Organizing Is Not about Getting People to Agree with Radical Ideas

[This post is part of a series on 1-on-1 organizing conversations.]


There is one misconception in organizing, especially workplace organizing, that is responsible for more confusion and dead ends than any other. It manifests itself in many ways, but it boils down to this: “The way I was radicalized and got involved in organizing is the way everyone is radicalized and gets involved in organizing.”

Most commonly, people new to organizing and radical politics try to show others their own new ideas, when really those same ideas will refract very differently depending on others’ very different experiences. Most often, people don’t immediately cling to the ideas you cling to. This often leads new organizers to become exasperated and confused, “Why does no one else get radicalized when I show them the things that radicalized me?”

Organizing is not just about showing your ideas to other people. It’s about building relationships and shared understanding of shared conditions that is the fertile ground from which radical ideas can grow. More than showing, this is about listening and asking questions. Of course, organizers are not just passive in this process but make sure to bring all of these different elements into the conversation and by doing so create room for people to explore and change.

In this post I draw out how ideas, relationships, and conditions relate to organizing. I share how I was politicized along each of these lines myself over the years, including how I’ve made all the mistakes that most organizers do, and how it’s helped me see more clearly how this whole caboodle works.

The Role of Ideas in Organizing

When people ask how I got politicized, the short answer is that I started binge-watching Noam Chomsky videos on youtube in 2008. I had never had a friend or family member who identified as a socialist, anti-capitalist, or anything radical, and so this was really the first time I was exposed to these ideas in a comprehensive way. It clicked for me almost immediately and I devoured as much of it as I could.

For a long time I kind of assumed that everyone was radicalized the way I was, that is, by exposure to abstract ideas about how society could be structured. I spent a lot of time talking with friends about these ideas that were new to me, and trying to do activism by leading with these ideas and expecting others to grab on.

My radicalization and subsequent attempts to engage those ideas socially happened late in college for me. I met groups of like-minded people, and occasionally someone would join in with us, and we worked on some interesting and productive projects, but frankly the reach of my political engagement was limited. In retrospect, I was doing more to build communities of like-minded people that quickly became insular, and even though we protested injustices of various kinds, we never really built broader-based organizations with the kind of popular participation that would be necessary to really challenge power. In no small part, I think this was because I was still operating off of a model of radicalization based narrowly on my own experience, a very incomplete model where the radical ideas themselves did all the heavy lifting.

The Role of Relationships in Organizing

Later in my college activist life I got involved in a campaign by the United Students Against Sweatshops to end the use of sweatshop labor in producing university-branded apparel. The revelation for me was learning about a coherent system of organizing principles based on building relationships with people and moving toward collective action. The core pillar of this system was the 1-on-1 organizing conversation (described here for those not familiar).

In USAS we would meet up with other students, agitate around the sweatshop labor used in the production of university clothing, and discuss what we could do as students to intervene to stop that. The use of techniques to integrate relationship-building with political organizing is what moved this stage of my organizing far beyond what I was able to achieve before. Political ideas weren’t static in the form of books or videos, but could be questioned, opened up, stretched, and applied through dialogue with another person.

1-on-1s allowed us to be outward facing, to build a base, and to channel our energy to win real demands, instead of just fostering more inward facing communities of ideological agreement and social clicks. The social relationships built through 1-on-1s were the channel through which people engaged these ideas, not in isolation but in conversation with each other. The USAS campaign lasted for 3 years and we finally won our main demand at the peak of a direct action campaign.

Looking back, I was able to see how atypical my own politicization was, how I was essentially radicalized by watching youtube videos about political theory in total isolation from any social relationships with other people in my life. Each form of politicization is valid and unique, but it’s impossible to build organization and movement if you assume that the most effective way to build up popular power is to hit others over the head with ideas and leave them to figure it out for themselves. Ideas and social relationships have to go hand-in-hand, and the victory of the USAS campaign was a proof of concept for me.


The Role of Class Relations and Material Conditions in Organizing

After college I entered the workforce. While my dad had always extolled the virtues of work, no matter how grueling or unpleasant, I wasn’t sold. Some of my jobs were decent and enjoyable, some of my jobs were crap with the only redeeming value being that they kept me from going homeless or hungry. I doubted whether these crap jobs really built character or bestowed valuable experience.

While my USAS organizing in college was fundamentally about student power being leveraged against the university’s exploitative practices, it was still different from most worker organizing in that we weren’t agitating around conditions that affected us directly. As such, my USAS campaign had much in common with what is called issue-based organizing, where groups of people come together to affect change on some issue that they are passionate about. This kind of organizing can be very important for social change and social movements, but it also can have limitations. Because people are organized more around shared interests than around shared conditions, the social bases in which these campaigns are grounded are often diffuse and sometimes harder to pull together into a unified campaign. In recent decades, many of these issue-based campaigns have been taken over by non-profits dependent on grant funding that can de-radicalize and de-democratize what is often most powerful about grassroots organizing.

Labor organizing plays out on a different terrain. My experience as a worker was very different from my experience as a student. The labors of being a student always referred back to the idea of improving one’s knowledge, and even if I thought the content was kind of boring I usually enjoyed it because I really like learning stuff. But much of what happens in the working world has no pretense of improving the worker at all (beyond being able to afford to live). Go to work, do work, come back the next day. Not all work is so bad, but almost all jobs contain parts that one is virtually forced to do and which one has no say in and which can be no fun at all. Under capitalism, we get paid when we do what we are told, and if we’re lucky, at least we get paid decently or the things we’re told to do aren’t so bad or the people we do them with are a swell bunch. But no one is so lucky all the time, and too many are unlucky much of the time.

