Crisis and Consciousness: Lessons and Reflections from March 4th

April 18, 2010

Advance The Struggle

Tables of Contents

  1. Introduction to March 4th
  2. October 24th Compromise
  3. City committees: Oakland and LA, Class Struggle Left Committees
  4. San Francisco: Center Wins Over Left
  5. UC Berkeley vs. UC Santa Cruz: Campus Committees Choose Focus
  6. UC Davis and CSU Fresno: Central Valley Consciousnesa
  7. Seattle: Worker-Student Power
  8. Conclusion
  9. Appendix
    1. Canada Community College
    2. UC Berkeley marches to Oakland
    3. Youth lead in Oakland
    4. CCSF

I. Introduction

Spirit is indeed never at rest but always engaged in moving forward. But just as the first breath drawn by a child after its long, quiet nourishment breaks the gradualness of merely quantitative growth – there is a qualitative leap, and the child is born.

– Hegel

March 4th provides us with a snapshot into the strategic and theoretical frameworks used by the Left to understand, develop and radicalize consciousness; we begin to see patterns emerge as this consciousness is translated into working class action, and we begin to ask ourselves what is needed to learn from these actions and begin developing a revolutionary consciousness and practice to address the ongoing crisis of capital.

In our last analysis of the anti-budget cut movement we identified two dominant political forces on campuses – the adventurists and the centrists (trotskyists mainly, but not exclusively).  As we stated in Opening Shot, the political tension was between:

. . . the twin pitfalls of tailism (following behind proposals for petitions and legalistic protests) on the one hand, and adventurism (isolated militant action) on the other. Both of these approaches sidestep the political consciousness of the masses.

This was written at a very early stage of the movement, but even then it was clear to us that the differences of approaches to radicalizing consciousness were key determinants in differentiating the political forces in the movement. However, these differing approaches have often gone under-theorized due to the emphasis amongst activists being on questions of tactics.  Which tactic is right for the movement at any given time?  The adventurists and the centrists almost always answered this question differently, even if in practice they acted in temporary unison.  For instance, after the successful occupation of Wheeler Hall on November 20th (where over 2000 students defended an occupied building), we wrote that:

In the campus movement, the two primary answers to this question have been popular organizing (general assemblies) and militant resistance (occupations). What happened last week at university campuses across California was a step toward a synthesis of these two approaches.

A synthesis of these two approaches has not happened since.  Rather, what has happened is a sharpening of the differences and tensions between these dominant and at times competing approaches towards developing consciousness and turning these developments into strategic advancements in the movement.  At the same time, we have also seen the development of a third approach that we call a genuine class struggle left and the purpose of our writing here is to excavate by positive example this emerging left approach.  The strengthening of the movement and the radicalization of political consciousness amongst the working class are crucial components of turning movements of resistance into schools of revolutionary training.  For this reason it is necessary to briefly examine the positive and negative aspects of the adventurist and centrist tendencies in order to identify what we can learn from each group’s methodologies, as well as which aspects we should leave behind.  We are not aiming to abstractly compare ideologies against each other but rather seeking to identify how these ideologies relate towards the development of struggle.  In writing this we must emphasize that the three main tendencies we identify are strategic approaches towards intervening in struggles and radicalizing consciousness; they are not reducible to individual people or even individual organizations.  Proof of this is found in the differential approaches activists in the same Trotskyist organizations have taken in different geographical locations, specifically between UC Berkeley and UC Santa Cruz.

Our conception of consciousness is that people’s consciousness is dialectical; it constitutes a “unity of opposites” in that there is a contradictory relation between radical ideas about society as well as bourgeois ideology (mainstream ideas.)  The work of revolutionaries should be to push on the radical side and counterpose it to the bourgeois side in order to resolve the contradiction in favor of revolution.  Our adventurist and centrist comrades get the dialectics of consciousness wrong, each in their own way.

Both the adventurists and the centrists seek to unleash mass revolt, but neither fully comprehends how to do so.  The adventurists think that mass revolt is sparked by inspirational actions of the more radical minority ready for confrontation.  The centrists believe instead that those with advanced consciousness must hold themselves to what the (liberal) majority is ready for in order not to become marginalized.  These perspectives are reflected in the organizational structures characteristic of each trend: closed but radical secret meetings of the adventurists and open but liberal bureaucratic general assemblies of the centrists. In order to recognize the significance of the emergent left approach we should acknowledge both the strengths and weaknesses of these two main currents.

In the eyes of the adventurists who produced After the Fall, the success of the Wheeler occupation was not a synthetic moment between two approaches but rather “displacement” of the two approaches by “a militant desire to communize private property.”  This statement stands in contradiction to the fact that the occupation was proposed at a general assembly which, while not disclosing the location of the occupation, made it publically known that direct actions would occur and thereby was a step forward from the failed occupation of September 24th that caught students completely off guard.  This moment in our eyes objectively represents a partial step towards synthesis.

What the preceding quote from After the Fall does accurately reveal is the fact that people were in fact ready for militant action.  While we may question how much of this was a genuine “desire to communize private property” in the sense that the adventurists understand this, it was indeed a reflection of the embryonic militancy residing deep within the consciousness of a significant portion of students.  Many working class people intuitively understand that lobbying politicians, petitioning the power structure, and having peaceful rallies and protests are not enough; the direct actions of the adventurists provide a space for this latent militancy to manifest itself in practice. Our insurrectionary comrades get credit for acknowledging that aspects of people’s consciousness are ready for action. Mobilizing people on the basis of intuitive militancy, however, is a far step from the type of protracted and pedagogical work that must be done in order to sustain and develop this intuitive combativeness into revolutionary consciousness and fighting organizational forms.

