Interviewing Dylan Cohen

In the year 2042, an oral history of the then 25 year-old ongoing Revolutionary Participatory Society organization/project in the U.S. will be published. The book’s fifteen chapters will excerpt and arrange insights culled from eighteen interviews to present events and ideas in a sequential, encompassing way. 

By unknown dynamics, the book’s introduction, its 18 source interviews, and even drafts of its chapters, have begun to appear via email in the present. The web site at presents more about the project, its aims, and ways to relate to it, and offers more of its substance as well.

In any event, the interviewer is named Miguel Guevara and the interviewee in this article is named Dylan Cohen. The year they meet is 2041. The interview is a virtually verbatim transcription. Also, as there are 18 interviews and since Guevara will seek to avoid undue overlap, no one interview serves as more than a facet of the larger whole.
–Michael Albert

Dylan Cohen, you were born in 1981. Ex military, you became a writer-activist focused on understanding and relating constructively to working class and particularly military agendas. Relating strongly to other ex military, you got involved with peace movements and campaigns aimed at military and police structure and policy. At the first RPS convention everyone agreed that decisions were temporary until there could be a second convention with greater participation. Can you tell us how that second convention came about, and what it was like?

At the first convention those attending and voting were self selected and attended as individuals. We liked RPS ideas, so we came. Organizers circulated materials beforehand, but despite their efforts, people who attended hadn’t all deliberated face to face in advance.

For the second convention the idea was that participants would all come from chapters. We waited over two years to have it and during that time established over 800 chapters. The average chapter had 40 members so we had 32,000 active members.

32,000 people couldn’t attend a convention, but we did want to gain cross chapter solidarity by having folks from across the country, meet, hear others’ experiences, and share lessons. We would together ratify or perhaps reorient the basic RPS commitments and national campaigns.

We had to decide who would attend and how things would function. Our plan was simple. Each chapter would send five people. At least three women, at least two people of color, so about 4,000 people would attend. Chapters would choose who they sent using any method they favored. All chapter members would share costs also  however each chapter agreed. People coming from all the many chapters in each city would meet citywide at least twice before coming to the convention to get to know one another better and to discuss ideas they wished to bring. One statewide meeting of all delegates from all chapters in each state would precede the national convention as well. These meetings were, themselves, conventions of a sort. Finally, delegates from all over the U.S. would come to the national convention.

The national convention would last five days. Time would be set aside for presentations, discussion, debate, and for various elections and special events – including talks, social events, meals, and topical meetings.

Each chapter’s delegates would get time before major voting sessions to caucus with their full chapter memberships online. Chapters would receive reports and register their preferences with their delegates via these online sessions.

How did the planning occur?

A year ahead, each chapter could optionally propose a person to work on a planning committee and serve as convention staff. Everyone knew this would be a big job, and also that the odds were good one wouldn’t get chosen to do this unless one was pretty well known.

Chapters proposed about 400 people. Descriptions of all these nominees were distributed to all chapters. Chapters couldn’t vote for their own nominee, and each chapter got four votes. Each chapter had to vote for two women and two men, and also had to vote for two people of color. Then, the 20 women with the most votes and the 20 men with the most votes were on the committee, as were the 20 people of color with the most votes. The committee therefore had to be at least 40 people and could conceivably be as many as 60 people. It turned out to be 48.

Those 48 became the planning committee and staff, responsible for getting a venue, preparing advance communications, developing an agenda, inviting guests, chairing sessions, and handling accommodations and food.

What from the first convention did the second convention change?

The program was updated, of course, but the basics of RPS had been conceived wisely and barely changed at all, at least that I can remember.

I guess the biggest innovation was implementing the Shadow Government idea. Various factors led to that, and for that matter, it certainly wasn’t original to RPS. The Green Party had done a Shadow Government during the second Obama administration, but at a much lesser scale than RPS undertook and with almost no impact. A precipitating factor of the RPS effort was that various RPS members had begun running for office and wanted an RPS project that those who did not win and their many supporters could plug into.

