What is Organizing?

Organizing is a practice aimed at helping people create the social movements and political organizations necessary to wage campaigns and win power.  How do we make real the promises of democracy? Organizing is a time-tested strategy for empowering the people.

Organizing Relies on Action/Movement/Experience

The great American thinker, W.E.B. Dubois wrote:

The theory of democratic government is not that the will of the people is always right, but rather that normal human beings of average intelligence will, if given a chance, learn the right and best course by bitter experience.[1] (emphasis added)

“The people…will, if given a chance, learn the right and best course by bitter experience.” Experience is the teacher, the movement is the school, organizing is the method.

The organizer’s work is designed to produce social action because it is in the tumult of political life that leaders emerge, relationships develop and transformations in consciousness are realized.”[2]

Organizing depends on experience and experimentation rather than doctrine or ideology alone. Ideas are best proven or disproven in action rather than in debate. Words are important yes, but actions speak louder.

Organize the Unorganized!” 

When the Industrial Workers of the World, set out to unionize big industry for the first time organizing became a make-it-or-break-it proposition for the movement. The Great Steel Strike of 1919, raised up “Organize the Unorganized” as the battle-cry of the class struggle.[3] Organizing was the way forward but was also the best defense against the deportation of immigrants, scapegoating and attacks on radicals, blacks, workers and anti-war activists that was all part and parcel of the first “Red Scare.” Sound familiar?

Today, organizing remains as the most basic task ahead and the greatest contradiction: how to build a movement of people not currently active. It seems so simple: movements grow only when they attract people who are currently not involved or disagree. But that means organizing demands that we work with people we do not agree with. Even if millions have a rough agreement with our values, why are so few activists? Even if people agree on paper, we disagree with their passivity. And that is a far deeper disagreement than a matter of ideology.

For organizers, politics is about disagreement as much as it is about agreement. How do we deal with disagreement?

Telling people that they have been duped or turned into fools and that we are right is not the organizer’s way. We do not call people out. We call them in to activity.  Organizers are wary of exclusivity.  We aim to include rather than exclude.

“Don’t be in a hurry to condemn because he doesn’t do what you do, or think as you think, or as fast. There was a time when you didn’t know what you know today.” — Malcolm X

It’s important to be mindful of barriers to entry.  Almost all political organizations consciously or unconsciously erect barriers to entry.  It is our duty to help people overcome the barriers to entry. We should not expect conversion experiences. What are the intermediate steps?  Even vanguard parties created front groups. Even in union organizing it’s often necessary to do “vestibule” organizing — can’t get them in the church right away, talk with them in the vestibule.

Units of Power/Serve the People

One answer to the problems we face is to create organizing projects that build political structures or what Martin Luther King Called “Units of Power.” Here is King’s critique of his own work:

“Our most powerful nonviolent weapon is… also our most demanding, that is organization.  To produce change people must be organized to work together in units of power.

[I]t is necessary to acknowledge that the torturous job of organizing solidly and simultaneously in thousands of places was not a feature of our work.

Many civil rights organizations were born as specialists in agitation and dramatic projects; they attracted massive sympathy and support; but they did not assemble and unify the support for new stages of struggle.

Recognizing that no army can mobilize and demobilize and remain a fighting unit, we will have to build far-flung workmanlike and experienced organizations.[4]

And again.

“To produce change, people must be organized to work together in units of power. These units might be political, as in the case of voters’ leagues and political parties; they may be economic units such as groups of tenants who join forces to form a tenant union or to organize a rent strike; or they may be laboring units of persons who are seeking employment and wage increases.”[5]

Units of power also take the form of projects that serve the people and enhance their survival.

While they were famous for black berets and self-defense, the Black Panthers built a solid base with service work. They helped to create an enduring model for successful community organizing. This excellent short video looks at the Panthers’ health care programs but they also had a breakfast program for kids, food for elders, schools and legal clinics. These programs became known as “serve the people,” or what the Panthers thought of as “survival pending revolution.”

