To Build a Movement

To Build a Movement

Michael Walzer’s Political Action, written nearly half a century ago, contains many useful guidelines for organizers today. But social movements are often messy and unpredictable affairs.

Student sit-in in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1960 (Bettmann/Getty Images)

Political Action: A Practical Guide to Movement Politics
by Michael Walzer
NYRB Classics, 2019, 120 pp.

In the spring of 1968, as an undergraduate at Harvard, I took a course on the English Revolution taught by Michael Walzer, then a young professor in the government department. It was an eye-opener. Walzer’s lectures were lucid, and the class opened a world of new reading, including my first (and last) encounter with Milton and Walzer’s brilliant first book, The Revolution of the Saints: A Study in the Origins of Radical Politics. A year later, students occupied the Harvard administration building, University Hall, demanding the creation of an Afro-American studies department and an end to Harvard’s complicity with the Vietnam War and its expansion plans, which would have displaced neighboring working-class families. The administration quickly called in the police, leading to bloody clashes, mass arrests, and a strike that effectively shut down the university for the rest of the year. Two years after that, in 1971, Walzer, who had been active in the civil rights movement and community organizing against the war (and who already was a well-established contributor to Dissent), published Political Action: A Practical Guide to Movement Politics. Political Action is a how-to manual, laced with pungent observations and, at least implicitly, rejoinders to the extremes of the student left. This year, NYRB Classics reprinted the book, unchanged except for a brief introduction by Jon Wiener and a new preface by Walzer.

Political Action speaks to recurrent tensions within social movements—between the need for dramatic gestures that break through the inertia of the everyday and the drudgery of constructing stable organizations that can survive the ups and downs of politics; between leading-edge activists and the more moderate constituencies they hope to attract; and between those for whom politics is the center of their lives and the many sympathizers who have more pressing concerns, like jobs, children, and homes to keep up. Though such tensions were particularly intense at the moment Walzer was writing, they thread through the whole history of the postwar left, from the labor-liberal offensive at the end of the Second World War to the New Left of the 1960s to the contemporary resurgence of activism and democratic socialism. The republication of Political Action provides an occasion to reconsider not only Walzer’s contribution but also the underlying issues he addresses.

For those who know Walzer only as a political theorist, Political Action will be something of a surprise. Just ninety-six pages long, it consists of twenty-five short chapters, most dealing with the nuts and bolts of organizing: “Defining the Issues,” “Leaders,” “The Office Staff,” “The Mass Media” (the only chapter Walzer now sees as outdated), “The Uses of Militancy.” Aimed at “citizen activists” (a term few leftists today would use for its restrictiveness), much of the book presents common-sense advice for movement newcomers in a tone carefully stripped of romanticism. Political action, Walzer makes clear, is difficult, frustrating, and usually only partially successful at best. Acute in his formulations, Walzer avoids sugarcoating the daily realities of movement life. In his chapter on “Meetings,” he notes that “The tendency of citizen politics is toward democracy of expression, an equalitarianism of the vocal chords, which is wonderfully exhilarating . . . until it becomes exhausting and tedious.” Endless talk does not prevent leadership manipulation; rather, “Expressive democracy is perfectly compatible with autocratic decision-making.” Clear rules, careful preparation, and fewer meetings, Walzer suggests, are more effective and democratic than long “shapeless discussion.” In this and many other chapters, Walzer provides solid guidelines that activists today could learn from.

Walzer sees two kinds of political action ordinary citizens can engage in: pressure politics and electoral politics. He focuses more on the former, though he notes that when it “doesn’t lead to a change in government policy, electoral politics is a necessary next step. The movement can’t avoid it, even if supporting conventional candidates and parties involves some compromise of its principles.” He provides helpful thoughts about when and how to turn that corner, including the challenges of creating new party structures.

There is another kind of politics that Walzer recognizes, but it is not for citizen activists: revolutionary politics. “It is not very often that anyone actually makes a revolution,” Walzer writes. Rather, “revolutions happen,” and when they do, “it is the professionals, newly recruited professionals perhaps, who take charge.” Writing at a tumultuous moment, when all kinds of political activists were declaring themselves revolutionaries, Walzer correctly saw the prospect of revolution as “a fantasy” with which activists should “never . . . indulge themselves (or frighten their enemies).”

From his very first engagement in political action, Walzer “struggled to ward off ideologues on the farther left.” Not displaying the already atavistic anti-Stalinism of many critics of the New Left, Walzer’s warnings about those to his left focus on the likelihood that they will drive away the kind of ordinary citizens he sees as key to success. In a swipe at the student movement at Harvard, Walzer criticizes the clenched fist—brought back into radical iconography by a Harvard design student named Harvey Hacker, the image soon adorned everything from T-shirts to the cover of Life—as signaling a violence and aggressiveness that would turn off potential recruits. To “take one’s symbols from the avant-garde culture of the time,” he warns, “inevitably turns political action into an elite performance and a kind of esoteric communication. Similarly, it’s a mistake for activists to imitate the life styles of Bohemia—unless it is their primary object to organize Bohemians.” Over and over again, Walzer stresses the need to appeal to ordinary people, never to condescend to them or to push them away with self-indulgent cultural gestures.

