If you have "no place to go," come here!

Method of activism pt. 2 -- practicum

jeffroby's picture

continued from part 1

No, these affairs did not grip all of American society. Most people tried to go about their daily lives. But these matters gripped the activists, and the activists were in motion, and the activists set the tone. Not that we were better people. Social motion allowed us to try different tactics and see what worked. Decisions were thrust upon us whether we wanted them or not.

We HAD to address:

What kind of society should America be?

participatory democracy
social democracy
humane capitalism
back to the farm?

Stupid arguments. Loud arguments. Smart arguments. Old wheels dragged out and re-invented, new wheels imagined.

Tactics had to be figured out, because they were both possible and necessary:

general strike
bloody revolutions
rural communes
broad coalitions
vanguard party?

There was a lot of wrangling over the relationship between tactics and strategy. And what's a tactic and what's a strategy?


where was capitalism headed
was imperialism a necessary feature of capitalism
could human nature be transformed
was the system too strong
was the economy on a course of terminal collapse or eternal growth?

What were the key sectors (vanguard to some) whose mobilization would ensure change:

college students
Blacks and Latinos and 3rd world revolutionaries
factory workers
white collar workers (new working class)
the poor?

What were the key issues:

boring schools
war in Vietnam
factory oppression
drug laws
3rd world oppression?

Marxism became popular, both for its merits and its shortcomings, including its touching faith in revolutionary inevitability:

communal (utopian) socialism
3rd world revolutionaries allied with the Soviet Union
3rd world revolutionaries allied with China?

And was the Communists Party USA an ally or an overt enemy?

Demands had to be formulated. You couldn't just take over the Administration Building for the hell of it (well, you could, but ...):

revolution now
free sex
smaller classrooms
end the war and all oppression
transitional programs (reformist demands you know can't be met)?

The understanding of transitional demands was very important. Then the organizational question:

community organization
rural communes
single-issue organizations
constituency (race, sex, orientation)
loose multi-issue (early SDS)
independent electoral parties
faction within Democratic Party
vanguard party
no organization (spontaneous uprising)?

These matters were passionately discussed in every possible combination. The joint was jumping. It wasn't just the ideas that were thrown into the hopper, we ourselves were in the hopper, whether or not by choice. The most sophisticated were the Marxists, who proposed a central organization that could coordinate different social sectors and issues, changing them as events developed, until the revolution. Unfortunately, revolution was not in the cards.

Perhaps the wisest were the cultural revolutionaries.

Perhaps the best leaders were the women.

Fundamental errors obscured all our understanding. Extreme militancy does not equal revolution. Going to the barricades to win reforms is, well, reformist. It may improve the social order, but it does not transform it. . Some of us learned it too late in the game. We came to understand our fundamental weakness -- a primarily student-based movement can light a spark, but cannot by itself transform society. We knew it, wrestled hard with it, couldn't beat it.

Still, let me extract an arbitrary checklist here for analyzing tactics and causes.

1. What kind of society should America be, and where was it heading?
2. What kind of organization do we need to get there (short term or long term)?
3. What would be the key sectors of society to organize? (not all sectors are equal)
4. What would be the key issues?
5. What would be key demands (reformist, revolutionary, transitional)?
6. What tactics should we use?
7. What would the developmental process look like?

Then let me try to apply some of this to issues people are raising today. This is an exercise in method. If I fail to do justice to anyone's favorite, please improve on it.

3rd party

1. This would depend on the purpose of the 3rd party: socialism? reform the Democratic Party? an improved welfare state? Depends on the prospects for democracy itself.

2. That would depend on purpose. Some kind of organizing committee, obviously. Would the purpose be to form a brand new party? Take over the Green Party? Form a coalition of 3rd parties?

The constitution of this committee would also depend on the following questions.

3. If the goals were taking over the Greens or forming a grand coalition, the key sector would be articulate intellectuals who would be adept at the kind of maneuvering to carry it off. If the goal were a new, clean party, then the most unrepresented sector is the poor. The key leadership would have to be nuts-and-bolts activists, as the poor do not generate these spontaneously. There would be an extended period while poor cadre were developed and moved into leadership positions.

