This is chapter twenty one of the book RPS/2044: An Oral History of the next American Revolution. RPS/2044 has its own book page, with front matter, reviews, essays, interviews, testimonials and place for user interaction with the interviewees.
Robin Kunstler, Celia Curie, and Noam Carmichael, discuss leadership, pace, and solidarity.
Robin, one of the contentious issues in RPS has been the question of leadership. As RPS’s first Shadow Supreme Court Justice, you likely have views on this. Why was it contentious?
In most complex and especially new endeavors someone must go first. Others see their example, hear it, assess it, and if they follow suit, there has been an act of leadership. No one thinks that is bad per se.
Rosa Parks not going to the back of the bus was not bad. Bernie Sanders initiating a campaign for President was not bad. Your neighbor being first in the community to call a meeting about a dangerous intersection needing a new stoplight is not bad.
Indeed, everyone agrees that that aspect of leadership is a good and inevitable fact of life. We are not a hive species that has one mind which always operates in unison. It is good when someone provides exemplary behavior or ideas which resonate with others.
What is bad is when someone who goes first and provides leadership accrues excessive power and wealth and becomes personally distorted.
Consider the becoming perverse problem first. You provide leadership, how do you view your own act? Let’s say you often have ideas or undertake steps that others later emulate. Do you consider yourself superior and more important? Do you ignore other people’s views? Do you think only your views matter?
This is ego inflation. It distorts personality and choices. It slides into elitism. It evidences the oft repeated but rarely understood claim that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Next, consider the wealth and power problem. That leadership garners praise and respect is appropriate, but if the praise and respect get parlayed into control over positions of influence, and then that increased influence yields power and wealth, that is inappropriate. Arriving at a worthy idea or practice before others shouldn’t convey increased income or a greater say in outcomes. Even worse, it should not create conditions for a repeat performance, and another, leading to entrenched power and wealth.
What were views emerged as the best solution to avoid the pitfalls of leadership?
The RPS solution on the personal side was to try to change the self perception that goes with leadership. In everyone’s mind the definition of providing leadership had to become to step out first in ideas or behavior in ways that welcomed others to do the same. We realized the best leader causes others to lead too. Positive leadership precedes others but elevates them. Positive leadership recognizes, reiterates, and never forgets that to lead means to provide without taking, to give without receiving.
We wanted self management. We wanted social roles that did not aggrandize anyone on the basis of his or her having had good ideas or having done something admirable. But we had to escape a vicious circle. Until new institutions were firmly in place, acts of leadership tended to reinstall past relations. But attaining new institutions required acts of leadership.
One answer to that seeming Catch-22 was to curtail leadership recurring. In other words, if someone had some combination of attributes that caused that person to repeatedly arrive at good ideas or good choices earlier than others, to avoid the person’s inexorable elevation we could temporarily prevent him or her being able to continually exert leadership. We would lose some good contributions from that person, but we would prevent that person’s personal trajectory from interfering with still more important gains.
The second answer was to get all the benefits such a person can provide, but remain diligent about preventing the person from becoming elitist and entrenching their influence.
Where did you come down in this dispute?
I thought both sides were right and we needed a judicious mix. We should not let one person’s creativity, innovation, courage, or whatever it might be, crowd out the possibility of others rising in their creativity but we should also try to find ways to get as much good as possible from everyone.
I once worked with a group of twenty people. Three of them continually jumped ahead toward seeing good solutions for each issue that arose. Everyone else was crowded out from contributing that kind of leadership by the three people’s speed. Each time the three people excelled, they became more confident and more practiced at it. Others became acclimated to hearing answers and not providing them. Entrenchment occurred.
As we began to understand the dynamic we knew we would have to reign in the folks who were recurrently leading so that others might fill the space. Of course those early leaders, if they had adopted the mindset that true leadership firstly elevates others, would not mind and would even welcome the restraint – but even if they did not, the steps would need to be taken.
I should say, this is of course delicate. It had to be done sensitively to increase both overall creativity and initiative and at the same time approach classlessness. But we did notice one thing relevant to how to proceed.
Take that twenty person group, again. Suppose mainly two are leading, let’s say it is Joe and Jill. We suggest that they hang back, be quiet, wait on others to arrive at the leading insight. An argument ensues and Joe and Jill protest that they would be hampered, even oppressed, by this choice.
This happened often and similarities appeared. First, it was for those other than Joe and Jill to assess the value of Joe and Jill’s contributions, not for Joe and Jill to do so. Perhaps they weren’t as excellent as they thought. Second, Joe and Jill were not being hampered, restrained, or even repressed. They were being told, hold on, use your insight, creativity, and courage, to mentor, train, and spur on others. Lead by creating more leadership. Once people became good at this, many of the dangers associated with diversifying leadership dissipated.
