—Secretariat of the Revolutionary Student Coordinating Committee
— Secretariat of Ignite
(Participating Organizations in the Ad Hoc Committee Against the Militarization of CUNY)
The controversy surrounding the video of CUNY student protesters confronting David Petraeus has obscured a decisive fact: on September 9, there was not one protest, but there were two protests against the Professor-General.
The first protest conformed to what we might call the revisionist protest-structure. The protesters were sequestered in their designated pens, the Professor-General “taught” [sic] in his classroom, police and university officials interposed themselves between the two sides in order to maintain the integrity of the readymade structure. In this protest, everyone was in her or his proper place, everyone carried out her or his assigned function. The unity of the protesters here was what one might call a unity without principle, a unity that does not affirm a rupture with all forms of power of the adversary. In the revisionist protest-structure, unity is absolute, while division and struggle are conditional and relative.
The second protest was the one recorded in the now-infamous video of us raining words on the Professor-General as he acted the part of the teacher walking home alone from work. (In reality there were security agents and an idling, chauffeur-driven, black Cadillac Escalade with tinted windows waiting for him across the street.)
This was a demonstration of an essentially different type: let us call it a ruptural action. What it activated was precisely a qualitative rupture with the revisionist protest-structure, and beyond that, with existing social relations. In the ruptural action, division and struggle are absolute, while unity is conditional and relative. What many have described as “ugliness” and “rudeness,” we would characterize as a leap into the future that drew a sharp political line of demarcation between us and our adversary.What do we mean by “a qualitative rupture” and “a leap into the future”?
We should first note that the principal reason our video gained notoriety so quickly is that dominant ideology simply could not assimilate the spectacle we staged. Here, a mass of students exercised its power over a man who until very recently occupied the summit of the capitalist state’s military and intelligence repressive apparatuses. To paraphrase Brecht, it was as if the rain began to fall from the ground to the sky.
It is in this sense that our action—while admittedly ‘rude’ and ‘ugly’—effectively represented a reversal of existing social relations at the level of ideology. We are proletarians, and many of us come from nations oppressed by U.S. imperialism. Our action was nothing less than a taking in hand of our historical responsibilities with a view to transforming the terms of the class struggle that has produced and reproduced us as a dominated and exploited social class.
This is to say that genuine militant activity as we conceive it prefigures a future in which the masses have seized political power. As such, our actions must be assessed in terms of their capacity to address the problem of the relation of forces—not as they correlate in the polite, civil space of symmetry (students, the Professor-General and police all in their proper places)—but rather as they divide into discontinuous terms related to each other only through the irreducible gap that separates them. While the revisionist protest aims for a quantitative accumulation of power that will lead to a sudden inversion of places—an inversion that never arrives—the ruptural action depends on a nearly invisible process anchored in the very qualitative principles of our power, foremost among which are division and struggle.
We must keep the question of the relation of forces firmly in mind if we are to avoid drifting into petty bourgeois left opportunism. Power is at stake in each confrontation with the class enemy. Confrontation is never an end in itself. We must always ask ourselves: do our actions in a given concrete situation effectively transform existing social relations and thus help to build proletarian power?
Left opportunists, who conceive of the struggle in purely technico-military terms—a conception that amounts to a putschist deviation—forget that militants must always seek to transform the concrete relation of forces in a given concrete situation through mass mobilization, so that the masses can maintain or grow their power vis-à-vis the class enemy. Militants must therefore link unity of the mass movement with the struggle against the adversary. However, left opportunism, far from uniting all those who can be united with the proletariat, accentuates the contradictions among the people, effectively isolating and dividing the proletariat.
Our practice must therefore always be carried out under the command of political directives that are oriented toward the masses.
In this assessment, then, we are not proposing some metaphysics of the protest, along the lines of: “pickets are essentially revisionist and spectacular actions are essentially revolutionary.” This would amount to embracing a left opportunist technics of anti-authoritarian revolt that—in dogmatic and subjectivist fashion—sets for itself as the single and sole task it must carry out in every political conjuncture spectacular actions against a principle of authority it erroneously identifies with bourgeois ideology. Moreover, since petty bourgeois revolutionism substitutes spectacular militant actions for mass mobilization, it inevitably leads to a total separation from the masses, thus reducing them to spectators and subjecting them to fierce repression. In this way, left opportunism is marked by an inability, at the tactical level, to reason in terms of relations of force.
This summation, on the other hand, is a call always to elaborate the concrete politics of the class struggle in each concrete situation as we systematize our experiences in the form of political directives. There will arise situations in which surrounding our adversary is politically harmful and picketing is the best course of action. Only by maintaining the primacy of the question of power can we contribute to the unification of the broad masses under the command of proletarian ideology. The qualitative rupture should thus not be identified, in empiricist fashion, with the literal, physical form of our action, but rather should always be referred to power as its real object.
That our September 9 action effected a qualitative rupture at the level of ideology was confirmed by the events that unfolded a little over a week after it was staged. On the evening of September 17, we demonstrated outside a fundraising event featuring a conversation between an Imperial Court Stenographer (Fareed Zakaria) and the Professor-General at Macaulay Honors College. Although our numbers were relatively small, shortly after we abandoned the enclosure marking the boundaries of “legitimate protest,” the police—the dominant institution of organized physical repression within the borders of the capitalist state—attacked.
Six individuals were arrested, most of them members of RSCC who were clearly visible in the original video. Uniformed officers, joined by unidentified men in suits, used exceptional violence in carrying out the arrests. Several of our comrades were thrown to the pavement, where they received a barrage of kicks and punches to the body and face.
