Grassroots Social Change: Lessons from an Anarchist Organizer

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-ansi-language:EN-US”>Many progressives around the world look at the United States and are repelled by its extremes of wealth and poverty, enormous military, massive prison population, excessive gun violence, inhumane welfare policies, reckless environmental destruction, and aggressive and self-interested foreign policy. US trade policies have contributed to impoverishment in many countries; US troops are stationed in dozens of countries around the globe.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-ansi-language:EN-US”>Those who have interacted with US activists know there is another side to the country. Within the dominant capitalist world power, there is a vibrant activist scene with an amazing depth of commitment and experience. Prior to the US-government-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, there were massive protests around the world. Yet few would be aware that in some parts of the US there were regular anti-Iraq-war protests for many months after the invasion. This sort of activism is hardly ever reported in international news.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-ansi-language:EN-US”>Not only is activism for progressive causes alive and well in the US — it has produced some of the most astute analyses of what it takes to be effective in organizing for change. The classic work is Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals, a book about community organizing that has inspired generations of activists.[1] There are many other valuable US treatments aimed either at the level of day-to-day practice or at a more strategic level.[2] To these must now be added Chris Crass’s book Towards Collective Liberation.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-ansi-language:EN-US”>FNB provides free food to homeless people, tying this activity to a radical analysis of homelessness, poverty, inequality, militarism and other issues.  Initiated in 1980, the FNB idea spread rapidly, being taken up in hundreds of cities in the US and other countries. FNB groups are autonomous, with different levels of activity and different mixes of food provision and politics.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-ansi-language:EN-US”>This sounds like a classic success story, but is only the prelude to Crass’s analysis. He probes into different goals within the group. Some wanted to focus on the welfare function of providing meals; others wanted to combine this with political education; yet others saw building the movement’s capabilities as a key goal. Crass examines the tensions arising from differing goals, from the ever changing levels and types of participation in the group, from strategic planning monopolized by a small group of men, from attempts to deal with (or skate over) inequalities in skill levels, and much else.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-ansi-language:EN-US”>In many of what are called “new social movements” — such as feminist, environmental, and peace movements — anarchist orientations are evident. The politics of the old left was oriented to class struggle and to action by socialist parties and the wider labor movement. These struggles were often structured following lines of authority, sometimes adopting a version of the Leninist model of “democratic centralism,” namely decision-making by a small core of party leaders, usually male. The rise of the new social movements challenged this style through putting other issues on the agenda in addition to class struggle, and through promoting a more participatory style of action and organization.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-ansi-language:EN-US”>Though oriented to anarchism, Crass opposes the tendency to maintain a correct political line. He says “we need a revitalized, dynamic, and visionary Left politics that draws from many traditions, not just anarchism, but also Marxism, socialism, feminism, revolutionary nationalism, and others” (p. 22).

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-ansi-language:EN-US”>One of the challenges the group faced was overcommitment: members would take on more tasks, campaigns, and solidarity actions than they collectively had the capacity to do well, and there was no obvious way to deal with this tendency. Another was the problem of leadership and initiative. As is common in some anarchist-oriented groups, there was an overt denial of leadership, although some members had more power and influence than others. Crass summarizes the challenges:


line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-ansi-language:EN-US”>The rest of the book covers a range of topics relevant to grassroots organizing. Some sections are essays Crass wrote for circulation within the movement. A large section is composed of interviews with anti-racist organizers in different parts of the country, though these are more like edited essays than interactive interviews. Together, this material provides some of the most sophisticated insights available about the challenges of activist organizing in the US.

mso-ansi-language:EN-US”>Leadership line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-ansi-language:EN-US”>The theme of leadership recurs throughout Towards Collective Liberation. Anarchists have long had a conflicted attitude towards leadership. Many of the so-called leaders in government and corporate bureaucracies exercise power based on position. Anarchists, as opponents of domination and associated formal hierarchies, are naturally opposed to such systems and often, by association, to the individuals occupying these roles. Within anarchist-oriented groups, the result can be hostility to the idea of any formal roles linked to decision-making power. Crass titles one of his chapters “But we don’t have leaders.”

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-ansi-language:EN-US”>Within business studies, this distinction is widely recognized: leadership is distinguished from management, with both being seen as necessary, but leadership more highly prized. However, in workplaces in government and business, the two aspects of leadership are often confused or conflated, with managers assuming that their formal position gives them the authority of leadership.

[3] should have rejected leadership altogether, throwing out the valuable roles with the oppressive ones. The result, in many cases, has been a system of informal leadership — by those with the most experience, knowledge, confidence and informal connections — that is hard to question because of the rhetoric of “We have no leaders.”

