Occupations, Mass Strikes, and the Revolutionary Potential of Occupy Oakland

I recently started re-reading Rosa Luxemburg’s Mass Strike with some comrades and it has been excellent to have in the background of my mind amidst this wave of struggle that is rapidly and spontaneously spreading across this country through the Occupy Wall Street campaign. It is inspiring and makes me feel hopeful, because it demonstrates a shift in people’s consciousness; a shift in collective consciousness is necessary for revolutionary action to develop. People’s experience in political action shapes their consciousness and often radicalizes it, which strengthens our movements. Luxemburg speaks to this in her pamphlet Mass Strike, which she wrote after she saw the success of the tactic used by the workers during the 1905 Russian Revolution. She constantly emphasizes the role of struggle in educating the workers and transforming them into revolutionaries. But like the skilled dialectician she is, she always points out the necessity of having balance between revolutionary organization and the self-organization of the people during struggle. It is this struggle that will revolutionize people; not solely the revolutionary literature of a party. The people will move when the historical moment arises. However, it is always the job of the revolutionary party or organization to bring clarity and revolutionary insight into struggle so that it stays in revolutionary directions and doesn’t get co-opted by the liberals. I see the potential for this within the Occupy Wall Street movement that has created a wave of occupations in other cities. It speaks to the power of political struggle and how inspiring it can be. It is also dope because people are starting to think about the oppression grounded within class. They are questioning the ruling class’s control over the world. It is also incredibly threatening to the ruling class, because when people become class conscious they began to overcome the divisions that separate us through a division of labor. We shed the systems divisions and alienation to come together in solidarity as workers, who all share this common experience with exploitation as a member of the working class. What Luxemburg points out, which is useful for us today, is the relationship between economic and political struggles. Economic consciousness is the consciousness of our experience as workers dealing with exploitation; our consciousness of the economic conditions around us. Then there is a political consciousness that examines the conditions around us that aren’t solely within our workplaces. Other modes of oppression, such as racism and sexism, that effect the quality of our life and devalue our humanity as well. Most people experience class exploitation and oppression simultaneously. As a woman in this world my life has been shaped through my experiences as a worker, as a woman, a queer person, and as a mixed race person. The most oppressed within society experience these multiple layers of oppression, and their resistance to these conditions also reflects the relationship between the political and economic structures within society that create these conditions to begin with. In Mass Strike Luxemburg is examining the historical development of class struggle within Russia, and its political and economic nature. The 1905 revolution took off once the political issue of state violence arose with the massacre of protesting workers. That is when the general strike in St. Petersberg occurred and soviets were formed.

The historical development of struggle and its potential to radicalize people’s consciousness, as well as the interconnection between politics and economics in revolutionary struggle, is what makes me excited for the promise that Occupy Oakland holds. It is a city with a rich history of struggle to build off of; and it is also a city whose racialized division of labor reveals the contradictions within the system when it comes to race and class. The political and economic conditions that exploit and oppress the Black and Brown working-class in this city offer potential for revolutionary struggle. This is why Oakland is significant as a place of struggle, and why I am hopeful for the Occupy Oakland campaign to generalize into something more militant and revolutionary.

Occupy Oakland is a wonderful development within this wave of politicization that has come through the Occupy Wall Street movement. They are springing up everywhere; even in my hometown of Sacramento. The significance of Oakland as a place of struggle lies within its rich history of radical struggle that continues today within the Oscar Grant /anti-police brutality movement, anti-gang injunction movement and the anti-budget cut movement that have had waves of rebellions within the city reflecting the righteous anger of the working class, who are exploited and kept poor. The working class of Oakland is, like most cities, majority people of color, who face daily oppression and racist violence at the hands of the state; forced to submit to the police, who operate like an occupying army within our neighborhoods. They are only here to serve and protect the riches private property by keeping us alienated in working class ghettos; spreading fear with their guns so we don’t actually rise up and take this wealth we built back for our communities. Oakland reflects the layers of contradictions within this capitalist society, and its division of labor demonstrates the intersections between race, gender and class very clearly.

1946 Oakland General Strike. Workers celebrating in the streets of downtown Oakland. Site of recent rebellions against state violence and budget cuts.

