This is chapter seven 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 sevents chapter Cynthia Parks and Andrej Goldman discuss convention vision, structure, and program.
Cynthia, can you summarize the first RPS convention’s initial vision?
Our visionary proposal for politics was that the organization should seek new government that facilitates all citizens participating in decision-making. Choices should be transparent. Roles should convey to all citizens a self managing say proportionate to decisions’ effects on them. New government should utilize grassroots assemblies, councils, and communes of the sort forming around the country. It should include direct participation by plebiscite, representation, or delegation, case by case, whichever would better implement self management. It should utilize majority rule, two-thirds, or consensus as means to further self management, case by case, whichever would be better.
We advocated freedom of speech, press, religion, assembly, and organizing political parties. But we added that new government should facilitate dissent and promote diversity so individuals and groups could freely pursue their own goals while not interfering with the same rights for others. It should fairly, peacefully, and constructively adjudicate disputes seeking justice and rehabilitation.
The whole commitment was to a few basic values and some broad thoughts about how social institutions could further those values while incorporating lessons from past movements in the U.S. and around that world. We said this is for a new society, but to reach that society, it is also for us, now, in our own organization.
It has few details, arguably none…
The then recent Sanders campaign had legitimated the idea of having a revolution in how politics was conducted. We gave its vague rhetoric more reach by proposing values plus a loose scaffolding of means. The aim was to ensure that new government would support community members contributing to solving problems while also ensuring that no political hierarchies would privilege some citizens over others.
What about initial vision for economy?
We wanted no individuals or groups to own resources, workplaces, or workplace infrastructure. We wanted no ownership to distort decision-making or determine income. But we knew that beyond that we needed to say what would positively replace capitalistic means of distributing income, organizing work, and allocating inputs and outputs.
We proposed that workers who work longer or harder or at more onerous conditions doing socially valued labor should earn proportionately more, but that no one should earn payment for property, bargaining power, or the value of their personal output.
We proposed that councils of workers should self manage workplaces and guarantee workers and consumers a say in decisions proportionate to effects on them, using majority rule, consensus, or other arrangements as appropriate.
We knew each worker needed to be sufficiently confident, informed, and knowledgeable to participate effectively in decision making, so we proposed that all workers do a socially average share of empowering tasks. We explicitly rejected about a fifth of workers doing predominantly empowering tasks and four-fifths doing mainly rote, repetitive, and obedient tasks.
Finally, for those choices to succeed we knew we needed allocation that would enhance all the above, and for that we proposed decentralized participatory negotiation of inputs and outputs by workers and consumers councils…
You are remembering almost verbatim, yet this was twenty years ago. How do you explain that?
I figured it would come up in the interview, so for accuracy I went back and re-familiarized myself with how it was stated then. But in any case, our economic aims sought to implement our values. We never had to memorize our aims, because we could always argue their logic.
Surely some of your economic vision was contentious even in the group working on the proposal. How did you resolve differences before sending out proposals?
Most of what we proposed had been previously enunciated by people who had earlier had limited organizational success. We adapted from them in the same way we hoped that RPS’s convention would adapt and refine what we offered. Nonetheless, we struggled to agree on the parts where our wording slid from broad guidelines into statements about specific ways to accomplish those guidelines. For example, we easily agreed on wanting classlessness, but we contentiously debated equitable remuneration, balanced job complexes and participatory allocation.
What was in dispute?
The biggest controversy was should we institutionally outline preferred features of envisioned division of labor and allocation, or should we only indicate what good labor organization and allocation should achieve in broad value terms, without saying how? If you look, we mostly did the latter for visionary details and even for much that was broad and general. But for division of labor and allocation some of us, myself included, favored being more specific.
Largely due to fear…
Fear? Fear of what?
For almost all aspects of vision we thought details could be added at the convention or later within the organization, rather than settling them right off as a kind of precondition for the organization getting started. But after much discussion we agreed that division of labor and allocation weren’t only important to broadly address, as so many issues were, but were also more subject to biases from old unexamined habits. We thought if we left it for later to arrive at certain basic institutional details for division of labor and allocation, the whole project could be sidetracked by contending class interests even within an emerging RPS. We didn’t want to establish an organization whose initial clarity was insufficient to prevent it from getting hijacked.
You stacked the deck?
We created a foundation for what we sought. Suppose we wanted an anti-racist organization but had no clear initial commitments preventing people with serious racial biases from joining, and also had no procedures or mechanisms preventing their democratically twisting the organization away from its intended aims. We wanted self management built on an initial definition that ensured that whatever else members freely developed or altered, their residual biases wouldn’t distort basic priority commitments.
