Lessons from a Long History of Dissent: From the Early Twentieth Century to Occupy Wall Street

World Peace Forum Teach-In, Vancouver, Canada, November 12, 2011 (Modified from Notes)

We are at what social theorists call a “historic moment,” in which real change suddenly seems possible.  It is therefore all the more important to learn from past struggles.  One of the first lessens of a long history of dissent from the early twentieth century to the current Occupy Wall Street movement is that relatively small numbers — that is, significantly less than a majority — of people can cause big changes through either armed revolutions or non-violent actions.  Support by large sectors of society can be gained along the way.  Examples include Russia, China, Cuba, the union/left movement and reforms during the Great Depression, anti-colonial liberation movements, the U.S. civil rights struggles, etc.

A second lesson is that most changes — both large and small — did not happen by “normal” electoral processes.  They were a result of either revolutions or agitation and direct action that forced legislators’ hands.  When changes did happen through “representative” governments, it was because of the pressure exerted by activists.  Capital was willing to accept some limited reforms — for example voting rights for African-Americans — and was willing to live with them.  Sometimes such limited reforms accorded with the interests of the system.  Civil rights reforms were essential if the U.S. state wanted to continue to exert its imperial power through proclaiming itself the home of freedom and democracy.  However, when reforms or programs directly threatened profits the capitalist class took a long-run view to turning back the reforms.  Thus, the social programs of the New Deal and “Great Society” — Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid, welfare, food assistance, etc., as well as the power of unions — “needed” to be undermined, downsized, or privatized (brought within the market logic of the system) in various ways in order to maximize capital’s flexibility and profits.

Changing the economic system by means of electoral democracy is not only challenging, but — given ruling-class power and imperialism — may not even be possible.

As Samir Amin has written:

I think that the reason for the failure of electoral democracy to produce real change is not hard to find: all hitherto existing societies have been based on a dual system of exploitation of labor (in various forms) and of concentration of the state’s powers on behalf of the ruling class.  This fundamental reality results in a relative “depoliticization/disacculturation” of very large segments of society.  And this result, broadly designed and implemented to fulfill the systemic function expected of it, is simultaneously the condition for reproduction of the system without changes other than those it can control and absorb — the condition of its stability.

A third lesson that I take from the history of 20th century dissent comes out of the problems that arose following the disintegration of the broader left in the United States.  This was the result of a combination of factors, including: the onslaught of the McCarthy period; the increasing income during the rapid growth period; the end of the Vietnam War; the gains made in the civil rights struggle; and the suppression tactics used by the government.  This disintegration of the broad movement, particularly the weakening of labor, led liberal/left activists to seek change through groups that focused on a single issue — feminism, gay/lesbian rights, civil/human rights, the environment, workers’ rights, sustainable/organic agriculture, hunger, etc.  The resulting fragmentation — with individual organizations isolating one struggle from another — has been the roadblock to forming a strong, unified left (whether in opposition to capitalism or not).  Nevertheless, many of these groups have helped to make really existing capitalism more livable for many people.

A fourth lessen is that under appropriate conditions a highly organized “vanguard” group can be effective in the armed struggle and in helping to mobilize the majority around a revolutionary project.  However, this structure later creates major problems.  In essence, the class struggle continues following even a successful overthrow of the old system.  As Mao put it:

Marxism-Leninism and the practice of the Soviet Union, China and other socialist countries all teach us that socialist society covers a very, very long historical stage.  Throughout this stage, the class struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat goes on and the question of “who will win” between the roads of capitalism and socialism remains, as does the danger of restoration of capitalism.

It is clear that it is very difficult to get this “vanguard” under control of the people.  It rapidly begins to have its own interests — whether desiring a return to capitalism or not — that are different from those of the mass of workers.  Marx discussed the issue of “the educator [who] must himself be educated.”  There were many attempts to put a check on the Communist cadres during the struggles in China from even before the revolutionaries took Beijing (for example, see William Hinton’s Fanshen) through the Cultural Revolution (for example, see Han Dongping’s The Unknown Cultural Revolution) where the final battle to gain the people’s control over the Communist Party was lost.

If the “vanguard” (or bureaucracy or leadership) can’t be brought under the control of the people, a truly democratic society — essential to the success of a complete economic/social transformation — is not possible.

So both the vanguard-revolutionary and electoral roads have proven to have huge problems in bringing about a new socio-economic-political system.  And, of course, this is certainly true about the “identity” politics and “act local” tendencies.

