by Andrew Sernatinger
June 11, 2012
When the Occupy movement first surfaced in 2011, the socialist left seemed to be split on how to respond to it: what were socialist activists to make of this phenomena that seemed so familiar to veterans of the Global Justice movement but also new and different as well?
Pressing the issue, independent socialist Pham Binh emerged suddenly as a figure challenging the socialist left to jump in to Occupy. Binh’s provocative analysis has been the subject of much debate (and some flame), bringing together activist pragmatism with a somewhat unorthodox read of socialist theory and history.
Below we present an email interview with Binh in two parts, asking him to explain his thoughts on Occupy and the socialist left. We hope this will be a first of a number of “conversations on the left” for the Solidarity webzine. The links in the body of the article are provided by the interviewee. -AS
In 2011 your articles about Occupy, socialism and building an American left started to circulate, first on the Australian online magazine Links and quickly finding its way to US and Canadian websites and publications. Tell us a little about yourself: how did you get started writing about left politics in this way?
“Occupy and the Tasks of Socialists” was born of my frustration with the socialist left’s reaction to Occupy’s explosion nationally and globally.
I did not sleep in Zuccotti Park but I spent 1-2 hours there every weekday from September 17 to November 15. What I saw with my own eyes clashed sharply with the consensus that emerged on the socialist left regarding Occupy Wall Street’s (OWS) alleged shortcomings: no demands, “pro-cop” stance, prefigurationism, autonomy, horizontalism, leaderlessness, and anarchism more generally. The socialist left found Occupy guilty of not measuring up to an abstract and arbitrary ideal height or width and completely missing its third dimension – depth – as well as the totality of the Occupy process, its motion, its complexity, and the tensions within it that drove it forward and gave it such tremendous vitality and color.
Occupy was inspired and inspiring while the socialist left’s discussion of it was the just opposite.
I was taken aback by the absence of socialist organizations from the Zuccotti Park occupation. They initially saw the encampment as a hopelessly utopian experiment driven by “foolish” yearnings to “be the change you want to see,” a “silly diversion” from “mass action” by workers and oppressed people; that is, until the encampment became a springboard for the action of the masses. Then the socialist left became the encampment tactic’s belated champions, although they never attempted to play a significant role in the Zuccotti Park occupation itself, choosing instead to send handfuls of people into fewer than 5 working groups out of a total of 50 or more.
I figured that socialist organizations, their publications and intellectuals, would begin discussing the historic opportunities and challenges Occupy put before us all once it took off nationally. When this did not happen by mid-November, I took it upon myself to get that ball rolling and submitted Tasks to the journal Links. Since then, there has been little in-depth or rigorous materialist analysis of Occupy’s political character, origins, and organizational forms and no substantive and specific discussion of what the socialist left as a whole should do about it, so I failed in my aim. This failure reinforced my conviction that our movement, the socialist movement, has to confront and overcome its own problems if we want to play a role in overcoming Occupy’s problems.
You’ve written a number of essays for and about the Occupy movement since it sprung to life last September. Where did Occupy come from and why do you think that it is important?
Occupy came from the accumulated political experience of the activist cadre formed through the battles of and after Seattle, the defeat of the 2002-2003 anti-war movement, the nightmarish Bush years, the 2006 undocumented worker upsurge, the forgotten 2008 anti-bailout protests, the Obama betrayals, the 2011 defeats in Wisconsin and Bloombergville and victories in Tunisia and Egypt. Generally, this layer of people range from 25 to 35 years of age and as a result of their experience they came to the following conclusion: protest does not work; we have to occupy.
The immediate predecessor of OWS was Bloombergville, an attempt to create modern-day Hoovervilles in reaction to Mayor Bloomberg’s draconian budget cuts. It was a dry run for OWS; there was a people’s library, a kitchen, all the elements that later appeared in Zuccotti Park. What they did not have was public support. People in the city were not seething at the mayor. That changed radically once the same tactics were directed at Wall Street.