The centrists, on the other hand, verbally acknowledge that occupations can be politicizing moments, but heavily qualify this support and highlight the necessity of building organization.  As one Trotskyist group puts it, “occupations and other forms of direct action can be productive if they have mass participation, if they have a clear purpose and demands, and if they are democratically decided on by the movement as a whole.” [emphasis ours] While nominally citing the productiveness of occupation, the final clause about the necessity of the whole movement’s approval is what makes this claim disingenuous.  We’ve written elsewhere about the logic of this approach, which exposes:

. . . not only the plans of the occupation, but the occupiers themselves [which may] result in anything from the mere prevention of the action to brutal state repression. Those who insist that every action be approved by an open democratic space are acting against the working class’s interests for, as we observe above, “it is anti-working class to judge an action by its formal democratic process. The rubric must be, instead, the degree to which an action tips the balance of class forces in favor of the oppressed.

The centrist paradigm insists on a neat and safe linear trajectory, wherein struggles organized by professional activists grow and grow and eventually blossom into a militant movement. The formula is clear: build general assemblies, organize small teach-ins and rallies, then days of action, etc. The establishment of coalitional spaces and general assemblies are the key ingredients for developing radical political class-consciousness that eventually lead towards militant direct-action (in the distant future).  While it is true that building organizational forms for people to plug into is incredibly important, this approach towards doing so generally fails to tap into the intuitive militancy that the adventurists are able to relate to through their direct actions.  Instead, the centrists downplay the degree of radical consciousness that already exists within large sections of the working class and argues that if a coalitional space does not approve a proposal then the movement must “not be ready” and that we must “meet people where they’re at.”

The recognition that we must  “meet people where they’re at” is crucial for tapping into the latent power and consciousness of working class people.  In our view it involves having a pedagogical method (which we elaborate below) and open, accessible organizational structures geared towards bringing this latent power and consciousness to the fore.  However, the centrists misunderstand “meeting people where they’re at” inasmuch as they reify (that is, treat as static and unchanging) where people’s consciousness “is at”.  The centrists not only meet people where they’re at, they also leave them there. By and large their lack of a revolutionary pedagogy and orientation towards gradualism leads them to lose the opportunity to water the existing seeds of militant consciousness that people do have.  By avoiding the opportunity to facilitate the growth of people’s intuitive militancy in a revolutionary direction, they end up strengthening liberal and narrow tendencies within people’s minds that stem from a lack of exposure to revolutionary ideas and strategies.

Conversely, what is important to learn from and respect about the adventurists is that their literature and propaganda attempts to put forward a more total revolutionary vision for insurrection and communism; coupled with this, their actions do more to directly challenge capitalist property relations and bourgeois hegemony.  The problem arises in that this means very little without meeting people where they’re at and building organizational structures in workplaces, schools and communities, so that people may move from being spontaneous participants in flashes of direct action and proceed to become active intellectual participants who understand revolutionary theory and strategy.  The failure to break down capital’s hierarchical division between mental and manual labor also, ironically, ends up often leaving people where they’re at just as much as the Centrists do.  People participate or defend an occupation and have a radicalizing experience, but generally don’t find an outlet by which to reflect on this experience and use it as a basis for developing a revolutionary vision of the world

We may seem harsh in our critique of our comrades, but we do so not only out of a revolutionary love but also out of a deep humility.  It’s not easy to synthesize the best of each other’s approaches or even recognize that people we disagree with have assets!  However, it’s necessary to be ruthlessly critical of our differences while remaining open to the possibility of learning from each other if we hope to continue developing the emerging left tendency we have seen the beginnings of.

There is one thing that ties all the examples of the left approach on March 4th together: the existence of a radical organizing body with an open perspective that strategically incorporates both as many people as possible into the struggle to challenge school and workplace discipline and domination.  This is not an eclectic “combo” of the adventurist and centrist perspectives but rather a synthesis of the partial truths contained in each trend.  These independent bodies set radical terms in building for March 4th but interacted openly and pedagogically with the mainstream to powerfully channel radical impulses within the contradictory consciousness of certain sectors of the working class, largely the youth.

The class struggle is fundamentally about workers challenging the capitalist discipline that schools and workplaces reinforce; such discipline is the means of both keeping the population powerless and expropriating value and profits. The intervention of Marxists is crucial in agitating against this discipline through a pedagogical approach.  Dominant socialist paradigms that do not challenge the root of this capitalist discipline lead activists to become good-willed movement-managers of a new type. This is the folly the centrists commit with their overemphasis on the convening of coalitions, conferences, and general assemblies; their unwillingness to move beyond what is immediately acceptable by “the majority” in the interests of not “alienating” themselves from the movement lines up all too well with conservative aspects of people’s consciousness. Adventurists, in reaction to such conservatism, commit a folly no less detrimental to the class struggle: virtual abstention from the political process of building struggle with working class communities.  Instead, they substitute a purely sensual form of struggle that challenges private property in isolation from the class whose work produces such property to begin with.

The conservative passivity grown out of 40 years of capital’s domination has produced a conservative consciousness that seemingly limits the possibilities of struggle. In our era of crisis and budget cuts, and emerging radicalism is cracking through this conservatism and clearly showing the contradictory nature of consciousness. Do we passively accept people’s contradictory consciousness and thereby reinforce the dominant layer of conservatism by proposing what would be acceptable to “the majority”?  Or do we enter into this complex world and attempt to speed up the radicalization of workers and students so that they play their historical role in the overthrow of capital?

