Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 19, 2016

Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, workers and communists

Filed under: Black Lives Matter,Occupy Wall Street — louisproyect @ 6:53 pm

Today I got a FB message from an American living in Italy who has been asked to give a short speech “to one of the many Italian communist parties at the end of the month in Naples concerning class consciousness in current movements in the US, particularly Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter, among others.” He asked what I and another North Star editor might have responded to the questions below. As is customary, I will answer them publicly since others might have the same types of questions.

1) what the make-up of these movements is, if they’re vastly working class and poor or if there is a substantial component of middle or even upper class support etc.

Occupy Wall Street was predominantly made up of students and young working people who were willing to camp out in Zuccotti Park in the financial district even if it meant losing their job. Since many young people are part of the “precariat”, it is altogether possible that sacrificing a job as a barista or a bike messenger was acceptable given the importance of the struggle. I have much less contact with Black Lives Matter but feel confident in saying that many of the activists are a mixture of working class African-Americans and students. In fact, I doubt that there is much difference in social terms between the two movements and the Vietnam antiwar movement and Black liberation movement of the 1960s such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) that was led by college students primarily. What you will not see to any great extent is representation from the major unions of the AFL-CIO even though they have praised the movements and provided speakers at rallies. The explanation for this is that bus drivers, UPS deliverymen and women, postal workers, etc. tend to be preoccupied with managing their family affairs and unwilling to take the chance of being arrested or fired. This has been true of leftist movements since WWII for the most part.

2) what the role of the working class is, especially among the young, in these movements..and what their contribution has been to these movements towards the development of mass organization

Answered above.

3) if communists, those identifying as such, or communist parties in the US are participating in these movements

Once again I have had more direct contact with the Occupy movement than BLM. Although I am sure that “the communists” themselves would disagree with me but I would say that the anarchists had a much more organic connection to the Occupy movement than the organized left that saw it as an opportunity to pick up members. This is not to say that they weren’t hard workers and did not believe deeply in the goals of the movement. It is just that they have been trained for generations to see the mass movement as a sphere to operate it rather than an end in itself. They are hamstrung by conceptions of “democratic centralism” that entail caucusing beforehand and bloc voting to support the party line. If the party line and the mass movement’s goals coincide, that works out but when they clash, there can be hell to pay. I say that as a veteran of the Vietnam antiwar movement.

4) and what links, if any, there has been to anti war movements in recent years to the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan etc.

There has been almost no connection. The anti-war movements tend to be made up of older veterans of earlier struggles such as Vietnam and Central America who belong to “communist” parties that were not particularly suited to the “horizontalism” of Occupy or BLM. I posted an article written by a co-thinker about the “culture clash” between the Leninist parties and the new movements back in December 2011. It is a very astute commentary on the failure of the communists to develop organic ties to Occupy and by implication applies to BLM as well.

Guest post by Pham Binh

Occupy and the Tasks of Socialists

By Pham Binh

December 14, 2011

Occupy is a once in a lifetime opportunity to re-merge the socialist and working class movements and create a viable broad-based party of radicals, two prospects that have not been on the cards in the United States since the late 1960s and early 1970s. The socialist left has not begun to think through these “big picture” implications of Occupy, nor has it fully adjusted to the new tasks that Occupy’s outbreak has created for socialists. In practice, the socialist left follows Occupy’s lead rather than Occupy follow the socialist left’s lead. As a result, we struggle to keep pace with Occupy’s rapid evolution.

Occupy Wall Street (OWS) mobilized more workers and oppressed people in four weeks than the entire socialist left combined has in four decades. We would benefit by coming to grips with how and why other forces (namely anarchists) accomplished this historic feat.

The following is an attempt to understand Occupy, review the socialist response, and draw some practical conclusions aimed at helping the socialist left become central rather than remain marginal to Occupy’s overall direction.

Occupy’s Class Character and Leadership

Occupy is more than a movement and less than a revolution. It is an uprising, an elemental and unpredictable outpouring of both rage and hope from the depths of the 99%.

Occupy is radically different from the mass movements that rocked American politics in the last decade or so: the immigrants’ rights movement that culminated on May 1, 2006 in the first national political strike since 1886, the Iraq anti-war movement of 2002-2003, and the global justice movement that began with the Battle of Seattle in 1999 and ended on 9/11. All three were led by liberal non-governmental organizations (NGOs). They sponsored the marches, obtained the permits, and selected who could and could not speak from the front of the rallies. Militant, illegal direction action tended to be the purview of adventurist Black Bloc elements or handfuls of very committed activists.

Compared to these three movements, the following differences stand out: Occupy is broader in terms of active participants and public support and, most importantly, is far more militant and defiant. Tens of thousands of people are willing to brave arrest and police brutality. The uprising was deliberately designed by its anarchist initiators to be an open-ended and all-inclusive process, thereby avoiding the pitfalls of the failed conventional single-issue protest model. The “people’s mic,” invented to circumvent the New York Police Department’s (NYPD) ban on amplified sound, means that anyone can be heard by large numbers of people at any time.

