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Talking across Today's Transformative Movements
By Chris Dixon
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2014 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
"Fighting against amnesia"
Movement Histories of Another Politics
In part, capitalism and oppression rule through what we call "the social organization of forgetting," which is based on the annihilation of our social and historical memories.... This social organization of forgetting is crucial to the way in which social power works in our society. We no longer remember the past struggles that won us the social gains, social programs, and human rights that we now often take for granted.
Gary Kinsman and Patrizia Gentile
AT ONE POINT DURING my conversation with Clare Bayard, she beautifully laid out the essential basis for any discussion of movements and radical politics. As an organizer and educator with the Catalyst Project in San Francisco, Bayard assists activist groups all over the United States with political education and organizational development. Based on her experience, she has a finely honed appreciation for history-telling and a grounded understanding of how rarely it happens, even in movement spaces. "I'm always trying to fight against this historical amnesia of 'this is just the moment that exists by itself,'" Bayard explained.
This sort of amnesia—an experience of the present detached from the past—is pervasive in North America, common in schools, politics, and media. As activist-scholars Gary Kinsman and Patrizia Gentile suggest, systematic forgetting is deeply connected to the organization and administration of power in our society. Given this, it's not terribly surprising that movements—and writings about them—are frequently afflicted by historical amnesia. Resisting forgetting is rarely easy, even for those of us engaged in collective struggles for justice and dignity. Remembering requires conscious, dedicated work.
This chapter is an effort to fight against amnesia. Over the last decade, there has been a lot of talk about the "new radicalism" or the "new anarchism." While I don't deny that there is a quality of newness to recent anti-authoritarian activity, the back story is much more complicated. Another politics bears the imprints of many previous political experiences and traditions. It has also been importantly shaped by the more recent convergence of a variety of radical politics and broader-based movements. To properly understand the contemporary anti-authoritarian current, then, we have to look at the histories that have produced it and continue to animate it.
There isn't a linear story to tell here. When it comes to movements, there rarely is. I've found that a more useful way to understand the histories leading into the anti-authoritarian current is to trace influential strands of politics and struggle. These strands weave in and out, often intertwining in unexpected ways and sometimes temporarily receding from view. In this chapter, I sketch a brief history of the more significant, longer running strands that have shaped another politics. In looking closely at these, we can see how past movements have catalyzed and carried constellations of ideas and practices that are still widely used by activists today. With this sketch in hand, I then turn to three particularly crucial strands that have converged in recent decades: anti-racist feminism, prison abolitionism, and anarchism. This convergence, in my view, has laid the basis for what is emerging as another politics in the United States and Canada, shaping its development through movements and mobilizations from the early 2000s into the present.
Many movements and lineages of struggle have created visions of social transformation and revolutionary strategies to achieve those visions. What has historically distinguished anti-authoritarian politics is its determination to fight colonialism, capitalism, and the state-form (and, over time, other systems of oppression) while putting liberatory visions into practice. This two-part orientation, the combined "against" and "beyond" that I discuss more in the following chapters, is the anti-authoritarian kernel that has been nourished through many seasons of struggle.
We should begin with Indigenous resistance to European colonization. Antiauthoritarian politics, in significant but mostly unexplored ways, strongly resonates with certain lineages of anti-colonial struggle across the globe. Such resistance is over five hundred years old, stretching from the Arawak peoples' efforts to survive after the invasion led by Christopher Columbus to eighteenth-century fugitive African slave communities in what is now Brazil to contemporary struggles of the Ogoni in Nigeria and the Kanien'kehaka (Mohawks) across Ontario, Quebec, and New York. Many Indigenous peoples have sustained forms of social organization without—and, at times, against—state structures and capitalist relations, and some continue to do so. While non-Indigenous movements have historically had an uneasy relationship with this strand of resistance, it has impacted them nonetheless, especially in Canada and in some regions of the United States. More than any other lineage of resistance in North America, Indigenous struggles for self-determination have consistently challenged the territorial control of nation-states, offered a living alternative to private property, and fore-grounded colonialism as an ongoing system of domination.
