Category Archives: Struggle & Movement

1917: Art of the Russian Revolution at the RA and Tom Hollander in Travesties

This was accidentally a London weekend full of references to Lenin and 1917 — both in the (planned) visit to the art of the Russian Revolution exhibition at the RA, and in the (impromptu) attendance of Tom Stoppard’s play Travesties. (Tom Hollander in the lead as the aging Henry Carr! Brilliant! British Consul in Zürich in 1917, when that city was host to Tristan Tzara, founder of Dada, James Joyce, and Vladimir Lenin! Amazing!)

Here we have Lenin as the ideal:

Isaak Brodsky, V.I.Lenin and a Demonstration, 1919. Oil on canvas. 90 x 135 cm. The State Historical Museum, Moscow Photo © Provided with assistance from the State Museum and Exhibition Center ROSIZO. The State Historical Museum, Moscow.

As a human being he did not live up to this ideal, no one could. I am in agreement with those who tire of hearing (leftist) people cite him chapter and verse. I loved Stoppard’s gleeful Brechtian treatment of him through consul Henry Carr’s fading memories. Loved the brilliant physical acting of Forbes Masson as Lenin (even at this grand moment when he is being called back to Russia) tossing his beruffed head when dismissed in a huff. Sticking his neck through a window to sing. Working hard at the library writing his book. Loved the socialist burlesque scene, the whole of the witty repartee, the sudden hilarity. The limericks. I admire Lenin. I am still troubled by him because I never did agree with his vision for achieving the revolution. Because he was conservative in many ways, his taste in art and music among them, and he had no right to stamp down on the wild flourishing of creativity that the revolution both inspired and made possible.

I think his praxis arguably set the stage for what happened in Russia under Stalin.  And of course Stalin was inexcusable, unforgiveable, unforseeable, caused the death of millions. He betrayed everything the revolution stood for.

But goddamn, wasn’t the Russian Revolution glorious for a while? Didn’t it end the terror of the Okhrana and desperate lack of nutrition/education/health care/housing/women’s rights/right-to-anything-at-all-especially a decent life or a dream for the future that comprised existence for so many existing, just existing, under the tsar? Didn’t it open up conversations about democracy and the rights of workers, women, ‘colonised subjects’, writing, art, space travel, architecture? Didn’t it go beyond survival to start thinking about the meaning of a full life for all and create a moment when suddenly the whole world stopped and wondered if that were possible?

Yes, yes it did. We still fight for that possibility. People all over the world have been inspired by it. Still believe that there is an alternative. Still believe that revolution doesn’t lead inexorably to Stalinism. Surely the question becomes how do we strive to reach it without this streak of authoritarianism emerging through our struggle — an authoritarianism that only mirrors what we face. How dare that be forgotten by those who are comfortable in an ever-more unjust world full of hunger and want and bombs falling. To collapse revolution itself into Stalinism is fairly intellectually sloppy, but that was much of the message I received from the exhibition’s written commentary (as opposed to the art itself). Another blogger, whose beliefs run rather counter to mine as far as I understand them, seems to have got something of the same message:

The show arrives, I think, at a particularly timely moment, when artists here in the West have fallen in love all over again with the idea of supposedly avant-garde art as a vehicle for promoting supposedly leftist political causes. As such, the event at the R.A. offers a spectrum of what can only be described as awful warnings.
Restless Revolutionaries: A Timely Look At Russian Art By Edward Lucie-Smith

I’m not quite sure what that means exactly, staring at it doesn’t help. I’m not sure if the awful warnings are for artists to beware left politics because that leads straight to the gulag (as if art weren’t always political already), or that those fighting for a better world should avoid the avant-garde at all costs.  (I’m rather sure that’s not what she’s saying, but makes me laugh all the same.) There’s a similar dire warning of something or other in the Guardian. Do not celebrate this art it says. It rather turns my stomach.

To me, this exhibition rather avoided a full understanding of those early years, being rather too full of phrases expressing sentiments like this one:

Many Russian artists, philosophers and writers were nostalgic for the beauty and charm of the old Russia, rapidly disappearing under the boots of the proletarian masses.

I lie, that was the most extraordinary of the sentences the exhibition exhibited.

As if the poor had not been systematically shut out from beauty and grace in the previous centuries of exploitation. As if the artists on display here were backward looking. As if they were not propelled by excitement of what suddenly became possible with the overthrow of a violently repressive aristocratic order. As if that violently repressive order did not underpin the ‘beauty and charm’ for a limited few in old Russia. As if the true tragedy of revolutionary Russia was not the immense hope and promise which flourished, only to be crushed in what was not an inexorable process sparked from the moment Russia dared dream of a true revolution, but something rather more complicated. A complex historical process, just as the Bolsheviks and their part in a wider revolutionary movement was  complex, full of contradiction as they themselves were full of contradiction.

I suppose we were sat in Burlington House in the West End. Heart of the Empire. What did I expect.

Anyway.

The period leading up to the revolution was full of struggle and heady new ideas full of what was possible, and then it came and what artists created was extraordinary. How could the art of the exhibition not be most wonderful? The inspiration for the exhibition no less exciting:

Taking inspiration from a remarkable exhibition shown in Russia just before Stalin’s clampdown, we will mark the historic centenary by focusing on the 15-year period between 1917 and 1932 when possibilities initially seemed limitless and Russian art flourished across every medium.

Fantastic…and indeed, one of my favourite rooms was that of Malevich recreated from photographs of the exhibition of 1932 ‘Fifteen Years of Artists of the Russian Soviet Republic’, with his white architectural forms and brilliant faceless farmers (his nod to the demand that he be more ‘representational’ — I share the frustration at such a demand. In the here and now the frames have all been reworked to a plain Ikea style, though the picture of the original exhibit gives a sense of the different feel of it).

Malevich Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932
The Kazimir Malevich room at the 1932 exhibition, Fifteen Years of Artists of the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic
Kazimir Malevich, Dynamic Suprematism Supremus, c. 1915. Oil on canvas. 80.3 x 80 cm. Tate: Purchased with assistance from the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1978 Photo © Tate, London 2016.

