"The Christian must discover in contemplation, and in the giving of his life, those symbolic actions which will ignite the people's faith to resist injustice with their whole lives, lives coming together as a united force of truth and thus releasing the liberating power of the God within them." - James Douglass, Contemplation and Resistance.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Activism and Organization

The primary weakness in most of the current movements for social change is their inability to form a coherent systematic analysis of the fundamental causes of the injustices we fight. This weakness is telegraphed in the very word "activist". Mark Rudd just published an excellent article in CounterPunch where he characterized the difference between "activism" and "organizing" as follows: "'...activists are individuals who dedicate their time and energy to various efforts they hope will contribute to social, political, or economic change. Organizers are activists who, in addition to their own participation, work to move other people to take action and help them develop skills, political analysis and confidence within the context of organizations. Organizing is a process – creating long-term campaigns that mobilize a certain constituency to press for specific demands from a particular target, using a defined strategy and escalating tactics.' In other words, it's not enough for punks to continually express their contempt for mainstream values through their alternate identity; they've got to move toward 'organizing masses of people.'

Aha! Activism = self-expression; organizing = movement-building."

Aha - exactly. Raj Jayadev in his article "A New Decade of Youth Activism" contrasts the new left ideologues with the spontaneous practicality of the new movements: "This generation didn't get in squabbles over who was more revolutionary, didn't pull all-night, Marx-Engel study sessions, didn't try to bring back the beret, and as it turned out, could care less about being called 'activists.'" The message is that they could care less about ideological squabbles or trying to understand the roots of the crisis in a systematic way. Their action springs directly from the situation, "The great irony of this generation was that they had been called self-involved and apathetic, a generation that lived in isolated iPod worlds. Yet when their loved ones were being threatened, they erupted. No national coalition, no 10-point plan, just a raw flexing of organizing power." And, unfortunately, no strategy to address the roots the problem either.

In no way do I wish to belittle the real accomplishments which Jayadev describes. The Youtube posting of Oscar Grant's murder is a case in point. Jayadev locates his generation's activism in its ability to communicate electronically. What he ignores is the moral culture that must underlie responses to that video. Without an understanding of the culture that makes Oscar Grant's murder possible, the murders will go on. If posting on Youtube becomes too inconvenient to the authorities, they will simply shut it down.

Each "movement" he describes was an immediate response to an existing situation of injustice and each had a positive effect. But spontaneous movements tend to die as soon as their immediate demands are met because their activists do not see beyond the immediate injustice.

Impatience with "ideology" often hides a mental laziness that prefers the satisfactions of immediate action to the hard work of understanding the fundamental nature of the system we confront. One could argue that it was precisely this impatience with systematic thought that made most of the revolutionary fervor of the sixties so effervescent. The examples cited by Jayadev are classic examples of attacking the symptoms while letting the disease rage unchecked and undiagnosed.


Ben said...

You make an excellent point. The left is terribly organized. That is part of why the right does so well. They organize, and they have effective propaganda, unfortunately.
Part of the problem I think is that many on the left object to organization on principle, since they fear it will lead to a repeat of the failures of Lenin and the Bolsheviks. They fail to see the point of Mike Davis, who summed up well the need for planning and organizing, "Even if you regard the entire history of Leninism as a historical failure, you are still left with the basic problems of Lenin's What is to be Done?"
The left really needs more theorists and more organizers.

Boyd Collins said...

Thanks, Ben. Organization is critical, as Mark Rudd knows well. Equally critical is the theoretical work, which many leftists today dismiss as intellectualism as opposed to "action" which is all that counts for them. But without a genuine scientific effort to understand the power relations in our society, we risk fighting the same battle over and over again and never making any real headway because we never attack the real class enemy.