Occupy, Solidarity, and the 21st Century Left

by Joaquín Bustelo of Solidarity (U.S.) on July 3, 2013

The following article was submitted to the pre-convention discussion of Solidarity, a U.S. socialist organization. I am asking The North Star to also publish it as I believe that what I say may have relevance to others, and especially those in what I call below “the 20th Century Left.”

 The Occupy movement marked the opening of a new stage in U.S. politics. Four years after the beginning of a recession at the end of 2007, and three years after it morphed into the worst economic, social and financial crisis  anyone of working age in the United States had ever lived through, Occupy Wall Street was a seed that got dropped into a super-saturated solution of class resentment and anger.

The repression of the movement in New York spread the message of the protests – even in greatly manipulated and distorted form – to the entire country.

Tens of millions said, actually, what the protesters are saying makes sense.

Millions went further, they shouted, “I’m with them!”

Hundreds of thousands tried to figure out how they could do the same thing people were doing in Zuccotti Park.

And they did it — Tens of thousands actually actively joined an occupation.

Thousands were arrested for this movement.

Hundreds of encampments spread throughout the country.

What happened? Look for it here.

“We are the 99%.”

Throughout my lifetime, I’ve heard the term “identity politics” hurled derisively at just about every group women have ever formed, numerous Black organizations, the American Indian Movement, more Latino groups than I care to remember, not to mention gays and others.

In 40+ years on the left, the one group I have never heard accused of identity politics is  working people, regular people, or some other dissembling term like that.

Yet there simply is no question as to who the “we” in “we are the 99%” refers to.

Sure. Call it slipshod. Imprecise. At best, roughly approximate. Piss on it all you want.

Those were a few of the weasel words and phrases hurled at the ridiculously simple sentence, “We are the 99%.”

But that merely confirms that this single-syllable two-letter combo –“we”– is a sea-change.

This is the first time in my political lifetime that there is a political subject lying around that you could conceivably accuse of being an expression of the US working class.

As a class. A class for itself. A “we.”


In other words, I think Occupy presents/represents the rebirth of the class movement as a social and political movement, which is not an entirely insignificant footnote, from a world-historic point of view.

Thus it behooves those of us who have the conceit that we are (even if distorted) an organized ideological expression of that social movement among working people in the U.S. to pay attention.

And it’s not just Occupy. There have been other signs that we are entering a new period of radicalization. Wisconsin, the Chicago teachers, the huge swings in public opinion to big majorities supporting gay marriage and the legalization of unauthorized immigrants.

What has been the impact of Occupy on the organized left, the left of the 20th century?

First, no group adopted an approach of throwing itself into the movement. We certainly did not.

In our case, in Atlanta, it exacerbated long-standing differences in approaches. As a result our branch dissolved because there was simply nothing for us to work together on.

I have only the barest scraps of information about this but my understanding is the New York and Philly branches have either stopped functioning or are functioning at a very low level.

Regroupment or refoundation on the basis of groups from the left of the 20th century is dead. What was advertised as a forum on socialist unity, held a couple of days before the Left Forum in New York, actually only heard re-affirmations from the groups present of their willingness to cooperate on certain, specific projects. The alleged Freedom Road Socialist Organization-Communist Party USA-Democratic Socialists of America fusion conversations appear to have been more fiction than fact.

Moreover, given the new forms that are emerging,  a fusion of the old groups might turn into an obstacle, as it might swamp the new forms that are emerging or cut short the process of their development.

On these new forms, one is the Organization for a Free Society, which other comrades know a lot more about.

Two others are The North Star and Philly Socialists.

The North Star is a website initiated by Pham Binh, a New York comrade who was active in Occupy and argued for socialists throwing themselves into it. It started as a two- or three-person operation, taking its name from Peter Camejo’s autobiography and the group he founded after leaving the Socialist Workers Party. It has evolved from being a site advocating a certain perspective to one where all perspectives can be expressed and discussed, a sort of discussion bulletin for the entire left.

So it is now a much larger operation, with collaborators in several cities. This is how this effort describes itself:

Capitalism is in deep crisis — economic, ecological, and ideological crisis. Increasingly, from ZuccottiPark to Syntagma Square, there have been demonstrations of mass disapproval with the status quo. Yet at the moment when systemic change seems both necessary and desired, the left itself is in crisis, presenting no alternative to capitalism, and no outlet for discontent other than mere resistance.

