Issue 1: Occupy Everything

Complete first issue of Viewpoint Magazine, an autonomist Marxist influenced online publication.

Originally posted: October 17, 2011 at Viewpoint Magazine

Everybody talks about the weather

Asad Haider and Salar Mohandesi analyze the Occupy movement and the conditions that created it.

“Every­body talks about the weather. We don’t.” This 1968 poster was a response by the Ger­man Social­ist Stu­dent Union to an ad cam­paign for weath­er­proof trains. The stu­dents were sug­gest­ing that like the fig­ures pic­tured above, they had more impor­tant con­cerns than every­day things like the weather. The next year, jour­nal­ist and future Red Army Fac­tion ter­ror­ist Ulrike Mein­hof would use the slo­gan to argue that rad­i­cals should talk about every­day life, since “the per­sonal is political.”

For us, it just means that we should talk about the weather. It’s going to start snow­ing on the occu­pa­tions, and the author­i­ties want to use the weather as a weapon. They’re hop­ing that win­ter will kill the move­ment off, and it’s hard to deny that camp­ing out in the mid­dle of Jan­u­ary would be a poor tactic.

But the weather rep­re­sents a much big­ger ques­tion: what will it take to make this move­ment last? There is great poten­tial in what has been achieved, but there are also sig­nif­i­cant obsta­cles, which present them­selves both inside and out­side the move­ment. With an eye towards advanc­ing this strug­gle, let’s start by try­ing to under­stand what’s hap­pen­ing: who is protest­ing, and what does it mean?

In a reflec­tion on the riots in Lon­don this past sum­mer, “The Prince and the Pau­per,” we argued that the com­po­si­tion of the riot­ers reflected the blurred bound­aries between a pre­car­i­ous and hyper­ex­ploited “lumpen­pro­le­tariat” and the main­stream work­ing class. What was impor­tant above all was that the spon­ta­neous vio­lence of the riots took place at the same time as a strike by Ver­i­zon work­ers across the pond, within the very indus­try that pro­vided the riot­ers with means of com­mu­ni­ca­tion. And though strug­gles were com­mu­ni­cat­ing with each other across the world, these two polit­i­cal com­po­si­tions – one reflect­ing a dis­or­ga­nized pop­u­la­tion usu­ally sub­jected to the worst state repres­sion, the other reflect­ing the clas­si­cal mode of trade-union pol­i­tics – did not encounter one another.

The Occupy Wall Street crowd seems to be an in-between ele­ment, both tech­ni­cally and polit­i­cally. Much of the energy behind it comes from the activist milieu that char­ac­ter­ized the Seat­tle “anti-globalization” protests, but it also clearly draws from a wide base of work­ing peo­ple who are now see­ing the dis­in­te­gra­tion of clas­si­cal forms of work along­side the social fab­ric that once sup­ported them. So the Occupy move­ment is simul­ta­ne­ously the space where encoun­ters can take place, as well as a form of strug­gle with the implicit objec­tive of cre­at­ing con­di­tions in which these encoun­ters can take hold. But who exactly is in this space?

The best infor­ma­tion we have now is about Occupy Wall Street; though other occu­pa­tions may have unique ele­ments, this serves as a use­ful start­ing point. The com­po­si­tion of Occupy Wall Street is unsur­pris­ingly het­ero­ge­neous. Age, wealth, and expe­ri­ence vary widely; some par­tic­i­pants are vet­er­ans from for­mer strug­gles, oth­ers are join­ing in for the first time; there’s a large con­cen­tra­tion of youth, but more than 28% are over 40. You’ll find the home­less, doc­toral stu­dents, and pro­fes­sion­als of var­i­ous stripes all camp­ing out together. Despite these sharp dif­fer­ences, how­ever, some com­mon char­ac­ter­is­tics stand out. First, the vast major­ity is highly edu­cated: a study by CUNY soci­ol­o­gist Hec­tor R. Cordéro-Guzmán observed that over 90% reported “some col­lege, a col­lege degree, or a grad­u­ate degree.” Sec­ond, the great major­ity does not sup­port either of the polit­i­cal par­ties. Third, and per­haps most impor­tant, the move­ment as a whole is over­whelm­ingly com­posed of the unem­ployed, under­em­ployed, or pre­car­i­ously employed.

In many impor­tant ways, it’s no coin­ci­dence that this par­tic­u­lar tech­ni­cal com­po­si­tion would choose the Occupy move­ment as its form of strug­gle. By fir­ing work­ers, putting them on fur­lough, demand­ing that they work part-time, or sim­ply forc­ing them to accept an early retire­ment, the cap­i­tal­ists gave them all free time. Instead of sit­ting at home, these work­ers are using this imposed free time against those cap­i­tal­ists who forced it upon them in the first place. The Occupy move­ment demon­strates how work­ers can cre­atively turn their sit­u­a­tion against their bosses, how they can trans­form an imposed form of pro­duc­tion into a weapon. It’s not so much a kind of pro­longed march as it is a trans­formed strike, work stop­page, or col­lec­tive slow­down. It’s a form of strug­gle that has emerged directly from the par­tic­u­lar eco­nomic sit­u­a­tion that cap­i­tal has led us into. But not only is it a form of strug­gle, it’s a bridge between a mul­ti­plic­ity of forms, where already exist­ing move­ments can cross-pollinate and new ones can be tested for the first time.

This bridg­ing is inter­na­tional in char­ac­ter. Inspired by the Arab Spring, the strug­gles in Greece, and the Span­ish indig­na­dos, Occupy Wall Street first emerged as yet another moment in this broader cycle of strug­gle. It’s sig­nif­i­cant, how­ever, that after becom­ing a real move­ment by spread­ing itself across Amer­ica, this form of strug­gle then found its way back into the hands of those who had inspired it in the first place. There is no greater illus­tra­tion of the cir­cu­la­tion of strug­gles today: from Puerta del Sol square in May, to the occu­pa­tion of Zuc­cotti Park, and back to Madrid in Octo­ber. But it’s not as though the same coin has passed through thou­sands of new hands just to return to its owner unchanged. The cir­cu­la­tion of this strug­gle has added some­thing; it returns with more expe­ri­ences, a sharper per­spec­tive, a more rad­i­cal edge.

But we’re not deal­ing with the same strug­gle. There’s a plu­ral­ity of almost bewil­der­ingly diverse forms of con­tes­ta­tion. Before Occupy Wall Street, there were lit­er­ally thou­sands of dis­tinct strug­gles from Greece to the Mid­dle East to China. What the Occupy move­ment has done is strate­gi­cally sub­sume many of these pre­ex­ist­ing strug­gles into a shared dis­cur­sive space – pro­vid­ing them with a com­mon lan­guage. In China, demon­stra­tors have held up ban­ners read­ing: “Res­olutely sup­port the Amer­i­can people’s mighty Wall Street Revolution!”

On Octo­ber 15, protests erupted in 900 cities across the globe. Though many had already wit­nessed their fair share of dis­tur­bances over the past few years, it was the bold syn­chronic­ity of it all that was so unprece­dented. This could have only been accom­plished through a recod­ing of each par­tic­u­lar strug­gle into a more gen­eral ver­nac­u­lar. Of course, all of these strug­gles were already implic­itly – and in some cases explic­itly – in touch with one another. But now, they speak the same lan­guage. Slo­gans reap­pear, sym­bols are shared, and prac­tices are recy­cled on dif­fer­ent con­ti­nents. Strug­gles all over the world are begin­ning to recode them­selves in this idiom.

The dilemma is that while unions have expressed their sup­port, orga­ni­za­tions like Occupy the Hood are attempt­ing to pri­or­i­tize the sec­tors of the work­ing class that are racially mar­gin­al­ized, and inter­na­tional strug­gles are tak­ing up occu­pa­tions as their ban­ners, no con­crete and insti­tu­tional con­nec­tion has been made. It could very well be that the dura­bil­ity and rad­i­cal­iza­tion of this move­ment will rely on its poten­tial as a medi­at­ing ele­ment between the the var­i­ous seg­ments of the class, their par­tic­u­lar inter­ests, and their tra­di­tional forms of strug­gle. Achiev­ing this means going beyond a spon­ta­neous reflec­tion of changes in our work­ing lives. It has to start by under­stand­ing the sys­tem under­ly­ing them.

We Are the Wage Relation

We all know how the protest rep­re­sents itself. “We are the 99%,” said Occupy Wall Street, and this sin­gle slo­gan has spread like a prairie fire.

Only a philis­tine would dis­miss the move­ment based on objec­tions to this slo­gan. A quick glance at the now-famous web­site shows what it has achieved. In a soci­ety that is sup­posed to be hope­lessly atom­ized, made up of alien­ated zom­bies star­ing at indi­vid­ual TV screens, ordi­nary peo­ple are show­ing sol­i­dar­ity with each other. The prob­lems peo­ple describe on this web­site might once have been thought of as per­sonal issues, of no con­cern to any­one but your spouse and your land­lord. Occupy Wall Street has given us the lan­guage to under­stand our per­sonal prob­lems as a col­lec­tive polit­i­cal strug­gle against the 1% who got rich from our misfortune.

At the same time, the slo­gan advances no analy­sis about how things got this way. Social inequal­ity is shame­ful, to be sure, and it’s been grow­ing steadily. But does this hap­pen because there are bad eggs at the top? Because the good guys in gov­ern­ment aren’t strong enough? Or is it because there’s an under­ly­ing rela­tion­ship in our soci­ety that pro­duces this inequal­ity and ensures that it con­stantly increases?

It would be no improve­ment to quib­ble about per­cent­ages. (“We are the 87.3%! Down with the 5.2% and their 7.5% run­ning dogs!”) The fig­ures which actu­ally demon­strate the fun­da­men­tal changes in our econ­omy lead­ing to today’s dis­con­tent­ment are shown in the fol­low­ing graph, cov­er­ing the period from 1947 to 2010, from the Bureau of Labor Sta­tis­tics:

The top line rep­re­sents worker pro­duc­tiv­ity, mea­sured by out­put per hour. The line lag­ging behind is their hourly com­pen­sa­tion, which means wages plus ben­e­fits, adjusted for infla­tion. The grow­ing “wage gap” between the two lines essen­tially mea­sures the change in the rate of exploita­tion, and it shows that exploita­tion has been steadily increas­ing. This doesn’t mean there wasn’t exploita­tion before the 1970s, it just means that social inequal­ity wasn’t grow­ing; now big­ger and big­ger por­tions of wealth are being trans­ferred from labor to capital.

In 1865, Karl Marx engaged in a debate in the First Inter­na­tional Work­ing Men’s Asso­ci­a­tion against a utopian social­ist named John Weston. Weston argued that the wave of strikes across Europe demand­ing higher wages was dan­ger­ous, since if wages were increased, cap­i­tal­ists would sim­ply raise com­mod­ity prices to com­pen­sate and make life more expen­sive for work­ers. Marx argued in his speeches, later pub­lished as Value, Price and Profit, that this posi­tion was based on a totally incor­rect under­stand­ing of the wage. Cap­i­tal­ists pay a wage that ensures the worker will show up to work the next day, equiv­a­lent to the socially aver­age col­lec­tion of neces­si­ties (food, hous­ing, enter­tain­ment) required to repro­duce labor-power, or the abil­ity to work. They don’t pay for each indi­vid­ual com­mod­ity the worker pro­duces, because the cen­tral fact of cap­i­tal­ism is that work­ers pro­duce more than the value of their daily neces­si­ties. The dif­fer­ence between their wages and the value of the com­modi­ties they pro­duce is the “sur­plus value” that belongs to the cap­i­tal­ist. No other input of the pro­duc­tion process gen­er­ates more value than it costs; the exploita­tion of labor is the source of profit.

What Marx pointed out is that if there is an increase in the pro­duc­tiv­ity of labor, but wages stay the same, strug­gles for higher wages have to be under­stood as “reac­tions of labour against the pre­vi­ous action of cap­i­tal.” If cap­i­tal can’t pay work­ers less, or work them longer hours, it has to increase the pro­duc­tiv­ity of labor by dis­ci­plin­ing work­ers and intro­duc­ing tech­no­log­i­cal inno­va­tions. This has two dra­matic effects. First of all, it reduces the demand for labor, which means unem­ploy­ment. Sec­ond, it means cap­i­tal­ists are invest­ing more in expen­sive machin­ery than in their source of profit.

If pro­duc­tiv­ity has dra­mat­i­cally increased, and indus­tries across the board pro­duce many more com­modi­ties, they need peo­ple to buy them – but that’s dif­fi­cult to pull off when wages have been so low for so long. The result of ris­ing social inequal­ity is that cap­i­tal­ists are sit­ting on vast amounts of money, or chan­nel­ing it into a lux­ury econ­omy, and banks are run­ning out of prof­itable invest­ment oppor­tu­ni­ties. Work­ers, on the other hand, need money just to live. The solu­tion to these prob­lems is well known. The wide­spread reliance on con­sumer credit – a risky invest­ment for the banks and poten­tially life­long debt for the con­sumer – increases pur­chas­ing power beyond the wage.

Along­side the use of home equity loans and credit cards to shore up con­sump­tion is the mas­sive stu­dent loan indus­try, which lends future work­ers the resources to develop their pro­duc­tive pow­ers. In the­ory, these debts would be paid off by future income, assum­ing some kind of immi­nent recov­ery. The prob­lem is that peo­ple grad­u­at­ing with enor­mous and unrea­son­able loans are not get­ting jobs, and as we’ve already noted, cap­i­tal­ism is tend­ing towards unem­ploy­ment. With the clas­si­cal sys­tem of exploita­tion by the wage under­min­ing itself, cap­i­tal is forced to find ways to use debts to extract wealth. Ever paid an over­draft fee?

There’s also a dra­matic polit­i­cal effect of debt: it pre­vents peo­ple from desert­ing the sink­ing ship of the wage sys­tem. In spite of the fact that nobody expects a job to become a life­long career any­more, which used to be work’s way of jus­ti­fy­ing itself, they’re still forced to accept pre­car­i­ous work – rush­ing between mul­ti­ple part-time jobs unre­lated to their edu­ca­tion, if they have jobs at all, and cut­ting every pos­si­ble expense to pay off their loans.

This is just an exten­sion of the bru­tal strat­egy of expro­pri­a­tion already imposed on the poor­est sec­tors of the work­ing class, the preda­tory lend­ing that specif­i­cally tar­geted black and Latino women. Just as stu­dent debt estab­lished a sup­ple­men­tary form of exploita­tion, by com­pelling peo­ple to pay for the rest of their lives to acquire a com­pe­tence they may be unable to cash in on the job, sub­prime mort­gages prac­ticed exploita­tion at the site of repro­duc­tion. Low-income work­ers who needed an address, a place to main­tain their abil­i­ties to work and to insti­tu­tion­al­ize their social exis­tence, found them­selves strug­gling to pay an unman­age­able debt until the bank sim­ply took the house back to sell it again, pock­et­ing the already-extracted payments.

It should be clear that these very vis­i­ble actions by finance can’t be reduced to the greed of indi­vid­ual crim­i­nals. They are the vio­lent and reck­less attempts by cap­i­tal­ists to defend and rad­i­cal­ize the exploita­tion that took place in the wage sys­tem, in spite of the grow­ing con­tra­dic­tions of that sys­tem. So we have to decou­ple our rhetoric from notions of cor­po­rate power and law­less bankers. It’s a rela­tion­ship we’re fight­ing, not a bunch of guys in expen­sive suits.

What the 99% slo­gan moves us towards is a con­cept of class. It’s the lad­der that we’re using to climb up to a class analy­sis. But to really develop that analy­sis, we’ll have to leave the lad­der behind. “We are the wage rela­tion” is not a very good slo­gan. It’s a shift in per­spec­tive that indi­cates the need for new slogans.

The 99% is a coali­tion built upon many dif­fer­ent ten­den­cies, inter­ests, and projects. While it helps us unify our sep­a­rate strug­gles, dis­cover the social in the per­sonal, and forge our dif­fer­ent demands into a com­mon dis­course, it ulti­mately con­ceals more than it reveals. The dan­ger is most appar­ent when we con­sider that some of the ten­den­cies within the Occupy Move­ment hope to use the momen­tum of the strug­gle to enter into a prof­itable alliance with finance. The “professional-managerial sec­tor,” or what has been com­monly though erro­neously labeled “the mid­dle class,” is cer­tainly part of this 99%. But it’s a pecu­liar part of this per­cent­age: although it is exploited by cap­i­tal like every­one else, it nev­er­the­less occa­sion­ally prof­its from its own exploita­tion. As that layer which embod­ies the inter­ests of both labor and cap­i­tal, the “mid­dle class” stands as a vari­able and poten­tially dan­ger­ous ele­ment within the move­ment as a whole.

The “mid­dle class” is, in its own way, tor­mented by wage labor – we think of what Ric­cardo Bellofiore and Mas­si­m­il­iano Tomba describe as “the lack of social life, the end­less cig­a­rettes, the psy­chic dis­tur­bances and the hem­or­rhoids of our ultra-modern knowl­edge work­ers.” But this layer also has a ten­dency to look for a way out – not by abol­ish­ing exploita­tion in gen­eral, but by tak­ing a cut of the exploita­tion of lower-income work­ers. The professional-managerial lib­er­als want to make finance work for them; their gam­ble is to co-opt the more exploited sec­tors of the pro­le­tariat, to claim to speak for the whole work­ing class, to use reform as a means of sta­bi­liz­ing the wage rela­tion rather than putting it into question.

In many ways, it’s an old strat­egy that goes at least as far back as the French Rev­o­lu­tion. The Third Estate united its het­ero­ge­neous com­po­nents by recon­sti­tut­ing itself as the nation. Every­one else – the upper clergy and the nobil­ity – was regarded as a mere par­a­site idly leech­ing off the labors of the over­whelm­ing major­ity. The dom­i­nant fig­ures of the Third Estate – the busi­ness­men, lawyers, and aspir­ing politi­cians – at first hoped to use the strength of the move­ment to advance their own dis­tinct inter­ests rather than those of the masses. Even some aris­to­crats threw in their lot with the masses in the hopes that they too could domes­ti­cate it. This was all in 1789.

But now we’re in the twenty-first cen­tury – we don’t need another French Rev­o­lu­tion. So we have to ques­tion the strange resur­gence of the lan­guage of par­a­sitism. It’s a con­ve­nient way to reduce the objec­tives of the move­ment to noth­ing other than cast­ing off the par­a­sites in order to pre­serve the body. And the rhetoric of the 99% helps dis­sem­ble the very real con­tra­dic­tions slowly tear­ing apart that pur­port­edly coher­ent body. The dan­ger is all the more severe when we remem­ber that this body is not so much Amer­i­can as it is international.

Beyond the divi­sions within the Amer­i­can “99%” there are global divi­sions. Inequal­ity of wealth extends to the inequal­ity between nations and sug­gests that the sit­u­a­tion of the work­ing class varies with national bound­aries. In many nations work­ers are caught between the increas­ing impov­er­ish­ment of agri­cul­ture and an unsta­ble slum life struc­tured around con­tin­gent or infor­mal work. Farmer sui­cides in India are echoed by iPhone fac­tory worker sui­cides in China.

The Amer­i­can inflec­tion of the slo­gans now cir­cu­lat­ing glob­ally is sig­nif­i­cant. It sig­nals the deci­sive reen­try of the United States into this inter­na­tional cycle of strug­gle; the dom­i­nant pole of cap­i­tal­ist accu­mu­la­tion can no longer dis­tance itself from the strug­gles rend­ing the rest of the world. But there is a dan­ger that the grow­ing sig­nif­i­cance of the Amer­i­can strug­gle will begin to blind us to the dis­tinct char­ac­ter of other strug­gles and the spe­cific his­tor­i­cal form of the wage rela­tion in which they have found them­selves. The Israelis began with a hous­ing cri­sis, the Chileans attacked edu­ca­tion, the Greeks aimed at aus­ter­ity, and the Fil­ipinos united against Amer­i­can impe­ri­al­ism. Move­ments in the coun­tries of the “Third World” will have to take on a dis­tinct set of inter­ests and strate­gies pre­cisely because their com­po­si­tion is already so dif­fer­ent. So while the Occupy move­ment has allowed these dialects to trans­late, it will have to avoid the risk of oblit­er­at­ing its par­tic­u­lar­i­ties. The con­tra­dic­tion is not between a homo­ge­neous inter­na­tional major­ity against an equally homo­ge­neous inter­na­tional minor­ity, but between the dif­fer­ent poles of a global wage rela­tion that nec­es­sar­ily assumes dif­fer­ent forms in dif­fer­ent places.

Enemy of the State?

The media like to sug­gest that the Occupy move­ment is the Tea Party of the left. And maybe there are some sim­i­lar­i­ties: both are socially het­ere­oge­nous, both have brought together indi­vid­u­als from across the coun­try, and both have sev­eral decen­tral­ized griev­ances, some of which may even be the same. Where they dif­fer most strongly, how­ever, is their rela­tion­ship to the state. While the Tea Party has strate­gi­cally insin­u­ated itself with the Repub­li­can Party in the hopes of reori­ent­ing the state itself, the Occupy move­ment has con­sis­tently refused to do the same with the Demo­c­ra­tic Party. The Democ­rats are too polit­i­cally impo­tent to effec­tively co-opt the move­ment, and even the unof­fi­cial demands of the occu­pa­tion are well beyond any­thing the Democ­rats will ever be will­ing to get behind. Most sig­nif­i­cantly, the move­ment rejects the entire party sys­tem. The Cordéro-Guzmán sur­vey dis­cov­ered that the vast major­ity of those involved in Occupy Wall Street – some 70% of the respon­dents – iden­tify as polit­i­cally independent.

This sig­nals a major shift in the polit­i­cal cul­ture. While just a few years ago the Democ­rats were able to rebrand them­selves as a party of oppo­si­tion, change, and new hopes, they’re now widely regarded as oppor­tunists with noth­ing to offer. This legit­i­ma­tion cri­sis forced open a wide vac­uum on the left of the polit­i­cal spec­trum that has been filled by the Occupy move­ment. But while the move­ment has clearly aban­doned the Demo­c­ra­tic Party, it has not yet defin­i­tively aban­doned the state.

There are two ten­den­cies that fetishize the state. The first is the typ­i­cal lib­eral call for finan­cial reg­u­la­tion – if it was the unreg­u­lated avarice of the cor­po­ra­tions that got us into this mess, then we can resolve it by pres­sur­ing the state into reg­u­lat­ing them more tightly. The sec­ond, para­dox­i­cally, is the oppo­site end of the spec­trum, the “End the Fed” Ron Paul fanat­ics who believe that fiat cur­rency is the root of all evil. The shared ide­o­log­i­cal assump­tion of both these ten­den­cies is that the state and the mar­ket are some­how totally dis­tinct actors with con­trary interests.

So the com­par­i­son with the Tea Party should lead us to an unex­pect­edly impor­tant ques­tion: why is the only anti-government rhetoric to be found on the right? The para­noid notion that “big gov­ern­ment” seeks to take away the pri­vate prop­erty of indi­vid­u­als is a mys­ti­fied under­stand­ing of the real­ity that wealth really has been trans­ferred away from middle-income Amer­i­cans, and it accu­rately intu­its that this process has been over­seen by the state. We don’t have to spend a lot of time empha­siz­ing the fact that the state not only rep­re­sents the inter­ests of the wealthy, it’s actu­ally com­posed of them. Every­body knows this.

Add to this that all these processes of finan­cial­iza­tion have been admin­is­trated by the state. The bail-out was no aber­ra­tion; it just con­firmed who the state is here to sup­port. Con­sider the telling exam­ple of stu­dent loans. Since 1965 the gov­ern­ment has under­writ­ten pri­vate lenders who facil­i­tate an increas­ingly expen­sive col­lege edu­ca­tion, as part of the Fed­eral Fam­ily Edu­ca­tion Loan Pro­gram. What this means is that the abil­ity of uni­ver­si­ties, includ­ing for-profit col­leges, to rad­i­cally increase tuition, and of pri­vate lenders to prey on more stu­dents, has been enabled by the gov­ern­ment. The pol­icy was ended in 2010, but not before mak­ing it absolutely clear in 2005 that the gov­ern­ment was not inter­ested in extend­ing any sup­port to the bor­row­ers: stu­dent loans have become nondis­charge­able, leav­ing a gen­er­a­tion of unem­ployed grad­u­ates with­out the option of declar­ing bank­ruptcy. The only win­ners are the finan­cial cor­po­ra­tions, which have been pack­ag­ing stu­dent loans into lucra­tive finan­cial prod­ucts called stu­dent loan asset-backed secu­ri­ties. Even the most recent mea­sures announced by the White House only make it eas­ier for peo­ple to get into debt; they do noth­ing to coun­ter­act the 8.3% increase in tuition at pub­lic colleges.

