Movement Building in the Fight for Public Education

Posted: March 28, 2012 in Uncategorized

Below is the talk I presented at the NC Defend Education organizing conference, with a transcript below.  How do we construct a framework for our day to day activism that can move us forward?

So this is trying to cram a lot of material into a small talk, so please bear with me.  In this talk, I want to take up a few central questions.  First, and most important—what is a movement?  This may seem fairly obvious, but I think we can always benefit from pursuing absolute clarity.  Second, where do movements come from?  In the last year, we’ve seen the eruption of various movements—from Egypt to Wisconsin to Nigeria—and the word spontaneous gets thrown around a lot, but I’d like to dig a little deeper, because I think assuming spontaneity actually plays into the hands of people who would like the movements to fail.  The third question is what do movements look like?  Encompassed in this are questions of leadership (i.e., Do movements need leaders?), the ability of the movement to take up larger political questions (for example, are we an anti-capitalist movement) and build future goals.  The final question, which is one I always try to address in every discussion I have related to politics, activism, or revolution, is the question of where we go from here.  Each of those questions is enough to fill hours of discussion and they’re all interconnected so I’ll probably be jumping back and forth from one to the other, so again, please bear with me.

Now, if I were you, I would be wondering right about now, “but this is a skill workshop, so why are we talking about the theory of movements?” so I’d like to address why I’ve structured this the way I have.  Primarily, the thought process behind this is that we are already engaged in a movement, so the skill work of movement building—the flier distributing, coalition building, conference calls—you all already do that and I think it would both pandering and quite frankly, not that helpful to spend an hour talking about it.  What seems like it could be helpful is instead to attempt to construct a larger framework to understand how these day-to-day activities come together to result in this thing we call a movement that can actually challenge the structure of power.  While distributing pamphlets might seem a far cry from taking the Winter Palace, the two are connected, and if our goal is a different system, a different society, we need to do our best to understand how this process takes place.

Fundamental to this understanding is attaining a clear understanding of what we mean by movement.  A movement is different than a protest but related to it.  To speak about it dialectically, a movement exists outside of individual acts of protest but only exists because of them and only insofar as the potential for further action is palpable and realistic.  Movements can be small and may remain small—for example, the struggle to win equal pay in a single workplace.  And while we should not denigrate the gains that can be won through small struggles with a single—or small set—of clear demands, I think that, as organizers, we shouldn’t set out with this vision.  Small victories are ways to build confidence, ways to convince people to join the movement, not an end in themselves.  For example, the movement building against Amendment 1 here in North Carolina is—for all involved—a movement to stop a discriminatory clause from being added to the state constitution.  Our fight against tuition hikes has an immediate goal of stopping any further raising of tuition in the UNC system.  But both of these movements take place in a larger context.  Organizers looking forward should see that a victory defeating Amendment 1 on May 8 would be an enormous boost in confidence to the people who had actively participated in the movement and to those who supported the fight but stayed on the sidelines.  To retreat from such a moment would be crippling to the larger movement—the fight for full marriage equality—a nationwide movement with allies around the world and clear goals, which itself takes place in the larger context of the fight for LGBT liberation, which is international, more amorphous, and has varying goals depending on the on the ground situation in a given location.  Similarly, the student movement in North Carolina, with it’s immediate goals, takes place in the larger context of an international student movement that reaches from Chile to the UK, and itself is part of the global youth revolt.

As organizers interested in movement building, we must always be looking beyond the immediate situation of what is and seek to analyze instead what is possible.  This, at its heart is the movement and the purpose of movement building.  The goal is not simply to continue, but to escalate, not only to struggle but to win.  This doesn’t mean we won’t lose, but rather, that we should, as Rosa Luxemburg noted in The Mass Strike, to see these defeats in the context of the larger struggle—that defeats are schools of struggle that prepare us for the next round, and eventually for victory.

This brings us to the mass movement.  These movements have the greatest potential to effect massive and widespread change, and to become revolutionary for a few reasons.  First, they involve a much greater proportion of the population than smaller more isolated struggles, and have the potential to involve the majority of the working class and students in fights that are not only taking up struggles in each location but working in solidarity with each other globally.  One of the most striking things about the global fightback that began in 2011—well, late 2010, really in Greece and the UK but then exploded in Tunisia, Egypt and Wisconsin—was the rapid emergence of internationalism that transformed what would have been a series of mass movements globally into an international movement.  When I was in Wisconsin last February, I ate pizza that had been sent to us by striking Egyptian port workers.  Signs in the capital building read “Egypt = 23 Days, Wisconsin = ?” and “Hosni Walker, your days are numbered.”  And this is just one of many examples.  At the root of all the movements was the global crisis, which at the time was entering its fourth year.  It is in this context that the mass movements of 2011 from Egypt to Wall Street emerged.