One of the most important elements that makes Occupy an uprising and not merely a mass movement is its alleged leaderlessness. Of course as Marxists we know that every struggle requires leadership in some form, and Occupy is no exception. The leaders of Occupy are those who put their bodies on the line at the encampments and get deeply involved in the complex, Byzantine decision-making process Occupy uses known as “modified consensus.” Occupy’s leaders are those who make the proposals at planning meetings, working groups, and General Assemblies (GAs) that attract enough support to determine the uprising’s course of action.

The people leading the uprising are those who are willing to make the biggest sacrifices for it.

Since Occupy is self-organizing and self-led by its most dedicated participants, attempts to make its decision-making process more accessible to those who are not willing or able to dedicate themselves to Occupy 24 hours a day, seven days a week will fall flat. “All day, all week, occupy Wall Street!” is not just a chant, it is a way of life for Occupy’s de facto leadership.

This reality has affected the class character of encampment participants, who tend to be either what Karl Marx called lumpenproletariat (long-term homeless, hustlers, drug addicts, and others who have fallen through the cracks of the capitalist edifice) or highly educated (white) students, ex-students, and graduate students. The former joined the encampments not just to eat and sleep in a relatively safe place but also because they hope the uprising will win real, meaningful change. The latter tend to dominate Occupy’s convoluted decision-making process and what motivates them is identical to what motivates the lumpenproletarian elements: hope that Occupy will win real, meaningful change. Many of these people are saddled with tremendous amounts of personal debt, have worked two or three part-time jobs simultaneously, or were unable to find work in their field despite their expensive, extensive educations. They were destined to be secure petty bourgeois or well-paid white-collar workers before the ongoing fallout from the 2008 crisis claimed their futures and put their backs against the wall. This is the material reality underpinning the determination of Occupy participants to keep coming back despite repeated arrests, beatings, and setbacks. Their determination is the stuff revolutions are made of.

The advantage of Occupy’s structure and form is that the Democratic Party, liberal NGOs, and union leaders have been unable to co-opt the uprising before it exploded into over 1,000 American towns and cities and targeted President Obama. The disadvantage is that it limits Occupy geographically to places where authorities will tolerate encampments and sociologically to the least and most privileged sections of the population, to those who have no where else to go besides the encampments and to those who can afford to camp out for weeks at a time.

The undocumented immigrant who works 60 hours a week and the wage slave who works 40 hours a week will find it very difficult to shape Occupy’s decision-making process. Attempts to scrap Occupy’s existing structures and forms to make them more accessible to those other than full-time occupiers carry two inherent risks: 1) opening it up to forces that would love nothing more than to turn the uprising’s fighters into foot soldiers for Obama’s 2012 campaign and 2) diminishing the power wielded by Occupy’s most dedicated participants. In places where Occupy does not take the form of a permanent encampment its decision-making process can be even more diffuse and difficult to participate in.

Full: https://louisproyect.org/2011/12/15/occupy-and-the-tasks-of-socialists/



  1. Pham’s is still the best essay yet on Occupy I’ve read. I don’t believe any one else comes close to the pin-pointing the issues with Occupy and why Socialists should relate to it.

    Comment by David Walters — July 19, 2016 @ 7:48 pm

  2. I couldn’t agree more with David on Binh’s paper. I also thought Louis’ comments were accurate regarding the “left” and the actual mass movements taking place and largely by emerging youth in the “precariat” and the general working class (often stereotyped as White workers by many leftists in much the same way such folk criticize “identity politics” among people of color and emerging millenial activists). What was missing from Louis’ comments is the advent of such movements at $15 Now and class organizing around the service industry like the Walmart, McDonald’s, “Black Friday” protesting. In these struggles the organized left has likely made some connections, but when they have (e.g. SAlt) it has been as Louis’ remarked largely aimed at recruiting for the failed strategy of organizing “Leninist” parties. Too, Louis did not mention the growing potential surrounding the bourgeois election campaign and the growth in support for independent electoral action undermining the Twin Parties of War and Plunder. These are all features that contribute to U.S. class politics that are emerging. The organized left (minus to some extent the anarchists with their rather uneven role) has mostly been a non-factor except to try and capitalize on what passes for mass movement currently.

    Comment by Manuel Barrera — July 20, 2016 @ 5:20 pm

  3. > I have much less contact with Black Lives Matter

    I’ve heard former Black Panthers, even former BLA members who are still actively organizing saying they don’t know what’s going on in the AA community so I wouldn’t feel too bad.