And you feared potential members’ economic views?
We feared that if we required no prior agreement about division of labor and allocation, people who initially joined might not be well steeped in and might even resist really understanding how coordinator class interests could silence working class needs and potentials. We thought that for race, gender, and other aspects of focus, attendees would have differences, of course, but given the strength of anti racist and feminist organizing, if we agreed on good broad values in those realms we thought none of our operational differences would be so severe as to subvert potentials for worthy unity and clarity. However, around issues related to class hierarchy, we felt getting a result able to ward off tendencies toward coordinator class rule depended on our being more explicit about institutional solutions for division of labor and allocation.
What about gender vision?
We wanted new gender and kin relations that would not privilege certain types of family formation over others, but instead actively support all types of families consistent with society’s other broad norms and practices.
We proposed that living units should promote children’s well-being and affirm society’s responsibility for all its children, including affirming the right of diverse types of families to have children and to provide them with love and a sense of rootedness and belonging.
We proposed to minimize or even eliminate age-based permissions, preferring non-arbitrary means for determining when an individual is ready to participate in economic, political or other activities, as well as to receive benefits or shoulder responsibilities.
We proposed to respect marriage and other lasting relations among adults as religious, cultural, or social practices, but to reject them as means to gain material or social benefits.
We proposed to respect caregiving as a valuable function and to utilize diverse means to ensure equitable burdens and benefits.
We proposed our kinship vision should affirm diverse expressions of sexual pleasure, personal identity, and mutual intimacy while ensuring that each person honor the autonomy, humanity, and rights of others. We favored diverse, empowering sex education, including legal prohibition against all non-consensual sex.
Our initial kinship vision was mostly guidelines and values, not specifics. We left precision – much less perfection – for after chapter members had better means to participate and own the vision, and after we all had more experience with the issues. Our main kinship innovation wasn’t our vision’s substance, which had all existed before. Rather we brought the many facets together and urged that we needed to relate to the whole picture, not just one or another part.
What about culture vision?
We wanted new cultural and community relations to provide the space and resources necessary for people to freely have multiple cultural and social identities and positively express their cultural beliefs and habits. We urged recognizing that which commitments any particular person at any particular time finds most important depends on that person’s situation and assessments.
We knew that all people deserve self management, equity, solidarity, and liberty, so that while society should protect all people’s right to affiliate freely and enjoy cultural diversity, society should also affirm that its core values, if not their exact means of implementation, are universal.
We proposed that new cultural relations guarantee free entry and exit to and from all cultural communities, including affirming that communities that have free entry and exit can be under the complete self determination of their members so long as their policies don’t subvert society’s basic values.
Overall, it seems insular…
Yes, and so we proposed that international relations extend societal commitments beyond national borders. Internationalism should replace colonialism and neo-colonialism. New internationalist relations should steadily diminish economic disparities in countries’ relative wealth and protect cultural and social patterns interior to each country from external violation. Nations should facilitate internationalist globalization in place of corporate globalization.
And the ecology…
We proposed that new ecological relations account for the full ecological (and social/personal) costs and benefits of both short and long term economic and social choices. That would allow future populations to make informed choices about levels of production and consumption, duration of work, energy use, husbandry, pollution, climate policies, conservation, and consumption as part of their freely made policy decisions. But we also wanted new environmental relations to foster ecological connection and responsibility consistent with ecological preferences, so future citizens could freely decide their policies regarding animal rights, vegetarianism, or other matters that transcend sustainability and even husbandry. Remember, Trumpism had at that time charted an ecological path denying climate change. It may as well have been a suicide note to the planet, and as you know a big part of RPS’s emergence was fueled by horror at world-threatening ecological insanity.
The convention message was so much. Even today, despite decades of familiarity, it still weighs heavy. Was that a problem?
Yes, I think it was, and as you say, I bet it will be a problem for some who read this interview. But concision and simplification aren’t the only virtues when communicating. You have to convey important subject matter and it takes time and effort to minimize misinterpretation.
I could describe glorious moments, evoke related emotions, paint a picture of high points vibrating with personal pathos, all without conveying underlying thoughts, but for an oral history that wouldn’t be enough. Someone could do that, a better story teller or writer than I, in a novel, and it could be useful. Protagonist, conflicts, surprises, resolutions, drama. But in an oral history, such dramatic answers might sound more exciting, but they would not be better.
RPS history should feature ideas, lessons, and vision, not people or even events. It should show people engaged, but it should’t become a story built around a protagonist overcoming personal flaws or evil agents. It shouldn’t be a tale of technologies. It should include feelings, but not become a tale of feelings.
