The Occupy Wall Street protest came as a breath of fresh air to millions of people who wanted to see a fightback against outrageous economic injustice. It was well-timed: it arrived on September 17 at the end of a depressing political summer, when Congress and the White House squabbled over debt-ceiling and budget negotiations, debating how to impose even more austerity on the mass of working-class and poor people. And OWS pointed to a tempting and deserving target – the center of financial capitalism’s profiteering, resting on the grotesque and growing income inequality in the U.S. At a time of deepening international economic crisis, it tapped into the broadly felt sense of injustice at the trillion-dollar bailouts of banks and corporations and the escalating efforts to make working people foot the bill with layoffs, foreclosures and cuts in vital programs.
But as we will explain, the “Occupy” movement was not based in the working class. And for the most part, its leaders did not see the working class as central to the struggle against capitalism. Rather Occupy put forward a populist view of the crisis, which failed to identify the capitalist system as a whole, including its state, as the enemy; nor did it promote any clear understanding of the class forces at work.
After its sensational Act I in the autumn of 2011, the movement has lost momentum and does not seem to be able to come up with a comparable Act II. The turning point came after a dramatic mass action in Oakland on November 2, which failed to nail down a convincing victory. That set the stage for the eviction of several major occupy encampments, including the initial one in New York on November 15. Since then there have been small-scale actions around the country, including home occupations to stop foreclosures and campaigns against huge student debt burdens. There have been further major actions on the West Coast, which have led to serious debates and which we will refer to later in this article. There is ongoing planning for the spring, but there is no clear strategy that will keep frustrated activists from being detoured into anti-working-class Democratic Party electoral campaigns.
Modeling itself on occupations of public squares and thoroughfares in Egypt, Greece, Spain, Israel and elsewhere, the movement began as an encampment at a small park in downtown Manhattan on September 17 and spread to a remarkable number of cities and towns across the U.S. It quickly won widespread if passive sympathy among broad sections of the working class and stimulated further responses internationally. Polls in early October reported that over half of the U.S. population was favorable.
Press coverage of OWS, originally minimal and mocking, expanded and turned sympathetic in part as a result of the New York police attacks on peaceful demonstrators, most notably the arrest of 700 marchers on the Brooklyn Bridge on October 1. In Oakland, California, the cops got even more vicious, with an attack on protesters on October 25. Public opinion was shocked by videos of Iraq War veteran and Occupy protester Scott Olsen being shot in the head with a tear gas canister by police, after which protesters who came to his aid were attacked with stun grenades. The gratuitous police brutality both energized the protesters and widened public support for them. A big protest of tens of thousands followed a week later in Oakland.
Occupy was a catalyst in shifting the country’s political discourse to the left. It became respectable to say that the capitalist system was broken, and OWS gave a boost to labor organizing. Occupy impacted the size of the vote in Ohio in November to rescind the governor and legislature’s anti-worker laws; it also affected several other legislative votes. This January, it undoubtedly contributed to the huge recall petition against Wisconsin’s anti-labor governor Scott Walker, the target of last year’s first major occupation in this country, the mass sit-in at the state capitol in Madison. The shift in public opinion even encouraged some of the clowns in the Republican presidential contest to condemn front-runner Mitt Romney (correctly!) as a “vulture capitalist.”
But what seemed like a high point for the Occupy movement – the mass protest in Oakland on November 2 – represented more of a missed opportunity. In a statement issued shortly afterward, we argued that had Occupy Oakland responded to the outrageous repression by calling for the massive protest to march on City Hall demanding resignation of the mayor and police chief, it could have scored a significant victory. The ruling class immediately took Occupy Oakland’s oversight as its signal to take the offensive. Cops, directed by mostly Democratic Party mayors, swept away Occupy encampments in cities across the country, in raids that Oakland’s mayor Jean Quan later admitted were coordinated nationally.
Although Occupy changed the political discourse, in the absence of a mass resistance struggle with clear goals, the onslaught against the working class continues unabated. Congress, the White House and local officials are plowing ahead with the austerity attacks. It is important to note that in Europe, Greece has become a testing ground for increasingly severe attacks, and these will soon be aimed at the working classes in other countries as well, the U.S. included. OWS raised the issues of economic injustice, but it is the working class that has to lead the resistance.
While much of the left saw Occupy as the model for building an on-going movement, we in the League for the Revolutionary Party saw that its main hope was to serve as a spark for a broader, working-class struggle. The initiative and perseverance of the Wall Street Occupiers encouraged working people to think that it might now be possible to fight against the one-sided class war on their jobs and living standards. We aimed to build the potential for working-class action and the growth of working-class self-confidence in our work in the unions and with OWS activists. As we wrote, “The Wall Street protests need to be transcended by a movement of mass struggles by and for the prime victims of the economic crisis – working-class and poor people, and especially Blacks, Latinos and immigrants.” That meant mass demonstrations and strike solidarity to start with, leading to wider strikes and workplace occupations. The theme needed to be demanding an end to cutbacks, layoffs and foreclosures and calling for a major program of public works to provide jobs for all.
Our strategy ran up against two major obstacles. One was the role of the leaders of the labor unions and other organizations that claim to represent the oppressed and exploited, including the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. All these elements had failed gloriously to organize any mass response to the economic crisis and the austerity attacks. So they eagerly jumped on the OWS bandwagon, in part out of embarrassment that someone else was enlivening their base, but mainly because they wanted to steer it their way. They saw the Occupiers as a useful tool for applying pressure on politicians, and for making themselves look alive and doing something besides vote-mongering – while continuing to avoid mass mobilization of the workers themselves. The effective leaders of OWS, mainly having seemingly opposite but often complementary anarchist and liberal views, were unable and/or unwilling to openly challenge the labor bureaucrats’ conservatism in goals and tactics.
