Why consensus? Prefiguration in three activist eras

Francesca Polletta, Katt Hoban

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

15 Scopus citations


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.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)286-301
Number of pages16
JournalJournal of Social and Political Psychology
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2016
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Partial funding for this study came from University of California Irvine’s Center for Organizational Research and University of California Irvine’s Center for the Study of Democracy. The authors thank the organizers who participated in this study for sharing their experiences and perspectives.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2016, PsychOpen. All rights reserved.


  • Activism
  • Consensus decision-making
  • Horizontalism
  • Participatory decision-making
  • Prefiguration
  • Social movements


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