4. Jobs. Social safety net. Healthcare.

5. Strong and uncompromising demands, related to 4 above.

6. Formation of community base organizations that would provide the base for militant, angry electoral campaigns, coordinated with militant direct actions.

7. An alternative to much of the above would be to create a 3rd party by creating a major breakaway from the Democratic Party. That opens up a vast array of issues concerning how to work within the Democratic Party.

work within the Democratic Party

1. Can fork into liberal social democracy or socialism. Can fork into taking over or influencing the Democratic Party, or splitting the party. Depends on the prospects for democracy itself.

2. Form the Independent Progressive Caucus within the Democratic Party.

3. Angry Democrats, mostly middle class.

4. Democratic Party has sold out on x, y and z.

5. Don't sell out on x, y and z.

6. Run in primaries, join or create local Democratic clubs. Fight for delegates at party gatherings, run in races where the DP has small presence.

7. Small or large inroads, depending on ability to build an independent base, at a point of social crisis, making a move to split, starting with a militant primary, when the Democratic Party is clearly against its base AND when the independent forces are strong enough to sustain a 3rd party, including at a minimum gaining ballot status in 50 states in no longer than 4 years. This approach will be particularly prone to factional splits.

don't vote

1. Liberal social democracy or socialism or rural communes existing alongside urban society.

2. Form the United Front Committee to Keep In the Vote.

3. The angry middle class, who feel they are caught between forces out of their control

4. Corruption of the electoral process. Corruption of the political parties.

5. Don't vote.

6. A wide publicity campaign. Non-voting has to be voluntary, anything looking like intimidating or overtly hindering voters would provoke righteous backlash.

7: This is not a viable plan as stand-alone. There remains the question of what should be done instead of voting. Alignment with other organizations is the only way this can ultimately be meaningful. UNLESS the not voting is intended to show dissatisfaction with particular policies in a particular election, e.g., revenge against the Democrats for the healthcare debacle.

General strike:

1. A general strike is a drastic action, calling for millions to take significant risk, but wielding great power if carried out successfully. Thus some kind of socialism or social democracy would be appropriate.

2. Since a general strike is illegal, it would require some tight-knit body that can maintain a high level of security. It would require at least some mass organizations to mobilize a critical mass. Whether that would include existing organizations such as key unions (communications, transit, airlines) or new revolutionary organizations would in part depend on point 3.

3. If the threatened middle class was key, they could perhaps be mobilized against Wall Street, foreclosures and taxes through existing vehicles. If the poor were the key sector, new organizations would have to be built representing the poor.

4. If the middle class, as noted above, Wall Street, foreclosures and taxes. If the poor, jobs and safety net for all.

5. If the poor, a job, healthcare, food as basic human rights. No compromise.

6. To enforce 5 above, militant tactics. An extended period of demonstrations and sit-downs to build for the big day. Then a strike integrated with seizure of key transportation and communication centers, followed by a mass effort to ensure delivery of food, water and electricity.

7: No single sector or tactic or demand could pull this off. If would require the highest level of organizational coordination among many sectors, including the poor, the middle class, unions, and high-level professional to lead to anything but destructive societal collapse.

General strike is no toy. It will leave a bodycount on BOTH sides.

End the atrocities committed by the U.S. in the Middle East

1. America should be a humane society. This direction has heavy implications for what the potential impact would be on the U.S. economy if it withdrew from the Middle East and lost what control it has over the oil fields. It would also have inter-related implications for the economy and the so-called Defense budget. Could put socialism on the table.

2. There are existing organizations doing good work on this. But they work in isolation, despite the fact that the Democratic base is not happy about our various wars. It would be desirable to create an electoral vehicle that could bring these issues into the electoral mainstream.

