photo by SG

Friday, October 17, 2008

On Mass Movements

SDS members have spoken a great deal over the last few years about how we want a "mass movement" or a "student movement." I'd like to take a few moments to reflect on these ideas and perhaps offer some analysis and suggestion of where we're going and what we're doing wrong.

First, a mass student movement means something very different from what we have now. Right now, we have a several-thousand person organizing body. My impression, based on attending two national conventions and speaking with dozens of SDSers, is that we are overwhelmingly an organizer-based organization. My copy of Rubin and Rubin's Community Organizing and Development (4th ed.) defines an organizer as "the salaried staff of social action organizations" and contrasts it with an activist, who is someone who voluntarily contributes a great deal of time, energy, and money to a task. All SDSers currently fall under the definition of "activist" then. If we compare this to a different kind of axis, which posits activism as advocacy through protest and public confrontation and organizing as advocacy through community work and alternative institution-building, SDSers often fall in a comfortable middle position that is able to use both styles of advocacy.

Regardless of what we call SDSers, we are an organizer-based insofar as we follow usually follow the model of planned events in support of an issue. Often, these fall into the less strategic model of event-rebuilding-unrelated event, where SDSers jump at whatever issue makes us excited and do not build upon our successes and failures. Increasingly, SDSers are considering the model of strategic campaign building as a method to go forward. This model, event-rebuilding-related event, makes the rebuilding section the most important, where the other makes it the least important. In my "perfect SDS," we would figure out what rebuilding means, and we would use it as a moment to grow and expand our organizing basis and our logistical capability.

Ultimately, what I'm trying to figure out and identify is the tension that exists, certainly in my chapter, and in others that I've observed between being an organizer model vs. mass model. Organizer-based model organizations include(d) SNCC, UFW, and some of the Change to Win unions. Mass-based model organizations include most political parties, and rank-and-file unions like the IWW. Both models can be used for good or ill. The question that must inform our decision to adopt one of these models is "what do we want?"

This becomes kind of a logical loop with no answer, because many SDSers say "we want a mass movement!" to that question. But when we look for specific things we want, beyond our broad slogans, we turn to things like student/worker/faculty control of the university, worker-control of society (and thus the end of capitalism), an end to all social oppressions, a system that doesn't destroy our Earth.

How do we accomplish these things? Personally, I don't think we do it through organizer-based models. Why? Here's a preface:

Recently, Tom Hayden of the old SDS spoke at my college. He was incredibly disappointing, basically a cheerleaders for Obama (like so many ostensible leftists become at this time of the year). One of the things that I started to understand was that he, and the earliest parts of the old SDS, were operating under an incredibly different understanding of social struggle in their day than we encounter today. Back then, the fight was to expand the welfare state to include those it should. The organizations that represent this ideological perspective still exist and are still powerful (and needed!) Mainstream unions, the left-wing of the Democratic Party, the Greens, NAACP, NOW, etc. These organizations try to extend the promises of a society where all are included. So the old SDS, it its earliest days, operated. They were a mostly white student group that worked in solidarity with these other social struggles.

We are not in the same social moment. With the notable exceptions of queers and undocumented immigrants, the promises of social democracy have been extended to all. Certainly, they aren't distributed equally nor fairly. Racism and sexism represent some of the most important pillars that keep our society functioning the way it does. Social democracy hasn't lived up to all of its promises, but the difference from 1964 and 2008 is that we see now that it could if it wanted to. If all the skilled organizers of the world got together and organized a movement of the people, we could make social democracy come true. Whereas 50 years ago, that seemed like a distant dream, we can see today that social democracy is a possibility, in fact, a probability. (None of this is to diminish the work of those who brought us here, or who continue to be excluded from this social promise. Their struggles are very real and very immediate.)

As social democracy approaches us, we start to see it better. And there are those in the working class who realize that we don't want it. Social democracy is the left-wing of capitalism, where our desires and beliefs are still packaged up, sold, and consumed. It is a soulless system with a kind face, where one day one is riding high and the next one is (as the last few weeks have shown us) out in the cold. Of course, as radicals see today something that we didn't fully understand before, capitalism is still capitalism. It is still part of the same system that necessitates ups and downs, changes and struggle. Even if we're a multicultural society (still a few decades off) without a glass ceiling, there are still workers and still bosses.

