For five weeks in the late spring of 2006, we toured the eastern half of the United States to promote two books — Letters From Young Activists: Today’s Rebels Speak Out (Nation Books, 2005) and Outlaws of America: The Weather Underground and the Politics of Solidarity (AK Press, 2006) — and to get at least a cursory impression of sectors of the movement in this country. We viewed the twenty-eight events not only as book readings but as conscious political conversations about the state of the country, the world, and the movement.
Of course, such quick visits to different parts of the country can only yield so much information. Because this was May and June, we did not speak on any school campuses and were unable to gather a strong sense of the state of campus-based activism. Further, much of the tour came together through personal connections we’ve developed in anarchist, queer, punk, and white anti-racist communities, and, as with any organizing, the audience generally reflected who organized the event and how they went about it rather than the full array of organizing projects transpiring in each town. Yet several crucial questions were raised routinely in big cities and small towns alike (or, alternately, were elided but lay just beneath the surface of the sometimes tense conversations we were party to). Such commonality of concerns and difficulties demonstrates the need for ongoing discussion of these issues within and between local activist communities. Thus, while we don’t pretend to have an authoritative analysis of the movement, we offer this report as part of a broader dialogue about building and strengthening modern revolutionary movements — an attempt to index some common debates and to offer challenges in the interests of pushing the struggle forward.
Challenges and Debates:
The audiences we spoke with tended to be predominantly white and comprised of people self-identified as being on the left, many of whom are active in one or more organizations locally or nationally. We traveled through the Northeast (including a brief visit to Montreal), the rust belt, the Midwest, parts of the South, and the Mid-Atlantic. Some events tended to draw mostly 60s-generation activists, others primarily people in their 20s, and more than a few were genuinely intergenerational. Not surprisingly, events at community centers and libraries afforded more room for conversation than those at bookstores. Crowds ranged anywhere from 10 to 100 people, although the average event had about 25 people. Even where events were small gatherings of friends, they proved to be useful dialogues about pragmatic work. Our goals for the tour were: establishing a sense of different organizing projects; pushing white people in an anti-racist and anti-imperialist direction while highlighting the interrelationship of issues; and grappling with the difficult issues of organizing, leadership, and intergenerational movement building. The following ten questions emerge from our analysis of the political situation based on our travels and meetings with activists of a variety of ages and range of experiences.
1. What Is Organizing?
Every event we did focused on the need for organizing. This call often fell upon sympathetic ears, but was frequently met with questions about how to actually organize and build lasting radical organizations, particularly in terms of maintaining radical politics while reaching beyond insular communities. There are too few institutions training young or new activists in the praxis of organizing and anti-authoritarian leadership development. This doesn’t stop people from taking on radical political work, but it does limit the movement’s widespread effectiveness, particularly in smaller towns. Part of the problem is that many of the nationally visible entities that do provide training in organizing and leadership development — specifically, the mainstream labor unions — are not anti-authoritarians rooted in a radical analysis of society. The training centers that are based in such an analysis, such as Project South, the Midwest Academy, and Z Media Institute, lack the capacity to work with all the activists interested in gaining such skills. Developing this capacity is crucial, as younger radicals in particular need models and mentors of how to be rooted in a community, mobilizing around concrete demands, consistently bringing new people into the movement and keeping them there. At the same time, we need to be more aware of those organizing initiatives that already exist and the ways we can be of most use to them.
When discussing organizing, we often heard the common refrain to “go knock on doors.” However, it’s not enough to encourage people to just start knocking on doors as individuals or loose groups. Without a sense of why they are there or a program about which to talk with people, door knocking will yield few productive results. Thus, it is not just about encouraging people to organize — it’s also about recognizing that people need the skills, confidence, and groups with which to do so. Furthermore, potential organizers need careful guidance on the different tasks, goals, challenges, and motivations the practice of organizing has to include if we are to take seriously the now decades-old challenge to organize not only in oppressed, but also oppressor communities (and to understand how most people are multiply situated in relation to different forms of privilege and power).
To be sure, there is a lot of organizing going on. The most successful work that we saw was more locally or regionally based than nationally, yet there are various projects that seem to be bringing in new people, operating from a systemic analysis, and winning concrete demands. An organizer we met in Pittsburgh offered a useful definition of the twofold task for radical organizers and organizations: Build Dual Power, Confront State Power. That is, we must develop our own power — by building coalitions, political infrastructure, and visionary, alternative institutions that prefigure the types of social relationships we desire — while simultaneously confronting the state, right-wing social movements, and other forms of institutional oppression. One without the other is insufficient. This twofold approach can also address what an organizer in North Carolina identified as the gap between opposition to something and action around it — a chasm that is solved by a feeling of empowerment, the belief that people can actively contribute to making change.
