truth

Tell No Lies, Claim No Easy Victories”: Lessons of Revolutionary Struggles for Bosnia and Beyond

Always bear in mind that the people are not fighting for ideas, for the things in anyone’s head. They are fighting to win material benefits, to live better and in peace, to see their lives go forward, to guarantee the future of their children.” –Amilcar Cabral

Let’s state things plainly: Bosnia is a semi-colonial country. You could even say it has become a colony, what with the direct power of European outsiders in our politics for the last 20 years. But most Bosnians now recognize that people of all nationalities in this small country face the same issues of economic deprivation and exploitation.  So it’s no coincidence that we have something to learn from the great anti-colonial liberation fighters of other countries, the sort of people who used to be the subject of official solidarity statements – and maybe even material aid – in the days when our country was part of the Non-Aligned Movement.

Amilcar Cabral led a movement that, after his martyrdom, eventually defeated a 500-year-old empire in a country even smaller than ours. And the truth is that what Cabral says is applicable not only to colonial and semi-colonial countries, but to popular struggles for democracy and liberation all over the world.  His is the voice of experience in the great task of organizing people for social revolution through the ebbs and flows of struggle as they actually happen in the real world. The challenge of people participating in movements at an early stage, like the one in Bosnia, is to begin to think not just as activists, but as organizers.

It can be dizzying to witness the opening stages of a movement, when many more people are out in the streets taking action than were doing so before. Yet the number of people who are involved so far is still not enough. The challenge is to involve the great masses of people in their millions. There is no doubt that they would be with us, if they only knew how: We know that much from the opinion polls. But their support will only be passive until we can motivate them to take action that they have concluded has a reasonable chance of success. And by “success,” I mean winning those things that Cabral points out that the masses want: “to live better and in peace, to see their lives go forward, to guarantee the future of their children.”

At the beginning stages of a movement, there is also a tendency to fetishize the forms of organization that the struggle initially takes. When a struggle is underway, people want and need to meet and talk about it, and discuss the way forward. The “plenum,” which is really only a mass meeting, is not novel in this respect. But the mass meeting cannot be an end in itself, or otherwise its energy will dissipate, because the people will not fight for the abstraction of “direct democracy.” For the masses to have faith in the process, and to participate in it on a scale that can eventually shake the pillars of the state, what counts is the content of the meetings. A successful plenum will have content with two equally important elements: (1) social demands that resonate with the felt needs of the masses, and (2) a plan for moving more people into action. I will address each of these in turn.

Social demands

Tuzla sounded the tocsin of revolt for all of Bosnia beginning with workers whose jobs were taken away by the privatization and the corrupt and venal cantonal government that facilitated it. The problems of joblessness; of inadequate pensions; of exploitation by tycoons and the parasitic apparatus of officials from the political parties that support and serve those tycoons; of overall economic deprivation and hopelessness, and a government incapable at all levels of addressing these problems of the people: These are the grievances that first prompted Bosnia to move, and keeping the focus on these issues is the way to bring more people into the struggle.

The mass meetings in the various Bosnian cities and towns have produced lists of demands that address these needs of the people, always after prolonged sessions where people talked about the issues they faced and found to be important. This is a good and necessary process. In China, in the earlier years of their revolution, these were called “Speak Bitterness Sessions,” where the peasants denounced the abuses they had suffered at the hands of the landlords. It is important for people to vent these frustrations in public and in large numbers, rather than merely complaining to each other in the cafés the way they have done for years. It shows people that they are not alone in their thinking, and it stokes a necessary anger at social conditions, without which a movement can never come into being, much less sustain itself.

Apart from a handful of tycoons and the army of corrupt officials, an entire generation in Bosnia is entirely without a pension, and among those who are older, even those lucky enough to have a job will not be able to retire. Why? Because most employers have decided not to make their pension contributions. People lose their health coverage as a result of this employer negligence as well. The Partisans used to declare with confidence that “America and England will be proletarian countries” – how low have we fallen as a people when instead, our own country adopts the obscene American system of health care, where whether you get treated when you’re ill depends on how much you can pay, instead of it being recognized as a basic human right?

In Sarajevo, the workers of the Holiday – a hotel that stayed open even throughout the war, serving the foreign journalists – decided that they had enough of this and staged a sit-down strike in the hotel lobby in open defiance of the bosses’ courts. Their initial demands are quite modest: they haven’t been paid in three months, so they say they will return to work once they receive their paychecks for November and December. Their ultimate boss is the Austrian owner of the hotel, making their workplace a microcosm of Bosnia itself, a little semi-colony where the native majority are lorded over not only by native exploiters but by the foreign ones who are ultimately in charge. Were the hotel workers inspired by the recent unrest throughout the country? It is possible, even likely, though you can’t really tell from the press. But you are able to tell that they are impressively disciplined, issuing statements in unison to the media.

