THE 7 COMPONENTS OF TRANSFORMATIVE ORGANIZING THEORY by Eric Mann
The following is excerpted from The 7 Components of Transformative Organizing Theory, which is a companion to The 21 Qualities of the Successful Organizer: A Journey In Transformative Organizing, forthcoming from Beacon Press in 2011.
The history of organizing in the United States has always mirrored the politics of the country, with three major approaches to organizing driving social change.
Right-wing organizing is reflected in the Klan, White Citizens Councils, Christian Conservatives, and today, the Vigilantes and the Tea Party reactionaries.
Pragmatic organizing has fought for specific reforms in the interest of working people that have often been limited in scope, characterized by antileft ideology, and, at times, an implicit deal with the U.S. Empire.
Left-wing organizing is characterized by a militant opposition to racism, war, and the abuses of the U.S. Empire, strategized by a broad array of people who self-identify as revolutionary, radical, liberal, and progressive. I call this approach “transformative organizing.”
I am writing this essay to reach out to organizers of all progressive philosophies who are contributing to the 2010 U.S. Social Forum. As the “Tea Party” Right rises in U.S. politics and the Obama/ Clinton administration continues to pursue the Empire’s objectives around the globe, there is an urgent need for us to organize. To recruit new members and build our base. To strengthen our organizations. To coalesce into whole new movements and generate a new Left that is rooted in a creative, anti-racist, anti-imperialist politics that is growing inside working-class communities of color.
Transformative organizing is a powerful framework to ground and guide our work.
• Transformative organizing transforms the system itself and is in revolutionary opposition to the power structures of colonialism, patriarchy, white supremacy, and capitalism in its current form, which is imperialism.
• Transformative organizing transforms the consciousness of people who participate in the process of building organizations, struggles, and movements.
• Transformative organizing transforms the organizers themselves as they stand up to the Right, reach out to the people, and take on the system.
The great tradition of transformative organizing
The tradition of transformative organizing in the United States began with the Indigenous resistance to European genocidal conquest, the slave rebellions from early Gloucester, Virginia to the Nat Turner Revolt, the Abolitionists and the Radical Republicans who constitutionally outlawed slavery and built the Reconstruction government after the civil war. It continued in the early 20th century with the Industrial Workers of the World, the Anti-Imperialist League, the radical wing of the suffragettes, the Niagara Movement, the Back to Africa Movement, and the exemplary work of the U.S. Communist Party in the Black and labor movements and the world anti-fascist front during the 1930s and 1940s.
An anti-left backlash after World War II (often called the McCarthy period and associated with the House Un-American Activities Committee) carried out red-baiting, broke up communist-led unions, and led witch-hunts against radicals and revolutionaries such as W.E.B. DuBois and Paul Robeson. But at the height of this reactionary period in the 1950s there was a resurgence of transformative organizing that would later be understood as The Two Decades of the Sixties—beginning with the defeat of the French by the Vietnamese at Dien-Bien Phu in 1954, the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, and the Congress of Non-Aligned Nations at Bandung in 1954-1955, and ending with the defeat of the United States in Vietnam in 1975.
During the height of the multi-racial New Left movement, the word “organizer” was synonymous with Black militant, anti-war, and soon, prosocialist, anti-imperialist politics. The use of “liberation” by the women’s liberation and gay liberation movements was inspired by the world revolutionary spirit embodied by the Vietnamese National Liberation Front.
As Clayborne Carson explains in In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s,the young civil rights workers began referring to themselves as “revolutionaries” to distinguish themselves from the less militant, more accommodationist forces who were tied to gradualism, the civil rights establishment, and the Democratic Party. This distinction evolved into solidarity with African revolutions, opposition to the U.S. war in Vietnam, and a variety of urban rebellions, mass strikes of Black workers.
By the time of the U.S. invasion of Cambodia and the killing of students at Kent State and Jackson State, millions of students were closing down the universities in opposition to the war in Vietnam. Organizationally, it meant building the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Third World Women’s Alliance, Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the Black Panther Party, Brown Berets, American Indian Movement, Puerto Rican Young Lords, La Raza Unida Party, Red Guards, the National Welfare Rights Organization, and the Indochina Peace Campaign. By the early 1970s and 1980s the struggles and then mergers of these and other organizations led to a movement for Third World communism in the United States, to ally with national liberation movements around the world.
