On Coalition Building

If there were ever a time when we needed to bring together broadly-based, multi-racial, effective coalitions on local, state, regional, national, and international levels, that time is surely now. We must come together and join forces, all of us committed to peace and social justice, to an end to all forms of terrorism–individual, organizational and governmental–and to a new set of social and economic relationships fundamentally different than those of our increasingly militaristic and repressive political and economic system.

In my view, based upon my experiences, I think this means the following:

We can’t be “tactical” in approaching coalition work. We must instead be “realistically visionary.”

The tactical approach involves looking upon coalitions as mainly recruiting grounds for our particular primary organization or particular ideology. It involves an approach grounded in distrust, a skepticism about others in the coalition. It tends to look for openings to advance the agenda, political positions or ideology of one group. It is ultimately sectarian, divisive and counter-productive.

Being realistically visionary involves, first, recognizing that we bring our particular experiences and truths to a coalition setting but that others do too. Ultimately, the way to the broader truth, the most appropriate set of tactics, actions and political approaches, lies in an ability to arrive at that broader truth through a process of give and take among all of us. It may be that in the course of that give and take, we will discover that we are not all on the same page, and it may make sense for one coalition to divide and become two or more. Forced partnerships can be counter-productive for all involved. But even then, even with more than one coalition, we need to create communications links among all, or almost all, of those originally in the attempted broader effort.

We need a style of discussion that is healthy and mature. Immanuel Wallerstein has written of the need for “a conscious effort at empathetic understanding of the other movements, their histories, their priorities, their social bases, their current concerns. Correspondingly, increased empathy needs to be accompanied by restraint in rhetoric. It does not mean that movements should not be frank with each other, even in public. It means that the discussion needs to be self-consciously comradely, based on the recognition of a unifying objective, a relatively democratic, relatively egalitarian world.”*

We can’t separate means and ends. To get to “a relatively democratic, relatively egalitarian world,” we need to build coalitions that are just that right now, that model the future we want to bring into being.
Concretely, this means that discussion over major issues must take place openly and in a transparent way. There must be time limits on people speaking to discourage the monopolization of discussion by articulate, long-winded individuals. There must be a conscious effort to encourage speaking up by those who tend not to do so, to hear many, if not all, of the voices in the room. Wherever possible, a consensus-seeking method of discussion should be used, even if decisions sometimes need to be made by majority vote. Finally, collective evaluation should take place of how meetings are being conducted and work is being done. In this way those who are making mistakes or errors can have them corrected, and a process is established in which everyone comes to understand that no one individual or no one organization is above the coalition.

It is essential that we deal directly, in as comradely a way as possible, with racist, sexist, heterosexist, ageist or other negative comments or actions when they happen. This is easier said than done, but unless it is done, our coalitions are not going to be what they can be or function as they should.

More than this, we must recognize and deal with the more sutble ways that these negative ideologies manifest themselves. For example, in a multi-racial but predominantly white setting, white people sometimes do not truly listen when people of color make contributions in the course of a discussion. It’s as if the people of color were there to “integrate” the group but not to be listened to or taken seriously.

Related to this is the problem of paternalism. Paternalism involves white people relating to people of color in a condescending, “nice” and “concerned” but ultimately unequal and disrespectful way, not expressing one’s opinions or feelings but instead trying to keep relations “civil”
through not sharing disagreements or opposition.

We need to learn how to listen to and be honest with each other, respect each other, disagree with each other, interact in ways that are not paternalistic. This is one of our hardest tasks due to the long history of racism and the need for some “bending of the stick” which acknowledges this history. But the bottom line is that we need to struggle to interact with each other in ways that are straight-up and direct, honest and up-front.

If we can build coalitions that strive to be all of these things-realistically visionary, self-consciously comradely, democratic and egalitarian, and challenging of negative ideas and practices-we will be able to make decisions and engage in joint action together in an effective way. We will attract others to us. We will retain the individual and collective strength for the difficult struggle that lies ahead. We will finally, as a movement, be living up to the best within us. We can settle for nothing less.

*From “Antisystemic Movements,” in Transforming the Revolution, Monthly Review Press