I propose that our movements experiment with a new and unique mass-based form of revolutionary organization, which I call the revolutionary congregation.
This is where we arrive at one of my favorite proposals, which I also anticipate will also be the most controversial. For this one, though, I must ask your patience as a reader as I take some to describe it a little more carefully than the ideas in other sections. I think it deserves the extra attention.
While a crowdsourcing approach might help foster more creative militance at a mass scale, there still remains a need for spaces for people to gather and grow together; open spaces for mutually inspirational relationship building and political growth; spaces that transcend the subcultural narrowness of collectives, study groups, and affinity groups as well as the unnecessary exclusivity of cadre groups and revolutionary parties.
I have a proposal for a novel, openly revolutionary form of mass political organization, which I tentatively call revolutionary congregations. In order to first understand this idea, I need to ask radicals to take a humble breath and step out of the traditional activist sphere to look for new insights from yet another unlikely source: evangelical Christianity.
In the United States, evangelical Christianity is one of the strongest and most well-resourced mass movements out there, a critical pillar of the rise of the Right, and a growing resource for progressive and sometimes even radical causes. They offer a comprehensive worldview and whole life programming that helps tens of millions of people make sense of the ups and downs of their daily realities. They have developed a sophisticated and multi-layered infrastructure that very much resembles a counter-power of their own, almost entirely through grassroots funding. They put incredible effort into spreading leadership development throughout their communities through bible studies, youth camps, women’s groups, grassroots ministries, and thousands of other projects. And what many people don’t know is that this huge, evangelical America has also spawned the rise of its own internal Left, even with their own anarchist and anti-imperialist activist currents existing almost completely separate from the non-Christian Left. Similar to how the Black church offered key cultural and structural lessons for movement building in the 50’s-70’s, I think the evangelical church movement can offer abundant lessons for how our movements can better structure our organizations, if we’re willing to learn.
I imagine that you might be putting two and two together. Revolutionary congregations? Learning lessons from evangelical Christianity? Is he going to suggest that we all start building churches? The answer is no, but it’s a soft no. What I want to build are powerful, relevant, and scalable revolutionary organizations. Yet we can’t get around the fact that evangelicals and faith-based groups have a lot of structures that are well worth adapting and making our own. Admitting inspiration from church formations, I want to propose something that is quite new and different, a unique kind of revolutionary mass organization.
As I’ve said, I call this proposed organizational form revolutionary congregations; that name works for me because it’s clear and simple, but we could just as easily call them “revolutionary base communities” or “communities of people in resistance,” taking inspiration from the Guatemalan liberation struggle, for example. But since they do learn lessons from church traditions, I think there is some value to claiming some right to that excellent word, congregation, and all its connotations of purposeful gathering, of joining together to building something bigger than ourselves. Still, take the name or leave it, what matters for me are the ideas themselves.
The core purpose of the revolutionary congregation is to serve as a stable, geographically grounded community for people who condemn the current organization of our society, who want to believe that a wholly different, participatory organization of society is possible, and who want to gather together and fight for that new society right now. The most fundamental goals of this particular formation are:
1) To provide a consistent, warm space for participants to reflect, internally and interpersonally, on revolutionary ideas as a comprehensive worldview, and on the implications of those ideas not just for society but for our lives as whole people.
2) To build infrastructure across cities and neighborhoods for mutually inspiring personal growth and study, shared action, and shared counter-institution building, which can then also be shared with broader movements.
3) Provide opportunities for a rich variety of programming that allows people to connect with revolutionary politics from a variety of different angles, education levels, capacity levels, and personal needs.
Rooted in “The Idea,” as Expressed in a Foundational Political Statement
The foundation of the revolutionary congregation is a basic statement of beliefs and aspirations. This statement wouldn’t be more than 1-2 pages long, and it would express, in as accessible of language as possible, the core principles, analysis, and vision of the congregation. It could be as general or specific as each formation wants, depending on what kind of base-level political agreements they want from the beginning, but it should at least link itself with the broader political pole of the revolutionary “Idea” that I proposed above.
The critical thing about the document is that it should honestly spell out what ideas people are seeking to congregate around; it should express both analysis, vision, and strategy; and it should articulate the need for both personal change (including a changing orientation to our power, privilege, and material relationships to the world) and institutional transformation.
This statement would form sort of the essential compact of trust between members of the congregation. There would be an understanding and trust that anyone who keeps coming, no matter what their level of education, level of time commitment or particular interests, believes in those core beliefs. There would be a regular celebration and recognition that all participants are fueled by these ideas and hopes, and that though we are each walking individual paths towards transformation, and at different speeds, we still all broadly share the same destination. As the Zapatistas have said, “We walk at the pace of the slowest,” and these congregations would allow for that kind of patience with each other’s personal journeys.
