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Tribunes of the People
This essay originally appeared here and was written as part of a one year reflection of Occupy Boston.
It has been more than a year since the beginning of Occupy Wall Street. This single moment spawned similar encampments across the country from Boston to Oakland. Anyone who was there during the opening days remembers the carnival atmosphere, the mutual flowering of ideas and the feeling that anything was possible. For myself and so many others, the Occupy Movement was a rupture with the limited horizon of possibilities that capitalism imposes upon us. It was in the words of Jean-Paul Sartre, “the explosion of freedom, the rupture of the established order and the invention of an efficacious and spontaneous order.”
But now the encampments have been dispersed, the momentum of Occupy has stalled and fatigue has overcome many activists. In times when the horizon is not easily pointing to victory, how are we to maintain our fidelity to the ideas of Occupy? It is here that we should ponder these words of Slavoj Zizek in a teach-in at OWS: “We have a nice time here. But remember, carnivals come cheap. What matters is the day after, when we will have to return to normal lives. Will there be any changes then? I don’t want you to remember these days, you know, like “Oh. we were young and it was beautiful.” Remember that our basic message is “We are allowed to think about alternatives.” If the taboo is broken, we do not live in the best possible world. But there is a long road ahead. There are truly difficult questions that confront us. We know what we do not want. But what do we want? What social organization can replace capitalism? What type of new leaders do we want?”
If what Zizek said is true, and I think it is, then what do we need to do now? What hard work should we take up? Well, the Marxist philosopher Istvan Meszaros said that the great challenge of our historical time is to develop a hegemonic alternative that is capable of overturning capitalism and that means developing mass communist consciousness. To those who say that such a strategy is premature, Meszaros answers as follows: “The hegemonic alternative to capital’s rule implies the need for an irreversible revolutionary transformation. Naturally, the “realists” always pontificate that such strategy is “premature” and should be postponed to the arrival of “more favorable conditions.” But what could be less premature than an uncompromising radical intervention in the historical process, given the conditions of the greatest possible danger that we must now face? Or, to put it in another way, when could such intervention be considered not premature, if not under the urgency of our own historical time?”1 That being said, I would offer this answer to Zizek’s question: we need a communist party or an organization playing a similar role with the guiding ideal of being a tribune of the people, in order to move forward.
Yet capitalism will not drive itself to destruction and be replaced, nor will opposition to its destructive tendencies lead to its replacement unless those who suffer its effects and who offer resistance to it are able and willing to subordinate their individual wills to that of a collective will (a communist party) that can bring real freedom or communism into being.2
A communist party, acts as a mediator which draws together different sections of the working class (who have differing and uneven levels of consciousness) and it forges a united opposition to its opponents, and draws them together and makes them conscious the history of their struggle and the party formulates the strategy and tactics that will serve the long-term interests of the working class.3 The party is not only a teacher, but must dialectically play the role of pupil by listening and learning from the people.
That being so, how does a communist party relate to Occupy? Well, Occupy was not just a place where you could have fun, celebrate and listen to music. Occupy was an event that said, “we won’t accept the status quo and we’ll do something about it.” It acknowledged the failures of capitalism (banks got bailed out) and the class struggle (99% and 1%), in uneven and differing ways. Occupy also cuts a hole in the ideological unity of capitalism that there is ‘shared sacrifice.’ This is a new political subject coming forward. At Occupy we saw people who were active, carrying out the day-to-day work of maintaining a camp, bringing in food, printing leaflets and linking up with other struggles.4
Occupy is doing the work of a party on a certain level: it seeks to maintain a continuity of oppositional struggle that enables broader numbers of people to join in a movement. In so many words: it builds collectivity.
As we know, building this new collectivity is not something guaranteed. There has been a great deal of division in Occupy (on issues such as race, gender, demands, etc.). There has also been the fragmentation of the movement that has resulted following the evictions of encampments which deprived the movement of the space where this new collectivity was being formed.
