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  • Published in Book Reviews

In the second part of the review of Socialist Register 2013: The Question of Strategy, the strengths and weaknesses of campaigning strategies are discussed, from Occupy to the People’s Assembly

Socialist Register 2013: A Question of Strategy (Merlin 2012), 380pp. 

Occupy, direct action and the broad movement

Barbara Epstein’s ‘Occupy Oakland: the question of violence’ has relevance way beyond Oakland, and the question of violence is only one of a number explored here. She focuses on a number of issues arising from Occupy Oakland (OO), which was one of the most high-profile parts of the movement: ‘the balance between non-violent tactics and militancy, between a focus on tactics and internal processes on the one hand, and on goals and strategy on the other, and the question of how to respond to police violence’ (p.64).

Anarchist-influenced ideas have become prominent in the last thirty years of protest movements. She suggests the first wave was in the 1980s with a particular focus on anti-nuclear activity, with feminist and environmentalist concerns at the fore. The second wave was the anti-capitalist movement after the great Seattle demonstration in late 1999, which benefited from a wider anti-system critique but borrowed many of the same preoccupations: inclusivity, horizontalism, consensus, etc. The third wave is Occupy.

Internationally, the predominance of such ideas and forms of organisation is influenced by the weakness of traditions that were once stronger: trade unions, social democracy, official Communism and the organised left. There is often a deep distrust of ‘politics’ and also of organisation: taken together, this feeds an emphasis on direct action, and a certain dynamism and militancy, but with little connection to mass politics or mass organisations, it thus also encourages a degree of elitism and sectarianism.

Epstein explains that various occupations, including Occupy Oakland, modelled themselves on Occupy Wall Street: ‘adopting, along with encampment, the General Assembly, some modified form of consensus process, the hand motions, the use of the human mic’ (p.70). She points out that these tactics have strengths but also drawbacks: consensus, or even modified consensus, can allow a small minority to block the will of the majority; meetings can be long, tedious and unproductive; an appearance of consensus can disguise important differences.

In Occupy Oakland the issue of responding to police violence became a central one. Influential elements within the activist base of OO, heavily influenced by variants of anarchism, foregrounded physical confrontation with the forces of the state. This was coupled with a highly antagonistic attitude to anything deemed part of ‘official politics’. There were two interconnected problems. Firstly, these forms of organisation privilege the commitment of relatively small numbers of activists over the capacity to mobilise large numbers. Yet, if you want to isolate and defeat state forces, it makes sense to mobilise the largest numbers possible. The other problem is that distrust of authority even extended to sympathetic elected politicians: at one demonstration, progressive local politicians were refused any opportunity to speak. Epstein writes: ‘a suspicious attitude towards progressive groups that engage in electoral politics deprives Occupy Oakland of potential allies’ (p.74).

The response to a police attack on the Oakland camp on 25 October 2011 was to call a ‘general strike’, which in fact was a day of demonstrations supported by unions, as agreed at a General Assembly of over 1000 people. Twenty thousand people took part in the demonstrations on 2nd November, with many taking the day off work. In the evening a much smaller number, many dressed in black and wearing masks, gathered. A confrontation with police ensued, with over 100 arrests. Debate raged afterwards about this adoption of confrontational, small-scale ‘militancy’ by some of those involved in Occupy Oakland. The debate tended to be framed in terms of whether only ‘non-violent’ tactics should be used or if a ‘diversity of tactics’ (including confrontational tactics) was preferable.

But, as Epstein observes, that confuses the issues. The real debate needs to be about what tactics can successfully build on widespread popular enthusiasm for Occupy. Continued mass mobilisations, outreach and strengthening links with unions were all tactics for doing this; small-scale actions involving dedicated activists, by contrast, alienated broad support and risked diverting the movement down a blind alley. The truly radical aspect of 2nd November 2011 was not any ‘Black Bloc’ heroics, but rather the mass movement opposing state repression and providing solidarity with Occupy’s stand against social inequality and injustice.

Epstein considers what options were open to Occupy activists when the occupations ended in late 2011. She suggests that perhaps the most successful development for Occupy Wall Street was a campaign over housing, taking direct action in response to evictions. This indicated the potential that exists: addressing issues that are important to millions of working-class people, allying with campaigns and community groups, extending the movement beyond a single, highly-visible but transient tactic. Such action can enable community participation and build new coalitions. Occupy Oakland had some similar experience with a protest march against school closures attracting around 5000 people. OO’s most effective work was through its links with trade unions, but, as indicated above, this was in tension with other elements of the movement. It is also not clear if it has been sustained.

Epstein writes:

‘The Occupy movement as a whole faces the problem of any movement whose identity is tied to a tactic and an internal process rather than to a clearly defined goal: what to do when the tactic reaches its limit and the process loses its glow, when internal differences, or fatigue and declining numbers, call for more stable forms of organising’ (p.79).