Celia, another issue that recurs often is what is the appropriate pace of change. How have you understood that?
In some ways it is the same issue. Do we want to advance as much as possible, as fast as possible, and then bring along as many other people as possible? Or do we want to elicit the broadest possible advance, and move forward together as much as possible?
Let me give you an example that perhaps highlights the issues. When there was a growing labor movement in Cleveland seeking a higher minimum wage, better conditions, and a shorter work week well before efforts attained similar strength elsewhere in the country, Cleveland’s workers came up against this issue. Some said, “Let’s just go all out. Let’s occupy factories, disrupt downtown. Fight to win. We won’t have enough support to prevent national guard repression, nor to sustain ourselves, and we will have to back down. But the rest of the country will see our uprising. Our aggressiveness will inspire others. It will spread. We won’t win now, but by moving fast we will contribute greatly to winning later.”
Others said, “Wait a minute. First, others in the country will see us losing. Is that going to inspire them to emulate us? If we follow that path, after we get repressed and lose, what will we have achieved? We will have taken our growing movement and trashed it. Instead, why not keep building and send out emissaries to other towns and cities to explain how we have proceeded and how they can do likewise, and how, if we all do, we will all together win?
“Instead of now occupying factories and causing repression and losing, why not keep on building our chapters in the factories, and propose how we would operate the factories, and support counter institutions until we have sufficient support here in Cleveland to take them over? Faster pace that leads backward is not better than slower pace that leads forward.”
RPS emphasized trying different approaches and keeping them all operational, which often allowed mutual compromise. Sometimes you could partly try fast pace, partly try slower pace, test each, and then put more effort into whatever worked better. This was ideal when people did not want to be able to brag about being right or to win an argument, but wanted to follow the best path whatever it turned out to be.
Can you give some instances of all these possibilities?
Cleveland took the patient approach. Boston had a similar choice, but it was earlier and more about campus activism. There are lots of schools around Boston and the student movement grew there earlier than in most of the rest of the country. Should the students go as quick as they could, escalating and getting repressed before there was mass support, to spur others on? Or should they go slower, develop more of a base, less visibly to others, but more sustained? And in fact they did find a way to try both approaches, at least to a degree.
Most of the campuses embarked on a slower approach of building organizations and reaching out to local communities but at the same time, MIT and Boston University had massive occupations and confrontations. The mix turned out well. Students on other campuses supported the militant events, but simultaneously urged those involved to relate to the longer-term efforts. The militant events caught the eyes of the nation, as intended, but the parallel endeavors also got visibility and were the lasting legacy.
Another example was the way many demonstrations adopted a multi-tactic approach. A massive march would be followed by a big civil disobedience event. Each would give strength and add meaning to the other. But, one could participate however one preferred, rather than either be involved or not. Strikes and boycotts developed diverse ways of relating, as did big teach-ins and accompanying demonstrations or sit-ins.
Could you recount an event or situation during the rise of RPS that was particularly important or inspiring for you?
I was moved beyond measure by two events in particular, the hotel and motel occupations of 2030 and the national prisoners strike of 2034.
You know, one feeling about prisoners is, well, they are captured. There is not much point organizing folks who have already been taken away. But another feeling – more humane, but also more strategic – is that these are victims of injustice. They are part of why we revolt. They are part of who revolts. It takes effort and clarity to see it, and the prisoners’ campaign brought that.
It was an accident of circumstance that I happened to be visiting one of the prisons with an artistic show while it was occupied. There was no way to leave, and I like to think I would not have left even if I could have, but I don’t know. The fear of a re-run of Attica – a long past site of prison struggle and massacre – was palpable, and I was certainly scared. But the scale of external support, and the wavering by the guards, precluded anything like that. Still, it felt imminent, and yet the prisoners carried on. Their courage was incredible.
And the housing battles, they were just so out of the box, and at the same time so perfect at revealing the inane priorities of profit seeking and market competition that they touched me very deeply.
Noam, another area of potentially serious differences had to do with issues of solidarity and their implications for being true to one’s views. Can you tell us the form of this issue?
Showing solidarity means acting in accord with the interests of others, and supporting others in their pursuits. Enjoying autonomy means functioning without intrusion from without. Clearly you shouldn’t always support but nor should you always ignore others’ wishes. So the question was, what mindset and choices have the best chance of coming up with a desirable mix.
