SOUTH END PRESS: What achievements of the Left have given you the most hope for the future?
ALBERT: Ending feudalism, ending slavery, enacting labor laws, winning universal suffrage, ending Jim Crow laws, overcoming much of the mindset and practice of patriarchy as it was entrenched though the 1950s and 1960s, bringing gay rights and liberation into the light of social policy and practice, putting ecology on the political map, and so on. I think most recently, however—during the time of my involvement which is over the last 30 years and almost exclusively in the U.S.—we have had less than average structural impact though way more than average ideological impact.
What do you mean?
Well, we have affected ideas and behaviors and people’s assumptions about life and themselves very dramatically—perhaps as much or more than in any comparable time period. At the same time we have had much less success changing institutions.
Can you give an example of this?
There has been remarkable opposition to attacking Iraq despite the fear-mongering that Hussein will put Anthrax in our baby food, and this is the fabled Vietnam Syndrome at work. But where is the massive peace organization that embodies and furthers this ideological change? Where are the new laws bearing on this issue? Or look at typical mainstream culture. There is a tremendous change in people’s understanding of what’s wrong and in the ideas and attitudes that are afoot, but nothing comparable in the form of laws protecting folks or empowering them, or institutions that correct ills or continually fight for gains.
So, for me, the accomplishment of the left is mostly the different attitudes, expectations, assumptions, and habits that pretty much pervade society around such broad aspects of life as sexual relations, gender relations, race, power and authority, ecology, and international relations. To compare average public consciousness, much less the “most enlightened sectors of consciousness” on these aspects of life now and 30 years ago shows a huge change, which is also a huge victory. The weak link is around class, where there has been little structural gain, even less than in other realms, but not much consciousness gain, either.
It seems like a big disjuncture, to have changed peoples minds about things, but not their actual conditions. In some ways, now that people are more cynical, it is easy to be apathetic. What do you think?
I agree with you and I think we have to take some responsibility for it. For 30 years we have done consciousness raising around how bad things are, around the broad systemic causes of the ills that people suffer. But where was the consciousness raising around what we want, about goals, about means of accomplishing change, about our prospects for victory? In the absence of insight into future possibilities, growing awareness of the scale of oppressions and their tenacity breeds cynicism and not resistance. I think that is largely our plight. Of course it doesn’t mean we should stop pointing out the systemic causes of oppression, stop naming the enemy. But it does suggest that we have to give a lot more attention, as well, to vision and strategy, and to creating organizational forms that can protect people against depression and nurture opposition.
I remember in the early New Left there was this particular speech that Carl Oglesby gave. In it, he railed at liberals and named imperialism, not just bad policy, as the real culprit in Vietnam. This kind of systemic “revelation” (and others about gender and race and poverty and so on) was very powerful then, because it was so new and eye opening for almost everyone. Now, 30 years later, revelations from the left about how bad the society’s institutions are rarely go beyond what people already take for granted. Our negative critical messages don’t generate anger and action, but only pile up more evidence of the power of the state into the mountain of belief that the enemy is beyond reach that already weighs so heavily on people. What is needed is desire, hope, and vision. But what almost everyone spends their time on is enumerating ills.
I honestly don’t know. Why don’t writers and speakers, as just one example, devote themselves more to what we want and how we can get it, rather than always emphasizing what we are against? It causes us to appear negative, rather than inspirational. It doesn’t give orientation and hope.
Maybe it’s habit or maybe everyone is emulating a few people who do this very well rather than moving on to other tasks, so there becomes an imbalance. Maybe some people’s perfectly justified worries about sectarianism and authoritarianism have confused them into thinking that one should avoid vision, one should avoid strategy, instead of working to make both into open and public possessions.
