Paul Le Blanc: Revolutionary organisation and the ‘Occupy moment’

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Occupy Pittsburgh, October 15, 2011.

[For more discussion on revolutionary organisation, click HERE. Articles on left unity can be found HERE. The Occupy movement is discussed HERE.]

By Paul Le Blanc

February 16, 2012 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- The Occupy movement has been having a profound impact on the socialist left in the United States. I want to share some information on this, focusing on my own experience, and relate it to broader issues of Marxism and organisation that I have been engaged with for some time.

In my native Pittsburgh, members of the International Socialist Organization, the Party for Socialism and Liberation, the Workers International League and Committees of Correspondence, plus a number of independent socialists have been active (some more, some less) in the Occupy movement. I know similar things can be said of the Occupy movement in a number of other cities. More than this, one can easily find substantial reports, animated discussions and analyses about the Occupy movement in publications and on websites associated with the International Socialist Organization (ISO), Solidarity, Socialist Action, Committees of Correspondence, Freedom Road Socialist Organization, the Socialist Party, Socialist Alternative, Workers International League, Workers World Party, the Party for Socialism and Liberation – and I am confident that the list is not complete. All of this is easily accessible online. And all of these organisations, I think, are wrestling with the question of what new tasks are raised for us by the Occupy movement in which many of us are actively involved.

Some (for example Pham Binh in a recent contribution published in Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal) have called for us all to merge together in a single revolutionary organisation, implying that this would make us more effective at this key moment. Based on my own experience, it seems obvious to me that this would be a serious mistake. Here I will argue that there is a better approach, consistent both with my experience and with a party-building perspective that I have been writing about for some time.

Coming together in a common revolutionary party

In Pittsburgh, members of the Party for Socialism and Liberation, the Workers International League and my own ISO are not in the same organisation. This has not prevented us from working quite well together in anti-war, pro-public transport and Occupy-related struggles. If instead – in an effort to create a single socialist group – we were enmeshed in struggles with each other over what should be our common political program, how we should define the very conception of socialism, etc., I think our ability to work effectively would be undermined. Now we can agree to disagree on certain principled questions (to be discussed and debated in appropriate contexts) while forming a positive working relationship around questions where we stand on common ground.

Ultimately, people from these groups may come together in the same revolutionary socialist organisation – just as many Bolsheviks, for example, found themselves together in the Russian Communist Party with comrades who had been Mensheviks, Left-Socialist Revolutionaries, Bundists, anarchists and others. There was a similar coming-together process in the formation of the early Communist movement in the United States and other countries. Momentous experiences and historical forces have a way of bringing revolutionaries from different backgrounds together. Such forces are at work, and such experiences are shaping up, that can bring such an outcome to the United States in the future.

Many of us on the US socialist left agree on the need for such an organisation. A working-class revolution and socialist transformation in the United States will not come about spontaneously. It will come about only if knowledgeable activists and skilled organisers, dedicated to such goals, work very hard to bring them about. This would add up to a US equivalent to what Bolshevism was in Russia. Such a thing cannot be forced through cobbling together different socialist groups. Nor will it be a replica of Russian Bolshevism. But the effort to bring such a thing into existence can be strengthened, as we are intimately involved in the struggles of our time, by critically engaging with the ideas and experiences of Lenin, Trotsky, Rosa Luxemburg, Antonio Gramsci, and other revolutionary Marxists from the 20th century’s early communist movement, as well as by the history of US class struggles and revolutionary traditions.

As we engage in the struggles of today and tomorrow, the theory and history of those who went before should be pondered and shared as widely and deeply as possible. Those who are growing into effective activists and organisers in the mass struggles unfolding in our time can benefit from this. Such activists, and the growing number of workers and oppressed people who increasingly share in their vision, also absorbing their knowledge and political skills, can grow into a powerful force to bring about the political, social and economic transformation that we need. As a mass phenomenon, this becomes part of a broad labour-radical subculture, nourishing a revolutionary class consciousness that will animate a substantial and increasingly influential layer of the working class – which constitutes a working-class “vanguard” that is the only serious basis for the US equivalent of Bolshevism.