Then we discovered the Suprematists made food coupons! Amazing. We saw Kandinsky, one of my very favourite artists, The Blue Crest (1917):

Oil on canvas. 133 x 104 cm. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg Photo © 2016, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg.

Another favourite, Marc Chagall. The painting description notes how Chagall was inspired by his wife pictured here, and said she floated above all of his work. How wonderful:

Promenade (1917-18) by Marc Chagall. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo © 2016,

This exudes the happiness of those early days.

They were showing excerpts from Vertov’s Man With A Movie Camera, and other clips including a manic one from Eisenstein showing thick and disturbingly spurting milk all over peasant hands and faces.

I especially loved the mixture of paintings, posters, ceramics, textiles and film. I mean, could there be anything more awesome than the phrase ‘agitational porcelain’? Followed by Konstantin Yuon’s New Planet?

Konstantin Yuon, New Planet, 1921

Another room that contained El Lissitzky’s design for a new apartment, rebuilt here in all of its streamlined glory. I know Owen Hatherly disapproved, writing

This reconstruction of El Lissitzky’s putative design for a flat in Moisei Ginzburg’s Narkomfin building, made for the Revolution exhibition at the Royal Academy (RA), has a similar discomfort. Lissitzky’s room wasn’t laid out in real space when the building was constructed, between 1928 and 1930; he made a photomontage to show how the duplex flats of this collective apartment building could be furnished.

I see his point, it almost looks shabby hovering in cardboard over the gleaming parquet, but I rather loved it.

The textiles were awesome, like Andrey Golubev’s Red Spinner.

Andrey Golubev, Red spinner, 1930. Cotton Print, direct printing chintz. 17.5 x 27 cm. The Burilin Ivanovo Museum of Local History Photo © Provided with assistance from the State Museum and Exhibition Center ROSIZO.

Pavel Filonov — how did I not know Filonov before this? How was he not in Janson’s History of Art, which continues to reverberate through my life with wonder as I finally get to see the originals of those pictures I only ever dreamed of?

Formula of the Petrograd Proletariat – Pavel Filonov

But he wasn’t there. Nor was Sofya Dymshits-Tolstaya’s cool glass paintings — This lovely thing Peace to the Sheds, War to the Palaces. How much did I love that?

Sofya Dymshits-Tolstaya, Propaganda glass “Peace to the Sheds, War on the Palaces”, 1919-21. Oil on glass, 40 x 53.5 cm

To end…Vladimir Tatlin’s Letatlin, a model glider that was … impossible to say it was my favourite thing in this exhibition full of wonderful things, but. Well. Wondrous.

So to go from this to Stoppard’s Travesties was pretty awesome.

Apollo Theatre

I knew all about Vienna in 1900 but had no idea what was going down in Zürich in 1917, even though I have chased Lenin in Krakow and elsewhere in Europe. Just a way to explore the city. I chased Joyce in Dublin and Paris. I’ve never chased Tzara, however, despite having chased Aragon and Breton. If I go to Zürich I will start. Of course I will go.

Still, how lucky I am to have been able to see the gallery, these paintings, and then rest my weary feet here, in the eagle’s nest. The only time I love gilded anything is in the theatre. The more there, the better.

Apollo Theatre

And this wasn’t even everything we saw in London. I wanted to say more about Stoppard, but think I will have to read the screenplay. And write more later perhaps.

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Manning Marable on the Second Reconstruction

Manning Marable’s Race, Reform and Rebellion is a most solid history of struggle and resistance over the past sixty years.

The title reflected the general historical parallels between the “first Reconstruction” following the U.S. Civil War, occurring from 1865 to 1877, and the dramatic political struggles represented by the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements of the 1950s and 1960s. Both of these turbulent phases of U.S. history were periods of intense political conflicts and ideological debates about the future of African American people within U.S. democracy. (vii)

Manning Marable pulls no punches either.

More than any other modern nation in the world, with the possible exception of South Africa, the United States developed from the beginning a unique socio-economic structure and a political apparatus which was simultaneously racist, stubbornly capitalist, and committed to a limited form of bourgeois democracy: a racist/capitalist state. (4)

This is a brilliant and detailed book, so I’ve just pulled out some of my favourite facts and quotes from it, but highlighted Marable’s divisions of history, and his characterisations of each period, giving what he argues is the flow of recent movement.

First Reconstruction:

I still haven’t read W.E.B. Du Bois on this, I am still promising to make this failing good. But to turn to Marable’s work, there is some awesomeness in here as background to more modern struggle. Like the fact that in 1865, in Washington D.C., Sojourner Truth led a boycott of public transportation facilities to protest segregated street cars.

In 1865, the first bus boycott.

Again it highlights how many rights were erased over a period of only a few years — that we have not been steadily moving forward as I feel we are taught, but catching up to a period just after the Civil War. In Alabama, 181,000 blacks were eligible to vote in 1900, two years later there were only 3,000 registered black voters.

How in the hell does this sit with notions of democracy? Understand this, and much becomes clear I think. Marable writes:

The Jim Crow system of racial exploitation was, like slavery, both a caste/ racial order for regimenting cultural and political relations, and an economic structure which facilitated the superexploitation of blacks’ labor power. Unlike slavery, Jim Crow was much more clearly capitalistic, since white owners of factories did not have to purchase entire black families in order to obtain the service of a single wage-earner. However, in both caste/ racial relations, both systems were dependent on the omnipresence of violence or coercion. (10)

Quotes W. E. B. Du Bois — such an incredible quote, and the best possible explanation of why standpoint theory is important:

This the American black man knows: his fight here is a fight to the finish. Either he dies or he wins. If he wins it will be by no subterfuge or evasion of amalgamation. He will enter modern civilization in America as a black man on terms of perfect and unlimited equality with any white man, or he will enter not at all. Either extermination root and branch or absolute equality. There can be no compromise. This is the last great battle of the West.
— from Black Reconstruction, p 703 (p 11)

