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How Do We Build a Movement?

Politely walking into pens set up by police, shaking our signs and gently dispersing will not build a movement serious about root-and-branch change. Even the more militant demonstrations, in which people — gasp! — actually take the streets in defiance of authorities, both legal and NGO, are far from sufficient.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t demonstrate. Nor is it to say that demonstrations aren’t important and necessary. They are. Demonstrations are important (including the semi-official large-scale walks in which government officials are moved to participate) because they signal popular anger, activate people by showing others that there are millions who think similarly, and serve as a potentially invaluable organizing tool.

But demonstrations don’t, and can’t, change anything by themselves. They don’t touch the system and threaten no one in power. This is especially so when they are “one-off” events. Remember that it was only two autumns ago that an estimated 400,000 people marched through the streets of New York City in defense of the environment. There were street actions in the financial district the next day, ones that were permitted to go on for much the day because it would have been too embarrassing for the gentrification mayor, Bill de Blasio, the Obama of New York, to have openly suppressed it one day after he marched in the big Sunday stroll.

But, then — nothing. The energy generated by the march evaporated; it might as well not have happened. It didn’t help that march organizers raised no demands, much less attempted to connect global warming and environmental destruction with economic issues. Organizing a march simply to generate media attention is a dead-end strategy.

A steady crescendo of demonstrations and marches certainly are part of any serious movement. But petitioning leaders to do better for working people yields meager gains. There are structural issues here: When Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Jean Chrétien, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Francois Hollande, Gerhard Schröder, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, Matteo Renzi and Alexis Tsipras follow the same path, then a condemnation of personality doesn’t provide explanations.

There are no saviors. We will have to save ourselves. And we won’t save ourselves without organization or commitment.

Fighting on all fronts

An unused tool does nothing. A tool used properly multiplies force. A serious movement needs a full toolbox and not simply one tool.

Such a toolbox can only be wielded by cohesive organizations welding together movements in broad alliances that provide scope for people with specific issues and oppressions to advance their goals simultaneous with rooting these in larger understandings of the structural causes of them and the systemic crises that must be tackled. The days of telling people that you need to wait your turn and, anyway, your oppression will be solved once we have a revolution need to be definitively over. On the other hand, splintering into a myriad of groups working only on specific issues in isolation from one another is a guarantee of ineffectiveness.

Nor is it necessary to choose between “identity politics” and “class politics.” We need to fight on all fronts, using both what is relevant from past struggles and new tactics and strategies reflecting contemporary understandings arising out of current conditions. Nor should it be an obligation to accept or reject organizational structures simply because they are old or new. There are vast gradations between those who believe we should just replicate whatever Vladimir Lenin did and those who believe we should spend three hours a night in open-air assemblies.

Practice without theory amounts to running around in circles with no effectiveness. Theory without practice is arm-chair pontificating. Only a synthesis of theory and practice can propel a movement forward to effective action. That synthesis does not fall out of the sky.

Theory derives from examining our experiences, both in our everyday lives and in movement work, and developing ideas out of these in opposition to the dominant propaganda — ideas that can be translated into concrete actions. Effective action, in turn, is impossible without organization.

In her thoughtful paper, “Ideas for the Struggle,” Marta Harnecker writes that the example of successful revolutions demonstrates that a “political instrument” capable of a national struggle and based on current, concrete conditions is essential. She argues that people who believe that strong organizations are something to be avoided because many parties of the past engaged in authoritarian or manipulative political practices should not be trapped in the past. She writes:

“I believe it is fundamental for us to overcome this subjective barrier and understand that when we refer to a political instrument, we are not thinking about any political instrument; we are dealing with a political instrument adjusted to the new times, an instrument that we must build together. … We are talking about understanding politics as the art of constructing a social and political force capable of changing the correlation of force in favor of the popular movement, to make possible in the future what today appears impossible. We have to think of politics as the art of constructing forces. We have to overcome the old and deeply-rooted mistake of trying to build a political force without building a social force.”

Changing the world means taking power

We can ignore the state all we want; the state will not ignore us if we mount any challenge to present-day orthodoxy. Nor will the new age concept of “changing ourselves” lead to any social change. If we want a better world, that entails eventually taking power. As Vivek Chibber recently put it at the “Global Resistance in the Neoliberal University” conference: “A politics that doesn’t try to take power isn’t politics — it’s just talking.”

