Friday, May 1, 2009

May Day in Portland

This kind of thing is one of the reasons I wanted to move to Portland.

Portland has a massive May Day rally every year in which thousands of workers, immigrants, anti-capitalists, and labor activists of every stripe come together and march through downtown Portland. This year's activists were focused largely on the rights of immigrants, fighting corporate bailouts, and working for labor rights and specifically passage of the EFCA.

I find protests like this interesting. I know, for example, that this rally isn't going to lead to a large scale mobilization of the working class, a general strike, or really, any kind of cohesive message. The huge unfocused coalition of people that marched today do not have a real concrete common goal, and after the rally each of the groups involved is going to go back to its own projects and lose a lot of the supposed momentum that these kinds of rallies are supposed to build.

But there is good stuff that can be achieved by these kinds of rallies. They're great recruitment opportunities for the sponsoring groups. They bring media attention to a whole host of issues and give voice to political minorities that would not otherwise be heard.

One thing I found interesting was the makeup of the various anti-capitalist groups involved in the rally. There were a number of different groups present, all of whom I had encountered at one time or another at other, similar rallies over the years. The Freedom Socialist Party, a kind of "feminist-Trotskyist" group, was handing out newspapers along with their offshoot Radical Women. The International Socialist Organization was there with "Workers of the World Unite" banners. The IWW had balloons and anarcho-syndicalist flags. Perhaps the most interesting conversation I had was with a member of the Socialist Workers Party, who were also there handing out newspapers (I think Lenin said something about educating the working class by shoving newspapers in their faces). Anyway, this Socialist Workers Party member told me, when I started talking to her about all the different anti-capitalist groups present at the rally, she said, "Oh, we're not of the left. We're of the working class." This took me by surprise. Apparently, the SWP believe that their particular version of socialism is the one that is going to succeed in recruiting the working class to global revolution.

Which brings me to a very important point. So do the ISO. So do the FSP. So do the IWW, the CPUSA, the PLP, and any other leftist acronym you want to throw out there. The only difference between most of them (with the notable exception of the IWW, who have a totally different idea of how to organize workers), is what they think about what happened in Russia in 1917, whose side they take in the Stalin v. Trotsky debate, and exactly where they stand on incredibly complicated and arcane ideological points.

But I mean, really. At this point, who the hell cares what happened in Russia in 1917? Who the hell cares whether Stalin or Trotsky had a better idea of how to organize the Soviet proletariat? It's 2009, folks. Workers today want to be sure that their jobs are secure, that they can organize a union without being intimidated by bosses, that they can get decent healthcare, and all of those nitty gritty every day concerns. Ideological squabbles over stuff that happened 80 years ago aren't going to win you much support.

Which is why most of these groups are tiny ingrown little political toenails, completely inconsequential in the greater political scheme of things. If they could all kind of get together and endorse a broad set of principles, focus on their common goal of organizing and radicalizing the working class, educating people about the structural problems of capitalism, then they can worry about how to bring about revolution after they've got enough people to have one.

For example, today's May Day march could have had a very visible radical anti-capitalist contingent, marching together in solidarity to show that "a better world is possible." Instead, it had tiny pockets of different kinds of socialists and anarcho-syndicalists, all throwing around competing newspapers full of arcane ideological spewage. Nothing is accomplished with that kind of petty divisiveness.

Marx wasn't a Marxist. Marx believed that the working class would organize on its own, without needing an ideological vanguard to "pave the way." If we really want to radicalize workers, then we need to stop bitching about what Leon Trotsky said in 1930 and go out and actually do it.