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In Defense of Protest

In Defense of Protest

H. Bradford

1/15/18

Across the world next weekend, there will be marches to mark the anniversary of the Women’s March.  Last year’s marches in defense of women’s rights brought over five million people together in events held in over 80 countries.  Despite the historic size of the marches and the epic accomplishment of bringing so many people together, these event has been widely criticized.  Worse,  the very notion of protest has been critiqued as ineffective, outdated, or inferior to other methods of social change (namely, electoral politics).  Disagreements about tactics or critiques of events themselves have the potential of helping movements to grow, become more inclusive, correct mistakes, sharpen messages and demands, etc.  At the same time, there is something deeply pessimistic, and worse yet, submissive to capitalism, about the critique of protest itself.  This is why I will take a moment to defend protest.


Why Protest?

To begin, it is useful to ask what is the point of protesting?  From an organizer perspective, the general goal of protest is to bring a group of people together to highlight an issue or injustice and make a demand.  This action is a public display of dissatisfaction with the status quo and a call for change.  The power of protest is that it is visible, massive, public, uniting, and disruptive.  Another positive aspect of protesting is that it can be done immediately, without having to wait for election cycles.  For those who are alienated from the political system, it is way to voice an opinion or concern which may not be addressed by politicians or ruling parties.  It is also an opportunity for those with power to react with promises, concessions, or changes to avoid being ousted from power.  Ideally, protest is a method of challenging and reshaping power.  It can be a pathway to revolution.  For example, in March 1917, women gathered in St. Petersburg, Russia to march, mainly demanding bread (or an end to war time food rationing).  They were joined by striking workers and within a few days, the protests swelled to 200,000- demanding not only food but an end to the Tsar itself.  Tsar Alexander abdicated eight days later, ending three hundred years of Romanov rule.  One of the early events of the French revolution was The Women’s March on Versailles, which began on October 5th, 1789 when women began rioting in Paris’ markets over the cost and scarcity of bread.  This swelled to thousands of women, who marched to Versailles Palace to not only demand bread but political reforms.  Certainly, very few protests in history have resulted in such dramatic overhauls of systems of power.  But, there are many examples of protests that resulted in significant reforms.  The March on Washington in 1963 pushed the United States government towards passing the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.  While social movements employ a variety of tactics, protest in one form or another, played an important role in many social changes in history from winning women the right to vote to earning the right to an eight hour day.

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Women’s March on Versailles

Protesting doesn’t work…

While historically, protests have won us many of the rights we often take for granted, there is a great deal of cynicism that this tactic works or remains relevant.  It is easy to see why people may feel that protesting fails.  In recent years, there have been many massive protests that have not resulted in much significant or obvious social change.  In February 2003, millions of people around the world protested the Iraq War, but this did not avert the war and over the years, the anti-war movement his dissipated into invisibility.  The Occupy Movement drew attention to such things as economic inequality, the commons, bank bailouts, and fictitious capital, but it was ended largely through the criminalization of the movement (i.e. law enforcement broke it up).  Climate change threatens to bring on a mass extinction event and it seems protest has done little to slow it.  Protest could not stop Scott Walker from hobbling public unions in WI.

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February 15th Iraq War Protest

Redefining Success:

It is hard to know the impact of recent protests, since history continues.  We live in a moment of time, only able to see the defeats behind us.  Successful protests seem to be somewhere further in history or in some far off place in the world.  When success feels distant, it is easy to become demoralized.  Many people may not even be aware of past victories won through protest, because mainstream history tends to focus on great individuals rather than the accomplishments of mass movements.   Viewing history in this manner makes it hard to imagine the possibility that ordinary people can come together en mass and create social change.  This is why it is useful to both redefine what success looks like but also refocus history.  Because I am a revolutionary socialist, my ideal vision of success is the end of capitalism.  I would like to see a world where no one goes hungry, war is no more, climate change is stopped, everyone is housed and clothed, reproductive rights are a given, education is free, health care is a human right, and all people are treated with dignity and full humanity.  This requires both a long view of history but also a long view of the future.  In this viewpoint, protest in the interest of this future is never a failure.


