I. The State of the Movement
II. The Potential of the Conference
III. Political Meaning of the Conference
IV. Democratic Processes at the Conference
V. Next Steps for the Movement
I. The State of the Movement
Faced with cuts, tuition hikes, and layoffs on an unprecedented scale, student action erupted across the state, in some places on the first day of classes. Sept. 24th saw a rally and protest of 5000 students and workers at UC Berkeley; to the south, a week-long occupation began at UC Santa Cruz; and hundreds protested at UC’s and CSU’s across the state. The day of action had participation from UCSA, AAUP, CUE, UPTE, AFSCME, and AFT, to name a few. In Berkeley, a 500 person General Assembly following the rally made the call for a Statewide Mobilizing Conference on Oct. 24. It became immediately clear what the challenge of the conference would be. After the call for the conference was made, there was an adventurist attempt to undemocratically force the General Assembly into an occupation of the building, effectively ending the Assembly. It was this split between isolated radical actions on the one hand, and mass liberal protests on the other, which thus far characterizes the budget cuts movement and defines the challenge of militant revolutionaries in our era.
How do we build mass radical action? The cuts are taking different forms in each sector and at each workplace, but they are all effects of the current organizing processes of capital. The ruling class is seeking to resolve its crisis by reversing the gains of the working class built over the last 80 years. Thus it will require mass organization of the working class to defend itself against these attacks. Furthermore, this organization will have to build the independent power of the working class; if it remains subordinated to the established student governments and union bureaucrats’ liberal politics, we can only hope to mitigate the worst of the attacks, but never stop them.
Our critique of the ultra-left adventurists must be equally strong. Isolated radical actions look sexy, and at their best they can provide a space for further organizing and an example that gets a few people involved, but they also often alienate people from the struggle. Much of the occupation organizing has been dominated by bourgeois individualist ideology, lacks a pedagogical approach capable of advancing struggle, and fails to provide the type of democratic, inclusive spaces that can build a mass movement capable of challenging capital. It seems built largely out of university classroom settings; reflected in abstracted ideas about action, an alienated, Left-Hegelian existential orientation, and a lack of clear understanding with regards to working class life and struggle.
We have to look at the movement’s current failures dialectically. The failures of adventurism are the strengths of liberalism, and vice versa. What does a dialectical synthesis of this situation look like? The masses of workers are able to see that privatization is occurring, and can relate to an anti-privatization movement, but these liberal movements lack the correct analysis to move towards the actual confrontation of capital through independent working class power. The ultra-left occupationists understand the importance of radical action, but fail to articulate this understanding in a way that is accessible to the most workers, let alone organize a meeting that is open to masses of working people. Thus the synthetic demand is for an open democratic movement, a movement whose language and rhetoric is accessible and clear to the masses of working people, yet a movement with a clear understanding of the nature of the budget cuts, a movement that recognizes from the outset the necessity of independent working class organization and power to confront directly the power and organization of capital. Thus revolutionary militants, and anyone else who wants to fight against the budget cuts and win, are building a movement for a general strike against the cuts.
II. The Potential of the Conference
The Oct. 24th Conference represented a real potential for a clean break from the ongoing failure to build a radical movement. Many conference organizers expressed that the goal of the conference was to unite the movement around a general strike to shut down public education this spring. We, like many others, were pressing for the conference to call for the building of a general strike movement to shut down all public education, with the goal of expanding into all public sectors. Though this was a conference on public education, the inclusion of the private sector is critical. The budget cuts can only be stopped by unity in militant action widespread across the working class, and to pit education against other public sector workers is to fold to the ruling class’s strategy of divide and conquer.
