Rather than criticising people who are demonstrating for the first time, we should embrace them
"There are decades when nothing happens — and there are weeks when decades happen." – V. I. Lenin
There is currently some talk on the left regarding the newly discovered outrage of the liberal centre at the various executive orders emanating from Donald Trump’s White House, in particular the Muslim ban. The argument goes roughly like this: why were people not on the streets over Obama’s weekly drone strikes? Over the state-sponsored deaths of people of colour in the US and abroad? Also, some see the protests as a call for a return to the consensus of the last few decades – essentially, a desire for a Hillary Clinton White House. It is clear from first-hand accounts from all over the world that there are many people at rallies for whom this has been a first-time experience. Do we embrace them and a united front or do we argue that our interests and theirs are not aligned?
I want to say that the second of those two positions is a mistake and a misunderstanding of how movements are grown, and of how people are radicalised. A quick look at May ’68 can provide lessons for us in these times.
The initial eruptions in Paris were against the use of the police to enforce university closures and against the disciplining of students over issues as relatively small as attempting to stop male students from visiting female students’ dormitories. Similarly, the student body in the US and Germany was not initially radicalised. Many of the people on the first wave of protests in France had nothing much more taking them on to the streets than a sense of alienation and the feeling that as a generation they were not being listened to. Within a few short weeks France had ground to a halt, with the student movement both shaping and aligning with a growing revolutionary socialist tendency in the factories. The students themselves were subject to an outpouring of revolutionary ideas. The movements proceeded in tandem. How did this happen and what can be learned from this by the growing protest movements against Trump and the rise of the right?
At times of extreme crisis, the initial feelings of floundering, of incomprehension, are fertile ground for the flowering of ideas. People are aware that new problems require new answers. The surge of support and organising behind Bernie Sanders and Black Lives Matter has already laid the ground for this in the US. In the UK, an unelected prime minister’s attempt to force through Brexit with scant regard for the rights of EU citizens, allied to an increase in anti-immigrant language even within the right and centre of the Labour Party, has created a similar environment of openness to radical responses. In 1968, opposition to Vietnam, Jim Crow US, Berlin and Germany’s division in to rival imperialist blocs, Gaullism in France, military dictatorship in Greece, and many other seemingly unconnected forms of oppression, gave birth to the student protest movements. What was needed then, as now, was a worldview that made it clear that all of these horrors were indeed connected.
Back in 1968, radical student leaders like Rudi Dutschke in Germany and Daniel Cohn-Bendit in France and the success, particularly in Paris, of the initially student-led protests showed that action pays. This spread to the factories. If the Communist-led reformist union CGT had not kept the revolutionaries from the factories, it is very likely that the end could have been different.
In 2017, we have a different situation, though one with many parallels. The contested sites are not currently in places of work in the UK, though there have been wildcat strikes in the US among taxi drivers serving airports, among Yemeni small business owners in New York, and there is a planned women’s strike and the possibility of a General Strike.
The strongest parallel between then and now in the UK is found in the radicalising effect of speeches at the rallies. Throughout the country, old hands and new have been speaking and urging the mass leftwards. At the second of the two events in Manchester that I attended on February the 4th, Ron Senchak, President of the Greater Manchester Stop the War Coalition, gave a speech that clearly connected Trumpism, Tory austerity, the NHS crisis, the war party and the need for a socialist, class-based response – a call for a ‘grand coalition of everybody affected’. He received rapturous applause from a predominantly young crowd, whose placards often suggested political positions simply taking offense at Trump’s racism. They heard a response to that which connected many issues that affect them in their day to day lives. Similarly, Jewish Socialist Group representative David Rosenberg’s speech at the London event the same day, connected the Muslim ban with Jewish history, the 1960s Civil Rights Movement in the US, May’s record on refugees, Netanyahu and the Israeli occupation and ending by invoking the Spanish Civil War with a call of ‘No pasaran’.
Should the response of the left to the thousands of new protestors be to chide them, to ask them where they were before the events of the last couple of weeks? Or should it be, like the leaders of May ’68 before us, to speak to them in a clear language that they understand and which addresses their lives and offers an answer from the left? Clearly, it should be the latter. People are not made radicals overnight. They are taken there by force of argument, by the ‘optimism of the will’, as Antonio Gramsci once said. If not now, when?