I think Occupy is important because it heralds the rebirth of American radicalism. Not since the 1960s have so many taken action against the state and capital. The Occupy generation will be the key factor in radical politics in this decade. The American socialist left’s future (if it has one) is tied to the activist cadre that Occupy is shaping.
Talk a little about how the movement has progressed. It seemed like things shifted quickly from Occupy Wall Street as the focus in New York City to the port actions on the West Coast, namely in California’s Bay Area and in Washington State around Seattle and Longview. In your opinion, what does all this mean?
As more than a movement and less than a revolution, Occupy’s flashpoints shifted rapidly. Every occupation was local and the shifts reflected Occupy’s convergence with local populations which proved volatile due to their long-standing grievances with the Oakland Police Department’s brutality and grain behemoth EGT’s determination to break the ILWU at its Longview, WA port. Occupy’s decentralized, horizontal nature meant that these local conflicts occurred in an asynchronous way, so first one locality and then another became the central battle when viewed from a national perspective. Students of the 1918-1919 revolution in Germany might recognize a familiar pattern in that.
The flashpoint shift from New York City to the West Coast was due to the Oakland Police Department’s repression nearly killed Iraq veteran Scott Olsen on October 25, an act that Occupy Oakland replied to by calling a general strike on November 2. They dared to go where Wisconsin would not.
In general, the radical and sometimes adventurist (usually mislabeled by the socialist left as “ultra left” and “substitutionist”) trends are much stronger out on the West Coast than on the East Coast. This contributed overall to more confrontational actions and militancy by Occupy on the West Coast; on the East Coast, problems involving the Black Bloc have been almost non-existent. The ongoing strength and militancy of the West Coast’s longshoremen, janitors, nurses, students (specifically California), and probably underpins this discrepancy between the coasts in how forcefully Occupy manifested itself.
Where is the Occupy movement going now, especially with general elections on the horizon? David Graeber, the anarchist anthropologist, has shrugged off concerns that the movement is toast now that the camps are gone saying instead, “Occupy is shedding its liberal accretions and rapidly turning into something with much deeper roots.” Thoughts?
People have been concerned that Occupy was toast before it even went into the toaster because of alleged difficulties such as the lack of demands, ideology, or agreed-upon political strategy; then Occupy was too middle class, white, straight, and male to gain traction with workers, women, LGBTs; and now it’s the evictions. Occupy is anything but a one-trick pony, unlike the summit-centric global justice movement of 1999-2001 that many socialists have one-sidedly compared Occupy to.
In terms of where Occupy is going, the difficulty lies in thinking of it as a definite thing with a definite direction. It’s everywhere and nowhere all at once. Occupiers now work closely with previously existing campaigns and organizations in addition to launching their own. There are new activist initiatives in neighborhoods and workplaces that do not call themselves Occupy, are not formally linked to it, but are nonetheless inspired by it and would not exist without Occupy’s example. These are some of the “deeper roots” comrade Graeber is talking about and he’s right.
The evictions forcibly decentralized Occupy and, to a certain extent, separated the component parts of the encampments. No more one-stop shopping. Direct action, traditional protest marches, discussion circles, study groups, activist training, the people’s library, mutual aid, literature and newspaper creation, organic gardening, General Assemblies, and spiritual activities take place mostly separately from one another.
In terms of the 2012 elections, generation Occupy (or the Occupy milieu) does not really give a damn about them the way they did in 2004 and 2008, hence the emphasis on direct as opposed to representative democracy. Obama and his fundraisers have been targets of Occupy’s joyous brand of fury from its inception because of his tight relationship with Wall Street, his unremitting attacks on civil liberties, and because Occupy’s revolutionary-utopian impulse is much stronger than its liberal-reformist impulse as Graeber correctly pointed out. The most popular chants at NYC’s historic May 1 rally in Union Square were “a, anti, anticapitalista!” and “wake up America, we need a revolution!” People don’t have a Marxist strategy or vision for that, but that revolutionary sentiment is strong and will not bend or break under the weight of the Romnephobia that the Obama campaign will rely on to blackmail voters into turning out on election day.