The widespread interest in organizing that we found, as well as the “Build Dual Power, Confront State Power” conceptualization, seems to be a promising departure from the tendency among many young anti-authoritarian activists to reject the concept of leadership outright. Since organizing implies leadership and leadership implies hierarchy, the process of moving others to take action or even agree with one’s political analysis has been seen as suspect and sometimes rejected outright in certain circles. This, we fear, has prevented activists from building the types of respectful personal and institutional relationships across social divides that can provide the groundwork for active solidarity. It has led many younger activists to focus on creating elective alternative communities and model projects (infoshops, puppet troupes, publications, service projects) that are intended to exist outside of the sphere of oppressive values and institutions. The call to build “dual power” respects the importance of these initiatives, but the paired determination to effectively confront the power of the state and other reactionary social forces demands, in addition, a type of strategic, coalitional work requiring semi-permanent organizations, mass involvement, and openness to a range of tactics. We believe that this work requires skillful, democratic, grassroots leadership with an unabashed commitment to organize others in a manner that helps them, in turn, to develop their own leadership skills.
2. How Do We Build Intergenerational Movements? (A Challenge to Young and Old!)
Most people we met do not work in productively intergenerational groups or live intergenerational lives outside tightly prescribed roles (e.g., teacher-student). This presents a challenge for activists and organizers of all ages, who constantly need to be looking to work with those older and younger. Recognizing that the struggle is for the long haul means that no generation can or should exist in a political vacuum. While both younger and older folks bear the responsibility for this, the onus may indeed rest on older people to make themselves available; most young people we met were excited by the prospect of intergenerational discussions and groups but didn’t know where to find the older radicals in their area. (As people in our mid- and late-20s, we have a responsibility to find and work with the teenage radicals who are just now becoming political conscious and active.)
Intergenerational movements are not simply about people of various ages being in the same room. Instead, it is about building respectful relationships of mutual learning and teaching based on a long-haul approach to movement building. In raising this issue, we saw three typical responses that are generally unhelpful to building intergenerational groups and movements: The Nike Approach (Just Do It!) — the older activists who tell young people to just go out there and change the world already and to stop looking for validation from older people. But young folks aren’t looking for a go-ahead; we are out there, doing our best. Validation and encouragement from people we respect can bolster our resolve, but what we’re really looking for is mentorship, multigenerational commitment, and solidarity. We’re willing to put ourselves out there, even to make mistakes. But it would be helpful if we didn’t have to make the same mistakes older people have already made. And young folks need to see that older activists maintain their political commitments in both word and deed. The Retired Approach (We Had Our Turn, Now You Try) — several older activists echoed the sentiment that they did their best and now it was up to us. Some with this position argue that they and their generation need to get entirely out of the way of the young folks, which functionally removes older people from the equation. This abandonment masquerading as support is equally unhelpful in actually learning from the past and moving forward together because it serves to enforce a generational separation. The Obstructionist Approach (Only If You Accept My Politics and Unquestioned Leadership) — people with this position demand adherence to the politics and vision of the older generation as the prerequisite for any working relationship. They make The Retired Approach more appealing and are a reminder that, frankly, some people do need to get out of the way. This is where older allies committed to collaboration could be potentially helpful, proving that political divides are not inherently generational gaps.
A lack of intergenerational relationships and groups is apparent nationally and locally. In one town we visited, for instance, the “peace community” seemed to lack any relationship to anyone under 50 or to impoverished communities of color that are most directly affected by the war machine. Another town saw a largely generational split over confrontational anti-war activism, where older people generally refused to support any confrontational tactics and anyone using them. Yet when the younger folks went out by themselves to picket the recruiting station, they were able to successfully shut it down on two separate occasions. Intergenerational movement building could be useful not only in expanding the base of people willing to engage in such confrontational tactics (and thereby hopefully contributing to hastening the war’s end) but also in trying to push other older people to work with and support youth leadership.
Young people, for our part, make it difficult for movement veterans to find us and assess our work when we organize only as temporary affinity groups that usually lack office space and sometimes even contact information. Expressing interest in building such ties is also important. When one of us off-handedly commented to an SDS veteran and radical historian that many younger activists would appreciate being asked by organizers of his generation to have coffee or lunch and talk shop, he seemed genuinely surprised. “Really? You think folks would want to get together with people like me?” We assured him that we at least appreciated it — especially when the older folks picked up the tab.
