Thursday, November 17, 2011

“An Art of War for Organizers Around the World”

If the most urgent question in the world today is “What is to be done?” then the answer could not be clearer: “Organize! Organize! Organize!”

Vladimir Lenin asked that question in the early 1900s, quoting Nikolai Chernyshevsky who posed it a generation earlier. In the 1930s, in his novel The Jungle, Upton Sinclair gave the most concise answer possible, and wrote it three times to make sure we got the message.

But things are complicated in the 21st century. There is no doubt that mass movements are necessary both for human rights and for the survival of ecosystems. Yet building a mass movement is a science and an art which is not well understood. This art and science is called organizing, but to quote an old proverb, “there is many a slip 'twixt the cup and the lip.” How, where, who, when, and what must we organize?

For about a decade, I've been looking for answers to these questions. I've read ancient history and modern history looking for the clues to understand our current economic and ecological crisis and for possible ways to overcome them. From Sun Tzu to Lenin to Gandhi to Che to Martin Luther King to Saul Alinsky, I've read everything I could get my hands on about how to organize. I've also sought out living knowledge, and learned from a great number of teachers, seeking answers to this simple and yet neverendingly complex question. I've been trained in how to organize by a large number of organizations and individuals -- in student groups, the anti-war movement, in international solidarity organizations, by anti-globalization activists, in labor unions and in worker centers. I've put this knowledge to the test, organizing with all these groups, developing my own ideas and techniques to fill in the gaps, as every organizer has to.

While there is an immense amount to be learned about how to organize, this vital information is scattered. It's not easy to find. To make matters worse, a lot of what I've come across is a mix of outdated, too basic, too complex, too dry, or sometimes, in my opinion, downright wrong.

Luckily, and not a moment too soon, Eric Mann has put the pieces together for the 21st century. “Playbook for Progressives” will not be the last word on organizing. But it is the word of our time. Distilled from four decades of organizing on the front lines of the civil rights, anti-war, student and labor movements, Mann outlines the most important elements of successful organizing and advocates for “transformative organizing” (through which organizers seek to transform themselves) and “the social justice revolution.” Mike Davis calls this book “An Art of War for organizers around the world.”

Somehow, this book manages to capture most of what I've come across in a decade of learning how to organize, holds it together with a style that is both accessible and sophisticated, and never loses its foundation in radical, transformative, anti-imperialist politics. For experienced organizers, this book will to provide clarity, creativity, and courage to take on the system in these times of accelerating crisis. For those new to organizing, this book will jump-start your consciousness and catapult you onto the front lines of struggle to build a new world from the crumbling shell of the old.

There is one critique of this book I've heard which deserves addressing, because answering it will highlight one aspect of what I think is so good about it. Some experienced organizers I know have argued that the book is too basic. At first glance, the book is not theoretical. It is constructed around a list of “qualities”, and each of these qualities is illustrated with a story about a particular organizer who excels in that quality. Those who have been organizing for a long time may be familiar with most of the ideas that the book puts forward, and some might be frustrated that there isn't something more theoretically insightful for them to bite into.

At second glance, I would argue that the book is more theoretical than meets the eye. It is theoretical in the way that it is conceived and written, and not in any vague, wishy-washy sense. It is very much a historical materialist text, proceeding not from theory to practice, but the other way around. It derives ideas based off of the experiences of organizers, and then applies these ideas back into practice, from which new ideas and practices in turn emerge. The book is thus dialectical in both form and content. In this sense, it is a valuable lesson for critical theorists in how to walk the walk, both in their theory and in their practice. It is written by someone who has walked this walk of praxis for decades, who is well versed in Marxist theory, but who knows how to demonstrate dialectics without using the word. “Can dialectics break bricks?” a Situationist film asked in the late 1960s... Perhaps if more theorists read this book we might be closer to an affirmative answer.

Lenin famously wrote that there can be no revolutionary practice without revolutionary theory. But there cannot be either without organizers, who know how to forge them together into a life's work. In these times of upheaval, of economic chaos and climate catastrophe, more than anything we need organizers, people ready to hit the ground running with the know-how to do what must be done. “The skills of organizing that Eric Mann shares in Playbook for Progressives,” writes Vandana Shiva, “are the life blood of democracy, human rights, social and economic justice, and planetary survival.”

No comments: