Commentators on the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, from journalists to Facebook commenters, seem preoccupied almost entirely with debating ideology — that is, whether the protesters are morally justified in protesting the way they do, whether black and brown people are being oppressed to the degree that the protesters claim, whether there is a connection between American minorities and Palestinians, and so on. Although these ideological battles are of course necessary and desirable for any important political movement, Americans seem to have meanwhile underestimated or forgotten the value of an equally important aspect of any social movement: organization. This misstep is especially disappointing in the wake of movements with worthy ideals but crippled by poor organization, like the Arab Spring and Occupy. If the activists of the BLM movement wish to effect social change and realize their dreams more efficiently, they should allow for the emergence of intellectual authority, which will lead to effective organization and at last endow their movement with real movement.
What counts as effective political organization? A cursory glance at successful revolutionary organization in history, such as the Russian soviets of the October Revolution, the town hall meetings of our Founding Fathers, or perhaps more pertinently the celebrated leaders of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, suggests the need for a hierarchical yet pluralistic structure ranked by authority, supported from the bottom-up. The virtue of pluralism in good organization is that it allows for the establishment of hierarchy without sacrificing accountability to the movement’s participants. This accountability is the thin line that separates revolutionary heroes from despots, Jefferson from Robespierre. But why do these lessons from history fall upon deaf ears?
Political shortcomings originate within culture. That is, certain forms of political organization simply will not naturally emerge nor work for a given people within a certain cultural world — a proposition easier to accept if we try to imagine a republic emerging out of an aristocratic Confucian society or a Communist government emerging out of a society of staunch neoliberals.
Although we are dealing with milder contrasts and with groups rather than states, the same principle holds in trying to understand why our modern political movements, typified by the BLM movement, resist hierarchical authority in favor of less productive but more egalitarian means of organization, such as “direct democracy.” For example, Berkeley protesters against UC tuition hikes relied upon a radical egalitarianism to make their group decisions, aiming “to de-emphasize the role of leadership by rotating facilitation of group gatherings,” according to The Daily Californian. One can only imagine how frustrating it would be to see Dr. King or Malcolm X participate in a radically egalitarian group with “rotating facilitation,” and put some points on the table before being asked to sit back and listen intently to every participant in the group for their input.
In a recent article in the New York Times, Malcolm X’s daughter reflected on what her father would think about the new BLM movement, 50 years after his death. She said that he would no doubt be in support of their worthy cause, but “they might not like some of the critical things he would have to say about the strategies of today’s activists” (my emphasis). She continued by detailing what contributions he would make:
First, he would challenge today’s young protesters to draw upon the nation’s rich history of activism and to appreciate better the contributions of those who have gone before them. What worked in Selma, in Chicago, in Watts — and what didn’t? … Finally, he would emphasize that he was never one man acting alone. Malcolm didn’t create black anger with his speeches — he organized and gave direction to it … If my father were alive today, he would be humbled as a new generation emerges, yet again inspired, in part, by his life and words. He would advocate alongside them. But he would encourage them to follow his lead and never take the path of least resistance.
It may be that we could have our own Malcolm X or MLK, if only we organized ourselves differently and let these leadership figures emerge and take the helm. It is a lesson as old as Plato that if all the sailors attempt to steer the ship as equals, the ship is doomed to sink.
If this antipathy to authority is cultural, this becomes a deep, difficult problem to understand and grapple with. But to start off, I suspect the phenomenon can be tied to the rise in political social media, which appears to grant the people a virtual polis to “act politically” by signing petitions and passively sharing links. There is no virtual organizing principle on the common social media sites, only individuals forced to be equal by the nature of their means to express themselves. As such, modern political movements may be only a physical representation of this virtual phenomenon: a change.org petition with bodies and signs rather than mere signatures and hashtags.
There seems to me a deep dissonance in the famed “Stanford 68’s” attempt to “reclaim MLK.” Of course there are the connections on fighting injustice in all its forms and the desire for peace. But a proper reclaiming of Dr. King’s charisma, authority even among other leaders, and political genius in organization and strategy should mimic this structure. Leaders have not yet publicly emerged in the BLM movement, just as they failed to emerge in Occupy and the Arab Spring.
A second cultural inhibitor may be the counterproductive nature of political correctness as sometimes used by progressives, a phenomenon observed by political commentators Jonathan Chait and Nat Hentoff. As the Stanford Political Journal’s Jason Willick noted:
It’s not uncommon for Stanford social science classes to have a number of students who think that saying ‘check your privilege’ is an acceptable substitute for argument, and it’s not uncommon for classes to have at least one loud, defiant right-wing student who wants to make sure everyone knows how much of a nonconformist he is. The only effect the ‘check your privilege’ crowd has on the conservative is to make him even more dogmatic in his views. It is the apolitical and moderate-liberal students who are cowed into silence by P.C. activists.
As a result, when these normally apolitical and moderate-liberal students enter the political scene, whether it’s for BLM or the UC tuition hike, the sword of P.C. hangs over them like a limiting aura, suppressing the potential for natural political leaders to reveal themselves and have a larger stake in controlling the collective. The paradoxical truism is that the establishment of further egalitarianism may require the aid of non-egalitarian measures.
The counterproductive egalitarianism in our contemporary political movements brings to mind the short-lived conductorless orchestras in the 1920s USSR, the Persimfans, that attempted to mirror the overthrowing of the Tsar by the soviets in a musical ensemble without a “musical monarch.” The analogy here to political movements is a good one, considering there are varying talents within the group and competing, even conflicting, aspirations for the group. Here, Lenin, perhaps the revolutionary theorist of the past century most obsessed with organization, offered his remarks in What is To Be Done? on how to organize a party from the ground up, using the analogy of an orchestra:
In order that the center can not only advise, convince, and debate with the orchestra — as has been the case up to now — but really to direct it, we need a detailed information: who is playing which violin and where? What instrument is being mastered and has been mastered and where? Who is playing a false note (when the music starts to grate on the ear) — and where and why? Whom to relocate to where and how in order to correct the dissonance.
These organizational lessons are essential, and the inefficacy of the “conductorless” movements of our times is case in point. By learning from the rich history of revolutionary and activist politics, movements like BLM can bring about much needed social and cultural change. Let us welcome the return of the conductors to alter the dynamics of our political symphonies such that the right voices may be heard and the social dissonances corrected.
Truman Chen, a sophomore studying philosophy, is the technology editor of Stanford Political Journal.