from the blog of sociologist Richard Flacks (Univ. of California at
step by step
step by step the longest march can be won
you must take over the leadership
Posted by rflacks on: August 31 2010
"You must take over the leadership". B Brecht
A few weeks ago, I got the following comment from Kerry Candaele,
asking questions that I think are on a lot of our minds:
Why the left was too cooperative, has not built a
populist movement that can push Obama our way, and did, in large part,
support the president's agenda? Why so much passive going along?
Mystified by the man and his hope agenda? Back on our heels in order
to keep Democratic seats in centrist districts? Too much "organizing"
on line? In my own neighborhood--the westside of Los Angeles--when
teachers get let go and libraries close down, what to the PTAs and
liberal individuals in those schools do? Call for selling of cupcakes
and lemonade on the school grounds. Participatory democracy at the
baked goods table, instead of 50 buses filled with angry voters on the
grounds of the state capital with a progressive agenda in hand. And
now we have Jerry Brown, for whom we will all vote, running on who
knows what. What happened from November until today?
Since the start of the Obama years, progressives keep saying that
pressure from the left is essential if reform possibilities are to be
achieved. Kerry Candaele questions are daily more urgent: why hasn't
such mobilization been happening?
First of all, however, the assumption that the left is thoroughly
demobilized isn't really valid. In just the last few months, tens of
thousands marched for immigrant rights in Washington on March 21.
Twenty thousand people reportedly participated in the US Social Forum
in Detroit at the end of June. In July thousands converged on Phoenix
to protest SB 1070 as thousands more demonstrated locally across the
country. Last spring, large numbers of students in California
mobilized against budget cuts, and public employees marched on
Sacramento. None of this action was given significant coverage in the
mainstream media, while tea party theatricals were of course widely
featured. The march immigrant rights Washington rally was probably
much larger than the Beckfest but got no media notice. The Detroit
Social Forum was entirely unmentioned.
One reason the left seems demobilized is because actions like the
above that could catalyze movement are treated so marginally. The Tea
Party/Beck efforts could be similarly marginalized as engineered
theatrics by small bands of elderly coupon clippers. Indeed the
showing at Beck's rally could be depicted as pitiful, given the
alleged size of his audience and the endless hyping of the event by
Fox news et al. Or, healthier media treatment would give due attention
to grassroots manifestations across the spectrum. Indeed, it's
probably the case that immigrant rights movement is greatly
facilitated by Spanish language radio and tv coverage that reaches
very wide audiences.
But of course there isn't anything like a coherent grassroots
progressive movement, and the feeling of demobilization is pervasive.
It's sort of a vicious circle: the media frame that the left is
dormant reinforces the political withdrawal fueled by disappointment,
disillusionment, cynicism, and this confirms the media frame, to the
point that such withdrawal is now taken for granted.
Progressive pessimism is fed by the electoral scene. Every day the NY
Times reiterates the inevitability of Democrat defeat in the
congressional election. Obama's approval ratings have ‘plummeted'. If
things look bad for the progressive reform agenda now, just wait till
Every time friends sing such tunes, I'm moved to play some counter
melodies. Look: the media said Obama couldn't get the nomination,
couldn't possibly get elected, and it seems some pundits have never
given up that analysis. If for example one considers that he's the
first president to achieve a universal healthcare reform, (deeply
compromised, but no more so than FDR's social security!), one might
ponder whether detraction of his political potency is fully warranted.
Or consider that, according to Ezra Klein:
"Obama's current approval rating of 44 percent beats Clinton, Carter
and Reagan. All of them were between 39 percent and 41 percent at this
point in their presidencies. And all of them were former governors who
accomplished less legislatively than Obama has at this point in his
Moreover, the Times and other mainstream media have barely reported
the total collapse of approval for the Republican Party (whose poll
ratings have never been lower) and have possibly underplayed the
consequences of tea party extremism for the chances of a number of GOP
You can gain very useful corrective readings of the political
climate-and some very sage thinking on the way the Democrats can
define their message-by perusing the Democratic Strategist website
from where much of the data I just referred can be gleaned. Even if a
large portion of the progressive base will be hard to bring to the
polls, a reasonably savvy campaign by Democrats and their supporters
may well have surprisingly positive results. One reason many of the
polls look bad is that they are based on likely voters, which tends to
underweight the very people (young, minority, working class) who
helped make the difference in 2008.
Meanwhile, labor unions and other progressive organizers have begun
grassroots gotv campaigns. According to Harold Meyerson in today's LA
Times, campaign efforts by California unions accounts for the
startling fact that Jerry Brown remains ahead of Meg Whitman in the
gubernatorial race despite the fact that he has yet to advertise or
even campaign, while she has spent $100 million so far. It would be
nice if Brown soon provided some reasons of his own for coming to vote
for him, but here in California the alleged decline of the Democrats
electorally isn't evident.
I'm saying all the above simply to provide a counterweight to liberal
and left wing kvetching. There's plenty of potential for progressive
mobilization. In this space I've been pleading for some effort to
March on Washington before the election. Plans for such a happening
have started to come together under this banner:
ONE NATION WORKING TOGETHER
For Jobs, Justice and Education for All
The coalition includes some 150 organizations led by the AFL-CIO and
the NAACP. The march at the Lincoln Memorial is planned for October 2.
