Let the Dead Bury Their Dead

April 8, 2010

Takethecity.orgRecent events have raised many important questions: What does a real and vital movement look like?  What is the nature of leadership in struggle?  Is there a ‘correct’ way for us to fight against our conditions? Below is a statement from some friends addressing theoretical and practical concerns that have arisen in the last month or so.


“The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language…. The social revolution of the nineteenth century cannot take its poetry from the past but only from the future. It cannot begin with itself before it has stripped away all superstition about the past. The former revolutions required recollections of past world history in order to smother their own content. The revolution of the nineteenth century must let the dead bury their dead in order to arrive at its own content. There the phrase went beyond the content – here the content goes beyond the phrase.”  Karl Marx – 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte

The above quote is just as integral to revolutionary struggle in the 21st century as it was for France in 1852.  Across the vast human topography of class society, clear lines are being drawn between those who parody and fetishize the movements of dead generations in order to dominate the movements of today, and those who seek to expand forms of praxis and theory created in the current cycle of struggle, through the self-directed struggle of workers and students themselves.

After several weeks of smears, ad hominem attacks and political diatribes, the conversation surrounding the events of March 4th has finally shifted to the terrain of tactics and ideology.  The small segment of humanity actually paying attention to this debate has been gifted with lapidary critiques of Anarcho-Imperialism, Anarcho-Situ-Autonomism, Demand-Nothingism, and – most recently — dangerous, “anger-based” Anarcha-Feminism.  While these critiques are coming from various activist quarters, they all focus their attention on the supposed Take The City “Organization.”  Each of these critiques (even if accurate) could land only a glancing blow, because the people who comprise their opposition are neither a party, nor an association nor even a website.  In fact, the alleged saboteurs of March 4th, the occupiers of last April, the self-proclaimed “bitches,” the militant feminists, and many others are merely tendencies within a larger, informal network.  This group has no party-line, no hierarchical structure and little theoretical unity.  The only thing that unites us is camaraderie and solidarity on the one hand and an understanding of direct action and self-organization on the other.  The following is a partial critique, by one tendency within this group, of the tactical and theoretical composition of what has been called the ‘student movement’.

Can a couple hundred students at an outdoor rally at Hunter be considered a movement?  Can six or seven hundred people standing in a Midtown police pen be considered a movement? The reason the NYC ‘student movement’ must be put in quotations is because the label is largely self-flattery.  We hope to show below that the tactics of the coalition of movement-builders are, at best, unhelpful to the development of a strong and vital movement and, at worst, preventative of one.

The Movement-Builders

As far as we can tell, the coalition of movement-builders (hereafter abbreviated CoMB), consists of assorted Trotskyists, Marxist-Leninist-Maoists (MLM), anarchists, and radical liberals. While their ideologies are diverse, the CoMB insist that the student movement requires leadership, transparency, clearly-defined goals, and democracy.  Their ultimate criterion is quantitative: numbers of protesters, numbers of rallies, numbers of newspapers sold, numbers of endorsements, ratios of disadvantaged to privileged, dollars of damages, etc. They privilege form over content, while largely ignoring the qualitative aspects of collective action and its potential for a revolutionary trajectory.  As for the various Leninists, their idealist conceptions of the ‘necessary’ forms of struggle are a-historical caricatures that suit their ideological hang-ups.  They would superimpose patterns of revolutionary struggle borne against a Czarist regime almost a century ago onto the decadent capitalism that exists today in New York City.

The CoMB’s elevation of ideal structures and concepts results, at best, in call for a rally or demo with large numbers – at worst, in full-on counterrevolutionary policing of the movement. Leadership of the CoMB kind can just as easily manipulate and suppress as it can do any “good”.  The formal preoccupation with transparency, which for many in the CoMB is just a call for democratic-centralism, has the potential to undermine more militant and forward-thinking action, especially in an epoch of growing state repression. The insistence on defining goals often forces people to think within the realm of reform, thereby legitimating bankrupt power in a time of crisis when militancy and direct action are crucial.  The fetishization of formal democracy (especially in an environment dominated by ‘experienced organizers’) can undermine autonomous endeavors that may point to novel and potentially effective forms of struggle.  And yet, these abstract ideals are accepted without question within the CoMB.  We believe that, as always, self-organized workers, students, and the unemployed — in solidarity with one another — will figure out these issues through the course of struggle itself, through their own successes and failures.

