AS piece calls for. These groups participate in the united front but do not subordinate themselves to the coalition or liquidate themselves into it. Building intermediate radical formations/ organizing centers is not incompatible with building united fronts. As I argued in my comment on the AS site, the presence of these radical organizing bodies helps prevent the united front coalition from descending into a popular front where centrists demand that radicals subordinate themselves to the liberals.

In Seattle, our coalition spaces are open to liberals but not dominated by them.
I agree with SO’s point that organizing spaces which bring together only the hardcore of the radical left descend into sectarianism very fast – they need to bring in broader layers to avoid this. I can’t speak to the conditions in the March 4th city committees in California but I have seen that happen before. My sense though is AS is not trying to bring together all the hardcore leftists, they are trying to bring together revolutionaries and organic independent militants from various workplaces and schools. I think that’s the right approach.

Where to go from here?

I agree strongly with LMV’s point that we need to explain the political content, not just the tactics and process of the developing anti-budget cuts movement.  My guess is AS would be for this too, they just can’t take up everything in one piece. I am looking forward to hearing their analyses of the developing class contradictions around education and public services.  In her Mass Strike pamphlet , Rosa Luxemburg argues about how to discuss recent mass strikes in Russia with the German working class; she points out that you can’t separate discussing the form of strikes from the political content of those strikes:

“But it does not meet the case, in the presence of this interest and of this fine, intellectual thirst and desire for revolutionary deeds on the part of the workers, to treat them to abstract mental gymnastics on the possibility or impossibility of the mass strike; they should be enlightened on the development of the Russian Revolution, the international significance of that revolution, the sharpening of class antagonisms in Western Europe, the wider political perspectives of the class struggle in Germany, and the role and the tasks of the masses in the coming struggles. Only in this form will the discussion on the mass strike lead to the widening of the intellectual horizon of the proletariat, to the sharpening of their way of thinking, and to the steeling of their energy.”

I agree with LMV that the mass firing in Central Falls, RI, Arne Duncan’s media offensive, etc. are signs the ruling class is stepping up its opposition in response to our actions on March 4th and they’re not about to try and co-opt us through reform concessions because they can’t afford to right now. We need to dig in for a long and difficult war of position and we cannot claim any easy victories. This is something we need to explain to ourselves and to the militants around us as soon as possible so we don’t get burned out expecting reform victories that don’t come. It is an essential pedagogical approach to avoid voluntarism or cynicism creeping in. It is also an excellent chance to have a discussion about reform and revolution, the transitional method, and the logic of capital. Just like in the 30s and 40s, for the working class to live capitalism will have to die.

The only caveat I would make to my extension of LMV’s analysis is that we do still need to be on the lookout for the possibilities of very selective forms of co-opation being dished out to some layers of the class at the expense of others. We can’t party after the funeral for social democracy assuming that the next step is insurrection; the ruling class could come back with some highly scary form of “warfare-welfare state” that drastically narrows the circle of who counts as a citizen and provides benefits to those inside while ruthelessly cutting those outside.

I agree with LMV it would be great if California organizers call another statewide event or lay the groundwork for a national event. That would help our organizing here in Seattle, Austin, and elsewhere in the country. At the same time, what S.O. recorded about the feeling of burnout at Berkley is a serious danger. My hope is that parts of California that are newer to the struggle are less burnt out, and I’m looking forward to hearing from AS members what their assessment is since my sense is they are connected to some of the most dynamic social layers in the Bay Area. In any case, I’d rather start the fall with a well aimed, powerful jab in the eye of the capitalist class nationally then throw a bunch of exhausted and less powerful punches before finals period this spring.   At a certain point quality matters more than quantity, and it’s the only way to get to quantity.

Hopefully other layers of the class will move this spring and summer which will bolster the student movement. The Left needs to make sure we’re out there organizing off campuses as well. In particular, we need to aggressively link the anti-budget cuts movement and the potentially resurgent immigrant rights movement. Democracy Insurgent is releasing a statement we worked on with memers of Mecha toward this effect and we will be participating on May 1st and in an action as part of Mecha’s national conference at UW this May. I know many other groups around the country are also making these connections which is crucial.

All in all, I think this is refreshingly thoughtful and non-sectarian discussion and I am looking forward to hearing other folks perspectives. I hope that Unity and Struggle can write a more sustained and theoretically rigorous engagement with some of the questions AS, SO, and LMV are raising as soon as we have a chance. In the meantime, thanks ya’ll for getting the ball rolling, these are the kinds of questions we need to be answering if we want to advance the budget cuts struggle.

6 responses to “Between a Trot and a Hard Place: The Debate Within Our Movement

  1. I’m not sure if folks here have seen this text yet:, but I think it is relevant to the discussion happening here. The text deals with the successful occupation at Sussex University, and, while there are clear differences in the contexts, there are many parallels to the movement in California right now as well.

    The authorship is a bit unclear, but I am pretty sure that it was written by a member of Solidarity Federation, the British IWA affiliate.