The task, however, not only is immense but must be conducted on multiple levels, Ms. Harnecker writes:

“[W]e must develop a process of popular construction opposed to capitalism in the territories and spaces won by the left, that seeks to break with the profit logic and the relations this imposes and tries to instill solidarity-based humanist logics. We must promote struggles that are not limited to simple economic demands — although these need to be included — but that advance the development of a more global, social project that encourages authentic levels of power from the grassroots.”

And what form should a “political instrument” take? These need not take any specific form — and in pluralistic societies are likely to encompass multiple forms. Yet if building an effective movement that is sustainable, institutionalizes memory through integrating past experiences and aims toward a transformation of society, a party is necessary, argues Jodi Dean. In her 2016 book Crowds and Party, she argues that Leftists who want to create a better world have to get past their criticisms of the party form, and not become trapped in their own self-critique or allow critiques of specific parties to become a universal rejection of the party form.

This argument is made in the context of analyzing why Occupy so quickly dissipated. The birth of a movement such as Occupy should represent a beginning, not an end. A spontaneous outburst of popular action, such as Occupy, is often seen as an end in itself. Such spontaneity needs a permanent form for meeting the challenge of maintaining a movement. Professor Dean argues that those who mistake an opening for the end,

“treat organization, administration, and legislation as a failure of revolution, a return of impermissible domination and hierarchy rather than as effects and arrangements of power, rather than as attributes of the success of a political intervention. The politics of the beautiful moment is no politics at all. Politics combines the opening with direction, with the insertion of the crowd disruption into a sequence or process that pushes one way or another. There is no politics until a meaning is announced and the struggle over this meaning begins.”

New forms of organization

This does not mean a party is the only organizational form. Nor does it have to mean that a single party will, or can, express the full range of demands of a broad movement or represent all shades of opinion, especially given the divide that will likely persist for some time between those who begin with a goal of fundamental transformation and those who advocate reforms. Given the pluralism of most countries, including all advanced capitalist countries (not to mention the complexity of modern life), the formation of multiple parties should be seen as healthy.

A successful movement will inevitably be a coalition; the political expressions of this should be coalitions as well. Popular-front types of organization, movement coalitions organized to achieve specific goals while allowing participating groups to express their particular perspectives, are forms likely to be necessary to create the sufficient scale of activists needed to effect advances.

A multitude of popular organizations, reflecting not only the differing sites of struggle but the necessarily different types of struggle, will come into being. These need not be permanent, although some will be. Self-organized councils or assemblies of workers sustaining an enterprise occupation or sit-in strike is but one form; neighborhood organizations uniting into bodies representing larger spaces of geography, advocacy groups and the creation of liberated zones are among others.

New types of unions could be still another form. Staughton Lynd, in his recently updated book Solidarity Unionism: Rebuilding the Labor Movement from Below, argues that present-day unions are “institutional dinosaurs, resembling nothing so much as the corporations we are striving to replace.” He advocates shop-floor committees that organize around grievances and problems rather than negotiating contracts and that use direct action, even in opposition to union leaders, and “parallel central labor bodies” that organize workers in a geographic region, across industries. New labor organizations should be built on solidarity, he writes:

“[B]y building organizations based on solidarity, rather than on bureaucratic chain-of-command, we build organizations that by their very existence help to bring a new kind of society into being.”

As with any other organization created to address specific problems, sustaining effectiveness will be impossible without linking the specific problems to other issues and in turn linking related issues to larger structural critiques. The enormous institutional advantages that industrialists and financiers possess through their ability to exert decisive influence over governments, their domination of the mass media, the disposal of police and military forces at their service, and ability to infuse their preferred ideologies through a web of institutions present enormous challenges. This is a hegemony that must be broken, and won’t be broken until a critical mass of people come to understand the excuses that buttress all this for the self-serving ideology that it is.

Breaking hegemony through alternative examples

Laurence Cox and Alf Gunvald Nilsen, in their 2014 book We Make Our Own History: Marxism and Social Movements in the Twilight of Neoliberalism, argue that the work of breaking this hegemony necessitates defeating the state, breaking up at least some power relations and instituting new ones, but doing so through the masses, not a vanguard.

As no movement, organization or leader has a monopoly of ideas, Professors Cox and Nilsen envision a “movement of movements”: The coming together of independent movements without the intention of submitting to the leadership of any single party or of privileging narrow definitions of working class interests. This necessitates not only learning from one another to increase the body of knowledge that can be drawn upon but also learning from the past. They write:

“These situations share a potential for human self-development to flourish beyond the normal limits set by exploitation, oppression, ignorance and isolation, creating institutions driven by human need rather than by profit and power. … These ‘everyday utopias’ do not need to be installed from above by decree; what they do need is a breaking of power relations within communities, workplaces, state institutions and globally, which stand in their way.”

