Sep 26, 1976, La Paz, California
No matter how different you are in terms of geography, race, or class from some people who are struggling, there are certain things they go through, and certain things they do that apply to every situation in the world.
You can't just mechanically apply anything, of course, but beneath the specific differences of each situation, there are universal laws. It's a matter of faith that there's one world, one set of dynamics, and one way people deal with and go through this world.
A. Patterns in the way people struggle
1. Oppressed people always seem asleep.
Any people who are oppressed will always look like they are asleep to everybody from their oppressors to the experts observing and writing about them. For example, for thirty years, people wrote that farm labor could not be organized into a union. They said it was impossible to do this, because workers were divided by nationality and language and there was a big turnover.
This is a universal pattern. It can make you give up. It can lead to defeatism in the head of the organizer who believes this.
2. People who seem asleep always awake at the most unusual times.
No one ever predicts when people will rise up. People always take spontaneous action before organizers or observers know that they will -- whether it was the Filipino farm workers whose action brought in Cesar Chavez in 1965-66, or whether it was the first strikes in the San Joaquin Valley, or the labor strikes of the 1930's, or the Civil Rights movement in the South, or the way the southern liberation forces in Vietnam started. There always is a mass spontaneous outbreak, usually before you expect it.
People who can predict these things are either geniuses or nuts. Usually you predict that revolution will start there and its starts here. And for years you wait for it to start there and it happens somewhere else.
3. Without organization and leadership, no spontaneous struggle will ever sustain itself.
Otherwise, it will always peter out or be crushed. So in dead times and live times, quiet times and animated times, there is a need for organization. I mean a live, alert, sensitive organization that doesn't try to come in and steal all the energy and control all the energy, but comes in to try and give some kind of shape and, hopefully, wisdom to the people who are starting to move.
This is why in the United Farm Workers, nobody thinks they were born yesterday as in some organizations. There is a sense of history and a sense of identity that many of us in this room do not have because we are cut off from whatever our radical ancestors were. Not so in any kind of successful mass movement. Like Cesar just said, if you try and fail ninety-nine times, you try again -– and that has been the history of the farm labor struggle over the last 125 years in California.
So their own history has been a history of trying to organize and organize and organize. There have been bloodbaths and slaughters that haven't even been recorded in any kind of our history. Without the history of organization, there would never be any hope for spontaneous struggles.
It is important that organization not law a heavy hand on movement, but also that organization accumulate information and wisdom from the past which can be applied to the present. If you don't have an organization to do that there will be no history. If you don't have a history, you always have to start over.
A lot of people like starting over. They feel it makes them new in human history to come along and start a struggle. In fact, just the opposite is true. You have been so cut off from your own world that you're living in a totally self-centered situation.
It's nothing to brag about, that you're the New Left, or the new this or new that, because what it means is that the previous left was destroyed. It's better to have a hand-me-down quality, and organization is the only hand-me-down thing we have.
Have you seen the book 'North from Mexico' (1950) by Carey McWilliams? It is a great social history. In the end, after going through the whole miserable story of this part of the country, he says there isn't much hope, but there is this guy named Fred Ross who's organizing something called the Community Service Organization. McWilliams says at the end that only through efforts like this might a change come about.
Fred Ross had to go for many, many years organizing what seemed to be failures, and then he found Cesar Chavez, who, at the time, looked like anybody else you might organize. From there, things started to pick up.
How would you like to be in the Central Valley before there was a farmworkers union, before there was a boycott, before anybody heard of any of this, and have to live with a college education that told you farmworkers couldn't be organized, and be white and still be wandering around the Central Valley looking for one person to start an organization -– in an area which has a history of complete repression and failure?
This kind of organizing approach is rare. You could sit back and say, "It's happening because of the dynamic of history. It's objective conditions." There is truth to that, but usually that's what you say later. You say, "Well, it came about because the time was ripe." But at the time that the time is ripe, nobody knows its ripe, and everybody is saying it's not ripe. You are crazy because you're trying to do something that is impossible.
The only way the time becomes ripe is when you make it ripe. And you run the risk of being ahead of your time. You run the risk of madness. You run the risk of repression, but there is no other way to determine whether the time is ripe except for somebody to be the historical agent to make the time ripe. This is what an organizer does.
B. Universal methods of organization
1. House meetings
There's a lot of talk about house meetings in the union. It's really a small group meeting. The group is put together by an organizer but the other people in the small group do not usually have any prior experience. In my experience, this is one of the best ways to build an organization.
Many people like ourselves who are activists of some sort would like to band together and create organization by federating together people who already have our consciousness, people who are already like us. So we develop little circles. We do outreach work, but there's a real gap between the little circle and the mass.
That's not the way to proceed if you take up the path of organizing house meetings and small group meetings. It's completely the opposite.
What you do is try to build an organization of organizers who bring in fresh people constantly -- people who have no previous organizing experience, who are not scarred or marked with the history of the left, or the history of other organizations, but who are scarred very much with the scars we have as Americans.
Start over again, walking up to people you don't know, and with whom you only have about thirty seconds to strike up a relationship. You have to convince them to let you talk to them, and then to let you use their house for a meeting of people you're going to bring who they don't know, in cities that are full of crime. People will think you're just a sophisticated criminal, or that at the end of your rap, you're going to ask for money. Or that there's going to be some trip laid on them. You have to overcome that in a minute, and get your way into the conversation, through the door, and then, after an hour with that person you have to go on to the next person and do this incessantly until you have enough people to have a meeting.