The only way to really block Occupy from being co-opted or dissipating as the 1960s movement did in the 1970s is to link it with the existing electoral initiatives that are independent of Democratic Party control, meaning linking Occupy with the Green Party, the Justice Party, the Peace and Freedom Party, and the handful of socialists groups that have ballot access, and even the Working Families Party which occasionally runs independent candidates. These elements have the potential to cohere into an American version of SYRIZA, a coalition rooted in existing struggles and initiatives that will of course be ideologically heterogeneous, but it’s up to us socialists to take the initiative, bind those elements together, and try move with them towards engineering a break with the Democratic Party because it will not happen automatically nor because we “win the argument” about the Democratic Party.
13 responses to “Occupy and Socialism: Interview with Pham Binh (Part I)”
David: I’m not sure if OLA has a labor outreach committee. I would be interested in meeting you at the Summer School and learning about your work in New York.
I just watched the PBS special on the NWA Union and as someone out of a job too it made me realize that the only way we will ever see a solution to the outsourcing of jobs, ridding ourselves of the CEO’s of big corporations is to have a universal strike, where every blue collar worker went on strike leaving the CEO’s, CFO’s, and all those like them to fend for themselves, let them see who really keeps their perspective corporations running, not that I believe this type of organization possible. However if it would happen, it need not last very long because if every worker went on strike everything would stop, goods would not come either in or go out, offices would be empty and no work would be done anywhere, grocery stores will have to close, deliveries would stop, oil plants would not produce, goods would not be produced, literally everything would stop until negotiations and demands are met. This would definately have positive effects for those of us who truely keep this country and others running, The CEO’s and their minions would be scrambling to meet the demands of the workers on a large scale and very quickly. And wouldn’t it be nice if this happened during an election year. We as workers have the power to make changes but we have to be committed to do this all in unison and sadly I don’t see this ever happening, how would we get that many people to organize and get the word out for everyone to walk out on their jobs on a specific day and stay out until demands are met?
So we muddle through and the CEO’s keep getting richer and the workers who keep them in their position of power will continue to keep their boots firmly planted on the workers necks, choking out our livelihood and destroying families.
I’m a socialist and I’ve been working in Occupy since November and I haven’t run across either of you (though I have corresponded with Binh). Which is not to question either of your credentials but to say that equating adequate leftist involvement in Occupy with involvement in the labor working group is exactly the narrowness of vision that I think Binh is talking about. At the ground level this is a lot of small movements potentially going the same way together.
It’s great that Occupy has developed relationships with labor: May Day, Foley Square, the labor march. These are great: those events were great. But this is a small percentage of what Occupy does. My own involvement has been mostly, but not entirely, in a neighborhood assembly. Almost all the Occupy meetings and assemblies I’ve been to have been fertile ground for people raising revolutionary ideas. There are ideas and perspectives competing for leadership in all sorts of struggles: around schools, around cop violence, around racism, around rejecting alliances with politicians, around what kind of movement Occupy can be. These are people hungry for political discussion, for strategizing, for figuring out what to do next. There are anti-Leftists engaged in these arguments, as well as lots of minds in motion. Revolutionaries should be engaged, and at down and dirty levels of organizing.
Occupy groups might be smaller now but they are more intense. If you think it’s only about working with labor you’re doing the movement a disservice.
David Berger: “My question is: Why wouldn’t you deal with Occupy’s relationship to unions?”
Pham Binh: Been there, done that:
David Berger: I have reread your article in North Star. I think it might be possible to be more wrong on the issue of Occupy’s relationship to the unions, but you’d have to work at it. Without getting into quotes, let me just point out that when, in the latter part of April, you were discussing the call for a general strike, the 4 x 4 Committee in New York (so-called because there were 4 elements to the May March represented: the unions, the immigrant rights organizations, May Day organizers from former years and OWS, each element with 4 representatives), had unequivocally rejected such a call. The use of the slogan “A Day Without the 99%” was purely rhetorical. The May Day march was scheduled to start in the late afternoon so workers could participate after work.
David Berger: “It is a matter that understanding that for movements like Occupy or the antiwar movement, to grow and succeed beyond a certain point, they must have a relationship with the working class.”
