Reform vs. Revolution Within Occupy

This article is one of two companion pieces on The Occupier, discussing the larger strategic questions of the Occupation movement. The entirety of Occupation strategy is not reducible to these two points of view, but we hope these will start a discussion in two different, non-symmetric veins about “big picture” issues.

By Shamus Cooke

Many Occupiers have expressed a valid concern over the Obama campaign attempting to hijack the Occupy movement. To avoid this pitfall some Occupiers advocate more radical methods, ideas and strategies. But sometimes these tactics create new problems. While swerving safely left of the Democrats’ grasp, some Occupiers have overreached and exited the orbit of most working people, who would otherwise naturally gravitate to the Occupy movement. Some Occupiers dismiss this new worry, viewing the Occupy movement as an unstoppable social movement.

This raises the question: is Occupy a real social movement or one still struggling to be born? The answer to this question helps determine what strategy the Occupy movement should take, what demands it should fight for and the level of confrontation of its actions. If you believe that the Occupy movement is still struggling for a mass base, as this writer does, then you’ll likely agree that Occupy needs to immediately focus on broadening its base and wage militant struggles for demands that will bring in the wider working class community.

Such a campaign may not at first appear as radical as some Occupy actions, and will likely draw accusations of “reformism” (the Democrats cannot be lumped into the reformist category, because they are not advocating pro-worker reforms; they are basically for maintaining the corporate dominated status quo by rolling back previously won reforms). Some “reformist” demands might include: a massive public Jobs program, Save Social Security and Medicare, End the Wars, Tax the Rich and Corporations, Medicare for All, etc.

Yet these demands are more radical than the Democrats can stomach, but make some Occupiers yawn. The irony is that only a truly mass movement of working people has the potential to achieve the various demands of the Occupy movement. And only a militant campaign fighting for these immediate demands has the real mass, revolutionary potential of organizing working people into a cohesive unit. But an Occupy movement that ignores these popular demands and fails to unite the vast majority–and instead fights for more radical demands that are now only embraced by a relative few–has no real revolutionary potential, since it ignores the basic needs of the majority of working people.

This is the reformist-revolutionary paradox. It may seem bizarre to many radicals that previous revolutionary movements were won on the basis of a few basic demands: the Spanish revolution in the 1930s mobilized the 99% over land and freedom. The Russian revolution of 1917 aroused virtually the entire population with the demands for bread, peace, land and rule by the majority.

Countless other revolutionary movements united around a few, seemingly modest demands. This is because there are few things that directly effect the majority of working people enough that they will assemble in the streets to fight. In times of economic crisis these types of demands have revolutionary potential, since they are not freely granted by the employers nor their government, but must be fought for.

Occupy has yet to win over the majority of the population, or even one-third. There have been several nationwide polls that support this. And although polls are not a perfect way to measure public support, they cannot be ignored (as President Bush insisted on doing). The following conclusion was drawn from a recent USA Today/ Gallup poll:

“Americans’ views about the Occupy Wall Street movement have changed little since mid-October, with most Americans taking a neutral stance toward it.”

Polls aside, it seems obvious that most people in America are on the fence as to whether or not to support or reject Occupy. These people cannot be dismissed as Conservatives or “apathetic.” Many of them will be willing to fight with Occupy in the streets, as some unions have, if they see Occupy’s fight as their own. Occupy must demonstrate to the 99% that it is serious about waging a real struggle for working class demands, since tens of millions of working people are suffering and would rally to a movement they saw as providing real hope, not merely moments of bravery combined with anti-1% rhetoric.

The USA Today poll also showed a concerning shift of support against the tactics employed by the Occupy movement, as did a poll by Public Policy Polling (PPP). A pollster for PPP concluded:

“I don’t think the bad poll numbers for Occupy Wall Street reflect Americans being unconcerned with wealth inequality… [but] The controversy over the protests is starting to drown out the actual message.”

This is almost certainly true, and may soon become critically important. Since the majority of people in the U.S. are still waiting to see if their interests will be represented by Occupy, organizing smaller confrontational/radical actions over more radical demands that do not connect with most working people may only deepen the above divide. Such concerns may seem naturally repulsive to many Occupiers, who deeply want “change now”–an understandable frustration. But this impatience can be self-destructive if more radical acts separate the current Occupy activists from the wider community. The media is doing its best to drive a wedge between the radical occupiers and the wider population of working people, giving them opportunities to use this wedge tactic should be avoided.

The police are also driving this wedge deep, using an excessive police presence combined with excessive force to frighten average people from attending demonstrations that include civil disobedience or other confrontational tactics. And although the police deserve total blame for their tactics, Occupiers must out-flank them with a political strategy that leans towards organizing massive events, so that the police’s power is muted and the media cannot portray Occupy as a minority of “extremist” activists playing cat and mouse with the police.