The same approach was used by white commmunity organizations you can read about in Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels, and Black Power: Community Organizing in Radical Times. One of the most influential community groups was started by radical students that named the organization JOIN for Jobs Or Income Now.  A noble goal but the people decided immediate survival issues were far more important. Housing was expensive and rundown, so tenant unions were organized. The young were harassed by police so JOIN formed a committee to resisted police brutality. The poor found the welfare system confusing and demeaning so JOIN fought for welfare rights.

Today, organizing continues in all kinds of projects around the country.  A recent union drive at Stamford Hotel used deep organizing methods for a big win. The Democratic Socialists of America are engaged in a very promising effort to build a base using a deep organizing strategy.  Teachers self-organizied the historic West Virginia strike.

Two of my favorites projects are The Young Patriots, and The Poor People’s Campaign. Both have roots back to the last revolution. Both address the intertwined issues of our time.

We also have a powerful new source for contemporary community organizing in Rising Jackson: The Struggle for Economic Democracy and Black Self-Determination in Jackson Mississippi.  Cooperation Jackson is a network of worker cooperatives and democratic institutions that grew out of decades of organizing.

All serve the people, all are units of power — this is how we overcome.

Organizing Demands Engagement

Engagement is true politics and the starting point for transformative change. If there is no engagement there is no discussion and without discussion there is no movement. Talking with strangers is one of the core revolutionary practices of the organizer’s world.

Saul Alinsky, born to Russian Jewish immigrant parents, founded modern community organizing in the 1930s.  While Rules for Radicals is his best known book, organizers also turn his earlier and more helpful work Reveille for Radicals. Alinsky schooled thousands of activists. He captured the kernel of organizing wisdom when he wrote:

“As an organizer I start from where the world is, as it is, not as I would like it to be. That we accept the world as it is does not in any sense weaken our desire to change it into what we believe it should be.”

The world “as it is” means starting with the people as they are. Then we move forward together.

Organizing focuses first on the people, secondly on those in power. In choosing tactics, campaigns, or language the need for engagement with people takes center stage. Speaking truth to power only works once you are well organized and have spoken truth to the people.

The organizers most important target then is the enemy within: fear, fatalism, denial, and distraction. By engaging people in gradually escalating action we diminish fear and fatalism and all the forms of social control that keep people in their place.

A good organizer is one step ahead of the people — always one but only one.

Relationship Building and Leadership Development

Ella Baker said, “Strong people don’t need strong leaders.

Ella Baker, was the greatest organizer of the civil rights movement and one of the most influential activists of the 20th Century.  Ella worked closely with many of the great leaders including Martin Luther King — who she did not always see eye-to-eye with. King was the charismatic leader — Baker the classic organizer. Ella did a lot of the invisible work of bringing people together. Her greatest achievement was that she helped organize the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).  SNCC was the bridge between the civil rights moment and young people that propelled the upheavals of the last revolution. Baker mentored a generation of leaders and championed an organizing perspective.[6]

She argued that the movements needed:

“the development of people who are interested not in being leaders as much as in developing leadership among other people.”

It is the organizers job to be aware of an individual’s strengths and skills and to help them find political work that matches and enhances their abilities. Baker’s vision was that everyday people had the capacity to understand and change the world.

Participation, Democracy and Self-Determination

It’s the people’s right to decide what is to be done. The organizer helps the people do it.

SNCC’s slogan was: “Let the people decide.”

As Ella Baker would have it: a good organizer helps people “see their own ideas.”

How is this done? The movement in Iceland today has given new life to an old radical idea. “From the people to the people.” Listen. Refine. Return. Repeat. But stay true. If the people can “see their own ideas” they will lead, if not — you will be on your own.

“The key to organizing an alternative society is to organize people around what they can do and more importantly what they want to do.” — Abbie Hoffman

Huey Perry an unsung Appalachian organizer:

“A community action group consists of low-income people organized together to identify their problems and work toward possible solutions….I feel it is necessary that we take our time and build an organization that involves the poor in the decisions as to what types of programs they want, rather than sit down and write up what we think they want.”