An equally important obstacle was the class make-up and consciousness of the bulk of the Occupiers, especially those in New York who were most reported on and with whom we had direct contact. As OWS’s most prominent theorist, David Graeber, acknowledged, its core was made up of college-educated protesters, aspirants to the disappearing “American dream” – young people facing a lifetime of debt without any prospect of comparable work. Many were people with liberal political outlooks, quite a few of them disillusioned former Obama activists. Another Occupy theorist, Pham Binh, put it this way in a widely circulated article:
Encampment participants ... tend to be either what Karl Marx called lumpenproletariat (long-term homeless, hustlers, drug addicts, and others who have fallen through the cracks of the capitalist edifice) or highly educated (white) students, ex-students, and graduate students. The former joined the encampments not just to eat and sleep in a relatively safe place but also because they hope the uprising will win real, meaningful change. The latter tend to dominate Occupy’s convoluted decision-making process and what motivates them is identical to what motivates the lumpenproletarian elements: hope that Occupy will win real, meaningful change. Many of these people are saddled with tremendous amounts of personal debt, have worked two or three part-time jobs simultaneously, or were unable to find work in their field despite their expensive, extensive educations. They were destined to be secure petty bourgeois or well-paid white-collar workers before the ongoing fallout from the 2008 crisis claimed their futures and put their backs against the wall.
Even though some activists were from the working class, their semi-privileged position made them more apt to embrace middle-class attitudes regarding the methods and goals of struggle. One such attitude, raised especially in opposition to proposals that OWS adopt a program that working people could see was worth fighting for, was the mantra “we are our own demands.” An oft-quoted OWS organizer, Yotam Marom, put it: “We’re creating alternative models of the world we want to live in while also using those new institutions as a staging ground to fight for that world – that’s what’s radical and cool about occupations.”  That assessment reflects the philosophy that the encampment, especially its methods of decision-making, would prefigure a future genuinely democratic society. This meant that the Occupiers’ preoccupation was to defend and expand the encampments, not to transcend them through mass campaigns that could aim for concrete gains. It also meant that the goal was “democracy” without any overturn of class relations.
The prefigurative notion was adopted through the efforts of a wing of the anarchist movement prominent in the initial occupation. But it was opportunistically adapted to by others. Here is the opinion of a supporter of the Maoist Kasama Project:
Occupy is about Occupy! Spaces are being taken over. New communities are developing. Instead of an atomized society, we have people coming together. We are retaking the commons. An idea that is antithetical in many respects to the prevailing logic of capital. We have people occupying a physical space and learning to rule themselves without masters and the powers that be (however contradictory the process). Occupy is a fissure from the possible politics of the system and has opened up the prospects of the politics of the impossible (people determined their own destiny).
This is at best wishful thinking, especially after the occupations had been dispersed by the police. It reflects a utopian theory that islands of freedom and self-determination can float in a surrounding sea of capitalism; for many who share that view, it implies that social change comes from individual lifestyle decisions. This was a farcical reprise of 19th-century utopian socialism, which at least had the excuse that it pre-dated the era of industrial capital and imperialism, when the illusion of creating a viable non-capitalist space surrounded by the capitalist system had some plausibility. Marxists do believe that a liberating and egalitarian society can be built – communism – but that requires overthrowing capitalism, not escaping it.
The only force within capitalism that can fight for a new world is the working class, which by the nature of the system is organized collectively rather than individually, and also has its hands on the profit-producing mechanisms of the system. Workers’ protests, workplace occupations, strike and general strikes are the necessary weapons. For this, revolutionary-minded workers and youth have to work together to advance the consciousness of their fellow workers towards understanding the power of their class and their capacity to create a new society, starting with overthrowing capitalist rule and creating a workers’ state. But OWS, even though its website proclaimed that “The Only Solution is World Revolution,” had no strategy for such a solution.
OWS proclaims itself inspired by the “Arab Spring”; some spokespeople invoke Tahrir Square in Cairo as a comparable action. A predecessor, yes, but the comparison overlooks both the vastly different social conditions in Egypt as well as the huge difference of scale: the Egyptian movement of millions centered on encampments of hundreds of thousands in Tahrir, compared to at most hundreds in New York and a few other U.S. cities. It also ignores the fact that the main achievement of the incomplete Egyptian revolution, the ouster of dictator Mubarak, was achieved by the wave of factory and transport strikes by the Egyptian working class. Unlike OWS, Tahrir sparked (and was itself bolstered by) an ongoing movement of working-class struggle.
Let us look more closely at the slogan that has stood out in the Occupy protests: “We are the 99%.” This catchphrase has caught on widely: various advertisers and labor unions trumpet it daily, and it has begun to be featured in some Democratic Party campaigns. The slogan, and its accompanying denunciation of the “1%,” has roots in the awareness of growing inequalities in American society, which has been given expression even by major establishment figures in recent years. Democratic Presidential candidate Al Gore in 2000 accused Republican candidate George W. Bush of supporting the “wealthiest one percent” rather than the welfare of everyone else. Johnson and Johnson heir Jamie Johnson filmed a documentary in 2006, “The One Percent,” about the growing wealth gap. Liberal economist and Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz wrote an article showing that the wealthiest 1% of U.S. citizens controls 40% of the wealth.
“We are the 99%” is understandably popular, since it expresses the reality that the great majority are getting robbed by the super-rich who run society. Even more positively, it implies that there is power in numbers – if we all got together, we would overpower the super-rich parasites and exploiters. Nevertheless, there are major problems with the slogan. First, it implies a false unity of interests among the majority of the population. The “1%” may be a numerically convenient shorthand for the top layer of the capitalist ruling class in this country, but this layer has the hardened loyalty of significant sections of the remaining 99%. While the working class makes up something like two-thirds of the population, there are tens of millions who have material interests in the maintenance of the system and its inequalities. These include petty (and not-so-petty) capitalists, wealthy professionals, preachers, journalists, managers, paid agents of the state like politicians and cops, all sorts of politically reactionary scum, and even the best-positioned elements in the working class itself.
Despite the class-unconsciousness of the “99%” slogan, there are those who have embraced it opportunistically, as if it were an extension of Marxism’s understanding of the centrality of class conflict between the working class and the capitalists. Alex Callinicos of the British Socialist Workers Party wrote, for example:
The slogan of “The 99 percent versus the 1 percent” has translated into popular language the Marxist conception of the class antagonism constituting capitalist society and captured the mass imagination.
No, it has dangerously blurred the class antagonism between workers and capitalists, lumping the working class in the same category as many of its clear class enemies.
For Marxists, it is crucial to stress that classes and their interests are defined not by income, but by people’s relationship to the means of production. The fundamental division in capitalist society is between the capitalists and the working class. The capitalists are those who control as their property the factories, farmland, natural resources, transportation and communication systems that form the basis of the economy. The working class is made up of those who have no alternative but to sell their ability to work – their “labor power” – in order to survive (whether they are actually employed or not), and who thereby must engage in the class struggle against the capitalists, the employing and exploiting class, to improve their lot in life.
