by Kelly Lenora Lee and Michael Gould-Wartofsky
“Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it” – Franz Fanon, Algeria, 1961
The walls are going up, the wars are going down, empire pushing out, borders closing in. But look below, look to the left, look to people in struggle, and you see the cracks being made in the old order, windows being opened into another kind of world. Within the borders of a society accustomed to detachment and passivity, young people are coming to the left in search of a new way of being and seeing, without borders; of the possibility of something different; of a way to grow beyond the established horizons of the present. We want to remake a movement – a young left where our collective struggles can build and sustain a culture of justice-making, equality and freedom.
As two young radicals and as participants in recent student struggles, we hope to help reopen a conversation among the young left about the movement we have and the movement we want. Ours are but two voices, grounded in our own thinking and experience, so we wish to invite more voices to join in this conversation in the days to come. Against the system’s conspiracy of silence, a young left must find itself and speak to itself through its own collective voice.
Why now? This is a decisive moment for movements. A time not only for action-it is always time for action-but also for reflection, for reinvention. If we intend to contribute to a broad-based and deep-rooted transformation of our society, we have to collectively trace our paths towards that transformation, and shape our own work accordingly. People’s movements on all fronts are walking towards the other politics, the solidarity economy, the free society we know is possible. For our young left, it is necessary to evoke our own visions of a free society. But that is not enough. We have to actually bring it.
Making the Connections
“There’s no such thing as a single-issue struggle, because we don’t live single-issue lives” – Audre Lorde
Today, the young left and its project of movement-building is complicated by the seeming disconnectedness of its many struggles. Our left seems, at once, rooted and adrift in the past, present and future, in uncertainty of where it began and where it, as a whole, is going. We fail to remember that struggle is everywhere, has always been and will always be. We also fail to remember that action alone does not make a movement. If we want to make a movement, we need to bridge the gaps which currently keep us apart, which keep us from moving toward our common goal of making this tired world new.
This project of (re)building our movement must be one of mapping and creating connections between people and peoples’ struggles, and between “issues” and the bigger systems of which they are a part. Until these systems are named, confronted and dismantled, the “issues” will never be resolved, and every generation will face its Iraqs, its Katrinas, its everyday oppressions. Creating and maintaining a movement in our young left requires a shift in how we organize with one another toward a more comprehensive and practical understanding of how our “issues” intersect, how our struggles are connected.
Building such a movement also calls for a profound shift in how we view, contest and negotiate the borders that separate us as human beings and prevent us from making meaningful connections in the fight for a more just society. We must begin to actively question and creatively approach those things that separate us, not to erase them, but to redefine them in ways that connect rather than divide us in this struggle. A movement must recognize the necessity, at once pragmatic and visionary, of solidarity across it – not unanimity or uniformity within it.
In a society where injustice permeates our lives and communities in multiple ways, a strong movement must recognize the importance of fighting injustice on multiple fronts. Our left must also understand that individual struggles are never won alone. We are struggling to change a society which depends upon multiple and reciprocal systems of oppression and domination for its survival. In order to create enduring change in such a society, our movement must nourish interconnected and mutually sustaining struggles of liberation.
Insurgent Ideas – for Action
“Consciousness Commitment = Change” – Slogan of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers
Movements have always been inspired by insurgent ideas, often emerging from the “organic intellectuals” of everyday life and rising up against the ruling ideas of our society. Yet the U.S. left finds itself burdened by the movemental lack of direction that accompanies action without thought. Ours is a system where even “successful” organizing does not produce substantive social change if it does not target the systemic roots of injustice and inequality. A young left needs to think critically about what it hopes to achieve through action and why. Action without insight, without strategy, will not sustain change.
On the other side of the coin, some of the left has a preoccupation with “Theory.” That is, theory divorced from its practical functions in the lived world or, perhaps more importantly, the ways in which the theoretical must be rooted in the daily experiences of people in struggle. The theoretical and ideological components in a working movement should be shaped and enabled by active, lived components. Much of the stagnation that frustrates the left is related to our tendency to organize around thinking (or talking) about social change, without putting theory into practice or practice into theory.
