Mass Mobilization of the Working
Class — Not Small-Scale Street Fighting with Cops
by George Saunders
[This article is intended as a contribution to a discussion on the strategy and tactics of the “anti-globalization” movement — part of our magazine’s continuing coverage of this major development in world politics since Seattle, November 1999.]
In March this year the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN), based among the Mayan-speaking indigenous people of Chiapas, the southernmost state of Mexico, carried out an amazing mobilization.
The Zapatistas made an unarmed “march” on Mexico City, the capital. The Zapatistas mobilized an enormous force of nearly a million people in the Zocalo, the central square of Mexico City. There was no fighting with police. The guerrilla leaders ostentatiously put their weapons aside before they began their two-week-long cavalcade of mobilization from Chiapas in the south, through ten heavily indigenous states of Mexico, to the capital.
The Zapatistas demonstrated the tremendous power of mass mobilization — centered around an elementary democratic demand, a constitutional amendment that would recognize the equal rights of Mexico’s ten-plus million indigenous people.
The capitalist political parties that dominate Mexico’s parliament were forced by this mass mobilization to allow Zapatista leaders and the leaders of other indigenous peoples to address the national assembly, explaining their demands. And they were obliged to vote in a law recognizing indigenous rights, although it is a deceptive law and does not really respond to what the indigenous people are asking for.
But an enormous, virtually unstoppable social and political power was demonstrated.
There was no need for smashing store windows or burning
banks or for small elitist groups dressed in black to engage in street battles
with cops. (Those who dress in black are “elitist” in the sense that they
think their tactics are “more revolutionary” than mass mobilization, and
they insist on engaging in confrontational tactics regardless of what the
majority of participants think is in the best interest of building the
The power of the huge mass turnouts in support of the Zapatistas expressed the will of the vast majority. Now the onus is on the political parties of the small capitalist minority that dominates Mexico. If the basic democratic demands that seem eminently reasonable to the vast majority are not met, there is the potential for another, even more powerful mobilization — and this could lead to fundamental transformation of the system.
The tiny elite—the bankers, financiers, investors, big business wheeler-dealers, and their political spokespeople (including Mexico’s new president Fox)—stand exposed. They want the right to exploit the lands of Mexico’s indigenous peoples, to extract minerals and oil, to log their forests, to “develop” for a profit, to bring in tourist industry, and every possible kind of multinational cartel or chain store, from privatized water companies to Exxon, Coke, and McDonald’s — in other words, to keep pursuing the course of capitalist globalization.
They cannot tolerate allowing Mexico’s indigenous peoples to have democracy, to have autonomy, to have a say over the fate of their ancestral lands.
(It is true that the Fox government did not put up
fences and mobilize repressive forces to try to keep the Zapatistas out of the
Zocalo. But Fox
could not have opposed the march, or tried to forcibly prevent it, without
destroying the political support he had won in his recent election. The
Zapatista march came just three months after Fox’s inauguration. The
Zapatistas were aware of the mood in the country, the masses expecting the new
government to take steps to resolve the Chiapas problem, as it had promised to
do. Fox had repeatedly asserted that if he was elected, the problem could be
solved very quickly.)
Zapatistas recognized the moment as one in which a mass, legal, peaceful
demonstration could be carried out, showing the overwhelming support for their
demands. And they acted
The point is that the kind of method followed by the Zapatista leadership — the method of mass mobilization for demands that seem just and reasonable to most people at the present time and in the present situation — is the one that produces the maximum power against the tiny financial elite with their disproportionate control of wealth, power, and political, judicial, police, and military force. The Zapatistas consciously and avowedly opted NOT to engage in acts of violence.
the anti-globalization movement were to focus — as the Black Bloc elements
advocate—on property damage and street battles with cops, rather than to focus
on maximum mobilization of forces, that would be a self-defeating strategy. The
capitalist news media want to focus on “violence” and street battles. The
hard-working central organizers of the anti-globalization movement want to focus
on the issues and to build mass support.
