My friend and mentor Howard Zinn did a wonderful job in writing history to include the excluded people in his People’s History of the United States, which I am sure many of you have read. His great work, which has sold hundreds of thousands of copies, is an example in history of the progression of new ideas from the margins to the mainstream.
Building on Zinn’s work, I have been developing a model of social change that arises from the clash of what I call movements versus Machiavellians. I am trying to understand the successes and the limits of movements for social change, and i want to pay tribute to the actual reforms that have been achieved, which were significant and radical in their time, and which represent the best features of our society.
None of these reforms were revolutionary, although they were perceived that way by the powers at the time. [Roosevelt’s New Deal and Social Security was described as “Bolshevik.”] Nor were they modest or token reforms, like the elevation of new faces to high places. [The New Deal altered the balance of power between labor, government and business, which is what is being contested in Wisconsin and elsewhere today]. In the end, the system of institutions was reformed and became the new status quo.
Howard Zinn’s history tends to minimize these reforms because they fell short of a deeper revolution. He celebrates the radicals more than the reforms they achieved.
For example, Zinn wrote that the renters in the Hudson Valley in 1835-45 were repressed and diverted into voting, leaving the basic structure of the rich and poor intact. The reforms of the Progressive Era, he says, were “aimed at soothing protest.” Winning women’s suffrage didn’t make that much difference to women. The result of the New Deal was to stabilize and preserve capitalism. The eight-hour day and child labor laws were “enough to dull the edge of resentment.’
Zinn’s argument is a proper rebuke to the mainstream narrative that American greatness lies in our acceptance of reform, which promotes the effectiveness of working within the political system.
Zinn’s idea that social movements are co-opted over time is a lesson for all organizers to learn and contemplate. My difficulty is in accepting the idea that these reforms came to very little. Without the labor and progressive movements in Wisconsin, for example, there would be no Republican counter-attack these many years later nor the outpouring of tens of thousands of Wisconsin citizens to hold on to the gains of the past. I want to honor the idea that social movements achieve significant reforms. Significant reforms are less than a revolution and more than superficial, they are measured by  whether an excluded social group is being empowered,  whether an opening is being created in the institutions, and  whether the norms of one era are being replaced by new norms, laws and regulations in another.
Here is the model in outline form:
1. Social movements arise mysteriously from the margins, unexpectedly. They never are predicted in advance.
2. They are rooted in a combination of moral injury, material grievance and memories of previous struggle.
3. They face Machiavellian powers that try to monopolize all power and memory.
4. The movements suffer through intense moments of confrontation.
5. They create communities of meaning to sustain themselves and improve their lives during the struggle.
6. In doing so, the movements gain popular support for their core demand especially if it resonates in others’ memory.
7. The movements arrive in the mainstream of acceptance when they garner 25 percent support or more. They then become caught in the pressures of politics and internal divisions, especially between the more moderate and more militant activists. The more moderate or pragmatic want to achieve their original demand and accept the larger system for the time being, and the more militant or radical have decided that the original reform is too modest to satisfying their growing ideals.
8. At the same time, the Machiavellian powers are dividing between moderate and militant wings of their own, in part because of the pressure of the social movement. The moderates accept the need for some significant reform, in part to stabilize the status quo against more radical change. The militants believe that any serious reform will encourage even more reform and doom their power and privilege.
9. Eventually, sometimes after many years, the original reform is achieved through a process of pressure, politics, negotiation, legislation and the growth of new cultural norms and values. The reformers declare victory, as do the moderate Machiavellians.
10. The reform movement declines and demobilizes with victory, as people enjoy the benefit of the reform in their everyday lives. The divisions among reformers tend to increase as their activist base diminishes. Radicals tend to feel stranded and pragmatists climb the ladder.
11. A counter-movement arises and gains strength. The moderate element works to contain and dilute the impact of the reform while the more extreme element become more threatened, more intense, and more violent.
