An age of revolution: organise, don’t agonise

December 2, 2011

The phrase “organise, don’t agonise” has become a bumper sticker, a popular slogan in the feminist movement, the title of many speeches, conferences and newsletters. African-American civil rights activist Florence Rae Kennedy coined the term. Gloria Steinem quoted her in Ms magazine in 1973.

Since then, this powerful slogan has circumnavigated the world many times — used by many activists and movements.

It has lasted because the slogan reasonates strongly with the condition of the oppressed, exploited and persecuted.

On one hand, we are weighed down with the pain of the suffering and indignities inflicted as a matter of everyday business by powerful oppressors. On the other, we are challenged as to what we do in response.

The answer for Kennedy was a single word: “Organise.”

But in reality, for many people it is not that simple a choice. Agonising, the much easier option, is always a big temptation.

Agonising can take many forms. One can just whinge and do nothing. And one can rationalise it with the argument that nothing we can do can make a difference — that nothing is going to change, whatever we do.

This rationalising can also be dressed up as a fancy political theory. It could be a theory that rejects organisation on principle or it could be a theory that says that “now is not the right time” to organise, that we have to wait until the situation develops further.

But in the end it comes to the same conclusion: Don’t get organised now. Just keep doing what you can as an individual.

Or there is a variation on this. Organise but only organise as movements around particular issues like workers’ wages and conditions, climate change, racism, sexism, homophobia or war. Don’t organise to change the system, to break the tyranny of the rich and powerful. Don’t organise to build a new system based on sharing and sustainable practices.

There is a deep connection between organising the movements around particular issues and organising for fundamental social change.

If an organisation wants fundamental social change but does not take part in the struggles, movements and organisations for specific changes (or “reforms” as they are sometimes called) then it ceases to be what it claims to be and degenerates into a political sect.

A political sect tends to invent theoretical differences that justify its refusal to build movements for specific changes.

On the other hand, movements around particular issues rise and subside. Sometimes they subside after a victory, if only partial. Sometimes they subside after a defeat.

In both phases, organisations and institutions that continue to accumulate and develop activists, that keep alive the accumulated lessons of the various struggles and seek to generalise those lessons, are of critical value.

Fewer activists would survive from each struggle, and new struggles would find it harder and take longer to start up without experienced activists. On a personal level, it takes organisation to maintain morale during the times when specific movements subside.

Humans have produced many elaborate justifications for many things, but inventing a justification for inaction — for not organising — is common.

It is possible to lend such a justification a seemingly “Marxist” flavouring because Marx and Engels — and others who followed in the tradition of modern socialist thought they started — said no system can be overthrown until the existing system has exhausted all its avenues for social progress.

Until such time, system change from capitalism to socialism will remain just a wish, a hope, a dream.

So one argument is that we have not arrived to that stage yet under capitalism. Revolution is just an idea, a dream.

But if we look at the world around us it is clear this is definitely untrue. We live in an age of revolution. What has been sweeping the Arab world this year? Revolutions. Revolutions driven by millions of people who have taken to the streets — often putting their lives on the line.

And this is not the first time. There was another wave of revolutions in Latin America at the beginning of the 21st century. These revolutions ridiculed the capitalist triumphalism of the 1990s.

And before that there was the wave of revolutions that ended in the 1970s. Before that there was the 1968 revolutions. And we can go back all the way to 1917.

Indeed, the history of the past 100 years of capitalism has been a history of wars and revolution. How can we look back on this and say we do not live in an age of revolution?

But you don’t have to know your history to work out where capitalism has got us to today. You just need to think about the consequences of living in a world where the richest 1% in effect control almost all the wealth. With this wealth they have bought and corrupted governments and enslaved billions of people. Permanent war has been inflicted on numerous nations and economic misery on many more.

At the heart of the Occupy movement is a broad realisation that the world is being unbearably distorted, and risks being destroyed, because our societies are being twisted to make the world’s richest 1% even richer.

The 1% respect no moral or environmental boundaries.

Half of the world’s population is forced to try to survive by sharing a tiny part of the world’s wealth.

So what are we, the 99%, doing about it? Are we just going to sit back and let our common future be ruined?

Imagine you were observing a children’s playground with 10 children in it. One child was given four out of ten toys available and half the children were forced to share one toy.

All bloody hell would break loose wouldn’t it?

So look at the world today, with its ridiculous imbalance of wealth and power, and its constant wars and recurring revolutionary upheavals. Ask yourself if we live in revolutionary times.

There is a variation of the argument, that says most of world is in a state of upheaval, but we in Australia happen to live in a rich, “gated” global suburb.

Rather than try to change the world and make it more just, the reaction is to make sure Australia’s “gate” is kept shut. So if people from the poor parts of the world try to get in, Australia locks them up indefinitely or deports them. Adult and child refugees alike are sentenced to indefinite jail without trial.

Together with these physical barriers there is the racism that justifies the privileged conditions of the few allowed inside the “gated community”. This discourages people from giving solidarity to the rest of the exploited and oppressed outside the barriers. It encourages them to think they have more common interest with the richest 1%.

So do the special conditions in a few wealthy neighbourhoods in the global village mean the time is not yet ripe to organise for revolutionary change?