In spite of the government’s vis­i­ble defense of the cap­i­tal­ist class, the ten­dency on the left is to imag­ine that we can some­how just nego­ti­ate with the state. It’s not the first time this has been attempted. A mil­i­tant labor move­ment con­fronted cap­i­tal on the shop-floor dur­ing the 1920s and 1930s. Cap­i­tal and the state were forced to find a way to sub­sume and con­trol this threat; that strat­egy was called the New Deal. Under the pres­sure of World War II, the Com­mu­nist Party entered into an alliance with the Democ­rats and threw in its lot with the New Deal, sup­press­ing rank-and-file activ­ity in the name of the “no-strike pledge.” The sit­u­a­tion estab­lished had seri­ous con­se­quences after the war. The labor bureau­cracy set the stage for its com­ing decline; they strength­ened cap­i­tal and paved the way not only for the Smith and Taft-Hartley Acts, the legal foun­da­tions for the purg­ing of com­mu­nists from the unions, but also for the dev­as­tat­ing sep­a­ra­tion of the work­ing class from the labor movement.

Rec­og­niz­ing that the state is an adver­sary, how­ever, doesn’t mean moral­is­ti­cally ignor­ing it. It won’t wither away if we just refuse to engage with it out of prin­ci­ple. The les­son from our labor his­tory is not only that alliance with polit­i­cal par­ties is treach­er­ous, but also that mean­ing­ful reforms were won by the labor move­ment as a result of mil­i­tant and antag­o­nis­tic strate­gies, extend­ing from the 1919 Seat­tle gen­eral strike to the 1934 San Fran­cisco gen­eral strike. It would be the worst sec­tar­i­an­ism to reject reforms; they alle­vi­ate suf­fer­ing and advance the posi­tion of the work­ing class. But the ques­tion is whether mean­ing­ful reforms can be achieved within the polit­i­cal lim­its of cap­i­tal­ism. If the polit­i­cal appa­ra­tus is con­trolled by the cap­i­tal­ist class, this means that those lim­its are not exter­nal lim­its that can be over­come by a stronger pro­gram. Instead, they are inter­nal to the strat­egy of reform. The only way to force the cap­i­tal­ist class to con­cede reforms is to con­front it with an antag­o­nis­tic agent, a uni­fied work­ing class. Let’s not delude our­selves into think­ing we can con­vince them with our bet­ter ideas.

Today the imme­di­ate tac­ti­cal ques­tions of the move­ment also pose the ques­tion of the state. In a telling inter­na­tional exchange between the var­i­ous occu­pa­tions across the world, a New Yorker ques­tioned occu­piers in Frank­furt about their deci­sion to request a per­mit from the police. Not­ing that Lib­erty Plaza was occu­pied with­out a per­mit, she asked why the Ger­mans had asked for one, won­der­ing if such col­lab­o­ra­tion with class ene­mies could have been the result of a “cul­tural dif­fer­ence.” But why not be flex­i­ble, on the look­out for open­ings that can be strate­gi­cally exploited? Some com­pro­mises may advance the class posi­tion, allow­ing a move­ment to con­front the state on a dif­fer­ent plane. If the state is will­ing to give us a per­mit, let them make that deci­sion and live to regret it.

The ques­tion of police per­mits touches more gen­er­ally on the police force itself. Are they, as some pro­test­ers have chanted, part of the 99%? From the start there has been a clear ten­sion with the police. They have made arrests, have begun infil­trat­ing the var­i­ous occu­pa­tions, and will cer­tainly be called in, as they have been in Berlin and Oak­land, to vio­lently crush the movement.

But the chal­lenge of the police is that they gen­uinely are work­ers, and their work is to repress pro­le­tar­ian antag­o­nism. This para­dox is not to be taken lightly. Nei­ther blindly defend­ing them as fel­low work­ers nor blindly attack­ing them as hated pigs will help us now. Any fail­ure to under­stand their spe­cific func­tion is either a reformist dan­ger or an adven­tur­ist error.

The real prob­lem was posed in 1968 by Pier Paolo Pasolini, after the Bat­tle of Valle Giu­lia, in which police and stu­dent rad­i­cals clashed vio­lently. Pasolini, the com­mu­nist film­maker, would later write a poem declar­ing sol­i­dar­ity with the police:

At Valle Giu­lia, yes­ter­day, there was a frag­ment
of class strug­gle: you, my friends, (although
in the right) were the rich,
and the police­men (although in the wrong)
were the poor…

The impor­tant point in Pasolini’s poem is not his roman­ti­ciza­tion of the police’s pur­ported pro­le­tar­ian iden­tity, but instead the ques­tion of the com­po­si­tion of the rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies. The prob­lem this poses is that the repres­sive state appa­ra­tus has greater con­tact with many more lay­ers of the pro­le­tariat than the polit­i­cal move­ment. In many spec­tac­u­lar street con­fronta­tions the police have seemed to be the only rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the “tra­di­tional” work­ing class, includ­ing peo­ple of color, allow­ing the reac­tionary media to rep­re­sent the pro­test­ers as enti­tled col­lege stu­dents. And there can be no doubt that the police force recruits from the under­class; it offers one of the last careers avail­able. Though in the abstract it is pos­si­ble to bring the police over to our side – the pro­test­ers in Wis­con­sin suc­cess­fully won the sup­port of the police – this strat­egy can’t be assumed as some kind of utopian reflex. The Oak­land Police Depart­ment gave us a cru­cial reminder of the insta­bil­ity of Pasolini’s per­spec­tive, when the vicious and obscene vio­lence used for years against the black com­mu­nity was brought down upon Occupy Oak­land. The real goal of the move­ment should be to move past the fetishiza­tion of the police, and to forge deeper con­nec­tions with excluded seg­ments of the pro­le­tariat, sur­round­ing the police with their neigh­bors along­side col­lege students.

What­ever the com­po­si­tion of the police, they remain an index of the state’s expe­ri­ence of protest. Remem­ber the wise words of William S. Bur­roughs: “a func­tion­ing police state needs no police.” The Wall Street occu­pa­tion was taken far more seri­ously when the pep­per spray came out; even more when 700 were arrested on the Brook­lyn Bridge. The acts of vio­lence per­pe­trated by police have served as indi­ca­tion that the protest is a threat to the state’s func­tion­ing. Deter­min­ing the next steps will require care­ful con­sid­er­a­tion, and lead­er­ship by peo­ple of color, who have the most expe­ri­ence deal­ing with police violence.

The Roof is on Fire

Some squea­mish left-liberals com­plain that the Occupy move­ment lacks orga­ni­za­tion. This is obvi­ously ridicu­lous. How can the sim­ple occu­pa­tion of a park spon­ta­neously ignite sim­i­lar occu­pa­tions in well over 50 Amer­i­can cities, incite a global protest in nearly 900 cities across the globe, and suc­cess­fully link together a series of het­ero­ge­neous strug­gles with­out any form of orga­ni­za­tion? The Occupy move­ment is per­haps one of the most orga­nized move­ments in history.

An accom­pa­ny­ing com­plaint is that the occu­pa­tions have not put forth demands. But it’s not at all clear that demands are a suf­fi­cient con­di­tion for social trans­for­ma­tion. To a cer­tain extent, as we wrote about the Lon­don riots, the refusal to make demands is a protest against the idea that the exist­ing order could make our lives bet­ter, a refusal to speak in capital’s lan­guage. At the same time, the absence of “offi­cial,” insti­tu­tional demands coex­ists with an incred­i­ble mul­ti­plic­ity of demands made by indi­vid­ual pro­test­ers, as the list of griev­ances in the first offi­cial state­ment indicates.

The impor­tant ques­tion is whether this orga­ni­za­tion is durable, and whether the movement’s demands put the social struc­ture into ques­tion. No spon­ta­neous col­lec­tiv­ity could come together with­out at least an abstract set of com­mon demands, and it would be unable repro­duce itself with­out some kind of orga­ni­za­tional form. But can these forms rad­i­cal­ize the demands so that they are ori­ented towards the trans­for­ma­tion of the social real­ity out­side of them?

The mean­ing and polit­i­cal effect of demands will depend ulti­mately on the orga­ni­za­tional struc­ture that makes them. It’s pos­si­ble, for exam­ple, that even a highly desir­able demand, like free health­care, could be posed by a fac­tion of the pro­tes­tors who will make it pos­si­ble to dis­solve the move­ment into the Demo­c­ra­tic Party. But this dynamic could just as eas­ily work in the other direc­tion. Take, for exam­ple, this poster pro­duced by the Ital­ian rev­o­lu­tion­ary group Potere Operaio (Work­ers’ Power).

The text reads, “Reforms don’t pro­tect wages from ris­ing prices, from the rob­bery of deduc­tions. Com­rades, let’s take the offen­sive for our objec­tives. Trans­porta­tion, rent, school, meals – free. No taxes.” The police fig­ure wields the scale like a baton, show­ing how the deduc­tions out­weigh the wage. The base of the fig­ure is labelled: “par­ties – bosses – unions.”

The analy­sis offered by these demands is clear. Like debt today, the prices of daily neces­si­ties is a deduc­tion from the wage, a wage which already rep­re­sents exploita­tion. But the Amer­i­can reader will find two things very strange about this poster. The first is the idea of com­mu­nist par­ties and bosses in alliance with unions; while Italy in the 1960s and 1970s had large and pow­er­ful bureau­cratic unions and a reformist com­mu­nist party, we have no influ­en­tial left par­ties and our unions have barely any social power. Where it says “par­ties – bosses – unions,” we should write “liberals.”

The other puz­zle is the final demand: “no taxes.” Isn’t this the core plat­form of the right, of free-market extrem­ists? It is, of course, but this demand is a plat­form of the right because it is embed­ded in class, in the orga­nized struc­ture of the rul­ing class. No taxes for whom? The cap­i­tal­ist class tries to escape from taxes, to con­tinue to redis­trib­ute wealth towards the top, and to give the state an excuse to dis­man­tle the social gains made by labor. But if the cap­i­tal­ist class was sub­jected to a tax that even began to approach the per­cent­age it expro­pri­ates from work­ers, this would ren­der taxes on work­ers obsolete.

Since the tax is expe­ri­enced by work­ers as yet another deduc­tion from the wage, while the pub­lic pro­grams that ben­e­fit them are on the chop­ping block, it seems unnec­es­sary to allow the right to monop­o­lize the attack on taxes. If an anti-tax plat­form is put for­ward by work­ers as a class, it rep­re­sents a pro­gram of elim­i­nat­ing one deduc­tion from the wage while charg­ing cap­i­tal­ists for the main­te­nance of the state. The demand to tax the rich is, of course, accepted by many left-liberals. While it’s def­i­nitely a good idea to charge the cap­i­tal­ists, tax­ing the rich as the max­i­mum pro­gram sets us up for social devel­op­ment by the state. The occu­pa­tion move­ment gives us the poten­tial to inde­pen­dently develop the class.

Other demands may be more appro­pri­ate for our sit­u­a­tion. But they will have to be put for­ward by an orga­ni­za­tional struc­ture that rep­re­sents a uni­tary class power. And the con­struc­tion of such a form of orga­ni­za­tion will have to emerge from strate­gies of action that pro­duce class solidarity.

A con­crete exam­ple of this kind of strat­egy took place in La Puente, Cal­i­for­nia. Rose Gudiel, who was about to be evicted from her fore­closed home, dis­cussed her sit­u­a­tion at Occupy LA. Her seem­ingly per­sonal story turned out to be a social one; oth­ers there had suf­fered a sim­i­lar fate. Many of the occu­piers fol­lowed her back to her home in sup­port. A few days later over two hun­dred joined her as she protested in front of the man­sion of OneWest’s CEO; the next day they staged a sit-in at the Pasadena branch of Fan­nie Mae. Faced with such wide­spread oppo­si­tion the bank gave in and decided to mod­ify her loan.

This was a strat­egy, how­ever spon­ta­neous, that united par­tic­i­pants in the move­ment who were hit by fore­clo­sures. It pro­vided a con­cep­tual lan­guage in which indi­vid­u­als began to rec­og­nize that their own prob­lems are closely related to other seem­ingly dis­tinct prob­lems. Not every­one who sup­ported Gudiel was fac­ing evic­tion; they joined her in part because they rec­og­nized that their own dif­fi­cul­ties – unem­ploy­ment, debt, ris­ing cost of liv­ing – were con­nected to hers. The woman who loses her home is not so dif­fer­ent from the neigh­bor that lost his job. The power of this strat­egy emerged from a unique kind of sol­i­dar­ity. For the banks to fight Guidel, they had to fight the whole movement.

A fore­closed home is an inter­est­ing site for an occu­pa­tion. Among the many dif­fer­ences between a house and Zuc­cotti Park is the fact that a house has a roof. And this brings us back to the weather. Everybody’s talk­ing about it; every­body knows that win­ter will force the move­ment to rethink its tac­tics. This is the pol­i­tics of weather: it’s not some neu­tral phe­nom­e­non, but a weapon like any other. We will have to use it to our advan­tage before cap­i­tal enlists it to crush our movement.

This won’t be the first time weather has fig­ured promi­nently in a strug­gle. A reform ban­quet was sched­uled by the mod­er­ate oppo­si­tion to take place in Paris on Feb­ru­ary 22, 1848. Fear­ing an esca­la­tion of the already exist­ing con­flict, hop­ing to break the sol­i­dar­ity of the oppo­si­tion, and know­ing full well that the dis­trict where the meet­ing was to be held was a real hotbed of rev­o­lu­tion­ary activ­ity, the forces of order can­celled the ban­quet the night before, undoubt­edly hop­ing that the week’s hor­ri­ble weather would work to keep the demon­stra­tors away.

But despite the heavy clouds, cold wind, and bit­ing rain, the pro­test­ers took to the streets any­way, enraged by this provo­ca­tion, and quickly set about build­ing bar­ri­cades, loot­ing gun shops, and throw­ing stones at the National Guard. While order was restored in some of the more pub­lic places, the demon­stra­tors strate­gi­cally regrouped in their labyrinthine neigh­bor­hoods. Already a chal­lenge for the army, the wind­ing streets, tor­tu­ous alley­ways, and bewil­der­ing ter­rain became even more dan­ger­ous to out­siders now that it was pour­ing rain. So the forces of order hoped to use the weather to dis­suade pro­test­ers from com­ing out; the pro­test­ers ended up strate­gi­cally using the weather to bol­ster their pri­mary points of resis­tance and esca­late the strug­gle. So began the rev­o­lu­tion of 1848 in France.

We can also use the weather to our advan­tage. The forces of order are hop­ing that win­ter will kill off the move­ment by forc­ing us to retreat back to our homes. We should do just that. We should strate­gi­cally regroup by reoc­cu­py­ing fore­closed homes, squat­ting aban­doned apart­ments, occu­py­ing var­i­ous other build­ings, trans­form­ing each and every one of these into the cells of an esca­lat­ing move­ment. From the occu­pa­tion of a pub­lic park we can shift towards reoc­cu­py­ing those spaces from which we have been forcibly ejected by mount­ing debt, unem­ploy­ment, aus­ter­ity mea­sures, and cuts to social ser­vices. We can take back the pub­lic libraries, schools, lost homes, com­mu­nity cen­ters, and more. The point is to con­stantly think of cre­ative ways to use the weapons of our ene­mies against them. Let’s start with the barometers.

Who threw the can of green paint?: the first two weeks of Occupy Philadelphia

An article by Ben Webster on the contradictions and potential of the Occupy movement in Philadelphia during Fall 2011.

On the morn­ing of Octo­ber 14, one week into Occupy Philadelphia’s encamp­ment beside City Hall, some­one emp­tied the con­tents of a paint can on the building’s south­west­ern entrance. The unknown painter fled the scene, leav­ing behind a decid­edly unsym­bolic smear. Not of angry black or bloody red, but a smear of bland mint green. Police cor­doned off the entrance, dis­miss­ing eager Occupy vol­un­teers offer­ing their assis­tance. A pres­sure cleaner quickly removed all traces of the deed.

This bizarre inci­dent sug­gests much about Philadelphia’s iter­a­tion of the Occupy phe­nom­e­non. Like other occu­pa­tions, its porous bound­aries inte­grate the protest site with the flows of the city. Par­tic­i­pants, passers-by, police, and provo­ca­teurs move freely through­out, with the pos­si­bil­ity of enrich­ing or desta­bi­liz­ing the action; was our painter a police provo­ca­teur or a well-intentioned but strate­gi­cally chal­lenged par­tic­i­pant? Both were con­sid­ered in the aftermath.

This inci­dent also sug­gests the ambi­gu­ity and con­tra­dic­tion in the polit­i­cal imag­i­na­tion of Occupy Philadel­phia (OP). What con­sti­tutes mean­ing­ful action – a spec­tac­u­lar act of van­dal­ism, the peace­ful occu­pa­tion of pub­lic prop­erty, or direct action on the hori­zon more con­fronta­tional and rad­i­cal? There has been no short­age of activ­ity – daily marches strike out to the usual tar­gets – but as of yet no dra­matic con­fronta­tions like those of Occupy Wall Street have occurred. This is the real sig­nif­i­cance of the green paint inci­dent. That such a bla­tant act of van­dal­ism against the seat of munic­i­pal power was shrugged off so quickly by occu­piers and police alike indi­cates both the power and impo­tence of OP. On the one hand, there was no police advance under the pre­text of this or any other num­ber of small provo­ca­tions – surely an index of our power. On the other hand, the inci­dent is an index of the lim­ited threat to capital’s power that OP poses, which is, as of yet, not enough to move the heavy hand of the state, a hand whose ruth­less power has been amply shown in recent Philadel­phia his­tory, from the 1985 bomb­ing of the MOVE house to the repres­sion of protests against the 2000 Repub­li­can National Convention.

To use two famil­iar polit­i­cal con­cepts, Occupy Philadel­phia is at once ani­mated by both the spirit of the com­mons and of the strike. I do not wish to argue for the pri­macy of either approach or assert their incom­pat­i­bil­ity, but rather to frame the young his­tory of OP as a state of ten­sion between these two poles. As a par­tic­i­pant in the occu­pa­tion, I hope to describe from both expe­ri­ence and analy­sis the dis­tinct char­ac­ter of the Occupy X move­ment in post-industrial, working-class Philadel­phia, and its sig­nif­i­cance for the con­tem­po­rary class struggle.

Fight­ing City Hall

Occupy Philadel­phia feels like a march, a strike, a com­mune, and a car­ni­val. This vari­ety of forms derives from the pecu­liar­ity of the tac­tic. One can par­tic­i­pate in OP just by mov­ing ordi­nary human activ­i­ties – like sleep­ing, eat­ing, social­iz­ing – to the occu­pa­tion site. But “extra­or­di­nary” human activ­i­ties – demon­stra­tions, assem­blies, teach-ins, movie screen­ings – have taken place there as well, cre­at­ing a charged but uneven topog­ra­phy. The per­sonal and the polit­i­cal do not yet coin­cide here, but they rub shoul­ders. A read­ing group on Mari­arosa Dalla Costa and Selma James’s The Power of Women and the Sub­ver­sion of Com­mu­nity next to campers dry­ing their soggy socks on a clothes line; a col­lege dude test­ing out pickup lines in earshot of the peo­ple of color caucus.

Philly’s unique Occupy iden­tity has devel­oped in large part due to a détente with the city and its police. Over 1,000 peo­ple attended a rau­cous plan­ning meet­ing two days before the occupation’s inau­gu­ra­tion, a siz­able show of force well cov­ered by the local press. Of the two options avail­able to the Philadel­phia police – mas­sive and very pub­lic repres­sion or tacit coop­er­a­tion – they opted for the lat­ter. At 9 AM on Octo­ber 6, hun­dreds assem­bled on the west side of City Hall and began con­struct­ing an encamp­ment with rel­a­tively lit­tle inter­fer­ence. Although police are sta­tioned vis­i­bly around the occu­pa­tion and con­duct walk-throughs both uni­formed and plain-clothed, so far they’ve acted with restraint.

Activ­ity in vio­la­tion of city codes, includ­ing the con­struc­tion of pal­let struc­tures for the home­less, has been per­mit­ted, embold­en­ing some occu­piers but cre­at­ing an acri­mo­nious inter­nal debate. The hands-off approach thus far by the police con­firms the lib­eral naiveté of some who, using the movement’s vocab­u­lary, iden­tify the police and city brass as part of “the 99%,” and there­fore our allies. Indeed, Mayor Michael Nut­ter and Chief of Police Charles Ram­sey made very pub­lic, very genial appear­ances at OP in its first days. Oth­ers, from polit­i­cal acu­men or per­sonal expe­ri­ence, view the city’s over­tures with skep­ti­cism or overt antag­o­nism. This debate came to a head with the early ques­tion posed to the gen­eral assem­bly of acquir­ing a per­mit, and has per­sisted to cur­rent dis­cus­sions on how to respond to the city’s evolv­ing posi­tion. The GA voted for a per­mit after much dis­cus­sion. Although unprece­dented in mod­ern Philadel­phia his­tory for the lib­er­ties and exemp­tions it grants to the occu­pa­tion, the per­mit does bind OP in a legal­is­tic sta­sis – offi­cial, even granted a wel­come by the pow­ers that be, but neutered of antag­o­nism. To the out­law, rela­tions of power are crys­tal clear.

This Philly com­pro­mise dis­tin­guishes OP from its Occupy Wall Street (OWS) tem­plate. Freed from both the glare of the inter­na­tional media and the men­ace of overt police activ­ity, OP turns inward. Free­dom from repres­sion in a far larger phys­i­cal space than OWS offers oppor­tu­ni­ties to strengthen our posi­tion but also deep­ens the con­tra­dic­tions latent within the Occupy move­ment. And although the police aren’t yet using pepper-spray and batons as they have against our New York com­rades, this doesn’t indi­cate a lack of police tac­tics to crush OP. Two strate­gies must be antic­i­pated from our ene­mies in City Hall. One, the strat­egy of patience, in which the police bide their time and wait for either win­ter weather or the “tragedy of the com­mons” to dis­perse OP. Two, the exploita­tion of inci­dents of non-passivity at OP-associated direct actions to crack down on the encamp­ment. Both approaches can be antic­i­pated, and, with proper fore­sight, made to back­fire as the attempts at repres­sion in New York have.

Strike and Commons

Philadel­phia City Hall is mon­u­men­tal, the sym­bolic and geo­graph­i­cal cen­ter of a bat­tered but tena­cious city. It is the second-tallest masonry build­ing in the world, and in its hey­day was a won­der of archi­tec­tural achieve­ment. The city’s two sub­way lines inter­sect under­neath it, send­ing con­tin­u­ous rum­blings up to its cold stone plazas. Along its west side is Dil­worth Plaza, a two block long con­crete plaza cast in the aus­tere style of 60s urban renewal. It is the habit­ual dwelling of a large home­less pop­u­la­tion, and is sched­uled to be handed over shortly to a pri­vate devel­op­ment group for the build­ing of a cafe, skat­ing rink, and con­cep­tual foun­tains. In autumn, the plaza is per­pet­u­ally in the shadow of City Hall and the sur­round­ing office build­ings, and whipped by intense winds.