Organizing along the lines of the latter, and arming ourselves with a skilled pedagogy, is what needs to be done in the coming periods of struggle. If we don’t, it will not only slowdown the movement, it may also lead us to fail in the meeting our objectives and truncate the growth of radical consciousness.  It is possible to for movements to negate their own progress and return back to older stages of conservatism. The future is not written; the outcome is partially in our hands. What we do and how we see this changing world will be key in shaping what we make out of the crisis.

March 4th throughout California and abroad gives us clues and lessons of how to advance struggle and understand what a genuine left looks like.  In order to fully understand these lessons we should begin with an understanding of how the date was picked in the first place . . .

II. October 24th: The Conference and Compromise

March 4th was born when a group of 800 students, teachers and workers seeking a path of struggle met at a conference at UC Berkeley on October 24th to decide the way forward for the budget cut movement.  The conference was largely organized by UCB-based activists, and MC’d largely by Bay Area-based Trotskyists.  It focused the struggle by setting a single day to fight back.  Conference organizers however, limited the depth of focus by mixing two distinct political approaches to one watered down (and contradictory) compromise.  The result?  A decision to not make a decision.  A militant “One day strike/walkout” proposal was merged with the non-confrontational “March on Sacramento” proposal: “Strike and Day of Action that is inclusive of all different tactics, including: walkouts, rallies, march to Sacramento, teach-ins, occupations, and all other forms of protest.”  This concoction revealed a centrist orientation toward consciousness. The centrist assumption was that the compromise achieved the broadest appeal possible, but this specifically disregards any attempt to articulate a strategy for victory. The decision to avoid collective discussion of what should happen on March 4th offers a window into the way the tendencies assess consciousness in the working class and the potential for radical action.

This framework represented a lost opportunity to consciously politicize the question of tactics and frame the sense of collective organizing around an overt political goal. Because consciousness is internally contradictory a coherent and politicized framework united around Strike will not necessarily alienate people; instead , this very framework is the type that can give practical unity and fighting capacity to organizers.  As a method of struggle, “freedom of action” failed to articulate a vision and a perspective of concrete struggle against budget cuts. Even though the compromise was built on contradiction and centrism, it did make a major contribution: March 4th was the day.

III. City Committees

Advance the Struggle in late November ‘09 wrote Occupations Spread through California:

It is clear that the conditions exist for every school and perhaps every public institution to form political committees composed of workers, students and teachers that attempt to organize their workplaces and schools for militant struggle in general and a strike on March 4thin particular. Unions will pass watered down resolutions for March 4th, which is a positive development, but rank-and-file militants are the key link in motivating the majority of their coworkers to take political responsibility for the strike building process to reach its radical, creative potential.  Unions cannot do this for the workers.

This is undoubtedly still true. The statewide conference helped form a statewide network, and it left it up to the organizers around the state to build vision and perspective from their bases up- and outward.  Following the conference, a northern California regional meeting was called for December 5th.  There, activists proposed the formation of city committees throughout California to build March 4th. Quickly Oakland, San Francisco, Richmond, San Jose, Santa Cruz, Los Angeles, San Diego and a whole host of other cities formed their committees, and March 4th flyers were produced and hitting the streets.  Such committees can and should build smaller committees that can organize schools and workplace for the coming struggles. Hundreds of students, teachers, and workers have already joined such committees throughout the state and helped spread the word through a variety of means and channels. The problems built into the logic of the compromise arose quickly as internal debates in these meetings over the political language of the flyers. Should it have “Strike” or “walkout” on the flyer, or just “Day of Action?”  Left militants fought for the perspective of a strike and walkouts in such meetings; this fight was animated by perception of an opening for challenging and inspiring the working class through confrontational action by its advanced minority.

What hurt more than tactical confusion was the lack of worker militants in major workplaces.  These militants could have organized and called for strikes through their own organic horizontal channels against the will of their conservative unions.  Without these motors from below, unions in LA attempted to sabotage the radical organizing, dominate the scene with their speakers and perspectives, and push out all the activists that had a bottom-up perspective of struggle.  In northern California union leadership aligned with a conservative Trotskyist organization, and together fought against all daytime actions in the name of a 5pm rally at the SF civic center.  This position not only reinforced the 9-5 work discipline, but more importantly precluded any support for daytime job actions!

The various March 4th committees, regional meetings, and statewide conferences have been important forms to build and sharpen the struggle against the cuts.  But with March 4th now behind us we need more than form in the coming struggle; we need radical political vision, concrete objectives for the movement and a strategy of building towards system-wide strike-waves designed to shut down education statewide to fight the cuts.  An explicit political orientation towards taking control of the workplace that would exhibit and so build independent class power.

A. Oakland

The Oakland March 4th committee both pushed a radical pro-strike line and successfully involved masses of working people.  A key result of this orientation was that Oakland created the first March 4th flyer in December and started agitating hard amongst the area’s working-class communities.  The committee helped militant teachers from the Oakland Educators Association (the Oakland public school teachers’ union) push for a strike over the union’s lack of contract.  89% of the membership voted for “a day of action up to and including a strike.” The two bodies reinforced each other’s energy: pro-strike forces in the union argued that the committee would rally community support for the stoppage, while the committee was energized by this connection to militant workers.  But when the union leadership voted, the executive board voted down the strike 6 against 5—a one vote difference!

Though the teachers did not strike, students self-organized walkouts from several high schools.  These marches mostly began in East Oakland, a neighborhood that has long experienced both the structural violence of economics and the direct violence of the state.  Marching students with some teachers called folks out of schools along the way, a key example of horizontal organizing through action.  Meanwhile a rally at local Laney College turned into a march to the downtown rally, eventually intersecting with a high school march to loud cheers.

