Struggle changes people

Struggle changes people

This article discusses the idea that the experience of struggle and direct action transforms people.

Some of my friends and I have been saying for a while stuff like “struggle changes people” and about what we’ve called “developing” people. In this post I want to lay out some of the specific things that I think can happen in struggles, in terms of how people develop. In the first section below I try to lay out some ways that people in struggle can change. In the next section I talk about some ideas about action and struggle changing people but how those changes are not automatic. In the last section I talk about these ideas in relation to struggles last year in Madison and I very briefly touch on Occupy Wall Street.

Some Directions of Development
Among other things I think there are three directions that people in struggle can move in. For lack of better terms, I call these moral expansion, envisioned overturning, and intensification. By “moral expansion” I mean experiences that people have where they come to see themselves as in some way bound up with other people in a new and greater way. I’m talking specifically about the freedom and well-being of others. Moral expansion is when people come to care more deeply about other people or come to care about a broader range of people than they did before. One of the broadest expressions of this expanded moral perspective that I know of is the old IWW slogan “an injury to one is an injury to all.” This kind of expansion can happen in a variety of ways.

By “envisioned overturning” I mean the type of change that people begin to see as necessary or desirable in order to have the type of world and lives that they want. Imagine a working class person who thinks that they can have the kind of life they want and the kind of world they want to live just by hard work and individual effort. Imagine that this person eventually comes to believe that policy changes are needed in order to make better lives possible for more working class people, and later comes to believe that such policy changes require electing new politicians. They later come to believe that no politicians can provide the desired kind of change, and that people should try to get around the state and capital by living in intentional communities and working in worker-owned co-operatives. I would not agree with this person’s conclusions, but I would say that this is an example of an expansion of the type of overturning that someone imagines is needed in society – the type of social change desirable or necessary. I think people in struggle often experience or can experience a sense that more and more of our society has to be changed.

By intensification I mean the militancy people think is necessary or desirable, and their willingness to carry it out. I really mean two things here. On the one hand, I mean the degrees of risks people think are required and that they are willing to take. On the other hand, I mean the degree to which a struggle breaks out of current forms of dispute resolution – formal institutional channels and/or informal customs of handling problems. Here we can imagine someone who starts off trying to reason with a boss, then ends up as part of a group confronting a boss collectively, then shouting at the boss, then striking. (Further expansions are possible, to be sure, and they’re not always advisable in all circumstance and are sometimes immoral, such as those rare instances when individual workers snap and shoot foremen and/or co-workers.)

I think these three qualities map generally onto places or directions that people can move in struggle. They can develop an expanded sense of who they are, a broader sense of the We that they belong to and a deeper feeling of empathy (moral expansion). They can develop a sense that larger-scale and more thoroughgoing social change is needed than they previously believe. And they can become more willing and able or supportive of intense, militant action.

Technical, Political, Direct Action and Leadership
I raise all of this for a few reasons. Among other things, I think each of these is different from what my friend Scott Nappalos has suggested is an overly technical orientation to activity. I take it that what Scott means is something along the lines of a reduction of political problems to administrative issues to be solved. It seems to me that we can’t avoid some level of technical or administrative concerns, in that we need to act in ways that have a basic competency (at a minimum, sufficient people skills) so that we can in some real way participate in struggles. I expect that Scott would agree. At the same time, I can say that for myself for a long time the only real concern I had was the competency of radicals in dealing with people at a technical level, which is to say, having successful interactions with people. I wrote something about this in an article a while ago responding to Scott’s “intermediate level” arguments. In my response to Scott I wrote that “There at least five components to struggles and organizations and the lessons we take away from them. Each component is one area where a struggle and a sequence of struggles poses challenges to us. These are vision, goals, strategy, tactics, and logistics. Vision is the ideology and theory of the organization and our ability to assess current reality. Goals are where we want to get to. Strategy is the plan to get there. Tactics are the individual components of the plan. Logistics are the implementation and competency in carrying out tactics. Struggles and sequences of struggles require some of each of these components and that’s why they pose challenges to our abilities in each of these components.”

