In the year 2042, an oral history of the then 25 year-old ongoing Revolutionary Participatory Society organization/project in the U.S. will be published. The book’s fifteen chapters will excerpt and arrange insights culled from eighteen interviews to present events and ideas in a sequential, encompassing way.
By unknown dynamics, the book’s introduction, its 18 source interviews, and even drafts of its chapters, have begun to appear via email in the present. The web site at http://rps2044.org presents more about the project, its aims, and ways to relate to it, and offers more of its substance as well.
In any event, the interviewer is named Miguel Guevara and the interviewee in this article is named Andrej Goldman. The year they meet is 2041. The interview is a virtually verbatim transcription. Also, as there are 18 interviews and since Guevara will seek to avoid undue overlap, no one interview serves as more than a facet of the larger whole.
Andrej Goldman, you are an economist and activist born in 1987. You have been involved with RPS since its origin, You have held various movement jobs while writing numerous books and articles and teaching in various institutions. You have been deeply involved in the process of continually revising RPS program and vision. I thank you for participating in this project, and to start, I wonder, do you remember your radicalization?
When I was in college I got into economics as a major. My classmates eagerly did equations and recited pat answers about supply and demand. They argued about government spending and private investment, and I just got bored.
I tried. I took course after course until I could recite acceptable answers to sterile questions. But I had no idea what working in a corporation was like or how a corporation functioned. It was as if a medical doctor knew a lot of biochemistry but not what lungs are, much less how to treat them.
I was fully radicalized during my college years by major campaigns against militarism, but before that, not long after arriving at school, I remember I went to a particular militant demonstration. I found myself agreeing with what various speakers said and admiring the activists’ willingness to take a visible, public stand. After I left, I wondered, what did it mean to watch something, admire it, respect it, feel happy it was happening, but not join in more fully?
That was me, and before long I decided that when I thought something was right, and if I believed I could further it, I should. I think that likely had a big impact on my joining the boycott efforts.
What also comes to mind to answer your question, is that on graduating, with the boycott campaigns raging fiercely, I visited some workplaces to see whether my economics training was as bereft of wisdom as I thought. This was an irreversible turning point. I watched people doing various rote jobs. They told me what the jobs did to them. I saw what other jobs, like being a manager did to other people. It was real economics and intensified my radicalization.
Can you tell us what events in RPS history most affected you personally?
I am not sure I can rank them, but I was incredibly inspired by the 2021 Public Schools for the People campaign and much later by the 2027 Amazon sit down strike and the support it garnered and spinoffs it propelled. In each case I got to see the action and feel the spirit. The joy and courage were incredibly infectious.
Envision being in a high school auditorium. Parent after parent speaks, often haltingly, always emotively. They recount their own lack of education. They reveal loneliness. They reveal desire for community and for the benefits of having a center to learn and socialize. You listen and you know they want roses on their tables, not diamonds on their necks.
And regarding the Amazon strike, I wasn’t an employee but I did line up outside in support and defense. The courage those workers showed, sitting down and telling the owners, the police, and the state that they simply would not be moved short of their winning dignity and income was phenomenal. I remember there was this constant effort to break their spirit. One of the techniques was a steady flow of rumors about gangs coming to attack them, but support outside put the lie to that.
The people involved were the leaders, the source of energy. They set the tone. The strike was working class to to its core. Its participants were compassionate and militant. They danced and fought. Both these experiences were exemplary for all who participated or who even just encountered them, and for whatever reasons each touched me particularly deeply.
Once you get a bit later, inspiring events and campaigns arrived almost daily. Each one moved me more than the last because each always built on what went before and foreshadowed what was to come, yet something about those two early experiences stuck with me, so that even now, when you ask, I answer with them.
Returning to the origins of RPS, what role did the early boycotts play?
The Wall Street march unleashed incredible energy and desire. It showed that a large sector of the population rejected the deadening past and wanted to contribute to an enlivening future.
I was in college, living near Boston studying economics, which was still, back then – you can see this was a refrain for me – a thankless intellectually sterile and elite-serving pursuit. Suddenly activism demanded an end to campus complicity in war. And the boycott that inspired that campus development came from the Wall Street march.
One of the Wall Street speeches called for all those present, and all their family, and all their friends, and all who they could reach out to, to stop buying products from producers of the automatic high velocity weapons that had become prevalent in public mass shootings. The idea took off across society and sparked a remarkable broadening of activism.
But I didn’t own a gun and I was never going to buy one. It would be wasting time pushing an open door for organizers to talk to me or to anyone I was in school with about boycotting. We weren’t gun aficionados. People who wanted to work on the gun boycott had to talk to people who owned or might soon decide to own a product from the gun manufacturers. Indeed it was a wonderful benefit of the campaign that to succeed it had to explicitly reach out to audiences that many activists had until then egregiously avoided. Reaching out to that audience happened somewhat a few years earlier when Trump ran against Clinton, but the boycott was different because boycott organizers had to bring to gun owners precisely the message the gun owners were most hostile too. Nonetheless, activists started doing it. And in hindsight this was, I believe, a major turning point for the emergence of RPS.