There is another phenomenon on the left, we might discuss that relates to how we deal with cynicism and how we often seem to feed it rather than reduce it. Tom Hayden—who is far more insightful than his later career leads some folks to believe—likes to say that the left has a penchant for grasping defeat from the jaws of victory (thus turning a cause for celebration and hope into a sign of inevitable decline and loss). I think he had in mind two related things. First, we are often so caught up in analyses of how horrible everything is that we don’t see that there are good things out there too. It is as if to celebrate progress, or to even admit progress, is to somehow negate our critiques. What a debilitating notion.
Hayden was also highlighting that when the left wins something, such as an end to a war or affirmative action or higher wages, or whatever else, the gain is, of course, enacted by the powers that be. They sign the bill or end the war or whatever, and then they take credit for it and denigrate the left as having been just an annoying obstacle to reaching these ends. The left often accepts this manipulative spin and views its own success in forcing elites to comply as if it were a crass cooptation. We grasp defeat from the jaws of victory.
But surely cooptation and compromises do occur, and we should be critical of that.
Yes, but instead of watching out for how the internal structures of our organizations are pushing market logic on us, for example, which is a powerful source of cooptation that horribly compromises our thoughts and values, we act as though winning a big battle is a loss if the bad guys on TV say that they made the change “despite us,” which is, of course, what they always say. We go along with their spin instead of understanding and explaining our achievements.
So how do we know what is a victory and what isn’t? I am a revolutionary. I want to transform society’s basic institutions. So for me there are two central criteria to use in thinking about battles we can wage and their outcomes. First, people’s lives should be improved. It won’t do to say that everyone will be better after the revolution. People need better conditions now, on moral grounds and also to have any faith in future prospects. Second, it is also important that gains lead forward rather than in a circle. Struggle really is struggle. The other side always wants to give as little as possible and they always want to take back anything they have had to give in the past. So gains must be won and then also defended and enlarged. To transcend the ills of the past, gains have to empower disempowered constituencies and lead to still greater movements seeking further change.
Andre Gorz first enunciated the idea that what we had to repeatedly win were “non-reformist reforms.” Non reformist reforms, he said, are gains in the way people live, in laws, in structures, in consciousness, in our own organization, which improve peoples lives but also create a new platform from which to fight for still further improvements. Non-reformist reforms are not ends in themselves—you win and then you go home and that’s it—but are part of a continuing process. So that’s what I look for as a sign that a project or movement or campaign has been really worthwhile: improvements in people’s lives and also new infrastructure and new consciousness or organizational conditions that are conducive to still further advances.
As to the scale of gains that have been achieved, if you could drop the average 1998 20-year-old back into 1960, the culture and general social assumptions and behaviors of that time would be unbearably restrictive and regimented to him or her. This is a serious victory. It has critical aspects having to do with race, gender, and also power more generally, as well as with what it means to be an independent and thinking person. The other great gain is that people are now much less deluded as to the condition they and their fellow citizens are in, and as to the cause of their condition.
Do you think that varies for people of different classes and races, and for men and women? For example, I wonder if a poor woman of color is treated much differently now.
Well, ask black people in the south whether they want to go back to Jim Crow and I don’t think there would be much confusion about the answer. Yes, black women in 1960 and in 1998 live in different worlds. The idea that women haven’t gained, that Blacks and Latinos haven’t gained, seems to me completely false. That doesn’t mean there isn’t more to do. It means struggles have effects…which better be the case if our lives are to have meaning and value. Thirty years ago a poor person knew she was poor, a black suffering indignities at the hands of whites knew he was black, a women battered and bruised knew she was female—as now. But 30 years ago there was an overwhelming tendency for the suffering individual to feel that his or her suffering was entirely personal. It was a result of his or her inadequacies or bad choices. Then the civil rights movement brought black people into conflict with white racism. The social democratic part of the left “discovered” poverty as a social not just a personal problem. The women’s movement brought women into touch with the universality of the plight each felt, revealing it to be not merely personal, but political, and due to this new thing called patriarchy. Blaming oneself for what are really social oppressions certainly still exists. Oppression does make one feel inadequate and push one toward accepting that one’s plight is one’s own fault. It still happens. But there has been a sea change in the extent to which people, at heart, now know that the main problem is political and social and outside themselves, imposing on them. For anyone who organized then and now this is a very major change in the landscape, and a positive one. It is a victory brought about by struggle and consciousness raising.
