Crucial ideas for activists in troubled times

November 14, 2016

Ideas for the Struggle
By Marta Harnecker
Can be read at Links International Journal of Socialist renewal

Ideas for the Struggle, a pamphlet filled with lessons for those seeking social change by the Chilean-born revolutionary socialist writer Marta Harnecker, should be required reading for all organisers, political activists and would-be revolutionaries in these troubling and challenging times.

I have worked as an organiser for more than 20 years in San Francisco. Day and night, I have worked to bring working class people, people of colour, women and immigrants together to fight for their liberation, the liberation of others and of myself.

I’ve done so in the service of a vision, a dream that everyday people can lead in the construction of an alternative to the tyranny of capitalism, white supremacy heteropatriarchy, and US imperialism.

Along the way, I have worked with and learned from many amazingly talented and committed comrades. Our efforts have won many important victories — like free public transportat for young people, labour protections for domestic workers and higher wages for welfare recipients and low-wage workers.

None of these victories came easily. The opposition fought us at every turn and we won only because brave and audacious people took action together.

Over the past two decades, there have been similar organising efforts fighting and winning all over the globe.

It is vital that we recognise and celebrate victories like these that a generation of organisers and political activists helped to make real. But the past several years have made clear once again that local fights for justice and accountability are only one small part of a vast, global struggle against the neoliberal onslaught.

Hundreds of thousands of people around the globe have taken part in popular uprisings that have shifted the terrain on which we live and struggle. From the Middle East to the streets and squares of Europe to the barrios and favelas of Latin America, everyday people have seized their rightful place on the stage of history.

Even inside the imperial centre of the United States, people have taken to the streets and inspired others around the world. Most recently, the movement for Black lives has unapologetically declared that #BlackLivesMatter.

These upsurges have transformed the political landscape and have activated a new generation of political activists.

All of these developments are most welcome, and have generated a great deal of excitement among those of us who still long for a world rooted in solidarity, justice and love. But we must be careful to avoid triumphalism, the unfounded idea that our success is right around the corner, that the future has been written and we are to be the winners.

Whatever our victories, no clear-eyed assessment can help but see that the tide of political change over the past 20 years has been moving swiftly and relentlessly against us. Our defeats and setbacks — far too numerous to list here — have imposed constraints on the nature of resistance everywhere.

We have all had to fight against not just the ascendency of the neoliberal bloc and the reactionary right, but we have also had to push back our own pessimism, which capitalist hegemony is all too happy to nurture.

It does not help that, with the defeat of the socialist experiments of the 20th century, two generations of organisers and activists have now come of age politically with few visible and viable alternatives to imperialism and neoliberalism.

The fight against the enemy, as trying as it has been, has been no more difficult than our internal struggle with the troubling idea that noble, doomed resistance may be all that is left to us. I’ve spent too many sleepless hours haunted by the fear that victory may be nothing more than an unattainable dream.

The danger in this insidious notion is profound. Without a clear conviction that another world is indeed possible, we resign ourselves all too easily to the idea that simply “putting up a good fight” is enough.

We absolve ourselves of the responsibility of finding ways forward. We forgive shoddy, sloppy practice. We quickly lose all incentive for rigorous reflection on and evaluation of our work. We stop striving for improvement and excellence. The doubt takes control: what’s the point, anyway?

Ideas for the Struggle is a much-needed antidote to this pessimism. Harnecker insists that victory is possible — but only if social movement organisers and activists sharpen the revolutionary edge of our work through rigorous reflection and evaluation.

Brazilian radical education theorist Paulo Freire called this combination of theory and practice, observed in 1968’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, that “revolution is achieved with neither verbalism nor activism, but rather with praxis, that is, with reflection and action directed at the structures to be transformed”.

Too often, movement organisers and activists carry out their work with an unexamined faith about what the outcomes will be. We pledge blind fealty to our imagined conceptions of how past generations of activists have operated.

By failing to assess the nature of our actual conditions or measure our outcomes against our predictions, we leave learning and improvement to chance and weaken our ability to seize upon the opportunities that this conjuncture holds.

Ideas for the Struggle demands that we return practice-based learning to the centre of our approach. It is a serious challenge that grows from Harnecker’s respect for movement activists as the generators of new ideas. She demolishes the walls of the ivory tower and looks to movement organisers as intellectuals as well as activists.

One especially provocative notion that Harnecker draws from her engagement with movements in Latin America is the relationship between political instruments (such as parties) and “protagonism” — a practice-based conception of democracy that asserts that all people can and should be the protagonists in their own life stories, actively creating their own destinies and, along with the rest of their communities, shaping the world around them.

Harnecker’s emphasis on and exploration of the role of political instruments in promoting protagonism has pushed me and many of my comrades to re-examine and refine both our practice and our notions of politics and political action.

Ideas for the Struggle, like the best of our movements, breaks out of the narrow confines of national borders and represents a compilation of the best practices and most promising experiments of social movements around the globe. It helps us break out of a dangerous parochialism that can rob us of the wisdom of activists in different communities.

The text does not provide deep historical examinations of where and when certain ideas or practices emerged. Instead, Harnecker tries to make Ideas as useful as possible for frontline organisers and activists, systematising the experiences and lessons of various movements and presenting them as a compelling and coherent set of considerations and recommendations suited to our times.

But the breadcrumbs are there for organisers and activists to explore the organisations and movements from which these ideas derive.

In Ideas for the Struggle, Harnecker tackles key questions that have generated decades, even centuries, of debate, but she does so with new insights that lead one to consider new practices.

For example, by emphasising both the importance of popular protagonism and the necessity of political leadership, Harnecker begins to build a bridge between activists who identify more with the communist tradition and those who place themselves in the anti-authoritarian or anarchist tendencies.

Not everyone will agree with everything Harnecker puts forward. Universal consensus is not her goal.

Instead, she offers key ideas about the common features and needs of movements and then invites organisers and activists — young and old — to generate and offer their own assessments and prescriptions by combining a self-propelling circuit of action, reflection and sharing within and between movements.

This type of critical reflection and sharing will be essential if we are to move our work from resistance at the margins to building a revolutionary movement capable of transforming the world we share.

We are at a critical point in history. With the dire condition of people and of the planet, the stakes are high and rising. Opportunities for socialist liberation are emerging as are opportunities for reactionary barbarism.

Harnecker insists that the quality of our organising and movement-building work matters. The opposition is constantly revamping and refining, improving and innovating. Our success demands excellence. It is not enough for us to simply try — we have to dare to win.

Victory on that scale will require many ideas for the struggle. Those that Harnecker shares here are a great place to start.

I hope that Ideas for the Struggle sparks reading groups and online discussions and new on-the-ground experiments. This pamphlet is only a starting point. I’m hungry for the new media — articles, books, songs, posters, videos — that movements and groups will create to give voice to their ideas for the struggle.

Because those ideas, forged in the fires of collective practice and reflection, will be the tools with which we build the world of tomorrow, the world we are all fighting for every day.

[Abridged from Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal. Steve Williams is the co-founder and National Secretary of LeftRoots.]