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A Tale of Two Groups


Consider U.S. citizens who wish to eliminate capitalism, racism, sexism, war, and ecological decline by changing society’s defining institutions. Call this group “revolutionaries.” Even if we don’t require that revolutionaries are in organizations, or that they orient their whole lives around revolutionary commitment, or that they can espouse clear and compelling vision as a goal for revolution, and even using the least stringent membership conditions we might imagine, there are still likely only tens of thousands and at most a quarter million in this group.

Consider in contrast all who hoped to elect Bernie Sanders to make things better. Include anyone who volunteered or voted for Sanders, but also those who simply wished he would win. Call this group, “dissenters.” How many are there? Tens of millions.

“Movement makers” might think that the revolutionaries are correct about what society needs, but also that they risk attrition from being sucked into supporting lesser endeavors. In this view, revolutionaries who understand the institutional roots of injustice and who understand the need for long term commitment are critical to winning change, but may lose their awareness if they support anything less than revolution now. It says we should protect revolutionaries from sliding back toward resignation. It emphasizes that anything short of revolution is distraction. It sometimes even calls those who seek lesser ends “Clintonian fascists” and “sheep herder sell outs.” At any rate, this thinking draws lines clearly to make sure no one confuses the issues. It pinpoints and emphasizes that some revolutionaries may defect due to confusion sown by not repeating over and over that everything short of revolution is a sell out and by not dismissing as sheep herding everything short of demanding revolution now. It asks about every project, is it truly seeking a revolution with no attention to anything less than that aim – and then dismisses all that fails to measure up to that standard as merely trying to put band aids on injustice. We want the world and we want it now says this thinking, even if we have not the remotest mechanism for attaining it now, and even if trying for a bit less today would facilitate trying for much more tomorrow.

Activists welcoming dissenters into angry but limited campaigns is not celebrated. It is, instead, dismissed for being not overtly, clearly, fully, and uncompromisingly revolutionary.
For this way of thinking it is as if a person must jump from politically disengaged to raging revolutionary in one leap. No steps in between deserve respect and help.

What about a second line of thought? The dissenters who wanted Sanders to win are right that society needs many improvements. They are, however, often new to voicing such desires. They can easily fall back into not seeking change if their tentative journey into dissent is rebuffed or seems futile. On the other hand, if welcomed and successful, they could become more aware, confident, and militant. They could move from dissent toward a revolutionary perspective.

The second line of thought says seasoned organizers, writers, activists, and just plain old seekers of change ought to be most concerned to help dissenters become more informed, involved, and radical. It asks how we can best organizationally and programmatically welcome dissenters into lasting participation. It asks about every project, can this potentially welcome dissenters and sustain their forward motion? Can it enrich their awareness and involvement, and help them accomplish more?
Both lines of thought understand the ultimate need for fundamental change. Both criticize paths that have no prospect of leading toward fundamental change. But the two lines of thinking disagree on what qualifies as having no prospect of leading toward fundamental change.

The “guard against revolutionaries defecting” approach says anything that is not overtly demanding fundamental change now cannot be moving toward fundamental change. The “welcome and empower dissenters” approach rejects only inflexible methods, norms, beliefs or especially social relations that will obstruct seeking fundamental change.

This isn’t just a glass half empty versus glass half full face off. It is also about whether there is a spigot, often even of our own making, draining or filling the glass. And it is about trying to curtail draining and increase filling rather than simply smashing the glass if it doesn’t immediately match one’s most extreme desires.

Social change is a bit like a marathon. Highly trained runners/activists using the first type of thinking outlined above think the radical/revolutionary task is to get out in front of the pack as far as possible by running as fast as possible, with revolutionary flags flying high. If the mass of runners starts to get closer, turn on the jets and move further ahead. Look back and wave goodbye to the pack. Wave your revolutionary flag as you streak to the finish line.

If these type one runner/organizers have their way the group of current revolutionaries may not shrink and may even, sometimes, get a little larger. But regardless of the destiny of current revolutionaries, with this type approach the group of dissenters will grow tired of being ignored or reviled. It will grow weary of lack of clarity and scant means to participate. It will grow angry at being disrespected. And then as the experienced runner/revolutionaries speed off into their own celebrations of quick finish times, the dissenters will fall back into social conformity. It won’t be due to being duped or tricked, or due lacking capacity. It will be due to deciding that dissent is degrading and fruitless.

Type two runner/activists, in contrast, think how fast they run is irrelevant. What matters is how many other runners they help to finish better than they have before. They want nearly everyone to reach the finish line together, with solidarity and clarity, as well as with a steadily improving pace. They don’t use their greater speed/experience to leave the main body of runners behind. They instead work with people throughout the race to bring the whole pack forward faster, and to help it generate unity of purpose.