In focusing on quantitative criteria as the sine qua non of effective action, the CoMB tow the same line as bourgeois politicians, social scientists and statisticians, and miss the real point.  What is far more important than the question of “how many” is the question of “how”:  How are these actions manifesting the antagonisms of class society?  How is this activity building the preconditions for greater collective action?  How are these modes of struggle confronting real material and social needs?  How are they contributing to a new repertoire of tactics that address the unique conditions of this era? These lead to other questions: What good is an enormous rally if everyone feels less powerful once it’s over? When does “movement building” actually build movement as opposed to suppressing it?   If we apply a critical reading of history, we can see that in many instances more people have been mobilized far more quickly and passionately through collective militant action than through teach-ins, rallies, panel discussions and newspaper articles.  The recent uprisings in California are a good example of this.

The whole notion that workers and students need a vanguard (whether consisting of liberal activists, Leninists or other politicians) to lead them is as bankrupt today as it was a century ago.  Just as capital constantly rips from workers the rich human content of their work and debases their autonomy in order to devalue their labor, so do the ‘movement specialists’ attempt to alienate them from the creation of self-directed forms of resistance.  Part of the reason why so much of the CoMB rhetoric falls on deaf ears is that they demand a discipline and vacuity that is just as easily found behind a cash register or in a factory.  Furthermore, the idea that struggles against the imposition of austerity by capital and the state can be fought using standard activist means is absurd.  Today, any movement that seeks an end to exploitation and oppression cannot resort to the strategies of its enemies (nor the strategies that its enemies encourage and/or fund), but must transcend the ideas and tactics of dead generations.

On Occupationism

Occupation, as a particular tactic, has become such a frequent topic of conversation in recent time only because it has resonated highly with workers and students across the country.  People tend to forget that student occupiers’ inspiration came directly from workers in Chicago who occupied their factory in December of 2008 against the theft of their pay. Soon after the New School and NYU occupations, the students and non-students involved were heading regularly up to the Bronx to reciprocate the support of the Stella D’Oro strikers on their picket lines, and offer support for the potential occupation that the workers were considering. Today poor and homeless people are “occupying” empty land, foreclosed homes, and warehoused properties. So much for occupation as the ‘fetishized’ plaything of privileged elites!

Part of the reason for the resurgence of occupation – and land takeovers more generally – are the particular necessities that it addresses.  Not merely a means or an end, an occupation or a land takeover becomes a venue for transforming the use of space for self-directed activity, and forging new bonds of material solidarity.  It directly addresses the contradictions of a class society in which privatized space lays empty while public common space is closed and policed, and homelessness surges alongside a startling swell in home foreclosures and warehoused condos.  By seizing space and holding it hostage from those who would control it, occupation creates a venue for collective action on a greater scale and can also significantly disrupt the normal functioning of institutions. Workers, students, and the homeless effectively put this form of direct action back on the table in the United States, where it has become the most notable feature of recent mass struggle.

We have seen many caricatures of our notions of effective action over the last week.  The most common one appears to hold that our minimum program is heckling activists at rallies and our maximum program is a fetishized type of “occupationism” to be imposed upon passive, unsuspecting people of color. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The frustration evidenced on March 4th was a direct reaction to the opportunistic and unimaginative behavior of the “leadership” of the Hunter “movement.” The scene on the 3rd floor of Hunter West was tense, but liberatory. Students, who had been treated on a good day as mere consumers and on a bad day as potential criminals, were up in the Vice President of Student Services’ face giving him hell for the cuts and the turnstiles. Hundreds chanted, “Whose school? Our school!” laying collective claim to the space of the institution, a radical gesture when surrounded by security and cops. And yet, nobody had been arrested and nobody had been hurt. It was a moment of possibility and solidarity. Still, some element within the demo decided to do the cops, security, and the Hunter administration a favor by helping them to move the indoor demo outside.

As for our supposed obsession with occupation, this is completely false.  We are highly active in many struggles and employ many diverse tactics: tendencies within our informal group have recently been active in grassroots unionization at their workplaces, education campaigns with prisoners, free childcare in poor neighborhoods, solidarity actions with industrial workers and organizations for the homeless, militant protection of women’s reproductive rights, organizational networking across CUNY/SUNY – the list goes on. In our experience, people don’t want to be controlled, whether by cops, bosses, or radicals. Furthermore, what people do when they organize themselves and network through lines of solidarity is infinitely more powerful than when orders are sent down from above through a chain of command.

