Lessons for Socialists, From Occupy Boston to Greece

by The North Star on June 17, 2012

By Doug Enaa Greene of the Boston Occupier

It is an interesting moment for socialist activists in the Occupy movement. Although I have called myself a revolutionary communist for more than a decade, it was not until Occupy Boston started on September 30, 2011 that I can date my introduction activism. Since that time, I have been through more meetings, marches, discussions, and lectures than I thought possible. It is clear that the existing socialist left by and large failed to build a lasting presence in Occupy Boston and remains bound to outworn forms of organizing. However, there is a definite ebb in the struggle, at least in Occupy Boston. That moment has given me time to pause and reflect on the failures we need to learn from after more than nine months of socialist involvement in Occupy and assimilate what lessons can be drawn from the success of SYRIZA in Greece.

Socialist Caucus
My major involvement with most socialist groups and individuals at Occupy Boston was by way of the Socialist Caucus. The Socialist Caucus was a working group that was established in November by socialists and communists from a number of formations along with independents. The caucus was set up to serve as an umbrella group and coordinating committee for the various groups and individuals involved in Occupy. The caucus was also meant to provide a voice for those believed that “capitalism is the problem, revolution is necessary, and socialism is the solution.”

The Socialist Caucus lasted until the end of February and during its existence, the many maladies that have long plagued the left were clearly in evidence.

One: many members of the caucus came in with dogmatic road maps of how the existing Occupy movement needed to go forward. This often entailed a list of demands or a pure program on a range of historical and theoretical questions that were handed down by fiat and needed to be adopted by the General Assembly (GA) to produce the necessary radicalization.

However, these demands and programs were not developed by talking with other activists or participants at the Occupy Boston encampment. There was no willingness from socialists to learn and discuss from the masses of people who were becoming politically active for the first time. Existing formations just believed as a matter of faith that their demands and programs were the necessary road maps that should be adopted with little or no question. Needless to say, many Occupy activists, who were not necessarily opposed to socialist or communist ideas, were turned off by such an approach.

Two: the Socialist Caucus was not able to carry out its mission of working within the Occupy movement for the simple reason that most caucus members were not involved in the wider movement  in any substantial way.

For Occupy Boston, involvement in the movement did not necessarily mean participating in the GA. Occupy Boston’s power and focus was never in the GA. For many activists, the GA often went on for too long and took a great deal of time to arrive at even simple decisions. Politics were not generally discussed but rather mundane issues that were best left to be delegated (such as washing dishes). Most people who came to Occupy Boston were there to engage in discussions, hear lectures, listen to music, or get a meal. The practical work of keeping the Dewey Square encampment going and doing outreach was done by various working groups (health, food, media, education). It was these working groups in which the movement found its power and focus. Yet most socialists/communists did not join working groups and as a result, remained aloof from the larger movement. A socialist presence in working groups would have meant doing the practical work of maintaining those particular groups. Joining a working group also entailed patiently working through “unity-struggle-unity” with members of differing political outlooks in the hopes of engendering principles, actions and leadership. The lack of substantial socialist involvement resulted in an isolation of the “advanced” left from the active participants in Occupy Boston.

Three: most members of the Socialist Caucus, especially those from existing formations, were not interested in developing Occupy in a revolutionary direction. Rather, they looked to the caucus as a  recruiting ground or a means promote their own campaigns in order to bring activists into their orbit.

Members of the caucus often wasted meetings by making pointless speeches or expecting younger comrades to unreservedly bow to the dictates of older veterans, or re-fight old battles rather than perform practical work. In terms of refighting old battles, at one point the caucus was wracked with debate over the nature of Stalinism. This was focus was foreign to many in the wider movement and rightly perceived as an utter waste of time that detracted from carrying out real work.

Occupy Boston’s Post-Eviction Campaign

By the time the Socialist Caucus disbanded in February (due to a low attendance at its meetings), Occupy Boston had been evicted from its Dewey Square encampment (which occurred on December 12). Yet there was still plenty of sustained activism by Occupy from January through April focused on the threats to public transport in the greater Boston area. In early January, the Metropolitan Boston Transit Authority announced a series of service cuts and fare hikes to cover their budget deficit of $161 million. Disproportionately affected would be seniors who depend on public transit, workers who need to get to their jobs, and students who need to get to school, and oppressed communities. The crisis stems from the state of Massachusetts not adequately funding the T and saddling the public transportation system with billions in debt from projects such as the Big Dig. Sales taxes were unable to meet the T’s needs so the T turned to complex financial deals with banks (many of whom were bailed out) which resulted in nearly 25% of the T’s debt going to serving interest on their debt.

