Howard Zinn on anarchism and organizing

If you work through the existing structures you are going to be corrupted. By working through political system that poisons the atmosphere, even the progressive organizations, you can see it even now in the US, where people on the “Left” are all caught in the electoral campaign and get into fierce arguments about should we support this third party candidate or that third party candidate. This is a sort of little piece of evidence that suggests that when you get into working through electoral politics you begin to corrupt your ideals. So I think a way to behave is to think not in terms of representative government, not in terms of voting, not in terms of electoral politics, but thinking in terms of organizing social movements, organizing in the work place, organizing in the neighborhood, organizing collectives that can become strong enough to eventually take over – first to become strong enough to resist what has been done to them by authority, and second, later, to become strong enough to actually take over the institutions.

This seems to be the crux of the problem for the Left. How can you work outside of the system, presumably not co-opted, yet build enough of a mass organization that you can resist on a mass basis, then eventually take over that same system?

Given that theoretical framework, I don’t think you can. By staying outside the system you effectively limit your reach and influence to the relative few already on the Left who are willing to listen to you. But you can’t build a mass organization that way.

The question remains the same, whether Anarchist or Marxist, how do you influence the system if you are resolutely determined to stand outside of it?

Tip: American Leftist


  • I doubt if you will find anarchists who want to take over the systems. They will advocate for entirely new structures that replace the existing systems. As long as you work within the system and wish to take over the intsitutions of a system you lend legitimacy to those institution. You will just end up being a repeat of the previous but with a different colour and a few cosmetic changes.

  • Perhaps Zinn meant take them over then change them. But either way, a huge well-organized mass movement would be needed, and the question is, how to to get there.

  • History tells us that when any group takes over the institutions of state they don’t let go, they then go on to strengthen their grip, and you are back where you started or worse. I agree it must be a mass movement but it must work outside the existing institutions or as Zin said, they become corrupt.

  • DJ

    I can’t help but point once again to the Sarvodaya Movement of Sri Lanka– an organization that built itself entirely outside existing structures, which is now active in ovewr ten thousand communities and has tens of thousands of active volunteers. It began as an effort to give voice to the poorest of the poor (the untouchables), and had developed into an organization with incredible political potential– and perhaps the only force that could bring an end to that war.

    The leaders of the movement have from time to time flirted with the idea of engaging in electoral politics, starting their own political party, etc. But so far (and rightly in my opinion) the political force the organization wields is entirely in its ability to muster grassroots support.

    There are two keys to its success that I can see: first, an emphasis on giving of one’s own effort for the benefit of others (what Gandhi called shramadana, the gift of labor), and second, a clear mutual benefit between the organization and its members, since Sarvodaya focuses on community health and development. (I can’t remember the last time an American political organization asked me for help with something that would actually benefit me or my immediate community…)

    There’s a lot we can learn from Sarvodaya and organizations like it. But it means stepping beyond our typical comfort zone to embrace a new approach.

  • John: But then, how do you manage the State? Institutions of some kind are necessary. Someone has to manage the electrical system, pick up the trash, etc.

    How does anarchist theory deal with this?

  • DJ: Sarvodaya sounds not unlike what Saul Alinsky did with Back of the Yards in Chicago in the 30’s. Community organizing that directly benefited the people involved.

  • DJ

    Perhaps that’s your American model, then. It’d be nice if someone practiced politics that benefited the community for a change.

  • The telephone systems and the post systems work across national borders, I would assume that there are plenty of ways of functioning without a state, the state is a relatively new organisation, it is a man made organisation so I don’t think it is beyond our imagination to come up with another form of structure. We can think outside the state and work on federated communities. Think inside the box and you’ll live and die inside the box.

  • John: John Robb, who wrote Brave New War, is working on a new book called Resilient Communities, sounds like what you’re talking about. He sees them as needed and necessary now, based on peak oil, global warming, and 4Gw and the hollowing out of states.

    DJ: Alinsky is credited with being the first to do community organizing. Before that, organizing was done on issues or was trade-union based. His Rules For Radical remains a classic of organizing tactics and ideas.
    (He was radical but not Marxist.)

  • Radical is a must, community is the only way but the basis has to be non-authoritarian, free association, voluntary co-operation and mutual aid based on respect for each other and of course a sustainable society. What shape it takes will have to depend on those involved and the problem’s they face, there is no grand plan. I have never been a follower of Marx

  • DJ

    John: I agree with you 100%– the state is both new and declining in importance. Globalized industry is one “innovation” replacing the state, and community-based organizations (and federations of communities) is the logical other.

    I would however note that telephones have severe limitations when you’re talking global scale. The average number of telephones per capita in low income countries is 0.01, and in lower-middle-income countries 0.08. Much of the world’s population still lives outside the vast technological revolution we take for granted. In Sri Lanka (where I’ve spent a fair bit of time), if you want to contact a community, you ride the bus.

  • I was not stating telephones as a mass population function, though it could become if the profit motive was removed. I was merely giving an example of an institution that can function across borders without the state.

  • If an institution becomes huge and transnational, then it would seem to assume quasi-state powers and influence. Thus presenting many of teh same problems as a state.

  • DJ

    Bob: Read Toffler on Third Wave theory. “War and Anti-War” is a good introduction, and discusses the rise of 4GW before it had that name.

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