For over 30 years, Leslie Cagan has been a tireless organizer: from the Vietnam War to
racism at home, from nuclear disarmament to lesbian/gay liberation, from fighting sexism
to working against U.S. intervention. Her coalition and organizing skills have put
hundreds of thousands of people in the streets in many of the country’s largest
mobilizations, and countless smaller public protests, from silent vigils to civil disobedience.
Her writing has appeared in several left publications, as well as a few anthologies,
and she has served in the leadership of a number of progressive/left organizations.
Wrapping up seven years as the Director of the Cuba Information Project, Cagan coordinated
the U.S. delegation to the World Youth Festival in Cuba in 1997.
She is presently on the steering committee of the Same Boat Coalition in New York City,
is on the board of the Astraea National Lesbian Action Foundation, and is national
co-chair of the Committees of Correspondence.
Cagan welcomes more discussion about the issues raised here and would love to get your
feedback, comments, and ideas. Write to her c/o Z Magazine.
Thirty years ago I graduated from college. It was 1968 and the world was on fire. I was
21 and had spent the last two years of my liberal arts education (primarily) organizing
against the war in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Being raised in an activist left
family/community meant that by 1968 I had already committed civil disobedience to win a
traffic light in a working class neighborhood in the Bronx, marched in Ban the Bomb
protests, picketed Woolworth’s in solidarity with the Southern civil rights struggle,
and was almost thrown out of college for protesting against Dow Chemical and university
expansion. I also had had my first love relationship with a woman (coming out as a lesbian
would happen several years later).
The summer I graduated I went to Europe: Paris two months after the student uprisings,
Sofia (Bulgaria) for the World Youth Festival, and Prague days before the Soviet invasion.
The Youth Festival was alive with the movements of the day: students from every corner of
the world whose actions were having tangible impacts on their governments; vibrant
discussions about armed struggle in Latin America, the Sinn-Soviet conflict and the new
challenges to old authority in Czechoslovakia. I met Greeks and South Africans who had
sneaked out of their countries and faced criminal prosecution for attending the Festival.
Most important for me was our interaction with the Vietnamese delegation. From both the
South and the North, these young people had traveled by foot, bike, boat, and train to
Bulgaria. The U.S. delegation was already in the room as the Vietnamese arrived. It was a
matter of moments before everyone was crying. Hardly anyone could communicate directly
since few people in both delegations spoke French. But as we spontaneously gave one
another rings, pins, handkerchiefs, whatever we had available, a connection came to life.
The emotion in the room escalated when one of the men in the U.S. group took out his draft
card and burned it.
Immediately following our exchange, most of us from the States went to the
Festival’s medical area to donate blood for the Vietnamese to take home.
In the spring of 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated and the Vietnamese
had just successfully carried off the Tet offensive. Graduate school didn’t seem to
make a lot of sense and I decided to work full time in the movement. I didn’t know
many people who did this, but the few I knew impressed me. It was clear they weren’t
doing this work for the money and the intensity of their commitment was palpable. I had
some good organizing experience and was confident that I could find a way to earn a
I came back from my trip to Europe just as things were breaking loose in
Chicago—the Democratic Convention and the police riots in the streets were well
underway. I threw myself into the effort to raise the needed bail money, which led to a
job in the New York office of the Chicago Seven support committee, which led to a job with
the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam.
And that’s been the case for 30 years. The closest I have came to a
"straight" job was in the 1970s when I co-taught a lesbian and gay literature
class at UMass/Boston and radio production skills at a junior college.
In the winter of 1969-70 I spent over two months with the First Venceremos Brigade in
Cuba. Just ten years into their revolution, the Cubans had taken control of their history.
For years I had thought change was necessary. Now, I began to believe that radical
change in every arena of life was possible. While we were in Cuba, Fred Hampton and other
Chicago Black Panthers were murdered. It was a shocking reminder of the brutality and
power of the U.S. government, and there we were in Cuba, a whole nation under attack from
the U.S. As Brigadistas we were taking a risk traveling in defiance of Washington’s
travel ban, but we knew the risk was small compared to what Cubans and so many others
around the world faced every day.
In this same time period I found the women’s movement. I went to my first meeting
reluctantly. After all, I was chair of the NYU Committee to End the War in Vietnam and
while some women might need consciousness raising and support groups, I didn’t.