Once these cuts and hikes were announced, a new campaign developed Occupy with demands such as “No cuts. No hikes. No layoffs.” and “a sustainable, affordable, and comprehensive statewide transportation plan that works for the 99%.” Although I was one of those opposed to Occupy developing a list of demands, I believe that there was something different about demands in this particular campaign. In an editorial for the Boston Occupier, I said:

“These campaigns exemplify both the opportunities, and the dangers of demand-based politics. On the one hand, the struggle around concrete day-to-day concerns, anchored in clear defensive demands has allowed occupiers to engage a broader public of T-riders and T-workers, and to establish themselves as defenders of the 99%. This is all to the good! On the other hand, however, the orientation of these demands towards the state bureaucracy (with its tone deafness to radical ideas) tends to pull back Occupy’s more bold or ’utopian‘ visions in order to allow us to ‘get into the established conversation’ happening in the government and the mainstream media.

We would argue that the proper use of such principles or demands is not in lobbying to get the state to actually accept them, but in initiating broader and deeper conversations and relationships between occupiers and other members of the 99%. We must not confuse such ‘demands’ with our actual goals of movement-building. Where they are a starting point for developing deeper conversation and solidarity, such clear ‘demands’ play a useful role. But where they tend to suppress such deeper conversations, and where they get us to turn from our fellow T-riders and workers and to look instead to the state for saving solutions, they are a danger.”

In trying to realize these particular demands, those involved in the campaign developed an innovative way of linking demands on this particular issue (the hikes and cuts) with more general issues (the distribution of wealth and power in society). This approach was called “riding the rails.” Riding the rails was when small groups of Occupiers (three or so) get on the last train car at the beginning of a subway line. Once the doors close, one of the group makes a a 60-90 second speech about the cuts/hikes (which was done so many times we could script it):

“My fellow T-riders! If I could have your attention for two minutes: I promise to keep it short.

“I am here working with Occupy the T. That’s Occupy the T—an offshoot of Occupy Boston that is working to defend public transportation in our city.

“As many of you have no doubt heard already, the MBTA and the State Legislature are currently planning to make major cuts to your public transportation system, while at the same time raising your fares, making you pay more for less.

“We at Occupy the T see their plan as an unjustified and unnecessary backdoor tax increase on the 99%. It’s a tax on workers trying to get to work, a tax on students who need to go to school, a tax on seniors and disabled persons who need to get to doctors appointments or to get groceries

“Tell the politicians to GET the money from the people who HAVE the money. Get the money from the people that TOOK the money. Corporations and rich people profit off of our labor at work every day; now they want us to pay more just to get to work in the first place?!

“Enough is enough! We at Occupy the T say: No Cuts, No Hikes, No Layoffs! Get the money from the 1 percent!”

The other members of the group would then pass out fliers or papers announcing rallies, marches, and events. Once the train reached a stop, we would all run out of the car and run to the next one. This process would be repeated until the end of the line and sometimes the same process would be repeated in the other direction. The response was mixed. Sometimes people would be downright angry with you for interrupting their train ride. A good portion ignored the speech. More than a few gave reactionary responses defending the cuts to us. However, there would be times when the response to speeches was general enthusiasm. Riders applauded, snatched up the papers, asked how to get involved, and wanted to talk. It was possible to give out hundreds of papers during a ride, especially at rush hours. The responses could be particularly good among oppressed minority neighborhoods that were going to see heavy service cuts. “Riding the rails” allowed for larger conversations to begin and remained true to the spirit of Occupy. The train cars were carved out as a space to question the dominant discourse behind the cuts and call upon the masses to become involved.

The T struggle allowed for the Occupy Movement in Boston to have focus in the post-eviction period by drawing the masses into the struggle and linking the particular (austerity on mass transit) to the general (capitalism’s contradictions). Yet this campaign has been largely moribund since April, when hikes and cuts proposed by the MBTA were approved.

The strength of the Occupy the T campaign came from the active involvement of the masses themselves in the struggle and a practical program of action that allowed for the wider contradictions of capitalism to exposed. I believe that the strength of this campaign mimics that of SYRIZA on a smaller scale.