What young people don’t want to deal with is patronization or abandonment, people who focus on their glory days or on lecturing “the youngens.” What young folks do want are older activists who remain steadfast in their resolve and organizing, who seek to draw out the lessons from their years in the struggle (and are clear about where they differ with others of their age cohort without being sectarian), who look to younger activists for inspiration and guidance while providing the same, and who are focused on movement building. Building on the more multigenerational roots of Southern organizing, two older organizers in Greensboro beautifully summed this up at an event in saying, “We aren’t done, we’re not leaving, and we’re in this together.”
3. What Role Do Militancy and Confrontation Play?
In our experience, almost no one was talking about engaging in acts of violence — even at events focused on the Weather Underground, an organization remembered most for its tactical embrace of large-scale property destruction. Despite the occasional utterance of a desire to see the White House reduced to rubble, there is a clear understanding that the movement is not at the level of militant confrontation with the state that radicals were in the late 1960s and early 1970s. (This was, to be sure, a distinction we focused on in talks about that political moment relative to this one.) While some people may romanticize the past or have facile notions of militancy or underground resistance, most of the people we met were interested in developing strategies and tactics that could effectively end the war and contribute to other fundamental changes in society. Particularly in relation to the war, we noticed widespread disappointment with the national coalitions: for being sectarian, for mobilizing but not movement building, for not developing or supporting youth leadership, for not using the pervasive frustration with the war to deepen anti-war and, ultimately, anti-imperialist consciousness. People want to not just register their dissatisfaction with the war through petitions and periodic protests but actually end it, and many young people in particular don’t see either of the dominant anti-war coalitions as vehicles for doing that.
Many people are looking for other ways — including more confrontational ones — to directly target the war machine. In fact, various groups and individuals have been directly confronting the war machine on a local scale since the U.S. invaded Iraq. To date, this seems largely to have taken the form of counter-recruitment work. What such confrontation has meant varies based on the specifics of a particular community; in some places, a picket was enough to shut down a recruiting center, whereas in other places it meant attempts to enter and disrupt the center or block its doors. The groups we were most impressed by were able to develop a strategy that incorporated a sense of direct action in line with the state of local movement. That is, they upped the ante in directly confronting the state, pushed the notion of what was acceptable somewhat beyond what the movement had been doing in that town to date (e.g., from vigils to protests, from protests to civil disobedience), and maintained relationships with other activists and groups who may not have engaged in the same tactics but who remained committed and sympathetic. Such an approach recognizes that increasing pressure on war-makers requires us to continually expand the movement numerically, while simultaneously increasing the militancy of those prepared to take risks. It also recognizes the careful maneuvering and relationship building work required to navigate the tension these two goals inevitably produce. We need to build mass movements where militant tactics can be present without dividing the movement — and it was a former Catholic Worker who underscored this point for us in expressing critical support for militant wings of the movement historically.
Counter-recruitment work and the growth of organizations led by Iraq war veterans and their families remain the most exciting and promising aspects of the U.S. anti-war movement. Since anti-war organizing has not been the primary focus of either of our political work for the past couple of years, we were very excited to hear firsthand accounts of successful, repeated, day-long shutdowns of recruiting offices and similar actions. However, several challenges remain, including making this work more coordinated, extensive, and visible on a national level. Furthermore, direct-action anti-war efforts need to expand beyond recruiting centers to other targets, such as the offices of war profiteers, that can be materially impacted by relatively small groups. The small victories reported by organizers in numerous mid-sized cities seem to imply that local actions might be more successful than those against obvious, heavily-policed targets such as the Pentagon that require significant lead-time and national coordination. Activists whose circumstances don’t allow them to participate bodily in such actions have important roles to play in securing legal and financial resources, as well as working to prevent less militantly inclined sectors of the movement from denouncing or attempting to marginalize those seeking to obstruct empire from functioning.
If, as we argued throughout the tour, militancy is not to be conflated with violence or property destruction, but is instead understood as a stance of political integrity and commitment in spite of serious consequences, activists young and old might also more seriously consider the challenge directed at the two of us by a long-time radical pacifist anarchist who housed us for a night: the challenge of becoming “war tax” resistors. While the unpublicized, moralistic actions of scattered, aging individuals that seem to have characterized the war tax resistance movement for many decades haven’t proven particularly appealing to many younger radicals, it seems that a coordinated, media-savvy campaign of joint declarations of tax resistance by a significant group of the younger-generation activists, expressing an explicit anti-imperialist politics, has enough potential to ignite debate as to at least be given a thoughtful appraisal. “After all,” expressed our new friend, “the only thing the government wants is your money. They sure don’t care if you vote, or if you approve of what they’re doing.”