If society were simply divided between an obscenely rich 1% and its armed guards on the one hand, and a fundamentally dispossessed 99% on the other, the capitalists could hardly hold on to power for very long. Their rule rests on a broader base of support from middle classes who have an interest in maintaining the system. The relative stability of democratic rule by capitalists in the richest countries depends in large part on the imperialist super-exploitation of the neo-colonies, which affords them the ability to maintain a much larger middle class than can the capitalist rulers in the oppressed nations. The upward mobility of one person from poverty into the middle class raises the hopes of a dozen that they can do it too. Of course, the deepening economic stagnation and crisis in the imperialist countries is shrinking their middle classes and thereby undermining the ruling class’s ideological grip on the working class – thereby deepening the potential for revolution.
Some Occupiers around the country have taken the slogan’s implications all too seriously. In several cities it has been used as a plea to the cops that they too are on the same side: “you are the 99%.” At the start, on September 26 an Occupy protester appeared on Keith Olbermann’s Countdown TV show and said,
We are not against the cops. The cops are part of the 99 percent. The cops, we would like to believe, are on our side. Because we understand that they have families, they have children, and with budget cuts they could be losing their jobs and pensions as well.
In another example of the same sentiment, Occupy Chicago wrote an “Open Letter to the Chicago Police Department” dated September 28 that said:
We write to you because we firmly believe members of the police service to be a large and important part of the working class and unrepresented 99%. Our goal in writing this letter is to indicate our respect and support for the Chicago Police Department and all its members, with the hopes of creating an open flow of communication between Occupy Chicago and CPD...
As if to show that such sentiments were not just aberrations on the part of naive middle-class youth, well after all the cop attacks on Occupiers, the OWS web site posted an “Official Occupy Wall Street Thank You Video” that featured an experienced speaker, backed by the echoing chants of a “people’s microphone,” appealing to the cops:
Look at the faces of these young people. We are not hateful. We do not despise you. Please treat us as brothers and sisters. We are supporting your cause, the cause of working people, the cause of the police that doesn’t get paid enough. Let us pray together for peace and justice.
This argument will not convince many police, but can easily fool naive protesters about what to expect from these goons in uniform. (In the OWS video, the background during this pathetic appeal actually showed cops ganging up on a protester on the ground and carrying him away.) Cops may come from the working class and have family members who are workers, but classes under capitalism are not defined simply by peoples’ income or education. Police, by their choice of occupation and their socialization as the armed fist of the ruling class, have opted for the anti-working-class side of the fundamental divide. Their mission of defending “law and order” means chiefly defending capitalist property against the needs of poor and working-class people.
Pham Binh’s article came to the defense of OWSers who appeal to the cops:
The police rank-and-file are part of the 99%. They are the part of the 99% that keep the rest of the 99% in line at the behest of the 1%. The police rank-and-file are professional class traitors. Shouting “you are the 99%!” at them drives that point home far better than calling them “pigs” or “our enemies in blue.” ... To argue that the police are “not part of the 99%” means to argue that they are somehow part of the 1%, a radically and demonstrably false notion. This explains why the socialist left’s argument on this issue has gained zero ground within Occupy despite all the beatings, arrests, abuse, and brutality.
The Russian Marxist revolutionary Leon Trotsky explained, in reference to illusions promoted in Germany in the 1930's, that the trade-union and socialist working-class background of most police at the time did not mean that they could be won to the side of the socialist movement:
The worker who becomes a policeman in the service of the capitalist state, is a bourgeois cop, not a worker. Of late years, these policemen have had to do much more fighting with revolutionary workers than with Nazi students. Such training does not fail to leave its effects. And above all: every policeman knows that though governments may change, the police remains.
Some Occupy analysts drew additional wrong lessons from the Tahrir Square occupations. OWS, they claimed was “inspired by the peaceful, nonviolent uprisings in Egypt and elsewhere.”  On the contrary, while the Tahrir protesters did not initiate violence, they faced armed cops and thugs and defended themselves heroically with what weapons they could – successfully, but after long battles and with many deaths and injuries. They knew who their enemies were. The U.S. Occupiers and their supporters who prattle about Tahrir’s “non-violence” did the struggle no service.
The cops and other outright enemies, like the large managerial layer in private and public industries and services that keep the working class exploited, are the most obvious excesses in the “99%” slogan. But there is a deeper problem: even among those not in direct service to the ruling class, there is a relatively privileged layer that can articulate its own interests while claiming that they represent the overwhelming majority. Alongside the petty bourgeoisie of small-scale capitalists, this layer includes higher-paid salaried workers as well as professionals whose standard of living lies between that of the top capitalists and managers and the bulk of the working class – loosely speaking, a “middle class.” Many people in this category are being driven down into the working class, but their consciousness can still be marked by the individualism and reformism of the middle-class positions they still aspire to.
Moreover, the “99%” mantra fits in with the tendency of many union leaders and politicians to champion the “middle class.” Obama, for example, when he came up with his belated and small-scale “Jobs Act” in August, styled himself a “warrior for the middle class.” The aim of this distortion is to proclaim a false unity of almost everyone and to muddy the reality of class conflict between the working class and the poor, on the one hand, and the capitalists and their agents, on the other. The “99%” serves as a replacement for the worn-out “middle class” rhetoric, but it is equally misleading.
This false unity has been used to resist calls from within the Occupy movements for pro-working class demands and those addressing the needs of oppressed people. For example, some activists within Occupy Wall Street in New York campaigned for the adoption of a “Jobs for All” demand and a big public works effort; such a program could have encouraged working people to join the struggle with confidence that it would fight for their essential needs. But the campaign was met with fierce opposition from the unofficial OWS leadership, which called it, among other things, divisive because it is too radical for the bulk of the 99%. One OWS leader told a forum audience that “privileging” the working class would be “playing identity politics.”
