Old labels will not do: occupy the isms
Put an end to the wishful thinking, writes Pham Binh
Karl Marx’s aphorism that “every step of real movement is more important than a dozen programs” should be the starting point for any examination of Occupy’s statements, declarations, or manifestos.
Only a pedant could read Occupy’s GlobalMay Manifesto and see nothing but flaws, errors, and shortcomings. The statement does not use any “isms” — capitalism, socialism, communism, anarchism — because occupiers view labels and formal ideologies as profoundly misleading, confining, divisive, and counterproductive. For example, PASOK, Stalin, Trotsky, and Chris Hedges all claim to stand for socialism, but the content of their politics could not be any more different. Self-proclaimed socialists today stand literally on opposite sides of the barricades in Greece. Marxists joined anarchists in attacking Hedges’ dishonest attempt to scapegoat the Black Bloc for Occupy’s problems.
In an era of revolution, when everything and everyone is in motion, the old labels and boundaries will not do because they are constantly at odds with a rapidly changing reality. As everything continually shifts, there is a convergence of disparate elements moving in a revolutionary direction on the one hand and a divergence of newly awakened populations from their traditional leaders and institutions on the other. We should be actively facilitating the former, finding and establishing common ground with them, rather than damning them for being insufficiently Marxist while vainly hoping that the rebellious masses will somehow, some day find their way to us politically.
This wishful thinking has outlived its usefulness for us now that we are emerging from the decade of defeats and setbacks that is behind us. Now is the time for revolutionary realism and hard-headed ambition on our part if we hope to earn ourselves more than a minor reference in the history books to be written about this moment, our moment.
The GlobalMay Manifesto condemns the profit system and its political superstructure and calls for a radically different social order while not ignoring the importance of fighting for reforms like fully democratizing capitalism’s political and economic institutions prior to a total social transformation (revolution). The document avoids the “reform or revolution” trap by standing squarely for both.
This is our common ground.
We should seize on this language and imbue it with Marxist content in practice instead of criticizing their word choices. For example, Occupy calls for direct action and direct democracy; for Marxists, direct action and direct democracy by the working class is the only way to win the self-emancipation of the working class. The workers’ councils (soviets) established in the 1905 and 1917 revolutions were an example of direct action and direct democracy created by Russian workers, soldiers, and peasants. Soviets were workplace-based General Assemblies that prefigured the post-capitalist, consistently democratic order that GlobalMay Manifesto aims for today.
We Marxists are for direct democracy and direct action at the point of production, distribution, service, and sale because that is where the profits the 1% use to buy politicians, armies, mercenaries, and lobbyists come from. Our task is to mobilize people at these points in some way, shape, or form, using whatever language works to inspire working people to take direct action for themselves.
We should heed Engels’ advice to American Marxists in the 1880s was not to pooh-pooh the Knights of Labor from without but to revolutionize it from within. Those who make that same error today when Occupy flaunts its revolutionism by declaring to the world that a horizontal (classless) society is its aim and that the outer limits of reforms possible under capitalism are be good but not good enough have no conservative, half-way rhetoric of Occupy’s to hide behind. Instead, they use Occupy’s deliberate omission of familiar “isms” — socialism, capitalism, reformism, Trotskyism, Popular Frontism, class collaborationism — to pass judgments on struggles they could never organize and masses they could never mobilize. Our brave, all-knowing Marxists act like scared, lost children without the security blanket of “isms” to do their thinking for them in the face of great and unexpected events, new political and organization forms, and the genesis of a dogma-free vocabulary that stirs and moves the masses to act and fight for the very old hopes and dreams of the oppressed and exploited through the ages that the GlobalMay Manifesto mentions.
Occupiers want it all and so do we. Their aims are our aims. We may think we have better ideas of how to get to our common goals, but if we do, why is it that we are discussing their ideas instead of them discussing ours? Why is it that ruling classes are violently suppressing assemblies of handfuls of people in tents, slandering them in the press, and infiltrating their working groups while we can peddle newspapers, hold public meetings, and recruit individuals to our groups unmolested and unimpeded if our ideas are indeed more powerful, correct, and dangerous than theirs?
What is remarkable about the GlobalMay Manifesto and indeed most of Occupy’s pronouncements is their strongly communist (horizontal) and decidedly internationalist, revolutionary character after less than one year of struggle and that this process was set into motion by less than 200 people armed with nothing more than sleeping bags and determination when they set up a camp two blocks from Wall Street.