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August 1970: A Case Study of Elitism Printer Friendly Version

A Case Study Of Elitism

A Critique of the Planning and Organization for the
Conference with the Indochinese in Cuba, August 1970

Prepared and adopted by the New York chapter of the Committee of Returned Volunteers (CRY/NY), July 30, 1970*

  An opportunity to exchange ideas and information with the Indochinese, such as the August 1970 conference in Cuba, is extremely important to us. These contacts strengthen our feelings of responsibility and solidarity with the Indochinese, develop our ability to interpret their struggle to others, and make us more aware of them as living and fighting people. Such meetings help us to evaluate and counter U.S. propaganda, and to resist the government's attempts to co-opt the anti-war movement. We strongly identify with their struggle against the common enemy. However, the elitist way in which these conferences have been organized has seriously undermined their value both to the Indochinese and to the U.S. movement.

  We in the New York chapter of the Committee of Returned Volunteers are opposed to participation in the conference in Cuba because the top-down planning and selection of the U.S. delegation seem to us a particularly striking example of those elitist procedures that characterize the movement as a whole, especially on the national level. However, refusal to participate in the present elitist practices, as we have done in this case, is clearly not enough. We believe it is necessary to understand accurately how the system of national movement politics works, how it limits and undermines the movement, and how we can replace it. The movement must begin building a different structure based on cohesive, autonomous organizations on the local level, federated regionally and nationally, in which representatives rotate frequently and permanent elites are not allowed to emerge. If such a structure had existed, the difficulties surrounding the present conference in Cuba would not have arisen.

  As far as we can determine, the idea of a large conference this summer to meet with the Indochinese originated at the Stockholm anti-war conference in March, 1970. Details were worked out by the North Vietnamese with U.S. movement delegations who visited North Vietnam in April and May of this year. The North Vietnamese entrusted the management of the trip and the selection of participants to the ``International Committee,'' a loosely organized and self-appointed group of 10 or 15 nationally prominent anti-war Americans who have had contact with them in the past. The Committee, which developed originally around the old Mobilization Committee, has perpetuated itself by selecting people for trips or meetings with the Vietnamese, and then drawing them into the Committee when they returned.

  In forming the U.S. contingent to the Cuba meeting, the International Committee relied on its knowledge of movement groups and personalities and on the advice of personal contacts on the Left. Categories of organizations or constituencies were developed, such as `'striking students,'' ``brown,'' ``radical media'' or ``pacifist'' groups. In some cases a person from these groups was specified – often one who had participated in Mobe and other external meetings and conferences. In other cases, organizations within the categories were invited and allowed to choose their own representative. About 60 delegates were to go, including five or six members of the planning Committee.

  The reasons for our refusal to endorse participation in the conference are the following:

1. Trips and conferences that originate in elitist procedures merely extend, strengthen, and perpetuate top-down structures in the movement as a whole.

  a. The idea of a self-appointed committee of 10 or 15 people, mainly movement heavies, deciding who will be invited to participate in a meeting with the Indochinese, picking and choosing among their personal acquaintances and guided by their own criteria, is appalling. The Committee is responsible and accountable to no one but itself.

  b. Most members of the Committee managed to visit Vietnam in the first place because of their involvement in elitist structures such as the Mobilization Committees. The Mobe itself is not much more responsible to organized constituencies than the International Committee. It is heavily larded with personalities and permanent representatives. The idea of frequently rotating representatives, with real power located in the memberships of the component organizations, is completely foreign to the Mobe.

  c. The selection, through a network of personal contacts, of the 60 delegates has the effect of extending outward and downward the circle of ties through which movement projects are discussed and decided. Their experiences together in Cuba will cement a network of acquaintances, not build a movement.

  d. This selection process is often justified by the assumed need for security. The security ideology claims that an open discussion and selection process would jeopardize the success of the trip. The experience of the Venceremos Brigades has shown, however, that minimum security is possible. It is particularly disquieting to note that these same ``security'' reasons are cited by the Amerikan ruling class to explain why the people cannot be fully informed about the issues which affect their lives.

  e. The conference will generate ideas and projects that will undoubtedly have a profound effect on next year's anti-war activities. The recommendations of these sixty people will seem to have the weight of Indochinese approval and therefore will tend to override discussion at the grass-roots level. Even if the recommendations are good ones, their effect may well be negative because the influence of these sixty people will be far out of proportion to the numbers they represent and will therefore undermine the growth of a strong mass movement.

