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The Democratic Revolution

By Lawrence Goodwyn

I've been studying social movements for about 35 years and the more I study, the more I feel a distance between what I think I know and what is generally thought to be the essence of politics in this culture. And that distance keeps growing.

George Bernard Shaw once said that when people learn something profound that affects long-held beliefs, their first reaction is not elation but, on the contrary, a sense of loss. They lament the passing of their long-held belief. Such is the fate of people who study social movements. We bring to the study the assumptions of our time as to what politics is and what progressive politics is, what the word grassroots means, and then the movements we study contradict these assumptions.

In the case of Populism I looked at the cooperative movement for five years before I understood that it was an organizing - a recruiting - device. There wasn't anything in my culture that taught me that to build a movement one has to create social relations among people that would cause them to be in a room where politics is the center of discussion. I'd been taught that what mattered politically was what people said in the room. But the key question is how to get people into the room to hear - and respond - to whatever is being said there.

The Populists recruited two million people. How did they do that? They did it through the cooperative movement. As I say, it took me years to understand that was the point of the cooperatives. Eventually I came to see that 'recruiting' is not a category of political science. It was not a category in my head. It was, however, in the heads of the Populists. I was able to make my intellectual contribution to understanding their great achievements only because I didn't go away during the five years that I was clueless about what I was studying.

This elaborate preface enables me to suggest that very little that I wish to say tonight will be what you expect to hear. Is there a device by which, when we come together on occasions like this we can find ways gracefully and constructively, and in ways that enhance all participants, to disagree? What would a democratic argument - or a democratic marriage, or a democratic classroom - look like? What would a meeting of democrats like this look like? Maybe it should be turned inside out. Perhaps the purpose of such meetings should be to bring together 100 people so they could talk to each other about the organizing problems they face, rather than hear wisdom from a panel. The only 'wisdom' from a panel that would be permitted would be advice on how to organize. Discourse on visible injustices that undermine the credibility of those in power would not be cultivated because righteous exhortations or speechifying that doesn't bear on organizing produce a kind of politics that is programmatically empty. The words that are spoken might prove entertaining to some people in the room. But - sorry to repeat myself - what we need to be thinking about is how to induce people to come to the room in the first place. Where there exists no concrete plan of recruitment, there can be no organizing. And there will be no social movement. The historical evidence is mountainous; such movements happen only when they are organized. When people are required merely to appear but are not presented with a plan of collaborative activity in which they can participate, there transparently can be no activity that proceeds as a result of the meeting. No activity, no life!

The sinew of social movements does not come from 'learned' people who bring clarity to the poor or 'raise their consciousness.' The poor know they're poor; they know who oppresses them. Their problem is not that they're ignorant of these facts. Their problem is that they don't know what to do about it. And neither do we. That's the crushing problem that we face as a people.

We can begin to address that problem here only if we accept that every person in this room by virtue of being in it has earned the credentials to have a major voice in how we organize our relationship with each other during this time we're going to be together. What functioning cultural assumptions would have been required last Wednesday and Thursday and Friday in order for us to come together in a new way, with new expectations that would lead to political activity? Revising our current assumptions is the beginning of the Revolution - the Democratic Revolution. It would surely put a lot of heat on speechmakers. Everyone's readiness to tolerate orators who go on and on would diminish rapidly.

In politics, it's my understanding that with respect to your opponents you have two options; you can either negotiate with them or you can shoot them. As an advocate of non-violence I come down heavily on the side of negotiation. Having a democratic conversation with one's opponent is not corrupting. Once we accept that politics is negotiation, and that the strength one brings to the table is a function of prior organizing, we can begin to have a serious conversation about recruiting. A discussion of radical networking or coalition building that's not tied to the problem of recruitment isn't going to address the looming historical task in front of us.

From March, 2001