Imagine my surprise. Feminism brought fresh/revolutionary insights to my understanding of
oppression, hierarchy, power, and how deeply into the structures of our lives a liberation
struggle must dig. The women’s liberation movement brought me friendships and working
relationships with incredibly smart, creative, bold, assertive, and loving women. The
explosive energy of the women’s movement touched a nerve at the core of my identity.
It opened the space I needed to come out as a lesbian. I realized I had no context for my
earlier relationship with a woman, no signals or support from the culture to understand my
Last spring I turned 50 and started thinking about my political/organizing history and
the movements I have been involved in. The movements for social and economic justice,
equality, freedom, and peace have made vastly important contributions to improving the
lives of millions of people. The progressive/non-sectarian left had accomplished
tremendous things. We had played a critical role in helping to end the War in Southeast
Asia. We helped end Jim Crow and won some basic civil rights. We won the right to abortion
and put the demands for women’s equality on the agenda. We worked to build a powerful
South African divestment movement as we worked to end U.S. intervention in Latin America.
We were in movements that changed the ways people think about nuclear energy and weapons.
We changed public consciousness and the reality of everyday life for lesbians, gay men,
and other sexual minorities. And much, much more.
And yet, we are in a great big mess. I cannot recall a period in my lifetime as bad as
this. The accelerated concentration of wealth and power in everything from the mass media
to manufacturing to health care and banking; the ever-widening gap between the
world’s poor and wealthy; the global environmental crisis; xenophobia, racial and
religious violence; an epidemic of violence against women, children, and sexual
minorities; the influence and power of religious fundamentalism in all its variations.
Let’s be honest. The right wing control of so many of our basic institutions, the
collapse of any counter-weight to the U.S. in global matters, the virtual disappearance of
a liberal voice and the general shift to the right culturally, in legislative chambers,
and in the mass media are all part of a context which makes our work very hard right now.
I don’t want to paint a totally bleak picture because at the same time there are
countless examples of excellent work. Progressives have been elected to office, several
unions have won important labor disputes, attacks on immigrants and affirmative action
have been met with major street mobilizations, and queer people are securing the right to
adopt children and domestic partnership benefits. I would even venture to guess that there
are more people active in a wide range of struggles, and with a more comprehensive
political analysis, than there were at the height of the 1960s. For all we are doing we
are still not able to meet the challenges of our time.
@PAR SUB = As this century draws to an end, it is time to take stock. Things are not,
on their own, going to start to get better. If history teaches us nothing else, it must
help us realize that even in the most difficult of times, when people are actively
engaged, politically (in every sense of the word) involved, and mobilized, we can
intervene, disrupt the status quo, and move in a progressive direction. Change is possible
and we can be active agents of change.
But the truth is the difficulties of this moment are all that much more severe
because of the state of our movement(s). The non-sectarian left and the progressive
movements for justice and peace in this country are not strong enough to force significant
shifts in power relations or to successfully contest for power in the electoral, economic,
or other arenas. When you look at the national picture we are not able to stop the daily
assaults and attacks on poor and working people, on women, people of color, lesbians/gays
and other sexual minorities, the disabled and so many others, never mind such foreign
policy matters as globalization, neo-liberalism, military actions, and economic sanctions.
Thirty years ago I had no idea that things would be like this. Many of us have known
for a long time that turning things around is never easy and certainly does not happen
quickly. I don’t pretend to have a formula for getting out of the mess, but I know
there are some serious questions we need to address before we will be able to move
- @ZBULLET = Where did our organizing make a positive difference and where did it not?
What’s been missing in our organizing approaches?
- @ZBULLET = Why has it been so difficult to overcome divisions and develop new ways to
- @ZBULLET = What can we realistically do? How do we measure our strengths and weaknesses?
How do we know when we are making a contribution and helping to move things forward?
- @ZBULLET = What about the new technologies? What does it mean—both in terms of what
we are up against and the new potentials for us—to live and do political work in the
- @ZBULLET = What was good and strong and worked, and what didn’t? Why, when positive
change happened in some areas have we lost so much since 1980? Why do so many people who
maintain a left political perspective find it so hard to remain actively involved? How did
the specific or particular weaknesses of the progressive movements interact with forces
outside of our control?
I don’t believe we have yet to come to terms with the meaning and impact of the
Reagan-Bush years. It was not only the massive deregulation of private industry and the
trickle-down economic policies or assaults on organized labor and attacks on virtually
every victory of several civil rights movements since the 1950s that marked those
presidencies. It was also a period of massive military build-up and expansion of military
spending, implementation of new ideas for waging war from low-intensity conflict to
economic embargoes as well as the time of the "culture wars."
