This is chapter eight 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. It is available via Amazon, if you would like your own copy. In its eighth chapter Cynthia Parks and Andrej Goldman discuss building RPS chapters.
Cynthia, returning to early RPS, I assume as people left the initial convention they prioritized forming chapters. Was that so?
Yes, when we left the convention we all knew that RPS’s success was going to depend on it having reliable, informed chapters in communities, on campuses, and in workplaces. We felt a chapter with ten members would be okay, but one with forty or fifty members would be much better. When a chapter reached the larger scale it would divide in two, not a nasty split, but a friendly break so each half could grow and divide again. In that way, on a campus, in a workplace, or a community, we would have steadily more chapters, each representing a steadily more focussed venue, with all tied to the rest.
You might start with a few people constituting a chapter for a community, workplace, or college. You might reach forty or fifty members and divide in two. Then it would happen again. As more chapters formed, we hoped each would remain entwined with its sibling chapters, so the many chapters in a community, workplace, or on a campus, would constitute an assembly for the larger unit – and so, as time went on, we could form federations of those assemblies.
It was an ambitious picture, but that was the whole point. RPS wasn’t asking what modest task can we perhaps accomplish to then go home. We were asking what big tasks must we accomplish to win a whole new society. We knew without chapters RPS would be a cyber organization with tenuous connections. Chapters could make it personal, direct, and participatory.
What were the chapter building steps? What difficulties occurred?
I left the convention and within a week hosted a group of friends. I was still in college and I spoke about the convention, handed out materials summarizing the nature of RPS, and urged those who were interested to return for another session a week later. In the meantime, I urged people to discuss the ideas and read the materials, and offered to answer questions.
It was pretty easy where I was, but imagine trying to assemble meetings of white Mississippians in Oxford Town in 2020. RPS chapter building depended on overcoming fear among people receptive to your message, plus overcoming militant opposition from people you eventually wanted to welcome.
At any rate, twelve people attended our second session. We met twice a week for dinner and rotated responsibility for bringing food. We held a cultural/entertainment gathering each week, and at each Sunday meeting someone would propose the coming week’s movie, picnic, or whatever.
Beyond getting to trust each other, we started discussing what more we could do. Some members thought we should practice presenting RPS views and vision and reach out more widely. Others thought we should join an already developed activist campaign or initiate a new one. Instead of endlessly burning ourselves out arguing the difference, we compromised. We would continue recruiting but as soon as we had twenty people we would establish our own campaign to pursue.
In three weeks we assembled twenty members. We reached forty amidst considerable campus turmoil from our first two campaigns, and at that point we split into two chapters and kept growing. In places where fear of relating or hostility were ubiquitous, progress was slower, but more exemplary.
What campaigns did you pursue? How did you get people to work together?
Our first campaigns were a campus anti-war version of the national arms manufacturers boycott, plus a campaign to end campus violence against women and racist attacks on minorities. To develop trust, we paid close attention to getting to know one another. Our chapters became not only the locus of our political hopes and activism, but a main site of our social lives. Once we had more chapters, we created intramural sports leagues, hosted regular parties, and sponsored classes taught by members with special skills or knowledge. People taught everything from learning to crochet to becoming a photographer or learning computer skills. We developed painting classes and assemblies of chapters sponsored stage plays and street theatre. Whenever we branched out, took up a cause, or developed anything new, we wrote it up and sent it to folks on other campuses, who did likewise. All this occurred with little opposition – what was there to oppose? – yet before long it provided a foundation for powerful campaigns.
I should note, our extensive socializing could have become insular. We could have become content in our own virtues, happy in our own social life, unwilling to address those disagreeing with us. It was undeniably more pleasurable to revel in each other’s support than to go out and talk to people hostile to our beliefs, but we knew we had to avoid becoming too comfortable in our own little universe. We committed most time to reaching out. We insured that even our social events were always looking to get non RPS participants involved.
We, approached groups and individuals able to broaden our potentials. We made lists of people popular in various constituencies on campus – including big living groups, sports teams, and influential fraternities – and we assigned people to reach out to each such person until successful. We celebrated getting our first chapter inside a fraternity, and then our first on a campus sports team, and we grew from there.
Andrej, did you help get a chapter going after the convention?
Not at first. I was deeply into RPS, but my history made me quite shy once the discussion turned from politics to daily life. I didn’t jump into forming a chapter, but I was recruited by others to a chapter they were trying to create.
I was an older graduate student at the time, and I felt I couldn’t give time to a chapter, but how could I write up ideas for RPS yet ignore chapter building? I reluctantly signed on, and to my surprise I not only benefitted and hopefully contributed, I enjoyed it.
My chapter progressed and I was assigned to reach out to the president of our campus inter fraternity conference – and surprisingly we got on great and he joined leading to connections in every fraternity.
RPS chapter building didn’t succumb like most prior campus organizing to constant tension, overwork, and alienation. Perhaps the main factor that led to our continued success was the way chapters developed healthy habits.
Once you were chapter building, what was your personal involvement like?
I prioritized improving internal education and external outreach to help overcome people’s lack of confidence and develop ability to non-defensively interact with students who didn’t already agree with us. We needed to hear them, relate to them, and hopefully welcome them. But to do that, we needed to prepare ourselves. So I focused on establishing a mini school to prepare folks to organize effectively on campus and before long our internal education efforts developed into an activist curriculum which then spread not only to chapters on many other campuses, but also to fledgling chapters in communities and workplaces.
