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The history and future of activism in the US


In the wake of this weekend’s massive marches against Trump and his agenda in the US and across the globe, Sarah Jaffe reviews two new books on American activism for Bookforum: L. A. Kauffman’s Direct Action: Protest and the Reinvention of American Radicalism and Jonathan Matthew Smucker’s Hegemony How-To: A Roadmap for Radicals. While Kauffman’s book looks at the history of twentieth-century US activism in order to draw tactical and strategic lessons for today, Smucker’s book outlines a radical plan for the future. Both books have taken on added urgency now that we’ve entered a new era of mass resistance. Here’s an excerpt from Jaffe’s review:

The success of NoDAPL may provide the beginnings of a road map for those of us who oppose Trump’s agenda and have been asking ourselves, since the election, how best to stand and fight on shifting ground; how to prepare for what had previously seemed inconceivable. As Trump has assembled his advisers and cabinet—a climate-change skeptic in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency, a white nationalist as chief strategist—it has been easy to feel overwhelmed by panic and dread. But while it may seem as though meaning itself has shifted, much of what the country is now up against is not dissimilar in kind to what has gone before. The appointment of billionaire plutocrats like foreclosure titan Steven Mnuchin, fast-food baron Andrew Puzder, and ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson to key positions makes a mockery of Trump’s supposed populism, and the choice of religious-right ideologues like Betsy DeVos, Tom Price, and, of course, Vice President Mike Pence, who hand-wring about the need for fetus funerals but want to leave flesh-and-blood children without schools or health care, is reminiscent of the worst elements of the Bush years. Despite Trump’s promises to “drain the swamp,” the swamp creatures he’s dredged up look eerily familiar: right-wing insiders and elites who desire nothing more than to turn the public sector over to the superrich.

The lessons learned from years of organizing are thus still relevant. Recent movements, like Occupy Wall Street, have never seen electoral politics as a solution to the most pressing social inequities, and they have continued to fight under governments enamored of austerity and helmed by mini-Trumps. As America is transformed into Trumplandia, L. A. Kauffman’s Direct Action: Protest and the Reinvention of American Radicalism and Jonathan Matthew Smucker’s Hegemony How-To: A Roadmap for Radicals offer vital interventions, ready for a larger audience who, before November 9, might not have considered themselves radical but now see no alternative to joining the fight.

Kauffman’s book is a chronicle of social-justice movements in dark times, which she dates from the end of the anti–Vietnam War protests to the beginning of the Movement for Black Lives. She traces the evolution of direct-action tactics, laying out an argument that “communities of resistance” have been with us all along, drawing on lessons from past groups and occasionally bubbling over into the broader public’s consciousness. Kauffman credits “direct action,” as a term and a strategy, to the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in the first few decades of the twentieth century. The IWW believed that direct resistance, rather than negotiations with the boss, was the best way to improve labor conditions. The “Wobblies,” as they were known, embraced strikes, sit-ins, and sabotage on the job to wrest concessions from employers.

Image of the Women’s March in Washington, DC via New York magazine.


I would also emphasize these passages from the review:

"Far too many people were suffering the ravages of decades of job loss, stagnant wages, and mass incarceration before 2008 added a spiraling foreclosure crisis and a collapsing economy to the pile. Reaching out to those who are hurting and struggling is both a strategic and a moral necessity. Rather than persuade those people to become “activists,” however, Smucker argues that the Left’s goal should be to reintroduce politics into “everyday spaces,” to make collective action part of "the fabric of society.

“In order to move beyond this tendency, to reach people “where they are,” Smucker argues, real organizing will be needed. “Organizing is not a call to action for the already radicalized usual suspects,” he writes. “Organizing entails starting with what already is and engaging with people as they are.” He details his time with the Lancaster Coalition for Peace & Justice in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, organizing against the Iraq war and using everything from graphic design to old-fashioned town hall meetings to get the message out. Though the war wasn’t stopped, Smucker argues that their organizing succeeded in bringing out people who would never have been “activists” across political lines in a conservative part of a swing state.”

Yes, yes, and yes.


There’s some practical advice on activism in a recent guardian article called “How to survive and resist in the Trump era: practical things you can do now” …