Nearly 1,000 Oakland high schoolers, largely Black and Latino, walked out of their schools without any fighting. The rally, organized in a bottom up way, made it so mainly youth spoke at the rally politicizing and electrifying other Oakland youth.  The young speakers, using Oakland lingo, were able to make very strong connections about how defunding schools leads to Black and Brown youth being criminalized and imprisoned.

When the Berkeley march arrived in Oakland, energy exploded and the unified crowds was bursting with positive social movement energy. The next speaker talked about how Oaklanders should be proud of the fact that Oakland is the place of the very last general strike in American history in 1946, and how twenty years later the Black Panthers were born out of the same city.  A Democratic Party politician and their entourage was turned away from the mic, displaced by the voices of militant students from universities, community colleges, and high schools . . . a glimmer of radical class unity.

Anarchists and occupationists led a breakaway march from the rally. There was a sense that something bolder needed to be done, and that rallies alone are not enough. Under the logic of “shutting down transportation and the means of production” the breakaway march went onto the Freeway with many drivers supporting the action honking their horns in sympathy. It is very significant to note that this action did not alienate the majority of working-class folks driving on the freeway (as centrists, of course, predicted).  This can be seen from local news coverage, which shows bemused but vaguely supportive people standing outside of their stopped cars cheering on the highway occupiers.   On the other hand we must be honest that shutting down traffic at 5pm is crucially different than working-class people shutting down the institutions they run in their daily lives. Although blocking the freeway effects production, it involves people not in their capacities as teacher, mother, maid, programmer, and student, but as spectators to the actions of a minority of insurgents.  Nonetheless the freeway action gave folks with militant consciousness a place to do something far more confrontational that simply attend a rally.

Some insurrectionists have criticized the organizers of the rally (including us) for discouraging Oakland youth from participating in the breakaway march.  The thinking behind this announcement was that because folks would not know the destination of the march until it got to the freeway, they would somehow be “tricked” into a situation they did not choose.  This is somewhat true: the act of approaching a freeway is likely to lead to police repression, due to the very reasons the insurrectionists targeted it.  And so participants could have felt “tricked” into confrontation with police, in the same way many participants felt “entrapped” in the September 24th occupation that was called during (and around!) a UC Berkeley general assembly.

The error we and other organizers made was to overcompensate in our move to avoid the Sept. 24th fiasco.  Instead of encouraging people NOT to go on the march, we should have announced the freeway goal and encouraged anyone prepared to go!  This is a key moment where the left perspective can emerge: supporting the active expression of the contradictory nature of actually existing class -consciousness.  Key mistakes like these are important moments for reflection and self-critique; we will be wary in the future of missing opportunities for militancy in solidarity with mass peaceful action.

B. Los Angeles

March 4th was a great day in Los Angeles. Students from CSULA, CSUN, PCC, LACC, ELAC, Santee High, Jefferson High, Belmont High, LA High, Manuel Arts, LACES, and many other schools walked out.  Cal State University Los Angeles had a rally that started at 9:30am with community members who gathered in the free-speech area.  The protest turned into a march and called professors and students to get out of class and join the march.  Signs read, ”Tax the Rich, Bail Out the Students, Teachers and Workers” and “Can’t Pay Wont Pay for this Crisis!” People were chanting “Walk-Out, Walk-Out”. The rally started with about 40 people, but once the march passed three or four buildings, over 100 folks joined up.  There was an open mic rally in front of financial aid and the administration buildings and the crowd was fired up.  Many spoke out about the economic crisis, pointing out that the cuts in education were not an isolated incident but rather an extension of the failure of our economic system, capitalism.  The crowd was largely composed of women of color.  A few sisters who came said they had never been to anything like this before and were very inspired to fight and will continue to get involved.  People spoke against the privatization of education, and one high school student Felipe pointed out that this “would only serve to increase the gap between the rich and us the poor.”

There were some who doubted the ability of the LA M4 Committee and doubted the fighting spirit of the youth and workers they were reaching out to.  The same folks underestimated the union bureaucracy’s attempts to contain this movement.  An in-depth description of LA and Oakland are necessary to demonstrate the possibilities that existed throughout the state.  Every city had the potential for daytime actions that stopped business as usual; why did only Oakland and LA successfully do so? We submit that the relationship between a class struggle Left and the organizational form of the M4 committees played a central role in providing channels for this working-class militancy to explode.

IV. San Francisco: Center Trumps Left

In San Francisco the massive 5pm rally and the conflict at SF State showed both the objective basis for mass struggle and the actual results of the centrist perspective.

SFSU

A student coalition built towards March 4th for months.  On the day of, the CFA (CSU Faculty Union) held an informational picket (not intended to disrupt school) at the top of 19th and Holloway.  Meanwhile some students formed picket lines around the business and ethnic studies buildings, and at some points linked arms urging students not to cross the line. Around noon a large rally was held at Malcolm X plaza, where “Agitprop”, or political theatre was performed on the stage. About a thousand students gathered to watch the show. At the same time, students on the lawn made signs, screen printed t-shirts, others made political art, and overall there was a feeling of festivity.

About an hour into the CFA’s picket, which had accumulated a few hundred supportive students, a group of students decided to march into 19th and block traffic. The crowd divided between those students who continued to march in circle with the CFA urging them to stay on the sidewalk, while a couple hundred students remained in the street, blocking both sides of 19th avenue, which is a highway. After about 10 minutes, students left the street and rejoined the picket.  After the rally, which had great art but no speakers, participants either filtered away or headed downtown to the 5pm rally.

