Tuesday, November 2, 2010
Published in Counterpunch, October 16th-31st
Since the summer of 2003 I’ve crisscrossed the country speaking at colleges and theaters and bookstores, first with The Weather Underground documentary and, starting in March of this year, with my book Underground: My Life with SDS and the Weathermen (William Morrow, 2009). In discussions with young people, they often tell me, “Nothing anyone does can ever make a difference.”
The words still sound strange: it’s a phrase I never once heard forty years ago, a sentiment obviously false on its surface. Growing up in the fifties and sixties, I and the rest of the country knew about the civil rights movement in the South, and what was most evident was that individuals, joining with others, actually were making a difference. The labor movement of the thirties to the sixties had improved the lives of millions; the anti-war movement had brought down a sitting president—LBJ, March, 1968—and was actively engaged in stopping the Vietnam war. In the forty years since, the women’s, gay rights, disability rights, animal rights, and environmental movements have all registered enormous social and political gains. To old new lefties, such as myself, this is all self-evident.
So why the defeatism? In the absence of knowledge of how these historical movements were built, young people assume that they arose spontaneously, or, perhaps, charismatic leaders suddenly called them into existence. On the third Monday of every January we celebrate Martin Luther King having had a dream; knowledge of the movement itself is lost.
The current anti-war movement’s weakness, however, is very much alive in young people’s experience. They cite the fact that millions turned out in the streets in the early spring of 2003 to oppose the pending U.S. attack on Iraq, but that these demonstrations had no effect. ”We demonstrated and they didn’t listen to us.” Even the activists among them became demoralized as numbers at demonstrations dropped off very quickly, street demonstrations becoming cliches, and, despite a massive shift in public opinion in 2006, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan droned on to today. The very success of the spontaneous early mobilization seems to have contributed to the anti-war movement’s long-term weakness.
I first got an insight into articulating what it is when I picked up Letters from Young Activists: Today’s Rebels Speak Out, edited by Dan Berger, Chesa Boudin, and Kenyon Farrow (Nation Books, 2005). Andy Cornell, in a letter to the movement that first radicalized him, “Dear Punk Rock Activism,” criticizes the conflation of the terms “activism” and “organizing.” He writes, “activists are individuals who dedicate their time and energy to various efforts they hope will contribute to social, political, or economic change. Organizers are activists who, in addition to their own participation, work to move other people to take action and help them develop skills, political analysis and confidence within the context of organizations. Organizing is a process—creating long-term campaigns that mobilize a certain constituency to press for specific demands from a particular target, using a defined strategy and escalating tactics.” In other words, it’s not enough for punks to continually express their contempt for mainstream values through their alternate identity; they’ve got to move toward “organizing masses of people.”
Aha! Activism = self-expression; organizing = movement-building.
Until recently I’d rarely heard young people call themselves “organizers.” The common term for years has been “activists.” Organizing was reduced to the behind-the scenes nuts-and-bolts work needed to pull off a specific event, such as a concert or demonstration. But forty years ago, we only used the word “activist” to mock our enemies’ view of us, as when a university administrator or newspaper editorial writer would call us “mindless activists.” We were organizers, our work was building a mass movement, and that took constant discussion of goals, strategy, and tactics (and later, contributing to our downfall, ideology).
Thinking back over my own experience, I realized that I had inherited this organizer’s identity from the red diaper babies I fell in with at the Columbia chapter of Students for a Democratic Society, SDS. Raised by parents in the labor and civil rights and communist or socialist movements, they had naturally learned the organizing method as other kids learned how to throw footballs or bake pineapple upside-down cakes. ”Build the base!” was the constant strategy of Columbia SDS for years.
Yet young activists I met were surprised to learn that major events such as the Columbia rebellion of April, 1968, did not happen spontaneously, that they took years of prior education, relationship building, reconsideration on the part of individuals of their role in the institution. I.e., organizing. It seemed to me that they believed that movements happen as a sort of dramatic or spectator sport: after a small group of people express themselves, large numbers of by-standers see the truth in what they’re saying and join in. The mass anti-war mobilization of the Spring, 2003, which failed to stop the war, was the only model they knew.