3. College youth, union members, the poor.

4. Our wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, policy towards Israel.

5. Stop killing women and children to ensure corporate profit! U.S. troops out!

6. Dramatic direct actions such as the Gaza March, tying them to the complicity in atrocities by the Democratic Party.

7. As the bodycount rises in Afghanistan, the issue is getting more coverage, and people are becoming more outraged at our GOVERNMENT, rather than just at Bush, there will be an increase in militancy. Tactical smarts will be key, as this is potentially explosive. I've used some of the above examples for illustrative purposes. This one I feel very, very passionate about.

Ironically, this one is both marginal and central simultaneously.

and then ...

The above examples are crude. I've not done full justice to any of them, and I hope that proponents of each might take the exercise further. I don't especially want to quarrel over details.

The concept of transitional demands deserves much more discussion.

One phenomenon I've seen is that someone says let's do this, and people say yeah, right on, and someone else says let's do that, and people say that's great, go for it, and another person says we need to support this, and on and on. And it doesn't go any further. Based on comments and recommends, you even have some of the same people supporting mutually exclusive approaches. No, I don't take this as a sign of madness or senility. Rather, I take it as a healthy thirst for action. If each suggestion and so many more are put through this analytical wringer, I think people might start to see ways issues can be combined, common organizations can push related issues, directions clarified, approaches developed that embrace the entire American people. We might conceive of how events could transform over time. It could get us out of the Frozen Storm (Muller). We weren't better people then. Or to turn that around, we're just as good a people now as we were then!

Oh yeah, the Full Court Press. It puts organization and tactics up front. I've elaborated elsewhere. It is only a tactic, one I believe in, but no substitute for a strategy. Throw it in the hopper if you wish.

But here's my two cents about what I think is needed: an organization with a clear vision for the future, an appraisal of coming social dynamics, an organization that has a mass membership or affiliation with mass membership subsidiaries, that can support a broad range of issues and a broad range of tactics, appropriately as the movement is created and develops.

I take it seriously. I take it seriously enough that I will avoid further speculation because I do not believe that the objective conditions even exist for a such a discussion. But for extra credit, as it pertains to all of the above if you've tried to apply the above exercises yourselves, how do we translate our electronic presence into material force?

Or to quote Chairman Archimedes: "Give me a place to stand and I can move the world!"

No votes yet


nihil obstet's picture
Submitted by nihil obstet on

I regard the international situation as more influential than you've accounted for. By the end of the 19th c., the rulers of the capitalist societies were terrified of the growing popular movements. The revolution in Russia ratcheted up the terror, especially since it was followed by a brief seizure of power by socialists in Germany, by a general strike in Britain, and by growing worker agitation in the U.S. Remember the Wobblies? Sacco-Vanzetti? The communist-led Loray Mill strike? Fear of communism (they're going to take all our money!) led to fascism in Europe, democratic countries' forebearance towards fascism (bulwark against communism), and in lucky countries, good social programs to offset the allure of bolshevism.

After WWII, the continued fear led not only to oppression, but to programs that would still offset the allure of communism, both in 1st world countries and in the colonies emerging into nationhood. US leaders made a big issue of the fact that American workers had it better than Soviet workers whereas Marx had predicted the impoverishment of the working class. Remember the Nixon-Kruschev kitchen debates? The extent to which the Jim Crow laws undercut American foreign propaganda was a factor in federal commitments to civil rights, which we think of as a 60s struggle, but which Eisenhower pushed in the 50's, with the first civil rights act of 1957.

This is not to say that the domestic struggles were not paramount in the social justice accomplishments. But I'm not sure they would have been so successful had not the capitalists' fear not been focused by a strong nation with a competing system. And it doesn't strike me as merely coincidence that the decline and collapse of the competing nation was accompanied by a change from the dominant U.S. economic view that American workers share in national prosperity to the view that globalism inevitably impoverishes American workers. It also, I think, removes the perrceived need to articulate a political and economic philosophy.

It might help to move back towards a more international orientation of thought.

jeffroby's picture
Submitted by jeffroby on

Did you read part 1? It does note how the Cold War loomed over everything in the early 60's, and how the war in Vietnam became a driving force. And how that was a factor in ideology being a more up-front matter than it is today.

