To create a republic of virtue you need a big (and flexible) tent

One thing about Robespierre was that he wasn’t really into big tent politics.

By 1793, Robespierre and his allies were in the ascendent, flanked by the more radical/rapid Hébertists and the more moderate Dantonists.

This governing coalition was already on the narrow side, after a succession of coups and purges. But it proved an uneasy alliance, and it ended when Robespierre liquidated both these factions.

As a result, he become further exposed and he was soon afterwards deposed himself by a ragbag of opponents who then instituted a counter-revolution.

Robespierre called his government of Terror “an emanation of virtue”, he wanted everyone to be virtuous, morally pure. But he then found himself eliminating everyone who didn’t live up to his standards and vision. Which didn’t leave that many people.

We all want a republic of virtue. But having a strong moral principles and a clear vision of what you want to achieve doesn’t mean you have to be so dismissive of everyone else’s standpoint and contribution

Compare Robespiere to Martin Luther King. Probably not a phrase heard that often, but then again on the moral dimensions of power, they had similar starting points:

King’ axiom that “Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anaemic” echoes (albeit without the threatening overtone) Robespierre’s statement that “terror without virtue is disastrous, virtue without terror is powerless”.

And King, like Robespierre, was driven to action by strong moral principles. But he also had a great and more open sense of the wider movement.

King was similarly flanked – by the more moderate NAACP (whose model of change was around persuasion and legal action, and not protest) and the more radical students’ movement, the SNCC.

And from both (and other) directions, he received criticisms – for his strategy and tactics, style of leadership, etc. But he acted in some ways as a punchbag for the movement, soaking up the criticisms.

Nobody’s heads got chopped off, and generally the different groups found constructive ways to move forward together, and drive the civil rights movement towards its successes.

I mention this because – whilst advocacy coalitions are obviously not a cost-free panacea – various factors mean that joint working is (arguably) becoming a more important route to change.

Trends also point to models of joint working that are less directed, based on looser connections, and involving more diverse actors.

Reasons for this include that

  • Broader, and unusual, alliances for change are increasingly needed, to tip the balance in targets’ calculations about costs and benefits for and against action.
  • The scale and impacts of many of the problems faced calls for cross sectoral, longer-term responses – as with Who Benefits? for example
  • The potential volatility and speed of social change points to more fluid ways of joint working that allow groups to move as a swarm rather than a regiment.
  • As the campaigning eco-system shifts, there is an increasing need for NGOs to look beyond traditional partners and work with and support a wider range of groups and actors.
  • NGOs sensitive to changing times are likely to be playing more of a brokering and convening role, supporting others and augmenting others’ voices, and less likely to try to be trying to direct the action.

 

That means playing more of a collective role in shaping the emergent direction of travel, rather than trying to lead from the front.

And so being able to reach out and find common points of reference in divergence becomes increasingly important.

Rather than getting everyone to rally round to your way of thinking – never that straightforward at the best of times – if you are looking for the most effective way to promote systemic change, the best approach, according to Donella Meadows, is “to keep unattached … stay flexible … realise that no paradigm is ‘true’ – including the one that … shapes your own worldview”.

Being receptive to uncertainty and open to accommodating disparate starting points will be increasingly important in future advocacy coalitions.

(As someone should have advised Robespierre) it’s ok to think you are right but not that everyone else is wrong.

 

One Comment

  1. Mark says:

    I prefer a caravan of fellow travellers

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