One of the biggest challenges any social movement faces is the pernicious problem of inadvertently recreating the oppressive dynamics of the social order that movement is challenging. How, organizers and activists continue to ask, do we create movements for social change that do not replicate the racism, ableism, sexism, classism, homophobia, etc. that we oppose? This is a particularly thorny question for activists who are privileged by the political, social, and economic structures they politically oppose. For social change movements to do more than change the players in a broken game, activists must work through and beyond the “divide and conquer” strategies the 1% uses to undermine solidarity among the 99%.
In Towards Collective Liberation: Anti-Racist Organizing, Feminist Praxis, and Movement-Building Strategy (PM Press 2013), author Chris Crass offers lessons and reflections about organizing for social change as a mostly heterosexual (his words), white, U.S. male citizen from a middle class family. Drawing on decades of experience organizing for social change, he has assembled a collection of thought-provoking, insightful, and soulful essays written for activists engaged with dynamic questions of how to create and support effective movements for social change.
The essays that comprise Towards Collective Liberation can be read separately but readers will benefit from reading them in conversation with one another, if not linearly. They draw primarily on lessons from Crass' personal and organizational experiences of anti-racist and feminist organizing, while also exploring insights from historical examples of organizing and movement-building. The book also includes a section of case study interviews with contemporary anti-racist organizers who embody the vision and strategy of collective liberation that are at the heart of the book. The concept of collective liberation comes from feminist author and activist bell hooks' essay Love as the Practice of Freedom in which she writes: “Until we are able to accept the interlocking, interdependent nature of systems of domination and recognize specific ways each system is maintained, we will continue to act in ways that undermine our individual quest for freedom and collective liberation struggle.”
With “collective liberation,” both hooks and Crass speak to the idea that no system of oppression operates on its own and therefore cannot be undone in isolation; white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, capitalism, class oppression, etc. are an interlocking web which we must collectively dismantle wholescale or our efforts will be in vain. Collective liberation requires all of us to see how our humanity is warped by oppression and injustice and to see our own stake in dismantling these systems.
Crass traces his own political development toward collective liberation in several poignant and honest essays about challenging male supremacy and white supremacy. “What am I afraid to admit?” Crass asks in the essay “Going to Places That Scare Me: Personal Reflections on Challenging Male Supremacy.” He follows with concrete examples of how patriarchy has taught him “in ways both subtle and blatant that I was entitled to women's bodies, time, and energy and that I was entitled to take up space and express my ideas and thoughts whenever I wanted to.” Crass is clear that, in addition to hurting those around him, he's learned how male supremacy has warps his own humanity as well. In a subsequent essay, “Against Patriarchy: Tools for Men to Help Further Feminist Revolution,” he offers concrete tools and “next steps” from his own experiences to help men challenge sexism and further their feminist political development.
A similar line of thinking inspires the essay “By All Means, Keep Moving: Towards Anti-Racist Politics and Practice,” where Crass shares personal reflections on his own anti-racist political development and experiences organizing white people to challenge racism: “White supremacy is the tide that directs the flow of our thoughts. It does not require us to go out of our way to be racist. It just requires that we go with the flow of dominant ideology.” He reflects on what has been ineffective in urging white people to challenge racism as well as what's worked.
Readers new to anarchism as well as those hungry for an explicitly feminist, anti-racist anarchism, will appreciate the history provided in “A New World in Our Hearts: Anarchism and the Need for Dynamic and Visionary Left Politics,” as well as another essay's detailed reflection on the intensity of building the anarchist project Food Not Bombs' San Francisco chapter in the 1990s. Readers will also be challenged to think hard about their own conception of leadership, a key theme Crass explores in the book. He shares inspiration and insight about democratic leadership from civil rights movement leader Ella Baker, whose organizing philosophy he explores in the essay “Looking to the Light of Freedom: Lessons from the Civil Rights Movement and Thoughts on Anarchist Organizing.” Through his own experiences, Crass was pushed to move from a strict “we have no leaders” orientation rooted in his anti-authoritarian anarchist politics to the idea that “we are all leaders” with an emphasis on skill-sharing and intergenerational mentorship.
Towards Collective Liberation is a welcome intervention that builds upon, and moves beyond, the anti-oppression work done by activists and social change organizations that has been valuable but limiting. Articulating what we’re against is important, but not enough: we must dream about what we are for, and work to build it today. Catalyst Project, a movement-building hub Crass co-founded and which is featured in the book, was started with an anti-oppression analysis before the collective moved toward a vision of collective liberation. This organizational case study will be fruitful for readers grappling with the limitations of a strictly anti-oppression orientation to social change work.
Importantly, Crass does not replicate or advocate the “confessional” approach Andrea Smith rightly critiques in her recent essay, “The Problem with Privilege” (http://andrea366.wordpress.com/2013/08/14/the-problem-with-privilege-by-andrea-smith/) When Chris explicitly traces his process of learning how he inadvertently acts out white supremacy and male supremacy, it's not so he can be absolved of his sins or be given a gold star. He urges readers to see that internal decolonization is an important piece of the puzzle, and is intimately linked to transformation on the organizational and societal levels. Crass shows that unearthing how we've been shaped by oppression in ways that distort our own humanity is key to understanding our stake in all struggles for liberation, and explicitly urges readers toward a more holistic vision of what “liberation” means for them. We must grapple with what is at stake for ourselves, body, mind, and soul, even and especially when we materially benefit from the systems that simultaneously warp our humanity (i.e. white supremacy, male supremacy). This approach takes readers far beyond the “ally” model, in which privileged people are encouraged to “stand with” oppressed people but do not feel they have a personal stake in the outcome of the struggle.
Crass writes beautifully about working from a place of love in organizing for radical social transformation, as opposed to guilt, shame, or critique. He does not sugarcoat the messiness or pain that often accompanies struggling against the oppressive forces aligned against activists. We cannot have the mass we need without the mess, he writes. But he is militant in advocating an ethic and praxis of love, accountability, and vision, and demonstrates how powerfully transformative such a strategy is in helping activists consciously create culture different from the status quo.
For a book with so much heart, it would have greatly benefited from images: photos, protest posters, and other materials from all the organizing efforts documented in the book. It would also have been enriched by companion “toolbox” essays about race and class along the lines of “Against Patriarchy: Tools for Men to Help Further Feminist Revolution.” Descriptions of class in the book are largely descriptive (“working class members of the group”) without deeper analysis about how class formation and oppression operates in society in general and social movements in particular.
But Crass’ refreshing refusal to provide all the answers reflects his vision of shared leadership. He is emphatic that “we make the path by walking” and his book offers key lessons and reflections to help readers who are also making the path. Towards Collective Liberation is not a reflection on an activist trajectory completed, far from the messy fray, but an act of love generated between and during meetings and actions, a collection of reflections-as-gifts, visions, theories, lessons, strategies, and tools he wants to give himself, current activists, and future generations. Readers across generations and movements will find much to chew and act on in this insight-packed collection of essays.