11 April 2009

Occupy Everything Right Now?

I finally got around to watching Across the Universe yesterday, something I've been meaning to do for a while but never seem to remember when I'm in the library. I'm not really a Beatles fan, so that aspect of the film wasn't its main draw for me, though I did like the way the songs were integrated.

Mainly, I wanted to watch it to see their treatment of Students for a Democratic Society (cast in the film as the much less punchy-sounding "Students for Democratic Reform") and how the film approached the anti-war and radical student movement as a whole. When I first heard about Across the Universe, I was somewhat concerned that the social movements of the 1960s would get glossed over somewhat to the advantage of cool footage about hippies, which is how some retellings of the 1960s end up. Thankfully, it ended up not being the case, though I still felt the treatment of the anti-war and student radical movement in Across the Universe seemed somewhat superficial. It was also very condensed, going from the anti-war marches of 1967 to the Columbia student strike to the adventurist terrorism of the Weather Underground in what seemed like the course of a year or so in the film, when in fact the evolution of the American student left was a longer and much more complicated process. Now, I know this wasn't the point of the film, but in the context of the recent and ongoing upsurge of militancy in the US, particularly in the context of the student occupations, I wish it had been.

I have yet to take part in a student occupation, and given the political climate at Lafayette College, my guess is that I won't be taking part in one during the remainder of my tenure here, though I would not want to be so hasty as to write off any future radicalisation. I would argue that student occupations are an excellent tactic given the right conditions and a clear strategy for said occupation, and despite some issues and problems that came up with even the most successful student occupations, the examples of the Rochester and first New School occupations should serve as lessons of when and how to use a student occupation successfully. These, along with similar occupations at colleges around the country, the most notable probably being the one at NYU, have generated significant interest and media attention, which will probably be good for the left in the US on the whole.

However, not all the occupations have been recieved well, even by other leftists. An article in The Nation, for example, talks about how the second New School occupation was met with a heap of abuse, particularly on the point that the second occupation didn't seem to have any demands, and it almost looked like the occupation was for its own sake, rather than having some sort of goal in mind. Now, a lof of the press I've read from and about the second New School occupation seems to vindicate that view, and I remember being very confused about the occupation compared to the clarity of the first one. But the article goes further to state that because of this apparent lack of demands and organisation, many people failed to support the occupation once engaged. The article focuses attitudes of the faculty, mentioning for example that during the NYU occupation, "some left-leaning faculty privately complained that they couldn't totally support the students because of their naive strategy and incoherent, sprawling demands."

While it makes perfect sense to criticise a perceived lack of cohesion to a movement, once the rubber hits the road, it seems silly to withhold support even if the action or movement seems premature or non-cohesive. In some cases, it may make sense on a propaganda and reputation/recruitment level to support an action a group thinks is unwise. While using the Bolsheviks as a comparison may draw the charge of being a stale and and theoretical far leftists, I think the July Uprising illustrates an important point. In July 1917, workers in Petrograd staged an uprising against the provisional government. The Bolshevik party thought the uprising was premature (partially due to their own relative weakness at the time, I'm sure), but they refused to stand aside from the uprising, and participated to the best of their ability. This resulted in the arrest of many Bolshevik leaders, but also helped convince non-Bolshevik workers that they were serious about workers revolution, and would support such action even if they weren't leading it. To be sure, the situations being compared here are rather different, but I think the general point still stands: you can criticise a movement or action, but the price of abstention may be higher in the long run, and supporting something, even with criticism (which should never be forgotten) may help endear you to groups of unaffiliated radicals and activists which may then be more willing to hear and accept criticism.

So while I'm not sure I think the movement is ready to be "Occupying Everything Right Now," if for some reason this did happen, I would do my best to stand with them as far as they go, and hope that my comrades do the same.

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