Consider the Iraq War movement.  The failure to end the U.S. war on terror is painful.  But, was this movement a failure?  My first steps to becoming an activist were in 2003.  That was when I became a socialist.  Before I was a feminist activist, I was an anti-war activist.  It is through considering global issues like war, poverty, and colonization that I became a socialist to begin with.  It is through becoming a socialist, that I became a feminist.  On a personal level, the Iraq War movement was part of my political coming of age.  I imagine there are others like me.  And, there are those who participated in their first protest when they attended the Women’s March last year.  That will be part of their political coming of age.  These protests did not bring down patriarchy or thwart U.S. imperialism, but they are part of the process of creating people who will make change.  Even when protest fails in a traditional sense, it can be powerful in personal ways.

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At the same time, while some protests have not yielded the necessary and immediate results that one would hope for, they have not been for nothing.  There are plenty of times that I have participated in protests of less than a dozen people.  This certainly feels like a failure.  However, it puts a message out into public space.  It may spark a conversation.  At the minimum, it shows the world that this is an issue that a few people think matters.  On the other hand, there are much larger protest movements that may be seen as failure since they became smaller or disappeared.  The Occupy movement resulted in the popularization of a tactic: to occupy!  It also generated interest in anti-capitalist politics and perhaps in spotlighting social inequality, inspired other movements, such as the movement for $15 an hour minimum wage.  The Women’s March last January was followed by a burgeoning of feminist activism over the past year including #MeToo and the International Women’s Day Strike.  The story is not over because history is not over.


Alternatives to Protest:

There are of course, alternatives to protest.  To clarify, when I speak of protests I refer to activities such as marches, pickets, sit-ins, and demonstrations.  These are public events with participation ranging from a handful to millions.  Alternatives to protest include such things as voting, boycotts, divestment, petitions, lawsuits, strike, riot, terrorism, and warfare.  A strike would be a wonderful tactic since it wields a lot of social power.  However, it is not an easy tactic to pull off because many people fear losing their jobs, union membership is not widespread, and most people do not have experience with even more basic labor activism.  This is an aspirational tactic which protest could and should be built towards.  Terrorism and warfare are not on the table for most activists because they are violent, can result in criminal charges or death, are usually not mass movements, and alienate potential supporters.  Boycotts, petitions, and divestment can be useful tools in an activist tool box.  The only shortcoming is that they are often private, so those who are not involved in the movement may not know about them and those who are involved may not feel connected to a larger movement in the same way a protest brings people together.  Legal actions can also be a useful front, but again, this is not as public, massive, and visible.  Even voting or electoral politics can compliment protests.  But, none of these things should replace or usurp protests (well, strikes could but usually massive strikes also include protests).  It seems to me, when there is critique of protest, the alternative tactic suggested is voting.

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This is an example of protest combined with divestment.  In this case, activists were asking for divestment from apartheid South Africa.  Apartheid in South Africa was ended through a variety of tactics, including riots, labor organizing, divestment, protest, international sanctions,  boycotts, armed struggle, etc.

Political Process and Protest


I am extremely alienated from the U.S. political system.  Because both major parties fully support the continuation of U.S. capitalism and the resulting imperialist foreign policy of violence, poverty, and oppression, I can’t get behind Democrats or Republicans.  Therefore, I tend to avoid activist events that involve meeting politicians, phone banking for politicians, or really, anything that diverts energy towards getting candidates elected.  I am open to these tactics for candidates from anti-capitalist parties, but the goal shifts in these situations.  Since individuals who are not a part of mainstream political parties are not likely to win an election, the goal of campaigns tends to be more educational.  These campaigns might be used to point out the political shortcomings or hypocrisies of other candidates, educate people about socialism, or popularize anti-capitalist ideas.  This approach may be hard for others to understand, but at my core, I don’t really care about the existence or well-being of the United States as a nation.  I care about the working people or oppressed people of the world.  Thus, I find it hard to participate in the electoral process of the United States, as once again, both parties generally want to continue the U.S. dominance of the world and capitalism.  Still, I do not absolutely rule out participation in the political process as an activist tool.  I simply do not emphasize it as a prominent tool.


Bringing the topic back to protest, if social movements are effective in mass mobilizations, they can shift the political system without necessarily voting.  For instance, if a protest movement becomes widespread and it seems clear that public sentiment has shifted, politicians will shift.  After all, they want to be re-elected or at least see that their party is re-elected.  Social movements make it “safe” for mainstream politicians to support same sex marriage, utter the word climate change, or proclaim that they are for the 99%.  Thus, the horse is always social movements and the cart is the politicians being dragged along to speak to public sentiment.  Mainstream electoral politics doesn’t favor the brave.  Ideally, it would be wonderful to build space for alternative parties and reforms to our political system that create more opportunities for political representation from a variety of viewpoints.  This won’t happen with the acceptance of lesser evilism, a concession to perpetual disappointment, disempowerment, and disillusionment.