OP has adapted many orga­ni­za­tional fea­tures of the Occupy move­ment. The gen­eral assem­bly, which meets daily at 7 PM, is the pri­mary forum for com­mu­ni­ca­tion and decision-making. Work­ing groups assure the daily repro­duc­tion of the occu­pa­tion (food, medic, edu­ca­tion, safety, facil­i­ta­tion, etc.) and its strate­gic thrust (direct action, media, mes­sag­ing, etc.). Over 300 tents have been erected across Dil­worth Plaza, pop­u­lated by var­i­ous “tribes” of the polit­i­cal and non-political (“do you go to the gen­eral assem­bly?”), young and old, white and black, counter-cultural and normies. Things are typ­i­cally quiet before noon, and after­wards through the evening swell with part-time par­tic­i­pants who sleep at home, curiosity-seekers, rep­re­sen­ta­tives of var­i­ous polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tions, cops, passers-by, and the media. OP ben­e­fits greatly from its loca­tion lit­er­ally on top of the city’s busiest tran­sit hub. High school stu­dents and com­muters con­tribute to its open vital­ity; there is strength in num­bers, even if they are anony­mous and tem­po­rary. Despite its prox­im­ity to Philadelphia’s cen­tral busi­ness dis­trict, OP does not have the belly-of-the-beast feel of OWS; this is not a global city, and a pro­le­tar­ian mien con­t­a­m­i­nates even those quar­ters fash­ioned in the mold of neolib­eral finance capital.

OP, like its peers, strives for hor­i­zon­tal orga­ni­za­tion – ide­ally all par­tic­i­pants have an equal right to deter­mine the course of the occu­pa­tion. The space cre­ated at OP for exper­i­men­ta­tion in egal­i­tar­ian decision-making should be applauded; the pro­lif­er­a­tion of such spaces is essen­tial for the project of pro­le­tar­ian auton­omy. How­ever, since thus far par­tic­i­pa­tion in decision-making and exe­cu­tion is encour­aged but not com­pul­sory, I would sug­gest that in prac­tice, power at OP is func­tion­ing along the lines of a kind of prim­i­tive syn­di­cal­ism. Pro­pos­als sub­mit­ted for approval at the gen­eral assem­bly must first pass through a daily co-committee meet­ing (“co-co”), com­posed of rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the var­i­ous work­ing groups. In effect, access to power at OP is stream­lined by par­tic­i­pa­tion in a work­ing group: in the micro-society of OP, the work­ers in the work­ing groups that con­sti­tute its infra­struc­ture con­sti­tute its sov­er­eign power. Is this a pos­i­tive model to acknowl­edge and prop­a­gate, or a model that will tend to pro­duce a divi­sion among occu­piers between more active par­tic­i­pants and those who par­tic­i­pate by sim­ply show­ing up and remain­ing in the encamp­ment? It should be noted that groups such as cau­cuses of anar­chists and peo­ple of color, by dint of their orga­ni­za­tional capac­ity or moral power, read­ily move to the cen­ter of OP’s sov­er­eign power at par­ity with the work­ing groups. The ambi­gu­ity of the sit­u­a­tion lies in the ques­tion of access to power: should this be deter­mined by capac­ity for orga­ni­za­tion or objec­tive posi­tion within exist­ing social hier­ar­chies? How can the repro­duc­tion of these hier­ar­chies be actively com­bated within the occupations?

Con­fu­sion, over­lap, and frus­tra­tion are tol­er­ated out of neces­sity at OP by the pro­lif­er­at­ing work­ing groups. Good faith and move­ment momen­tum – for the time – paper over the con­sid­er­able chal­lenges of con­sti­tut­ing a micro-society from a milieu of strangers with vary­ing expe­ri­ences and back­grounds, except­ing the occa­sional raised voices and scuffles.

How long can the momen­tum last? OP has passed through three over­lap­ping stages: spec­ta­cle, orga­ni­za­tion, and critique/action. In the early days in which spec­ta­cle dom­i­nated, every­one seemed to be film­ing every­one else with cell­phone cam­eras, and the media swarmed over it all. When peo­ple gath­ered on the morn­ing of Octo­ber 6, they seemed uncer­tain what to do, which protest rit­u­als to fol­low – who do I show my sign to? Is this a rally, a sit-in, or what? Who’ll be the first to set up their tent, and where? The pro­lif­er­a­tion of image pro­duc­tion coin­cided with a ner­vous amor­phous mass, only vaguely aware of its com­mon­al­ity and power.

In the sec­ond stage, orga­ni­za­tion, the encampment’s infra­struc­ture was estab­lished. With the for­ma­tion of work­ing groups and pro­ce­dures for com­mu­ni­ca­tion and decision-making, the poten­tial of the mass was har­nessed. Dil­worth Plaza was spa­tially delin­eated and mapped. Sub-groups such as the peo­ple of color cau­cus and the wheelchair-dependent self-organized to iden­tify and cor­rect pat­terns of exclu­sion. Brief strug­gles for con­trol of media and out­reach efforts finally expelled a nar­cis­sis­tic indi­vid­ual who treated OP’s Face­book page as a per­sonal fief­dom. Inter­nal orga­ni­za­tion is an ongo­ing process involv­ing con­sid­er­able exper­i­men­ta­tion, but the day to day repro­duc­tion of OP is secured for now, clear­ing the way for a deep­en­ing focus on cri­tique and action.

In this cur­rent stage of cri­tique and action, the con­cep­tual para­me­ters of com­mons and strike assume their power. Two ques­tions, of demands and of accept­able direct action, pre­dom­i­nate. It is widely accepted that OP can only main­tain its momen­tum with a con­stant sched­ule of marches, teach-ins, and speak­ers. In this lab­o­ra­tory of praxis, in which the tac­tic of main­tain­ing the occu­pa­tion and the pro­lif­er­a­tion of col­lec­tive cri­tique are mutu­ally rein­forc­ing, the only thing lack­ing is a cat­a­lyst of true resis­tance. Marches have set out from OP to harass banks, visit preda­tory stu­dent loan sharks, tour shitty hos­pi­tals, and, arguably most suc­cess­fully, chase Eric Can­tor from a speak­ing engage­ment at the Uni­ver­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia. Philadel­phia PD duti­fully block off inter­sec­tions and escort the marchers to their tar­get and back to the occu­pa­tion. OP now iron­i­cally pos­sesses the power to march unob­structed any­where in the city it chooses, but seems to be run­ning out of sym­bol­i­cally potent des­ti­na­tions. All dressed up with nowhere to go, obscure polit­i­cal dif­fer­ences take on a new impor­tance. What if the police are our ene­mies pre­cisely by act­ing like our most oblig­ing friends? If the “1%” can so eas­ily neu­tral­ize our efforts, why will they bother lis­ten­ing to our demands?

OP recasts Dil­worth Plaza as a com­mons, shift­ing it from a nom­i­nally pub­lic space to an actively com­mon one, col­lec­tively owned by those who rule to the extent that they actively par­tic­i­pate. It is a space striv­ing towards decom­mod­i­fi­ca­tion, where human rela­tion­ships have more value than the exchange of money. Yet it also bears a resem­blance to a strike, a col­lec­tive sus­pen­sion of nor­mal activ­ity lead­ing to a con­fronta­tional moment of deci­sion. As the weather turns, the quo­tid­ian qual­ity of OP tends towards the grim resolve of a picket line in the dead of win­ter. The two forms are not mutu­ally exclu­sive; every com­mons must be defended, and every strike relies on a shared ter­ri­tory of expe­ri­ence, spa­tial or oth­er­wise. The ten­den­cies towards com­mons or strike do not neatly coin­cide with reformist or rev­o­lu­tion­ary per­spec­tives. Yet the inter­sec­tion of the forms makes for an unhappy ten­sion, unable to develop with con­fi­dence in either direc­tion. To expand and deepen the com­mons would be to hit too deeply and rad­i­cally at the rela­tions of pri­vate prop­erty and social repro­duc­tion for some par­tic­i­pants. To adopt the antag­o­nis­tic sol­i­dar­ity of the strike would be to aban­don all pre­tenses of coop­er­a­tion with the state and its agents, unac­cept­able for some. The project of OP, and the Occupy move­ment more broadly, is to syn­the­size the com­mons and the strike in a form appro­pri­ate to cur­rent rela­tions of power and production.


Pro­le­tar­ian com­bat­ive­ness in Philadel­phia, the site of many proud clashes in the his­tory of Amer­i­can class strug­gle, still exists, evi­denced by a vari­ety of expres­sions rang­ing from the vic­to­ri­ous PASNAP strike at Tem­ple Hos­pi­tal in 2010 to the auto-reduction action orga­nized by teens at a local Sears store this past sum­mer. OP is poten­tially a site of encounter and recom­po­si­tion for a met­ro­pol­i­tan work­ing class changed by decades of dein­dus­tri­al­iza­tion, a swelling pop­u­la­tion of recent immi­grants, and the com­bat­ive youth sub­cul­tures of the flash mob and debt-ridden col­lege grad vari­ety. Although the process remains vague and pre­lim­i­nary, the occu­pa­tion move­ment in Philly is a promis­ing indi­ca­tor of the work­ing class’s polit­i­cal recomposition.

Two of the largest pop­u­la­tions in the OP encamp­ment are the long-term home­less and the col­lege stu­dent milieu. That they sleep will­ingly side by side for weeks at a time speaks to the nov­elty of the Occupy move­ment. The close, extended con­tact of occu­piers tends to cut through prej­u­dice and ide­o­log­i­cal mys­ti­fi­ca­tion, even though the egal­i­tar­ian ideal of the move­ment remains dis­tant. Indi­vid­u­als and groups who may never have oth­er­wise encoun­tered each other in the huge city now find them­selves shar­ing both an eco­nomic cri­tique and a tent. Should a major work stop­page occur in the city soon – both the Ver­i­zon nego­ti­a­tions and a num­ber of pub­lic sec­tor con­tract nego­ti­a­tions remain unset­tled – encounter on a far larger scale is pos­si­ble. The city’s major unions have issued state­ments of sup­port for the occu­pa­tion, but a mate­r­ial min­gling has the poten­tial to change the con­sti­tu­tion of both move­ments for the bet­ter and expand momen­tum beyond the focal encamp­ment. OP, how­ever, may in the long run be a bet­ter pro­ducer of sub­jec­tiv­i­ties then of con­crete demands, and this would not be a fault.

An impor­tant sub­jec­tiv­ity crys­tal­liz­ing in the Occupy move­ment is sim­i­lar to the dri­ving force behind the global orig­i­na­tors of the occu­pa­tion con­cept in Spain, Egypt, and Tunisia: young, edu­cated, and down­wardly mobile work­ers. Many recent grad­u­ates or dropouts of local uni­ver­si­ties like Tem­ple and the Uni­ver­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia pro­vide a motive force behind OP’s work­ing groups, expe­ri­enc­ing a mode of col­lec­tive strug­gle quite dif­fer­ent from man­aged, pre­dictable cam­pus “activism.” As com­rades in Cal­i­for­nia noted dur­ing the uni­ver­sity occu­pa­tions there in fall 2009, the prac­tice of occu­py­ing tends to dis­solve out­dated dis­tinc­tions like that between “work­ers” and “stu­dents.” A tan­ta­liz­ing pos­si­bil­ity beg­ging more research is the con­nec­tion between OP’s site above a tran­sit hub, and the highly mobile nature of this sec­tor, mov­ing around the city at odd hours between mul­ti­ple part-time jobs, casual work, and classes. Ear­lier cycles of strug­gles in Philly, from the post-New Left Move­ment for a New Soci­ety in the 1970s to the clashes at the 2000 RNC, bequeathed long-lasting infra­struc­tures of rad­i­cal insti­tu­tions and expe­ri­ence. Will OP be the coming-out party for a new cycle or just a flash in the pan?

Think Locally?

OP clearly owes its inspi­ra­tion to Occupy Wall Street, encamped just two hours up the New Jer­sey Turn­pike. The prox­im­ity of the two cities allowed many Philly orga­niz­ers to visit OWS before launch­ing OP, tak­ing note of its orga­ni­za­tional model and learn­ing from its mis­cues. As one of the largest occu­pa­tions in the coun­try as of yet spared overt police repres­sion, OP is both a sig­nif­i­cant model for the national move­ment and some­thing of an aber­ra­tion. Among occu­piers, the rela­tion­ship of OP to the move­ment remains uncer­tain, bespeak­ing a larger ambi­gu­ity towards the global, national, and local con­texts of the cri­sis. Mate­r­ial efforts have been made to share resources with OWS, and sol­i­dar­ity actions with com­rades attacked by police in Oak­land and Atlanta are under discussion.

The polit­i­cal imag­i­nary of OP remains largely stuck at the national level. Rhetoric of the 99%, Wall Street, and cor­po­rate taxes implic­itly locates the cur­rent social and eco­nomic crises within national bor­ders. Yet these crises have inter­na­tional causes and impli­ca­tions, and resis­tance in the form of occu­pa­tions has like­wise been a global phe­nom­e­non. As the calls for uni­fied Occupy X demands increases, a real dan­ger exists both in ignor­ing the global char­ac­ter of cap­i­tal and our strug­gles, and in fail­ing to con­nect Occupy’s cri­tiques with local con­di­tions and local grievances.

A fac­tion within OP seized an early oppor­tu­nity to advance long-standing local griev­ances and make demands of the city. After receiv­ing a let­ter from the city gov­ern­ment which made sev­eral demands of OP (dis­man­tle fire haz­ards, con­trol open uri­na­tion, etc.), they refused a pater­nal­is­tic rela­tion­ship and in turn advanced sev­eral demands at the GA that OP should make in response. One of these included a repeal of Philadelphia’s racist youth cur­few law. Con­ve­niently up for a vote of exten­sion steps away in City Hall, the law was ini­tially passed to kill off the flash mobs that once rocked the city. Fight­ing a law that inten­tion­ally seeks to frac­ture, dis­ci­pline, and man­age spe­cific lay­ers of the work­ing class would go a long way to recon­nect­ing with those sec­tors that are still under­rep­re­sented at OP.

This gen­eral effort was accom­pa­nied by dis­tri­b­u­tion of an excel­lent sum­mary of recent local strug­gles, enti­tled “The Mayor and Police Are not Our Friends!” Spear­headed largely by anar­chists (who have been the con­ve­nient tar­gets of an ongo­ing red-baiting cam­paign), this effort has bril­liantly changed the inflec­tion of OP, focus­ing atten­tion on local com­mu­ni­ties already in strug­gle. A pre­dictable back­lash fol­lowed, with many claim­ing that link­ing the occu­pa­tion with strug­gles around the cur­few and police bru­tal­ity diluted our mes­sage and weak­ened pub­lic support.

This back­lash esca­lated when 15 occu­piers were arrested in front of Philadel­phia PD head­quar­ters on the national Octo­ber 22 day of protest against police bru­tal­ity. Although the effi­cacy of their non-violent civil dis­obe­di­ence tac­tics is debat­able (all blocked a street overnight, refus­ing repeated police orders to dis­perse), the real­ity of police bru­tal­ity in Philly is not. The first arrests of OP were denounced by many who sought to dis­tance the activ­i­ties at City Hall from those which, pushed out­ward by the occupation’s momen­tum, occurred else­where in the city. Should this fail­ure of sol­i­dar­ity and cen­trifu­gal polit­i­cal imag­i­na­tion con­tinue, OP will likely die a win­try death shiv­er­ing in the shad­ows of Cen­ter City.

The Octo­ber 22 arrests and the emer­gence of a new ulti­ma­tum from the city throw the future of OP into ques­tion. After grant­ing an open-ended per­mit to the occu­pa­tion, with no stated end date, the city announced Novem­ber 15 as the first day of the ren­o­va­tion of Dil­worth Plaza. This ren­o­va­tion includes the total recon­struc­tion of the plaza by a pri­vate com­pany bear­ing a 30-year lease, which will install an ice-skating rink and chic cafe, obvi­ously inspired by Man­hat­tan tourist geo­gra­phies. Of course, the ren­o­va­tion will entail fenc­ing off the plaza, expelling not only the occu­pa­tion, but also the home­less who use it as a long-term home. So the date has been set for con­fronta­tion. Whether the city backs down, OP relo­cates, or is forcibly expelled, is uncer­tain. How OP decides to act against this threat will be a major indi­ca­tor of the movement’s resolve and potential.

A far larger chal­lenge, how­ever, is the win­ter weather. The last two Philadel­phia win­ters have been among the harsh­est on record. Sim­ply put, OP can­not with­stand a north­east­ern win­ter at its cur­rent size, and should not try to. Dis­cour­aged dis­per­sion when the tem­per­a­ture dips is the worst pos­si­ble out­come, and pro­vid­ing a spec­ta­cle of per­sonal suf­fer­ing to the media through it all is a ter­ri­ble tac­tic. Occu­pa­tions have cap­tured the imag­i­na­tion of the world, but fetishiz­ing the tac­tic is a strate­gic blun­der. The only limit to con­tin­u­ing and grow­ing this nascent move­ment is our imag­i­na­tion. Our con­ver­sa­tions and GAs must move, and quickly, to the dis­cus­sion of new tac­tics – occu­py­ing aban­doned build­ings (of no short sup­ply in Philly), sub­ver­sive orga­niz­ing in our schools and work­places, strength­en­ing of the local strug­gles our anar­chist com­rades have drawn atten­tion to – action, edu­ca­tion, and the­o­riz­ing with­out a cen­tral encamp­ment if need be. GAs can con­tinue indoors, marches and direct action can expand through­out the city, and of course hard­core occu­piers can con­tinue out­side if they wish. This strate­gic retreat is actu­ally an advance across the entirety of the social ter­rain – but one that will require defy­ing the logic of media rep­re­sen­ta­tion and the spec­ta­cle of con­tem­po­rary politics.

In one form or the other, we can be opti­mistic that Occupy Philadel­phia will inspire a win­ter of dis­con­tent in the City of Broth­erly Love. Come spring, we can reoc­cupy not only Dil­worth Plaza, but Rit­ten­house Square, Love Park, Franklin Park­way, and – why not – Inde­pen­dence Hall and the Lib­erty Bell, too.

From Egypt to Wall Street

Wendell Hassan Marsh on the links between the Wisconsin protests, the Egyptian Revolution and the Occupy movement.

For­mer Egypt­ian pres­i­dent Hosni Mubarak had already stepped down, fol­low­ing a pop­u­lar move­ment that estab­lished a micro-republic, the Gumhuriyyah el-Tahrir (Repub­lic of Lib­erty), which con­tra­dicted the per­vad­ing logic of the inter­na­tional eco­nomic sys­tem. And now pro­test­ers in Wis­con­sin were occu­py­ing the state house to pre­vent the pass­ing of leg­is­la­tion that would effec­tively sus­pend bar­gain­ing rights for pub­lic work­ers. Sit­ting in a Wash­ing­ton news­room, we needed a head­line. I very quickly sug­gested some­thing along these lines: “Mid­dle East unrest spreads to the Mid­west.” I got a side eye. After all, how could a free and open soci­ety, the demo­c­ra­tic soci­ety, be tak­ing its cues from, of all places, Egypt, an antique land with back­ward ways, Islamic fun­da­men­tal­ists, and Arab dic­ta­tors? The edi­tors went with a more mod­est title.

How­ever, for many in the Arab world, the con­nec­tion was not lost for a minute. They saw in the occu­pa­tion of the Wis­con­sin State Capi­tol the same spirit that was present in Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation: the refusal to accept the finan­cial order’s demand to oblit­er­ate decades of pro­gres­sive strug­gle and negotiation.

Maybe my own time in Cairo made me see the easy con­nec­tion that my edi­tors missed. I lived there for a almost a year and a half on the largess of the Amer­i­can gov­ern­ment. The con­di­tions of my pres­ence were a reminder of the struc­tural inequal­i­ties of the global sys­tem. Any old Amer­i­can can arrive to the air­port with­out a visa, lit­tle train­ing in any use­ful domain and quickly find gain­ful employ­ment and a life of com­fort. An Egypt­ian, how­ever, even with years of edu­ca­tion, has to strug­gle to make a living.

As many set out today to occupy every­thing, let us take a moment to remem­ber the real ori­gins of this global move­ment and allow it to guide our ongo­ing politics.

Deep in the land of Han­ni­bal the Carthagin­ian, who once chal­lenged the power of another global empire, Bouaz­izi was born to a con­struc­tion worker, liv­ing his entire life in Sidi Bouzid, an agrar­ian town. The 26-year-old scraped together an exis­tence for him­self and a large fam­ily by sell­ing fruit. Rel­a­tively speak­ing, he did well to have even that hus­tle, as the New York Times reported that unem­ploy­ment reaches as high as 30% in his area. There was a nearby fac­tory, but that only pays around $50 a month. Even the col­lege edu­cated were head­ing to the coast, where they too strug­gled with underemployment.

A vet­eran fruit ven­dor, Bouaz­izi was used to the author­i­ties that policed the fruit stands. Some­times he paid a fine, other times a bribe. But on the morn­ing of Decem­ber 17, Bouaz­izi refused to do either. He also refused an attempted con­fis­ca­tion of his fruit, com­modi­ties that are often bought on credit by the para-legal ven­dors. The rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the state even­tu­ally won the first bat­tle. Beaten and humil­i­ated, Bouaz­izi quickly tried redress­ing his griev­ances at the governor’s office, request­ing that, at the least, his scale be returned. Ignored at the governor’s, he was reported to ask, “how do you expect me to make a liv­ing?” He set him­self ablaze and ignited a global movement.

Protests started hours after the inci­dent. Bouazizi’s fam­ily and friends threw coins at the governor’s gate. “Here is your bribe,” they yelled. As the unrest grew, police started to beat pro­test­ers, fir­ing tear gas and even­tu­ally bul­lets. But the spirit wouldn’t be sti­fled. Orga­nized labor joined in the strug­gle, iden­ti­fy­ing the cen­tral prob­lem as eco­nomic. After all, it was global cap­i­tal that had denied Bouaz­izi and his sup­port­ers their dig­nity; it extracted sur­plus value from human objects down to the last drop of blood.

For­mer colo­nial power France offered to lend a hand with its secu­rity savoir-faire. Or maybe they would have just hired a pri­vate firm to han­dle the con­tract. Later acknowl­edg­ing the mis­step, Sarkozy tried to jus­tify his government’s sup­port of the author­i­tar­ian regime with reveal­ing, if trite, argu­ments. “Behind the eman­ci­pa­tion of women, the drive for edu­ca­tion and train­ing, the eco­nomic dynamism, the emer­gence of a mid­dle class, there was a despair, a suf­fer­ing, a sense of suf­fo­ca­tion. We have to recog­nise that we under­es­ti­mated it,” Sarkozy said in a press con­fer­ence.

Sarkozy under­es­ti­mated the effect that the “eco­nomic dynamism” of the rul­ing elite had on the major­ity of the coun­try. He under­es­ti­mated the dimin­ished eco­nomic prospects that resulted from Tunisia’s decreased agri­cul­tural and man­u­fac­tur­ing exports to Europe. He under­es­ti­mated the Tunisian people’s reac­tion in the face of poten­tial anni­hi­la­tion by eco­nomic violence.

The move­ment quickly spread to nearby Egypt, where con­di­tions have been even worse, the socio-economic divide between the top 1% and the rest even more dra­matic. Sev­eral self-immolations occurred through­out the coun­try, prompt­ing the Cheikh of al Azhar, the most respected insti­tu­tion in the Sunni Islamic world, to issue a fatwa against the prac­tice. Youth with degrees but with­out jobs started to occupy Tahrir Square, to call for the dig­nity that global neolib­eral poli­cies had denied them. They took the recent tac­tics of Egypt’s young but grow­ing labor move­ment and added others.

When Mubarak, whose 30-year reign had been marked by the open­ing of the coun­try to West­ern busi­ness inter­ests, started to crack down on the pro­test­ers as the empire’s strong man, the peo­ple said he had to go. The pub­lic began to protest against dic­ta­tor­ship, but only inso­far as they were protest­ing the global eco­nomic empire.

Some­how a pop­u­lar nar­ra­tive has emerged in our media that the Arab spring protested against dic­ta­tor­ship, against mur­der­ous regimes. These pop­u­lar strug­gles have been reduced to rebel­lions against the vil­lainies of a Qaddafi, an Assad, a Saleh.

But the Arab Spring started as a protest against global finance and its hench­men. Almost across the board, pro­test­ers claim­ing pub­lic space were demand­ing mostly eco­nomic reforms. It was only after Arab dic­ta­tors, whose decen­nial rules offered up their coun­tries to the jaws of the global mar­ket, started to repress this pop­u­lar strug­gle with vio­lence, that dic­ta­tor­ship became the tar­get of regime change.