The police and politicians are basing their level of repression against Occupy on the level of popularity that the movement has with the wider population; many of the Occupy camps were torn down only after demonstrations became smaller and anti-Occupy coverage influenced the still-indecisive majority of people. Occupy must use the same barometer as the police and politicians for the opposite purpose: successful actions should be judged by whether or not they connect with the majority of the population and increasingly draw them into rallies and actions of massive numbers. By implementing this approach to organizing it will become unmistakable that working people stand with Occupy and Occupy with them. Together they are one.

The Occupy movement has inspired people around the country and world by opening debates about inequality that were shut before. But in order to grow into a democratic revolutionary movement, the working majority of the population must join in, requiring that Occupy broadcast a message based on concrete working-class demands. Working people instinctively know that their demands can only be won by a massive movement, that the power of the 1% can only be challenged by the prolonged mobilization and militant action of the majority of the 99%.

Working people also want “change now,” since they are deeply affected by the jobs, housing and health care crisis. They are not apathetic, just not convinced that Occupy is fighting for them; they want to see if this fight is a serious fight or just a symbolic one.

  9 comments for “Reform vs. Revolution Within Occupy

  1. Justin Myers
    December 16, 2011 at 12:42 PM

    The description of the source and meaning of the “reformist-revolutionary paradox” is right on. While we want the 99% to become adopt the Occupy message, it’s uncomfortable to hear the Occupy message coming back from them.

    But that’s the goal. If we want Democrats to become Occupiers, we’re going to have to accept that many Occupiers will be Democrats/Republicans/Tea Partiers/Etc.

    These groups aren’t going to lose their identities or agendas, but the extent that they pander to Occupy’s aesthetics, language and demands is the extent to which we’re winning. If they’re drinking the Occupy kool-aid, don’t stop them.

    This is the most clear and amazing call for right action in the Occupy movement. Thank you.

  2. Jim Harrison
    December 16, 2011 at 12:57 PM

    Spot on! Thank Shamus Cooke for articulating here what a number of us have been saying for weeks across the entire spectrum of communication (print, social media, face-to-face, etc). Eventually those on a ‘let’s burn it all man!’ high will subside and they’ll have the choice to either roll up their sleeves and get busy building a New America or sit it out on the sidelines in some eternal bitchfest. Thanks for being a voice of sanity.

    • shamus cooke
      December 16, 2011 at 9:15 PM


      I especially liked your comment: either roll up their sleeves and get busy building a new America or sit it out on the sidelines..

      I would add that it is incredibly easy being the most radical person in the room organizing the most radical actions. If you really care about building a powerful social movement there needs to be more strategy about HOW to build the movement, i.e., what are the next steps and how do we increase our power as a movement.

  3. AlonK
    December 16, 2011 at 1:00 PM

    The same question with every movement for change, in France 1789, Russia 1917, Nicaragua 1978, the 1930’s and 1960’s in the USA…Get what is “possible” such as Universal Health Care, or even protect gains like Medicare from the greedy bastards and their helpers (such as Senator Wyden with his new bill to privatize Medicare) or aim at the stars.
    An article in Commondreams by also raises the question of how the US Occupy movement is seen by many around the world-
    “Aside from its radical elements, most of the movement’s American and European supporters simply want to reclaim their rights to live decent, dignified, middle-class lives.There’s nothing wrong with this aspiration, in and of itself. But middle-class affluence in the West depends on a system of extraction that produces and perpetuates tremendous poverty in the global South.”
    The Occupy movement is just one more step towards liberation…the time is so short..

  4. December 16, 2011 at 1:33 PM

    It is heartening to see someone reflect this concern. I have heard non-participants voice these sentiments many times. They are confused about what Occupy is doing so do not engage.

    I hope the discussion ensuing from this article produces moves in the direction of appeals to mass involvement.

  5. Zarazaiel
    December 17, 2011 at 3:11 AM

    The Past cries Revolution!
    The Present shouts Liberation!
    The Future demands Evolution!
    Therefore, I choose to live in the co-creation of Heaven on Earth.

  6. Tracy
    February 7, 2012 at 12:34 AM

    I agree with what you are saying here, and I appreciate your rhetoric without the “insert shameless plug for Socialism here” bit. In fact, this might be the first article I’ve ever read from someone in the ISO that doesn’t mention the name Marx or the word Socialism…and addresses the substance of the issues without the ideology. Thank you, thank you, thank you. It’s time to move beyond.

  7. February 13, 2012 at 10:34 PM

    The mass of people in the American Empire have been ruled by ignorance and stupidity for so long, you have to lead them around like puppets or sheep. Appeal to them through universal images of pain and suffering, that’s all they have been hypnotized to believe. Whatever strikes closest to their hearts, health, pleasure, pick any of the mortal sins. They will follow! The reforms must adhere to this principle- The Revolutionaries? The ones I knew from 1980 are now all corporate executives! So much for Anarchy.

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