I know I am more interesting in continuation, in how movements grow and build off of the work of the past, with the support of elders in the struggle. I look at the lives of people like Ella Baker, organisations like the Highlander and SCEF and how important they were over decades. Look at all of the many people and institutions in place making the Montgomery Boycott possible, for example, and that it really sprang out of the active work of women’s groups and Jo Ann Robinson, as well as some leadership from E.D. Nixon as claimed here.  This means I am a little wary of  claims that there was little popular protest for segregation between the end of WWII and the Montgomery County bus boycott in December 1955 — and for this reason also little studied. I think maybe now we realise we didn’t know how much protest there was because it was little studied, but by that I don’t mean to lessen the impact of the repression brought during this period or deny there was a huge increase in the mid-50s:

The impact of the Cold War, the anti-communist purges and near-totalitarian social environment, had a devastating impact upon the cause of blacks’ civil rights and civil liberties. (17)

I didn’t know or had forgotten that in 1944, Blacks in South Carolina formed the Progressive Democratic Party to challenge white democrats, had organized chapters in 39 of state’s 46 counties. Carried some momentum after the war. Marable argues it had slowed down by early 1950s, still an important early movement.

I also can’t say how nice it is to see the damage of anti-communism spelled out:

In the face of growing racist opposition, the NAACP counseled continued reliance upon the Truman administration, legal challenges to segregation laws, and a general policy which spurned direct action. The failure and tragedy of this conservative approach to social change was in its parochial vision and tacit acceptance of the Cold War politics. By refusing to work with Marxists, the NAACP lost the most principled anti-racist organizers and activists… The anti-communist impulse even affect CORE, to its detriment. (25)

Marable describes how CORE had ‘all but ceased to exist’ by 1954, after the red scare. (26) It would continue to be haunted by a fear of communism. Marable looks as well to the impact of the government’s prosecution of Du Bois.  Despite his acquittal all his works were removed from libraries and universities. He had his passport withheld by the State department. During it all,

The NAACP Legal Defense lawyers made no overtures to provide assistance. The central office contacted NAACP local chapters with strongly worded advice about “not touching” Du Bois’s case. (27)

It makes me so frustrated to read, even now distanced as I am. I am glad this was said:

By serving as the “left wing of McCarthyism,” Randolph, White and other Negro leaders retarded the black movement for a decade or more. (31)

There must be more analysis of this turn to the right…but then having read Walter White’s autobiography it is perhaps not altogether surprising.

There is the class composition of white reaction:

In 1955-59, White Citizens’ Councils were initiated in almost every southern city, comprised chiefly of middle-to-upper income whites in business, white-collar professionals and the clergy, who vigorously opposed desegregation. (42)

And then one of the more useful characterisations of black nationalism over time that I have read:

Since the 1850s, a significant portion of the African American people have tended to support the ideals of black nationalism, defined here in part, as a rejection of racial integration; a desire to develop all-black socio-economic institutions; an affinity for the cultural and political heritage of black Africa; a commitment to create all-black political structures to fight against white racism; a deep reluctance to participate in coalitions which involved a white majority; the advocacy of armed self-defense of the black community; and in religion and culture, an ethos and spirituality which consciously rejected the imposition of white western dogmas. At certain historical moments, such as in the 1850s and the 1920s, a majority of the black working class, rural farmers and the poor were in their political and social behavior extremely nationalistic. (53)

Brilliant. It encompasses Marcus Garvey, of course, later dominated by the the Nation of Islam. A brief note on the genius of Malcolm (Marable’s book on Malcolm X also high on to-read list)

Malcolm X made the simple distinction between desegregation and integration which Farmer, Rudolph, Wilkins, Marshall and other Negro leaders could never grasp. “It is not a case of [dark mankind] wanting integration or separation, it is a case of wanting freedom, justice, and equality. It is not integration that Negroes in America want, it is human dignity. (55 — Malcolm X and James Farmer, ‘separation or Integration: A Debate’ Dialogue Magazine 2 (May 1962))

Anyway, on to Marable’s descriptions of the Phases of the Second Reconstruction:

We Shall Overcome 1960-1965

The Second Reconstruction actually began in earnest on the afternoon of 1 February 1960. (59)

He dates this from the first sit in, by students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College, Joseph McNeil, David Richmond, Franklin McCain and Izell Blair.

Black Power 1965-1970

This witnessed a key theoretical and strategic movement, partially embodied in King’s move in 1966 away from reform, towards an understanding:

that America’s political economy of capitalism had to be transformed, that the Civil Rights Movement’s old goals of voter education, registration, and desegregated public facilities were only a beginning step… (101)

For Manning 4 pivotal factors explained the rapid collapse of the Jim Crow system during the 1950s and 1960s:

(1) the outbreak of the Cold War…which resulted in international pressures for American governments to abandon support for their undemocratic and irrational policies of racial domination;

(2) the independence from European colonial rule of Caribbean and African states…

(3) the great migration of five million African American sharecroppers and working people from the South into the urban ghettoes of the Midwest and Northeast between 1940 and 1970, a migration that transformed the political character of urban society and deeply influenced the patterns of American popular cuture, sports, education and social relations; and

(4) most important, the growth of popular democratic resistance movements, led by King and thousands of local activists, that used the nonviolent, direct-action protest techniques of Mohandas Gandhi’s satyagraha. (210)

Black Rebellion: Zenith and Decline 1970-1976

An interesting return to class here, I like that the intersectionlity is highlighted here:

Most historians fail to observe that the massive efforts waged for desegregation and, to a lesser extent, for Black Power, were basically workers’ movement. Black workers had comprised the great majority of those who had sacrificed during the local battles to uprrot Jim Crow. (112)

Again there is noted the move of Bayard Rustin and A Phillip Randolph to the right of labor over the 1960s, but interesting in the ways that this opened up space for new leadership in the movement, challenge and change.

There is the 1972 Gary Convention — the largest black political convention in U.S. history. Marable sees this as the zenith. About 3000 delegates attended from all strands of the movement, as well  a total of around 12,000 people over the whole of its course. He writes:

The collective vision of the convention represented a desire to seize electoral control of America’s major cities, to move the black masses from the politics of desegregation to the politics of real empowerment, ultimately to create their own independent black political party.