Pham Binh: Occupy’s relationship to the working class is far better and stronger than the socialist left’s. When was the last time a union bureaucrat sought our support for anything?
David Berger: In one of my other posts here, I indicated that you are consistently confused when you discuss the working class, organized and unorganized, OWS and the socialist left. And you continue to be so confused. The relationship between Occupy and the working class can be considered abstractly, but it is also a concrete set of relationships between groups and individuals. You have completely failed to examine these relationships and, therefore, you have only the vaguest idea of what has been going on and developing over the past 9 months.
David Berger: “… unions were involved with Occupy Wall Street from the beginning. Union demonstrators were present at Zuccotti Park within the first ten days of OWS. In fact, unions reached out to OWS before OWS reached out to unions. The Labor Outeach Committee was formed, I think, in late September. The first attempted eviction by Mayor Bloomberg was thwarted by union members.”
Pham Binh: You’ll have to double-check with Jackie Disalvo who started the labor working group on all of that. OWS was taking action in solidarity with the art handlers under her leadership within week one of the encampment: http://www.counterpunch.org/2011/09/23/executioners-in-the-suites/
David Berger: In terms of chronology, you may be right. Considering that Jackie and I exchange emails daily, and I’ll see her tonight (June 19th) at the Labor Outreach Committee meeting (6 PM, Atrium, 60 Wall Street, all welcome), I’ll check it out. However, nothing you have said contradicts what I posted. There were CWA demonstrators in Zuccotti very early on.
David Berger: “I strongly suggest that you start attending some Labor Outreach Committee meetings or meetings of the OWS Labor Alliance. Every Tuesday, Atrium of 60 Wall Street, 6:30.”
Pham Binh: And add another red to the OWS red ghetto? No thanks.
David Berger: Your ignorance of socialist politics in and out of OWS is stupifying. You are referring to exactly the place where labor, organized and unorganized, OWS and the socialist left come together for concrete work as a “red ghetto.” Well, Comrade, if that’s our attitude, by all means, stay away.
By the way, for anyone who wants to read one of the lamest socialist pamphlets written in recent years, try “Capaitalis Or Common Sense” by POham Binh.
“My question is: Why wouldn’t you deal with Occupy’s relationship to unions?”
Been there, done that:
“It is a matter that understanding that for movements like Occupy or the antiwar movement, to grow and succeed beyond a certain point, they must have a relationship with the working class.”
Occupy’s relationship to the working class is far better and stronger than the socialist left’s. When was the last time a union bureaucrat sought our support for anything?
“… unions were involved with Occupy Wall Street from the beginning. Union demonstrators were present at Zuccotti Park within the first ten days of OWS. In fact, unions reached out to OWS before OWS reached out to unions. The Labor Outeach Committee was formed, I think, in late September. The first attempted eviction by Mayor Bloomberg was thwarted by union members.”
You’ll have to double-check with Jackie Disalvo who started the labor working group on all of that. OWS was taking action in solidarity with the art handlers under her leadership within week one of the encampment: http://www.counterpunch.org/2011/09/23/executioners-in-the-suites/
“I strongly suggest that you start attending some Labor Outreach Committee meetings or meetings of the OWS Labor Alliance. Every Tuesday, Atrium of 60 Wall Street, 6:30.”
And add another red to the OWS red ghetto? No thanks.
Great and relevant piece: http://www.thenorthstar.info/?p=957
Pham Binh: Of course I didn’t see fit to mention the Labor Outreach Committee. That was never my area of focus, so why would I? I responded to the questions posed, none of which touched on Occupy’s relationship to unions.
David Berger: Cute but no cigar, Pham. My question is: Why wouldn’t you deal with Occupy’s relationship to unions? The essential socialist message to the Occupy movement is to form a relationship to the working class, which means, often, the unions.
Pham Binh: This so-called criticism is exactly the kind of thing I was talking about about the socialist left finding everything and everyone falling short of some abstract artificial ideal height.
