Disobedient Roses

By Nevin Siders

May 26, 2017
— Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal When I began this essay I thought I aimed at a rather modest target, but the “story grew in the telling” and reached out further and further to interweave more and more threads, and therefore required much more time and thought than originally foreseen. Yet I believe the effort to have been worthwhile, opening a bit of new territory for socialism. It sets out from one of Rosa Luxemburg’s most enduring postulates and conjugates it with the topic of civil disobedience which, (as far as the author knows, has never been associated with this giant of socialist thought. One of the protagonists of the civil disobedience movement was Rosa Parks, the other “rose” to whom this monograph is dedicated to and honored in the title, for being a quintessential representative of civil disobedience as understood and practiced by Gandhi and King. A further disobedient rose worthy of recognition is Sandra Harris who reviewed this essay and recommended addressing “class morality.”

A Disobedient Rosa: What Brings the Masses into Motion

This essay opens with a seminal statement by Rosa Luxemburg.
“It cannot be denied that the direct cause leading the popular masses into the socialist movement is precisely the “unjust” mode of distribution characteristic of capitalism. When the Social-Democracy struggles for the socialisation of the entire economy, it aspires therewith also to a “just” distribution of the social wealth.” (Luxemburg, 1900)
Even though this phrase, and the booklet Reform or Revolution it was published in, have served as guideposts for social democrats, socialists, and communists for more than a century, there remains much to be said about its translation into real life struggles and its consequences. Much has happened in these nearly 120 years, experience which can and should be analyzed so as to enrich its meaning and the extend of its impact. The booklet was a polemic against the postulates of an Social Democratic Party (SPD) leader at the time, Bernstein, who in the name of socialism argued for achieving the mildest reforms in the most gradualist manner possible. He based his position on realism, on achieving what is actually possible at a given moment, which is not incorrect in and of itself, as Luxemburg recognized more than once in the essay. Lenin also reaffirmed that communists fight for reforms. Its problem resides in what is cynically said about minimums: they instantly become maximums. In other words, Luxemburg accused Bernstein of “kicking the can down the road” so far as to make it disappear. In the above-cited passage that inspired this essay, Luxemburg was likewise giving credit to the point of coincidence with Bernstein, that there are moments when the masses arise in self-defense of their most basic needs of survival. The other portion of the passage spells out the divergence over what the final aim is and how to reach it. If this conjecture were true at face value, the masses would be in constant agitation, the kind of unrest seen in the 1930s would be the norm, not the exception. The unending tendency toward decline in the rate of profit drives capital to an ever greater inequality in distribution. Specifically, an ever-decreasing proportion is “assigned as overhead”, that is paid in wages, for the very laborers that produce it. The social explosion would have sparked long ago and hardly taken a pause. And the Bernsteins of the world would have remained a lonely minority, rather than the predominant portion of what passes for “left,” be it Sanders in the US or López Obrador in Mexico. However this has not happened; those explosions that have occurred were the notable exceptions, like the aforementioned 1930s. The masses certainly are moved by the indignity of unequal distribution when they are starving, yet much more so over moral injustice than economic inequality. The examples of this phenomenon are too numerous to mention: the 43 disappeared, Trayvon Martin, Monseñor Romero, Steve Biko, journalists in conflicts. The assumption among socialists that the masses are burning to come into action was made in the labor movement’s first waves in the 1830s, then taken up as a banner in the 1860s and after the First World War. On the crests of these waves, hunger was the norm and famine reigned in wide regions, so direct action was certainly reasonable and feasible. Yet the rest of the time in the intervening two centuries have been of quiet class warfare — and often not even understood as such by proletarians who would get furious at the pettiness of their own boss, but believed this to be unique to their own workplace, school, or social welfare project. This is what makes so poignant Malcolm X’s response to a reporter’s question that the oppressed are well aware of their fate. Yet so long as they accept that fate, they will not rebel. He went on to say that he saw his role as aiding people to recognize their own humanity and that they did not deserve such treatment.