Certainly the rulers engage in flagrantly antidemocratic tactics. And the impulse to counter with street fighting is perhaps understandable. They ring their gathering places with police, troops, and security zones. So that the tiny financial elite of the world (whether it be WTO, EU, FTAA, IMF, World Bank, G-7/G-8, or other) who make decisions affecting the lives of the vast majority, the rest of us, can hold their consultations undisturbed by the “great unwashed.”
(Bush claims that the anti-globalization movement “doesn’t represent the poor.” But the poor certainly weren’t invited for consultations at the Palazzo in Genoa. And did anyone see huge numbers of the poor parading anywhere in support of the G-8 and globalization?)
The answer to ruling class police power is not — as the theorists of the Black Bloc seem to think — to organize a dedicated few (even a few thousand) to try to break down the fences and fight the police. The key is to mobilize the vast majority: the working class and its natural allies, the youth, oppressed nationalities, undocumented immigrants, environmentalists, women, the gay/lesbian/bi/trans communities, and all others who require and seek fundamental social change.
This was how the Zapatistas addressed their constituency — the vast majority.
In his speech at the Zocalo, the Zapatistas’ spokesperson Marcos addressed the broad variety of people they consider their supporters:
“Brother, sister, indigenous person, worker, campesino, teacher, student, neighbor, housewife, truck driver, fisherman, taxi driver, stevedore, office worker, street vendor, unemployed person, media worker, professional worker, religious person, homosexual, lesbian, transsexual, artist, intellectual, militant, activist, sailor, soldier, sportsman, legislator, man, woman, child, young person, old person.”
When the force of the vast majority is mobilized there is no need for street battles with cops — or if such a need arises, it is dealt with like an elephant flicking away a fly. That’s how, in a most recent experience, the workers of Serbia, following up on a general strike, dealt with police trying to keep them from Milosevic’s national assembly building in Belgrade. With their immense power of numbers, a huge crowd of people, the mobilized workers, students, and their allies, swept into Belgrade and swept the old regime away. With hardly any deaths or injuries. (The same was true of the workers mobilizations in Russia in February/March 1917 that swept away the three-hundred-year-old Romanov dynasty, and again in October/November 1917, when workers rule replaced an unrepresentative capitalist government.)
It is right to protest the cruel and violent tactics of the police and the governments whose orders they follow. Recently the rulers have taken a turn toward more violent repression. This shows their fear of the growing anti-globalization movement. They have resorted to shooting and/or killing demonstrators — as in Göteborg, Sweden; Papua, New Guinea; and now, Genoa, Italy.
But the problem is bigger than just the fight against repression. We must address, appeal to, arouse all possible constituencies to mobilize and turn out in support of just demands meeting the needs of the world’s majority, the kinds of demands listed in the ICFTU call for a “Day of Action of the Workplaces of the World” against the WTO. (See elsewhere in this section of our web site.) And we must consciously help to bring forward the organized working class as the central and most powerful force in the fight for these demands, a force that can stop production and take over the productive capacity of modern society to use it for people, not profit. That is the method that can successfully lead to fundamental change, to victory over global capitalism.
From the information we have received, it seems that the Genoa Social Forum has been applying this kind of effective approach, seeking to mobilize maximum numbers in a wide-ranging coalition. The same seems to be true of the Europe-wide organization, ATTAC, which incidentally was also present at the World Social Forum hosted by the Workers Party government of Porto Alegre, Brazil, this past January. ATTAC was also present with the Zapatista caravan in March this year. (A helpful account of what ATTAC is and does is in Naomi Klein’s article about the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre; see the Nation, March 19, 2001, “A Fete for the End of the End of History.”)
In “Göteborg, Prelude to Bloodier Police Violence in Genoa,” we have posted on our web site a discussion of tactics and strategy of the anti-globalization movement, in an article by Jan Malewski from the July issue of International Viewpoint (IV), monthly publication of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International, the worldwide organization of revolutionary socialists and labor activists. This article specifically quotes the viewpoints of leaders of ATTAC and the Socialist Party of Sweden on building a broad base in peaceful, legal demonstrations as opposed to the street-fighting tactics of “those dressed in black.” The ATTAC point of view seems to be shared by the Genoa Social Forum, which stresses mass mobilization and opposes the use of violence by demonstrators.