The organizer yields power to the people as a strategy for winning power for the people. This is the deep dual meaning of the classic slogan “Power to the People.”

W.E.B Dubois taught that only “Liberty trains for liberty.” Democracy trains for democracy and power for power. There are no substitutes for experience and action.

“Give light,” Ella Baker said, “And the people will find the way.” Democracy is the “light,”  finding “the way” is self-determination.

Organizing is a democratic means in keeping with democratic ends. There are plenty of shortcuts but they just won’t get you there.


[1] W.E.B. Dubois, The Negro

[2] Also see Richard Moser, Principles of Organizing, How Do We Organize a Hundred Million? and Representation, Organizing and Community. 

[3] William Z. Foster was the son of radical Irish immigrants. He had a long, distinguished and checkered career rotating through the revolutionary movements of his time.  Most important he was the most notorious leader of the Great Steel Strike.  His pamphlet “Organize the Unorganized” sets out a revolutionary strategy for the period, but is also full of lessons for our own.

[4] MLK, Where Do We Go From Here?

[5] MLK, Nonviolence, The Only Road to Freedom

[6] See also Barbara Ransby, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement

1 comment

  1. avatar
    James March 18, 2018 9:54 pm 

    All very good. It’s not as if these ideas are new but it is 2018 and people have been doing this stuff for centuries? Go back at least to Proudhon and Robert Owen and there’s a huge history. The Wobblies are pretty decimated now. L.A. Kauffman’s book, Direct Action is a good history of direct action organising form the sixties or so but surely there needs to be something else other than just organising…it has had success here and there but then the Big Daddy White Geezer hegemonic Power Grid pretty much still holds sway today and some would say there is a crisis/catastrophe looming. Perhaps this from Michael Albert needs to be appendages to the above article.

    “Here is an alternative to trying to get folks to accept one overarching banner or to only celebrate a lowest common denominator coalition. We build a bloc.

    We take the Left, the whole broad Left—and we will see how we can define that in a moment—and we call it a bloc. If your group wants to be in it, fine, it has to assent to providing people power and other support for the bloc’s overall agenda, while also autonomously developing and pursuing its own focused agenda. The same holds for my group. The same holds for every other group. The peace movement pursues peace and supports the whole bloc. Movements against racism, patriarchy, poverty, and homophobia pursue their agendas and support the bloc agenda as well. And what is the agenda of the whole bloc? It is the sum of the agendas of all its components. It is their greatest common sum—not lowest common denominator—including all the differences.

    This is not as odd as it might at first seem. It is precisely what a society is, the totality of all its components, differences and all. In our case, we just add that the totality’s components must be mutually respectful and supportive, even about their differences. The resulting bloc is the active Left. Maybe some people or groups think they are part of the Left but just can’t abide being part of the bloc. Okay, you are in the bloc or you aren’t, and the bloc is, or aspires to be, the active Left. Maybe some people or groups aren’t welcome. Their commitments are clearly contrary to the bloc’s central allegiances. Fine. It happens.

    Those in the bloc operate as an encompassing combination of components: a movement of movements. The antiracists get aid and benefit from the energies and assets of the gay liberationists and the peace activists. The peace activists get aid and benefit from the energies and assets of the environmentalists and the anticapitalists. And so on, around and around, for all those in the bloc, each getting mutual aid from all others in the bloc. In contrast, those outside go it alone, which gives them a big incentive to join, of course.

    The leadership for the emergence of agendas in each facet of life comes from the people most affected by that facet of life, which means from those most attuned to it, those most focused on it—not individuals but large and representative movements. Everyone appends the insights of the rest of the bloc to their own insights in the totality of their thinking. Friction is abided. Difference is part of life and of activism too. Unity of this broad type is deemed so beneficial that attaining it dwarfs worries about differences—save for the most egregious. And at the same time, differences aren’t confused, ignored, or made either subterranean or put destructively in the forefront. They are instead treated to serious, informed, and often vigorous debate and abided in their place.