It seems like there was no one right approach to getting a chapter going. Was that true? Did you require attendance? Did you have dues?
You are right that there was no single approach. In fact, even when we had hundreds and then thousands of chapters, there was still no one right way to operate. Chapters differed in different places and changed over time. Daycare, for example, came later for most chapters than for ours. So did collecting dues to help pay costs of preparing documents and hosting events. Our chapter recorded attendance at the two meetings we held weekly, and also at one group cultural event a week. I am sure many others didn’t.
One problem we all faced was member resistance to breaking up chapters. Members spent a lot of time relating to chapters. We became good friends. So when we reached forty members, and it was time to break in two, we wanted to stick with our friends but we knew growth was essential. To proceed, we conceived an arbitrary line through the campus and moved it around until we had 20 on each side. East and west chapters were born. Before long, we had a few chapters in each dorm. Similar developments occurred in communities and workplaces, albeit more slowly than in colleges.
One of the best aspects of frequent diversification, beyond that it led to rapid growth, was on our personalities. It used to be that when a left group formed, it would grow for a time and then turn inward. Members would even start to dress and talk alike. Membership would reach a workable size and then become more intent on maintaining itself as a community than on growing as a movement. We countered that tendency by regularly dealing with new folks. To us, growth, not mere survival, indicated success.
What about people disliking each other or even feuding?
Some people like to think that if you are on the side of justice and you are courageous, all will be absolutely wonderful. Not true. We still had disputes, jealousies, and tensions.
Small chapters suffered most. Suppose you had five members and two disliked each other. That would not only affect how the two members felt, but all five. Whose side am I on? Whose side are you on? What did you say? When a chapter reached twenty members, it became easier for everyone to do their thing and for those at odds to avoid conflict. Finally, when chapters broke up to form two out of one, we would separate those at odds.
The question became what could we do while two feuding members couldn’t separate or accommodate? We had no perfect answer. Different choices would solve different cases. The contending parties might just back off until there were more members. Or they might accept demands for restraint coming from friends. They might avoid attending the same sessions. Whatever. But it wasn’t pleasant and it could literally derail a group.
Were you ever personally in a harmful conflict?
Yes, twice. Once, 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. As bad as it could get when friends fell into dispute, or lovers – it was worse when parents, or parents and their children, or two siblings became hostile. After all, being part of the same lineage doesn’t mean people are never going to disagree. On the contrary, family incompatibilities happened often. In an ongoing situation like RPS, the most troubling, depressing, and often disruptive situation was when the difference causing people to fight was over how much time should be given to RPS, or 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 child, sibling, parent, or spouse who disagrees with your involvement so the situation inevitably turns out well. RPS created a strong community of support, but when a family member ridiculed your choices, it was hard to navigate no matter what support you had.
What other chapter priorities contributed to success?
After Trump’s election we all finger pointed, emphasizing flaws in everyone but ourselves and our closest allies. But then some of us looked in the mirror, and though I am not sure it was your intent with this question, I remember when I examined my mirror, four areas of concern greatly troubled me.
First, as an anti-sexist feminist I looked at Trump’s female vote and wondered why five decades of feminist effort left so many women and men who did not rebel against Trump’s misogyny. Clearly our being right about society’s gender injustices hadn’t created an unstoppable tide against sexism. Did we say too little about medium and long run goals? Did we alienate potential allies?
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 while I was happy about that, I also wondered how any could exist. And while I certainly understood some racism still existing in various white constituencies, I looked and saw the relative lack of white fury at Trump’s racism, Islamophobia, and immigrant bashing, and I wondered, again, how could that still exist?
Had five decades of anti-racist organizing not tried often or energetically enough to reach resistant whites? Had our movements preached overwhelmingly only where we already had a receptive audience? Had our tone or substance unnecessarily alienated many who we needed to reach? Had our anti-racist values, aims, or methods been flawed? Should we have said more about medium and long run goals? Could we have put off fewer potential allies and pulled others more sustainably into anti-racist commitment?
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 happen. How could five decades of anti capitalist organizing leave so many workers susceptible to Trump’s posturing? Did we not sufficiently address what working people feel and experience in ways they relate to? Did we give off hostility toward working people mirroring what they daily encountered from authority figures in hospitals, courts, and workplaces?
Being right for five decades about capitalism’s horrors hadn’t created an unstoppable tide against class oppression. Should we have said more about medium and long run goals? Could we make uncompromising, comprehensive demands about economy in ways that didn’t polarize away workers and didn’t ignore other social phenomena affecting workers like gender and race? Were we too dismissive of workers? Did we even aspire to be above workers, both in the movement and in a new economy?
Finally, fourth, as an activist, I looked at progressive and left writing over election year 2016, and I saw a lot of people saying that Trump had a silver lining. Trump will galvanize us. Trump is just another ruling class lackey so that not voting in contested states or voting for Stein in contested states was a wise choice. I wondered how such seeming callousness toward the plight of those who would most suffer Trump’s fascistic inclinations and ecological madness could exist among people who were generally the opposite of callous.
How could such views arise among 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 even decades of involvement in radicalism have yielded such results? 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, yet nonetheless hold the views many had been propounding