An effective marriage of thought and action must make critiques that are relevant to people, build connections between the seemingly separate issues they confront, and fashion alternatives grounded in their needs and desires. Thought and action cannot exist without each other. They must be in continuous conversation. This has to be a conversation shaped by all affected, led not by elites, but by insurgent ideas in action.
BREAKING IT DOWN
Their Wars – and Ours
“The project of the New American Century seeks to perpetrate inequity and establish American hegemony at any price. [We] demand justice and survival. For these reasons, we must consider ourselves at war.” – Arundhati Roy, Porto Alegre, 2004
Our generation watched as the rulers of the United States declared a war without end, a war supposed to last our whole lives. As we fight to end that war, let’s remember the other war of which it is a part – a world war of power and profit against peoples, one that’s been going on much longer than the “war on terror,” one that is intrinsic to the system of systems which we call capitalism, racism, patriarchy, authoritarianism. The battle lines run deep through every society, much deeper than the “clash of civilizations” touted by the rulers to mask what lies beneath. Let us unmask it.
It is a war waged every day. Its collateral damage is everywhere. Under this system, violence becomes routine, just beneath the surface of everyday life for some and painfully present in the lives and deaths of others. Many in the U.S., a step removed from the frontlines, are now bearing witness to the most visible manifestations: The occupation of Iraq. The murder of New Orleans. Armed raids on migrant families. Police terror in communities of color. The violence of the system is implicated also in the less visible denial of the means of life, dignity, and freedom to people here and around the world. It is this system, not our resistance, that calls out for justification, a call met with silence.
The system depends on the cooperation of ordinary people, not with each other, but with those who rule and exploit them. To reproduce itself, it requires their servitude, bought or coerced from them every day. But because everyone has a role in this system, everyone also has a way to resist. Every day, people face choices between tacit consent, refusal and rebellion. Many choose refusal and rebellion in ways unknown to us. For many more, the costs of rebellion are too high. But we can work to give people more of a stake in the struggle than they have in the system.
Multitudes the world over are fighting back. It is a fight for their lives-and for ours. Our common life will only be reclaimed through organized resistance, and through local struggles linked together globally across the terrain of empire. If we want to win, we have to know who our enemies are-not just one individual, corporation or government, but all of them, the ruling institutions and the systems, as well as the class that controls them and seeks to control us. We must also come to know our friends and allies, and make ourselves real friends and allies to the struggles of other peoples.
Because we are fighting within these systems-not outside them-the struggle also goes on within our movements. Movements can reproduce and reflect some of the worst features of the system, and nothing and no one can be pure. When movements fail, it is not only because of “the Man,” but also because movements are too often made in the image of the Man. Resistance cannot resist effectively if it acts, talks, and walks like that which it is resisting. So let’s ask ourselves: What are the forces of oppression and repression? What is their power made of? And how can we subvert them?
If we dare to imagine and actively pursue a future society liberated from those elements which presently colonize our minds, bodies, and life-world, we have to also imagine and prefigure emancipatory ways of being, seeing and acting. These must elaborate a more practical and visionary understanding of how social realities and identities interact and inform one another, what will maintain and strengthen the systems we seek to dismantle, and what ways of relating to one another will propel our movement forward, from below.
Capitalism and Class War
“Capitalism is blind and barbaric. It destroys everything. And to the U’wa, it says that we are crazy. But we want to continue being crazy if it means we can continue to exist” – Declaration of the U’wa People, Colombia, 2002
One of the great unspokens in our society, in the media, and even in our movements is that it’s still about class, and it’s still about capitalism. As capital globalizes, despite global resistance, we find ourselves up against a system more powerful and more predatory than ever. Most in the U.S. remain class-unconscious, even on the left, but the real face of capitalism is revealing itself from the Gulf Coast to the Persian Gulf, and in the ever-widening gulf between the rich and the rest of humanity.