Based on their positions as cogs in large-scale and governmental enterprises, many middle-class people tend to project a more universal view than the traditional petty bourgeoisie, with a stress on a relative social harmony and order. Like the petty bourgeoisie, they are unable to project a vision truly independent of capitalist class relations, and lack the proletariat’s potential social power to transform society. They resent the ruling class’ wealth and status and its undeserved claims to outrageous privileges. But they rely on positions of privilege themselves and thus tend to have a stake in preserving the system. They can hope that with only a few minor changes at the top (like Obama’s proposal to slightly raise taxes on “the 1%” to maintain some jobs and services), they can resurrect their middle-class hopes. And as a social layer they generally carry with them elitist attitudes towards workers and the poor.
It is well known that OWS claims to be free of authorized leaders. But such a claim always means that the actual leaders are unelected, unaccountable and often unknown to the majority of participants. OWS’s procedural processes are superficially appealing but in reality run counter to democracy. Decisions were in theory made by frequent General Assemblies open to all, where everyone who wanted was supposed to get a chance to express their views – although other procedural peculiarities often made that next to impossible. The format also demanded 90 percent agreement for “consensus,” which meant often that meetings lasted interminably or could not reach decisions because of insistent minority opposition. The consensus model was originally adopted by the initial Occupiers, and it turned into a convenient way of preventing almost any position or process from changing. That meant that 1% of the participants laid down ground rules that left the other 99% unable to make fundamental decisions about their movement.
Ironically, the Stiglitz article that inspired the “99%” slogan included the following observation:
The top 1 percent may complain about the kind of government we have in America, but in truth they like it just fine: too gridlocked to re-distribute, too divided to do anything but lower taxes.
That is very close to the style of governance imposed by the “non-leadership” of OWS.
Endless meetings and indecision are alien to any genuine working-class movement. No worker with a 40-hour-or-more work week, let alone family responsibilities, could hope to even influence such processes. The fact is that working-class organizations need decisive leadership, and it is perfectly possible for this to be democratic and inclusive. This means not only that all have their say, but also that a majority can make decisions and hold elected leaders responsible for acting on them.
Similarly, OWS – especially in New York – claims to make no demands. But that just means that the behind-the-scenes leaders allow the demands they and their liberal supporters approve. Several OWS events denounced Governor Cuomo for insisting on ending New York State’s so-called “millionaire’s surtax.” And the dozens of “Occupy the Highway” marchers, who went to Washington to confront the budget-slashing Congressional Super Committee, called for an end to the Bush-era tax cuts for the rich, a demand echoed on the OWS web site. In contrast, the Jobs for All advocates in OWS in New York were confronted with interminable procedural delays and even anti-democratic intimidation and harassment that Stalinist hacks and union bureaucrats could be proud of. The multitude of demands raised by various Occupy events in various locales coexists with the leaders’ opposition to taking responsibility for a central programmatic focus.
The protest’s popularity pushed several New York and national unions to offer aid (food, supplies, money and facilities). OWS returned the favor, marching with CWA Verizon workers in their stalled contract battle and Teamster Local 814 members locked out of their jobs at the posh Sotheby’s auction house in Manhattan. The union leaders endorsed a “labor solidarity” demonstration for OWS on October 5, and although most of them mobilized fewer than 100 members, labor’s approval lent the movement a certain legitimacy, and some 20,000 people turned out for a spirited rally and march. Then, when Mayor Bloomberg threatened to evict OWS from their encampment near Wall Street on October 15, some thousand union members showed up in their defense, and the mayor backed down.
This promising labor activity could have been the impetus for a mass working-class mobilization against the attacks. But whereas OWS had taken bold actions, the union leaders were bold only in occasional rhetoric. On the other side of the alliance, most protesters were too easily impressed by unions’ donations and endorsements and did not see the bureaucrats as the major obstacle to mass action that they have been for decades. OWS generated a Labor Outreach working group, but this has been largely dominated by union staffers, and in any case was unwilling to challenge labor’s leadership.
The LRP participated with other union militants and Wall Street activists in advocating action by the unions – a mass march on Wall Street to demand that the government stop the cutbacks and create jobs. A motion toward this end was drafted by union members and other supporters and friends of the LRP; we then petitioned for it among unionists and OWS activists. As a result, it was adopted by some union chapters and brought before the New York City Central Labor Council, where its backers lobbied CLC delegates. The motion was adopted unanimously by the CLC’s Delegate Assembly on October 19 – at that point, no union leader was going to stand up against the popularity of OWS’s anti-Wall Street focus. But unsurprisingly, the labor officials began to undercut it from the beginning.
Two of the first unions to support OWS were the Transport Workers Union (TWU) Local 100, whose 35,000 members run New York’s subways and buses, and the Professional Staff Congress (PSC), which organizes the teaching and technical staff of the City University of New York. Local 100 President John Samuelsen “liked” the idea of a CLC march, but refused to push it further among his fellow bureaucrats. The PSC, which had brought out the largest union contingent to the October 5 rally, at the same time made a point of affiliating to the Working Families Party; the WFP is a New York outfit that provides a ballot line for liberals and leftish “progressives” to support Democratic candidates without taking responsibility for doing so. (Other unions have long been affiliated to the WFP; the PSC’s timing was notable.) And since New York’s Democratic leaders, notably Governor Andrew Cuomo and Senator Charles Schumer, are high up among Wall Street’s greatest advocates in government, the unions who join the WFP are highly compromised in their support for Occupy Wall Street’s stated aims of opposing Wall Street, to say the least.
In the end, the CLC’s top bureaucrats suppressed and stalled the Wall Street march that the CLC delegates had called for: they put it off to December 1, decided that it would go nowhere near Wall Street and watered down its demands to a plea for “economic fairness.” When an LRP supporter proposed to the Labor Outreach group that it call on the CLC to carry out the Wall Street march that the delegates had voted for, the idea won little support and was defeated.
Meanwhile, another labor-backed demonstration was called for November 17, part of a wider “Day of Action.” The rally in New York was again centered on protesting the eviction of the encampment but was probably smaller than that of October 5. The union officials, with SEIU in the lead, having made no effort to expand the protests, used the opportunity to promote their real strategy: elect Democrats in 2012. Thus a movement targeting Wall Street was called upon to endorse Obama, Wall Street’s champion in 2008 and 2009 and once again the recipient of vast amounts of financiers’ cash.
When the CLC’s December1st “March for Jobs and Economic Fairness” finally took place, it was smaller than the previous labor-OWS rallies. Local 32BJ had a spirited and strong contingent, aided by the fact that the march took place right after the workers had come out in thousands to vote to authorize a strike against the real-estate bosses. But OWS had little presence, reflecting the problem of its class character as well the fact that it no longer had the encampment that held it together both physically and organizationally.