If type two organizers have their way, the group of dissenters maintains its involvement and grows. More, a growing subsection of it moves beyond being angry to being revolutionary.

In the current moment, it seems to me that one explicit application of all this is that trying to make the new organization, “Our Revolution,” a better mechanism for generating activism and increasing involvement from dissenters is type two activity. On the other hand, trying to uphold revolutionary fervor and identity by dismissing “Our Revolution” and everyone interested in improving it without trying to salvage its potential is type one activity.

Consider the petition called, “Support and Improve Our Revolution.” The petition doesn’t call for revolution now. It doesn’t map out aims for a new society. Of course some of its advocates do precisely those things much of the time, but the petition itself references the present.

No one would claim the petition is perfect in any sense. Nor would anyone claim that it will inevitably succeed in transforming “Our Revolution.” But it does seek to create a discussion and then pressure the new organization to become a vehicle not only for limited immediate change, but for programmatically and structurally advancing long run potentials too. And the petition could succeed, albeit only if there are many more signers and a lot of followup effort.

To sign the petition is, in the eyes of those doing so, a small act seeking desirable change. No one claims it is more that that.

But I wonder what to not sign the petition is in the eyes of those who choose that option? What does not taking ten minutes to sign this petition indicate that one seeks, positively, now? And whatever that may be, why does seeking it preclude also supporting trying to strengthen “Our Revolution” in hopes it can engage and empower the tens of millions of dissenters the Sanders campaign has inspired?

4 Comments

  1. avatar
    Michael Albert September 7, 2016 1:34 pm 

    Why write long comments on everything I write, which all hark back to your concerns about something quite different that is now years old and that you have said repeatedly?
    Why continually castigate people, who are working likely as hard or harder than you on trying to build the left. Is it simply because they aren’t doing something you favor – which I favor too, for what it is worth. Are they not allowed to think that efforts in that direction, at this time, aren’t working? If you couldn’t convince them, and I couldn’t convince them, isn’t that, ultimately, more on you and on me, than them?
    In any event, why not now find other ways to pursue the overarching end – new movement, new organization, with new vision?
    More personally, when you write a comment under something I write, unlike most writers, I feel a responsibility to read it. Is it your intention to force me to read your frustration and anger over a past I too wish went differently over and over?
    We tried what we believed to be a wonderful project. Many people signed on as supporters, but did not do much more than that. Okay. So? That is now years ago. And they have done countless other things. And, honestly, while their doing more may have made a difference, it very well may not have – and, again, they did many other things. It could be that you liked IOPS, I liked IOPS, some others liked IOPS, but not enough…so, move on. Find other ways to try to aid what you believe in.

    • avatar
      James September 7, 2016 10:57 pm 

      1. I write long comments under your article because that’s what comes to mind and I write long, like you do sometimes, or quite often. I’d do the same thing face to face. My cross to bear. Bad personality trait. Genetic endowment? Who knows why?

      2. I may be having a go at some of these people in a way you think unwarranted, but frankly I’m not convinced about this “building the left” you speak of. Even you castigate these same people or others for doing the same thing repeatedly in their writing for instance but not promoting long term vision, shared program, etc., and you do it quite often. Maybe they’re doing what you say, but doing it in isolation as Cynthia Peters said in her testimonial.

      3. These people you defend didn’t present anything suggesting something “I favour” like IOPS, wouldn’t work or wasn’tworking at any stage because they didn’t present anything at all, even after doing what you are doing here, urging people to get involved. Same with the Shared Program.

      4. Couldn’t convince them? They wrote testimonials for god sake. Why would I need to convince them? It’s more on me? What that I, a friggin’ nobody, couldn’t convince these people to participate in something they were urging people like me to participate in? Something that was needed and important? The right thing at the time? Is OR the right thing or just what is there at the moment? IOPS you had to work at building, OR is already there/here, corporate structure and all. But you’re probably right. Three/four years is old and a long time and then coupled with the prep work. Best let it go. Wile E. Coyote.

      5. The tyranny of novelty huh, in activism! New movement, new organisation, new vision! Ok, that’s how it works. What’s your new vision considering how Parecon hasn’t taken the world by storm, and why isn’t The Next System Project as heavily pushed here as this OR thing? I think I’ve read one or two articles over the last few years here from Alperovitz.

      6. So that’s not a little tiny veiled swipe at other writers who don’t feel an obligation to reply to comments? I guess not.