Occupy Wall Street and the sub­se­quent Occupy move­ment were ini­ti­ated in the same spirit of eco­nomic jus­tice. Zuc­cotti Park, iron­i­cally taken and renamed Lib­erty Plaza by its occu­piers, is a micro-republic where the logic of empire doesn’t work. Peo­ple take pride in dis­com­fort, in being arrested and work­ing for free. Altru­ism has become nor­ma­tive and hier­ar­chy repug­nant. To be sure, there is inner dis­sent and strug­gle within the body politic of the micro-republic. Nev­er­the­less, the audac­ity to live a utopian prac­tice has become lib­er­at­ing in itself.

Yet this move­ment can’t con­tent itself with grant­ing young peo­ple the right to take on more debt to live the lives the world can’t sus­tain, or reform­ing the way can­di­dates fund their cam­paigns. The despo­tism that west­ern pow­ers decry in the name of human rights is a symp­tom of a wider sys­tem of eco­nomic exploita­tion, which at home man­i­fests itself in the attack on the Amer­i­can work­ing and mid­dle class. They are connected.

The repres­sive mea­sures states use against their own pop­u­la­tions has also been imported from the Mid­dle East. A recent post by Max Blu­men­thal con­nects the dots behind recent alarm­ing exam­ples of social con­trol and police militarization:

The police repres­sion on dis­play in Oak­land reminded me of tac­tics I wit­nessed the Israeli army employ against Pales­tin­ian pop­u­lar strug­gle demon­stra­tions in occu­pied West Bank vil­lages like Nabi Saleh, Ni’lin and Bilin. So I was not sur­prised when I learned that the same com­pany that sup­plies the Israeli army with tear­gas rounds and other weapons of mass sup­pres­sion is sell­ing its dan­ger­ous wares to the Oak­land police. The com­pany is Defense Tech­nol­ogy, a Casper, Wyoming based arms firm that claims to “spe­cial­ize in less lethal tech­nol­ogy” and other “crowd man­age­ment prod­ucts.” Defense Tech sells every­thing from rub­ber coated tear­gas rounds that bounce in order to max­i­mize gas dis­per­sal to 40 mil­lime­ter “direct impact” sponge rounds to “spe­cialty impact” 12 gauge rub­ber bullets.

One vet­eran of the war in Iraq knows the effects of the police-sponsored vio­lence first­hand. After being hit by a tear gas can­is­ter launched by the Oak­land Police Depart­ment, Scott Olsen suf­fered a frac­tured skull and a swollen brain. As though that were not enough, video footage shows a police offi­cer throw­ing a flash bang grenade next to the blood­ied man to dis­perse the crowd of peo­ple com­ing to his aid. But such police bru­tal­ity is noth­ing new in Oak­land, home of a rad­i­cal black pol­i­tics that has strug­gled against struc­tural eco­nomic and phys­i­cal vio­lence against the work­ing class, the poor, and minorities.

We should remem­ber that the pol­i­tics forged by the Black Pan­ther Party in the late 1960s and 1970s made deep ties with the anti-imperial projects of North Africa, the hotbed of today’s van­guard move­ment. Alge­ria made the Pan­ther head­quar­ters in Oak­land their embassy, pro­vid­ing a sort of diplo­matic shield against police sur­veil­lance. When Eldridge Cleaver went into exile, Alge­ria hosted him and the inter­na­tional sec­tion of the party. A chap­ter was also cre­ated in Cairo, then, a nerve cen­ter for the world wide free­dom struggle.

Much is rid­ing on the direc­tion of the Occupy move­ment in Amer­ica. While vis­it­ing the Wall Street occu­piers, two of Tahrir’s lead­ing activists empha­sized the impor­tance of the Occupy move­ment for the renewal of the Arab Spring. To Amer­i­cans who asked how they could help the ongo­ing Egypt­ian strug­gle, Asmaa Mah­fouz replied, “get your rev­o­lu­tion done. That’s the biggest help you can give us.” What Mah­fouz was count­ing on was the pos­si­bil­ity that strug­gles in the United States could pres­sure the gov­ern­ment to cut off the $1.3 bil­lion yearly pay­ments that sus­tain Egypt’s military.

Long-time activist Ahmad Maher reminded the crowd of the immense task the Arab Spring con­fronted, and which activists around the world still con­front. An Amer­i­can asked him the most fun­da­men­tal ques­tion: “how do you over­throw a sys­tem?” Speak­ing as a grass­roots polit­i­cal orga­nizer who has been on the Egypt­ian street for years, Maher replied, “It’s eas­ier to over­throw a dic­ta­tor than an entire system.”

There is a rea­son that the Occupy move­ment does not have a sin­gu­lar mes­sage, tied to one polit­i­cal body; its suc­cess or fail­ure will lie in the degree to which it changes everything.

Insurrection, Oakland style: a history

An article by Matthew Edwards on the roots of Occupy Oakland, which includes the movement and riots that happened in response to the police murder of Oscar Grant in January of 2009.

This is an unfin­ished work – a snap­shot of his­tory as it occurred, expe­ri­enced by me, reported on social media, or retold by trusted com­rades. It will lack the final­ity of hind­sight. Con­tained within is my account of the Oak­land Insur­rec­tion, as it has unfolded over the past days and weeks. Both the insur­rec­tion and this essay are works of hope. I hope that we push for­ward on the streets of Oak­land, the Bay Area, and every­where else, to the limit of what is pos­si­ble – beyond occu­pa­tion and the pro­posed gen­eral strike to “total free­dom” for us all.1


Inspired by the upris­ings across the world and fueled by the increas­ingly pre­car­i­ous eco­nomic con­di­tions across the United States, a call­out was made for an occu­pa­tion of Wall Street. On Sep­tem­ber 17, 1000 peo­ple occu­pied the finan­cial hub of the United States and arguably global cap­i­tal­ism. Within days, dozens of towns and cities had their own ver­sion of the #Occupy move­ment – with vary­ing degrees of encamp­ment, protest, and orga­niz­ing space; within weeks, hun­dreds of cities were occu­pied; within a month, over a thou­sand world­wide.

Oakland’s Frank Ogawa Plaza, renamed Oscar Grant Plaza by many Bay Area res­i­dents, was occu­pied on Octo­ber 10. Logis­ti­cal plan­ning started a week before the occu­pa­tion date, with #Occu­pyOak­land field­ing a fully func­tional can­teen, child­care, medic, sound, and gen­eral assem­bly area on day one, with per­son of color (POC), gen­der, and queer safe spaces soon to fol­low. #Occu­pyOak­land had the same pop­ulist rhetoric regard­ing the prob­lem­atic “homo­ge­neous” nature of “#Occupy…”, but pushed the “99%” cri­tique in a decid­edly anti-capitalist direc­tion. Cou­pled with this was a dis­tinctly anti-police and anti-state tone that also trans­lated into anti-oppression orga­ni­za­tional forms.

On Octo­ber 21 the city of Oak­land pre­sented the gen­eral assem­bly, the offi­cial orga­niz­ing body of #Occu­pyOak­land, with a let­ter of evic­tion, cit­ing “pub­lic safety.” The words of Oak­land­Com­mune, posted Octo­ber 19 on the Bay of Rage web­site, beau­ti­fully fore­shadow what tran­spired on Octo­ber 25 and 26when the police made good on their threats:

Social rebels from around Oak­land have descended upon Oscar Grant Plaza and have cre­ated a gen­uine, autonomous space free of police and unwel­com­ing to politi­cians. Whereas other occu­pa­tions have invited the police and politi­cians, or have nego­ti­ated with them, Occupy Oak­land has carved a line in the cement. That line of demar­ca­tion says: if you pass this, if you try and break up or over shadow this autonomous space, you are well aware, as observed over the last cou­ple of years, what we are capa­ble of.


The Bay Area’s his­tory of social resis­tance is well doc­u­mented, and it’s impor­tant to remem­ber the con­text behind the mil­i­tancy seen around #Occu­pyOak­land. The gen­eral events these social rebels are refer­ring to are the upris­ings and demon­stra­tions that have occurred over the past three years in the Bay Area, respond­ing to police vio­lence and “aus­ter­ity.”2 To under­stand the events of the past week, one must under­stand the atmos­phere in which these actions took place. The most rel­e­vant of these demon­stra­tions revolve around three sets of riots that fol­lowed the mur­der of Oscar Grant III on Jan­u­ary 1, 2009.3

One week after Oscar’s mur­der by police, Jan­u­ary 7, 2009, a rally at the Fruit­vale BART sta­tion tran­si­tioned into a march that even­tu­ally evolved into a riot, with run­ning street fights against police. The action resulted in 100 arrests and hun­dreds of thou­sands in polic­ing costs and prop­erty destruc­tion. Johannes Mehserle, the offi­cer who killed Grant, was arrested one week later – a day before thou­sands marched through Oak­land, serv­ing notice to the police that their actions had consequences.

A series of low and mid-intensity direct actions and marches occurred over the next 18 months until the ver­dict day, July 8, 2010, when Mehserle was osten­si­bly acquit­ted for mur­der and found guilty of invol­un­tary manslaugh­ter for shoot­ing an unarmed and prone Oscar Grant in the back. Police prepa­ra­tions, dubbed “Oper­a­tion Ver­dict,” were one of the largest local buildups of state and fed­eral police forces in recent his­tory.4 The buildup actu­ally seemed to inten­sify pop­u­lar opin­ion against the police. Oper­a­tion Ver­dict not only failed to stop another riot, where hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars worth of prop­erty was destroyed, but also failed to arrest as many demon­stra­tors as the riots of a year before. Sen­tenc­ing day, Novem­ber 5. 2010, saw an evo­lu­tion of police tac­tics that stopped the march before it mor­phed into some­thing greater. The march was ket­tled and every­one was arrested in mass, all later to be released with­out charges.

Oscar Grant’s Legacy

I would like to rec­og­nize that Oscar Grant was a real per­son; with a daugh­ter, fam­ily, and friends. I would like to rec­og­nize this because the human ele­ment can get lost when we make mar­tyrs out of casu­al­ties. The actions around his death were liv­ing lab­o­ra­to­ries for many Bay Area res­i­dents, specif­i­cally youth and polit­i­cal rad­i­cals – anar­chists, anti-authoritarians, and anti-capitalists. For some, this was the first time they had tasted tear gas or felt the sting of a rub­ber bul­let. The Jan­u­ary 7 riot was a hur­ried affair, with peo­ple quickly learn­ing how to stay together, erect makeshift bar­ri­cades, or set fires to neces­si­tate getaways.

July 8 saw the forces of the state pre­pared and still unable to stop scores of “crews” smash­ing shop win­dows.5 Com­mu­ni­ca­tion and coor­di­na­tion appeared to improve between the var­i­ous demon­stra­tion par­tic­i­pants. Masks were worn and code names used. It was appar­ent that even just a few “bat­tle hours” dra­mat­i­cally increased a collectivity’s “street” effec­tive­ness, i.e. the abil­ity to cre­ate social unrest and get away with it. Through these events, it was revealed that street demon­stra­tions, with riots in par­tic­u­lar, did have an effect on, if not pub­lic pol­icy, then at least civic discourse.

There were fail­ures as well. Media and state forces con­spired to cre­ate the con­cept of the “out­side agi­ta­tor” – the anar­chist from afar whose only pur­pose was to smash. The actions of prop­erty destruc­tion seemed to over­shadow the con­text in which they were used. The tac­tic itself was the per­fect expres­sion of the pow­er­less­ness that peo­ple felt in demand­ing, from an unjust state, some sort of “jus­tice.” It was an action of tantrum, say­ing, “in this protest zone, in this space of social rup­ture, I only have the abil­ity to destroy.” A state­ment like that, while uni­fy­ing for the par­tic­i­pants within that instant of “social rup­ture,” has lit­tle to no orga­niz­ing poten­tial. And so the move­ment went from active con­flict to his­tory. Its steam and momen­tum were lost. How­ever, with its pass­ing came a time of tac­ti­cal and strate­gic reflec­tion, the results of which were prac­ticed on the streets of Oak­land under the ban­ner of #Occupy only a week ago.


The efforts and effects of the anar­chist tra­di­tion in the Bay Area can­not be ignored, nei­ther in the case of Oscar Grant nor #Occu­pyOak­land. There are hun­dreds of anar­chists active in “street level” actions; hun­dreds more work­ing in var­i­ous cor­po­rate, non-profit, alter­na­tive, and other indus­tries that bring money, logis­ti­cal sup­port, and expe­ri­ence when needed; and hun­dreds still who are engaged in their own projects, com­mu­ni­ties, and build­ing families.

The pres­ence of such a high con­cen­tra­tion of anar­chists at rad­i­cal or poten­tially explo­sive demon­stra­tions has influ­enced how peo­ple protest. To be sure, not every per­son at a demo is an anar­chist, far from it, but many have adopted anar­chist prac­tice. Mask­ing up, wear­ing black, and work­ing in teams has cre­ated a safer and more dis­ci­plined force. The atten­dance of anar­chist street medics, pro­pa­gan­dists, and expe­ri­enced street fight­ers adds a level of infra­struc­tural and logis­ti­cal sup­port that makes actions on the streets feel sup­ported and embold­ened. Tra­di­tion­ally orga­niz­ing on egal­i­tar­ian and non-hierarchical planes, as well as a famil­iar­ity with con­sen­sus process, have facil­i­tated the cre­ation of a strong gen­eral assem­bly. The cre­ation of sol­i­dar­ity groups for those arrested at actions, and access to the legal net­work that years of Bay Area activism cre­ated has been key in move­ment progress. In both social move­ments the anar­chist pres­ence has been an impor­tant, though by far not the only, ele­ment to any success.

This is not to say that an anar­chist pres­ence in the Bay Area has not had its trou­bles in recent years. The attempt by the state to brand anar­chists as “out­siders” failed in the buildup of Oper­a­tion Ver­dict, but did high­light racial and class issues that peo­ple are still con­fronting. Fur­ther­more there was a suc­cess­ful attempt to brand anar­chists has vio­lent, although this was just one more step in a process dat­ing back hun­dreds of years to rede­fine “anar­chism” in the neg­a­tive. Still, the only con­tact that many peo­ple have had with anar­chists is the images pre­sented by the media of “black-clad hooli­gans destroy­ing things.” The insur­rec­tionary anar­chist cur­rent that is alive within the Bay has showed itself as a trend of attack, secu­rity cul­ture, and tightknit net­works. In the past it was inward focus­ing and only sur­faced in times of action, although the pres­ence of many insur­rec­tion­ists at the gen­eral assem­blies and their use of vio­lence in a form dif­fer­ent from that of prop­erty destruc­tion does give cre­dence to the idea that this trend is maturing.

Insur­rec­tion and Strike

Through­out the week, prepa­ra­tions were made within the #Occu­pyOak­land space for arrival of police enforc­ing the evic­tion notices. The plan was to con­struct and defend bar­ri­cades to keep the Oak­land Police Depart­ment (OPD) out for as long as pos­si­ble. Over the past two weeks, the police made only a hand­ful of incur­sions into the autonomous space. The response by those camped was always force­ful yet dis­ci­plined, with the dis­tilled mes­sage being: “get out!” As a result there was lit­tle worry about the ques­tion of “when” “they” would come. “They will come when they do,” one camper told me with a shrug the night before the evic­tion. On Tues­day Octo­ber 25, at 4:30 AM, hun­dreds of riot police from over a dozen dif­fer­ent agen­cies descended upon the camp. After call­ing a dis­per­sal order, police waited for five min­utes before throw­ing con­cus­sion grenades, launch­ing tear gas, fir­ing pep­per and rub­ber bul­lets, and hit­ting peo­ple with batons. The night con­cluded with around 80 arrests and some seri­ous injuries.

A call out was made for 4 PM the same day to meet at the Oak­land Library for a march to Oscar Grant (OG) Plaza. A diverse crowd of over 1500 peo­ple arrived. They marched around Oak­land, swelling in num­bers as peo­ple came into the streets. The police attacked with gas, less-than-lethal rounds, and batons. Demon­stra­tors responded with bot­tles and paint bal­loons. Police snatch squads grabbed and beat pro­tes­tors in full view of the crowd, with a hand­ful hav­ing to be taken to the emer­gency room.6 The march con­tin­ued to OG Plaza where lines of riot police stood behind metal bar­ri­cades block­ing all pos­si­ble entrances. A stand­off ensued.

At roughly 8:30 PM a crowd of 500 assem­bled at 14 and Broad­way. After repeated warn­ings the police attacked. The gas attack was the worst of the day. Injured pro­test­ers lit­tered the inter­sec­tion, includ­ing Scott Olson, two-tour Marine vet­eran, who took a tear­gas can­is­ter to the head. Oth­ers were blinded and chok­ing on the gas. Numer­ous burn vic­tims from the gas can­is­ters ran for cover; at least one of them needed plas­tic surgery on her foot. The crowd recom­posed within min­utes, play­ing cat and mouse with the police, ral­ly­ing and tak­ing the streets out­side the bar­ri­cades, flee­ing from police attacks only to form again.

The chat­ter of excite­ment and anger was easy to under­stand. Groups of peo­ple were swap­ping sto­ries from the days events. The gas was loos­ing its fear effect; these crowds were not dis­pers­ing. Teenagers were laugh­ing at each other’s snot and tear-soaked faces. Older peo­ple were talk­ing about the 1960s; “gas nowa­days seems more potent,” they said. Anar­chist and other rad­i­cal medics were help­ing gas vic­tims. By about 10 PM it was obvi­ous that even though the group had failed to retake the plaza, they had in fact won two impor­tant vic­to­ries. #Occu­pyOak­land was effec­tively in con­trol of all of down­town Oak­land save OG Plaza. Or, to put it dif­fer­ently, the police had lost the ini­tia­tive: they had lost their mobil­ity and the abil­ity to dic­tate terms out­side the range of their weapons. By con­trol­ling the plaza they abdi­cated con­trol of the rest of down­town Oak­land to the occu­piers. Declar­ing vic­tory on the ground, the hun­dreds of occu­piers began to dis­perse to ready them­selves for the next day.

The sec­ond vic­tory was not seen until the next day, when media out­lets had no choice but to broad­cast images of the night’s insur­rec­tion. Grab­bing the media’s atten­tion as well was the griev­ous injury to Scott Olson. Sur­viv­ing two tours in Iraq to come home and be shot by OPD sealed the police’s fate in the realm of pub­lic opin­ion. Not only had #Occu­pyOak­land suc­ceeded in con­trol­ling the streets, they had also won over hearts and minds. As of this writ­ing it looks as though Scott will recover and not become a mar­tyr for any cause, just another vic­tim of police brutality.

A gen­eral assem­bly was called for 6 PM on Octo­ber 26. The police were nowhere in sight, but some reported that they were mass­ing at a nearby park­ing garage. They were never to mobi­lize in any show of force. Bike patrols were pass­ing back infor­ma­tion, and a gen­eral feel­ing of safety per­me­ated the camp. The metal fence that had been set up by the city was taken down, and once again the plaza was in the hands of #Occu­pyOak­land. A pro­posal was sub­mit­ted for a gen­eral strike in Oak­land on Novem­ber 2. The pro­posal passed by 96.9%; 1484 votes for to 77 against, with 47 absten­tions, more than enough in Oakland’s mod­i­fied con­sen­sus of 90% for the pro­posal to pass.

After the vote, 2000 peo­ple attempted to march for the down­town Oak­land BART sta­tion to travel to San Fran­cisco, where it was reported that the SF occu­pa­tion was to be attacked by SFPD. The sta­tion was closed by BART offi­cials, so the 2000-strong group marched through Oak­land, stop­ping once at the OPD head­quar­ters to yell at the police, once at the Oak­land jail chant­ing in sup­port of those incar­cer­ated, and once under a free­way over­pass, to dis­cuss whether the group should cross the Oakland/Bay bridge to sup­port #Occu­pySF. The march decided to retake OG Plaza instead.

A truly star­tling real­iza­tion emerged among many of the anar­chists present at the gen­eral assem­bly. As thou­sands of peo­ple dis­cussed the gen­eral strike pro­posal, oth­ers were cir­cu­lat­ing and inter­min­gling, talk­ing about the vic­tory of the night before. A major theme of the dis­cus­sion was the fact that so much had been gained with­out resort­ing to prop­erty destruc­tion. A tacit under­stand­ing devel­oped amongst many of the rad­i­cals that no one was going to phys­i­cally stop any of the “wreck­ing crews” from smash­ing win­dows, but peo­ple under­stood that much of the pre­vi­ous night’s vic­tory could be attrib­uted to the images of police vio­lence against pro­tes­tors and the counter-violence of pro­tes­tors against the police. If there is an insur­rec­tionary imper­a­tive to attack the state, that idea seemed to gain sup­port, at least among those in the gen­eral pub­lic who watched the live stream. The march on Octo­ber 25 showed how the pro­tes­tors had done due dili­gence in their attempt to remain “peace­ful”; they responded to police vio­lence with defen­sive force, instead of the less under­stood (and less direct) tac­tic of attack­ing prop­erty. A vio­lence of low-intensity self-defense actu­ally gained #Occu­pyOak­land inter­na­tional support.

Lessons Learned

In the OG Plaza riots, the impo­tent vio­lence that resulted in Mehserle’s arrest also doomed the move­ment to remain mar­ginal. Peo­ple have many unre­solved issues with prop­erty destruc­tion. It is my pre­sump­tion that those in com­mand of the police forces on the night of the Octo­ber 25 expected to see protester-initiated prop­erty destruc­tion. Bro­ken win­dows have the power to retroac­tively ratio­nal­ize the use of police vio­lence. The destruc­tion of the camp and the attack on the march would sud­denly seem under­stand­able once the nightly news flashed images of bro­ken glass. Unfor­tu­nately for police com­mand, the rad­i­cal and urban #Occu­pyOak­lan­ders did not fall into their trap. There was no need; con­fronting OPD and Alameda Sheriff’s Depart­ment was enough.

There was a very real feel­ing that if the OPD had changed its tac­tics on the night of Octo­ber 25, and – instead of hold­ing posi­tions and gassing pro­tes­tors – went in for arrests, the police might have started a fight that they were not pre­pared to win. There were roughly equal num­ber of police and #Occu­pyOak­lan­ders, around 500 each, but the police were spread out, cov­er­ing the perime­ter of OG Plaza, while the demon­stra­tors were able to focus all their num­bers in one loca­tion. Even more impres­sive is that on the night of Octo­ber 26, with the police lack­ing the author­ity to act in response to #OccupyOakland’s retak­ing of OG Plaza, the occu­piers were able to push the police out of their autonomous zone and defend it. This cohe­sion and the strength of will it pro­duced is a direct result of the reflec­tions, lessons, and tac­ti­cal con­sid­er­a­tions that grew from the OG riots. Those ini­ti­at­ing con­fronta­tions with police did so with dis­ci­pline, and, dare I say it, style.

There has been a lot of talk about a lack of demands as a weak­ness of the #Occupy move­ments. I hear their demands loud and clear. The cri­tique of cap­i­tal­ism, oppo­si­tion to state power, clear revul­sion towards the police, rede­f­i­n­i­tion of social and power rela­tions, inde­pen­dent orga­ni­za­tion, coop­er­a­tion, and the attempt to recon­fig­ure our exist­ing world into one that is healthy for all; these are demands that are being made by those occu­py­ing. The idea from the begin­ning was to cre­ate. In acts of cre­ation power is returned. We have held our ground, defended a space that is our own. Now we are orga­niz­ing not just for our­selves but also for oth­ers. A gen­eral strike will occur. The next ques­tion is clear: what other cities will follow?

See you in the streets.

Matthew Edwards is a graduate student at UC-Santa Cruz, and an organizer in the Bay Area. A native Californian, he has been involved in radical politics since refusing deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan in 2002. Comments can be sent to anewhope AT

  • 1. This phrase appeared on a mas­sive ban­ner by a con­tin­gent of Greek anar­chists at the 2009 G-20 in Ger­many. While not explic­itly Insur­rec­tion­ist, the Greek anar­chist ten­dency of spec­tac­u­lar street bat­tles has become syn­ony­mous with the Insur­rec­tionary Anar­chist milieu that has dom­i­nated North Amer­i­can dis­course in recent years.
  • 2. For an amaz­ing col­lec­tion of news sto­ries dat­ing back over 10 years, see
  • 3. The first mur­der of 2009 was com­mit­ted by a police offi­cer against an unarmed per­son of color.
  • 4. It is also impor­tant to note that the National Guard was mobilized.
  • 5. One could also use the term “affin­ity group,” but an affin­ity group is an expressly polit­i­cal form of self orga­ni­za­tion that may not nec­es­sar­ily apply to all those who ran together that night.
  • 6. It is impor­tant to point out that the police were not the only per­pe­tra­tors of vio­lence that evening. One arrestee was punched, elbowed and pushed to the ground by an Oak­land fire depart­ment mem­ber who also made deroga­tory sex­ual and racial com­ments towards him. Later in sher­iff cus­tody at the county jail he was beaten by at least four cor­rec­tional officers.