Throughout the semester, confusion over its mandate had made the SFSU anti-budget-cut coalition divided over tactics and politics: strike or day of action, occupations or general assemblies, etc.  This lack of agreement about basic political orientation in a small group often led to a sectarian, battleground dynamic of organizations blocked against each other.  Despite constant calls to “keep the space positive for newcomers” it never became that way despite the valiant efforts of a few independents.  Ultimately the coalition divided into people who agreed with centrist California Faculty Association (CFA) activists and those who didn’t.  The two CFA activists generally adopted a paternalistic tone to any activists on their left, referring to them as “immature” and eventually denouncing the coalition after every activist did not submit to the demand of one professor that every activist sign a “nonviolence pledge.”  These pressures pushed the Left and Adventurist together, but both were too disorganized by the good-faith energy put into the failed coalition organizing to build for and execute what they had hoped on March 4th.  Despite militant history, both recent and in the ‘60s, on March 4th the Left and adventurist were disorganized and ended up outmaneuvered and isolated by the actions of both center and police.

The coalition and the left forces within it were paralyzed by unresolved questions of militancy, tactics, and character of the day itself. If the Left had maintained organizational independence, coherence and unity (e.g., Seattle and UCSC), then it could have moved forward with the fighting work of building March 4th.  It is this kind of fighting organization that has effectively overcome the alienation that centrists fear militancy might inspire in broader sections of society.  This approach displays a stronger political substance than the impulse to submit to the current level of mass consciousness.

The centrist logic places primary importance on coalitional work and united fronts at the expense of unifying political vision.  Ideally, fighting bodies are broadly inclusive, but if this comes at the cost of a clear mandate and political substance, then the paralysis experienced in the SFSU coalition prevents independent, horizontal outreach and agitation.  Coalitions and united fronts should not be underestimated, however they fail without a clear mandate, and MORE IMPORTANTLY, the logic of a united front should NOT be mutually exclusive with independent organizational initiative.  Union leaders and coalition-ists should not try to stifle independent action and advanced political orientation; if they do, then independents have much more to contribute to struggle by showing the way forward and building their own shit than by submitting to the centrists in an incoherent coalition space.

5PM Rally

One conservative trotskyist organization, along with the conservative trade-union leadership formed an alliance with closed meetings and urged people not to do anything during that day. Their thinking was that conditions were too premature to call for strikes, protest and walkouts and that energy should be centered on a permitted after work rally.  10,000 people showed up from all over the bay representing a quantitative strength with high energy in the 5 o’clock hour.  But as participants were more spectators than actors on the top-down managed stage, people quickly starting leaving around 6pm. The building of such a rally unfortunately was done partly by discouraging people to attend day time actions.  More nefariously, multiple people witnessed Berkeley and Oakland March 4th flyers getting ripped down to build the 5:00 PM Civic Center rally.  The attempt of the San Francisco March 4th committee to organize a daytime rally was completely overwhelmed by the amount of the energy, both self-organized and through union bureaucracies, put into the 5pm rally.  The logic of the rally was based on characterizing the working class as completely unready to strike, leading the organizers of this rally to fight politically against organizers who proposed a strike. This approach failed to recognize the possibilities inherent in even the current state of working-class consciousness, mobilizing thousands for the purpose of simply doing something.

V.  UC Berkeley vs. UC Santa Cruz: Campus Committees Choose Focus

Even though protests against budget cuts had been taking place throughout California, such as Los Angeles, Alameda, and SF State in the last couple of years, UC Berkeley opened a new page of struggle on September 24th 2009 when 5,000 protested and struck against layoffs and budget cuts. Unfortunately the UC Berkeley March 4th Committee was unable to maintain cohesion and reproduce mass struggle due to its lack of a clear mandate. The UC Berkeley March 4th committee had a clear mandate: to build a strike at Cal via mass actions designed to shut down the campus to the greatest degree possible.  But throughout its life, the committee lacked political cohesion.  It was torn from the beginning over the details, over violence and non-violence, over more militant direct action versus less confrontational mass action.  The committee had a mandate, but it never established for everyone involved the content and form of that mandate.  Instead, building a strike at Cal meant something different for all the different tendencies and personalities in the room.  As a result, there was no coherent organizational agenda to systematize outreach in buses, classrooms and public spaces, build committee meetings to enhance logistical outreach capacity, and overcome ideological differences for the sake of building militant action oriented around shutting campus down to the extent possible.

A strike is a politicizing engagement.  Neither the occupationists—who view mass consciousness as dry wood waiting only for the right spark—nor the Trotskysists—who reify current mass consciousness and redeploy it via the static formulation: “meet people where they’re at”—understand the real potential of a militant, non-compromising, politically radical action, the real potential of a fighting body founded for the exclusive end of building a strike.  The UC Berkeley March 4th committee did not empower people; it did not forge from the ground up an independent and coherent vision for March 4th.  Instead, it became an open forum for pre-constituted groups to vie for their established perspectives.  It was a coalition space, not a space designed to build a strike—to the exclusion of all competing ideologies and against all obstacles. The committee failed to stake its existence from the beginning on making the political argument that the strike is the weapon to fight the cuts and politicize individuals into revolutionaries.

