Between Change and Continuity
Organizers work in the creative tension between change and continuity.
Organizers usually become committed to their work out of deeply held desires for fundamental social and cultural change yet they must be ready to dedicate themselves to a life of incremental progress and evolutionary change.
Except in rare historical moments like revolutions, great depressions, and world wars, change occurs gradually. Even then, the organizer’s core practice is talking with people not rushing to the barricades.
Maybe, just maybe, the perfect storm of climate catastrophe, corporate domination, mass incarceration, endless war and the increasingly obvious dysfunction of the two-party system are clearing vistas to revolutionary change.
Even then, organizers suspect that behind the great dramas of history are slower preliminary shifts in the way people understood the world. Revolution is in the minds of the people and minds change all too slowly — most of the time. The organizers task is to contribute to the evolution of thought and action.
Without making evolution how will we ever learn to make revolution? Visionary projects need intermediate programs.
The glacial pace of cultural change in both society and movement organizations means that organizers typically must have a high tolerance for frustration. Or, a historical perspective that sees the big picture reflected in small daily acts of resistance.
Organizers keep sight of long-term goals but recognize just how monumental real change is. Wary of shortcuts, quick fixes and big promises, organizers suspect that any type of “activism” that does not increase the quantity — and improve the quality — of face-to face or small group encounters is likely to be just so much smoke and mirrors.
Politics Begins by Engaging the People
Of all the principles of organizing, the most enduring has been that organizers must begin with people the way they actually are, not the way we wish they were.
Saul Alinsky usefully schooled thousands of activists. He captured the kernel of organizing wisdom when he wrote “As an organizer I start from where the world is, as it is, not as I would like it to be. That we accept the world as it is does not is any sense weaken our desire to change it into what we believe it should be.”1
Organizers engage the world and work with it but without abdicating their principles, compromising their strategy or resigning themselves to business as usual. This critical embrace of the world places the organizer on a razor’s edge.
Organizers do not stand high above the fray to criticize and deplore the world because self-righteousness is inimical to social action and solidarity.
Nor do organizers indulge grandiose fantasies of power.
Illusions of power lead the dreamer to think they will ride a wave of insurgency and insurrection to wipe the slate clean and remake the world according to their ideology.
On the other side of the spectrum, the ambitious trade on their claim to formal representation of unions or social movements hoping to become an inside player on equal footing with the rich and powerful.
Where have these power trips taken us? Both are essentially apolitical — divorced from the people — and from organizing.
Observe and Assess
The organizers first skills are those of observation and assessment. We always start at the beginning by trying to understand who we have to work with. So let go, and listen up — be patient no matter what the crisis. When you arrive on the scene, avoid the temptation to act like people need to be set straight.
Organizers should facilitate activism but if they substitute their own initiative for that of the people they can reinforce passivity, deference or cynicism and do more harm than good. Find out who the leaders are (they may not be the elected ones) and what they believe is appropriate political activity. Assess the strengths and weaknesses and evaluate resources so you will know what is possible. Be mindful of the fact that your ambition to change things will tend to cloud your judgment.
When you do begin to speak and act the starting point should be within the experience and culture of your constituency. You cannot have politics if you do not have a dialogue and for that there must be a point of contact and engagement.
Ideologues make poor organizers. Ideologues unintentionally depoliticize seemingly radical beliefs because they prize the intellectual order, moral superiority, or aesthetic quality of their systems too much to risk engagement with the disorderly and contradictory world.
Ideologies do matter, and cannot be dispensed with in any event, but are useful for organizers as a general reference rather than a formula. Ideological rigidity tends to limit the organizer’s experimental sensibility.
Once you have built up trust by acting in ways people can recognize and understand then you can slowly move the point of the dialogue and action toward greater empowerment. In most cases it is one small step at a time. But there are good reasons to believe that progressive social movements will someday gain the advantage and when they do — well-grounded organizers could be decisive in winning revolutionary change.
Since grassroots power usually grows out of community, successful organizers respect local culture and tradition. Time-tested and revered values will sustain people’s courage for action and provide the ground on which new understandings will develop. Tradition can be a platform or a prison. A good organizer makes it a platform by identifying what aspects of existing tradition and culture have the potential to be renewed, recast, reconstructed and revitalized.
Historical consciousness tempers the kind of thinking that depends on great leaps forward, insurrections and revolutionary situations. Apocalyptic expectations almost always fails and leads to defeat and cynicism.
Today, we have radical ideologies by the score and debates uncountable. But, still — still — we lack a working theory of revolution. The unspoken theory is that protest, moral outrage, analytical prowess and ideological rigor will somehow produce political power.
How are we doing with that? How much time do we have?
Until Then: Be Creative
Let’s experiment by putting learning, strategic thinking, and organizing at the center of our revolutionary vision. Debates and polemics are best resolved in the field through organizing, activism, engagement and participation.
The Inside/Outside Strategy encourages learning since it begins with an appreciation for political positions not identical to our own. Build a transformative project by including insights, resources, and strategies from all progressive positions. Diversity and inclusion are good. Reject and repudiate other positions — as we Americans are so good at — and we slip back to the status quo. Include and transcend. Reject, repudiate or repress and return.
A little more philosophy. As Grace Lee Boggs said, “Evolution is not linear.”2
Consider the ideas of transformation and reconstruction as ways of changing the world, not simply interpreting it. Transformation and reconstruction means we put our hands and minds on the world we have inherited and we work on it to change it. Sounds simple enough.
“Revolutions succeed when new, more inclusive, and compelling visions of worn-out traditions take root by assuming the latent power and liberating vision of some frayed but classic ideal.”3
Someday this: revolutionary change will allow us to connect to the best of our old traditions of democracy and anti-imperialism. Someday we will become worthy of our revolutionary ancestors and make them proud. Someday we will transform tradition. If we have the political skill, creativity and good luck to approach the threshold of revolution, we will invent transhistorical possibilities free from the blinders of linear change where the past falls away from us. We can reinvent the American political tradition — a tradition that begins with the American Revolution.
But revolutions are rare, and organizers — we do not wait — we act. Martin Luther King took this worker-like view: “There is nothing to keep us from remolding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood.”4
Deep currents flow through American culture — and in the social movements — that under appreciate history and lead us to expect apocalyptic change and radical discontinuity. In the long run, expectations for easy change actually disarm and demoralize organizers leading to the twin dead ends of corporate-style empire building common to political machines, or to the isolated and polemical thinking typical of sectarianism.
If I have overstated the case for continuity and gradualism it is because an evolutionary approach starts with the movement as it actually is. Evolution seems best suited to bridge the gap between the distracted, fatalistic, and fearful majority and the moral enthusiasm, idealism and ideological isolation of radical movements. The path to revolution begins with evolution.
Prepare for the long road ahead. Prepare by organizing.
- Saul Alinsky, Rules for Radicals, Vintage Books, 1972 p.xix. However, most organizers will find Alinsky’s first book, the 1946, Reveille for Radicals a far better primer than Rules for Radicals.
- Grace Lee Boggs, in the film “American Revolutionary”
- Richard Moser, “Was it the End or Just the Beginning: American Storytelling and the History of the Sixties,” in, The World the Sixties Made, eds. Van Gosse and Richard Moser, Temple 2003.
- Martin Luther King, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community