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Another Politics Talking across Today's Transformative Movements

Read Chapter 1

Chapter 1

"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."1 While I don't deny that there is a quality of newness to recent anti-authoritarian activity, the backstory 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.2 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.

Starting Points

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. Anti-authoritarian 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.3 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.4 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 foregrounded 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 anti-slavery 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.5 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.6 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."7 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.8

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.9

Foundational Experiences

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.10 In line with this, radicals in IWW described one of their core aims as building "the new society in the shell of the old."11 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.12

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."13 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.14

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.15 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.16

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.17 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.

The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (BPP) played a key role in honing and popularizing this anti-imperialist orientation and its organizational prescriptions. Launched in 1966 in Oakland, California, the BPP combined confrontational challenges with state authorities, organizing in African American communities, and the development of needs-based counterinstitutions. As their popularity grew, BPP chapters sprang up all over the United States. With their success, the BPP also faced intense state surveillance, harassment, and violence, which compounded the already-strong tendency toward centralization in the organization.18 It is a testament to their courage and vision that they managed to sustain a powerful prefigurative dimension in their work while contending with this targeted disruption.19

Ashanti Alston, who was active in the BPP and then in the underground Black Liberation Army, described this dimension in his experiences:

It [the BPP] gave me, and a whole lot of us, a way to start transforming our lives into what we envisioned a revolutionary life would be-one in combat against this system, and at the same time, [one focused on] creating the kind of new society that we wanted. That's pretty much what we were doing. The free breakfast programs, the free clothing programs, the free clinics was also our way of getting people to envision, in the richest country in the world, the possibility that all of this could be, should be, must be free. And that was heavy stuff. And I know them programs, way more than our guns, was what attracted so many especially Black people to the Party.

These programs, carried out by dedicated Panther volunteers, provided free meals, clothes, and healthcare in Black communities across the United States. And they weren't simply social services; building on longstanding African American traditions of mutual aid and echoing the IWW, the Panthers called them "survival programs pending revolution."20 These programs met immediate popular needs, challenged social relations of scarcity and subordination, and laid infrastructure for a new society. At the same time, the BPP created a context for people to reimagine and transform themselves.21 As Alston recalled, there were broad discussions in the BPP about "the new man" and "the new woman," as well as efforts to develop common expectations about how people should treat one another. "In a way," he pointed out, "we were augmenting Black cultural, even religious, traditions of 'brother/sister,' and the survival/liberatory aspects of Black communal church."These were crucial contributions.

Taking inspiration from the BPP, activists in the United States and Canada launched Asian, Black, Chicano, First Nations and American Indian, poor white, Puerto Rican, Québécois, and other liberation movements.22 In various ways, they drew on the BPP model to build organizations oriented to both fighting the system and serving their communities. Together, their efforts transformed social relations of white supremacy, which many activists understood as deeply connected to capitalism, while also foregrounding the importance of struggles by racially oppressed people. As well, these movements developed a collective revolutionary imagination and concrete relationships of solidarity that linked struggles from Havana to Harlem, Algiers to Montreal, Beijing to Oakland, Hanoi to Toronto.23

Liberation Movements Multiply

These anti-racist movements created a context for the emergence of other liberation struggles in the United States and Canada.24 The civil rights movement, particularly the wing associated with SNCC, was especially crucial in catalyzing the student movement. Starting in the early 1960s, leading white student activists began looking to southern organizing as a source of inspiration. In the United States, many of these activists joined Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). In Canada, many were or became involved in, first, the Student Union for Peace Action and, later, groups affiliated with the Canadian Union of Students and Students for a Democratic University.

Through experiences of campus occupations, activist conferences, and community organizing experiments, student activists worked to create their own participatory democratic practices in which everyone had a say in decisions. Growing out of their vision of a more thoroughly democratic society and their understanding of the movement in the southern United States, these activists also developed collective sensibilities that favored embodying their values in their work and relationships. And as student radicals helped to launch the movement against the war in Vietnam, they brought these practices and sensibilities with them.