I should point out that this foundational statement is not meant to be a wishy-washy, catch-all document. Being simple does not have to mean being vague or simplistic. For example, the opening line of the Industrial Workers of the World’s (IWW) preamble is, “The working class and the employing class have nothing in common.” It’s simple, it’s accessible, but it names the system (at least capitalism) honestly. It’s not some watered-down platitude.
The foundational statement is critical because the entire revolutionary congregation model is based on a belief that “The Idea,” at root, is pretty simple, and that we can build large fighting organizations that allow people to build skills and take action at all levels of education and dedication, so long as they agree with those simple ideas. It holds that this is a sufficient foundation from which revolution minded people can build a rich and nourishing community. This differs starkly from many past and current examples of capital-R Revolutionary organizations that seem to believe that they need to come to careful and detailed political agreement before they feel like they can settle into building a political home together.
The Weekly Gathering
While straightforward political agreement with the foundational statement would be the most essential requirement for membership, another important piece of membership would be attendance and participation in the weekly gathering. The weekly gathering is the most basic and consistent building block of the revolutionary congregation. Different from a mass meeting, or a decision-making general assembly, or a weekly workshop, this would be a 1 ½ to 2 hour convening in which people experience well-planned, peer-led programming that might include songs, poetry, and art, opinions and reflections about current events and revolutionary ideas, and especially connections between movement realities and values and people’s daily lives and struggles. More than anything else, these gatherings would be designed to broaden relationships, refuel our fighting spirits, and keep our minds energized after a week of having to survive in our absurd society. They are not spaces for intense business and planning, for long lists of event announcements, conspiracy-laden tirades, or for parades of the same speakers time after time. They should be a vibrant, hopeful, safe-ish (even if they politically push our comfort zones), weekly point of contact for anyone who feels like they want to feel connected to a larger movement.
Sometimes congregations could even have “street gatherings,” in which, instead of meeting at their usual location, participants gather and carry out their program in particular sites of struggle—like a picket line or in a squatted building. The gatherings could also offer occasional opportunities for traveling guests to come and share about movement experiences elsewhere.
After the gathering, there would be a food and relationship building period—maybe free and unstructured or maybe sometimes planned to mix people up with ice breakers and games—as well as resource booths, action bulletin boards, and sign-up opportunities for people to check out—sort of like a weekly resource fair and potluck.
Again, the gatherings would be planned thoughtfully, with a multi-issue emphasis, by member-run committees, not by any permanent leadership. That is, there would be no pastor or single congregational leader. We’ll discuss the leadership question in more detail shortly.
Opportunities to Go Deeper
In addition to the weekly gathering—and maybe duplicate gatherings at other times for people with different work schedules—the congregation would offer groups, programs, and action projects throughout each week. Multiple levels of study groups (from beginner-friendly topics to more heavy reading groups), action committees, counter-institution committees, solidarity committees with various struggles, healing and self-care groups, caucuses and personal change groups, children and seniors programs, art classes, and more would be available.
These programs could be in-house within a single congregation or shared between multiple groups. A lot of these opportunities would also be open to the broader public, and many congregation members would probably spend their weeks involved in other, non-affiliated movement projects, not just congregation projects. The idea would be to offer opportunities for growth and action directly to members, but also to encourage building and actively participating in the larger movement.
I think that this kind of model helps our radical movements solve a major problem: the tendency for many of our sharpest and most dedicated revolutionaries to split-off and seek comradeship and a political home base in their own like-minded collectives and cadre groups, while all the rest of us are left without a stable, openly revolutionary home base of our own. As I see it, cadre organizations—self-selected groups of especially dedicated organizers and militants—usually exist to 1) give committed revolutionaries a space to feel safe and not alone in this harsh world, 2) do in-depth theoretical development together, 3) create finely honed strategic interventions in movement work. I believe that the congregation model allows #2 and #3 to happen in small mid-week groups, just the same as a cadre model, but people can meet their needs for #1 through the weekly gatherings that include potentially hundreds more people—people who agree with the politics but don’t have time for the intense theory or strategizing. This would actually overcome the primary problem of cadre organizations: that they create insularity, and the lonely righteousness of being more “serious” than everyone else in the movement.
Building Revolutionary Infrastructure
At the weekly gatherings, financial offerings would always be requested and expected, and that money would first be used to build a space—I imagine that first congregations would start by meeting in existing schools, non-profit spaces, or labor halls, just like fledgling churches do—and then furnish that space with resources like a childcare area, a gym, a playground, an arts and media lab, a kitchen, a music setup, a stage, and even our own schools.
Along with building congregation-specific infrastructure, additional money could be put towards supporting counter-institutions that serve the larger movement, as well as action campaigns that the congregation believes in. This part excites me because evangelical churches generate a lot of dollars, and they put a lot of those dollars toward international mission work. I’d really like to see what kind of solidarity revolutionary congregations could support with that kind of money on a global level.