The media in general has been forced to acknowledge the significance of the Genoa Social Forum, which they report as representing 700 different groups that came to that city to protest. Another article we have posted on our web site, provided to us by John Kirkland, describes the positive approach taken by the Genoa Social Forum — reaching out to mobilize striking young workers, urging them to “Go to Genoa!”
There have been persistent reports of police agents-provocateurs in Prague, Czechoslovakia, and in Barcelona, Spain, as well as other locations, dressing themselves up to look like demonstrators and committing violent acts in order to deliberately provoke police counter-violence. We have reprinted and posted similar reports coming from Genoa.
(As this is being written, on July 26, BBC news reports that
the authorities knew of a planned infiltration by extreme right-wingers into the
security forces before the Genoa demonstrations. Green Party Senator Francesco
Martone said he had been given confidential documents suggesting that fascist
groups infiltrated the police. An Italian police source told the
newspaper La Reppublica that the repressive operation was like
a “nightmare under Pinochet’s Chilean dictatorship.” He accused some of
his colleagues of behaving like fascists. He
said: “They lined them up and banged their heads against the walls. They
urinated on one person.”)
Certainly the powers-that-be find small-scale, isolated violence a convenient pretext for repression. They like to play up violent incidents in the media they control, seeking to discredit the mass movement in the public eye as “crazies” and “troublemakers.” In that way they can avoid the real issues — primarily, the undemocratic control of the world economy, control over the lives of the vast majority, by a tiny elite of the super-rich.
If the anticapitalist movement as a whole were to play into the hands of the ruling rich, to give them the pointless window breaking and street fighting that they are actually looking for, that would be a great folly.
Most of those who went to Genoa and similar locations since Seattle two years ago are simply seeking to exercise their democratic rights of assembly and free speech, to propose alternatives to capitalist globalization, to expose and express their opposition to the outrages and injustices of the capitalist system.
The mass movement needs to be able to defend its right to peaceful protest — including against small, disruptive (often police-infiltrated and police-directed) groups interested in “trashing” storefronts, street fighting, and so on. A lesson can be learned from the U.S. movement against the war in Vietnam, in which mass mobilization in peaceful demonstrations was protected by movement-trained marshals. Peaceful civil disobedience was set aside for specific locations. Those who wished to come and exercise their democratic rights, to express their views without fear of arrest, were reassured by this self-marshaling method.
Fred Halstead’s book Out Now: A Participant’s Account of the Anti-Vietnam War Movement gives a good description of how marshaling was organized. Halstead also describes the tremendous impact of the huge peaceful demonstrations that finally forced Washington to get out of Vietnam, in contrast to the frustrating and self-defeating “May Day” street fighting and “days of rage.”
The key to victory against capitalist globalization is
to keep the focus on mobilizing the broadest possible numbers, above all the
organized workers. That’s where the power is. Let’s keep our eyes on the
prize. And not be distracted by the capitalist media’s siren call, and the
capitalist political police’s machinations, trying to lure us into the trap of
premature confrontation. And let’s steer clear of the street-fighting fantasies — sometimes innocent,
sometimes confused, sometimes careless, sometimes malicious — of the wannabe
superhero “revolutionaries” dressed in black
A July 20 Reuters news report on the police killing of a demonstrator in Genoa ended with the following passage, which apparently seeks to play up disagreements between “anarchists” and those like the Genoa Social Forum who advocate mass mobilization.
“The marchers, united in opposition to the G8,
represented a range of causes. Some carried banners saying ‘People, Not
“In one square, anarchists fought protesters from one of the numerous peaceful groups that had descended on Genoa.
“About three miles east of the city center, some 2,000 anarchists tried to enter the headquarters of the Genoa Social Forum (GSF), an umbrella group for more than 700 anti-G8 organizations, a GSF leader said.
“‘We are here but there are no police and we are shut up inside,’ GSF member Carlo Schenone told Reuters.”
That was apparently just before the police raid on the GSF headquarters described in the report we have reprinted by the brother of the GSF spokesperson.