Little notice of this has yet appeared in the media, spreading the
word is something we all can do. Here's a Facebook page.
The ONWT coalition might hold promise of a framework for some of the
mobilization that must happen regardless of the outcome in November.
But mass marches of this kind, and effective electoral strategy,
aren't enough, history suggests. The impetus for the New Deal reform
began with direct action by unemployed, evicted tenants and mass
strikes in the factories. The impetus for the civil rights and social
justice reforms of the sixties came from direct action and civil
disobedience in hundreds of southern towns, and ghetto rebellions in
Direct action is strategically directed disruption of the smooth
functioning of institutions and routine authority. Such disruption in
the right time and place is key to the power of the powerless. But
direct action can be highly risky. National leaders of established
progressive organizations are very reluctant to mobilize direct action
because of the risks. Moreover, effective direct action typically
can't be planned in the formal, bureaucratized settings of established
organizations. The innovative, creative thinking that leads to direct
action usually happens in intense conversation among small groups of
young people. It's most often unattached young who have the
impatience, spontaneity and readiness for risk to contemplate such
The spirit of the Sixties began in southern college dorm rooms where
small groups of students challenged each other to break the rules of
segregation and sit down at lunch counters, and was carried through
below the radar networks that spread the spirit and the method of
non-violent direct action. Those networks became SNCC and their
members didn't wait for the NAACP or MLK or any other ‘adult'
established leader to either initiate or authorize their actions, Had
they waited for or followed Dr. King the movement might well have
stalled. Their autonomous readiness to organize and act was crucial.
Similarly, the first protests against the Vietnam war were called by
SDS against the inclinations and advice of the established peace and
pacifist leadership. And,
I think a similar dynamic sparked the mass movements of the thirties.
Young radical organizers created unemployed councils that resisted
police eviction efforts and marched demanding jobs and unemployment
compensation. Young organizers at the shop level challenged the
established union leadership and led strikes that those leaders tended
The action that triggers movements doesn't just arise spontaneously
out of the anger and discontent of those suffering from injustice.
Almost always at the creation are present some number of politically
conscious activists and organizers who have been looking for
opportunities to organize and mobilize communities in which they are
I've been thinking that a big difference between now and then is that
the young organizers of today (and their numbers are actually legion)
seem to be waiting for and are too dependent on leadership from the
established organizations that have fielded and trained them. The
progressive side has a lot of those organizations (just look at the
list of organizations sponsoring the October Second march). But what
these organizations are I think inherently unable to initiate the
particular forms of action that might now spark ongoing mobilization.
In fact, no one can ‘know' what those forms of action should be. Their
invention depends on brainstorming, freewheeling talk by people
willing to experimentally challenge routine stability.
Brecht wrote a poem whose underlying message seems to me to say
something like what I'm getting at:
Don't be afraid to ask, comrade!
Don't be talked into anything.
Check for yourself!
What you do not know yourself
you don't know.
Scrutinize the bill,
it is you who must pay it.
Put your finger on each item,
ask: how did this get there ?
You must take over the leadership.
Dick Flacks here...sociology professor emeritus at UCSB. Budget cuts
mean that I can't continue my annual course on political sociology.
Maybe a blog will be a space for me to continue to ruminate and
pontificate. And maybe (as a veteran teacher on these matters) I can
offer some ways of thinking about what's happening nationally and
locally that will be useful, as we struggle to make sense of the
tortured complexities of these times. I've been a leftwing activist
for more than 50 years. What we've been struggling for all these years
is full democracy--to increase the opportunities for people to have
real voice in the decisions that affect them. Step by step over these
years we've made some gain...but it is a long march, and one that
never ends. The big barrier to democracy in our society is the
concentrated power of corporations. At the same time, democracy is
undermined by the felt powerlessness of people in their daily
lives--the persistent belief that our problems are only our own
personal concern. It's a strong cultural theme--such
individualism--constantlly reinforced by mass media and everyday
circumstance. But the current big crisis of the economy maybe makes it
more possible for more people to understand that we've got to have
social reform and economic reform. So my writing here is aimed at
helping us figure out what to think and act on that so that we can
hope for new democratic possibilities. WE'll be talking about the
local and the national. The blog name comes from an old labor union
hymn: Step by step the longest march can be won. Many stones can form
an arch...singly none. And by union what we will can be accomplished
still. Drops of water turn a mill, singly none, singly none. For 27
years I've had a weekly radio show on KCSB (91.9 fm. www.kcsb.org)
It's called the Culture of Protest. It's comes from my fascination
with music and social movements. I collect 'political' and 'protest'
music and that's what we play each week (Thursdays 6-7 pm). So
sometimes here we'll share and talk about that. I'm worried about one
thing about the blogosphere. And that's the way that some people use
the blog comment space for anonymous nastiness. I'm sick of the kind
of political blather that assaults the motives of others, and sees
dark conspiracy behind every thing one doesn't like. This kind of
stuff is helping to poison the political atmosphere. So I'm going to
strive for a civil tone to whatever interaction may happen on this