How, in what sense was it such a turning point?
Left activists always seek gains for their own constituencies but unlike many other projects and movements, RPS has always allotted its most creative and greatest energies to reaching out to those who very strongly disagree with us. That started in the early boycott, and probably in earlier work battling Trumpism, too.
At any rate, campus boycott activism arose first at MIT where a bunch of students, including myself, went to Wall Street and were inspired by the famous “We Are the Future” speech. We heard the call for a boycott of arms dealers and started talking about how we might relate to it. We could certainly organize for students to not buy from the producers of automatic weapons, but doing so would be silly. MIT students were not prospective customers of those producers. It would be like organizing fish to swim. Not needed, so not useful.
So the talking went on and a new idea surfaced. Why should we confine ourselves to manufacturers of the hand held weapons that enable lone psychopaths to become mass murderers? Why not take on the stupendously larger military engendered death, destruction, and misallocation of resources?
We quickly realized that such a boycott couldn’t be by individual students since we didn’t buy or design tanks or missile systems in our homes – but it could be by MIT as an institution. We had to create a campus movement demanding that MIT reject contracts with arms producers and war purveyors. We would organize students not just to boycott assault rifles, which they would do anyhow, but to resist the militarization of local and campus police and to resist all campus complicity with war.
I think the boycott approach was part and parcel of the thinking of the then still active boycott seeking to generate solidarity with Palestinians, and of the earlier boycott around South African Apartheid. In any event, we said MIT should not seek profits for investors, but should pursue justice and peace for humanity. And the time was right. When we reached out to students asking for agreement that complicity in war was wrong, it was like selling ice cream in the tropics.
It can’t have been that easy, there must have been obstacles?
Yes, okay, there were. That was too glib. For example, we encountered a troubling concern. For MIT to end war research overnight would be budgetary suicide. We decided to deliver our demand and organize support, but to ensure that the demand was implementable, we also offered positive ideas for a financial transition to take the suicide aspect off the table. No more war research would be our primary demand but we would also propose how to operate viably without war research.
We revealed how campus spending could prioritize dealing with global warming and other social issues. We highlighted how funds could come from revised government budgeting and punitive taxes on corporate arms producers. We initiated campus wide sustained discussion and in time demanded a campus referendum.
Having emerged from a period of reflexive opposition to Trump, we thought carefully about the implications and likely trajectory of our effort and tried to mold our demands and associated actions to ensure desirable and lasting effects.
I remember long personal sessions with friends exploring how to discuss demands and what actions to use to win support and apply pressure. It was less emotive and feisty than barreling into high gear and never down-shifting to evaluate what we were doing, but we believed a careful approach had more chance of long term success. It was hard to oppose our calls for greater attention to global warming, for research on new energy sources, and for various health campaigns. It was hard to refute our rejection of weapons research, and our events, talks, and actions.
What was your own experience of it?
The boycott was my first serious political activism and luckily the effort took off. I did a lot on social media but also helped arrange meetings in living units for free ranging discussions, worked on teach ins, helped organize campus marches and rallies, and finally helped occupy offices and labs. The work was relatively easy because we became active at the right moment.
I remember hearing about earlier similar efforts at MIT in the late 1960s, and I looked into that. After all, the Sixties did not fully win. The Sixties didn’t change society into a new shape, or even prevent, decades later, Trumpism. I wondered, would our effort also grow only to later dissipate? One of our priorities became trying to discern past problems we could avoid so we would do better. This was another key mindset leading toward RPS.
So how was it different than the earlier efforts?
There were unique and difficult periods for the boycott, but the campaign grew and soon there was a national boycott of manufacturers selling assault rifles to the public but also a campus boycott spreading from MIT to Johns Hopkins, to Stanford, to Michigan State as the first military connected schools to adopt the campaign, and then far more widely. This was already quite different than anything earlier.
Sometimes a school had fewer Pentagon ties, so the battle was somewhat easier, but the overall campaign just kept spreading and growing. It was a harbinger of things to come when to support the boycott became a mark of student responsibility. We didn’t shame people for not joining, rather, the movement dynamic uplifted people when they did join. This was another big difference, I think.
It was even more foretelling when cross campus solidarity led to city wide demonstrations and rallies, and when movements on different campuses started sharing lessons and explicitly lending each other support. It was eye opening when after two years of efforts, and this is after I was no longer a student, we held a rally culminating in a sit-in at MIT that had over 50,000 students and supporters from all over the Boston area. Nothing like that he ever happened before. Then when all those and more attended a rally and subsequent sit in at Harvard, we realized we were not going to be stopped. Our upward trajectory of support was too much to overcome. We couldn’t be thwarted unless we undermined ourselves and we were steadfastly committed to carefully avoiding that.
