Lessons From the RNC: Mass Mobilization and Militant Actions Advance the Struggle

by Freedom Road Socialist Organization

The Republican National Convention brought many of the biggest war-makers to Minnesota. The people’s movements from across the U.S. responded by organizing four days of demonstrations against the RNC. Freedom Road Socialist Organization prioritized organizing against the RNC and helped build multiple days of protest including the mass anti-war march of 30-35,000 people on September 1st and the “No Peace for the Warmakers” militant march turned civil disobedience on September 4th.

We saw the RNC as a chance to unite the anti war movement under the slogan “U.S. out of Iraq Now” and to build a broad united front against the Republican agenda. By any standard the powerful protests that rocked St. Paul were a blow against the rulers of this county.

For progressive and revolutionary organizations the RNC served as a sort of test. Many, from a variety of political trends – ranging from Marxist-Leninists to anarchists – passed this test with banners raised and flying colors. They stepped up to the plate, organizing a historic response to the Republican agenda of war, racism, and reaction.

However Socialist Alternative, a Trotskyist organization which is based in Washington state and the Twin Cities, took a different approach to the RNC. Their approach did not prioritize building for a large national demonstration or for militant action. In their summation of the RNC in their newspaper, entitled, “Protests and Police Repression Mark the Republican National Convention – Thousands Take to the Streets Against War and the Right Wing Agenda” they claim to have made the most of historic events which they in fact did little or nothing to contribute to. They also focus their summation on attacking the anarchist oriented RNC Welcoming Committee for their blockade strategy and on criticizing militant action in general.

We in FRSO generally don’t spend a lot of time criticizing other organizations but sometimes it has to be done – the RNC was a very important event for our movement locally and nationally, so there is a need to respond to Socialist Alternative’s criticisms of militant action at the RNC.

Are the Masses Ready for Militancy?

Leading up to the RNC our analysis was that the anti-war movement needed more militant actions in addition to legal demonstrations to further develop the anti-war movement.

On September 4th, over 2,000 people came to the Anti-War Committee’s No Peace for the War -Makers demonstration and over 1000 took to the streets to march to the Xcel Center despite the refusal of a militarized police force to allow them to go more than a block from the state capitol. 396 people were arrested for “illegal assembly” after marching and holding the streets for more than three hours in defiance of the huge and intimidating riot police presence and their repeated orders to disperse. Every local TV station that covered John McCain’s acceptance speech at the RNC also covered the anti-war movement’s counter message outside the Xcel Center. The majority of protesters at the demonstration were young people many of whom had not been to protests before.

All in all, the September 4 march was a powerful experience that was invigorating and motivating. This demonstration has inspired both the local and national anti-war movement, and has led to even more people being willing to consider doing civil disobedience and direct action against the war in Iraq. We see this as a success and a real accomplishment.

However, Socialist Alternative’s assessment was the opposite. They argued against militant action on the ground and actively discouraged people from participating in the demonstration on September 4th. In fact they echoed the city government and waged a mini campaign to create a climate of fear about the protest.

In their summation article, they claimed that people are not yet ready for mass militant action, stating “While there are thousands of activists, particularly among the youth, who understand the illegitimacy of the RNC – and of the entire capitalist system for that matter – socialists must argue against moods of impatience. We will not be able to successfully take on and defeat the capitalist system and its state forces until the majority of the working class supports this effort, and is organized to carry it forward. For anti-capitalist activists today, our main task is not to substitute ourselves for the lack of sufficient forces, nor is it to try and artificially “spark” wider layers into action.”

Socialist Alternative’s approach is that we should wait until a critical mass of people is ready to stand up before taking any action outside the highly constricted bounds of legally permitted protests. This approach is mechanical, creating an artificial separation on the spectrum of protest tactics. It is a rightist error. There is in fact a dialectical relationship between legal and advanced tactics as the movements grow. Many people are ready to take direct action now and their actions can inspire others. This is not a call for adventurist actions – it is a recognition that increasing the level of militancy of the movement is a good thing. It gives people more advanced experience in confronting the powers that be, it can raise the political costs of the ruling class’s wars, and has the potential to inspire broader layers of people to move forward.

It is simply not logical to argue that people will somehow be ready to take more militant actions at some undetermined point in the future if they have never taken them, led them, or seen others use militant tactics.

Socialist Alternative wrongly thinks that demonstrations like September 4th alienate the working class, but in reality a new generation of activists and older activists who have not been active since the wars in Central America were inspired by this demonstration. Broad numbers of people who saw it on the news sympathized with the protesters and were shocked at the riot police’s use of teargas and mass arrests. Socialist Alternative fails to recognize that a future militant mass movement will grow out of today’s relatively smaller actions where we gain experience confronting the enemy. Besides, 818 people being arrested over four days at the RNC is not a small, isolated group of people.

Instead of helping to broadly build the overall RNC protest movement, Socialist Alternative choose to put most of their efforts into organizing a student walkout demonstration of about 200 people on September 4. This small action began before the Anti-War Committee demonstration. While it was supposed to originally end at the AWC demonstration, Socialist Alternative instead changed their plans and decided to march to a peace picnic on the other side of St. Paul so that their supporters would not have the opportunity to participate in or to be exposed to militant action. Although Socialist Alternative claims that they support revolution, they apparently want nothing to do with anyone taking any political action outside of the laws established by the very two-party system they claim to oppose. We think Socialist Alternative made a mistake in disassociating from the No Peace for the Warmakers march on Day 4 of the RNC and instead leading a smaller, much less significant march at a different time of the day.

