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What is a movement?

A discussion on the meaning and direction of Left political “movements” historically and today

Luis Brennan, Elena Davis, Chuck Hendricks, Jorge Mujica, and Richard Rubin

Platypus Review 14 | August 2009

[PDF]  [Audio Recording]

On October 16, 2008, a panel discussion titled What is a Movement? A Discussion on the Meaning and Direction of Left Political “Movements” Historically and Today was held in Chicago. The panelists were Luis Brennan of the new Students for a Democratic Society, Elena Davis of Pomegranate Health Collective, Chuck Hendricks of UNITE/HERE, Jorge Mujica of Movimiento 10 de Marzo, and Richard Rubin of Platypus. The following edited transcript represents only a portion of a more extensive and wide-ranging discussion. The Platypus Review encourages interested readers to listen to the complete recording of the event at the above link.

Opening remarks:

Jorge Mujica: Whenever you get two people together and they talk about doing something, I think you have a movement. It may be big or small, clandestine or legal, whatever; but it is still a movement. Is “Obama for change” a movement? Yes. So are the right-wing politicians who push things further to the right. Any kind of gathering of people that tries to influence politics and put forward an agenda is a movement.

But movements, more often than not, end up becoming non-profit organizations. The women’s movement of the 60s has become the National Organization for Women. The Civil Rights Movement has become the Rainbow PUSH Coalition. These big organizations continue in certain to advance the issues of the movements that gave birth to them. But they do not represent the movement. The movement is well beyond and behind and ahead of such organizations. It may be that only the disruptive, non-institutionalized part of the movement can really generate results. So when movements become big, self-sustaining non-profit organizations, do they still truly intend to change the status quo? That is one of the major questions in the immigration movement and, I suspect, many other movements as well.

Luis Brennan: I would like to echo Jorge’s remarks that two people who want something make a movement. So the question of what is a movement, as a guiding question, is almost vacuous. It is open to anything; anything is a movement. For me, the question needs some reframing, it needs some work before we can make stuff happen. I take it as a given that, for people on the Left interested in political change, a movement is a success term, that imbedded in the term “movement” is the idea that it is good. The next question is then going to be what properties we want this movement to have. I think a lot of us would say we want a radical movement. What is radical? “Radical” involves radical analysis, radical solu­tions, and radical practice. Radical analysis is seeing the world in a way that takes nothing for granted, looking at the world in search of the sources of unfreedom and in­justice. A radical solution is saying, How do we fix these problems? How do we address these sources of injustice and unfreedom? Radical practice is something that does not over-valorize or over-legitimate the system of political action that currently exists. The goal should be to define “movement” and to find those properties that would inevitably make a movement radical, so it would make some definite, radical impact on society.

Richard Rubin: I am here representing Platypus, and Platypus is not a movement. Its project is about problematizing questions on the Left. So, I am going to problematize the question of a movement. Hidden be­hind the question “What is a movement?” are the ques­tions, “What is politics?” and “What is the relationship of politics to human history?” On the one hand, politics is one of the oldest of human activities; like art, literature, and music. But in another sense politics, like these other activities, is a much younger activity, a few centuries old at most. There is a discontinuity in the meaning of politics from before the development of modern capital­ism and since, though this is not immediately obvious. In fact there is a widespread conception on the Left that tends to blur this distinction between modern politics and what came before. So, if we talk about resisting oppression, and go back, for example, to the late 14th century the distinction does not seem salient. If you looked at Eurasia, say in the decades from the 1360s to the 1380s, you’d see several major upheavals, from the peasant rebellion in China led by Zhu Yuanzhang, which led to the establishment of the Ming Dynasty, to the revolt of the Ciompi in Florence, which was a sort of proto-working class rebellion, to a peasant rebellion in England that traumatized the British feudal ruling class and perhaps accelerated the end of feudalism. The first of these upheavals was successful, though it did not really change anything; the other two were put down, and yet they were not without effect. All three were “acts of resistance.” But there was no Left in the 14th century, nor even the conception of a Left. Yet because the Left today focuses purely on resistance, emphasizing a narrative of resisting oppression, it blurs a central transition in the history of humanity, namely the rise of modern capital­ism, even as it fails to comprehend itself. In fact, earlier movements that opposed oppression, have a different meaning from modern movements against oppression. In the course of the 19th century there developed a different type of politics, particularly on the continent of Europe, which witnesses the rise of Marxism and of mass working class parties. In principle, these mass working class parties were revolutionary in that they were dedicated to the abolition of capitalism. As Marx himself realized, the sort of politics he advocated and helped bring into existence was new.