Can you tell us about some of the “unique and difficult moments”?
Sure, though it was around 20 years ago I remember like it was yesterday. One hard step was to discover and reveal the research. How could we do that? Students had tough class schedules and few resources. The contracts were secret. Each project was isolated from others and even more, each was shielded from general visibility.
In that context, a few daring students snuck into a secret site, took pictures, and stole revealing documents. Sometimes radical activism is very boring. Other times, more exciting. But this particular choice wasn’t just exciting. It proved beyond doubt that MIT wasn’t solely engaged in respectable science the military might not pervert. Rather, MIT was a big corporation literally designing drone, surveillance, and missile technology for repressing domestic and foreign populations. Students elsewhere quickly used similar tactics, often even more successfully. Once there was revealing information, calls for open books and war divestment escalated.
Do you know the Whitman poem that references seeing the universe in a grain of sand? I heard something like that from a famous scientist too. He said nature uses only the longest threads, so each small piece reveals the organization of the entire tapestry. Similarly, each radical campaign teaches a remarkable amount relevant to all radical campaigns.
For example, I remember the incredibly hypocritical lengths to which MIT’s typically liberal campus officials stretched their minds to come up with rationales for conspiring in murderous policies. Knowledgeable, scientifically oriented, highly logical, and in many cases even socially concerned officials swiftly swept aside evidence so they could trumpet self serving rationales. They admired themselves in the mirror, oblivious to their murderous culpability.
In contrast, a few right wing officials happily celebrated what they were doing rather than feeling any need to rationalize it. At the other extreme, a few caring officials escaped the bounds of their roles and allied with us, but they typically got ostracized and even fired for their wisdom.
I remember that the staunch right winger’s absence of hypocrisy made them easier to personally stand than the more prevalent liberals who deluded themselves and tried to delude us. I had heard that black organizers in the south during the anti Jim Crow campaigns decades earlier said the same thing about talking with overtly racist police officials as compared to talking with liberals who would say one thing and then act precisely opposite. At least with the right wingers, what you got was what they said, albeit what they said was vile. I also remember being very impressed with the officials who sincerely resisted their higher ups which was initially barely a trickle, but eventually nearly a torrent.
In any case, of course we students faced opposition, denigration, penalties, and repression during the boycott campaign. That goes with the territory. But a more interesting trend was administrators trying to use fear and our sense of responsibility to curb us. MIT administrators would spread rumors about how right wing students were getting ready to assault us and how the administrators sympathized with us and just wanted to avoid that horror, so wouldn’t we please discontinue our occupation of some labs to avoid disastrous student against student violence. The warnings were cynical lies. Threats to use police, however, were real. And the pattern was similar on campus after campus.
What were the key lessons of the boycotts regarding organizing?
First and this is now partly enriched by hindsight, was the mindset of the students we asked to join the effort. Discussion would often go on for hours with students offering first one rationale for not joining the campaign, then another. The weapons aren’t really offensive, they would say. Or they won’t be used. Or they are needed to preserve peace. Or, perhaps most strange, when used they will provoke dissent.
As we overcame each rationale with evidence about how weapons are actually used plus appeals to common sense values, plus noting that fighting against weapons that were being used was a horrible step back from fighting against weapons even existing, we got closer and closer to the heart of the matter with each student we talked with.
And when we would finally get to down to the roots, from campaign to campaign, in one dorm and then in the next, on one campus and then on the next, students resisting boycott appeals would finally tell organizers, “okay, okay, you are right about the facts. You are right about the ethics. But I am still not joining. To participate will achieve nothing.”
I heard it over and over. If you plumbed the depths of non participation you ultimately got to, “you are right, but you will fail. It isn’t worth my time.”
It was very enlightening to hear that being right wasn’t enough for winning people to the cause. We also had to have a good chance to succeed, and those rejecting our boycott thought we had no such chance.
So how did you deal with that?
In reply, we would patiently explain how signing up enough sufficiently informed and committed support could win. Eventually folks resisting our call would admit that campus administrations would give in if a large enough percentage of students and faculty were unrelentingly committed to boycotting. It would make no sense to try to preserve war research for budgetary reasons or even for “patriotism” when doing so would mean an end to their institutions due to rebellion by their students and faculty.
But then there would surface the full scope of what for me was the most important and revealing reason for people’s resistance to heeding our call. “I am not going to join you,” they would finally say, “because it is useless on a larger scale. It doesn’t matter if you win or not. Even if you get rid of war research here, it will be done somewhere else. Even if you have lots and lots of people in many places, it will still come back somewhere and eventually everywhere. People are greedy. People are violent and evil. There is no stopping war. There is no stopping injustice and inequality.”
Looking back, it seems so sad, as if the young folks were jaded and beaten old folks – old folks in college?