One of the main flaws in the UC Berkeley March 4th committee was that it failed to actively engage and organize the student body, instead it took on a coordinating role between various organizational bodies on campus.  The failure to directly mobilize students and workers had a demoralizing effect on the organizers involved because they failed to see the day-to-day results of their organizational decisions.  The committee also failed to use the AFSCME 444 resolution as a tool to agitate the AFSCME 3299 workers on campus in order to build a pro-strike consciousness amongst the workers, unlike UC Santa Cruz.  The most dynamic aspect of Berkeley organizing was the militant and massive march to the local working-class center of downtown Oakland, described below.

Santa Cruz

March 4th at UC Santa Cruz exhibits all of the best characteristics of Left and adventurist organizing.  A UCSC strike committee organizer has written an excellent account of how the committee organizing led to the results: a campus shut down all day with the active collaboration of rank and file workers.  Key sections of the piece focus on the nature of the strike committee and events on March 4th.

On the necessity of the strike committee:

“Though there was a lot of work to come, those few students had already come further than students on many other campuses would come, because they had an organizing body dedicated to building a strike.  This was an incalculably essential development.  If the organizing effort had stayed in coalition spaces or open general assemblies, the strike would not have become what it was.  The meetings of the strike committee were open and democratic, however the committee did not waste a whole lot of time with anything that wouldn’t build for the strike on march 4th.  Though the original call for the day had been for a Strike and Day of Action, it was the strike committee’s firm orientation towards building a strike and nothing else that made the Santa Cruz action what it was. The strike committee was  constantly presented with opportunities to lose that focus, from faculty telling us that going to Sacramento was the only non-elitist action, to students arguing for ending the strike line to march downtown for a community rally.  The phrase, “That sounds awesome, but this space is for building a strike on march 4th,” came up again and again, illustrating neatly the importance of having that space.  In the Santa Cruz context, it was essential that the committee eliminate the “and day of action” clause from our organizing space, and focus only on the building of the most powerful strike we could build.”

The committee, enabled by this focus, was able to channel its energy into outreach and building relationships with campus workers.  Eventually the strike committee, due to its democratic structure and ability to get things done, replaced the general assemblies as the central campus organizing zone.  The relationships with workers paid off when the committee was told by campus workers that “All we need is to be able to truthfully tell our bosses that we could not physically get to work, and we’re good.  It has to be true, because they’ll be watching us, but that’s all we need.”  This formed the basis by which the committee, leading to March 4th being a day where no work occurred on campus without any risk to the jobs of workers; in fact many got paid for a day of work even when they returned to join the picket line!

But in order for workers to have this opportunity, the students had to shut the campus down.  On March 4th students blocked campus entrances from both foot and vehicle traffic, continuing in spite of injuries to activists from reactionary drivers attempting to ram through the blockade.  Organizers let emergency vehicles and local residents through but turned all others around. Such ability to closely organize a mass militant action was rooted in the common purpose established by the strike committee; this situation should be contrasted to SFSU, where confusion and centrism reigned because strike was never made the basis for coalition organizing.  UCSC also differed from UC Berkeley’ due to the political identity of the march 4th bodies. Santa Cruz built a strike committee that was focused not abstract actions but a concrete strike at UC Santa Cruz. UC Berkeley’s March 4th committee saw itself as a legislative bodies that could make and accept proposals, facilitate organizing of other bodies, but lacked a cohesive outreach plan for the building a shut-down strike action. This was prevalent in the committee’s weakness in outreach to the students and workers on campus.

The “Strike and day of action” formulation was proposed and widely accepted at the 10/24 conference in order to make it accessible for unions to take action, with the assumption that the unions taking action would mean workers taking action.  The reality at Santa Cruz, quite the opposite of this, was that student organizers related directly to rank-and-file workers and bypassed union bureaucracies.  This is a key characteristic of a genuine class struggle left orientation and practice.  As such, it became the single example of an institution-wide strike across California on March 4th.  It was not only the form of the committee but rather the political content and strategy they employed.  By relating directly to the rank-and-file through the March 4th strike committee, the balance of forces was effectively polarized in such a way that union leaders from the UAW followed the lead of the strike committee and provided some material support for the strike.

VI. UC Davis

At UC Davis a coalition sprung up for March 4th without known militants from any tendency, Left, adventurist or Center.  The coalition organizers, generally new to politics, planned only a “combine the elements” rally at UCD for the day of and expected low attendance.  On the day of, however, the 500 students who assembled all began marching in the direction of the nearby freeway, interstate 80.

Marchers broke through two lines of police, resisted baton strikes and pepper balls, and were only deterred when a vocal organizer, Laura Mitchell, was brutally taken hostage by police.  At that point marchers conferred and agreed to turn around to avoid charges for Mitchell.  Collective action, militancy, consensus-based decision making on the spot and solidarity: seems like an experienced Left leadership was there, right?  But an involved organizer said that wasn’t the case; rather, the self-selecting crowd moved and made decisions as a militant unit.

UC Davis can be used as a case study in what could have occurred without the significant involvement of any organized Left forces.  In this view, the UCD action is like many of the best spontaneous actions throughout history: militant and taking solidarity as its operating principle. The criticisms circulating at UCD, that the march could have headed toward the freeway in town, and the noticeable lack of political articulation seem to be the two main outcomes of the lack of Left leadership.  But it’s clear that the consciousness of a militant mass wing of the student movement prepared them for confrontational tactics and clear-minded negotiations with police . . . they’re lucky no centrist “vanguards” were present arguing that they weren’t ready for this!

In contrast to the adventurist-planned freeway occupation in Oakland, the Davis attempt drew a critical mass directly from the base of UC Davis students.  It was the result of mass decision-making rather than vanguard planning meetings. . The Davis action can be seen as an example of what a genuine Left action can look like.  Left leadership would ride the success of such an action by engaging the rest of the campus, students, workers and professors, in a dialogue about the action.  This relationship between action and reflection, is a key motor in the development of class consciousness.