But the point of part 1 is a rough, schematic attempt to examine HOW discussion developed in the 60s, and what factors were routinely argued, and how that devolved into the relative sterility of current debate.

Part 2 is a rough exercise to hopefully sharpen the thinking of those who make bold calls to action without the tactical sense that god gave a goose.

So on various sites, you get outraged calls that we must respond to the latest sellout with a general strike. How do you bring about a general strike? Masses will rise up. How do you GET them to rise up? Who cares, maybe they will.

We need a third party. How you gonna get one? The Democrats are sellouts. Yes, I know, but then what? Who cares, gotta have a third party.

In other words, my concern is methodology, with turning outrage into activity, the development of concrete tactics.

As for international relations, that's a whole other matter. Yes, the left is very weak on international matters. They tend to limit it to opposing military interventions, or Israeli occupation of Palestine, but the whole rise of China, Russia, India, Brazil, the intertwined military/economic dynamics thereof, in the context of an international community tied via the internet, very important.

But it was outside the scope of this piece.

Submitted by libbyliberal on

jeff, nice job once again. Very provocative stuff. When pragmatic progressive bloggers disdain the DFH, I look back and think, we penetrated the exceptionalism ego (to paraphrase Eckart Tolle's theory). That is why it is so painful to have our generation's watch of America be such a seeming failure. Peace and morality and equality were such vital issues back then.

I am a fan of Marion Woodman and she has a theory about a feminine paradigm shift (not as in gender but like yin rather than yang) ... or a humanist is a more politically correct term, maybe ... from the patriarchal style of power and control and competitive governance to a humanist partnership and cooperation one.

There is a counter-culture that has been forming for a good while now, with the single payer movement, with the 12 step movement, with people who commit to activism in whateever form calls to them ... the environment, animal rights, children's aid, ending domestic violence. With the accelerating enlightenment and curiosity of many in the blogosphere. Less dependency for information on a disinforming corporate media. (I am sure the corporatists are salivating to control the www). But I do feel hope in a counter-cultural movement.

And there has to be critical mass of sensibility with a movement for change. Sadly there always is an assembly line of victims of injustice as we all await the critical mass. Obama with his 80 million hopers for change gave us a taste of the power of such a paradigm shift, but it was a tease. Nevertheless, it was also a short-lived sample of something very wonderful..

There is that theory of the 100 monkeys. Once the hundredth monkey grasps something, then the sensibility travels through the rest of the monkey nation like wildfire. It is getting through to that 100th monkey that is key. That happened with the Viet Nam protests. Thinking back, there are so many periods in America of insane, cruel obtuseness and injustice on the part of the majority. But a positive tipping point did happen again and again. And yes, there are tipping points that are in reverse, where progress is rolled back. Nevertheless ... there is a positive momentum.

There is a quote I was thinking of using for my signature next. I misplaced it. Something about you can't tear the skin off a snake. You have to be patient as it sheds it by moulting ... or something like that... I wish I could remember exactly. Sure I will find it again. Tried to google just now but couldn't find. You get the point.

I always thought Nader had that moral compass leadership. Integrity and so clearly and consistently allergic to cronyism. Edwards' talk of the two Americas was exciting to me. Edwards situation, very sad, but he livened up the moral conversation for that election period.

Kucinich and Feingold inspire.

Single payer has a steady drumbeat and is less politically polarizing, or should be, to those remotely willing to think seriously about it in any degree of detail. And it is so clearly about the issue of empathy. The US government has declared war on empathy for so long. Reagan yanked the government totally out of the empathy sensibility and the Dems never fought hard or long enough to get it back. Look at how when Sotomayer used the word empathy the Congressmen and some women totally went nuts, as though it were an exhibit of weakness rather than emotional strength and wisdom.

But the wars, too, are so outrageous. They are steadily rallying people to mutual disgust and despair and anger. The torture issue I thought would be such an incredible tipping point for outrage. I kept waiting for Obama to come out against it passionately. I mean, c'mon. How can you not be passionately against illegal and immoral torture? ... crickets.... I put on a black arm band mid May thinking I would take it off as soon as he acknowledged and guaranteed an end to it and reinstated habaes corpus. What is wrong with him and with America letting this situation continue on? I am still putting on the black arm band every day. At least it is a token thing I can do to say, this surreal amorality is not right. To remember that for myself, if not anybody else.