As Lenin explained in Left-Wing Communism, An Infantile Disorder, any effort to create a cohesive, disciplined revolutionary party in the absence of such a development will result in phrase-mongering and pretentious clowning destined to fall flat on its face. (Many of us have certainly seen examples of that!) Yet as Lenin, Trotsky, Luxemburg and others have also emphasised, it will take the dynamic and creative interplay of genuine mass struggles and a serious party of the socialist vanguard to bring about the revolutionary power shift, the radical democracy, and the socialist reconstruction of society that are so badly needed. That is the goal, and its realisation transcends current existence of all existing organisations on the US socialist left.

Today there is no Leninist party in the United States. There is no “embryo” or “nucleus” of such a party in our country (although some would-be Leninist groups would not agree with this, because they think they are that). The responsibility of all is to help create the preconditions for the crystallisation of a labour-radical subculture, a revolutionary class consciousness, a mass vanguard layer of the working class, an accumulation of experience and understanding, and cadres that will bring into being an organisation, a genuine party, that can help usher in what Eugene V. Debs once called “the third American revolution”. The coming together of a revolutionary workers’ party is not possible now – the effort to force that into being, whether through self-appointment of one or another small group or through some hot-house mergers of small groups, will be counter-productive.

For now, we must immerse ourselves in the struggles of our time, create united fronts of socialists and others, carry out serious education on what actually happened in struggles of the past, engage in the serious-minded discussion and debate necessary for continuing political clarification. Debate and united struggle can go together. In 1905, Lenin called for “a fighting unity” of socialist and revolutionary groups against the tsarist regime while urging Russian activists “not to spoil things by vainly trying to lump together heterogeneous elements. We shall inevitably have to . . . march separately, but we can . . . strike together more than once and particularly now.” Insisting that “in the interests of the revolution our ideal should by no means be that all parties, all trends and shades of opinion fuse in a revolutionary chaos”, Lenin emphasised that “only full clarity and definiteness in their mutual relations and in their attitude toward the revolutionary proletariat can ensure maximum success for the revolutionary movement” (“A Militant Agreement for the Uprising”, in Lenin, Revolution, Democracy, Socialism, pp. 177, 179-180).

The challenge of Occupy

As one who has been immersed in Occupy Pittsburgh from its inception, I am seeking to apply this orientation to the realities around me. Along with many others in this remarkable movement, I have been engaged in an intensive thinking, thinking, thinking process, finding the new experiences challenging and changing me in multiple ways. There is much that I still must process before drawing all of the conclusions that are inherent in the unfolding reality of Occupy. But there are several things I am certainly able to state for purposes of this discussion.

The statement of principles adopted by Occupy Pittsburgh in November 2011 (consistent with those adopted by Occupy Wall Street in New York) gives a sense of the nature of our struggle:

We recognize that this prevents genuine democracy and deprives us of our liberties, sacrifices our health, safety and well-being, threatens our relationship with the rest of the world, has destroyed and continues to destroy cultures and peoples throughout the world, and critically compromises the ecological systems that sustain life itself.

We are a nonviolent, decentralized movement working to create a just society.

We are claiming a space for public dialogue and the practice of direct democracy for the purpose of generating and implementing solutions accessible to everyone.

To this end, we are exercising our rights to assemble peacefully and to speak freely, thus demonstrating our commitment to the long work of transforming the structures that produce and sustain these injustices.

Also to that end, we are working against all forms of inequality and discrimination including those based on age, ability, diagnosis, size, religion or lack thereof, class, culture, immigration status, nationality, history of incarceration, housing status, race, color, ethnicity, indigenous status, sex, gender identity and sexual orientation.

We stand in solidarity with those who have come before us, in Pittsburgh and elsewhere, who have fought for political, social and economic justice.

We are united, in strength and courage with the Occupations around the world. We are your next-door neighbors. We are your friends. We are your relatives. We are the 99%.

The Occupy movement, in its opposition of the 99% to the 1%, creates, in highly popularised form, a class analysis that is consistent with Marxism. The modern-day system of corporate rule and exploitation overseen by the wealthy 1% (and their servants in the upper fringe of the 99%) is what we mean by capitalism. The heart and soul, and great majority, of the 99% are the working class (blue collar, white collar, unemployed, etc.). The goal of establishing the democratic control of the 99% over our economic and political life is what we understand as socialism. This actually reflects radical traditions that run deep in the history of the United States.