A renewed radical left is urgently needed. The North Star aims to facilitate this process. We are not a vanguard or the nucleus of the revolution. Rather, our only party line is that we have no party line — except for a firm belief that a culture of open debate is required for building a left with real political muscle.

The North Star is a forum for discussion, debate, and “the ruthless criticism of everything existing.”

This project is partly inspired by the North Star Network, a Marxist group founded by Peter Camejo in the 1980s. While we are internationalists in the best of the radical tradition, we are particularly committed to rebuilding the American left. Camejo believed that the future of radical politics in this country lay not with the existing three-letter left groups but elsewhere. Taking its name from Frederick Douglass’s first newspaper, the network sought to throw off the baggage of dogmatism and sectarianism plaguing American Marxism, emphasizing the importance of democratic, open debate.

I went to the Left Forum in New York expressly for the purpose of getting together with the people from The North Star and through them came in contact with the Philly Socialists.

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Philly Socialists are “non-denominational,” so to speak, and formed a couple of months before Occupy. Like Occupy, what holds them together is more of an identity than a platform.

This is from a pamphlet introducing their organization:

Our Values

Philly Socialists attempts to draw from what is best in the three great Socialist traditions: communism, anarchism, and social democracy. We identify as globalists, democrats and egalitarians. We reject sexism, racism, homophobia, chauvinistic nationalism and imperialism.

Science … Prove it

Science is our guiding methodology. We reject all dogma and orthodoxy, seeking instead to encourage critical thinking among the masses.

Human rights … Everybody matters

The rights of the people are the supreme law. The fulfillment of basic human rights is the responsibility of any legitimate government.

Democracy … Everyone decides

Democracy is a fundamental desire of all people. Democracy is a process and a set of institutions which rests on this foundation of individual and collective rights and liberties. Disagreement is a fundamental right, and a social good.

We are not… a political theory debate club.

We don’t waste precious meeting time discussing abstract political ideas removed from our daily work. There is a time and a place for these sorts of discussions, but the bulk of our energy is focused on running our programs and campaigns. Ideas without action are worse than useless.

We are not… a sectarian party-line organization.

We share values and willingly choose to unite in undertaking concrete projects. People’s opinions on issues of strategy, tactics and policy are their own to hold and advocate for as they wish. We embrace multiple political tendencies, and strive to be a “big tent.” There is no ‘party line’ that people are supposed to support no matter what.

We are not… a do-gooder nonprofit.

We understand that the demand to provide essential services for everyone is not an “apolitical” issue. The quality and quantity of services to the most oppressed communities, as provided by the government or the non-profit industrial complex, is never enough and never will be enough. In fact, government and corporate funding for these programs are gutted year after year. Any attempt to provide necessities of life for the people is fundamentally a political struggle, which means we must prepare for a fight if we are to win even the most basic welfare rights.

We are… focused on real, concrete work with tangible results.

The provision of essential services to communities neglected by the government and the capitalists is a top priority for us. Our members also engage in political campaigns, run educational programs, and host cultural and social events. 

We are… a movement centered around a set of shared values. Socialists believe in freedom, democracy, the right to a decent human life for every person. There will be disagreements on the best way to enact these beliefs, but our values are the common ground we share.

We are… explicitly political.

We are unashamed in our advocacy for a particular ideology. We call this ideology socialism. We have different ideas of what this means, but identification with this tradition is the lowest common denominator for joint participation and cooperation. We see the promotion of socialism not as a weakness, but as a strength, providing us with a measure of organizational unity, clarity, and direction.

This organization has grown rapidly and now has more than 100 members, mostly “millennials,” according to the head of the group (yes, they do have elected leadership bodies and individual positions).

Through Philly Socialists I’ve become aware of another project, Seattle Solidarity Network (SeaSol), which actually has been going for a few years and is about the same size as the Philly socialists. There is more information about them here.

That new organizational forms are emerging should hardly be surprising, given Occupy. Given the failure of the existing left to throw itself into Occupy, my conclusion is that our groups are just not plugged into living day-to-day political and social movements and trends.