How does that shift in sensibility affect the possibilities for social change?
Before the shift, when you were organizing you had to literally convince people there was a problem—other than personal failures—to address. This whole tedious backdrop of organizing, in which you have to convince people that there is injustice to be righted, is just about gone. Everyone nowadays knows that everything is broken (with the exception of some elements of the economy, regrettably). And this is a major change. Earlier, the revelation that there was some institutional cause for pains people felt (not their own inadequacy) was enough to generate anger and energy and movement in people. That’s what the early period of sixties momentum building was about. The revelations that the loneliness, indignity, poverty, and bodily harm that people suffered wasn’t their fault but had to do with organized racism, sexism, and (we accomplished this last to a lesser extent) classism, were sufficient to generate anger and then motion. But now that is old hat and what’s needed, it seems to me, is a feeling that something better could work, could persist, and could be won. People need to deeply believe that you can fight city hall and win, and that what you do win won’t be more of the old crap and so will be worth the effort. But despite this change in what is needed and what will have impact, I think the left is largely still trying to convince the public that all is not well with society and that the cause of problems lies in “the system” and its institutions. Yet, by and large the public knows this already, to its very soul.
The task now, instead of convincing someone that there is a social problem that needs addressing, is to arouse desire for alternatives, belief in their possibility, and belief that they can be attained.
Is the problem that we don’t know what we want, or that we can’t agree on it? I may want equity and democratic participation in my life, but for other people, those ideals may be too much trouble; they’d rather just get the government off their backs, for example. How do you reconcile the need for a unified vision for the future with the messy, conflict-ridden reality of diverse interests among people?
I think the problem is not complexity but that we have given very little thought to what we want and had very little serious debate about it. Most people on the left can’t answer the question, what are you for, beyond vague, unconvincing generalities. I actually think that if there were some clear and compelling vision widely advocated and promulgated, there would be a whole lot of agreement on it—and of course some disagreement as well. That’s what consciousness raising and organizing are about. And the disagreement, if it became substantive and was taken seriously, could only be healthy. The biggest source of real difference, will, I think, once there is understanding of what’s possible, be real differences in interest.
Majority cultures and men have to be taught by people in minority cultures and women what is best for those domains and have to transcend the narrow messages of their prior experiences and circumstances. And the same holds for economics, where the elitist intellectual and managerial pretensions of many leftists are going to need to be educated away by working people. Arguably our biggest vision problem rests in confusions about certain economic realities such as the role of markets and hierarchical divisions of labor. But I think all this can be addressed, as can healthy and liberating sexual and socialization and educational and cultural interactions. And it seems to me that most Americans, even those worst off, are not going to devote themselves to sustained struggles just out of opposition to existing oppressions. They are going to need positive aspirations that are their own, that they have helped develop and can argue on behalf of, and that give their actions a positive aim as well as a clear opponent. So we might as well get on with it, whatever difficulties we will have to overcome.
You said that you thought gains around class have been less than those around race and sex. What makes you say this, and why do you think it has been the case?
There has been no excavation of the form and substance of classist belief and behavior, no subjecting of classism itself, nor of its supporting institutions, to serious critique. We haven’t had a clear espousal of positive class-related aims. We haven’t recognized class structures and attitudes and behaviors inside our own movements and committed ourselves to rectifying these. Our movements have dues structures that are often less progressive than U.S. tax codes. They have decision-making hierarchies and allocations of labor that are structurally little different than those of General Motors. In society at large, markets are now celebrated voraciously, after 30 years of struggle, even in many parts of the left. To me it is as if society and large parts of the left were in 1998 overtly celebrating old style marriage say, or Jim Crow laws.
