What works


Paul Ryder, Ohio Citizen Action

National Canvassers Conference
Paducah, Kentucky
February 26, 1999

How do we keep score? Businesspeople keep score with dollars. Candidates keep score with votes. Athletes keep score by keeping score.

How do we keep score? Itís not so simple. Whatever we use to keep score Ė winning on issues, building organization, finding great new people Ė in our line of work, big scores donít come year-in and year-out. They arrive unexpectedly, all of a sudden, every few decades, in the form of a social movement.

If you listen to your teachers or to television, youíll believe that there has only been one movement in American history: the 1960ís. It never happened before and itíll never happen again. Everything bad thatís happened since then is because of it.

In fact, there is a regular cycle in American history. Every 28 to 36 years, there has been a major populist movement, with the peak years in 1800, 1828, 1860, 1896, 1932, and 1968. You can set your watch by it. If this pattern holds, we are due for another one in the next decade.

Each movement runs its course, with social upheaval, party systems turned upside down, big social changes, and then, once the potential is fulfilled and the possibilities (and participants) exhausted, daily life resumes under new conditions.

Some people have a mechanical notion that movements appear when conditions get bad enough. Those who believe this spend much of their lives waiting. As writer Carl Oglesby noticed, they circle in the sky, like carrion birds, vultures, waiting for things to get bad so they can swoop in to lead a revolt. Then, just as they descend, the economy recovers, and they resume their holding pattern in the sky.

Instead, these vultures should be examining their original premise, which is wrong. Movements are not necessarily created by collapsing conditions.

  • The civil rights movement arose in the early 1950ís. Were conditions for African Americans in the 1950ís worse than in the 1940ís or 1930ís? No, they were improving throughout that period.

  • The modern womenís movement began in the 1960ís. Were conditions for women worse than they had been in the 1950ís or 1940ís? No, quite the contrary.

The birth of a movement is more interesting and complicated than that, and has less to do with conditions than with how people see them. One day, someone wakes up and looks at the same world as the day before, but with new eyes. They say, "This is intolerable. Iím going to do something about it." Before long, millions of people have new eyes, too.

Civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer (1917 - 1977) testifies to the 1964 Democratic National Convention on the treatment of black Americans in Mississippi.
Aung San Suu Kyi
It is not easy to predict when a movement is going to come along. One clue is when all the experts declare that there will never be another social movement, that history is over, and the future stretches out ahead like a flat endless plain. Thatís the time to bet on an earthquake.

What a movement is like

A movement is not just a trend, a cause, a protest, or routine bureaucratic dissidence. Thus, it is misleading to use phrases like 'the militia movement,' 'the born-again movement,' or 'the labor movement.'

A movement is something different. It involves widespread action by major social categories in increasing conflict, which eventually interferes with the maintenance of the social structure itself.

In some ways a movement is like Mardi Gras, or Holi, the Hindu spring festival. It is a short time in which the usual restrictions of status, sex, status, race, caste and age are suspended or even reversed.

The difference between Mardi Gras and a movement is that when Mardi Gras is over, everything returns to normal. The social structure reasserts itself. Mardi Gras is a safety valve for the system; it helps preserve it.

A movement, however, is an opportunity to make changes that will alter daily life forever. Nothing and no one is the same.

Here are a few of the ways to know when you are in a movement:

  • Nowadays, in an issue campaign, we have our demands, the other side has their position, and weíll work out a principled compromise somewhere in the middle. In a movement, the demands keep growing, so that even if the authorities give you everything, the demands have already escalated past that.

  • Nowadays, we have to calculate every move carefully: costs, benefits, risks. Many great ideas for action are dropped as "too riskyÖmight hurt the organization." In a movement, there is much less calculation. People throw away organizations, careers, their physical safety. They consider themselves kindling for the fire.

  • Nowadays, issues are issues. In a movement, the issue terrain shifts quickly and unpredictably. You start out to have a meeting about a fair housing ordinance, but before the night is over, youíre discussing why the men do all the talking and the women do all the work. The group is paralyzed by the new issue and maybe destroyed by it. The next day, the first group is gone, and a womenís group has been formed.
"It is senseless to speak of optimism or pessimism. The only important thing to remember is that if one works well in a potato field, the potatoes will grow. If one works well among people, they will grow. That's reality. The rest is smoke." Danilo Dolci (1924 - 1997), the "Sicilian Gandhi."
Danilo Dolci

How do we make the most of a movement?