12. The new equilibrium, or reformed system, is stabilized for a period of years, even decades. The reform itself becomes a norm of mainstream culture.
13. The battle then turns to the field of memory, fought out around museums, monuments and memorials.
14. The social movement desires a legacy in memory that will inspire future generations of activists and preserve the new norm. The hard-line Machiavellians want to erase the memory and discredit the role of the movement altogether. The moderates in the middle want to preserve a selective memory, which incorporates and channels the movement into the dominant national narrative. In three words, they say “the system works.”
Applying the model to some chapters of our history:
1. Resistance by Indigenous People: (1492 - Present) The core demand was recognition of native self-determination in a system of coexistence - an Indian Country – never was achieved. Some say it was disease, Western firepower, the endless stream of settlers, or the divisions among the tribes. I would argue that peaceful coexistence, or a bicultural republic, could not be accepted because it undermined the legitimacy and sovereignty of the new United States. Nevertheless, the movement for “Indian rights” was active from De Las Cases in the 16th century and was interwoven with the abolitionist, women’s rights and peace movements through the 19th century, and was again revived again in the Sixties. It is not over. It has been externalized and globalized into battles over Indigenous rights at the UN, and conflicts in the Americas, Southeast Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, and it continues to be at the center of debates over rights, identity and memory here at home.
2. American Revolution – This was a national independence movement against British colonialism, ending in the transfer of power to a new nation state. The Declaration of Independence planted seeds of a broader vision that contributed to the movements for women’s rights, African American equality, and economic popuism. Specifically, the Bill of Rights – including especially the First Amendment – was an elite concession to popular demands added to the constitution in order to gain ratification. The counter movement then took up the 1798 Alien and Sedition Acts, which authorized the deportation of “dangerous aliens”, and criminalized “false, scandalous and malicious” writings. That counter-movement was blocked during Jefferson’s presidency, but the Alien and Sedition Acts became the model for periods of repression down through the Patriot Act of 2001.
3. Abolition of Slavery (The 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments, Reconstruction) The movement in this case was the resistance, direct and indirect, by black people against the slave system, a movement W.E.B. Dubois described as a “general strike” in which black workers quit their labor to join the Underground Railroad and the Union army in the hundreds of thousands, sufficient to bring down the Confederacy. The Abolitionist movement arose in response to slave resistance and carried out its mission in direct action, public education and electoral politics. Its extreme representative was John Brown, who carried out guerrilla action against slavery but was captured and executed after a failed attack at Harper’s Ferry. The Radical Republicans carried the electoral and legislative struggle which passed the Emancipation Proclamation, the 13, 14th, and 15th amendments, the first civil rights act, and the efforts at black suffrage, education and land reform, the promise of 40 Acres and a Mule, policies known as Radical Reconstruction. President Lincoln was a gradual reformer whose Machiavellian interest was the preservation of the Union on the basis of free labor. He could not have been elected on any other basis. But when the Union cause was threatened on the battlefield, Lincoln initiated Emancipation to draw 200,000 black people into the Union Army. By the height of the war, Frederick Douglas, the abolitionists and Lincoln were in a common front, and but by the Union Army was singing a battle hymns in the name of John Brown.
The counter movement was swift, consisting of, first, a confederate conspiracy to assassinate the President and Secretary of State Seward on Good Friday, 1865, on the very day that Lincoln told his cabinet he wanted Reconstruction to include some form of suffrage for black people. The second part of the counter-movement was the steady retreat from Reconstruction under the late president’s vice-president Andrew Johnson, and the Compromise of 1876, in which Republican Rutherford Hayes became president by accepting southern Electoral College votes in exchange for promising to withdraw federal troops. Finally, as the Northern forces withdrew, the South carried out Jim Crow, Black Codes, and decades of massacres and lynching by so-called Redeemer Groups like the Ku Klux Klan. Though the counter-movement was devastating, it could not restore slavery or fully undermine the post-war constitutional amendments, which became the basis anti-lynching campaigns, the founding of the NAACP , the demands of continuing racial upheavals in the urban north, the demand to desegregate the armed forces, and the 20th Century civil rights struggles.
