A history of nothing but thunderous defeats: notes on building a movement

Both the Women’s March on Washington in January and the international women’s strike that took place last month have raised questions about how to build a lasting resistance movement. How do we get the balance right, for example, between calling for bold political actions and consolidating the movement? How might we coalesce despite the uneven nature of the politics of broad coalitions? How do we cultivate longevity and resilience into a movement without sacrificing a sharp political vision?

The recent organising in the United States is taking place during a time of acute inequality and some of the lowest rates of unionisation in over thirty years. But it is also a time in which increasing numbers of people reject capitalism, and a time in which public trust in social democratic institutions has dramatically fallen (a trend that has continued for decades). Senator Bernie Sanders is now the most popular politician in the country by some distance. We are left in a curious position where left-wing ideas and figures are popular, and yet the right holds the majority of positions of power within representative democracy.

It may well stay that way: it looks increasingly as though the Democrats will fail to capitalise on this moment politically. Or as Senator Sanders put it, ‘[t]here are some people in the Democratic Party who want to maintain the status quo. They would rather go down with the Titanic so long as they have first-class seats.’ When the donning of a leather jacket by Hillary Clinton recently was enough for her supporters to crown her queen of the resistance, it is definitely time to look for alternatives. For many rusted on Democrats, the problems that led to President Trump lie everywhere except within their own ranks. To put it another way, any meaningful resistance will need to start at the grassroots – with the people who see the urgent change needed in their day-to-day lives.

The early stages of a broad grassroots, women-led movement have been exciting and the resistance is much bigger than the aforementioned march and strike. The airport protests against Trump’s Muslim ban, for instance, dragged several mainstream Democrats out of their funk. Then the enormous public attention focused on the cabinet nomination process forced Trump’s pick for labor secretary to withdraw. And the town halls across the country besieged by activists undoubtedly contributed to the defeat of Trumpcare.

But activism and movement building is also challenging. It is comparable to training a brain; like neural pathways, the skills of organisers get stronger with practice. In days gone by, this might have happened more in union work. Sadly for now, in the United States at least, the days of union work forming a basis for broader struggles for change look to be over.

Under a revitalised right, the number one job of the left is to grow its numbers. That will involve public calling demonstrations and actions, even when it is unclear if people will respond to that call. The women’s strike in March attracted its fair share of detractors on the basis that it was too ambitious, but still resulted in sizeable number of participants. At this point of an early movement, caution is arguably a worse strategy than overreach.

But growing the left will also involve the more granular work of winning people to more progressive political positions, and creating, as Megha Anwar organiser of the strike, put it: ‘space[s] where we can experience what community building can feel like.’ It will involve a constant commitment to working in good faith by people who identify as left wing.

None of this will happen if we sneer from the sidelines or preen our own sense of political purity. Much of the critique of the Women’s March on Washington for its supposed conservatism was arguably political paralysis disguised as progressive analysis. Shaming the resistance is not the same as building it. But shaming the resistance will make sure that it loses its potency quicker than it should.

This kind of reflexive defeatism is not surprising, given the political history of the left. ‘The whole road of socialism,’ argued Rosa Luxemburg, ‘is paved with nothing but thunderous defeats.’ Enzo Traverso also recently reminded us that ‘the left is a history of defeats’. One potential outcome of this history is a paralysing cycle of endless critique, one that continues until the bad behaviours created by the dominant paradigms can be scrubbed clean. The theory seems to be that only after we have all eliminated the worse excesses of our socialisation can the real work begin. This is part of the appeal of identity and privilege, sometimes combined with rather Maoist demands for self-criticism. But such hostility creates a space that allows for agonising luxuriously, rather than a space that facilitates the grim, important and often-anonymous work of organising. It is hard to imagine a more unwelcoming induction into political activism. Moreover, when our contribution to the resistance is to shame people seeking to join it, on the basis that they used the wrong language for instance, it might be worth reflecting on the point of that contribution.

To be clear, if I may hark back to one such debate of late: there is nothing privileged about being able to strike. If we define privilege to be an unearned benefit, then the capacity to strike is the antithesis of privilege. The ability to walk out of a job without the permission of the boss, and walk right back in the next day, is something that has to be earned. It is a right that has been fought for by workers for generations, right back to the 1850s when stone masons downed tools at Melbourne University demanding the eight-hour day. It is a right that is won through organising and struggle, through building a union and a sense of solidarity among fellow workers.

More generally, such a claim highlights the weakness of privilege as a concept for understanding our political environment. The fact that white workers are paid more than black and Hispanic workers might be labelled a privilege, but it is hard to see how paying these workers less would constitute a political victory. Discrimination needs to be defeated by understanding many of the phenomena classically labelled privileges for what they actually are: rights. It is a right for all workers to be paid equally; it is a right for everyone regardless of race to be able to live free from police harassment and extrajudicial killing.

Rather than conceding to defeatism or the weakness inherent in ideas of privilege, the left has to find ways to fight for an alternative world. It has to welcome others into the struggle by acting in solidarity but also with solidarity. That means finding commonalities of oppression, unity in political purpose, and working together with people from different backgrounds and experiences. Rather than seeing discrimination towards a class of people as something for that group to challenge alone, standing in solidarity means treating an injury to one as an injury to all. Arguments for solidarity will meet disagreement, and the left must be prepared to persuade people to join the struggle. Not everyone has the energy or endurance for such struggles, not everyone can do the work of patiently explaining things, or arguing about basic tenets of the left tradition. That is fair enough. Maybe people are too traumatised, too busy, too poor. That objection should be met with compassion – no-one can or should be forced to do political work. But the work still has to be done. As such, to paraphrase the (probably apocryphal) quote from Thomas Paine, if you are not going to lead or follow, best move aside.

To this end, Traverso also reminds us that melancholia can be ‘powerfully animating’, that it can act as a starting point for a different kind of political tradition. One that is based on shared memory that informs how we engage with the present, ‘a consolatory melancholia, inseparable from hope’, that can even serve to strengthen our convictions. Rather than indulge the tendency to tear down, to pare back, to start from scratch, left-wing melancholia can a be a way to avoid reinventing the wheel. It allows space for mourning without repelling others from the struggle. It avoids judgement of anger and disappointment, but refuses to let it get in the way of building a different future. It is based on an understanding that failure can be a fertile ground for, well, more failures in battle, while the war shifts a little in our favour.

This the kind of work I saw happening when I attended an organising meeting last weekend about the next women’s strike. Two hours were spent planning and allocating work, figuring out processes for beating a path forward. We talked about dividing tasks while maintaining a unified focus – deciding slogans, planning outreach, establishing working groups, building collaborations with other movements and so on. We established a shared commitment to building diversity into decision-making practices, to try to avoid the hegemonic tendency to discriminate that exists under capitalism. In other words, we were creating a space for building a community and working out ways to export that outwards. Sure, the last international women’s strike did not bring down capitalism, but it planted seeds that are starting to germinate.


Image: ‘NARAL International Women’s Day 2017 – Olympia, WA’ / Mike Mates

Lizzie O'Shea

Lizzie O’Shea is a lawyer. Her book Future Histories (Verso 2019) is about the politics and history of technology.

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