I was asked to write a brief piece in general reaction to the "roundtable" in Synthesis/Regeneration 12 and elaborate on the points that appeared in the January 1997 Z article I wrote on similar matters. I am honored to try to comply. All the Synthesis writers agree that one pervasive U.S. left problem is fragmentation, in which separate efforts dilute strength and compete for resources and status. If each party, project, and movement is a potential thread in a large mosaic, why don't the threads intertwine so that we get a garment rather than just a jumble of discordant strings going nowhere? Surely the gains in enlarged outreach, increased membership, and economies of scale are obvious.
Each party, project, and movement has little time for what they see as spurious efforts at unity that won't advance their day to day survival and may even siphon energies from it. More, each worries that in unity its priorities will be subsumed by the scope of a larger ally or overrun by the energy of a smaller one. Large parties, projects, and movements bemoan the hassle of imbibing smaller efforts with their fanatical attention to things peripheral or distracting. Smaller efforts fear to dilute or compromise their focused intentions and radical views. Regardless of size, everyone fears to reduce their prioritization of race, class, gender, sex, war, ecology, or even sharper focus, or their special understanding and commitment and radicalism, by aligning with groups emphasizing something of lower priority, or insufficiently radical, or too extreme, or dead wrong.
As I read the Synthesis/Regeneration pieces, the underlying issue is, in the face of all this, how do we move forward?
A New Kind of Unity
In the past "working together" has generally meant coalition. List the agendas and understandings of each potential ally and survey them for features in common you can work together around. Everyone in every involved party, project, or movement favors everything that is jointly sought, usually a pretty short list. The process involves little mutual learning. Each participant joins and later leaves, trying while in the coalition to benefit itself in context of a temporary intersection of a few priorities.
Suppose working together means merging agendas in a lasting larger framework designed to pursue collective efforts and offer mutual support while also retaining the component organizations intact for their own separate efforts.
Here is a different approach seeking continuity and solidarity. Suppose working together means merging agendas in a lasting larger framework designed to pursue collective efforts and offer mutual support while also retaining the component organizations intact for their own separate efforts. Instead of pursuing a minimalist coalition approach, the groups retain their identities but also merge into a lasting, larger maximalist bloc which isn't organized around the least common denominator of their "laundry lists" of concerns (the modest amount that they all agree on) but is instead organized around the greatest common sum of all of their agendas, the total of all of their aims combined, with no deletions. And what if each group pledges its support to the other groups for priority campaigns within the other group's most focused domain, accepting leadership from each other for each other's priority areas? And what if they all agree to distribute the literature and programs of the other member groups to their own constituencies, and engage in joint consciousness raising sessions and events? And what if this meant that each movement would turn out support, provide person-power, and even share material resources generously for priority campaigns of affiliate movements, and vice versa?
We preserve each separate endeavor still functioning in and of themselves, autonomously, with their own priorities in place, developing their own views and agendas. But, on top of this, all the endeavors now exist within a larger structure emphasizing both solidarity and autonomy.
The new structure's agenda is the sum total of the agendas of all its affiliates. Its consciousness is the sum total of the consciousness of all its affiliates. Its board is representatives from all the affiliates. Its budget is based on direct fund raising as well as proportionate contributions from all affiliates. In turn, the overarching structure gives support to affiliates' projects in tune with affiliate needs and potentials.
What about ideological and programmatic conflicts?
Two projects or movements in this new structure have different views on some issue. How can such contradictory positions be held within one organization? Well, the obvious answer is it can be done more or less the same way it is done within one electorate or one country, or, for that matter, within any of these individual affiliate organizations.
. . .until agreement on some controversial matter is attained, contrasting and even conflicting views both exist respectfully in the overarching organization.
As long as becoming part of the overarching structure is a self-conscious choice that has to be ratified by existing members to preserve basic agreements, why would this degree of mutual trust and open-mindedness be so hard? Yes, to attain it implies patient investigation, discussion, and assessment of differences and, in time, progress toward more agreement. And yes, it implies that until agreement on some controversial matter is attained, contrasting and even conflicting views both exist respectfully in the overarching organization.