The Italianization of Puerto Rico: a reflection on social struggles against university policies in the world's oldest colony

A former University of Puerto Rico professor briefly describes the imposition of austerity on the UPR, the struggle in response and the similarities to the Italian experience.

Dismantling a public education system in a country with strong background of political struggles requires a mitigated form of neoliberal strategy. Shutting down a whole language department, which is happening at SUNY Albany, is something you can do in certain areas of the United States. But it is a whole different story in a hot and participatory place like Italy. In a situation where active unions and a strong popular movement still have a say in public policies, one cannot launch a blitzkreig. What is needed is a longer and murky war of position. Thus various center-right governments, with the complicity of the center-left, embarked since the 1990s in a long-term project that aimed at progressively cutting off key resources from public education (while financing the private Catholic sector) so that the whole edifice would eventually crumble under the weight of its own (apparent) contradictions. At that point, they simply need to suggest that the public system is inefficient and ultimately unproductive and voilà! Who could deny the crude reality of the fact?

If the Italian peninsula displays the last stage of this drama, a similar – yet perhaps more rapid – operation has been carried out in Puerto Rico in the last three years. Between 2009 and 2010, I observed this operation as a new professor at the University of Puerto Rico. The new right-wing governor, Luis Fortuño, initiated the process I had already seen completed in Italy by frontally attacking the lower classes, the true source of his opposition. This happened through the infamous Ley 7 that fired about twenty thousand public employees in a matter of a few months. In 2010, the time was ripe to begin grinding down the public university system, one of the largest public sectors on the island and the last stronghold of a once fertile tradition of pro-independence and socialist thought. With the drastic reduction of state support for the university budget, the true revenue for higher education in Puerto Rico, the newly appointed bureaucrats (all political nominees) enforced draconian measures that crippled the institution. Tenure-track promotions were frozen, funds for research eliminated, contributions from the employer to pension funds were slashed away. After the technocrats sampled the weak response of their opponents – the professors – they hit the toughest contingents: the university maintenance workers, and students.

Employees of the university responded with a series of limited mobilizations. In the spring of 2010, students instead opted for an indefinite strike.1 The most controversial point, a matter that unified students in their fight, was a proposal to levy an additional yearly tax of eight hundred dollars for enrollment (the so-called cuota). The measure was presented by the president as the essential step to save the university from bankruptcy, but while the budget kept on shrinking in the following academic year, the university also refused to open its books and show how and where it was using the remaining funds graciously made available by the state. The reactions to these unfair and discriminatory actions were immediate. The strength of the response was especially noticed in a traditionally conservative campus like Mayagüez – the technological pole of the University of Puerto Rico. Ignoring the most politicized wing of the student body, who boycotted the referendum in fear of manipulations by the administration, the majority of students cast their ballot in favor of the strike three consecutive times.2 A felicitous case of popular outflanking of one’s own political avant-garde, the one-month-long occupation of the Mayagüez campus left a permanent memory in those who participated in it. Pickets were organized so that ongoing activities were taking place at all time during the hot days of the protest. Participants caught a glimpse the true meaning of a general strike, the moment when social norms and masked forms of oppression break down, making room for new modes of conviviality, where a gratuitous kind of social unity proliferates.

And yet, in the best Italian tradition, during that summer the university administration staged a treacherous coup de théâtre: it accepted the conditions of the Student National Negotiation Committee, declaring the rejection of its increase in tuition, only to enforce it a few weeks later when students had returned to the classroom.3 It was a perfect maneuver, which used trickery to spread a sense of impotence among the movement. Only in the main campus of San Juan did students deploy a vigorous and continuous opposition. But as the university – notwithstanding the opposition of the president, José Ramón de la Torre, who on this account later resigned – militarized the campus the movement lost that widespread mobilization that affected the whole island only few months before.4

Meanwhile, the ones who could have replaced the students, keeping alive the hope for an opposition against the destruction of higher education in Puerto Rico – the professors – remained silent. During the occupation, a minority of professors with ties to the union (APPU) actively supported the student movement. But as students were defeated, they had gained no consensus among the rest of the faculty. And yet the latter had every reason to protest, for beyond the serious impact these policies had on instruction, the faculty could also notice how former colleagues were rapidly disappearing while classrooms began to overflow. Those who had a market fled the island, but others, mostly holding temporary positions, vanished as the 2010-2011 academic year began. In the following months, the next most vulnerable component of the teachers’ workforce, international professors, was targeted as the usual procedures for working permits became almost impossible to complete. Here the most astonishing confirmation of the power of ideology took place. Although the large majority of the teachers, independently from their political affiliation, were affected in one way or the other, they kept silent and went about their business as usual.

The background of the teaching body at the University of Puerto Rico is significant. We could divide up faculty in three large sets. The first one is composed of Puerto Rican nationals, as well as Latin Americans and Europeans, who obtained a PhD. in the United States. Here is where the students enjoyed the strongest support. A consistent number of these intellectuals infused the body of theoretical knowledge accumulated in the best North American institutions with the praxis of the decades of struggle at home. Obviously, not all of them were so devoted to the cause. A consistent part of this group was also either cynically refusing any form of alliance with the students on account of some higher and more intellectual superiority, or was implicitly supporting the government. Among these individuals the new cadres of the university bureaucracy were selected; they zealously followed the prescriptions of the administration, opting out of what was left alive in the university.

The second ensemble groups US professors who were catapulted into an unfamiliar reality that remained foreign to them – although they usually operated in it quite effectively, at least from an educational point of view. Though the majority felt like they were living in another country, they usually denied that this territory is in fact a colony with specific tensions and responses in and to social fights. Moreover, accustomed as they were to the costs of education at home, these professors saw no problem in the imposition of the cuota. Overlooking at the disparity in incomes between Puerto Rico and the US, they at best adopted a classic defensive corporatist position tacitly supporting increases in tuition in the interest of the institution. This form of ideological preclusion prevented them from reading the complexity of the issues at stake, which also affected them as part of that community. They channeled their discontent into the usual reproach of Puerto Rico as just another Latin country, where corruption, bureaucracy and protest culture jam the whole social system and make it inefficient and chaotic. Only a few of them, those who knew their history and possibly lived through similar colonial dynamics in the US, avoided this ideological blockage and joined forces with the student movement.

The last group is formed by personnel trained in the former motherland: Spain. Although the Puerto Rican political elite holds the precious fruits of the Spanish academia in high regard, it recently had to realize that Spanish universities no longer produce the highly conformist generations of graduates they used to hurl out under Franco. Support came also from this new and energetic guard of professors, but it was not strong and pervasive enough to win a majority among the faculty.

To be sure, the rigid university hierarchy is very resistant to change, and has so far neutralized any reactions to the current situation. Divided by national differences and stubborn ideological occlusions, the majority of the teaching faculty is unlikely to take any collective step to protect their institution. As the administration rapidly saws away at the branch they are sitting on, along with any future safety net – the employees’ retirement plan recently came under government’s attention as well – they passively wait for a new election. Little do they know that freedom is something you gain, and that you have to defend day by day. It will not be an illuminated sovereign who will reestablishes peace and prosperity. It will be up to the students, instead, to rise again, and, if not defeat the government neo-liberal agenda, at least establish firm conditions for the new government (whatever it will be) to preserve the common good of their university.

Andrea Righi is the author of Biopolitics and Social Change in Italy: From Gramsci to Pasolini to Negri (Palgrave, 2011). He is assistant professor of Italian at Colorado College. Between 2009 and 2011 he taught at the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez.

Originally posted at Viewpoint Magazine

  • 1. The strike was supported by the Professor’s Association (APPU), the so-called Hermandad (university maintenance workers) and other unions such as Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration and the independent union of the authority of public buildings (UIAEP).
  • 2. Following the no-confrontation policy that is enforced in the university system after the bloody confrontations of the 1970s and 1980s, the University of Puerto Rico grants that if one of the major three branches (the faculty, the student body or the employees) calls for a strike, campuses shut down and classes resume only at the end of the strike.
  • 3. See Leysa Caro González, “Reafirman que la cuota va en enero próximo,” Primera Hora, December 14, 2010.
  • 4. See Cynthia López Cabán, “De la Torre exorciza sus demonios,” El Nuevo Día, May 25, 2011.

The underground history of occupation

Julie McIntyre argues that the Occupy movement, in order to sustain and increase its momentum, should put issues such as housing and the cost of utilities at the forefront and look towards the long history of ephemeral occupations by dancing collectivities for inspiration.

In the early twentieth century, hundreds of thousands of African-Americans migrated from the Deep South to Harlem. Racist white residents fled to the outer boroughs and the suburbs, and landlords began to double and triple Harlem rents, capitalizing on the limited geographic options presented to new black New Yorkers. Families crammed into single rooms, but when the first of the month neared, they still had to search for supplementary sources of income to make their rent payments. Inspired by the tradition of Southern Saturday night fish fries and “breakdowns,” Harlemites began to roll up their rugs, push the furniture aside, and print tickets to promote their “Parlor Socials,” or “Too Terrible Parties.” Hosts invited dueling pianists such as Fats Waller to turn on the heat with “cutting contests,” which sparked unrestrained dancing and revelry, the likes of which working-class blacks could never access in exclusive neighborhood joints that denied admission to black people, such as Harlem’s famed Cotton Club. The party hosts charged admission, typically a quarter, and made extra rent money from the sale of bathtub gin, corn whiskey, and soul food. The rent party scene served as an incubator for several notable jazz pianists, and it began to play a vital economic and social role in the life of Harlem’s working-class community.

Though some recent media accounts depict rent parties as a novel practice of the alternative white twenty-somethings who gentrify black communities, they began as a dynamic and autonomous response to exploitation, and warrant careful study as a traditional practice of occupation. Although the concept was not widely addressed in mainstream U.S. media prior to the seizing of Zuccotti Park and various other public and private spaces in American cities, the act of occupying has a rich and complex history. Critical participants have emphasized that the United States is occupied land, and have called for the movement to use the word with acknowledgement of its destructive history for indigenous populations. Those with a global perspective have pointed to the occupation of Tahrir Square, and similar popular movements throughout the world over the past many years. For those anchored in labor history, the term brings to mind the tradition of worker occupations of factories – as a strike technique used to prevent lockouts, and in some cases, to “recover” the factories under worker control. Finally, those who have inhabited abandoned buildings, by choice or necessity, clearly draw links between their life’s work and the habitation of major cities’ parks and plazas over the past several months.

But in spite of this attention to occupation, some vibrant and essential forms of the practice have been overlooked. It is these forms to which we should be looking as the winter months near and the movement begins to realize the need to diversify its tactics.

Throughout the summer of 2011, Philadelphia’s mayor, Michael Nutter, Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, and the local media whipped up a frenzy, threading together a diverse array of gatherings of black teenagers in predominantly white, affluent areas of the city over the past three years under the umbrella of “flash mobs,” “teen mob attacks,” and even “riots.” A closer look at the eleven incidents identified as flash mob attacks and used as a justification for the enactment of a racist curfew law, which the Philadelphia City Council recently extended across the city for the next two years, reveals that these events have little in common other than the presence of black youth transgressing the boundaries of their neighborhoods to occupy the city’s white economic center.

Several of the incidents can be completely discounted, according to the widely accepted definition of a flash mob, “a public gathering of complete strangers, organized via the Internet or mobile phone, who perform a pointless act and then disperse.” Six friends punching a man in the head on the way home from summer school hardly seems to constitute a mob of strangers engaging in a premeditated, pointless act, and anyone who has spent a day in a dysfunctional Philadelphia public school or one of its equally deranged charter counterparts could easily sympathize with the students’ sense of outrage and misdirected aggression.

Even if we set aside incidents in which a small group of people attack an individual, the collection of events identified as flash mobs is complex and ranges from exercises in auto-reduction to what many Philly teens would just describe as “breakin’ it down.” The news and gossip site Gawker investigated the conspiratorial social media exchanges that led up to a March 20, 2011 flash mob on South Street in Philadelphia and discovered links to Team Nike, a neighborhood dance crew that promotes their weekend parties through public dance performances. But while Gawker snidely concludes that Philly flash mobs and party crews such as Team Nike “might be nothing more sinister and revolutionary than a few street performances that got out of hand,” the Occupy movement can learn a lot from young people’s libidinal disruptions of the street.

While Philadelphia’s white elite spent their summer cowering indoors, bracing themselves for “roving gangs” of black teenagers who might “terrorize” their neighborhoods, the rest of the city embraced the heat and the streets, hosting outdoor parties on every block. Like the flash mob, the block party has much to teach today’s occupiers about taking back colonized spaces, and infusing them with a sense of joyful resistance. Black and Latino teenagers living in the Bronx in the early 1970s began organizing parties, inspired by Jamaican yard dances and sound system culture. They were looking for alternatives to the gang culture that had resulted in the deaths of their friends and brothers, and they were pushing back against the crushing force of “urban renewal,” a state-sponsored movement to destroy communities of people of color in major American cities. Young people organized block parties to make money for school clothes, to push their sound systems to the limits, and to demonstrate their vernacular dance expertise. They stacked up speakers in the parks and siphoned power from street lights, and they danced until daybreak.

The youthful founders of hip-hop, who literally rose from the ashes of their burnt, abandoned communities, followed in the footsteps of the Civil Rights activists who came a half generation before them by dancing in the street; but at the same time, they created a new form of occupation and defined new relationships with each other and their city by breaking away from the limited political paths presented. They created what hip-hop historian Jeff Chang describes as a celebratory “space of possibility,” and the tradition lives on in many communities of color each summer.

Party crews, groups of teens who have been loosely linked with flash mobs and described as “junior varsity street gangs,” have appropriated rent parties and block parties and applied them to the temporary occupation of vacant homes and commercial buildings. Coverage of party crew activities has been centered in Arizona and the Los Angeles metropolitan area, where swathes of vacant or foreclosed tract homes stand empty, inviting teenagers to claim the spaces as their own. The activities of young party crews echo the West Coast rave scene of the 1990s. Although many electronic music events are widely promoted and generously funded today, this widespread acceptance bloomed from a culture in which warehouses, malls, and large fields were secretly taken over, essential party infrastructure was put in place, and participants followed a trail of breadcrumbs and map clues to various locations before reaching the actual event. Once there, ravers had the chance to reinvent the spaces of everyday life, to encounter new bodies and sounds, and create strange new forms of community. In the morning, the occupation would end, the space would return to its mundane state of disuse, and the participants would begin planning their next intervention.

Dancing, in its many forms and contexts, from rent parties and block parties to raves and riots, often involves the active and intentional occupation of spaces that are highly regulated and controlled, and not intended for popping, locking, or any similar kind of social relation. Young people from marginalized communities have long politicized this everyday practice simply by insisting on doing it wherever they want, whenever they want. As the frigid weather sets in, the Occupy movement must look beyond its own borders and consult the annals of history to develop a broader repertoire of effective techniques, and the ephemeral occupation of city spaces by dancing collectivities might be just what this movement needs to increase its momentum.

As the movement consults this history, it must also recognize that there are communities who continue to occupy urban American spaces out of necessity and resilience, and that their tactical knowledge should put them in positions of leadership. I work with 18 to 21-year-old youth who have dropped out or been pushed out of traditional public schools. One of my students, a 20-year-old intermittently homeless black mother who is working towards obtaining her high school diploma and securing a job as a home health care aide, issued a demand to me after presenting her research on homelessness. “Y’all need to do something about this,” she explained. “There are so many houses in North Philly with nobody in ‘em, and then there are so many homeless people with no houses. Y’all need to fix that.” But it’s clear that we’ll only be able to fix it by organizing together.

“Turn on the heat.” The phrase refers to the heat generated by bodies dancing in spaces that we have temporarily reclaimed, but it also refers to the concrete concern of paying for heating as winter approaches. While the occupiers at City Hall in Philadelphia and around the Northeast confront cold weather this winter, many families struggle to stay warm every year because they can’t pay the heating bill. The participants of the contemporary Occupy movement need people of color, poor people, and young people to lead us into new forms of struggle. In order to sustain and expand the movement, their issues must be at the forefront; we have to understand that the cost of utilities is a major political issue. But let’s not think of people from marginalized communities as helpless victims. Instead, let’s learn from their history of resistance in everyday life.

Julie McIntyre is an educator who has worked with children and youth in schools, libraries, art organizations, and residential detention centers. She lives and works in Philadelphia, PA.

Occupy the work­place: orga­nized labor and the occu­pa­tions move­ment

The Occupy Wall Street phe­nom­e­non has achieved a stature and longevity unri­valed by recent demon­stra­tions in the United States, and has under­stand­ably struck a chord with a wide range of peo­ple dis­mayed by the bar­baric level of inequal­ity that is the defin­ing fea­ture of con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can soci­ety. As the small encamp­ment in lower Man­hat­tan has swelled and spread to cities across the coun­try, the ral­ly­ing cry of the “99%” has at least momen­tar­ily intro­duced the main­stream dis­course to a con­cep­tion of class, which is usu­ally miss­ing from the polit­i­cal the­ater show­cased on cor­po­rate news out­lets. The risks posed by an over-reliance on mass media cov­er­age notwith­stand­ing, the orga­niz­ers’ abil­ity to attract the pub­lic eye has been impres­sive and is an encour­ag­ing reminder that most peo­ple are yearn­ing for a polit­i­cal vision that res­onates with the mate­r­ial anx­i­eties they feel. As the most bru­tal eco­nomic cri­sis in over a gen­er­a­tion grinds on for the third con­sec­u­tive year, per­haps most sur­pris­ing is that it has taken so long for such an upsurge to occur.

How­ever, while an inner-core of par­tic­i­pants may remain for months, with time the size of the direct occu­pa­tions will likely wane and media atten­tion will slowly grav­i­tate to more prof­itable ven­tures. The trav­esty that unfolded in Wis­con­sin over the past ten months should serve as a painful reminder of that inevitabil­ity. And though the moment’s polit­i­cal salience may briefly per­sist, it will be fleet­ing unless anchored in some­thing more durable than a demon­stra­tion, throw­ing into sharp relief the need for a level of orga­ni­za­tion that can sus­tain and expand upon the Occupy energy. The slo­gan of the “99%” may have tremen­dous rhetor­i­cal cur­rency, but his­tory shows that there is no short­cut to the long-term, painstak­ing task of gen­er­at­ing a real move­ment: meet­ing peo­ple where they are, build­ing trust and strug­gling with them over the issues they’re wor­ried about, con­nect­ing those anx­i­eties to a coher­ent polit­i­cal pro­gram, and con­sol­i­dat­ing those efforts into a force to be reck­oned with. While many of the Occupy work­ing groups may be begin­ning this project, most of the mil­lions who con­sti­tute the “99%” have been unable or unwill­ing to par­tic­i­pate and need to be reached by some other means. OWS can be an oppor­tu­nity to start this process, but it is not a spark that will spread on its own.

Here the civil rights move­ment, which is often invoked in rela­tion to OWS, is instruc­tive. Unmen­tioned in most grade school lore on the sub­ject, the strug­gle for racial jus­tice grew out of a deeply rooted orga­ni­za­tional appa­ra­tus that had been con­structed through decades of dili­gent labor and com­mu­nity orga­niz­ing. Rosa Parks was a sea­soned activist who had been trained at the leg­endary left­ist orga­niz­ing acad­emy, the High­lander Folk School, and Mar­tin Luther King Jr. owes his begin­nings to vet­eran trade union­ists who recruited him. No mir­a­cles ini­ti­ated this his­toric fight; it was planned and exe­cuted by indi­vid­u­als and their orga­ni­za­tions who through years of strug­gle in pur­suit of con­crete demands had cul­ti­vated pow­er­ful bases of sup­port in spe­cific communities.

Only through fol­low­ing this long-term orga­niz­ing approach can OWS begin to har­ness the anger and energy it has made vis­i­ble and trans­late it in into a dynamic, class-conscious move­ment. And only the labor move­ment has the expe­ri­ence and orga­ni­za­tional capac­ity to take on the chal­lenge. Weak­ened though they may be, and with all the lim­i­ta­tions of their seden­tary bureau­cra­cies, unions are still the most demo­c­ra­tic mem­ber­ship orga­ni­za­tions in the United States, with estab­lished activists and infra­struc­tures in cities across the coun­try that pos­sess the prac­ti­cal skills and resources nec­es­sary to carry on the fight, par­tic­u­larly when it becomes less vis­i­bly excit­ing. Though union den­sity has pre­cip­i­tously declined in recent decades, still today mil­lions of peo­ple have expe­ri­enced real improve­ments in their lives through work­place strug­gles led by exist­ing labor unions, a much larger and more rep­re­sen­ta­tive cross-section of the pop­u­la­tion than is likely to turn out at any “Occupy” event.

It’s impor­tant to remem­ber that his­tor­i­cally, orga­nized labor has been the most effec­tive vehi­cle for chal­leng­ing eco­nomic inequal­ity; it is an empir­i­cal real­ity that when unions are weak wealth con­cen­trates in the hands of the few, and when they’re strong it is at least a bit more evenly dis­trib­uted. A recent study demon­strated that between 1973 and 2007 pri­vate sec­tor union­iza­tion decreased by over 75% and inequal­ity increased by 40%. In this spirit, OWS might best be con­sid­ered as an oppor­tu­nity to push the main­stream labor move­ment toward a more aggres­sive orga­niz­ing strat­egy and, hope­fully, an alter­na­tive polit­i­cal vision. Rank-and-file mil­i­tants in a vari­ety of unions have engaged in this gru­el­ing project for decades, with some suc­cesses and many set­backs, and per­haps the most encour­ag­ing fea­ture of OWS is the space it might cre­ate for more work of this sort. How­ever, an oppor­tu­nity is only as valu­able as the con­crete steps taken to cap­i­tal­ize on it, and unless the strate­gic think­ing needed to ori­ent and ini­ti­ate that process begins in earnest, this wave of activism will likely join the recent anti-globalization and immi­grants’ rights demon­stra­tions in the annals of mod­ern left his­tory while neolib­er­al­ism con­tin­ues its plun­der unscathed.

A num­ber of unions have taken up the OWS man­tle and some inspir­ing labor-community part­ner­ships have grown out of it. The New York City Trans­port Work­ers Union (TWU) Local 100 was an early sup­porter, and even went to court to pre­vent police from order­ing union dri­vers to bus arrested demon­stra­tors to jail. The National Nurses United (NNU), one of the most pro­gres­sive and mil­i­tant unions, has been present at occu­pa­tions around the coun­try admin­is­ter­ing flu shots and pro­vid­ing basic med­ical assis­tance. And the coura­geous art han­dlers of Team­sters Local 814 who have been locked-out of Sotheby’s auc­tion house – a quin­tes­sen­tial sym­bol of the “1%” – have cul­ti­vated a remark­able level of sol­i­dar­ity with the New York occu­pa­tion, turn­ing out bus loads to their ral­lies and gain­ing inter­na­tional atten­tion in the process. These three exam­ples rep­re­sent ele­ments of the most dynamic and forward-looking wing of an oth­er­wise rather glacial labor estab­lish­ment that always seems to be on the defen­sive. The best chance OWS has to become the kind of force nec­es­sary to win a more just soci­ety lies in fol­low­ing their lead.

Samir Sonti is a graduate student at UC Santa Barbara. He has worked for SEIU.

Deviations, part 1: the Castoriadis-Pannekoek exchange

Asad Haider and Salar Mohandesi's introduction to a series of letters between Anton Pannekoek and Cornelius Castoriadis.