I agree with all of that still, but at the time I wrote it I was more concerned with how radicals effectively carry out what I called logistics and tactics, and to a lesser extent with how radicals devise tactics and devise and carry out strategy. I would say that to some degree I was thinking of all of this from a rather technical perspective – how can we succeed? I still think those questions are tremendously important, but for me at the time they meant that I didn’t think as much about what I called vision. More recently I’ve thought more about the importance of vision, both in the sense of analysis of the present world and in the sense of a vision of a better world or in the sense of ideas and principles of liberation. Out of the categories I layed out earlier in this article, I think moral expansion and degree of overturning fit within what I called “vision,” and perhaps to some extent goals, in my response to Scott. I think intensification cuts across tactics, strategy, and to some extent goals.

It seems to me that people in struggle can and sometimes do change along one or more of these directions I’ve sketched out here. To quote from an old document from the old Chicago marxist group Sojourner Truth Organization, struggles “develop capacities and potentials among their immediate participants, moving them far ahead of the rest of the class.” Of course, sometimes those changes are temporary (people can heat up then cool down), and in some cases people change negatively too.

For Sojourner Truth Organization, they saw the potential change that struggle could have on people as a big part of why struggles are something radicals should care about – not because struggle improves people’s lives under capitalism, but because it has the potential for people to move toward opposing capitalism. They argued that it was better for workers to experience struggle themselves directly as participants, because

“areas of sharp struggle do have a positive effect on the class as a whole, of course, an effect that takes the form of an increased combativity and openness to revolutionary ideas. However, it isn't possible to draw the same revolutionary lessons for workers generally that can be drawn for the workers who are immediate participants in the struggle, because it is the reality of active participation — not just support — that allows these lessons to take root. Long before anything approaching a revolutionary situation exists in this country as a whole, revolutionary lessons can be learned by masses of workers involved in specific struggle situations. In fact, this process is integral to the creation of the subjective preconditions for the revolutionary situation — a situation in which the "masses are unwilling to continue in the old way." Such conditions will never develop until a substantial portion of the working class knows that a "new way" is possible.”

Sojourner Truth Organization (STO) wrote in another article about the importance of direct action on the job as part of workers “gain[ing] some control over the large part of their lives which is spent at work.” For STO, direct action, and specifically direct action on the job is the environment where an “alternative conception of the world is most likely to show itself.” I’m not sure I’m convinced of the centrality of the workplace as a site for the emergence of a new idea of the world, but that’s a side issue for now. STO wrote that

“Such direct actions, as opposed to most officially sanctioned strikes, allow workers to directly participate in defining the problem, setting the goals, working out the tactics. This makes them a party to the various confrontations with the other side. And it is through such participation and confrontation that the "embryonic" alternative conception of the world manifests itself in changed ways that workers think, act, and relate to other workers.”

STO specified, however, that action alone “is not sufficient” which is why they used the term

“‘embryonic’ when talking about the new attitudes and relationships which materialize during a struggle. Like anything embryonic, these characteristics will not survive unless proper conditions for their survival are created. For present purposes, only one such condition needs to be mentioned. There must be a conscious leadership that puts the lessons of the particular struggle into a form in which they can be understood and socialized — made into the basis for a new sort of "normal" behavior for the workers. Without such a leadership, both reason and experience indicate that the job actions will peter out and the routine of capitalist control over production will be speedily re-established.”

I don’t think I agree that there MUST be “conscious leadership that puts the lessons of the particular struggle into a form in which they can be understood and socialized”, but I would say that without such “conscious leadership” that the outcomes are very likely to be worse. I’m not sure if I would say “leadership” in this case. (I don’t have a problem with the term. I quite like Phinneas Gage’s article On Leadership and Stan Weir’s article on leadership, and I wrote a piece on what I mean by that term, but still...) The term "leadership" can mean a lot of things to a lot of people. I would say that the sorts of things I’d like to see happen could be described with the phrase “conscious leadership that puts the lessons of the particular struggle into a form in which they can be understood and socialized” – I’d like there to be direct action and struggle in which some radicals try to put forward ideas and draw ideas out of the struggle. But that phrase, “conscious leadership that puts the lessons of the particular struggle into a form in which they can be understood and socialized,” there are a lot of politics and practices I strongly disagree with that could also fit under that.

