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Freedom Is an Endless Meeting offers vivid portraits of American experiments in participatory democracy throughout the twentieth century. Drawing on meticulous research and more than one hundred interviews with activists, Francesca Polletta challenges the conventional wisdom that participatory democracy is worthy in purpose but unworkable in practice. Instead, she shows that social movements have often used bottom-up decision making as a powerful tool for political change.
Polletta traces the history of democracy in early labor struggles and pre-World War II pacifism, in the civil rights, new left, and women's liberation movements of the sixties and seventies, and in today's faith-based organizing and anti-corporate globalization campaigns. In the process, she uncovers neglected sources of democratic inspiration—Depression-era labor educators and Mississippi voting registration workers, among them—as well as practical strategies of social protest. But Freedom Is an Endless Meeting also highlights the obstacles that arise when activists model their democracies after familiar nonpolitical relationships such as friendship, tutelage, and religious fellowship. Doing so has brought into their deliberations the trust, respect, and caring typical of those relationships. But it has also fostered values that run counter to democracy, such as exclusivity and an aversion to rules, and these have been the fault lines around which participatory democracies have often splintered. Indeed, Polletta attributes the fragility of the form less to its basic inefficiency or inequity than to the gaps between activists' democratic commitments and the cultural models on which they have depended to enact those commitments. The challenge, she concludes, is to forge new kinds of democratic relationships, ones that balance trust with accountability, respect with openness to disagreement, and caring with inclusiveness.
For anyone concerned about the prospects for democracy in America, Freedom Is an Endless Meeting will offer abundant historical, theoretical, and practical insights.
"This is an excellent study of activist politics in the United States over the past century. . . . Assiduously researched, impressively informed by a great number of thoughtful interviews with key members of American social movements, and deeply engaged with its subject matter, the book is likely to become a key text in the study of grass-roots democracy in America."—Kate Fullbrook, Times Literary Supplement
"Polletta's portrayal challenges the common assumption that morality and strategy are incompatible, that those who aim at winning must compromise principle while those who insist on morality are destined to be ineffective. . . . Rather than dwell on trying to explain the decline of 60s movements, Polletta shows how participatory democracy has become the guiding framework for many of today's activists."—Richard Flacks, Los Angeles Times Book Review
"In Freedom Is an Endless Meeting, Francesca Polletta has produced a remarkable work of historical sociology. . . . She provides the fullest theoretical work of historical sociology. . . . She provides the fullest theoretical picture of participatory democracy, rich with nuance, ambiguity, and irony, that this reviewer has yet seen. . . . This wise book should be studied closely by both academics and by social change activists."—Stewart Burns, Journal of American History
“It is more than refreshing to read such a sensible discussion of the political merits of participatory democracy. Francesca Polletta takes issue with the common wisdom that organizations seeking political effectiveness must strategically prefer formalization and hierarchical decision-making. . . . She argues instead that there are significant political benefits in participatory structures. . . . Polletta does a splendid job of tracing the history of participatory democracy within social movements . . . beginning from pacifist groups and labor education movements before and after World War II and taking the story up to antiglobalization groups.”
— Myra Marx Ferree
"A wonderful reminder of sociology's value for our multi-disciplinary fields, This is an important . . . work, worthy of the broadest possible audience."
— Peter J. Ling
2003 Outstanding Academic Title, Choice Magazine
“[Polletta’s] analysis provides invaluable insight into social movements that counteracted declining citizen participation and points toward the possibility of translating the fragile political gains of these groups into more solid understandings about democracy and political relationships.”
— Caitlin Halferty
“Polletta has produced a remarkable work of historical sociology that manages to probe the inner depths of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the New Left, and early radical feminism . . . in a way that enhances her comparative framework. . . . She provides the fullest theoretical; picture of participatory democracy, rich with nuance, ambiguity, and irony, that this reviewer has yet seen. . . . This wise book should be studied closely both by academics and by social change activists.”
— Stewart Burns
"Polletta's interviews with scores of veteran activists has resulted in a deep portrayal of the ways in which activists tried to fuse moral principle and strategy. This portrayal challenges the common assumption that morality and strategy are incomparable, that those who aim at winning must compromise principle while those who insist on morality are destined to be ineffective. . . . Rather than dwell on trying to explain the decline of 60s movements, Polletta shows how participatory democracy has become the guiding framework for many of today's activists."
— Richard Flacks
“Polletta’s study revitalizes one of the oldest debates in the study of social movements regarding organizational democracy. . . . Polletta’s study is especially important as a historically rich and theoretically nuanced analysis that will provoke much debate and generate renewed attention to the relationships between organizational practices, strategy, democracy, and the consequences of social movements.”
— Kenneth T. Andrews
“Polletta has written one of the most careful and nuanced studies of the social movements of the 1960s I have seen. . . . A significant contribution to the literature of the 1960s, on social movements generally, and on the issues activists in the present need to confront.”
— Paul C. Mishler
“Polletta makes a persuasive and articulate case for the strategic benefits of participatory democracy. This book is rich in insights and chock-full of recommendations about the possibilities and pitfalls of participatory democracy. . . . She tackles difficult organizational issues that are essential to any social movement. Freedom Is an Endless Meeting is invaluable for scholars as well as activists.”
— Rebecca E. Klatch
"This is an excellent study of activist politics in the United States over the past century. . . . Assiduously researched, impressively informed by a great number of thoughtful interviews with key members of American social movements, and deeply engaged with its subject matter, the book is likely to become a key text in the study of grassroots democracy in America."
— Kate Fullbrook
Excerpted from Freedom is an Endless Meeting: Democracy in American Social Movements by Francesca Polletta Copyright © 2002 by Francesca Polletta. Excerpted by permission.
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1. Strategy and Democracy
2. Army, Town Meeting, or Church in the Catacombs? The Organization of American Protest, 1900-1960
3. A Band of Brothers Standing in a Circle of Trust: Southern Civil Rights Organizing, 1961-64
4. Letting Which People Decide What? SNCC's Crisis of Democracy, 1964-65
5. Participatory Democracy in the New Left, 1960-67
6. Friendship and Equality in the Women's Liberation Movement, 1967-77
7. Democracy in Relationship: Community Organizing and Direct Action Today
8. Conclusion: Rules, Rituals, and Relationships Notes Index