California Is Not Dreaming

The State of California has been consumed by a severe budgetary crisis. Brought about by a combination of the large number of foreclosures, the loss of jobs and a distinctively Californian budget approval process(specifically, the requirement that all fiscal measures be approved by two-thirds majorities in both houses of the State Legislature), each year since 2007-2008 has witnessed prolonged negotiations that have resulted in significant cuts to public education and hum an services and–in the case of the State’s public university systems (the University of California and the California State University) and community colleges– tuition and fee increases for students, salary reductions for faculty and staff and significant reductions in course offerings. Recent forecasts indicate that the State’s budget crises will continue into the future.

Perhaps not surprisingly, opposition to the proposed budget cuts and the increases in student fees at the higher education systems has principally emerged from student groups in the higher education institutions. In October of 2009, a state-wide conference of oppositional forces took place at the University of California/Berkeley. The conference’s attendees agreed on a Call for a Day of Action on March 4th. Many thousands of individuals participated in actions across the state—most of which took the forms of rallies and marches. In a few cases, the actions took more radical directions.

Afterwards, a Bay Area group, Advance the Struggle (AS), published an analysis of the politics leading up to the Day of Action that attempted to differentiate between three different political currents—centrists, adventurists and “genuine” class struggle leftists (among which AS counted itself). Their analysis was responded to by Socialist Organizer, a Fourth Internationalist Trotskyist group and one of the centrist groups included in the AS analysis; in turn, a member of Unity in Struggle (a group that is affiliated with Advance the Struggle, posted a follow up response. The discussion appears to have attracted a good deal of interest with more than sixty responses posted to the original article. What is especially noteworthy is that the discussion, for the most part, has been a very serious one—with little name-calling. We excerpt from the exchanges below (but we urge all readers to look at the full texts available on the cited web pages). We’ll join the discussion ourselves in the next issue of Insurgent Notes.

Advance the Struggle, “Crisis and Consciousness: Reflections and Lessons from March 4.”

In our last analysis of the anti-budget cut movement we identified two dominant political forces on campuses – the adventurists and the centrists (trotskyists mainly, but not exclusively). As we stated in Opening Shot, the political tension was between:

…the twin pitfalls of tailism (following behind proposals for petitions and legalistic protests) on the one hand, and adventurism (isolated militant action) on the other. Both of these approaches sidestep the political consciousness of the masses.

This was written at a very early stage of the movement, but even then it was clear to us that the differences of approaches to radicalizing consciousness were key determinants in differentiating the political forces in the movement. However, these differing approaches have often gone under-theorized due to the emphasis amongst activists being on questions of tactics. Which tactic is right for the movement at any given time? The adventurists and the centrists almost always answered this question differently, even if in practice they acted in temporary unison. For instance, after the successful occupation of Wheeler Hall on November 20 (where over 2000 students defended an occupied building), we wrote that:

In the campus movement, the two primary answers to this question have been popular organizing (general assemblies) and militant resistance (occupations). What happened last week at university campuses across California was a step toward a synthesis of these two approaches.

A synthesis of these two approaches has not happened since. Rather, what has happened is a sharpening of the differences and tensions between these dominant and at times competing approaches towards developing consciousness and turning these developments into strategic advancements in the movement. At the same time, we have also seen the development of a third approach that we call a genuine class struggle left and the purpose of our writing here is to excavate by positive example this emerging left approach. The strengthening of the movement and the radicalization of political consciousness amongst the working class are crucial components of turning movements of resistance into schools of revolutionary training. For this reason it is necessary to briefly examine the positive and negative aspects of the adventurist and centrist tendencies in order to identify what we can learn from each group’s methodologies, as well as which aspects we should leave behind. We are not aiming to abstractly compare ideologies against each other but rather seeking to identify how these ideologies relate towards the development of struggle. In writing this we must emphasize that the three main tendencies we identify are strategic approaches towards intervening in struggles and radicalizing consciousness; they are not reducible to individual people or even individual organizations. Proof of this is found in the differential approaches activists in the same Trotskyist organizations have taken in different geographical locations, specifically between UC Berkeley and UC Santa Cruz.

Our conception of consciousness is that people’s consciousness is dialectical; it constitutes a “unity of opposites” in that there is a contradictory relation between radical ideas about society as well as bourgeois ideology (mainstream ideas.) The work of revolutionaries should be to push on the radical side and counterpose it to the bourgeois side in order to resolve the contradiction in favor of revolution. Our adventurist and centrist comrades get the dialectics of consciousness wrong, each in their own way.