Yes, this kind of hopelessness fueled almost all the student resistance we encountered. It was stated explicitly only after overcoming other rationales because students didn’t like to admit such defeatism, but they deeply felt it. When all else had been rebutted, students would say, “human nature sucks, so we are all fucked. You should make the best of it. Play along. Your efforts to change society are futile.”
My subsequent investigations into past movements and especially the Sixties revealed this was nothing new. Such deep rooted despair was an obstacle then too. And in the Sixties, ultimately cynicism won. We had to do better.
I began to see that overcoming cynicism was the single greatest indicator of people in some situation becoming radical and a movement advancing. Of course, people’s cynicism was often bolstered by how much they thought they had to lose, but cynicism was pivotal even for those who had nothing to lose.
Where did it come from?
A defeatist attitude was drummed in tenaciously during upbringing and schooling and thereafter by society’s rules and roles. Society made adherence to social defeatism and individualist greed a rational near term response to society’s inequalities and hierarchies. Being cynicism about winning justice not only bolstered students who thought they were going to be really well off and have benefits that they didn’t want to risk, it also colonized people destined for low income, low status, and debilitating circumstances.
From our campus experiences, I soon realized that in communities and workplaces and wherever else, this defeatist attitude was a critical factor in why people resisted fighting for change. People had a gut level belief that nothing better was possible. People thought we have had social evil too long and it is too ingrained to overcome. Or they thought social evil is part of our nature, nothing non evil can persist. Folks would spin whatever facts came their way to always indicate how difficult change would be. They explained everything in the most depression-inducing and hopelessness-creating ways. Once you became aware of what was occurring, you saw it everywhere.
The mass upsurges to replace Trump, necessary and positive as they were, didn’t really fundamentally combat this nearly as much as needed. They were too much about removing what was deemed an aberration and about getting back to depressing business as usual for them to directly challenge the deeper cynicism about business as usual being the only kind of business possible.
And that is what seemed true for the Sixties radicalism and for much else that came before RPS, too. There was often great motion. A kind of rip in the tide of hopelessness. Moments of elation and hope. Moments of fierce struggle. But the glue to hold it together was absent, so over and over the moments didn’t persist. The rip was always too partial. For most, it was always belief in small gains against horrible deviant horrors, not belief in huge gains against the whole social order.
Many saw that we had to go beyond warding off reactionary excessive evils. Many saw we had to create hope about a new society, not just about ending one war, stopping out of control climate change, or blocking a race toward rejuvenating racism. But it took time for this lesson to move from being an idea some would offer, to actually defining what people chose to do, though I think that occurring was key to RPS emerging.
Were there other lessons, specifically from the boycott?
There was a more subtle one that was for me comparably important. We fought to get our universities to stop supporting military agendas. That was good. It looked forward rather than just rejecting backwardness. But it had a problem.
What would winning achieve? Would our victory mean the murderous research that universities had been doing would no longer occur? No. We knew the research would migrate to private firms, often even to firms created by university personnel. Schools would spin off labs by making them into private corporate firms, which, however, not only maintained their war complicity, but also retained the involvement of previously involved faculty. Only the name and legal definition would change, not to protect innocence, but to hide guilt.
This trend was rightly scorned as a massive version of “not in my backyard” you don’t put that crap – but, okay, you can put it somewhere else. You can even keep it in the same damn building as long as you legally formally disown it while it keeps right on operating as in the past.
The lesson I and others took was that we shouldn’t allow partial gains to deteriorate or be reversed by cosmetic realignments. Campus movements had to transcend campuses to take on private corporations as well. Today MIT, Stanford, and the University of Michigan. Tomorrow, not only the spinoffs, but also the NSA and Boeing.
Instead of all the experience we gained on campuses merely moving the site of the crimes and going home, we expanded our focus. I was out of school by this point and many of us began reaching out to workers at companies doing war research. Instead of trying to get the people and firms to stop cold and therefore go out of business and out of work, a mistaken approach that had derailed much prior organizing, our proliferating and diversifying anti war movement confronted all sorts of firms with demands for how they could do new, socially desirable work in place of war work, even as we simultaneously confronted the government with demands to re-allot funds from military to social use.
Another lesson was that we began to realize resistance to our anti militarist demands reflected factors well beyond war fighting, a point that should have been clear all along. The added issue was would the economy produce military stuff, some that was used, which was of course the worst outcome, but much that would neither be used, nor even work if it was used? Or would the economy produce quality affordable housing, good green infrastructure, renewable energy sources, excellent public transport systems, and vastly better education, housing, and health facilities?
Why would a society militantly pursue militarist production over humanist production? The answer had to be that warding off criticism of the military path was warding off a threat. But the threat wasn’t some external enemy. We knew that was nonsense. The threat had to be that producing housing and schools and otherwise redistributing wealth from the military sector and private arms producers to uses benefitting the population at large was way worse than producing weapons that benefitted no one other than those who directly profited off their production.
