Revolutionary Congregations as a Model of Mass Organization, Part 2

I had a lot of fun writing Part 1 of this piece, in which I talked about 8 things that I thought we could learn from the U.S. evangelical movement (and I think it really does qualify as a movement). However I realized that if I really want to explain my thinking decently, this is going to have to be at least 4 parts. Here, in Part 2, I want to take a little bit of a detour to talk about the gap I see in revolutionary organizational models that are currently discussed amongst anti-authoritarians. In part 3, tomorrow, I’m going to propose an experiment in creating “revolutionary congregations” as a potential mass revolutionary model. Then, eventually, there will be a Part 4 where I will discuss pitfalls and critiques that I anticipate with such an experiment.

The Organizational Gap

One thing that I want to make clear right from the start is that I’m proposing a strategy of building revolutionary congregations not as some kind of lazy copycat maneuver, nor as some cynical ploy that I think could appeal to the masses although I actually dislike it, but rather because I personally thirst for an effective, long term revolutionary organization to put my energy into, and most current models on offer leave me unconvinced. That is, I think there’s a gap in our spectrum of revolutionary organizational options, and it’s one that I think my idea of revolutionary congregations could fill.

As I see it, the following list summarizes the organizational models that anti-authoritarians currently have on our menu. Of course, in practice many of these forms can be fluid and they overlap with each other, and there’s probably some that I’m missing, but I think this gives a pretty good picture of what’s out there:

-Collectives/Affinity Groups
-Study groups
-Non-profits or alternative institutions (including radical healing and therapy groups, collective houses and intentional communities)
-Online communities
-Lone-wolf/security culture phantom organizations (like the Earth Liberation or Animal Liberation front)
-Clandestine militant groups
-Spontaneous and specific groups like Black Blocs or other quickly forming and dissipating formations
-Direct action and campaign groups (including direct action casework groups like Ontario Coalition Against Poverty or Seattle Solidarity Network)
-Various lifestyle groups, craft groups, or practice clubs
-Political parties
-Labor/student/consumer unions
-Cadre organizations
-Revolutionary mass organizations
-Networks or federations of collectives
-Community assemblies or councils

I believe that, depending on the context, all of these forms are potentially useful and can serve specific functions in building a vibrant ecosystem of social movements. However, as anti-authoritarian revolutionaries, it is vitally important that at least some of our organizational forms can answer the question of building mass democratic power. Are our organizations building, in some way or another, the concrete mechanisms for millions of people across the country and the world to directly discuss and decide on the economic, political, and social organization of their own communities and of the society as a whole? If so, what are the sites where this power will reside and how will it be exercised? How will people be supported or prepared to participate dynamically and equally in the exercise of that power? How will that mass democratic power be defended from degeneration and hostile counter-revolution?

Advocates of all the above models have at least partial answers to these questions, but in my view the most interesting and promising debates are currently between the advocates of cadre organizations, advocates of revolutionary unions and community assemblies, and advocates of revolutionary mass organizations.

Those who favor cadre organizations tend to argue for the approach of social insertion, or of being a conscious minority within either existing mass spaces or within new spaces that the masses build out of their own self-activity. That is, they don’t believe its the place of conscious revolutionaries to build organizations for the masses to then “come to them,” but rather that they should work within the masses and argue for their positions within those spaces—while simultaneously maintaining their small, consciously revolutionary side groups.

Those who favor revolutionary unionism or community assemblies tend to argue for building mass organizations of workers–or consumers or the unemployed or community members–who will build enough power as a class/community to shut down or take over the workings of the system and then reorganize it along radical democratic lines…usually with a lot of counter-institution building in there as well.

Those who favor mass revolutionary organizations tend to argue for building explicitly revolutionary organizations that are designed to grow and support the energy and participation of large numbers of people of a wide variety of experience and commitment levels (unlike cadre organizations). They actively recruit and politicize even non political people. However rather than choosing just certain specific sites of mass power like unionists/syndicalists do (the workplace, the community, the schools, etc.) they often maintain a more flexible approach of trying to build and strengthen multiple movements, spaces, and forms of mass democracy, through both confrontational action and counterinstitution building.

Of course, these aren’t necessarily rigid positions and there is some mixing within current discussions—particularly with some recent interesting writings about “intermediate level” organizations by groups like Miami Autonomy and Solidarity.

Yet within these discussions I’m observing that the cadre organization tendency is winning the most adherents among people I know and trust (and I include class struggle “especifismo” or platformist strategies as cadre tendencies), with revolutionary unionism and communal council “unionism” (along the lines of either the Wobblies or libertarian municipalism) running a distant second, and with the mass revolutionary organization tendency somewhere in third.