Tone and style changed dramatically. At the first convention, there was an undertone of worry that we would blow our opportunity. At the second convention confidence and a celebratory mood replaced worry. Almost everyone felt we were building a vehicle that was going to take society to a whole new place. There was revolution in the air. It wasn’t childish. It wasn’t wishful thinking. It was a quiet, calm assessment. RPS was growing and it wasn’t going away.

We had skits which poked fun at ourselves and even at particular prominent figures in RPS. Folks laughed. There was no defensiveness. People were serious, but there was a lightness to it all.

Discussions and the votes on program and for the Shadow Government meant a lot to us, but nonetheless we were relaxed. RPS’s emphasis on diversity and respect for minority positions served us well. Most votes were lopsided, yet the losing parties were always accommodated with means to explore their ideas further to be ready in case the winning ideas proved unsuccessful.

I am not saying we had no tense moments, particularly with close votes, but there was much less than at the first convention and even more telling, when decisions were reached, I didn’t detect bad feelings. But the unity wasn’t an emergent hive mind. The reverse held. Since the first convention far more people broached and advocated richer and more varied ideas. People were gaining trust, confidence, and a sense of perspective.

People often consider only numbers of people relating and growth of militancy as signs of progress. But, while those familiar measures matter greatly, if you think about what would have to pertain in a peaceful, just, caring, self managing society, the kind of less easily described interpersonal progress I am pointing to was what kept the greater numbers of more militant participants functioning well together.

My apologies, I forgot to ask you how you became radicalized. Do you remember?

Dealing death and deciding it was horribly wrong. One day – and this actually didn’t happen often – I saw someone I killed face to face. Next day, I watched a buddy of mine die. Other days, I killed, and saw death on my side, too, but it was nameless. After a time, it was all just death, like a palpable nasty cousin of life, uninvited but constantly showing up.

But I was a product of military indoctrination and that is not easy to overcome. It had two main parts. Ideology was only a small aspect – since the first paramount part, blindly obeying orders, took total control over having opinions at all. The second paramount part was contextually valid, at least to a point, but in the broader reality of social life, it was entirely insane. It was that we are a team, a family. Each of us is dependent on and needs to regard others as a lifeline to survival and as essential, if it comes to it, to save, even at personal risk. But more, this family has borders and anyone outside is an enemy. To the inside, we were taught, show respect and incredible solidarity. Limitless loyalty. To the outside, show nothing but unyielding strength and, if need be – and the tripwire for this was always set to break easily – deliver violent aggression. Horrific hostility.

Connections formed on the battlefield are deep and enduring. Both positive ones with friends and negative ones with nameless others run deep. In battle, our mentality fostered survival and winning, but in life our mentality bred anti social isolation.

My radicalization began when i jettisoned false beliefs and behaviors in Iraq. It deepened when I later urged and helped others do likewise. I looked at individual’s views, but also at where the views came from and what alternatives existed. Before long I saw the link between imperialism and anti sociality and between a life denying system and its beat up soldiers of fortune.  At that point, RPS provided me a natural home. It kept me on track and sane against my PTSD, and, I like to think, effective in the struggle.

Dylan, at the second convention, how did the first shadow government get formed?

It was partly an election for the President, Vice President, and Senators, and it was partly a process of appointments for Supreme Court Judges, Cabinet members, and others.

The shadow Senators were elected before the second national convention, by State conventions. The President and Vice President were elected at the second convention, with part of the convention being the candidates giving speeches. Nominations were conducted earlier, at the State conventions, and were whittled down to four for each office by a prior national online vote of all chapter members. The vote at the national convention was of the whole membership too, since each chapter got live reports from its delegates, saw the speeches online, and then held votes of its members at local gatherings. In the vote at the convention, chapter tallies were conveyed. It was surprisingly dramatic and exciting. Lydia became the first President, as you know, and Bertrand became the first Vice President. The Senators were all present, and a meeting of all of who had been elected began appointing Judges, White House staff, and the Shadow Cabinet. Then part of their time at the Convention went to the new government members setting up their subsequent online and live meeting schedules.