I began looking for a literature that would show how successful historical movements were built. Not the outcomes or triumphs, such as the great civil rights March on Washington, 1963, but the many streams that eventually created the floods. I wanted to know who said what to whom and how did they respond? One book was recommended to me repeatedly by friends, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: the organizing tradition and the Mississippi freedom struggle by Charles M. Payne, (University of California Press, 1995). Payne, an African-American sociologist now at the University of Chicago, asked the question how young student organizers of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, SNCC, had successfully organized voter registration and related campaigns in one town, Greenwood, Mississippi, in the years 1961-1964. The Mississippi Delta region was one of the most benighted areas of the South, with conditions for black cotton sharecroppers and plantation workers not much above the level of slavery. Despite the fact that illiteracy and economic dependency were the norm among black people in the Delta, and that they were the target of years of violent terror tactics, including murder, SNCC miraculously organized these same people to take the steps toward their own freedom, through attaining voting rights and education. How did they do it?
What Payne uncovers through his investigation into SNCC in Greenwood is an organizing method that has no name, but is solidly rooted in the traditions of church women of the rural South. Black churches usually had charismatic male ministers, who, as a consequence of their positions, led in an authoritarian manner. The work of the congregations themselves, however, the social events and education and mutual aid, were organized at the base-level by women, who were democratic and relational in style. Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Council, SCLC, used the ministerial model in their mobilizing for events, while the young people of SNCC—informed by the teaching and examples of freedom movement veterans Ella Baker and Septima Clark–concentrated on building relationships with local people and helping them develop into leaders within democratic structures. SNCC’s central organizing principle,”participatory democracy,” was a direct inheritance from Ella Baker.
Payne writes, “SNCC preached a gospel of individual efficacy. What you do matters. In order to move politically, people had to believe that. In Greenwood the movement was able to exploit communal and familial traditions that encouraged people to believe in their own light.”
The features of the organizing method, sometimes called “developmental” or “transformational,” involve long-term strategy, patient base-building, personal engagement between people, full democratic participation, education and the development of people’s leadership capabilities, and coalition-building. The developmental method is often juxtaposed to Alinsky-style organizing, which is usually characterized as top-down and manipulative.
For a first-hand view of Alinsky organizing—though it’s never named as such—by a trained and seasoned practitioner, see Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father (Three Rivers Press, 1995 and 2004). In the middle section of the book, “Chicago,” Obama describes his three years organizing on the streets and housing projects of South Chicago. He beautifully invokes his motives—improving young people’s lives—but at the same time draws a murky picture of organizing. Questions abound: Who trained him? What was his training? Who paid him? What is the guiding ideology? What is his relationship to the people he calls “my leaders?” Are they above him or are they manipulated by him? Who are calling whose shots? What are the long-term consequences? It’s a great piece to start a discussion with young organizers.
While reading I’ve Got the Light of Freedom, I realized that much of what we had practiced in SDS was derived from SNCC and this developmental organizing tradition, up to and including the vision of “participatory democracy,” which was incorporated in the 1962 SDS founding document, “The Port Huron Statement.” Columbia SDS’s work was patient, strategic, base-building, using both confrontation and education. I myself had been nurtured and developed into a leadership position through years of close friendship with older organizers.
However, my clique’s downfall came post-1968, when, under the spell of the illusion of revolution, we abandoned organizing, first for militant confrontation (Weatherman and the Days of Rage, Oct. 1969) and then armed urban guerilla warfare (the Weather Underground, 1970-1976). We had, in effect, moved backwards from organizing to self-expression, believing, ridiculously, that that would build the movement. At the moment when more organizing was needed, in order to build a permanent anti-imperialist mass movement, we abandoned organizing.
This is the story I tell in my book, Underground. It’s about good organizing (Columbia), leading to worse (Weatherman), leading to horrible (the Weather Underground). I hope it’s useful to contemporary organizers as they contemplate how to build the coming mass movement(s).
