Protest or Power?

by Isaac Marx on January 8, 2014

What the American radical left needs in order to cure its penchant for whining instead of winning and move away from capitalism towards socialism is power. Money buys power, but because we’re (mostly) wage-slaves who don’t own money-making assets like businesses and properties, we can’t afford to buy it. We have to take it, snatch it, fight for it, and/or create it on our own using our brains and brawns through self-organization.

Power comes in many forms: political power, economic power, popular power, street power, moral power, cultural power, institutional power, legislative power, the power to inspire and capture people’s imaginations. We need to contest, own, create, and master power in all its forms, but not because we want to control or dominate others. As one British anarchist brilliantly explained:

Politics is a struggle for power. It is a struggle by those who have less power to have more of it, and once they have it, to retain it. In our case, it is the struggle to neutralize ‘Power’, spelt with a capital P, and to enhance self-power. In the long run, anarchist political struggle is a struggle to create a society where no one power is dominant, where there is a balance of power. This is the invisible goliath we are tackling.

But politics is also about the ‘polis’, or civil society; it is the art of actively planning, creating and managing the structures, institutions, customs and practices of the society we live in. In this way politics involves two different but intricately and inseparably connected facets. The sooner we understand this[,] the better for us. I say this because, as I mentioned earlier, there is a strong nihilist element in the ‘anarchism’ I’ve witnessed where politics is a ‘bad’ word; politics is something the lying, corrupt, power-mongering elites, or the long-discredited ‘Left’ (seen as a monolith) engage in, replete with its association of boredom and bureaucracy.

Could any self-respecting Marxist disagree with the content of these words?

All this talk about power is another way of saying that protest is not enough. Outrage is not enough. Being right against the two parties is not enough. Even broad public support for our agenda of single-payer health care, ending America’s wars abroad, or taxing the 1% is not enough when we lack the power to advance a single item on that agenda in the real world, even in some watered down form or on a small scale.

The American left is forever ineffectively protesting some injustice or other to such an extent that the word “protest” has become synonymous in the minds of millions with defeat, irrelevance, and pointless empty gesturing. Occupy succeeded where so many protests failed despite being focused on the same issues and despite being mostly a series of peaceful protests because it was born and raised as something other than a protest. It was militant rather than passive, defiant rather than submissive, caring rather than indifferent, passionate rather than boring, and as a result, it exerted power over people’s hearts and minds to such an extent that it drew hitherto passive, semi and apolitical layers of the 99% into their first confrontations with the state and capital.

Occupy created power out of powerlessness by taking bold, unorthodox action against a universally despised target: Wall Street. The 40 or more people who planned Occupy Wall Street (OWS) set into motion thousands and then tens of thousands in New York City and even greater numbers throughout the country. At its peak, Occupy was able to mobilize over 50,000 people at local marches in major urban areas, turnouts equal to what are generally considered to be respectably-sized national demonstrations in Washington, D.C. and managed to shut down Oakland’s port. This 30,000-strong port blockade was called by a 2,000-person General Assembly.

That was power — popular power, power emanating from the grassroots, but power nonetheless.

Power, not protest, is the key element missing from today’s left. We must speak power to power, not just truth to power.

Power on Campus

Campus-based left groups typically organize around a particular cause, issue, or ideology and draw students into their activities on that basis. Students filter into and out of these groups upon graduation, making it all but impossible for them to grow beyond handfuls of the like-minded into mass student organizations like those that exist in much of Europe, Latin America, and Canada, which are often organized and led by the left. When tuition hikes are announced, hundreds or thousands might respond to calls by the campus left to protest, but these protests usually dwindle after being ignored by school administrations and legislators alike, reinforcing defeatist, skeptical attitudes towards struggle among the student body. The reach and influence of the campus left over not only the mass of unorganized students but the students actively involved in campus life through ethnic, religious, and social clubs (fraternities, sororities) is usually minimal since there is little left interest in working in an ongoing way with ostensibly apolitical groups and people. Consequently, dual membership in a left group and non-political organizations is rare.

The result of the above organizing model is a campus left that remains politically isolated and numerically insignificant (despite its hyper-activism) while the student masses tend towards passivity, uninterested in the left’s doings.