VIII.  Seattle

The March 4th movement, which originated in CA, traveled through 33 states and in doing so highlighted the immense potential of the campus struggle, specifically in Seattle.

The resistance at University of Washington seems to be much more genuine left than most of what we see in California in the sense that campus groups like Democracy Insurgent has a much more highly developed orientation towards workers on campus and the development of their integration into struggle. This potential is due primarily to the fact that DI did the slow patient work of building real relationships with rank and file workers and connecting with the impulses of militancy and organic networks amongst them.  Seattle’s actions on March 4th are inspiring and require serious study by revolutionaries across the country.  For a very important and thorough analysis of March 4th in Seattle, we urge all readers to study:

http://gatheringforces.org/2010/03/11/march-forth-seattle/

IX. Conclusion

Proletarian revolutions . . . constantly criticize themselves, constantly interrupt themselves in their own course, return to the apparently accomplished, in order to begin anew; they deride with cruel thoroughness the half-measures, weaknesses, and paltriness of their first attempts, seem to throw down their opponents only so the latter may draw new strength from the earth and rise before them again more gigantic than ever, recoil constantly from the indefinite colossalness of their own goals – until a situation is created which makes all turning back impossible, and the conditions themselves call out:

Hic Rhodus, hic salta!
[Here is the rose, dance here!]

– Karl Marx

The essential dimension of what we are referring to as a genuine class struggle left tendency is really not that complex.  It involves direct connections between revolutionaries and cohorts of students and workers seeking to produce and develop worker/student agency at sites of production and positions of institutional discipline. Such agency is necessarily associated with independence from institutions that are politically and ideologically loyal to the bourgeois state.

Each instance that we point to as a positive example of the relationship between radicals and workers expresses itself in a different way and to different degrees. Democracy Insurgent in Seattle, radical students and workers in Santa Cruz (including individuals associated with organizations that exhibit centrist tendencies elsewhere), the Oakland & LA March 4th Committees all manifested “genuine class struggle left” tendencies.

Through patient work, radicals can co-develop their political consciousness alongside workers and students on a level that can go beyond the immediate struggle of bread and butter issues and bring all social relations into their scope; this type of work moves students and workers towards seeing the urgency for a revolution in all capitalist social structures.  Although there is no evidence that such a thing has developed yet out of any the left cases we identify, it is only through the relationships established by the left tendencies that we could begin forming revolutionary consciousness that penetrates the fabric of oppressed communities.

The class struggle left that revealed itself on March 4thinspires us, giving us a lot to reflect on as we turn toward theorizing how to advance the struggle through the intellectual development of the revolutionary working class towards developing its own theory, and facilitating the bridge from contemporary resistance to a total revolution, imagined and managed by the working class itself.

3 outstanding characteristics of the “genuine class struggle left”:

1. Direct relationships with workers on the basis of struggle against capital that the workers themselves recognize the need for and initiate.

2. Independence from institutions incorporated within the state and other instruments of bourgeois hegemony (including the state-like structure of unions and/or their leadership)

3. Facilitation of workers and radicals co-developing total political class-consciousness that supersedes immediate narrow campaigns of single work places.

Many leftist organizations might agree with this in the abstract, but two necessary aspects need to be addressed to make it a reality. One is consistent work and the other is pedagogy. Most left groups do not do consistent work in the working class. They might flyer once a season in a working class community, or stay in constant contact with union bureaucrats in order to say that they do that, but neither constitute the long-term groundwork of implanting revolutionary roots within proletarian communities. The second is pedagogy. Paulo Friere correctly argues that we cannot sloganize politics to the working class but rather need to develop a skillful pedagogy where revolutionaries engage in a political dialogue with the working class and master the art of teaching coupled with the art of listening, Many different groups contain aspects of these two necessities but have yet to synthesize them into a dynamic whole. Advance the Struggle seeks to develop this methodology as the complex task that revolutionaries must undertake today. There are no silver bullets or blueprints that will make this development take place. Only through commitment, hard work, theory, organization and pedagogy may we see the realization of this method and process become real.  All of which constituting a necessary step towards the historical transformative process of the overthrow of capitalism: proletarian revolution.

X Appendix

  1. a. Cañada Community College, Redwood City

At Cañada College around 250 students walked out of class at 10:00 am on March 4th. Students and faculty gathered in the center of campus where they chanted “They say cut back – we say fight back” and opened up the mic to students and teachers.  They collectively signed our names to a list of demands that were local in nature, including demands for no cuts to EOPS, ESL, counseling, janitorial and building and grounds staff, and other demands that are relevant to the decisions of our administration and board of trustees.  The crowd proceeded to enter the administration office, where the president had already come outside to undercut a potential sit in.  A student read and delivered the list of demands to the president, then the crowd marched down the road to the campus entrance where members of Carpenters Local 217 were handing out flyers with information about some scabbing going on in a building project on campus (the interior and finish carpentry for the project had been contracted out to a non-union firm from Sacramento.)  The crowd stayed at the entrance of campus for about 20 minutes, slowly proceeding across the street and back, and then left to go to the 3pm march in the Mission District.