Can you explain that, and the reasoning leading to the conclusion?
In time, we followed the Sherlock Holmes advisory. If you rule out all but one explanation, then what is left is what you must consider. We knew that the people deciding, albeit with some exceptions, were not literally sadistic. They didn’t build a tank, not a school, because they literally wanted to rob students. And we knew that benefits of military production beyond profits for directly involved corporations were slim and and even non existent. We even knew that a shift in focus of war related firms could preserve and indeed enlarge their workforces and probably even their revenues. The government could pay for a transit system or for a missile system. Private firms could receive the payments in either case. We ultimately realized that when the government acted on behalf of the population it had two effects which the government and elites felt they desperately needed to avoid.
First, enlarged social spending reduced conditions of instability and poverty and, in so doing empowered workers and insured them against attacks from employers thereby increasing their ability to win greater gains. Second, social spending established what elites considered a terrible notion – that the country and the government ought to benefit the whole population.
I remember how seeing these two points made the disgusting logic of capitalist social structure far more real to me.
I wonder if you took any lessons that were more personal?
There was a key lesson for me bearing on organizing and people’s belief systems. I was in Texas on a trip and I spoke about the boycott of military work and there were lots of questions about private guns. I remember after a talk, I got into it with a campus advocate of open carry who wanted students to be free to bring hand guns to classes. We were arguing on a lawn and before long there were maybe twenty people listening and tossing in comments.
What struck me after awhile was how we were arguing right past each other. The gun advocate was taking for granted permanently abysmal societal conditions. He felt that at any moment some demented soul could try to impose his will on you. Some maniac could unholster a gun of his own and start shooting people. Having this view, the gun advocate felt there was only one antidote. He had to have his own gun for self defense.
For him the issue of guns or no guns was like a miniature version of the old notion of mutually assured destruction in which gargantuan stores of nuclear weaponry on both sides meant neither Russia or the U.S. could use what they had without being annihilated. Similarly, my gun advocating adversary believed that if most or even all students were carrying hand guns, no student could get away with being a bully or imposing his will. Even a crazy student hell bent on murder wouldn’t be able to do much before succumbing. Forget that this ignored the presence of guns unleashing crazy inclinations and escalating what would otherwise be moderate disputes into violence as well as creating a climate of fear. The gun advocate took all that as baseline. In his view, that was in any event unavoidable.
I listened and realized gun advocates believed society was headed to hell in a hand cart and that no significant renovation was possible. This wasn’t academic for them. It wasn’t merely a possibility. For them it couldn’t be averted and reversed. It was inevitable. So arose gun advocates’ mutual assured destruction logic.
This gave me a new view of many other difficult debates. I wasn’t going to win what seemed like a trivially simple and limited issue – kids carrying guns in classes would be horrible for everyone – without first winning a non trivial and not at all simple issue, that society did not have to keep devolving into a kill or be killed condition.
The lesson was general. In horrible circumstances that people believe will only get worse, things that are insane when considered in light of positive social aims, can seem perfectly sensible and even necessary for self defense. If you believe inevitable dynamics rule out social sanity, then why not opt for the most effective “insane approach” you can find? In many cases, the fact that people took that path did not make them irrational, or even proponents of evil. It made sense, given their incorrect but understandable assumptions. Learning this stood me in good stead for later trying to communicate past gigantic chasms of difference.
Andrej, others have mentioned that many involved in the campus boycotts, and other upsurges as well, would melt back into their old lives once demands were won, or lost. You were intimately involved. Was this your experience?
I saw it. I could be saddened by it. I could even be totally sidetracked by it. But instead I guess I saw the optimistic side more intensely. I saw that some, like me, kept on keeping on. And I also saw that even those folks who went back to their prior ways had a residue of the boycott experience living on in their minds and I knew it could resurface not too long later, if we who kept active did good work.
So what about the significant number who did not return to prior choices?
We were changed and retained the changes. We no longer fit our past patterns. A few of us became social misfits, shattered and for a time unable to function due to our outrage at all the injustice around us interfering with engaging thoughtfully at all. But others became designers of new slots for ourselves. We decided society had to fundamentally change and we resolved to help make it happen. We became part of the flow leading toward RPS along with others who learned from even earlier campaigns against Trump’s vile policies.
Other gains occurred at that time and led toward RPS as well. Perhaps most important, activists began to realize that the right criterion for judging events, meetings, and campaigns, wasn’t did our effort win what was directly demanded. It wasn’t did it achieve the disruption that was directly sought. The real criteria was did our effort increase consciousness, desire, organization, and commitment in the larger circles of people communicated with. This new criterion for judging our efforts helped birth RPS. “Movement first” replaced “me and mine first.” Long run desire informed short run anger.
What makes you think that occurred?