What almost no nationalists and only a very few BEOs recognized before maneuvering for political power were the many structural crises which confronted America’s major cities. (121)

Some of the flowering of this could be found in the documents collected in Eyes on the Prize, some of the sterling work and words of new black mayors. But Marable notes that no one then knew the real condition of the finances of the cities, what the fate of these efforts would eventually be.

This was part of the decline, and then there was white reaction. A campaign around ‘law-and-order’ by Nixon and friends, because

‘It was clear that many white American shad to be prepared ideologically to accept the massive violation of civil liberties, the denial of human rights, and the illegal executions which were necessary to blunt the rhetoric and reality of black militancy.(124)

They more than succeeded.

From Protest to Politics: The Retreat of the Second Reconstruction 1976-1982

This is just sad and depressing. I stopped wondering why we are nostalgic for the 60s and 70s a while ago, after reading Angela Davis’s autobiography where she is so sure the revolution will come any day, after reading book after book full of people who believed a new world was possible and was on its way. I don’t think anyone in my generation could really believe that, though perhaps today’s youth are managing.

There is a rather fascinating aside about Reverend Jones and the People’s Temple, which flirted with politics, with AIM, which registered and turned out voters in California.  Then it relocated to a 3,000-acre estate in Guyana called ‘Jonestown’ with 1000 American citizens living there. Investigate by a Congressman, who was then murdered with his party then the whole camp committed suicide. This story has so many parallels with Ti West’s The Sacrament, which we watched not so long ago. But that is a digression.

There’s a decent discussion of problems with sexism, the prevalent view that racism was specially damaging to black manhood, which meant women needed to support their men rather than fight their own struggles. So this period did see a great flowering of black feminism, a true gift to struggle. Here there is discussion of bell hooks and Angela Davis, lights in a dark time.

There’s the growth of the Klan through the 1970s and into the 80s.

Then there’s the defection of Rev Abernathy and Hosea Williams to Reagan’s camp. That shit is crazy, I was too young to know just how crazy. This constant bleeding to the right.

Reaction: Black Society and Politics Diring Reagen Conservatism 1982-1990

This was a grim time, but there is some helping thinking through the larger picture behind what was happening here. The solidifying of class boundaries:

But opportunity in a capitalist society is always a function of social class position, which means ownership of capital, material resources, education and access to power. For the unemployed, the poor and those without marketable skills or resources, for those whose lives were circumscribed by illiteracy, disease and desperation, “race” continued to be a central factor in their marginal existence. (184)

The intersection of race and class. There is an interesting look at the difference between ethnicity and race. Ethnicity, Marable argues, ‘was derived from the cultural synthesis of the population’s African heritage and its experiences in American society…’, while on the other hand:

Race is a totally different dynamic, rooted in the structures of exploitation, power and privilege. “Race” is an artificial social construction, which was deliberately imposed on various subordinated groups of people at the outset of the expansion of European capitalism into the western hemisphere five centuries ago. the “racial” consciousness and discourse of the West was forged above the bowels of slave ships… (185)

So what does this mean then, for African Americans and others in the U.S.:

Race, therefore, is not an abstraction but an unequal relationship between social aggregates, which is also historically specific. the subordinated racial group finds itself divorced from the levers of power and authority within the socio-economic order. ..The racial group’s political status is marginal or peripheral, as full participation and legislative representation are blocked. Finally, racial categories are constantly reinforced in the behaviors and social expectations of all groups by the manipulation of social stereotypes and use of the legal system to carry out methods of coercion. (186)

And what does it mean for whites?

White power, privileges and prerogatives within the capitalist economy and the political and social system do exist. Whiteness is fundamentally an index of the continued patterns of exploitation of subordinated racial groups which create economic surpluses for privileged groups. to be “white” in racial terms essentially means that one’s life chances improve dramatically over those of nonwhites, in terms of access to credit, capital, quality housing, health care, political influence, ad equitable treatment in the criminal justice system. (186)

There is also this curious feeling that I have heard so often expressed in so many different ways — the most recent and the most brilliantly memorable being Paul Beatty’s The Sellout:

No black American could ever be “nostalgic” for Jim Crow. Nevertheless, the absence of a personal background of struggle casts a troubled shadow over the current generation of black Americans who are poorly equipped to grapple with the present complexities of racial and class domination. (188)

Marable argues the existence of two central crises in the 1980s and early 1990s — the external:

federal government’s retreat from equality and consolidation of mass conservatism.

All under Reagan. The internal?

the ordeal of the African American family, neighborhood, cultural and social institutions, caught in the vise of violence, crime, social destruction and drugs. (188)

The 1980s, he argues, saw a fundamental political shift:

for black Americans, the central political characteristic of the 1980s was the conservative reaction to the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement and the apparent capitulation of both political parties to a more conservative and repressive social order. (194)

With a brief aside about Larouche (I had almost forgotten about him!), the reality of this shift must be faced:

In the 1980s, more than anything else, Reaganism represented a break with the half-century-old notion among both Democrats and Republicans that the state had a political and ethical obligation to reduce the vast chasm separating the society’s wealthiest classes from the poor and the unemployed. (203)

Into the Wilderness: the Twilight of the Second Reconstruction 1990-2001

God this period is grim, I know, because I’ve lived through it. I read through this section, got through it, continued on.

The New Racial Domain: The Politics of Racial Inequality

Things are continuing pretty badly. Marable flags up one of the key characteristics of our modern era:

The cardinal characteristic of the New Racial Domain of post-Second Reconstruction America was the hegemony of “color-blindness” and race-neutrality. (250)

This is one he talks much more about elsewhere. And with this we reach the end of the book, though not the struggle.

[Marable, Manning (2007) Race, Reform, and Rebellion: The Second Reconstruction and Beyond in Black America, 1945-2006, 3rd edition. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.]

