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Activism vs. organizing | reflections on Gramsci pt.2

In his essay Voluntarism and Social Masses, Antonio Gramsci argues that “the actions and organizations of ‘volunteers’ must be distinguished from the actions and organisations of homogeneous social blocs, and judged by different criteria.”  He defines these “volunteers” as “those who have detached themselves from the mass by arbitrary individual initiative…”

His language of volunteers vs. organized social blocs aligns with a similar distinction often made between activism and organizing.  Anyone can become an activist overnight, if he or she so desires.  All you need to do is to start taking action as an individual on an issue you care about.  I’m not about to be as dismissive as Gramsci seems to be in this essay about the value of such an act.  However, he makes a good point: organizing is about finding other people to take action with you.  But there’s more – and here’s where I find Gramsci’s framework so helpful – organizing is not just about finding anyone to take action with you; it’s about working to activate an already constituted social bloc and turn the bloc itself into the historical actor.

In Activating Popular Participation | Building a Successful Antiwar Movement, I argued along these same lines:

…we must not neglect to engage already existing cultural spaces. Sometimes we become disinterested in or even hostile toward such spaces because they house the values of the dominant culture. But these spaces also house the people. We cannot expect people to meet us where we want them to be. We have to meet them where they are, with the language they use, in the spaces they frequent.

Entering existing networks and institutions allows the people within them to consider taking action to end the war without feeling that they would have to lose their identity to do so. They can take action as teachers, or union members, or students, or members of a religious community. They do not have to become an “activist”-a distinct identity that many people are uncomfortable claiming-in order to take action. Instead they can begin to imagine working to end the war as an expression of who they already are, alongside people they already know.

This is one of the biggest lessons from US social movements in the 1960s and 1970s: movements usually grow (in size and capacity) quickly not by building their own separate infrastructure from scratch, but by organizing within existing social networks and institutions until they identify strongly enough with the movement that their already existing infrastructure and resources go to work for movement ends. The Civil Rights Movement spread like wildfire and dramatically increased its capacity when black churches and traditionally black schools came to identify themselves as part of a movement. People didn’t have to leave their social networks to become part of the movement. Rather, membership in these institutions came to imply movement participation. These institutions and networks then used their resources-most significantly people power-to further movement goals.

One distinction between Gramsci’s discussion and my approach above is that I made my appeal to the people whom Gramsci would have labeled “volunteers”; namely antiwar activists who, for the most part – but with many important exceptions – “have detached themselves from the mass by arbitrary individual initiative”; who have formed their own groups, which are not embedded within, or in deep relationship with, organized social blocs.  I appealed to these “volunteers” that they should connect with organized social blocs, and that such an approach has been the historically corroborated path to building collective power.

Gramsci, on the other hand, is not so much appealing to these volunteers, as he seems to be dismissing the value of their efforts outright.  His language is much harsher toward “volunteers” who operate outside of organized social blocs, describing them as “‘vanguards’ without armies to back them up, ‘commandos’ without infantry or artillery”:

…In reality, one has to struggle against the above-mentioned degenerations, the false heroisms and pseudo-aristocracies, and stimulate the formation of homogeneous, compact social blocs, which will give birth to their own intellectuals, their own commandos, their own vanguard-who in turn will react upon those blocs in order to develop them, and not merely so as to perpetuate their gypsy [sic] domination.

I have often asked myself why I devote so much time to engaging activist groups that tend toward insularity and that lack a social base of power.  My rationale has been to try to help move these activist groups in a more strategic direction; to push them to connect with the social bases of power they need to connect with in order to succeed.  However, the more I understand about how collective power has historically been cultivated and wielded, the less interest I have in continuing with this kind of engagement.  Increasingly, I believe that my task is to reattach myself to some of the social blocs that I once detached myself from (where this is possible) or to other social blocs and work to strengthen and activate social justice values within these blocs (which already possess abundant resources, infrastructure, and institutions, and do not have to constantly struggle to build from scratch).

To complicate the matter, Gramsci is not just arguing to engage already fully constituted social blocs, but also to “stimulate the formation” of such blocs.  One could argue that anytime an individual finds a few other people to take action along with them, they are taking the first steps toward forming a new social bloc.  Most times this view would be mistaken, in my humble opinion, but there’s not a clear dividing line.

Not a clear dividing line, but there are some patterns and indicators.  Are you someone who surrounds yourself with self-selectors who bond through a common interest in activism?  Is that activism a separate space from the other communities and social networks you are situated within?  Have you severed ties with the communities you once were connected to?  (This is not a judgment; there are often compelling reasons to do exactly that.)  Or do you check your politics at the door when inside those communities?  Or, if you do express your politics in these spaces, is it mostly self-expressive (i.e. “This is who I am as an individual”)?

All of the above would probably locate you in Gramsci’s “volunteer” category.  I say that as a person who has had at least one foot in that category for most of my 17 years of “organizing.”  To be honest, actual grassroots organizing-cultivating and activating social blocs-is something I did without a conscious framework way back when I was in high school, but then I left my community of origin to engage in activism with other self-selectors who mostly thought just like me.  Sure I was surrounded by great conscientious and politically aware people who I love very much, but our “political” activities typically entailed very little of what I would now call organizing.  (I put the word “political” in quotations, because I think Gramsci would argue that many of our activities may have been about politics, but they did not meet the criteria of a truly political action or effort.  I’ll discuss this idea more in a future post.)

The point here is not to bash on activism per se.  There’s already quite enough of that to go around in our society.  And the point isn’t to draw a line in the sand and try to fit social change efforts into a rigid dichotomous framework.  My point rather is to encourage us all to orient ourselves to engage beyond the self-selectors; to cultivate and activate organized social blocs, rather than trying to build something separate and distinct on our own.

This is part 2 in a series.

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