Whether withholding taxes or sabotaging Bechtel is on the table, concretely understanding the prospects, pitfalls, and practice of increasing confrontation is a vital need in this period — both in terms of our local/regional work as well as for the movement on a national level.
4. What about Anti-racism and Multiracial Movement Building?
Throughout the tour, the only discussions that were genuinely multi-racial — where people of color comprised at least half of those in attendance, rather than only a smattering — were either organized by people of color groups or ones where the local event organizers had consciously worked to ensure the event was co-sponsored and planned by a variety of local organizations, including ones comprised of and led by people of color, who worked to bring their members and contacts out. Because the left, like U.S. society in general, remains significantly divided by race, proactive measures are needed to create multi-racial spaces where work to bridge that divide can take place. When that work was done, and when participants started from a place of respect, recognizing our differences as well as our similarities, we found that we shared similar analysis of the current situation and many common principles of the world we would like to move towards. As participants in these conversations often arrived at their radical politics from different experiences, we found that discussing our motivations and the thought processes that led us to do the work we do helped participants build trust and understanding. Recognizing and appreciating the sacrifices and contributions to the broader struggle for justice made by people from the different organizations, nationalities, and tendencies of those in the room was also important to this process.
At one event, an older white/Jewish activist queried the extent to which young people’s lives and groups today are multiracial and wondered what specific factors divided white activists from people of color. In response to the latter, we argued that radical young people’s social lives are often in large part built around oppositional youth cultures such as hip-hop and punk that tend to be racially distinct. Furthermore, few organizations or forums exist where younger activists from different class and race backgrounds can interact while taking part in discussions and joint work. This leaves young people to meet and attempt to forge connections on a personal basis — an often difficult and intimidating task in today’s fraught racial landscape. Encouraging multiracial interactions and organization building is a task where guidance and direct involvement from older-generation activists could prove especially useful.
Building these multiracial relationships requires steady organizing, a demonstrated commitment among white people to racial justice politics, and incorporating anti-racism into our daily lives — recognizing that “multiracial” and “antiracist” are related but not interchangeable phenomenon. It emerges from and through the organizing work, not from proscribing all-white versus only-multiracial organizational forms; both models exist, and each has its own advantages and disadvantages. The call for Black Power, raised 40 years ago, challenged whites to organize with other whites against racism while practicing concrete solidarity with people-of-color liberation movements. How do we build a radical power base among white people that is profoundly anti-racist to contribute to toppling white supremacy? Few people are framing the struggle in those terms. And how do class differences among white people shape the ways in which people can be won over to anti-racist politics? White folks of our generation seem to be better at talking to other white people about racism, though not necessarily organizing them or making material aid and concrete solidarity central responsibilities of our political work. One problem lies in being too comfortable with all-white spaces, as well as in thinking that the presence of some people of color makes the event or group not a white space. Debate over organizational forms continues, but the need to shift the politics, culture, and practice of the movement in thoroughly anti-racist ways remains a priority.
At some events where we challenged people to discuss the differences in how white supremacy operated in the 1960s and how it does currently, many demurred. This may indicate that race and racism are topics still so loaded that many white people feel unsure how to navigate even a discussion of them, let alone political practice. In many ways, we’re still fighting to understand the significance of the national liberation struggles of the last generation (including Black Power), and we haven’t even begun to grasp all the nuances of modern white supremacy. One of the advances by the Black liberation struggle and other theorists of “internal colonialism” in analyzing the situation of people of color in the U.S. was the recognition that white supremacy was about class relations as well as racial oppression. That is, being oppressed nationally as a colonized people means bearing the brunt of military or police violence, disproportionately occupying the most precarious positions economically, denied access to land, and under constant cultural pathologization or attack. Even if generally not expressed as a position of (neo-) colonialism, many of these realities are still true for the Black and Brown populations of this country, immigrant and citizen alike, and yet the relationship of race to gender to class is still a challenging one for many U.S. radicals to grasp and organize around. While left scholars have written extensively about the “new imperialism” in recent years, few of these accounts attempt to theorize imperialist-race relations within the United States. In addition to what it offers in understanding the situation of African Americans, such an analysis certainly provides insights into the super-exploitation and racist discrimination directed at Latin Americans and Asians who have migrated to industrialized nations after being pushed out of their home countries by free trade agreements, structural adjustment programs, and brutal counter-insurgency operations.