A campus left focused on building student power aims to organize people to fight for their own wants and needs rather than persuade them to change their position on a particular issue or on socialist ideology the better to recruit them. This approach means listening and understanding rather than arguing and proselytizing. It means picking fights rather than converting individuals, focusing on agitation rather than propaganda, organizing the unorganized; our task is to change the world and the objective conditions we operate in, not the minds of individuals.

Only when large numbers of students come into motion and clash with the status quo can there be a mass basis for radical political formations and the creation of experienced militants (usually referred to as “cadres”). The sect form continually stands in the way of this process.

To develop roots on campus sufficient to survive attrition through graduation, campus left groups need to think seriously about engaging the powerful and enduring student institutions at their schools which, in most cases, are student government and social organizations like fraternities and sororities.

A left slate that wins enough popular support to control student government would make it very difficult for administrations to resist left-led protests for the following reasons:

  1. The left would have the power of a democratic mandate from the student body as well as legal or juridical legitimacy. Any hostile action by an administration would be almost automatically viewed as an intolerable violation of democratic principles, an attack on the student body as a whole, and engender publicity and support from off-campus forces on that basis. Instead of denigrating bourgeois-democratic illusions that prop up 1% rule, we must make use of them to dismantle it.
  2. Student governments generally have more money, resources, power, and therefore influence than campus groups with officially sanctioned club status, all of which would be tremendous assets in fighting tuition hikes, attacks on affirmative action, or defending left professors or student groups from rightist attacks. Left student governments could enact hate speech-free zones, banning the likes of Pamela Geller, Ann Coulter, or Daniel Pipes from speaking on campus, a more effective tactic than picketing outside their events or briefly disrupting inside before being ejected.
  3. If left governments on campus were elected within the same university system (CUNY, SUNY), they could link together and begin to function like the student federation CLASSE in Canada to fight austerity measures in a coordinated, system-wide way.

An alternative organizing strategy to creating left governments on campus (since there are many campuses where the left will not win enough support to take over student government) or proselytizing and recruiting individuals to a revolving-door sect would be to create something like a left fraternity or sorority. This might seem to clash with or contradict the power-centric approach advocated throughout this essay, but creating sustainable institutions is a form of power-building, a long, slower “war of position” (to borrow a phrase from Gramsci) rather than a short, quick “war of maneuver”.

It would be a mistake to dismiss the idea of left social organizations as absurd or a non-starter without first considering the fact that, aside from student governments, these organizations have endured on American campuses for decades and wield significant influence over student life through their activities. How many campus-based left groups can truthfully say the same about themselves? Not since the 1960s has there been a mass-based left on campus. Unfortunately, Students for a Democratic Society mushroomed too quickly and exploded into a dozen sects before it could sink roots to become a lasting institution and a continual organizing node for successive generations of student militants.

Of course, we would not aim to replicate the reactionary political culture of fraternities and sororities — just the opposite. Students join these groups for social not political reasons, to access a ready-made social network of friends and associates in an otherwise new and strange environment, and to plug into activities (parties). There is no reason the left cannot create its own version of these institutions to meet these entirely legitimate needs while combining that with progressive values and practices. Many students would probably gravitate towards or at the very least appreciate a competitive alternative to reactionary and sadistic frat party culture, one that combines fun with anti-sexist ethos, hardline anti-racism, and zero tolerance for homophobia. The last of these is especially important, given the spate of suicides by LGBTQ college students in recent years. Such an organization’s volunteer work could be working with local chapters of Food Not Bombs or Catholic Worker or visiting picket lines instead of spending time in Salvation Army soup kitchens, for example. Solidarity actions, constructing community gardens, or repairing/building homes in low-income communities could replace hazing as a means of building esprit de corps.

Although perhaps less ego-boosting than more-revolutionary-than-thou radicalism, creating left institutions on campus with real, lasting roots would go a long way towards undermining the alienating, stultifying campus culture that creates the context for suicides, rapes, hazing, binge drinking, and bullying that have become “normal” elements of “growing up” when they are anything but and begin to turn campuses into citadels of the left. Left social organizations would enjoy a much larger membership than existing political groups because their appeal and activities are more social than political and their ideological and labor-time requirements less rigorous. In addition, left social organizations would be in a position to regularly work with and influence the non-political ethnic, religious, and social clubs that make up the vast majority of student groups, spreading left influence throughout the student body rather than restricting it to the ever-slim ranks of the converted, convinced, and committed.