In early 1953 Cajo Bren­del, a Dutch coun­cil com­mu­nist affil­i­ated with a group known as Spar­ta­cus, vis­ited the mem­bers of Social­isme ou Bar­barie (Social­ism or Bar­barism) in Paris. As mem­bers of a mil­i­tant orga­ni­za­tion harshly mar­gin­al­ized by the most blis­ter­ing win­ters of the cold war, Cor­nelius Cas­to­ri­adis, Claude Lefort, and their com­rades under­stand­ably hoped to make con­tact with other com­mu­nist ten­den­cies crit­i­cal of the offi­cial cur­rents. Delighted to dis­cover that Anton Pan­nekoek, that vet­eran com­mu­nist whose dis­sent­ing tracts had drawn the ire of none other than Lenin him­self, was quite close to Spar­ta­cus, the group decided to sup­ply Bren­del with a copy of every issue of the jour­nal, eleven in all, to pass along to the revered the­o­rist. Pan­nekoek, who read them with excite­ment, wrote later to Bren­del the French group showed much promise despite its ques­tion­able posi­tion on the party ques­tion. On Novem­ber 8, 1953, he wrote a let­ter to Cas­to­ri­adis, which was later pub­lished, along with a response, in num­ber 14 (April-June 1954) of the journal.

Span­ning an entire gen­er­a­tion, a lin­guis­tic divide, and a geo­graph­i­cal shift, the epis­to­lary encounter between Pan­nekoek and Cas­to­ri­adis in many ways marks the inter­nal trans­for­ma­tion of the ultra-left. But the ultra-left, far from a his­tor­i­cal relic, is mak­ing head­lines again. The appear­ance of a mys­te­ri­ous lit­tle book called The Com­ing Insur­rec­tion on book­shelves across the coun­try in 2009 piqued an already grow­ing inter­est. Not only did Michael Moore name the “left­ist call-to-arms man­i­festo” as his most recent read in an inter­view with the Hol­ly­wood Reporter, the tract even climbed to the top of Ama­zon best­seller list after Glenn Beck told Fox News view­ers it was “the most evil book I’ve read in a long, long time.” But this pam­phlet was only, if we may lapse into pop soci­ol­ogy, the tip­ping point for a resur­gence of for­got­ten ten­den­cies, obscure jour­nals, and pre­vi­ously unheard of milieus, which are sud­denly being dis­cussed every­where from aca­d­e­mic con­fer­ences to national broad­cast­ing chan­nels. It’s likely that the “Invis­i­ble Com­mit­tee” that wrote The Com­ing Insur­rec­tion grew out of Tiqqun, a French group that offi­cially dis­banded in 2001 after releas­ing two issues of its epony­mous jour­nal. Tiqqun itself has been redis­cov­ered after the infa­mous Tarnac affair in 2008, when for­mer mem­bers of the group were arrested for sab­o­tag­ing train lines.

The appear­ance of new works and trans­la­tions by groups like Tiqqun, includ­ing Tro­ploin, Théorie Com­mu­niste, Aufheben, and Echanges et Mou­ve­ment, reflect the close engage­ment of the ultra-left with the ten­den­cies and sen­si­bil­i­ties of con­tem­po­rary activist move­ments. An arti­cle in The Chron­i­cle of Higher Edu­ca­tion traced the “intel­lec­tual roots” of Occupy Wall Street to the anar­chist David Grae­ber, who invoked the lan­guage of the ultra-left in his descrip­tion of the polit­i­cal impor­tance of the gen­eral assem­bly: “One of the things that rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies have learned over the course of the 20th cen­tury is that the idea of the ends jus­ti­fy­ing the means is deeply prob­lem­atic… You can’t cre­ate a just soci­ety through vio­lence, or free­dom through a tight rev­o­lu­tion­ary cadre. You can’t estab­lish a big state and hope it will go away. The means and ends have to be the same.“1

But this par­a­digm, though it is thor­oughly grounded in the present, nev­er­the­less has deep roots in the past. All of the jour­nals cir­cu­lat­ing today would deny such a strong link to their own ances­tors; they admit the influ­ence of the ultra-left, but none describe them­selves as ultra-leftists. Most believe they have made a clean break with this his­tory, and usu­ally only employ the term as an epi­thet for those still thought to be trapped in anti­quated pol­i­tics. They are on poor terms with each other, and almost cer­tainly would not con­sider them­selves to be part of the same con­stel­la­tion of theories.

Although they have their dis­agree­ments, this dis­sen­sion only con­ceals a shared unity that unsur­pris­ingly orig­i­nates from the com­mon her­itage they all seem intent on repress­ing. Many of the defin­ing prin­ci­ples of the his­tor­i­cal ultra-left per­sist, and their pecu­liar com­bi­na­tion of blind­ness and insight bears the marks of their prog­en­i­tors. Their shared empha­sis on pro­le­tar­ian self-activity, their will­ing­ness to delib­er­ately con­flate means and ends, their ten­dency to elide the moment of strat­egy, their demand for the abo­li­tion of a tran­si­tion period, and their ten­dency towards fatal­ism, are all age-old his­tor­i­cal debates. And just as before, the ultra-left ten­den­cies of con­tem­po­rary move­ments have pro­voked a back­lash from those who call for a return to the fun­da­men­tals of polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tion, usu­ally rep­re­sented by the fig­ure of “the party.”

What is now com­monly called the ultra-left emerged as an oppo­si­tional ten­dency within the inter­na­tional com­mu­nist move­ment in the early nineteen-twenties. Though crit­i­cal of the right, per­son­i­fied by Eduard Bern­stein, the cen­ter, rep­re­sented by Karl Kaut­sky, and even the left, dom­i­nated by Lenin, its mem­bers never orga­nized them­selves into a coher­ent cur­rent: its the­o­rists were spread across sev­eral coun­tries, dis­agreed sharply with one another, and were only grouped together when Lenin crit­i­cized them all in his infa­mous pam­phlet, Left-Wing Com­mu­nism: An Infan­tile Dis­or­der. Some, like Amadeo Bor­diga, fetishized the van­guard party; oth­ers, like Otto Rühle, saw work­ers’ coun­cils as the only organ of the rev­o­lu­tion­ary process; still oth­ers like Paul Mattick turned to cri­sis the­ory. But what­ever their dif­fer­ences, their shared refusal to par­tic­i­pate in par­lia­men­tary elec­tions, work with trade unions, or make any com­pro­mises with any kind of reformism, unex­pect­edly brought them all together. It was this under­ly­ing stub­born­ness that allowed Lenin to trans­form them into a sin­gle tendency.

It should be remem­bered, how­ever, that the ultra-left, despite what it would later become, was actu­ally not a minor­ity ten­dency in its hey­day. Its spokes­men were all major fig­ures in the his­tory of Euro­pean com­mu­nism: Bor­diga was the first gen­eral sec­re­tary of the Ital­ian Com­mu­nist Party (PCI), Sylvia Pankhurst was one of the most respected com­mu­nists in Eng­land, and Pan­nekoek was cau­tiously praised in Lenin’s State and Rev­o­lu­tion as a bul­wark against reformism. Even more impor­tantly, the ultra-leftists had such a sig­nif­i­cant fol­low­ing in the early twen­ties that they could right­fully claim to be the dom­i­nant com­mu­nist ten­dency of the time. When the PCI was finally formed in Jan­u­ary 1921, it was Bor­diga who com­manded the major­ity. And when the Ger­man Com­mu­nist Party (KPD) split in 1920, the vast major­ity fol­lowed the ultra-leftists in form­ing the Com­mu­nist Work­ers’ Party of Ger­many (KAPD). The Com­mu­nist Party, ini­tially led by Rosa Lux­em­burg and Karl Liebknecht, had itself bro­ken from reformist groups like the Social Demo­c­ra­tic Party (SPD) at the end of Decem­ber 1918. But the KPD, despite its rev­o­lu­tion­ary stance, was pulled in sev­eral direc­tions. Dis­agree­ments over the unions, par­lia­ment, and com­pro­mise in gen­eral, ulti­mately led to another break. It’s been sug­gested, how­ever, that the new party, the KAPD, “embraced almost the entire mem­ber­ship of the for­mer KPD.”2 The mar­gin­al­iza­tion of the ultra-left – Bor­diga, for exam­ple, offi­cially lost con­trol of his party to Gram­sci in 1926 – only set in after the defeat of the rev­o­lu­tions to which they were almost organ­i­cally connected.

With their rev­o­lu­tions crushed, and now harassed by cap­i­tal on the one side and Com­intern on the other, the ten­dency itself began to eat itself apart from within as ultra-leftists fought each other over the most triv­ial mat­ters, and by the thir­ties this once vibrant milieu was reduced to a jum­ble of sequestered groups. The onset of the Cold War proved to be an espe­cially deci­sive time for the ultra-left: mar­gin­al­ized more than ever, jour­nals lost much of their already lim­ited read­er­ship, orga­ni­za­tions dis­in­te­grated, and iso­lated groups ossi­fied into myopic sects. It was in this inhos­pitable con­text that two of the most promi­nent the­o­rists of the ten­dency made contact.

Cas­to­ri­adis Meets Pannekoek

The inter­sec­tion of two lives rep­re­sents the col­li­sion of two worlds. First and fore­most, there is the gen­er­a­tional divide: Anton Pan­nekoek was born in 1873, after the defeat of the Paris Com­mune, and Cor­nelius Cas­to­ri­adis in 1922, just as the Ger­man Rev­o­lu­tion, in which Pan­nekoek had played a part, was painfully com­ing to accept its own defeat. Then there is the implicit geo­graphic shift: Pan­nekoek, born in the Nether­lands, played a con­sti­tu­tive role in the devel­op­ment of cen­tral Euro­pean com­mu­nism, while Cas­to­ri­adis, Greek by birth, made per­haps the most sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tion to the emerg­ing French scene that was made famous in May 1968. Their exchange shows the cen­ter of grav­ity of the com­mu­nist move­ment mov­ing from Ger­many back to France, while French the­ory made increas­ing ref­er­ence to Ger­man history.

And last, the pecu­liar con­ver­gence of two dis­tinct forms of ultra-leftism: one that defined itself against Lenin and another that actu­ally made a con­sti­tu­tive detour through him. Though always aware of his great achieve­ments, most of the his­tor­i­cal ultra-left, from Sylvia Pankhurst to Her­man Gorter, even­tu­ally grew quite crit­i­cal of the Bol­she­vik leader’s the­o­ret­i­cal doc­trines. Pan­nekoek stands as per­haps the great­est exam­ple of a ten­dency that crit­i­cized all that Lenin rep­re­sented, from his philo­soph­i­cal posi­tions to his polit­i­cal prac­tice. Shortly after the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion, Pan­nekoek devoted much of his writ­ing to refut­ing the uni­ver­sal applic­a­bil­ity of Bol­she­vik tac­tics. His famous book Work­ers’ Coun­cils sought to defin­i­tively dis­credit the the­ory of the van­guard party by demon­strat­ing the his­tor­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance of the coun­cils as the only real form of pro­le­tar­ian eman­ci­pa­tion. Against both reformists and Lenin­ists, he claimed that “the new ori­en­ta­tion of social­ism is self-direction of pro­duc­tion, self-direction of the class-struggle, by means of work­ers’ coun­cils.”3

Cas­to­ri­adis, in con­trast to Pan­nekoek, had fought in the Greek resis­tance as a Com­mu­nist, later join­ing the Trot­sky­ists in France. Beyond the many pos­i­tive ref­er­ences to Lenin in his writ­ings of the time, it’s quite clear from his the­o­ret­i­cal works and his prac­ti­cal posi­tions that Lenin had left an indeli­ble stamp on him. His ultra-leftism is an unusual case: he entered it through Trot­sky­ism, but broke with that tra­di­tion when he argued that “the con­tent of social­ism” went beyond the abo­li­tion of pri­vate prop­erty to “work­ers’ man­age­ment of soci­ety,” down to the orga­ni­za­tion of work on the shop floor – a his­tor­i­cal task whose terms were estab­lished by the expan­sion and inte­gra­tion of man­age­r­ial labor in post­war cap­i­tal­ism.4 He spent a good decade furi­ously pro­duc­ing a body of work so impor­tant that it would effec­tively define the far left in France, lead­ing Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the Euro­pean Green par­lia­men­tar­ian who was the most vis­i­ble stu­dent rev­o­lu­tion­ary of May 1968, to frankly admit in Obso­lete Com­mu­nism: The Left-Wing Alter­na­tive that he had pla­gia­rized Castoriadis’s work. But then Cas­to­ri­adis turned his pen against Marx­ism him­self; hav­ing already grounded self-management in the cri­tique of alien­ation in the young Marx, he con­cluded that the late Marx of Cap­i­tal had capit­u­lated com­pletely to bour­geois sci­en­tism, and brazenly declared that the only way to remain rev­o­lu­tion­ary was to break from Marxism.

The let­ters of these fig­ures not only give us a glimpse into the his­tory of the ultra-left, they also speak to our own time. True, our con­junc­ture is rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent: we no longer face the real­i­ties of the Cold War, the role of the Soviet Union, the influ­ence of the Com­mu­nist Par­ties, or the uncer­tain­ties of decol­o­niza­tion. But there are nev­er­the­less ways in which the present resem­bles the con­junc­ture in which these let­ters were writ­ten. We are begin­ning to glimpse the end of a long period of pro­le­tar­ian defeat, just as Cas­to­ri­adis and Pan­nekoek were. They had the courage and insight to dis­cuss the pos­si­bil­i­ties of rev­o­lu­tion, reaf­firm the value of autonomous activ­ity, and empha­size the role of the pro­le­tariat at a time when intel­lec­tu­als of the left and right were loudly declar­ing the inte­gra­tion of the work­ing class, the defin­i­tive sta­bi­liza­tion of cap­i­tal, and the impos­si­bil­ity of rev­o­lu­tion­ary rupture.

But Pan­nekoek and Cas­to­ri­adis were vin­di­cated a few years after their exchange. Hun­gary and Poland erupted in rev­o­lu­tion. Coun­cils dot­ted the social ter­rain, autonomous activ­ity was the order of the day, and sud­denly cap­i­tal did not seem so secure. If their mode of thought was in align­ment with the poten­tial and the lim­its of these nascent strug­gles, it seems that today’s ultra-left has a sim­i­lar align­ment with the erup­tions of Greece, Spain, France, and England.

Read­ing through these let­ters makes it clear that what­ever their agree­ments – and there were many – Pan­nekoek and Cas­to­ri­adis dif­fered on the very two ques­tions that had defined the his­tor­i­cal ultra-left from the begin­ning: the nature of the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion and the party form. Though both clearly parted ways with the offi­cial com­mu­nist move­ment, their dif­fer­ences were nev­er­the­less irreconcilable.

Although the exchange cir­cu­lated around what may appear to be a pedan­tic rehash­ing of these two seem­ingly irrel­e­vant top­ics, both were using them to think through the key con­cepts of polit­i­cal prac­tice. Beneath Pannekoek’s ques­tion­ing of the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion or Castoriadis’s con­sid­er­a­tion of the pos­si­ble degen­er­a­tion of the party lies a shared attempt to ascer­tain the con­tent of the com­mu­nism of their time. With suf­fi­cient his­tor­i­cal dis­tance from every­thing that tran­spired between the storm­ing of the Win­ter Palace and the fall of the Berlin Wall, we have begun to ask how the con­tent of com­mu­nism can be reimag­ined beyond sec­tar­ian cliches. For our moment, these let­ters are remark­ably con­tem­po­rary. To grasp their rel­e­vance, we will have to trace the geneal­ogy of these two major questions.

The Russ­ian Revolution

Every com­mu­nist cur­rent that sought to pose an alter­na­tive to the prac­tices, poli­cies, and pro­grams of the Soviet Union first had to explain what kind of soci­ety it really was – an attempt to under­stand the mean­ing of com­mu­nism as well as cap­i­tal­ism. The dom­i­nant expla­na­tions in the West for the nature of the USSR were vari­ants of the Trot­sky­ist analy­sis. How­ever, Lenin had acknowl­edged, before Stalin’s ascent, that the rev­o­lu­tion­ary gov­ern­ment was not only a pro­le­tar­ian dic­ta­tor­ship, but either a “work­ers’ and peas­ants’ state” or a “work­ers’ state with bureau­cratic dis­tor­tions.”5 Dur­ing the years of “War Com­mu­nism,” from 1918 to 1921, when req­ui­si­tion of peas­ant land and nation­al­iza­tion of indus­try pro­ceeded along­side the intro­duc­tion of Tay­lorism and one-man man­age­ment in fac­to­ries, it was actu­ally Trot­sky who had called for exten­sion of mil­i­ta­riza­tion to the total con­trol of trade unions by the state, as an appa­ra­tus of indus­trial man­age­ment. Lenin insisted that more inde­pen­dent par­tic­i­pa­tion would train work­ers to ulti­mately take on the task of man­age­ment them­selves, argu­ing against Trot­sky that the “sum and sub­stance of his pol­icy is bureau­cratic harass­ment of the trade unions.“6

Begin­ning in 1921 with the “New Eco­nomic Pol­icy” (NEP), Lenin argued for the replace­ment of the state’s “surplus-grain appro­pri­a­tion” with a mod­er­ate “tax in kind,” which would per­mit peas­ant pro­duc­ers to sell the remain­der of their sur­plus in order to obtain man­u­fac­tured goods at a more equi­table rate. In spite of the rein­tro­duc­tion of mar­ket rela­tions this rep­re­sented, it was a tran­si­tion to “reg­u­lar social­ist exchange of prod­ucts,” and indeed an anti-bureaucratic mea­sure, intended to avoid fur­ther devel­op­ment of the state bureau­cracy that had grown in com­pen­sa­tion for “the atom­ised and scat­tered state of the small pro­ducer with his poverty, illit­er­acy, lack of cul­ture, the absence of roads and exchange between agri­cul­ture and indus­try.” If NEP rep­re­sented a move­ment towards the free mar­ket and cap­i­tal­ist rela­tions, this was a nec­es­sary step, since it per­mit­ted the peas­antry to develop social power instead of sub­ju­gat­ing it to the inter­ests of the urban and indus­trial pro­le­tariat.7

Lenin had already argued as early as 1918, in a polemic against Russ­ian left com­mu­nists, that “state cap­i­tal­ism would be a step for­ward,” even “a sure guar­an­tee that within a year social­ism will have gained a per­ma­nently firm hold.” Since the tran­si­tion period con­tained ele­ments of dif­fer­ent eco­nomic cat­e­gories, the direc­tion of large enter­prises by the state would be a “pro­le­tar­ian weapon,” since “it is not state cap­i­tal­ism that is at war with social­ism, but the petty bour­geoisie plus pri­vate cap­i­tal­ism fight­ing together against both state cap­i­tal­ism and social­ism.”8 Now, three years later, he reit­er­ated that the fact that the pro­le­tariat, rep­re­sented by the party, held power in the state, was the pri­mary defense against the “restora­tion of cap­i­tal­ism.”9 Recall­ing his ear­lier inter­ven­tion on behalf of inde­pen­dent trade unions, Lenin empha­sized that in a social­ist tran­si­tion there would still be classes, and there­fore “the class strug­gle is inevitable” – the pro­le­tariat would have to use unions to com­bat bureau­cracy and “sur­vivals of the old cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem” in the gov­ern­ment.10 The com­bi­na­tion of an anti-bureaucratic atti­tude and the con­tin­ued belief in shared work­ers’ and peas­ants’ power coex­isted with the some­what con­tra­dic­tory project of indus­tri­al­iz­ing agri­cul­ture, to develop the pro­duc­tive forces to the level of the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion, and NEP man­i­fested these contradictions.

After Lenin’s death, the con­tin­u­a­tion of NEP was advo­cated by both Joseph Stalin and Niko­lai Bukharin, who were part of a hege­monic bloc within the Com­mu­nist Party. Bukharin, in spite of his ear­lier left­ist enthu­si­asm for imme­di­ate nation­al­iza­tion and indus­tri­al­iza­tion, came to believe in the grad­ual enrich­ment of the peas­ants, which would lead to their iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with the com­mu­nist project. This found sup­port in Stalin’s insis­tence on con­tin­u­ing Lenin’s line on the “work­ers’ and peas­ants’ gov­ern­ment,” defend­ing “the worker-peasant alliance as a car­di­nal means of achiev­ing the social­ist class objec­tives of the pro­le­tar­ian dic­ta­tor­ship in our peas­ant coun­try.“11

How­ever, the enthu­si­asm for NEP was by no means uni­ver­sal; the Left Oppo­si­tion, which included Trot­sky and Bukharin’s for­mer left­ist coau­thor Yvgeni Pre­o­brazhen­sky, had warned that agri­cul­tural mar­ket rela­tions would per­mit the devel­op­ment of a nascent cap­i­tal­ist class in the coun­try­side. Their fears were con­firmed in the rise of the kulaks, the land­hold­ing peas­ants who hired waged labor­ers and hoarded grain to coun­ter­act the drop in agri­cul­tural prices. In the 1927 plat­form of the left, Trot­sky described a grow­ing “class dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion among the peas­ants,” the slave-like exploita­tion of farmhands, and a gap between indus­trial and agri­cul­tural prices that threat­ened to sever the “alliance between town and coun­try.”12

The next year Stalin went to Siberia, to address party mem­bers who he accused not only of coop­er­at­ing with the kulaks, but also liv­ing in their homes. He con­trasted “social­ist con­struc­tion in the coun­try­side, in agri­cul­ture” with the dan­ger of cap­i­tal­ist restora­tion.13 Later that year, after return­ing to Moscow, he would rage in party plenums against the “Right devi­a­tion” which made restora­tion pos­si­ble, since in spite of the dic­ta­tor­ship of the pro­le­tariat, the roots of cap­i­tal­ism, of cap­i­tal and cap­i­tal­ists, were still embed­ded “in com­mod­ity pro­duc­tion, in small pro­duc­tion in the towns and, espe­cially, the coun­try­side.”14 The threat of regen­er­at­ing cap­i­tal­ism resulted from the con­tra­dic­tion between two foun­da­tions of pro­duc­tion in the USSR: “the foun­da­tion of the most large-scale and united social­ist indus­try and the foun­da­tion of the most scat­tered and back­ward, small com­mod­ity econ­omy of the peas­ants.” To suc­ceed, social­ist con­struc­tion would have to place “agri­cul­ture on a new tech­ni­cal basis, the basis of large-scale pro­duc­tion, and bring it up to the level of social­ist indus­try.”15 With the end of NEP and the elab­o­ra­tion of the first Five Year Plan, Stalin put into place an eco­nomic pro­gram based on the col­lec­tiviza­tion of peas­ant land, aim­ing at the rapid indus­tri­al­iza­tion of the countryside.

Writ­ing in The Rev­o­lu­tion Betrayed, Trot­sky stepped into the mid­dle of these “zig-zags” in pol­icy by paint­ing a pic­ture of the USSR as a “degen­er­ated work­ers’ state.” The work­ers had taken state power, but it had been usurped by the Stal­in­ist bureau­cracy. The dif­fi­culty of this view is that the his­tory of the bureau­cracy in the USSR could by no means be lim­ited to Stalin – Trot­sky had him­self con­tributed to bureau­cra­ti­za­tion. Fur­ther­more, Lenin had already described a close rela­tion­ship between bureau­cra­ti­za­tion and eco­nomic devel­op­ment. “Social­ism has demon­strated its right to vic­tory,” Trot­sky famously wrote in a cel­e­bra­tion of Russia’s pro­duc­tive forces, “in the lan­guage of steel, cement and elec­tric­ity”; and he made a point of not­ing that the blame for Stalin’s ter­ror “lies not upon col­lec­tiviza­tion, but upon the blind, vio­lent, gam­bling meth­ods with which it was car­ried through.”16 But next to Lenin’s acknowl­edge­ment that the reor­ga­ni­za­tion of peas­ant agri­cul­ture by indus­trial state cap­i­tal­ism forced a com­plex bureau­cratic struc­ture, the com­pat­i­bil­ity of these two posi­tions seems unclear.

An unortho­dox Trot­sky­ist shoe sales­man named Bruno Rizzi began to cir­cu­late an analy­sis, cul­mi­nat­ing in 1939’s The Bureau­cra­ti­za­tion of the World, which claimed that if the bureau­cracy had indeed usurped state power, it was impos­si­ble to retain the idea of a “work­ers’ state,” degen­er­ated or oth­er­wise. The orig­i­nal, some­what ultra-left con­cept he advanced was “bureau­cratic col­lec­tivism,” which led Trot­sky to con­clude that Rizzi had “obvi­ously lost his bal­ance.”17 Accord­ing to this the­ory, the man­age­r­ial bureau­cracy was a rul­ing class that extracted a sur­plus for its own enrich­ment, and orches­trated through a total­i­tar­ian state a highly devel­oped monop­oly cap­i­tal­ism indis­tin­guish­able from fas­cism and the New Deal.

