The following is based on a talk the author gave during a Philly Socialists educational meeting. The talk was based on the texts The Nature of Mass Demonstrations by John Berger and Liberalism, Ultraleftism or Mass Action by Peter Camejo
by John Leslie
I’m a long-time labor, socialist and social movement activist. I was raised in the South in a period when there were mass movements against segregation and the Vietnam war. These movements had an impact on my consciousness, though I was too young to play any real role in them. It’s important to understand that people’s consciousness develops unevenly and at different paces. No one radicalizes in exactly the same way.
Since the election, we have seen powerful mass mobilizations. For example, the Women’s March on the day after the inauguration, which brought out 4 million women and their supporters worldwide and the mass mobilizations at airports in response to the racist Muslim ban.
I would argue that without these important mass expressions of popular rejection of Trump’s reactionary agenda, our situation would be very different. The mobilizations made the “normalization” of the Trump regime more difficult. I would argue that there is a limit, however, to these mass mobilizations without building democratic mass organizations and united front type coalitions.
As socialists, we speak of strategy and tactics. Why is this? As socialists we advocate for the revolutionary overthrow of the existing social order. This requires the self-activity and self-organization of the oppressed and exploited – but it also requires conscious revolutionary organization.
The Communist International put forward a united front tactic that called for alliances in action between revolutionary and reformist parties, not electoral alliances, around a limited program and with communists keeping their independence from bourgeois parties, their press, and the right to criticize. Movement building has to be done hand in hand with revolutionary political work.
In the US, we don’t have either a mass communist or mass social democratic party. In the 60s, the Socialist Workers Party put forward the idea of a united front type coalition to build the broadest possible mobilizations against the Vietnam War.
Tom Kerry, an SWP leader, argued for mass action as a way to shift consciousness and to shift the balance of class forces; that through participation in mass demonstrations people learn their potential power. This was a creative application of the method behind classical united front to a situation where the conditions laid out by the Comintern didn’t exist.
“The working class and the oppressed nationalities are mass social layers, and they can only realize their potential power when they organize as a massive social force. The ruling class can deal with any one individual or any small group; it’s only masses that can stand in their way. So the potential power of the working class to stop the war is a big threat.” Camejo
“The truth is that mass demonstrations are rehearsals for revolution: not strategic or even tactical ones, but rehearsals of revolutionary awareness. The delay between the rehearsals and the real performance may be very long: their quality – the intensity of rehearsed awareness – may, on different occasions, vary considerably: but any demonstration which lacks this element of rehearsal is better described as an officially encouraged public spectacle.” Berger
The ruling class uses repression to cut across mass movements. They also use co-optation. This is one of the main roles of the Democrats in US politics. For example, in Wisconsin there was a mass movement of workers, farmers and students against Scott Walker’s reactionary attack on public employees. The Democrats and the labor bureaucracy diverted this movement into a recall campaign, moving the energy from the streets to the ballot box. If you look at the recent airport demonstrations against Trump’s Muslim ban, Democrats like Elizabeth Warren or, locally, like Congressman Bob Brady and Senator Casey rushed to the airports to try to place themselves at the head of the movement.
When you think about co-optation think about the invitation of Black Lives Matter leaders to the White House to discuss issues. Above everything else, the Democrats want the stability of the existing system. This is why we call the Democratic Party the graveyard of social movements.
The Democrats — like Schumer, Sanders, or Warren — will talk about “resistance” to Trump on the one hand but also seem eager to make a deal with him. We can count on the Democratic Party to attempt to “normalize” Trump if they see it as in the interests of the system. All you have to look at is the praise for how “Presidential” Trump was during his recent speech to Congress.
We face a conscious and ruthless ruling class that has at its command the armed might of the state. Marxists argue that no revolutionary situation can be resolved in favor of the working class and its allies without the construction of a political organization capable of leading a revolution.
Gerry Foley* speaking of Latin America and former Soviet republics, talked about the potential for mass explosions, which he said would take place, and could even bring down governments, but that these explosions were doomed without revolutionary political organization.
In the US, we lack such a party or organization. I would argue that understanding strategy and tactics is important for us going forward — in the sense of understanding how we get from where we are now to the sort of organization we need to advance the struggles of workers and the oppressed.
We should understand mass actions, as well as strikes and the general strike as working class methods of struggle. I would also include riots, like in Ferguson and Baltimore, and revolutionary uprisings in this category.
“Mass demonstrations should be distinguished from riots or revolutionary uprisings although, under certain (now rare) circumstances, they may develop into either of the latter. The aims of a riot are usually immediate (the immediacy matching the desperation they express): the seizing of food, the release of prisoners, the destruction of property. The aims of a revolutionary uprising are long-term and comprehensive: they culminate in the taking over of State power. The aims of a demonstration, however, are symbolic: it demonstrates a force that is scarcely used.” Berger
Camejo describes mass action as “a general strategy of trying to build movements which reach out and bring masses into motion on issues where they are willing to struggle against policies of the ruling class, and through their involvement in action, deepen their understanding of those issues. This is the fundamental strategy we’re after.”
He says later on that “Our concept is to unite people in action around the issues on which they’re moving. Not because we’re single-issue fetishists. Our aim, in fact, is to move people around broader and broader issues, but we’ve got to deal with reality, not with abstractions.”
Avoid the “Left” capturing itself
We have to avoid the danger of substitutionism on the left –the notion that a small group of conscious people can substitute themselves for the activity of the masses. We meet people where they are and don’t get too far ahead of the masses politically.
I think this also means not bashing people who are new to the movement because they are not as “radical” as you are. In the context of discussing the Women’s March or International Women’s Day actions, being overly-critical of women, who may be new to protesting and politics, as representative of “white liberal feminism” does little to win them to a deeper analysis of the system. These are people who are going into motion because of their fear and anger at the misogyny of Trump and his regime. They are not our opponents.
The general strike
The general strike has great political implications and we shouldn’t play around with it. SWP leader, Tom Kerry called it “social dynamite.” The general strike requires organization, preparation, and deep roots in workers organizations. Calls for a general strike have been made since Trump took office. I think we should support the March 8 women’s strike and calls for a strike on May 1 with the understanding that these are not necessarily general strikes in the sense we have seen in Greece, for example. That said, to build an effective general strike, you can’t bypass the mass organizations of workers. Yes, the unions are bureaucratized and the leadership has subordinated working people to the bosses and democrats, but there are 14 million workers in the unions. The challenge for us going forward is for socialists to sink deep roots in labor and other broad social movements.
The mass mobilizations we have seen in reaction to Trumpism are inspiring and they have been unconventional in the sense of how they were built through social media. That said, I think we have to move to new levels of organization – both socialist political organization and mass democratic fighting organizations of the oppressed and working class as the motor behind the movements. We have to move from reactive politics to the more difficult and long-term road of building mass movements.