This implies that a clearer sense of goals and demands is necessary. That is one part of what is meant when we refer to strategy. However, it also points towards other aspects of strategy: who is involved in the movement, and what mechanisms are deployed for mobilising them and co-ordinating their efforts. It is, fundamentally, a question of how a small and committed activist minority can, in a sustained, long-term way, connect with much larger layers of people in joint activity towards meaningful shared demands.

Trade unions and the American Left 

In ‘Rethinking Unions, Registering Socialism’, Sam Gindin’s starting point is American trade unions’ ‘generally anaemic response to the Great Financial Crisis’ (p.26). Gindin, a Canadian academic who has a long association with North America’s union movements, observes that the US-union movement failed to build out of the activist and political space opened up by Occupy. The struggle in Wisconsin was exemplary, but its eventual defeat may be one reason why there has not been a general upswing in trade-union action.

The key question Gindin addresses is this: ‘does the rejuvenation of unions still really remain possible, or are unions now exhausted as an effective historical form through which working people organise themselves?’ (p.26). The last comparable economic and social crisis (in the 1930s) prompted a response that, in the US, had industrial unionism at the fore. Is it bound to be different this time? In the 1930s the American left was very much shaped by participation in workers’ struggles. Gindin considers the decline and weakened state of today’s left, noting that there is a huge gap between the poor state of socialist organisation and the crying need for a socialist response to the crisis.

Gindin is conscious of the limits of trade-union sectionalism, which pulls the unions away from co-ordination and from a generalised political response to the crisis. The unions are particularly weak after over three decades of neoliberal workforce restructuring, which has eroded workplace organisation. It is exceptionally difficult for union militants to build rank-and-file organisations when they are isolated in often small workplaces, operating in a context of low union density and low levels of strike action.

Gindin suggests a way forward suited to this context of low levels of confidence within the labour movement (and a very small organised left) co-existing with widespread working-class anger and the radicalism signified by Occupy. His proposal is for workers’ assemblies, which would have ‘four elements - individual membership, community-based, class-focused and anti-capitalist in the ultimate goal’ (p.37). These would be locally-based and encompass a range of issues, offering a way for left-wing activists to both group together and reach out to wider layers, with a radical political dynamic.

This has attractive elements: it reflects a correct understanding that organisation is more likely to be area-based than workplace-based (in a period of low industrial struggle and taking into account long-term workforce restructuring), it aims to make connections between different elements of the working class to overcome sectionalism, and has a general political perspective rather than being limited to single issues. However, it does seem a rather speculative model because it is not, to the best of my knowledge, rooted in any existing processes. It is not clear who would initiate such assemblies: is this a call to the unions to take such an initiative, or perhaps to small groupings of socialist activists, or a wider appeal to the broad progressive movement? Also, as Gindin acknowledges, in the absence of real workers’ struggles they risk becoming talking shops and could turn inwards.

I also think there is a lack of clarity in Gindin’s ideas about how such workers’ assemblies actually relate to trade-union renewal. The idea is that they could play a vital role in stimulating a renewal of workers’ struggles, but how this might unfold is not explained. What is missing here, it seems, is the concept of the united front, or a sense of how it might be applied in current circumstances. I am reluctant to offer prescriptions from my location in another continent - and of course there will already be at least localised or partial examples of this anyway - so I will just indicate roughly what that might imply. It means that socialist activists initiate broader formations opposed to key aspects of the neoliberal offensive. In Europe this overwhelmingly means austerity; in the US it is not quite so straightforward, but there is (as Occupy testified) a sense that the vast majority are being made to pay for a crisis generated by a tiny, wealthy minority, with growth in inequality and a squeeze on working-class living standards.

It is in the context of wider struggles, which can involve sometimes large numbers of people from non-activist or non-left backgrounds, that the American Left can find a way forward. These will often be broader-based and more ostensibly single-issue (though of course specific issues tend to be a lightning rod for wider grievances) than the workers’ assemblies model implies. In this context it is possible for there to be both a broad left renewal - a left equivalent of the Tea Party phenomenon, if you will - and also a strengthening of the radical left. In this context arguments about the need for fundamental system change can resonate at least with a small minority of those involved in joint activity.

Socialists, elections and movements

I want, finally, to make some synoptic comments on the question of how socialists should organise in the current period, especially on the prospects for new left-wing parties. This is a central theme of A Question of Strategy, which includes three very insightful contributions devoted specifically to Syriza. The Greek party is undoubtedly the brightest hope of the European left and a focus for a great deal of political and strategic debate.

What are the conditions for the growth of new left parties? The last decade has provided numerous examples of left-wing electoral initiatives in the political space opened up by social democracy’s capitulation to neoliberal orthodoxies. This wider experience, in countries like Greece, France, Portugal, Germany, Denmark and Holland as well as in the UK, can be distilled into several key elements which provide the conditions for new left-wing parties being a plausible endeavour.

