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.


William said...

You: We'll overcome them with our numbers!

Me: We'll overcome them with our trickery!

I don't know why I never realized it before but our strategic differences are quintessentially Russia and America circa 1945. (Allegory's added bonus: You're a Stalinist.)

Anonymous said...

hi Brendan,

Hope you're well.

I've not read that Rubin and Rubin book but from what you said here I think their definition of an organizer is terrible. Someone isn't an organizer unless they're paid for it? And anyone employed by some type of organization is an organizer? Can't be.

I find it more useful to define this stuff with verbs (at least action-word nouns, nominalized verbs) than with normal nouns. To my mind organizing involves or should involve these things or attempts at these things:
- building a permanent or at least long-last organization
- moving people to action who were not previously taking action
- building relationships among people who did not previously have relationships
- getting people to exert power based on their own interests
- talking to people in an idiom as close to their own as possible in order to identify their interests, build a relationship with them, and move them in some way.
- developing people into leaders and developing abilities and confidence among people who previously didn't have these qualities as much
- winning identifiable victories in the short- or middle-term (organizing requires a winnable issue)

Some of what gets called activism is organizing, a lot isn't. I think a lot of activism involves people who already agree with each other talking based on their shared agreement rather than outreach to people who don't already agree. It also often involve advocacy - mobilizing on behalf of others, like holding a protest in Minneapolis against landmines elsewhere - instead of people acting on the issues that effect them more directly in their own lives. These are all good things but they're not organizing.

As for movements, I don't know what people really mean when they say they want to build movements. I guess that means getting lots more people to agree and to do things based on that agreement. That makes sense and I definitely want that. I have no idea how that could be done, though, except through building mass organizations (I use "mass organization" to mean "organization that organizes based on common interests" as opposed to "activist organization" or organization based on pre-existing political views).

One other comment, I think another way to characterize organizing (good organizing or real organizing) is what you refer to as event-rebuilding-related event. Rebuilding is definitely the most important part. Every fight or action should set us up to perform better in the next. In a workplace this goes like something like this - after a committee exists, we decide to act against a supervisor for sexual harrassment. Three of us confront the supervisor. The supervisor's behavior tells us to fuck off. better. We go around and tell everyone else what happened, using those conversations to get more people plugged in. We go to the next boss above the supervisor with 15 people. The boss fires the supervisor. We talk to everyone in the shop where we use those actions as evidence that we can win gains on other issues. We identify the next issue to take on then ... etc.

(I'm mostly stealing this from one of the Workers Power columns in the Industrial Worker a while back called Goals Strategy Tactics.)

take care,

Anonymous said...

hey again Brendan,
I had two more thoughts on this. One, on going to the people - not to be disrespectful, but I highly doubt that many SDSers have really critical skills that less privileged communities are sorely lacking such that SDSers going to the people will make much of a difference. I think universities produce status differentiations as much or more as they produce real usable knowledge. That's not to say SDSers shouldn't go work with other people, but I think you overstate the case that it's elitist not to and that SDSers have "precious knowledge." Two, I think what you're describing isn't really mass based organizing at all. You're calling for politically conscious people to go where there are struggles and where there are reactionaries, and engage in those conflicts. That's fine, and may well help with some outcomes, but it's not mass organizing or mass organization. I know very little about SDS so maybe this is already happening or isn't feasible for some reason, but I think it'd be much better for SDSers to get involved in 1. building links across campuses and the segmentations in and between them (like say Macalester in comparison to MCTC) part of struggles for better conditions for other workers in education at those institutions, the low paid ones that institutions of higher learning rely on
3. focus on the jobs that students themselves have, particularly at lower end and less privileged institutions and which often compete with other workers and depress wages for them.

take care,

Setanta said...


Thanks for your comments.

In terms of the question of elitism, I'm still pretty undecided. I think that you do bring up some important points. But I also have a feeling that there's a culture of fear in SDS that I don't see in other student organizations about working with non-students. People are so hopped up on these arguments about privilege that they end up not being able to help people. It seems to me that an excessive discourse on privilege reifies privilege as something that can only be grappled with internally, not something that can be overcome through struggle with and in support of less privileged folks.