We can trace another strand from abolitionism, the movement to abolish slavery and free slaves of African descent. Abolitionism grew out of the efforts of enslaved Black people to resist slaveholders and slaveholder institutions throughout the Americas. In the late eighteenth century, it emerged more coherently as a movement through the diligent efforts of Black and white antislavery activists. In North America, abolitionists organized speaking tours and conventions, published newspapers and pamphlets, and assisted with direct action initiatives such as the Underground Railroad. Their efforts also inspired a wave of groundbreaking feminist political activity. Drawing on Christianity, the radical wing of the abolitionist movement combined commitments to confronting slaveholding forces, enacting values of racial equality, and overturning the white supremacist social order. Ultimately, the movement managed to spark a civil war with impacts that still echo into the present. Abolitionism also helped to inaugurate a tradition of Black freedom struggle that has carried powerfully through subsequent movements and steadily highlighted race as a key social fault line. As well, it has left an enduring legacy of morally charged radicalism oriented toward egalitarian principles rather than seemingly fixed realities of oppression.
We can trace yet another strand from nineteenth-century Europe, where working-class movements emerged on an unprecedented scale. Growing out of labor struggles, these movements created the context for a socialist milieu with a vibrant patchwork of organizations, campaigns, and publications. Radicals in this milieu were united by the goal of achieving a society beyond capitalism, but they differed on how to get there. Indeed, the second part of the nineteenth century saw major debates around this question among socialist revolutionaries, most famously between Karl Marx and the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin. While many in the developing Marxist tendency looked to seize state power as an instrument to create an egalitarian society, anarchists aimed to abolish state power and develop nonstate ways of organizing societies. "The marxians argue that only dictatorship—theirs, of course—can establish the people's freedom," wrote Bakunin. However, "no dictatorship can have any aim other than lasting as long as it can ...: freedom can be conjured only by freedom, that is to say, by uprising by the entire people and by free organization of the toiling masses from the bottom up." This stance, fundamental to anarchism, is a prefigurative one: the means (popular struggle and deeply democratic organization) must be consistent with the ends (a free and egalitarian society). It has had a lasting influence.
Another important source of debate in the socialist milieu had to do with the centrality of capitalism and class. Many socialists argued that capitalism is the primary system of social domination and that all other forms of oppression have developed from it. Some socialist dissidents challenged this idea, suggesting that forms of oppression based on race and gender have their own autonomous logics even as they dynamically interact with capitalism. During the first part of the twentieth century, these debates concerned what were frequently known as the "National Question," the "Negro Question," and the "Woman Question" among communists, though they often went by other terms among unaffiliated socialists and anarchists. At times, they created spaces for innovative forms of anti-capitalist organizing and thinking against patriarchy and racism. For the most part, however, these were unresolved debates in the socialist milieu, including its anti-authoritarian wing. They would come up again and again in subsequent upsurges of struggle, and continue to remain central today.
The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were times of massive strikes, widespread organizing in factories and communities, regular street clashes between workers and police, and growing revolutionary sentiments. In the midst of all this, anarchism emerged as an important political current in working-class movements. What distinguished anarchists from other radicals in these movements was their opposition to capitalism, landlordism, and the state as fundamental forms of domination, as well as their commitment to self-management, mutual aid, and social equality. Anarchism quickly developed a global character. Propelled by migration and circulations of struggle, it came to flourish not only in Europe but also in the Americas, Asia, Australia, and, to a limited extent, Africa. This era's anarchist politics and movements, at their best, represented a nonstatist form of socialism rooted in working-class and peasant communities. They generated a political strand that has woven through many subsequent anti-authoritarian efforts.
During the first decades of the twentieth century, this politics found something of a home in the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a militant labor union active in the United States and Canada. Founded in 1905, the IWW organized expansively, developing campaigns among textile workers in Massachusetts and New Jersey, teamsters in British Columbia, lumber workers in the northwestern and the southeastern United States, miners in Nevada and northern Ontario, and many others. Through this work, the IWW crafted new forms of bottom-up organizing, particularly among those whom other unions considered "unorganizable." And they sought to enact their values—democracy, equality, and solidarity—in the form of their organizing efforts, whether by resisting racial segregation and anti-immigrant sentiments, organizing women workers, or insisting on direct democracy and direct action. In line with this, radicals in IWW described one of their core aims as building "the new society in the shell of the old." This continues to be an influential prefigurative formulation.
