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.
As Crass explains in the essay “A New World in Our Hearts,” anarchism has its origins in the working-class socialist movements of the late nineteenthcentury. 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. While rooted in this tradition, the anarchism taken up and developed by activists in the 1990s was also a product of movement experiences of the preceding four decades. The Black freedom movement, the women’s liberation movement, and other liberation movements of the 1960s deeply influenced forms of radical politics that involved embodying liberatory values in organizing, creating alternatives to top-down organizations, and challenging multiple forms of oppression.
Starting in the 1970s, a chain of movement experiences melded many of these political forms together with anarchism. Three of the most important links in this chain were the nonviolent direct action movement (sometimes known as the “anti-nuke movement”), the direct action AIDS activism associated with the radical queer group ACT UP, and the environmental defense mobilizations of Earth First! These movement experiences fused together a set of activist practices that included militant and often large-scale civil disobedience actions; decentralized coordination through small groups called “affinity groups”; use of consensus decision-making process (originally called “feminist process”); and a focus on developing new ways of relating through things such as housing collectives and anti-racism trainings.
By the 1990s, anarchism in the United States was synonymous with this set of practices, the general aspirations of the historic anarchist tradition, and a far-reaching critique of domination. It was characterized by a shared counterculture and template of activities, connecting mostly young people through a series of predominantly white and middle-class subcultural scenes, often rooted in punk rock, across the country. These activists participated in a wide range of campaigns, engaged in confrontational direct actions, supported political prisoners such as Mumia Abu-Jamal, worked to inject art and imagination into activism, organized anarchist convergences across North America, and developed a network of anarchist bookstores and political spaces.
One of the most widespread and active initiatives linking these scenes was the Food Not Bombs (FNB) network. In the early 1990s, dozens of FNB chapters throughout the United States regularly served free food in public spaces, visibly challenging a social order that produces poverty and violence. San Francisco FNB was a central node in the network, as it maintained the contact list for the network, sent out “how to start an FNB group” guides, published an international newsletter and impressively organized against a vicious campaign by the city government to shut down its servings. Crass was deeply involved in all of this and, by the mid-1990s, was well-known as a leading FNB organizer on the West Coast. In 1995, he wrote “Towards A Non-Violent Society: A Position Paper on Anarchism, Social Change, and Food Not Bombs” in consultation with others in San Francisco FNB; this paper was widely circulated and discussed throughout the FNB network in the United States, Canada, and Europe.
As Crass points out, FNB (then as now) functioned as a form of gateway activism for tens of thousands of mostly young people. Through FNB, countless activists have learned about economic inequality and the role of the state in preserving it, and have experienced their own power to take direct action and create alternative institutions. FNB groups have also struggled practically around questions related to community organizing, leadership, strategy, organizational structure, and power relations. In the essay “Food Not Bombs and the Building of a Grassroots Anarchist Left,” Crass offers an in-depth history of San Francisco FNB in the 1990s and shares the rich lessons that developed out of it.
Crass and many of his comrades in San Francisco FNB were part of a growing anarchist tendency that sought to break out of the anarchist subcultural milieu and build broader movements. Anarchist publications such as 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.
All of these efforts, in different but overlapping ways, tried to push anarchism into a more intentional orientation toward struggles rooted in working-class communities and communities of color. While uneven, these efforts were still significant. They contributed to developing (or returning to) a kind of movement-based anarchism that was less about sustaining a subculture and more about furthering popular struggles for justice and dignity. They also helped to produce anarchist politics that had wider relevance outside of white middle-class activist scenes.
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 Combahee River Collective, a Black feminist group in Boston, summed up these emerging politics in an historic 1977 statement in which they called for developing an “integrated analysis” of oppression. This analysis suggests that systems of racism, capitalism, hetero-patriarchy, and ableism operate with and through each other—they are interconnected. Truly revolutionary politics, in short, necessarily involves fighting against multiple forms of oppression.
Anarchist-influenced activists in the 1990s increasingly took up this “integrated analysis,” often called “intersectionality” in academic contexts. Indeed, those who went to college benefited from a previous generation’s struggles to win Third World Studies, Women’s Studies, Labor Studies, and Gay and Lesbian Studies. These efforts created the institutional space for feminist and anti-racist scholars to bring intersectional ideas into classrooms. As a result, student activists and others were reading work by radical feminists of color, such as Gloria Anzaldúa, Angela Davis, bell hooks, June Jordan, Joanna Kadi, and Barbara Smith. This work resonated with and deepened the critique of domination that was so central for anarchists, even as it raised difficult questions for the predominantly white and frequently male-dominated anarchist movement.
In grappling with these questions, activists began to investigate their own social locations within a nexus of privilege and oppression. They also started crafting tools for more equitable, inclusive, and participatory organizing. While women and genderqueer organizers tended to be at the forefront of this, some white men also worked to develop anti-racist feminist practice among anarchist-leaning activists. Crass became one of the most prominent activists in this 1990s tendency through his organizing work in FNB and as his writing began to circulate into wider activist networks.
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. “Against Patriarchy: Tools for Men to Help Further Feminist Revolution,” for example, boils down many of these suggestions into a thought-provoking primer. A central theme in these writings, as in all of Crass’ work, is that systems of oppression consistently sabotage social change efforts—they limit analysis, undercut alliance-building, corrode organizations, and constrain strategy. Developing anti-racist feminist practice in our collective political work is thus essential for building resilient and visionary movements.
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. Building on legacies of anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggles, this revolt started in the 1980s with widespread popular mobilizations against austerity measures mandated by the International Monetary Fund. By the early 1990s, meetings of neoliberal institutions such as the World Bank and the World Trade Organization (WTO) faced massive protests from Bangalore to Berlin. And then, on January 1, 1994, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation stepped onto the world stage by seizing seven cities in Chiapas, Mexico. “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.