Cas­to­ri­adis may have had Rizzi’s account in mind when he under­scored the pri­mary impor­tance of the bureau­cracy as rul­ing class, but he rejected the ear­lier empha­sis on col­lec­tivism. After all, far from a term of Marx­ist the­ory, “col­lec­tivism” is a quasi-ethical term of soci­o­log­i­cal descrip­tion – it says noth­ing about the polit­i­cal econ­omy of the USSR. For Cas­to­ri­adis, cap­i­tal­ism as a sys­tem was defined by exploita­tion – the extrac­tion of a sur­plus from labor by a non-producing class who dom­i­nated the pro­duc­tion process – and not by mar­ket rela­tions, which were essen­tially epiphe­nom­ena. The fact that the rul­ing class of the USSR oper­ated col­lec­tively, rather than com­pet­i­tively, was irrel­e­vant – the soci­ety could only be described as bureau­cratic capitalism.

When Pan­nekoek first wrote to Cas­to­ri­adis, he reminded his younger com­rade that the the­ory of a non-socialist mode of pro­duc­tion in the Soviet Union was by no means a devel­op­ment inter­nal to Trot­sky­ism. In fact, the left com­mu­nists had made the case, arguably even before the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion, that the poli­cies of Lenin and Trot­sky were not con­sis­tent with the strug­gle for a work­ers’ state and its accom­pa­ny­ing social­ist mode of pro­duc­tion. This was a the­ory of “state cap­i­tal­ism,” dis­tinctly dif­fer­ent from the later Trot­sky­ist ver­sion made famous by Tony Cliff. It held that the dis­place­ment of the “sovi­ets” or “work­ers’ coun­cils” that defined the explo­sions of 1905 and 1917 by the rule of the party rep­re­sented the defeat of social­ism. In this regard they antic­i­pated the cri­tique of Social­isme ou Bar­barie.

How­ever, there was a pri­mary dif­fer­ence. Con­vinced of the cap­i­tal­ist nature of the Soviet Union, Pan­nekoek went on to denounce root and branch the very rev­o­lu­tion that brought it into being. He called the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion “the last bour­geois rev­o­lu­tion, though car­ried out by the work­ing class,” in the tra­di­tion of the Eng­lish Rev­o­lu­tion of 1647 and the French Rev­o­lu­tion in 1789. By “bour­geois rev­o­lu­tion,” he meant specif­i­cally “a rev­o­lu­tion that destroys feu­dal­ism and opens the way to indus­tri­al­iza­tion.” He pointed out that even the his­toric bour­geois rev­o­lu­tions had been enabled by the revolt of “the arti­sans, the peas­ants and the work­ers,” but since “work­ing class was not yet mature enough to gov­ern itself,” a “minor­ity of func­tionar­ies and politi­cians” emerged as the dom­i­nant class. This was inevitable in Rus­sia, “the labor­ing class being a small minor­ity among the peas­ant population.”

The para­dox­i­cal ele­ment of this ultra-left the­ory, ulti­mately shared by Rühle and Gorter, was that it swung back around to the par­a­digm of reformism. Karl Kaut­sky vehe­mently denounced the Bol­she­viks, before Stalin’s dom­i­nance and in oppo­si­tion to Trot­sky, for their notion that a social­ist rev­o­lu­tion was pos­si­ble in a Rus­sia that had not yet passed through the cap­i­tal­ist stage of his­tory. As early as 1919, Kaut­sky wrote that the objec­tive con­di­tions in Rus­sia “were not ripe for the abo­li­tion of cap­i­tal­ism,” and that the “imma­tu­rity of the exist­ing rela­tions” led the Bol­she­vik rev­o­lu­tion to pro­duce “the most oppres­sive of all forms of despo­tism that Rus­sia has ever had.”18

Castoriadis’s response was twofold. He first called atten­tion to the log­i­cal prob­lem behind Pannekoek’s purism: the ulti­mate fate of the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion does not alter the fact that within it, the pro­le­tariat strug­gled for its own inter­ests, even insti­tut­ing work­ers’ self-management in the fac­to­ries, rather than sub­sum­ing its strug­gle into the pro­gram of the bour­geoisie. The fact that these inde­pen­dent demands were artic­u­lated by work­ers in Rus­sia “made the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion for­ever a pro­le­tar­ian rev­o­lu­tion.” His sec­ond point was that the con­cept of the bour­geois rev­o­lu­tion ignored a fun­da­men­tal devel­op­ment in the mode of pro­duc­tion of the 20th cen­tury: it was the bureau­cracy, rather than the bour­geoisie, which ruled in Rus­sia, and it was this same new class that was emerg­ing as a dom­i­nat­ing force through­out the world, includ­ing the cap­i­tal­ist world.

Through­out the whole ultra-left, these con­cepts of “bour­geois rev­o­lu­tion” and the “bourgeois-democratic tasks” were never put into ques­tion. In spite of Pannekoek’s knowl­edge that Rus­sia was pre­dom­i­nantly peas­ant, that pre-capitalist con­di­tions altered the sub­jec­tive devel­op­ment of the work­ing class, and that his own the­ory was devel­oped within the spe­cific con­di­tions of polit­i­cal strikes in urban Europe, he never met the chal­lenge posed by the Bol­she­viks of the­o­riz­ing com­mu­nist rev­o­lu­tion in a peas­ant soci­ety. And though Trot­sky did accept the Bol­she­vik chal­lenge in 1917, the approach to indus­trial devel­op­ment and “per­ma­nent rev­o­lu­tion” that would pre­dom­i­nate among Trot­sky­ists took as its start­ing premise the sub­or­di­na­tion of peas­ant demands to the indus­trial proletariat.

But it was pre­cisely the peas­ant prob­lem that was cen­tral to the the­o­ries of eco­nomic devel­op­ment within the USSR. Just before Pan­nekoek and Castoriadis’s exchange, in 1951, Stalin wrote a final reflec­tion called Eco­nomic Prob­lems of Social­ism in the USSR. There he pre­empted the entire dis­cus­sion of state or bureau­cratic cap­i­tal­ism in Rus­sia by frankly acknowl­edg­ing, even after the col­lec­tiviza­tion and indus­tri­al­iza­tion advo­cated in his ear­lier speeches, that the law of value “does exist and does oper­ate,” along­side com­mod­ity pro­duc­tion, in the Russ­ian econ­omy. While the goods pro­duced by state-owned indus­try were dis­trib­uted pub­licly by the state, agri­cul­tural pro­duc­tion, even in the form of the kolkhoz, the col­lec­tive farm, “will not rec­og­nize any other eco­nomic rela­tion with the town except the com­mod­ity rela­tion – exchange through pur­chase and sale.”19

It is over­all an unset­tling col­li­sion of terms, which recalls Lenin’s argu­ment against the left com­mu­nists. The attrib­utes ascribed by the left to state cap­i­tal­ism were sim­ply the con­tra­dic­tions of the social­ist tran­si­tion, the per­sis­tence of ele­ments of dif­fer­ent modes of pro­duc­tion within the same econ­omy – includ­ing the sur­vivals of cap­i­tal­ist rela­tions. These con­tra­dic­tions within the USSR became clear when, after denounc­ing Stalin in the 20th Party Con­gress and call­ing for peace­ful coex­is­tence with the cap­i­tal­ist world, Nikita Khrushchev orga­nized the sale of the state-owned “Machine and Trac­tor Sta­tions” to the col­lec­tive farms – which, Stalin had warned in Eco­nomic Prob­lems, meant that the agri­cul­tural enter­prises would pri­vately own their means of pro­duc­tion, a step back­wards away from communism.

Only one ultra-leftist seri­ously engaged with this mode of analy­sis. Bor­diga argued con­sis­tently that the cen­tral dynamic of the Soviet econ­omy was the “agrar­ian rev­o­lu­tion” – the con­di­tion of pos­si­bil­ity for cap­i­tal­ism. Bor­diga had sup­ported the Bol­she­vik rev­o­lu­tion as pro­le­tar­ian, which he reit­er­ated in a 1926 let­ter to Korsch, who had taken the state cap­i­tal­ist line; but the same year he per­son­ally butted heads with Stalin when he called for the Soviet Union to be gov­erned by the inter­na­tional com­mu­nist par­ties that made up the Com­intern. While Bor­diga sup­ported Trot­sky and the Left Oppo­si­tion in the 1920s, by 1945 he began to argue for an analy­sis of the Soviet Union that brought him far closer to Bukharin and the right.

The year before Cas­to­ri­adis and Pannekoek’s exchange, Bor­diga wrote a response to Stalin’s Eco­nomic Prob­lems called Dia­logue with Stalin. His assess­ment of the Soviet econ­omy was broadly sim­i­lar, but with an added his­tor­i­cal dimen­sion. Not only did the law of value oper­ate in the USSR, so did all the laws of cap­i­tal­ism, since it was impos­si­ble to develop the pro­duc­tive forces “with­out pro­le­tar­i­an­iz­ing peo­ple.” This meant a rep­e­ti­tion of the “fero­cious” process of prim­i­tive accu­mu­la­tion that Marx described in Cap­i­tal:

It is the kolkhozians who find them­selves deprived of their cow, the nomadic shep­herds of Asia torn away from the con­tem­pla­tion of the beau­ti­ful stars of the Great Bear, or the feu­dal serfs of Mon­go­lia, uprooted from their soil of a thou­sand years. It is cer­tain that the orders demand more goods for pro­duc­tion, more work­ers, a longer labor time with a greater inten­sity of effort, which is to say, an accu­mu­la­tion and expanded repro­duc­tion of cap­i­tal to the rhythm of hell.20

The agrar­ian rev­o­lu­tion, car­ried out in the process of prim­i­tive accu­mu­la­tion, was the vio­lent refash­ion­ing of peas­ants into land­less pro­le­tar­i­ans, the same process that occurred in 17th cen­tury Eng­land. Unsur­pris­ingly, this returns to Preobrazhensky’s descrip­tion of the coex­is­tence of plan­ning and the law of value in “social­ist prim­i­tive accu­mu­la­tion.” While Pre­o­brazhen­sky had called for a gen­tle process of accu­mu­la­tion based in pro­gres­sive taxes, he had ulti­mately sup­ported Stalin’s left­ward turn.

The next step for Bor­diga was to describe the eco­nomic char­ac­ter­is­tics of cap­i­tal­ism in Rus­sia. For him, the accu­mu­la­tion of profit was epiphe­nom­e­nal. What counted instead was the exis­tence of enter­prises that engaged in account­ing on the basis of a gen­eral equiv­a­lent, the law of value, and main­tained the exis­tence of prop­erty. Even though pro­duc­tion in Rus­sia was cen­trally planned by the state, it was car­ried out by indi­vid­ual enter­prises, which meant that prop­erty was not social and col­lec­tive, but restricted to pri­vate bod­ies. The rul­ing class in Rus­sia were not bureau­crats, but entre­pre­neurs – con­sis­tent with a the­ory of com­mu­nism that opposed “human com­mu­nity,” grounded in the human essence described by the young Marx, to com­merce, rather than pro­le­tariat to cap­i­tal. For this rea­son the exis­tence of sovi­ets or coun­cils was essen­tially irrel­e­vant to Bor­diga; if the work­ers man­aged enter­prises, they were sim­ply man­ag­ing the cap­i­tal relation.

So Stalin and Bor­diga dif­fered mainly in definitions. Stalin viewed social­ism as a con­tra­dic­tory process of con­struc­tion, while Bor­diga argued for a total con­cep­tion of com­mu­nism incom­pat­i­ble with sur­vivals from the old regime. But the trick is that Bordiga’s his­tor­i­cal analy­sis, while it led him to con­demn the cap­i­tal­ist nature of the USSR, also con­strained him to see it as pro­gres­sive, as he wrote in his Dia­logue:

The homage which, in spite of a band of suck­ers, we ren­der to “Great Stalin” responds pre­cisely to this process of ini­tial cap­i­tal­ist accu­mu­la­tion. If this really reaches the provinces of immense China, mys­te­ri­ous Tibet, and that fab­u­lous Cen­tral Asia that the Euro­pean stock came from, that will be a rev­o­lu­tion­ary fact, a fact that will move for­ward the wheel of his­tory, but which, far from being social­ist, will be on the con­trary a cap­i­tal­ist fact. The ele­va­tion of the level of the pro­duc­tive forces in this immense part of the globe is nec­es­sary: but Stalin is right when he says that the credit will not go to him, but to the eco­nomic laws which have imposed this pol­icy upon him. His whole enter­prise con­sists in a fal­si­fi­ca­tion of labels which makes the cap­i­tal­ist com­mod­ity pass under the name of social­ism and which is, itself, a clas­sic expe­di­ent of the agents of prim­i­tive accumulation.

In other words, the whole of the ultra-left returned to Kaut­sky and his stages, which is why Bor­diga described Rus­sia as under­go­ing the tran­si­tion to cap­i­tal­ism. Indeed, with only entre­pre­neurs man­ag­ing pro­duc­tion, it had not yet pro­duced a prop­erly cap­i­tal­ist class.

Though Pan­nekoek and Cas­to­ri­adis did not directly address these issues, their exchange offers the­o­ret­i­cal advances that put the prob­lem of stages in new con­texts. On the one hand, the skilled indus­trial work­ing class who could orga­nize coun­cils on Pannekoek’s model were a such a minor­ity in Rus­sia that is very dif­fi­cult to under­stand how this model of orga­ni­za­tion could lead the nation on a mass scale – and it gives no way of deter­min­ing how the mem­bers of these coun­cils will be fed.

On the other hand, Pannekoek’s the­ory of a “bour­geois rev­o­lu­tion,” though it did not address Bordiga’s agrar­ian ques­tion, did step away from Kaut­skyan com­mit­ment to the fixed pro­gres­sion of stages. While Rühle and Korsch ulti­mately con­cluded along with Kaut­sky that Rus­sia was too back­wards, Pan­nekoek empha­sized the sub­jec­tive devel­op­ment of the class, rather than the objec­tive devel­op­ment of the pro­duc­tive forces. He argued that if state cap­i­tal­ism led to rev­o­lu­tion, this “would not be the result of eco­nomic crises but of the class strug­gle” – a polit­i­cal rather than eco­nomic change.21 The Russ­ian work­ers, he wrote in the third let­ter, were “not yet capa­ble of tak­ing pro­duc­tion into their own hands”; and when the party bureau­cracy assumed this role in place of the pro­le­tariat, it became, ipso facto, the bourgeoisie.

But Pannekoek’s analy­sis had no way of deter­min­ing whether the class was ready, par­tic­u­larly if it was spread into dis­tinct forms of pro­duc­tion. Castoriadis’s work had focused with greater atten­tion on this prob­lem. He had described the sit­u­a­tion of the peas­antry as “feu­dal exploita­tion” by the bureaucracy, and dis­puted the clas­sic Bol­she­vik claim that the “small pro­ducer” would serve as the basis of cap­i­tal­ist restora­tion, instead argu­ing that only the bureau­cracy could play such a role.22 Though he still assumed peas­ant pro­duc­tion should be sub­mit­ted to urban pro­le­tar­ian lead­er­ship, he went on to call for a form of peas­ant auton­omy in “rural com­munes” anal­o­gous to the work­ers’ coun­cil.23 But because in Rus­sia there was no auto­matic pro­gres­sion towards rev­o­lu­tion, and no auto­matic way to unify the class, Cas­to­ri­adis con­tin­ued to insist on the form of the party – our next theme.

The Party

The his­tor­i­cal ultra-left was always some­what divided about the party form. Some, led by Bor­diga, defended the notion of a dis­ci­plined party even more fer­vently than Lenin him­self. Com­bin­ing the intran­si­gence of the Ger­man left com­mu­nists with Lenin’s cen­tral focus on the party led Bor­diga to pro­duce a pecu­liar breed of van­guardist sec­tar­i­an­ism. He soon went from reduc­ing the class to the party to reduc­ing com­mu­nism itself to lit­tle more than the real­iza­tion of an allegedly coher­ent, pure, and for­ever invari­ant pro­gram that was said to stretch back unchanged to the founders them­selves. Oth­ers, like Karl Korsch, remained ambigu­ous. Although a mem­ber of the KPD, Com­mu­nist Min­is­ter of Jus­tice in the regional Thuringian gov­ern­ment, and even a Riech­stag deputy until 1928, he even­tu­ally broke entirely with the offi­cial com­mu­nist move­ment and drew very close to Pan­nekoek, Rühle, and Mattick’s crit­i­cisms of the party, ulti­mately becom­ing some­thing of an anarchist.

It was the Ger­man and Dutch left com­mu­nists, how­ever, who were the most uncom­pro­mis­ing crit­ics of the party form. They effec­tively offered three dis­tinct, though inter­re­lated, crit­i­cisms. The first, which was often shared by the anar­chists, was a kind of moral denun­ci­a­tion of the author­i­tar­ian, unde­mo­c­ra­tic, and hier­ar­chi­cal char­ac­ter of par­ties in gen­eral. The sec­ond argued that the party, espe­cially in its van­guardist con­fig­u­ra­tion, was largely inap­plic­a­ble to West­ern Europe, since its mate­r­ial con­di­tions dif­fered so vastly from those that engen­dered it in Rus­sia. The third claimed that the pro­le­tariat had to pre­fig­ure the very world it was try­ing to cre­ate by invent­ing its own forms of strug­gle, rather than mir­ror­ing those that were firmly entrenched in the old world. Pan­nekoek sum­ma­rized this sen­ti­ment in his sec­ond let­ter to Cas­to­ri­adis, describ­ing the need to oppose the estab­lished com­mu­nist par­ties: “we can­not beat them by fol­low­ing their meth­ods. That is only pos­si­ble by prac­tic­ing our own meth­ods.” In terms of actual prac­tice, this trans­lated to a refusal of all bour­geois forms, from the trade unions to par­lia­ments. Otto Rühle cap­tured this sen­ti­ment in an essay auda­ciously titled “The Rev­o­lu­tion is Not a Party Affair.”

Even when they did pre­serve the party as a form of strug­gle, the left­ists severely restricted its role. Indeed, Lenin would at one point exclaim that they had essen­tially reduced the party of the class to a cir­cle of intel­lec­tu­als. Accord­ing to Pan­nekoek, the party could only play the ancil­lary role of clar­i­fy­ing, through dis­cus­sion, debate, and exchange, what the pro­le­tariat was already doing. As “organs of self-clarification,” such par­ties – and Pan­nekoek always imag­ined that there would be many – would have to con­tent them­selves with doing lit­tle more than offer­ing sug­ges­tions to the work­ers, cir­cu­lat­ing infor­ma­tion, and calmly debat­ing their dif­fer­ing points of view.24 They would serve as the inves­tiga­tive sub­com­mit­tees of a coun­cil, from which their des­tiny would ulti­mately be indistinguishable.

For both Cas­to­ri­adis and Pan­nekoek, there was a pri­mary log­i­cal con­se­quence of the Marx­ist premise that the eman­ci­pa­tion of the pro­le­tariat could only be the task of the pro­le­tariat itself: the coun­cil would be the prin­ci­pal organ of pro­le­tar­ian eman­ci­pa­tion. By regard­ing the coun­cil as both that which would destroy the old and cre­ate the new, both were echo­ing a char­ac­ter­is­tic trait of the ultra-left: the delib­er­ate con­fla­tion of means and ends.

But in con­trast to the sea­soned coun­cilist, Cas­to­ri­adis refused to accept that coun­cil would be the only organ of eman­ci­pa­tion. He believed that the party could con­sti­tute a sep­a­rate form of strug­gle, sub­or­di­nated to, but ulti­mately dis­tinct from the coun­cil: “the party is an organ whose form and sub­stance are unique.”25 Its tasks could not be pre­de­ter­mined, as Pan­nekoek implied, but would have to vary depend­ing on the par­tic­u­lar­i­ties of the strug­gle at hand. If the rev­o­lu­tion did indeed lead to the emer­gence of a net­work of decen­tral­ized coun­cils in which unob­structed dis­cus­sion could unfold, as Pan­nekoek sug­gested in his first let­ter, then Cas­to­ri­adis agreed that the party would limit its role. But, Cas­to­ri­adis quickly added, since the coun­cils would likely become the very sites of class strug­gle rather than peace­ful oases stand­ing out­side of it, the party, as some­thing other than the coun­cil, could not limit itself to “appear­ing like the owl of Min­erva at night­fall” but would have to set the stage for this struggle:

To be rev­o­lu­tion­ary sig­ni­fies both to think that only the masses in strug­gle can resolve the prob­lem of social­ism and not to fold one’s arms for all that; it means to think that the essen­tial con­tent of the rev­o­lu­tion will be given by the masses’ cre­ative, orig­i­nal, and unfore­see­able activ­ity, and to act one­self, begin­ning with a ratio­nal analy­sis of the present with a per­spec­tive that antic­i­pates the future.26

Expe­ri­enced as he was with the dirty pol­i­tics of work­place strug­gles in an envi­ron­ment dom­i­nated by Stal­in­ists on the one hand and reformists on the other, Cas­to­ri­adis poured some cold water on his friend’s naive faith in ratio­nal dis­cus­sion. He insisted that the party would have to actively pre­vent counter-revolutionaries from co-opting the strug­gle, and there­fore began to force a dis­junc­ture between means and ends. Unlike the coun­cil, the party would not be an end in itself, but could only be a means. The destruc­tion of the old world would have to be some­thing related to but ulti­mately other than the con­sti­tu­tion of a new one. Indeed, some­times rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies would have to resort to cer­tain unsightly means in order to bring about cer­tain desired ends. This could even mean a mil­i­tant, even unde­mo­c­ra­tic, inter­ven­tion on behalf the councils.

Pannekoek’s sub­se­quent response was envi­ably sim­ple: some­times the class is just not ready to make a rev­o­lu­tion. No amount of party inter­ven­tion, no mat­ter how mil­i­tant, orga­nized, or dis­ci­plined can force that class to mature – and in fact, such inter­ven­tion would actu­ally under­mine the strug­gles of the class, by forc­ing it into a sit­u­a­tion which it did not itself will­ingly cre­ate. The result, what­ever the inten­tions of the rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies, would have to be a new form of oppression.

A famous strug­gle just after these let­ters serves as an exam­ple. From Decem­ber 1960 to Jan­u­ary 1961 Bel­gium was rocked by an unex­pect­edly mil­i­tant strike wave that ulti­mately involved some one mil­lion work­ers. Cas­to­ri­adis called it the most impor­tant event, after the upris­ngs of 1956, of the entire post­war period; Mau­rice Brin­ton, the guid­ing spirit of Sol­i­dar­ity, took part in them; and Guy Debord arrived the fol­low­ing year as part of a team sent by Social­isme ou Bar­barie to research the after­math of the strikes. The pecu­liar thing about these strikes, how­ever, was that despite their strength they com­pletely failed to exhibit any autonomous polit­i­cal ini­tia­tive. Cas­to­ri­adis put it as follows:

We thus find our­selves faced with a strik­ing con­tra­dic­tion between the com­bat­iv­ity of the work­ing class, its sol­i­dar­ity, its aware­ness of its oppo­si­tion as a class to the cap­i­tal­ist class and to the cap­i­tal­ist State, its dis­trust of bureau­cracy, on the one hand; and, on the other, the at-present insur­mount­able dif­fi­culty it encoun­ters as it tries to free itself from this bureaucracy’s grasp, to take on in a pos­i­tive way the direc­tion of its own affairs, to cre­ate its own insti­tu­tions, to for­mu­late explic­itly its own objec­tives.27

Castoriadis’s solu­tion was a rev­o­lu­tion­ary orga­ni­za­tion. But imag­ine, Pan­nekoek seemed to say, if this orga­ni­za­tion, which claimed to rep­re­sent the pro­le­tariat, had hastily inter­vened by seiz­ing the state, appro­pri­at­ing cer­tain points of pro­duc­tion, and dis­patch­ing red guards out into the streets to fight the Bel­gian police. Even if their inter­ven­tion had some­how pro­duced a rev­o­lu­tion, the con­se­quences would have been dis­as­trous. Nei­ther the pro­le­tariat, nor those other class for­ma­tions which it would have to lead down the road of rev­o­lu­tion, were pre­pared for such a sit­u­a­tion. Rather than eman­ci­pat­ing them­selves, they would only enter a dif­fer­ent kind of class society.

