U.S. and World Politics

The Historic Women’s Marches of January 21, 2017

By Kamran Nayeri

Historic actions

January 21, 2017, Women’s Marches were historic in a number of ways. First, in the United States, more than 3.2 million persons participated—at least 500,000 in Washington D.C. alone. There were more than 408 other marches, covering all 50 states. One out of every hundred people living in the country participated, making it the largest single-day street action in U.S. history.

Second, there were 168 “solidarity” marches in 81 other countries on all seven continents, which bring the world total participation to 4.8 million. Canada and Mexico, United States’ neighbors, had 29 and 20 separate marches respectively.

Third, these massive street actions were organized from the ground up. The Washington D.C. march was organized as follows. The day after the election of Donald J. Trump to the presidency, Teresa Shook from Hawaii created a Facebook event and invited friends to march on Washington in protest. During his election campaign, Trump’s misogyny was on full display. Similar Facebook pages were created by Evvie Harmon, Fontaine Pearson, Bob Bland, Breanne Butler, and others quickly leading to thousands of women signing up to march. Soon, these individual efforts were conjoined and National Co-Chairs including Tamika Mallory, Carmen Perez, and Linda Sarsour were selected to reflect the rising to prominence of women of color in the social justice movement in the U.S. Organizers insisted that they were “not targeting Trump specifically” and that the event was “more about being proactive about women’s rights.” A lively discussion ensued where the issue of “intersectionality” was discussed—the importance of expressing the multidimensional character of women’s oppression today. Sarsour, a Palestinian-American, called it “a stand for social justice and human rights issues ranging from race, ethnicity, gender, religion, immigration and healthcare.” Still, the marchers did target Trump, and his actions since inauguration have confirmed they were not wrong to do so. 

Sectarian critics of women’s marches

V. I. Lenin, the central leader of the 1917 Russian socialist revolution, reminded us that “politics begin where millions of men and women are; where there are not thousands, but millions, that is where serious politics begin.”1 Unfortunately, as long as there have been mass actions in the modern era, there have also been ultra-left sectarian critics of them. A sideline critic of the women’s marches is the U.S. Socialist Workers Party (SWP) that attacked them as “bourgeois,” characterized the marchers as “middle class,” and claimed without proof that they were organized by supporters of Senator Sanders in the “Our Revolution” group and the Communist Party and “numerous” other forces that were disappointed by the defeat of Hillary Clinton in the November 2016 elections. As is typical with sectarian political groups, the SWP went to the marches “looking to debate and discuss political perspectives with those...who participated,” and urge them to join the SWP to further the women’s movement. (The Militant, February 6, 2017)

For over two decades the SWP similarly has been denigrating the precious few mass actions in the United States to justify abstaining from building them. Given that in 2015, the number of wage and salary workers was just shy of 134 million in a population of about 320 million, it is quite likely that the majority of the 3.2 million participants in the marches were ordinary working people. But even if there were a sizable “middle class” component to the marches, it should not have deterred anyone seriously interested in radical social change from supporting and building them. After all, women’s rights like other human rights are universal rights that socialists have always supported. Let us recall, that Marx’s socialism is a theory and a movement for the emancipation of humanity, not just the emancipation of the working class. The centrality of the working class in this theory is due to its social position as the agency that has nothing to lose and everything to gain for transcending capitalism and building a classless socialist society. The same is true for other important and even vital struggles, which we face today, and can attract people from all social classes such as the antiwar movement, the anti-nuclear movement, and the environmentalist/ecology movement.2

As we know from history, mass actions often erupt spontaneously or with little influence from any organized political force. Such was the case with the February 1917 revolution in Russia and the February 1979 revolution in Iran. Again, we know from history that political forces that are more strategically placed, often because they correspond to the present consciousness of the masses, initially become more influential in the mass movement. But the mass movement itself provides the opportunity for the more consistent and better-organized forces to vie for leadership and succeed in radicalizing the movement forward. The Russian, October 1917, revolution provides a positive and rich example of this.3 Often, the retrograde political forces manage to saddle the mass movement and defuse or crush it. The defeat of the Iranian revolution at the hands of the clerical capitalist forces led by Ayatollah Khomeini provides such a negative example.4

In real life, masses of working people will get their political educations not from tiny sectarian groups on the sideline but from participation in the mass movement. It is through building mass actions that working people find confidence in themselves, network with each other, and potentially move on to bigger and more effective political action. As I am writing, tens-of-thousands across the United States are protesting president Trump’s racist selective ban on entry to the U.S. of refugees and others from seven largely Muslim countries5 and his racist order to build a wall on the border with Mexico. No doubt these actions are stronger because of the women’s marches a week earlier. No doubt that many who are participating or supporting these protest actions were also participants in the women’s marches. No doubt that both the immigrant rights movement and women’s rights movement are stronger as a result. Would not these also strengthen the position of the working class in the United States? 

