Mike Davis, New Left Review editor and former Students for a Democratic Society activist, gave today’s activists a list of guidelines for our present revolutionary struggles. I’ve taken the liberty to select and reprint them here:
First, the categorical imperative is to organize or rather to facilitate other peoples’ self-organization. Catalyst is good, but organization is better.
Second, leadership must be temporary and subject to recall. The job of a good organizer, as it was often said in the civil rights movement, is to organize herself out of a job, not to become indispensable.
Third, protesters must subvert the media’s constant tendency toward metonymy — the designation of the whole by a part, the group by an individual. (Consider how bizarre it is, for instance, that we have “Martin Luther King Day” rather than “Civil Rights Movement Day.”) Spokespeople should regularly be rotated and when necessary, shot.
Fourth, the same warning applies to the relationship between a movement and individuals who participate as an organized bloc. I very much believe in the necessity of an organic revolutionary left, but groups can only claim authenticity if they give priority to building the struggle and keep no secret agenda from other participants.
Fifth, as we learned the hard way in the 1960s, consensual democracy is not identical to participatory democracy. For affinity groups and communes, consensus decision-making may work admirably, but for any large or long-term protest, some form of representative democracy is essential to allow the broadest and most equal participation. The devil, as always, is in the details: ensuring that any delegate can be recalled, formalizing rights of political minorities, guaranteeing affirmative representation, and so on.
Sixth, an “organizing strategy” is not only a plan for enlarging participation in protest but also a concept for aligning protest with the constituencies that bear the brunt of exploitation and oppression.
Seventh, building movements that are genuinely inclusive of unemployed and poor people requires infrastructures to provide for basic survival needs like food, shelter, and healthcare. To enable lives of struggle we must create sharing collectives and redistribute our own resources toward young frontline fighters.
Eighth, the future of the Occupy movement will be determined less by the numbers in Liberty Park (although its survival is a sine qua non of the future) than by the boots on the ground in Dayton, Cheyenne, Omaha, and El Paso. The geographical spread of the protests in many cases equals a diversifying involvement of people of color and trade unionists.
Ninth, the increasing participation of unions in Occupy protests — including the dramatic mobilization that forced the NYPD to temporarily back down from its attempt to evict OWC — is mutually transformative and raises the hope that the uprising can become a genuine class struggle.
Tenth, one of the simplest but most abiding lessons from dissident generations past is the need to speak in the vernacular. The moral urgency of change acquires its greatest grandeur when expressed in a shared language.
What strikes me is how succinct and specific is this answer to a question that I’ve been trying to put to veteran activists for years, “What can the sixties teach us?” Davis, especially, as one of (in my opinion) the brightest and most incisive thinkers to come out of the 60s SDS, has a lot to offer us. I think a lot of us have been ready to listen, I’m glad the older generation is ready to speak now.
Whereas Davis starts out with some basic working principles that most of us have figured out by now (at least most of us who’ve been doing this protest and organizing stuff for a couple years now), his list really shines when he lends his insight into the occupation movement that can really only come from long-term analysis and experience. The first, second, third, and fourth items seem to me to be essentially the lessons that the anarchist left has brought to the left in general. Item five is a point that I’ve wondered about for a while. I’m glad Davis has taken this stance, and I’ll take his endorsement into consideration, but I still feel bewildered by the fact that there is no clear line at which point an organization or movement is too big to use consensus. Is it 50 people? 100? And hasn’t the occupy movement shown that consensus has worked very, very well in a large-scale movement?
I’m worried at the apparent simplicity of point five, though I’m heartened that he emphasizes a detail-oriented praxis for movements.
The latter five points are so salient, it hurts. Especially numbers seven and eight. The reason I really love Davis’ list is that he’s pointing out the lessons that his generation had to learn from the older generation. I think in the American left there has been a series of disconnects. It’s not simply that SDS II didn’t hear enough from SDS I — SDS I wasn’t too aware of the lessons that the earlier anarchists has to offer. And before them, the “lyrical left”.
This list is, at best, a set of perennial lessons for the left. We’d do well to keep them in mind and be prepared to pass them on, in turn.