If we are to undertake useful anti-racist work as leftists differently positioned in U.S. and global racial hierarchies, we need a thorough and frequently updated understanding of the many and quickly changing racial projects presently at play. Clearly, though, the current crisis situations we are living through don’t provide us the option of sitting idle while great thinkers perfect a comprehensive new framework for understanding race; theoretical breakthroughs are made in the course of struggle. This means we must do our best to internalize lessons of the past and to practice anti-racist principles daily in our personal relationships and movement building initiatives as we target white supremacy with a program of racial justice.
5. What Does Solidarity Mean, Especially with the Immigrant Justice Movement?
In our events, we talked about solidarity as a centerpiece of radical activism, particularly among white people. Building off the example of the Weather Underground and other white anti-imperialists of the 1970s, we defined solidarity not just as financial or administrative support of other people’s struggles but fundamentally recognizing the ways in which we all would benefit by the successes of movements of oppressed people and the ways, therefore, that we all have active roles to play in the movement. The challenge, then, is to give life to an active notion of solidarity where people with privilege don’t sideline themselves but instead endeavor the difficult task of both providing and respecting other’s leadership in the movement, based on our complicated positioning and responsibility.
The need to understand, untangle, and unleash solidarity was particularly apparent for us in relation to the immigrant rights movement and to the situation in the Gulf Coast. Hurricane Katrina captured people’s attention and empathy, but few people seemed to know how to express concrete solidarity with people from the region. In terms of immigrant justice, we saw widespread inspiration from and interest in the movement from the people we met but a general confusion about how to be involved. While individuals turned out to rallies and marches, they frequently didn’t know next steps or ongoing work they could participate in. Non-immigrant activists rooted in small towns sometimes had stronger pre-existing connections to leaders within local immigrant communities than those in larger cities and were therefore able to plug into demonstration prep-work and help mobilize supportive communities. Even in these situations, however, radicals committed to anti-racist movement building sometimes felt conflicted between their political analysis and their understanding of what successful movement building strategies (and common respect) require. In North Carolina, for instance, organizers we met agreed with the critique of the relation between capitalist globalization and the influx of undocumented workers expressed by a dogmatic Marxist organization that had positioned itself to take a leading role in springtime immigrant rights mobilizations. However, they also found it important to let local immigrant communities set the terms of their movement, even though representatives of those communities took a more liberal approach emphasizing that hard-working immigrants deserved respect.
Two positive examples in terms of solidarity with the movement, one we saw and the other we heard about: In Chicago, a day laborer worker’s center tied to a group called the Latino Union relied on numerous volunteers from outside the various Latino communities to teach English language classes, provide tech support, and other tasks. And the mobilizations in the southwest to confront and disrupt the Minutemen vigilante groups are an exciting recent example of active anti-racist solidarity. They work to intercede and prevent the racist violence and intimidation carried out by the Minutemen, while presenting an anti-racist perspective on immigration to whites, in person and through the press.
6. What Is the State of the Struggle Today, Particularly Internationally?
In talking about movement history, we always focused on the national liberation struggles as the dominant revolutionary force of the post-WWII period (circa 1945-1975) and how that is not the primary mode of struggle today. This shift is due both to those movements’ successes, in gaining formal independence, and their shortcomings, including those pointed to by feminist and queer critiques of nationalism and the state as constructs for liberation. To this can be added broader political economic changes: capitalist globalization weakening the state as a means of achieving self-determination and attempting to isolate revolutionary governments, the (environmental) link between self-determination and interdependence, and the presence of right-wing opposition to imperialism. Based on this reality, some organizers are describing the climate as being a “three-way fight.” “Three-way fight” politics argue that the struggle today consists of the global capitalist/imperialist ruling class (of liberal, moderate, and conservative persuasions), the revolutionary left, and the revolutionary right (al-Qaeda, neo-Nazis, etc.). The question of what it means to be on the left today, of deciding friends and enemies, is a complex one that needs to be treated seriously. (For more, see the blog: www.threewayfight.blogspot.com).
What are the criteria for being on the left, both within this country and internationally? And how do or should we think about those forces that are not leftist but are tying down, and therefore limiting, U.S. imperial reach? This question is particularly urgent for the anti-war movement, as there is a wide array of forces opposed to U.S. imperialism — in Iraq, Afghanistan, the U.S., and elsewhere — which are not revolutionary leftists or our allies but whose existence stalls the ability of the U.S. to pursue military conquest elsewhere (from Venezuela to Iran and beyond). This has created confusion in the U.S. of who and what to support on the international level and has particularly affected the anti-war movement in terms of there not being a clear, progressive-revolutionary, mass-based movement to champion as the victor in Iraq the way the National Liberation Front was for Vietnam. At the same time, there are other situations of imperial aggression and revolutionary Left activity that people rarely brought up in discussions of international politics. Debate about the occupations of Iraq and Palestine prevailed, whereas few people mentioned Haiti, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Nepal, or elsewhere. We need to sharpen our international awareness and connections beyond the hotspot areas.