Why is this our plight regarding class? How come the left has done worse regarding class than race, sex, and power over the past thirty years? Some explain it as the fault of the latter movements. Class has suffered, such commentators claim, due to the distraction of paying so much attention to other phenomena such as race, gender, and sex. But this mistakes outcome for cause. If the rise of a new focus causes the decline of those that preceded, why hasn’t attention to race suffered due to concerns with gender, or vice versa? Or why hasn’t attention to gender or race suffered due to concerns with sexuality or power, or vice versa? The problem isn’t that over these years there have been significant increases in attention to forms of oppression other than class. The problem is that for some reason attention to class hasn’t kept pace and has even declined. The way we approached class starting 30 years ago had internal features and aspects, apparently, that made it less able to sustain commitment, less able to get serious about discerning the nature of its target, and thus the ensuing decline.
So what are these internal features that have compromised attention to class and economics? If you go back to the height of the 1960s movements there was huge interest in Marxism. Shouldn’t that have given an impetus to paying attention to class and led to growing class awareness, not steadily less?
It seems to me that a big part of the problem was that there wasn’t a good class consciousness and class allegiance in the left, or at least in large parts of the left, in the first place. Marxism wasn’t a source from which truly liberatory class consciousness and class focus emerged. Rather, there was a very mixed bag of attitudes about class, from the beginning.
Our society has a ruling capitalist class and no one on the left has ever been confused about that claim and virtually everyone on the left is critical of that class, almost without exception wanting to see capitalists disappear along with private ownership. So there is no problem there. There is also the working class. And everyone on the left knows that too. And everyone on the left says they are for the working class and want its power and stature to increase. But what about lawyers and doctors and engineers and high level academics and plant mangers? What about people who have a virtual monopoly on decision making levers in the economy, who do largely intellectual work, who largely control their own conditions of work and also define or control the conditions that other more typical workers endure? These folks are the preoccupation of working people in the United States, both as hated arrogant enemy, and, sadly and ironically, as the people who they would like their sons and daughters to become, for them to climb society’s ladder. Yet these people are also largely absent from the conceptual framework of most leftists. This is like mainstream analysts of the economy not paying attention to the concept corporation in their theories, it being contrary to their interests to do so.
As I see it about 20 percent or so of our population is neither capital nor labor, but part of a “coordinator class,” monopolizing levers of economic power and associated skills and knowledge. And the ideological left, I believe, is often far more identified with and oriented toward the typical views, values, and aims of that intermediate class, than it is representative of or speaking for, or an outgrowth of working people. Indeed, I think Leninism is the strategy of this coordinator class, aimed to elevate them to ruling economic status, against capital, but also against labor. So going back again to the 1960s, you had young people in many cases identified by background, habits, and especially aspiration, largely with what I call the coordinator class (of professionals, managers, etc.) working in and especially leading anti-capitalist movements. Being as moral and committed to justice on many counts as most were, these folks were unable to overtly admit this class conundrum, even to themselves.
I think perhaps there is a sense in which it was precisely the emergence of race and gender insights that forced the decline of attention to class. That is, once these new movements began to get serious about locating the logic of race and sex oppressions and unearthing the consciousness and mannerisms associated with them, other movements couldn’t keep highlighting class without being forced to address the interface between coordinators and workers. Just as it was the ethos and habits of the New Left and Civil Rights movement which percolated into the lives of women and pushed/freed them to perceive and then organize against sexism, so the reverse would have happened. Had there been movements in which class remained a critical focus highly entwined, however, with the developing women’s and anti-racist movements, they would have been pushed by the new found attention to the details of interpersonal oppressions to deal with issues of coordinator class values and agendas as against working class values and agendas. To avoid this unveiling of the coordinator class issue it was necessary to literally downplay class or, if you kept it alive, you had to do it in a silly sect that you could insulates against the innovative modes of thought of the women’s and anti-racist movements.