Until recently, I had been of the opinion that Solidarity’s orientation should be towards left unity, especially of the left of the 20th century, making that the focus of our collective efforts as an organization. The reports on the misnamed socialist unity event as well as the state of our own organization have now convinced me to abandon this perspective.

I would say interested Solidarity members should relate to local non-sectarian groups, not with the aim of recruiting to Solidarity but fostering the development of those formations.

In particular, I think the idea of the Philly Socialists is a great idea.

In November 2012, 39%, or 2 out of every 5 people asked in a poll by the Gallup organization said they have positive impression of socialism. In a December 2011 poll by Pew, 31% said they had a positive reaction to the word socialism, with 49% of those 29 and under said they reacted positively.

I’m looking around trying to see if there’s anyone here of the right age and background who is interested in that or some variant.

I do not view this as an orientation for Solidarity as a whole. At the Left Forum, I was struck by the fact that I was the only Solidarity comrade that was seemed interested in The North Star and the Philly Socialists despite our having talked about these sorts of groups and even The North Star specifically during National Committee meetings and phone calls. That’s why I say “interested Solidarity members” should engage.

As for Solidarity as a whole, there needs to be a discussion on whether, and in what form, the organization should continue. We have no orientation, no common plan of activity and that state of affairs automatically puts this sort of issue on the agenda.

With new forces emerging seeking to create broad, non-sectarian socialist groups, perhaps our most significant contribution might be not to stand in the way.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Jon Hoch July 3, 2013 at 3:48 pm

So Pham, someone who I hope I’ve made my deep respect for clear, has encouraged me quite a bit to start submitting stuff regularly to TNS. Anyway, a couple of days ago I did. Whether my piece is run is pretty besides the point. I know it’s tonally different than a lot of the stuff on TNS so far, and you know, it’s probably not a great piece of writing. But is there anyway the submission and publishing process could be more transparent? Who are the editors? Who are they accountable to, if anyone? Again, I don’t want this to be read as an attack on Pham. I have nothing for respect for the guy. I think he’s going to be one of the leaders of the next left. And I don’t want this to be read as sour grapes either. Frankly, I don’t really have the time or energy to be writing regular articles online and only did so because I was encouraged by Pham. So it’s not really a big deal to me either way if my piece is published. But I’m curious about the process.

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Ben Campbell July 3, 2013 at 5:36 pm

The process is that editors decide what to post and post it.

The editors are not “accountable” to anybody but themselves, nor should they be. This is blog. People can (and should) start other blogs if they wish.

You should wait more than “a couple days” after submitting something before posting a comment calling for “more transparency”, etc.

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Ben Campbell July 3, 2013 at 5:53 pm

ps — I don’t edit this website, although I used to. Editors are listed in the about section.

As far as Bustelo’s piece goes, let’s be fair. North Star is a website. I’m not sure how Solidarity members are supposed to “engage” a website, other than reading and submitting. Solidarity members (e.g. Charlie Post) have had their stuff posted here in the past. But all of these organizations have their own publications, so it’s understandable that they aren’t super-interested in writing for a “non-sectarian” website.

As far as “engaging” Philly Socialists, I’m not sure how large Solidarity’s Philly chapter is.

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Jon Hoch July 3, 2013 at 6:26 pm

Geez dude. I was really just curious. No need to get your hackles up. Maybe I’m wrong, but I think TNS is aiming to be something of a hub for a new non-sectarian left. That aim coupled with the organizational criticisms of groups like the ISO it publishes made me feel like it would be better to have the process be more transparent, even if that just meant saying who the editors are. Is that really so awful? But you’re right. It’s your blog. You can do with it whatever the fu.ck you want. I’m not quite why you’re so quick to attack but it seems kind of unwarranted given the degree to which I went out of my way in my first post to make clear I was not criticizing Pham or expressing sour grapes (AT ALL) about my personal stuff.

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Julia July 4, 2013 at 1:15 pm

I’m pretty new to the left but I’ve heard criticisms that the occupy movements, and other large scale movements seem to have no real direction since they gather many people together who have an anti-cooperation, not always anti-capitalist attitude but have no real goals. Because of that many groups were easily broken up by the government. Any thoughts from people who were there?

