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"Be realistic, demand the impossible"

Jessica Squires and Benoit Renaud

November 20, 2011

As the occupy movement enters its second month, corporate media and much of the international left continue to observe from the sidelines that the movement lacks cohesion, and is not offering up any clear demands for mainstream consumption.

But what inspired all these people to come together in the first place is a shared, deepening and profoundly justified anger about how the world works. Perhaps this helps explain why fully a third of the public already supports the occupation movement, despite non-stop criticism by the mainstream media that protesters don’t know what they want.

There are striking similarities between this movement and one that took place in 1968. Arguably the high point of the latter was the weeks-long general strike that took place in France. At its height French president Charles de Gaulle fled the country, hiding out in Germany. During those weeks the people of France—students, workers, the unemployed (what we refer to today as the 99%)—experimented with democratic decision-making, debated about demands and took actions that nearly brought down the state.


The title of this article was one of the most popular slogans of the movement in 1968: Soyons réaliste, demandons l’impossible!

Another popular slogan was On ne revendiqera rien, on ne demandera rien. On prendra, on occupera! In English: “We demand nothing, we ask for nothing. We will take, we will occupy!”

The major difference between today and 1968 is that the French movement occupied schools and factories. But they, too, began by taking over the public square.

It began with student protests at Nanterre University, over the student code of conduct, unemployment and the Vietnam War, among other issues. After the police brutally attacked the protests, French unions and students from other campuses marched in their hundreds of thousands. In the following weeks, students and their allies held general assemblies that lasted days. They talked and debated. Eventually, they did articulate demands, but it took a lot of discussion and debate to get there, and with a really mass movement, it is unlikely that they reached consensus.

General assembly

One account of the Sorbonne occupation describes it like this:

“The only power in the Sorbonne was the general assembly of its occupiers. At its first session, on May 14, amidst a certain confusion, it had elected an Occupation Committee of 15 members revocable by it each day. Only one of the delegates, a member of the Nanterre-Paris Enragé group, had set forth a program: defence of direct democracy in the Sorbonne and absolute power of workers’ councils as the ultimate goal.

“The next day’s general assembly reelected its entire Occupation Committee, which had as yet been unable to accomplish anything. In fact, the various specialized groupings that had set themselves up in the Sorbonne all followed the directives of a hidden ‘Coordination Committee,’ composed of self-appointed organizers, responsible to no one, doing everything in their power to prevent any ‘irresponsible’ extremist actions.

“An hour after the reelection of the Occupation Committee one of these ‘coordinators’ privately tried to declare it dissolved. A direct appeal to the people in the courtyard of the Sorbonne aroused a movement of protests that forced the manipulator to retract himself. By the next day… 13 members of the Occupation Committee had disappeared, leaving two [people]… vested with the only delegation of power authorized by the general assembly—and this at a time when the urgency of the situation demanded immediate decisions: democracy was constantly being flouted in the Sorbonne, while factory occupations were spreading all over the country.”


Doesn’t sound pretty, does it? Some participants in the various occupations across Canada and the US have had similar experiences, along with a host of others. But to expect otherwise would be a pipe dream.

Movements are messy, and they take a lot of work. And sometimes, they fall apart. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep trying.

Today’s occupation movement has begun, in various locations, to grapple with the challenges and tensions created by bringing together such a diverse group of people. Discussions and debates about how to make decisions, how to be accountable to one another, how to involve more people, whether to discuss politics and in what form, etc. are taking place across the continent.

The important thing is not to orphan.

Mass organizations

These debates are important. The movement in France ultimately failed—not because of how it was organized, but because the leaders of some of the mass organizations, seeking to preserve their own authority, moved to stifle the occupations.

In today’s movement, significantly, the unions are playing a positive role. Even the ultra-bureaucratized AFL-CIO (the main labour federation in the US) is encouraging its members to participate in occupations, owning that they are complex and unpredictable, but emphasizing their importance at the same time.

This is a positive development, and should be supported. The last thing the occupiers should do is break ties with organized labour and its networks of communication to hundreds of thousands of the 99%.

But the long-term survival of the occupy movement means even more effort is needed to remain organized and, finally, to talk politics. The occupiers don’t need to be clear about some kind of reformist demands, just to pacify the media or some sections of the left. But they will need more than consensus decision-making to keep them together, especially if the state or the leadership of mass organizations tries to end the protests.

Occupy everything

There is one other thing the occupy movement has in common with the experience of May 1968. That movement was, in large part, inspired by the Prague Spring, an uprising of students and workers. Similarly, the Arab Spring has helped inspire the thousands occupying parks and public squares in hundreds of cities.

The success (so far) of the Arab Spring—and of the movement of 1968—has been the spreading of occupations into schools and workplaces. Those sites of economic authority need to come under popular control, or the impact of the occupy movement will be severely limited. From that same account of the Sorbonne occupation:

“At the very moment that the example of the occupation is beginning to be taken up in the factories it is collapsing at the Sorbonne…. But the students have in fact already given an excellent lesson to the workers precisely by occupying the Sorbonne and briefly initiating a really democratic debate.”

General strikes

In France in 1968, workers’ actions that began as mass marches and turned into unlimited general strikes were the lynch-pin that forced President DeGaulle to flee the country. Workplaces were under workers’ control, the university campuses were opened up to everybody, and free universities were set up. Debate was everywhere, not just about day-to-day needs, but about how to transform society once and for all.

Now, in some cities around the world—Cairo, in Greece, in the rest of Europe, and in the Global South—general strike movements are taking shape again. And in Oakland, California on November 2, thousands of workers and students walked off the job and out of classrooms in a one-day general strike against the system, called by Occupy Oakland in the aftermath of a police crackdown on October 25. Crucially, this has come about because of the efforts the Oakland occupation made to reach out from the start to those beyond the boundaries of the square: not just asking for their support, but offering it as well, out of a recognition that all the issues—housing, indigenous rights, the environment, labour, jobs—are connected.

Not just the park, but society itself, should be subject to democratic control—real democracy, where ordinary people make the decisions that affect their lives.

As they chanted in 1968: “Be realistic, demand the impossible!”

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