In practice, this model might (with modifications) look more like Philly Socialists than any existing two- or three-letter socialist group.

These two strategies for creating and building the left’s power in a campus setting are not mutually exclusive. A successful left social organization after a few years could change objective and subjective conditions to the point where it would be possible for a left slate to win control of student government and a left student government could facilitate the creation of a progressive social organization (or several) to broaden its base of popular support beyond the ranks of the super-political.

The Power of Elected Office

Emma Goldman famously wrote, “If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.” If voting changed nothing, corporations and super PACs would not invest billions of dollars into buying votes every four years or spend millions of dollars on lobbyists to influence elected officials. If voting changed nothing, generations of activists have fought and died for the right to vote. If who holds elected office made no difference what so ever, the 1% would not conspire to keep third parties and independents out the presidential debates after Ross Perot’s strong 1992 showing, continually restrict the franchise for minority voters, harass third-party electoral efforts, and create innumerable and expensive procedural barriers to electoral runs independent of the two parties.

Voting is a form of power, and in bourgeois democracies, ballots rather than bullets determine who exercises political power through the writing, interpretation, and enforcement of laws and control over the mechanisms of daily governance.

What our 1% fears most is a radical left that is powerful enough and popular enough to beat them at their own bourgeois-democratic game, to take power from them within their own state institutions. What they fear is a legislative army of Hugo Chávezes gumming up the works, taking the fight against lobbyists right to where the lobbying happens, turning business as usual into the battle of democracy Marx wrote of, with contending class forces mobilizing constituents and allies in the streets for or against legislation. This may sound prosaic or hopelessly utopian, but the rapid and explosive action by the immigrant masses in 2006 that culminated in a general strike on May 1 was not touched off not by the left’s revolutionary exhortations but by impending legislation. The simmering, ongoing immigration protests since around the DREAM Act is another example. The occupation of the Wisconsin state legislature in early 2011 to fight the governor’s union-busting bill yet another.

The power of elected office is one of the underappreciated lessons of the Wisconsin uprising’s defeat. The struggle began not as a militant occupation but evolved into one after a groundswell of mass opposition to Republican governor Scott Walker’s union-busting bill flooded the legislative process, resulting in a procedural dispute between Republican and Democratic legislators during public hearings on the bill. When Republicans broke with tradition by ending the public comment period on proposed legislation before the list of speakers was finished to stop a “citizens filibuster,” this shocked and radicalized opponents of the bill who expected “their” legislators to play by the rules and at least allow them to vent their feelings. With the two parties briefly unable to rule in the old way, masses of people from all walks of life poured into the capital to deepen the legislative logjam and make their opposition felt. The mass occupation of the legislature created the context for 14 Democratic legislators to flee the state and deny the Republican majority the necessary quorum to move ahead with passing the bill. As a result of their actions, Democratic legislators became the heroes of the occupation and they exploited the power of their popularity to bring the occupation to an end in favor of a recall effort against the governor. The far left denounced this betrayal and used it as fodder for propagandist rhetoric about “the need to break with the Democratic Party” while providing no alternative course of action for the stalled occupation to break the legislative stalemate.

This substitution of words for action, of verbal vitriol for practical leadership, revealed in stark terms the left’s utter failure to compete with Democratic Party politicians for power and influence among the capitol’s occupiers. Wisconsin proved that, on the field of battle, a sect is no match for a party even when the sect has the correct socialist doctrine and the party is made up of nothing but Judas Iscariots because parties wield power in the real world while sects only wield power over their own members.

Star Power

Another example of the power of elected office worth mentioning is the role played by Jesse Jackson in enabling OWS’s encampment in Zuccotti Park. As autumn progressed, temperatures fell and made precipitation increasingly difficult to cope with. The need for tents and other structured shelters became felt acutely by all occupiers and this need became a source of intense antagonism between OWS and city authorities. From day one of the occupation, the Bloomberg administration and Brookfield Properties were adamant that no tent-like structures would be permitted. The New York Police Department (NYPD) ruthlessly enforced that ban, snatching whoever tried to pitch a tent and confiscating their gear. A showdown over these “nonpolitical” quality of life issues was inevitable — the occupation could not endure without tents, port-o-potties, and agreements with the neighborhood residents’ association over noise in the park while Bloomberg could not allow the most successful political movement in the United States since sit-ins swept the Jim Crow south to endure and develop unfettered.