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The Macdonald and Mackintosh House, Glasgow

 Macdonald & Mackintosh house

Macdonald and Mackintosh House

I’ve loved this building since before I knew who Margaret Macdonald (1864-1933) and Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1928) even were. Glasgow Boys and Whistler inside. Almost as great as heading to dinner with my brother and sister-in-law and on to the pub with the incredible Mitch Miller and getting my own copy of Nothing is Lost. To be discussed further, but the coolest thing I’ve seen in forever. You could own it too.

Women in Grassroots Movements: Temma Kaplan

Temma Kaplan Crazy for DemocracyI loved the stories in Temma Kaplan’s Crazy for Democracy, the prominence it gives some incredible women and their struggles, with extensive quotes presenting their hard-won experience and knowledge in their own words. I love that. Not enough is written about the role of women in grassroots movements, much less about women in the larger discourses around democracy.

We need more of that, especially now.

At the same time, I often felt unsure of the framing, drawing as it does on Weber. I need to think more about what Weber has to contribute to current struggles of working class women and women of colour in the US and Africa, and I confess Kaplan’s arguments weren’t quite enough to swing me onside.

Though widely used, the term grassroots does not have a commonly recognized meaning. Grassroots generally implies being widespread and common, in the sense of being universal. The term also suggests being outside the control of any state, church, union, or political party. To the women claiming its provenance, being from the grassroots generally means being free from any constraining political affiliations and being responsible to no authority except their own group. (2)

I like the women’s use of grassroots. I am still puzzling through the many varied webs of accountability we sit within, as women, as workers, as caretakers of the earth, and each and every additional layer. Especially given the fluidity of things like gender. I am wondering how our ‘grassroots’ label overlaps or potentially constrains such understandings. I would have loved more discussion of this.

Kaplan instead draws on Weber’s theorisations of charisma to look at what about certain individuals supported their leadership roles in movement. I know there is a lot written about this framing, Aldon Morris talks a little about this, but I too see it as a not-necessarily central factor to movement, and the more central it is, often the more problematic the idea of movement becomes. So all of Weber’s language bothers me a little, and at the same time I am curious to read this again.

Though three of the six women focused on here are deeply religious, their charisma lies not in their religion but in their commitment to promoting new ethical principles as the basis for democracy… In Weberian terms, these women are prophets…Such women, with their strong personalities, abilities to pitch in, and high morale, gather together people with different backgrounds, areas of expertise, and status, helping create egalitarian movements. (4)

See, the term ‘prophet’? It doesn’t really work for me.

Kaplan also presents an idea of ‘female consciousness’ — something else that I remain conflicted about. But undoubtedly we are socialised into gender roles and those roles help define our experience, our passions, our causes. Women have been made responsible for our survival — too often left as the conscience, the single mother, the caretaker of the home.

certain women, emphasising roles they accept as wives and mothers, also demand the freedom to act as they think their obligations entail. Women in many societies and historical periods learn from youth that they will be responsible as mothers for providing food, clothing, housing, and health care for their families. When toxic pollution or expulsion from their homes threatens their communities, certain women will take action according to their female consciousness, confronting authorities to preserve life. Far from being a biological trait, female consciousness develops from cultural experiences of helping families and communities survive. (6-7)

There is something here, just as there is in valuing the theory implicit in people’s actions…

Such activists draw on an implicit theory of human rights, seeking to make human health a corollary of justice, deriving it s power from commonsense notions of human need rather than codified laws. (7)

But of course, as a good Freirean, I do think our reality, our strategy and our action needs to be collectively named, put into words, owned.

On to the campaigns themselves, and the awesome women who helped give them direction:

Love Canal

Americans like to believe in the good intentions of their government, and they frequently consider the absence of politics to constitute an ideal state of being. Hardly a person from Love Canal doesn’t wish she could turn back the clock and forget what she knows about the government. (16)

I think as an organizer I am automatically critical of anyone uncritical of such words. Not that I haven’t felt them, or that they are not common or that we should deny such feelings. But again as a popular educator or critical thinker… to stay in this place looking backwards? It speaks to a process of conscientisation unhealthily blocked. The same is true for seeing distinctions rather than solidarity in this kind of way:

In fact, what differentiated the women of the Love Canal Homeowners Association from other protesters was their self-presentation as traditional mothers trying to do their job. “Radicals and students carry signs, but not average housewives. Housewives have to care for their children and their homes,” Lois Gibbs recalled later.  (23)

Comedy and appearing in the role of victim allowed the homeowners to challenge authority and gain media support… Had the women been feminists, they could have undercut their demands to be treated as full citizens by such actions. But the homeowners were desperate to save their community from disaster; they were willing to compromise their own dignity to survive. (30)

There is an awful lot implied about just who ‘feminists’ are here, a total rejection of the idea and the term, rather than a redefinition along the lines of what women like Angela Davis, bell hooks and Patricia Hill Collins envision. This is not to demand that women themselves self-define in this way. My discomfort lies with the fact that this is stated and then left, when it could be opened up in a different way, could acknowledge debate, could think about how these constructions might constrain us just as much as certain understandings of feminism do.

The way women themselves do this:

Women engaged in struggles for environmental justice are often viewed as oddities. they are told that they are just hysterical housewives or crazy feminists. Or that they just aren’t ladies. “Ladies don’t take on an issue,” Cora Tucker, a community activist from Virginia explains. “I don’t know if ‘lady’ is a compliment or not. I don’t really like to be called a lady because my momma used to tell me that a lady was a woman who didn’t know which way was up….” (44)

Fighting Toxic Soil Dumping

Going on to fighting toxic soil dumping in Afton, North Carolina this statement… I’m glad it’s in here, I like this reflexivity, but it is also the kind of reaction that really gets to me:

Thirty years ago, more naive and purist, I’d been shocked by the presence of television sets in the shacks of even the most abject sharecroppers in Mississippi. (48)

Still. There are so many stories here of resistance. On Dollie Burwell’s mother:

Required to enter by the rear door, Dollie’s mother went into the back with her coat on, took the broom from the closet, backed out the door, walked around to the front, swept, and entered through the main door every day before taking off her coat and starting to work in earnest. (50)

One of my favourite stories.