      7. Force you to read and respond? Force? I subscribe to Z and read pretty much everything you write. Agree with pretty much everything you say, generally. Force? I just write what comes to mind because it’s a comment section that’s what I do and then you do whatever you wish. Sorry if it’s not what you want or expect. But I guess that’s called diversity of view, right or wrong. There is no forcing. Jesus, when students weren’t responding the way you wished at ZSchool you sent personal emails to everyone asking for explanations, repeatedly, to which I responded. To every one of them and in detatil. I didn’t feel forced but it was in my personal email box, so felt “obliged”, and some of your responses to my suggestions were quite dismissive, leaving me wondering why I even bothered to take the time. Forced?????

      7. Move on? Of course. There’s no choice. That’s what happens. Obvious. Your position is quite clear then. I’ll go to the drawing board and try to think up a new movement, new organisation and new vision and try and get that one up and going with a few testimonials, petitions and the like.

      8. Nice to get it all off my chest. Feel closure now. Would have been nicer for this to have happened at IOPS but what the hey. Adios.

      • avatar
        Michael Albert September 8, 2016 12:35 pm 

        Force – only in the sense that I feel it is my responsibility to read and react, if possible, to comments directed at me… so, if you post the same thing, repeated;y, at considerable length, I have to read and react, repeatedly…or ignore, which I don’t like to do.

        As to the next system project…I have offered repeatedly to help in d9verse ways, for example participating in their teach-ins, etc. but there hasn’t been interest. I wrote for it, at the outset, but they have not requested anything more. I have republished their material. I wish they got more attention, but despite having considerable means, so far, they haven’t.

  2. avatar
    James September 7, 2016 11:41 am 

    Oh, what the hell, I’ll just close my eyes, duck my head a little and wait for the whack!

    There’s nothing in this essay that isn’t fairly obvious to me at least. I’m not a hundred percent sure the dichotomy is exactly right, but I get it. A worthwhile and necessary move. To push for better from within and without OR. No problem. But the strange thing was that, apart from having to work hard unravelling some of the long sentences and writing, as I was reading I kept thinking about these type twoers who try to facilitate change over time and help and nurture others along the way rather than heading out ahead on their own, some of the signatories on the petition along with other prominent types for instance, and a not so oldy but goody, IOPS, International Organisation for a Participatory Society.

    OR is up and running in the US. Energy, hope, dissent, grassroots, possibilities, the word socialism, serious smiles all round etc… Great. IOPS, on the other hand is withering away in relative obscurity. Not that many smiles. Now, this comment isn’t about choosing betwix one or the other, but it is about how some of Michael’s essay had me thinking about IOPS rather than OR. In particular all those testimonials for IOPS, written by, I suppose type twoers, some of who are early signatories to this OR petition, who then did, well, zilch, zero, nothing to help build the organisation or help nurture its members, newbies and dissenters who did actually join. It also made me think of those who, after feeling like IOPS just wasn’t going to fly the way they thought it would, up and walked. Crossed the road to get on with other initiatives leaving a perfectly good functional website sitting alone to fester and lose money, in cyberspace and an organisation, still with members, some wondering what the hell was/is going on.

    Yeah, the riff raff members still remaining, dissenters with maybe some experience and others with little, could probably attempt to resurrect it, revitalise it and reimagine it, which they are, but the chances of success are slim. I mean, I do find it odd that so many talented, experienced, active activists and self proclaimed revolutionaries, wrote telling testimonials for IOPS, then did nothing. I also find it odd that others of this ilk , who did do plenty, made considerable effort, have somehow just walked without so much as a goodbye and yet here they all are again urging everyone to get behind OR, while IOPS languishes, forgotten and ignored by them, as if it doesn’t exist at all.

    The two things, OR and the desire to move it to a better left mindset, build and continue its momentum and reimagining IOPS are not necessarily related, but there are aspects of this essay that just seem eerily familiar and applicable to IOPS, its history and current state.

    By all means, sign the petition, I did, and I don’t even live in the US (weird). By all means get active in OR, I have no problems with such effort. But it would be nice to see some of those same names who wrote testimonials for IOPS, urging people to do for it much the same as they are presently urging them to do for OR, to turn around, look back at IOPS, maybe cross the street, and get involved to help reimagine it. Bring it back from its near death. It would be nice to see some of those type twoers with greater speed and experience work with some of the remaining IOPSers, to help them forward, to gain unity of purpose, to provide a fillip for members, to help in involvement and growth, so they can move beyond being despondent to active and upbeat.

    A petition perhaps?

    A tale of two organisations.

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