Overcoming some of the suicidal tendencies of the left

Contribution to the Reimagining Society Project hosted by ZCommunications…


Malcolm X (1968) once argued that white activists who join black movements which fight against the oppression and dehumanisation of blacks are taking an escapist route to salve their guilty consciences. He opined that white activists would be more useful, and their involvement in the struggle for change most effective, if it began within their communities, instead of them ‘hovering’ near black movements. Some people might dismiss Malcolm X’s argument as nothing more than a nationalistic rant; however, I think Malcolm X was raising deeply insightful questions around solidarity and diversity within movements.


Most people of colour on the left have had to grapple with these kinds of questions at some point in their lives. Referring to South Africa’s anti-apartheid political organisations, Biko (2004) observed that, ideologically speaking, most black organisations were under white direction because white liberals always knew what was good for blacks and told them so. Talking about feminist movements in the U.S., bell hooks (2000) argues that racist socialisation teaches middle class white feminists to believe that they are most capable of leading feminists movements. And, it is due to institutionalised racism that white feminists have access to mainstream institutions such as universities, publishing houses and mass media, which reinforce the racist notion that only white feminists are capable of writing, researching and theorising women’s movements. 


Educated black women who dare to point this out are normally marginalised, silenced and ostracised, argues hooks. This becomes an easy project to carry out in a racist society that constructs real blackness to mean ‘speaking the patois of poor black people, being uneducated, streetwise and a variety of other stereotypes’. Educated blacks who are given visibility and who are taken seriously within movements are blacks who echo the sentiments of the dominant discourse, writes hooks.  


This essay argues that to build strong movements that are not prone to fracture, that embrace diversity, that really threaten the establishment, firstly, our movements have to be built on the logic of anti-racism. Secondly, organisational structures of movements ought to be designed in a manner that does not fast-track into leadership roles activists who have class privilege and other social privileges on their side. Movements ought to be the reflection of the social change we want. We certainly do not want dogmatic or parochial movements. As has been observed by Alinsky (1969), ‘movements founded on a limited programme covering a limited community will live a limited life’. What we want more than anything else is a constantly growing movement; a movement with an international outlook, yet based on the people’s experiences and aspirations. Anything other than this is ‘self-defeating, frustrating and hopeless’.


Movements can only be the reflection of the social change we want when they are based on the values that are consistent with our goals. The ultimate goal is to attain a classless society; an egalitarian society based on solidarity, diversity, and self management. What we want is a non-hierarchical society in which members can freely participate in decision-making that directly affects their lives. Furthermore, we want a society that encourages dissent, a society that fosters a healthy attitude towards questioning authority.


The section that follows explores each of these values indepth and, moreover, shows how these values can help movements grow in numbers and political strength.


Anti-racist logic and Diversity


This essay is of the view that the subject of building broad and inclusive movements is an urgent issue. Many movements do not grow or are incapable of attracting and keeping diverse voices dues to their failure to address the white supremacist values that cripple or render them  ineffective. The notion of white supremacy is used in this essay to refer to the tendency by society to over-value the contribution of whites; while, simultaneously, devaluing the efforts and experiences of blacks.  White supremacist values do not have to manifest themselves in white Ku Klux Klan hooded movements, rather, all it takes is that movements unconsciously cultivate an uncongenial atmosphere that makes people of colour feel uncomfortable or disempowered.  


What most leftists do not seem to understand is that it is quite possible for goodwill to co-exist with white supremacist attitudes and values. bell hooks (1992) writes that many black progressives become disillusioned with white progressives because in most cases, our experiences with them reveal that white progressives want to be with us without necessarily divesting of white supremacist thinking about people of colour. "We saw that they were often unable to let go of the idea that whites are somehow better, smarter, more likely to be intellectuals…."


Needless to say, this is the same logic that mainstream society operates on. Furthermore, this is the same reasoning that allows white progressives access to media and publishing houses. And, rather than using their white privilege and their access to media and publishing houses to give visibility to the intellectual work of people of colour, white progressives often act as if they are best able to judge which black voices ought to be heard, points out hooks.


There are many ways that an anti-racist movement can counter this self-defeating culture. For starters, movements ought to agree that white privilege and other social privileges that mainstream society gives white progressives, ought to be used to advance the agenda of the movement, as well as create spaces for black voices to be heard and given visibility in mainstream society and left publications too. What shape this would take in reality entirely depends on what individual white progressives or progressive white institutions are prepared to give up. A movement that openly discusses this issue would be appealing to many people of colour.


Another way that movements can counter white supremacist values is by creating a culture that is anti-racist. One way of doing this is by making sure that empowering roles within movements rotate in a manner that is consciously designed to reinforce diversity. Secondly, we could structure movements and whatever left projects we undertake in a way that promotes and encourages participation and input from people of colour. Most importantly, whatever systems we have in place to counter white supremacist attitudes in our movements, should be constantly evaluated and refined to ensure we accomplish the goals we have set out for ourselves. 


 Classless Society


This essay agrees with the Parecon notion that if we view our movements as advocates for a classless society, we ought to be aware of three rather than two key classes. Thus, it rejects the argument that claims that there only exist two classes, namely: the workers and the capitalists. This argument is rejected on the basis that such reasoning compels one to work in terms of the property ownership viewpoint; resulting in formulations which argue that the middle class or the petty bourgeoisie are people who own a little but not a lot of capital, explains Albert (2002). Consequently, the notion that something other than ownership differences can be the source of class division and even class rule is not conceivable in this intellectual framework. It is for this reason that this intellectual framework does not seriously explore the existence of the third class – the coordinator class.  


