I’ve learned some important lessons in my experience of having, for example, helped organized among homeless people in the Detroit area where we established a local chapter of the National Union of the Homeless. In Detroit, many of the homeless people had been stable “middle class” autoworkers, but they had undergone such a dislocation as a result of the computerization and automation of auto production. What you find, throughout the entire economy, is this gigantic and unprecedented technological revolution that is shaping sources of income, places of work, but also communities. Communities are undergoing tremendous changes. So if you organize from prevailing influences of organizing that served the past, and you’ve had this tremendous change that has taken place, then your organizing approach and your tactics are not going to fit the new situation.
I don’t think you would have had certain social theories such as Marxism or industrial unionism if it they were not shaped by tremendous technological changes that were taking place back during the latter 18th century and in the 19th century. Before the Industrial Revolution, you had the feudal agricultural societies that dictated an approach towards organizing different from when the industrial revolutions took place. Changes in our times are analogous to those changes, but I think it’s on a scale more comprehensive and a rapidity much greater than ever before. Deindustrialization alongside of the growth of urban populations globally is historically unprecedented. I think we’re dealing with a grizzly bear, because there’re tremendous dislocations happening in communities today, and I think the current crisis punctuates this problem. Our organizing has to reflect that.
Pitfalls of large parts of the Left
You can see the continuing influences on large part of the Left of the 1930s trade union organizing and of the 1960s community organizing, which is heavily shaped by the influences of the Civil Rights Movement and world’s National Liberation Movements. There’s a saying that ‘most generals are always fighting the last war.’ That is what we’re finding in the Left. We’re dealing with a totally new situation. In this new day you must do things in a new way.
Last year, the food riots that took place in more than 30 countries globally had the immediacy that Watts had in the 1960s. Our approach today has to reflect these new elements, elements that didn’t exist in 1930s and 1960s. On the “Left,” there’s a tendency to categorize different issues, different fronts of struggle – put them in different silos – and approach them from the perspective of solely organizing among this ethnic community or organizing among that trade union, or among women as a separate group. Although organizing in the different fronts of struggle is very important, the perspective in approaching them has to change given the changed situation. The problems today are problems that revolve around the growing concentration of wealth on a global level on the one hand, and the spreading of poverty on a global level on the other. Our organizing strategy and tactics have to be based in a comprehensive and ongoing assessment of this fundamental polarization that defines our times. This is crucial because to limit your perspective as to the fundamental problem and solution is to ultimately make your effort aimed at leveraging pity, not power. At most, this results in sort of a “militant do-gooderism” or charity paraded as ”social justice” or “the end to extreme poverty.” It amounts to much corporate funding of efforts that only strike down the leaves and branches of the problem leaving it roots untouched, only for the leaves and branches to grow back in more devastating and fascist forms.
In history, different periods were defined by major social polarities. And the class forces or elements of class forces that were most dislocated or most affected by that problem had to be organized and placed at the forefront in order for that problem to be brought to a solution. The struggle against the British Crown in this country had to be led by the colonists, because they were the ones that were immediately affected. There was opposition to the British Crown coming from Spain, from France, even from within the United Kingdom. And these forces played a role in the struggle against the British Crown. But it was the colonists in that particular period that had to be at the forefront – that had to exhibit initiative – to actually galvanize and bring those other forces into play. The French support of that struggle was very important, but it was all predicated on the fight – and the military and political organization of the fight – by the American colonists themselves.
The overall struggle against slavery in this country had to be led by the struggle of those forces oppressed by the slavocracy, that is, the slaves of course but also the industrial classes of the North. These most adversely affected social forces had to find some organizational expressions and thereby place their needs and demands at the forefront in order for that struggle to be brought to a successful conclusion. Take the struggle for women’s suffrage. Can you imagine a struggle for women’s suffrage led by men? Those forces most affected by the problem have to be at the forefront. They know when their pain is relieved.
In organizing today around the issues of poverty and the issues of extreme wealth concentrated in a few hands, to resolve this problem, social hegemonic leadership must come from that segment of the population that is the most directly affected, that is, the poor and dispossessed sections in the struggle. Our organizing and developing leaders today must first focus on uniting this segment. This must be the only basis of developing and uniting revolutionary leaders.
Power and Organizing
Part of an accurate estimate of the social problems we face involves power relationships. In the National Union of the Homeless we coined the slogan, “Power grows from organization… Freedom is never given. It must be taken. And therefore you only get what you are organized to take!” All of history – US and world history – confirms this statement. Are you able to generate a critical mass of power to counter the existing power relationships to make change? We’ve got to be real about that. Otherwise we’re playing games. As Malcolm X once stated, “power only respects power… power never takes a step back except in the face of more power.”
A lot of the Left tends to avoid this question, but you can’t get away from it. One of the problems we’ve had in American history is that, although there have been a lot of social movements over time, they have been basically divided into two types of movements. One, dealing with power changes: shifting power relationships, a social-economic group or section of a class out of power taking power. Here I’m not talking about the regular electoral changes in government administrative and legislative offices. And the other type of movements that generates a tremendous amount of activity but ultimately results in the reinforcing the position of major social elements in existing power relationships by social reform. They allowed for a modification or an adjustment of existing power relations, not changing those power relations.
