Evaluation of Midwest Organizing and Communications Conference

Submitted by Juan Conatz on March 1, 2011

We were charged, at the Columbia Conference a year ago, to structure a conference on organization and communication. On evaluation we agreed that our structure for meetings and tasks facilitated this goal. We decided however, that it was a real mistake not to have spent more time Saturday morning, at the first general meeting, going through the agenda for that day. If we had been more thorough we could have explained our ideas on decision-making for the large group meetings. People would have had a better understanding of the tasks to accomplish and could have proposed differences if they had them. We were critical of the people who thought the conference was too bureaucratically structured and did not make any effort to give feedback by mail, beforehand. We also agreed that we should have announced the use of the office equipment to everyone at the first general meeting.

We talked about the way the first workshops on Saturday tended to have Des Moines people for facilitators. Given the level of our preparation and the time we spent working together as a group, it was understandable for this to happen. However, we think that we should have been stronger about refusing to be facilitators and pushed for others to play this role.

The purpose of the first general meeting , which was to list agreements and disagreements was hindered by one of the men "seizing the chair" and giving his own view of things. This led to immediate responses from individuals rather than a more disciplined response of listing what grew out of the small group discussions.

There was a lack of clear structure for making decisions in such a large group. At times when the group process stalemated it would have been facilitating to break into small buzz groups to sort out how to go on. Another constructive alternative would have been to have called for caucuses by regions, i.e. Des Moines, Chicago, etc. This would have allowed people to clarify thinking and participate more actively. This is something to seriously consider for future large group meetings.

Dividing into groups was done spontaneously, not as an organizational decision. People didn't know why they went where they did, and the points of agreement and disagreement were clouded by such responses as labeling groups with vague terms like "sectarian" and "non-sectarian". Statements made by people that they could have gone into either group further indicates the lack of clear issues.

We criticized ourselves further for lack of clarity in the statement Des Moines-Ames people wrote on organization. Our use of undefined and unfamiliar terms contributed to confusion and divisiveness since it was the most thoroughly distributed paper and had a larger effect than if other papers would have been more widely circulated. This speaks to the lack of organization by other groups in preparing ahead as well as to our lack of foresight about the language problems that arose.

Several political issues emerged during the conference, in spite of a strong tendency to downplay them. Differences which affected the content of the conference were:

1)World view - idealistic/materialistic
2)Organization -let it flow/structure
3)Prioritizing the Issues - personal/overall strategic importance

As with all contradictions these were not mutually exclusive, but they did indicate clear differences on which to base divisions or groupings among participants.

These disagreements or tendencies were interrelated and expressed in several ways. The discussion of prioritizing issues was an example of idealist and materialist stances in opposition. The question arising out of this was/is the importance of personal priorities in developing strategy. We think that making personal priorities the basis for action rather than the interests of the working class as a group, is idealistic, that is non-strategic. It is not linked to a realistic assessment of the forces necessary to bring about change.

Advocates of a strategic approach to determining priority issues, a materialist approach, were saying that all the concerns which were being raised require organization to create change. This does not mean a complete sacrifice of personal needs and interests, but rather an integration of those with the interests of the group most likely to organize and struggle for change against the key issues or contradictions which uphold the present social order - classism, racism and sexism.

The class implication growing out of this is the difference the time middle class people have to put energy and priority time into personal needs, and the necessity for working class people to see themselves as a group with the solidarity necessary to fight their common struggles.

In light of our concern for working class development the difference in organizational outlook is an important one. Self-management as a basic element of anarchism is not eliminated by planned structure. In fact it can be facilitated when there is a structure, flexible to be sure, within which to work. It is nice to think that organization will flow together without planning but the chance is strong that the leadership will flow right to the people with experience, often the middle class who have had the opportunity to develop the necessary skills. Planning can spread that responsibility around, facilitating the process of self-management.

The varying opinions about what importance to place on working together with other groups, particularly libertarian Marxists appear to be linked somewhat to an understanding or organization and how it is most effectively developed. Where planning has taken place, where strategy has been developed to deal with class oppression, there is more possibility of maintaining strength and identity of anarchist principles while joining our efforts with people of different ideologies.

Looking critically at the weekend together, we concluded that if the structure for the weekend had been more clearly explained and if participants had been willing to identify disagreements, political differences could have been dealt with more constructively. As it was, we were able to pull together two groupings, even though their differences were not very clear. We can build from here, if we decide to do so. What is needed is a definition of who we are, a discussion of differences and action based on these differences.