Freedom Is an Endless Meeting: Democracy in American Social Movements / Edition 1

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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

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Editorial Reviews

The Los Angeles Times
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 incompatible, that those who aim at winning must compromise principle while those who insist on morality are destined to be ineffective. — Richard Flacks
Library Journal
Polletta (sociology, Columbia) considers whether, as a process in decision-making, participatory democracy can be successful in effecting social change or is doomed to fail because it lacks organizational focus and an awareness that strategizing is essential. She closely analyzes the dynamics of participatory democracy in several movements in recent American history-organized labor, pacifist groups, the Civil Rights Movement, the New Left, and groups protesting against globalization. She postulates that the primary challenges of participatory democracy have been how to "coordinate actions and programs across de-centralized units" and how to choose a group interest from among competing individual interests. Drawing on extensive interviews with activists, Polletta focuses on distinct strengths that participatory democracy can provide to social and political action groups-the gathering and evaluation of information, the development of skills in "negotiating common agendas," and the ability to look beyond immediate conflict and focus on "future battles waged in electoral institutions." Although somewhat repetitive and densely written, this generally supportive critique of participatory democracy as a decision-making process challenges both proponents and opponents to re-think their deeply held beliefs. For academic and large public libraries.-Jack Forman, San Diego Mesa Coll. Lib., CA
American Journal of Sociology

“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

American Studies

"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

Democracy & Society

“[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

Journal of American History

“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

Los Angeles Times

"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

Science & Society

“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

Social Forces

“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

Times Literary Supplement

"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

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226674490
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 10/28/2002
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 283
  • Sales rank: 816,788
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Francesca Polleta is an associate professor of sociology at Columbia University. She is coeditor of Passionate Politics: Emotions and Social Movements, also published by the University of Chicago Press.

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Read an Excerpt

Freedom is an Endless Meeting: Democracy in American Social Movements

By Francesca Polletta

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2002 Francesca Polletta
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0226674487


Talk helps people consider the possibilities open for social change.... One person said, "freedom is an endless meeting."


Conventional wisdom has it that participatory democracy is worthy in principle but unwieldy in practice. For groups devoted to social change, sustaining a decentralized, nonhierarchical, and consensus-based organization seems to mean sacrificing the quick decisions and clear lines of command necessary to winning concessions in a hostile political climate. When confronted with a sudden opportunity--say, authorities agree to a more moderate version of your group's demands--can you afford to have all your members discuss its potential benefits and liabilities, along with anything else anyone wants to talk about, until everyone agrees on every clause and caveat? How can you even plan a concerted effort like a march or a legislative campaign when you have devolved authority to numerous independent local groups? Can you risk vesting power in novices when engaged in the tricky infighting so characteristic of institutional politics? And can you transform society when busy transforming yourselves? If the appropriate metaphor for a social movementorganization is an army, it is hard to think of an army that has won any battles by favoring community over hierarchy, freedom over discipline, and self-expression over effectiveness.

True, hundreds of social movement groups have tried. From pacifists' here-and-now revolution, to the beloved community of the Southern civil rights movement and the new left's participatory democracy, up to today's radically democratic antiglobalization groups, activists have sought to live the better community as they built it, to enact in their own operation the values of equality, community, and democracy that they wanted on a large scale. The chroniclers of these experiments have been sympathetic, but not overly optimistic. Over and over again, they have described progressive groups such as the pacifist Peacemakers, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), and the women's liberationist collectives that proliferated in the late 1960s struggling to square commitments to radical egalitarianism and political efficacy--with creative results, but with the denouement all too often the group's collapse, as competing factions pressed for more radically democratic or more visibly effective actions. The very labels that analysts have used to describe such organizations--"expressive" rather than "instrumental," "prefigurative" rather than "strategic," "redemptive" rather than "adversary"--give away the stories they tell. Once participatory democrats enter the realm of contentious politics, their indifference to strategy seems to doom them to failure.

