[Marxism] Staughton Lynd: A Letter To Other Occupiers

jay rothermel jayrothermel at gmail.com
Tue Feb 28 17:14:09 MST 2012

 On the Need to Think Long and Hard about the Upcoming G8/NATO Events in

February 28, 2012

Greetings. I write from Niles, Ohio, near Youngstown. I take part in Occupy
Youngstown (OY). I was asked to make some “keynote” remarks on the occasion
of OY’s first public meeting on October 15, 2011. I am a member of the
legal team that filed suit after our tent and burn barrel were confiscated
on November 10-11. I am helping to create the OY Free University where
working groups explore a variety of future projects.

I do not write to comment on recent events in Oakland. Our younger daughter
lived for a few years in a co-operative house situated on the border
between Berkeley and Oakland. For part of that time Martha worked at a
public school in Oakland where most of the children were Hispanic. A can
company wanted to take the school’s recreation yard. In protest, parents
courageously kept their children out of school, causing the school’s public
funding to drop precipitously. As I understand it, in the end the parents
prevailed and got a new rec yard.

That was many years ago. It sticks in my mind as an example of the sort of
activity, reaching out to the communities in which we live, that I hope
Occupiers are undertaking all over the country.

*I *

Every local Occupy movement of which I am aware has begun to explore the
terrain beyond the downtown public square, asking, what is to be done next?

This is as it should be and we need to be gentle with ourselves and one
another, recognizing the special difficulties of this task. The European
middle class, before taking state power from feudal governments, built a
network of new institutions within the shell of the old society: free
cities, guilds, Protestant congregations, banks and corporations, and
finally, parliaments. It appears to be much more difficult to construct
such prefigurative enclaves within capitalism, a more tightly-knit social

I sense that, because of this difficulty in building long-term
institutions, in much of the Occupy universe there is now an emphasis on
protests, marches, “days” for this or that, symbolic but temporary
occupations, and other tactics of the moment, rather than on a strategy of
building ongoing new institutions and dual power.

I have a particular concern about the impending confrontation in Chicago in
May between the forces of Occupy and capitalist globalization. My fears are
rooted in a history that may seem to many of you irrelevant. If so, stroke
my fevered brow and assure me that you have no intention of letting Occupy
crash and burn in the way that both the Student Nonviolent Coordinating
Committee (SNCC) and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) did at the end
of the Sixties.

*II *

Here, in brief, is the history that I pray we will not repeat.

In August 1964, rank-and-file African Americans in the Mississippi Freedom
Democratic Party (MFDP), staff of SNCC, and many summer volunteers,
traveled to the convention of the national Democratic Party in Atlantic
City to demand that the inter-racial delegates of the MFDP should be seated
in place of the all-white delegates from the “regular,” segregationist
Mississippi Democrats. It was an apocalyptic moment, made especially
riveting by the televised testimony of Fannie Lou Hamer.

But politically speaking, many who made the trip from the Deep South never
found their way back there. A variety of causes were at work but one was
that it seemed tedious to return from the mountaintop experience up North
to the apparently more humdrum day-to-day movement work in Mississippi. The
so-called Congressional Challenge that followed the traumatic events in
Atlantic City caused many activists to continue to spend time away from
local communities in which they had been living and working.

Bear with me if I continue this ancient Movement history.

In November 1965, there was a gathering in Washington DC of representatives
from a myriad of ad hoc student groups formed to oppose the Vietnam war.
During the weeks before this occasion several friends warned me that
different Left groups were preparing to do battle for control of the new
antiwar movement. I assured them that their fears were needless: that kind
of thing might have happened in the 1930s, but we were a new Left,
committed to listening to one another and to learning from our collective

I was wrong. From the opening gavel, both Communists and Trotskyists sought
to take control of the new activist network. In the process they seriously
disillusioned many young persons who, perhaps involved in their first
political protest, had come long distances in the hope of creating a common
front against the war.

Paul Booth of SDS called this meeting “the crazy convention.” I remember
sleeping on the floor of somebody’s apartment next to Dave Dellinger as the
two of us sought to refocus attention on what was happening in Vietnam. I
recall pleading near the end of the occasion with members of the Young
Socialist Alliance (YSA) to be allowed into a locked hotel room where,
apparently having lost on the convention floor, they were forming a new
national organization.

SDS faced the identical problem at the end of the 1960s with the
Progressive Labor party (PL). Essentially what PL did was to caucus
beforehand, to adopt tactics for promoting its line within a larger and
more diffuse organization, and then, without any interest in what others
might have to say, ramming through its predecided resolutions. After a
season of hateful harangues and organizational division, very little

Some Occupiers may respond, “But we’re not trying to take over anything! We
only want to be able to follow our own consciences!” Sadly, though, the
impact of Marxist-Leninist vanguardism and unrestrained individualism on a
larger body of variegated protesters may be pretty much the same. In each
case there may be a fixed belief that one knows the Truth and has correctly
determined What Is To Be Done, which makes it an unnecessary waste of time
to Listen To The Experience Of Others. Those who hold these attitudes are
likely to act in a way that will wound or even destroy the larger Movement
that gives them a platform.

In the period between Seattle in 1999 and September 11, 2001, many
activists were into a pattern of behavior that might unkindly be described
as summit-hopping. Two young men from Chicago who had been in Seattle
stayed in our basement for a night on their way to the next encounter with
globalization in Quebec. I was struck by the fact that, as they explained
themselves, when they came back to Chicago from Seattle they had been
somewhat at a loss about what to do next. As each successive summit
(Quebec, Genoa, Cancun) presented itself, they expected to be off to
confront the Powers That Be in a new location, leaving in suspended state
whatever beginnings they were nurturing in their local communities. So far
as an outsider like myself could discern, there did not seem to be a
long-term strategy directed toward creating an “otro mundo,” a
qualitatively new society.

This brings me to the forthcoming confrontation in Chicago in May. My wife
Alice and I were living in Chicago in 1968. I was arrested and briefly
jailed. Although many in the Movement considered the Chicago events to be a
great victory, I believe it is the consensus of historians that the
national perception of what happened in Chicago contributed to Nixon’s
victory in the November 1968 election. More important, as some of us
foresaw these predominantly Northern activists like their SNCC predecessors
appeared to have great difficulty in picking up again the slow work of
“accompanying” in local communities.

I dread the possibility of a re-run of this sequence of events in 2012.



More information about the Marxism mailing list