Some lessons I’ve learned from my past revolutionary organizations…part 1

I’m really excited about next Tuesday. Me and a handful of other local political souls are meeting together for a special discussion about what we’ve learned from our various fallen revolutionary organizational projects. Hooray for reflection and self-evaluation! What’s especially cool about it is that we’ve carefully decided that we don’t want to focus on stories of what happened or just critiques of errors and bad personalities, but instead we want to distill our experiences into concrete lessons for the future.

Because I want to be prepared for the discussion, I’m trying to write down some of the lessons that I’ve learned over these years. Keep in mind that I’ll be editing this for awhile, so you might want to check back over the multiple parts from time to time.

HANDLING CONFLICT (I’ve put this section first, because it’s so critical to avoiding organizational implosion)

Explicitly discuss different personal communication and conflict styles. In the non-profit, corporate, and conflict mediation worlds, there is a wealth of curricula, charts, tables, and funny cartoons that help people identify their conflict and communication styles, and tips for relating across different styles. Groups should use these early and often, tailoring them as needed (with some class and cultural consciousness, for example) as a part of group formation and new member orientation. It’s amazing how much trouble we get into when we misinterpret each other’s style cues…especially across identity differences.

Groups should strongly avoid seeking one homogeneous conflict/communication style. It won’t work and all it really means is that the people with that style will dominate and everyone else will blame themselves for not measuring up to the “right way.”

Create structures for conflict mediation before problems occur. Groups should have preventative structures and channels already established to handle conflict before anything happens. Members should do internal training about how these structures work, and how to utilize them in a variety of scenarios. That way, when problems do occur, members have already internalized a sense of what it means to handle the conflict responsibly.

Create regular spaces for self-evaluation and critique. I am skeptical of the cricisim/self-criticism of the Maoists, but I do think groups should create regular spaces for self-evaluation and the airing of constructive criticism. It’s important to have an expectation in the group culture that everyone will receive criticism, so that everyone can improve our work. But this is so dependent on these other lessons being heeded as well…because otherwise these spaces for criticism are just weapons for vindictive and manipulative personalities.

Dedicate and honor time for appreciations.
Organizing for social transformation is hard, especially when the opposition heats up. We need a steady stream of love and encouragement from each other, and this should be structured into the group at regular intervals…and not in a way in which the good is always accompanied by a “but.” We need spaces and times where all we hear are the good things…with a trust that our criticisms and unmet needs will also have structured spaces to be heard.

Let it out or let it go. If you have a problem with someone in the organization, it’s a simple choice: either it’s not a big enough deal to communicate out to the group–and then you need to authentically work to let it go–or you can’t let it go and you need to find a responsible channel to communicate it…ideally directly to that person. If you’re scared, or you are unpracticed in conflict resolution, that’s a real challenge…but it’s not an excuse. Be creative and find resources you can trust. Keeping it to yourself and building resentment is not a legitimate option.

Make an anti shit-talking commitment. Shit-talking is poison to movements, and it’s also a preferred channel for intentional destabilization by the powerful. If you are going to talk critically about someone without talking directly to them–or communicating through previously established group structures–then you only have one reason to do so: to constructively seek or give advice for how to eventually deal directly with said person or utilize established group structures. If weeks have passed and you’re still talking to uninvolved people about this without constructively engaging with the people directly involved in the conflict, then you are entering shit-talking territory. And if someone has been coming to you for more than a week to talk critically about someone who is not you, and they aren’t seeking or utilizing constructive advice, then you are also in shit-talking territory. We need to stop this! Period.

Seek to name conflict honestly. It’s common in radical groups to couch our conflicts in political terms, when the real problem is personal. We don’t like someone, but we say it’s their ideas. We feel threatened, but we say that it’s actually about pressing political disagreements. This stuff should be aired out honestly. Even if I think the root of a conflict is about ideas, I need to also be up front if I’m feeling insecure, threatened, jealous, etc. This isn’t about being touchy-feely, it’s about honestly naming the root of what breaks apart organizations. If a person can only frame their conflicts politically, but they clearly manifest emotional responses to those conflicts, that’s a red-flag that they aren’t fully articulating what’s going on for them. Because so many groups actually fall apart around issues of sex, relationships, violence, jealousy, and power-mongering, this is really important to hold on to.

