Saturday, November 1, 2008

The Spark Analogy is Rather Misleading

A view that is at once too broad as well as too telescoped, is the one many on the American left (and probably the right as well) have of social movements. We know there were strikes in the 1930s and sit-ins in the 1960s, and that in between and before it was "bad" for radicals, and that eventually after each period of upsurge things fizzled out. That might be a fine approach for understanding the fireworks at a fourth of July celebration but it's a rather condensed and impressionistic view of historical events as they actually unfolded. Furthermore if that's all the time you're going to spend thinking about such things you are ultimately going to be left with all the wrong conclusions. If upturns just "come", then can't we just sort of hang out eventually they'll come again?

Said the anarchist worker to the Communist organizer; "We don't need a party, but call us when the revolution comes..."

If you are angry at the status quo, and perhaps feeling a bit radical, it may be hard for you to understand that no fire was started by a spark. A fire is started with kindling, tinder, and eventually bigger logs. It takes a while to gather up all the pieces. The materials available may be more or less flammable, wetter or more dry. Sometimes the sparks fizzle. Sometimes it lights and then it goes out. Sometimes you run out of wood. Other times a whole forest may burn down. And how long did it take for the forest to grow in the first place?

But in any case, if you are cold and in a forest, it is particularly important for you to understand that fires don't build themselves; it actually takes people working for a while, consciously and unconsciously, to get one started. From then on it is a process to see it through. The analogy as applied to social movements has been beaten to death. There's some merit to it but it's not the most helpful conceptual framework.

The "spark" analogy may describe the actions of a certain individual or a particularly crowd on a specific day, but the simplified analogy has never really applied to movements as a whole. Even at "defining moments", like when the police line broke at the demonstration in Petrograd, in February 1917, and the Russian Revolution began; there was a rather long period that proceeded it in which masses of people became fed up with the status quo, radicalized, and began to take action. Much of this had been actively repressed early on, but later, revolutionary sentiment was widespread that authorities were simply afraid to repress it.

Neither does the analogy really apply to the United States in the 1930s. It took until 1935 for the CIO to split from the AFL and begin to build itself as a mass union federation representing millions of workers. Prior to that period, while there were major, victorious strikes in Toledo, Minneapolis, and the Western Seaboard in 1934, there were also many defeats before and during that time that don't get talked about as much, such as among agricultural workers in California's Imperial Valley, or among Textile Workers in the national strike of that year. Yet even in defeat the participants were able to learn, to organize, to build organizations, and later as conditions were more favorable, the tide did start to turn. Yet the advance was never monolithic. Textile workers for instance never recovered from 1934, and post war organizing campaigns were ultimately ineffective. Enduring local bitterness, and the eventual off shoring of nigh that entire industry, was its ultimate fate.

A lot of people "radicalized" in the months after the stock market collapsed in 1929, but for a long time many of them were also quite demoralized. Much radical activism in the early period of the depression didn't take the form of leading big strikes of strong, inspiring, well informed workers, but of organizing to stop evictions, or to demand food relief. "Communism in America" in the early 1930s for many people simply meant your friends or neighbors that helped you move your furniture back into the apartment after the landlord had it dumped on the street. In the Midwest it meant the organized physical intimidation by radicals of anyone who would bid over a penny for the sale at auction of foreclosed property (as pre-arranged, the title was then transferred back over to the original, dispossessed owner).

Before the CP led the United Electrical Workers, Communist electricians would more commonly be found illegally running wires from the city's power lines back into your house after the lights had been cut off. Not surprisingly party activists involved with leadership in local "Unemployment Councils" experienced higher rates of depression and burnout. Working day in and day out with people who have not had work for several months to a year or longer is simply an emotionally draining process. This is something we have to understand, and can't overlook, or pretend burnout is some kind of personal shortcoming than cannot be anticipated.

The Civil Rights Movement too is another struggle that really had no beginning. Resistance to racism and slavery had occurred, through ups and downs, from the very start of the Slave Trade. Brown vs. Board of Education was not so much the beginning of the struggle for Martin Luther King, H Rap Brown, Malcolm X, Tom Hayden, or any other big name of the sixties as it was the closing chapter on a whole era of turbulent racial struggle that occurred in the 1930s and 1940s. A Philip Randolph's threatened marches on Washington, Truman's desegregation of the armed forces and the Democrat's Civil Rights platform in 1948, postwar racial violence, black veterans, McCarthyism, the Communist Party, and the NAACP all played different roles to create the environment in which the five cases in that decision were brought to trial and eventually heard. Furthermore, it wasn't Brown that coaxed a movement into being from nothing. The case was important and had major national implications, there was at first a cautious period of “wait and see”, followed by a violent racist reaction. The Montgomery Bus boycott and the Little Rock High desegregation were important, but a lot else happened in the six years between Brown and the Greensboro sit ins that, while much of it was small, made latter, more well known events possible.

When a political history of the period we are living in today is later written, do you think the cases of the Jena 6, the Freightliner 5, the Charleston 6, or even the Smithfield workers, will be quoted as the “start” of some new “epoch” of upsurge? Probably not, and even these were fairly significant radical developments involving large numbers of people. Seattle in 1999 might be, but even that is misleading, because the organizers who planned that protest did not manifest out of thin air: they and the groups they brought with them were formed over years of struggle, often taking place well under the national radar.

But the point is that for each of those cases locally, and to a somewhat lesser extent, regionally and nationally, they did mark important starting points, where “ordinary people” that no one expected to probably ever do anything at all radical on a large scale took a stand against the status quo, endured great difficulties for it, and to a greater or lesser extent came out ahead of where they were before.

The long awaited “new period of upsurge” will develop precisely out of hundreds of such events, many of which we won’t even hear about, and some of which we may play a role in initiating. Entering such a period isn’t like sleeping in, and waiting for the church bells to ring letting you know it’s time to go somewhere. It’s about being awake, alert, and politically active social person before things happen, so that when they start to, you are able to play a role.

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