Asked about RPS, I and I bet all your interviewees, want most to convey insights, aims, and lessons. If doing that to provide source material for informed inspiration is less lively than a good thriller novel, or less emotive than a person-centered novel brilliantly conveying human pathos, so be it.
What were some complexities of filling out and advocating RPS vision?
It was hard arriving at good ideas without subverting others doing likewise. It was hard having good ideas persist. It was hard understanding when and how this or that good idea would be helpful.
How did you hold a view and not become sectarian about it? How did you hold a view that typically percolated into existence via a long path, and not treat anyone who didn’t immediately agree with you as either a moron or an enemy? How did you not forget that maybe a month or a year earlier, we who now held new views didn’t hold them? How did you passionately advocate vision but remember that dismissing partial gains in the present because we want all or nothing was a surefire way to get nothing?
These questions were hard because we lived in contexts that nurtured flawed judgements. I always found it strange when a revolutionary bemoaned how harsh social relations and institutions were, but then acted as though that didn’t affect the probability that his or her own views, influenced by those harsh social relations, were sound or sympathetic and not flawed or biased.
All radicals rightly realized that racism distorted the views of racists but back than few radicals admitted racism also distorted the views of those who suffered the indignities and violence of racial denigration. All radicals knew sexism and classism imprinted all kinds of harmful beliefs and habits on the personalities, values, and ideas of sexist men and on owners or coordinators, but back then few radicals admitted sexism and classism also distorted women’s and workers’ inclinations and habits.
RPS admirably emphasized that we ought to continually re-assess our views and choices, rather than reflexively assuming their wisdom. But walking a fine line between being over-confident and over-diffident was difficult and made the RPS journey far from smooth.
I remember being gently, but also forcefully, chastised about inclinations of my own to judge people as if they had to immediately know what it took me years to learn. I remember having to overcome my unwillingness to welcome refinements of views I held. I remember discussing such issues when I was one of those doing the intervening, and also when the intervening was aimed at me. None of that was easy. I remember sometimes – actually all too often – lying in bed at night wondering, had I been unfair to others? Had I been inflexible? Or were others avoiding responsibility and clinging to past identities? Each was possible. Each could be the case. Each did occur. It wasn’t easy.
Andrej, what about proposals for the organization itself?
As much as personal choices influenced outcomes, we knew we would fail to enact exemplary policies if our organizational context propelled harmful ends. For example, we wanted no minority to form even an informal decision-making hierarchy. We didn’t want less experienced members to merely follow orders and perform rote tasks. To avoid that, we proposed that RPS structure and policy be regularly adapted to always be internally classless and to implement the norm that “each member has decision-making say proportional to the degree they are affected.” We wanted to protect members’ rights to organize dissenting “currents” so we proposed that RPS guarantee those “currents” full rights of democratic debate plus resources to develop and present their dissenting views. We proposed RPS celebrate internal debate and test contrary views alongside preferred views.
Wanting collective self management, we proposed that national, regional, city, and local chapters respond to their own circumstances and implement their own programs, but not interfere with the shared goals and principles of the organization or with other chapters addressing their own situations.
Wanting participation, we proposed RPS provide extensive opportunities for members to influence organizational decisions including deliberating with others to arrive at the most well-considered decisions. We also proposed RPS provide transparency regarding elected or delegated leaders and impose a high burden of proof for secreting any agenda whether to avoid repression or for any other reason. We required ways to recall leaders who members believed inadequately represented them…
This is getting long winded…
I know. I feel it too. But building a new organization to revolutionize society is complicated. More than high points mattered. Making a revolution is not a pile of Tweets. So, seeking to model and pursue classlessness, we proposed that RPS apportion empowering and disempowering tasks to participants to ensure that no individuals control the organization by having a relative monopoly on critical information or levers of daily decision making. We wanted members to actively participate in the life of the organization including taking collective responsibility for its policies, so we proposed that RPS structurally involve its members in developing, debating, and deciding on proposals and that it treat lack of participation as a problem to address whenever it surfaced. We also proposed internal structures to facilitate participation including offering childcare at meetings and otherwise aiding those with busy work schedules.
We knew we were not remotely perfect people. We knew we couldn’t escape centuries of mutilation in minutes of celebration. We knew RPS had to monitor and respond to sexism, racism, classism, and homophobia internally, including having diverse roles suitable to people with different backgrounds and priorities. But we also knew we shouldn’t let seeking unattainable immediate perfection erase seeking immediately attainable excellence. We had to know where we were going. We had to want to get there as expeditiously as possible. We also had to realize it was not a day’s, a week’s, or a month’s journey. We had to always be being born into our preferred aims, never dying away from them.
