5 Book Plan: A Guide to Organizing

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Alyssa Battistoni is a longtime organizer, writer, and forthcoming Verso author (A Planet to Win; November 2019). In her most recent essay for n+1, Spadework, she astutely explored the material and emotional costs and rewards of labor organizing. Here, she shares a list of books that have formed the intellectual backbone for her work. 

Raising Expectations (and Raising Hell): My Decade Fighting for the Labor Movement (Verso; 2012) and No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age (Oxford; 2016) by Jane McAlevey

We’re fortunate to have Jane McAlevey—a great organizer who is capable of thinking critically and writing clearly about that experience. I both nod and wince a lot reading McAlevey’s writing about organizing—which is how I know it’s good. Her most recent book, No Shortcuts, argues for “deep organizing” rather than shallow mobilizing, organizing that sees workers themselves as the agents of their own liberation. She lays out clearly the building blocks of organizing (power analysis, structure tests) and why organizers use them. It’s an incredibly useful analysis of organizing strategy informed by both her own experiences as an organizer and her academic research, and has deservedly been making the rounds on the left in the past couple of years. But I also love her earlier book, Raising Expectations—a wonderful memoir on her own organizing experience that pulls no punches. It’s one of the few reflections I’ve come across that really captures what organizing is like in all its heartbreak and thrill, and as I was so grateful for her descriptions of both the work and what it means. As McAlevey puts it, organizing is about raising expectations: “expectations about what they themselves are capable of, about the power they could exercise if they worked together, and what they might use that collective power to accomplish. Ultimately, expectations about where they will find meaning in their lives, and the kinds of relationships they can build with those around them.”

Cultural Studies 1983: A Theoretical History (Duke; 2016) and Selected Political Writings (Duke; 2017) by Stuart Hall

Hall is simply one of the most astute observers of the monumental shift that occurred in the 1980s—what we typically describe as neoliberalism—and its effects on political consciousness. While Hall doesn’t explicitly discuss organizing as a form of political work, his analyses of the political dynamics of hegemony, the breakdown of the postwar hegemonic order, and the struggle to replace it were essential to my thinking about organizing in the parallel contemporary moment, when neoliberalism itself is breaking down—particularly with regard to the subjectivity of people, like myself, shaped by the order whose birth Hall diagnosed. Hall never published a single-author monograph but Duke has been putting out a steady stream of his collected essays and lectures. I especially recommend the series of lectures compiled in the volume Cultural Studies 1983, particularly his lecture on “Domination and Hegemony,” which offers his interpretation of Gramsci: Hall reminds us that “the unity of classes is necessarily complex and has to be produced—constructed, created, articulated—as a result of specific economic, political, and ideological practices. It can never be taken as ‘automatic’ or given.’” The Selected Political Writings includes classics like “The Great Moving Right Show” and others like “Our Mongrel Selves,” which argues that it isn’t only Black British and other diaspora subjects who had more than one social identity, most people in conditions of late capitalism understand themselves as belonging to multiple communities. These kinds of issues, I think, are essential to understanding the work of organizing, which attempts to forge class consciousness and construct class unity by working with actual people, who are complicated in all the ways Hall describes.

The Romance of American Communism by Vivian Gornick (Basic Books; 1977 / Verso; 2020)

This book is astonishing. It’s not about organizing per se so much as about the experience of doing intense political work and living a deeply political life, and in particular, the relationships that form through that experience of undertaking a shared political project. Gornick grew up a red diaper baby disillusioned by the revelation of Soviet crimes, and at some point seeks to understand the experience of her parents—the Old Left—as she takes her own steps into the New Left, via the feminist movement. It is a treasure of a book, an incredible description of the rich interior lives and jumble of the political and the personal, the “wholeness of world” that comprised life in the Communist Party, the “glory and sorrow” of it all. There are passages of incredible beauty—“day by day people were developing, transforming, communicating inarticulate dreams, discovering a force of being in themselves”—and also of inexpressible heartbreak—“people said and did cruel, outrageous things to one another. Friendships were smashed, irreconcilable differences established, the bitterness that only politics can cause run rampant.” At least one of her subjects rejects the idea of the “passion at the heart of the Communist experience” as “reactionary frivolity,” and I think you often see that kind of attitude in political thought today (politics is about strategy, not feelings!) but to me it’s always seemed impossible to separate the two. Eventually Gornick comes to understand her parents through the highs and lows of the feminist movement; I think anyone who’s lived a political life will recognize themselves in it.

Freedom is an Endless Meeting: Democracy in American Social Movements by Francesca Polletta (Chicago; 2002)

When we were in the thick of the campaign leading up to our union election, my fellow organizers and I would often joke about this book as we scurried from one meeting to the next, teasing each other with the title. It was a tongue-in-cheek poke at the grueling nature of organizing and our exhaustion—but also, at least for me, genuinely expressed some of the feeling of freedom that also came with organizing, with being in meetings where I felt like I had at least some agency and control over my own fate. The title comes from a comment made by a Mississippi resident to a SDS organizer, who elaborates: “talk helps people consider the possibilities open for social change.” At its best, that’s what organizing is about. The book is a remarkable piece of scholarship that does important work to disentangle the oft-cited distinction between Old Left discipline and hierarchy, often portrayed as unsavory but effective, and New Left participatory democracy, often figured as principled but ineffective. My own organizing experience had elements of both, as I imagine most do; I don’t think they’re as starkly opposed as they are often made out to be. Polletta is also particularly interested in the kinds of relationships that underpin different social movements, and how different approaches to organizing handle conflict and disagreement in decision-making, and her rich descriptions of what those relationships meant helped me make sense of my own.

I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle by Charles Payne (University of California; 1995) 

Payne’s is a perceptive history of the place of organizing in the civil rights movement, and chapter 8 in particular—“Slow and Respectful Work”—is a rich and wonderful description of what organizing looked like in a voter registration drive in Greenwood, Mississippi. It makes concrete the kind of work that goes into building relationships with people who aren’t yet politically active—the work that’s mundane and unglamorous but that lays the foundation for all else. Payne shows how organizers came to recognize that it was more important to connect to people who others respected and listened to—the informal but real leaders—than to have the most polished rhetoric; that courage and trust were the most important qualities. Organizing looks like canvassing houses, but it also looks like getting coffee at the local diner every morning. Organizing takes patience but also persistence—going back to doors that have been slammed in your face. “The movement,” Payne says, “was its own work of art, and mass meetings were among the place where that might most easily be seen.” Meetings were spaces of political engagement but also social belonging and enjoyment; they were a way of exerting social pressure, recognizing organizers’ work, and reviving sinking spirits through music and collective exertion. Though there wasn’t much singing in my own organizing experience, I immediately recognized the emotional and ritual aspects of the meetings Payne describes: “Mixtures of the sacred and the profane, the mass meetings could be a very powerful social ritual. They attracted people to the movement and then helped them develop a sense of involvement and solidarity. By ritually acting out new definitions of their individual and collective selves, people helped make those selves become real.”