Thursday, August 5, 2010
Sunday, March 7, 2010
Tuesday, March 2, 2010
'Better Questions' seminar series in Seomra Spraoi
Researcher and activist Hilary Darcy will present an introduction to
Gramsci’s ‘Philosophy of Praxis’
Fergal Finnegan is an community educator and activist from Dublin. He
will give short introduction to the ideas of Paulo Freire entitled
'Hope, cultural politics and popular education'.
Theresa O’Keefe is a feminist academic and activist working at NUIM
and will present on ‘feminist praxis: possible lessons for achieving
These presentations will be followed by a group discussion - This
event marks the final session of this season of discussions
Better Questions is an initiative that has emerged out of
conversations between people engaged in either social movement
practices in Dublin and/or thought on radical social change. Our point
of convergence is our recognition that we must develop better
questions about the world around us in order to change it. This
seminar series draws on a wide variety of critical theoretical
perspectives to explore contemporary forms of power and possibilities
The talks will take place fortnightly in Seomra Spraoi from 6.30pm
(for directions see seomraspraoi.org).
The peoples kitchen will serve food from 8pm
Tuesday, December 29, 2009
'Better Questions' seminar series in Seomra Spraoi beginning 20th January 2010
Better Questions is an initiative that has emerged out of conversations between people engaged in either social movement practices in Dublin and/or thought on radical social change. Our point of convergence is our recognition that we must develop better questions about the world around us in order to change it. This seminar series draws on a wide variety of critical theoretical perspectives to explore contemporary forms of power and possibilities for resistance.
The talks will take place fortnightly in Seomra Spraoi from 6.30pm (for directions see seomraspraoi.org).
Wednesday 17th of February, 6.30pm: Jacques Ranciere and Alain Badiou
Despite the cynicism and melancholy of a decadent left, Jacques Ranciere and Alain Badiou persist in imagining the possibility of an entirely different state of affairs. Central to their thought is the conviction that emancipation does not derive from objective conditions – that politics no longer has an historical homeland. It is rather the becoming of a radically new subjectivity, heterogeneous to the determinism of places and functions.
Jacques Rancière (born Algiers, 1940) is a French philosopher and Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Paris (St. Denis). He first came to prominence in 1968 when he co-authored Reading Capital with the Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser.
Alain Badiou (Rabat, 1937) teaches philosophy at the Ecole Normale Superieure and the College International de Philosophie in Paris. In addition to several novels, plays and political essays he has published a number of major philosophical works. After a long political militancy in the Maoist far left, in 1985 Badiou founded L'Organisation Politique, a post-party organization concerned with direct popular intervention.
Wednesday 3rd of March
Roundtable on Praxis
More information to follow on the seminar listed above.
Wednesday, November 11, 2009
Courtesy Office of Sen. Tom Hayden.
THE PORT HURON STATEMENT OF THE STUDENTS FOR A DEMOCRATIC SOCIETY
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Introductory Note: This document represents the results of several months of writing and discussion among the membership, a draft paper, and revision by the Students for a Democratic Society national convention meeting in \cf2 Port Huron\cf0 , Michigan, June 11-15, 1962. It is represented as a document with which SDS officially identifies, but also as a living document open to change with our times and experiences. It is a beginning: in our own debate and education, in our dialogue with society.
published and distributed by Students for a Democratic Society 112 East 19 Street New York 3, New York GRamercy 3-2181
INTRODUCTION: AGENDA FOR A GENERATION
We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit.
When we were kids the United States was the wealthiest and strongest country in the world: the only one with the atom bomb, the least scarred by modern war, an initiator of the United Nations that we thought would distribute Western influence throughout the world. Freedom and equality for each individual, government of, by, and for the people -- these American values we found good, principles by which we could live as men. Many of us began maturing in complacency.
On the Poverty of Student Life is a classic statement from 1966 of the problems facing students and academics, largely written by sociology postgrads!