How to Build a Movement: Activism vs. Organizing

by Mark Rudd on August 8, 2013

This post is the third in a North Star series on radical American history. By examining previous attempts to build movements and third parties we hope to discern lessons for the present moment as we wrestle with how we can build a movement for socialism in the 21st century.

First published by Counterpunch.

Since the summer of 2003, I’ve crisscrossed the country speaking at colleges and theaters and bookstores, first with The Weather Underground documentary and, starting in March of this year, with my book, Underground:  My Life with SDS and the Weathermen (William Morrow, 2009). In discussions with young people, they often tell me, “Nothing anyone does can ever make a difference.”

The words still sound strange: it’s a phrase I never once heard forty years ago, a sentiment obviously false on its surface.  Growing up in the Fifties and Sixties, I – and the rest of the country – knew about the civil rights movement in the South, and what was most evident was that individuals, joining with others, actually were making a difference. The labor movement of the Thirties to the Sixties had improved the lives of millions; the anti-war movement had brought down a sitting president – LBJ, March 1968 – and was actively engaged in stopping the Vietnam War. In the 40 years since, the women’s movement, gay rights, disability rights, animal rights, and environmental movements have all registered enormous social and political gains. To old new lefties such as myself, this is all self-evident.

So, why the defeatism? In the absence of knowledge of how these historical movements were built, young people assume that they arose spontaneously, or, perhaps, charismatic leaders suddenly called them into existence. On the third Monday of every January we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. having had a dream; knowledge of the movement itself is lost.

The current anti-war movement’s weakness, however, is very much alive in young people’s experience. They cite the fact that millions turned out in the streets in the early spring of 2003 to oppose the pending U.S. attack on Iraq, but that these demonstrations had no effect. “We demonstrated, and they didn’t listen to us.” Even the activists among them became demoralized as numbers at demonstrations dropped off very quickly, street demonstrations becoming cliches, and, despite a big shift in public opinion in 2006, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan droned on to today. The very success of the spontaneous early mobilization seems to have contributed to the anti-war movement’s long-term weakness.

Something’s missing. I first got an insight into articulating what it is when I picked up Letters from Young Activists: Today’s Rebels Speak Out, edited by Dan Berger, Chesa Boudin, and Kenyon Farrow (Nation Books, 2005). Andy Cornell, in a letter to the movement that first radicalized him, “Dear Punk Rock Activism,” criticizes the conflation of the terms “activism” and “organizing.” He writes:

“activists are individuals who dedicate their time and energy to various efforts they hope will contribute to social, political, or economic change. Organizers are activists who, in addition to their own participation, work to move other people to take action and help them develop skills, political analysis and confidence within the context of organizations. Organizing is a process – creating long-term campaigns that mobilize a certain constituency to press for specific demands from a particular target, using a defined strategy and escalating tactics.”

In other words, it’s not enough for punks to continually express their contempt for mainstream values through their alternate identity; they’ve got to move toward “organizing masses of people.”

Aha!  Activism = self-expression; organizing = movement-building.

Until recently, I’d rarely heard young people call themselves “organizers.” The common term for years has been “activists.” Organizing was reduced to the behind the scenes nuts-and-bolts work needed to pull off a specific event, such as a concert or demonstration. But 40 years ago, we only used the word “activist” to mock our enemies’ view of us, as when a university administrator or newspaper editorial writer would call us “mindless activists.” We were organizers, our work was building a mass movement, and that took constant discussion of goals, strategy, and tactics (and, later, contributing to our downfall ideology).

Mark Rudd, Columbia student strike, 1968

Thinking back over my own experience, I realized that I had inherited this organizer’s identity from the red diaper babies I fell in with at the Columbia chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Raised by parents in the labor and civil rights and communist or socialist movements, they had naturally learned the organizing method as other kids learned how to throw footballs or bake pineapple upside-down cakes. “Build the base!” was the constant strategy of Columbia SDS for years.

Yet, young activists I met were surprised to learn that major events, such as the Columbia rebellion of April 1968, did not happen spontaneously, that they took years of prior education, relationship building, reconsideration on the part of individuals of their role in the institution — i.e., organizing. It seemed to me that they believed that movements happen as a sort of dramatic or spectator sport: after a small group of people express themselves, large numbers of bystanders see the truth in what they’re saying and join in. The mass anti-war mobilization of the spring 2003, which failed to stop the war, was the only model they knew.