These left initiatives had large mass followings and created a significant threat to the system itself; they were followed by a ferocious counterrevolution and white backlash against the organizations and the social movements they embodied. This took the form of intense government repression through an explicit counter-insurgency program, COINTELPRO. Four decades of reactionary governance by Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush aggressively dismantled the social welfare state, attacking the environment, workers, unions, Black people, Latino immigrants, women, the Left, and people all over the world.
Where is transformative organizing today?
By 1980 the movement was spent and exhausted—a product of its victories in civil rights and ending the war in Vietnam, the exhaustion of many young people who had been in struggle, and the imprisonment and assassination of revolutionary leadership. This decline of left power was deepened by the self-inflicted wounds of sectarian attacks on fellow movement members. The crisis of socialism in China and the Soviet Union accelerated political disorientation.
In this left vacuum the fervor of transformative organizing waned as its fundamental premises were attacked. Sparked by the “rules for radicals” of Saul Alinsky, there emerged a self-proclaimed “pragmatic,” “realistic” approach to organizing. This approach led to work that was militant and often effective in winning important immediate reforms for working people but that often, by its own ideology, set unnecessarily narrow objectives. Some of its advocates were explicitly anti-left, caricaturing the Left and re-writing history. The advocates of “pragmatic” organizing justified their narrow economic fights against the system in the name of “non-ideological” organizing for “the community.” They rarely acknowledged that all organizing is ideological and that “pragmatic” organizing often relied upon close ideological ties to the Democratic Party, the Trade Union bureaucracies, and powerful church hierarchies.
Both approaches of transformative organizing and pragmatic organizing fight for just and immediate demands that all organizers support, such as more low-income housing, more funding for schools, higher wages for public sector workers. But when pragmatic organizers choose not to frame their campaigns for immediate demands within fundamental structural challenges to racism, police brutality, and imperialist wars, or battles for LGBTQ rights, immigrant rights, or basic democratic rights, they can isolate themselves from their community’s need for deep social transformation. In many cases, pragmatic organizing, whether by its silence or its aggressive anti-Left ideology, conciliates with Empire-building.
Yet, it is important that we understand that this debate between pragmatic and transformative approaches to organizing is about strategy, not morality. In Los Angeles, where we work, we are on good terms with many organizers who frame their work as pragmatic. They don’t red-bait us; we don’t “right bait” them. Instead, we get together and often have similar assessments of a situation. Sometimes, their constraints make it difficult for them to take a stand; other times they don’t think our tactics are the best. But we respect each other because we both have a strong base in the Black and Latino working class and can be of real help to each other against more powerful adversaries. We also line up on many issues together, fight together on ballot initiatives that attack immigrants and communities of color, and build relationships based on a mutual capacity to put troops on the ground. Still, in the interest of building a movement for long-term structural change in the U.S., the differences of strategy need to be addressed.
Impressively, in the 1980s and 1990s, and the first decade of the 21st Century, many young people and movement veterans resisted this “pragmatic” move to the right and have worked to carry out effective radical, left, and revolutionary politics as they organize in low-income communities and college campuses.
Today, the pendulum among organizers continues to swing left. Many dedicated organizers are questioning the limits of the pragmatic approach. The U.S. Social Forum is a reflection of the re10 assertion of anti-racist, anti-imperialist politics. With its slogan of “Another World Is Possible; Another U.S. Is Necessary,” the first U.S. Social Forum in 2007 and the upcoming second USSF in Detroit reflect tens of thousands of people who are organizing across the country in working class communities, in communities of color, among immigrants and G.I.s, and among high school and college students. They are rejecting the trap of pragmatism, and are already carrying out some version of transformative organizing.
At the Labor/Community Strategy Center, Transformative Organizing Theory has been a map to guide our path and a model we try to live up to in our daily organizing since the Center was founded in 1989. We have organized domestic workers, hotel workers, garment workers, security guards, high school students in low-income, working class communities of color, and bus riders on the buses of L.A. in order to transform the power structures and policies of racism, patriarchy, and capitalism which constitute the U.S. Empire.
In our flagship project, Bus Riders Union organizers have engaged tens of thousands of L.A.’s 500,000 bus riders—predominantly immigrants and people of color, majority women, with an average annual income of $12,000—through on-the-bus organizing. Their conversations are grounded in the most immediate demands for low fares and a first-class clean-fuel bus system but always within an anti-racist, anti-imperialist framework. BRU members, leaders and organizers are dedicated to transforming “bus consciousness” in order to build a larger movement that fights for immigrant, queer and women’s rights, organizes against the police/prison state and to stop global warming, and stands against U.S. wars and attacks on the sovereignty and self-determination of oppressed peoples, from Cuba to Tuvalu, from South Africa to Venezuela.