The hotel workers need to be part of the “plenum.” Or maybe the plenum needs to join them? Either way, the people going to the mass meetings and the people on sit-down strike at the hotel need to be talking to each other. If the workers win the pay to which they are entitled, they will have proven that collective action can win material benefits for the people. It is a lesson that the whole country needs to learn by seeing it work in practice. How many workplaces have similar grievances? How many schools? Some well-placed disruption of “business as usual” by workers, youth, unemployed, and pensioners in a multitude of settings can build confidence in the masses that it is possible to win real improvements, thereby setting the stage for more advanced demands. With enough people in motion, who is to say that we can’t win retirement security for everyone, with a state that strictly enforces requirements that employers contribute to retirement? Where employers who shirk their duty to pay workers and pay into their pensions will be prosecuted or – if they flee the country or are foreigners to begin with – their assets seized without compensation? Where not only the recent privatizations but the privatizations of the last 20+ years, nearly all of them crooked, shall be reversed? Where people will be put to work building the economy of a country where they all own a share, instead of being relegated to a lifetime of unemployment? People want such a country, but they will only be motivated to fight for it if they have the hope that they can succeed. Which brings us to the second element of a successful plenum.

The plan for mass organizing

It is not enough just to meet and formulate a list of demands that people like, and then issue a statement and expect that this alone will bring more people into action. If in Sarajevo people went and had the next plenum at the worker-occupied hotel in solidarity with the workers – provided, of course, that the workers involved would find such involvement useful and welcome – it would have a terrific propaganda effect, but would still not amount to much without a plan for what to do next.

To be successful, the mass meetings need to be more than just a talk-shop where people decide on a statement about all the nice things we want – even, nay especially, if those demands resonate widely with the masses of workers, unemployed, youth and pensioners. Even this weak and dysfunctional government system can withstand the repeated statement of demands by thousands of people, so long as those thousands of people do not break out of the confines of the movement in its initial stages and mobilize ever-greater numbers of people instead. Marx once wrote that “every step of real movement is worth a dozen programs.” This is why, as much as the “Speak Bitterness” and program-formulating part of a plenum is important, it is even more important that the second half of the meeting be devoted to developing a plan for action, and dividing up tasks among those present in order to get the work done.

It is impossible to overstate the importance of every seemingly routine or prosaic task in sustaining a movement. Movements lose their momentum when people stop doing these mundane tasks, all on the incorrect assumption that they will get done by magic, or that some other – always unnamed – persons will do them. This is not how the world works; as the American poet June Jordan wrote, “We are the ones we have been waiting for,” so the work of a movement has to be done by the people who show up, or else the movement dies. And always, without exception, specific people must take responsibility for specific tasks, and be accountable to completing them before the next meeting or demonstration. Someone in the meeting should be assigned to write down everyone’s specific task on a big sheet of paper at the front of the room so that everyone can see what everyone else is committed to doing.
No one should consider themselves above the more mundane tasks. Intellectuals are particularly prone to this conceit. Everyone should volunteer to do some of the “boring” stuff from time to time.

So what are some of the tasks that need to be done?

* Building and maintaining lists. At any meeting or event (e.g., a demonstration), there needs to be a team of people with clipboards and sign-in sheets. Everyone who shows up should sign in with their name, street address, phone number, and e-mail address; ideally there should also be a space for people to note their occupation or workplace (if any), or organizations they belong to. A committee of responsible and trustworthy people should be tasked with maintaining this list in computer form. Some people who show up at demonstrations will be reluctant to give this information for fear of police harassment or infiltrators. This is understandable, and it should not be mandatory for people to sign in to participate, but those on the sign-in team should be willing to gently but firmly educate people on the importance of giving their contact information to the movement so that everyone can stay connected. Obviously only the most visible and trustworthy movement participants can be allowed to have access to the list, to minimize the possibility that police or nationalist infiltrators will get hold of it, but at the same time, people who participate in the movement are already putting their faces in public, in front of the police and possibly in front of the TV cameras. It is necessary that as many people as possible do this in order to overcome fear, and so that the movement may organize as openly as possible. It then follows that people should sign in so that the movement will be able to mail newsletters or other information to people’s homes; create an e-mail list to send news updates to supporters; and be able to contact everyone quickly by phone or by setting up a “phone tree.”