So we return to the question at hand: How can SDS achieve its goals?

This new movement, this nebulous idea of a 21st century working class in revolt, must understand that, as our struggles are diverse, so are our beliefs. One of the triumphs of anarchist organization has been its appreciation for multiplicity and different voices. Our struggles are multiple and interconnected, but also distinct and localized. This understanding is key to the development of a revolutionary organization. What's right for you isn't necessarily right for me, but we must work together where we agree and respect each other where we disagree. This freely associative model challenges traditional notions of organizing. Organizer-models reflect a kind of vanguardist thinking, where we plan events and campaigns, and you come to them. Mass-models often show a more explicit version of this, where directives come from the top and must be obeyed by the rank-and-file.

As I see it, SDS, in order to become a revolutionary movement, must take the wisdom of anarchism and apply it to the mass-based model of organization. We must force ourselves away from the top-down thinking of the old SDS and the similarly insidious logic of the organizer model. We are no vanguard. But we won't be led by a self-proclaimed one either. Rather, we must imagine an organization where people who've never attended an SDS organizer meeting consider themselves SDSers. Where SDSers can be regular students, who have never huddled over a press release for hours, trying to get one word right before day breaks and time comes to send it out. SDS must, in short, "go to the people." We must make SDS an activity as well as an organization.

Alright Brendan, that sounds real groovy, but what the fuck does it mean and how do we get theret? Not simple, I'll admit, but here's some suggestions.

  • Syndicalism. Popular in the old days, this is an important idea. But we must build upon previous notions of student syndicalism and fight for total worker/student/faculty control, administered through mass councils and department-level control. In short, we must target the administration, while building allies in faculty and worker constituencies, in order to completely change what it means to be a university. This may become easier as the economy deteriorates and students find it harder to pay, faculty and workers find less to earn. But if we do not move quickly, we will lose the advantage and universities will return to their pre-WWII role as incubators of the bourgeoisie.
  • Community work. The old Russian Nihilists invented "going to the people" and failed spectacularly. They were, like us, students, and went to the peasants to "help" them. Hopefully, we've learned from these mistakes. We must go to the people and use our social position to highlight their struggles. The most elitist thing that SDS can do is refuse to work with communities because we are too privileged to understand or our involvement would reflect us putting our agendas on others. This is elitist on two accounts. The first is that it assumes that working people somehow lack the ability to struggle for their own reasons and that our "big college brains" will somehow overpower them. Bullshit. If SDSers can simply shut their mouths when they need to and stop thinking that working people are idiots or myths, we can work with them. Second, it denies the precious knowledge and logistics that we've gained, often off the backs of these communities. We must go to communities and help in their struggles. Whether this means physically moving (while remaining conscious of impulses towards gentrification) or simply attending meetings, we must work to assist and also extend the lines of struggle.
  • Fight the reactionaries where they appear. Many SDSers have already begun this struggle, and its commendable. As the economy worsens, fascist ideologies become more popular. In its latest incarnation, this means anti-immigrant attacks on the street level and increasing militarization of society at the metalevel. SDSers must join communities in this struggle. But we must also use our unique position in society and our logistical capability to go futher than communities are able. We must fight the Minutemen, we must draw attention to their activities, we must resist the police in our neighborhoods and the military in our schools. We must outflank these dangers before we are outflanked. Even if the economy improves, revolutionaries often forget that when state power breaks down, as it would in a revolutionary situation, cultural "outsiders" are the first ones to be targeted. We must be prepared to build institutions that can protect us and our allies from fascism.
In all these struggles, we must attempt to go beyond the welfare state. We must confront where we can to get from it what we can, but we must keep our eyes fixed on a cooperative commonwealth that lies beyond its boundaries. If get ourselves mixed up in the ideologies of Tom Hayden and his ilk, we will tear ourselves apart, with Mass Liners and Food Not Bombers fighting in the aisles (which I wouldn't mind too much, but I've also been told the Maoists have guns, so that could end poorly.) SDS must remain a revolutionary organization, fighting with one hand to become nothing out of the ordinary, while with the other changing what ordinary means. In short, we must become a mass movement that has nothing to do with other mass movements.