The Leadership Question
Leadership development is a big priority of the revolutionary congregation idea. The goal would be to offer consistent, structured encouragement and opportunities that move people from their first curiosity about the group, to their attendance and agreement with the core beliefs, to their active membership in the congregation, to their committed action and organizing, to their conscious democratic participation in the core leadership of the organization—which would probably happen at regularly scheduled general assemblies.
Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Church is really helpful here. He has a diagram that shows the flow from the larger community, to the curious crowd, to the congregation, to the committed, and then to the core.
All self-identified congregation members would be welcome to participate in decision-making and in all committees. But what I like about this model is that the hardcore people have lots of opportunities to delve deeply into analysis, theory work, experiments in strategies and actions, but all in committees where they are bolstered and held accountable by the larger congregation that they belong to. Similar to the Zapatista idea of “governing obeying,” where the leadership makes tactical decisions that are accountable to the larger directives of the masses that bolster them, those who don’t have the time or interest to be full-time revolutionary organizers or theorists are able to be in weekly communication and have direct oversight over the work that their more intense comrades are doing. This is the reverse of the traditional Left (even anarchist) model, where the professional revolutionaries concoct their revolutionary ideas first, and only then decide when and how the masses are prepared to see them.
Geography and Size
I imagine that revolutionary congregations would start as singular, geographically amorphous entities in all areas but, especially in big cities, the ideal would be to get them as local and neighborhood-based as possible. After all, the typical city has a different church, temple, or mosque every couple of blocks. I think 90-150 people congregations would be great, but smaller or slightly larger would be worth experimenting with also.
The Question of Power
The revolutionary congregation would not have the goal of becoming a mechanism of popular power in itself. It wouldn’t be trying to form a shadow government for a fledgling counter-power or anything like that. I personally think that’s the role of even broader community and workplace assemblies that might evolve out of our movements. The goal of the revolutionary congregation is to provide what George Lakey has called a “base camp” for people to learn, grow, reflect, and take care of themselves between their interventions in the larger sites of struggle such as workplaces, community councils, etc. In this way, they have a very similar role to the FAI (Federation of Iberian Anarchists) and ateneos—neighborhood educational and social centers—in early 20th century Spain or even to the old IWW labor halls. They are places for people to nurture and nourish their sense of people power while they get ready to flex that people power in outside struggles.
Still, because of its infrastructure and resource base, in moments of crisis, social collapse, or insurrection, this model does offer the flexibility for like-minded congregations and sister counter-institutions to quickly federate and become sovereign communities—if that’s what the conditions demanded. This is exactly the capacity that right-wing evangelicals are building. It’s a structure that allows us to be prepared at a moments notice for revolutionary opportunities like the Spanish anarchists had in 1936, like the Bolsheviks had in 1917, and like we’ve seen recently in places like Egypt, Tunisia, and Greece.
Recruitment and Group Composition
Because the revolutionary congregation isn’t religious, and is advocating for a down-to-earth, democratic approach to the problems of daily life and the world, participants should have no qualms about spreading the word about their congregations—or at least the ideas that inspire them. What’s more, because the center of the congregation’s life is the weekly gathering, entry-level activities are foundational and they are consistently available to new people week in and week out—a far cry from the Left’s typical tendency to sparsely offer entry-level opportunities, and then often drop them when intense organizing heats up. However, because this is a model so similar to a church model, people would need to be careful about not copying the annoying tendencies of both Christian and socialist evangelicals (the paper peddlers). We might invite people to come to check out gatherings or special events with us, but we don’t need to proselytize them to join our specific congregations.
Typically in our movements, there is great anxiety and tension around issues of the demographic makeup of groups, and some groups—especially those that are stacked with young, white, and middle class activists—get frozen into inaction or into tricky allyship-only activities because of who is in the membership. I believe that the identity politics of membership do bring with them real and important issues that must always be addressed, but I don’t actually think the congregation model absolutely depends on the need for, for example, always multiracial groupings, or cross-class groups. I think it’s possible, though not ideal, to form even relatively homogenous congregations—especially in relatively homogenous neighborhoods—that are honest with themselves about that reality, and then seek to build relationships of trust, solidarity, and shared resources and action with other congregations and organizations. I can even imagine congregations that form and differentiate from each other solely based on the lifestyle and cultural preferences of members—some congregations being heavy on a particular type of singing, for example, while others prefer to celebrate differently.
Building a Revolutionary Movement to Scale
Because revolutionary congregations would be both growth oriented and focused on building their activity around the whole lives of their participants, I think they could be uniquely capable of building revolutionary ideas, culture, and counter-power to the scale that we need to be a threat to the system. In concert with the other elements of this proposal, I think that this model helps fill in some of the most elusive missing pieces of that “something more” that many of us are looking for, and I think it at least deserves some time in the sun for us to try some experiments with it.