Back to Chapter Headings Back to home page Contact Gene Lantz

There is Power in Single-purpose Coalitions

Even though I carried the burden of being devoted to an organization that was generally not welcomed in coalitions, I learned a few things about working with volunteers and building coalitions. One of those issues comes up over and over again and is, in fact, a problem for me even as I write this in 2015.

I learned, from my work in the Socialist Workers Party, the difference between a “single purpose” coalition and a “multi-purpose” coalition. The whole explanation is in the names.

The problem is that otherwise smart people, especially the most energetic activists, try to expand every coalition beyond its best and most useful purpose. A coalition supporting retiree rights, for example, might be pressured to take on environmental issues. “Everybody is affected by the environment,” is the obvious argument. Another argument is “The broader we make our coalition, the more people we can reach.” The first argument may be true but it’s irrelevant. The second argument is false and dangerous.

Taking on more issues does not make a coalition attractive to more people, and adding environmentalism to a coalition on retiree rights wouldn’t make it larger. The way to understand it is this: a coalition on retiree rights attracts people interested in retiree rights. Some of them feel one way about other questions, such as the environment, while others feel the other way. When the coalition adds the new issue, our core coalition begins to split. We’ve actually lost members and blunted our original purpose.

Additionally, if the retiree organization is going to take on environmentalism, them why not anti-warism? Homophobia? Native American discrimination? Many an otherwise useful coalition has destroyed itself this way. The best example is probably Students for a Democratic Society. I never joined them, but got as far as the front steps to a meeting at University of Oklahoma one day in the 1960s. By 1968, they were by far the most powerful mass movement in America as a single-purpose coalition challenging the war in Vietnam.

But they liked to hold discussion groups about every other issue under the sun. They talked themselves into oblivion.

A year or two later, they had split into a half dozen assorted "radical" groups and had lost their leadership of the anti-war movement.

Multi-purpose Coalitions, Not So Powerful

My own worst example grew out of our great initial success with the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES). Its original impetus came from the revolutionary overthrow in Nicaragua in 1979. I went there as soon as I could and came back to start a solidarity coalition we called “Metroplex Citizens for Aid to Nicaragua.” (MCAN). Locally in Dallas, I connected with the family of one of the Sandinistas murdered by a Somocista firing squad. Norma Lizette (seated in the photo) was about 14 then and was a terrific speaker. she is pictured with her orphaned niece, Claudia. Working with Norma and her dad, we raised a little money and a lot of good publicity for the revolution.

Claudia and Norma Lizette Fernandez

Within a few months, the focus in Central America had shifted to the revolutionary struggle in El Salvador. These were popular causes among the youth in the U.S., especially because the Sandinistas in Nicaragua were romantic and successful, while the struggle in El Salvador seemed close to winning. Winning really motivates people.

Within a few months after starting MCAN, I attended a nationwide meeting to form CISPES, then came back to Dallas to start it here. Elaine and I, a close friend from Puerto Rico, and two Catholic Nuns started the local chapter. For the next several years, while the Reagan Administration pulled every murderous and illegal trick imaginable to destroy the rights of Central Americans, CISPES was the hottest political organization in our area.

How to Weaken a Great Anti-War Coalition

Like all successful organizations, we attracted a lot of people who had their own uses for us. The first big split was over Central American immigrants. The argument was that the wars in Central America were causing young men to flee the country and that, as concerned Americans, we had an obligation to help take care of them.

I argued against it the best I could. I said that our goal was to stop the U.S. invasions in Central America, not to comfort the victims. But, since most CISPES activists were good liberals, they embraced the immigrant issue, and many of them abandoned the anti-war work. From then on, a lot of the energy and nearly all the money went into counseling services and material support for Central Americans running away from Reagan’s wars. In truth, helping immigrants was attractive to many liberals simply because it was a lot safer than directly opposing our government!

Organizations Can Get Funding from the Wealthy, as Long as They're Ineffective

The immigrant groups quickly found funding, set up a building, and began hiring staff. We could never have received funding from churches or foundations for the purpose of stopping the war, but comforting a few immigrants was a good, safe, investment for the status quo.

Trying to accomplish everything is a good way to accomplish nothing

Before long, national CISPES leaders began to think of themselves as revolutionaries allied with the Salvadoran fighters. Every issue that the Salvadorans thought was important found a reflection among the national CISPES leaders, and they led the organization into multi-purpose impotency. I heard one old salt explain it the best: “Every good activist organization starts thinking it has to be the new Communist Party.” As time went on, CISPES nationwide weakened itself as it took on more and more issues. I think the Dallas chapter outlasted most of them, but not by much.

Back to Chapter Headings Back to home page Contact Gene Lantz