Grassroots Global Justice Alliance/La Alianza Popular para la Justicia Global (GGJ), of which the Strategy Center is a part, is another contemporary example of bringing transformative organizing into the political life of low-income, working class communities of color. An alliance of more than 60 organizations, GGJ emphasizes the inter-relationship between U.S.-based grassroots organizing and an international movement for global justice. At a time when the menace of a mass-based neo-fascist movement is in front of us, GGJ is helping to generate a broader theoretical and strategic framework for movement-building, strengthening left forces, and encouraging those who want to challenge racism, ecological disaster, wars, and the U.S. Empire itself.
Class consciousness, political leadership, and revolutionary organization are the foundations of transformative organizing. They are embodied in the following seven components of Transformative Organizing Theory.
1. Transformative organizing seeks radical social change through the strategy of building an international united front to challenge the U.S. Empire.
Transformative organizing is based on an analysis that the United States is a structurally racist, imperialist power. Driven by the need to relentlessly expand that is characteristic of advanced capitalism, the U.S. operates domestically and internationally to control the economies and governments of every nation in the world-especially the nations and peoples of the Third World in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. That is why it calls itself “the superpower.” Transformative organizing, therefore, is situated in a worldwide movement with a strategy to challenge the U.S. Empire.
2. The transformative organizer is a conscious agent of change, a revolutionary educator with a plan to intervene in and make history.
One critical goal of the ruling classes—those who own and control the means of production, consumption, education, and armed force–is to achieve political loyalty and voluntary obedience from the classes and peoples they dominate. Their political system puts on an ideological full court press that is carried out through government, the corporations and employers, the family, schools, media, trade unions, and churches. When it succeeds, many exploited and oppressed peoples come to accept the established relationships of class, race, and gender domination. They believe these power relations are natural, part of some moral master plan, or just inevitable. When they do seek social change, they tacitly agree to limit their demands to reforms within the ground rules of the dominant system. Transformative organizers challenge the moral legitimacy and ideological hegemony of the capitalist system and its historical master narrative of empire building.
3. Transformative organizing requires the leadership of society’s most exploited, oppressed, and strategically placed classes and races.
Transformative organizing generates social movements that involve members from all classes of society–from the most privileged to the most oppressed. Yet a winning strategy is based on analyzing the forces most capable of leading that movement. Given the specific history of the United States as a settler state built on genocide, slavery, stolen lands and stolen peoples, certain radical organized forces have led historic struggles against U.S. atrocities and have proven to be the most successful leaders of the resistance.
4. Transformative organizing is produced by transformative organizations.
From the first days of Spanish, French, British, and later U.S. colonization of the Americas and the first moments of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, there have been spontaneous and organized forms of resistance. Throughout U.S. history, many transformative organizations have fought for radical objectives against the U.S. Empire. What are some of the key characteristics from which we can evaluate and build organizations today?
5. Transformative organizing becomes truly transformative in the course of battle.
The true assessment of the effectiveness of an organization and its organizers can only be measured in practice–in the actual struggle for power. An organization’s success is ultimately judged by its capacity to take on powerful corporate and government forces, put forth radical demands, and wage long-term battles. Transformative organizers and organizations build their reputation in high visibility campaigns that fight for and often win important structural changes and improvements in the lives of real people.
6. Transformative organizing transforms the organizers.
A fundamental premise of transformative organizing is that social being creates social consciousness; that is, the consciousness of organizers is shaped by their location and their experiences in the social system. At first a garment worker, a bus rider, a farm worker may decide to “just get a little involved” in a social movement. But as they change from observer to activist to organizer, their consciousness changes. As they fight the company that has not paid their wages, defend neighbors who are being deported, organize co-workers in the sweatshops to demand better pay for their piece work, ask for longer breaks from their employer as they pick avocados in the brutal heat, fight off sexual harassment in the workplace and police harassment in the school yard, they experience changes, often monumental changes, in their consciousness.
7. Transformative organizing requires a transformative political program.
Transformative organizing is best understood by its coherent program of concrete demands that force the system to make radical structural changes. Protestors, organizers, revolutionaries are often asked, “What is it that you people want?” When people consider joining a movement for radical change, their first question is, “What are we fighting for?” Throughout history, transformative demands have motivated the strongest social movements with the greatest mass participation, militancy, and duration. What are some current demands that can shape a political program?