Both the adventurists and the centrists seek to unleash mass revolt, but neither fully comprehends how to do so. The adventurists think that mass revolt is sparked by inspirational actions of the more radical minority ready for confrontation. The centrists believe instead that those with advanced consciousness must hold themselves to what the (liberal) majority is ready for in order not to become marginalized. These perspectives are reflected in the organizational structures characteristic of each trend: closed but radical secret meetings of the adventurists and open but liberal bureaucratic general assemblies of the centrists. In order to recognize the significance of the emergent left approach we should acknowledge both the strengths and weaknesses of these two main currents.

The centrist paradigm insists on a neat and safe linear trajectory, wherein struggles organized by professional activists grow and grow and eventually blossom into a militant movement. The formula is clear: build general assemblies, organize small teach-ins and rallies, then days of action, etc. The establishment of coalitional spaces and general assemblies are the key ingredients for developing radical political class-consciousness that eventually lead towards militant direct-action (in the distant future). While it is true that building organizational forms for people to plug into is incredibly important, this approach towards doing so generally fails to tap into the intuitive militancy that the adventurists are able to relate to through their direct actions. Instead, the centrists downplay the degree of radical consciousness that already exists within large sections of the working class and argues that if a coalitional space does not approve a proposal then the movement must “not be ready” and that we must “meet people where they’re at.”

The recognition that we must “meet people where they’re at” is crucial for tapping into the latent power and consciousness of working class people. In our view it involves having a pedagogical method (which we elaborate below) and open, accessible organizational structures geared towards bringing this latent power and consciousness to the fore. However, the centrists misunderstand “meeting people where they’re at” inasmuch as they reify (that is, treat as static and unchanging) where people’s consciousness “is at”. The centrists not only meet people where they’re at, they also leave them there. By and large their lack of a revolutionary pedagogy and orientation towards gradualism leads them to lose the opportunity to water the existing seeds of militant consciousness that people do have. By avoiding the opportunity to facilitate the growth of people’s intuitive militancy in a revolutionary direction, they end up strengthening liberal and narrow tendencies within people’s minds that stem from a lack of exposure to revolutionary ideas and strategies.

Conversely, what is important to learn from and respect about the adventurists is that their literature and propaganda attempts to put forward a more total revolutionary vision for insurrection and communism; coupled with this, their actions do more to directly challenge capitalist property relations and bourgeois hegemony. The problem arises in that this means very little without meeting people where they’re at and building organizational structures in workplaces, schools and communities, so that people may move from being spontaneous participants in flashes of direct action and proceed to become active intellectual participants who understand revolutionary theory and strategy. The failure to break down capital’s hierarchical division between mental and manual labor also, ironically, ends up often leaving people where they’re at just as much as the Centrists do. People participate or defend an occupation and have a radicalizing experience, but generally don’t find an outlet by which to reflect on this experience and use it as a basis for developing a revolutionary vision of the world.

Socialist Organizer, “The Lessons of March 4: A Marxist Analysis, A Response to Advance the Struggle.”

On October 24, more than 800 students, teachers, and workers came together at UC Berkeley (UCB) to decide on a statewide action plan to defend public education. Was it correct for the October 24 conference to have called for a “strike and day of action,” leaving open the choice of action to each school, or would it have been better had it, as AS and others argued, called instead for a strike of all the public sector?

AS’ basic argument in “Crisis and Consciousness” against the “Strike and Day of Action” formulation is the following:

“Because consciousness is internally contradictory, a coherent and politicized framework united around Strike will not necessarily alienate people; instead, this very framework is the type that can give practical unity and fighting capacity to organizers. As a method of struggle, ‘freedom of action’ failed to articulate a vision and a perspective of concrete struggle against budget cuts.”

If we correctly understand these somewhat vague formulations, the implied argument is that:

  1. A strike at many (most?) schools and workplaces would have been possible if the 10/24 conference had called for it and/or that
  2. A call for a strike would help politically orient activists in the right direction.

We will argue in this article that the political proposals and perspectives put forward by AS in “Crisis and Consciousness” are rooted in an incorrect assessment of the current objective situation, one of the most important factors of which is the current state of consciousness of the working class as a whole (not just the vanguard elements). In turn, this erroneous characterization of the concrete situation in California is rooted in what we believe is AS’ flawed approach to developing mass movements and working-class consciousness.

For Marxists, the action proposals (our ) we raise in the mass movement at any given moment must be based on a serious analysis of the objective situation (i.e., the conditions that are outside our immediate influence).

In V.I. Lenin’s famous 1920 polemic against ultraleftism, Leftwing Communism: An Infantile Disorder, he explains: “Tactics must be based on a sober and strictly objective appraisal of all the class forces in a particular state. … You must soberly follow the actual state of the class-consciousness and preparedness of the entire class (not only of its communist vanguard), and of all the working people (not only of their advanced elements).”

Of course, objective conditions and working-class consciousness are fluid (not static) and can be changed via human agency and under the pressure of events. But at a given moment these conditions are very real and play an important role in limiting (or facilitating) our actions. The art of revolutionary politics consists precisely in evaluating how far we can push forward the mass movement at any specific moment, based on our analysis of the current objective conditions.