However, many problems in this perspective come up. A man famous for articulating a revisionist perspec­tive vis-à-vis Marxism was Eduard Bernstein. In the mid-1890s, Bernstein criticized what he took to be a doctrinaire, fundamentalist Marxism. One of his famous phrases was, “The movement is everything, the goal is nothing.” Now, through a large part of the 20th century a type of politics developed—and I am treating both liberal and Marxist politics together here—that was premised on the experience of Marxism, so it was always caught in this dilemna of either abolishing capitalism or reforming it. Over roughly the last 40 years, I would argue that this argument on the Left has been settled in Bernstein’s favor. Our conception now is that the Left is composed of a bunch of movements. In place of a goal-oriented Left we now have a series of goals but no Left. The Left is the movement of movements. This notion has now become so deeply naturalized that it is hard to imagine the Left as anything else. But this conception of the Left as a movement of movements masks its weakness. It represents an internalization of defeat and even a fear of victory.

After opening remarks each panelist was given an opportunity to respond to one another:

Chuck Hendricks: A couple of people have talked about a movement being two people in the same room with the same idea. This the problem with the idea of movements. Two people with the same idea is not a movement. Rather, a movement is when organizations with ideas, leadership, and plans, both short-term and long-term, act with the support of a broad majority outside of their organization so that they are able to bring large groups of people onto their side. Movements do not spring up out of two people talking. They do not happen spon­taneously. Movements do not spring up directly from ideas or shared discontent. They emerge out of the practice of growing an organization, out of people plan­ning, organizing, recruiting, training, and learning how to make a movement. One of the big problems on the Left is that the notion of a movement seems desirable because it is fuzzier than the idea of organization. It seems less authoritarian. But without doing the work of actually building organizations, whether they are women’s rights movements or Marxian movements or student movements or immigrant movements or union movements, you will have nothing worthy of the name “movement.” Instead, the Left ends up with, occasionally, lots of people on the streets screaming, but without the ability to sustain anything. Movements require leader­ship, structure, and organization, or they go nowhere. Therefore, I do not agree with Luis that our task is simply to talk about what constitutes a radical analysis. We know plenty of things that are wrong in the world. The question is how to make change happen, how to build organizations with the capacity to do that.

As to the question of what is politics, politics is power, as far as I can tell, and the truth is that all of these movements, from my movement to Elena’s movement to Luis’s movement, lack power. It is up to us to figure out how to gain power through organizing millions of people, drawing them into strong organizations that have the economic, social, and political leverage to force the state and management to respond and, ultimately, to alter our institutions.

Mujica: I think that is precisely the problem, to confuse the organization with the movement. A movement is a lot stronger than any organization. Organizations do not really ask their membership what kind of change they want; they only push the agenda the leadership believes in. They are unable to go to their bases and ask them, “What would you like to see done?”

On the question of leadership, people say that the biggest problem with the Latino immigration movement is that it lacks a leader. We say, “Well, we are thankful that we do not have a leader,” because Cesar Chavez did many good things, but he also did many incredibly bad things. We would rather have a collective leadership that, for example, gathers together when the time comes for big mobilizations and then disbands when we cannot agree on anything else.

Brennan: Going off this difference between an organization and a movement, I think the important part about a movement, and why it may be good that it is a fuzzy term, is that a movement is going to go beyond us. A movement is going to go beyond what we put into it and have a life of its own. To a large extent, it will be out of our control. This is a good thing. It means a movement has greater poten­tial to change circumstances than does an organization.