The battle over memory continues nearly 250 years after the assassination of Lincoln. Only since the 1960s civil rights movement have we begun to restore and teach the history of the slave rebellions, Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey, Robert Smalls, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, John Brown, and rewrite the story of Black Reconstruction in light of its positive achievements. Lincoln has been elevated to the status of a redeeming god, minimizing the narratives of the Abolitionists. Across much of the white South, however, slavery times are re-packaged and celebrated as an honorable war against Northern aggression. It is no accident that President Obama is demonized the most in the states of the Old Confederacy.
Briefly I want to touch on certain aspects other reform eras:
4. Women’s Suffrage (1919) The social movement for women’s rights was hundreds of years old, and the concrete struggle for voting rights took a century. Many tactics were employed- public education, civil disobedience, lobbying the institutions – and women’s organizations were divided for decades between more militant and more gradual appoaches. Finally, however, the Machiavellian crisis of World War I, in which the US government was promoting global democracy while feminists were chained to the White House fence and physically abused in a Washington jail, forced President Woodrow Wilson change his mind, or flip-flop, to favor the vote for women. It still took continued mass organizing to win the 19th Amendment by exactly the two-thirds margin required in Congress, and equally narrow margin to ratify in the states. The suffrage movement subsided with its victory. Gains steadily expanded in education and sweatshop reforms, and Eleanor Roosevelt became for millions the functional and symbolic equivalent of a woman president. But the steady counter-movement succeeded in preventing – permanently, it appears - the passage of an Equal Rights Amendment.
5. Labor and the New Deal (1930s) In light of the current controversy over collective bargaining rights, it is crucial to remember how the Wagner Act, which officially inscribed those rights, came to be passed in 1935. A social movement of unorganized workers launched hundreds of unauthorized strikes – sitting in and occupying manufacturing plants – and was joined by progressives in the New Deal coalition that swept the Congressional elections of 1934. The Popular Front pressured Roosevelt from the Left while corporatists and fascists threatened from the Right. The Machiavellian resolution was the New Deal, which raised incomes for many, legalized the organization of industrial unions, established pensions and Social Security, and implemented a regulatory reform of capitalism. Collective bargaining in the private sector was a centrist solution, an alternative to endless labor unrest and CIO radicalism on the one hand, and a Corporate State on the other. Reforms like the eight-hour day stayed in place for fifty years, until corporations were able to relocate production in cheap-labor enclaves, first in right-to-work states and gradually in foreign countries where cheap labor was the norm because the New Deal had never been globalized. Without the wildcast strikes and without the Left the New Deal would not have been achievable. But with the achievement of the New Deal, industrial stability was secured and the Left became fragmented and declined.
6. The Sixties As Zinn writes, “never in American history had more movements for change been concentrated in so short a span of years.” Consider the changes that were wrought:
- voting rights for southern blacks and 18-21 year olds, an enlargement of the electorate by 26 million people;
- the end of the Indochina Wars
- the end of the compulsory military draft;
- the fall of two sitting presidents;
- for a time, new congressional checks on the imperial presidency;
- amnesty for 50,000 draft resisters in Canada;
- normalized relations with Vietnam and China;
- the Freedom of Information Act;
- the media Fairness Doctrine;
- Roe v. Wade ;
- the first collective bargaining rights for farmworkers;
- union rights for public employees;
- rights and resources for disabled Americans;
- democratic reforms of the presidential primaries and delegate selection processes...