When discussing the Weather Underground, we talked about a time when national liberation struggles abroad had a lot of influence on the domestic left. People on tour didn’t speak in much depth about their assessment of the international left as a whole or its effect on organizing in this country. However, there is a definite impact. Many groups, especially in Latin America, are pushing forward ideas about more direct and participatory forms of democracy on an international scale. This doesn’t seem to be derived from a deep study and adoption of classic (European) anarchist texts but more from building on local and indigenous traditions of self-governance and self-management. (Here, of course, the Zapatista movement in Chiapas, Mexico, stands out as a particular example.)
As in the 1950s and early 1960s, there is a strong anarchist impulse in several of today’s auspicious organizing projects. These anarchistic currents flow among people and groups who do not consider themselves anarchists (for instance, organizations such as Incite! and Critical Resistance, which seek non-state solutions to problems such as domestic violence and are doing some of the most thoughtful work around state violence and restorative justice). To these projects could be added those who proudly identify as anarchists in some of the more successful anti-war, racial justice, and workplace organizing that we saw. Thus, the anarchist critique of state power, and its valuing of principles such as direct democracy/transparency and mutual aid, find much expression in radical movements.
At the same time, as an ideology for making revolution and building a non-capitalist, anti-oppressive society, anarchism is woefully undertheorized. Though anarchism remains powerful as critique, many seem to adopt it as a vision and organizing model more by default than as a result of the concrete political programs it offers. Social democracy and authoritarian communism have been proven un-solutions. Anarchism has had little chance to prove itself a success or a failure. A significant factor in the Marxist-Leninist turn among sectors of the 1960s/1970s left was the fact that various third world revolutions were based on those ideas. With that model no longer dominant, anarchism has reemerged — if not as a fully realized framework, than as a sensibility and a name for a deep-rooted belief in the possibility of radical alternatives. And as third world liberations struggles helped define ’60s and ’70s radicalism in the U.S., anarchism today is buoyed by the exciting recent experiments and successes in Latin America. Still, while opposition to the state in its current form and criticism of the state as a construct are both valuable, and despite the fact that anarchism has attracted many impressive and committed organizers, an ideology that is dominant by default is not a stable enough ground to fight from. We have serious and substantial work to do to create a praxis that synthesizes and further develops the achievements of feminist, anti-racist, Marxist, anarchist, queer, and ecological theory and practice.
7. How Do We Organize Simultaneously on Local, Regional, National, and International Levels?
Many people expressed a desire for a national (or international) movement and yet frustration with attempts to date or confusion as to how. The rebirth of Students for a Democratic Society should be seen as an effort to move in that direction. SDS organizers we met boast of significant interest among not only college but also among high school students (building, no doubt, on the successful and impressive role of high school youth of color in struggles for education and immigrant justice). While the ’60s nostalgia indicated in the organization’s choice of name and promotional materials concerns us, perhaps the explicit modeling on an historic initiative has helped to overcome the hesitancy towards building nationally coordinated organizations expressed by some radicals in recent years. How successful SDS will be in training people as organizers, incorporating a profoundly diverse membership and leadership, and building a radical anti-war, anti-racist, queer-positive, and pro-feminist program among students is unknown and unfolding.
While SDS is developing, there are other efforts at regional organizing that are more developed, recognize geographical specificity, and extend beyond students. The two main networks we saw were the Northeast Federation of Anarcho-Communists (NEFAC, a syndicalist association of anarchists involved in union organizing primarily in Montreal and Boston) and Project South (a Black-led training and leadership development organization based in Atlanta). Project South helped organize the recent Southeast Social Forum and is spearheading the U.S. Social Forum to be held in 2007, which should prove an exciting prospect for developing regional and national collaboration.
In general, although urban areas have a bigger left base and more organizing going on, it would be a mistake to overlook or neglect the political work emerging from rural and non-urban areas, particularly in the South. The South has been a vital place in U.S. radical history, and it remains the site of an impressive multiracial and multigenerational collection of organizers and organizing. In smaller towns, sectarianism tended to be less of a problem because people cannot afford the disunity that often prevails in bigger cities and places with a larger left presence.