It was, for example, Martin Luther King, Jr., who emphasised that the triple evils of racism, exploitation and war are interrelated and deeply rooted in the very nature of the US social-economic system, insisting that the “whole structure must be changed... American must be born again!” (See “Where Do We Go From Here”, in A Testament of Hope, pp. 250-251.) What the Occupy movement has done, and the way it has defined itself, has resonated powerfully among millions of people in the United States. We in the Occupy movement have a responsibility to be true to that, and to sustain and expand it to the best of our abilities. What we are about, as defined in the Occupy Pittsburgh statement, involves winning the overwhelming majority of the 99% in support of and struggle for the commitments and goals of replacing the power of the 1% with the power of the 99%.

Socialists involved in Occupy have a responsibility to explain how we see things – that this movement of and for the 99% is basically a working-class movement, and that its stated goal of waging a struggle for universal human rights, a central aspect of which is economic justice (the possibility of a decent life for each and every person), is – along with the notion of rule by the people over our economic and political life – what socialism is all about. More than this, our Occupy movement represents a life-giving revitalisation for the labor movement as a whole.

In the United States, the trade union movement has often been mistakenly identified as “the labour movement”, but it is only a defensive fragment of the labour movement. Once upon a time, the trade unions were built by radicals and revolutionaries – varieties of socialists and communists and anarchists and other labour radicals (some of whose voices can be found, for example, in the anthology Work and Struggle). They provided militancy, broad social vision and tough-minded democracy that gave life to the unions. They also built mass movements for social reforms (universal suffrage, an eight-hour workday, an end to child labour, for public education, women’s rights, opposition to racism, and more), and some of them laboured to build working-class political parties, although this had much less success in the US than in other countries. A full-fledged labour movement consists of all these elements.

Since the 1930s and 1940s, there has been a narrowing of the labour movement to the trade unions alone, accompanied by a marginalisation of the radicals and revolutionaries, and an accommodation with the corporations and the pro-capitalist state (and entanglement with the pro-capitalist Democratic Party). Over the years, the spirit has increasingly gone out of this fragmented labour movement, with hierarchy and bureaucracy crowding out rank-and-file democracy, and with workers feeling increasingly alienated from this fragment of a movement that claims to speak for them. Much of the current union leadership recognises that it is caught in a dead-end. Facing an extended onslaught from the big business corporations of capitalism, combined with economic downturn, it seems unlikely that the unions will be able to survive unless there is a change in the nature and orientation of the labour movement. More than anything the union leadership has been able to generate in recent decades, the Occupy movement has powerfully placed issues of economic justice in the national consciousness and mainstream political dialogue. It has tilted political reality in a way that opens up new possibilities and new, life-giving spirit for organised labour.

This helps to explain the unprecedented support by organised labour for the radicalism of the Occupy movement, and a strong trend within Occupy toward working together with unions and certain reform struggles (for health care, public transport, education, etc.), which helps to bring into being a larger, more diverse, multifaceted working-class movement. One of the strengths of Occupy Pittsburgh has been its commitment to a close working relationship with the unions and other elements of the broadly defined working class of the Pittsburgh area. This defines the primary responsibility of socialists in the Occupy movement: helping to build a sense of class consciousness and class struggle, helping to nurture an undercurrent of socialist consciousness, helping to advance the possibility of a mass socialist consciousness and mass socialist movement in the foreseeable future, connected with real struggles for economic justice through direct confrontation with the wealthy 1% of corporate capitalism.

We have been subjected to evictions of our Occupy encampments from the public spaces (Pittsburgh, one of the last, being finally dislodged several days before this writing), where we directly and vibrantly confronted the authority of the capitalist power structure. There are important challenges we face while seeking to reorient to the new situation.

One challenge is represented by two fractions among some of our anarchist brothers and sisters – some of whom want to build more or less utopian “communities” and activist “families” as alternatives to the status quo (apart from both the 1% and from the 99%), others inclined to break with the unions and mount masked minority confrontations against the 1%, independently of the 99%. In either case, the resulting isolation of Occupy activists, it seems clear, would be bound to marginalise our movement.

A very different challenge comes from powerful forces – particularly among our trade union allies – that will be pushing in this presidential election year to draw all activism into the camp of the pro-capitalist Democratic Party. “There is one common feature in the development, or more correctly the degeneration, of modern trade union organizations in the entire world”, Trotsky noted as World War II was beginning to unfold. “It is their drawing closely to and growing together with the state power.”