But who exactly was the constituency Walzer was trying to appeal to with his call for a movement “sane and steady,” at a time when very little sanity or steadiness could be found in the United States? The primary audience for his book was clearly meant to be middle-class activists, including students from middle-class backgrounds. He urges them not to write off folks like themselves in search of “the people”; members of the middle class, after all, “like everyone else . . . are the salt of the earth.” Walzer does not reject trying to cross class lines to recruit workers and the poor to activist causes (and, of course, millions of them already were active in unions, welfare rights groups, tenants’ organizations, civil rights groups, women’s groups, and the like), but he cautions about the difficulties of these efforts and provides some sensible advice about how to proceed. Still, at least implicitly, Walzer’s citizen activist is a rational, thoughtful member of the middle class, concerned about society but not necessarily interested in total immersion in politics.

In this regard, Political Action is something of a throwback to the mid- and late 1950s, just before the civil rights movement fully exploded with Freedom Rides and lunch-counter sit-ins, when a middle-class, largely white wave of activism developed in big Northern cities and on the West Coast. On the left, in the wake of Adlai Stevenson’s failed bid for the presidency, a new brand of “reform” Democratic politics arose in New York and elsewhere, promoted by literate, self-confident, middle-class professionals fed up with the corruption and inaction of politics as usual. Organizations opposing nuclear weapons, like SANE, and other single-issue groups drew on similar constituencies. A somewhat parallel wave of middle-class, grassroots activism arose in Southern California, where suburban conservatives who distrusted established authorities took up the cause of anti-communism and set out to remake the Republican Party. The mobilized citizens Walzer seems to have had in mind more resemble these Eisenhower-era activists, with their good manners, neat dress, and appeals to rationality, than the young, unruly, hyperbole-spouting militants of the late 1960s.

This model of political activity stretches back to the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. As the war drew to a close, the left wing of the labor movement and elements of the Popular Front, which had once demanded radical social transformations, sought to preserve what they already had won and incrementally extend it. Critical to the effort were two spin-offs of CIO-PAC, the group created by the Congress of Industrial Organizations in 1943 to help Franklin Roosevelt win re-election: the National Citizens Political Action Committee (NCPAC) and the Independent Citizens Committee of the Arts, Sciences, and Professions. These were the first modern PACs, vehicles to promote particular candidates and issues from outside the formal party structure.

NCPAC’s 1946 Manual of Practical Political Action has remarkable parallels to Walzer’s guidebook (though it is unlikely Walzer even knew of its existence). NCPAC saw its most promising constituency as what it called “earnest liberals” or “sincere liberals”—morally serious community members unsullied by machine politics or political adventurism who could be united with the labor movement. Many of NCPAC’s lead issues were unachieved planks of the left-wing of the New Deal, which have reemerged over seventy years later as core demands of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party: national healthcare, government-funded child care, and changing undemocratic congressional rules.

NCPAC argued for practicality and worried about those to its left. Cautioning against the movement to create a third party, it lectured that “Certain unrealistic liberals . . . want the millennium Monday morning.” (Such realism proved situational; many NCPAC backers bolted the Democratic Party to support Henry Wallace’s third-party campaign in the 1948 election.) NCPAC’s decorous tone stood in marked contrast to the disruptive display of worker power in the huge wave of strikes that occurred in the first year after the war.

For NCPAC, like for Walzer, organizing requires strategies that are not inherently progressive. Somewhat apologetically, the Manual suggests borrowing techniques from commercial advertising, presenting detailed guidance, much of it derived from standard business practices, about newspaper advertising, radio spots, and direct mail. The Popular Front from which it had emerged well understood the mechanics of persuasion, with one foot in working-class movements and another in the creative professions, from theater to cinema to advertising and the graphic arts. The idea of organizing as a politically neutral enterprise requiring specialized knowledge has had a long afterlife. Perhaps its most influential reincarnation was through Saul Alinsky and his many followers. Glimpses of it can be seen in Barack Obama’s account of his community organizing days in Dreams from My Father.

But, of course, technique goes only so far. For all its meticulous cataloging of knowledge needed for effective organizing, from billboard advertising rates in thirty different cities to how to use skits to enliven meetings (include ones written by Arthur Miller about inflation and civil rights), NCPAC got creamed in the 1946 congressional elections. The Republicans, campaigning against the New Deal, organized labor, prices increases, and the ineptitude of the Truman administration, won control of both houses of Congress for the first time since 1930. Among other things, the Democratic defeat opened the door to the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act, the beginning of a rollback of labor power that has continued ever since.