This is disturbing to me, because I am skeptical of the cadre model as potentially elitist, self-important, and inaccessible to working revolutionaries trying to live balanced lives, and I am skeptical of revolutionary unionist tendencies because of their strategic rigidity in rooting themselves in specific sites of struggle that the current system is capable of rapidly transforming or shifting in response to movement gains (as it did to the labor movement and as it has done to many historically organized neighborhoods and communities). In short, I’m an advocate for mass revolutionary organizations, and I’m frustrated that the tendency is not more popular.

I believe one reason for this is that we are sorely lacking in workable proposals for how such organizations could look. We just don’t have many visions out there for organizations that:

-Are explicitly revolutionary, multi-issue, and multi-identity
-Are capable of supporting memberships of hundreds, or even thousands within an area
-Are capable of providing a democratic and nourishing political home to both hardcore activists and busy, tired working people, without making the hardcore people feel held back or “dumbed down,” or making the busy people feel tied to the vanguardism of a well-studied elite
-Are recruitment friendly, warm, and accessible to non-radicalized people
-Support approaches to movement building that see organizers as whole people with the need for balanced and healthy lives
-Are simultaneously building grassroots funds, infrastructure, and people power for confrontational action; personal growth and internal education; and counterinstitution building
-Are strategically spry and allow for the transience of populations and the quick shifting of social, political, and economic realities

I believe that the evangelicals have things to teach us on this front, and that the building of revolutionary congregations might be one organizational experiment that could help us hit all of those marks.

Tomorrow, finally, I’ll explain what I mean and propose how they might work.

Click here for part 3.

Currently Reading:

-Dispersing Power by Raul Zibechi


I really like all of the points you raise in the 4-part series. You don’t explicitly say “multi-generational”, but I think it’s implied in and is mutually reinforcing with much of what you’re suggesting.

I think some of your concerns are specifically dealt with in Purpose Driven Church. How to avoid the usual suspects? Actively recruit people from the community, train people to recruit community members, and when looking at recruitment goals, committed activists don’t count. Don’t purposely drive them away, but accept the fact that competing with activists groups for the small number of existing activists is a diversion from the goal, even if it might give you a short-term perception of success at the beginning.

Also, even if you went the route of recruiting existing activists, you have a very limited pool – maybe 200-1000 total people in Seattle, most of whom wouldn’t be interested in participating unless they felt your organization was ripe to exploit as a source of activists to scavenge.

If you want to grow your group to 100+ people, recruiting activists won’t get you there so you’re going to have to come up with a recruitment and education strategy that focuses on the “unchurched”. So you might as well start with that strategy from the very beginning, even if the start is slower and rockier.

Similarly, the book does a good job of laying out the importance of a clear and well understood purpose and every activity explicitly explaining how it fits into the purpose. I think that can counter the depolitization process you talk about.

As for members having basic agreement. I think it’s important to differentiate between what individuals are expected to believe to be members vs. all members agreeing that the organization has a specific vision and goals.

For years I was an active member of Food Not Bombs, which has advocacy of veganism as a core principle. That was not a principle that I agreed with – being an unapologetic meat-eater not particularly convinced of either the ethical or health arguments for veganism. It would have been unreasonable for Food Not Bombs to insist that only vegans are allowed to participate, but it would also have been unreasonable for me to try to redefine FNB to drop one of it’s core principles.

Likewise, the American Cancer Society sees cancer as it’s #1 priority, but it would be counter-productive to carry out purges of people who accept the organizational priorities and mission and see cancer as a high priority but have personal priorities higher than fighting cancer.

So I think it is ok (actually necessary) for an organization to have more specific politics than it requires it’s members to have personally. It’s really up to individual members to decide if it’s better to be a part of an organization that they agree with 95% or to be a lone individual with 100% pure politics. I think if the organization is doing valuable work and giving people opportunities to accomplish things that they would not be able to accomplish alone, most people recruited from the larger community would make the pragmatic choice and join. Ideologically committed activists, on the other hand, would be much less likely to accept it – another reason to not prioritize recruiting them.

I think the Purpose Driven Church makes some good points about standing for something clear and specific and not being ashamed of it or watering it down to be more acceptable. As you say, though, too many people and organizations fetishize specific tactics or arcane points of theory. And for many of these points, we just aren’t in a position to limit ourselves right now – and we’re kidding ourselves if we think we have all the answers.

