Why Consensus?


  • Francesca Polletta
  • Katt Hoban


Activists have long justified their egalitarian organizational forms in prefigurative terms. Making decisions by consensus, decentralizing organization, and rotating leadership serves to model the radically democratic society that activists hope to bring into being. Our comparison of consensus-based decision-making in three historical periods, however, shows that activists have understood the purposes of prefiguration in very different ways. Whereas radical pacifists in the 1940s saw their cooperative organizations as sustaining movement stalwarts in a period of political repression, new left activists in the 1960s imagined that their radically democratic practices would be adopted by ever-widening circles. Along with the political conditions in which they have operated, activists’ distinctive understandings of equality have also shaped the way they have made decisions. Our interviews with 30 leftist activists today reveal a view of decision-making as a place to work through inequalities that are informal, unacknowledged, and pervasive.