I think our movements have a lot of work to do in discovering what a liberated viewpoint is around class. We have work to do in discovering what values a working class oriented movement needs to hold dear, and what structures it needs to favor and develop internally. And we have a lot of work to do in discovering what a liberated mindset and personality and way of behaving is, regarding class, and in then bringing this into our lives and projects. And until all this happens, as it has been happening regarding race and gender over the past few decades, we’re going to continue to have movements that are weak on class, that accomplish little around class, that attract few working people, or that even have oppressive class aims.
Could you describe your own experience of politicization and involvement in Left movements? How has your perspective and analysis changed over time?
Well, I got started as a student. I was going to MIT to prepare myself to be a theoretical physicist. In High School, Bob Dylan’s lyrics started me, I think, down a path of broader social inquiry and feeling. At a distance, the civil rights movement pushed me some, as well. And then the anti-war movement, and my experiences at MIT, with its norms and structures, pushed me over the edge. I quickly became totally immersed. Lives changed very rapidly then, sometimes profoundly.
The Boston movement was a little different from that in many other places. A lot was similar, of course—we had our sects and Weathermen, our hippies and youth culture, our conflicts and struggles, successes and failures—but there was a tone and there were elements that were different, and the scale was bigger than many other places, as well. Partly it was the influence of some active older folks. For me, this was mostly Chomsky and another MIT faculty person, Louis Kampf. For others, for example, it was Howard Zinn at BostonUniversity. Partly I think some of the difference was attributes of Boston itself, the city’s political culture. And partly it may have been due to some of us young folks in the movement and our own special contributions at the time. A key factor was certainly the political women in the city who created an organization called Bread and Roses. Anyhow, whatever it was, early on many of us evolved a stance that focused on what we called “the totality of oppression” taking into account all sides of life, not solely the war. We became critical of economistic approaches and of hierarchy in all its forms. Most of my changes since have been elaborations on that.
What differences do you see in the way the next generation is taking up the mantle?
My concern with young folks today is not that they are jettisoning things I believed in 30 years ago, and particularly ways we defined ourselves and acted. My concern is that while they feel they are learning from our mistakes and creating something different, too often they are repeating our mistakes.
What exactly do you mean?
We moved left and saw everyone else who was lagging behind as manipulated, or ignorant, or sucked into consumption, and so on. So do today’s youth. We became disdainful of many facets of U.S. daily life—sports, TV, movies, the way people dress, what they eat—so have today’s youth. We lost track of why people do the things they do, of the courage and insight that is often involved, and so have today’s youth. It is troubling, but certainly not young people’s fault. Rather, my generation hasn’t done a good job of being self critical about our sectarianism, our arrogance, our isolating ourselves from other folks by denigrating their experiences, all things that are recurring today, I think.
What if I created a movement which said that anyone who reads the New York Times is a manipulated moron, or that anyone who buys books from a big publisher, or anyone who uses a computer, or who wears body art or sculpture, or smokes, is a moron? And suppose I did this with no comprehension that the reasons people have for doing these things that my new movement disparages aren’t that they have been tricked into it by sophisticated advertising, or that they support the profit-seeking going on, etc., but that in difficult and constrained settings these choices make sense for various reasons. Then I would be dumb and these folks wouldn’t relate well to my movement, rightly.