The IWW declined significantly as it faced state repression during World War I and as many radicals gravitated into Communist parties during the 1920s and 1930s. By the 1940s and 1950s, however, a new anarchist-influenced current was emerging. Inspired by the Christian radical Leo Tolstoy and the Indian anti-colonial leader Mohandas Gandhi, small circles of faith-based activists combined elements of anarchism and socialism with a deep commitment to nonviolence, known as pacifism. They built organizations such as the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) and the War Resisters League (WRL). They also formulated a prefigurative politics based on living and acting in accordance with their radical values. As part of this, they used the tactic of civil disobedience (intentionally breaking laws to show that they are unjust) and a Quaker decision-making practice called "consensus" (making decisions through collective deliberation and unanimous consent).
While the United States and its allies faced off with the Soviet Union in the Cold War, these small groups of radical pacifists steadfastly resisted militarism and helped lay the basis for the much broader peace movement that began to emerge in the late 1950s. Drawing on the legacy of abolitionism, some of these activists also helped to shape a new upsurge in the Black freedom struggle that would eventually become known as the civil rights movement. Although they had participated in struggles against racial segregation beginning in the early 1940s, white and Black organizers from FOR and the WRL played especially crucial roles in advising African American community activists in Montgomery, Alabama, when these activists launched a landmark boycott campaign to desegregate buses in 1955. In the following years, radical pacifists ran influential nonviolence workshops throughout the southern United States and assisted in developing the strategies that would come to define the movement.
As much as civil rights movement activists adopted practices from radical pacifism, they also reinvented them. This was especially true in the wing of the movement associated with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Growing out of the wave of southern student sit-ins to desegregate lunch counters, SNCC was founded in 1960 by mostly young African Americans with assistance from two older Black radicals, FOR activist James Lawson and longtime community organizer Ella Baker. SNCC grew into an organizational center for anti-racist direct action and community organizing across the South during the first part of the sixties.
Part of what distinguished SNCC from other leading civil rights organizations was its commitment to a kind of participatory democratic practice and nonhierarchical organizational culture. Early on, Baker described this as an "inclination toward group-centered leadership, rather than toward a leader-centered group pattern of organization." Instead of relying on charismatic leaders, SNCC activists tried to organize in ways that rested on broad, egalitarian participation and collective problem-solving and decision-making. With SNCC, this was no lofty political commitment; it grew out of the experiences of organizers working to build unity and power in Black communities under the constant threat of racist violence.
SNCC also worked to enact a transformative culture, often known as the "beloved community," in which people organized together in racially integrated groups on a basis of equality and respect. In their efforts, they attempted to challenge and change social relations of white supremacy, particularly racial segregation. While there were real limitations on how much SNCC activists could achieve given the tremendous historical weight of racism, they made an enormous contribution to organizing Black communities in the South and to undermining white supremacy. They also offered, by example, a revolutionary vision of how people could relate with one another, individually and collectively. SNCC, along with others in the civil rights movement, inspired and galvanized people across the United States and north of the border as well.
THE THIRD WORLD EXPLOSION
As the Black freedom movement erupted in the United States, a wave of anti-colonial resistance was radiating across the Third World. This wave grew out of liberation movements that won national independence in Latin America during the nineteenth century and in Asia and Africa during the twentieth century. These movements, from Bolivia to India, developed new forms of revolutionary struggle and consciousness, often drawing on—and reshaping—socialist politics. In the period following World War II, these efforts accelerated and spread. By the early 1960s, the world was on fire: the Vietnamese resisted French and then U.S. military occupations, the Cubans overthrew a U.S. puppet dictatorship, and the people of Angola fought Portuguese colonial rule, among many other struggles. In these circumstances, recently decolonized countries and anti-colonial movements crafted a set of politics and sensibilities of Third World liberation that circulated widely.
Black freedom struggles in North America and anti-colonial struggles in the Third World, mutually influencing each other, propelled racism and colonialism onto the center stage. This confluence significantly catalyzed the movements of the period known as "the sixties" (really, the late 1950s through the mid-1970s). As part of this, revolutionaries across the globe combined elements of socialism, anti-racism, and anti-colonialism into a more generalized form of anti-imperialism that became a leading political orientation on the left. This orientation was very generative politically, but it also had problems. One was that it associated effectiveness and militancy with hierarchical, highly masculinized forms of organization. Pushing aside the nonhierarchical practices and culture that SNCC had developed, this association deeply influenced the central leadership structure that many revolutionary organizations came to use.
Excerpted from Another Politics by Chris Dixon. Copyright © 2014 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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