There is a basic fact that there are certain types of skills that folks like SDSers (or other activist groups) have that marginalized communities generally don't. Things like lock-down techniques, protest medical skills, knowledges about politicians and networks of "formal" power. I think that activists should be prepared to share these skills with communities that want to use them. That's crucial to becoming a mass movement.

It's analogous in some ways to the IWW: labor organizers have various skills and knowledges that unorganized workers may not have. That doesn't mean that unorganized workers don't organize spontaneously or unconsciously, or that the knowledge that organizers have is somehow superior. But at the same time, your average worker doesn't know his or her rights on the job, or maybe how to organize a successful job action. That kind of knowledge can be passed down from Wobblies to other workers.

Eventually, the goal is to share skills. This is always a two-way street. But I do feel like the reluctance of "going to the people" (in a manner far more conscious and respectful than in the past) is a serious mistake that comes out of a kind of white (or whatever) guilt mentality.

As for the second part of your comment, I don't think that's what I'm calling for at all. I think it's terribly important to engage and fight reactionaries, as I pointed out. But that must be done as part of a model of mass organizing. Simply pieing a racist speaker on campus is individualistic and not encouraging. By organizing consciously and building a mass movement on and off campus (as I suggested in my first two points, syndicalism and "going to the people") we can build a body of folks who are both conscious and numerous. Again, the analogy of the IWW comes to mind. You can have a large, organized body of workers in a trade union that will cross picket lines. Likewise, you can have a small activist group like ARA that challenges Nazis. But the IWW proposes to be a large group of rebellious workers that organizes on the job and also for the working class generally (which entails fighting reaction). That's what I'd like SDS to be on campuses.

I think your suggestions about building cross-campus ties and thinking about students as workers are spot-on and exactly where I'm trying to push SDSers. The postscript to this post is that I've become considerably less involved in SDS recently, mostly because many SDSers I know are unwilling to sacrifice their "activist" role as the most hardass radical around to be willing engage with people and build a mass movement. Rather than talking about issues like debt and student/worker power, they'd rather burn flags. This may be a way of powerfully radicalizing a small number of students, but it will never lead to a mass movement. And maybe they're right. Maybe there will be no student movement in this country, and that we should focus on other things. I think they're wrong, but the problem is that their approach is an "organizer" approach and mine is a "mass" approach and at some point they start being antithetical. So we'll see where that goes.

Anonymous said...

hey brendan,

lots of smart ideas here, i need to read your blog more often!

after reading the article and the comments, i don't really understand the difference between what you call the "organizer model" and the "mass model."

you say SNCC used an organizer model, but IWW had/s a mass model?

is it just a question of how many members are involved?

id love to know what you thought was missing in SNCC.

im right there with you in terms of building a revolutionary mass movement, and i think as SDS the best contribution we'll have is through organizing students and youth on and off the campuses, and yes, being accountable to the struggles of oppressed communities in and around those spots.

clearly burning flags has nothing to do with this, and i don't think it's organizing either. but how exactly do you mean that SDS is operating with an "organizer" model, as opposed to a "mass" model, and what specifically do you think we could do to engage more students and youth?

important questions!
philly sds

Nate said...

Hi Brendan,

I misunderstood your point about skills. I thought you meant skills coming from being students. It sounds like you actually mean skills from being activists. I’m a lot more sympathetic to that argument than the argument I thought you were making. I still think you over-estimate the importance of those skills (the growing labor unions and tenant unions in the world don’t use those that much, for instance) but I think you do have an important point there.

Your observations about privilege-talk within SDS are really interesting. I think this is a really important point: “excessive discourse on privilege reifies privilege as something that can only be grappled with internally, not something that can be overcome through struggle with and in support of less privileged folks.”

I get better what you mean now about what you’d like SDS to turn into, and I’d like to see that too. In the terms I like, though, I’d say you want SDS to become a mass organization (or to create mass organizations), rather than a mass movement. (This is sort of an axe I have to grind generally – I think ‘movement’ is vague to the point of being misleading a lot of the time, and facilitates the type of problems you’re diagnosing within SDS, like avoiding doing the work of organization building. Real movements are made up of organizations, or have organizations as their anchoring center.)

It also sounds like SDSers could use a training program. You should talk to my pal Chuck, he’s an organizer for UNITE-HERE and is tied in to SDS in Chicago. His blog is

Take care,