In any case, I think this next bit from STO is really important:

“If the direct action is not integrated into a revolutionary perspective, it will just buttress one or another aspect of false consciousness among the workers. Either it will support exaggerated reformist ideas about what is possible to win ("if we just stick together"), or it will support cynicism and resignation ("the workers won't stick together when the going gets rough"). Either direct action is integrated into a revolutionary perspective, or it is absorbed within the framework of capitalism. There is no other alternative.”

Action and struggles offer lessons but radical lessons

"will only be learned to the extent that there is some grouping attempting to teach it. In the absence of such teachers, the various lessons that capitalism constantly beats into the workers (you get what you deserve, look out for Number One, take it to the union, nobody gives a damn about anyone else) will be the lessons that are learned. Any Left group which relies on direct action to develop an autonomous working-class consciousness and an independent revolutionary workers' movement by itself, is going to wait forever.”

Here too I wouldn’t quite it put it that way. I don’t think that people in struggle only learn the right lessons if there are radicals there to teach them. But I do think that the piece makes an important point here in that direct action alone doesn’t teach lessons to people. Or rather, people can draw a range of conclusions from struggles and actions. Radicals should try to engage people in terms of the types of lessons they draw from their experiences in struggle. I expect that people will take this engagement more seriously when we as radicals are ourselves organizing along with people we have some stakes in common with (organizing on the job with our co-workers is one example but not the only one).

Engaging With How People Are Moving
Where I tried to go above with those three categories I started with – moral expansion, envisioned overturning, and intensification – is that I think these are directions people can move in struggle. I think that as radicals these are things that we can work on to try to move people in some way. In terms of those other components I mentioned - vision, goals, strategy, tactics, and logistics – I think that often radicals end up being a sort of specialist in one or more of these elements or in one example of an element. (I for one know more about how to do a march on the boss in a workplace than I do about a lot of other aspects of organizing and struggle and politics.) I think that people tend to emphasize the sorts of things that they’re something of a specialist in -- someone I know said once “if you have a guillotine, every problem starts to look like a French aristocrat” – people tend react to situations by playing to their strengths and experiences. (I can say for myself, I’m not as able to be active as I used to be because I have a child now and I work a lot. As such, I’ve started to put more effort into writing and cultivating other writers. And, of course, I’ve also started to think that these tasks are more important than I used to think…) Often people in collective struggle do have real needs that can be met in various ways. I know a number of people who have spent a lot of time in Occupy circles in the US playing needed roles, specifically on administrative tasks and logistical issues. These comrades worry that problems in these areas could make Occupy not last as long or achieve less. Other people have worked on trying to intensify Occupy, upping the militancy and others have tried to put out radical analysis and ideas within Occupy, to expand the overturning envisioned within Occupy. My hunch is that there’s no single best role that we can tell from outside of context, the right move depends on what’s happening in a particular situation. I also have a hunch, though, that as struggles develop that their needs and capacities will change, so that “conscious leadership” will have to involve being willing and able to switch from one direction to another – pushing moral expansion sometimes in some ways, pushing intensification at other times, and deepening the envisioned overturning at other times.

I’d now like to talk about some of what happened in Wisconsin last year. I think that some of what I talked about in this blog post happened there. I’m sure this sort of thing is happening in Occupy though I can’t speak as much to that as I’ve not been involved.) My family and I happened to be in Madison kind of randomly when the big protests and teacher sickouts there kicked off and I was around for the first few days of those events. I don’t want to overestimate what happened in Madison, but I think it’s worth noting that after very little conversation people were saying very radical things. At one point I talked for about 15 or 20 minutes over coffee with a group of 4 or 5 people who had come up to Madison from Janesville, Wisconsin. They were early 20somethings in heavy metal shirts. We struck up a conversation initially because one of them made a comment about how they thought it was fucked up that “pro-life” people want to ban abortions but also ban contraception. We started talking from there. One of them said that he thought that it would take a strike of all the workers in order to overturn the budget bill, and he thought that the private sector unions should strike to show that this was not just a public sector issue. One of them was unemployed and the others worked in small factories in Janesville. As we talked further, one of them said that if the bill wasn’t defeated by protests and strikes then maybe it should turn into actions like had recently been happening in Egypt. As we talked a bit more I asked them they had come out. One of them said that he thought it was wrong what was going on, so he felt he should be there. He said something like “I mean, I’m really liberal so I think this stuff but even some of my conservative friends think this too. Everyone thinks this is wrong.” Whatever else there is to say about what happened in Wisconsin, it seems to me that this was an example of a moral expansion and an example of at least talk about intensification. And the language of “liberal” and “conservative” – this is not a vocabulary I like or one that is used the same way in libertarian communist circles. This person might not have agreed with libertarian communist ideas politically, no matter how they were presented, but the difference of vocabularies is important as well. People move and they do so in part with whatever terms and ideas they have on hand. To my mind, trying to enrich the ideas people are thinking with and engaging them politically is important. Sometimes that means dealing directly with particular terms, but other times it means trying to shape the contents or meaning of the vocabularies people are speaking.

