Why mass movements are necessary


The March to End Fossil Fuels is scheduled to take place in New York City on Sept. 17. This will be a tremendous opportunity for mass action. This article discusses a strategy and tactics to carry the momentum forward after the march.

Polls state that the great majority of the U.S. population favors taking significant steps to counter climate change. What tactics should the climate movement employ in order to translate that sentiment into powerful action? History suggests that mass movements in the streets, democratically organized and mobilized around strong demands, are key to building a movement that can shake up the ruling powers and achieve significant change.

Mass demonstrations are inspiring. Seeing many thousands of people from all backgrounds on the street for one cause has an effect on popular consciousness and helps people understand their potential power. The significance of mass demonstrations is not based on the culminating event alone. The preparation of demonstrations through democratic assemblies and the involvement of people in all aspects of the organizing, including the decision-making process, teaches people how to harness their activism for lasting change. Broad, united-front mass actions are the most effective means for drawing together all sectors of society—from the unions to environmental, student, and faith-based organizations.

Activists today rely too often on mobilization through electronic media. These demonstrations evade a central lesson of organizing—that there is no substitute for the actions of large layers of society. Without organization and popular self-activity, these movements lack tactical and strategic agility and, perhaps most importantly, accountable leaderships.

Some examples from the past

In the 1950s and ’60s, two large-scale mass movements challenged the status quo. The civil rights movement struggled for the end to Jim Crow segregation and for social, political, and economic equality for Black people. Centered in the South and reaching into the segregated cities of the North, the movement organized at the local and national level to challenge the system with grassroots organizing and mass actions.

The movement against the U.S. imperialist war in Vietnam was built around simple slogans like “Out now!” and “Bring our troops home now!” and was oriented toward broad, independent united-front demonstrations. From 1964 to 1975, the antiwar movement mobilized millions against the slaughter in Vietnam and eventually drew active-duty GIs and veterans into the movement. These protests resulted from open, democratic antiwar conferences attended by hundreds of activists, who debated slogans, strategy, and tactics.

Both of these movements had a profound effect on the consciousness of the participants. Many civil rights and antiwar activists became lifelong revolutionaries. Additionally, these movements sparked the rise of movements for Black Power, Puerto Rican self-determination, Chicano Power, women’s liberation, and gay and lesbian rights.

Part of the strength of these movements was their political independence from the Democratic Party. Fred Halstead, a socialist and major antiwar leader, wrote in his book “Out Now!”: “Those who retain or preach faith in the reformability of the capitalist two-party system must reckon with the fact that the American movement against the Vietnam War—the greatest moral resurgence in the U.S. since the struggle to abolish slavery—had to arise and maintain itself apart from and in defiance of both parties.”

Later, in September 2014, the People’s Climate March (PCM) mobilized more than 300,000 in the streets of New York City ahead of a United Nations climate-change summit. Tens of thousands more marched around the globe, with a call to “Rise for Climate, Jobs, and Justice.” The PCM showed the potential of what a sustained strategy of mass mobilization and the alignment of different movements could accomplish in terms of getting people to take the streets. Unfortunately, the main organizations that supported the PCM failed to continue the mass-action strategy, and turned primarily toward political lobbying.

Carry the fight forward!

In large mass actions, working people and the oppressed get a real sense of their potential social and political power. This can help shift their consciousness about what can be achieved through mass movements. Mass actions alone won’t win gains for workers and the oppressed. These actions must be combined with organizing and political struggle involving broad sectors of society. United-front mass action, independent from ruling-class institutions, has shown its effectiveness many times over the years.

The Democratic Party has often worked to demobilize mass movements and channel their energy into electoral action. One of the most glaring examples of this is the way the Democrats took the popular anger at the reversal of Roe v. Wade and tried to redirect that anger to the ballot box. The Democrats and the Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) tied to them failed to build sustained mass demonstrations in response to this reactionary court decision. NGOs are not activist groups. They are institutions, often reliant on corporate or foundation money, that use staff-driven methods of organizing.

Ultimately, we must go beyond demands for reforms and raise a program that builds a bridge towards a new revolutionary consciousness—a transitional program for climate justice. Of course, socialists are not opposed to reforms, but we don’t see them as an end in themselves. Rather, it is necessary to combine reform struggles with the fight for revolution.

“Revolutionaries fight for reforms, but they never stop teaching the masses the truth about the inadequacies of reforms so long as the ruling class is not displaced from power, about the ease with which reforms can be canceled or withdrawn or made meaningless by ineffective or discriminatory enforcement as long as the ruling class remains in power, about the need to go beyond reforms and reconstruct the foundations of society on a planned and rational basis” (George Breitman, “Is It Wrong or revolutionaries to Fight for Reforms?” The Militant, Feb. 28, 1969).

Building a mass movement for climate justice means going beyond isolated local struggles; it’s a national and international fight requiring political independence from the bosses’ parties—which have demonstrated their loyalty to energy industry profits above all else. We need a democratic movement to debate and develop the strategy and tactics necessary to win. This means having our own movement leadership capable of raising the demands that can push our mass actions forward.                                        

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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