These were the outcomes of struggles that included a spectrum of approaches from radical to pragmatic, and sharp divisions along the same lines among the Machiavellians. In the end, not only were these reforms achieved, but a new generation of activist organizations and leaders was born. On the other hand, the most significant radical reform that was on the agenda, the end of the Cold War and a refocus on domestic priorities, was blocked by the massive war against Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, which ended the prospect of domestic reform and plunged the country into sharp polarizations and instability. The Sixties actually ended when the Vietnam War was ended along with the Nixon presidency – a triumph for both the social movement and the moderates. In the wake of that success, however, came the fierce counter-movement that elected Ronald Reagan, launched the Central American wars, dismantled the New Deal model, and ushered in the present generation of neo-conservatives.
Counter-movements inevitably go too far, exceed their mandate, offend the moderates, and reignite the sleeping social movement. So it was with the stolen election of 2000, which installed George Bush as president, instead of Al Gore, the majority vote-getter, who would have tested the possibilities of our having achieved the first environmental presidency. The role of Republicans and the Supreme Court during the contested Florida primary that year was a case-study of a counter movement in strident mobilization while the progressive movements fell into disarray and division. It was as if the ultimate Machiavellian objective, the control of state power and its reputation, was on the line in a very sudden way. The right-wing seized the moment, audaciously and, in the minds of many, illegally staged a coup, in a clear demonstration of how far a counter-movement will go in the absence of a real threat of its being stopped. The Democratic establishment, represented by Gore, stepped back from a confrontation which they apparently feared would expose the election as illegitimate and lead to radical destabilization.
The lingering resentment of Bush was a major factor which added fuel to the suspicions surrounding Iraq, stirring memories of Vietnam, and exploding in the largest global peace movement ever seen, in February 2003.
The history of the peace movement from 2003 to the election of Barack Obama only six years later is well worth remembering.
- There were more than ten demonstrations of more than 100, 000 people, some as large as 300,000;
- Public opinion came to view the war as a mistake more rapidly than during Vietnam;
- 165 cities came out for peace;
- The new counter-culture produced giants like Michael Moore and the underground press was succeed by the independent media with heroes like Amy Goodman;
- Howard Dean came out of nowhere to oppose the Democrats over Iraq;
- Online organizations like MoveOn raised tens of millions of dollars;
- In 2006, Iraq was a central issue as American voters dumped a Republican Congress;
- In 2008, Barack Obama not only realized the dream of generation of civil rights advocates, he opposed the Iraq War, becoming the first president elected with such support from an anti-war movement.
And so, you ask, where are we now?
The underlying social movement in Iraq and Afghanistan is, like the early civil rights movement or like the slave resistance before, based on a strong current of anti-colonialism and nationalism – secular and spiritual – across the Muslim world in response to the long domination of Western imperialism. Suicide bombers are the extreme flanks of this movement, not an independent variable. Arab nationalism of the Nasser and Saddam Hussein variety, once of defeated force, is now reviving in the new form of the younger Al-Jazeera generation. Anti-war sentiment here at home arises as a moral response to the suffering, a political response to the US casualties, taxpayer costs, the appearance of quagmire, the seeming futility of military solutions, and the diversion of tax dollars away from pressing economic needs. It is important to remember that the American people will pay a heavy cost for a war they think worth fighting, so the lack of public support for these wars is a positive indicator that the public sees no interest in shedding blood or tax dollars.
The really extreme Machiavellians here are the disredited (but perennial) neo-conservatives who are at war with what they call islamo-fascism and demand military victory as the outcome. Then there are the traditional militarists who favor a pax americana abroad, the protection of oil resources, a safe environment for corporate investment and trade, and the maintaining the status quo at home. Some of these traditional conservatives are willing, like any businessmen, to cut their losses when necessary. Others in the center of the spectrum, including Barack Obama, are dedicated to preserving the civil rights and other official domestic gains of social movements of the past, reducing the costs and exposure of the Long War, and projecting a greater emphasis on diplomacy and reform in global policy. But they will use military force if necessary to protect American’s reputation as a super-power, avoid any blame for terrorist attacks or for “losing” another country, and also protecting their own reputations for hawkishness in the spectrum of American politics.