A few of us from the IWW tried to respond quickly to these events as soon as possible. We were less organized than we should have been but I think for our small numbers we did well and things eventually turned out pretty cool given our capacity as an organization. (See this report.) That said, I think our work at least early on had some shortcomings. I knocked together flyer with the updated pyramid of capitalism on one side and this text on the other side: “In Cairo we toppled Hosni Mubarak by protests then strikes then taking over our workplaces. In Madison we can topple Hosni Walker the same way. Then the next dictator, and the next, and the next, and the next. Throw out every pharaoh in every political office and in every workplace. Until we do, this pyramid-shaped society will weigh on our backs. All the pharaohs in the world stand together on all of us down here at the bottom. Either we stand up united to overturn the pyramid, or the pharaohs stomp their boots upon our faces. We are all Egyptians. Yesterday, Cairo. Today, Madison. Tomorrow, everywhere." I’ve not written much in the way of that kind of thing and I hadn’t been at something like those Madison events before, in terms of size and scope and make up of participants, so I wasn’t sure what to do but I felt like it was important to try to do something. I made 1000 of those and handed them out.

I was also one of maybe six people who had a hand in an initial pamphlet about the idea of a general strike. We were working quickly and without much time to prepare. Under the circumstances I think we did pretty well and I think the large numbers of those pamphlets that were ultimately distributed plus the general strike poster were positive things. At the same time, thinking in terms of the categories I tried to sketch in this blog post, I think we fell short. These materials pushed on the moral expansion to some degree, talking about solidarity across divisions and so on. They also helped up the intensity or at least the discussion about militant tactics – the pamphlet didn’t do that on its own, of course, it had to be distributed and there was a lot of conversations, but people started to talk and think a lot more about a general strike. The pamphlet could have said a lot more to try to focus on the moral expansion in that the fight (this might have happened more after I left, at least initially it wasn’t something we really worked on, given our short time and small numbers). The initial emphasis was largely about solidarity for pragmatic reasons – winning would require people to stick together – which was a limited form of moral expansion. There were further limits to the moral expansion in that it was mostly about defending collective bargaining rights for unionized workers. This was not the only thing under attack in the legislation at the time, but that was the main issue that took up most of the space, so the moral group – the We – implied in a lot of the struggle or mobilization in Madison was often not as large as the groupings of people under attack. Our main effort, then, I think, was pushing for a really big militant action, in order to preserve one part of the arrangement of life under capitalism. That’s not to say there was nothing important to the struggle. I am proud of what IWW members accomplished there, and I’d like to think we played a role in putting the call for general strikes more into the air in a serious way, which has become an interesting part of Occupy in the US. I also don’t want to overestimate the importance of pamphlets, and of course, if the general strike call had succeeded then more people would have had transformative experiences, but I do think there were some real limits to what we put out in print initially.

As a final thought, I think among other things that one of the advances from Madison stuff to Occupy stuff is its vocabulary. Madison stuff was mobilizations of many people but it was largely about collective bargaining. Occupy is about economic inequality in the United States, essentially a matter of grievances over the shift toward an even more economically unequal form of capitalism in the US in relatively recent times. Of course I’d like things to go further, but that’s an advance. “We are the 99%” is more inclusive of parts of the working class (though there are real limits here as I tried to talk about in another blog post). And the lack of demands in Occupy is a step forward in that, between “Demand nothing! We are the 99%!” and “Demand the restoration of collective bargaining for public sector employees!”, “Demand Nothing!” in an advance I think, in that it doesn’t have the same sorts of divisions and moves more toward moral expansion. There’s a long way to go, though, until it’s “everything should have what they need.” I don't know what the tipping point is but I think so far we're not there yet, so far we're still at the point that Sojourner Truth Organization described:

“Either direct action is integrated into a revolutionary perspective, or it is absorbed within the framework of capitalism. There is no other alternative.”