* Building organization. At the end of every meeting, people should break out by relevant groups to develop a plan on how to reach more people. Meeting participants could break out by neighborhood, workplace, school, or other appropriate division. A person of some organizational ability in each group should facilitate the breakout group, with another person taking notes, preferably on a large piece of paper that everyone can see. The people in the breakout should make a chart of everyone else in the neighborhood, workplace, or school who is not at the meeting. Then they should think about who needs to be involved next. People who other people listen to and respect should be prioritized as the ones who need to be persuaded to get involved. Often, such people are not necessarily politically engaged – they could be a neighbor whose opinion counts in conversation, or a worker who’s respected for his or her general honesty and character. The most important characteristic of such people is that others listen to them and value their opinion. Someone or some group of people should be assigned to get these more influential people involved, because then other people will be more likely to follow them into the movement as well. At a minimum, everyone at the meeting should commit to bringing at least one other person they know both to the next action (demonstration, picket, etc.) and to the next meeting.

* Teams for demonstrations. Above, we mentioned the extremely important team of people who should do sign-ins. Other tasks at demonstrations should go to specific people who volunteer for them: people who will hand out leaflets to passerby; marshals who keep the mass of participants aware of what the plan is at a demonstration and help people follow it, whether that be a march route or some other plan; chant leaders, preferably equipped with megaphones, who lead creative chants; videographers and photographers documenting the demonstration; people specially designated to deal with the police; etc.

* Fundraising. At a certain point, movement activity is going to cost money. There will be costs for renting spaces, making photocopies, making signs, etc. Ad hoc donations and management of funds only goes so far. The movement in each town should think about a way for participants to give money to a central fund, controlled by an elected group of responsible people. Given the widespread, justified mistrust of public institutions and NGOs in Bosnia, this will be a difficult task, but an essential one.

* Spokespeople for the group. This should be the subject of careful consideration. Probably one person should deliver a message for the group at a press conference or demonstration, with perhaps two or three others also delivering brief statements and being prepared to give interviews to the mass media. It is natural for intellectuals to gravitate to this role, even though it is precisely the role where they are least effective. The spokespeople must be able to communicate in clear, simple language, around the few simple, concrete demands of the day, and repeat these same talking points regardless of the questions posed by hostile mass media, so that the message has the greatest chance of getting through that hostile media with minimal distortion or misrepresentation. More importantly, the spokespeople must be chosen carefully so that the great mass of as-yet-uninvolved people are likely to see themselves in the people doing the talking. For this reason, ordinary workers, youth and unemployed are to be preferred to intellectual workers. Ordinary people are no less likely than intellectuals to go off on irrelevant tangents, so whoever the spokespeople are, they should practice what they will say to the press, with another person playing the role of the member of the media asking hostile or sometimes tricky questions – all of which the spokesperson should learn to largely ignore in favor of repeating the core message of the day for the movement. All of this is much more difficult to do in practice than it sounds, and people will only perfect the technique through practice and experience.

* Speakers at public events and demonstrations. These people are not necessarily the people who are spokespeople giving interviews, etc. A certain “fieriness,” ability to use cadence and rhythm, humor, etc., are all necessary for an effective speaker. This is another role to which intellectuals gravitate, even though they are not always effective. If they are speakers, they must resist the temptation to “lecture” and instead cultivate what in the United States is called “folksiness.” If ordinary workers possess public speaking skills, they are to be preferred.

* Ensuring the representative character of the movement’s public face. For both speakers and spokespeople, it is critical, first of all, that every effort be made to feature one person from each of the three main nationalities. Fomenting ethnic divisions is the foremost method of social control in Bosnia, and needs to be combated directly by emphasizing that everyone is facing the same fight. Secondarily, but also importantly, it is good to feature someone old, someone young;  someone male, someone female; etc.

* Phone bankers. If it is possible to set up a “phone tree” wherein a certain group of people call a certain list of people, who then call people further down the list, then this can get the word out quickly, especially with older people who do not use Internet communications. But the phone tree should never go too “deep,” otherwise one break in the chain leaves everyone else further down uncontacted. It may be better to have a special team of “phone bankers” who gather at a central location and call through the entire phone list when necessary. The phone list should not be activated too often, but should be a powerful organizational tool.

* Written agitprop. People who write leaflets or design posters. Each one of these should address one topic in a brief, accessible, and visually appealing manner, and always – without exception – have something for people to do written on them. If it is advertising a demonstration, the location and time needs to be prominently displayed, along with a phone number of someone who can answer people’s questions. If it is a leaflet at a demonstration, it should include the place and time of the next plenum, or a contact number of someone to contact about getting more involved. Or for instance, in the case of the Austrian-owned hotel, maybe it should include the number of the owner for people to call and demand justice for the workers.