The model that dominated the thinking of activists in this century was that of the left, under various names: socialism, communism, social democracy, progressivism. It was a systematic model; it had an answer for every question. Its adherents were well-organized, they spoke with authority, and they had the credibility of running a number of countries.

People who didnít agree or had doubts mostly kept quiet.

The only problem with this model was that it didnít work. (Iíll tell you why in a minute). The left collapsed and the modelís gone.

So what do we do?

It makes sense to start by looking at what has worked in the past. The cause of freedom has made big strides in the last few hundred years. How? What has worked?

It turns out that the most creative and fruitful approach comes out of the tradition of nonviolence.

Nonviolence is a scrambled idea for most people because we have been told so little about it.

It calls to mind the images of two people: Gandhi, a naked guy who was a saint and got shot. And Martin Luther King, a well-dressed guy who was a saint and got shot. Thatís about all weíre told about them.

Weíre taught that the motivation may be a personal creed or ethic: "This is the way Iíve decided to conduct my life." Or it may come from religion, as a form of bearing witness: "There is a great injustice. Maybe I canít stop it, but I can go on record before God and everyone that I oppose it."

Weíre taught that it somehow involves letting yourself get beat up, get arrested, or go on a hunger strike.

Now, if this is all you know about it, it is no wonder that you might conclude: "Itís a nice idea, but it sounds really dangerous, and it wonít work. Plus, letís grow up: we all know that history is made by manly men committing acts of violence against one another."

Maybe not. If you think that what is important in history is who controls governments and armies and who wins wars, then, of course, you will encounter manly men.

"It is in the nature of man to yearn and struggle for freedom. The germ of freedom is in every individual, in anyone who is a human being. In fact, the history of mankind is the history of man struggling and striving for freedom."
-- Zulu chief Albert Luthuli (1898 - 1967), President of the African National Congress, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.
Albert Luthuli
If, however, you think what is important in history is human freedom, then you look for how freedom has advanced and what made that happen.

  • That naked guy, Gandhi, threw the British out of India. How did he do it?

  • Martin Luther King broke down a vicious system of segregation and discrimination in this country. How did he do it?

  • I think the most important advances in human freedom in the last quarter century have been in the liberation of women. Manly men didnít do it. Women did. But how?

  • What about the nonviolent overthrow of the Shah of Iran in the 1970ís, the Marcos dictatorship in the 1980ís, and the remarkable student rebellion in Indonesia last year?

  • In 1989, people in the Soviet bloc overthrew a string of dictatorships peacefully. How?

  • The crown jewel of the century was the amazing transformation of South Africa from apartheid to democracy. What happened?

What is nonviolence?

Much of the thinking underlying it goes way back, in every religious and political tradition. And there are certainly ancient examples of nonviolent tactics used brilliantly.

It was in this century, however, that people figured out how to use it, not just as a tactic, but as the basis for history-making campaigns. This is one of the major achievements of the 20th century.

Underlying it is a compelling theory of power:

One view of power is that it flows from the top down, and is maintained by violence and the threat of violence by a few people at the top. It is durable and self-perpetuating. Peopleís lives depend on the quality of the government and other powerful institutions.

Well-wishers mobbed Aung San Suu Kyi after the military junta freed her from nearly 20 months of house arrest in Rangoon, May 6, 2002. The Nobel Peace Prize winner leads a nationwide nonviolent pro-democracy movement in Burma (Associated Press).
Aung San Suu Kyi
Another view is the opposite. Power flows from the bottom up. It is maintained by the daily cooperation of millions of people at the bottom. Thus it is fragile. This view can be found in the Declaration of Independence, which speaks of governments "deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."

Which view is correct? Both. Power has two sides.

The Soviet Union before 1989 was a classic top-down power. Brutal and permanent. A moment came in 1989 when it suddenly became fragile and collapsed in an instant. As if by magic, it became the perfect example of the bottom-up side of power. What happened? Millions of people knew that if they all stopped cooperating with the system, the system would stop. They did and it did.