Did it all go smoothly, were their any serious problems?

There were some hiccups, of course. Folks would argue about the merits of different candidates. No one knew quite what the new jobs would entail. Sometimes communications got confused or failed for technical reasons. But in my memory, it was all so aggressively positive and optimistic that the good far outweighed any glitches.

Serious convention problem? Regrettably, yes, one dynamic arose and I was actually intimately involved. A group of ex-military made a collective proposal on behalf of arming so as to battle directly with police. They saw themselves as “true revolutionaries,”  precisely because they identified their readiness to shoot it out with their “being revolutionary,” and identified rejecting weaponry as being “phony.”

To the extent they had a case, it was that if those seeking change rejected the use of weapons, those defending the status quo would inevitably win by sheer force of arms and repression. It was a one step argument and they were correct that if it was true that we could not win fundamental change without overcoming state violence with movement violence, then anyone who said we should be non violent was conceding we could not win fundamental change.

If the “if” part was correct, the “then” part followed. But was the if part true? Well, of course we now know from experience it wasn’t, though some rambo-ish types are probably still holdouts. But really we knew it then too, and much earlier, as well.

What made this a problem wasn’t that such an absurd view was offered, but the way it was offered. These guys marched in, armed with rifles, and took the stage. This, they felt, demonstrated the power of guns. They offered their effectively one line logic, and from then on their only stance was you are either with us, or you are with the state – where the state was everyone hell bent on maintaining the current system.

Still, why a problem? It was, in my view, because the people present didn’t want to take too strong a stance with these folks who had, after all, gone through war time conflict. That they had jaundiced views was considered a product of their history.

And your involvement?

I argued the counter view – that violence would not only distort our ability to think straight and function well, witness them, but that it would play into the hands of the powers that be. Violence was terrain where the state would inevitably win. Our task in confronting violence was to disarm it by making it ineffective such that more violence against us would mean more dissent from us.

I was a veteran of active duty, and a military organizer so I quickly gathered a group, unarmed, and we simply walked up on stage and said now what? Are you going to shoot us? Or would shooting us do your agenda more harm than good? And our act defused their formulation that anyone against them was for system preservation by comparing our own history of organizing and activism to theirs – which was nearly nil. We got them to leave the stage, with us, to talk further.

The ensuing talks were a bit cathartic for many. The truth was that rather than their history as it manifested in their thinking being a justification for their thinking, our time talking revealed that their thinking was not reasoned but something less.

The bigger point was different though. They did have an effect which reverberated for some time. The truth is both sides of the argument had some merit. Our side was about overall relations in the large. Movements thinking they can fight the state play into the hands of the state which itself wants nothing so much as to make politics into war, moving from our terrain of issues and aims to their terrain of pure power. In the small, however, the armed guys on the stage did reveal a parallel truth. In a group, one guy with a club is a problem. Five guys with guns are an even bigger problem.

We faced two issues. On the one hand, could we handle police and military violence in local demonstrations? The answer was yes, but only by way of creating a situation in which if the police or military used violence against us it would rebound to our benefit, not their’s.

The second issue was trickier. Could we handle personal violence, motivated by thuggery, lunacy, or infiltration, from our own people – such as these vets? It would be hard if not impossible to make internal violence counter productive for them if those doing it were beyond reason much less if they were actively trying to damage RPS. We did refute in that way, actually, with the guys on the stage at the convention. But they weren’t trying to harm RPS. What if they were?

And so emerged a feeling that RPS had to have a means to deal with internal or external craziness or sabotage. Discussions went on for some time. Could we address this yet not corrupt the style and modes of operation of RPS and distort people’s mindsets and views of one another? Could we prepare for such situations without our preparedness doing us more harm than the situations themselves?

A first thought was, well, how about if we have a few people, who have the training and experience for handling crazy violent interlopers, invisibly armed and prepared. There were two problems. First, the secrecy contradicted so much else we were doing. We decided the decision had to be taken by the organization as a whole, including that those empowered for security would not openly carry, or even be known. We decided to elect a group who would then secretly designate security folks.