Some OWS enthusiasts objected to the labor leaders’ taking advantage of the movement for their own ends. But OWS itself was happy to remain uncritical. After the November 17 march, the Occupied Wall Street Journal newspaper wrote:
As George Gresham, president of the Healthcare Workers Union 1199SEIU, told a group of labor organizers: “Through the militant, the bottom, the youth — where revolutions have always started – there’s enough momentum to take this to another level.”
The OWSJ editors like basking in the bureaucrats’ praise, but they do not warn their readers that Gresham’ enthusiasm for “revolution” is empty rhetoric, or that the “another level” he wants is electoral work for the Democratic Party. An earlier OWSJ editors’ statement had reprinted praises for OWS by half-a-dozen unions under the headline “Organized Labor Stands Up,” thereby falsely suggesting that the labor bureaucrats were actually fighting against Wall Street’s greed and oppression. Since OWS refuses to make demands on the union leaders, it can’t hold them accountable when they retreat and betray the interests of the ranks – and thereby also betray the hopes of OWS followers. And with the 2012 election campaign gathering steam, many of the Occupy forces, lacking any viable alternative, could be channeled into reluctant support for Obama and other Democratic Party enemies of the working class.
In addition to working for action by the labor unions, the LRP also supported efforts by OWS’s Demands Working Group to bring forward a “Jobs for All” proposal and get it adopted by the New York General Assembly. We had no illusions that such a proposal would be approved, or that OWS as a whole would act on it, but we hoped that if such a demand were pushed that could encourage working-class militants and mobilize a layer of activists around OWS who were actual or potential working class advocates.
We think that demands like Jobs for All and opposition to all cutbacks are vital to show how to build a serious movement to unite many forces, above all the working class, in opposition to the misery the capitalists are inflicting. In our view, the fight for such demands would begin as a defensive struggle against the ongoing attacks. It would likely take the form first of demands on the capitalist government to stop the layoffs, cutbacks and foreclosures. This could extend to demands for the government to create jobs through a vast public works and re-industrialization program. In such a struggle, we would explain, as we do in all our propaganda work, that the capitalist system requires mass unemployment, so that even though most working-class people would regard “jobs for all” as a basic right, its fulfillment genuinely demands the replacement of capitalism by way of a working-class-led revolution. 
Our method is to fight for measures under this system that represent genuine gains for the masses and encourage their fighting spirit, as well as embodying a realistic sense of their objective class power. As a fighting working-class-centered movement develops, it could force the hands of the capitalists to a far greater degree than most workers now realize. Even in times of crisis, a major working-class uprising can force the capitalists to grant major concessions like a massive jobs program . We openly explain that any such responses would be only temporary and partial under a capitalist system that can only grow more decadent and dependent on mass misery and war to survive. That is why our program is socialist revolution. Indeed, with revolutionary intervention, the mass struggles ahead will go a long way to convincing workers and their allies of the necessity for the authentic socialist solution we fight for.
The actual proposal by the Demands Working Group went through several changes, but as we last saw it, it read as follows:
Jobs for ALL—A Massive Public Works and Public Service Program
We demand a democratically-controlled public works and public service program, with direct government employment, to create 25 million new jobs at good union wages. The new jobs will go to meeting the needs of the 99%, including education, healthcare, housing, mass transit, and clean energy. The program will be funded by raising taxes on the rich and corporations and by ending all U.S. wars. Employment in the program will be open to all, regardless of immigration status or criminal record.
This approach is meant to be practical, without raising the specter of socialist revolution, but in reality it is both reformist and utopian. It poses seemingly achievable solutions for achieving full employment, as if its specific proposals were actually feasible under capitalism. Thus it calls for a “democratically controlled” jobs program, at a time when beleaguered workers just want jobs and a roof over their heads. No one in the working class now has a “democratically controlled” job, nor is it even clear what such a term means. Likewise, the demand calls for “ending all wars” as a means of funding the massive jobs program, which shows no comprehension of the necessity for wars under this imperialist system.
The demand’s other specific proposal for funding the jobs program is “raising taxes on the rich.” There is indeed mounting outrage about the tax cuts for the rich that add to the growing gap between the very privileged few and everyone else. It is very possible, for example, that such outrage could lead to an active movement to tax the rich and corporations, which would call for more than the liberal Democratic electoral hype for minor tax increases. We would support such a movement, while explaining that taxing the rich still leaves the rich in power and the capitalist system of exploitation, austerity and oppression in place – thereby allowing the capitalists to weaken and dodge taxes aimed at them. We would also argue for revolutionary measures – including debt renunciation and the nationalization without compensation of the banks and corporations. That would start to meet the economic and social needs of the mass of humanity and would help point the way to the need for workers’ revolution to do away with capitalism.
Subsequent to adopting the “jobs for all” demand (which was endorsed by other working groups as well as the initiators), the Demands group added further provisions: reinstating the Glass-Steagall Act (which regulates speculative investment banking) and a campaign reform proposal banning private contributions to politicians. These are tenth-rate reforms that focus on “corporate greed” and do not address the real concerns of the mass of workers: ending the attacks, and creating jobs and public services. While the main responsibility for the failure of the Jobs demand lies with the OWS leadership, the Demands group, even as a minority attempting to advance its proposal, tended to leave vague the need for mass working-class action to achieve its demand. Throwing in electoral and legalistic formulas sidestepped the issue of what winning jobs for all would really require.
The treacherous role of union leaders and their allies in the Democratic Party is best shown by the struggle last fall in Oakland. The country was shocked by images of the police attack on Oakland occupiers on the night of October 25. Under the orders of the left-posturing Democratic Mayor Jean Quan, riot police attacked peaceful protesters with stun grenades, tear gas and other projectiles; that’s when Scott Olsen was almost killed. The brutal action reminded all of previous police crimes in the city, especially the cold-blooded killing of Oscar Grant in 2009.
The next day, the Oakland occupation’s General Assembly voted overwhelmingly in favor of a “general strike” to shut the city down. This at first appeared to be an inspiring call for working-class struggle. However, for workers to support a call for a general strike, they must know that such a drastic action is necessary and there has to be a leadership they are willing to follow; Occupy Oakland did not have that kind of influence with the masses of workers in the area. Most of Oakland’s workers had yet to be mobilized in even a protest, so there was no reason to think that they were ready to violate the ruling class’s anti-strike laws, risking fines and firing to make a general strike happen. Furthermore, the General Assembly failed to raise the basic demand for the resignation of the mayor and police chief responsible for the cop attack.
