The sociologists and historians tell us that only rarely does a social movement involve more than 5% of the affected population in active participation.
BUT these struggles by a small activist cores succeeded because they won the political support of the great majority. Going back to the Selma Movement, while less than 10% of Blacks directly and actively participated in the Voting Rights campaign, the overwhelming majority supported those that did take action, and they honored the economic boycott that was a significant element in the eventual victory.
During the long student strike for Third World Studies at San Francisco State in 1968, we never had more than 1% of the student body attending planning meetings, passing out leaflets, organizing actions, or doing the other work necessary to call and maintain a strike. And no more than 2000 — well under 10% — walked the picket lines, attended the rallies, or marched on the Administration Building. But a clear majority of all the students honored the strike by not attending class. That mass support was not an accident, it was the product of years — repeat, YEARS — of patient education, consistent organizing, and a long series of escalating protests all designed to educate and build mass support.
The key point is that the 5% who are activists achieve victories by winning political support among the 95% who are not activists (and never will be activists). We don't have to start out with majority popular support, but we DO have to end up that way. If we don't end up with the support of a majority of the population, we won't accomplish anything of significance. Which means that our strategies and tactics must be shaped towards the goal of winning support among the 95% who are NOT activists. That is the criteria by which we have to evaluate our strategies and tactics.
Tactics that alienate, or frighten, the people whose support we need to win are counter-productive. What people fear, they come to hate, what they come to hate, they oppose. Tactics that treat the people we need to educate as if they were enemies turns them into enemies in fact.
Kwame Ture (Stokeley Carmichael) of SNCC once observed that, "All real education is political. All politics is not necessarily educational, but good politics always is. You can have no serious organizing without serious education. And always, the people will teach you as much as you teach them."
Copyright © Bruce Hartford, 2011.