It is theses political and economic conditions that have made Oakland a site of revolutionary struggle and politics for many years now, going back to the heyday of the labor movement in the 1930s and 40’s, and which continues to offer potential to connect economic and political struggles. On Monday Frank Ogawa Plaza will be the site of the Occupy Oakland action. This location within Oakland has already made history over the last 3 years with the Oscar Grant movement, and the rebellions that have occurred downtown. However, its historical significance can be traced back to 1946, when the city of Oakland was shut down for three days during a general strike. The strike began when women workers, who worked at the retail stores downtown asked their employers if they could unionize and their requests were denied by the boss (not surprising!). They decided to go on strike, and within a day the rest of the workers within the city went on strike in solidarity. The teamsters, who delivered the commodities to the department stores refused to; the bus drivers didn’t work making it impossible to transport other workers to work. People celebrated in the streets of downtown Oakland, where Frank Ogawa Plaza is now. The women retail workers did not get their demands met in the end, but the significance of the strike is that it demonstrated working class awareness that the system is not designed in their own interests. The Oakland general strike also reflected a national mood that was developing around the country, as FDR continued to pass anti-labor laws and lower the standard of living for the working class, while exploiting them at home and abroad to fuel the war machine. Twenty years later the conditions remained the same nationally and within Oakland. There was another war in Vietnam and wide spread poverty and racialized violence occurring everywhere. There was also a new wave of struggle and the creation of the Black Panther Party here in West and North Oakland, which became a national organization after a few years. Twenty years after the uprisings of 1960s a new cycle of struggle here in Oakland continued to develop by the next generation of youth and workers, who were inspired by the Black and Brown power movements that came before. Longshoremen workers shut down the ports twice against South African Apartheid and the imprisonment of Mumia. Workers used their economic power to protest the political issues of racism and segregation. High School students walked out throughout the ‘90’s to protest the construction of prisons and school closures. This political movement directly relates to the political movement over the last few years here in Oakland against the budget cuts that are an attack on working class people’s livelihoods through the closure of schools, foreclosure of working-class people’s homes, the increased policing of our neighborhoods, and high rates of unemployment. It relates to the Oscar Grant movement, which has had several protests and rebellions, and which has also gotten organized labor involved through port shut downs to protest the racist justice system.

Black Panther Party inspires the Black working class

The reason why I am taking time to go over 60 years of political history in Oakland, because it is that history of struggle that shapes people’s consciousness and leads to more development of struggle. There are a few important reasons why Oakland continues to be an important site of struggle. One is that the oppressive conditions continue to inspire the people to fight back; and two there is a continual history of struggle etched in the memory of people that also politicizes them and inspires them to continually want to fight back. I want to draw from Luxemburgs writing now. She speaks of absolutism (capitalist rule) in Russia, and what is necessary for a revolutionary overthrow of it. Although she is speaking to the situation within Russia her analysis could be applied anywhere. The subject of this post is Oakland and that is the political landscape im investigating, but, like I said above, struggle within Oakland has also reflected a general feeling of discontentment around the country and hopefully around the world.

“Absolutism in Russia must be overthrown by the proletariat. But in order to be able to overthrow it, the proletariat requires a high degree of political education, of class consciousness and organization. All these conditions cannot be fulfilled by pamphlets and leaflets, but only by the living political school, by the fight and in the fight, in the continuous course of the revolution.”

Luxemburg is emphasizing the importance of revolutionary struggle and it’s important for two reasons: 1) Struggle is important, because it is the necessary means with which the system will be overthrown. 2) The only way the system will be overthrown is if the people decide to overthrow it, and it is their participation in struggle that has potential to shape the people’s consciousness and make them want to commit to such a project of revolution. Luxemburg is clear in her analysis of mass strikes that it is not the tactics itself that make revolutions, but the class consciousness of the people, who act on that basis. She speaks to this in her historical analysis of the development of mass strikes in Russia, and the different waves of struggle that built up to the 1905 revolution. She writes,

“The most precious, because lasting, thing in this rapid ebb and flow of the wave is its mental sediment: the intellectual, cultural growth of the proletariat, which proceeds by fits and starts, and which offers an inviolable guarantee of their further irresistible progress in the economic as in the political struggle.”

I appreciate her usage of the word guarantee in terms of the workers consciousness, because it is their growth and overall revolutionary spirit that will last in between the ebbs and flows of struggle. Strikes and occupations don’t last forever and sometimes they get brutally smashed on by the state, which is demoralizing and can kill movements. But like I said above, revolution isn’t tactics; its people’s consciousness and determination, which hopefully stays strong in jail cells, in the streets, in our homes and work places. This is our guarantee that struggle will carry on and advance to stages, where our liberation becomes something more tangible.