In doing so, they gave the lie to the idea that they were brainwashed robots, shuffling down the cold streets, eyes down. They never were brainwashed. They were waiting for the opportune moment. When it came, they didnít hesitate.

Remember the book, 1984, by George Orwell? It was the Soviet system as science fiction. The hero, Winston Smith, rebels against the totalitarian state, but is finally captured. The last line of the book, "He loved Big Brother," means that the state finally succeeded in brainwashing him.

Great book, influential, but wrong. The Soviet system did not depend on brainwashing. People could and did think whatever they wanted. They knew they were being lied to. It didnít matter. What mattered was not thought, but action. People were not permitted to act freely.

The same with South Africa: Just fifteen years ago, all the experts outside South Africa were certain that it had only two possible futures: It would remain an apartheid prison forever, or it would collapse into the bloodiest civil war ever. Neither happened. South Africa is free today because the experts did not consider what millions of South Africans knew: That apartheid depended on their daily cooperation. They stopped and it stopped.

This view of power has nothing to do with whether the glass is half-empty or half-full; nor whether you are an optimist or a pessimist, a Pollyanna or a cynic. None of this is the point.

The point is: Do you want to win? If so, you work on the side of power where victories have come from, the bottom-up side.

And here is the reason why the left went out of business. The strategy of the left was to work top-down, trying to take over the apparatus of violence and coercion.

When thatís your strategy, there are two possible outcomes. Usually, you fail and are killed. The other outcome is worse -- yes, there is a fate worse than death: You win and then you are running the apparatus of violence and coercion. Thanks a lot.

Joan Baez, John Lennon, and Ira Sandperl, Hollywood Hills, August, 1965.
Baez, Lennon, Sandperl
Ends and means

When you look at it this way, you donít get intimidated by people who say Ė "Weíre hard-headed realists. We think clearly. Weíre not misty-eyed. We know that it is a harsh world, and that, regrettably, the end justifies the means. Yes, I had to jail my political opponents, butÖ" and so on.

What they are really saying is that their good intentions justify the means. In the real world, however, as the teacher Ira Sandperl put it, "the means, always and everywhere, without doubt and without exception, cannot, in the very nature of things, but determine the ends. We get what we do, not what we intend."

  • If the means is a gun, you may have the good intention in your head of, say, justice. But if the means is a gun, the end is an entrance wound. Period. It doesnít matter what your intentions were.

  • If the means is a cigarette, you may be thinking about becoming more attractive, more desirable in a smoky kind of way. But if the means is a cigarette, the end is phlegm. Period. It doesnít matter what your intentions were.
On May 30, 1989, students demonstrating for democracy erected the "Goddess of Democracy" statue in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China.
Tienanmen Square, Beijing, China, 1989
An underground idea

Nonviolence is an underground idea. It isnít taught in schools, historians ignore it, and TV, newspapers and magazines donít report on it. Nevertheless, this underground idea keeps bouncing from person to person around the world.

For example, consider the path taken by the ideas in an ancient Hindu text, the Bhagavad Gita. Beginning in 1785, the Gita began to be translated into European languages. Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle gave a copy to the American Ralph Waldo Emerson, who loaned it to Henry David Thoreau, who called it "stupendous." Its influence on Thoreau's 1849 Essay on the Virtue of Civil Disobedience is clear.

In 1889, two friends gave young Mohandas Gandhi an English translation of the Gita in London. He had not read it before in any language.

In Russia, Leo Tolstoy, also reflecting the Gita, wrote The Kingdom of God is Within You in 1893. Gandhi, now in South Africa, was at a turning point in his life. He said, "reading [The Kingdom of God is Within You] cured me of my skepticism and made me a firm believer in nonviolence." Later, in 1907, Gandhi found a copy of Thoreau's Civil Disobedience in a Pretoria jail library, and said "it left a deep impression on me."

Then, of course, Martin Luther King learned from Gandhi, Nelson Mandela learned from King, and on and on.

This spring is the 10th anniversary of the extraordinary student revolt in China.

Do you know what song the students were singing in Tiananmen Square -- many of them in the last hours of their lives? It was "We Shall Overcome." They were putting themselves in this worldwide tradition of nonviolence.

I suggest we put ourselves in the same tradition.