On fear, and the folks who never were part of the mass movement that rocked the South:

“Most of the folks had not even been involved in the integration,” remembers Dollie. “Too afraid.” (54)

Still, I am wondering about these definitions of ‘activists’, which seem as unchallenged as ‘feminists’:

At the time of the public meeting in January 1979, neither Ken nor Deborah had ever engaged in any political activities…They were most definitely not political activists looking for a cause. (56)

Because for all Dollie Burwell was a local, ‘homegrown’ leader, she was still connected to the United Church of Christ and the SCLC, helped bring in Floyd McKissick, once head of CORE and enormously influential and very well known. The power of movement, seems to me, lies in connecting people and organisation around issues that matter to people.

Another great quote that seems to make this point from Cora Tucker again, as a speaker at the (so very famous) Women and Toxic Organizing Conference of the Citizens Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste, November 1987:

People don’t get all the connections. They say the environment is over here, the civil rights groups is over there, the women’s group is over there, and the other groups are here. Actually all of them are one group, and the issues we fight become null and void if we have no clean water to drink, no clean air to breathe and nothing to eat. (69)

Again we return to themes of connection, conversation, collective naming and working towards change — done as well by ‘homemaker citizens’ as anyone else:

Conversation creates and enhances citizenship as people learn to stand up for their rights by comparing notes about what is going on, confronting authorities, and working toward a solution, gaining confidence about perceptions they might otherwise think are awry. Dollie Burwell does not separate efforts to get people to vote from attempts to get them to stand up for their right to a clean and safe environment. For her, as for political scientist Mary Dietz, democracy is “the form of politics that brings people together as citizens.” (74)

The redefinitions of what we are fighting for that emerges from this:

As far as these particular activists are concerned, justice is not limited to rights under the law, but to what they think the law was designed to protect: the well-being of citizens and their access to the social resources necessary to sustain their lives. According to Lois Gibbs, “Justice is about choice; it is the goal and democracy is the process.” (75)

The fact that you don’t have to call it by a specialised term to actually be doing it. Organising is a great deal of common sense working to change things — not to say that there aren’t things to be learned, experiences to build on.

Gibbs recalls that when she began at Love Canal she “didn’t know that what I was doing was called ‘organizing.’ We didn’t use that term. We called it talking to people, getting them together, reaching a decision and taking action–for the survival of our children and ourselves.” (77)

Again, in the words of Lois Gibbs:

“A trained, professional organizer will let people fail, if by failing they learn. A professional organizer places a higher value on building long-term, deep-seated community power, and sometimes losing a fight (but learning from it) is a way to build this power . . . The organizer would rather build the group than win the issue.” (83)

I like that ideal. I think there is a big tension here between winning and inspiring people in that way, and letting people learn and fail. It’s not a tension whose resolution always goes this direction, and it is not always the organiser who can choose. I wanted more of these tensions, organisational tensions, movement tensions…

A final reminder of just how much work is actually happening that folks never hear about, as Kaplan notes that smaller victories led locally

seldom get reported. This makes traditional black organizations such as the Southern California Christian Leadership Conference, CORE, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the Commission on Racial Justice of the United Church of Christ seem less active than they are. (98)

Crossroads

From US environmental justice movements, Kaplan moves into the descriptions of the Crossroads movement, the struggles of Regina Ntongana. Somehow this really felt as though it were where the book came into its own, but perhaps it is because I am so unfamiliar with these struggles, whereas Love Canal and Afton are well studied (there are mentions of them in many an Environmental Justice reader, for example, as foundational movements).

The growth of the ‘informal’ Crossroads settlement was amazing — from 20 shacks in February 1975 to about 4,000 in April 1978. Kaplan writes:

twenty thousand inhabitants in three thousand handmade dwellings consumed an area of approximately two square miles in which only one street, the Street of Mice (Mpuku), had a name. (133)

Again we see women organising themselves, but getting help from established organisations who had done similar things and were thus able to connect them up to knowledge, support and solidarity. Kaplan doesn’t use this language or investigate more deeply into this because clearly her focus is on emerging organisation, but to me it underlines the importance of what Aldon Morris called movement halfway houses.  In this case, Crossroads found  help from the Black Sash, which originated as the Women’s Defence of the Constitution League in 1955. In seeking help they also radicalised Black Sash — up to that  point the organisation had only defended people legally occupying land, to help get their rights. In supporting Crossroads, the women there succeeded in moving the organisation into a whole new area supporting squatters win rights to land, and thus challenging the system more broadly. Definitely a very good example of the power of women, of informal organisation, but also the importance of support.

They built three schools, demolished and rebuilt in turn. Damn.

The women of Crossroads continued to build relationships and seek institutional support on their own terms — and again, the ways in which they did this and managed these power relationships are so interesting to me but this is much more focused on the simple facts of doing it — they brought in Quakers to teach, contacted the Institute of Race Relations, the Urban Problems Research Unit, the Provincial Ecumenical Council, the Anglican Church.

They used plays and role playing much along the lines of Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed — though Kaplan never uses that term. I was just curious if some of this was inspired by outside, though again it is one of those radical traditions that seems organic to many cultures.

The point is well made that in South Africa, the women of the Crossroads settlement were considered ‘Surplus People’. There is a world to be unpacked there.

I am fascinated, too, by Regina Ntongana’s description of leadership:

the grassroots are like a bundle of clothing, all in different colors. What gives them shape is the wire over which they dry. The clothesline is the leader. (157)

There is more on the naming of things, the comparison of social justice as the term of struggle in the US, whereas social citizenship was the term in South Africa is quite interesting. I am not sure all of the comparisons quite worked.