What is gained? Each affiliate gets the benefit of the organizational, material, and personnel support of the others, for major undertakings, as possible. Each affiliate has all the others as an attentive audience, with no need to reduce or compromise the message. The agenda of the whole is a growing and adapting thing, as it ought to be. Now suppose, while the whole institution embodies the totality of positions of its affiliates, the overarching institution's active programmatic agenda for each major area of focus was the priority agenda of the affiliate most focused on and representative of the constituency for that area. Is it complex and unusual? Yes. But would all stand to benefit a whole lot? I think so because each major group that has a priority focus gains likely support for that area, and must, in return, give support to areas that it sometimes still has disagreement with.
The basic image is of an umbrella organization which supportively and respectfully includes a vast range of progressive and left undertakings.
Take an example. Suppose this overarching institution is developed and the most representative/focused affiliate organization for feminist issues is NOW. And suppose the most representative/focused affiliate organization for environmental issues is the Green Party. The main components of the agenda of each of these would become the core of the public program of the overarching institution in the respective areas-gender and ecology. Additional features in these areas would be only those generally agreed to throughout the whole new organization, by all its affiliates. So, yes, NOW winds up being a part of a structure that has an agenda for ecology that goes beyond anything it has consciously committed to and may contain elements it doesn't comprehend or even rejects. And, similarly, the Greens become part of a structure that has an agenda for gender issues that diverges from what the Greens have consciously committed to and may contain elements the Greens even reject. But each group's priorities are getting advanced by the unity. And there is a mechanism for each group to interact with and learn from and perhaps also, in time, influence the other. And each group continues, as well, to function outside the overarching framework, with its own agenda intact.
There is no point pursuing all the many complex variants and possibilities of organizational arrangement, definition, and structure that such an approach could incorporate. The basic image is of an umbrella organization which supportively and respectfully includes a vast range of progressive and left undertakings. The new structure is the greatest sum of all its affiliates. It exists to enhance each affiliate and the whole. The affiliates each understand that they have to be less purist and more willing than in the past to support something larger and therefore more diverse than they are, and to live with differences. There is no presumption that one or another affiliate has all the answers. There is a presumption that within the structure as a whole, all the answers that we now have are embodied and a mechanism for testing their worth and finding new answers exists. Can Greens and women's groups support the primary programs of Black-led organizations regarding their primary programs around racism for purposes of overall policy? And, vice versa.
Suppose representatives from the Greens, the New Party, the Labor Party, the Campaign for a New Tomorrow, and NOW. . . got together with the purpose of creating this new structure.
The critical first issue is who is included-what movements, projects, and organizations? It can't be come one, come all, clearly. There will have to be norms and structure, and new recruits will have to fit well in the eyes of those already affiliated. It has to be serious, committed, and each new inclusion has to be acceptable to all those already involved, to maintain levels of trust and participation. Yet the priority can't be only on minimizing compromise. It has to be, instead, on maximizing breadth, scope, and power.
Suppose representatives from the Greens, the New Party, the Labor Party, the Campaign for a New Tomorrow, and NOW-as the organizations discussed in the Synthesis forum-got together with the purpose of creating this new structure. They hammer out a clear understanding of what allegiance implies, what dues there are, how resources are distributed back to affiliates and to overall projects, how overall organizational campaigns and projects are originated, what affiliates have to do vis-à-vis one another, etc.
Then they take this vision, which they are themselves ready to participate in and help build, to some other constituency groups, projects, and organizations, agreeable to each of the initial five. Slowly and steadily the growing structure reaches out to include national, regional, and even local organizing projects and movement organizations. Would it encompass everyone who calls themselves progressive? I doubt it. But it could certainly be a very large and diverse formation, with a huge impact on solidarity and on the ability of progressive and left elements to focus their efforts effectively.