By the late 1960s, such prefigurative commitments were widespread in the New Left, as the convergence of sixties movements is often called. In 1969, former SDS president Greg Calvert posed a question on the minds of many young radicals: "What are the embryonic forms of revolutionary society which must be created, however embryonically, as we work?"25 Activists across North America developed answers to this question through all sorts of practical experiments, including institutions such as food co-ops and underground newspapers, revolutionary formations such as collectives and national organizations, new ways of organizing daily life such as housing co-ops and intentional communities, and countercultural values that emphasized freedom, self-determination, and cooperation.26

There were also strains in the New Left. Activists grappled with combining efficacy and liberatory aspirations in the face of daunting challenges of strategy and direction. Some, in the search for effectiveness, turned to Leninist forms of politics and organization with very limited space for prefigurative concerns.27 In the late 1960s, this turn took one or another of two main forms. Some radicals, through groups such as I Wor Kuen, the October League, and En Lutte, chose to focus on building revolutionary parties through mass organizing.28 Others, through groups such as the Black Liberation Army, the Front de libération du Québec, and the Weather Underground, turned to forms of armed struggle in the hopes of advancing further waves of mass movement.29 The BPP, SDS, and other groups experienced splits along these and related lines.30

Both orientations-party-building and armed struggle-grew out of activists' dedication to social transformation and shared desires for more seriousness and organization. They had substantial impacts as well. The party-builders contributed to organizing work in communities and workplaces, and the armed groups managed to create instability for governing institutions. But these orientations also had real limitations. Indeed, while debates between the two camps were often bitter, they shared striking similarities: they were based on troubling vanguardist revolutionary models, they frequently romanticized anti-imperialist movements in the Third World, and they often formulaically sought to import forms of organization and strategy from elsewhere. Most importantly, both orientations became more and more disconnected from the societies in which they struggled, and neither managed to build the revolutionary movements that they wanted. In their successes and their failures, however, they posed a key question: How can radicals, as small minorities in North America, take action that meaningfully moves toward large-scale social transformation? This question remains pressing.

The women's liberation movement developed out of another problem in the New Left: its failure to live up to its stated commitment to egalitarianism.31 One of the most striking ways this manifested was that, in New Left groups, men dominated highly valued leadership roles while women were frequently relegated to less-valued secretarial and caregiving work. Inspired by the Black freedom struggle, predominately white women activists started consciousness-raising groups to discuss these kinds of experiences of oppression in not only left organizations but also society more generally. These efforts blossomed by the late 1960s into a movement that named its enemy as patriarchy and began to develop a shared feminist politics. Activists in the movement created bookstores, publications, and organizations. They turned violence against women into a political issue, and built rape crisis centers and women's shelters. They also targeted institutions perpetuating and profiting from patriarchy, such as beauty pageants, bridal fairs, and even Wall Street.

Many in the radical wing of the women's liberation movement worked against the cultures and organizational models that they had experienced in other movements. They challenged dominant ideas of leadership, decision-making, and organizing, and began developing nonhierarchical approaches. Working in small groups, they built relationships with one another through shared experiences and used informal kinds of consensus to make collective decisions. They also introduced new ways of thinking about what counts as politics. With the slogan "the personal is political," feminist activists claimed what were previously considered private, everyday experiences in women's lives (sex, child-raising, housework) as arenas for collective action. The movement thus challenged not only patriarchal relations, but also many prevailing assumptions on the left.

These efforts, while groundbreaking, had their problems too. Sometimes opposition to hierarchies in the movement manifested as feminists "trashing" (publicly denouncing) those who took on leadership roles or who were designated as leaders by the media. Other times it manifested as a general rejection of formal structure and organization, a practice that frequently contributed to informal leadership cliques rather than equal participation in organizing.32 And even as feminist activists brought a new quality of attention to the ways in which power relations are reproduced in movements, many who were white and class-privileged overlooked how they were implicated in relations of race and class. Women of color feminists, as I discuss further below, pushed at these limitations and sparked crucial movement debates. As the women's liberation movement wrestled with these challenges, activists insisted on bringing their values and aspirations into their lives. This is a vital legacy.33

Like the women's liberation movement, the gay and lesbian movement was nourished by a broader context of liberation struggles. Although there were earlier sparks in San Francisco and elsewhere, a widely acknowledged initial flashpoint for this movement was the Stonewall riots in New York City in 1969, when Black and Puerto Rican drag queens, lesbians, and gay street people physically resisted a police raid of the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar. Riots continued for several nights afterward.34 In the aftermath, people radicalized by these events joined with gay and lesbian activists influenced by their experiences in other liberation movements. Together, they formed the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), which aimed to transform heterosexist relations and other systems of oppression. The GLF model quickly spread across the United States and Canada as activists formed similar groups along with publications, social clubs, and cultural institutions. In significant ways, they struggled