The movement has drifted apart in many other directions, some of which are clear dead ends. For one: many Occupiers have embraced a form of lifestyle politics which posits individualistic and moralistic solutions (buy organic foods, grow your own gardens, barter, go vegan and don’t shop at Walmart) that are elitist and can be easily reabsorbed into the dominant system. Two: others in Occupy have settled for working within the Democratic Party and accepting the crumbs of reform they offer even as the Democrats promise more war and protection for big business.
I would go as far as to say that these two choices are what Alain Badiou would define as evil. Badiou says “that evil is the moment I lack the strength to be true to the good that compels me.” So what does this mean? Well, Occupy was a politicization of new subjects. The rupture of Occupy (or any rupture) shows that it is not enough to have just new subjects, but that we need to develop the political consequences of that rupture.5 And that means building a party which not only assets the division of capitalist society by the class struggle, but politicizes a part of that division (the working class, 99% or the people) with theoretical clarity of the totality of the revolutionary struggle, and bring consciousness of the tasks at hand.6
Now a communist party is based on the ‘actuality of revolution’ in the words of Georg Lukacs. The actuality of revolution means that revolutions do happen (Tunisia, Egypt)7 and that politics is radically open.8 More than that, there is no single road map that we can follow to certain victory because a revolution is a shifting and chaotic event. Yet a party should know that the revolution will not be completely knowable in advance and thus be prepared to face the unknown. And that that means we can not defer decisions, actions and judgments that are necessary to the situation at hand because to do so would be fatal. We need discipline and preparation for the rapids of revolution which will help us to navigate, adapt and learn its ever changing currents.9
What structures does a party need to face the actuality of revolution? I think that we can learn a great deal, positively and negatively from Occupy in this regard. Not only did Occupy maintain a continuity of struggle that allowed many people to join, it also valued democracy (or horizontialism). Yet horizontalism was often carried to such a fault that any discussion of vertical structures was ruled out. And I would argue that we need some form of vertical structures in addition to horizontal ones in order to coordinate, organize and expand our struggles to the national and international levels. And in building the necessary vertical structures, developing leaders; we equally need to the develop the appropriate forms of accountability and recall.10
A party is not just about coming together, it is also about sticking together and making sacrifices for the sake of others and we need to do that in collectively built and tested organizations. And as I said in a previous talk, it is only via collective class struggle that we can hope to make a revolution that can overthrow capitalism and institute communism. Furthermore, it is only by passing through struggle, through revolution that the proletariat can develop its consciousness and the solidarity necessary to win. As Marx said to the workers, they need to go through a struggle “not only to bring about a change in society but also to change yourselves, and prepare yourselves for the exercise of political power.”11
When a capitalist crisis comes, that does not mean revolutionary consciousness will automatically be produced. What it does mean is that there has been an opening in which people are more receptive to our ideas. And we should take full advantage of that opening. I think that we should view the people as eager to hear and be inspired by our message of communist revolution. We want to learn from the people, who are often ahead of us in their willingness to fight and grasp ideas. And what we want to do is to draw more people into the movement and expand our circles of action to attack every manifestation of capitalist exploitation to hasten its overthrow. Revolutions are contagious. People can be inspired by heroic fighters, bold ideas, mass struggle and perform miracles. Ultimately, I believe that the communist message will be heeded because it is needed.