But second, what if these security folks themselves became problematic? We decided the people picked shouldn’t be the most macho and military in bearing and training. Experienced folks should train the people picked as need be, but the people literally providing security should be mild mannered.

We also decided that while that set of steps made sense, we weren’t sure it was really needed. After all, we had now completed two conventions and we had been involved in all kinds of demonstrations and campaigns, including often running up against police and state power. So maybe paranoia about the likelihood of internal lunacy was a bigger problem for us than such lunacy itself. And it turned out that this cautiousness at undertaking the project was wise. We had the plan ready to propose, for a wide discussion and vote, but we decided to hold off until and unless practical evidence suggested it was needed. And, because of our huge growth, that time never came. On the other hand, I and various others around the country did quietly work with folks on how to deal with intruders, drunks, ideologically intractable folks, infiltrators, and the like, non-violently but forcefully. And here we are, so I guess all was well.

Dylan, if I could, I would like to switch gears a bit. Did you believe when joining RPS that it would usher in an end to war? Do you now think it will?

Suppose I asked you, Miguel, did you believe when becoming involved with RPS that it would usher in an end to crime? Do you now think it will?

I hope you would answer, as I would, no. I did not believe that. I thought it would hugely diminish crime not only because people would have enhanced social motivations and desires, but also because people would never be desperate for income, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, there would be no way to benefit materially from crime on any significant scale. For example, excessive wealth accrued by crime would be immediately evident to all because it could not arise from legal, morally sound behavior. When you see great wealth, you would see a person who is benefitting from crime. Period. The social lives of citizens would engender far greater mutual aid, or perhaps better put, would not stifle such sentiments. But, still, there could be all manner of pathologies leading to violations, or to honest disagreements, or to fierce anger, and so on, so I suspect you wouldn’t have said we will wind up with no crime, just that we will have vastly less crime.

So by analogy you might  think I would answer, with RPS success the odds of wars and otherwise violent engagements between countries would diminish hugely, but war will not disappear. But I actually think, and I hope, that a couple of additional factors bearing on war between countries as compare to crime inside countries will make that wrong.

One factor is that war is a collective undertaking. It is not some lone person doing something criminal. War involves large and even vast numbers of people. What’s more, war depends on prior involvement in things like arms production and military organization and training. I think the collective scale of war preparation and war making mean that the reduced motivations for it, and the reduced mentalities willing to accommodate to it, and the reduced preparedness for it, will literally mean an end to it. You could have, I suppose, lone advocates of war, like you can have lone criminals, but once social relations are transformed, I don’t believe you will have whole countries even able much less willing or eager to wage war.

What have you felt to be the most important steps already taken on the road to no more war?

In a general sense the steady emergence of RPS-like movements and organizations in countries all over the world seems paramount to me. It is precisely the way these organizations link concerns about attaining peace with concerns about attaining justice and link both with positive program and vision seeking new institutions that matters even more than single issue efforts on behalf of peace in this or that world conflict zone, as important as those are.

Of course diverse efforts against specific hostilities and wars have also been pivotal, but if I had to pick one thing that has turned the corner toward literally eliminating war it would probably be the massive campaigns to transform military bases around the world into vehicles for social programs of reconstruction and protection against natural disasters. Those campaigns not only are anti war and injustice, they offer positive options and make clear that arguments against change on these fronts are not about what is possible, but only about what benefits the rich and powerful.

I have been privileged to attend numerous demonstrations and participate in many campaigns, and not only in the U.S., around demobilizing or retooling bases. For me, seeing not just the anti war sentiment these nourish, but the sense of possibility and optimism has been profoundly moving. Connecting desires for ecological sanity and equitable reconstruction to anti war desires, while also watching out for the well being of the soldiers affected and their communities and whole countries, has been so exemplary that it just keeps gaining ever more support. I think the aim – peace for all time – is within our grasp. The next big dance may well be on the graves of the world’s last masters of war.