We live in an increasingly globalised world. In fact, the richest 1% accelerated the process of globalisation (in a distorted capitalist way) to help get themselves out of the last big global economic crisis capitalism brought upon itself in the mid-1970s.

The plan was simple, use the threat of global labour competition to force working people around the world to work harder, live with less security and sacrifice hard-won rights and public services. They succeeded to a degree, only to bring about another, even bigger, greed-driven global crisis.

Now the global Occupy movement has spread to more than 2200 cities, some politicians that serve the richest 1% want to assure us that this is not a global problem. It is just a US problem, says Labor Minister for Social Inclusion Tanya Plibersek. Everyone is happy here in Australia.

But people are not fools. The 1% can’t have it both ways all the time.

They can’t convince Qantas workers that it is fine for their CEO to give himself a 71% pay rise (a yearly pay packet of $5.1 million) while he denies baggage handlers and other workers basic cost-of-living adjustments while threatening the outsourcing of more jobs to countries with lower wages and worse working conditions.

The global political discussion about the 1% versus the 99% is smashing all the justifications for the status quo. The argument that the Occupy movement has no clear message is laughable.

Many thousands of people — even in the richest countries in the world — are organising occupations around this message. This makes the need to organise around the objective of system change even clearer.

If we agree on the need to get organised for system change, then the question of how to organise has to be tackled next. This is a big debate in the Occupy movement, which aspires to reclaim power for the 99% and build a new democracy. However, there are some valuable lessons to be gained from the experience of previous movements for system change.

1. Collective action is stronger than individual action.

Any study of how the richest 1% manage to enslave the 99% reveals two important things. First, the source of the 1%’s power is the systematic dispossession of the 99% of the means to make a living independent of the capitalists.

Second, the 99% must be kept divided because independent collective political action by the 99% would be fatal to the rule of the 1%. This is especially important given the labour of the 99% makes every product and provides every service in the economy.

Collective political action is key if the 99% are to turn their immense potential power into actual power that can end the tyranny of the 1%.

2. We need serious organisation to get things done.

A slapdash struggle against the 1% with their paid professional enforcers, con-merchants and divide-and-rule experts cannot succeed.

When the rising capitalist class in Europe challenged the old feudal ruling class, they already had come to own much of the resources and assets. But today the 1% have the greatest share of society’s wealth — more than any other ruling elite has had in human history.

The 1% have the money but our strength is in our numbers, our unity and our organisation.

Every social movement learns this through painful experience. To organise seriously we need serious commitment, including a commitment to act effectively, efficiently, democratically and inclusively.

We need a commitment to raising resources and funds for the struggle. We need a commitment to sharing the skills of effective collective activism with others.

And we need to learn from our collective experience, by constantly adding to and keeping alive the traditions and history of collective struggle.

3. In political organisation, the only alternative to elected leadership is unelected leadership.

This is something the Occupy movement has yet to get clear. There is a lot of talk about a “leaderless” movement. I will not mince my words: this is a delusion and a dangerous delusion.

The first time in modern history that working people took political power in their own right — for just three months in 1871 in the Paris Commune — they figured out that all leaders had to be democratically elected, collective, recallable and accountable.

Further, they recognised real democracy could not be just representative but had also to be participatory, it had to be direct democracy.

If you don’t have democratically elected, collective, recallable and accountable leadership then you get unelected, non-collective, unrecallable and unaccountable defacto leaders (or more likely, misleaders).

We have seen some of this already in this new movement and I am confident the movement will soon wise up on this score.

It is not hard to understand the deep suspicion of leaders in the Occupy movement. We have come through a period of massive betrayals of working people by the leaders of trade unions and supposedly working class parties.

Indeed, the widespread anger against the 1% is combined with anger at “leaderships” that professed to represent the interests of the 99% but who have done the 1%’s dirty work.

I can see where the suspicion of “leaders” is coming from, but our only protection from this kind of betrayal is to entrench democratic selection, accountability and the right of recall — that is, we have to build institutions of participatory democracy.

If we don’t do this, the movement of the 99% will be more vulnerable to the sort of leadership betrayals that working people’s movements have experienced around the world over the past century.

When a new movement of the oppressed and exploited arises it is always conditioned by the specific mass experiences that forced it into existence. Activists should try to understand the roots of the movement and be sensitive to its specific characteristics.

This Occupy movement today, like the mass movements for “21st century socialism” in Latin America, is very much shaped by the betrayals of the working class movement in the 20th century.

Its emphasis is on building a thoroughly democratic movement. New technologies and broader access to education in many countries are powerful assets for these new movements. We need to recognise this and make full use of these assets.

The Occupy movement is likely to go through a process of working out exactly what democratic forms are best. There will be long discussions. Experienced activists should dive into these discussions and patiently explain the lessons of past experience while listening to and welcoming all new ideas that help the movement organise democratically and effectively.

It is important to be prepared to test things out, to allow the process of trial and error and help the movement develop on the basis of its own collective experiences.

As socialists, our objective is the total democratisation of society — not just the bourgeois democracy that leaves most of the big social and economic decisions to the corporate boards of directors.

Our goal is to end the tyranny of the super-rich minority and replace it with true people’s power, which can begin the big task of refashioning the world on the basis of democracy, justice and ecological sustainability.

[Peter Boyle is national secretary of the Socialist Alliance.]

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