David Berger: To me, this statement indicates that you do not understand the nature of the “socialist left.” It is not a matter of “some abstract artificial ideal height.” It is a matter that understanding that for movements like Occupy or the antiwar movement, to grow and succeed beyond a certain point, they must have a relationship with the working class.
Pham Binh: Occupy was never all or mostly about the unions; if it was, we’d see tons of occupiers canvassing for Obama as union members canvassed for Barrett in Wisconsin just recently.
David Berger: Cute but no cigar, Pham. No one, myself included, has ever said Occupy was “all or mostly about the unions.” However, unions were involved with Occupy Wall Street from the beginning. Union demonstrators were present at Zuccotti Park within the first ten days of OWS. In fact, unions reached out to OWS before OWS reached out to unions. The Labor Outeach Committee was formed, I think, in late September. The first attempted eviction by Mayor Bloomberg was thwarted by union members.
And, as for canvassing for Obama, if you want to get into a debate on the development of the recall in Wisconsin and its relationship to the rank and file of the Wisconsin protests in the winter of 2011, the labor bureaucracy and the local and national Democratic Party, by all means. But to make a smarmy remark like “we’d see tons of occupiers canvassing for Obama as union members canvassed for Barrett in Wisconsin,” is to distort what actually happened.
Pham Binh: The funny thing about the Working Families Party is they actually run people against the Democratic Party now and again. When was the last time labor did that, or backed a left candidate running against a Democrat?
David Berger: And an even funnier thing is that it mostly overlaps with the Democratic Party. There have been many groups like this before in New York: the Liberal Party being the most prominent. Their purpose is to keep groups who might otherwise start running candidates against the Democrats systematically within the fold.
Pham Binh: Let’s see how many New York City unions endorse a Labor Outreach Committee statement refusing to endorse Obama in 2012. I won’t hold my breath.
David Berger: Let’s see how long it takes for you to be able to unravel the complex relationships between the working class, organized labor, a radical movement like Occupy, the Democrats, etc. Your remarks on the working Families Party show that it might take a long time. I strongly suggest that you start attending some Labor Outreach Committee meetings or meetings of the OWS Labor Alliance. Every Tuesday, Atrium of 60 Wall Street, 6:30.
Binh, the socialist discussion group within Occupy Newton NJ will be discussing your “Occupy and the Tasks of Socialists” later this summer, probably in August. I hope you can come out and lead the discussion. I’m on FB, and Occupy Newton also has a Facebook page.
I agree with a lot of Binh’s arguments criticizing the left’s response to the Occupy movement. There were several socialist groups that were involved from the beginning, but I agree, the response was, on the whole, lukewarm. I think that a discussion should be held on the Black Bloc, as mass working class struggle cannot be replaced by those primed for head-on conflict. That being said, civil disobedience-style direct action should always be supported by socialists.
The last paragraph of this interview stuck out particurally, the call for a united left coalition. In 2010, the Peace and Freedom Party of California did actually form a national electoral coalition featuring, among others, the Freedom Socialist Party, the Party for Socialism and Liberation, and the California PFP as voting members and the Justice Party as observers. This is truly a landmark coalition in that it could one day form a national anti-capitalist coalition. This is what prompted me to join the coalition as the representative of Unite Left! (www.uniteleft.com), a Poughkeepsie, NY based socialist organization. However, I disagree with Binh’s assertion that socialists have a responsibility to form an alliance with the Greens, the WFP, and the Justice Party. Even as observers, the Justice Party has excercized outsized influence on the Alliance and is actively pushing its reformist, pro-capitalist agenda. They are, effectively, attempting to turn the Peace and Freedom Alliance into a branch of its own organization and the New Progressive Alliance. For supporters of Occupy to back a political party, it must be an party that we can truly say holds the interests of working people over political expediency. If socialists throw together a hap-hazard coalition of reformists, this coalition will ultimatly be no better than the the Democrats and Republicans, the twin parties of capitalism. And this is precisely what may ultimatly lead to the downfall of Syriza in Greece.
I believe it is important for socialists to involve themselves in Occupy to the fullest extent and to work on uniting Occupy activism, labor unionism, and independent, anti-capitalist political action.