Anyway, I really like what you’ve been writing, how you’ve made concrete a lot of ideas similar to what’s been swimming around in my head. At the moment I’m finishing up a horrendously geeky bit of abstract political research that has been clarifying some shockingly concrete questions I’ve been having. Once I finish that, I plan on writing up the practical parts. The basic question is how to take an impractically distant goal such as your 200-300 person congregations and break it down in a way that not only can a path can be found from whereever you’re at be it a small group of 3 or even 1, but also how can you keep your eye on the path and effectively track progress and set goals. I’m hoping after I write it up someone will be able to point me to a treasure trove of resources where someone has spent more time than myself thinking about this, but if not, I think I have a some useful ideas which should be applicable to your congregation concept or any similar plan based on education and growth.


Thank you for the supportive and super sharp comments. It’s especially interesting because you’ve read Warren’s book and so you know more specifically what I’m talking about.

I agree with all your additions, and I’m thinking especially of the problem of growing and who to focus on first. I think you are right about focusing on non-activist people from the start, however the difficulty is if you get a majority of people who aren’t politicized with a small core of people who are (the founders), the danger is really high of some long-term power issues. I think there are ways to deal with this, and I think an important piece of it is to look go beyond the pool of current political active people to that much larger pool of people who have radical sensibilities and aspirations, and who are somewhat politically informed, but who haven’t been active recently. In Seattle, for example, I’d guess that this pool is around 10,000-20,000 people…maybe higher.

However, I think identity, geography, and privilege are big questions here, too. And I think that deserves further exploration.

I can’t wait to see the results of your research project! In the mean time I am planning at least one more section of this revolutionary congregations piece, to play with different ways that a congregation could both 1) get started and 2) frame itself without being too churchy.

You raise a good point, though I think the power issue will exist in either case.

I just finished reading The Long Haul, about Highlander, and I’ve been thinking about the contrasts between Highlander, Alinsky, early Communist Party (from Douglas Hyde’s book), ACORN (from Roots to Power), and Purpose Driven Church, as well as the current especially dysfunctional practice of trotskyist/maoist parties.

Alinsky (and especially later Alinsky-inspired groups like ACORN) seems to be aware of the power imbalance you’re talking about and specifically use it to push their agenda, without really making much effort to connect members to the real agenda or share power. Or rather, Alinsky seemed to lose the whole big-picture agenda, while Alinsky-inspired groups tend to have a top-down way of getting fake involvement to push a predetermined liberal (often foundation-funded) agenda.

Highlander specifically only dealt with people that were already doing real work but was very hands-off with them – more trusting that their education model and the power of Highlander’s central position in the growing alumni network would let their ideas diffuse. You might call the people that they targeted “experienced activists”, but in the sense of experienced at real work vs. ideological or political experience.

Maybe that’s related to what you’re talking about with the “larger pool”?

I think the early CP recruited everyone, but used a hierarchical structure and other mechanisms to ensure people capable of doing real work were able to do the work.

The wingnut parties seem to similarly recruit anyone – with different focuses on the communities they recruit from, but use hierarchical structure more to ensure rigid ideological agreement vs. the early CP’s focus on actually getting things done.

Reading about Highlander, I got the sense that Horton’s criticism of Alinsky was probably right-on – about focusing too much on the small win vs. the larger (ultimately beyond-achievable goal). But I also had the sense that Highlander (and really the entire left) missed an important turn in the 70s. Maybe the fundamental principles of Highlander were spot-on for 1930s-1960s, but the world of the 1970s to the present required some shifts that they didn’t see – and that I think we’re all still just feeling around in the dark trying to find.

Anyway, though, I think any successful model would need to focus disproportionately on recruiting people who already possess some leadership skills and experience, even if not directly political. At least at the beginning. Later, internal leadership develop would create a growing body of members capable of sustaining and growing the organization/movement. That development takes time, though, and wouldn’t be even across the whole membership.

I guess I’m thinking that when thinking about priorities for mass recruitment, when presented with people without skills and leadership ability, steer away from people with a high level of ideological “experience” and prefer people who can develop in a more balanced way. But early on, especially, focus on people without too much political baggage but with talents and desires that haven’t had an outlet. I think quite a lot of people fall in that category, and when they become part of a group where their talents and desires are valued, both the group and the individual gain. And obviously, people with talent and desire to help other people develop are very important, especially at the beginning.

Have you read much about “cell churches”? I like the idea of a focus on small groups for maximizing involvement, but tying the small groups together and also having growth as a fundamental part of the strategy. They’re still generally hierarchical, but I can imagine the structure could be turned upside and still be usable. A google search turns up a ton of stuff – unfortunately little in the form of free online guides. But this book looked pretty interesting:

Planting Churches that Reproduce: Starting a Network of Simple Churches

Yeah, cell churches are really interesting! I wonder if you could check any of those out as E-Books from the Seattle Public Library.