Cas­to­ri­adis never wrote a direct reply. But he had already elab­o­rated the basic premises of his posi­tion. Just as we can never really know if our actions will turn us into bureau­crats, we can also never know whether the pro­le­tariat is mature or not; there is sim­ply no way to sci­en­tif­i­cally mea­sure whether a class is ripe for power. In some cases, as with the Bel­gian strikes, there is some clar­ity. But in oth­ers, such as the Russ­ian rev­o­lu­tion of 1905, it is sim­ply impos­si­ble to tell. When the first work­ers went on strike, no one expected the whole coun­try to explode in insur­rec­tion. Even the rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies who had stud­ied the con­tours of the class strug­gle for decades were caught off guard, and had to deter­mine what to do in this new sit­u­a­tion. As it turns out, rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies chose to inter­vene and the class was defeated – but we can only imag­ine the out­come if, after a sober assess­ment of the sit­u­a­tion, the pro­fes­sional rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies had decided not to inter­vene because the class was not ripe for power. What would have been the result if the party had cho­sen to fold its arms, take a step back­ward, and sit on the side­lines? Who is to say that it was not the very inter­ven­tion of these rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies, their very attempt to esca­late a strug­gle pos­si­bly doomed to defeat, that later pre­pared the mate­r­ial con­di­tions for vic­tory less than a decade later?

The messi­ness of his­tory demon­strates the dif­fi­culty of trans­lat­ing Pannekoek’s thoughts on class imma­tu­rity into con­crete prac­tice. But as we have already seen, this ambigu­ous posi­tion also con­tains an orig­i­nal answer to an old ques­tion: what are the nec­es­sary objec­tive con­di­tions for a suc­cess­ful rev­o­lu­tion? For Pan­nekoek, imma­ture objec­tive con­di­tions are not the result of under­de­vel­oped indus­trial pro­duc­tion. In fact, objec­tive con­di­tions are really noth­ing other than the gen­eral level of the class strug­gle itself. Because cap­i­tal is an antag­o­nis­tic rela­tion­ship between two classes, its matu­rity or imma­tu­rity can only be under­stood with ref­er­ence to the con­flict between these classes. So when Pan­nekoek speaks of unripe objec­tive con­di­tions, he is actu­ally refer­ring to the under­de­vel­oped sub­jec­tive con­di­tions of the class strug­gle itself. Claim­ing that Rus­sia was unripe for rev­o­lu­tion did not mean it was eco­nom­i­cally back­ward, only that the pro­le­tariat was not devel­oped enough to take power on its own.

But here, as Cas­to­ri­adis inti­mates, Pan­nekoek ulti­mately reveals his fail­ure to under­stand the spe­cific class dynam­ics of Rus­sia on the eve of the rev­o­lu­tion. For him, it is enough to claim that the class was not ready to take power sim­ply because, at the end of the day, the party had to step in. His logic is con­sis­tent only if one assumes that com­mu­nism will adopt the same form at all times: the grad­ual spread of coun­cils over the total­ity of the social fab­ric. If this fails to hap­pen, then the rev­o­lu­tion was bour­geois; if it does, which, one might add, it never has, then it was com­mu­nist. It is this sta­tic con­cep­tion of com­mu­nism, this refusal to accept that com­mu­nism may appear dif­fer­ently in dif­fer­ent his­tor­i­cal con­di­tions, that it may have to be pro­duced by a diver­sity of means, that led him to mis­read the par­tic­u­lar­i­ties of the Russ­ian struggle.

Now the two ques­tions, the nature of the Soviet Union on the one hand and the role of the party on the other, inter­sect dra­mat­i­cally. If Pan­nekoek had paid seri­ous atten­tion to the his­tory of class rela­tions in Rus­sia, he would have seen that the char­ac­ter­is­tics of the pro­le­tariat at that his­tor­i­cal moment – its tech­ni­cal makeup, its polit­i­cal forms, its rela­tion­ship to the other classes – made it impos­si­ble for the class to take power with­out party inter­ven­tion. Because Rus­sia was so riven by class divi­sions, a rev­o­lu­tion with any chance of suc­cess would have to find some way to forge an alliance between pro­le­tar­ian van­guards and peas­ant masses in a way that could tran­scend these sep­a­ra­tions. Pan­nekeok would have seen that the class was, at that con­junc­ture, actu­ally quite ready. It just had to assume a dif­fer­ent polit­i­cal form, one dis­tinct from the sovi­ets, in order to make the revolution.

This gap goes a long way in explain­ing Pannekoek’s some­what con­fus­ing belief that the party can never actu­ally be a part of the class itself. In his let­ters, he seems to argue that any enlarged con­cep­tion of the party would nec­es­sar­ily trans­form it into a spe­cial forces team, which would be called in to bash heads when the class runs into trou­ble. He refused to enter­tain the pos­si­bil­ity that the party, as was the case in Rus­sia, may itself be a nec­es­sary ele­ment of the class. Unlike Cas­to­ri­adis, who tried to cap­ture the sig­nif­i­cance of the French Com­mu­nist Party by study­ing its pos­si­ble social bases, its par­tic­u­lar his­tory, and its broader rela­tion­ship to the class strug­gle itself, Pan­nekoek con­tented him­self with sim­ply argu­ing that it was on the side of cap­i­tal. For Cas­to­ri­adis, this was not good enough; the task was to metic­u­lously ana­lyze the pecu­liar, and rather unprece­dented, com­po­si­tion of a reformist party work­ing in the ser­vice of a for­eign coun­try, to “explain patiently the com­plete work­ings and mate­r­ial roots of Stalinism’s betrayal” in order to defin­i­tively out­flank it.28

Pan­nekoek delib­er­ately ignored these kinds of ques­tions – ques­tions, he would say, that have been posed in “an entirely prac­ti­cal way” – because his vision of rev­o­lu­tion, despite its numer­ous mer­its, was still largely informed by a kind of fatal­ism. Pro­le­tar­i­ans will nat­u­rally fig­ure every­thing out based on their imme­di­ate expe­ri­ences, as though they pos­sess some kind of innate knowl­edge organ­i­cally dri­ving them to a spec­i­fied goal, like an acorn grow­ing into an oak tree. They will spon­ta­neously become polit­i­cal sub­jects, like the log­i­cal result of an equa­tion, and make their rev­o­lu­tion on their own. If they run into any set­backs, it’s only because they still don’t have enough expe­ri­ence; if they suf­fer a defeat, it’s only because they weren’t ready. For the Pan­nekoek of these let­ters, there is no gap between imme­di­ate needs and the eman­ci­pa­tion of the class through rev­o­lu­tion. The two seam­lessly blend into one another in such a way as to entirely cover up the moment of strategy.

But in order to explore these themes fur­ther we have to take a step back­ward. Though many of the prob­lems above – the con­fla­tion of means and ends, the eli­sion of strat­egy, the sup­pres­sion of class het­ero­gene­ity, and the rever­sion to fatal­ism – per­sist within today’s ultra-left, the best way to under­stand and even­tu­ally super­sede them is to go back to their gen­e­sis. This means return­ing to another famous encounter, that between the ultra-left and Lenin him­self. It was Lenin, after all, who united a set of rad­i­cally dis­tinct groups under the umbrella of the “ultra-left.” Our forth­com­ing inves­ti­ga­tion, there­fore, will move back­wards to Lenin and his adversaries.

Until then, we present the let­ters. The first entry in this exchange, from Pan­nekoek to Cas­to­ri­adis, has been avail­able on the inter­net, and we repro­duce that ver­sion here. Pan­nekoek indi­cates that he wrote the let­ter in Eng­lish, but it was ulti­mately trans­lated into French for pub­li­ca­tion in Social­isme ou Bar­barie. It is not clear whether this ver­sion is a trans­la­tion or the orig­i­nal Eng­lish text. Castoriadis’s response, writ­ten under the pen name Pierre Chaulieu, and a final response by Pan­nekoek, have only been avail­able in French. The ver­sions avail­able here are our trans­la­tions from the orig­i­nals reprinted at

Reply to Pannekoek - Castoriadis

A reply to Pannekoek's letter to Socialisme ou Barbarie, translated by Asad Haider and Salar Mohandesi for Viewpoint Magzine.

Your letter has provided a great satisfaction to all the comrades of the group; satisfaction of seeing our work appreciated by a comrade honored as you are and who has devoted an entire life to the proletariat and to socialism; satisfaction of seeing confirmed our idea of a profound agreement between you and us on the fundamental points; satisfaction finally of being able to discuss with you and of enriching our review with this discussion.

Before discussing the two points to which your letter is devoted (nature of the Russian Revolution, conception and role of the party), I would like to underline the points on which we agree: autonomy of the working class as both means and end of its historical action, total power of the proletariat at the economic and political level as the sole concrete content of socialism. I would furthermore like on this point to to clear up a misunderstanding. It is not correct that we restrict “the activity of these organisms to the organization of labor in factories after the taking of social power.” We think that the activity of these soviet – or workers’ council – organisms after the taking of power extends itself to the total organization of social life, which is to say that as long as there is need for an organism of power, its role will be fulfilled by the workers’ councils. Neither is it correct that we would only think of such a role for the councils in the period following the “taking of power.” At the same time, historical experience and reflection show that the councils could not be the organisms truly expressing the class if they were created to thus decree the future of a victorious revolution, that they will be nothing unless they are created spontaneously by a profound movement of the class, therefore before the “taking of power”; and if it is thus, it is evident that they will play a primordial role during the entire revolutionary period, whose beginning is precisely marked (as I said in my text on the party in number 10) by the constitution of the autonomous organisms of the masses.

Where in contrast there is, in fact, a real difference of opinion between us, is on the question of knowing if, during this revolutionary period, these councils will be the sole organism which plays an effective role in conducting the revolution, and, to a lesser extent, what the role and task is of the revolutionary militants in the meantime. That is, the “question of the party.”

You say “in the conquest of power we have no interest in a ‘revolutionary party’ that will take the leadership of the proletarian revolution.” And even further, after having quite rightly recalled that there are, beside us, a half-dozen other parties or groups that claim to represent the working class, you add: “in order for them (the masses in their councils) to decide in the best way possible they must be enlightened by well-considered advice coming from the greatest number of people possible.” I fear that this view of things has no correspondence with both the most glaring and the most hidden traits of the current and prospective situation of the working class. Since these other parties and groups of which you speak do not simply represent different opinions on the best way to make revolution, and the sessions of the councils will not be calm gatherings of reflection where, according the opinions of these diverse counselors (the representatives of the groups and parties), the working class will decide to follow one path rather than another. From the very moment that these organisms of the working class have been constituted, the class struggle will have been transposed to the very heart of these organisms; it will be transposed there by the representatives of the majority of these “groups or parties” which claim to represent the working class but who, in the majority of cases, represent the interests and the ideology of the classes hostile to the proletariat, like the reformists and the Stalinists. Even if they don’t exist there in their current form, they will exist in another, let us be sure. In all likelihood, they will start with a predominant position. And the whole experience of the last twenty years – of the Spanish war, the occupation, and up to and including the experience of any current union meeting – we learn that the militants who have our opinion must conquer by struggle even the right to speak within these organisms.

The intensification of the class struggle during the revolutionary period will inevitably take the form of the intensification of the struggle of diverse factions within the mass organisms. In these conditions, to say that a vanguard revolutionary organization will limit itself to “enlightening with well-considered advice” is, I believe, what in English is called an “understatement.” After all, if the councils of the revolutionary period prove to be this assembly of wise men where nobody comes to disturb the calm necessary for a well-considered reflection, we will be the first to congratulate ourselves; we feel sure, in fact, that our advice would prevail if things happened this way. But it is only in this case that the “party or group” could limit itself to the tasks that you assign it. And this case is by far the most improbable. The working class which will form the councils will not be a different class from the one that exists today; it will have made an enormous step forwards, but, to use a famous expression, it will still be stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges. It will be at the surface dominated by profoundly hostile influences, to which it can initially oppose only its still-confused revolutionary will and a minority vanguard. This will be by all means compatible with our fundamental idea of the autonomy of the working class extending and deepening its influence on the councils, winning the majority to its program. It may even have to act before; what can it do if, representing 45% of the councils, it learns that some neo-Stalinist party prepares to take power for the future? Will it not have to try to seize power immediately?

I do not think that you will disagree with all that; I believe that what you aim for above all in your criticisms is the idea of the revolutionary leadership of the party. I have however tried to explain that the party cannot be the leadership of the class, neither before, nor after the revolution; not before, because the class does not follow it and it would only know how to lead at most a minority (and again, “lead” it in a totally relative sense: influence it with its ideas and its exemplary action); not after, since proletarian power cannot be the power of the party, but the power of the class in its autonomous mass organisms. The only moment when the party can approach the role of effective leadership, of the corps which can try to impose its revolutionary will with violence, may be a certain phase of the revolutionary period immediately preceding its conclusion; important practical decisions may need to be taken outside the councils if the representatives of actually counter-revolutionary organizations participate, the party may, under the pressure of circumstances, commit itself to a decisive action even if it is not, in votes, followed by the majority of the class. The fact that in acting thus, the party will not act as a bureaucratic body aiming to impose its will on the class, but as the historical expression of the class itself, depends on a series of factors, which we can discuss in the abstract today, but which will only be appreciated at this moment: what proportion of the class is in agreement with the program of the party, what is the ideological state of the rest of the class, where is the struggle against the counterrevolutionary tendencies within the councils, what are the ulterior perspectives, etc. To draw up, as of now, a series of rules of conduct for the various possible cases would doubtless be puerile; one can be sure that the only cases that will present themselves will be the unforeseen cases.

There are comrades who say: to trace this perspective is to leave the path open to a possible degeneration of the party in the bureaucratic sense. The response is: not tracing it means accepting the defeat of the revolution or the bureaucratic degeneration of the councils from the very start, and this not as a possibility, but as a certitude. Ultimately, to refuse to act in fear that one will transform into a bureaucrat, seems to me as absurd as refusing to think in fear of being wrong. Just as the only “guarantee” against error consists in the exercise of thought itself, the only “guarantee” against bureaucratization consists in permanent action in an anti-bureaucratic direction, in struggling against the bureaucracy and in practically showing that a non-bureaucratic organization of the vanguard is possible, and that it can organize non-bureaucratic relations with the class. Since the bureaucracy is not born of false ideas, but of necessities proper to worker action at a certain stage, and in action it is about showing that the proletariat can do without the bureaucracy. Ultimately, to remain above all preoccupied with the fear of bureaucratization is to forget that in current conditions an organization would only know how to acquire a noteworthy influence with the masses on the condition of expressing and realizing their anti-bureaucratic aspirations; it is to forget that a vanguard group will only be able to reach a real existence by perpetually modeling itself on these aspirations of the masses; it is to forget that there is no longer room for the appearance of a new bureaucratic organization. The permanent failure of Trotskyist attempts to purely and simply recreate a “Bolshevik” organization finds its deepest cause there.

To close these reflections, I do not think either that one could say that in the current period (and hence the revolution) the task of a vanguard group would be a “theoretical” task. I believe that this task is also and above all the task of struggle and organization. For the class struggle is permanent, through its highs and lows, and the ideological maturation of the working class makes itself through this struggle. But the proletariat and its struggles are currently dominated by bureaucratic organizations (unions and parties), which has the result of rendering struggle impossible, of deviating them from the class goal or conducting them to defeat. A vanguard organization cannot indifferently attend this show, neither can it content itself with appearing as the owl of Minerva at dusk, letting the sound of its beak fall with tracts explaining to the workers the reasons for their defeat. It must be capable of intervening in these struggles, combating the influence of bureaucratic organizations, proposing forms of action and organization to the workers; it must even at times be capable of imposing them. Fifteen resolute vanguard workers can, in certain cases, put a factory of 5,000 into strike, if they are willing to knock out some Stalinist bureaucrats, which is neither theoretical, nor even democratic, these bureaucrats having always been elected in comfortable majorities by the workers themselves.

I would like, before ending this response, to say a couple things about our second divergence, which at first glance has only a theoretical character: that of the nature of the Russian Revolution. We think that characterizing the Russian Revolution as a bourgeois revolution does violence to the facts, to ideas, and to language. That in the Russian Revolution there were several elements of a bourgeois revolution – in particular, the “realization of the bourgeois-democratic tasks” – has always been recognized, and, long before the revolution itself, Lenin and Trotsky had made it the base of their strategy and tactics. But these tasks, in the given stage of historical development and the configuration of social forces in Russia, could not be dealt with by the working class who, in the same blow, could not pose itself essentially socialist tasks.

You say: the participation of workers does not suffice. Of course; as soon as a battle becomes a mass battle the workers are there, since they are the masses. But the criterion is not that: it is to know if the workers find themselves the pure and simple infantry of the bourgeoisie or if they fight for their own goals. In a revolution in which the workers battle for “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” – whatever meaning they subjectively give to these watchwords – they are the infantry of the bourgeoisie. When they fight for “All power to the soviets,” they fight for socialism. What makes the Russian Revolution a proletarian revolution is that the proletariat intervened in it as a dominant force with its own flag, its face, its demands, its means of struggle, its own forms of organization; it is not only that it constituted mass organisms aiming to appropriate all power but that this itself went past the expropriation of the capitalists and began to realize workers’ management of the factories. All this made the Russian Revolution forever a proletarian revolution, whatever its subsequent fate – just as neither the weakness, nor the confusions, nor the final defeat of the Paris Commune prevents it from having been a proletarian revolution.

This divergence may appear at first glance to be theoretical: I think however that it has a practical important insofar as it translates par excellence a methodological difference into a contemporary problem: the problem of the bureaucracy. The fact that the degeneration of the Russian Revolution has not given way to the restoration of the bourgeoisie but to the the formation of a new exploitative layer, the bureaucracy; that the regime that carries this layer, despite its profound identity with capitalism (as the domination of dead labor over living labor), differs in many aspects that cannot be neglected without refusing to understand anything; that this same layer, since 1945, is in the process of extending its domination over the world; that it is represented in the countries of Western Europe by parties deeply rooted in the working class – all this makes us think that contenting ourselves with saying that the Russian Revolution was a bourgeois revolution is equivalent to voluntarily closing our eyes to the most important aspects of the global situation today.

I hope that this discussion can be pursued and deepened, and I believe it is not necessary to repeat to you that we welcome with joy in Socialisme ou Barbarie all that you would like to send us.

Reply to Castoriadis - Pannekoek

Pannekoek's final response to Castoriadis's letter in Socialisme ou Barbarie, translated by Asad Haider and Salar Mohandesi for Viewpoint Magazine.

I noticed with great pleasure that you have published in your review Socialisme ou Barbarie a translation of my letter annotated with critical remarks in such a way that involves your readers in a discussion on fundamental questions. Since you express the desire to continue the discussion, I am sending you several remarks on your response. Naturally, there are still differences of opinion that could appear in the discussion with a greater clarity. Such differences are normally the result of a different assessment of what one considers as the most important points, which in turn is related to our practical experiences or the milieu in which we find ourselves. For me, this was the study of the political strikes in Belgium (1893), in Russia (1905 and 1917), and in Germany (1918 to 1919), a study by which I attempted to reach a clear understanding of the fundamental character of these actions. Your group lives and works among the turmoil of the working class of a great industrial city; consequently, your attention is completely concentrated on a practical problem: how could the methods of effective struggle develop beyond the inefficient struggle of parties and partial strikes of today?

Naturally, I do not claim that the revolutionary actions of the working class will all unfold in an atmosphere of peaceful discussion. What I claim is that the result of the struggle, often violent, is not determined by accidental circumstances, but by what is alive in the thoughts of the workers, as the basis of a solid consciousness acquired by experience, study, or their discussions. If the personnel of a factory must decide whether or not to go on strike, the decision is not taken by smashing fists on the table, but normally by discussions.

You pose the problem in an entirely practical way: what would the party do if it had 45% of the members of the councils behind it and if it expected another party (neo-Stalinists that strive to conquer the regime) to attempt a seizure of power by force? Your response is: we would have to preempt it by doing that which we fear it will do. What will be the definitive result of such an action? Look at what happened in Russia. There existed a party, with good revolutionary principles, influenced by Marxism; and assured, moreover, of the support of the councils already formed by the workers; however, it was obliged to seize power, and the result was totalitarian Stalinism (if I say “it was obliged” that means that the circumstances were not ripe enough for a real proletarian revolution. In the western world in which capitalism is more developed, the conditions certainly are more ripe; the measure of it is given by the development of the class struggle). Thus, one must pose the question: could the struggle of the party that you propose save the proletarian revolution? It seems to me that it would be instead one step towards a new oppression.

Certainly, there will always be difficulties. If the French, or global, situation required a mass struggle of the workers, the communist parties would try immediately to transform the action into a pro-Russian demonstration within the boundaries of the party. We must lead an energetic struggle against these parties. But we cannot beat them by following their methods. That is only possible by practicing our own methods. The true form of action of a class in struggle is the force of arguments, based on the fundamental principle of the autonomy of decisions! The workers can only prevent the communist party’s repression by the development and reinforcement of their own class power; that means their unanimous will to take the means of production under their control and manage them.

The principal condition for the conquest of freedom for the working class is that the conception of self-government and self-management of the apparatuses of production is rooted in the consciousness of the masses. That agrees, to a certain degree, with what Jaurès wrote on the Constituent Assembly, in his Socialist History of the French Revolution:

“This assembly, brand new, discussing political subjects, knew, barely convened, to thwart all the maneuvers of the Court. Why? Because it held several grand abstract ideas, seriously and lengthily ripened and which gave them a clear view of the situation.”

Of course, the two cases are not identical. Instead of the grand political ideas of the French Revolution, it is a question of the grand socialist ideas of the workers, which is to say: the management of production by organized cooperation. Instead of 500 deputies armed with their abstract ideas acquired through study, the workers will be millions guided by the experience of an entire life of exploitation in a productive job. This is why I see these things in the following way:

The most noble and useful task of a revolutionary party is, by its propaganda in thousands of small journals, brochures, etc., to enrich the knowledge of the masses in the process of a consciousness always more clear and more vast.

Now, several words on the character of the Russian revolution. Translating the English word “middle class revolution” into “révolution bourgeoise” does not exactly express its meaning. When in England the so-called middle classes seized power, they were composed of a large party of small capitalists, or businessmen, owners of the industrial apparatuses of production. The struggle of the masses was necessary to drive the aristocracy from power; but in spite of this fact, this mass was itself not yet capable of seizing the instruments of production; the workers could only achieve the spiritual, moral, and organizational capacity to do that by means of class struggle in a sufficiently developed capitalism. In Russia, there did not exist a bourgeoisie of certain importance; the consequence was that the vanguard of the revolution gave birth to a new “middle class” as ruling class of productive work, managing the apparatus of production, and not as an ensemble of individual owners each possessing a certain part of the apparatus of production, but as collective owners of the apparatus of production in its totality.

In general, we could say: if the laboring masses (because they are the product of pre-capitalist conditions) are not yet capable of taking production into their own hands, inevitably that will lead to new leading class becoming master of production. It is this concordance that makes me say that the Russian revolution (in its essential and permanent character) was a bourgeois revolution. Certainly the mass power of the proletariat was necessary to destroy the former system (and it was in this a lesson for the workers of the entire world). But a social revolution can obtain nothing more than what corresponds to the character of the revolutionary classes, and if the greatest radicalism possible was necessary to conquer all resistances, later on, it would have to fall behind.

This appears to be general rule of all revolutions up to the present day: up to 1793, the French Revolution became more and more radical, until the peasants definitively became the free masters of the soil, and until the foreign armies were pushed back; at that moment, the Jacobins were massacred and capitalism made its entrance as the new master. When one sees things this way, the course of the Russian revolution would be the same as those preceding revolutions that all conquered power, in England, in France, in Germany. The Russian revolution was not at all a premature proletarian revolution. The proletarian revolution belongs to the future.

I hope that this explanation, even though it does not contain any new arguments, will help to clarify several divergences in our points of view.