In 2008, the Obama campaign made a temporary bridge with the anti-war movement over ending the Iraq War, borrowing liberally from the moderate Machiavellian proposals of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group in December 2006 when the war looked hopeless. But for other Machiavellian reasons, mainly electoral, Obama promised to expand the war in Afghanistan and counter-terrorism against Al-Qaeda bases. But two years later, the idea of spending a trillion dollars on a long quagmire in Afghanistan is becoming precarious to the Administration because of budget cuts, deficits, and the Long Recession. While many in the Pentagon and the neo-conservative world want to continue the war regardless of cost and duration, others in the foreign policy establishment and even the White House are struggling to find an exit strategy that draws down American costs and casualties. One of the factors in their calculation is American public opinion going into the 2012 election.
They are comforted that the massive anti-war movement of the 2003-2007 period has disappeared from the streets. Most of the broad anti-war movement – Democratic rank and file, progressives, minorities, Hollywood funders – is contained within the limits of the Obama coalition and much preoccupied with the Great Recession and the rise of the Tea Party counter-movement. They will support Obama next time.
But there is a great restlessness in their ranks over Obama’s cautious approach to the economic crisis and the military quagmires which drain America of the resources needed for job creation at home. The passage of Barbara Lee’s anti-war resolution at the DNC two weeks ago, while only a piece of paper, sends a strong message that the official Democratic Party as a whole is against the war policy. So do recent polls showing that 73 percent of Democrats favor a troop withdrawal deadline of one year, and 86 percent of Democrats favoring a more rapid withdrawal than the President has offered. A majority of all voters now favors a one-year withdrawal, up 9 percent since last September. Even Republican support for the war has declined.
Obama, if he chooses, should be able to begin significant troop withdrawals this year and call for the transfer of billions of dollars to address the deficits and spending cuts now dominating the American agenda. (For example, 55% of Americans prefer he cut the military budget against only 21% cut Medicare and 13% Social Security.) Obama should be able to campaign on a pledge of ending two wars. Instead the danger is that he may preside over two quagmires and a recession as 2012 approaches.
Obama is caught between the social movements that helped elected him and the Machiavellians of Wall Street and the military. The role of the peace movement is to exercise a pull on the rank-and-file of those constituencies he needs to worry about in 2012.
That is, the grass roots peace movement has to build local coalitions linking the war to the economy, and domestic reformers need to realize there is no other source of funding to meet their needs except the $159 billion that goes annually for Afghanistan and Iraq.
Obama seems to understand his predicament. “We’re going to start leaving,” he says in Woodward’s book. “I can’t lose the whole Democratic Party.”
Let me make these further points in conclusion.
First, this is not a model of unfolding progress as often represented by the Marxist dialectic or the model of religions ending in rapture or heaven. This is a model of dynamic and permanent tension, more like a yin-yang. the space in the chart shown here, where the movement and Machiavellian circles overlap is the point where reform is experienced, if we fight to maintain it and the right-wing does not succeed in taking it away.
Second, the model under-emphasizes the role of organizations in the creation of social change. There is a permanent need for organizers, and a culture where organizing skills are learned, but organizations rise and fall, come and go, seeming to fall into two types: (1) catalytic, rising with the movement, like SNCC or SDS or the early MoveOn, and (2) bureaucratic, lasting after the movement and becoming advocacy or interest groups, like the ACLU. Perhaps the most important are organizations that combine both, having grass roots chapters that push the permanent bureaucracy, like the Sierra Club. It is important for activists to play a role in both.
But a more important role than organization is that of The Organizer. An organizer is someone who is dedicated to awakening and empowering people who see themselves as apathetic, unqualified, and powerless. The Organizer is like Siddhartha, helping carry people across the river and returning to pick up others, or Harriet Tubman organizing slaves to join the underground railroad North and then returning South to organize another plantation. The Organizer has the charisma, the skill, and the ability to inspire people to meet and act and protest. But the Organizer leads others to lead themselves, and then the Organizer starts all over again. The Organizer sees the potential that underlies the appearance of nothing going on/ and from that apparent nothingness the organizer turns people who were nobodies into somebodies – an organization is born.