When the day of action came, while top union bodies had loosely endorsed the protest (but not the strike call) in words, and while some workers courageously refused to go to work, no union actually went on strike and none were expected to do so. What did happen was a massive protest of tens of thousands that marched on the city’s docks and succeeded in shutting down work there for a shift. Inspiring though this was, it left the city’s political powers-that-be unchallenged. The next day the mayor and police chief were still in office, plotting with their counterparts elsewhere to sweep the occupations away.
Oakland’s protesters put the idea of a general strike in the minds of broad numbers of activists and workers; indeed, it is a tactic that we in the LRP have often discussed as a powerful working-class weapon. But real general strikes, where workers shut down all profit-making businesses, are acts of the workers themselves. They show working-class power in production and other workplaces, and take serious preparation and planning. In the absence of mass mobilization of the working class, the GA’s “general strike” was an abuse of the term – as radical activists in Oakland, the site of the U.S.’s last general strike in 1946, should have known.
The pretense that Occupy Oakland had the power to launch a general strike also ignored the question of its concrete goals. Just suppose the demand had been made for the unions and all community organizations to mobilize for a massive march to surround City Hall demanding the ouster of the mayor and police chief and an end to all anti-working class budget cuts. Then either a real victory could have been won or the basis for an escalating campaign of mass action, up to an actual general strike, could have been laid. If a massive protest in Oakland forced the mayor and police chief to resign, all the country’s mayors would have feared moving on protests in their cities. Proof that mass protests can win demands would have encouraged struggles across the country.
Further, had a massive protest forced the resignation of Oakland’s mayor, a history-making break from electoralism would have been achieved. Struggles against anti-working-class attacks by city and state governments are constantly misdirected into electoral campaigns that end the empowering experience of mass action and most often lead to defeat. Just consider last year’s campaign against Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s anti-union laws. There, union protests and occupations empowered workers to start making realistic calls for a general strike. But the union leaders effectively detoured that struggle into a pro-Democratic Party campaign to recall Republican legislators.
Oakland could have given militant workers and youth everywhere proof that they need not wait for elections to oust anti-working class politicians. Instead, Oakland’s day of protest served to let off steam rather than pave the way for a growing struggle. The mayor and police chief, their positions unthreatened, quickly regained the upper hand, evicting the occupation from Oscar Grant Park and paving the way for police attacks on occupations across the country.
Occupy Oakland again called for mass action to shut down port operations on December 12. This time the occupiers targeted the entire West Coast, after a call by Occupy Los Angeles to shut down SSA terminals, which are owned by Goldman Sachs. The Occupy Oakland General Assembly unanimously adopted a proposal November 18 calling for the blockade and disruption of the economic apparatus of the 1%, labeling it “Wall Street on the Waterfront.” The motion declared its solidarity with Longshore Union (ILWU) members in Longview, Washington, in their struggle against grain terminal operator EGT, which has refused to hire ILWU members, and with non-unionized port truck drivers. The Longview struggle was a major class issue, and Occupy Oakland was clearly right in seeking to act in solidarity.
However, Occupiers planned the shutdown without consulting the port workers. Thus they made it easy for ILWU leaders to put out a statement December 6 disclaiming support for the action and asserting its own prerogative to call for taking action in the fight against EGT. Members of the Occupy movement interpreted the union's stance as legal protection against the fines that could result from a work stoppage that violates the contract, but it is clear that the union bureaucracy was hostile to the action. Many sympathetic ILWU members, and some perhaps-hypocritical union officers, say they supported the action but objected that it was called without input from the workers directly involved. Occupy spokespeople responded that they reached out to union members after the shutdown call was issued, but that would have been too late.
In the end, according to some reports thousands of activists turned out in Oakland and the coast overall, far fewer than in Oakland alone on November 5. Few if any ILWU workers tried to cross the blockades, but few participated in it. Like the earlier call for the general strike, the action was not built in a way that could maximize the potential for working class action and unity. One pro-OWS report said that “Only one ILWU rank-and-file worker was publicly engaged with the shutdown while most other port workers were passively engaged.” In addition to Longview, two other ports out of more than a half-dozen on the coast were closed by the Occupy efforts.
A telling comment on the shutdown came in a widely circulated open letter from five port truckers, “elected by committees of our co-workers at the Ports of Los Angeles, Long Beach, Oakland, Seattle, Tacoma, New York and New Jersey to tell our collective story.” They wrote movingly of the harsh conditions imposed on them by the bosses and of how much the shutdown could cost their fellow drivers, even though they were sympathetic. Mainly immigrant workers, they pointed out that “We receive Third World wages and drive sweatshops on wheels.” They reported that “we have united to stage convoys, park our trucks, marched on the boss, and even shut down these ports.” Even though some have cited this account as supportive of December 12, their opinion of the shutdown-from-without was ambiguous:
It may be tempting for media to ask questions about whether we support a shutdown, but there are no easy answers. Instead, we ask you, are you willing to listen and learn why a one-word response is impossible? ... We would rather stick together and transform our industry from within.
Indeed. Bypassing the workers involved is not a practice that will advance working-class struggle, even if one or two actions seem to win partial successes. Working-class revolutionaries put the highest priority on the consciousness of our fellow workers. That means not only participating with an analysis of the exploitative nature of Wall Street and the rest of the capitalist class, but also advocating actions that can nurture a growing understanding that the working class has the knowledge and power to change society. The Oakland occupation may not be as disproportionately middle-class as in New York, but for all the Occupiers’ claimed devotion to “self-activity,” their effort was not aimed at the activity of the working class itself, reflecting in the end the same middle class attitude that stamped the OWS as a whole.
We are not on the West Coast, and can only judge by what we have read and heard. Most of the far left was enthusiastic about the result. But it looks to us like Occupy Oakland’s tactic of having masses of protesters shut down production on the ports without at first winning the support of workers for the action was terribly dangerous. The potential for clashes between workers, union forces and protesters was great. Alternatively, a massive march on the docks with the message that Occupy would stand by the ILWU if it took action in solidarity with Local 21 in Longview could have also had a great effect while demonstrating an interest in the unity of the working class that is so key to turning around any of the capitalist attacks today. Nonetheless, the protest ended up having avoided the worst of the dangers. It helped embolden Local 21 to stand firm in its struggle and win a partial victory, and encouraged militants on the Oakland docks and elsewhere to take up the fight against their union bureaucracy and in favor of solidarity with Local 21.