Some of these socialist groups do work together, but have different tactical options and find it best to know each other, but not join the same parties. Still it seems many of these groups have platforms and divisions that were formed in the 1970’s or even the 1940’s. There’s like 20 leftist parties, and I have no idea how many of them are active. I’ve heard the World Workers Party, the CPUSA, and the Freedom Road Socialist Party have the most real influence (from someone in the FRSP), although the CPUSA gets a ton of criticism for being too center left. How true is this statement? How many leftists are there who are active party members? I get estimates from a few thousand to 10’s of thousands depending on who I talk to.

How do you guys feel about the DSA? We have a chapter in Ithaca where I go to school? They encourage left-leaning democrats, communists, anarchists, socialists, and liberals to join but I haven’t had a chance to visit my local chapter.

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Julia July 4, 2013 at 2:32 pm

What are the general feelings on working with the center-left. Studying U.S. history, it seems the only way that the democrats make center-left move is by responding to mass movements lead by the far left (the Communist and IWW lead mass strikes of the great depression for instance. (Although to be fair, the green party has made some reforms that have helped the environment). They seem to believe that if enough of them have center-left political views the democratic party will become a labour party. They don’t understand that many of these labour parties only swing center left when infiltrated by communists (at least in Britain). Shouldn’t we be teaching them otherwise rather than simply building mass parties? Or do I just have a biased historical view that mostly applies to the 1930’s, the 1970’s, and CPGB history ? I got dragged from center-left to left myself about 6/7 months ago after reading the Communist Manifesto, and studying the relationship between the CPGB and the Labour party, and realizing that the Communists (and the other Socialists) were the ones actually responsible for the socialized healthcare, the strong unions, etc. We need to be blatant with this message if we want to anything to actually get done, but not so isolationist that we’re just “preaching to the converted.” It took it me a few years of studying history (Latin American history started to open my eyes, for example, but I still floated around the center-left for a long time after that) for a far left-mentality to develop, and I didn’t meet many socialists along the way (although I’m pretty sure my British history teaching was a commie, with sort of a Marxism-sarcasm leaning).

I think it’s best we create new organizations rather than trying to combine old ones, with positions based on current issues, rather than someone’s opinion on the Trotsky/Stalin divide, or the Sino-Soviet split, etc. At the same time I don’t see it as a weakness that we have a lot of socialist organizations. The left needs to be somewhat populist in order to draw people in, while still holding onto its values. It seems natural to me that new groups and parties will form that correspond to new platforms and issues. But I think these organizations need an actual goal in order to accomplish something. Occupy was an important landmark, but i don’t see it coming back to life, especially in small towns.

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Aaron Aarons July 7, 2013 at 4:06 am

The term “center-left is rather vague. It appears that by “center-left” you mean the reformist left, i.e., the left that wants reforms, as we all do, but does not demand or fight for, or even want, any change that goes beyond the limits imposed by capitalism. If I’m reading you correctly, I suggest using either “reformist left” or something similar, such as “pro-capitalist left” or “anti-revolutionary left” instead of “center left”.

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Julia July 7, 2013 at 10:12 am

Yep I meant reformist left, or those who want a mixed economy.

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Aaron Aarons July 4, 2013 at 3:12 pm

Except for the quote from the Philly Socialists that contains the rather general statement, “We reject sexism, racism, homophobia, chauvinistic nationalism and imperialism”, there is no hint that opposition to U.S. imperialism and U.S. nationalism are essential, defining tasks for any “left” in the U.S. worthy of the name. There is no mention of militarism or war, and the celebration of “huge swings in public opinion to big majorities supporting [,,,] the legalization of unauthorized immigrants” ignores that such support is, in fact, support for the incorporation of a small portion of the working people who have made possible the ‘American’ standard of living, such as it is, into the lower strata of the privileged U.S. citizenry, and is not a rejection of the sense of entitlement that most U.S. citizens feel.

And, no, saying “we are the 99%” is not class consciousness but populism. Moreover, it ignores the fact that at least a substantial minority of that 99% of the U.S. population lives off the surplus produced by the genuine exploitation of a majority of the world’s population and, secondarily, off of primitive accumulation against nature.

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