Many of us laughed at the absurdity of Dan Quayle’s assault on "Murphy
Brown." The vice president of the United States attacks a character in a TV sitcom
because she’s having a baby without being married. The right-wing backlash to the
successes (even though limited) of the women’s movement had been unfolding for years,
but Quayle was taking things to a new height. If we understand, as we must, the most
recent dismantling of welfare as a direct assault on women, then perhaps we should be a
little self-critical for not having seen Quayle’s attack as a warning of what would
be coming, as a prefiguring of the so-called welfare reform.
Activists/organizers/theorists and others in the progressive social movements have yet
to come to a collective analysis or understanding of how we as players in these movements
have been affected by what began during the Reagan-Bush years and continues today. For
instance, a long struggle for abortion rights was won with the Supreme Court decision of
1973. Did any of us imagine then that one week after the 25th anniversary of Roe v. Wade
someone would be killed by a bomb at a clinic providing abortion services in Birmingham,
Alabama? (How chilling to recall the bombing that took the lives of four young girls at a
church in that same city in the early days of the civil rights struggle.) What is the
meaning of that victory when today 84 percent of the counties in this country have no
abortion services available and the overwhelming majority of medical schools do not teach
What happens when social and cultural space once opened up by the creative energies of
the youth and student movements, the civil rights and black liberation movement, the
women’s and queer movements is shut down and closed off? What happens to individuals
who once dared to speak the truth and publicly act on their convictions see their allies
and friends shot down, locked up, and driven into exile as their hard won victories are
attacked, eroded, undermined and undone? It has taken a toll.
@PAR SUB = It is fairly common to hear people say the progressive movements and the
left lack vision, that our ideas about the future are unclear or non-existent. And there
are those who argue that the most important task is to articulate our vision. It is
certainly important to offer a vision and we need better ways to communicate our vision.
But I do not agree that we have no vision, no specific ideas of how we would do things
differently, and improve people’s lives. For decades activists and theorists have
struggled in every arena of life (housing, health care, education, jobs, unemployment,
culture, racial dynamics, legislative/electoral, trade unions, welfare/safety net, etc.),
and in each we’ve developed insightful analysis, thorough critiques, and concrete
ideas for how to do things differently. Just as importantly, more general notions about
equality, respect, freedom, and justice guide most of the work we do every day. It’s
not that we lack ideas about the future, but that we have not connected these nor put
forth a comprehensive vision, to say nothing of a strategy to turn that vision into
While we acknowledge that issues are connected, a whole lot more work needs to be done
to fully comprehend how they are connected. It is not about a longer laundry list or that
everything at all times carries the same weight or meaning in people’s lives. Rather,
our task is to see the ways that distinct issues are informed or shaped by other issues.
It goes further than this, for it is also about understanding the richness/fullness of
the human experience. None of us is solely the work we do or our role in a relationship or
where we are in the racial "order" of the day. Most people have times when they
feel as if their lives are a series of disconnected events and social dynamics, but for
the most part, we move fairly easily through the different aspects of our lives. It’s
good to understand each aspect of our life, but the larger challenge is to see how the
parts fit together. This holds true for communities, even whole societies, as well. Where
are the intersections of class, race, gender, and sexuality? How do different hierarchies
of oppression inform each other?
Even with advances in our analysis, we are still extremely weak at bringing together
different constituencies. Of course, there are moments when this happens, but these are
more often than not in response to an immediate crisis or around a specific, short-term
common project. Sustaining cross-issue and cross-constituency working relationships,
indeed, building a lasting unity, continually slips away from us.
While organizing against the Gulf War in 1990/1991, I experienced the issue of unity in
a new way. So much of my organizing work had been about building coalitions, usually
short-term, project-oriented coalitions, and for years I had been convinced, and I still
believe, that unity must be a key building-block in any meaningful social change movement
and that without a much higher degree of unity we are destined to be weak and ineffective.
As you might recall, we ended up with two national anti-war coalitions. Many of us were
troubled that differences inside the anti-war movement made it impossible to work as one
national coalition. But I realized that unity for the sake of unity doesn’t work
either—unity must be based on some principles. There were tactical and style
differences, but the principle that kept these two efforts apart was whether or not to
condemn the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait as part of the political position we were projecting.
