How to learn nothing

The emergence of a programme from the Occupy movement has caused a flurry of debate on the ACI website, Paul Demarty decides to join in

The emergence of a written programme[1] from the Occupy movement is in some ways an odd turn of events. It has been a source of some excitement in the Anti-Capitalist Initiative, where there is an ongoing ‘roundtable’ concerning its significance.[2]

The debate on the ACI website so far is rather unclear as to the programme’s significance - Luke Cooper (from the recent Workers Power ‘youth’ split) exults that Occupy now has “somewhere to hang its hat”;[3] while Stuart King of Permanent Revolution wonders if Occupy needs a programme at all, or instead further “action”.[4]

In these terms, it is probably the case that comrade King has the better of it. This has to do with what Occupy is, and what has hitherto given it what coherence it has had. Occupy is an event, more than a political movement. Throughout the ‘high’ period of its prominence, its most energetic proponents were suspicious of being drawn into high-level political debate. This was not unwise, because to do so - and come out with an ‘Occupy position’ on this or that - would have fragmented a movement whose points of unity were tenuous at best.

So what was the event? It combined a tactic - occupying public spaces - with a generalised dissatisfaction in regard to the manner in which contemporary society is very obviously a stitch-up in favour of the most powerful. Those who most closely identified with the movement were very keen to position it as somehow beyond left and right, and in a sense they were correct to do so, because that vague dissatisfaction is a common feature of everything from the most wildly ultra-left offshoots of communism to ‘lifestylist’ anarchism in its different guises, to anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. All could, in principle, be united on a single campsite.

Except they couldn’t, really - far-right elements rapidly discovered that they were not as welcome as all that. All well and good (not so good that, at several occupations, the far left was equally treated with suspicion) - but this introduced a dynamic of political differentiation. OK, so Occupy has to admit that it is at least a little bit leftwing. It is then faced with the fact that a very considerable chunk of that famous 99% is not; that, in global terms, a good percentage is in fact very seriously reactionary on important questions.

Occupy in its original event-form needs a programme like it needs a hole in the head - because having one undermines its claim to universality, to being merely the vanguard (though no doubt that is a dirty word for many) of almost the entire world. Yet a programme forces itself on Occupy anyway, because it is an unavoidable fact that Occupy does not, and has never, represented anything but itself.

Its ‘Global Mayday manifesto’ has the same rhetoric as before - the universal ‘we’ - but in fact it is the first conscious expression of a process of political differentiation that has hitherto been unconscious. That is an advance in itself, in some ways; but there is still a reluctance to accept that, for this manifesto to have any use, Occupy (or whatever individual Occupy groups accept the manifesto) will need to become a rather more run-of-the-mill political organisation, that will have to fight for its perspectives like any other, and abandon its claim to being radically new or different.

What’s the point?

If it has to say goodbye to its novelty value, then what is the point of its existence? Why do the occupiers not just go and join existing groups, whether far-left organisations, centre-left parties, green parties or simply the flotsam and jetsam of campaigning groups bequeathed us by the alter-globalisation movement - many of which stand on essentially the same political platform we have before us now? The bottom line is: to justify its attempt to enter what is, to put it mildly, a crowded market, the manifesto has to be pretty damn good.

Good, ultimately, it is not. In terms of tone, as comrade Cooper points out, it hits some of the right notes - the preamble places Occupy in the lineage of mass struggles past, at least. A fair proportion of the individual demands are supportable. Beyond that, it is a hopeless, and tiresomely familiar, hodge-podge of liberal, right-on causes. Where some feature of today’s world is identified as bad, a corresponding proposal is identified that would render it good. Corporations are rapacious - they should face sanctions for acting in this way. People starve - they should have food. The environment is in danger - ecocide should be “internationally recognised” as a crime. This is ultimately the politics of the scream of despair. It is also very obviously written by committee - or ‘consensus’, as the jargon has it.

It is tempting to say, in mitigation, that Occupy is young, comprising people new to politics, and untrained in its theory and practice. This should not be taken for granted. It was not disaffected war veterans who occupied Zuccotti Park in the first place, but people who heeded a call from Adbusters.

Yes, many ‘new faces’ have been involved - but the core of Occupy, especially outside the US, is pre-existing activist groups of different stripes, many of which are more than a decade old now. The iron law of consensus decision-making is that it becomes a test of stamina, and it is more serious activists who have the most substantial reserves.

It is these types who dominated the drafting process for this manifesto and, on this evidence, one would not know that any of them had learned anything in the intervening time - Adbusters perhaps learned that getting out of the office and into the streets was a more effective means of doing politics, on the whole, than facile détournements of print advertisements, but the concrete politics here are indistinguishable from the alter-globalisation movement of 10-15 years ago. That movement failed.