“Strike and Day of Action” or “Strike?”

Socialist Organizer’s strong advocacy for the “strike and day of action” formulation flowed from our analysis of the uneven level of mobilization and consciousness in California. Our basic argument — as expressed at the 10/24 conference and in a lengthy text titled “In Defense of the October 24 Conference, written by some of the main conference organizers, including many Socialist Organizer members (Appendix 1) — was pretty much the following:

  1. We should push for a strike — i.e., the most effective weapon of our class (short of insurrection!) — on campuses and in the unions where possible. The “Strike and Day of Action” formulation does not preclude a fight for a full strike at any given school or workplace: real strikes will happen if we are able to win the majority of workers and students to support one, not based on the formal language of a conference resolution.
  2. While strikes are the ideal tactic, mass protests, walkouts, rallies and other forms of resistance are also very important (and not counterposed) vehicles to advance the mobilization, self-confidence, and (through this process) the consciousness of workers and students. It is precisely through their experience in these “lower” forms of actions that most workers and students can come to the realization of the need for a strike (provided the revolutionary vanguard participates in this process and moves it forward).
  3. Given the current objective situation — marked by the very uneven level of mobilization depending on education sector (K-12, UC, etc.), region, relative class status (i.e., students, workers, teacher, etc.); the subordination of the leaderships of the trade unions to the Democrats; and the repressive anti-strike laws that penalize solidarity strikes — it is not very likely at this moment that many — let alone most— campuses and workplaces will be able to strike on March 4.
  4. Thus, to limit the 10/24 call to only a strike will mean precluding the majority of schools and unions from endorsing the call and participating. If we want March 4 to be as massive and broad as possible, if we aim to build a united front coalition statewide and locally, and if we aimed to push the unions — the only existing mass organization of our class — to mobilize against the cuts, then the statewide call has to be broad enough to encompass the different levels and layers of the movement.

AS argues that our support for the compromise proposal “specifically disregards any attempt to articulate a strategy for victory.” But, in reality, we defended the “compromise proposal” in the framework of coherent strategy for victory, as outlined above.

We think the actual experience of March 4 completely vindicated this perspective. It was precisely the broad appeal of the “Strike and Day of Action” formulation (plus the widely representative nature of the united-front 10/24 conference of more than 800 activists) that allowed the March 4 call to spread like wildfire.

March 4 was a tremendous and empowering success, which made a significant nationwide impact. Literally thousands of schools participated. Hundreds of thousands (some say millions) took to the streets in more than 33 states. All trade unions in public education mobilized to some extent. Unity was forged between the different sectors of public education; between students, workers, and teachers; and between education and other public services.

Local resistance against the cuts was bolstered. The liberal tradition of lobbying in Sacramento was overcome (for at least one day). Hundreds of new activists and dozens of new organizing spaces emerged. And via their empowering experiences in struggle, many thousands of people began their process of politicization. Unfortunately, most of these positive aspects of March 4 are not even mentioned in “Crisis and Consciousness”.

Would this widespread mass mobilization have been possible if the March 4 call had been only for a strike? Very unlikely. Had the call just been for a strike, the mobilization would probably have been limited mostly to the areas of influence of the radicals (i.e., a small percentage of schools). This can be seen by the actual developments of March 4.

Every school and organization had the choice of what action to promote. As AS notes, there was much debate at most schools about what form of action to take; radicals had a good opening to push for strikes and in many cases did so (UCSC, UCB, etc.).

If the objective situation was as advanced as AS implies, then it follows that at the very least (a) the call from radicals to strike would have met with a receptive echo at many schools throughout the state, and (b) there would have been some significant organic push from below by non-radical workers and students for a strike.

But the fact is that at over 98% of schools and workplaces there was literally no motion from anybody beyond small groups of radicals for a strike. Indeed, the call for a strike met with little echo beyond UC Santa Cruz (UCSC) and among the Oakland teachers.

Only UCSC was actually shut down — and the strike committee’s excellent organizing was greatly facilitated by the special geography of the school (i.e., the unique ability to paralyze the school by blocking the two main entrances at the base of campus).

Likewise, the only union that came even close to striking (though it did not end up doing so) was the Oakland Education Association (OEA). And while AS and the Oakland March 4 Committee must be commended for their very important work in trying to push for the OEA strike to take place on March 4, the actual support from the teacher ranks in Oakland for a strike was due mostly to the logic of the pre-existing contract fight which has dragged on for months and months. (These were the objective conditions that allowed for the relative success of the Oakland committee’s initiatives with the Oakland teachers’ union.)

Unity in Struggle, “Between a Trot and a Hard Place: The Debate Within Our Movement.”

