I have come to understand myself as having roughly two “specializations” or focuses when it comes to the radical thinking that I most enjoy: popular education/political development and structures for political organization. The reasons why I have these focuses are 1) I believe that the left heavily—almost pathologically—overemphasizes social analysis and so I prefer to keep my head tilted toward vision and strategy, 2) my visions and strategies continuously tell me that revolutionary work is fundamentally educational in nature, and 3) I believe that building dynamic, healthy, high-capacity organizations is perhaps the most critical factor in the success of that revolutionary work. I adore thinking about education so much that it has become my day job. I am so gaga for all things organization that organizational daydreaming is one of my favorite free time hobbies.
You can imagine, then, how baffling and tantalizing a puzzle it is for me that the U.S. left has such a spotty history with building revolutionary organizations. I’ve been writing about this a lot lately, and I just wanted to share some notes about different aspects that I’ve been thinking about.
When I was 12, in Oak Harbor, Washington, I was playing ball tag with my best friend when I witnessed his neighbor charge out of his house yelling, and then brutally kick his dog in the ribs with steel-toed boots. I cried almost instantly. I didn’t care that my friend might see me and think I was weird. This was wrong, and I cried. I then called my mom to tell her and get advice. She gave me the number for some animal control and welfare organizations on Whidbey Island, which I later called, and then she paused and praised me for how sensitive a person I was. This was a defining moment in my identity development. I was a sensitive person. I defended an animal and I wasn’t afraid to cry when things weren’t right.
In Guatemala, in the present day, our family has two dogs that no one pets or plays with, which serve simply as night guards. There are four or five other dogs who come to hang out and socialize, steal some food, kill a duckling, or go to the bathroom. Along with all the rest of my family, I yell for them to leave. I curse and complain with the chorus. When one of the men in the family came charging out with a leather belt to scatter them yelping, I said nothing. In fact, I think I was happy that he was taking care of a problem. When one of their dogs got in a fight and its tail got infected, I don’t remember feeling anything. I merely nodded in the affirmative as the family predicted how many days it would have left.
What happened to me? If I am still a sensitive person, and supposedly still a dog lover, how is it that I let myself become so desensitized?
A surface analysis might just attribute this to individual personality changes, growing up, getting jaded—that something changed in me on an individual level. But I believe this has far more to do with the overwhelming power that human culture has to both submerge and unearth our best selves. In this case, I didn’t just magically become less sensitive, I changed to conform with a culture that expected a far less sensitive—and more violent—relationship with animals. For the most part, I have prioritized my family’s smooth (read: with minimal conflicts or controversies) acceptance of me over my love of animals. It’s just one example of the situational moral and emotional shifts we make all the time to fit in with our surrounding cultures.
I think these dynamics are important, perhaps even key, to building a winning revolutionary politics. People rarely change, for better or worse, as isolated individuals. We change as cultural participants. Prison guards may or may not enter their jobs with previous violent or sadistic conditioning, but you can bet that almost all of them retire as worse human beings. Insurrectionist and individualist anarchists might wax poetic about the liberation of individual desires and the destruction of a barcode based existence, but they sure do tend to talk and dress and party all the same as each other. John Brown wasn’t just individually moved as a white person to violently resist slavery, he came from an intense American masculinity that melded with an intense church tradition that told him slavery was a sin. We are social beings, cultural beings. Our best and worst human potentials, our heroism and our villainy, unfold out of our common cultural pools. This doesn’t have to be seen as a problem. It’s just a feature of our common humanity. If we want a revolution, we must revolutionize our cultures. Revolution is cultural change.
But here is where many radical people get into a sort of chicken-and-egg debate cycle. How can you change a culture without transforming the material conditions within institutions? But how can you change institutions without changing the cultures of those within them? Round and round we go, and so many of our movements harden into positions that are either mechanically focused on institutional organizing at one end of the spectrum, or exclusively spiritual, counter-cultural, navel-gazing at the other end. Our way through these debates is the synthesis of the opposing positions. Yes, revolutionary work, at any level, is cultural—even spiritual—change. But institutions, through their accretion and solidification of social traditions and relationships, are the engines that generate culture. In fact, what makes any institution viable is its ability to create and sustain a specific pattern of social behavior—a culture. To try to change culture outside of institutional change is like continuously mopping the floor of a flooded house without ever thinking to turn the faucet off. Thus, revolutionary work is counter-cultural, even spiritual, work, but it should be grounded in the concrete realities of both existing and alternative institutions, not just diffuse culture building that lacks institutional ties.
This is why I’m so passionate about the organizational questions facing revolutionaries, and why I’m so baffled by how awkward the left is about handling them. I believe that explicitly revolutionary organizations are crucial vehicles for changing culture. They are the missing link between external organizing and internal process. However I see too many people who see them as either unnecessary, or as something for the far-off future, or as some kind of necessary evil.
I imagine the totalitarian and bureaucratic legacy of Marxism-Leninism is a major culprit in this, but I observe that leftists are hyper-wary of organizational projects—especially anything beyond single issue or campaign work. It’s like we go into the work holding our nose, or dipping our toes in, not wanting to get too close or too deep. I imagine, like my dog example, that we are worried about creating a culture which dehumanizes us, which, in the name of efficiency, strips us of what we love most about our radical selves. Certainly, building any organization carries this danger. We can become organizational robots, puppets to the mass line that so many party-builders of the past have become. But guess what: avoiding organizational questions doesn’t change that danger, it just makes the acculturation process more chaotic, informal, and implicit. Anti-organizational milieus can be just as conformist and dehumanizing. In fact, I would argue that our lack of organizations makes radicals far more vulnerable to the acculturating tendencies of the dominant culture. We just get good at hiding it when we go to parties, meetings, and fundraisers.
When we try to avoid organizational experimentation, we do avoid some dangers, but we also miss out on huge transformative opportunities. See, the institutional nature of organizations can be just as much of an asset as a liability. By institutionalizing practices that are liberatory, reflective, compassionate, inspiring, and rooted in ethics of solidarity, we have the potential to accelerate the process of cultural change way beyond what any informal scene or milieu can offer. People change faster, and more profoundly, when they are changing within a group that they are committed to, and that is committed to them.
I know this, because I’ve experienced it in quite an unlikely place: the small high school where I teach. Officially, I work for the State, in an institution that is unquestionably part of a large and problematic bureaucracy. But, damn, the intensity and quality of the collaboration that our school has been able to generate is thrilling. It’s some of the most satisfying work I’ve ever done, I relish it every day, working face to face, building a culture with people who don’t even share my politics or interests. The cohesiveness of the institution, our collective commitment to its mission, and the humanizing work structures that we’ve built allow us to build a culture that makes us better teachers, and better people. Why is it so hard for leftists to build organizations with that same dynamic?
I am optimistic about our ability to create organizations that hold radical values and visions at their core, and which institutionalize practices of both mutual aid and mutual inspiration. In fact, I don’t think it even has to be as hard as we make it. Like I said earlier, I think the left’s overemphasis on social analysis—a process of breaking society and people apart with our sharp radical scalpels—actually also makes it harder for us to come together. By relaxing a little, softening our edges a little, and just getting together to do some pretty good work around some pretty good ideas, I think we could get so far. I want to see us experimenting so much more with new organizational forms!