I began looking for a literature that would show how successful historical movements were built. Not the outcomes or triumphs, such as the great civil rights March on Washington in 1963, but the many streams that eventually created the floods. I wanted to know who said what to whom and how did they respond. One book was recommended to me repeatedly by friends: I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: the Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle by Charles M. Payne (University of California Press, 1995). Payne, an African-American sociologist, now at the University of Chicago, asked the question how young student organizers of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) had successfully organized voter registration and related campaigns in one town, Greenwood, Mississippi, in the years 1961-1964. The Mississippi Delta region was one of the most benighted areas of the South, with conditions for black cotton sharecroppers and plantation workers not much above the level of slavery. Despite the fact that illiteracy and economic dependency were the norm among black people in the Delta, and that they were the target of years of violent terror tactics, including murder, SNCC miraculously organized these same people to take the steps toward their own freedom, through attaining voting rights and education.

How did they do it?

What Payne uncovers through his investigation into SNCC in Greenwood is an organizing method that has no name but is solidly rooted in the traditions of church women of the rural South. Black churches usually had charismatic male ministers, who, as a consequence of their positions, led in an authoritarian manner. The work of the congregations themselves, however, the social events and education and mutual aid were organized at the base level by women, who were democratic and relational in style. Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC), used the ministerial model in their mobilizing for events, while the young people of SNCC – informed by the teaching and examples of freedom movement veterans Ella Baker and Septima Clark – concentrated on building relationships with local people and helping them develop into leaders within democratic structures. SNCC’s central organizing principle, “participatory democracy,” was a direct inheritance from Ella Baker.

Payne writes:

“SNCC preached a gospel of individual efficacy. What you do matters. In order to move politically, people had to believe that. In Greenwood, the movement was able to exploit communal and familial traditions that encouraged people to believe in their own light.”

Ella Baker

The features of the method, sometimes called “developmental” or “transformational organizing,” involves long-term strategy, patient base-building, personal engagement between people, full democratic participation, education and the development of people’s leadership capabilities, and coalition-building. The developmental method is often juxtaposed to Alinsky-style organizing, which is usually characterized as top-down and manipulative.

For a first-hand view of Alinsky organizing – although it’s never named as such – by a trained and seasoned practitioner, see Barack Obama’s book, Dreams of My Father (Three Rivers Press, 1995 and 2004). In the middle section of the book, “Chicago,” Obama describes his three years organizing on the streets and housing projects of South Chicago. He beautifully invokes his motives – improving young people’s lives – but at the same time draws a murky picture of organizing. Questions abound: Who trained him? What was his training? Who paid him? What is the guiding ideology? What is his relationship to the people he calls “my leaders?” Are they above him or are they manipulated by him? Who are calling whose shots? What are the long-term consequences?

It’s a great piece to start a discussion with young organizers.

While reading I’ve Got the Light of Freedom, I realized that much of what we had practiced in SDS was derived from SNCC and this developmental organizing tradition, up to and including the vision of “participatory democracy,” which was incorporated in the 1962 SDS founding document, “The Port Huron Statement.” Columbia SDS’s work was patient, strategic, base-building, using both confrontation and education. I, myself, had been nurtured and developed into a leadership position through years of close friendship with older organizers.

However, my clique’s downfall came post-1968, when, under the spell of the illusion of revolution, we abandoned organizing, first for militant confrontation (Weatherman and the Days of Rage, Oct. 1969) and then armed urban guerilla warfare (the Weather Underground, 1970-1976). We had, in effect, moved backward from organizing to self-expression, believing, ridiculously, that that would build the movement. At the moment when more organizing was needed to build a permanent anti-imperialist mass movement, we abandoned organizing.

This is the story I tell in my book, Underground.  It’s about good organizing (Columbia), leading to worse (Weatherman), leading to horrible (the Weather Underground). I hope it’s useful to contemporary organizers, as they contemplate how to build the coming mass movement(s).

MARK RUDD lives and teaches in Albuquerque, N.M. He can be reached at

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Robert Gahtan August 8, 2013 at 3:33 pm

I’m suprised that Rudd does not refer to any of the following:
Randy Shaw’s The Activist’s Handbook (2001),
Prokosch, Laura Raymond’, and Naomi Klein’s The Global Activist’s Manual (2002),
Marshall Ganz’s Why David Sometimes Wins (2010),
Gene Sharp’s From Dictatorship to Democracy (2012),
Aiden Ricketts’s The Activist’s Handbook (2012).
Eric Mann’s Playbook for Progressives (2013)


Carl Davidson August 8, 2013 at 3:34 pm

Mark Rudd and I are often in agreement these days, including on the points made here. I’ve been arguing for a ‘new culture of organizing,’ and here’s a brief slide show, where I include his meme about Ella Baker–but add it to Gramsci and Father Arizmendi. From the home page of the Online University of the Left:


Pham Binh August 8, 2013 at 3:56 pm

“However, my clique’s downfall came post-1968, when, under the spell of the illusion of revolution, we abandoned organizing, first for militant confrontation (Weatherman and the Days of Rage, Oct. 1969) and then armed urban guerilla warfare (the Weather Underground, 1970-1976). We had, in effect, moved backward from organizing to self-expression, believing, ridiculously, that that would build the movement. At the moment when more organizing was needed to build a permanent anti-imperialist mass movement, we abandoned organizing.

