Good ideas are not enough: Towards Collective Liberation, A Review
by Yutaka Dirks
May 1, 2013
Chris Crass is a longtime activist originally from California where he was active in San Francisco Food Not Bombs (FNB) and the Love and Rage Revolutionary Anarchist Federation. As an educator and organizer with the Catalyst Project for over 10 years, Crass supported anti-racist politics and leadership development in the U.S. left, working to foster and support multiracial alliances. Towards Collective Liberation collects several of his essays from the last decade about anti-racist feminist practice and anarchist leadership and intersperses them with material written from his new home in Tennessee.
After a short essay on what anarchism might offer those attempting to enact a visionary left politics, Crass provides a fulsome, critical history of FNB, a group that has introduced thousands of young, mainly white, people into radical politics. He offers an engaging insider’s account of the class struggle in San Francisco in the early ’90s, as well as a frank discussion of the struggles within FNB around organization and strategy and internal sexism and racism.
Crass sees “collective liberation” – a term borrowed from an essay by bell hooks – as a “vision of what we want and a strategic framework to help us get there.” Acknowledging his debt to feminists of colour, he shares honest, personal reflections on challenging male and white supremacy. While he does not offer a developed analysis of the difference between “anti-oppression” and “collective liberation,” he seems to prefer the latter term and critiques the tendency to focus on “what not to do, rather than what to do.”
Towards Collective Liberation includes interviews with a variety of activists from organizations that are leading anti-racist efforts in white communities and in majority-white campaigns. Amy Dudley from Oregon’s Rural Organizing Project explains the group’s success in strengthening anti-racism and queer-liberation politics in primarily white, rural communities, contesting the idea that these places are a ready-made base for the right. Carla Wallace describes how Kentucky’s Fairness Campaign intervened in electoral and policy issues in a relatively conservative, mid-sized city to develop long-term multiracial alliances that were able to mobilize a grassroots base to defend queer rights and fight racist police abuse.
The experiences of these two organizations offer Canadian radicals valuable lessons as they grapple with the reality that, while Canada is becoming increasingly urban, half of the people in Canada still live outside major urban centres where the right tends to dominate, and, apart from a few large cities, the country is predominantly white.
Also of interest is the work of the Groundwork Collective, which played a leadership role in amplifying a racial justice analysis during the recent uprising in Madison, Wis., something only possible after building bridges with people of colour who were leading ongoing, local racial justice organizing. Groundwork provides a reminder that newly politicized people who are directly experiencing economic oppression want to shrug off their alienation and connect with their humanity. The white anti-racists Crass interviews understand that “struggle is the greatest teacher” and encourage anti-racist activists to show leadership and help develop a movement committed to collective liberation during moments such as the Madison mobilization or the anti-immigrant battles in Arizona.
Crass leaves the reader with eight practical lessons. Among them, he reminds us of the importance of setting concrete and measurable goals and cultivating a “developmental organizing approach that is reflective and supportive of all its members’ political and skills development.”
Crass understands that “good ideas are not enough,” but the short essays he includes addressing “strategic, liberation organizing praxis” are somewhat disappointing. Written in the early 2000s during the height of the anti-globalization movement, they highlight the importance of critical leadership and an organizing culture that works to build and nurture new leaders and strategic thinking, as exemplified by Ella Baker’s work in the civil rights struggle. However, given the importance of building our movements’ capacity and power, a more in-depth and substantive discussion would be welcome.
It takes hard work to create and refine “liberatory processes and practices in the here and now while we fight for the future.” Crass has given white activists and others an excellent resource to continue this work. Towards Collective Liberation is a powerful and honest work that underscores the importance of confronting racism and sexism and nurturing the leadership skills of new organizers to reach their full potential as a force that can radically transform society.
Yutaka Dirks is a tenant organizer and writer living in Toronto. His fiction and essays have appeared in literary journals and activist publications including the White Wall Review, Rhubarb Magazine and Beautiful Trouble: A toolbox for revolution. He has a serious love for stories of all stripes.