Over more than a century the leaders of all varieties of socialism have often looked down upon civil disobedience’s proponents in their multifarious moral justifications. Yet the People’s and Worker’s Political Organization (OPT) in Mexico made an opening in its 2014 Congress that may permit a rapprochement between these unfortunately distanced movements. From my side, the socialist side, more often than not the leaderships of the various strands (Trotskyist, Stalinist, Maoist, Social Democratic…) have shunned civil disobedience’s (CD) proponents due to their supposed lack of class awareness and its consequent individualist tactics justified in a supposed innocent “moralism.” Yet this looking askance suddenly disappeared in the workshops in the nights before massive mobilizations when suddenly we socialists paid careful attention to their wise advice, both tactical and legal. I hope to represent properly the position of CD’s promoters by affirming that it is precisely this expression of moral outrage — regardless of one’s social analysis — that constitutes its principal strength. The ones I have known do claim to be highly class conscious, and in general the rest come from the Catholic Worker. Nonetheless they try to reach out to others who are angry and are looking for a way to channel that into something powerful. These are words that are akin to the Comintern’s motivation for the united front. (See the third congress’s proceedings published by Riddell, 2012.) The ethics and honesty of CD’s proponents is commendable, insofar as they always emphasize that only those who are willing to accept the consequences should participate. This is the proverbial moral high ground, applied to proverbial footloose rebels. Beyond these immediate concerns, in recent years there has been a regular revival of citations of Luxemburg’s work in left analytical articles. The number of authors who remember and defend her thought and positions has notably risen in the last decade.

Need for Rapprochement

The need to bring these apparently dissimilar movements together arises from the crossroads the left has been tied up in for decades, and which motivated this delegate to propose an amendment on the topic in last year’s Extraordinary Congress of the OPT. The amendment, accepted without discussion, clarified that the OPT’s type of civil disobedience is that promoted by Gandhi and MLK. Due to the lack of debate on this point, the author is unsure whether any further explanation may be necessary, given that civil disobedience has so many differing varieties, as well as the most diverse mythologies that have been woven about these famous persons. Our plan for the nation establishes a strategic conceptualization for political change, a view that concretizes resistance to illegitimate power via the methods of civil disobedience, mobilization of the peoples, and social protagonism in all areas of public life. This is a strategy for political change that foresees an ascending process of organization of the people. (Draft of the Political Program of the OPT, p. 4, closing of the Preface) The cited passage made this delegate anxious to specify what those methods are and explain why they are successful. Considering that the partisans of civil disobedience hold a broad range of positions on any number of issues, it behooves us to open a dialogue to clarify this question. That is the reason why this delegate presented an amendment to that paragraph at the convention. Especially since the amendment was approved without debate, it is possible that diverse interpretations of CD circulate within and without the OPT. In MLK’s recently published speech (1964) we have the moral posture embodied in an approach that orients toward what should be done. Nonetheless the only methods that are known are those that were preached by example. In other words, MLK, Gandhi, Rosa Parks, and César Chávez left no inventory or encyclopedia of tactics.

Pacifism and Non-violence are not Synonymous

No one would say that Luxemburg was a “pacifist” in the sense of laying weapons aside, and the author of this article likewise would not advocate unarmed self-defense in any and all circumstances. This essay opens with the caveat that this type of pacifism of the disarmed who advocate disarmament bases itself on the ethic of preaching by example, which is highly admirable — up to that point. Its constraint becomes evident the moment the oppressed masses rise up, because the oppressor is armed and violent. This is the part where MLK was mistaken, supposing it is possible to shame the oppressor. If this were so, society would never have divided into classes in the first place. If it were possible to embarrass the oppressor to put violence aside, class societies would never have arisen. Moreover, it must always be kept in mind that the exploiter and the oppressor are not the same person. It its capitalist version, the exploiter is a trillionaire who lives on a splendid Caribbean isle, while the oppressor is a half-starved lumpen recruited straight from the jail cell and has been subjected to an “initiation” that was violent and exquisitely humiliating. Psychology has extensively documented that oppressors and their collaborators (conscious and unconscious) work up justifying or evasive rationalizations. Bourgeois persons can be persuaded that violent behavior is immoral and counterproductive, and the cherry on top is how easily convinced they are because they never see it. The police officer, however, lives immersed in a violent universe both inside and outside the department, which makes attempts a convincing that violence is unjust and counterproductive into pipe dreams. Police would answer with a “how nice” and, certainly, does not desire it for oneself. Therefore an argument for total disarmament is not what readers will find in this essay, but rather a reflection on strategy and tactics. What are brought out are Gandhi’s arguments in favor of nonviolence, backed by MLK. and so many others.

What is Civil Disobedience?