For much of my adult working life, I adapted to this situation by trying to find jobs that paid just enough that I could afford the basic necessities while working as little as possible. I sought out jobs that offered more autonomy over working conditions, which often came at the expense of not having benefits. Life choices always contain trade-offs, but it seemed pretty intuitively unfair that rich people acquired passive income (stock dividends, rent, inheritance, capital gains, etc…) without having to trade away anything while I was trading away healthcare. It was also clear that a lot of people had it a lot worse than me.

At some point I joined the radical union the Industrial Workers of the World. Even though I had considered myself an anti-capitalist for many years, it wasn’t until I was a few years into my working life and a few years into my time in the IWW that I really started to knit all of these class relationships together into a cohesive picture of the material reality we call capitalism. “Radical” as I was years before, coming to realize how all of this abstract economic and political theory actually explained my relationship to the world and the content of my experience was another revelation.

Unlike my initial politicization through youtube videos, my politicization around class happened by being exposed to ideas through relationships I formed through organizing. Whereas my time in USAS was about being in solidarity with other workers who worked in international sweatshops (which is important in its own right), my politicization in the IWW transformed my understanding of my own place in the world as a worker being commanded by bosses and whose underpaid labor helped contribute to rich people’s unearned wealth.

Knowledge of your own relation to the workplace is key for knowing how to organize with others under shared conditions. Through AEIOU (agitate-educate-inoculate-organize-uplift, introduced here) with coworkers we can explore how class relations impacts all of us and how our power lies in our ability to unify around a shared sense of collective dignity to demand what we deserve. If as organizers we don’t bring a class analysis to our 1-on-1s, our ideas and social relationships will float among the clouds untethered to our actual experience and the realities of our jobs. Rather, basing our conversations in the class tensions we inhabit will animate our ideas and empower our relationships to advance the radical change we seek.

A side note on radical coworkers: even when you do find a coworker who has radical ideas, most often they agree with radical ideas in the abstract but don’t have a deeper understanding of class relations in the workplace and what that means for organizing (like me before I gave more serious attention to those dynamics). A running punchline among radical labor organizers is how the coworker with the most radical ideas in a workplace is oftentimes the one least involved in organizing efforts to improve conditions. I’ve now seen this play out in my own organizing. To be fair, I think radical coworkers have as much potential to get involved in organizing as any other coworker, but we (and definitely me) often make a mistake by thinking that since they say they’re anti-capitalist that that means they’re gonna be down with organizing. As a result we skip doing agitation and education with them in 1-on-1s. But even when coworkers proclaim certain ideas, we should treat fellow radicals just like everyone else and go through each of the steps of AEIOU, of asking questions about work, of building relationships, and so on. When we forget to do this, radical coworkers reveal themselves not to be the shortcut we hoped they were.

Also, when you have coworkers who may not be radical but seem to be receptive to radical ideas, most often it will still be most productive to go through AEIOU instead of using standard tactics of persuasion and argument around radical ideas. People will be committed to something when they see how something affects them and how to interpret that, which is what AEIOU is about. Radical ideas that arise from their own experience will be more potent than ideas talked about as intellectual curiosities at a more abstract level.

Learning Lessons, Fast and Slow

In short, I acquired a love for radical ideas from Chomsky, I learned how to organize using social relationships from USAS, and I learned how to apply radical critique to my own material circumstances from the IWW. Ideas, social relationships, and material circumstances are the building blocks of creating radical social change. This is true at the societal level but also the individual level.

It’s taken me many years to be able to see the importance of the balance between ideas, relationships, and conditions to organizing. While I’m happy I have this understanding now, it doesn’t have to take that long for everyone and I hope that as our organizations and movements sharpen and mature we can share experiences that can help others through the process more quickly than my snail-paced self.

This has been one of those blog posts of self-exploration for me, where I’ve teased out narratives of myself that I have previously not been wholly aware of. I’ve emphasized class dynamics in this story because it has seemed the most straight-forward way to discuss workplace organizing, but of course class is never separate from race or gender and the same processes I describe around class can and often should be applied to race and gender too.

The impetus for writing this blog post has been a conversation I’ve been having a lot lately with other organizers. The frustration organizers often feel between their own radical ideas and the total lack of radical ideas among coworkers can be very deflating. I certainly have spent a fair amount of time running up against this wall and still do sometimes.

But we can start to find a way through this impasse when we see that ideas are just one part of the overall process of radicalization and change, and if there’s no shared starting point among you and your coworkers on what the ideas about society should be, then you can start with building social relationships and examining shared material conditions based in the tensions of being wage workers under the supervision of a boss. You can work your way from strangers to trusting coworkers, from unthinking workers to critical class analysts, from believers in the status quo to believers in a different kind of world.

Seen in light of these trajectories, we would never expect to become close friends with someone the first time we meet them, we would not expect a worker on their first day to know all the class dynamics of a particular workplace, so it’s not very reasonable to expect others to have (or be immediately receptive to) radical ideas at the beginning of one’s organizing. These are all things we have to work for, and through collective struggle our ideas, relationships, and conditions can be transformed. How to go about this is the subject of all organizing and has at its core applying AEIOU to 1-on-1 organization conversations.

Doing this is not easy, and there’s never any guarantee of success. But these methods are the best our collective history of social change has to offer, and they have moved mountains before.

[Addendum: Above I didn’t spell out explicitly the role of radical ideas in organizing, and I fear I may be misinterpreted as saying that radical ideas are not part of radical organizing. We shouldn’t lead with radical ideas in organizing because they can inadvertently act as an ideological barrier. Nor should we hide our political commitments and only reveal them to the proven and chosen few. Rather, I think nurturing open discussion of radical ideas as they emerge naturally out of collective struggle against oppressive conditions is the best way to grow radical ideas and movements.]

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