A lot of things, not least my experiencing it myself. But here was one particularly stark indicator. Consider a major demonstration called to shut down some elite meeting. In earlier periods, in the early organizing the focus of associated activist commentary would be the substantive issues. What was the meeting for? Why was it a heinous gathering? Why did the demonstrators oppose it? What did the demonstrators want beyond merely shutting it down? When the new criterion gained sway this type of focus persisted for such endeavors right through when they occurred and into the aftermath. But before the new criterion gained sway, pretty early on and steadily more so as the event neared, organizers and left media would shift overwhelmingly from focusing on the issues of the movement and the aims of the meeting and the larger scale aims of opposing those aims, to the technical details of blocking the meeting and especially dealing with police. The tone became stop the meeting, we win. Fail to stop the meeting, police win. This was remarkable because of course elites won as soon as that became the substance of discussion. That occurring meant real radical insights faded from discussion. It meant organizers and activists could be easily crushed. Coerce us into tactical retreat and there would be little focus on reaching wider audiences.
In any case, with the change to the new criterion, our priority became developing an approach that was about how today’s choices impact tomorrow, not about whether today’s action accomplishes some specific short term tactical aim. When we organized to stop some meeting, or to win some campaign, demands and actions mattered for the immediate benefit they could deliver to worthy recipients, but also for how they laid a basis for winning more gains in the future.
This insight caused me and many other activists to deeply realize that being a revolutionary wasn’t mainly about supporting particular ideas or even a transformative vision. It wasn’t mainly about courage or even organizational ties. Beyond all that, being a revolutionary was mainly about having a new attitude. Life had to reorient from being firstly about day to day concerns, one’s job, or even an immediate radical agenda, to being about winning a changed society. “I am a revolutionary” came to mean and still means that the organizing principle guiding my life is to win a new society.
I have heard a bit about chapter building from folks, but would like to explore that further, if you will. Did you try to get a chapter going when you returned home from the first convention?
Not at first. I was a bit of a loaner. I was deeply into RPS, engaged with the convention, and so on, but my history made me quite a bit less social and even shy, I guess, once the discussion turned from politics, or anything intellectual, to matters of daily life and socially interacting. So I didn’t jump into trying to form a chapter. Rather, I was someone others came to to recruit to a chapter they were trying to create.
I was an older graduate student at the time, and at first I felt like between trying to write about RPS ideas, and even contribute to them, and also to teach my course allotment and attend my classes and so on, giving time to a chapter would be a burden I couldn’t manage. But, after some prodding I couldn’t say no. How could I be writing up ideas for RPS yet ignore chapter building? I couldn’t. So reluctantly, I signed on. And much to my surprise I not only benefitted, and hopefully contributed, but I enjoyed it. The chapter I joined, and remember this is still the early days of RPS, and on our campus we were still quite tiny and barely known, did indeed progress much like Bill described. Indeed, I even had responsibility for reaching out to the then president of the inter fraternity conference on our campus, and surprisingly we got on great and he joined. Thereafter chapter folks were welcomed to talk to gatherings in each fraternity.
I think we should be clear about something. This was not typical of past organizational efforts. Far more likely would be an unfolding situation of constant tension, aggravation, overwork, and alienation – which is why far more often organizations fairly quickly stoped growing and started declining. Obviously RPS is alive and well, verging on winning a new society, so even in the early days there must have been attributes, commitments, features, and even lucky happenstances, that led to such success. I think one, maybe even the main one, was the way the chapters grew and had a healthy manner about them.
Once you were chapter building, what was your own approach? What were the problems and how were they overcome?
My own priority had to do with internal education and external outreach, which I saw as intimately related. And it was also deeply connected to what I thought was a main problem we had, which was a lack of confidence and ability to engage with other students, particularly ones who didn’t already largely agree with us. We needed to hear them, relate to them, and, in time, one hoped – and it did prove true – welcome them into RPS.
To be able to do that really well, I thought we needed to prepare ourselves. So in addition to all that Bill mentioned, I made it my concern to work hard on establishing a kind of school for RPS organizing. It would have two main aims for those relating to it. To prepare folks to go out and organize effectively on campus. And, for at least a subset of those involved, and the more the better, to also prepare folks to ready others to do likewise.
In a sense, the idea was for those doing the helping and teaching to prepare those who they were engaging with to become the ones doing the helping and teaching. So we worked on that, and as Bill said, made known what we were doing and why, and how it was going, and before long the internal education priority developed into a kind of activist curriculum and spread not only to chapters on campuses, but with needed adaptations, also to chapters in communities and workplaces.
It seems like there was no one right or accepted approach to getting a chapter going? Was that true? Did you require attendance? Did you have dues?
You are quite right, there was no single anointed approach. And, indeed, even when we had hundreds and then thousands of chapters, there was still no one right way to operate. Our group did require attendance at the two meetings we held weekly, and also at one group event a week, which was a lot to ask for. On the other hand, since there was no penalty other than being rejected from the group for really excessive violation, it was more a matter of having a norm and trusting that folks would try to respect it.