I have spent time going into the importance of history and consciousness in terms of revolutionary struggle. Another aspect of revolutionary struggle that is important to understand is the relationship between economic and political struggles, which has and continues to have historical significance here in Oakland, where we have political movements addressing the economic and political nature of our oppression. Luxemburg argues that it is the relationship between politics and economics that forms revolutionary struggle and is often what inspires the working-class to move. Here is another poetic quote,

“The worker suddenly aroused to activity by the electric shock of political action, immediately seizes the weapon lying nearest his hand for the fight against his condition of economic slavery. The stormy gesture of the political struggle causes him to feel with unexpected intensity the weight and the pressure of his economic chains.” (187).

This analysis, when applied to the Oscar Grant struggle, is absolutely correct. The Brown and Black working-class of Oakland are incredibly exploited and oppressed. Unemployment is high, schools are constantly being closed down, and social services are cut. These are the conditions of most urban working-class cities. Budget money constantly goes to the OPD; 90% of bailout funds went to OPD. When a lack of jobs push the Brown and Black working-class into the informal economy, money that should be going to more jobs goes to police to harass and incarcerate the people, who are pushed into the streets by the system. The economic conditions are highly exploitative and oppressive, and people are aware of that, but they aren’t rising up every day because of the crisis, even if they feel its effects. When a political issue happens, such as police officer Johannes Mehserle murdering Oscar Grant, this state violence combined with the already miserable economic conditions, fuels the young Brown and Black working-class to rise up and rebel. The riots in the street expressed the unity between economic and political struggles, because when the youngsters decided to break private property they broke bank windows, corporations and a few luxury cars. They had targets that symbolized wealth. And that sent a message that ‘no you can’t continually enslave us in capital and murder us too. You can’t keep us poor and in constant fear of your guns when you profit off of our oppression and exploitation.’  I’m not trying to romanticize the riots, but I do see embryonic consciousness when the black working-class rebels, and targets banks to protest the murder of another Black man. It shows potential to build off these struggles and advance their militancy much in the same way Luxemburg demonstrated through her analysis of the Russian strike waves.

The occupy movement has been able to bring in people from all sectors of the class and society, but there are concerns and analysis that have developed about the leadership within these planning meetings being overly occupied by white males, bureaucrats, liberals; people who don’t necessarily represent womyn, queer people and the working-class of color. This has been a similar occurrence in Oakland. I am not into vulgar identity politics that attempt to counteract real feelings of marginalization and alienation in organizing spaces by reversing the alienation back onto the white men. I am thankful for the real reproductive work they, and many other non-white men, have put into making sure an Occupy Oakland can happen in the first place. I am also mindful of the fact that their material position in the world also effects their politics, which will effect the political nature of struggle. I want to work alongside white men/anarchists/everyone, while holding my ground as a revolutionary Marxist feminist. It is important that class struggle politics that prioritize the Black and Brown working-class are represented within these organizing spaces.  It is important that workers are represented in these organizing spaces, because they are the ones that will be leading the war on poverty; it is their position within the division of labor that holds the power to not only occupy space and workplaces, but to take them back, as well as all of society and to restructure it along our own interests and not capitals. This will only happen through a revolutionary overthrow of the current system.

We must be clear and consistent with these politics in times of radical movement, which we see happening right now with the Occupy Everything campaign, because there will be liberals who try to co-opt the revolutionary potential of such struggle so that it stays confined to reforms and within the control of the ruling class. Oakland has a rich history of revolutionary activity, which I already delved into above; people’s consciousness has already been effected by these waves of struggles over the years. It is our job as revolutionaries, who believe in the power of the workers and of the power of the people, to stay united and grounded with these politics and to continue to agitate the people’s consciousness and learn from it when they decide to move. It is this daily political work within the working class that we must commit too if we want to see this occupation movement strengthen and develop into revolutionary class struggle so that it isn’t a) smashed on hard by the violence of the ruling classes agents (AKA pigs) or b) co-opted by the ruling class in order to stifle its revolutionary growth. They will draw upon their material and ideological forces to manipulate and pacify the people’s consciousness. It is our job as revolutionaries to draw upon our material and theoretical forces to affect people’s consciousness and affirm what they already know through living in these oppressive conditions; this system isn’t worth a damn. Long live the revolutionary working-class of all colors! See you all on Monday!

Occupy Oakland in solidary with Occupy Wall Street and SF and Indigenous peoples day

Where: Frank Ogawa Plaza (14th and Broadway)

When: 4pm-till as long as we can hold our ground. Workers  and unemployed unite and shut down downtown like 1946 general strike!


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