Poetry from the Past

If, in previous critiques, special attention has been paid to the International Socialist Organization, it is because (no offense to Freedom Road or the Spartacus League) they represent perhaps the loudest and most visible activist group on Hunter’s campus. Indeed, among the CoMB, the ISO is most representative of the failed tactics and bankrupt ideologies that plague campus activism in NYC and across the country.  An examination of their words and deeds shows why.  With its intellectual roots in the Trotskyist faction of the Bolshevik Left, this group was birthed out of the many factional splits that characterized the post-WWII political landscape. The group that is now called the ISO practiced industrial ‘entryism,’ whereby party militants would gain employment in factories in order to recruit and spread “revolutionary consciousness” to the “masses” on the shop floor and through the union structure.  After the failures of the international revolutionary upsurge of the 1960s and 70s, the ISO shifted its attention to college campuses. Today, this group retains its hierarchical, democratic-centralist structure, its rigid adherence to party dogma, its opportunism and entryist tactics. Most importantly, they seek to control self-organized student movements by stacking working committees with ISO members. Their goal is to turn every instance of struggle into either an ISO front-group and recruiting center, and/or a base from which to disseminate their Socialist Worker newspaper. Still, ISO membership is a virtual revolving door, with astonishing turnover rates.

From the ISO’s “New Members Study Packet”:

“We need socialists in every workplace to agitate around fightbacks on the shop floor. We need socialists in every neighborhood to take up the questions of housing, police violence, health care, and everything else that comes up. We need students to agitate on college campuses. We need socialists in every corner of society inhabited by working people, and we need these socialists working nonstop–organizing struggle and carrying on political discussions.”

It has not historically been “the socialists” who agitate, organize, revolt, strike back, and fight, but the people themselves!  Nor should any one group set the agenda for struggle. By co-opting self-directed campaigns (a recent issue of Socialist Worker featured a picture from the April New School occupation on its cover, an event they had nothing to do with) the ISO have a deleterious effect on any broad-based struggle, despite their disingenuous calls for a “democratic movement.” They dominate discourse and push actions in their desired direction wherever they can. They believe in leadership that speaks for others (a recent ISO article on the Black Liberation movement of the 1960s is entitled “Speaking for the Oppressed”). Those who tread on their turf or attempt to critique the ISO are accused of sectarianism and red-baiting, or accused of trying to “control” the same movement that the ISO itself seeks to manage. Some of this behavior may sound familiar to those who have followed the particular shit-storm around March 4th, but it is absolutely routine for the ISO.

The purpose of the above is not to simply belittle a tiny groupuscule of well-meaning but deeply misguided activists, it is to point out the important problems we are facing in NYC and the US as these groups scramble to gain footing in and control over growing movements. Individuals and organizations, whether Trot, MLM or liberal, will continue to describe their fearful, reactionary, self-important behavior as “real leadership” and “movement-building”. This behavior is not only disempowering, but also detrimental to struggle itself.

Besides being opportunistic, centralist vanguardism tends to be highly conservative and elitist.  If we look at this historically, it is clear that the ‘disorganized masses’ have often placed the limits of struggle far beyond their supposed ‘representatives’: before the Russian Revolution, an outburst of women and, later, soldiers took the streets but were met with hesitation by the Bolshevik Central Committee, the ‘vanguard of the revolution’, who put the breaks on the workers’ upsurge; In 1917, when the revolution arrived, the Lenin and the Bolsheviks took the opportunity to “lead”, and while the Russian workers’ councils and peasant communes took direct control of over production, the Bolsheviks soon subsumed them under the bureaucratic state; In 1936, workers’ militias and farmers’ collectives abolished private property in much of Spain until the Stalinists, and later the fascists, reimposed it; in 1968, the Communist Party sat on its hands in shock as French students and workers initiated the largest wildcat general strike in history, pushing capitalism to its brink. The stakes are certainly smaller today in this period of crisis and working class retrenchment, but why should we imagine that these processes should play out differently now? Why should we subordinate diverse struggles to a party line or sacrifice them for the greater good of a “movement” that hardly even exists?

