Accompanying: Pathways to Social Change by Staughton Lynd (PM Press) pulses with relevancy. The author’s thesis is that a flawed organizing model doomed many 1960s social change movements.
Then, some leaders decided how to organize others. This harmed the organized capacities to act independently.
In contrast, Lynd presents an organizing model of “accompaniment.” He defines it in light of Dr. Paul Farmer’s humanitarian work in Haiti.
“To accompany someone is to go somewhere with him or her, to break bread together, to be present on a journey, with a beginning and an end,” Lynd writes. His book features an introduction, two parts, organizing and accompaniment, plus a conclusion and an index.
The first chapter recounts some high and low points of the US labor movement. Lynd draws on his vast experience with workers and their unions during the class warfare waged in the US over the past three-plus decades. This concrete reality leads him to assert that unions “in a capitalist society function to stabilize the status quo.” His is not a well-established narrative. The author’s critique flows from personal involvement with workers’ self-directed activity. For instance, in Ohio during the late 1970s, steel mill closings unleashed the most militant resistance from rank-and-file union members, as Lynd details.
His sources, people who labor for wages in factories and hospitals, use collective bargaining with employers as one but not the only way to push for democracy in the workplace. Other ways bubble from the activity of workers on the shop floor, and not from union leadership.
Lynd turns to the Civil Rights Movement to end section one. Writing from a participant and an historian’s viewpoint, he reveals how the Democratic Party and United Auto Workers President Reuther neutered activists’ push for a political voice.
Further, Lynd examines organizing in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and Students for a Democratic Society. The main take-away is that a top-down strategy of both tendencies failed to empower local people, which in turn led to the demise of these groups.
In Part Two, ‘Accompaniment,’ Lynd lays out a concise history of four cases of such solidarity. First are war objectors and their counselors, including the author and his wife, Alice. During the Vietnam War, they worked with military draft resisters. This instructive process of listening and sharing common experiences and ideas shines light on the social change process.
In turn, the draft and resistance to it teaches US elites to form the all-volunteer armed forces. Still, battle-tested soldiers such as Iraq War veteran Camilo Mejia oppose combat, which Lynd contextualizes with other veterans.
In his longest piece, Lynd recounts the life of El Salvador’s Archbishop Oscar Romero. The US-backed military there shot him dead in 1980. What was the reason for this crime? Archbishop Romero accompanied the majority campesinos (peasants) in their protest against harsh living and working conditions under a minority land ownership.
At first, Archbishop was a “cautious church bureaucrat.” Later, he is a progressive activist who pioneers the term “liberation theology” that draws on the lives of the landless in El Salvador.
In this way, “evangelization” became in action “an emphasis on listening rather than talking, and to an ultimate vision of the poor themselves taking responsibility for their own liberation.”
In the chapter “Accompanying Prisoners,” Alice Lynd writes of their efforts with incarcerated males in Lucasville, Ohio. Correspondence with them leads to collaborative actions against injustice behind bars.
“I learned from some prisoners what other prisoners needed to learn from me,” she writes. Each one teaches one; together for instance they address conditions such as prisoners’ suicides.
The Lynds listen and respond to the incarcerated. The tide turns, as Staughton details, when news of Ohio prisoners’ hunger striking across the color line (no mean feat) spreads to California’s Pelican Bay Prison, a “supermax” facility. It is a place where men languish in solitary confinement for years. They, like Ohio prisoners, struggle for their human rights.
Lynd’s last chapter takes up the Occupy Movement, its emergence and significance. In a conclusion, he urges readers to walk progressive talk.
“Venture forth into relationships of companionship with ordinary people in places where there have been very few fellow radicals.” That works for me.
Seth Sandronsky lives and writes in Sacramento. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
From The Progressive Populist, June 1, 2013
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