Anger is not unprincipled behavior. Anger, defensiveness, yelling, crying, are not inherently disruptive or unprincipled behaviors. They are normal human responses and survival strategies for intense situations–even if we don’t perceive the same intensity in some situations. If members are angry or yelling, they should be given space, and they should be clearly acknowledged, and the actual conversation should be paused until they can return to a mutually respectful tone. This does not mean admonishing or shaming them, or using their yelling against them later. Sure, yelling and anger can be used to dominate and manipulate situations, and this is unprincipled behavior, but that’s not always the case. How much of a pattern is this, and how disruptive to the group? We all have a lot of internalized baggage about this based on our upbringings and cultural/class backgrounds, and we need to be careful about putting political spins on it when it’s actually pretty complicated.

Crystallize and map political conflicts with imagination and patience. A group doesn’t know if a conflict is truly political and not personal until the politics of a conflict have been thoroughly articulated, polarized, and the points on the spectrum between different sides have been identified for potential compromises. If one side of a conflict can’t clearly, respectfully paraphrase the authentic position of the other sides of the conflict–even if they thoroughly disagree–then the conflict is still personal. It’s still in the realm of not having enough trust, patience, or respect for the other sides to even clearly listen to and articulate what they are saying. A common trap here–especially around conflicts of power, privilege, and identity–is when one side of a conflict says they are tired of having to explain this over and over, and so it’s not worth their time to have to explain it again. This might be true, and that might be perfectly legitimate, but that’s personal–it’s about trust in the group…it hasn’t yet been crystallized as a political conflict, because all sides haven’t had a chance to fully be heard and articulated. Further, once the sides of a conflict have been articulated, distilled, polarized to their key components, the group should imagine what possible compromise positions could exist. The group should consider these positions carefully before any votes or splits. If the group isn’t willing to make the time to consider these compromise positions, then the conflict is probably personal, and the members really just don’t want to work together anymore. Like I said, that’s fine, but don’t call it a political conflict when it’s not.

Assume good, revolutionary intentions…and specifically name the behavior that makes you doubt those intentions. As marginalized individuals within a harsh, oppressive culture, we get into the groove of feeling like we’re alone in our revolutionary intentions and our intense hatred of injustice. It can be an almost default reaction to mistrust the commitment, ethics, and good intentions of those around us. That’s why it’s so important to consciously work to assume good intentions from our fellow group members, and only doubt those intentions when there is specific, nameable behavior that makes us doubt them. Then, we should clearly communicate those behaviors through established structures so that the individual and group can respond. If you can’t name behaviors that make you doubt someone, then seek support to more deeply explore what is making those doubts rise for you personally–beyond that the ethical thing to do is take them at their word.

Take internalized oppression seriously, but don’t project it on others. I think a lot of the conflicts and other problems that we have as individual activists and as groups comes from the ways we’ve internalized oppression as well as privilege. Whether arrogance and domination, defensiveness and a sense of perpetual crisis, or constant passivity and self-doubt. This is something that our groups should take seriously, and should put time and resources into supporting their members with. But, there is an overlapping problem of individuals projecting internalized oppression and privilege onto other members, and using that as a shortcut to keep from actually understanding or respecting other people’s emotional realities. This is really dangerous, and it tries to make us experts in something that we actually understand very little.

Same as the above, take mental health issues seriously, but don’t play psychologist. Groups should seek and develop robust politics around ableism, trauma, self-care, and mental health, and these should inform our structures, our support systems, and our approaches to conflict. However, we should not make the mistake of thinking we can diagnose and pathologize members who demonstrate behavior that we don’t like or understand.

Acknowledge the possibility of infiltration. We know it’s a real threat, and we know that they will use conflict as a constant wedge to destabilize and neutralize our groups. It’s naive to pretend that it won’t happen to our groups, and it’s also dangerous to live in permanent fear of each other. Groups should do internal training about past patterns of agents and informants in groups, and should seek to distill best practices for maintaining an open and trusting culture while still keeping strategies of destabilization in check.

Recognize the high likelihood that you’re wrong. The track record of the radical left is bad. In fact, it’s terrible. So, chances are that the make-or-break, super dire political disagreement that makes you feel like the whole revolution hinges on what your fellow members do right now…that’s probably a bullshit, self-important exaggeration. What happens too often is that we break relationships and split organizations over differences that end up being badly characterized in the first place, and 3 years later we end up all being wrong, and in the same terrible political state…just with fewer friends and more cynicism. We lose too often to act like we actually know what we’re doing. We don’t know, and we should be humble and flexible about that.