The brutality of the onslaught cannot be explained by the events of that day alone. A small protest, some chants in unison, a brief exit from the assigned “free speech” zone: none of this accounts for the intensity of the police offensive. In trying to come to terms with the nature of the attack, one can no more appeal to a quantitative relation of forces than to a redistribution of those forces across a static system of places.
Instead, the NYPD violence must be understood (1) dynamically as recognition by the capitalist state of our steadily increasing power—and its own declining power—in relation to the rupture of September 9, and (2) qualitatively, as an ultimate consequence of the internal nature of our power that has led to its tendential growth, and which is irreducible to that of our antagonists. Only by dynamically and qualitatively assessing the forces engaged in the struggle can one begin to account for the chain of events that culminated in the beating and jailing of our comrades.
The concept of qualitative rupture should be extended to the argument implicit in our action.
Thus, when we characterize the Professor-General as a “war criminal,” it would be erroneous to imagine that through this attribution we intend to reference some transgression of (domestic or international) bourgeois law. First, as revolutionaries we aim for nothing less than transforming the existing juridico-political structure upon which the power of the bourgeoisie as a social class rests. The law is an instrument of the class dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.Second, the formal legal system is incapable of recognizing the class struggle, because the law masks the social relations that it formalizes and systematizes by rendering them non-contradictory and universal. The law masks exploitation and domination. Third, the formal legal system includes the repressive state apparatus (military, police, courts, jails, etc.) as its necessary supplement, since there can be no legal system without a corresponding system of penalties.The law, in order to truly be the law, requires enforcement through the institutions of organized physical repression, including the police and the military.
For these reasons, our concept of ‘war crime’ refers to a specific class practice essentially inscribed in, and masked by, the bourgeois legal system itself, not a violation of certain of its constituent rules. Far from covertly upholding the law, our accusation of criminality against Petraeus is an accusation directed in large part against bourgeois legality as such.
The epithet “war criminal” should thus be understood both as essentially tied to the juridical instance of the capitalist state and as discontinuous with any notion of a breach of bourgeois legal norms. Imperialist war is always a crime against the masses, whether authorized by the United Nations, or by Congress, or carried out unilaterally—or, for that matter: whether brought by Obama and his FSA/Takfiri terrorist agents, or by Putin and his Ba’athist/Hizbullah agents.
However, even within the limits of bourgeois legal ideology, the proposition that Petraeus is a war criminal is not self-contradictory, as many would have it. To give a representative example: the Guardian newspaper carried a devastating investigative report this past March detailing his close involvement in setting up and supervising Iraqi torture centers. Special advisors James Steele and James Coffman (the latter who “reported directly to General David Petraeus”) “were sometimes present in the detention centres where torture took place and were involved in the processing of thousands of detainees.” Torture methods included electric shocks and extraction of fingernails.
Our action signals a qualitative rupture not only with the revisionist protest-structure and with bourgeois legal ideology, but also with the role of the university in social formations dominated by the capitalist mode of production. In capitalist societies, the social relations that mark out the places occupied by various agents (middle manager, worker, technician etc.) are reproduced through the educational system. Unskilled workers are ejected from the system after high school, managers and skilled workers after college, professionals and engineers after graduate school. The university, like the rest of the educational system, effectively serves the interests of capital and its agents. CUNY is no exception. It supplies the regional economy with individuals qualified to fill low- to mid-level skilled positions: junior accountants, teachers, police, nursing assistants and the like.
The militarization of CUNY, a process in relation to which the hiring of the Professor-General is a symptom, must be understood in this context. CUNY is the only major university in New York City that proletarian students can aspire to attend. The recent return of ROTC (Reserve Officers’ Training Corps) to campus represents an aspect of its transformation into a kind of apprentice program for military officers. This process of militarization extends to the increasing trend of closing off various CUNY campuses to surrounding communities. Several decades ago, most individuals with high school degrees could enroll as students in the CUNY senior colleges, and community groups could use university facilities when not in use by students. This is no longer the case.
The violent arrests of the six student protesters are proof enough that the process of militarization is already quite advanced. CUNY security officials worked side by side with the NYPD as they beat up and arrested the students. This repression, internal to the educational institution, clearly demonstrates that the university administration, far from being ‘technical’ or ‘neutral,’ can only be understood in relation to the social division of labor that it masks.
Our immediate aim is to reverse the militarization of CUNY. Our strategic goal is to break with the university-function as such. In order to accomplish this, we must undertake a transformation of existing social relations at all levels: economic, juridico-political and ideological. In this process, the university will become a base area that can meet the needs of the proletariat and its allies.
It is our hope that our actions—insignificant as they may appear in themselves—contribute to the initiation of this new revolutionary sequence. The central task of militants in the current conjuncture is to exercise proletarian leadership in order to organize the self-education of the masses.The masses themselves will identify as their adversaries all who attempt to separate them from their growing unity and democratic practices. These practices, insofar as they bring about a decisive break with bourgeois class domination, will lead to an inevitable response from the state. As we know, the state resorts to concentrated physical repression precisely when the ideological mechanisms that generally reproduce social relations cease to function ‘as they should.’ However, by relying on intense violence—that is, on brute quantitative power—in order to counter the qualitative ruptures forced by the masses, the state only discloses (and reinforces) its own tendency toward increasing weakness.
In order to begin the exceedingly difficult task of opening up a new revolutionary path, we must divide ourselves from all forms of so-called “spontaneous” popular consciousness. The masses live in a society dominated by bourgeois ideology, and without proper leadership, they lapse into reformism. Our action of September 9—and all actions to come—can thus only be understood in reference to a definition that is at the same time a directive: To be a revolutionary is nothing less than to be able to seize the future within the present itself.