Now following the scholar Lars Lih (one of the foremost authorities on Lenin), I’d like to touch on five characteristics that Lih said Lenin identified as essential to a party leader or revolutionary organizer:
1. Comes forth from the people;
2. Earns love and respect from the workers, due to his or her complete devotion to the cause;
3. Always maintains links with the advanced workers;
4. Works hard to instill in him or herself the necessary practical knowledge and flair;
5. Sees their particular local and national struggles linked to the international revolution.12
Now before I conclude, I’d like to read three quotes from Lenin that hammer home many of the points of this talk. In the first, Lenin is addressing fellow revolutionaries whom he believes are behind the struggle of the people, who are ahead of the party’s agitation:“We must blame ourselves for falling behind the movement of the masses, for we have not been able to organise indictments of these despicable things in a broad, clear and timely fashion.”13
In this second quote, Lenin is admonishing revolutionaries to not be pessimistic about what a dedicated revolutionary can achieve in serve to the communist cause: “You boast that you are practical, but you fail to see what every Russian practical worker knows: namely, the miracles that the energy, not only of a circle, but even of an individual person is able to perform in the revolutionary cause.”14
And this final quote from Lenin is actually one of my favorite things that he ever said and it sums up my whole talk: “the Social-Democrat’s ideal should not be the trade union secretary, but the tribune of the people, who is able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects; who is able to generalise all these manifestations and produce a single picture of police violence and capitalist exploitation; who is able to take advantage of every event, however small, in order to set forth before all his socialist convictions and his democratic demands, in order to clarify for all and everyone the world-historic significance of the struggle for the emancipation of the proletariat.”15
So I believe that in order to maintain our fidelity to the ideas of Occupy, then we to need to give those ideas flesh by giving them an organized body so they can have a practical effect in the real world. So my answer to Zizek’s question of what happens the day after is this: we need to organize and politicize the consequences of the rupture by building a communist party who’s guiding ideal is a tribune of the people.
1. Istvan Meszaros, The Challenge and Burden of Historical Time: Socialism in the Twenty-First Century (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2008), 435.
2. This paragraph is drawn largely from Stephen Perkins, Marxism and the Proletariat: A Lukacsian Perspective (London: Pluto Press, 1993), 170. For an elaboration on the Lukacsian perspective on the communist party, see 169-181.
3. Ibid. 170
4. Jodi Dean, The Communist Horizon (London: Verso Books, 2012), 213.
5. Alain Badiou, The Communist Hypothesis (London: Verso Books, 2010), 227 which is quoted by Dean, 2012, 213.
6. This argument is drawn from Perkins, 1993, 179 and Dean, 2012, 245.
7. Dean, 2012, 240.
8. “This means that the actuality of the proletarian revolution is no longer only a world historical horizon arching above the self-liberating working class, but that revolution is already on its agenda.” Georg Lukacs, Lenin: A Study in the Unity of his Thought,” Marxist Internet Archive.http://www.marxists.org/archive/lukacs/works/1924/lenin/ch01.htm [Accessed November 1, 2012].
9. Dean, 2012, 241.
10. Dean, 2012, 226 and 238.
11. Karl Marx , “Revelations Concerning the Communist Trial in Cologne,” Marxists Internet Archive, http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1853/revelations/ch01.htm [Accessed November 10, 2012].
12. These five points are drawn from Lars Lih’s discussion the qualities that Lenin says a communist revolutionary leader should possess. See: Lars T. Lih, “We must dream! Echoes of ‘What is to Be Done?’ in Lenin’s later career,” International Journal of Socialist Renewal. http://links.org.au/node/1980 [Accessed November 1, 2012].
13. See Lars Lih’s discission of this quote at Lars Lih, “Scotching the myths about Lenin’s `What is to be done,’” International Journal of Socialist Renewal,http://links.org.au/node/1953 [Accessed November 1, 2012]. The original quote can be found in Vladimir Lenin, `What is to Be Done: Burning Question of Our Movement,’ Marxist Internet Archive. http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1901/witbd/iii.htm [Accessed November 1, 2012].
14. See Lars Lih’s discission of this quote at Lars Lih, “Scotching the myths about Lenin’s `What is to be done,’” International Journal of Socialist Renewal,http://links.org.au/node/1953 [Accessed November 1, 2012]. The original quote can be found in Vladimir Lenin, `What is to Be Done: Burning Question of Our Movement,’ Marxist Internet Archive. http://marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1901/witbd/iv.htm [Accessed November 1, 2012].
15. Vladimir Lenin, `What is to Be Done: Burning Question of Our Movement,’ Marxist Internet Archive. http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1901/witbd/iii.htm [Accessed November 1, 2012].