In our lifetimes, we have seen the global invasion of capital into every sphere of our lives and every inch of our life-world, whether through free trade around the world or gentrification around the corner. It has established a global tyranny of corporations, ruling through the “hidden hands” of markets and states. Capitalism is the ultimate system of domination, deeply bound up with other such systems. Free markets are fundamentally opposed to free peoples, capitalist economies hostile to democratic societies.
To the few, the system gives an unimaginable power over the lives, land and labor of the many, and by “branding” the world, power over every last space, time, experience, thought, emotion. Its values lie only in commodities to be bought or sold, resources to be stolen from peoples and profit to be squeezed out of life, turning sweat, blood and mind into cold, hard cash. Today, the corporate elites are profiting more extravagantly than ever on the backs of working and poor people around the world. Welcome to globalized class war.
Class still runs as a faultline through societies, and through social movements, but there is a rumbling under the surface. The new working class is “precarious and pissed off”: In the North, working people, especially young workers and students, are condemned to indebted, indentured servitude in the service economy-denied steady jobs, health care, education, their “bread and roses.” In the Global South, corporations are recolonizing whole societies, turning them into sweatshops, slums and war zones, turning millions into migrants-economic refugees to the North. It is impossible today to speak of class without speaking of racialized poverty and a racialized division of labor.
Meanwhile global capitalism, with its logic of growth and waste, consumption and destruction, has made possible the devastation of the earth to the point of collapse. This is another face of the global class war: The rich extract the resources from peoples and their land, exploiting their labor to do so, and the poor have to suffer the consequences – draughts, hurricanes, disease, starvation. The poor are blamed, the rich are protected, and capitalism sells us “solutions” to the problems it creates.
But there is nothing inevitable about global capitalism. We are many, they are few. Working people have more power than is thought, even in the U.S. It is a power exercised through everyday struggles, often unnoticed, in their workplaces, in their communities, and also on the battleground of culture and information, from the internet to the street. Capitalism, more than ever, has within it the tools of its own destruction, but they need human hands, hands that can learn or relearn to use them.
If another world is possible, it will have to be a world beyond capitalism: a world of popular power, workers’ control, self-determination, self-creation. In the meantime, as we strive for a classless society, let’s recognize the realities of class which divide societies and movements. This divide will exist as long as we live in a capitalist world. But we can work to reconnect with working-class struggles where we are: for migrant workers’ rights, a living wage, public education, health care, affordable housing, working women’s liberation.
At the same time, we have to globalize this resistance, from the point of production to the point of communication and back. When capital acts without borders, so must we. Globally, we can organize towards a solidarity economy, not just “fair trade.” We can work against the system of profit, not just “not for profit.” We can join together in the production of a new world, instead of the reproduction of the old with a nicer look. The alternatives to capitalism will not come from blueprints or manifestos. They will be informed by ideas, and by what we learn from history, but they will be born out of the process of struggle.
Borders and Border Crossings
“All of us are fenced in and threatened with death…But the rebels, whom history repeatedly has given us the length of its long trajectory, struggle and the fence is broken…The rebels begin to recognize each other, to know themselves as equals and different” – Subcomandante Marcos
Everywhere communities are being enclosed and destroyed. Borders are being enforced and reinforced. There are the visible ones, all too tangible, that mean life or death for millions, for migrants, for cultures-from the U.S.-Mexico border wall to the Israeli “separation wall” to all the walls that protect the powerful from the “dangerous elements” in every city of the world. A young left must seek to build a world without borders, alongside the migrant freedom movement that is rising up under the slogan “no human is illegal.” It must help construct a movement of solidarity against and across those borders.
There are other borders, borders that too often go unseen, unmentioned, but remain just as powerful and just as real. Such borders do not just lie between nations. They run throughout our society and they run through our movement. We need a movement that crosses the borders that separate us, consciously and accountably. A liberated future requires a movement characterized by border-crossing – a self-conscious movement aware that is has to choose whether or not it will approach social change in a way that reproduces and maintains oppression and inequality, or in a way that not only remedies injustice, but challenges the very basis if its existence.