Organizing for a general strike is not about getting people to not work, instead it is organizing people to work- to organize more people who will organize, etc. A strike can only increase its power by getting as many people in as many sectors as possible to strike. It is this orientation, where our focus is centered constantly on expanding the power of the working class to consciously confront capital, that is the only orientation capable of stopping the attacks of the budget cuts. We have to start now to promote this strategy. If we’re not working to expand the movement for a general strike, then we’re merely stalling, tailing to the liberal wing of the movement. Simultaneously, we have to recognize that if we called a general strike for tomorrow, it would be next to useless, we need to organize first. This then, was the potential of the conference- to orient organizers from across the state around this necessity, to build as broad a consensus as possible on the need for a general strike.
We should be careful not to overestimate the potential of the conference. Clearly it was an impressive organizing feat for a month’s time, and speaks to the amount of energy of the masses for action. However, it was still nothing more than a step. There was fairly minimal participation from K-12 and Community Colleges, and not a whole lot more from CSU’s. The conference was dominated by students, with service workers being almost absent. The conference had endorsement from many of the unions, but most of the union participation was through the organizers and a few active members. Let’s be real- the conference was largely a meeting of Bay Area leftists, with a few exceptions. We know that union bureaucrats and student governments will be meeting on their own statewide levels to decide on their strategy. This reality is important in our evaluation of the conference. Since the conference did not really have mass participation, it was all the more critical that we use the time we had to orient ourselves, as the left wing of the movement, around the necessity of a general strike.
III. Political Meaning of the Conference
Unfortunately, this failed to occur. Instead of a call for a strike a “compromise proposal” was passed. This proposal calls for a “United Day of Action/ Strike- including but not limited to strikes, rallies, walk-outs, informational pickets, or a March on Sacramento, for March 4.” This statement leaves us oriented around no political goal. The phrase “Day of Action/ Strike” is merely a form devoid of political content. It might as well be phrased, “Strike! Or Don’t Strike! On May 4th! All out for whichever you like!”
The power of a strike lies in its Manichaen nature- you are either on strike, or a scab. In the context of building a movement that can actually stop the cuts, the goal of calling for a strike is to give material, class-conscious political meaning to what is otherwise a liberal, ideological action. By calling for a strike, we create a conflict between action that fails to incorporate anti-capitalist analysis and action that directly confronts the current processes of capital by building independent working class power. The actions of Sept. 24th (except the occupation) received support from the very people implementing the cuts. Administrators and legislators told us, “We’re so glad you want to get involved! We’d love to get your input. Why don’t you start writing letters and lobbying, or come to the Regents meeting and express your discontent.” It’s easy for a bourgeois administrator to just say “I’m in solidarity with the day of action,” and thus relieve his conscience, but if you’re in solidarity with a strike it means something- you don’t work. The powerful, liberal organizations, like UCSA and other student governments, or the union bureaucracies, or the CalPIRG and non-profit groups are all going to do their best to fit any and all resentment to the budget cuts into respectable channels that won’t build independent working class power. If the cuts are to be stopped it’s imperative that we, the left-wing of the movement, make an intervention against the dominant liberal strategy, providing a clear alternative as soon as possible, at the outset of the movement.
Proponents of the compromise proposal relied on a few political arguments against the strike. One argument focused on “the freedom of the schools to decide,” others on the “pretentious” nature of calling for a strike, still more encouraged us to “be realistic” about our organizational capacity.
If one thing is pretentious and unrealistic it’s the idea that this conference had the power to impinge on anyone’s freedom. As if there was some sort of Stalinist bureaucracy that would be visiting different schools, executing dissidents for failing to organize a strike properly. No, the only conceivable power of the conference lay in giving a statewide legitimacy to what would have otherwise been an isolated and radical proposal. The UC Student Association could have called for a day of action. No one had the intention or capacity to impede on any school’s freedom to do whatever they wanted. What we had and lost was the potential to orient organizers towards the political goals that actually have the capacity to challenge capital.