Criticizing the RNC Welcoming Committee While the State Attacks Them

Though most of the end of Socialist Alternative’s summation article discusses the negatives of militant action in general, they have very specific criticisms of the RNC Welcoming Committee (WC). Although they claim to support the members of the Welcoming Committee who are up on terrorism charges and possibly face more than seven years in jail, they use their website and newspaper to denounce their work and to further the criticisms against the Welcoming Committee in one of their darkest hours.

Socialist Alternatives article says, “While Socialist Alternative completely opposes the police repression against them, we do not agree with the politics and methods used by the Welcoming Committee. Rather than focusing on bringing fresh layers of workers and youth into political action, virtually all the mobilizing material produced by the Welcoming Committee was aimed at a very narrow layer of already convinced anarchists and anti-capitalists. They put forward the perspective that this narrow activist layer was a sufficient social base to organize mass blockades to shut down the RNC. However, the blockades tactic appears to have attracted relatively small numbers and caused only minor disruptions for RNC delegates.”

Unfortunately, Socialist Alternative ‘s decision to air their grievances with the Welcoming Committee’s strategy only serves the interests of the government who every day attempts to isolate the RNC 8 from the community support they so vitally need to defeat the incredibly serious and outrageous charges against them. We think Socialist Alternative’s attempt to portray the WC as isolated at the moment they most deeply need support is unprincipled and shows that Socialist Alternative does not understand true solidarity. While FRSO did not choose to use the blockade strategy that the Welcoming Committee did, we believe like Mao said, “it’s right to rebel against reactionaries.” We think that militant action is positive and creates more space for a broader resistance movement to develop out of the current protest movements. We support not only the RNC 8 but their use of the blockade strategy and their mobilization of militant activists from around the country to come to the RNC.

Socialist Alternative makes it seem like there’s something wrong with the WC having decided to specifically mobilize anarchists to come to the Twin Cities to disrupt the RNC. There is a substantial scene of young anarchists around the country – the WC did a good thing by focusing that scene’s energy on disrupting the biggest warmakers on the planet.

The RNC Welcoming Committee was an important part of the broad movement that was built against the RNC. We believe that the events on September 1-4 as a whole will move the movement forward politically and that this is because of – not despite – the militant actions organized by groups like the RNC Welcoming Committee and the Anti-War Committee.

Trotskyism = Idealism

Socialist Alternative’s errors are rooted in a wrong ideological and political line. Trotskyism, unlike Marxism-Leninism, supports an idealist (as opposed to materialist) view of revolution and the world. Socialist Alternative does not correctly analyze the events surrounding the RNC because they are not looking at the situation with an eye to what is possible and where we can realistically go. Rather than concretely analyzing the objective and subjective conditions and the balance of forces to figure out what to do, they rely on unchanging formulas to respond to any situation that comes up, like in this case saying that no one should do any unpermitted protest activities until the majority of workers support that. But how will we ever build support among workers for a more militant movement if nobody ever starts to take more militant actions that will become a social question that is debated and struggled about?

Marxism isn’t about repeating pat formulaic approaches. Marxists need to learn the art and science of analyzing concrete conditions in their particularity and figuring out how to move things forward from there step-by-step. This applies in the day-to-day struggle right now. And it will be vital in making a revolution in the U.S.

Trotskyists of the Socialist Alternative type try to substitute reality for their “good ideas,” and if reality does not conform to their good ideas, then they get mad at reality and retreat off to “peace picnics.”

They want perfect revolutions, revolutions that are led by folks that happen to think like them, to fall from the sky. They think they can wait until that perfect moment to suddenly flip a magic switch and encourage their supporters to rebel when they have not built the capacity to do so over time in the mass struggle. No revolution has been built through that manner. It’s no surprise that no Trotskyist group has led a revolution anywhere on the planet in Trotskyism’s nearly 100 years of existence. Revolutions are built through struggle and in taking the movement forward step-by-step — not just talking the talk for a long time and then suddenly jumping to the revolution.

Socialist Alternative’s idealist conception of revolution even causes them to refuse to support or defend any force fighting for national liberation internationally or any revolution actually happening in the world. FRSO sees it as our internationalist duty to support all forces fighting against U.S. imperialism. This includes the heroic fighters landing real blows against U.S. imperialism’s plans for domination around the world, such as the Iraqi resistance, the Palestinian resistance (including the Popular Front of the Liberation of Palestine), and the Colombian rebels, such as the FARC-EP).

This approach is the opposite of Socialist Alternative, which often denounces the socialist countries and movements that are fighting for national liberation and socialism.

As revolutionaries in the U.S. we see it as important to support and to study and learn from those whose struggles against U.S. imperialism are more advanced than the struggle here. FRSO also supports the countries that have actually made socialist revolutions such as Cuba, Vietnam, China and Democratic Korea. We also support countries and movements that are moving in the direction of socialism such as in Venezuela and Nepal. We see any nail in the coffin of imperialism as being a struggle we can unite with and learn from.

Marxist-Leninists in the U.S. have a responsibility to support revolutionary movements around the world, while we do the work step-by-step to build a movement for revolutionary change here in the U.S. We can not afford to adopt the silly and sectarian approach of Socialist Alternative. We need to stand in solidarity with all who are fighting imperialism, be it at home or abroad. “Criticizing” anarchists who are facing prison for making contributions to the people struggle is not the right thing to do. Standing on the side and criticizing the building of a more militant movement is not the right thing to do either.