This book tells a different story. Activists in every major movement of the last hundred years have found strategic value in participatory democratic decisionmaking. They have had many reasons for adopting the form, of course, and they have practiced it in different ways. But, over and over again, activists have been drawn to the solidary, innovatory, and developmental benefits of participatory democracy--benefits that are practical and political. When I ask Tom Hayden, the new leftist perhaps most responsible for popularizing the slogan "participatory democracy," why a group should strive for consensus, his answer is straightforward: because you need to count on other people putting their bodies on the line with you. Giving people a stake in the decision gives them a stake in the success of the action and in the survival of the group. Generations of direct action protesters have shared this view. For the radical pacifists whose opposition to war earned them public hostility and harassment, their egalitarian organizations did even more than that, helping them withstand their terrible isolation and sustaining the movement until the political climate had changed enough to garner them a new audience.

In the conditions of uncertainty and relative powerlessness in which movement groups have so often operated, participatory democracy's innovatory and developmental benefits have been as important as its solidary ones. The sheer diversity of input into tactical choice that participatory democracy makes possible has enabled activists to outpace their opponents in generating novel tactics. In the Southern civil rights movement, organizers used participatory democracy to school local residents in the practice of politics, thus exploiting the developmental benefits of the form. Far from opposed to leadership, they aimed to create political leaders--and to create the mechanisms that would keep leaders accountable to their constituents. In other movements too, especially those that have depended on people with little experience of routine politics, making decisions by consensus and rotating leadership has helped create a pool of activists capable of enforcing the gains made by this movement and launching new rounds of activism. Participatory democracy's potential benefits, in sum, cannot be reduced to "personal" or "cultural" changes. They go to the heart of political impact.

If closer examination of activists' experiments with participatory democracy reveals neglected benefits of the form, however, it also suggests that we must look deeper than the supposedly intrinsic conflict between democracy and efficacy to account for its liabilities. For it is undeniable that most participatory democratic groups have struggled to survive past their founding, let alone realize politically transformative aims. The challenges that they have faced in coordinating large numbers of people with little preparation time and scarce resources have been daunting, and the economic and legal pressures on them to mimic conventional organizations equally so. But participatory democrats have also been thwarted by their very understandings of equality and democracy and efficiency. Equality has sometimes been interpreted as prohibiting any differences in skills or talents. What group members have viewed as effective leadership at one point has come later to be seen as manipulation. Democratic "purists" and "pragmatists" have battled for control of organizations, with each side claiming its own version of what truly democratic deliberation requires. How activists have defined participatory democracy has made practicing it as easy as four friends deciding where to go to dinner--and as difficult as negotiating a treaty among superpowers.

To say that activists'definitions of democracy have affected their ability to put the form to good use, in other words, that culture constrains strategy, will raise a red flag for sociologists. We tend to be wary of culturalist arguments, concerned that their after-the-fact quality gives us little leverage in understanding other cases. So what, we might ask, if we can show that a group's rigid understanding of democracy made it difficult actually to practice democracy? What does that tell us about the next group that adopts the form? Can we extract a generalizable argument from the myriad influences on a group's cultural understandings? We can--by investigating the observable social relationships in which activists' understandings of participatory democracy have been grounded.

Social relationships have shaped participatory democracy in two ways. One is that familiar relationships have provided normative frameworks for deliberation. Participatory democrats have treated each other as family members, as colleagues, and as business partners but especially, in the twentieth century at least, as religious fellows, as teachers and learners, and as friends. These relationships structured deliberative interactions by providing not only broad injunctions against competition and manipulation but also microinteractional rules about how to raise issues, frame disagreement, formulate (and even feel about) dissent.