A movement without borders is not the same as a movement that denies the existence or power of borders. Rather, it recognizes that the social, political, ideological and geographic borders that separate and distinguish us are both meaningful and constructed. Our movement must always challenge those borders that are enforced against and between peoples, such as those drawn between nations-open for business, closed for humanity. It must also recognize that other kinds of borders are not inherently problematic. The problem lies in their function as forces of dividing and conquering.
As we develop as activists we have to explore the ways in which we maintain the divisive function of borders both actively and passively. We must unlearn the lie we’ve been taught to believe – that our differences, rather than our methods of negotiating our differences, divide and weaken our social movements. We must begin to embrace the radical notion that we have the ability and responsibility to redefine and reencounter our borders in constructive and connective ways.
Crossing the Borders of Race and Gender
Some of the most seemingly impermeable borders dividing our young left are those associated with race, gender, systemic racial oppression and systems of patriarchy. One cannot talk about building a movement without talking seriously about these issues, but differences in race and gender and problems of racism and patriarchy are the movement’s proverbial elephant in the room. These are borders that have prevented us from talking to and hearing one another, that keep us from seeing each other as allies in struggle, and from building a movement based in respect, mutual aid and solidarity.
If we honestly seek to build a world that is anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-classist and anti-authoritarian, it cannot remain this way. Our movement needs to make radical connections across borders that do not reject the meanings created through the differential experience of oppression under systems of racism and patriarchy. Rather, we must challenge the function of categories of race and gender as borders themselves. In order to make sincere connections we cannot ignore or dismiss these borders; we must approach them in a new way.
First and foremost, we need to recognize that racism and patriarchal oppression permeate our society and our social movements in multiple and thorough ways. They are implicated in every issue we organize around and the ways in which we organize. We are not exempt from maintaining and participating in systems of privilege and oppression simply because we consider ourselves progressive or radical.
Second, there has to be, on a very basic level, an acceptance of the fact that it is privilege that allows people/groups within the left to be able to ignore or deny the ways in which systems of control and oppression operate formally and informally, within and without, on our movement. Acknowledging and addressing privilege, its systemic roots and mundane manifestations, is uncomfortable, but only because we fail to understand that privilege is not earned or deserved, but inherited under unjust, historically-rooted conditions. What we are fighting for as agents of social change is a new inheritance.
Third, there has to be a conscious shift in the way we conceive of and approach these realities of race and gender away from an elementary understanding of them as things to be conquered and eradicated, and toward borders to be re-imagined and constructively crossed. This requires a deeper analysis of how racism and patriarchy operate in our world in intersectional and formative capacities within systems of capitalist exploitation. An understanding of racism and patriarchy as systems necessitates that we approach issues of racism and gender oppression as systemic manifestations.
This may seem obvious, but our attempts at movement building are constantly and consistently upset by our treatment of racism and gender oppression as issues rooted in individual behavior and perception. We’ve got to stop saying “I believe all genders are equal” as if believing in equality produces equality. On its own, this belief does not combat inequality or build a movement able to address systems of inequality.
Likewise, we must stop saying “I do not notice racial difference” as if saying so negates racial inequality. In a society where our differences are made to function as dividing agents, and where our differences are given meaning through the most basic experiences of social, economic and political life, we certainly notice and are affected by difference. Difference, however, does not have to equal inequality based on difference.
Our own borders function positively to allow us to understand ourselves and the world we live in. Our borders generate and are generated by differential social experiences which allow us to learn from each other and grow collectively. Our borders can function as connective social tissues rather than divisive walls. Our differences, viewed and approached constructively, can be used as tools for strengthening our movements and weakening the powers, which aim to keep us divided. For this to happen, we need to recognize our ability and responsibility in defining our borders and changing the way we approach difference. We need a movement built upon border crossings.