Firstly, a crisis of established social democracy opens up political space. In other words, a country’s traditional social-democratic party has disillusioned its supporters by imposing cuts and privatisation while in office. It is the adoption of neoliberalism by European left-of-centre parties, especially from the mid-1990s onwards (typified by Blair’s ‘Third Way’, but far more widespread), that provides the broader political context for the rise of newer left-wing formations in recent years.

Secondly, there have been consequent fractures in social democracy as an organised force. The crisis of trust in the traditional labour parties leads to breakaways by left wingers, either in those parties themselves or the trade unions linked to them. Die Linke provides a powerful example of this. Thirdly, mass movements or mass struggles have given impetus to new parties. This country’s Stop-the-War movement was the practical context that shaped the formation of Respect, especially the involvement of Muslim anti-war activists in alliance with the radical left, when it was launched in January 2004. The most advanced example is of course Syriza, the growth of which is organically connected to the mass strikes and mass protests in Greece.

Fourthly, a significant layer of activists is required. An obvious example is France’s Fronte de Gauche, which is dominated by the French Communist Party, an organisation that claims 70,000 subs-paying members (i.e. several times the membership of the entire UK organised radical left combined). On a smaller scale, though, recall that the Scottish Socialist Party and Respect were both made possible by decent-sized socialist organisations investing time in building them.

Fifthly, an electoral system that is favourable to minor parties is helpful if not absolutely essential. Our ‘first past the post’ system is a major barrier to minor parties. Many European countries (including Greece) have systems that provide better opportunities for small parties actually to get people elected, which in turn takes them to a higher level of public awareness, provides a certain political credibility and motivates activists to keep on campaigning. Finally, an existing electoral vacuum is not an absolute precondition - look at how Syriza has flourished despite competition from the Communist KKE and the radical left Antarsya - but it helps a new left-wing party’s chances if there are not already a number of left-wing alternatives on offer to voters. A range of options on the left not only splits the vote, but also generates cynicism among voters (and many potential activists) about the left’s inability to unite.

What overall conclusions can be taken from the above? It should be obvious that past UK successes, several SSP candidates elected to the Scottish Parliament in 2003, the election of George Galloway as a Respect MP followed by a batch of east London councillors in 2006, are not easily replicated. It would also be naïve to imagine that breakthroughs on the continent can be readily emulated here. We also need to recall that initial breakthroughs, here and elsewhere, have in most cases not been sustained or built upon. In fact a number of electoral formations have declined or even collapsed, as the wider circumstances have changed or as difficult-to-balance political tensions have ultimately become irreconcilable.

The central question, however, is what our priorities on the left ought to be. In the UK the primary locus of struggle is clearly extra-parliamentary activity, especially in the form of street protests and principally oriented on the struggle against austerity. This includes a great deal of trade-union activity - although strike levels have been low, unions have played a major role in mobilising anti-cuts feeling on the streets - but also protests by a wide range of groups encompassing all sorts of issues, from the bedroom tax to the NHS, from workfare to library closures.

There has been a fragmented and localised quality to most anti-cuts campaigning. The People’s Assembly on 22nd June offers the hope of utilising the energy and dynamism in much of this campaigning and channelling it into a more co-ordinated assault on the government, developing a unified and coherent movement that combines the myriad campaigns and organisations. Such working-class unity in action is surely the central priority for the left today. This has the capacity to confront urgently the Tory assault on working-class living standards, welfare and public services, mobilising popular opposition on the streets and hopefully, increasingly, through workplace action too.

This does not mean pursuing blind activity or downplaying politics: indeed the People’s Assembly process provides a chance to unite activity and politics on a sustained, on-going basis. It is through this process that we can unite and renew the left, drawing in new layers of activists and supporters, making left-wing politics relevant through meaningful mass activity against the cuts.

The corollary of united-front building is the renewal of the revolutionary-socialist tradition. Revolutionaries need to articulate an anti-capitalist politics that points the way to total system change, linking together the numerous different issues and locating them as having the same roots in capitalism. Doing this effectively requires organisation. We start from a low base, due to the weakened state of the revolutionary left and (in the UK) the political and sectarian degeneration of the SWP, but nonetheless a new revolutionary organisation must be built. As John Rees recently wrote for Counterfire:

‘The revolutionary left has a crucial role to play here since the conception of the united front and of the necessary predominance of extra-parliamentary struggle is at the heart of the tradition of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky. The revolutionary left may be weakened, in Britain at least, by internal degeneration produced by sectarian politics. But it can and must recover to play a vital ideological and practical role in the reconstruction of a fighting and united working-class movement.’

The construction of broad united fronts capable of confronting austerity, and the renewal of revolutionary organisation are two sides of the same coin. Grasping the centrality of both these challenges, and the relationship between them, is at the core of any answers we might give to the question of strategy.

Alex Snowdon

Alex Snowdon

Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in People's Assembly, Stop the War Coalition, Palestine Solidarity Campaign and the NUT. Alex blogs at Luna17 .


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