Solidarity does not happen spontaneously. It’s quite true that some workers may find it pretentious of a body that was largely students to call for a strike. However, it’s thoroughly reactionary to respond to that by not calling a strike in order to not be seen as pretentious by anyone. The only way to build solidarity is by doing the work. That means proving in the course of struggle that we are committed to our ideas, engaging in open and honest conversation about what we think needs to happen, how we can make it happen, and participating in a collective manner when it does happen. Organizers who are dedicated to a strike will not be returning to schools and refusing to work with anyone who’s not down, but we will be working to point the movement in that direction. Let me pose a question: which renders student organizers more pretentious- returning to campus oriented around a radical strategy that has the potential to actually stop the cuts, or returning to campus with a strategy that fails to confront the roots of the crisis (capital), organizing workers into the same actions that have failed so far to build independent working class power?
It’s absolutely true that we don’t have the organizational capacity to launch a general strike tomorrow, as was suggested by one conference attendee. However, the only way to build that organizational capacity is to orient ourselves from the beginning around the need for militant action that explicitly confronts the current organization of capital. If we realistically want to stop the budget cuts, it starts with correct strategy and analysis.
IV. Democratic Processes at the Conference
So what happened? How did such weak arguments prevail? They certainly were not the consensus of the conference participants. The democratic will of the conference was sidestepped by the conference organizers. This process occurred in more ways then one, and surely some of them were unconscious or uncontrollable, but some of them were clearly rooted in incorrect political orientation on the part of the organizers. The constant two minute cap on speaking stopped anyone from presenting a clear and analytically complex proposal. Every speaker we did hear was then translated based on the whims of the typist, who was able to reduce much contextualization of action into, “Capitalism Sucks.” There was no mechanism to stop the same proposals being repeated again and again, wasting valuable time that could have been spent on actual discussion. It’s tough to organize discussion between 500 folks, but that’s why we had the break-outs, right? Unfortunately it was there that democracy really started to break down.
In the UC break-out group the facilitator repeatedly made important political decisions about where time was best spent masked as facilitation decisions. The majority of the time was spent discussing UC specific action, limiting the time for the crucial point of how the UC should relate to the larger movement. The facilitator made a personal decision that we should spend time organizing an action at the UC regents meeting, when there are already statewide discussions on that point, wasting the valuable moments we had to talk about how we related to the organizers from other sectors. No time at all was given to actually discussing different courses of action, which might have forged real unity through shared analysis. Instead time was spent laundry-listing tactics abstracted from struggle, so that anyone could work with anyone else on things they already agreed were good ideas. Here, as at other points, the conference organizers failed to create a space that was conducive to actually advancing the struggle, because they were too focused on building a false unity of, “respect for whatever anyone else is doing”, regardless of whether it hurts or helps the movement.
The CSU break-out group, on the other hand, had a decisive vote for a state wide proposal. It called, by 66 votes to 20, for a general strike of the public service sector, (as opposed to a March on Sacramento, the only other proposal presented) with the slogan “No Cuts/ No War”– connecting the imperialist invasions abroad to the privatization at home through their shared roots in the accumulation of capital by the ruling class. In the K-12 break-out, a clear majority voted for a one day strike. The Community College breakout group did not come to a consensus on a proposal. Yet it was the UC break-out, the sector most divorced from the working class, where there was no actual discussion of the political meaning of any tactics, which played the largest role in producing the final “compromise proposal”. UC proposals for state action were nothing more than the random ideas of things that might be cool. Yet when we returned from the break-out groups to the main hall, there was no report-back from break-outs, so no one was aware that half the conference participants had already made a clear call for specific militant actions. Instead we were given a “compromise” proposal, which compromised the UC’s brainstorming session with the other two groups’ militant proposals.
This type of compromise was characteristic of the entire conference. At many points, the priority was on making space for as many different viewpoints as possible to be represented, instead of on the political content of any proposal. It reeks of the same ideology as liberal multi-culturalism, where the political meaning of racism and white-supremacy is sidestepped by having many different ethnicities in the same room. This was especially true of the final compromise proposal. It was here that a non-transparent, non-democratic, even authoritarian mis-representation of the political content of the conference thus far was pushed onto the participants by the organizers.
