Discussion Document for PHRF/CLU Leadership and Staff
[Please read and give comments and feedback toward developing a collective position paper on grass-root “Bottom-Up” organizing and leadership development]
From the first time one person took something for himself and denied it to his fellows, humanity has resisted. From the beginning of private ownership and exploitation and oppression, there has been resistance. Human beings have consistently, in whatever ways were available to them, fought oppression. All of human history, all human progress, is made up of these struggles, from the dim and foggy prehistory that we can only know indirectly to the massive recorded struggles of the Spartacus movement in ancient Rome, the Gabriel Prosser slave rebellion in 19th Century Virginia, the Russian and Chinese revolutions, the anti-colonial movements in Africa and Asia, the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, the anti-slavery, anti-racist and anti-war movements in the last 100 to 200 years in the U.S.
All of these movements were attempts by people to reestablish the natural human tendency to care for each other, to hold the needs of the collective above the needs of the individual, to establish justice and equality.
In the 20th Century, huge movements actually took control over large areas of the globe in this struggle. Working class and oppressed people danced in the streets celebrating their victories over their oppressors. They inspired millions worldwide to move forward in their own struggles. They gave their lives in the fight to defeat fascism and racism. These were huge advances for humanity.
And they have, for the time being, failed. Critical weaknesses internal to those movements led to their demise. People worldwide have become (temporarily) disillusioned in the movements that once inspired them. We are living in a low point, a trough in the ocean of struggle, waiting for the next wave to carry us forward. Throughout the world, people are either feeling that “you can’t fight city hall,” or have redirected their efforts into small resistance to local issues, or have joined mass movements that misidentify the enemy and waste lives and humanity in struggles over profit, religion, nationality, etc.
It thus becomes critical for us to see and understand the mistakes of our predecessors. Their heroism and commitment is undeniable, but it is also undeniable that they lost what they had won, and in the process demoralized the movement and set it astray.
Katrina has exposed in a concentrated way all the contradictions of U.S. capitalism and racism today. It offers us an unprecedented opportunity to reinvigorate the movement of working class and oppressed people in the U.S. How can we build this movement in a way which does not repeat the errors of the past? What do we need to do differently?
The fundamental error of previous movements was not relying on the intelligence of the masses of oppressed people. Movement leaders and activist be they communists or anti-colonialists, thought that they had knowledge that the masses did not – and could not – possess. They differed from the leadership of the old “bourgeois revolutionaries” who mobilized the working people to fight under slogans like “liberty, equality, fraternity” when they were actually only cynically fighting for their own power and ability to exploit people in a new way – to replace one type of ruling class with another. “Revolutionaries” of the 20th Century were genuinely trying to get humanity out from under the yolk of oppression and empower people. But they felt that the ideology necessary to lead the masses to freedom could only be understood by the vanguard, that the people themselves had to be taken by the hand, step by step, toward that understanding before they could actually lead themselves. So, despite their good intentions, almost all of the countries that engaged in those “revolutionary” struggles are once again dominated by capitalist exploitation.
As we learn from history and are presented with the opportunity Katrina has laid before us, we must, above all else, repudiate the idea that the leadership of the movement is smarter than the oppressed people. We need to seek out precisely those whom capitalism and racism have most oppressed and learn from their experience of struggle. They are the people who must be in the leadership of any new movement, mass movement, mass struggle that now comes into being. If we have learned anything from the past, it must be that unless the working people themselves, the oppressed people themselves, truly understand and grasp their own role and significance, their own ability to lead and run society in the interests of a loving, caring, egalitarian humanity, we will not sustain a progressive movement. We will, like our predecessors, turn into our opposite.
How do we do that? Not by removing “revolutionary ideology” from the mix, not by bowing to spontaneity, but also NOT by arrogantly assuming that THEY must learn from US rather than vice versa or both. NOT by trying to maintain tight control of the reins, NOT by defining for the people what their demands must be, how their struggle should be organized.
The process of building from the ground up, giving power and leadership to the grassroots people themselves, may seem slower and less direct, but history teaches us that it is the only way. We’ve already seen the opposite method lead to a major setback in the struggle against injustice. We cannot follow the old strategies.
This is why the plan of developing Survivors’ Councils that make their own decisions about how to proceed, around what issues or demands, is the way we need to go. This is why it is necessary to run meetings using a methodology that gives everyone equal voice. This is why organizational and political leadership needs to come from the “bottom,” not from the “top.” The role of organizational leadership here is not to create demands and issues to organize people around; it is to facilitate the residents’ ability to organize and make those choices and decisions. It is to create an egalitarian space within which this can happen. Ideological leadership around issues like “analysis of the government’s strategy and main focus” and so forth can only happen effectively within that egalitarian space, with no more time or weight being given to the ideas of a “leader” than to those of the displaced resident sitting beside him or her in the circle. For unless an ideology is developed, grasped and agreed to with the masses engaged at each step, it cannot become effective, it cannot actually lead.
To put this another way, even if a particular political organization or party has all the correct ideas and analysis, if they don’t build understanding for those from the ground up, if the people don’t take those ideas for their own and act on them, they won’t succeed. Yes, people need political training just as they need skill training, but the question is the educative milieu in which people receive training. This should be an environment of egalitarian, experiential learning, not lectures and speeches. In order to avoid the errors of the past, all ideologies must be subject to the crucible of the masses. This is the lesson of history.
Katrina has provided us with the opportunity to build a movement of a new type. Let’s not be afraid to take the opportunity.
Submit your comments about this article using our Blog.