Lessons from  Greece
SYRIZA has come like a bolt of the blue to many on the American left. The chances of a SYRIZA-led government and a possible Greek revolution have excited many. SYRIZA represents a break with many existing patterns that characterized the Boston (and American left), which we should learn from:

One – Democratic Openness and Disciplined Cooperation: SYRIZA is a seemingly unwieldy coalition of reformists and revolutionaries, Eurocommunists, Maoists, and Trotskyists. These formations produce widely different analyses and differing methods of struggle. By any traditional Marxist “vanguardist” vantage point, this type of coalition is bound to fail since it is not based on monolithic unity to an immutable revolutionary program.

This is precisely part of SYRIZA’s success.Iit is a break with the patterns that many erstwhile “revolutionary” parties have practiced for decades. By all accounts, SYRIZA is characterized by democratic openness in which varying views are discussed and debated among from leading members and the rank-and-file. Furthermore, SYRIZA is also characterized by disciplined cooperation in action, whether in electoral strategy, the Squares Movement, or student strikes.

Two – Flexible Programs of Action: In contrast to the socialist left at Boston, SYRIZA is characterized by flexible programs of action. As can be seen from a sampling from SYRIZA’s electoral program, these demands are quite clear and speak to the broad masses of the Greek working class.

  • Raise income tax to 75% for all incomes over 500,000 euros.
  • Cut drastically military expenditures.
  • Use buildings of the government, banks and the Church for the homeless.
  • Nationalization of banks.

Unlike the formations at Occupy Boston, SYRIZA developed its program through the democratic openness described above. Since SYRIZA is a multi-tendency coalition, it does not require its members to agree to a long list of historical questions (Trotsky vs. Stalin, class nature of the USSR, etc.). Rather, the agreement among SYRIZA is articulated around the form of immediate and transitional demands which can make strategic and partial inroads on capitalism for the immediate benefit of the Greek people.

Three – Day-to-Day Involvement By the Masses: SYRZA is not merely an electoral coalition which is handing its program on down from on high. The top-down mentality characterized many of the forces involved in the Socialist Caucus at Occupy Boston. SYRIZA activists have been involved in a variety struggles such as the Squares Movement, facing down the riot police, and in support of striking workers. Unlike the majority of the Socialist Caucus who were not involved in the wider struggle, SYRIZA is involved in the day-to-day practical organizing and struggles that has made it a beacon to many Greek workers. The closest equivalent to SYRIZA-style activism in Boston would be the innovations produced by the Occupy the T campaign.

SYRIZA does have a reformist wing that is already pushing for moderation and against an “extremist course” in order to placate the bourgeois.# Yet since the elections of May 6, the great majority of SYRIZA has shown no sign of backing down or compromising its electoral program. The involvement of SYRIZA activists in wider social struggles, the democratic openness of the coalition, and the depth of the Greek crisis have no doubt contributed to SYRIZA sticking to its principles.

It remains to be seen whether a SYRIZA government can build on its successes in the face of the European Union, Greek bourgeois, and American imperialism. SYRIZA also confronts a state machine where more than half the police force openly supports the fascist Golden Dawn. There is also the danger of reformists in the SYRIZA coalition making a deal with the existing state apparatus, leaving revolutionaries in the lurch. The prospects for the future in Greece are both frightening and exciting for the revolutionary left.

In Boston, it is clear that the Socialist left by and large failed in reaching wider masses in the Occupy movement. Yet the magnitude of the capitalist crisis in the United States is still unfolding with more draconian austerity promised. The ruling classes have already shown that they won’t listen to the anger of the people.

When a new political sequence begins, socialists would do well to assimilate the lessons of SYRIZA: democratic openness and disciplined cooperation, practical programs of action, and involvement in day-to-day organizing. This formula holds the key to refounding a new revolutionary left that can meet the immense challenges of the future.

The North Star’s roundtable:

1. “Party-Building in the 21st Century” by Louis Proyect

2. “Another Occupy Is Possible – and Necessary” by Chris Maisano

3. “What Can American Leftists Learn from the Success of SYRIZA?” by Richard Estes

4. “Lessons for Socialists, From Occupy Boston to Greece” by Doug Enaa Greene

5. “A New Socialist Left Emerged” by Billy Wharton

6. “SYRIZA: Lessons for the Grassroots” by Bob Morris

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