Why so Cynical?

I think there are many reasons why protests are critiqued.  I have only touched on a few.  At the heart of some of the critique is the notion that they have not been working.  It is certainly sad and frustrating to see so much misery and destruction go on, seemingly unchecked.  And, while I can be optimistic about small victories or alternative successes, this means little to those who struggle without a living wage, are brutalized by the police, watch natural resources wrenched from the earth while the planet warms, cannot afford housing, die of preventable disease, live in warzones, or all of the other sufferings in the world.  Change is needed immediately and systemically.  Protests themselves sometimes fail to be inclusive or fail to connect to other struggles.  Beyond this, there is the problem that most people are not engaged in political struggle.  The “masses” are often dismissed as fat, stupid, and reactionary.  It is hard to see our future liberation in the faces of the oppressed in our midst.  Once again, one might find inspiration in the long view of history.  In 1524, illiterate peasants gathered in the Black Forest and managed to create demands, create a banner, and elect leaders, launching the Peasants’ Wars in Germany (which were brutally suppressed, but it is always impressive when a group with little political experience or social leverage manages to organize and fight).  Our president recently designated Africa and Haiti as “shithole” places.  The Haitian revolution was the most successful slave revolt in history- which horrified Europeans with the reality that Black people could defeat white power and govern themselves.  The “shithole” countries of Africa managed to eventually defeat European colonial rule, even if they have not yet defeated capitalism, post-colonial economic relations, and legacies of exploitation.  I bring these examples up because when the masses are dismissed as too stupid, too lazy, too addicted, etc. it not only underestimates them, but concedes that some people are inferior.  This notion of inferiority is thinly veiled classism, racism, sexism, ableism, or other isms.  It is unfortunate that this dismissal of ordinary Americans and the elitism inherent in this sentiment only serves to make Trump more appealing.

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If this is your image of why Americans can’t liberate themselves, consider the classism, fat phobia, ageism, ableism, or other isms which cause you to write off sectors of society as incapable of social change.  People can be mobilized towards many things- from Black Friday shopping to White supremacy.  But, if a person can be mobilized towards these things, then can also be mobilized towards progressive social change with organizing that speaks to the conditions of their oppression and honors their humanity.


There are alternative methods of social change, which certainly can be used with mass demonstrations.  All of these methods may inevitably fail.  Protest as a tactic remains viable inasmuch as it is a visible, social, collective, public expression of the desire for social change.  It also remains viable in the context that working towards systemic change will require mass mobilization.  Tactics should ultimately seek to inspire others towards a cause and serve as a stepping stone to larger more system challenging actions.  Ultimately, what choice is there?  While there may be some tactical choices, there is little room to choose defeat or complacency.  This is not Pascal’s Wager, where faith is a tepid attempt to avoid the possibility of hell.  Hell is here in the creeping barbarism of everyday life in Late Capitalism.  The choice now is between accepting its inevitability or working to end it.  Accepting it is a betrayal of all who suffer and of present life on the planet. Therefore, we must fight relentless and together by all means available, but especially those which offer the most promise of dismantling systems of oppression once and for all.

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Image from 350.org

The Story of International Women’s Day

The Story of International Women’s Day

H. Bradford

3/4/17

I first became aware of International Women’s Day when I was in my early 20s.  I learned about it through my Russian language class in college.  The professor gave all of the women in the class a flower and explained that the holiday was a little bit like Valentine’s Day or Mother’s Day in Russia.  This quaint and apolitical version of International Women’s Day remained my template for understanding the holiday until after I became a socialist.  This understanding mirrored my understanding of May Day as a spring holiday with cute baskets.  Yet, both holidays are more than just flowers and baskets.  They are both celebrations that honor a long history of struggle against capitalism.

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 You mean International Women’s Day is not just a cute Russian holiday?