Consider a movement against racism or sexism. It certainly doesn’t want to be subject to the will of racists/sexists, nor even to the will of well-meaning people in the dominant community who are, however, insufficiently aware of the dynamics of racism/sexism. It wants to be more autonomous than that. It wants to explore its own views, pursue its own agenda, learn from its own mistakes, and benefit from its own insights.
Over fifty years before RPS was born this wisdom was encapsulated in the idea of what was called the autonomous women’s movement, including efforts like Bread and Roses in Massachusetts and various anti racist efforts beginning with what was called Black Power and including groups like the Black Panthers and the Latin Young Lords.
Women and Blacks were tired of men or whites determining their agendas. They were even tired of having to constantly argue with men or whites, rather than developing as they saw fit without having to continually expend excessive time and energy dealing with male or white complaints. And for those reasons the idea of autonomy arose for the women’s movement and the Black power movement, meaning they operated under their own control and pretty much unconnected to other aggregations of non female, non black people.
That was fine, in theory, but it had a potential operational problem. Such a movement could lose a lot of solidarity from others. So, some would say, why diminish our overall power with this autonomy stuff? And others would say, why subject ourselves to endless hassle with folks who are trying to keep us down, or even with sincere folks who don’t understand our situation?
So, what was the RPS solution?
The thinking went like this: we often. need autonomy but also need solidarity. How can we have both? We clearly needed to develop cross constituency ties of a new form.
One familiar kind of cross constituency tie was called a coalition. We could have a massive coalition containing women’s organizations, anti racist organizations, and so on, which all align about some particular concern, for example ending a war. Back in the height of Sixties, two huge anti war coalitions organized around slightly different approaches to ending the war in Vietnam. Each had unity only regarding the war.
A coalition wouldn’t prevent a women’s organization from operating autonomously, and it would allow a degree of solidarity around whatever was the unifying issue of the coalition. The problem was that the solidarity was too limited. Typically, it was about one thing, such as ending a war. The component organizations and movements didn’t enjoy the benefits of solidarity from other coalition members for their own agendas, nor did they offer solidarity to other members for anything beyond the unifying coalition focus. A coalition accomplished something, but not enough. This was true over and over, including with climate activism coalitions around the time RPS first developed.
RPS did not want to replicate the Sixties or any other period so we greatly extended the logic of autonomy plus solidarity. What if we worked together on what we might call our greatest common sum agenda? This was different, and initially even seemed outlandish.
The idea was that various groups and projects should join into a “bloc.” Each group and project would retain its autonomy to pursue its own specific program as it decided. But, each group and project would also pledge to support the programs the other bloc members proposed. The agenda of the bloc would be the sum of all the agendas of its component organizations, movements, and projects. Each part of the agenda would come from the autonomous leadership of one or another partner in the bloc, but everyone would adopt it all. Everyone would receive and give solidarity, even while everyone retained autonomy regarding its agenda.
Did it work?
It was more subtle than it may sound. Suppose we take the women’s movement discussed earlier. It has a program, agenda, and style of operations oriented primarily around feminist activism against sexism. If it joins a bloc with others, then its program becomes one part of the program of the whole bloc. It will receive support from the other members. Reciprocally, as a member, it will support others regarding their programs. Two complexities made this hard. First, to join an organization that was in a bloc, I had to decide not only that I liked the organization, but that I liked the bloc, as well. Organizations worried this would reduce their membership.
Second, if a bloc included two organizations with contradictory programs, the overall bloc program would have to contain both aspects, even though contradictory, and the members would have to support each other. At first that seemed ludicrous, yet it wasn’t.
If the overall purpose of the bloc was shared – and in the case of RPS, the purpose was winning a new society with various agreed features – then the contradictory program components could each be seen as a possibility that should be explored to see what works. If one proved better, then, in time, it would be chosen. While the choice was uncertain and unresolved, having the two contrary aspects both in play would elevate diversity, a key RPS value.
As soon as groups with a particular agenda began reaping the benefits of solidarity from others and, in turn, began celebrating helping others, the confusion began to dissipate. So in practice, it has worked really well.
The idea for having a bloc resulted first from trying to improve on coalitions, and second from trying to embody in the movement what should become approaches of society writ large, once society was transformed.
Noam, before moving on, could you tell us, do you think we will win? When will we have won? And, in just a few last words, what is one lesson from this whole period that strikes you as particularly critical?
I think we won when we completed our second convention. There was still plenty to do, but since then, the wind is now at our back, pushing us forward. I suppose our project will end when we no longer need to imagine victory. Finally, a lesson that was critical for me has been recognizing that solidarity requires and breeds security and confidence but security and confidence permit and sustain solidarity.