Mainstream society normally refers to the coordinator class as a ‘professional class’. It exists between labour and capital, yet is essentially different from both mainly because it relates to the capitalists as intellectual workers. The notion of a coordinator class is based on the assumption that the kind of work we do can separate us into classes.


The understanding of a coordinator class has two implications for movements’ strategy.  Firstly, a class analysis that takes into consideration the existence of three classes compels us to want to get rid of private ownership of the means of production. Secondly, a class analysis premised on the assumption that the kind of work we do can divide us into classes, will also aim to demolish the division of labour that gives empowering tasks to members of the coordinator class, while restricting the working class to mundane activities and tasks that require obedience instead of intellectual creativity (Albert, 2003).   


What this means for progressive movements is that instead of being ideologically and intellectually led by coordinator class members – meaning the NGO and ‘establishment academic types’, we should aim to build movements founded on the ‘people’s programme’. Our movements ought to be pro-working class in the way we structure them, and in the kind of cultural atmosphere they cultivate. Alinsky (1969) explains that we ought to keep in mind at all times that "a real organisation of the people, one in which they completely believe and which they feel is definitely their own, must be rooted in the experiences of the people themselves (p. 78)." It is the view of this essay that a movement such as the Zapatista embody this spirit. And, just like the Zapatista, this essay is not anti-intellectuals. This essay favours social movements’ ‘organic intellectuals’, and rejects the mentality and attitudes of the establishment intellectuals. Among other things, the socialisation and the formal training of the establishment intellectuals make them desire prestige and power. What movements need in contrast are organic intellectuals who can articulate and defend the movement’s agenda without any expectations of social or material rewards. The efforts to create movements’ organic intellectuals must be accompanied by a viable plan or mechanism to guard against vanguard mentality.  


To counter vanguardism or coordinator class mentality, this essay suggests that movements ought to strive to implement a workable form of balanced job complexes, and to create the means to spread knowledge and organising skills to all members, instead of concentrating those skills with a few people at the top or with people who happen to have formal education. A system in which one individual attends and speaks about the movement in global left conferences all the time is incompatible with our aspirations of building a non-hierarchical and inclusive movement. The goal is to build movements’ organic intellectuals, and not to advance the careers of the establishment academic intellectuals. The rationale behind creating movements’ organic intellectuals is that movements need to be involved in generating social theories that aim to explain their realities and their aspirations. And, those theories ought to be informed and shaped by people’s experiences and concerns. Furthermore, the central task of organic intellectuals is to enable alternative understandings of reality and practices by dislodging and demystifying the prevailing establishment discourses, to paraphrase Cornel West (1991).  


This is not to say that movements have no use for the research or knowledge that establishment academic intellectuals generate. In cases where movements find such research useful, they should unashamedly use it, and not only that, but should boldly use such knowledge on their own terms. Similarly, when establishment academic intellectuals want to partake in movements’ projects they should do so based on the movements’ terms.




Participatory decision-making and building non-hierarchical movements


Social movements shouldn’t be spaces where some people rule or lead while others, who supposedly have ‘false consciousness’, obey. Rather, movements ought to encourage participatory decision-making, either through majority rule or consensus decision making. People in social movements should have a say in decision making regarding the structure of the movement, as well as in the vision that informs the movement. Furthermore, people in social movements ought to decide how decisions are reached and which issues should be tabled in front of everyone. Obviously, decision-making mechanisms ought to be constantly re-evaluated, revised and improved on to make sure we achieve goals consistent with our values.


It is through participatory decision making that movements can claim to represent a ‘people’s programme’. This logic is informed by the assumption that no vanguard or ‘benevolent administration can have the people’s interest at heart as much as the people themselves’ (Alinsky, 1969).






The world is in a state of political and economic chaos. Truth be told, the world has been in such a state for a while. The point, however, is this: now is the time to build a multi-issue, mass movement that ‘sets aside squabbles for solidarity and that dispenses with doctrinaire ideology for plain talking’ (Albert, 2002). To push back the neo-liberal globalisation agenda and to fight other injustices in the world, we need to diversify and expand our movements. We need to build allies with the aim to raise political and social costs for the world’s elites until they agree to implement our demands.


To cultivate solidarity means we must approach different communities on the basis of common understanding, and not with the purpose of workshopping them or educating them about the ‘material conditions’ or ‘dialectical materialism’. Such workshops smack of paternalism and elitism. The kind of solidarity I have in mind celebrates dignity, and it is built on mutual respect. To echo Subcommandante Marcos, solidarity with different communities should not be approached as some form of education for mental incompetents who do not understand the ways of the world. Moreover, solidarity that views different communities as children who have to be told what books to read, what they should learn, and what they should say is self-defeating.  




It ought to be obvious that in any movement there will be issues and situations which call for dissent (Albert, 2006). So, instead of silencing dissent by ostracising and marginalising dissenters, social movement ought to have mechanisms in place to allow and handle dissent. One way of dealing with dissent constructively is for movements to require a burden of proof on dissenters and those who object to whatever dissent that arise. The details of how such a principle could apply in real life situations depend entirely on each movement’s resources and time.


Dissent has a potential to help movements grow ideologically, while, simultaneously, compel movements to use multiple tactics to agitate for social change.  In addition, dissent ought to be seen as an opportunity to clarify any misunderstandings and confusions, and a chance to deepen people’s understanding of issues. 






These are some of the issues that might be worth considering to incorporate in our strategy to build movements that inspire ‘widespread interest’, while, simultaneously, generating fear, trembling and loathing within the ruling class circles. It is neither the aim nor the desire of this essay to provide a blueprint of how to build such movements. Rather, the goal is to contribute to efforts that aim to clarify values that ought to influence our ‘movement-building’ agenda.






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