The “non-violence” of Gandhi and MLK and is not synonymous with a “passivism” that deprives oneself of protection. It is “proactive” and provocative, which is why the name disobedience is so appropriate. The full description Gandhi gave it was “non-violent direct action protest,” because it strives to take the offensive from a defensive position, in a manner that makes use of apparent deficiencies or weaknesses and turns them around to transform them into strengths. Among the most famous examples is the Salt March where Indians from all castes broke British laws to go to the shore and refine salt from seawater. “The function of a civil resistance is to provoke response. And we will continue to provoke until they respond or they change the law. They are not in control; we are. That is the strength of civil resistance.” (Dialogue from the biographical movie, minutes 0:44-1:01.) His biographers report that for much of this time Gandhi had Thoreau’s books by his bedside. These writings helped him sustain the position that an entirely moral argument justified what we would today call individual resistance, even escapist. (see original, 1849) This hermit-like existence achieved for the short time of two years in alleviating Thoreau’s conscious by abstaining from participating in the evils of modern society. (Solís Muñoz, 2011) Yet his writings did not explain why such a lifestyle worked nor how it could effect a change in the exploiter, much less in society as a whole. It was MLK who explained why civil disobedience works and how it could effect a change in the oppressor or all of society. It was the argument found in the recently released speech in London, while on his way to receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in Norway, that he fleshed out the principle that shaming the oppressor will coerce him or her to cease hostilities, by evidencing the hypocrisy of these acts.

Defensive Responses

Although there have been countless protagonists of this type of “non-violence,” the following people are put forward as examples for the purposes of this essay because the movements they led shook entire empires. César Chávez and Eugene V. Debs are also worthy of mention, not due to the former’s Mexican background but because these movements had a major impact in whole regions of the US empire. The disobedience of Rosa Parks likewise was far from instinctive or hasty; it was planned and organized in her city. A program of dissemination and complaint of her arrest had been worked out, as well as the legal defense and mass mobilization. When the transcripts on war preparations are opened 30 or 40 years later, most often they reveal that the oppressors spend hours, days, and weeks trying to corner and provoke the other to take the first shot. Pearl Harbor is the prime example: the largest empire was willing to sacrifice thousands of lives and untold billions of dollars worth of its most precious maritime machinery for the purpose of coaxing its opposition to fire the first shot. The tactic worked for them, and culminated when the United States used that greatest of all weapons of mass destruction: nuclear bombs. Civil disobedience strives to take the rulers’ main weapon, which is this tactic of making the victim into the criminal, and turns it against them because it does not scheme in secret and chuck bombs from behind the police lines, but rather come out front in full daylight and look them in the eyes. Non-violent direct action protest is not merely a tactic of convenience, but a full strategy of making the criminal into the criminal — in the eyes of everyone else. In South Africa, in India, and in the United States the oppressors were revealed to the whole world for what they truly are. They put the United States onto the world stage of the United Nations. In Vietnam, China, Cuba, Grenada, and Iran, the dictatorships collapsed when it became apparent they were incapable of fulfilling their bravado promises. Likewise in Mexico in January 1994, the military halted its occupation of Chiapas when a half million filled Paseo de la Reforma, showing the world the government does not have a single iota of legitimacy and everyone in the country is aware it is the source of injustice and violence. In the last two years in the belly of the beast, Black Lives Matter and the blockading of trains with fossil fuels (2016) continue this most honorable tradition of moral rectitude. It is proper at this point to highlight that these are those very moments Gramsci theorized about when the scales of history tip over from a “war of position” to a “war of movement.” A further clarification is in order on Gramsci’s classification of class warfare: the distinction between war of position and war of movement is unrelated to whether the masses are armed. That is to say, intuition would suppose that a war of position is unarmed and the war of movement includes the armed phase and the transition toward it. And such a supposition is undoubtedly true in most places most of the time. Nevertheless, exemptions are much too common to ignore. The war of position may be armed, as the Army of the Poor (EP) showed for a decade, the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) has demonstrated for nearly a quarter century, and the Irish Republican Army has carried out for centuries. Inversely, India won its independence and South Africa ended apartheid with only the smallest of armed organizations. Even on the very day of insurrection in Russia, Nicaragua, and Grenada the overwhelming majorities that took the streets held no more than household hand tools. In January 1994, no one so much as thought to propose an armed defense of the half million — despite the precedent of Tlatelolco and countless other massacres.