The Democratic Party is the graveyard of social movements

In an Op-Ed essay in the New York Times, Zeynep Tufekci “Does the Size of a Protest Matter?” makes an important observation about the women’s marches. “In the digital age,” she writes, “…the size of a protest is no longer a reliable indicator of a movement’s strength. Comparisons to the number of people in previous marches are especially misleading.” Her point is the following. In the pre-digital age, organizers of mass actions had to work hard for a long time to spread the news, educate the public for many months, to ensure a successful protest. She cites the March in Washington in August 1963 which brought together a-quarter-of-a-million people, considered a massive action at the time. The planning for it began nine months earlier in December 1962. “It represented much more effort, commitment and preparation than would a protest of similar size today,” she adds.

The truth is that today’s mass actions also require much advance organizing. The advantage offered by social media is to make the task of mass communication, mass education and mass organization easier and more cost-and-time-effective. Another factor to consider is the degree of political polarization and mass radicalization—we probably live in more polarized times now than in the early 1960s. Still, social media and degree of political polarization do not replace the need for an effective strategy, tactics, and action program for the mass action. It is here where many mass movements have failed in the past as they ended up channeling the mass movement into the Democratic Party politics.

Ms. Tufekci urges her readers to a Democratic Party version of the Tea Party model—that is, to organize local groups to question, pressure and elect politicians to adopt the movement’s goals. The same message is broadcasted by hundreds of liberal-minded organizations and personalities in the social justice and environmentalist movements. (By “liberal,” I mean persons who hold a liberal view on social issues and support government action to soften the blows of the capitalist system to the society and the environment.) Their strategy and tactics can be described as follows: resist the Trump government in the next two years while preparing for electing Democrats in the mid-term elections, and if a majority in the House and Congress is achieved then go on the offensive to implement a “liberal” or “progressive” agenda. 

There is a long history of social movements being dragged into supporting the Democratic Party, the graveyard of progressive movements in the U.S. Witness the history of the labor movement, Black liberation movement, women’s liberation movement, and the environmentalists’ movement. Every major victory for any of these movements came when they mobilized mass actions in the streets not when they followed a policy of getting Democrats elected. When the latter “strategy” dominated, the mass base of these movements was demobilized except to get them to vote for Democrats on the Election Day. 

As such, social and environmentalist movements of the 1960s and early 1970s proved ill-prepared when the capitalist offensive by the corporate elite and their bipartisan government (Democrats and Republicans) began, in the aftermath of the world recession of 1973-75, that signaled the end of the post-World War II capitalist prosperity. The leadership of these movements that relied on the Democratic Party politicians to gain a few concessions in exchange for political support for its capitalist policies proved unable to resist the class war that ensued and continues to this day. Both Republican and Democratic parties participated in this class warfare, although they employed different tactics (Think of the Republicans as the Stick Party and the Democrats as the Carrot Party.)

Humanity cannot afford the continuation of the same historically proven bankrupt capitalist policies by the leadership of the social justice and environmentalist movements: the planetary crisis caused by the workings of the anthropocentric industrial capitalist world economy leaves humanity only a few decades before existential threats like catastrophic climate change or the sixth extinction reaches the tipping points beyond which no human intervention can stop the existential disaster. 

There lies the most important historic aspect of today’s mobilizations. They provide an opportunity for a working class vanguard to emerge that will go beyond fighting the anti-working class policies of Donald Trump, to break with the two-party system, and to form a mass labor party with a revolutionary program to resolve the social and ecological crisis by uniting working people in the U.S. and worldwide through a government of direct producers.

—February 2, 2017

1 “Political Report of the Central Committee,” March 7, 1918.

2 The Socialist Workers Party of the 1960s and 1970s not only upheld these views but played a leading role in the mass movements of those days, especially in the anti-Vietnam war movement. However, in the early 1980s Jack Barnes, SWP’s National Secretary, led a purge of the party’s historical program, strategy and organizational norms that were accompanied by expulsions and forcing out of hundreds of leaders and members of the party.

3 Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, 1932, especially, Volume 1, Chapter 8.

4 Nayeri and Nasab, The Rise and Fall of the 1979 Iranian Revolution: Its Lessons for Today, 2006.

5 What most people do not realize is that this ban that affects more than 90,000 people is imposed on those who have already been “vetted” by multiple U.S. security agencies and have been given admission to the United States. See, “Infographic: The Screening Process for Refugee Entry into the United States.”