Cynthia, I see how what you proposed was geared to guide an interim period without deciding too much at the outset. But what about program?
The proposal for consideration leading to the founding convention added to the above visionary and structural aspects, that the organization’s broad program should be regularly updated and adapted and should always incorporate seeds of the future in its present, both in how members act and by building liberating alternatives to the status quo.
We proposed that RPS’s program constantly seek to grow its membership among class, cultural, and gender constituencies. It should learn from and seek unity with audiences far wider than the organization’s own membership. It should attract and empower young members and help build diverse social movements and struggles.
It should seek changes in society for citizens to enjoy immediately and also should help establish a likelihood that citizens would pursue and win more change in the future. It should connect efforts, resources, and lessons from place to place, even as it recognized that strategies suitable to different places often differ.
We favored flexibility, feared sectarianism, and sought to win reforms in non reformist ways. These were the three foundational programmatic desires most critical, I think, to RPS being a project with staying power. And while no one would have explicitly argued that instead we should be inflexible, sectarian, or reject reforms, these matters were sometimes given only lip service whereas we prioritized them.
We proposed that RPS program seek short term changes by its actions and by its support of larger movements and projects, including addressing global warming, arms control, war and peace, the level and composition of economic output, agricultural relations, education, health care, income distribution, duration of work, gender roles, racial relations, media, law, legislation, etc.
But that was guidelines, not specifics…
Yes, and that was intentional. First, we wanted the proposal to be timeless and we knew that as context changes, priorities and circumstances change. Second, we felt specific program should emerge from discussion and debate and we didn’t want to prejudge that occurring.
We also proposed that RPS program should provide financial, legal, employment, and emotional support to RPS members so they could most easily negotiate the challenges and difficulties of participating in radical actions.
Similarly, we proposed RPS Program should seek to substantially improve the life situations of members. It should enlarge our feelings of self worth, our knowledge, skills, and confidence, our mental, physical, sexual, and spiritual health, our social ties and our leisure enjoyments. Being part of seeking a new world would take sacrifice and involve boredom and risk, but it didn’t have to require foregoing well being. In a new world we should not only fulfill our potentials, we should also enjoy life…
It seems awfully broad…
We wanted our guidelines, however people might later refine them, to provide a framework for deciding specific shared program but not to predetermine program. We also proposed that RPS program develop, debate, disseminate, and advocate contentious news, analysis, vision, and strategy among its members and in the wider society. We proposed RPS develop and sustain needed media and personal communication. We wanted educational efforts, rallies, marches, demonstrations, boycotts, strikes, and direct actions to win gains and build movements.
We also proposed putting a high burden of proof on utilizing even purely defensive violence, including cultivating a decidedly non violent attitude and we proposed, as well, that RPS assess electoral participation case by case, including cultivating a cautious electoral attitude.
In sum, we proposed a kind of meta program that specified the kind of things specific campaigns in different places and times ought to accomplish and therefore the kinds of demands and practices program should include, but we didn’t overextend by explicitly specifying universal demands and practices.
Did those who prepared the proposals have differences?
Yes, even after weeks of collective interactions and even as the convention approached, we especially differed on what the convention should do. Some of us thought the convention should just ratify the advance proposals with some modifications. Others thought the convention should ratify with modifications, but also apply the proposals in the current moment to decide some specific campaigns for people to pursue back in their home regions.
I leaned toward the latter view and expected that settling on some shared campaigns would be a significant contribution of the convention and that specifics would emerge from meshing the specific programmatic aims that had emerged earlier during the Sanders campaign and its aftermath, and the program that Black Lives Matter had settled on, as well as what flowed from other efforts, with our own guidelines leading us to add some features, so the whole would better fulfill the emerging RPS norms.
Were you confident after preparing your various proposals?
We looked at the pile we had generated and envisioned people hearing that to usefully attend they should read the proposals, discuss them with others, and decide their attitude toward them. We were far from confident. Some who we consulted called us crazy to ask so much from people. But there was motive in our madness.
We knew someone first hearing all this, I guess like someone first reading this interview, couldn’t possibly quickly process it. We knew it would require time to read so many proposals much less have opinions of them. But we felt that was okay. We weren’t gathering people just to celebrate one another. We didn’t want people to attend just to say they had been at the convention, or they supported it, without participating and knowing what they were supporting. We wanted attendees who would make serious choices based on carefully addressing the issues.