Striking the Empire Back
“The great only appear great because we are on our knees. Let us rise.” – James Connolly, Ireland, 1913
We live in an empire state, a warfare state, a “homeland security” state. In one generation, we have seen the inexorable expansion of its powers of control and repression. It has come, not only with a bang, but with a silence. This state exists to “serve and protect”-not the people, not even the “nation,” but the interests and the wealth of the few. This fact will not change when the Bush regime is replaced with another. The only power that can stop it is popular power in a global movement.
The empire state is organized, and now privatized, for what the military calls “full spectrum dominance,” but also for corporate profit enforced by military might. In other contexts, it might be called armed robbery, even terror. On TV, they called it “liberation.” But the empire state was on the move long before the invasion of Iraq. It fought for dominance in the Cold War. Its grip reached around the world under the pretext of globalization, growth, “development.” When that fell apart, it found its best cover yet: the “war on terrorism.”
But today, more than ever, U.S. empire finds itself in a global crisis of ungovernability. It finds itself unable to control its territory, unable to pacify the resistance that’s rising anew from the Middle East to Latin America. The “New American Century” is coming to an early end in the rubble of Iraq, but it may be a long time before the world is freed of its consequences. After four years and hundreds of thousands of dead, even the rulers are looking for a way out of Iraq, but they are already preparing for the next war somewhere else.
The occupation also reaches within. Everyday life in the U.S. is militarized, criminalized and colonized. Ordinary people are forced to pay for the empire state with their money, their rights, their lives. This state’s priorities for young people are bombs, not books. Enlistments, not jobs. Prisons, not schools. The occupation abroad provides cover for occupation at home, expanding the police state and criminal injustice system that was already there. Unseen: The 2 million human beings kept in cages. Unheard: The political prisoners behind the walls. Seeing but unseen: The surveillance of every corner, every protest.
The empire strikes back-hard. But from across the world and to our own streets, resistances spread as wildfire. Not all are the same, but some are swept by a “wind below” and guided by what piqueteros in Argentina call “the militant defense of everyday life.” The end of empire will come from below, not from above. It is peoples who struggle for liberation, not the rulers, not the autocrats or theocrats. Anyone who stands against empire in the U.S. must stand with peoples in resistance.
Those who are in the “brain of the monster,” in the centers of empire, must fight it and restrain it from within. They may not have access to the halls of power where decisions are made, but they know the addresses, and they should know they have their own kind of power. If young people in the U.S. want to hasten the end of empire, they will raise its social costs. They will work to dismantle the pillars of the warfare state. They will bring the crisis of ungovernability to its home turf. They will support rebellion in the ranks and make the way for a politics of mass refusal.
To do that, they will have to make themselves relevant. The words of the rulers ring hollow in the ears of people everywhere. Do we have something better to say? Do we have the capacity to listen to what “ordinary” people have to say? Do we have something better to build with them? If not now, when?
BUILDING IT UP
Towards Freedom, from Below and to the Left
“Who, companero? The people, no one more than the people. And how, companero? Struggling, creating, popular power” – Declaration of the Frente de Estudiantes Libertarios, Chile, 2006
Many on the left have heard it before: “We know what you’re against, but what are you for?” We have our own answers to this question, but this pamphlet does not intend to offer any sweeping proposals. Our premise is that the alternatives must emerge through the openings of everyday struggles and out of the conversation between ideas and practices. Our other premise is that it has to be up to people themselves, at every moment, to decide what their common life and their society is going to look like, work like, act like.
In a society where all power over people’s lives has been taken out of their hands and placed in the hands of the few, the rich, even this basic condition may seem like an impossible dream. But it is a recurring dream that has ignited revolutions and movements around the world, and continues to fire a collective hope today. And it must be translated into practice. For this to happen, our movement will have to build on movements that have fought before, and other movements now in motion, to reclaim and create popular power.