In a recent essay in n+1, Alyssa Battistoni gives another example of the limits of organizing prowess. Her account of her role in the long effort to unionize graduate students at Yale University details the obsessive diligence and impressive skill of the Graduate Employees and Students Organization (GESO) organizers. In February 2017, graduate students in eight departments voted to unionize. But forthcoming changes in the National Labor Relations Board resulting from Donald Trump’s election made it all but certain that Yale would win its appeal against the vote, leading GESO to withdraw its petition for recognition. No level of organizing competency could overcome the larger historical circumstances. Indeed, in recent years, there has been a large cadre of extremely committed and able organizers in the union movement, workers’ centers, community groups, racial justice organizations, reproductive rights groups, LGBTQ groups, and environmental organizations. They have helped win some very important victories, but they have not stopped our slide toward barbarism.

Walzer is acutely aware that will and competency alone are not enough to lead to success. In Political Action he preaches a gospel of realism—if you don’t win, try a different approach (like moving into electoral politics) or disband your effort and save your energies for something else. But Political Action is not about building a long-term movement or—for the most part—transforming the larger cultural and political circumstances. It is about how to change government policy and achieve desired actions in relation to discrete issues, one after another.

Social movements are messier affairs, with stranger courses, than one would gather from either the NCPAC or Walzer guidebooks. Part of their power derives from not acting like the responsible citizen activists NCPAC and Walzer appeal to, but rather by transgressing social norms, offending ordinary people, and moving forward without carefully worked out strategies. The 1936–37 auto worker sit-down strikes were one example. The 1960 lunch-counter sit-downs in North Carolina, which Walzer wrote about for Dissent, were another, as were the occupation of Harvard’s University Hall and Occupy Wall Street.

Sometimes such actions lead to the creation of new institutions that can carry the struggle forward to broader victories, like the CIO or the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which emerged out of the wave of desegregation sit-downs. Sometimes the movements bold actions create prove ephemeral, as in the case of Occupy Wall Street. But even when they fail to leave institutional legacies, disruptive, impolite political actions can have lasting effects on the participants and on the larger society. By the time Walzer published Political Action, Students for a Democratic Society, which had led the Harvard occupation, was all but dead, splintered into rival, self-destructive Maoist and terrorist wings. But scores of students who took part in the Harvard occupation and subsequent strike, many new to politics, ended up spending lifetimes committed to political action as professionals, academics, unionists, and elected officials, transformed by the electrifying experience of breaking the rules for something they believed in, side-by-side with people who not long before had been strangers or even factional enemies. Occupy Wall Street failed utterly as an ongoing entity, but through demonstrations and a single, catchy term, “the one percent,” it helped launch a national debate about economic inequality that has continued ever since.

Both Walzer and NCPAC, in their focus on effective action for immediate gains, show little concern for prefigurative politics, for creating modes of action that anticipate what a different system of social organization might be like. Walzer, surrounded by a lot of left-wing foolishness and adventurism, had no patience for what some SNCC members called “freedom high,” the exhilaration—and social disengagement—that can come in the wake of daring challenges to the established order. He was the grown-up in the room.

In his healthy and understandable sobriety, though, Walzer perhaps underestimated the complexity of what brings people to political action. It is not simply or always the pursuit of some economic, social, or moral interest. Sometimes the clenched fist is the draw—its boldness, or its anger, or the dreams and fantasies associated with it. And those bohemian ways have drawn plenty of young people to the left, even as they repelled others. Sometimes embracing political engagement is an act of refusal or desperation, a cry that business-as-usual would be a kind of personal or social suicide.

We live in such a moment today. The huge, unexpected mushrooming of the socialist left over the past half-decade, seen in the success of Bernie Sanders in attracting millions of voters or in the explosive growth of the Democratic Socialists of America, testifies to the attraction of efforts that seek to transcend the norms of reform politics. That doesn’t mean that the guidelines, and the assumptions behind them, that Walzer laid out nearly a half century ago are not still relevant. Activists today face a similar balancing act as their predecessors, understanding that more of the same is a road to failure but also that without attracting more people not normally prone to radical or bold action they can never succeed. The sober but committed voice of Walzer—saying political action is hard, might well fail, and might not deliver the personal satisfactions we all seek, but nonetheless is the only way forward—provides a solid grounding for those swept up in the urgency of our current, global social crisis.


Joshua B. Freeman is Distinguished Professor of History at Queens College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. His most recent book is Behemoth: The Factory and the Making of the Modern World.


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