The importance of the `battle of Seattle'

by Frank, Seattle
(from Communist Voice #23, February 4, 2000)


. The 20th century didn't end as scripted for the United States and other imperialist powers dominating the World Trade Organization. In fact it ended in somewhat of a fiasco. The Seattle WTO meeting of November 30 - December 3 could not agree to an agenda for negotiations, differences could not be papered over despite every effort to do just that, and several delegations from the poor countries went home publicly fuming about the arrogance of the delegations from the big imperialist powers. Moreover, this was supposed to be a meeting where the trade ministers of the member-states coldly took decisions affecting the lives of hundreds of millions of people without interference or protest. But everywhere they went they were met with denunciations of the effects of their neoliberal policies on the world's workers and environment. Everywhere they went slogans like, "hey hey! ho ho! WTO has got to go!", or "WTO! . . . Hell no!", rang in their ears. Being the representatives of the very biggest monopoly capitalists, that is, of the modern-day lords of the earth, they expected to be treated with reverence; but instead of this they received the public contempt of scores of thousands of protesters.

. Who were these protesters, and where did they come from?

. The Seattle members of the Communist Voice Organization vigorously participated in many of the street actions before and during the WTO ministerial sessions, both the legal and peaceful ones as well as those where fierce resistance to police assaults developed. We distributed about 1600 of the November 24 leaflet and had many discussions with other protesters -- before, during, and after WTO meeting. We also produced a second leaflet of December 6 to uphold the spirit of the "battle of Seattle" in the face of bourgeois calumny. But like everyone else we can only offer partial or general answers to the above questions. Like that the protesters were of all ages, but mainly very young. They represented various social classes, but there was obviously a large working-class presence even in events not organized by the AFL-CIO or Steelworkers' Union big-wigs. Protesters came from everywhere in the world, but mainly from the western U.S.and Canada--with the largest numbers coming from the Seattle area itself. Politically, they represented a significant oppositional force which has been building beneath the market-worshipping atmosphere fanned up by the prevalent neoliberalism of the past two decades. This force has been represented in protests like those at the APEC meetings of the past two years (Vancouver and Jakarta), the June 18, 1999 "global day of action", the London anti-WTO protests which took place simultaneously with the Seattle protests, etc. And the activists at its base come from a variety of origins: labor activists, anti-imperialists, environmentalists, students, indigenous peoples, others--all seeing a common threat from the new institutions and policies of world capital.

Anti-capitalism and anti-revisionism

. Moreover, our experiences in the protests revealed that the relatively scattered banners and picket signs explicitly attacking the capitalist system as being the root cause of the infamies being so widely denounced actually represented the view of thousands. We saw the existence of this anti-capitalist trend as significant and heartening, and it accounts for the positive reception our leaflets received from many demonstrators, but at the same time we think the real ideological situation of this trend must be soberly appraised. One large section wants to leap over the many thorny political questions the movement faces today by taking up anarchism and denouncing organization itself, or even technology itself, as the evil essence of capitalism. Another large section is led by groups or individuals who in one way or another paint up minor modifications in capitalism as "socialism" and who tie the movement to the pro-capitalist labor bureaucrats or liberal politicians. The "alternative" to capitalism they propose is either simply more state regulation or is state capitalism--as in the former Soviet Union, or China (of Mao's time, but also even today!), or as in Cuba today. Furthermore, the popularity of anarchism among ordinary activists in recent years in good part reflects revulsion at such pseudo-Marxism from the Trotskyist, Maoist, Monthly Review, and other trends falsely proclaiming themselves Marxist.This pseudo-Marxism is generally believed to be real Marxism, and the capitalist establishment, through millions of books, newspapers, the electronic media, movies, etc., etc., is continually fostering this belief for it serves capitalism very well. Thus we must not only be encouraged by the existence of a large wing of the movement explicitly attacking capitalism, but realize that its present situation shows the need to work patiently to defeat state-capitalist, Stalinist and Trotskyist views about what Marxism and socialism is. This is what we call anti-revisionist work, i.e. work that combats the revision of the original revolutionary content of the ideas of Marxism and socialism into mere apologies for state regulation of any kind.

Reformism, anarchism, and the role of the "networks"

. When masses of people come together in protests like those in Seattle against the WTO they can see better than before that they're not struggling alone. They learn about many other battles which are being fought against the common enemy. Political outlooks are broadened and there's an inspiration to organize. But organize along what lines? The AFL-CIO bureaucracy, the anti-WTO church groups, the National Wildlife Federation, the Sierra Club, the Naderites, the RCP . . . you name the group and they all have an answer. They could agree on denouncing the WTO as the symbol of what was hated by the masses. But should it be reformed? appealed to? abolished? organized against? Should there be protectionism? What about sweatshops? (Incredible as it may seem, some of these groups actually buy into the line of the Third World capitalists, i.e., sweatshops should be tolerated in these countries because they're a tool for economic "development"! Of course this reasoning forgets all about the struggle against sweatshop conditions in these very same countries. It doesn't ponder over how these struggles bring economic development in their wake, and economic development more beneficial to the oppressed masses.(1)) Was the WTO a symbol of the evil or the evil itself? They couldn't agree on any of these questions. This is why the leaflets we distributed at the demonstration didn't only denounce the evils of the WTO, but dwelt on clarifying the path forward for developing a revolutionary movement against these evils.

