From Collective Refusal to Collective Liberation

An Introduction to Chris Crass’ new book Towards Collective Liberation: anti-racist organizing, feminist praxis, and movement building strategy from PM Press 

Transformative social movements are always much more dynamic and intelligent than individual organizers, no matter how reflective, tireless, and courageous such individuals may be. This is one of many amazing things about collective struggles for justice. At the same time, there are always individuals who crystallize movement experiences, who distill and share hard-won insights and help to catalyze much-needed discussions. Chris Crass is one of these people. For two decades, he has consistently given expression to the ideas, questions, and lessons of a generational cohort of radical organizers and activists in the United States.

Towards Collective Liberation collects and refines some of the most generative of these insights. Drawing on a wealth of experiences—his own and those of other conscious organizers—Crass grapples with the big question that all of us committed to social transformation face: How can we overcome the interconnected systems of oppression and exploitation that structure our society? How can we struggle towards collective liberation? In response, he highlights a relevant radical politics that people are already building as they struggle for justice and dignity. As Crass describes in his opening essay, this is a politics based in grassroots organizing, participatory democracy, coalitional work across differences, creative direct action, organization-building, strategy rooted in vision for a better world, and unapologetic love. At the core of this politics is a profound commitment to building anti-racist, multiracial, feminist, and queer liberationist movements against capitalism.

This book, in a certain sense, follows Crass’ life for the last twenty-three years—from his early days as an activist with Love and Rage in the suburbs of Southern California and a core organizer in San Francisco Food Not Bombs to his more recent work as a leading anti-racist organizer and educator. Crass, like many of us deeply influenced by feminism, takes seriously that “the personal” and “the political” cannot be strictly separated: genuinely transformative politics have to be rooted in—but never restricted to—our life experiences. As his writing demonstrates, even relatively privileged people can delve into their lives to learn about how power works in our society, as well as possibilities and challenges for visionary organizing. Towards Collective Liberation reflects this commitment, developing political analysis through story-telling and critical reflection. This is a hallmark of Crass’ writing.

What is most important about this book is not the story it tells about Chris Crass, but rather the lessons it shares for all of our social justice efforts today. The concerns that Crass has consistently taken up in his organizing and writing—movement-building, challenging white supremacy, strategic planning, and learning from previous movement experiences—continue to be some of most pressing for activists and organizers, especially as new movements are emerging in this time of crisis. While Crass’ reflections are rooted in specific experiences, they are relevant for people struggling around a wide range of issues and in a variety of circumstances across the United States.

These lessons and reflections have grown out of a history that is not widely known. This is the history of a political generation that grew up in a time of right-wing counterrevolution symbolized by Ronald Reagan, and was radicalized with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the first Gulf War, and the Rodney King verdict. As leading ideologues celebrated the collapse of the Soviet Union and proclaimed “the end of history,” this political generation significantly gravitated toward anarchist politics and activism. Over the course of the 1990s, many in this generation increasingly focused on building broad radical movements and turned especially to the ideas and practices of anti-racist feminism. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, these activists played leading roles in the global justice movement and were part of a crucial movement-wide learning process about power, privilege, solidarity, and organizing. Over the last decade, they have taken lessons from this experience into a range of campaigns, organizations, and movements. Through these efforts, they are helping to develop a new radical political synthesis that moves past some debilitating ideological conflicts and pulls together useful ideas and practices from a range of left traditions.

Crass, through his organizing, writing, and political education work, has been a key figure in this history. Indeed, we cannot fully appreciate him and his efforts without understanding the movement trajectory that has shaped him and he has helped to shape. So, as a movement historian and someone who has also been deeply involved in this trajectory, let me briefly lay out the story here, following 1990s anarchism into anti-racist feminism, the global justice movement, and today’s organizing towards collective liberation. While some readers will be familiar with this history and politics, many may find it altogether new. My main hope is to help explain the significance of the writings in this collection and ground their vital political insights. I also humbly hope for what I offer to illuminate one strand of movement history in the last two decades and, more importantly, contribute to building the liberatory movements that we need.


century. This was a politics based on opposition to capitalism and the state as fundamental forms of domination, along with a commitment to self-management, solidarity, and social equality.The Blast! in Minneapolis, for example, intentionally tried to move beyond punk scenes and connect with community-based struggles. The Love and Rage anarchist network, which started in 1989 and solidified into a formal membership organization in 1993, began to identify strategic priorities and areas of common political work, wrestled with key political questions around race and racism, and attempted to construct a continental revolutionary anarchist federation. Anarchists also organized two groundbreaking “Active Resistance” conferences—in Chicago in 1996 and in Toronto in 1998—that explicitly centered themes such as community organizing and movement-building. normal”>Anti-Racist Feminism

Many 1990s activists saw the persistence of dynamics of privilege and oppression in organizing work as a major barrier to building a vibrant movement-based anarchism. With women, people of color, queer, and working-class activists in the lead, they increasingly identified ways in which the social hierarchies that structure our society were being reproduced in movement spaces, sustaining longstanding exclusions, and severely hindering overall efforts for radical change. Searching for ways forward, some activists began working to build stronger analysis and practice around feminism, anti-racism, and queer liberation. They turned especially to the ideas and experiences of anti-racist feminism.

Rooted in the liberation movements of the 1960s, anti-racist feminism is a political strand that bloomed in the 1970s and 1980s. It started with the efforts of radical women of color, many of them lesbians, to challenge the limitations of existing movements in being able to account for their complex experiences of oppression based on race, class, gender, and sexuality. Coming together in groups, conferences, and publishing collectives, these activists began creating shared politics grounded in their lives and struggles. The second section of this book, “We Make the Road by Walking,” includes some of Crass’ most important contributions to this movement-wide effort as he frankly discusses his own experiences of coming into feminist and anti-racist consciousness, frequently through challenges by activists with direct experiences of oppression, and makes concrete suggestions for organizing. “ normal”>The Global Justice Movement

While U.S. anarchists were getting more serious and organized, a revolt against neoliberalism was brewing, starting in the global South. “Ya Basta!” they said in opposition to the Mexican government and neoliberalism. Bringing together aspects of Marxism, anarchism, and Mayan traditions, the Zapatistas offered an autonomous politics based on listening and dialogue, building democratic power from below, and creating self-governing communities.