Rubin: I think that there is a bit of ambiguity in the way the term “movement” is being used. “Movement” can mean many different things. For one thing, there are right-wing movements. For another, there are differ­ent types of left-wing movements. I do not think you can assume that the existence of movements is a sign of strength. Ultimately, the fact that the Left has a concep­tion of politics based on movements is, again, a sign of our weakness. I understand why people would organize around a specific goal. Obviously the Civil Rights Move­ment, for example, was a good thing. But it is important to recognize that the Civil Rights Movement originated in the context of previous failures of the Left in the United States to address the issue of racism. I am not saying that one should be opposed to movements, and of course a strong left-wing movement would be better than a weak left-wing movement, but I think that the conception of politics solely as building movements and the idea that the Left itself is this whole global family of movements are issues that we as leftists should seek to problematize.

Hendricks: Jorge spoke of the agenda of organizations. I think if we do not have an agenda we are not going anywhere. We will not know what we are actually fighting for. If we do not have the ability to lay out a short-term plan, we cannot lay out a long term plan, and then we will lack a vision for the future and thus any sense of why, in fact, we are seeking to gain power. As for asking the mem­bership about what kind of change they want to achieve, this actually happens more often and more democrati­cally in organizations than it does in movements. When 400,000 people march through the streets of Chicago, the organizers do not actually solicit the views of every marcher. Such leaders are actually unaccountable to the marchers. They are not representative.

Mujica: Of course, a revolution requires organization. Movements and organizations require agendas, there is no doubt about that either. Leadership too is required. All this is true, but what I am saying is that the current organizations, the current agendas of powerful organizations do not really have anything to do with what we would call the revolutionary movement.

Elena Davis: I would hesitate to confuse Tyler Durden-style working class organization with the kind of movement we are discussing here. That is part of what a movement is, but that does not encompass it in its entirety. And, to say that something is not a movement unless there is a leader and people who look up to that leader for direction and to set goals is very limiting.

Rubin: Chuck spoke about questions of social power. Does not organized labor in the United States potentially have great power? With organized labor it is not so much a question of having or not having the power, but rather that it does not exercise its power. Politically, the leader­ship is tied to the Democratic Party and that is not simply a question of organization, or strength, or leadership. It is a question of politics. It seems to me the question of leadership and organization substitutes for the question of the politics of organizations.

Pressing the issue of the immigration rights movement, a remark from the audience suggested that differences within the Republican Party may have had more to do with the defeat of the Sensenbrenner Bill than the 2006 protests and that, in general, it is at present difficult to determine what effects leftist actions have.

Mujica: Certainly, it is sometimes difficult to say what kind of success one has or what kind of consequences come out of marches. Some people say that the raids and deportations that are currently going on are also consequences of the marches, but I do not believe it.

As far as the effectiveness of the marches goes, in December 2005, when James Sensenbrenner introduced into the House of Representatives HR 4437, 56% of the American public favored tougher measures against immigrants, since immigrants were closely related with national security issues and terrorism. Sensenbrenner’s bill passed the House with considerable support from Democrats. We started to act in February of 2006. Initially there were six people in a room planning the demonstrations. On May Day, by some calculations, six to seven million people marched simultaneously all over the United States. After those demonstrations, 76% of the American public supported legalization for illegal aliens or undocumented workers. This, I think, shows the success of the marches.

Hendricks: I think that it is impossible to tell what stopped the Sensenbrenner bill. Having millions of people march definitely helped stop it, but so did the opposition of chambers of commerce. Having every major union in the country except for the machinists coming out against the bill also helped stop it. It is not that the movement did not have a success in stopping the bill, but if you look back historically, say to the 30s, the president was forced to negotiate with Walter Reuther. In the 60s the president was forced to meet with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to talk about the Voting Rights Act. Those organizations had the power to force the government, or major industry, to sit down, make concessions, and take actual positive steps forward. What the movement for immigrant rights in the country has done so far is to stop things from getting dramatically worse, but it has not made things better. And I am sick of the Left defending regression. We do not have a vision for what positive change is. Both the labor movement and the Civil Rights Movement did have such a vision as well as organizations that were able to advance it.

