Should We Stay Or Should We Go?

I mentioned in my previous post that I want to talk about the tendency amongst radical leftists in the U.S. (or in the places I’ve lived, at least) to commit, split, then quit–a pattern of constant fluctuation between intense and creative activity, then bitter conflict and decline, and then dissolution and burnout. In short, nearly the polar opposite of what I’d consider healthy radical praxis. This is a subject that I’ve been thinking about for years now, but it really hit me sharply with the recent dissolution of my own organization. So, let’s get into it a little bit, the revolutionary politics of staying with and leaving organizations.

This last Saturday I got pretty majorly schooled on something regarding local Seattle politics, and I feel deeply grateful for it. See, it was the 10th anniversary event of a group I used to be involved with, the Coalition of Anti-Racist Whites (soon to change their name), and it was a stellar event! Hundreds of people showed up, it was lively and positive, filled with young organizers who I’ve never met, as well as older folks who I’ve know as long as I’ve been in Seattle. The speeches and music were solid, the reflections were poignant, and on top of it, they probably raised about $6-10,000 for the Duwamish Tribe in their struggle to reclaim their tribal recognition from the federal government. It was powerful.

Yet, when I left CARW in 2004-2005, I insisted to people close to me that I thought CARW is a walking-dead organization, lifeless and too overcome with navel-gazing and awkward white guilt to accomplish anything. I was convinced that the group was a waste of time, and I probably convinced other people around me as well. I was wrong.

Because of the persistence of handful of people–and also with some potentially sketchy backroom stuff seeming to happen at some points–the group confronted a number of its deepest barriers to solid activity, and it has become a thriving place for mostly young white people, mostly newcomers to organizing to build their skills and practice through accountable work in multiracial movement building. I didn’t think this was going to happen. I was sure that Seattle would need a new type of group to be able to accomplish that. But by sticking with the group as it was, by working with that model, that stupid name, and then by restructuring it and growing through praxis–through constructive action and reflection–the group has accomplished far more in its tenth year than in any year before it.

So, I got schooled. But the lesson goes far beyond this example.

I now believe that persistence–or I’d prefer the more politically deep terms of presence and praxis–is a far more crucial element to building a revolutionary movement than good theory or good structure. If you have sustained presence and praxis, if you have people who are committed to each other and to a project for the long-haul, then all the other political elements can evolve with time. But if you lack that stability, that slow-burning commitment, then having fantastic politics and cutting edge structures won’t matter much. The groups won’t survive their first rashes of serious conflict.

I am increasingly disappointed by the kind of radical politics that I practice because of their lack of a track record around these values. I see my generation of anti-oppression anarchists and anti-authoritarians as being really sharp at critique, and increasingly good at the warm fuzzy vision and healing talk, but I see us really bad at staying put: staying put in contradictory or even mainstream spaces–including the spaces we come from, staying put in our own projects and organizations that we found…even staying put in a single city long enough to build a cultural presence there.

This is a damning reality. It is especially damning because our politics are rooted in a vision of community and dual-power. But you don’t build either by moving every 3-5 years, by following jobs to new cities, or by splitting an organization over specific definitions of class struggle, stances on anti-imperialism or whatever. You build those things through engaged presence, through years of just humbly, reliably being there; just doing simple, good work for real changes in people lives while communicating how it connects to a larger transformational vision. You build those things by watching people’s kids grow up, and being there when they are in need. You build those things by building spaces, homes, offices that can accrue archives and art and years of stories on their walls…by building a long-term cultural presence in which revolutionary ideas have marinated long enough that they are simultaneously futuristic, timely, and nostalgic. And within all that, you must build a culture of flexibility, reflection, and mutual growth…praxis.

This is what makes the 1930’s Communist Party so interesting, especially in how it influenced the New Left, filled with so many red diaper babies. This is also what makes the Spanish revolution so downright amazing: a culture of engaged revolutionary presence that spanned generations, which was institutionally rooted in community learning centers. The 1936 generation of Spanish anarchists were partly the children and even grandchildren of anarchists. That is beautiful.

So back the point I started with: revolutionaries in the United States need to put more concentrated energy on the simple question of staying and leaving, and when either is appropriate. The specific theory work, the specific organizing skills and analysis is all crucial, of course, but we need to really be grappling with our tendency to want to quit things when they are hard, or to declare things dead, counter-revolutionary, problematic, etc. before we’ve truly let them run their course.

In my own case, while I voted along with the membership to dissolve my anarchist organization, I did so because I personally lacked the energy to convince folks to stay. But I actually probably do think it was a mistake. If things had gone a different direction at just a couple of meetings, and if we had stuck together 2 or 3 more years…wow, the things we might have been able to do within that particular name and organizational form.

Now, I don’t believe that we should just buckle down and wed ourselves to whatever organizations are around us without ever initiating new things or putting old things to rest. There is a place for dissolution, splits, and always new formations. But those are just that: formations. They are structures for handling communication, decision-making, learning, and coordinated action. They are not relationships! What matters is how much relationship infrastructure gets sustained or lost when we split or quit or build something new.

Oh, how much of what we do and don’t accomplish in politics is really about relationships, wrapped in relatively transparent political costumes! So often, we really quit groups or have splits because we don’t like each other, we don’t know each other, we feel slighted, we feel unappreciated, we feel like we’re better than other people, etc. We may call it political disagreement, but that’s rarely the deeper reason. It’s rarely the disagreement that keeps the work from really moving forward, it’s the communication foibles…the weird psychological projections and defensiveness. And it’s the culture of “I need to be more theoretically special than you so I have to invent something I disagree with you about.”

And how much of these relationship conflicts really have to do with a basic lack of trust that we will be in each other’s lives a year from now? How would they change if we knew, with certainty, that we’d still be organizing together in 10 years? How would our debates change? How would the pace of our conflicts shift, or the language of our disagreements? Would we shit-talk the same way? Would we go home from meetings questioning whether people even heard us or even like us? I think a huge factor in what makes us quit and split so easily is that we are scared of investing in each other and of being rejected.

So here’s where I’m at: I’m not ready to commit to any new or existing organizational projects right now, but I feel oh, so ready to commit to a city and its people. I love to imagine myself as committed to Seattle, or at least to the Puget Sound I-5 corridor. I want the people in my community to know that…to know that as long as they are here and not actively sold out, then I am here with them…in the same organization or not, I know that I will see them and embrace them at events, at marches, in the funerals and in the secret cafes. I know that we will share our eventual free health care clinics together, and our radical free schools. I know that we will see our fair share of internal violence flare up, and we will respond to it together as a community. I love thinking this way, as committed to being present in a revolutionary community rather than as only wed to a specific organization. I also love thinking about being an elder in 30 years.

Okay, it’s 1am, and I think I’ve made my main point…to be developed or not as I go into my current ideas more. Because next I want to talk about what I actually am thinking about for a new organizing project, as well as another explanation of why the left needs to learn more from churches.

Currently Reading:

-Dispersing Power by Raul Zibechi