Dead Strategies

The CoMB are not merely conservative and reformist, they are stuck in another era, employing anachronistic strategies and utilizing hackneyed concepts. This is unsurprising. The tactical repertoire of the so-called Left is always the product of dead or dying struggles; they are always fighting yesterday’s battles. These specialists in struggle turn what should be dynamic and fluid into something monolithic and sclerotic. In these ways, they act as an actual barrier to contemporary struggle.

The organically produced strategies and theses of yesteryear always become idealized when those struggles fail. Again, there are many examples of this: Jacobinism out of the political struggles of the French Revolution; Blanquism out of the Paris Commune; Leninism, Trotskyism and Stalinism out of the Bolshevik Revolution; Councilism out of the Sparticist Uprising; Syndicalism out of the C.G.T. and the Spanish Civil War; Maoism out of the Chinese Revolution; Situationism out of May 68; Focoism out of the Latin American struggles of the 50s and 60s; Insurrectionism and Autonomism out of Southern Europe in the 60s and 70s; ad infinitum. It is exactly when the tactics and ideologies born of these struggles cease to be operative in praxis that they become dogma; that is to say, when they risk being used by self-styled “leaders” to force “the masses” into their preferred mold.

Every generation discovers, out of necessity, new modes of practice within new conditions. Then, through struggle itself, they construct suitable analyses unique to their times. In this vein, we realize occupations might one day cease to be an important process and become idealized into “Occupationism.” Regardless, all those interested in the universal emancipation of humanity from exploitation, war and division should be focused on the conditions of the present and the potentials of the future. This is not to say that the past has nothing to teach us: it is crucial to study the successes and failures of dead generations. However, raising the theories and modes of practice born of any particular revolutionary situation – whether in the US, Russia, China or Algeria – to the level of dogma is counterproductive and self-defeating.

The Vital Present

Despite the rhetoric of CoMB, militant workers and students in California and NYC are not a “danger to the movement.”  These people are involved in some of the most vital and powerful aspects of class struggle. Whatever their flaws, two recent actions – the attempted appropriation of an abandoned bank building in San Francisco and the takeover of a major freeway in Oakland – point towards some exciting possibilities. The real solidarities that have been created across the country by countless students, workers, homeless, jobless, landless peoples have the potential to constitute something powerful and new. Perhaps the time will come when activists screaming at a few weary bystanders to “fight, fight fight!” will cause them to rise up and take back their lives. Perhaps someday selling newspapers to students will actually create a revolutionary force. Perhaps someday appealing to a bourgeois political leader will actually win a higher level of equality and freedom for the working class as a whole.

We say: not likely.

This much we do know: nobody can predict the precise forms that struggle will take amidst this most recent crisis of capital. We can engage in battles on the ground and support those who need support. We can propose actions within movements that could lead to more powerful instances of collective action. We can seek to connect various struggles through affiliation, propaganda and analysis. We can continue to read and talk and understand the system that is killing us. We can all do much, much more than we have been doing. But crucial to this enterprise is confronting and marginalizing those who would use their power to co-opt self-organization and place the supposed “needs” of the “movement” above the revolutionary impulses of the people, while subordinating a range of actions by diverse groups of people — the whole of which is what constitutes a movement that is real and vital — to hierarchical management and anachronistic forms of struggle.

We say that the revolutionary movement of the 21st century must let the dead bury their dead: so let’s get on with it.


The following readings highlight the historically-specific nature of tactics and struggle, and/or provide a history which reveals that anachronistic or hierarchical organizing has a tendency to suppress real revolutionary actions taken by exploited people, who often happen to be women and/or “unorganized” workers and poor.

Martha Ackelsberg – The Free Women of Spain

Maurice Brinton – Bolsheviks and Workers’ Control

Gilles Dauve – Eclipse and Re-Emergence of the Communist Movement

Endnotes – Endnotes I

Evtuhov, Goldfrank, Hughes, Stites – A History of Russia

Sheila Fitzpatrick – The Russian Revolution

Herman Gorter – Open Letter to Comrade Lenin

Paul Mattick – Anti-Bolshevik Communism in Germany

Maria Mies – Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale

George Orwell – Homage to Catalonia

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