You mentioned Sotheby’s and OWS: let me announce then that the Teamsters settled around June 1. It wasn’t a complete victory but the role of OWS, mainly the OWS Labor Outreach Committee, was clear to the workers, Sotheby’s and OWS. Here are two articles about the settlement: from Labor Notes and Crain’s.
Of course I didn’t see fit to mention the Labor Outreach Committee. That was never my area of focus, so why would I? I responded to the questions posed, none of which touched on Occupy’s relationship to unions.
This so-called criticism is exactly the kind of thing I was talking about about the socialist left finding everything and everyone falling short of some abstract artificial ideal height. Occupy was never all or mostly about the unions; if it was, we’d see tons of occupiers canvassing for Obama as union members canvassed for Barrett in Wisconsin just recently.
The funny thing about the Working Families Party is they actually run people against the Democratic Party now and again. When was the last time labor did that, or backed a left candidate running against a Democrat?
Let’s see how many New York City unions endorse a Labor Outreach Committee statement refusing to endorse Obama in 2012. I won’t hold my breath.
I put together this interview and I’m sorry to hear you’re disappointed, but I think you’re writing this off a little too quickly. First, I would (and did) acknowledge that there are mixed reactions to Binh’s ideas–maybe he would be interested in responding. I don’t actually agree with many of the particulars of Binh’s perspective, but it seems to me that a lot of the socialist left has had trouble really coming to grips with OWS, where the tendency has been to either pick and choose parts of Occupy that one likes, or to accept the movement almost at face value, ditching a lot of socialist ideas and orientations. What I see Binh doing is finding a way to engage with the movement while speaking a language of socialism and making some connections. Agree or disagree, I think this is an important discussion to pay attention to.
That said, I don’t take an interview as being automatically uncritical just because I didn’t grill him–I don’t mean to put words in your mouth, but that would seem uncomradely to start from a point of disagreement. In part, I think readers should be exposed and read this argument on its own terms, think about it and have discussions in available forums (of which this seems a good example).
On the subject of differences, a number of our Solidarity comrades have rooted themselves in Occupy’s labor committees, which I think played a very important role (as you said) and Binh does not mention this in his responses. (There are two articles I see in the immediate about OWS and Sotheby’s on our site [ http://www.solidarity-us.org/site/node/3477 and http://www.solidarity-us.org/site/node/3457 ].) My own opinion is that there is a very interesting dynamic interaction between Occupy and organized labor, though it’s also been a strained relationship and something we need to discuss more. Occupy on the West Coast did not have the same positive relationship as in New York City, though the movement is of course in a different place there.
While there are only so many socialists and you need to pick where to be, I think Binh is more or less right in saying that the pattern seems to be that socialists have really only been involved in a small portion of OWS (at least, when it had camps)–whether this is a good or a bad thing is again up for debate: the labor works seems to have been crucial, giving an anchor to OWS early on, with much needed support to keep the camp going, but that work is not visible in the same ways that a lot of the anarchists have been.
Anyway, I hope that clears things up some and smooths things over some.
It is unfortunate that Solidarity has chosen to uncritically interview Pham Binh.
I have been involved with Occupy Wall Street in New York from early October on and have been an active member of the OWS Labor Outreach Committee for almost as long. This group, in which many socialists are participating (I being one of them) has been working on the interface between the Occupy Movement and the Labor Movement now for about 9 months, but Comrade Binh doesn’t see fit to mention it. This committee, in the past few months, has organized all the labor-oriented groups in OWS into the OWS Labor Alliance. It played a vital role in organizing the huge May Day march: orchestrating an alliance between labor, immigrant groups, groups from previous May Days and OWS itself.
This isn’t surprising though that Binh spends more time on the Working Families Party, a Democratic Party front basically, than on labor. He wrote a pamphlet on socialism for “Occupy Wall Street Class Camp,” which manages, while discussion strategy, not to mention unions. Nor, I notice, does he mention them in this interview.
His view unfortunately, in my opinion, is basically that of a nonparticipant in the most vital work going on in the Occupy movement.