    As a side note I think some here (particularly SO) could stand to take a lesson from the brevity of the text…


  2. I’m always enjoying the debate here! Continuing this discussion I thought Advance the Struggle readers and friends might be interested in these two interviews we recently published looking at the roles and politics of revolutionaries in the broader student movement and touching on many of the same themes here. Thanks!

  3. Amenecer still does shit and came out of there cave! Thats good. What actual organizing do yall due?

  4. Thanks Teqilya. Most folks are active in their unions or in organizing their workplaces with several involved in the anti cuts movement and a few in community organizing of various sorts. A number of folks first connected with each other through anti cuts organizing in the Bay Area back in 2004-5, mostly at the community college level, or in housing/neighborhood organizing in LA. Sorry if that’s a bit vague, but let me know if you’re wondering something more.

    We don’t do organizing under the banner of Amanecer but rather as part of broader mass efforts if that makes sense.

  5. You’ve done it again. Amazing writing.

  6. AtS have posed some good questions…

    1. How should marxist militants understand the political character of unions?
    By understanding the nature of the period they operate in. In the period before the first world war, capitalism was a progressive, expanding social system from which the working class could win lasting reforms. The working class could use its unions not only as vehicles of struggles, but as ‘schools of communism’. However, the first world war saw capitalism pass its zenith, and since then the capitalist state has integrated into itself most of the bodies of civil society. During the 1914-17 war and the following decades the unions everywhere have been integrated into the capitalist state, becoming the main weapon through which the ruling class can contain, derail and sabotage the class struggle. The unions are lost to the working class, becoming their main enemy in the class struggle:

    2. How should militants relate to unions, their leadership and their rank and file?
    The union bureaucrats have not been ‘bought off’, they were never on the side of the working class to begin with. The unions are in the hands of the bourgeoisie and have been for 90 years. Militant workers should not participate within the union structures. For decades the Trotskyists – the left-wing of capital – were denied any role in the rank and file of the unions but they’re making up for it now, calling for the unions to lead struggles. This can only serve to keep militant workers within the union prison.

    The unions organize strikes in numerous workplaces… without ever trying to unite them. They actively encourage sectional divisions, especially between private and public sector workers. They march the workers out on sterile ‘days of action’. They are in fact specialists in dividing the working class. The unions are equally adept at instilling nationalism. Following the trade unions always means following the road to division and defeat. Workers need to take the struggle into their own hands, by organising in general assemblies and deciding on the demands and slogans to raise, by electing delegates who can be recalled at any moment and by sending massive delegations to discuss with other groups of workers, in the nearest factories, offices, schools and hospitals, with the aim of encouraging them to join the movement. There is an alternative!

    3. How should disciplined revolutionaries relate to, and work within coalitional spaces? How important are general assemblies as organizational forms for the working-class’ political self-activity?
    It depends on the nature of the general assemblies. In Europe, GAs tend to be much less dominated by Trotskyists and thus much more open forums for debate and discussion. The was the experience of the GAs in the anti-CPE movement in France, 2006:

    The Trots made a big effort to derail the GAs in France. From what I can gather from what I’ve read about the movement in California they seem to have a similar effect.

    4. Is there a need for revolutionaries to have independent spaces and organizations outside of both coalitions/united fronts and general assemblies?

    5. Are general assemblies and united fronts the only true legitimate spaces for working-class self activity?
    No. United fronts are dangerous because they are used by the left-wing of the bourgeoisie (Trots, Maoists, Stalinists) to pull militants into dead-ends of reformism, identity politics and single issue campaigns.

    6. If not, what should independent political organizations look like?
    Does ‘self-activity’ always have to take on an ‘organizational’ form? Struggle groups can bring together workers involved in one struggle to discuss and reflect on the lessons of struggles. There can also be more broader ‘class-struggle’ forums that are open to everyone coming from a class-struggle perspective. There is a place for permanent political organizations (I’m in the ICC) but it’s important to distinguish between such organizations and the ‘unitary organs’ which arise from struggles and through which the workers direct their struggles (strike committees, general assemblies, workers’ councils).

    7. How should a marxist ‘cadre’ type organization relate to such a space or organization?
    Participate in it to see what the dynamic is. Encourage such spaces to be as open as possible, defend them from those who’d have them suffocated and sterilized (Trots).

    8. Should we help build them to the exclusion of participating in united fronts? Are these forms of organization mutually exclusive?
    Yes. Yes.

    9. Can the problem facing the working class today be summed up by Leon Trotsky’s assertion in the opening line of his famous work, ‘The Transitional Program’, which states that: “the world political situation as a whole is chiefly characterized by a historical crisis of leadership of the proletariat”?

    10. And, if so, does this mean that the problem facing revolutionaries today is primarily the task of substituting ‘bad leadership’ [read: union bureaucrats] for ‘good leadership’ [read: correct-line trotskyist revolutionaries]
    The unions are not somewhere in-between the workers and the bosses. They are part of the capitalist state. No change of leadership can change this.

    11. Do revolutionaries need to orient in radically different ways that consciously avoid reproducing the same hierarchical structures of authority present in capitalism?
    Yes. While it’s impossible to build ‘islands of communism’ in capitalist society, revolutionary organizations have to bear the imprints of the working class — solidarity, international, centralized.

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