Nothing of human creation lasts forever. Capitalism, despite the frantic scribblings of apologists for inequality, is no more immune from this than previous forms of economic and social relations. What will replace it is up to all of us. Given that infinite growth is impossible on a finite planet, that hard-won reforms are temporary in a system of massive and pervasive power imbalances, that no permanent solutions are available in a system that is dependent on its most powerful institutions (large corporations) being able to offload all responsibility for pollution and other social problems on society, and that inequality, endless growth, global warming and pollution are necessary byproducts for the system to function at all, limits will be reached.

If this is the last century of capitalism, what will replace it? It could be something worse — some combination of high-tech fascism imposed on feudal arrangements in which a minuscule minority uses extreme force to hoard the world’s dwindling resources for itself is not only not out of the question, but the likely response of a capitalist elite that will stop at nothing to maintain itself. In the continued absence of organized resistance across borders, that may well be the future. Or a better world can be created, through organized struggle, that is based on fulfilling human need within environmentally sustainable practices in which everybody has a say in how their enterprise functions and in larger political and social decisions.

One day, people have had enough

These words are being written on the 100th anniversary of the start of the February Revolution in Russia. Let’s take a moment to reflect on that momentous event, which toppled an absolute monarch who ruled as a direct representative of God and whose every word was indisputable law. A monarchy that had no hesitation in shooting down protestors in the hundreds or thousands, where the overwhelming majority lived in unspeakable poverty and illiteracy.

More than 300,000 Petrograd workers took part in strikes during the seven weeks immediately preceding the February Revolution, during which time three major demonstrations were planned, and mutinies spread throughout the army. The tsarist régime responded with lockouts of factory workers, shootings of strikers by the police and army, and mass arrests.

But on one day in 1917 (March 8 in the Gregorian calendar not yet in use in Russia), tens of thousands of women textile workers in Petrograd (as St. Petersburg was then called) walked out. The women walked to nearby metal factories, told the men there to join them on strike, and both groups inspired workers in other factories to walk out. More struck the next day. The day after that, a general strike was under way in Petrograd, with demonstrators shouting anti-war and anti-monarchy slogans. Within a week, the tsar abdicated.

Years of tireless work paid off. As I wrote in my book It’s Not Over: Learning From the Socialist Experiment:

“One more strike, one additional action following hundreds of actions, one action that on the day it began did not seem noticeably different from previous actions, put the revolution in motion. Why this one? It is impossible to say. Perhaps all that can be said is that on that particular day, enough Russians, or at least enough Petrograd women and men, were sufficiently exasperated to do something about it. The February Revolution is an excellent example of the necessity of continuing to struggle: It is usually impossible to predict which spark will be the one to catch fire. The revolutionaries were surprised by the revolution, and perhaps that could not have been otherwise. But the revolution would not have happened without their work.”

Russians had ceased to believe the ideologies that kept their society in place. Similarly, our task today is to explode the mythologies that undergird our current world. This is a big task, but one that is indispensable, Henry Giroux writes:

“Central to a viable notion of ideological and structural transformation is a refusal of the mainstream politics of disconnect. In its place is a plea for broader social movements and a more comprehensive understanding of politics in order to connect the dots between, for instance, police brutality and mass incarceration, on the one hand, and the diverse crises producing massive poverty, the destruction of the welfare state, and the assaults on the environment, workers, young people and women. …

[P]rogressives must address the crucial challenge of producing cultural apparatuses such as alternative media, think tanks and social services in order to provide models of education that enhance the ability of individuals to make informed judgments, discriminate between evidence based arguments and opinions, and to provide theoretical and political frameworks for rethinking the relationship between the self and others based on notions of compassion, justice, and solidarity.”

And as a reminder that we need to take care of each other, because struggle is such hard work, it’s appropriate to offer a quote from Mark Fisher, who recently left this world all too prematurely:

“Emancipatory politics must always destroy the appearance of a ‘natural order,’ must reveal what is presented as necessary and inevitable to be a mere contingency, just as it must make what was previously deemed to be impossible seem attainable.”

Good words to remember, even if many of us won’t be around long enough to see a better world come into being. Struggle we must, regardless. I don’t wish for the following words to be reduced to cliché because they are uttered so often (including by me), but the choice for the future remains socialism or barbarism. Let us be worthy of our task.

More articles by:

Pete Dolack writes the Systemic Disorder blog and has been an activist with several groups. His book, It’s Not Over: Learning From the Socialist Experiment, is available from Zero Books.

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