I feel hope after reading your serious offering. I think we are all preparing our emotional clocks for a spiritual reckoning. Not violent I would hope. But requiring moral and emotional courage and conviction and sacrifice. Clear and solid and moral progress. I find myself thinking of the Sons (and daughters) of Liberty and what moral decisions they had to make to form the beginnings of this imperfect nation. And though the teabaggers have branded themselves from those noble spirits, it doesn't taint the original inspiration for me, and I relate to them, the original tea partiers that is, with my own "bleeding" so to speak (and maybe often not bleeding enuf) heart.

To be continued. :)

jeffroby's picture
Submitted by jeffroby on

... let me single out one single bit:

Sadly there always is an assembly line of victims of injustice as we all await the critical mass.

It's the "awaiting" that kills us. The critical mass is at hand, as long as the correct task is chosen. In other words, I try to work with a methodology that sees small groups taking small actions (even filing for one small primary), that have small impact. That impact is analyzed, built on, the small group grows by ones and twos, takes a SLIGHTLY larger action, impact analyzed, on and on.

Small activity always trumps grand proclamations.

At this historic moment, my focus is on developing leadership, because without it, nothing is consolidated. As events develop, as visible social movement grows, the situation transforms, but I consider the process I outlined above to be sound in some variation, no matter how large things may get.

I have a piece on Progressive Independence Action and Avalanche that tries to develop this. Don't worry about the details, look at the method.

And thank you so much for making me feel welcome!

Submitted by libbyliberal on

I like your avalanche idea and relate to it. Ripples of activity generating outward.

Inertia has its double meaning. The tendency to sustain inertness, or when in motion the tendency to sustain the motion.

The perfect is the enemy of the good in a way (though I hate that they used that to justify trojan horse health care bill) and I forget who said, anything worth doing is worth doing badly, but if we wait for perfect conditions and unity of all to act and not flex we will lose total heart and will. The 3 Ps, perfection, procrastination, paralysis.

Whole country is "waiting for Godot" .. the return of the Obama who promised us a champion. We gotta get shake off that futile hope ("Hope was the last temptation of Christ" as you remember) and be intuitively proactive and that energy and will will be contagious with others. Trust it.

Obama's 3 year freeze, there it is ... commitment to "paralysis" ... as if freezing is going to get the circulation and vitality going again. It is contraction, a commitment to contraction. We must generate our own circulating energy.

Thanks for the inspiration.

Submitted by lambert on

"How do we translate our electronic presence into material force?"

Now, I don't think there's any presence that isn't material -- or at least, not transcendant. And I also think that changing the discourse is incredibly laborious, and in some ways harder than changing "physical" objects.

That said, that's the question. I think our answer is going to evolve over the next year, and maybe in surprising ways. To paraphrase Elizabeth Drew, the future lies ahead!

jeffroby's picture
Submitted by jeffroby on

... and was able to fill three pages with headlines and article titles containing "xxxx is broken." There is a stunningly pervasive awareness that the world has become unhinged:

Tiny sample:

The System Is Broken
Forbes, Robert Lenzner, 01.16.09

Political System Absolutely Broken
California Farmer, FrankHoldmeyer, Jan 11, 2010

Spitzer: Banking System is Broken
CBS News, 01/11/10

From Forbes to farmers to philanderers, "is broken" gets applied to almost everything. Banal at one level, telling in other ways.

You say:

I think our answer is going to evolve over the next year, and maybe in surprising ways.

Now every leftist on the block has proclaimed the HOUR OF DECISION IS NIGH! Never such a crisis, etc. Me too.

But I think that there are very concrete reasons to believe, as you point out, special. I feel a certain fire these days that I haven't felt in a long time, and I don't think it's because I forgot to take my Rolaids.