The Third International after Lenin

Monday, October 3, 2011

OWS and ACS

Militant/Frank Forrestal

Members of Laborer's Local 563 join Sept. 16 protest of workers fighting lockout by American Crystal Sugar outside office of scab recruiter Strom Engineering in Minnetonka, Minn.

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On a hectic Monday at work, I got the following note, written in finest Stewie Griffin style:
Hmmm... something seems to be missing here... but I can't put my finger on it....
I think its something that happened kind of close to Jack Barnes' apartment.... and the national office of the SWP... you know that financial district kind of area... with a lot of banks....
It's been going on for two weeks.... what is it? ..... Why doesn't the Militant think its important?..... hmmmmmmm......

Readers of this blog will know from previous posts that I am a former member of the U.S. Socialist Workers Party. Because I am a careful reader and often a careful defender of the party past and present, comrades from other traditions and backgrounds sometimes bring my way the latest rumors, innuendos, and questions about the party. The email quoted above is the first I received vis-a-vis the silence of The Militant [the SWP's 80 year old newspaper] on the ongoing Occupy Wall Street mobilizations in New York and around the United States [soon to be manifesting here in Cleveland, too].

Earlier, I and another former party member had already been discussing the SWP response to OWS before the above email arrived.
The former party member asked me:

Any info on the SWP view? They seem to be, as is often the case with such happenings, a bit behind the eight ball. I noticed they did not report on it in the latest Militant, but that may have been a time-line issue.

At first I thought this comrade had typed "eight ball" when he meant to type "curve ball." But the SWP, for a fractional of the middle class radical milieu predominating in the U.S. today, is always behind the eight-ball. That is because so many of the most vocal elements within this milieu were once members of the SWP and after thirty or forty years are still not able to look themselves in the mirror about why they left. I'm not sure why; former members of the October League or DRUM don't carry on like that. Personally, the best time of my political life was spent in the SWP. Over the years I have come to the conclusion that these SWP-haters can't let it go because they were never honest with themselves about why they left, their fear that - secretly - they and others might view their behavior as unprincipled capitulation.
(In the years 1975-1980 the SWP carried out a very public campaign to get a big majority of its leaders and members colonized in workplaces organized by industrial unions. [The whys and wherefores of this can be read in The Changing Face of U.S. Politics]. The majority of the party at several successive conventions approved this line, and organized themselves in local branches to carry it out. But men and women who had spent years working jobs out of necessity so that they could devote the rest of their time to party work, and many women and men who had worked full time for the party for many years in various organizational and editorial capacities, found the transition to a completely different way of functioning impossible to master. The party as a whole changed, but they could not. Most who became irreconcilable quit, then tried to recreate an old SWP more in tune with their careers and personal lives. A few let their individual sense of injury erode their moral fiber, and had to be expelled. Some quit spectacularly and became Wall Street brokers or activists or movementarians of various stripes; one even became a well-known bourgeois politician. What united, and still unites them all, is a pathological hatred of the SWP, and a desire to see it fail. [The public spectacle they make of themselves is on exhibit here. They do not stick at the lowest forms of hearsay and personal slander.])

So when I got that first email quoted above asking in a good-natured way why the SWP had not given the world its thoughts on the OWS events, I responded based on my own experience, and decades of reading The Militant, in this spirit, if not exactly these much better-chosen words:

I don't think [that there was not enough time for The Militant to cover OWS]. They were very up to date on Troy Davis. A person I know on site in NYC at OWS reports no sign of the SWP, and he has been there every day after work, and on weekends.

SWP took a very similar, reticent, and careful approach to the Tea Party events, a petty bourgeois mobilization of a more hierarchical variety; while I and many others were saying: "incipient fascism is on the march." Well, clearly I was the Chicken Little and The Militant's wait-and-see approach allowed a longer time-frame for events to develop and unfold.
Defining OWS for the world after two weeks is premature to say the least. One comrade told me OWS reminded him of the various and self-contradicting perspectives and social forces behind Father Gapon in 1905. The people at OWS are all coming from different parts of "anti-capitalism"; some even say they are against the Federal Reserve and similar nonsense. They don't need The Militant summarizing them, and who would take such a shotgun approach to summation seriously anyway?
In a context of decades of working class retreat and a nearly non-existent communist vanguard, with no powerful and authoratative Stalinist political culture informing things in New York anymore, what else could something like OWS look like? It is a cauldron of petty bourgeois political tendencies whose spontaneity has enough objective political and material weight to inspire thousands around the country in this period.
Should SWP devote attention to it? Sure. But the American Crystal Sugar lockout against an austerity contract is shaking things up in a powerful way, too. The party is devoting huge resources to covering it and linking it up with other struggles in that region and nationally, like Troy Davis and the case of the Cuban 5, and has already in about 8-10 weeks sold over 100 subscriptions of The Militant to the strikers. Selling that many subscriptions to a communist newspaper to strikers bespeaks a huge campaign, and an even greater tectonic shift in conscious working class politics, as postulated over thirty years ago in The Changing Face of US Politics. The Militant is not Aesopian, but those first politically educated in the party, whether they are members now or not, know the significance of everything in [and not in] the paper.
What we CAN do as unorganized [but not disorganized] non-party communists is try to keep the political space open via propagating OWS [and ACS] solidarity information and, when feasible, actions so the cops can't just sweep them off the streets and picket lines with a fire hose, pepper spray and a cop riot.

Certainly readers of this blog will know I have had my differences with the line of The Militant on everything from Syria to Libya. But expecting any communist party to have something pertinent [or impertinent] to say about rapidly developing events as theoretically and programmatically challenging in the U.S. class struggle as OWS is asking a lot. The fact that The Militant and the SWP have put the American Crystal Sugar lockout at the center of their work indicates the party is still correctly judging the political weight of struggles today. We can all support and take joy in the ongoing fact of OWS; where would we be if we had to wait for a newspaper to give us permission to do that?

Jay Rothermel

20111003