When Bloomberg set a deadline for an eviction operation, unions flooded Zuccotti Park with their members, causing the mayor to blink at the last minute during the wee hours of October 14. This temporary victory fed feelings of invincibility in the encampment and on October 17, the first aid station decided to pitch a tent. When the cops moved in to smash and grab it, Jesse Jackson interceded, physically standing between the NYPD and the tent and locking arms with occupiers. Beating and arresting dreadlocked punk rockers or underemployed graduate students was one thing; doing the same to Jesse Jackson while the whole world watched was another. Now, it was the NYPD’s turn to blink and their officers stood down. After that first tent survived police repression, tents sprang up like mushrooms one after the other in the days that followed. Within a few days, Zuccotti Park was a tent city, ready for the coming winter.

The point is not that Jesse Jackson or other Democratic politicians deserve our vote but that the left in the U.S. has no comparable figures of its own who stand a chance at stopping an NYPD officers dead in his tracks. That is power. Unless and until the radical left gets power, we cannot expect opposition movements to do anything but fall into the orbit of social forces that do exercise power — elected officials, political parties, the union and NGO bureaucracies, the state, and corporations. Wresting the allegiance of 65 million workers, immigrants, LGBTs, women, and minorities from Obama’s party will take a tremendous amount of power of our own, and part of building that power is fighting for and winning elected office.

As it stands now, we hardly have any elected officials or even popular figures of either national or local stature. So when workers at fast food chains went on strike in Seattle, they solicited the support of local Democratic politicians rather than any left organizations and the support they received from those politicians was not just rhetorical. Democratic city councilman Mike O’Brien personally called striking 21-year-old Carlos Hernandez’s manager at Subway to remind (read: warn) him that firing workers for striking is illegal. Actions like that are the ties that bind the union movement to the second party of capital. Those ties will not break until leftists like Kshama Sawant win elected office, giving oppressed sectors an alternative power to gravitate towards for meeting their immediate needs and responding effectively to their urgent demands. Propaganda and rhetorical denunciation of the evils and vices of voting Democratic will never shift the allegiances of 65 million people and create a competitive alternative to the Democratic Party; only agitation and organization can do that.

The bottom line: the sooner leftists and grassroots movement activists win office at the local and state level, the better.

The more the merrier.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Carl Davidson January 8, 2014 at 12:57 pm

Emma Goldman’s point about ‘if voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal’ is popular among anarchists. But it’s worth thinking about. First, it has a white blindspot. When she said it, voting was illegal throughout the US South for large numbers of the most oppressed. Second, today in North Carolina, the Tea Party is again making it illegal for students at Black colleges to vote, not to mention the various voter ID scams the right is pushing across the country. So what do we make of Emma’s statement in this light? Mind you, I’m not one to think we get to socialism BY ELECTIONS. But I do think, in this country, we must proceed THROUGH them to a considerable degree. Organized voters in and organization THEY control is one element of power, as are most forms of organization, our most critical means of empowerment. That’s why I often note that when it comes to power, organization-building trumps ‘movement-building’, not that you don’t need both.


Charles January 9, 2014 at 1:49 am

“October 17, the first aid station decided to pitch a tent”
To set the historical record, the first tent was a Sukkah, or Jewish ceremonial booth, put up by Occupy Judaism. The cops feared to take it down because religion, and the first aid tent felt empowered to follow suit. The cops tried to take that one down, and none other than Jesse Jackson helped save it.
Ah, the good old days….


Ty Hudson January 9, 2014 at 6:50 am

“the most successful political movement in the United States since sit-ins swept the Jim Crow south”

Occupy Wall Street was significant, but let’s not overstate the case.

