I’m going to wrap up my writing about revolutionary congregations by discussing some of the potential pitfalls and criticisms that I would expect from this approach.
I also should state that, although I believe that this is a good idea that’s worth trying, I am not wedded to any one social change strategy or organizational form. I guess I kind of think of my mind and my imagination as kind of a nonviolent, radical left DARPA—I like thinking about all the different creative and wacky ways that we could do revolutionary struggle, but I know that most of them will go nowhere. Even though I’ve been quietly suggesting this idea for 6 years now, I’m prepared to be wrong. But I’m no longer interested in just being quiet about it because of that possibility.
Okay, then, what are the potential problems or push-back that I anticipate from this proposal?
The Master’s Tools/Christian Dominance Problem
I often fear that even mentioning Christian churches and anti-authoritarian revolutionary politics in the same breath is a non-starter. After all, the evangelical right is on the “enemy’s list,” and Christian cultural dominance is an historical part of this system that we’re trying to transform. Therefore, people have good reason to be skeptical of any lessons we might learn from church structures, and especially of any organizational forms that we might adopt that could potential replicate Christian cultural dominance.
Okay, that’s real. However, the model for revolutionary congregations that I’ve proposed is not actually very “churchy” at all, and I think it could be transformed even more to be even less churchy, while still retaining the important structural elements that make it what it is.
In case I didn’t make it clear elsewhere, I don’t actually want us to call these churches, and really I don’t think we should use the word congregations beyond this piece. In fact, I even played with the idea of not even mentioning churches anywhere near the proposal, but I think that’s pretty intellectually dishonest and silly. I believe that the left needs to get better at learning lessons from outside of the narrow revolutionary canon, so at least in this first proposal I want to be clear about its intellectual roots.
Nonetheless, it might be true that I’m arguing for a cultural form of organizing that somehow has inherently oppressive elements. But if that’s the case I need help identifying them. Weekly gatherings? Basic political agreement? Building infrastructure through offerings? I don’t see anything oppressive in these elements. Nor do I see anything particularly middle class, white, or otherwise culturally narrow—for those who might put forward that critique. But then again, I’m prepared to be wrong.
Magnifying Cultural Insularity
A criticism that one friend of mine has leveled against the revolutionary congregation idea is that it’ll just attract to same old faces from the social justice community, and wouldn’t actually reach non-political masses. A similar critique is that this model would allow communities to get comfortable in their numbers and just build and even celebrate their insularity.
This concerns me as well, but I don’t think there is anything about this model that makes it more culturally insular than any form. In fact, quite the opposite. Because the weekly gatherings have the potential for exploring all types of issues and programmatic styles each week, there’s a lot of room for a wide variety of experiences and ideas to be explored by a big group of people. Still, there would need to be deliberate work to maintain movement building relationships with other communities and organizations, and there’s no way around that.
But the fact that this structure is so open, and emphasizes recruitment also is a help in avoiding this problem.
Over-emphasizing the Personal, at the Price of the Structural
This organizational model is centered around weekly gatherings that, although political, are mostly about personally connecting and rejuvenating ourselves as radical people. That is, there is no minimum level of political action demanded of members.
The danger of this, as Andy Cornell discusses in Oppose and Propose and as we’ve seen in many other radical groups that make space for the politics of process, caring, and healing, is that revolutionary organizations can slowly lose their edge of political action. They become dominated by individualist or lifestylist attitudes and disengage from the deep (and hard) fighting and building that revolutionary change requires.
I think this danger is very real, but it’s a danger that any organization that makes any space for feelings is going to face. We are people, and we are complex, and we are believing in and fighting for things that create a deep disconnection from the society and people around us. It is a completely natural survival strategy to take whatever spaces we get to retreat and lick our wounds, or try to numb ourselves and avoid the fight altogether. There are no structural magic bullets for this problem. It has to be part of the basic founding statement of the organization, reinforced in the culture and messages of the weekly gatherings, and supported through a warm, inviting, yet militant culture of action among the more active members of the congregation. The group has to be aware of the danger of retreat and de-politicization, and guard against it with conscious action.
I think the opposite danger is far worse, however. The reason why I support trying this revolutionary congregation model is because I think most revolutionary groups heavily de-emphasize the caring, reflective work, to poisonous consequences. How many people do we lose every month, every year because they no longer feel like they can keep up, because they feel a need to balance their lives and have no space to do that and stay active, because they feel like they can’t measure up to the radical superstars in our midst? And how many of the great lights from previous radical generations had hidden problems of drug and alchol addiction, abusive relationships, and untreated trauma that ate away at them personally while we celebrate them publicly? By rooting our organizations in a shared, reflective space—the weekly gathering—we also shift the pace of our revolutionary work from a non-stop and unhealthy urgency to something slightly slower, more affective, but more sustainable.
It’s a Structure, But What’s the Strategy?
The revolutionary congregation proposal is about experimenting with a different organizational form for doing radical social change work. It’s not a strategy in itself. It’s not naming specific targets for action, specific counterinstitutions (beyond the congregations themselves), or specific elements of theory (for example stances on the centrality of race, or of class struggle). That’s deliberate.
My view is that revolutionary anti-authoritarian movements in the U.S. are far too undeveloped to be focusing our organizational forms solely around specific strategies. This is a big cause of the sectarianism and disorganization that makes us so perpetually weak. Despite the fact that probably millions of us agree on broad elements of vision and and analysis, we split and fracture into smaller and smaller little organizational universes on the basis of questions that none of us are even close to knowing the answers to.
The revolutionary congregation model is about grouping together and building community around larger points of agreement among radicals (but, once again, not as catch-alls…there should be some sharpness and clarity to the basic founding statement), while giving space to experiment and develop different strategies and theories from within the congregation. For instance, there are probably 8-10 radical groups in Seattle right now that have disagreements over specific tactical questions and especially questions of issue emphasis. We could maintain those disagreements even if we were all in a revolutionary congregation together, with room for all those people to experiment with those ideas…but with the regular community space of gatherings and study groups and infrastructure to keep us working together. This also allows for groups who recognize that their strategy isn’t working to be supported in swallowing their pride and quickly rejoining their fellow radicals, without the need for bitter splits, self-blame, and burn-out.
I think we’ve inherited way too much sectarianism from the Marxis left, and I think that has been punctuated by the internalized politics of brand loyalty that corporate culture has taught us since we were young. We pick sides around relatively minor questions, and then they become identities. And the price is that they keep us not only from coalition, but even from the basic relationship building and infrastructure building that could make the left, as a whole, much more powerful.
Indeed, I know that even this idea—regardless of its merits—will potentially go nowhere because of that sectarianism.
I think I’ll probably think of more over time, but I’m actually way behind on some work, so I think I’ve gotta just post this now. Probably expect a few more edits later.