The Socialist Roots of International Women’s Day:

While I learned about International Women’s Day in the context of Russian culture, the holiday, like May Day, actually originates in the United States.  The first “National Woman’s Day” was organized by the Socialist Party and held on February 23, 1909.  The New York event was attended by over 2000 people and featured speaks such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Leonora O’Reilly.  The first “National Woman’s Day” focused on suffrage and women’s equality.  It was also called in support of ongoing labor organizing of garment workers, such as march of 15,000 workers which had occurred the year before.  At the time, socialists wrestled with the issue of balancing the demand for suffrage with their traditional focus on the economic rights of women, but ultimately, committed themselves to both through the advocacy of women within the socialist party.  Like May Day, the holiday was later popularized in Europe.  In 1910, women from 100 countries, consisting of socialists, labor organizers, working women’s clubs, and three female Finnish members of Parliament, gathered in Copenhagen for the Second International Congress of Women.  It is at this meeting that German socialist, Luise Zietz and Clara Zetkin, motioned to create an International Women’s Day the following year.  The first International Women’s Day event was held March 18, 1911 and featured over a million demonstrators across Europe who used the event commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Paris Commune and assert the economic and political rights of women.  That same year, on March 25, 1911, 146 mostly immigrant women lost their lives in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in New York.  Because of unsafe working conditions, including locked doors to prevent theft and a lack of fire alarms on some of the floors, a fire originating in a pile of scrap material killed a quarter of the workforce in less than twenty minutes.  The fire was a catalyst for new safety regulations and a rallying cry for unionizing garment workers.  It was also memorialized in future International Women’s Day events.


Early International Women’s Day observances were focused on labor, suffrage, and other facets of political and economic equality.  While the relationship between socialists and suffragists was uneasy, the socialists became increasingly committed to suffrage and collaborating with suffragists during this time period.  American socialists actually marched together with suffragists in Boston a few days before women’s day in 1911.  While suffrage seems obvious today, at the time, socialists worried that suffrage would mean women could be drafted, thereby becoming instruments of capitalist wars.  There were also concerns that women were politically conservative and that suffragists tended to consist of wealthier and middle class women whose interests were not the same as working class women.  Despite misgivings socialists had regarding suffrage, the early celebrations of women’s day were expressions of their commitment to the economic and political equality of women.  According to the Russian socialist, Alexandra Kollontai (1920), North American socialists played a prominent role in arguing to other socialists that suffrage was a worthy demand.

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International Women’s Day and the Russian Revolution:

Peace became another central demand of International Women’s Day organizers during World War One.  Unfortunately, socialists who had been elected into office, were blinded by nationalism and voted to enter World War One, thereby discrediting Socialist Parties. However, in 1915 Clara Zetkin called a conference of women in Bern, Switzerland and encouraged them to demonstrate against war, even if this meant treason.  Women from countries involved in World War One were denied passports to attend this meeting and unfortunately, the only country that managed to host a demonstration in 1915 was Norway, though some women from war beleaguered European countries managed to attend.  It is during this time that International Women’s Day was first celebrated in Russia, which went on to play an important role in the holiday’s history.  The first Russian “Working Women’s Day” was organized in 1913 as a meeting, as demonstrations were illegal in tsarist Russia.  The following year, organizers for a “Working Women’s Day” were put into prison and the demonstration was stymied by police intervention.  State repression prevented Russian further observances of International Women’s Day until 1917  By then, the Russian population was weary from war, poverty, hunger, and tsarist autocracy.  The threat of imprisonment could not contain the anger of the masses.  On March 8th, 1917, or February 23rd by our calendar, women in Petrograd took to the streets to demand bread and an end to the war, which had taken the lives of two million Russians.  Garment workers played a central role in the strike, but other workers joined them, swelling to a mass of 75,000 workers on the first day and 200,000 on the second.  By the third day, 400,000 workers participated in the strike in Petrograd.  Four days later, military garrisons revolted and police went into hiding.  The International Women’s Day strike in Petrograd spread across the country, becoming what is now known as the February Revolution.  The revolution resulted in the abdication of the tsar a week later, ending over 400 years of tsarist rule and set the stage for the October revolution later that year.


The Russian revolution ushered in a variety of advances for women.  The October revolution granted full suffrage to women and enacted equal pay.  Russia became the first country to legalize abortion, which it provided free and on demand until Stalin came to power.  Divorce became easily obtainable and marriage was treated as a civil matter rather than religious affair.  Daycares and communal kitchens and laundries were established to alleviate the burden of unpaid labor.  Paid maternity leave was also extended to women, something that the United States lacks 100 years later.  All of this was granted to women during a time of civil war and economic collapse on the already shoddy foundation of centuries of tsarist autocracy and an undeveloped economy.  Many of these remarkable accomplishments were later rolled back by Stalin, who rebranded International Women’s Day as a benign Soviet Valentine’s Day.  The revolutionary character of the holiday was largely forgotten and the holiday itself became associated with communism, as countries ruled by Communist Parties tended to be the ones which made it an official holiday.  Like May Day, Cold War politics, which sought to tame, ignore, or persecute the far left, meant that International Women’s Day went mostly unnoticed in the U.S.