If there is an active process going on:

If you aren’t formally involved in the process, don’t insert yourself into it. It’s simple. If members of your group are in an official organizational conflict process, then it’s not your place to be informally talking with individuals about this. Period. It doesn’t matter if they are your friends, and it doesn’t matter who brings it up. Gossip and side-talking almost always feels innocent or even productive while it’s happening, but it’s toxic. Build good official group processes, and then trust and honor those processes…which means setting clear personal boundaries while those processes are going on.

If you can’t trust and commit to the process, then be clear about that. If there is an official group process going on, but you actually think it’s ineffective, or manipulative, or a straight-up witch hunt, then it’s your responsibility to be honest about that and to state clearly to what extent you are willing to honor the boundaries of the process. It is a death sentence for the integrity of a process if participants in that process are simultaneously pursuing other avenues for dealing with the conflict without informing the group. This is especially true in community accountability processes.

Set real boundaries for disruptive/hurtful behavior. Kicking members out of a group or demanding that they meet certain conditions to keep participating are real options that groups need to consider in conflicts. There really are people (not just infiltrators) who just aren’t in a position to respect group processes or commit to doing work in a respectful way, and it is a major drain on a group’s energy to focus months and months of energy just to keep members in check. Groups need to discuss this point and set boundaries around it. If a significant amount of members’ collective energy is constantly being used to respond to and intervene in one member’s behavior…then that member needs to go, and maybe be referred to some other resources. However, it is critical, so critical, that the group have developed some good politics and internal training about ableism, institutionalization, and mental health related oppression, so as not to continue oppressive cycles if working with people who have a history of such conflicts related to their mental health.

Part 2:

Part 3:

Currently Reading:

-Dispersing Power by Raul Zibechi


This is so dope! I have been thinking a lot about this topic and struggling to try to conceptualize what healthy boundaries look like in a revolutionary organization and in life period. I think the issue of how conflict should be dealt with healthily seems so obviously critical but it is so under-discussed. I know for myself that has been difficult because I was not raised with any kind of healthy boundaries, period, let alone models for how conflicts can be healthily resolved. As I started doing a lot of self-care I started to realize how much knowing how to develop healthy boundaries, strategies for coping with stress, etc., are vital life tools that so many people never get access to in their families. So even if we hate the way our families operated, unless we learn new tools we are basically stuck trying to solve our life problems with the tools we had access to growing up. Which sucks.

Its also sad that the left does not spend more time dealing with these issues because honestly I would say that class, race and gender oppression LOOK like in many ways — unhealthy ways of relating to oneself and others on a kind of deep psychological/emotional level. I have come to believe that is the way these oppressions look like in our day to day lives– being brought up in a world that devalues you and which causes you to have unhealthy relationships to yourself and others. Mothers who teach us unhealthy self-sacrifice and martyrdom because gender roles teach them self-care is selfish, fathers who are violent and silent because being emotive and communicative are both considered feminine traits and because society uses violence and trauma to beat human beings into “men” from the day they are born. Workng class kids feeling inadequate and shameful because of dysfunctional families broken apart by financial drama, drug abuse, etc. Trauma from lack of material resources, etc. etc. All this trauma that goes in to conditioning people to survive this fucked up world, it all becomes part of the fabric of our psyche. Its nuts.

I think the crux of the issue for navigating all of this as political people is the balancing act between taking responsibility for ourselves and our actions and not taking responsibility for others and their actions (i.e. letting people have agency) on the one hand, and the necessity of acknowledging objective inequality and structural oppression on the other hand. How do we take personal responsibility without assigning or accepting full responsibility for an unequal and oppressive world? How do we acknowledge the uneven playing field we all live in and how that affects our ability to have agency , but while also still continuing to be accountable to ourselves and others?

One point I thought was interesting that you named was the point on being unafraid to name conflict honestly. Is it personal or political? These days I have a hard time with the division between personal and political, the line blurs so much. Confusing what is what can cause problems and has, for me, in the past.

I think there have been occasions in the past where I have not liked certain people because I did not think they took me seriously or because I thought they doubted me because I was a woman. A lot of times this takes place on a really unconcious level that i only become aware of when i start to ask myself why I feel contempt or negative emotions related to this person. In past instances I may have noticed that maybe they didnt talk to me the same way or take my ideas or thoughts as seriously as they did with others, or just in general– I noticed a discreprency somewhere between how a dude treated me and how a dude may treated another dude. Now as a result, I may have said — hey you dont respect my idea and thats a political issue (or if i didnt stay it out loud, I probably thought it or said it to others). As a result I have gotten angry or upset. I have thought to myself this person has internalized bla bla bla and doesn’t respect my ideas because of bla bla bla.