SO is right that people learn and advance their consciousness through struggle, not just through Leftist propaganda and ideological struggle between radicals and liberals. I imagine AS would agree with this; it seems like SO is misunderstanding where AS is coming from based on this one piece, without looking at AS’s overall practice which is far from confined to polemics against other Leftists. If this were really where AS is coming from why would SO call them some of the most talented and dedicated militants in the Bay Area? How would they have been able to play such a major role in the Oakland March 4th committee and elsewhere if they were focused only on polemicizing against other Leftists?

It’s hard for me to put my finger on this point, but I am sensing there is a crucial issue somewhere in this debate over the relationship between revolutionary organization and mass organization. Correct me if I’m misunderstanding this, but SO seems to assume a large distance between these two. They say that the role of revolutionaries should be to put forward correct strategic/ tactical perspectives inside mass organizations to prove to the class that socialists are the most dedicated fighters, and from that the vanguard layers of the class will join the revolutionary party. For one, this seems to focus too much on finding the correct leadership, on replacing good leadership with bad leadership, as if the class would be stronger if only more socialists said the right thing in coalition meetings. What about building off of and reinforcing the militant consciousness that non-socialists bring to the table in these meetings?

I agree that revolutionary organizations and mass organizations are not the same thing and we shouldn’t try to turn every coalition, strike committee, union, etc into a revolutionary group . I also agree that we need specifically revolutionary organizations that can put forward particularly revolutionary ideas if we want to avoid mass work being swallowed back up into economism or reformism. BUT, what about raising perspectives in mass organizations that draw out the revolutionary possibilities latent in the current mass struggle? From what I understand, adventurists in California have been doing this and they are attracting broad layers of people who were liberals in the fall and are now ultra-left Marxist or anarchists. Doesn’t this say something about people’s radical disillusionment with capitalism and the need to agitate against capitalism within the radicalizing milieu of the anti-budget cuts movement? (I’m talking now about activities and conversations among the milieu of the activists and the circles surrounding them, not necessarily every mass meeting or coalition program or flyer). What about recognizing, recording, intervening in, and advancing the current self-activity of the working class (including working class students), showing how it points toward things like the overthrow of management, workers’ control of the workplace, etc.? How can revolutionaries support and mentor organic militant-intellectuals from various workplaces and schools who get involved in the struggle with us? What forms of pedagogy and organization support this? These are the kinds of questions I see AS asking. It goes much further than simply proposing the right set of demands or the right strategy in a mass organization or coalition meeting. I have seen many Trotskyists systematically putting forward the right line in meetings but they still end up shutting out a lot of the new people who come around and they don’t follow up with them outside the meetings to support them and build their leadership.

I guess this comes back to an old debate about Lenin’s What is To Be Done? If Lenin is right and the working class can only achieve trade union consciousness in mass organizations then the only vehicle for developing revolutionary consciousness is the vanguard party. If that were true then revolutions should focus on a) shaping mass organizations and b) recruiting members to revolutionary groups. If Lenin is right then revolutionary cadre should focus on building new revolutionary leaders among people who have ALREADY joined the party. But I disagree with this formulation from What is To Be Done (and Lenin himself retracted it later in his life). The working class does develop organic militants and organic intellectuals who go beyond the limits of trade union consciousness so revolutionaries need to build intermediate organizations, what Hal Draper called “centers”, which can engage with these militants and grow with them in struggle. That includes learning from them (here is where I have a growing appreciation for AS’s critical revamping of Pedagogy of the Oppressed).

In Seattle, Unity and Struggle members are building the local of our revolutionary organization but we are not trying to recruit every worker and student militant immediately into Unity and Struggle. There is a broader milieu of revolutionary workers and students around us who have come to revolutionary consciousness through the struggle and through their life experiences. Yes we would love if as many of them as possible join Unity and Struggle but we are not assuming that they need to do that in order to be revolutionaries. We are trying to “meet them where they’re at” by supporting their revolutionary self-activity in groups like DI, IWSJ, and FADU so we can move forward together from there. I agree with how Labor’s Militant Voice put it in their response to the AS and SO pieces: ” Our role is to integrate with this movement from below, seek out the most combative and thinking layers, conduct a dialogue with these forces from which we will learn and they will learn and help organize these most thoughtful and combative layers into a cohesive fighting force.” Yes – we need to gather our forces. However, LMV incorrectly counterposes this to AS’s concept of pedagogy. As far as I can tell this is exactly what AS means by pedagogy, though AS members can clarify this better than I can.


One Comment so far. Leave a comment below.
  1. Any discussion of the debate around March 4th and particularly ATS’ piece should also include the response of ISO members from UC Santa Cruz who organized what was considered the most advanced action of March 4th. Here’s the response of James Illingworth, one of my Comrades at UCSC, to the article by ATS.

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