Chapters evolved as they matured and grew. Chapters also were different in different places and times. Daycare, for example, came later. So did collecting dues to help pay costs of preparing documents, holding events, and so on.
One problem Bill didn’t mention was resistance to breaking up chapters. People became very tight with one another, really good friends. And you spent a lot of time relating to your chapter. So when we reached forty members, and it was clearly time to break in two, it was a bit traumatic for many of us. Personally, we wanted to stick with our mates. Politically we knew growth was essential. To avoid hassles we settled on a mechanical approach. We conceived a rather arbitrary line through the campus and moved it around until we had 20 of us on one side and 20 on the other side, and then that was it, the east and west chapters were born, and so was an assembly of two chapters. Later we had north, south, east, and west, and so our campus assembly had four chapters. Then we decided it was too uncreative so chapters adopted names they liked. I remember the first named chapter I was in was called willy, but for the life of me I don’t remember why. Before long, there were enough chapters so they were in dorms, and then often there were a few chapters in a dorm. And I think roughly the same kinds of developments occurred in communities and workplaces too, albeit for many obvious reasons, more slowly than in colleges.
One of the best aspects of this, besides that it led to incredible and constant growth, was on our personalities. It used to be that when a left group formed, not only organizations but, say, a campus movement, it would grow for a time and become very ingrown. Members would become very entwined and start, very often, to dress and talk alike. It would become more or less a sub community on a campus, sort of like a tribe with its own logic and patterns, and quite defensive about preserving each. It would stop growing, often, because it reached a stable workable size and was more intent on maintaining itself as a community then on growing as a movement. Our approach to chapter building countered that tendency. You were regularly dealing with new folks, and growth was the indicator of success, not survival. We had community, but it was outward facing and growth seeking.
What about the flip side of getting social with each other? What about people disliking others, or even feuding with others?
Some people like to think that if you are on the side of justice and courageous, all will be absolutely wonderful. But that is quite wrong. There are still disputes. Jealousies, and all manner of tensions can arise. No one likes everyone. We all find some people annoying.
So was this a problem for chapters? Yes and no. When a chapter is small, disputes and tensions can be deadly. Suppose you have five members and two don’t like each other. There is no avoiding it. It is there all the time. It not only infects how the two who are at odds behave and feel, but most likely all five. Whose side am I on, whose side are you on? What did you say?
When you get up to around twenty members, it is easier for everyone to do their thing and for those at odds to avoid conflict. And when chapters break up to form two out of one, of course those at odds with each other could be separated.
So the question becomes what do you do when the two at odds couldn’t separate and couldn’t accommodate? There is simply no perfect answer. Different choices would happen in different cases. The contending parties might just back off until there were more members. Or they might behave. Whatever. It isn’t pleasant. It can literally derail a group. I wish there were a simple one way fits all cases solution, but I don’t think there is. Sometimes it isn’t a big deal. Other times the people are both highly active, even important, and their differences are unbridgeable, perhaps because of both, perhaps felt more by one than the other.
Were you ever in a situation like that?
Yes, a couple of times. Once the split of distance solved it, at least as much as possible. The other time we both had to control ourselves for quite awhile, which was no fun, but better than the alternative. You know as bad as that could get when, say, it was long time friends who fell into dispute, or worse when it was about love life – there was a still more difficult dynamic when parents and each other, or parents and their children, or two siblings were at odds. After all, being part of the same lineage doesn’t mean people are going to never disagree profoundly, or even that they won’t become consistently hostile. On the contrary that kind of tension and incompatibility happens quite often for all kinds of reasons. In an ongoing situation like RPS, the most troubling, depressing, and sometimes disruptive situation was when the difference causing people to split was precisely about RPS itself – whether it was over differences about how much time should be given to RPS, or even about being positive about it at all.
Twenty years into the experience, I still don’t think anyone can sensibly say, here is how to deal with a relative or spouse who disagrees with your involvement in a way that will inevitably turn out well. RPS creates a very strong community of support, and that helps, but when your spouse, child, parent, brother, or sister is beyond your reach and opposes your choices, that is hard to navigate no matter what kind of support you have.
Do you think there were other new aspects of chapter priorities compared to prior efforts that contributed to later success?
Besides outreach, participation, and the rest? Probably, I am not sure. After Trump’s election and right through the convention there was a lot of soul searching. Well, actually, at first there was a lot of finger pointing as folks emphasized possible problems in society and in everyone other than themselves and their closest allies. But in time we started to look in the mirror. I am not sure it was your intent with this question but I remember four areas of concern that incredibly troubled me.
First, as an anti sexist feminist I looked at Trump’s female vote and I asked myself, what did movements do wrong over months, years, and literally a half century during which we had been trying to develop feminist awareness and commitment? Why had five decades of efforts left society with so many women and men who did not cry out at Trump’s obviously misogynistic intentions? Did our organizing polarize away potential allies too often? Did we attract potential allies, but convey insufficient clarity and commitment for them to stay? Were our feminist values, aims, or methods flawed? Did anyone believe that in five decades we could not have done better?