Our young left should be a radically democratic left, one that demands and practices nothing less than direct democracy in which everyone participates and nobody dominates. “All power to the people”: power defined, in the feminist sense, as “power with,” not “power over.” People must be free, and have the resources they need, to democratically determine the conditions and shape the possibilities of their existence. It’s not enough for this to apply to those who already have the luxury of spending their lives in meetings. It must be based in communities, in workplaces, in schools, wherever people struggle.
We have to understand that we cannot really be free until all are free, that is, until the means of a free life belong to everyone. Our movement must therefore turn its attention to fighting for autonomy and self-determination, alongside the communities affected, for all those who have been systematically denied it: For workers’ power in the workplace, for youth and student power in the schools, for empowerment of communities of color, of all genders and sexualities. For that to happen, in turn, we need an accountable left, one that recognizes, respects and responds to the collective agency of those struggling for liberation.
We also need a young left that strives towards autonomy from established power structures and institutions of oppression-even while engaging with them (not ignoring them). We are up against and inside an authoritarian system that reproduces itself not only by repressing dissent, but by buying off and coopting those who oppose it. We cannot participate on its terms, on its stage. But we must speak to the audience from among them, not above them, while showing the powerful, “Que se vayan todos”: “They all must go.”
If we want autonomy, we have to build mutual aid between movements, communities and peoples in revolt. They can no longer depend for their needs on institutions that have oppressed, exploited, stolen and killed for as long as any can remember. They have to be able to rely on each other’s solidarity.
“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time… But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let’s work together – Lilla Watson, Aboriginal Territory, Australia
Strong movements are grounded in strong human relationships-especially relations of solidarity, of each standing together with the other from one place to another, one people to another, one movement to another; recognizing others’ struggles as our own. Yet there is a difference between proclaiming ourselves in solidarity with struggles or communities and actually practicing it. “Solidarity” has become a buzz word, but what does it mean in practice?
“Solidarity” on the left has its roots in the solidarity of labor, which united-and must one day reunite-working people everywhere with the understanding that “an injury to one is an injury to all.” There is something crucial that came out of that: solidarity is never about “helping others” because you feel like it. It’s about fighting for yourself, your family, community, class, by standing with other oppressed people against the forces that make life unlivable for all.
What might it mean to really practice solidarity in the young left? First, we have to ask ourselves about the basis of our solidarity. What are our common experiences? What conditions do we face? What struggles do we share? Solidarity begins at home, and it requires building a strong movement where we are-one that can then offer meaningful support to others as well as confront the sources of repression in our backyards. Solidarity, like the powers it confronts, must be at once globally linked up and locally rooted.
Our solidarity must be active, shown not in attitude, but in action, and it must be sustained, not fleeting. This means each standing in defense of all, whenever such defense is needed, not just when it makes the news or one’s favorite websites. And unlike charity or commerce, solidarity must be horizontal, shared below instead of from above to below. It must operate not only without hierarchies on the surface, but with a commitment to countering and transforming existing relations of power at every step-while recognize the autonomy of those with whom we are in solidarity.
Solidarity actions and movements, taking these questions seriously and working towards a stronger culture and politics of solidarity, can advance the struggle for a new world within and against the system while also prefiguring the society that is possible. Between communities, workplaces, schools and other centers of activity, we can develop and practice solidarity as active, as visceral and as global as that of the would-be rulers and owners of the world. But our solidarity, in practice, can be immeasurably more powerful.
Reflections on Solidarity with Communities of Color (by Kelly Lee)
As a working-class woman of color organizing around issues that disproportionately impact poor people of color, I am always unpleasantly surprised by the sense of entitlement among potential allies presumably acting in solidarity with the struggles of poor communities of color. In a society where most forms of inequality and injustice are increasingly impacting poor communities of color, it is essential that those seeking to work on these issues or in these communities practice solidarity.
Too often well-meaning groups of generally white, middle or upper-class activists and students come into communities of color as outside allies or through gentrification and try to organize around issues affecting these communities without creating, or often without attempting to create, meaningful and sustainable connections with community residents or the people and groups organizing from within these communities. It is a sense of entitlement associated with relative privilege that allows would-be allies to believe that they know what is best for communities in struggle.