But this made me laugh out loud:

When I asked Ma if she was a feminist, since she works primarily with women and has suffered some of the worst indignities male leaders can inflict, she stopped for a moment. Then she looked up at me and said, deliberately: “I am a Christian, and therefore I believe God has a reason for everything.” Then she hesitated, waited a few beats, and added: “He must have had some reason for creating men.” (177)

Conclusions

All of this framing was interesting, and provoked a number of further questions in me… she identifies a ‘collective action’ school — and includes Aldon Morris, Sidney Tarrow and Charles Tilly (I still haven’t read Tilly, shocking) in that… That surprised me a little I suppose, I see them as being quite different from each other. I also wish this framing of ‘social movement studies’ could open up more along the lines of what Peet and Watts lay out in Liberation Ecologies. But in this comaprison, Kaplan writes of the three figures named that they study:

what has historically galvanized people to take action in pursuit of collective interests. Primarily concerned with the growing sophistication of the processes by which ordinary people confront those in power, shape their own goals, and–most important–form complex organizations to express their wishes…’ (181)

her critique:

collective action theorists frequently view loose associations merely as tendencies guiding potential insurgents toward one organization rather than another. Networks then become means to certain organizational ends rather than strong webs connecting politically vital local groups…leaders and key events directed by highly visible organizations assume greater significance than do processes by which large numbers of people resist oppression and develop programs for transforming society. (181-182)

She instead argues these are more based around informality, remaining networks and that as such are as key to social change:

What is new is that instead of disappearing after initial grievances have been aired, or instead of being absorbed into larger, more complicated, hierarchical organizations, the new democratic organizations of women have been able to sustain themselves as networks over long periods of time and over great geographical distances. (183)

I can’t help but feel after reading it, that both are true. That networks always exist, but in her own account, organisations did support these beginning networks in rather vital ways at key points. It’s tricky because people also join and drop out of organisations, move around. Someone like Ella Baker shows how muddy this ground might be. She was part of a vast network of contacts, — institutional, familial, informal — that she was able to draw on in different ways over a span of decades. That’s who she was. Her effectiveness and brilliance as an organiser who remained almost always out of the limelight came in being part of both personal networks and a member of the SCLC, SCEF and others.  Was she this figure found here of ‘feminist’ or ‘professional activist looking for a cause’?

Anyway, lots to think about, and undoubtedly true that networks — particularly women’s networks — have rarely been looked at or given anything near the serious study they deserve in movement. And then there is always the fact that is a rare book full of amazing women.

[Kaplan, Temma (1997) Crazy for Democracy: women in grassroots movements. New York: Routledge.]

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Peet & Watts: Liberation Ecologies

How did I go so long with learning about liberation ecology, or reading Arturo Escobar or understanding the ways in which they renovate Marxism with the plethora of new ideas emerging from struggle in the developing world, particularly around environmental justice. The context?  ‘…a new emphasis on nature-society relations in fin-de-siecle atmosphere…’

— collapse of many actually-existing socialisms
— resurgence of environmentalist concerns articulated explicitly in global terms
— rise of political ecology (2)

I found this introduction incredibly rich, incredibly brilliant, and quite hard to get through. But in a nutshell, it was worth it entirely as this is the goal:

Looking to help create ‘a more robust political ecology which integrates politics more centrally, draws upon aspects of discourse theory which demand that the politics of meaning and the construction of knowledge be taken seriously, and engages with the wide-ranging critique of development and modernity particularly associated with Third World intellectuals and activists such as Vandana Shiva, Arturo Escobar, and Victor Toledo. … new theoretical engagement between political ecology and poststructuralism on the one hand, and a practical political engagement with new movements, organizations, and institutions of civil society… (3)

I love Vandana Shiva — she transformed by thinking, and Arturo Escobar is doing the same. Victor Toledo is now on my list. So back to the origins of political ecology:

Political ecology — the effort begin in the 1980s to “combine the concerns of ecology and a broadly defined political economy… [which] encompasses the constantly shifting dialectic between society and land-based resources” (Blaikie and Brookfield 1987: 17).

Key scholars: Susanna Hecht, Harold Brookfield, Anna Bramwell, Susan Stonich, Michael Redclift and Ram Guha. A key text for future reference is Blaikie and Brookfield’s Land Degradation and Society. for all of them, poverty is the central variable in ecological deterioration, not population, market distortion or mismanagement. I though simultaneously ‘hurrah’, and also ‘it’s not rocket science’, but apparently for many people it is. I suppose poverty is not nice to look it, and its solution demands structural change.

What I love most about this chapter is how it summarises various currents of thought, containing wonderful matrices of the phases and major figures in the literature — here is development, which I am still fairly ignorant of:

Peet and Watts Development discourseThere is also a good summary of social movement theory, one that is so much more satisfying than say, Tarrow, Meyer & Tarrow or Gamson, not least because it finally gives a good summary of the traditional Marxist view:

‘The productive transformation of nature is the primary activity making possible the whole structure of human existence… from a dialectical view, societal dynamics emerge from contradictory oppositions in the material reproduction of existence, conflicts between the forces of production and a limited natural environment for example, which result in crises. These moments of contradictory crisis are, for classical Marxists, the contexts in which class existing “in-itself” engages in intensified political struggle and becomes class “for-itself,” that is a group with collective identity, a collective agent which forces necessary social and environmental transformations. In Marx’s own words, class is the main form of social engagement, and control of the means of production its primary terrain of struggle (Marx 1970). (28)

Because, after all, the point of all of this is liberation.

They look at the ways in which Gramsci broadened its theoretical power, first through idea of hegemony, state force and ‘common sense. Second, in describing that:

transformative human actions do not result automatically from material contradictions; they are mediated by subjective meanings and conscious intentions. Material changes… may create higher propensities for transformative action and limit the range of it possible outcomes, but ideological and political practices are relatively autonomous and are literally the decisive moments in the transformation of material conditions into political practices. (28)

They point towards Cohen (1982) and (1985) for a good critique of both. Summarise part of Marcuse’s (1964) contribution through his search for a substitute revolutionary subject to play the leading role previously assigned to the proletariat. The way that this challenge was taken up by the “new working class” theorists — Aronowitz (1973), Gorz (1967 – this is sitting in my piles), Mallet (1969), who see welfare state capitalism providing new strategy for labour. These contrast with Poulantzas (1973) and Wright (1979) who reject humanist Marxism to concentrate on classes defined as effects of structures, as well as those theorising the “new intellectual class” — Gouldner (1979) and Szelenyi and Konrad (1979) who look beyond workers to critical intellectuals as the motor of revolutionary change. For all of them, however, Cohen argues that their

presupposition remains production relations key to society and social movements (29)

This helps fit everyone in to a bigger picture, but you can imagine the density of the text. A chapter you will want to keep coming back to.