I coordinated the National Campaign for Peace in the Middle East. While the primary focus
of our work was trying to stop the mad rush to war by the U.S. government, we also were
critical of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and other interventions in the Middle East, such
as the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land. The National Coalition Against U.S.
Intervention in the Middle East seemed to be working from the premise that my enemy’s
enemy is my friend and if the U.S. government was going after Iraq, then we should not
make any criticisms of that government.
The goal of unity has often been narrowly understood as the need to bring together left
organizations, groups that already share a critique of capitalism and other systems of
oppression. What has become clearer to me is that the more important goal is to bring
together diverse constituencies that make up our national experience, not just the
self-identified left. I certainly would not object to being part of a more unified and
coherent left, but if that is the meaning of the unity we are striving for, what is the
There are a host of other problems we face:
Identity politics. In the last few years a criticism of identity politics has
been put forth by some straight, white leftist men. Instead of figuring out how
people’s diverse experiences of oppression might inform our overall analysis, critics
suggest that such matters as race, gender, and sexual expression are diversions from the
"real" issues. This is, of course, ridiculous. Who knows how we would understand
race, gender, sexuality—as well as class—had there not been vibrant mass
movements based on identity? Instead of bashing it, let’s figure out why this culture
has spawned the type of identity politics so prevalent today and the contributions these
political movements make.
At the same time, I wish we could move beyond identity politics. I do think some of
this gets a little carried away. I fear that many activists are so committed to their
specific identity that they are unable to see how their struggles are linked to those of
other people. We need to use the strength we get from identity-based political work to
connect with others.
It should be possible to claim our history, community, and experience of oppression
without having to degrade or ignore or trample other people’s realities. In the
mid-1970s I was at a conference where an African American organizer made a presentation
about the need for reparations based on the work slaves did as they cultivated Southern
crops. He talked about the ties of black people to the land, especially in the South. As
he sat down a Native American took the microphone and reminded him that indeed that very
land had once been the home of Native peoples and they too had a claim on it. The African
American said yes, of course, and in this moment everyone in the room understood that we
must find common solutions to the complex problems we all face and to build connections
which respect our differences, allow us the space and support to be ourselves, and in the
end make all of our experiences that much richer. It has to be possible.
Theoretical weaknesses. People trained in a particular theoretical model seem to
have difficulty integrating insights and ideas which come from a range of social
movements. So many traditional leftists still don’t get it about feminism and the
politics of sexuality. Many white activists don’t yet see how fundamental the struggle
against racism is in this country. Why is it so hard for progressive activists to
comprehend class struggle? Whatever else is going on, part of it is a weakness in the
theoretical framework that guides people’s work. Instead of tools to guide our work
and help, our thinking, political theory becomes dogma. Instead of using theory as a way
to help understand the dynamics of the world we live in, explanations of reality are
squeezed to fit into one theory or another.
Separation between activism and intellectual work, between theory and practice. Certainly
there are many activists who are intellectually engaged, and some intellectuals who take
up organizing tasks. I’m not sure if the instant-gratification and TV culture we live
in plays some role here, but it seems that often the chasm between the "doers"
and "thinkers" is so wide that people don’t even know each other, let alone
be able to find a way to connect in a regular fashion.
Communications. Is it any wonder that since we barely know how to talk to each
other, that the left and progressive movements can’t seem to find a way to talk to
anyone else? Maybe my perspective on this is clouded by doing political work in New York
City, or maybe what happens here goes on all over the country. Activists on one issue
barely know what is happening on another issue. Part of this has to do with the sheer size
of the city, but fundamentally this is a political problem. If organizers don’t see
how their struggle is in a core way connected to other issues, then why even bother
learning who else is doing what?
Whatever local communications problems we face, this is nothing compared to the
national problem. I like to think of myself as someone who keeps up with what’s going
on, but there’s no way I could give you an overview of organizing in Atlanta,
Minneapolis, or Tucson.