Effective community-based organizing is actively accountable to the communities it occurs in and to the people organizing from within these communities. First, in order to create meaningful and mutually supportive connections between allies and community and peoples’ struggles, the mainstream left must accept the fact that peoples not traditionally associated with or recognized as part of the left in the United States – namely, racial minorities, immigrants and working-class folks – are, in fact, organizing and are at the forefront of progressive and radical activism.
Second, potential allies seeking to organize around issues that disproportionately impact marginalized groups must practice solidarity by respecting the experience, recognizing the leadership of, and actively supporting the struggles of those directly affected. Third, a young left must reclaim a form of solidarity that recognizes that activism and knowledge are not the sole province of peoples of certain colors, languages or nationalities, and that a movement in the left must equally and accountably nurture and connect the struggles of all.
Activism vs. Organizing
“Educate, Agitate, Organize!” – Slogan of the Industrial Workers of the World
If we are serious about working to bring another world into being, we will have to move from just doing activism to doing organizing. Within the young left, we need a movement away from single-issue activism as the means to our end and toward a conception of issue-oriented activism as a component of a greater, networked struggle against systemic oppression and exploitation, which requires a dedication to organizing. Organizing, in this sense, means building our counter-power over the long haul, not just taking to the streets for a day.
Organizing requires organization. We have to be able to organize ourselves before we can try to reorganize society. Self-organization goes hand in hand with self-determination. There are many ways of organizing ourselves; local unions, regional assemblies and “consultation with the base” are some of the more democratic ones. It is possible to organize in a way that gets things done, inspires participation, facilitates communications, keeps itself open to revision and turns hierarchies on their heads-not just the seen but the unseen, not just the formal but the informal. Eternal vigilance is the price of radical democracy. And long-term organizing may be what lies between a movement and victory.
Activism still has its critical place in a larger movement. When activists win, even something small, it has the potential to turn into something big by raising consciousness and showing power. Yet in the left today, issue-specific or single-issue activism has become activism itself. Students may organize to keep military recruiters out of their schools and this, in itself, is a valid issue. However, alone, it will not change the systems which place recruiters on school campuses, which drive recruiters to target poor public schools in particular, or which maintain and provide for a military in the first place.
Divorced from allied issues and collaborative campaigns, issue-oriented activism is simply a means of making unjust systems more bearable. We can consciously and effectively target systems of oppression only through collaborative struggle. Furthermore, we need to expand our understanding of issues often viewed as singular to include a more nuanced, complicated analysis of how peoples’ struggles are related and interdependent. Our movement needs increased analysis paired with liberating practice around how we can work together and organize in ways that create sustainable, radical social change.
The new left should not let itself be limited by standards or scripts of activism and action that do not 1. account for the experiences of peoples engaged in struggle and 2. give action power by recognizing the diverse and significant ways in which people resist and combat oppression daily. Any truly radical movement recognizes the experience and leadership of peoples organizing through informal and localized channels. We too often assume that 1. “ordinary” people are not organizing or resisting and 2. “ordinary” people are not effectively organizing and resisting. Both of these assumptions are false and ultimately destructive to any movement that seeks to radically or substantively alter the social systems which limit our existence.
Ordinary people are continuously resisting in extraordinary ways. As a movement the young left must recognize and support acts of resistance that empower people, whether or not such acts fit nicely into an activist mold of resistance. Powerful, relevant collaborative struggle will be achievable only when borders between formal activism and informal resistance are forgotten.
Imagining Liberation, Liberating Imagination
“The goal of the revolutionary artist is to make revolution irresistible” – Toni Cade Bambara
If we want a society liberated from the systems and institutions that now enchain us, we have to be able to collectively reimagine a politics of liberation. But if we want a politics of liberation, a young left will have to defend and liberate our own imagination from the constraints imposed upon it within the present system-and within the old left once known as the New Left. Movements around the world have been reimagining what it means to make a revolution. Let us begin.