. The networks (People's Global Action, Direct Action Network, etc.) could agree to say a few words against capitalism, and agree to speaking very vaguely about alternatives (usually in a soft anarchist voice, and even suggesting planting gardens!), and they put out a call to shut down the WTO. But this shouldn't be taken as meaning that they had much of any idea of what to do next or even that they were willing to organize independent of the big-wig politicians and labor bureaucrats. They uncritically advertised a speech by a "fair trade activist" and in their agitation they were silent against the reformism of the AFL-CIO bureaucracy while advocating activists work with local labor groups to "build alliances". Practically speaking this amounted to leading the sheep to the wolves for in today's conditions "local labor groups" is going to be taken as meaning local AFL-CIO unions and other local AFL-CIO organizations. This was practical capitulation to reformism disguised with chic slogans like "globalize liberation--not corporate power" More, in a DAN publication in which it was emphasized that "the WTO is not our institution" they came out in support of an Indian alliance which calls "for India to quit the WTO and campaign for an alternative institution to regulate world-trade in a democratic, pro-people and environmentally sustainable way". But "world-trade" (capitalism) today is dominated by trade between monopoly-capitalist concerns (including Indian ones). So when DAN says it wants to "help build a movement capable of standing up to the existing economic and political system at the root of our problems", it isn't calling for the building up of a powerful working class movement capable of waging major strikes and other mass actions against exploitation, but it is hoping that the big capitalists of India and some other countries will build a pro-people capitalism. It denies the fundamental economic laws which make it impossible for capitalism to be pro-people and environmentally-friendly while promoting the standard reformist illusions about democratic regulation.

. Given the state of the movement today, probably the only way that the anti-WTO protests could have been organized is through the various networks. And it's a good thing that activists with different points of view meet at demonstrations. But we can't close our eyes to the fact that networks essentially represent a marriage of reformist with anarchist trends, and, like the single groups mentioned above, the groups within them are at odds and ends over the many issues confronting activists. They can only unite around organizing actions against MAI, WTO, etc.Such actions encourage activists everywhere, and show that there is another world underneath the one of business money-making. But if the capitalist devastation of the world is ever to be actually stopped, it requires the building of powerful, independent working class organizations -- trade unions that fight, mass revolutionary parties around the world with a truly socialist perspective, mass movements of class struggle. The networks aren't capable of advancing towards this. They played an important role in mobilizing people to come to Seattle, but this type of general protest is about as far as they can go. Being divided on every practical question and being unable to separate from the reformist bigwigs, they will inevitably disappoint activists who expect the mass victory in Seattle to be followed by a coherent strategy for further advance.

Mass initiative in the streets

. One of the most valuable and exciting aspects of the demonstration in Seattle was the fact that it wasn't simply a parade behind the reformist big-shots, but there was mass initiative, defiance of the authorities, and mass active resistance to police suppression. This upset the capitalists no end, and it is also responsible for the debates about tactics being waged right among the activists themselves.

. For many months the establishment had been working out its plan for dealing with anti-WTO protests. All the federal and local intelligence and police forces of the most powerful country in the world were involved, and they even at one point publicly discussed using the Kingdome and/or its fenced parking lots as a place to detain protesters. But being terrorists themselves, they were fascinated with the possibility of terrorist attacks on the WTO confab and under-rated the role firmly held political convictions might play among the masses of protesters. Nevertheless, as it became clear that the protests were going to be big, and that large numbers were committed to defying the authorities, the bourgeoisie arrogantly thought that a little sweet-talking would turn the tide and it therefore threw a party for protesters at Key Arena the night before the WTO meeting was to open. At this party such liberal luminaries as the greenest city councilman, the mayor, Senator Paul Wellstone (Dem.-MN), and Tom Hayden (of SDS fame) pleaded with the crowd to be "peaceful" in their protests (e.g., just to bow down to the "law and order" rules worked out by the establishment in the previous months). By late the next afternoon, however, it was clear that this ploy had failed miserably. Those who had come to the protests committed to civil disobedience stuck to their guns. And when the police launched their tear gas and rubber bullet assaults on the crowds they were met with massive resistance from both those involved in the civil disobedience actions as well as those involved in other forms of street protest. Thus, caught in a dilemma of their own arrogant making, the bourgeois liberals could only bare their fascist fangs by calling out the National Guard and ordering police-state measures in order to ensure that the WTO meeting finally get underway.

. This was a real fiasco for the bourgeoisie--not simply because they lost one day of negotiating, but mainly because the mass anger at their plans was vividly demonstrated.

. The views of the various groups at the protests and of the networks have to be examined in the light of the great experience of this battle with the authorities. Anarchism doesn't come out very well. In our December 6 leaflet, in opposition to those anarchists who sneered at the civil disobedience action, we wrote that it "never enters such people's heads that the shutting down of the WTO was a significant political victory", and we hailed the latent political power existing among the peaceful protesters. It can also be noted that the same anarchists also sneered at the protesters who fought the police.(2)

. But the views of the civil-disobedience networks didn't fare very well either. The vital role of active resistance against the police, defended in our December 6 leaflet, went against the dogmas of nonviolent civil disobedience. Indeed, as our December 6 leaflet discusses, it was the actions of thousands of people not necessarily involved in the original civil-disobedience action--and often being quite uncivil--which allowed the Nov. 30 protests to remain in the streets hours longer than they would have had everyone followed the networks' "action guidelines".


. Now that the protests are over, those who were involved are summing up their experiences and pondering the issue of what to do next. We face the need to defend our mass actions against the propaganda of the establishment, whose main concern is creating public opinion for the suppression of future demonstrations. But we also need to use the energy we gained from the Seattle protests to push forward discussion of where the movement should go next, and of what old ideas and practices must be discarded.


(1) The Communist Voice has discussed this issue several times.

See, for example, the article "Imperialism in Papua New Guinea", Volume 2, Number 2. (Return to text)

(2) Besides the anarchists who sneered at the peaceful protesters there were many others who participated in all the peaceful protests over several days, including the civil-disobedience. (Text)

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