“in bourgeois democracies, ballots rather than bullets determine who exercises political power”

I agree with the point that strategic engagement with the electoral process is important. (See my article on this site from a few days ago and my comments on “The Strategy of Attrition.”) But this is a ridiculous thing to say. Voting certainly has a non-trivial effect on who is able to exercise political power and how, but property relations and the potential for state violence (not to mention actual state violence) that backs them up are what really determines who has the real power. I think elections are very likely to be a key element of some future strategy to take that power away, but they certainly won’t be the whole shebang.

“the rapid and explosive action by the immigrant masses in 2006 that culminated in a general strike on May 1”

The immigrants’-rights marches in 2006 were amazing and powerful, and I will never forget the March 25 (especially) and May 1 marches in Los Angeles. But I don’t think it does us any good to define “general strike” down. I know there were a few million people in the streets and that various sects made calls for a general strike, but by no means did a significant portion of the working class refuse to work that day. Not if by “significant” we mean “enough to substantially disrupt the normal functioning of the capitalist economy.”

All that said, I wholeheartedly agree with the main point of this piece about the absolute necessity of building real power through organization. (“Being right against the two parties is not enough” — I like that.) In fact, I think this points to the weakness of Occupy and the 2006 marches, not their strength. Certainly some level of organization was involved in both of those sets of mobilizations, and a little bit of that organization still exists, but in neither case was there anywhere near enough organization to maintain the strength of those movements or, more importantly, to keep them growing. (Let alone to have a real chance at pulling off a general strike.)

This is the essence of our challenge.


forstudentpower January 9, 2014 at 6:13 pm

Pham, your points on student campus organizing are spot-on. Student power is a demand — likely the only one — that can unite disparate and often opposing campus groups to finally start fighting the real enemy instead of each other. And the nature of those fights, while some might see as provincial, have always been the best opportunities to incite student radicalization. Carl Davidson’s work in SDS has inspired more than a few generations of students along those lines.

I have a few quibbles on elections, though.

I’ll concede that after a century the matter is mostly academic, but I’ve never been able to find a citation or source for that Emma Goldman quote, and it seems no one else has been able to either.

Huge amounts of capitalist money being poured into elections does not automatically mean that it’s because elections are a useful tool for the proletariat. As I’m sure we all know, there are many competing interests among our economic and political elites, which are often fought and settled through elections.

Jesse Jackson could stop the NYPD precisely because he isn’t one of “our own.” Would they have blinked if it had been Noam Chomsky or Angela Davis standing in Jackson’s place? The police’s treatment of charismatic rising stars on the revolutionary left is much closer to that of Fred Hampton than Jesse Jackson. Nor is simply getting elected any kind of shield. Remember how NYC City Council member Ydanis Rodriguez was beaten up and arrested during a Zucotti raid?

All that said, I’m not a hardline anti-electoralist — as with any tactic, it comes down to whether it makes sense strategically. And of all the things that organizers on the radical left could be doing these days, electoral work doesn’t strike me as terribly strategic.


Emil Sible January 10, 2014 at 2:41 pm

is not known the way Jackson is (locally or nationally) so it’s not
comparable. Your average police officer has no idea who Chomsky or Davis
are and so of course wouldn’t hesitate to swing, but the same isn’t true
of, say, Al Sharpton.

The revolutionary left in this country has no “charismatic rising
stars” these days — certainly no one who is even 1/100th of Fred
Hampton. An interesting question to my mind is how would the majority minority police forces that patrol urban areas these days react to orders to shoot and kill a modern day equivalent of a Hampton or a Malcolm X, one who is known, popular, and deeply respected in minority communities? Hampton was killed by a specially created unit of the Chicago police department under the direction of the federal government, a very different kind of operation than the Occupy evictions which were organized and executed locally.

a radical/revolutionary mayor and we’d be in a position to
control the police force so there wouldn’t be evictions to begin with.
Beating Democrats in a one-party town shouldn’t be super-hard either with some serious planning, networking, and organizing over a cycle or
three; de Blasio became mayor with 700,000 votes in a city of ~8 million
people (4.3 million registered voters).

The point here is to build, accumulate, and use power in *all* its forms. Electoral, legal, and governmental power would help the U.S. left and far left a lot, but it’s not a magic bullet for any/all situations. Star power alone couldn’t have saved Occupy from eviction but state power would have helped.