In some ways, this was to good effect. As friends, learners, and religious fellows, participatory democrats in the movements that I studied treated differences in skills and preferences as sources of mutual learning rather than as obstacles to equality. They were able to make decisions without protracted negotiation and challenge. But each relationship also threatened the group's capacity to make decisions fairly and effectively. For instance, friendship's tendency to exclusivity and its aversion to difference made it difficult for 1960s activists to expand their groups beyond an original core. When they tried to implement mechanisms designed to equalize power, friendship's resistance to formalization impeded their efforts. When newcomers protested their outsider status, or when disagreement was experienced as betrayal, deliberation broke down. Just as pacifists had earlier confronted the limits of the associational model of religious fellowship on which they had based their deliberations and civil rights organizers struggled with the contradictions inherent in the notion of teaching democratic leadership, so friendship in some ways undermined a participatory democratic organization.

Social relationships have underpinned the practice of participatory democracy in a second sense. Activists' assessments of particular deliberative forms--of how egalitarian or efficient or radical they are--have been based in part on the social groups with which they have been identified. For example, what radical democracy meant and what it was good for changed for white student activists in the early 1960s when they began to associate it not with rural communards, Quakers, and pacifists but with black Southern students fighting white supremacy. Its value for black radicals changed a few years later when they came to see it, along with a paralyzing moralism and a self-indulgent penchant for individual freedom, as white. Top-down decisionmaking and a hardheaded instrumentalism, in contrast, came to be seen as black. Today, direct action activists embrace consensus but disdain the deliberative styles that they associate with "new agey" or "Californian" protest--self-oriented, they seem to mean, and unconcerned with practical politics. As a result, however, they have eschewed deliberative procedures that actually might make their decisionmaking more efficient. In each case, movement groups have defined themselves in imitation of, or opposition to, their higher-profile counterparts and have thereby foreclosed strategic possibilities as well as opening them up.

By illuminating the relationships that have underpinned activists'prac-tice of participatory democracy, the story that I tell should revise our understanding of the vulnerabilities as well as the promise of the form. But another aim should be evident in the foregoing, which is to probe the role of culture in strategic action. One can think about the issues that I have raised so far in terms of a different question: Why do activists style their deliberations the way they do? More broadly, why do they decide to adopt a particular tactic, target, ideological frame, or way of making decisions--and decide later to modify or abandon it? Sociologists' ability to answer these questions has been compromised by the narrow conceptual categories on which they have relied. On the dominant theoretical models of strategic choice, movement leaders choose among competing options either by rationally assessing their potential to further such instrumental tasks as winning allies, avoiding repression, and sustaining rank-and-file enthusiasm or by determining how well particular options match their prior ideological commitments. Or else they try to juggle ideological considerations and instrumental ones. It is easy, from this vantage point, to see activists choosing a participatory democratic structure because they want to be true to their democratic ideals. And it is easy to see them abandoning it in favor of a more hierarchical and centralized structure when they realize that their organization's survival depends on putting instrumental concerns above ideological ones.

I raised the possibility earlier, however, that participatory democratic forms might be adopted for strategic reasons rather than ideological ones. Conversely, might not hierarchical forms be adopted for ideological reasons: because they connote efficiency and seriousness, say, or connote masculinity or blackness? Might not activists choose an option or a way of interacting because it is powerfully identified with another group viewed as especially effective, radical, or principled--independent of any proof of its capacity to effect change, its unconventionality, or its normative integrity? Tracing the career of a single organizational form through seven movements allows us to investigate this possibility. More broadly, it can help us rethink how groups select from among the strategic options available to them--but without restricting our analytic options to strategy and ideology.


When participatory democratic organizations exploded on the American scene in the late 1960s, scholarly observers were skeptical, sometimes downright dismissive. Student protesters were driven by a "romantic primitivism" that was irrational, incoherent, and susceptible to demagoguery. They demanded of their politics a "totality of undifferentiated perfection," according to sociologist Edward Shils, and, in their own deliberations as well as their relations with authorities, they displayed a dangerous unwillingness to compromise, the latter the sine qua non of democratic politics. More sympathetic observers saw in the desire to create democratic alternatives mainly expressive and therapeutic rationales. Activists sought "liberated selves in a loose community of equals," in historian Peter Clecak's not untypical formulation. Next to the possibility of "personal salvation," Clecak was convinced, politics "existed fitfully, even secondarily."

