"Vanguard" follies and Organizing Realities

Hunter Gray hunterbadbear at earthlink.net
Sun May 6 07:58:43 MDT 2001

Another discussion list's very interesting back-and-forth on the "Vanguard"
concept prompted these practical thoughts of mine.  I spread them into a
broader arena -- making it clear that this is not an effort to subject the
Great Socialists of history to any minimization.  It has always seemed to me
that they  -- more than some [not all by any means!] of their disciples --
certainly recognized the critical nature of broad-based local leadership.

I try to imagine what I as an organizer would  evoke in the way of a
grassroots reaction, [all sorts of ethnicities over the years involving the
people "of the fewest alternatives"], were I  to even think of myself as
"Vanguard." And I definitely don't like the scenario that emerges in my
mind.  No one ever accused me of having a minimal little ego, but I'm not a
damn fool.  I have no problem recognizing my anarcho-syndicalist
catechism -- my first and deepest love! -- something, by the way, quite akin
to Native tribalism at some key points.  But, far more than that, we
radicals need to organize at the grassroots -- always organize and fight  --
the hardest and toughest and ultimately most satisfying work there is --
and, very much in conjunction with that, we need always to be developing
strong and vigorous local leadership.  "Pitchy-pine" fires -- the hot, fast
stuff -- are fine at certain junctures; but the fight is a long one -- even
under the best of circumstances -- and it's the "oak wood" fires that will
carry through the long winters and deserts and to the green oases and the
Red Water of effective and significant struggle.  Martin King was a great
man and the old SCLC a fine movement -- but the top down stuff of too many
[not all] of the clergy in SCLC and in the hinterland, often left movements
which were breaking up even as the organizers moved on.  The
grassroots/leadership development approaches by other civil rights
organizers [so well and consistently advocated by Miss Ella J. Baker],  have
left outfits that have endured through the decades.  Saul Alinsky had an
organizing style that focused primarily on bringing together the leaders of
existent organizations -- some of them very fine organizations and some not
so fine  -- and, out of that, he would create something like the Back of the
Yards Council in the Chicago packinghouse district. But, in the late '60s
into the mid-'70s, when I was directing large scale grassroots community
organization of poor people [Black, Puerto Rican, Chicano, some Native, and
some Anglo], we had to fight practically everything around us -- Daley
Machine, Republicans, cops, racists, finks of all kinds -- and a prime enemy
was the old Back of the Yards Council, degenerated into something run by
Daley through Joe Meegan.  It was reactionary and it was racist.  In fact,
even Alinsky himself -- never recognizing the inherent flaw in his top-down
organizing approach -- was finally referring by then to the Back of the
Yards Council as a "frankenstein."  We organized about 300 block clubs and
related organizations in two large umbrella groups and almost all of that
still remains active and effective.  The old Mine-Mill union -- like the
other Left unions -- was radical and equalitarian and militant and, very
fundamentally, a model of rank-and-file democracy.  It was that ethos that
enabled Mine-Mill to effectively resist some of the most vicious
witch-hunting [Feds, bosses, state, vigilantes, conservative unions] endured
by any labor organization in the 20th century -- and to very effectively,
always, service its membership and substantially address the broader social
justice and visionary concerns.  In contrast, the authoritarian  and
top-down Steel union -- well-heeled financially and "respectable,"
floundered at all sorts of critical points. Having absorbed almost all of
Mine-Mill in 1967, following two decades of Government-backed  Steel union
red-baiting and raiding,  it lost the 1983-84 Phelps-Dodge strike  -- and
several of the old copper locals as well, which broke up.  Talk of
"Vanguard" and "militant minority"  frankly bothers me a great deal.  Good
organizers are always  needed -- sensibly pragmatic, visionary, radical --
and they are needed by the grassroots.  The organizers also need to listen.
And they -- the organizers -- certainly need the grassroots people and
emergent local leadership: strong, tough, and -- in the view of power
structures  -- dangerous!

Hunter Gray [Hunterbear]
Hunter Gray

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