Did it follow that rather than bemoaning the choice of women and men who voted for Trump, we should ask what we ought to change about how we talk about, make demands about, and organize about gender so we attract rather than repel those who don’t agree?
Being morally and socially right for decades about society’s gender injustices hadn’t created an unstoppable tide against sexism. Did we need to say more about medium and long run goals? Did we need to seek feminist outcomes in ways that put off fewer potential allies? Could we find ways to make uncompromising, comprehensive demands about gender that didn’t polarize away men, and that accounted for other social phenomena like class and race?
Second, as an anti racist internationalist I looked at the admittedly small numbers of low or modest income blacks and Latinos confused about Trump and I wondered how any could exist. I looked at the relatively modest support from Blacks for Sanders – which was part of the whole election turning out as it did – and I wondered how that too could exist. And while I certainly understood some racism still existing in various white constituencies, I looked and saw the relative lack of fury at Trump’s racism, Islamophobia, and immigrant bashing, and I wondered, again, how can that exist?
Had decades of anti racist organizing not tried often or energetically enough to reach whites who resisted the appeals? Had our movements preached overwhelmingly only where we already had a receptive audience? Had our messages too often failed due to their tone or substance alienating those we meant to reach? Had anti-racist communities pursued too narrow an understanding? Had anti racist values, aims, or methods been flawed?
Did anyone believe that in over a half century we could not have done better? Did it follow that rather than bemoaning the choices of whites who voted for Trump, we should ask what we ought to change about how we make demands and organize about race so we attract rather than repel those who don’t agree?
Being morally and socially right for decades about racism’s ills hadn’t created an unstoppable tide against racism. Perhaps we needed to say more about medium and long run goals. Perhaps we needed ways to seek anti-racist outcomes that put off fewer potential allies and pulled others more more sustainably into anti racist commitment. Could we find a way to talk and make uncompromising, comprehensive demands about race that didn’t polarize away white people and ignore other social phenomena like class and gender?
Third, as an anti capitalist I looked at a narcissistic billionaire bully attracting tens of millions of working class votes and I wondered how that could exist. How could five decades of anti capitalist organizing leave so many workers susceptible to Trump’s rhetoric and posturing? Was it something about our substance? Did we not sufficiently address what working people feel and experience in ways they relate to? Was it something about our approach? Did we give off hostility toward working people quite like what they daily encountered from authority figures in hospitals, courts, and workplaces?
Working people were furious at their plight yet anti capitalists had little connection to and often even little empathy for workers’ rising fury. What did we have to change about how we talked about, made demands about, and organized about class and economy to reach those who didn’t yet agree? Did anyone believe that in a half century we could not have done better? Rather then bemoaning the choice of working class people who voted for Trump, shouldn’t we ask what we ought to change about how we make demands and organize about class and economy so we could attract rather than repel those who don’t agree?
Being morally and socially right for five decades about capitalism’s horrors hadn’t created an unstoppable tide against class oppression. Perhaps we needed to say more about medium and long run goals. Perhaps we needed ways to seek anti-capitalist outcomes that put off fewer potential allies and pulled others more sustainably into anti classist commitment. Could we talk and make uncompromising, comprehensive demands about economy in ways that didn’t polarize away workers, and that didn’t ignore other social phenomena like gender and race? Was the issue part style, part substance, with both owing to inadequately understanding the situation of workers and being too dismissive of them, and perhaps even aspiring to be above them, both in the movement and in a new economy?
Finally, fourth, as an activist, I looked at progressive and left writing over the year 2016, the election year, and I saw a lot of people saying that Trump has a silver lining, Trump will galvanize us, Trump is just another ruling class lackey same as the rest, and not voting in contested states or voting for Stein in contested states was a wise choice. I wondered how the callousness such views displayed toward those who would most suffer Trump’s fascistic inclinations and ecological madness could exist. I wondered how such confusion about the implications of movements trying to seek radical progress against a right wing thug rather than against a liberal albeit corporate and war complicit woman could exist.
How could such views exist for radicals immersed in left literature and activism? What had those of us who knew better done wrong that had caused us to fail to reach the commentators who offered such suicidal views? How could months much less years or decades of involvement in radicalism have left so many thinking such deluded thoughts? I wondered what had been wrong with the accumulated literature and practice of all the left’s many parts taken in sum, such that a good many left commentators and incredibly many young radicals could be highly versed in all that radical output, and yet nonetheless hold the views many had been propounding.
I think in feeling these concerns I was typical of many, and even most, who became involved with RPS. So I think the import of the above many questions and desires to deal with them in practical choices fueled much that was right about chapter building. And I guess I would say that that orientation to correct our own faults was an added factor, a tone and intent, if you will, on top of other choices I have already described.