* Online communications. The movement in each town should have a Facebook account, Twitter account, and website. All of these are free to set up for anyone who has Internet access (for websites, use free sites such as WordPress). A team of people should be responsible for keeping all of these updated. Each of these should be mostly a one-way clearinghouse for news from the movement and about developments around Bosnia and the rest of the Balkans; to the extent social media or the website become a place for people to “debate” issues or strategy, their usefulness will decline. Those kinds of discussions are usefully conducted only in person and in meetings, or if they are conducted online, they should not be happening on the movement’s own pages which should be dedicated to getting information to people who are only peripherally involved. If an event is announced on Facebook or Twitter, it should serve as confirmation for people that the event is happening, much like advertising – it is not a substitute for actual organizing.

* Hanging posters/leafleting. If the movement makes nice, visually striking posters, someone still has to go out and hang them up. Everyone who does this should have a regular route. Similarly, leafleting in public locations about upcoming events can be useful, and there should be people who specifically volunteer to do this. Each one of them should also carry a sign-up sheet to get the contact information of interested people!

* Research. This is where our intellectuals can be most useful. Some of us like to expound our grand theories or rhapsodize about how much we’re enjoying direct democracy. The movement needs less of that and more practical research right now. A lot of people know who the tycoons are, but how much do they know, and is that being communicated effectively? Whatever town you are in, find out their names, get photographs of them, find out where they live and what properties they own. Help make posters and leaflets and develop talking points for spokespeople about them, plaster their photographs all over town with descriptions of their crimes, go to their homes and businesses in large crowds. Also research the multinational corporations and banks that are doing damage to Bosnia, especially the ones involved in the town where you are. Help the movement make a demand on them – to pay workers who haven’t been paid, for instance – by choosing a suitable place to target them in a demonstration. If they’re based in another country, find out who you need to contact there – probably in the unions or the leftist political parties – to carry out solidarity actions, or maybe see if they’ll fund a bus trip for some Bosnians to go demonstrate there. Sit down and chart out the town you live in, understand the neighborhoods and the social sectors. What are the major employers, who are the public officials at various levels of government and what are their formal powers, who are the tycoons? Where are the schools and universities? Analyze the movement’s list of supporters to see where the movement is strong and where it needs to improve. Is there a large neighborhood where no one is involved yet? A school, workplace?

* Expanding the movement. In addition to the work to build strength in neighborhoods, workplaces, schools, etc., where the movement already has a presence, develop a plan to reach people in new areas and have people who volunteer to carry it out. It may involve leafleting in public spaces, knocking on people’s doors, etc. People will have to talk to people of different ethnicities. They will have to talk to people who do not necessarily share all of our goals, but who are willing to take action on specific issues and problems. People doing this work will inevitably make mistakes, but will learn from them. Without determination to do work like this, no movement can ever succeed.
This likely looks like an intimidating list. There are things that could be added to it. The movement is already better at some of these things than at others, while still other elements are sorely neglected. The extent to which a movement succeeds at doing these things is the extent to which it will be successful at achieving its goals. And let us be clear: The movement is almost certainly not going to get this far before it sputters out and most of its current activists lapse into inactivity. If somehow it continues to grow and manages to dislodge the dysfunctional government, then we will have a new and more interesting set of problems. But the more realistic scenario is that enough minor demands will be met and enough small-scale changes made and enough repression applied that the movement will lose its current momentum, and we will be left with another long period of the relatively undisturbed “status quo.”

The people who want to carry this struggle all the way to conclusion must be ready for “the long haul.” Most of them have little experience doing any of the things I have just described, but will acquire some of that experience if only they practice it. Once the movement tide has ebbed, they will need to stay in touch with one another, continue meeting, continue building organization and issuing propaganda. If they develop a good level of organization, they can help offer direction and organizational skills to the next struggle that happens – the next factory occupation or strike, the next protest over pensions. These committed activists can, in fact, continue to initiate and organize such actions.

This kind of activity amounts to the activity of a political party, but one that rejects the scramble for patronage in the current broken system, and instead constantly mobilizes people for struggle against the exploitative system as a whole, and trains its activists in the organizational skills needed to make movements succeed. This is what Lenin called “the party of a new type.” In contrast to misguided utopian notions of “spontaneity,” the need for such a party is premised on the basic insight that different people come to different levels of social consciousness at different times, and it is the responsibility of revolutionaries to develop their organizational skills so as to raise the social consciousness of an ever-growing number of people through mobilizing them for mass action. This is difficult and requires extreme dedication, but it is the only thing that has ever worked in history, or ever will. Saying all of this is only in keeping with another saying of Amilcar Cabral: “Tell no lies, mask no difficulties, claim no easy victories.”

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