Some Thoughts on Implications for 21st Century Dissent

In light of the failure of electoral politics to produce systemic changes in the 20th century — with some the gains made by the people actually reversed — what can we make of the changes in such countries as Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia?  Will they be successful in finally transforming their countries from capitalism to a different socio-economic system while participating in a democratic electoral system?  The process is partially pushed along by activists operating with and without government support.  But (and this is a really big but) building a completely different social system within the interstices of a pre-existing capitalist system, with much of the old bureaucracy in place, results in many contradictions and local power blocs that will try put brakes on the changes.  And, of course, imperialism and the reactionary internal forces will do their best to stop the process — using any means possible to foment discontent or confusion.  Although there are many positive aspects of these struggles — such as feeding large numbers of poor people, providing housing and health care, the formation of literally tens of thousands of community councils in Venezuela to plan for their individual community’s needs.  With all the good things that are happening, it is still not at all clear — given the economic (and political) power that remains in the hands of backers of the old order and the subversion of U.S. imperialism that is already being felt — that these efforts can ultimately succeed in systemic transformation of their societies.

The Arab Spring and the Occupy Wall Street Movement

It is truly inspiring to see the mass demonstrations coming in the Arab world, inspired by a wish for a different life (and also by high costs of food and large numbers of unemployed).  But while such demonstrations brought down two regimes, they left (especially in Egypt) the power structure intact.  The focus in Egypt was understandably on the tyrant (and best friend of the United States) Hosni Mubarak.  But, for a true transformation to occur, power must be transferred from both the army and local and international capital to the people.  The mass demonstrations in Europe, especially Greece and Spain, have not yet resulted in any material changes.

We are no less inspired today by the way that this new movement has crossed the Atlantic from the Arab world and Europe, leading to Occupy Wall Street, which immediately set off a global protest now present in more than a thousand cities worldwide, representing every continent (almost literally so since pictures from Occupy Antarctica circulated the globe).  The Occupy movement is a development of the highest importance for the left.  The right slogan (we are the 99 %) — at the right time has captured the imagination and the frustration of many people in the United States and abroad.  Along with the actions already taken, this indicates a growing realization that it is the system itself that needs changing.

Whether or not they came on the slogan separately, the Joseph Stiglitz article in Vanity Fair (May 2011) “Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%” provided mainstream backing to the concept that a plutocracy rules the United States with little meaningful democracy.  The initial call to take and hold public spaces was made by Adbusters (adbusters.org).  And it was here that the connection between the critique of the 1% and social revolution was most powerfully made, inspiring many.

Although the Occupy struggle has been criticized by the media, as well as some on the left, as having no demands, one of the main button slogans at Occupy Boston reads: “What do we want?  Well for starters . . . TAX THE RICH, STOP THE WARS, MEDICARE AND JOBS FOR ALL.”  Not bad for starters, is it?  The Occupy Wall Street activists have gained support from unions and in turn are assisting union struggles.  Unions, in turn are seeing that they need more confrontational direct action.

Many are talking of “capitalism” and the need to transform the system — lots of signs have the word “capitalism” in their slogans.  Many people see the connections between the imperial wars, the gross inequality in the U.S., the lack of meaningful democracy, and the disastrous economy.  The destruction of the environment, although not receiving the same attention initially as the economic/political issues (although there were some environmentally oriented signs, such as one reading “infinite growth is not possible on a finite planet”), is gaining attention from the movement.  And some environmental groups are seeing that they need to join forces and struggle together with the Occupy movement.  Occupy the Planet and Occupy Climate Change have become slogans, and reflect the efforts of environmental activists, who are increasingly joining with this new movement.

Based on lessens from the 20th century, it appears certain that if the ultimate goal of a movement is not to displace the power of capital with, literally, the power of the people, then reform projects and gains will be limited and potentially reversible.  Encouragement can be taken by the many within the Occupy movement, as amorphous as it might be, who seem to understand that the various political/economic/social/environmental problems we face are related to the rule of capital, and that the ultimate goal must be to displace its economic and political power and to create a new society.  There has never been a better time for this than now.

Fred Magdoff is professor emeritus of plant and soil science at the University of Vermont and adjunct professor of crop and soil science at Cornell University.  He writes frequently on political economy.  His most recent books are The Great Financial Crisis (written with John Bellamy Foster, Monthly Review Press, 2009) and Agriculture and Food in Crisis (edited with Brian Tokar, Monthly Review Press, 2010) and What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know About Capitalism: A Citizen’s Guide to Capitalism and the Environment (with John Bellamy Foster, Monthly Review Press, 2011).

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