I think for the short term we're going to see continual re-absorption into the framework of capitalism, despite advances. We may eventually reach a point where revolutionary perspectives really begin to spread. I don't know how to bring that about or what it would really look like in our time, but I think there are some hopeful signs in the differences and in the similarities between the Madison events and Occupy. A situation where movements, to use STO's words, learn from experiences of struggle in a way that is "integrated into a revolutionary perspective" is likely going to involve changes in our vocabularies on the left or at least translation out of our preferred in-group vocabularies into different vocabularies. Like I said, I don't know how to bring this about, I doubt it's under anyone's control, but I do think we should try along the lines I've tried to sketch here - moral expansion, overturning, and intensified militancy, and I think that we'll probably have to work at being willing to push one aspect in some times and places and other aspects elsewhere, as situations change.

Posted By

Jan 6 2012 05:27


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Jan 6 2012 12:54

Great article Nate..

One thing about formatting though.. in future, can you attach pictures using the picture submission thing (above the title when you submit the article)? Coz as it is, your articles can't be promoted as a lead on the site (coz there's no picture).. I'll change it now, but just for the future like.. smile

Jan 6 2012 18:06

Whoops! Sorry, my fault. I'll be sure to do it right in the future. I didn't even notice that bit, honestly. (Missing things is one of the things I'm good at.) Thanks for the fix and for the kind comment.

Jan 9 2012 23:54

Good read. I made me think. One question that this piece leads onto is about the 'direction' of change in the areas you mention. The article sort of assumes that the broadening of perspectives in the three fields is good (which corresponds to our basically universalist and radical outlook) but does this process have the potential to 'go wrong'. Like might struggle lead someone to include in their outlook on who they have solidarity with their nation/ethnic group and then them to start putting that at the heart of their political practice? Or might they see the kind of radical change needed in very different ways to us? Perhaps in an authoritarian manner? What types of struggle tend to produce the types of broadening we like, and which the types we don't?

Does that make sense?

Jan 10 2012 00:28

hey RedEd, thanks for the kind words and the comment. That totally makes sense. I don't know about what kinds of struggles produce what kinds of broadening, that;s interesting and I'm going to have to think about it. Do you have any thoughts on that?

I didn't mean to say that this stuff was just good, I meant to say that clearly but I guess I just forgot. I definitely agree, stuff can definitely go wrong - struggle doesn't just produce victory and the lessons people can learn can actively be bad lessons. I think I want to say that struggle sort of melts things, like Marx's "all that's solid melts into air" kind of thing, and in those volatile moments things can go any number of directions and not just good ones. Definitely people might end up with the wrong body that they see themselves as belonging to, either falling short (like "me and my workmates" or realizing a common interest against the boss but still being a sexist asshole or something), or really going in the wrong way like nationalism. And sometimes one can turn into the other - a lot of people in my family have worked in the construction trades, there's a strong "my fellow carpenters" kind of thing, and it tends to be even stronger among unionists. In certain circumstances that's good - don't cross a picket etc - but it can be really reactionary too, a relatively well-off group of workers having reactionary responses to other workers and actively gatekeeping who can get into the union or work in the industry. And the type of change thing, people can definitely end up with bad ideas on that stuff too. I think it's easy for us libcommie types to dismiss other ideologies without realizing that bad ideas have roots in struggles and people's experiences too. That's not to defend bad ideas but to try to say a bit about the staying power they sometimes have.

I think that those are more reasons for talking/doing politics in the struggle and not trying to leave it to the struggle alone to radicalize folk. This is one of the things I like about what Joseph Kay and I think others in SolFed have called political-economic organization. I tried to argue for some of that in a thing up on here somewhere called Mottos and Watchwords, trying to think out some of why it matters to try to connect fights now with our core/fundamental values and vision as radicals instead of just focusing on the current struggle. In some ways in this blog post I'm still trying to think out different aspects of that.

