Strengthening the New Movement
Seattle was da bomb.
Mere months ago a new movement exploded onto the scene with N30. It blew consternation into the hearts of the rich and powerful and it put a new song on the lips of millions of activists and oppressed people around the world.
This movement is still so new that it doesn’t even have name yet. The "Anti-Globalization Movement"? Hardly: we favor globalizing the struggle, building ties and sharing struggle among trade unionists in South Africa, students in Australia, environmentalists in China, ravers in the UK, indigenous peoples in Mexico and prisoners in the U.S. Let’s just call it the new movement until a better name catches fire among the participants.
This movement didn’t come from nowhere, despite the proclamations of newspaper editorialists. The new movement is in fact a movement of movements. It came into being as dozens of streams of struggle swelled in the ’90s, fed by the steady rain of greed and repression in the hills. These streams burst their banks and began to merge, creating a new river which is even now cutting a new course through the wide plain of U.S. and world politics.
The river metaphor has one flaw. It emphasizes the objective factors that have determined the birth of the new movement but does not pay proper tribute to the role of human consciousness. It took the vision and work of thousands of organizers and activists who understood the links between the different movements they were engaged in.
And a growing force channeling this new movement is the understanding that we have a common enemy. More and more, participants speak of “corporate globalization.” Those of us from a Marxist tradition call it imperialism. While it is true that the present scale of globalization is greater than at any point in the past, the basic features of this international system have been around for a long time. It is a system where a handful of wealthy individuals control the bulk of the world’s wealth and seize for themselves what billions of people produce with their labor. It is a system that cannot be truly reformed into something fundamentally humane and ecological; it must in the end be overthrown.
It is the task of all of us now who have been swept up in this new river, this new movement, to continue to act consciously, to shape its development and adjust its course, so that it can cut the deepest slash through the badlands of the capitalist system, and wash away as much as possible of the suffering that system piles up around it.
We in FRSO/OSCL think there are three main areas that require the attention of all who are concerned about the future of this movement.
1. Build the movement.
Again, we are part of a very new movement. It is young and in some ways fragile. Early successes, especially Seattle, have propelled it forward. But no movement wins every battle and no movement stays the media’s darling forever. There are setbacks ahead. Some will come because of our mistakes. Some will simply reflect that our enemies are, in reality, far stronger than we are and they are not given to fair play or to underestimating threats to their power. People will get burned out, and their commitment will falter or even vanish.
So how do we build a movement that can overcome the twists and turns of the next few years?
For one thing, let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves and of our base. Every day new forces are attracted by the vibrant culture of the new movement, by the sense of fun and determination combined, by the power of slogans like “More World, Less Bank,” by the exhilarating feeling that it really is possible to change the world for the better. Many of them will be starting with little deep understanding of the issues that drive the movement.
New people are going to need easy ways to get into the main current of this movement. As we build dikes to steer the flow that we are a part of and to direct it where we think it needs to go, we’ll have to be wary of building barriers that prevent new streams from flowing in. Every newbie should find a variety of ways to plug in, not limited to the expectation that he must get arrested or she has to be part of a flying squad affinity group if there’s to be a place for them in the struggle.
They are going to need literature—not only cool websites and active listserves, but publications which explain the links we ourselves have come to understand, so these new folks have a chance to make the same leaps in their thinking. This means trainings, forums, retreats and the like to help consolidate new folks and to keep our veterans with the program.
It’s time to expand the scope of the movement to include forms of participation that don’t involve traveling long distances to big mass demos two or three times a year. The kind of actions the folks in the Boston Global Action Network, amongst others, have developed—tackling local manifestations of global oppression—are one model for such work.
One of the most important things all this points to is the need for organization. The new movement has to be about organizing, not just mobilizing. Without organization it will continue to go from one reactive demonstration to the next and will not be able to forge a proactive program. The experience of the movement will underline this lesson, and also start to point out new ways of organizing ourselves to complement those learned from past people’s movements.
2. The new movement will rise or fall based on how it handles the color line.
One of the more striking features of this new movement is that, on the ground, it looks pretty white. Most people who are active in the movement recognize this as a handicap and are uneasy about it. That’s a good first step.
Similarly, starting right after Seattle, veteran Chicana activist Betita Martinez and other leaders in communities of color have put forward calls for deeper involvement by our communities in the new movement.
This is not merely or even primarily a moral imperative. It is intensely practical. US history is studded with painful lessons about powerful social movements being co-opted or collapsing when people of color were excluded. The rural prairie fire of the populist movement at the end of the 1800s was extinguished when racist leaders took over. The old American Federation of Labor, with whites-only clauses in the constitutions of many affiliated unions, couldn’t organize big industries, even in the depths of the Depression. Only when the CIO broke away and began to deal with segregation did the great union organizing drives of the ’30s take off.
The reason is easy enough to understand. The capitalist system in this country is intrinsically racist—we in Freedom Road say white supremacist. In making the U.S. economy the most powerful in the world, the ruling class has depended in a fundamental way on the oppression and exploitation of minority nationalities. In response we must place the struggles of oppressed nationality communities front and center.
So what do we do? People who care about transforming the new movement have got our work cut out for us. The first thing is never to forget the color line. For those of us who are African American, Latino, Asian American, not white, that’s really not a problem. For white folk it is, and one that needs to be worked on.
Second there are no quick fixes, no one-shot makeovers that will solve everything. What is needed is patient, consistent work—planned, undertaken, summed up and built upon. People of color in this country have plenty of reason to be wary of white people, including white progressives. Trust will have to built carefully.
Because the core of the movement now is predominantly white, we in Freedom Road want to highlight a couple of the ways that US society’s white chauvinism can seep into the movement and poison efforts to broaden it. A common form is the idea that this is an open, inclusive movement and if we want people of color to take part, the movement has to just do more outreach to them with our existing line and policies and bring them on board and then surely they’ll get down with the program.