8. How Do We Relate to Sectarian Groups?
In addition to the ever-present divisions of class, race, and generation already mentioned, a wide gulf persists, as it has for decades, between groups seen to be sectarian and those not. This division runs so deep that participants on the opposing sides frequently refuse to recognize one another as true radicals, or members of the left. Although they exert a bigger presence in the major cities, the various groups hawking papers, obsessing over the “right political line,” and supposedly building vanguard communist parties are a ubiquitous, if frustrating, reality for those, including us, who take different approaches. We ran into people active in such groups — more than a few of them doing concrete political work — in several places, including smaller towns that would have seemed unlikely homes for these groups. While many of us have learned (or been counseled) to ignore them, this response is insufficient. It is not enough to write them off for their dogmatism, their rigidity, or their hostility to other groups — although all of these things tend to be there in the practice if not the theory of groups such as the Spartacist League and the International Socialist Organization.
Despite these characteristics, sectarian organizations have an appeal that needs to be understood. Such groups offer people, especially newer activists, a defined organizational structure, political education, leadership development, and a sense of strategy and participation in a broader movement. All of these attributes are valid and valuable, even if their application is thoroughly problematic. The fact that democratic and non-sectarian groups have generally been unable to offer such things to newer activists expands the ranks of the sectarian groups. We need to see what they do right so as to understand their appeal. We need to be able to articulate our differences with these groups more specifically and concretely than we have to date. It is insufficient to dismiss them solely for peddling papers too aggressively or making long-winded statements during Q&A periods. Rather, our criticisms must be of their political vision and organizing approach — one which prioritizes the promotion of their organizations over what is best for the movement as a whole. Where possible, we need to have some kind of relationship to these groups — not to tolerate their disruptions or manipulations, but to be able to work with the expatriates and frustrated former members. And, ultimately, we need to out-organize them, to build organizations and movements that offer a sense of analysis, development, and program without making claims at being the vanguard or losing our sense of transparency.
9. What Role Does the Environment — as Well as the Environmental Movement Itself (Particularly Its More Militant Sectors) — Play in the Movement?
During our travels we were gently criticized for saying little about where ecology and environmental activism fits into libratory practices, and specifically, the lack of contributions by eco-activists in the Letters From Young Activists book — criticism we took to heart.
We were pleasantly surprised to find that, even in as unlikely places as rust-belt cities, many of those who came to events were aware of and concerned about the slew of recent indictments, investigations, and grand jury subpoenas against radical environmental activists, occurring predominantly in the Western half of the United States. This is a positive sign, since even those who find property destruction to halt development tactically unsound should find common cause in fighting the post-PATRIOT ACT increases in surveillance and arrests, in addition to the undemocratic grand jury investigations that have been crucial in cracking down on many radical movements, historically and still today.
The militant environmental and animal rights movements face significant repression, which merit our solidarity, and yet there are also legitimate political differences that should not be overlooked or minimized. To cite a somewhat extreme example, a “green anarchist” recently responded to a query about what “a primitivist response to the global AIDS crisis would look like” by arguing that, in the long run, the crisis might be for the best, as it reduces the human impact on the environment! Approaches like this, not surprisingly, have not attracted a very broad following, at least not in the places we visited. Such misanthropic and anti-civilization politics do find a following among some sectors of the radical environmental movement. Yet, with widespread concern over and attention to the global climate crisis, among other things, an environmental focus can provide a crucial point of organizing. We met with a 91-year-old movement veteran who was most politically inspired today by the urban gardening and ecological self-sufficiency movements. She promoted the slogan made popular by Black farmers, “If we can’t feed ourselves, we can’t free ourselves.” At the same time, a community organizer working predominantly with low-income Black women championed these efforts while disagreeing that everyone is able to participate in them and that they are sufficient to meet the needs of the most marginalized.
The environment serves as a limit and Achilles heel to neoliberal developmentalism. The fact that the eco-system cannot support all inhabitants of the planet in living anything like current American lifestyles proves the lie that neoliberal policies are pursued as the most promising path to universal material well-being. The environment also provides a personal stake for economically privileged people in anti-capitalist struggle. Capitalism doesn’t only destroy pristine potential vacation spots for the well-to-do — it threatens the sustainability of life on earth in general. If the idea of total ecological collapse in some unspecified, seemingly far-off future, is not tangible enough to inspire action, the threat of more localized, if still catastrophic, climate-related disasters in the lifetime of children and grandchildren might provide some impetus to fractions of the middle classes in industrialized countries to enter into anti-capitalist alliances. A greater emphasis on ecology and sustainability in an anti-imperialist organizing approach, then, has some potential to link constituencies and perhaps to attract some passionate activists who had previously focused primarily on direct action eco-politics.