In the most important decision of the day, conference organizers framed the decision in a clearly biased manner that attempted to staunch real political debate. We were forced to chose between a compromise ( Who doesn’t want compromise?), or the apparently arduous, pointless process of, “counterposing every single proposal against one another.” This attempt to silence discussion was made almost ridiculous by the fact that at first we couldn’t even see the different proposals we were supposed to be counterposing. No matter who you are, you have to admit this was something new. When you lay out proposals in a meeting, you expect to be allowed to vote on them later. Instead the conference organizers made the participants vote on whether they wanted to vote on the proposals. And they attempted to do it without even having debate on the issue at all! It’s true that there were serious time constraints by the time it came to voting, (due to the waste of time earlier in the day) but it wouldn’t have taken much time at all to vote on the proposals, since most of them (such as jogging in Sacramento) had very little support. This is just basic parliamentary procedure.
The point of a general assembly is to provide a forum where different political stances can be aired and openly debated. We are supposed to hear the various perspectives, and the folks with the most coherent arguments, who are able to defend their position the best, will receive the most support. This completely failed on the 24th, instead conference organizers substituted an enforced liberal bourgeois politic that blocked revolutionary democracy, not to mention open debate.
However, the criticism needs to be spread around a little. Not once was this critique, in fact any coherent criticism of the decision making process or the control of time by organizers, aired from the floor. In fact, the ultra-lefts, the occupationists, made only a few lone calls for action towards the end of the conference. For the most part, the ultra-lefts failed to participate in the conference, preferring to complain about and look down upon it instead. Furthermore, they neither built nor advocated for any independent organizational framework but instead kept faith in the possibility of spontaneous coalescence. This approach conveniently requires no efforts at organizing but cannot produce the kind of solidarity and experience required to launch mass attacks against capital and the state. In that vacuum, those with the most aggressive organization set the agenda while the ultra-lefts were left to obsolescence. What was needed was a clear criticism of the process and an alternative revolutionary proposal. The left as a whole found itself sorely lacking.
V. Next Steps for the Movement
Again we must ask ourselves the question- what is to be done? Clearly we keep organizing. Those of us who came together to with the idea of mobilizing towards more militant action should bear in mind that the true democratic vision of the conference was with us. The same action is necessary regardless of the false compromise foisted upon us. But as we look toward the coming year, and the next conference in LA, we have some new things to think about.
To start with, for the February conference, we must look at some of the failed procedures of this recent debacle. These lessons are especially crucial, since we now face the problem of deciding on demands among a hopefully even larger movement. First- as many proposals as possible need to be prepared and sent to organizers ahead of time, so that we can spend less time presenting proposals and more time debating them. Second, we need at least some time where people have more than two minutes to speak if we’re ever going to hear a real discussion. Most importantly, break-out groups are an important tactic for dealing with big groups, but only if the decisions and ideas we come up with in small groups are presented to the whole group for honest debate.
What would have happened if, in the brief moments that were forced open for discussion before the final vote, this analysis had been presented? The course of the final hour of the conference might have been very different. Instead the few two minute slots were filled by little more than expressions of justifiable anger at the course of events. When we needed a clear refutation of the arguments and tactics of “compromise”, all we had was outrage. It’s understandable- how could we have known we needed to check in on the status of every break-out group during lunch in order to be prepared for the vote? But now we must learn from this lesson. Militants who want to advance the struggle towards actually stopping the attacks against the entire working class need to organize independently to be ready for the next conference. If we get our act together, we can stand up when the clock is ticking and make a real difference.
Armed with this analysis- the next steps are clear-
Join the coordinating committee for the February conference- we need some new leadership.
Set up independent networks so that those of us devoted to working class power can collectively decide on analysis and interventions.
Organize your schools and communities for strikes. In the course of your organizing, all our decisions must be formed by the question, “What is the best strategy for building independent working class power?”
Lastly, militant class-conscious organizers need to be critical as ever of the ways in which the attempts to dilute the struggle can easily come masked in false unity, false democracy, and false realism.