Today’s Roses

This line of thought directs our attention to another aspect of the rebellious and revolutionary events. Beyond these national liberation revolutions, the others also had a defensive character: the EP (as described by Silva Nogales, 2015); the Convention’s armies led by Villa and Zapata liberated the capital and almost all of Morelos state where a commune lasted for a year (as Womack, 1969, describes them); Spain’s Offended (indignados), the Arab Spring; and the communes called into being in Venezuela by Hugo Chávez and claim to being retaking their own (as Ciccariello-Maher, 2016, p. 148, explains). Yet a defensive posture should never be confused with a passive one or — an even worse misunderstanding — one that abstains from conquering territory. The Civil Rights movement of our disobedient Rosa Parks liberated the entire United States for human rights, especially the segregated South. The EZLN (and maybe the self-defense forces in Michoacán) has held liberated territory for a decade and is striving to build the foundations for a new society in these pockets. The Occupy and Indignados movements took that name by liberating public spaces to — ironically — build public discourse. The National Association of Electric Energy Users (ANUEE) became a space for neighbors to know each other and plan collectively. What should be deduced from this is that, when the masses begin to take their own back, what comes into play is the rule of conscious resistance which Ciccariello-Maher (2016: 148) describes concerning Venezuela’s communes: “it is not the law that gives the revolutionary Commune permission to enter into history.” The cause of combatting poverty is sufficient legal foundation. Equally, the expulsion of the Manta base from Ecuador in 2008 and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency from Bolivia that same year are moves to re-establish independence lost to neoliberalism —and which could serve as examples to Mexico and its oil, corn, silver, and other resources. All of these and countless others, but particularly those of the oppressed sex and indigenous groups, together struggle for the defense of humanity and life itself on this our Earth against depredation, as the OPT’s 2016 Resolution so eloquently elucidates. The disobedient Rosa Luxemburg, like most rebel analysts, expounded on how and why the masses enter onto history’s stage. Yet we should also inquire as to why they withdraw, given this happens so often and so quickly. It has much to do with the fact that masses express their fury by many means and via many mediums, as long as they believe any possibility for resolution exists. A typical case is the mobilizations for the 43 disappeared Normal School students from Ayotzinapa. In the first week fury was expressed from all demographics. Yet by the second or third week when the demand that “they be delivered alive” was added, the masses lost vitality because it was no longer conceivable they might still be alive.
To be frank and clear, on topics such as this one it is always prudent to make the inverse so as to avoid misinterpretation. In a word, socialism is in no way counterpoised to armed defense. In fact, two obligatory touchstones for the entire Latin American left are the Cuban and Mexican Revolutions. What socialism must come to realize is that it is armed defense which is a tactic and circumstantial, not a strategy independent of context and conjuncture. In the context of a violent state, the only option is an armed defense that aims to go on the offensive, as the African National Congress so eloquently explained in the Freedom Charter about how each and every means of legal and peaceful recourse had been systematically closed down. Only then did they take up arms and found the Spear of the Nation.

Civil Disobedience as a Moral Strategy

What is strategy is civil disobedience, because it directs struggle toward Gramsci’s war of position, just as the OPT’s 2016 Political Proposal states.
“The national project we strive for is part of a strategic concept of social struggle in which independent, unified mobilization and civil disobedience arise in people’s power and direct democracy to confront worsening capitalist legitimacy and the authoritarianism of its state.” (Draft of the Political Program of the OPT, p. 4, closing of the Preface)
Both this passage and the similar one quoted earlier assume solidarity to be instinctive among humans. The examples cited throughout the essay assume instinctive human solidarity, or promote it on the supposition that human solidarity is no longer instinctive. The passages by Luxemburg and MLK are likewise founded on an instinctive human solidarity. Readers can easily think of countless others, otherwise they would not be interested in this tract. Humanity is the final issue yet to be addressed in this monograph. What makes us human? We who subscribe to social theories of humankind take as a starting place the externalization of functions. Digestion has been partially removed from the body: Who doesn’t love cooking? Communication has been moved beyond the body’s bounds, by signals, marks, and writing. Thought has grown beyond the mind to reside in markers for ownership, libraries, and artifacts for computing. Tools to make tools require a complex society, and vice versa. (See the work of psychologist Vygotsky.) The proverbial “elephant in the room” so often overlooked is that the aristocratic attitude of the bourgeoisie and its leisure class family relations represents an explicit rejection of their humanity: they distain tool use. As has been pointed out on occasion in socialist and anarchist history: they should not be called “producers” and “industrialists” because they do not use tools to create wealth. They see tool use as proper to the laboring masses, and we should cherish and celebrate that affirmation of our humanity. The second chapter from the Communist Manifesto must be refreshed to daily denounce bourgeois hypocrisy. Our movement must take the proverbial moral high ground. In the rebellious spirit of these disobedient roses, history shows that the left must compose a discourse of morality, and not abstain from fighting for it against the reactionary and profoundly immoral right. This is the road to stir the masses into motion.