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Myles Horton & Saul Alinsky: Popular Education and Organising

200275A final post on Myles Horton’s The Long Haul on what he saw as the differences between popular education and organising. This was something we always struggled with at SAJE (Strategic Actions for a Just Economy, where I once worked as organiser and researcher). I remember reading this book while I was there, and how it made so much sense to me — also made me realise I was more of an educator than an organiser, and certainly no charismatic leader though I saw the good of both of these things in a strong collective mix of people working for radical change.

Horton writes:

There’s a lot to be learned from unsuccessful organization over a specific issue, from achieving a specific victory, like preventing a building from being torn down or getting a new sewer system. However, some equally valuable learning takes place when you escalate your demands to the place where you finally lose. Now if you don’t push to the place where you might fail, you’ve missed a wonderful opportunity to learn to struggle, to think big and challenge the status quo, and also how to learn to deal with failure. If you analyze them, you can learn more in some ways from failures than from successes. Now, all this is predicated on learning from analyzing your experience. An experience you don’t learn from is just a happening. (176)

The analysing is key in both organising and popular education, but it often gets dropped in organising because there is always a new emergency and never enough time. But in organising, success is always really important. It’s so easy to do what you need to do to win and let some of the other stuff go — and maybe sometimes it is what is needed, but if you get too used to it you maybe stop pushing as hard as you can.

There is also, of course, the recognition of different political moments, what is possible in a period of fear and organisation as opposed to a wave of movement:

In a social movement we are clearly part of a collective struggle that encourages us to increase our demands. One of the dynamic aspects of a social movement as opposed to an organization is that quite often in the latter, you’ll bargain down to. make concessions in order to survive.  You have a limited goal, and you might say, “Well, we want to get ten street lights,” and you’ll get together and figure that you won’t get ten, but you probably can get five. So you decide to tell them  you want ten in order to get five. In a social movement, the demands escalate, because your success encourages and. emboldens you to demand more.(115)

I found the section on Saul Alinsky particularly interesting, first because it embeds this critique in experience, and second because Alinsky’s model through the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) is so prevalent in the US, and now in the UK as well through London Citizens.

One of Horton’s critiques of ‘Alinskyite’ organizers, was that they had a simplified model method that they used no matter the situation. Another common problem with organising I think:

They think it’s a matter of gimmicks. What made him [Alinsky] such a good organizer was his tremendous sense of humor, his brilliance and his utter disregard for what anybody said about him. he could have organized in half a dozen different ways and it would have worked, though some people think it was the particular method that was responsible. You don’t try to imitate people who know more than you. You try to learn from them. (178)

Particularly interesting was where Horton believed Alinsky had failed:

He thought that they’d want to share what they had learned with other people and that there would be a radical community movement. He felt this movement would spread, but it didn’t, because once the local leaders he had developed got into power, they held onto it and stayed where they were. in the Back of the Yards community in Chicago, the people Saul had worked with  became part of a racist power structure. This was the first community Saul had organized, and he was very upset about the outcome…. Although I always had tremendous respect for his integrity and ability, I didn’t always agree with Saul. His purpose was to put the poor and disinherited in power, he didn’t realize that when these people were no longer poor themselves, they wouldn’t necessarily be dedicated to poor people anymore. (180)

In L.A. we had some unpleasant encounters with the local branch as we did not fit their model and strategy of building power. I heard many similar stories from sister organisations, and these stories went back twenty years or more. For most of us this critique was combined with respect for what they had accomplished, but it never felt that respect was mutual. I think Horton’s observations above make some sense of this pattern.

But much of it comes back to the tension within our own organisation, particularly when it comes to people making their own decisions, leading their own fights, and needing that win:

Saul and I differed because my position was that if I had to make a choice between achieving an objective and utilizing the struggle to develop and radicalize people, my choice would be to let the goal go and develop the people. He believed that organizing success was the way to radicalize people. (180)

This tension between means and ends, process and potential failure as opposed to anything for success in a struggle that is almost always on someone else’s timeline (whether it is an employer, a landlord, a developer, whatever) is one faced by all movement organisations. It isn’t one that can necessarily be resolved, like so many things. You have to sit and struggle through this dialectic, and that struggle will hopefully bring you closer to accomplishing lasting change. Social change organisations that are not having this struggle? I worry a lot about those organisations.

For more on organising and popular education…

 

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