Confusion about organizing. In the last few years I have had several
opportunities to teach basic organizing skills. I always begin by saying what organizing
is not: it is not direct mail fundraising, it is not photo ops with famous people, and it
is not back room wheeling and dealing with elected officials or others in positions of
power. In the course of many organizing campaigns any or all of these tactics might be
used. But at its core, organizing must be about the direct engagement of people. It is
about knocking on doors, talking to people where they congregate, doing on-going
educational work, and inventing and offering concrete, realistic ways for people to be
If we believe, as I do, that change is possible and that both the process and the end
results of our social change work will be that much stronger because large numbers of
people are involved, then how is it that so little basic organizing actually goes on? If
left and progressive movements do not tackle this head on we are bound to fail over and
Movement building, or lack thereof. While I understand the importance of
building strong organizations, it seems we’ve lost sight of the larger objective of
building a mass movement, a force strong enough to impact on policy as well as change the
direction of this country. Of course, building strong organizations and institutions of
the left is a necessary part of any process which will make us a viable social change
agent. But I fear that all too often the immediate demands of organization are given
priority. For instance: so many national organizations insist on calling themselves
"membership " groups, when what they really have are (sometimes) large lists of
people who regularly send money. It’s great that they have big donor
bases—although none of them are nearly as large as needed—but wouldn’t our
organizations be that much stronger if the members had input into and helped carry out the
political and/or programmatic decisions of the organization?
Beyond this, our critique of the commonly found board-driven structure (which so many
progressive groups now operate within) has not resulted in new structural models. The
board-driven structure is based on an organizational model from the mainstream non-profit
world, which in turn comes from the corporate world. Instead of always trying to make our
politics and the work we want to do fit into this model, shouldn’t we be trying to
develop new structures?
And what about our resources? Perhaps the most valuable resource is our contact lists.
If your primary goal is building your own organization, then you would guard your list
cautiously. The only consistent exception to this seems to be when making lists available
for sale or rental for direct mail fund solicitations. But if your decisions are based on
a commitment to movement building, the question about how and when you share your lists is
answered very differently. Of course, it is not only about lists. Our resources include
much more, not the least of which is our people power. Decisions about how to use staff
and volunteer time and energies are influenced by this most fundamental concern: are we
building our organization or working toward the development of a broader movement?
Related to all these issues is money. I am continually amazed at how much we get done
with the few dollars we have. Imagine what we might do with real money: pay organizers a
living wage, produce and distribute educational materials that people could connect with,
provide organizers with better working conditions (offices and organizing centers that are
comfortable to be in), help people travel to conferences and other events to connect with
one another—the list goes on. The point is that unless and until we get a handle on
how to raise serious money it will be virtually impossible to take major steps forward.
So now what? As I’ve tried to say, there are scores of questions we need to
address. I am not suggesting that we stop the work we are doing in order to address these
issues. Rather, I am encouraging us to find a way to deal with these issues in the context
of our work, to integrate a commitment to focusing on today’s realities with
preparing for tomorrow’s challenges.
As the next century approaches it is time to project our vision(s) and plan our
strategies. We need a strategy that encompasses, among other things:
- A balance of organizing approaches and tactics. People come to political
consciousness, and stay involved in political work, in many different ways and so our
strategy must include a full range of tools for reaching and engaging people.
- An analysis that includes our understanding of the centrality of race. This
means both a commitment to anti-racist work as well as a commitment to building
multi-racial organizations and institutions. At the same time, the analysis which helps
shape our organizing must include a much more fully integrated understanding of sexual
politics and feminism, as well as a class analysis which is based in the economic
realities of this moment, not merely on the important contributions of the classic left
- International solidarity grounded in understanding globalization as well as the
legacy of imperialism and colonialism. Our job, as residents of the United
States, is not to help those poor suffering people all over the world but to articulate
the ways all of our daily struggles are tied to one another.
- A new willingness to be as bold as possible. Instead of trying so hard to be
legitimate and respectable, we need to be more outrageous and challenging in our ideas and
in our actions. Let’s not forget the power or righteousness of our anger. There is,
after all, a tremendous amount to be angry about. And let us never lose the strength that
comes with solidarity, with commitment to a better future, with a belief that we are
- A commitment to young people as essential to any meaningful social change project.
We must combine the passing along of our histories and the skills we have learned with a
sincere openness to the fresh ideas and approaches of each wave of young people. Without
this we are doomed to repeat our mistakes and never move forward.
This past year, our government threatened another war with Iraq; another bombing of the
people of Iraq by the U.S. Even with the problems we face, progressives were ready to
mount serious, militant opposition to this madness. We may not be strong enough to stop
wars when the powers that be want them, but at least we are wise and humane enough to take
political and moral stands as publicly as possible. This is, after all, the foundation we
must build from.