An organizer's rule of thumb is that you have to talk to 15 people to get one to come to a meeting. That means to have a meeting of 10, you have to talk to 150 people. How many people want to do that? It's psychologically hard, yet this is the only way to build an organization that gets deeper and deeper into the community, and that involves the people that have the problems you are trying to solve.
All other kinds of
organizations are just organizations of organizers, radicals. They're
not organizations of consumers or workers or tenants. But you can't
figure out a solution to the problem unless you organize the people who
have the problem.
Most people are not like Paul on his horse, getting hit by God's insight, dropping to the ground, and getting up a radical Christian. It doesn't happen. For those who do change like that, it doesn't last long. They're some of our most eloquent speakers, some of our most brilliant media stars, but they last about as long as a shooting star. Nobody can really be changed in an instant if they've been made into what they are over 20 to 30 years.
So, there have to be
alternative institutions can give a concrete picture of the values
you're talking about. A
medical clinic or a consumer co-op is not abstract. It's concrete.
Through participation in it, people can get new values.
This mistake was made over and over again in movements aside from the farmworkers movement -- creating new institutions as if somehow they would then change the community. In fact, the new institutions soon start to serve the oppressor -- totally unintentionally.
If you have terrible health care, people are going to get angry about it and revolt -- unless you have a free clinic that takes care of people who come and ask for help. Pretty soon, the free clinic, which was supposed to be an alternative, instead becomes at best like a service station and at worst a buffer between the commmunity and the real power structure. People start complaining about the free clinic not taking care of their problems when they should be blaming the whole structure which makes a free clinic necessary. In the union, there is an attempt to make these things go hand in hand.
Most of us don't
consider ourselves to be nonviolent, or we associate nonviolence with a
certain kind of religiosity, or we think it's a tactic or something
like that. I don't want to talk about the moral philosophy here. I want
to talk about the role of nonviolence in building organization.
That turned the whole
situation around. It got people to focus on why he was doing it; there
were all kinds of side discussions about that.
1. There is no short cut
When you're frustrated,
the solution is not the destruction of property or taking the life of
an individual oppressor. The solution is to find a creative act which
will turn the tables and get things going again. Creativity is the
answer to frustration, and is a very important organizational principle.
Sure enough, three women who were just loyal pickets and had never really opened their mouths came to him a couple of hours later and said, "You wanted ideas. We're not challenging your leadership." He thought they wanted something. The problem in this case was in dealing with workers who were inside the ranch, who never had to come out. Trying to going in to meet the workers, you'd get busted, beaten, and off to jail. So the women said, "What about having an altar in a car outside the gate and having a vigil." He said, "That's it. There's more than one way to skin a cat, backwards and forwards. You can't go in so we have to get them to come out." They started a vigil and succeeded. All the farmworkers came out.
The only way to bring
about change is when the people who want the change have the power to
make the change happen.
This also affects work.
Here we are in a quiet place -- La Paz. It means 'peace'. Yet we know
the farmworkers work harder than almost anybody. Farmworkers organizers
probably don't work quite as hard a farm workers in the field, but they
work hard. Yet there don't seem to be bad vibes which you see around
other movement offices, or electoral campagins when people are at the
height of the struggle. There seem to be good vibes. Yet people work so
hard you'd think they'd be going crazy and taking it out on each other.
4. Broad support
Whatever the truth of
these connections, the practical consequences of the nonviolence of the
United Farm Workers have been enormous. One is that they have always
retained mass support, and it's grown. They have never alienated the
great mass of moderate voters. They have always acted in ways that are
just short of breaking the law or going over the edge into violence.
5. Not being put on the defensive
nonviolence has the United Farm Workers been able to avoid the pattern
of every single other organization in the last 15 years. Organizations
reach a certain point, then comes a conspiracy charge, then the
leadership is taken away, and the movement tries to defend the leader.
You're no longer fighting for peace or social justice. You're fighting
against repression and the freedom of political prisoners.
You can't predict in
advance whether you can succeed in the struggle, but there cannot be
any kind of success unless you have a group of people unified among
themselves, who have a sense of community, are able to reach many, many
people around their immediate grievances, organize those people into an
organizational base, and work harder than anyone else, setting an
example of courage and humanity and principle.
In the antiwar movement, people often said, "Why do you go on?" or asked, "Are you an optimist or a pessimist?"
you're a painter or an artist or an observer of reality you could be
either an optimist or a pessimist and still create someting meaningful.
But if you're trying to change conditions, if you're trying to improve
the world, then you can't possibly take that pessimistic detached
position. You have to be an optimist, whether or not there's any
evidence to justify it. How can things be improved by pessimists? The
only thing that can be brought about through pessimism is enjoyable
cocktail parties, social relationships, discussion groups, games
between people, and incessant conventions.
Tom Hayden is a founder of the Students for a Democratic Society, author of the 'Port Huron Statement,' community organizer, antiwar leader, member of the 'Chicago 7', a founder of the Indochina Peace Campaign and the Campaign for Economic Democracy, former California State Assemblyman and Senator, teacher, author, and speaker.