Third, the terms I use here are fluid, not fixed and final. Movement-building, like personal change, is unpredictable. A Machiavellian can become a drop-out. A movement leader can become a Machiavellian. And a Machiavellian can be enlightened and achieve greatness through their experience with social movements. For example, we know that Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy were careful pragmatists, even conservatives, when they came to the presidency. But they became transformed because the times and the movements of those times demanded greatness. There has been too much focus on Great Leaders, as Howard Zinn helps us know, and too little attention to great movements. But it’s the interesting chemistry that is created between movements and leaders in times of great crisis that we should learn from. Andrew Johnson, Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson are not remembered as great leaders for peace and justice, while Lincoln, Roosevelt and Kennedy are.
Fourth, the concept of revolution is not emphasized much in the model because, except for the American Revolution, there has been no such event in this country in 300 years. There have been revolutionaries or people who aspired to revolution, there have been gradual revolutionaries and violent ones, but there hasn’t been a revolution, which is usually defined as a thoroughgoing transfer of power from one stratum to another. It’s a longer discussion, but I believe a classic revolution is impossible when 40-60 percent of the public is opposed. A gradual transformation, including leaps forward, setbacks, and almost imperceptible changes in values – that’s possible, but not really difference than what I call radical reform. Both history and experience lead me to conclude, for now, that revolution as usually understood is blocked by the Machiavellian system I have described. Instead the revolutionary “threat” contributes either to the achievement of radical reform, or alienates the undecided middle from supporting that reform.
Which brings me to a final point, that many of us have under-estimated the role of political assassinations as the peak of the counter-movement, which prevents or delays the realization of our hopes. I don’t want to dwell here on the complicated question of whether sinister forces lay behind the many assassinations during our lives, or whether they were a string of isolated killings by isolated madmen. But I want to emphasize that the dominant narrative of American identity, that we are a unique country and an example to the world in which power is peacefully transferred through democratic elections, is a narrative that requires the denial of attention to how assassinations have altered the course of our political history. The assassination of Abraham Lincoln prevented a greater effort at Reconstruction. The assassination of John F. Kennedy came after he welcomed the 1963 March on Washington and advocated a reversal of the Cold War. The assassination of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy ended any hope of reversing our priorities and saving lives lost in Vietnam and the street of our cities in the late Sixties. The deaths of so many others, from Medgar Evers to Malcolm X to Fred Hampton, blocked so many opportunities for peaceful progressive political change. Radical reform, whenever it is in the process of being achieved, faces the threat not only of stolen elections but also of the gun and the sniper.
We are seeing the rise of another violent storm arising out of the counter-movement against the election of a black President and the changing color of the American majority. The Great Recession makes acceptance of these deep changes intolerable to some on the Right. The recent shootings and deaths in Tucson, and the attempted bombing in Seattle’s Martin Luther King Day parade, may not be the work of the isolated. If they are deranged loners, their scribblings bear the signs of far-right militias networks.
It was the string of assassinations that prevented my generation from knowing whether our deepest hopes could be realized in a radical reform of the system. So I feel a responsibility now in recalling the rich legacy of lessons and hope left by social movements to also warn that the counter-movement can arrive as a violent storm that rains blood on all our hopes. We need to focus on reducing hatred from the counter-movement that our very victories tend to provoke. We need to remember that our president, however cautious and conservative he seems to be from our perspective, like Lincoln appeared to the abolitionists, or like Kennedy appeared to SDS, is also a figure whose very existence stirs a bottomless hate, a hate which is really aimed at ourselves. We need to proceed with that in mind. It’s always darkest before the dawn.