In recent years, analysts have been much more willing to credit participatory democrats with explicitly political purposes. Experiments with egalitarian and cooperative decisionmaking are a kind of politics--just not the politics of parliamentary maneuver and bureaucratic manipulation. Rather, as sociologist Wini Breines put it in Community and Organization, her seminal study of the 1960s new left, by "prefiguring" within the current practices of the movement the values of freedom, equality, and community that they wanted on a grand scale, activists were helping bring them about. Their dilemma--and it was a dilemma, not a mistake--was that they wanted to effect political change without reproducing the structures that they opposed. To be "strategic" was to privilege organization over personhood and political reform over radical change, and this they would not do.

The label prefigurative has remained popular as a way to describe movement groups whose internal structure is characterized by a minimal division of labor, decentralized authority, and an egalitarian ethos and whose decisionmaking is direct and consensus oriented. SNCC, SDS, the Clamshell Alliance, 1970s feminist groups like Redstockings, and numerous environmental and anti-corporate globalization groups today fit the model. They can be compared to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Sierra Club, and the National Organization for Women, all of which put the achievement of their goals, whether desegregation, securing environmental legislation, or getting women into elected office, above their still deeply held commitments to democracy. Accommodating the demands of funders may mean implementing bureaucratic allocative procedures; winning legislation or policy change may require centralized authority; responding quickly to the aggressive action of movement opponents may require leaders' unilateral action. Groups privileging democratic principles, by contrast, are unwilling to bow to the demands of political efficacy.

Does this mean that groups privileging democratic principles cannot be politically effective? The concept of prefiguration was intended to capture the political seriousness of such groups, but also their potential for political impact. However, analysts have been less clear about how such impact occurs. Is building the new society within the shell of the old aimed at persuading people outside the movement of the desirability and viability of radically democratic forms, or is its purpose to transform participants' relationships with each other? Or do activists see themselves as preserving a democratic impulse until a more receptive era? Absent any attempt to distinguish among these and other possibilities and to define what counts as success, prefigurative goals risk sounding very much like expressive ones--defined only by their opposition to considerations of strategy. Moreover, even as they have championed prefigurative efforts as politics, analysts have sometimes restricted the reach of such efforts to the realms of cultural and personal change. Changing laws, policies, and political structures is the kind of "strategic politics" that is contrasted, a priori, to prefigurative politics. This misses altogether the possibility that participatory democracy in movements can advance efforts to secure institutional political change, that participatory democracy can be strategic. As I will show in a moment, it also makes it difficult to understand the conflicts that participatory democratic groups have faced--since their trajectories are reduced to the tensions between prefigurative and strategic commitments supposedly at their core.

So the concept of prefiguration may in some ways limit our ability to assess the viability and strengths of participatory democratic forms. Sociologists of social movements have not neglected these strengths altogether. Sociologist Suzanne Staggenborg especially, but other authors too, have drawn attention to participatory democracy's tactical benefits. Decentralized and informal organizational structures can generate innovative tactics by encouraging group input. In combination with a group's cooperative ethos, they also strengthen the supportive bonds among members that make for political solidarity now as well as the likelihood that participants will continue active in later movements. Like these analysts, I describe benefits of innovation and solidarity. But I pay most attention to another category, that of developmental benefits. And I attribute all three kinds of benefits to features of participatory democracy that coexist alongside its informality, decentralization, and cooperative ethos.

In the organizations that I studied, I was struck by participants' emphasis on deliberative talk. They expected each other to provide legitimate reasons for preferring one option to another. They strove to recognize the merits of each other's reasons for favoring a particular option, even though they did not necessarily rank those reasons in the same order. The point was to make each person's reasoning understandable: the goal was not unanimity so much as discourse. But it was a particular kind of discourse, governed by norms of openness and mutual respect.


Excerpted from Freedom is an Endless Meeting: Democracy in American Social Movements by Francesca Polletta Copyright © 2002 by Francesca Polletta. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

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

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