10. How Can We Develop Strategy?
Fundamentally, the above questions and our discussions on tour all revolve around developing a winning strategy within the movement — a strategy to stop the war, to repeal the right-wing attacks (on immigrants, on queers, on women. . .), to raze the walls and borders, and to begin proactively building non-capitalist alternatives. What does it mean to say all the issues are connected? How can we move forward on different fronts but with a defined strategy to win? How can we organize in a way that successfully targets the root causes and not just the more visible outgrowths? These are the type of tough questions we need to be grappling with in defining broad, long-term strategies. Strategy, of course, grows out of analysis, organizing, and reflection — intentionally grappling with the realities, possibilities, and pitfalls of the contemporary political conditions and of the “forces on the ground” that do and could constitute the left. While there are many difficult questions we need to answer, our biggest deficiency is not a lack of analysis of the political situation. Rather, with academics and organizers too often lacking strong organizational ties to one another, circulating information and disseminating analysis remains one of the biggest challenges to informed strategic planning. In addition to building these linkages, we need a much better assessment of our forces. The left is so splintered that we often don’t know what organizations exist, what resources we have, and what each other is doing. As overwhelming a task as it sounds, if we are to begin developing winning strategy, we need to map out the left by city, state, and region. Taking these steps can deepen our understanding of the situation, its roots, and possibilities for ruptures in the system, along with popularizing and organizing around radical conceptions.
There is a definite relationship between the war, immigration, prisons and criminalization/repression, patriarchy, the media, the transgender liberation movement, radical unionism, the education system, struggles for the environment, and beyond. How do we connect those issues in our own work? How do our organizations work strategically on their own fronts but in shared strategy/coalition with groups working on different fronts? What should we expect to happen, and what goals should we set for ourselves for the next 10, 25, and 50 years? Collectively grappling with these questions can lead to collective liberation.
Although at nearly every event we critically discussed Weather’s gender politics and read a powerful excerpt from the Letters book about the state of the feminist movement and the continued centrality of a gender analysis to radical political projects, few people seemed interested in discussing the state of feminist and LGBTQ activism in the U.S. or how to conceptualize and respond to the persistent right-wing attacks against women and queer rights. While many seemed to acknowledge and decry the severe and unique burdens placed on third word women by war and by the new international division of labor, we had few conversations about how to conceptualize the relation of domestic feminist and queer work to anti-imperialism and a unified left political project. Regrettably, this is a pattern that we have reproduced in this report. It signals a need for more concerted theoretical work and relationship building in these areas. At the same time, the strengths and legacies of the queer and women’s liberation movements, along with the emerging transgender liberation movement, were apparent. Even if not the subject of as much explicit conversation, many young people in particular have internalized feminism and queer and transgender liberation as fundamental to their politics, and queer cultural expressions infused many of the activist scenes or spaces we experienced.
Histories of groups like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the original Students for a Democratic Society show the important role played by traveling speakers and organizers in attempts to link local efforts, debate strategies, and provide support to activists who felt isolated in less than hospitable climates. Though we didn’t represent an organization, we found our trip to be a success and worth the effort (not to mention, a lot of fun), as it allowed us to make new contacts and pass along old ones, debate common issues in many places, and serve as a transmission belt of ideas and actions between different cities. More traveling to promote ideas, books, films, and other projects is likely to help create and expand activist networks and to raise the level of discourse in ways that will hopefully lead to more formal connections. Of course, traveling requires time and money, making fundraising and other forms of assistance to such efforts crucial.
We would like to thank everyone who helped organize events, provided us with a place to stay, donated generously for gas money, engaged us in brilliant conversation, or otherwise helped make our trip incredibly fun, productive, and stimulating. We decided to write this report because we have found similar “debriefs” and “report-backs” by traveling comrades to be thought-provoking and to provide a feeling of connection with a wider movement that it is often easy to lose in the daily grind of local work. We hope this report has, to some small degree, served these same purposes, and we are eager to hear your reactions and continue these conversations.
Dan Berger is a writer, activist, and graduate student in Philadelphia. He is the co-editor of Letters From Young Activists, author of Outlaws of America, and a member of the anti-imperialist affinity group Resistance in Brooklyn. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Andy Cornell is a union organizer and graduate student living in Brooklyn, NY. He is a contributor to Letters From Young Activists and editor of the political fanzine The Secret Files of Captain Sissy. Contact him at email@example.com.