    Is there a mind-set that can sustain such commitments among folks with different priority focuses? We think there are at least two.

    The first will most likely be held by only some folks, but we strongly advocate it and would like to see more people adopt it. In accord with the concepts in this book, it says, for example, that society is a product of the impact of different spheres of institutions and contexts—economy, polity, culture, kinship, international relations, ecology—each powerfully influencing all our life prospects while dividing people into different and often opposed constituencies. There is no a priori assertion of the importance of one focus as compared to any other—of economy as compared to polity, culture, or kinship, or vice versa—but instead their relative effects on life and their centrality to efforts at change are determined only in practice. In societies like the U.S., the evidence is seen as overwhelmingly indicating that all these spheres of life and their influences are fundamental and that all of them generate defining influences and pressures that mold the rest of society and contour possibilities so greatly that to dramatically transcend the limits of any one of these phenomena requires that we address them all. With this attitude, the need to combine autonomy and solidarity in our organizations and movement building seems self-evident. We have no choice. We arrive at the bloc.

    Luckily, a second viewpoint exists that could support this bloc approach and which can be held even by people who themselves continue to believe that one particular sphere of influence is fundamental. This second view can be held by people who believe that women in homes should address kinship, prioritizing implications for class struggle, or that workers in firms should address pay scales, firstly prioritizing women’s liberation, or that peace activists should address wars, with prioritizing attending to race, or vice versa, each favoring one sphere above all others as the central focus for strategic calculation, whichever the operationally dominant focus might be.

    The mitigating view is to realize that solidarity without a preferred prioritization—be it around class or gender or race or whatever—is vastly superior to seeking universal prioritization around a preferred focus and failing miserably to attain that prioritization.

    If I think patriarchy (or capitalism or racism or war or whatever) should be the main underlying organizing focus, even on other issues—and if I have the additional understanding—it doesn’t matter to my attitude toward being part of a bloc. I understand that not everyone is going to agree with me about prioritization, so that requiring that everyone must agree with me in my prioritization of one sphere of life above all others as the only route to solidarity will not yield solidarity.

    It doesn’t matter if I think that were we to get solidarity based on my prioritization we’d be in better shape, because I know it isn’t going to happen. And, likewise, I know that while forming coalitions will sometimes have merit, coalitions will not yield full solidarity either. So I should argue for my beliefs when people are interested in discussing such matters, but I should prefer that people with other views help each other and help me, and that I, in turn, help them as they help each other—rather than that we all compete. This type of thinking can, if sincere, support the bloc approach.

    One of the things that can prevent such insights from becoming majoritarian is that typically an advocate of prioritizing class or race or any other particular focus not only thinks they are right, which is fair enough, but actually wants to be right and wants others to be wrong more than they want to win change. This desire is what breeds real trouble.

    We should all want a better world. If you say the route to a better world is by way of paying priority attention to class, and she says, no, we should prioritize gender, and he says, no, it ought to be race, and so on … still, we should all want some approach to succeed way more than we want our own viewpoint to be advocated if it isn’t succeeding.

    Supposing that more than anything else we all want to succeed, isn’t the best way forward to insure against the error of all adopting one wrong approach? Therefore, shouldn’t we advocate an overall design that preserves and explores many approaches, even as we personally argue the benefits of whatever one we most favor?

    In other words, it turns out that even if I think a single-focus approach would be intellectually best, so long as I am sufficiently humble to respect the possibility that I could be wrong about my favored sphere’s priority, then I ought to favor the bloc approach. In any event, if I am remotely realistic, I ought to advocate the bloc approach because the real world alternative to the bloc is not my preferred idea of unity behind my banner, which simply won’t happen whatever banner I may favor, but no unity at all.” (From Practical Utopia: Strategies For A Desirable Society, pp165-169)

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