H. Swingley January 9, 2014 at 11:27 pm

I have to disagree with much of this piece. The slogan of “Student Power” struck me as a radical student in the late 1960s–and still strikes me–as much more of a pretext than a reality. Most students, in American universities at least, were candidate members of the elite where they were not actually the children and heirs of the elite: they protested because they could do so with a visibility and frequency impossible for others. To the immense outrage of the “liberal” faculty and the big money donors and governing board members who are the real power at any university, the privileged status of “student radicals” made it necessary to protect them even to some extent even when they appeared to be sawing off the limb on which their class was sitting.

Slogans like “Student Power” and “participatory democracy” created false or partly false issues that worked because, in creating the false issues, the minority of student protesters who on some level actually understood the history in which they were participating were able to mobilize masses of the disgruntled who needed some sort of flag to fight under and were incapable of addressing the realities of social class.

A large part of the problem with SDS in 1969 and the student movement in the 1970s in general, was the insistence on treating the political in purely individual moral terms. The context was the transcendentalism that underlay so much of the American protest tradition, starting with Thoreau in the 19th century and continuing through figures influential in the 60s, ranging from Scott Nearing (still active during this period) to Allen Ginsberg, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and the Beatles. All this was reinforced by the intensely religious and moralistic rhetoric of the Civil Rights movement, which, with the assassination of Martin Luther King, actually began to withdraw from the more social, if not socialistic, perspective toward which King had been moving at the end of his life.

For most American, then or now, to be a protester meant first and foremost that you had gone into yourself in solitude and struggled to acquire a form of personal “spiritual” superiority without which nothing you did could be justified. This meant that the practical use of political power as understood by actual Marxists was taboo, as was materialism itself. So “Student power” actually translated not into the use of political power as it is understood in everyday life, but rather to the occupation of some high ground of virtue to which one was entitled, together with one’s friends, because one had achieved some form of essentially spiritual transcendence.

Binh writes: “Students for a Democratic Society mushroomed too quickly and exploded into a dozen sects before it could sink roots ..” One hardly knows what to make of the “too quickly.” Certainly SDS as a phenomenon lasted longer and had more impact than Occupy, which can appear in many respects to have been only a faint echo of 60s radicalism. But a factor in the decline of both these “mushroom” phenomena was the failure of the movements they catalyzed to go beyond the platitudes of personal morality that have infected the American left for so many decades like a particularly virulent strain of flu.

“Their morality and ours”–never has it been more urgent to make the materialist case and the case for a scientific view of humankind than it is now. If it is not the cause of reaction’s success in our time, transcendental moralism certainly represents the greatest challenge to the development of a Left climate of thought and a Left movement in this country. Fighting this should be among the very highest priorities of Leftists. We simply cannot any longer afford the luxury of expedience in this matter.


Jenkins Harlow February 28, 2014 at 8:12 pm

A very salient feature of accommodationist neoliberal regimes like those of the Clintons and Obama is that they create an absolute barrier (if one were needed) to any effective nationwide organization on the left in the Democrat Party.

Since we do not have Parliamentary party government in the United States, the exclusion of the Left from the Democrats means the exclusion of the Left from power unless the constitutional system is replaced by something else (too late for that), or unless an unprecedented degree of mobilization occurs among the 99%–who would certainly have to use a degree of force to make their will felt.

Despite the lies of the John Birch right (yes, liars can lie about other liars), the Harvard liberals of the Kennedy era lived for the cause of anticommunism and cared about little else except “toughness” and “guts” (i.e., the Imperial military). Their current successors revere Ronald Reagan and regard all forms of dissent as terrorism.

The system thus engendered can only move ever more to the right in a succession of increasingly oppressive eight-year elected dictatorships.

Voting is not illegal, but it is largely pointless–the “lesser evil” is always and only ever a placeholder for the greater evil. More Seattles–and more Bernie Sanderses–will never reach majority status, even supposing they can remain unincarcerated.

It’s a great shame that so many on the self-denominated Left are the prisoners of a kind of moral Sovereign Individualism that seeks a cause for political change in private moralism, when private morality is only ever in reality the flowering of social justice on the basis of class warfare.


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