Okay, so instead we create movements that say that people who consume from KMart, or watch TV sitcoms, or who eat foods we don’t advocate much less Burger King, or enjoy professional sports, are manipulated morons. Or our movements imply as much by their manner, tone, and deeds—and we wonder why folks aren’t flocking to join these movements. We call people the salt of the earth, and then can’t spend even an hour to comprehend their circumstances and choices to see that they are just as sensible as our reading the New York Times, arguably more so. I think class has a lot to do with this asymmetry. If they have to be hostile to something, why are so many young people more hostile to country music than to classical, to enjoying professional sports than to enjoying highbrow movies? It reminds me of Marxist Leninist organizations in the U.S. saying in the 1960s that the working class will lead us and then saying the working class was demented and deluded in its opposition to the Soviet system. If the first part wasn’t largely rhetoric, it might have occurred to folks that perhaps working people had good reasons to fear and hate “the Soviet model.” But the first part was largely rhetoric. The Marxist movements weren’t sincere or insightful about their working class allegiance. Similarly, if the first part of many leftist’s contemporary allegiance to “the people” wasn’t rhetoric, maybe more leftists would look more closely at “the people’s” life choices and respect them.
Is part of the problem the fact that to critique and change the system, one needs to be, to some degree, alienated from it? And rather than exist in an alienated state, most dissidents choose to start and foster countercultures. How can we remain fundamentally outside and oppositional to society while at the same time embracing the people who work within it? Without going crazy, that is.
Well, to critique and change the system one has to be critical of it, and have something else one prefers, I agree with that. But I don’t see why one has to be divorced from and dismissive of other folks. For example, I spent years, as have you, working at an institution with completely different values, norms, and structure than typical institutions in society at large, and we are both critical of mainstream workplaces and have something we prefer. But it didn’t make me and I bet it hasn’t made you critical of people who work at typical jobs, selling their labor power. It doesn’t make us hostile to them or paternalistic to them, either. We don’t feel like those other people are dumb, or manipulated, or selling out. So we have solidarity and respect and see ourselves as potential allies, even as we argue that a different way of doing work is better than the way they are doing work.
So why is it different regarding consumption values and choices, or food values and choices, or what we like for entertainment, even when there is a warranted critique, systemically? I think there are selections regarding culture and consumption and entertainment and even food that are fit for a good society, and other choices about these that make sense for many now, but aren’t the stuff of vision. Okay, does that mean I have to disrespect or denigrate or feel alienated from the people making those constrained choices, often with courage and dignity? I don’t see why. If I don’t like the commercialism of sports, the hierarchy, or the sexism, say, can I not still recognize that sports plays a positive role as well in many people’s lives? That one can watch sports for the artistry and excitement, and also for the community and the opportunity to partake of it which is so hard to find anywhere else? Can I not even do that myself? Why is it okay for a leftist to listen to a symphony or go to the museum and an average person can’t watch Ken Griffey Jr. without us looking askance at it? I think class differences and attitudes are powerfully at work in these matters.
Getting back to the 1960s: we rebelled. We took our mattresses and put them on the floor. We grew our hair. We wore torn jeans. We had new and different music. Why when we did these things—all of which had a sensible and progressive logic—couldn’t we simultaneously stay in touch with and respectful of others who didn’t make these same choices? Why did we have to keep erecting barriers between ourselves and others? If others got close to where we were, regarding some aspect of our choices, we would have to go further, even if the supporting logic became nothing but preserving our difference. What is that about?
First we are critical of people supporting the war, and then tons of people are against the war, so we move on to being critical of people with bourgeois culture, and then tons of people are reexamining cultural choices, so we become critical of our elders, and then people start making themselves young at heart, so we are critical of parents—and pretty soon the movement slogan is kill your parents, or something equally innane, and recruitment is lagging. I exaggerate, though only a little. Anyhow, I think it was insecurity, on the one hand, and a need to be superior, on the other, that fed these tndencies. I think we were afraid that if we showed the slightest awareness of the positive reasons why people cling to mainstream options, we would succumb ourselves. To respect others not like us would cause us to lose our opposition, so we had to ward off this possibility—which is also why I think mainstream folks often become as hostile as they do to dissidents, fear of being sucked in. It as if listening to a typical worker talk about liking their salary you would forego working at South End Press with its balanced jobs and equal incomes. Ridiculous. Or as if they were to begin to enact your type structure, you would then have to take some new step, just to keep your distance.