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The Struggle Continues:

International Women’s Day was a largely Communist holiday until the late 1960s.  The emergence of the feminist movement in renewed interest in the holiday, though, since socialists participated in the feminist movement, they may have played a role in promoting the holiday.  In any event, the holiday became less associated with communism after International Women’s Day was promoted by feminists and adopted by the United Nations in 1975.  As of 2014, International Women’s Day was observed in over 100 countries.  The United Nation’s version of International Women’s Day doesn’t quite capture the militant spirit of the original celebrations.  Each year has featured a theme, such as human rights, decision making, progress, and empowerment.  However, these themes often sound more like Girl Scout Badges that women should earn rather than rallying calls for the next revolution.  Thus, for most of my life as a feminist, I have been disappointed by the lack of interest or action around the holiday.  The Feminist Justice League, formerly known as the Twin Ports Women’s Rights Coalition, has organized International Women’s Day events in the past, but these were never well attended and there was never much community interest in them.


All of this has changed this year after four million women marched on January 21st.  In the wake of this event, the Women’s March has called for 10 actions in 100 days.  Prior to calling for a “Day without a Woman” Strike on March 8th, feminists around the world were calling for a strike.  Women in Poland, Ireland, and Argentina have been particularly active in this call.  In Ireland, women plan to strike on March 8th in protest of restrictive abortion laws there.  In October, women in Poland striked against the introduction of legislation which sought to criminalize in all cases but imminent danger to the mother’s life.  In Argentina, and across Latin America, women striked against femicide in October, catalyzed by the gruesome rape and murder of Lucia Perez.  The strikers tied the violence against women to the economic conditions that women face, such as unpaid labor, unequal wages, and neoliberal reforms that have cut public spending, all of which render women unequal and vulnerable.  In solidarity with these struggles, and to spotlight the economic component of women’s oppression, the Women’s March called for a strike on March 8th.  This strike was called in mid-February.  As a result of the resurgence of feminism, events will be held all over the United States and abroad.  Locally, the Feminist Justice League is hosting a 78 minute symbolic strike, followed by a march and a panel which focuses on women as workers.  This event will be held at 5 pm on March 8th at the MN Power Plaza.  However, it is one of a dozen local events.  Other events include an the Feminist Action Collective’s International Women’s Day celebration on March 10th at Beaner’s, Domestic Violence Action Day on March 7th at noon at the Duluth City Hall,  PAVSA’s pack the Plaza at 11:30 am on the 8th, and a solidarity with Honduras event at 2:30 at the Building for Women on March 5th.  This is just a sample of the wave of feminist actions for International Women’s Day.

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Conclusion:

I am excited by the revival of interest in International Women’s Day and feminism in general.  Sometimes there is so much activity that I worry that I will be washed away in this new wave of feminist activity.  At the same time, I am incredibly proud to be a socialist.  Some people enjoy pointing out their genealogy, finding joy that at some point in history they descended from a king or Viking.  I take pride in my socialist genealogy.  I take pride in my membership to a party which descends from the Russian revolution and from the socialists before this.  I feel that the history of International Women’s Day is my history.  It is my history as a socialist, as a worker, and as a woman.  Of course, International Women’s Day should be for everyone.  The story of garment workers dying in a fire continues to be the story of all workers who face dangerous conditions. The story of immigrant women who were afraid to organize because of their marginal position in society, continues to be story of immigrants.  The story of women standing up against the senseless loss of war should still be our story.  The story of women standing up to soldiers and the police, protesting in the face of state repression, should still be our story.  This gives new meaning to, “…and still she persisted.”  The story of women trying to build an international feminist movement should be our story.  The story of women connecting femicide to neoliberal policies and economic inequality should be our story.  The story of women making revolution should be our story.

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Sources:

http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/3/7/socialist-history-of-international-womens-day.html

http://kclabor.org/wordpress/?m=201703

http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/3/7/socialist-history-of-international-womens-day.html

https://iwd.uchicago.edu/page/international-womens-day-history

http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/russias-february-revolution-was-led-women-march-180962218/

https://www.marxists.org/archive/kollonta/1920/womens-day.htm

http://isreview.org/issue/75/februarys-forgotten-vanguard

http://socialistreview.org.uk/367/women-and-revolution

https://viewpointmag.com/2017/02/23/striking-for-ourselves/

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