For example, the Anti-Slavery Movement, including the Civil War, resulted in power changes in terms of the slaveocracy being taken out of power and the Northern industrial classes being put into power. Or the American Revolution: the Tory elements within the colonies connected to the British Crown were in power. And what happened as a consequence of that struggle was that you had a change of places in terms of power relationships. But most of the other major struggles – the Women’s Suffrage Movement, the industrial movements of the 30s, the Civil Rights Movement – these movements were reform movements, but they didn’t result in power changes. We have to look at history and see what we can learn from movements for power as well as what we can learn from reform movements. The problem is that there has been very little study of US history with regard to these two types of social movement and social changes.
Today, again, we are confronted with the question: Are we dealing with a teddy bear or are we dealing with a grizzly bear? Are we dealing with a fundamentally a reform movement or are we dealing with a transformation movement? My experience and the experiences of others I’ve been involved with over the last forty years – in my study of American history and world history – suggest we’re dealing fundamentally with a problem of power. That raises a question of how you generate a critical mass that’s strong enough to take power.
The only thing that the oppressed classes have at their disposal is their numbers. They only enter in the scale of power struggle if those numbers are organized and are led by knowledge or an understanding of what they’re up against. The influences of industrial union organizing and of community organizing – Saul Alinsky and some of the Civil Rights organizing – have left us very ignorant on the problems of power. Power grows from organizing, but how you organize – your approach to organizing under different circumstances – is something that’s very critical.
Part of the problem of power in this country – a central aspect of the problem – is the relationship between color and class. The history of slavery, the slaughter of the Native Americans – these things have impacted American society all the way to today and have placed the color factor deeply in the thinking of the American people. You disregard this question at your own peril. But how you pose it is very important. The position of the poor and the dispossessed in the struggle to end poverty is very crucial, because what the poor shows in their social and economic position is that ultimately the color question is inseparably tied to the class question. And then not only is it tied to the class question, but that the color question ultimately is or revolves around the question of class, that is the problem of the concentration of wealth and power.
The tendency has been to separate these issues because the prevailing influence around the issue of race, for example, has been the kind of petit bourgeois, “middle-class” kind of conception that is closely allied with the upper classes. This conception says: “The economy? I have no problem with the economy. Even with the current crisis, I have no problems with the fundamentals of the capitalist economy.” Therefore, you can discuss the problems of race separate, as if it’s parallel to the problems of whether I eat or not, have a house or not, do I have the power necessary to at least have my basic necessities secured or not. From the standpoint of the economically exploited and excluded, I can’t discuss the questions of whether or not we’re going to be able to resolve the problems of color or resolve the inequities of gender and all of the other ills in society disconnected from the questions of class and power.
I think this is where Martin Luther King in the last years of his life offers a bridge in terms of getting people to understand the inseparableness of these things. He pointed at the inseparableness of the three major evils: of unjust foreign policy in terms of the global situation and how it is tied to race relations and how race relations are inseparably tied to the problem of economic exploitation and poverty. You can’t deal with one without dealing with the other. If we orient ourselves on the basis of those at the bottom, we’re going to tend to see the inseparableness of these questions in reality.
There’s this poster that I saw on one of my trips from Philadelphia to Atlanta to see my daughter. There’s this billboard put up by the furniture industry in South Carolina. And it references a very common slogan put out in our country that I think influences the Left, that I think influences the whole of society. It said: “Let the sons and daughters of the former slaveholders unite with the sons and daughters of the former slaves.” Now what’s critical about that formulation is that they leave out the fact that most whites in the South were not slaveholders. They were mostly poor and working-class whites.
Left out of most discussions of history is this formula of power that W.E.B. DuBois talked about that pitted the poor non-whites against the poor whites. Even today, when we are discussing the need of people of color to unite, it’s usually done in a way to leave out the strategic necessity of finding ways of uniting with poor whites to ensure real emancipation from poverty and all forms of human misery. As DuBois suggested and Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr directly pointed out in his 1967-68 Poor People’s Campaign, this can and must be the starting point in building the necessary critical mass to move power relations in this country of 300 million. And historically that has been a stumbling block in terms of any kind of struggle for power in this country. When you consider the power relationships as expressed in the composition of the civil bureaucracy and government jobs on all levels — municipal, state, and federal — or you consider the military and police forces, you’re talking about mostly white folks. This also true of the key corporate jobs in the “commanding heights” of the economy, i.e., the auto industry, housing, steel, energy, etc. A growing number of these strategically positioned employees, their relatives and communities are beginning to have difficult times. Poverty is increasing among whites at a faster rate than among non-whites, especially resulting from the current crisis with the dismantling of the so called “middle class.” These are real pivotal problems of power. Aristotle once stated, and this has been more than corroborated by world history, that “Where the middle class is large, there are least likely to be factions and dissension.” Today we are confronted with greater opportunities and dangers with regard to problems of political influence and power relations than have rarely happened in American history. Yet we leave these opportunities for the fascists to win sections of the poor and working class whites.
W.E.B. DuBois pointed out this problem of power in