His analysis is worth lingering over: “They have to confront a centralized capitalist adversary, intimately bound up with state power... In the eyes of the bureaucracy of the trade union movement the chief task lies in ‘freeing’ the state from the embrace of capitalism, in weakening its dependence on trusts [the big business corporations], in pulling it over to their side” (Trotsky, “Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay”, in Writings in Exile, p. 211). But the state in capitalist society is essentially an instrument for preserving the exploitative system of capitalism. Likewise, the presumed means for winning this capitalist instrument to “our side” – the Democratic Party – is absolutely committed to preserving the capitalist system. Given these realities, subordinating our struggle to a hoped-for Democratic Party victory is a highly dubious pathway for Occupy and the working class as a whole.

Such challenges are hardly new. Rosa Luxemburg noted the two dangers many years ago: “One is the loss of mass character; the other, the abandonment of its goal. One is the danger of sinking back to the condition of a sect; the other, the danger of becoming a movement of bourgeois [capitalist] social reform” (Luxemburg, “Organizational Questions of Russian Social Democracy”, in Socialism or Barbarism, p. 101).

This challenging moment is exactly the wrong time for socialists to channel their attention and energies into the project of merging into a multi-tendency socialist organisation. If all the members of all the socialist organisations in the United States were prepared to adhere to some ideal program and orientation free of “non-essentials” and sectarianism, and were able to do that quickly and efficiently, then such a notion could be considered reasonable. But to state the matter like that is to highlight its impossibility. On the other hand, I know from my experience that the kind of “fighting unity” Lenin spoke of – involving cooperation among members of different socialist groups, and united front type efforts – is something that is definitely possible and fruitful.

What we need to build with others, in this context, is an increasingly influential, dynamic, explicitly working-class current in the Occupy movement, a community-labour Occupy, which is both inclusive and politically independent. “The Occupy moment” may pass before the end of 2012. But for now socialists must remain committed to Occupy, and to helping draw its energies and activists into mass struggles of and for the working-class, around issues of transit, health care, education, housing, jobs, economic justice, environmental preservation, opposition to war, etc., at the same time doing what we can to build class consciousness and socialist consciousness.

In this context, and in the future struggles, socialists and their various organisations will have an opportunity to help create the pre-conditions a unified revolutionary party. This will involve the development struggles and a subculture that will help bring into being a class-conscious layer of the working class. It will also involve the accumulation and education and development of cadres, the organising experience and testing of political perspectives, the united front efforts and more that will create the possibilities for the creation of a mass revolutionary party of the working class. Many of us, currently in one or another organisation or in no organisation at the present, will be part of that.

Lenin, Luxemburg, Trotsky

In the face of new and challenging realities, it seems to me that it makes sense to share and make use of the ideas of Lenin, Luxemburg, Trotsky and others associated with their revolutionary Marxist orientation. Their theorisations are based on a considerable amount of political experience accumulated by the global labour movement, buttressed by analyses coming from some of the finest minds associated with the revolutionary tradition. Given the persisting dynamics of global capitalism, the Marxism of Lenin, Luxemburg, Trotsky and others from the early Communist movement continue to have considerable resonance for our own time. The Occupy movement, and the larger revitalised working-class movement that is struggling to come into being, can be helped enormously if revolutionary socialists engage in critically and creatively applying our perspectives to the realities around us, and within the next phase of Occupy and working-class struggles.

Works cited

Debs, Eugene V. Writings and Speeches of Eugene V. Debs, ed. by Joseph M. Bernstein. New York: Hermitage Press, 1948.

King, Martin Luther King, Jr. A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. by James M. Washington. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1986.

Le Blanc, Paul. Work and Struggle: Voices From US Labor Radicalism. New York: Routledge, 2011.

Lenin, Vladimir Ilyich. Revolution, Democracy, Socialism: Selected Writings, ed. by Paul Le Blanc. London: Pluto Press, 2008.

Luxemburg, Rosa. Socialism or Barbarism: Selected Writings, ed. by Paul Le Blanc and Helen C. Scott London: Pluto Press, 2010.

Trotsky, Leon. Writings in Exile, ed. by Kunal Chattopadhyay and Paul Le Blanc. London: Pluto Press, 2012.

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