At any rate, I wish my generation had put more effort into understanding these dynamics and trying to convey whatever worthy lessons could be taught about them to new folks travelling down very similar paths.
What are some promising areas in which alternative institutions have been created and have thrived? What areas remain to be explored?
Well, I guess it depends a lot on what you mean by “alternative institutions.” If alternative institutions are things we create which use new procedures and roles to accomplish familiar goals in new liberated ways, and which provide models to instruct our critiques and our strategies, then presumably they have to address racial and sexual and gender and power and also class hierarchies, offering alternatives to replicating those around us. Of course, I think SEP has been a very important effort of this sort. Recently Arbeiter Ring Press and the whole Winnipeg Mondragon facility that it’s a part of, is another example. Some co-ops—food and otherwise are examples. Marriage has been experimented with, and living arrangements and parenting. I think we need more of these efforts in all realms. And I think we have to be much more self-conscious and public about the reasons for our choices. And obviously I have a very specific agenda about economic institutions, that being the focus of much of my work and activity.
Can you describe that agenda a bit?
Well, along with my co-author Robin Hahnel, I have spent a lot of time working on an economic vision that we call participatory economics. It rejects markets as antithetical to justice and self management, among other failings, and the “old models” including social democracy and what goes by the name “market socialism” and “centrally planned socialism,” which are actually economies that elevate managers and planners and intellectual workers more generally to ruling status. It emphasizes remuneration according to effort and sacrifice, not power or property or even contribution to the social product (which is favored by many other progressives). It argues that economic actors should not only have just incomes, but also just circumstances. And it urges that economic life should not divide people into those who are more empowered by the roles they fill (and who run the economy) and those who are less empowered by the roles they fill (and follow other people’s orders having little or no say of their own). It favors people having jobs composed of a mix of responsibilities and tasks unique to them but on average similar in their quality of life and empowerment effects to what others in the economy have. It favors council democracy, an idea with a long heritage, and also what we call participatory planning instead of markets or central planning or any combination of the two.
But I should add that while I emphasize economics because of my particular training, I don’t for a minute mean to imply that it is alone important. We need a multi-faceted vision.
In what ways can we find common ground with people who have not aligned themselves with the left? (Or should this be a priority?)
The solution to our lack of outreach has to involve, at least in part, our developing media that can reach far more widely. Left mass media, if you will. And it has to insinuate itself into people’s perceptions, and not as an isolated unbelievably strange and unwelcome intrusion, but in combination with enough visible left communication that is congenial and comprehensible and useful so that it is taken seriously. This is something I care about a lot and try to work on.
But to attract and retain people we also have to ask do our projects, movements, and organizations, and does our language and our personal style lend itself to new people, welcome them, respect them, comfort them, fulfill them—or does it shock them, denigrate them, literally block them from coming toward us or sticking with us?
But isn’t making social change, a lot of times, just boring and difficult? How can it be made comforting? Wouldn’t that mean giving up some of the vision?
Sure lots of things we do as activists are going to be boring. And lots of things will be hard. And we won’t always succeed. But this doesn’t mean we can’t organize ourselves in ways that minimize the travail and pain and frustration, and in ways that are supportive rather than brow beating. It sometimes feels as if folks think that one isn’t a leftist, isn’t truly moral, unless one maximizes one’s own suffering and that of everyone in one’s immediate vicinity. There is nothing wrong with looking at what we do and at how we interrelate and making it more rather than less fulfilling and more rather than less mutually supportive.
I look over the last 30 years, and I see a deep wellspring of humane and equitable aspirations continually pushing people, from within their own lives, toward anger at oppression and desire for some new way forward. But I also see a left that by its resource limitations not only doesn’t find these people and communicate with them, but, when it does, by its character limitations often actually pushes them away. We have to do something about this.