2. Top-down structures and practices limit and undermine the movement.

  a. Elitist structures preclude local initiatives. The elite, by preempting the planning and organization of the conference with the Indochinese, thereby precluded local groups from initiating such meetings themselves. The conference is for them a fait accompli. Moreover, it may even seem impracticable at this point to pursue other opportunities which already exist, such as conferring with the Vietnamese in Paris.

  b. Elitist structures obstruct active participation and therefore destroy opportunities for raising political consciousness. A network of national movement politicians may set policy, but it cannot succeed in carrying it out. Apathetic followers and self-perpetuating elites are two sides of the same coin. People come to understand decisions and programs only when they have taken part in thrashing them out, and it is only then that they will work hard to carry them out. When ideas and programs come from the top down, there are serious limitations on how far and effectively they will penetrate. Therefore, the absence of local involvement in the planning for these trips greatly reduces their potential effect. If groups of people met to select a representative, discuss the questions likely to be posed by the Indochinese, raise issues for clarification by them, help with the financing of the trip, and plan a follow-through project, then the benefits of the trip would be much more widely diffused throughout the movement. As long as elites are permitted to monopolize political experiences through which leadership abilities are developed, members of local groups will continue to be deprived of opportunities to develop their own political consciousness.

  c. Elitist structures alienate people from the movement. Since decision-making is monopolized by the same heavies all the time, it is impossible for people to participate actively. Many conclude that the movement does not offer a viable alternative to the present society which they are trying to change. They become passive and often drop out of the movement altogether. Some, indeed, never even join the movement for these same reasons.

  d. Programs pushed by national elites often contradict and derail projects already underway locally. Active local groups have felt compelled time and again, out of solidarity with the movement, to abandon temporarily their own projects in order to support a `national' movement action in which they had no hand in planning and with which they might even have disagreed. The damages to their own programs, through loss of momentum and continuity, are often severe. The derailment of local projects can in no way contribute to the expansion of the movement.

  e. Elitist structures tend to co-opt local leaders. Local leaders are often sucked into the national elitist circle, thereby estranging them from their natural constituencies. Their energies are thus diverted from building a mass revolutionary movement. Furthermore, because of their circulation in the national elite they tend to interject into their local groups an elitist mode of operation.

  f. An elitist movement cannot result in a democratic and egalitarian society. The nature of its structure inhibits the development of broad-based support, thereby preventing the growth of a mass revolutionary movement which is necessary to bring about a socialist revolution. Further, until we can deal with elitism in our own ranks, we cannot hope to be able to build a meaningful alternative society.

  g. Elitist structures hinder the struggle of our revolutionary brothers and sisters in the Third World. Our revolutionary sisters and brothers in other parts of the world vitally need contacts with allies inside the U.S. in order to develop analyses and tactics for their own struggles. Since they are forced to rely on the already existing organizations in the movement, their own causes are damaged by our elitist structures, which do not in reality represent the constituencies they pretend to.

  The pattern of elitism described above merely reflects the elitism in the larger society. Every institution in Amerikan society is elitist – not only the military, corporations, and the government, but also the Boy Scouts, schools, and country clubs. We were trained to be accepting `good citizens', never questioning the `authority' of our bosses, those in elected office, or officers in uniform. Our passivity permits responsibility and decision-making to be monopolized by these so-called `leaders'. This pattern of acquiescence has carried over into the movement.

  Until organizations active on the local level create viable alternatives, we are convinced that the movement will continue to suffer from the pattern of elitist politics revealed in the planning for the conference in Cuba and other similar incidents. One alternative to elitism is collective leadership. Significant trends in the women's liberation movement point to the development of such patterns of relationships. Collective leadership implies that everyone participate in decision-making, and that responsibilities rotate frequently so that leadership abilities come to be widely diffused throughout the group. Representatives who are sent, on a rotating basis, from the local level to regional or national assemblies, being deeply rooted in local groups, can therefore be held accountable to the people who sent them.

  We are aware that many people in the movement believe in an image and strategy for the revolution that calls for a revolutionary elite. This paper clearly suggests that such a strategy cannot succeed in an industrialized society like ours. We call on other local groups and organizations to continue analyzing the problems of elitism, and to begin working out plans and procedures for rebuilding our movement from the bottom up.


* This paper was a group effort. I wrote one of the two or three original drafts for the statement and was completely involved with subsequent drafts. In contrast to most of my experiences with group writing, I felt very close to the final result in this case, and still do. – Note added, 1986