The future of our young left may depend, in part, upon whether and how it moves to take up this project. The established order has survived by reproducing itself in its own image, but also by adapting and lending itself to constant transformation and innovation. Much of the U.S. left today is reproducing itself as before, falling back on old ways instead of reinventing itself anew. If we hope to win, our generation has to engage in a process of reinvention, on its own terms.
At the same time, part of the work of imagining is the work of remembering. We can mobilize the collective memory of generations of organizers, dissidents and revolutionaries, living and dead, “Old Left” and “New.” But our collective remembering can be an active, dynamic process. We can construct a counter-memory to the official history. We can bring collective memory into collective action. We can move away from trying to imitate and relive the 60s to learning from the past, to improvising and imagining new meanings for our own context.
The creative urge in our movements must be cultivated, nourished, given room to grow and to shape, not only pretty objects at our demonstrations, but our actions themselves. We must give our movement a new creativity in its form and direction, in its adversity to oppression, in its construction of another kind of politics that hastens a better and more beautiful world.
Let’s remember that these are serious times, and they call for serious creativity. Our imagination must be rooted in the real as well as the possible. Our actions must be strategic, fitted to a collective purpose, a direction, a need. Our actions must be relevant to a context, a community, a target, a movement. Still, all of that takes imagination.
Today, we fight because we must, but the new society will not be limited to a realm of necessity. It will be a realm of freedom, one in which we can think, work and create as free people. But we can begin to liberate the collective imagination through our own struggles to reimagine liberation today.
BRINGING IT (TOGETHER)
We need a renewal and radicalization of the left – a reinvention of what it means to love each other and this world enough to fight for something better together. When petitioning, voting, demonstrating and single-issue campaigning have failed to produce effective systemic change; when our organizations are working in the same communities on the same issues without even realizing it; when five thousand people are angry and hopeful enough to come out to a protest, but don’t know how to channel their frustration in a way that is effective and sustainable, we must radicalize the way we organize around issues and the way we organize with each other.
Radicality, in this sense, means being unafraid of asking and creatively answering serious questions. Questions about how our movement is failing to develop and sustain effective ways of taking action, practicing solidarity and effecting social transformation. A radical theory of social change must be useful, accessible and intersectional, meaning that it must be relevant to people’s lived experiences, easily understood and widely applicable, and aware of the complexity and interconnectedness of peoples’ struggles.
We need a practical movement, but more than that, we need a powerful movement – a movement in which even breathing, talking, listening and taking action are exercises in liberation. Our struggles must be tangible, our connections vivid. We must practice solidarity across borders, and work towards autonomy and freedom in our communities. We must strengthen a revolutionary form of unity, “from below and to the left,” that recognizes our differences and builds our collective power.
For many of us currently living and loving in the struggle, the future of our movement seems uncertain. In such uncertainty, building the new world we hope to someday know can seem impossible, but we should not let uncertainty – or old certainties – prevent us imagining impossible things into being. Our world cannot continue to live as it has been living, and we must do more than hope that our present will not become our future, or our children’s future.
Every positive change that appears to come from somewhere else, from the powers above, actually comes from below through the struggles of “ordinary” people, writing their own history. We must draw our ink and prepare to write a new history with them. Our generation does not have the luxury of cynicism. We do not have a scarcity of imagination. Resisting and constructing, remembering and prefiguring, we can make the world anew. What we have tried to present in this document are not answers, but an invitation to ask revolutionary questions, because a time will come when we will need answers.
About the Co-Authors
Kelly Lenora Lee, 22, is a radical woman of color and activist hailing from Oregon and sometimes Boston. Michael Gould-Wartofsky, 22, is an organizer and a writer from New York City, and also lived in Boston. They are part of Students for a Democratic Society, and have been involved in community/labor solidarity, anti-war, anti-capitalist & anti-oppression movements.