Should the Poor Organize?

Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail

by Frances Fox Piven, by Richard A. Cloward
Pantheon, 381 pp., $12.95

Once upon a time, say from the middle of the nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth, the movements of the left—whether they called themselves socialist, communist, or syndicalist—like everybody else who believed in progress, knew just where they wanted to go and just what, with the help of history, strategy, and effort, they ought or needed to do to get there. Now they no longer do. In this respect they do not, of course, stand alone. Capitalists are just as much at a loss as socialists to understand their future, and just as puzzled by the failure of their theorists and prophets. Liberals incline toward apocalyptic forecasts. The Catholic Church, which held the nineteenth century at bay with surprising success, is visibly succumbing to the late twentieth. At the end of the most extraordinary period of transformation in human affairs, old landmarks have disappeared, new ones are not yet recognized as such, and intellectual navigation across the suddenly estranged landscapes of human society becomes unusually puzzling for everybody.

Neither the practice nor the theory of the left, the latter pouring out in a record-breaking flow of print, can be properly understood without an appreciation of this secular crisis, which, more often than not, is reflected only obliquely in recent commentary: through the discussion of theories and strategies in general, rather than of the changes in reality which have thrown doubt on both. Piven and Cloward’s remarkably interesting book, which belongs firmly in the left-wing tradition, is almost exclusively concerned with the strategies of “poor people’s movements.” It makes a general analysis of such movements and considers the experience of four of them in the US during the 1930s and 1960s: that of the unemployed workers during the Depression years; of the industrial workers who formed the CIO; of the civil rights activists centered around Martin Luther King; and of those who made up the National Welfare Rights Organization in the 1960s. Piven and Cloward argue that all leaders of such movements have been on the wrong track throughout, in trying to organize them. Building an organization is not merely futile but dangerous:

During those brief periods in which people are roused to indignation, when they are prepared to defy the authorities to whom they ordinarily defer,…those who call themselves leaders do not usually escalate the momentum of the people’s protests. They do not because they are preoccupied with trying to build and sustain embryonic formal organizations in the sure conviction that these organizations will enlarge and become powerful.

This proposition could be discussed on its merits, and indeed has to be. Yet it cannot be adequately discussed, or indeed even understood, outside the historical context which encourages the authors to formulate it. For whatever their theory, virtually all who have had anything to do with modern labor and socialist movements (except the anarchists) have hitherto taken it for granted that the way to the future, whatever it might be, led through organization …

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