June 22, 2008

Add Yeast and Knead

[This is the second of a two-part essay. The first part is immediately before/after this one.]

As promised a week ago, here's my suggested plan of action for the renewal and revitalization of the Socialist Party.

Change the monthly or bi-weekly membership meetings into working meetings. The work must be meaningful in scope and be within the capability of the membership. That is, it must have immediately observable results and must achieve of the goal set for that meeting.

This is impossible if you decide to stop the war, end world hunger, bring justice to the Philadelphia police department, or attempt any similar goals. That has been the problem with the SP, at least here in the U.S.A.   So you should begin with small things. Things that can actually be accomplished with the physical, financial, and organizational resources at hand.

Socialists are unused to tasks of this kind, so begin with household chores at the home where the meeting is held: emptying trash, vacuuming rugs, sweeping the porch, weeding, etc.  Like all organizational meetings, you should start by deciding the work to be done, determining who shall be responsible for its achievement, and agreeing on what criteria will be used to ascertain success and failure.

Some meetings should concentrate on joint efforts at a single task, such as painting a shed or a room. Other meetings might focus on a related category of tasks, such as emptying and taking out the trash, dusting exposed surfaces, etc. All members should have roughly equivalent tasks proportional to their abilities. Members may trade tasks.

Each meeting should be held at a different member's house, so that all may benefit. Consideration and analysis of work done and work to be done should be an ongoing item of agenda at meetings, but should never take more than one quarter of the total time allowed for any working meeting. Self-criticism and constructive suggestion should be encouraged as it is much more useful than disparagement. Discourage analysis that does not lead to action.

Eventually the group will come to local meetings with the expectation of doing something worthwhile, no matter how trivial, and come away from these meetings with a feeling of accomplishment, no matter how small. This is an unusual feeling for an American Socialist.

After a time, the members will begin to enjoy working together for the common good and will take pride in their group's achievement and in their part of it. Sooner or later the membership will express an interest in doing work outside of their own homes. This is the beginning of social consciousness which is the foundation of socialism. Groups should consider work that can be done in a given neighborhood and accomplished in a few hours -- just like the house and yard work they have been doing in each others homes. Some work will be seen as requiring several meetings to accomplish, or need daily or weekly application. Each group will find it has a unique range of interest: street cleaning, graffiti removal, helping the elderly, conducting neighborhood conflict resolution clinics, doing habitat for humanity construction, stream restoration, kudzu or English ivy clearing, night-time community patrolling, and so on.

When a group's current selection of work is completed, is no longer needed, or has proven untenable or counterproductive, they should celebrate appropriately and begin new work immediately. If nothing comes to mind, the group should return to doing basic household tasks. This will help the membership to more readily recognize when it's time to move on, what it is possible to accomplish, and to more quickly recognize how much can reasonably be accomplished with the resources at their disposal.

A succession of accomplishments and completed projects can only improve the group's self-image and pride. The hope is that this behavior will generalize into other areas of their political and personal lives. The more the group becomes intimately involved in the needs and problems of its community, the more effective it will become at finding solutions and resolutions. In some groups this may lead to city, state, national, or international action. But working groups must always begin with and be grounded in the most basic and needed actions.

The SP, along with much of the left, both secular and religious, has concentrated for too long on repetitive behavior as a means of making their will felt. Unless such behavior produces immediate and visible change, it should be discarded. To continue doing the same thing each time may be comforting, but if nothing changes, it is without purpose. Most protests, leafleting, vigils, and rallies should be recognized as, at best, social functions, and at worst as replacing good work with inefficient or pointless work. Social functions are good for group solidarity, but recognize when that is all that's being accomplished.

When you rally in a park, also have a party or dance, and then clean up the park and sweep the street. When you protest the behavior of a congressman, wash his windows, empty his trash, vacuum his rugs, and invite him or her (and staff) to join you for a drink at the local pub. Every action should result in some observable change for the better.

This all seems simpleminded and petty when weighed against larger problems. But consider what socialists have in fact been able to accomplish, which is too often damned little. Even though the concepts of socialist fairness and equity have become a part of American economic and political reality, socialists themselves have had little effect on the issues of the day.

The Working Meeting is an attempt to return to the best precepts of American socialism: fairness and equity, good work, and immediately observable results. These are the things that attracted the working class to socialism, and made proud traitors of many members of the middle and upper class.

The economic and social theories of Marx have mired us in analysis instead of action, re-election instead of new work; and most self-declared socialists no longer think of themselves as Marxists. At the same time, the Democratic Party has adopted the guise and words of fairness, equity, good work, and observable results, while systematically betraying their meaning. We must return to our roots and rediscover what made socialism attractive. Begin small and do good work. See what then becomes possible.

First published in Tribe, March 8, 2007 -

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