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Theory and Practice in Occupy

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For a movement that started with one strategy and a couple of slogans, Occupy has preformed brilliantly. Having based itself on the examples of Egypt and Wisconsin, the Occupy Movement has raised the political consciousness of millions and created a large layer of new activists. But the uninterrupted string of successes of Egypt and Tunisia haven't materialized for Occupy. We're in a lull period. Next steps are being considered and some tactics are being re-thought.

This is where revolutionary theory comes into play: a set of ideas that help guide action. Sometimes theory is learned unconsciously, where it resembles a set of non-ideological "assumptions" about movement building and politics. Occupy's theory began mostly with assumptions, many of them true.

One assumption was that previous political theories have failed -- that past social movements contained deep ideological flaws. There is more than some truth in these conclusions, but other truths were thrown out as well.

The youth who built Occupy were born as the Berlin Wall was falling; "communism" had failed. Mass disillusion followed the loss of a socialist movement that had inspired dozens of revolutions in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and Europe when half the globe declared itself for "socialism." Many socialist-leaning countries inflicted heavy damage on capitalism while a few had crushed it outright.

The United States spent the 20th century fighting these movements: the Korean and Vietnam wars, the failed invasion of Cuba, the dirty wars in Central America, countless CIA coups in South America, Africa, Asia and elsewhere (the history of the CIA is a history of fighting "socialism" by any means necessary). A U.S. domestic war was waged by the FBI and police against socialists and other left activists during McCarthy's Red Scare of the 1950s. Nuclear war against the USSR and China was a button push away during the Cuban Missile Crisis. All of this madness was in the name of fighting socialism and revolution.

The U.S. wars against these socialist movements was not irrational. A very real fear existed that capitalism was in danger -- that corporations would instead be run in the public interest. In some countries capitalism was destroyed. But what replaced it seemed no better, and in some cases worse. Why? The popular (corporate) explanation is that any break from capitalism equals "authoritarianism." Another popular argument is that without rich people running the economy it would cease to run; there is no alternative to capitalism, we were told.

This analysis is biased, shallow, and stupid. The truth makes far more sense anyway.

To this day no wealthy country has had a successful socialist revolution. Many have come close, especially several European countries before and after WWI and WWII. The 1968 general strike in France pinned capitalism to the floor, but its life was spared; corporations were allowed to continue to run social life, the super-rich remained so.

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Real socialism cannot exist in a poor country. If Haiti implemented a "socialist" economy tomorrow it would still suffer under post-earthquake rubble, mass homelessness and life-sucking poverty. A "healthy democracy" cannot exist in these conditions. A socialist economy cannot transform mud into gold.

But capitalism took centuries to transform poor countries into rich ones, and even today a tiny minority of rich countries dominate a hundred plus poor capitalist nations. Poor capitalist countries -- like their poor socialist counterparts -- suffer from a chronic democracy deficit, forever destined to remain poor.

If Haiti were to leave capitalism, however, it would be allowed to escape the profit motive of development; items could be built with social need in mind, not simply profit. China and Russia were able to develop into powerful countries by escaping capitalism. Eventually, however, their undemocratic leaders decided to give capitalism a second chance; these leaders wanted to exchange their bureaucratic privileges --access to better food and nicer cars, etc. -- for the billions of dollars that come with ownership rights (it's no coincidence that China and Russia are #2 and #3 on the "nations with the most billionaires" list).

Occupy is right not to embrace the fake socialism of the past, undemocratic as it was. But past socialist experiments contained progressive elements that shouldn't be forgotten.

For example, revolutionaries learned that they could not let a tiny group of super-rich shareholders own and run giant corporations that employed thousands of workers and made socially useful goods. Instead, these companies could be made into public utilities, run by the workers, engineers, and office staff that already do all the work for the benefit of society in general.

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Revolutionaries also learned that organization and collective action was instrumental in overcoming the organized opposition of the rich. Capitalism can only be overthrown by a real revolution that draws into action the majority of working people, using the tactics of mass demonstrations, mass strikes, mass civil disobedience, and other mass actions that help to give shape, organization, and unity to working people. Once a powerful and united movement emerges, it must ultimately challenge the corporate elite nationally, which means wresting the levers of state power from their hands and using new organizational methods to make the post-revolutionary country more democratic.

How have these lessons been ignored by Occupy?

In reaction to the non-democratic USSR, Occupy eschews "centralization" in favor of "decentralization." Instead of decentralization simply meaning "democracy," in practice it often means "disorganization" and extreme individualism. Any powerful social movement must inevitably be organized; and although Occupy seems to realize this with its useful experiments in direct democracy, the movement as a whole remains incredibly disorganized and uncoordinated.

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Shamus Cooke is a social service worker, trade unionist, and writer for Workers Action (www.workerscompass.org)

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