Since then, there has been an ongoing debate over how to confront the ruling class offensive against the ILWU in Longview, as well as over confrontational actions by some Oakland Occupiers that others see as counterproductive radical-appearing stunts. These reports of provocative confrontations with the cops on January 28 would seem to confirm our estimate of the irresponsibility of a major part of the Oakland leadership.
It goes without saying that not only “insurrectionists” can act irresponsibly against the interests of the working class. Reports of the Seattle meeting on January 6, where a panel of longshore workers from Longview, Oakland, and Portland spoke, along with activists from Occupy Seattle and Occupy Oakland, seem clear that the event was physically disrupted by a group of ILWU bureaucrats in order to block any solidarity action that would not be under the strict control of the union’s international officials.
The Occupy movement may have run its course, but what is needed is not a re-run but a mass working-class-led movement fighting to win what our class needs. Mass action such as a general strike would show our class the power it has to transform society. The working class would come to see that the government at all levels, not just Wall Street, is its enemy.
The importance of a general strike does not mean that the “general strikes” called for by OWS bodies are serious applications of this weapon. The New York “General Assembly,” for example, put forward the following announcement:
May Day 2012: Occupy Wall Street stands in solidarity with the calls for a day without the 99%, a general strike and more!! On May Day, wherever you are, we are calling for: *No Work *No School *No Housework *No Shopping *No Banking
TAKE THE STREETS!!!!!
This is bluster. OWS is not in the leadership of the working class and cannot make a general strike happen; as noted above, workers must be convinced that such drastic steps are both necessary and possible. Few workers are going to take off work because of the OWS call unless they are backed by a union or the power of an enormous movement. And no union bureaucrats are going to call their members out when they can follow their perennial habit and call for a vote for Obama and the Democrats instead. Moreover, OWS’s governing ideology has in effect caused it to add “No Demands” to its roster of slogans, and there will not be a real strike, much less a general strike, without demands.
OWS is undoubtedly hoping that their call will link up with mass actions on May 1 for immigrant rights. In 2006 there were huge mobilizations of immigrants that pulled so many off the job that they resembled general strikes. Since then there have been regular May Day demonstrations in several cities demanding amnesty for undocumented workers. Big mobilizations this year would be especially important, since the Obama administration has stepped up harassment of undocumented workers and has brought deportations to record levels. But since 2006 this movement has been diverted by its pro-capitalist leadership into electoral backing for the Democrats, and the same detour will be continued in 2012.
A genuine struggle against Wall Street and the whole capitalist class requires challenging the methods and programs of our class’s present leadership – union bureaucrats, immigrant leaders, etc. That means raising demands and tactics for the here and now, along with pointing out the way forward and the ultimate goals of the workers’ movement.
The way to ensure a decent life with jobs, health care, and all the other necessities for all people is socialist revolution: the working class taking the power to run society out of the hands of the capitalist bosses and their politicians. As Marxists, we understand that victories in powerful struggles will help convince many that this solution is both necessary and possible. The uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, where workers’ strikes played decisive roles in toppling dictators, as well as the mass militant workers’ protests in Greece, are significant signs that in response to the bosses’ attacks there will be a surge in uprisings around the world.
As a working-class revolutionary socialist organization, the League for the Revolutionary Party fights for united struggle against the capitalist attacks while working to convince fellow workers and youth of revolutionary goals. A Marxist analysis of this society and its crisis shows that socialist revolution is the only solution to all of our problems, including exploitation, racism, poverty, and the threats and realities of imperialist war. We believe that to reach revolutionary goals and to lead struggles today, we need to build a revolutionary party based on the working class. We hope that workers and youth will contact us to discuss these ideas, as we fight for a better life for all.
The slogans about the “99%” are not as new as their proponents would like to think. In fact, today’s populists have some very dubious predecessors.
Leon Trotsky, the great Marxist and Russian revolutionary, condemned formulas very similar to what OWS and its leftist champions are chanting. In Germany in 1931, when mass movements of both left and right were battling the bourgeois government, Trotsky opposed the call for a “people’s revolution” raised by the Communist Party leader Ernst Thälmann:
It is understood that every great revolution is a people’s or a national revolution, in the sense that it unites around the revolutionary class all the virile and creative forces of the nation and reconstructs the nation around a new core. But this is not a slogan; it is a sociological description of the revolution, which requires, moreover, precise and concrete definition. As a slogan, it is inane and charlatanism, market competition with the fascists, paid for at the price of injecting confusion into the minds of the workers.
Trotsky continued, citing the “left” fascist leader Gregor Strasser, who styled himself an “anti-capitalist” and appealed directly to nationalist-minded workers by embracing them in the “95 percent”:
Strasser says 95 percent of the people are interested in the revolution, consequently it is not a class revolution but a people’s revolution. Thälmann sings in chorus. In reality, the worker-Communist should say to the fascist worker: of course, 95 percent of the population, if not 98 percent, is exploited by finance capital. But this exploitation is organized hierarchically: there are exploiters, there are subexploiters, sub-subexploiters, etc. Only thanks to this hierarchy do the superexploiters keep in subjection the majority of the nation.
He then sharply distinguished the revolutionary working-class approach, which is irreconcilable with populist slogans about the “95 percent”:
In order that the nation should indeed be able to reconstruct itself around a new class core, it must be reconstructed ideologically and this can be achieved only if the proletariat does not dissolve itself into the “people,” into the “nation,” but on the contrary develops a program of its proletarian revolution and compels the petty bourgeoisie to choose between two regimes. The slogan of the people’s revolution lulls the petty bourgeoisie as well as the broad masses of the workers, reconciles them to the bourgeois-hierarchical structure of the “people” and retards their liberation.
Trotsky was advocating in effect, that the “people” has to be split, with the working-class section taking the lead in fighting for all the oppressed and exploited. Revolutionaries should take the same attitude towards the “99%” today.