What wonder is: to what extent the above was the product of illusions in revolution or sheer frustration/rage that all the organizing going on seemingly had no effect on the U.S. war effort? Nixon came to power in 1969 and dramatically escalated the war, upping the already-high stakes and so did that force organizers to sort of “lose their heads” and throw caution to the winds in the name of trying to stop the system by any means necessary? If so, it’s hard to condemn people for that even if in hindsight it was clearly a mistake.

Organizing and building institutional power (meaning party-building via winning elections) from the bottom up with the aim of stopping the war wasn’t the kind of obvious and pressing strategic necessity it is with, say, austerity, or police brutality, which are local rather than strictly national issues. I just don’t see how a third, radical party aiming to stop the war could have been built from the local, municipal level all the way to the national/federal level since the war was a national rather than local policy; local governments have very little power to interfere with imperialist foreign policy. And short of party/institution-building, I don’t know if it was possible to create “permanent anti-imperialist mass movement” in the 1970-1976 context.


Aaron Aarons August 9, 2013 at 3:38 am

Rudd writes,

under the spell of the illusion of revolution, we abandoned organizing, first for militant confrontation […] and then armed urban guerilla warfare […]. We had, in effect, moved backward from organizing to self-expression, believing, ridiculously, that that would build the movement. At the moment when more organizing was needed to build a permanent anti-imperialist mass movement, we abandoned organizing

It would be interesting to observe both the similarities and differences with the evolution of the Red Brigades in Italy at around the same time. While the Brigades were based in factories among the working class more than in universities, and from the start used militant confrontation and urban-guerrilla tactics, they also evolved to the point where their cadre carried out spectacular actions isolated from their mass base, which eventually made it easier for the state to crush them and their base.


Deran August 9, 2013 at 1:45 pm

This is not directly on topic, but I’ve always found a very interesting read on the late-1960s and the decline of the radical Left in the US is Kirkpatrick Sale’s 1973/1974 book “SDS”. It does not extend into the urban guerrilla 70s and 80s, but it is a fascinating read abt the growth of the “New Left”, SDS, the anti-Vietnam War movement and what became vicious internecine/sectarian “warfare” between the emerging factions of the Marxist-Leninist New Left w/ in and out of SDS.


Chris Lowe August 16, 2013 at 8:31 pm

Yes, Sale’s book is very interesting. A key issue that I remember is the idea of SDS becoming the victim of its own success, of mushrooming in the course of a couple of (academic) years from a core of a few thousand organizers/activists on a limited number of campuses to something on the order of 200,000 (imagine a left organization on that scale today) on hundreds of campuses. I think the effect must have been a bit like “Occupy” was (a reference point that didn’t exist when I read the book, obviously), except that SDS defined itself around a constituency (students) rather than a tactic, and it had at least the skeleton of a national structure as well as relationships to the national anti-war movement. The point being that in relation to Rudd’s argument, good organizing can give rise to a level of response, not entirely “spontaneous” but not slow and methodical either, that requires an entirely different scale of capacity that’s hard to generate.


bobf August 18, 2013 at 12:26 am

Mark’s version of post-1968 Movement history and WUO history tends to be less balanced than the analysis that the still-imprisoned Columbia sds founder and organizer David Gilbert provides readers in his “Love and Struggle: My Life in SDS, the Weather Underground and Beyond” autobiography of a few years ago. Mark fails to mention how the COINTELPRO repression of Black Panther Party activists (including the Dec. 1969 assassination of BPP leader Fred Hampton in Chicago) may have pushed WUO activists engage in more militant actions than they had been involved with in the pre-1969 period of organizing/non-violent confrontational politics/institutional resistance on U.S. campuses. Also, the example of the Irish Republican Movement during the 1970s and 1980s would seem to indicate that mass organizing can sometimes be effectively combined politically with the kind of militant actions that the WUO engaged until the U.S. imperialist government finally ended its military intervention in Indochina.


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