But were these movements really spontaneous, as they were characterized by the media, and to a lesser extent, some of their participants?  There certainly was an element of spontaneity, but I will argue that to characterize them as completely spontaneous is both untrue and counterproductive.  If we take, for example, the killing of Trayvon Martin, we can see this in practice.  Trayvon, as we well know, is not the first young Black man to be slaughtered.  It happens all the time.  But nationwide struggle has not emerged from each instance.  In 2010, seven year old Aiyana Jones was murdered by the police in a home raid.  There was certainly anger over the incident, but it did not rally millions to action, as the killing of Trayvon has done.  So what has changed between the summer of 2010 and now?  Troy Davis was legally lynched by the state of Georgia.  Occupy erupted.  Three young men were murdered by the police in New York City and the NYPD met with resistance, organized and unorganized.  All of these laid the ground work for what is happening now.  Organizing to stop Troy Davis’s execution, while it ultimately failed to achieve its central and immediate goal, this has served as one of the “dry runs” described by Luxemburg in The Mass Strike.  It galvanized activists and prepared us for the next fight.  Now the next fight is here, and we are better equipped to fight it.  Occupy’s role in all of this has been the shift from movements that only have immediate goals to a mass movement that both has immediate goals—stopping foreclosures, for example—but also sees the movement as a project, and Occupy is part of the global fightback that has put revolution back on the agenda.  New tools and technology have been central to allowing organizers to reach out to groups of people faster than ever before, but these tools have only been effective at making what are, at this moment, essentially pro-democracy movements (with the exceptions of Greece and Egypt, which are in pre-revolutionary and revolutionary situations, respectively), because these “new tools” are being combined with the 5,000 year old tactic of “let’s go down to the square and vote.”  Spontaneity might bring some people to the squares, but it is organization and preparation that makes them political, that makes them viable, and that gives them the potential for victory.

With the question of organization comes the question of leadership.  Do movements need leaders?  From Spain to Oakland, the global movements have had a healthy distrust of organizations that have sold them out in the past, whether that was the traditional union leadership, political parties like the Democrats, PASOK, or Labor, or NGO type organizations which have dominated political discourse throughout the neoliberal period.  And this is certainly not the sort of political leadership that I am advocating.  These leadership models are not based in the mass activity of movement participants: workers and students.  Their top-down structure has been proven ineffective.  In a matter of months, the Occupy movement has accomplished more through mass direct action that years of signing online petitions against corporations.  The 2011 Slutwalks had more of a role in shaping cultural ideas about rape and feminism that decades of making donations to national women’s organizations.  These forms of leadership have bought into the logic of capitalism, and they have sold us out again and again.

So what kind of leadership would benefit our movement?  We don’t want a single leader.  A super-star.  As Eugene Debs, the American socialist and antiwar activist said, “I wouldn’t lead you into the promised land even if I could.  If I could lead you in, someone else could lead you out.”  Leadership isn’t about people per se.  It’s about developing organization with a perspective for moving the struggle forward—and then winning people in the movement to that vision.  Of course, developing a perspective and winning everyone to it is easier said than done, but it’s not impossible.  It’s part of a long process.

But what do we do in the mean time?  After all, there is a dialectical relationship between the struggle and winning people to moving forward in a certain way.  As has been said several times already at this conference, struggle is the best classroom we have.  It’s in the streets, the assemblies, the picket lines that people’s ideas change, where the argument for a certain direction can be made.  This is where the united front method comes in, basing itself on basic points of unity and an agreement to struggle together against a common enemy (at the time the theory was developed, the threat was fascism).  Within the united front method, however, members and organizations maintain their political independence, which is critical for the forward momentum of struggle.  This is an arena that allows us to struggle now and to work out how to move forward.

An example of united front organizing is from Egypt, where the Revolutionary Socialists stated at the time Mubarak was overthrown that the next fight would be against SCAF.  It was an unpopular position at the time, since earlier that week the streets had been filled with the chant “the army and the people are fingers of one hand.”  They employed the united front method…and their perspective is being affirmed by the experiences of people on the ground being brutally repressed by the army.


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