    I feel somewhat plugged into the movements young people are in New York City, although a little less so for some of the ones in the South Bronx and the poor immigrant or AA communities. A physical nexus of it is around Bluestockings books, the Brooklyn Commons, the ABC No Rio building and the goings-on there. The Brooklyn commons building hosts WBAI, the Indypendent newspaper, Jacobin magazine, and refugees from the Brecht Forum called the Marxist Education project.

    It’s a pretty open atmosphere – a young person can walk into Bluestockings, read some pamphlets, newspapers, postings, talk to people. Go to an event posted on ABC No Rio’s web site. Go to the Brooklyn Commons cafe, look for an event on the calendar.

    The Marxists and communists these young people encounter are usually wackos. Sparts, RCP’ers singing hosannas to Bob Avakian. I went to some anti-war event a while ago, chatted with some people at an SWP table, and later told a young guy I know. “Did they talk about you how great Cuba was?” he said mockingly. Actually they had been talking about how much the SWP and Farrell Dobbs did during the 1934 Teamster’s strike in Minneapolis, but close enough…

    I agree the anarchist view of things prevails. Noam Chomsky sometimes praises Anton Pannekoek and Rosa Luxemberg, which is a fringe view in this group. Most talk about communists is negative – sometimes about the Tambov rebellion, Trotsky’s suppression of Kronstadt, the Red Army fighting Makhno’s Black Army, the NEP (which Molotov later said was a hard sell for Lenin even within the party), the betrayal of the revolution in Spain in the 1930s and so on.

    There are splits in anarchism – anarcho-syndicalists, anarcho-communists, Wobblies, anarcho-primitivists, platformists. Plus a kind of subculture of DIY punks and crusties. Without a central leader, democratic centralism, a party line etc. these differences are not so rigid. For little Trotskyite cults, the other Trotskyite soi disant “international” cult with a different line on Cuba or whether the USSR was deformed, degenerated, state capitalist etc. is the enemy, and clear lines are drawn – never mind some Maoist group, or the CPUSA or what have you. Anarchist groups and schools of thought take jabs at one another, but the lines are less clear. For example, one guy I talked to who worked with anarcho-syndicalists went to see John Zerzan speak instead of going to a competing anarcho-syndicalist event that night.

    A lot of anarcho-affiliated young people see themselves as organizing mass movements, and the communist cults who try to glom themselves onto the events the anarchists organized as parasites. Anarchists do the work, communist cults do nothing then show up on the day of the event selling newspapers with headlines like “BERNIE SANDERS: IMPERIALIST RUNNING DOG” ( http://www.icl-fi.org/english/wv/1083/sanders.html ). They see Lenin and the Bolsheviks as people who glommed onto the Russian mass movement and hijacked it, and they see all these little competing communist cults nowadays as the same thing – parasites on the work they’re doing and the mass movement.

    Comment by Adelson — July 23, 2016 @ 2:41 am

  4. for quite some time I was puzzeled about the media attention that cop killings of unarmed black citizens has been getting since the death of Michael Brown.
    This type of thing has been going on for years. (Is it neccessary for me to give examples or footnote that assertion) Why have these incidents been given national attention rather than just some local attention beginning two years ago? Is it safe to assume that these events have gotten national attention because of the riots in Ferguson? I have heard that said that with the rise of cell phones that can take videos this problem can no longer be hidden. But these type of phones did not begin appearing in 2013, did they? Well I am not sure since I am not really much of a technology buff but I think such phones have been around for 10 years. Feel free to correct me if I am wrong.
    Is it possible that there could be collusion on the part of leading MSM companies to increase the coverage of these incidents? Did they just have a collective epiphany in August of 2014 that these incidents are newsworthy because of the riots that followed the death of Micheal Brown? Well of course that is possible, isn’t it? I wonder though if this coverage could be motivated by a different motive though. That motive being to goad young black men in to attacking police officers. The purpose of that being to create a heroic image of public servants being unjusty attacked by black “terrorists”.
    But who would have a motive to do such a thing? Why would they have had a motive to do it in 2014 and not in 2004 for example? Are the circumstances in the USA different today than they were ten or twelve or five years ago?

    Comment by Curt Kastens — July 24, 2016 @ 6:17 pm

  5. The other sad possibility is that the circumstances of today are no different than they were a decade or more ago but the powers that be are be are trying to stay two steps ahead of what they perceive as possible negative events in the future. Their perception(s) could be totally baseless, If the perceptions of the powers that be are totally baseless then attempts to understand their tactics decisions would be nearly impossible as it would seem either incoherent or seem to be reacting to illusions. If the powers that be were reacting to baseless perceptions would it be possible to magnify those perceptions to such a point that their insanity becomes obvious to any sane person? In a country where the masses are also dysfunctional will exposing the insanity of the rulers do a bit of good?

    Comment by Curt Kastens — July 25, 2016 @ 2:57 am

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