A subtler form of the same thing bases itself on a more realistic understanding of how things work in this country. It goes, “People of color have their own issues and their own struggles. It’s not for us to insist that they bring them into this largely white environment. Instead we will all build our struggles independently and respect each other’s boundaries.” Note that this winds up in the same place the cruder version does—with accepting a predominantly white movement as the default and with issues of importance to communities of color left to those communities to deal with.
But corporate globalization crosses these divides. The same forces exploiting prison labor in China are doing it in the U.S. The undocumented Latina workers in L.A. sweatshops have family sewing for Liz Claiborne in San Salvador too. The same polluters are building toxic facilities and dumping waste in Haiti and in the Black Belt South. How then can this new movement afford to turn its back on the strength that will come with fully engaging the people who are soon going to become the majority in this country?
It must be said that for a movement so young, there are promising steps taking place on this front. Members of the NY affiliate of the Direct Action Network, for example, chose for the Republican National Convention to work with multiracial forces from other organizations in planning a day of direct action around the prison-industrial complex. Trainings in Philadelphia for R2K involved people from NY City’s Student Liberation Action Movement (SLAM) and Boston’s Students Organizing for Unity and Liberation (SOUL) and Asian Revolutionary Circle (ARC).
A Black Radical Congress leader reports that during a training session attended by mostly activists of color discussing upcoming protest activities, a white activist invited participants to join them for an event taking place during the Republican Convention. This event involved young people coming in from out of town to do outreach and hold political events in different neighborhoods. Immediately, an African American activist from ACT UP noted that in anything you try to do in communities of color, there need to be people of color “up front” and in the lead or else no one will hear you, no matter how righteous your political message. Similar lessons will occur again and again within the crucible of the struggle. We must do whatever we can to help these lessons stick.
3. The new movement is a united front that will have to be nourished and strengthened.
When we in Freedom Road and members of other revolutionary socialist and Marxist-Leninist groups talk about a united front, we don’t just mean a tactical agreement between different organizations. We are talking about something bigger—an actual objective coming together of different class forces, strata in society, social movements against a common enemy.
The new movement is a loose coalescence of diverse forces—sections of the trade union movement, faith-based communities, resurgent student activists, grassroots environmentalists. There is even participation by liberal elements of the ruling class, notably in the form of the Ford and Rockefeller Foundation’s funding for and influence on many of the non-governmental organizations that have provided resources to the movement. This is good in that we always want to deepen rifts within the ruling class, but something to be watchful of so that the liberal wing of the bourgeoisie doesn’t exert undue influence on the direction of the movement to serve its own interests.
The core of the movement now is radicalized middle-class youth and young adults, mainly white. This group is college students and post-college people whose position in society grants a certain freedom to pursue the struggle. It is a stratum that can act as a starter motor for a broader movement, but not one large enough or centrally located enough to win revolutionary victories by itself. Many activists realize this at least instinctively, as shown by the enthusiasm for the participation of sections of the working class in demos like Seattle and by the concern about the absence of broad participation from communities of color.
Because it mainly an objective rather than a formal united front at this stage, people in every section are free to act as they wish. The Washington World Bank/IMF actions in Washington were a good example. Jubilee 2000 and other mainly religious forces demonstrated a week before the main action for debt forgiveness for the Third World. The AFL-CIO rally was devoted to opposing China’s admission to the WTO and took place in the middle of the week. At A16 numerous left groups showed up to promote their particular causes without having done anything to build the demonstration.
Within this situation, it’s obviously important that people committed to the movement try and shape how it grows and not leave everything to objective developments. This means first and foremost trying to maximize the unity of the new movement on the ground, through persuasion, debate and compromise. Consider how much stronger A16 in Washington would have been had all the forces there assembled on a single day.
Of course, in a growing movement like this, it would be foolish to expect that everybody will be coming from the same place. We need mutual respect and support. The majority, for instance, should not be so hasty to denounce to the media more militant groupings within demonstrations. By the same token, militants should not pimp off actions others have built, should not do things calculated to bring down repression on participants who have chosen not to take the battle to that level.
And those of us who are taking up the building of the movement as a conscious task need to promote contact among the different forces which are a part of it—at the grassroots as much as at the top. If we wish to mobilize in the working class, we must address the rank and file as well as the union officialdom. Take Seattle. It was good the AFL-CIO built a big anti-WTO march and rally. It was even better that sections of it broke off and joined the direct action forces in the streets immediately around the convention center.
Finally, the united front is international. The WTO is finding it impossible to come up with a place it can hold a major meeting without being greeted by thousands of angry militant protesters. This reflects a deeper reality: millions of people around the globe understand and are ready to resist “structural adjustment” and the other suffering imposed by global capital. As activists in the very belly of the beast, we have an obligation to listen very carefully to voices of criticism from people of the Third World of how our movement conducts itself and frames its demands. If we disagree with aspects of what they say, after respectful consideration, we have a responsibility to make our arguments back to them. To ignore the people who are on the frontlines of the worldwide battle is to hand the enemy a wedge that it can use to split the global united front and pit one section of our movement against another.
This article is partly a call to activists in the new movement to take ourselves seriously. We had better. Our enemies take us very seriously indeed.
The media have kept up a steady drumbeat of editorials and reportage designed to show how naïve and retrograde our economic critique of corporate globalization is. Politicians call on us to “be reasonable” and take up our demands through the system. The repressive apparatus of the state—the police and all those three-initial agencies—are in a determined drive to come up with tactics that can shut us down.
What this means is that the powers that be are running scared. They have not yet recovered from the blow they suffered in Seattle.
That’s good. Let’s kick ’em while they’re down, and keep kicking.