  1. b. UC Berkeley and the March to Oakland

In the early hours of March 4th, the levels of uncertainty and anxiety were running high for those UC Berkeley students, faculty, workers and community members that had spent countless hours of their lives preparing for this day.  Each hoped that all their hard work and planning would pay off on this historic day, where people from all over the state would come together to fight against the privatization of public education.  Many arrived in good spirits at 7:00am and quickly began to amass at the campus entrances: Sather Gate, North Gate and West Gate.  A “people of color and allies” picket line was formed at Sather Gate, the main entrance, while the other students, graduate students and union members picketed at the North and West Gates.  Although the porous nature of the perimeter made shutting down the campus almost impossible, energy levels remained high at each entrance.  By 9:30 the entrance at Sather Gate was completely sealed off, forcing any student that wanted to get around to jump over the creek or go the long way.  The militant nature of this gate would only increase as picketers dug in and stood their ground as a barrage of angry students tried to force their way through the line.  This well fortified picket line with its creative chants, songs, and satirical skits illustrated to people the movement’s collective power, galvanizing participants.

At 11:45 each picket line converged at Sather Gate and moved forward in one block towards the intersection of Bancroft and Telegraph for the planned rally.  About 1500 people amassed around a truck to hear the different speakers, in a scene very reminiscent of Mario Savio’s speech atop the cop car.  The speakers moved very quickly and by 12:45 people began marching down Telegraph towards their meet-up in downtown Oakland to with other area schools.

There was a strong sense of solidarity among the thousand that marched down Telegraph.  Banners, puppets, blaring music and chants created a celebratory environment where people talked, danced and sang as they moved forward united.  This massive spectacle drew waves and cheers from local community members who came out of their houses to see what was going on.  In a particularly powerful moment the march stopped at Willard Middle School in Berkeley and chanted for students to join in.  Young middle-schoolers and some teachers poured out and joined the march chanting loudly, “Save our schools!”  The energy level stayed high as more people joined along the march’s 4.5-mile route.  About a mile and a half away from the destination at Frank Ogawa Plaza a massive banner that read “Fight Back” was draped over a billboard; the last stretch was a burst of energy.   The march arrived at Ogawa Plaza, Downtown Oakland at 3:20 pm to massive and yells from Oakland students, teachers, workers and community members that had been at the rally for hours.  Unity and solidarity in practice here showed how powerful people united in struggle can be.

c. Youth Lead in Oakland: High Schools, Laney College and UC Berkeley converge

Though the teachers did not strike, students self-organized walkouts, primarily in East Oakland.  About 100 students from Fremont High walked out at 9am and marched down foothill to 35th Ave where they marched up to Life Academy and were joined by another 75-100 students who marched out after the Fremont students stood outside chanting.  The group then marched down to the Fruitvale BART and tried to get Arise high school students to join them.  The ARISE students were staring out the window as the students outside chanted “let them out! let them out!” but the Arise principal locked the door and blocked it with his body.  The students rallied outside for 45min and were then joined by Arise students.  The group then marched down E.14th towards downtown, where they got a lot of sympathetic honks and marched passed 2 elementary schools with teachers and students that were rallying outside.  As the march passed the lake and approached the library the march of Laney College/Envision high school students came into sight and both marches excitedly met each other and merged into one and continued on to Frank Ogawa Plaza.

Laney College, a working class community college placed in center Oakland, started with a rally at eleven a.m. Hundreds of students and faculty assembled with a long list of speakers. Impatience grew and a break away march entered the financial aid center to demand better services. The demonstration lasted about ten minutes, but their presence was made clear to the Laney staff, it was also clear to those on the quad stage that it was time to march. Hundreds of Laney students, some say 400, started marching and coincidently merged with Freemont High students that walked over 45 blocks to get downtown (Frank Ogawa Plaza). During the march you could witness the energy of the people participation, their loud voices projecting echoes that bounce from building to building and making people’s heads turn. As the march arrived at Frank Ogawa Plaza, they were warmly welcomed by the emerging rally.

Nearly 1,000 Oakland high schoolers, largely Black and Latino, walked out of their schools without any fighting. The rally, organized in a bottom up way, made it so mainly youth spoke at the rally politicizing and electrifying other Oakland youth.  The young speakers, using Oakland lingo, were able to make very strong connections how defunding schools leads to Black and Brown youth being criminalized and imprisoned.

Berkeley marched down to Oakland with about 1,500 participants and when the two crowds met, the energy exploded, the unified crowds bursted in positive social movement energy. The next speaker talked about how Oaklanders should be proud of the fact that Oakland is the place of the very last general strike in American history in 1946, and twenty years later the Black Panthers were born out of the same city.

d. CCSF

The day of March 4th started at City College San Francisco with the flyering, chalking and agitation of the student body by various student organizers.  A small contingent went into various buildings with bull horns and chants to agitate the students of CCSF. A rally then happened at 12pm.  Legendary veteran activist Diamond Dave and others brought free food and there was some music playing. There were many speakers of different political perspectives- some calling for a bus trip to Sac and some calling for a strike of the working class. Unfortunately, the location, which was the outside amphitheater, created a situation where a lot of people were merely sitting and watching the “festivities” of speakers, bands/drummers and free food. Some said the rally took on somewhat of a festival feel- but not in a good way.  After the rally students proceeded to march around campus and into various buildings. This was the most exciting part of the CCSF activities because it disrupted the everyday activities being carried out inside the buildings and further agitated the student body. In the end a CCSF official and some others offered to pay for everyone that did not have a fastpass. The crowd got on the BART and went to 24th/mission where they joined the larger march to civic center.

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One Response to “Crisis and Consciousness: Lessons and Reflections from March 4th”


  1. Here is a response to the AS piece by Socialist Organizer called “The Lessons of March 4: A Marxist Analysis”:

    http://www2.socialistorganizer.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=384&Itemid=1


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