Joseph Kay
Jan 10 2012 00:47
Nate wrote:
I think that those are more reasons for talking/doing politics in the struggle and not trying to leave it to the struggle alone to radicalize folk. This is one of the things I like about what Joseph Kay and I think others in SolFed have called political-economic organization. I tried to argue for some of that in a thing up on here somewhere called Mottos and Watchwords, trying to think out some of why it matters to try to connect fights now with our core/fundamental values and vision as radicals instead of just focusing on the current struggle. In some ways in this blog post I'm still trying to think out different aspects of that.

More or less yeah. Struggles open up a space to talk about stuff, which might be everyday things ('they shouldn't treat us like this, we deserve respect') or more wide ranging overtly political stuff ('the cops and politicians are on the side of the rich', 'the whole system's rotten', whatever). Struggle won't do this automatically (or at least, won't do so reliably, certainly it does happen).

In a sense, this is related to what the Wobs call 'inoculation', the ongoing process of anticipating and preparing for management responses to organising. So in the IWW case, you've got the famous preamble about the bosses and workers having nothing in common. If you've got a group (or lone agitator) in a workplace arguing for X action, and that management are likely to respond with Y because their interests are against ours, and then it pans out that way, it validates that perspective, and does so far more strongly than if say, some politicos show up on a picket line with a bulletin. Our political ideas are meant to make sense of our everyday lives in capitalism. The onus is on us to apply them in such a way that other workers see their relevance.

(Specifically from a SolFed point of view, we mean we should be prepared to stick to our principles even at the consequence of operating as a minority in the workplace, and only grow over time as people come to see the merits of our approach. Contrasted with a typical mainstream approach of signing up the minimum percentage of workers and going for recognition.)

Jan 10 2012 01:06

That last bit, stick to being a minority or not, that's one I'd like to develop further. If I understand right one of the main views in SolFed is to operate as a minority but/while trying to build some kind of fighting group at work that's not all SolFedders. And people can't join SolFed without a fairly high level of agreement. The view that me and most of the the other N American IWW folk who you know (the Recomp ones anyway) have tried to push has been similar except we're more loose about IWW membership and do want more IWW members I think sooner and faster than y'all. (Pardon if I get any of this wrong, not trying to misrepresent.) In both cases, there's a collective thing in the workplace that involves some radicals and a range of other positions. I think if we're being honest our radical ideas are sometimes a liability, but in a good way (can't think of a better analogy but sort of like how wearing a wedding ring can be a liability in trying to pull at the bar, which is part of what it's supposed to do for people who have that kind of relationship). An official organizational commitment to radical beliefs forces an organization to deal with difficult problems we should be dealing with. Which is why people with our sorts of views should favor openly radical groups and not just fighting groups that don;t have official and radical views. Does that make sense? (Thinking out loud here.)

Joseph Kay
Jan 10 2012 20:24
Nate wrote:
An official organizational commitment to radical beliefs forces an organization to deal with difficult problems we should be dealing with.

I think that's a good way of thinking about it. There are shorcuts, but they're not shortcuts to where we want to go, so they're really dead ends or side tracks. I mean sure, revolutionaries will necessarily be a minority at the present time, and so will any revolutionary union. But that's ok. We can still organise (through committees, mass meetings etc), and through our deeds people will know we're on their side. So in the spaces opened up by struggle, they may not all have damascene conversions to anarcho-syndicalism and become ideological libertarian communists, but they'll at least know we're solid. And as circumstances change, if our stances are correct (hostility to party politics as a dead end, opposition to social partnership etc), then people will warm to them, or at least understand why we hold them. E.g. the following was posted on a blog in defence of one of our members who was being victimised in the press (I asked around and it doesn't seem like it was anyone we know):

someone wrote:
As it is (and as a trades unionist who’s seen an unpleasant amount of police intimidation and violence recently) I’d echo that sentiment about Labour not condemning police violence strongly enough. As it is I’d much rather trust one of those Solfed anarchists (ideological differences aside) than some of the Labour MPs supposedly representing working class people in Parliament. You know where you stand with them, and they understand solidarity, but maybe I’m just a jaded old activist.

I mean here you've got struggle (and particularly repression) coupled with the self-evident uselessness of parliamentary means creating the context for a mutual understanding despite ideological differences. that being possible, i don't think having an openly revolutionary perspective is as big a barrier as some would suggest. it's not like you scream slogans in peoples faces, just be honest that we don't want to be fighting these struggles everyday and we'd rather a world where we didn't have to.