Rubin: I am finding myself somewhat frustrated with the conversation. Part of the problem is that I think we are talking at different levels. Again, people have been oppressed for thousands of years. The conditions of resisting that oppression, and this was my example starting with the 14th century, have radically changed in the last 150 years or so. It is because of this change that the meaning of politics has itself changed. When you talk, for example, about movements for change or movements for freedom, the issue becomes—and it goes back to the question posed about the 30s—if you imagine that the goal of movements is just to put pressure on the government to do something or to not do something, which sometimes will succeed and is sometimes a very desirable thing, then you leave aside the possibility that the global environment in which movements operate could itself ever be radically changed. We will have movements against bad things, such as war, poverty, oppression of immigrants, oppression of women, and so on, but we are going to keep fighting essentially the same struggles under different conditions, some­times better and sometimes worse. That, I think, is the dominant conception of politics on the Left. What I was trying to point out earlier is that this is a profoundly pessimistic conception for the Left to have, and it is not the one it always had. At one time the Left had a much more triumphal conception of its own capacity to build a radically new world. So what I was trying to say is not whether movements are good, or what a movement is, but that a conception of politics centered on movements is one that has already taken a huge amount of defeat and pessimism for granted.

Brennan: Richard, you have said that the conditions for politics of change are fundamentally different from the 14th century and that what we are dealing with is no longer the same as some pure resistance movement against some form of domination. What, specifically, are these new conditions?

Rubin: The new condition is the development of capitalism. Capitalism has fundamentally changed the possi­bilities inherent in human history. It has linked the world together in ways that would have been unthinkable be­forehand. It has created huge technological development that essentially renders possible the abolition of poverty. There is also the possibility, through the development of modern science, of the destruction of the species. So there are possibilities, both negative and positive, that did not exist before. Capitalism also opens up, so to speak, individual possibilities for human development that did not exist before, possibilities for human freedom. We have to take capitalism as both a profound threat to humanity, and a profound opportunity. To speak only of “anti-capitalism” or resistance to domination closes off this sense of historical possibility.

The meaning of a movement in the 14th century could not have been the same as what it can be now, because movements now have the possibility to transcend their specific goals in a profound way. But that is not inherent in their being a movement; it is inherent in the structure of modern society.

A member of the audience asked, “What would it take to reconstitute a revolutionary party on a large scale?”

Rubin: I think the question would be, “What would it take to reconstitute a revolutionary politics on a large scale?”

I do not think that many people can really imagine a socialist revolution, including, I think, most people who put it forth as their aim. I personally have known a fair number of old radicals from the 30s, and I remember once having the rather pessimistic thought that that generation of radicals may have been the last to actually believe they were going to win.

Hendricks: I think we are going to win. The concept of building a revolutionary party, or a revolutionary organization, or a radical organization, or any such thing comes down to a decision that each person has to make, about how hard they want to work for that. It is a decision that you make as an individual, a decision about what you are willing to do to make something happen. So the question of how to build a revolutionary party rests with each one of you.

Another in the audience asked, “What is the role of students in progressive radical movements? What should the goal of a student movement be?”

Hendricks: I think that, as part of their time of learning, students need to learn how to organize people by being active in organizations like unions as volunteers, interns, and trainees.

Rubin: Essentially, I think student movements are historically auxiliary to other movements. Being a student is generally a temporary condition. I think that the advantage of students is the relative freedom that they have. Intellectuals often come from a background that is relatively privileged, and they are frequently more radical than the rest of society. This too is a function of modern capitalist society, this creation of a disgruntled, radical intelligentsia, which is something that did not exist in previous types of class society.

On the question of radicalism, one of the problems with being radical—in the etymological sense of the word, meaning going to the root—is that being radical now means facing a great deal of defeat. Radical intellectuals need to think very soberly about the history of, say, the last hundred years, and to ask themselves why movements for profound radical change have failed. That is a very difficult task; and not a very cheerful one.

Mujica: My invitation would be to revive the spirit of 1968. Be realistic, demand the impossible. |P

Transcribed by Soren Whited