But in the end I ultimately let myself get so upset and wrapped up in the person and the intuition I have about that person and the way the power dynamics are playing out, I was defeated by my own emotions. I let my own anger and frustration and hurt feelings (or ego) defeat me because I pushed and when others maybe may not have seen or readily admitted the same thing I did, I gave up. Now is that a political problem or a personal one? I think that it was personal in the sense that it had to do with my own emotional and psychological make up, If I had been more confident I could have recognized something that I did not like and respected my intuition, but I could have not been caught up in having that recognition or that problem “fixed”.

Instead I could have pointed out what I saw as being correct, and expressed my feelings about my intuition or observation – not in a blaming way but in a way that brought in my own vulnerability and took responsibility for my own feelings. N then after I shld have moved on instead of being focused on the behavior I saw as problematic, i could have focused on the goal that I saw that behavior standing in the way of.

I could have calmly focused on the goal I wanted or the political line I was pushing, and the implications of it and tried to work towards that solution where possible. In the end I think the outcome would have proven the validity of my position correct.

I think dudes are good at doing this– standing firm in their positions even when they are doubted. I am generalizing now, but you know. Dudes are used to competition and don’t get as easily fazed by being questioned or even downright challenged. Whereas for me, confrontation is terrifying and hurtful. But I have had the experience so often of being doubted that I tend to dig my heels and get defensive and angry at what I perceive as injustice. I don’t like being angry and I don’t like others being angry at me so if i am angry for long enough I will just throw my hands up and walk away. I don’t think I am wrong to say that part of the consequence of gender socialization is that womyn tend to have unhealthy relationships to anger. Womyn are not allowed to be angry. When we are angry we are nags, bitches, wenches, etc. etc. As a result, the anger gets repressed and finally explodes or is just released passive aggressively in a million diff ways, etc etc

Now is that personal or political problem? I think its both. Its an issue of my gender socialization, my socialization as a person of a particular life experience. I tend to overestimate other people’s power and influence and underestimate my own. This is common for people who come from oppressed backgrounds generally, I think. The experience of unfair treatment and being aware of it being on account of race or gender or class or whatever else causes us to doubt our reality and that fear and self-doubt can manifest itself (and often does) as increasing hostility, defensiveness, etc.

The solution I’ve come to is that this is where autonomous organizing comes in. I feel like it is for my own mental health to be able to be in a space with all womyn sometimes or all queers or poc or whatever else because it just gives me the mental space to not second-guess myself and to be able to trust myself and my ideas. As I learn self-trust and self confidence in the safety spaces, I find I can participate more fully and healthily in the mixed spaces. Some of the conflicts we have with other people can only be solved through a simultaneous struggle to make ourselves stronger. So ultimately , lot of times the personal problem we identify as not being political can be simultaneously both. If that makes sense. Its almost like the opposite of what you wrote when you wrote, ‘take internalized oppression seriously but dont project it on others’

In my experience, I feel as though my internalized oppression most viciously manifests itself BY projecting my insecurities on to others or attributing them to others.

I also REALLLLLY dig the points on shit-talking and being up front about commitment to process (or noncommitment), as well as the point on refusing to triangulate (discuss the conflict with third parties in or discuss problems between other people , with uninvolved people) it really IS soooo toxic. Such simple boundaries but really have radically changed my life so so much. OH and the point on anger and yelling. I hate hate hate when people are able to just completely get away from an issue at hand by taking issue with how its being raised. IN MY EXPERIENCE, this is a heavily gendered phenomenon since ive found that its often been womyn (LIKE ME ME ME ME ME) who tend to be the ones who express themselves emotionally (weirdly enough). Dismissing the problem brought up because the medium is not to your liking can easily become a cop out.

I just rambled. A LOT! But anyway. I hope hope hope you continue to flesh these points out and finish writing the rest! Maybe make a zine! I think they are really helpful.

i’m bummed i couldnt make it to the session, but am really thankful for this. i really respect the way you present this stuff in a compassionate and yet methodological/firm way. i dont know how to think about this way of talking about things as a form of culture — like what sort of practices go into embodying this spirit collectively?
but thanks and i am so happy you are in seattle:) looking forward to catching up soon. been hecka busy 😛

This compassionate, complex, and pragmatic. I think a lot of this is useful for everyday communication, as well as when conflicts come up. Thank you for sharing!

Somehow this last comment got caught up in a pending comments section that I never knew about, and so I’m not just now seeing this. My god, thank you so much for the thoughtful and substantive comment. I’ve enjoyed reading your blog many times, and I hope you’re well since you last posted more than a year ago!