1. See the LRP’s November 1 Bulletin, Behind Washington’s War on Workers and the Poor.
2. In various struggles in New York City in recent years, the LRP had pointed out the importance of targeting Wall Street. See for example the article Build March on Wall Street to Stop Budget Cuts and Layoffs! in Revolutionary Transit Worker No. 50, May 2010. One reason for this is that while the capitalist attack had turned to focus on public sector workers, workers in the private sector had faced higher layoffs; to enlist broad working-class support for a struggle against budget cuts, state and municipal workers needed to choose as a target an enemy faced by all workers.
3. For a Marxist analysis of the Israeli tent city protests, see Israelis Demand Social Justice – But What of the Palestinians?
4. See for example "Poll: Most Americans Support Occupy Wall Street," The Atlantic October 19, 2011.
5. Footage of the attack on Youtube.
6. ‘Occupy Wall Street’ at a Turning Point – For a Strategy of Mass Action by the Working Class and Poor! November 17, 2011.
7. Above statement. See also Billions for Bankers, Layoffs for Workers and Youth? HELL NO! October 3, 2011.
8. Graeber quoted one of his fellow-founders: “Over and over she heard the same story: ‘I did everything I was supposed to! I worked hard, studied hard, got into college. Now I’m unemployed, with no prospects, and $50 to $80,000.00 in debt.’” See On Playing By The Rules – The Strange Success Of #OccupyWallStreet”.
9. “Occupy and the Tasks of Socialists,” Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist.
10. The Audacity of Occupy Wall Street by Richard Kim, November 2, 2011.
11. Doug Enaa, a supporter of the Maoist Kasama Project, speaking at a forum at Harvard University on December 15; posted on December 25.
12. “World revolution” for the OWS leaders does not necessarily mean overthrowing all the capitalist states and governments, as it does for Marxists. For David Graeber it means not seizing power (leaving aside the question of state power – he is an anarchist) through an “apocalyptic revolution” but rather building a future society in the present. See his Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology.
13. See The Egyptian Revolution Must Advance – or It Will Be Defeated. Sadly, when the post-Mubarak military rulers cracked down murderously on reawakened protests in Tahrir Square in mid-December, a solidarity rally in New York on December 22, called by Egyptian organizers and a variety of U.S. organizations, drew no more than a handful of OWS activists.
14. “Inequality: Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%,” in Vanity Fair, May 2011.
15. International Socialism, January 2012.
16. ‘Occupy Wall Street’ protestor: Cops are part of the 99 percent.
17. The full statement was posted on the Occupy Chicago website, but was deleted, no doubt after objections and embarrassment. As we write, the full text of the letter is archived at occupyarchive.org/items/show/682; it is also available to readers from us on request.
18. Retrieved from occupywallst.org/, video dated Dec. 22, 2011, 6:15 p.m. EST. See also www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=YZ6dNVRJEUA#! (Cop segment starts at about 3:37.) The video is “official” because it was approved at an OWS General Assembly, by “consensus” – at least 90% approval.
19. Fascism: What It Is and How To Fight It.
20. This wording is from www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-backroom/2795070/posts, but similar formulations abound.
21. Jed Brandt, an editor of the Occupied Wall Street Journal, speaking for the Kasama Project at the Brecht Forum in New York, November 21, 2011.
22. One absurd example: when it finally came to the OWS General Assembly on December 18, the Jobs for All proposal was “defeated,” even though it got two-thirds of the votes. But even if it won, that too would have been an undemocratic decision, since the Demands group was not representative of the movement as a whole, or the lack of it by that point.
23. Descriptions of intimidation were told to several supporters of the LRP by outraged activists. A condensed description of one report appears on the Yahoo internet discussion group; see in particular the minutes of the Demands Working Group meeting posted on October 16, 2011 at 6:27 am by Shawn Redden.
24. See our report, NYC Union Leaders Stall Working-Class Fightback. The LRP’s role was covered up by two reports which credited the initiation of the CLC motion and march to OWS itself (“The Labor Movement and Occupy,” in Socialist Appeal Issue 65) or to the OWS Labor Outreach Committee (“A victory for 32BJ” in Socialist Worker Feb. 2012). According to the latter account, “Occupy and LOC activists were ,instrumental in getting the NYC Central Labor Council (CLC) to call all city unions out in joint action.” No LOCer was involved at all, even though its leadership was invited to participate.
25. For an analysis of this pathetic slogan, see the box “Shared Sacrifice?” in the LRP’s November 1 Bulletin, Behind Washington’s War on Workers and the Poor.
26. See the account by Salon.com’s Glenn Greenwald.
27. See “Occupy and the Tasks of Socialists,” Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist; also “The 1% of the 99% and an Anti-Capitalist Altnernative,” Insurgent Notes.
28. Occupied Wall Street Journal No. 5.
29. See “Organized Labor Stands Up,” Occupied Wall Street Journal.
30. Marom spoke at a forum at the New School in New York on February 11, subtitled “Stepping Back, Taking Stock, and Gazing Forward in the Wake of Occupy Wall Street,” which was seemingly set up as a platform for burnt-out 1960's veterans to instruct young activists in the beauties of reformism. His response to the pro-Democratic Party hints was, “I won’t have anything to do with electoral politics, but I sure as hell hope that somebody does it.”
31. For a full analysis, see our article “Joblessness: Capitalist Crime” in Proletarian Revolution No. 47 (Summer 1994).
32. See the proposed ‘Jobs for All’demand. An earlier, wordier, version is at pcp.gc.cuny.edu/occupywallstreet-demands-working-group-panel-teach-in/.
33. See Wisconsin: A Tale of Betrayal.
34. Occupy Oakland: Advance the Struggle’s Political Reflection, December 31.
35. An Open Letter from America's Port Truck Drivers on Occupy the Ports, December 12, 2011.
36. See for example the postings on Louis Proyect’s blog, starting February 7, and “Building the Red Army: The Death and Forbidden Rebirth of the Oakland Commune,” Viewpoint Magazine.
37. See for example Unity vs. Union Bureaucracy on Occupy Seattle's blog, “ILWU officials shouldn't get a pass,” Socialist Worker online, and “January 6: An Outrage in Seattle,” The Internationalist online.
38. Nation of Change website, February 18.
39. See our article, Immigrant Workers and the Democratic Party Hoax.
40. All quotations here are from Trotsky’s article Thälmann and the “People’s Revolution”,.