One cannot, nevertheless, be too hard on these activists, whose hatred of exploitation and oppression is at least clearly sincere, for their failure to recognise and learn from past failures. The means for doing so is fundamentally the party, which combines the experiences of the class with organised strength and - crucially - coherence through time. The custodians of the party - even if only as an idea - are the existing groups of the far left, however imperfectly they reflect that idea. It is our fault, in other words, for failing to build parties rather than unattractive sects, and indeed for failing to win the argument for the party when that inchoate scream against oppression is voiced by new generations of activists.

Why have we failed? Many reasons - but one of the most important is a political commitment to the veneration of spontaneous movements of this kind. Underlying this is the idea that ‘struggle’ - defined narrowly as strikes, occupations and other forms of direct action - is the principal motor of the mass socialist consciousness to which we are all committed to building. Regrettably, this prejudice is still in evidence in the contributions so far.


Comrade Cooper, comparing the ‘Global Mayday manifesto’ to the programmes of classical social democracy, writes “The Erfurt programme of German social democracy put forward a set of democratic demands so ‘radical’ that to this day some of them have yet to be won in the west - how many states have two-year, fixed-term legislative parliaments, full proportional representation in elections, and annual referenda on levels of taxation?

“The term ‘minimum’ represented a militant call for working class mobilisation, because this democratisation was the very least the socialist movement was prepared to accept. The fact that many of these rights have not yet been secured, or won only to be lost, illustrates how democracy is far from a natural bedfellow of the capitalist system of production.”

One or two terminological slippages aside (to which we shall return), this is certainly a far better account of the revolutionary thrust of the Erfurt programme[5] than one would expect from a comrade who until recently was a member of an orthodox Trotskyist group - caricaturing that programme being something of a Trotskyist pastime. Yet the comparison to this offering from Occupy is frankly absurd.

The democratic programme of Erfurt is marked out by its systematic character - it represents an attempt to map out the political demands which, if achieved, would in themselves amount to the overthrow of bourgeois political rule by the proletariat. It is hardly perfect in this regard, but nonetheless it would represent a vast improvement on the ‘programmes’ touted by left groups to the masses today - and moreover, it was the result of years (decades, even) of theoretical work by Marx, Engels and others, not to mention sharp political struggle against rival trends in the workers’ movement (Lassalleans, Proudhonists, Bakuninists and so forth), and it was accompanied by a lengthy text by Kautsky[6] making that systematic character clear. The contrast with the ‘Global Mayday manifesto’, cobbled together by committee and effectively listing liberal prejudices, could not be sharper.

Here we encounter Cooper’s Freudian slip - the minimum programme was not the least social democracy was “prepared to accept”, but was rather the minimum basis on which it was prepared to form a government. The distinction is important, because it is not spontaneous movements that form governments, but parties. The party question distinguishes a programme or a manifesto from a wish-list. It is clear on which side of this divide the Occupy manifesto stands.

There is, it should be stressed, a place in the Erfurt programme, and others like it, for demands that had already been raised by the workers’ movement, which do not amount to a systematic whole. In a putative modern version, many of the arguments raised by the Mayday manifesto would have a place here. Yet they, too, are constrained by the theory which the programme embodies as a whole - there is little point, to recycle an example from above, making ecocide a crime under international law if seriously addressing the democratic deficit necessitates the abolition of ‘international law’ as such (which it does).

The proverbial elephant in the living room with the ACI debate is as follows: the contributors so far share, by my guess, the better part of a century’s worth of experience on the organised far left. The ACI is founded on the basis that at least some of those years were wasted, and have seen the left arrive at this pass ‘not fit for purpose’. Yet here we are, not discussing our own history and our victories and (rather more numerous) defeats, the politics that led us here; but producing basically delusional eulogies to what shows every sign of being an ephemeral movement after the pattern of a great many before it. (The missing element in the alter-globalisation movement was not camping, comrades.) Before we decide what Occupy should think, we ought rather to decide what we think, and what our strategy is for socialist revolution - and no better means exist than high theory and the ruthless criticism of our history. As the punchline to an old Irish joke has it: I wouldn't start from here if I were you.



1 . http://anticapitalists.org/2012/05/11/occupys-global-mayday-manifesto.

2 . See http://anticapitalists.org/tag/occupy-roundtable. This article is a slightly edited version of a piece submitted to the ACI website, where at the time of writing it has yet to be published.

3 . http://anticapitalists.org/2012/05/19/manifesto-is-important-moment-in-renewal-of-socialist-project.

4 . http://anticapitalists.org/2012/05/22/occupy-does-it-really-need-a-programme.

5 . www.marxists.org/history/international/social-democracy/1891/erfurt-program.htm.

6 . The class struggle - see www.marxists.org/archive/kautsky/1892/erfurt/index.htm.