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-ansi-language:EN-US”>Leadership development can take a very simple form: encouraging individuals to take on roles involving coordination, initiative, and responsibility, helping them overcome their own self-doubt and reluctance, providing them support in their new roles, and helping them develop their skills and their capacity to reflect on their performance. For Crass, the initial step in activist leadership development is simply to be aware of the damaging dynamics of unspoken interpersonal inequalities.



line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-ansi-language:EN-US”>Crass gives most attention to feminism and anti-racism. Because these connect with leadership development, one implication is to encourage and support women and people of color to become leaders. Another key theme is to take action within the more privileged group, specifically for men to address sexist behaviors by other men and for white activists to promote anti-racism among other whites. The lengthy interview section of the book begins with an essay titled “What we mean by white anti-racist organizing.”


It is exciting to me that we can take a struggle for a much needed law and wage the battle in ways that provide opportunities for those engaged to learn deeper lessons, become inclusive leaders, recognize that only by building together can we grow power that is freeing rather than oppressive. For those of us in the battles who are white, taking leadership from people of color, and finding our own way to lead while organizing other white people, results in some of the most profound life-changing liberation we can dream of. (p. 222) line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-ansi-language:EN-US”> 

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-ansi-language:EN-US”>One area Crass could have developed more is the practical consequences of tensions between struggles against different forms of domination. Electing Barack Obama is a challenge to racism in US politics, but is this an anarchist goal? More generally, should it be a goal for more women and people of color to be elected to office and rise within government and corporate hierarchies, given the long-term anarchist goal of replacing these hierarchies with self-managed systems?

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-ansi-language:EN-US”>Compared to most other rich countries, the US mainstream political and economic system is remarkably powerful: activists challenge from the margins, certainly having an effect, but seldom being invited to join the power elite. In many other countries, there are more opportunities for radicals to rise within the system, for example as politicians or union leaders within left-wing parties or as senior government bureaucrats. It is conceivable for a prominent peace activist to join the system and become influential within the government or other elite circles.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-ansi-language:EN-US”>In the US, co-option seems a lesser risk because the establishment is more prone to use repression and exclusion against challengers. How would Food Not Bombs have responded if its leaders had been invited to join a task force on poverty and homelessness or if the organization had been given government funding for its work and offered a guaranteed space for its operations?

[4] How to undermine the ideology of representative government and promote the alternative of self-management is one of the deepest challenges for anarchists. In the US, though, a more common organizing goal is equal access to the vote, especially given racist and other exclusionary practices in many parts of the country. For an anarchist organizer, is the goal full and fair participation in the electoral process or setting up alternatives to representative government?

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-ansi-language:EN-US”>Given that a key principle of anarchist organizing is embodying the ends in the means, then it makes sense to have some vision, however vague, of the ends. For Crass, the means are better specified: sharing of expertise, rotation of responsibilities, leadership development, consensus decision-making and, for large actions, coordination by groups composed of spokespeople (delegates) from smaller groups. This is certainly compatible with the anarchist project, but it leaves unanswered many questions. How, for example, are global decisions to be made on environmental and other matters? How are fundamental disagreements to be resolved? How can specialist skills, for example in making computer chips, be reconciled with sharing of expertise?

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-ansi-language:EN-US”>For Crass, grassroots organizing is something occurring in communities in public spaces. There is also another sort of grassroots organizing: inside workplaces and, more generally, inside organizations. Workplace organizing is a longstanding activist project; the syndicalist tradition is built around it. Organizing is also possible inside churches, militaries, police forces, banks, sporting clubs, government departments, international organizations, and high-tech firms. Some of these are workplaces, to be sure, but not commonly seen as places to be doing organizing, which has usually been oriented to working class occupations, especially industry. There are now some new possibilities for organizing. What does it mean to organize among developers of open source software — a dispersed, partially self-managed production process — or among contributors to social media? There are many arenas for grassroots organizing, and it would be fascinating to see what Crass and other organizers have to say about the possibilities and pitfalls.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-ansi-language:EN-US”>There are other examples of popular nonviolent action internationally in which success came without relying on state intervention. The classic example is the Indian independence movement led by Gandhi. Others are campaigns against repressive governments in the Philippines, Iran, South Africa, Indonesia, Chile, Egypt, and dozens of other countries. Few of these are perfect models for anarchist campaigning, but they can provide lessons for grassroots campaigners.

[5] it might be speculated that white male privilege is one factor in many anarchists neglecting the contributions by Gandhians to anarchist theory and practice. Most leading Gandhians have been male but certainly not white. line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-ansi-language:EN-US”>Crass has provided an exemplary volume for informing anyone interested in strategy and organizing in the US. It should serve as an inspiration for sympathizers in other countries to know what is being done, and what can be done, in the heart of the US empire. It can also serve as a model for organizers in other countries to analyze and document their own experiences. These insights can then be fed back to receptive audiences in the US. Chris Crass will be among them. 

mso-ansi-language:EN-US”>Brian Martin is professor of social sciences at the University of Wollongong, Australia. Web:

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