On to the Post-Marxists, who:

argue that production is only one arena for collective resistance, that groups other than the working class are now significant sources of social movements, that greater attention has to be given to active processes of human agency. (29)

The ways that these are

Very different from ‘resource-mobilization paradigm’ (Gamson, Oberschall, Tilly), where ‘conflicts of interest are built into institutionalized power relations. Collective actions involve the rational pursuit of interests by conflicting groups.

I have an immense frustration with that kind of analysis, it feels so good to have it put within this much broader context as just a small current — because it feels such a big current in much of the social movement literature itself.

On Habermas…I have to read more

Habermas (1984) differentiates system, in which people operate under strategic rationalities following technical rules, and lifeworld, with its communicative rationality oriented towards consensus, understanding, and collective action. For Habermas social movements of resistance emerge when commodifying systems colonize lifeworlds: resistance struggles are as much against dominant rationalizes as they are against institutional control. (29-30)

and the strain of social movement theory focusing on the urban — that community, housing and urban movements are now the drivers of change rather than the workers, particularly Castells (1977):

urban social movements respond to the structural contradictions of the capitalist system; but these contradictions are of a plural-class and secondary nature, involving various deprivations, rather than the working class struggling to control the productive apparatus. Thus protest movements organize around common interests on a variety of terrains of struggle, often in opposition to the state and other political and sociocultural institutions, rather than the economically ruling class directly.(30)

This describes how Castells argues in The City and the Grassroots (a magisterial work that I really loved, have yet to really grapple with) that social movement as agent of transformation is unthinkable in Marxism (Peet and Watts disagree) and

‘that social change happens when a new urban meaning is produced through conflict, domination, and resistance to domination.’ (30)

Here too we have Laclau and Mouffe, Castoriadis, modified by Touraine. All people I need to think about more — especially Castoriadis and Touraine also sitting in piles as yet unread.

This is a broad brush look at primary theorists in these different areas, the articles that follow a rather fascinating look at struggles around the world through a political ecology lens.

Theory for liberation.

[Peet, Richard and Michael Watts (1996) Liberation Ecologies: environment, development, social movements. London & New York: Routledge.]

 

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Celebrating National Parks and #Altgov Tweeters

Not Smokey, Wokey! If only I knew how to credit this facebook meme celebrating the #altgov resistance tweeters

@alt_fda @AltNatParkSer @altUSEPA @RogueNASA @Alt_NIH @altNOAA @AlternativeNWS @AltForestServ @altusda @RoguePotusStaff

A couple more on my facebook feed today (28 Jan)

and even a Tolkien joke throw in!

A few ways to stop the destruction of our beloved national parks:

And finally, in all seriousness…

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Patricia Hill Collins: Domains of Power, or Making Foucault More Interesting

I love the domains of power framework as it is developed here by Patricia Hill Collins in ‘Learning From the Outsider Within Revisited’. I find a great deal of insight in Foucault (like Society Must Be Defended) but a few things have always bothered me…such as in Discipline and Punish where in charting the history of the prison in France, he never really deals with the French Revolution or the fall of the Bastille. That bewildered me, where is struggle, then, in his theorising? Look at what Collins writes:

Power may be everywhere, as French philosopher Michel Foucault points out, but what exactly does this mean? If power is manifested and organized everywhere, how might we develop a language of power that is useful? (71-72)

Ah. She asks, how do we? And then she does. If I had read this a bit earlier, domains of power might have been my chosen framework for my thesis rather than Stuart Hall’s theories of articulation, because it seems full of explanatory power:

The framework identifies four interrelated domains where power is organized. (1) a structural domain, where social institutions of a society, such as banks, hospitals, schools, corporations, retail establishment, government agencies, and health care, routinely discriminate in favour of whites and against everyone else; (2) a disciplinary domain, where modern bureaucracies regulate race relations through their rules and practices, primarily surveillance; (3) a cultural domain, where ideologies, such as white supremacy, patriarchy, and heterosexism, are constructed and shared; and (4) an interpersonal domain that shapes social relations between individuals in everyday life. (72)

She gives as a short example the treatment of African American youth — everything that limits chances and stunts lives:

  • Structural power as it works through resegregation of housing and schools, hypersegregation of African Americans within cities
  • Disciplinary power — unspoken roles for different races, racial profiling, ‘neutral’ policies that have unfair impacts (testing, etc), police in schools…
  • Cultural domain — the new ideology of colourblindness, portrayal of a more integrated American through media
  • Interpersonal domain – strategies of everyday racism

Of course, all four of these domains are interrelated — again in seeking to think through this I reach for Stuart Halls ideas of articulation, his theorisations of how the political, the economic and the ideological (I add, of course, the spatial myself) shift and change and act upon each other to come into new formations. Comparing the two, you realise on the one hand just how much needs to be packed into the idea of structural power. This is at both the economic and the spatial, political structures and more. I like separating that out a little more maybe. Yet there is also the way in which the disciplinary domain  works across all of Hall’s areas, and demands to be addressed yet his framework does not require it. How the interpersonal and everyday kinds of violences are also often lost. They don’t quite map onto each other, while each seems to highlight key aspects of a liberatory analysis — I am just starting to think about how they might be brought together, or carried out in succession. Or something. Everything is so interconnected that I rather lose myself if I think about it too much…these are only ever conventions to help lend a little clarity to a very complex world.

A few more of the insights that Collins’ framework can give:

The domains of power framework also sheds light on the ways that ideas about difference can uphold social inequalities within and across all four domains of power. For example, within the structural domain, new commodity relations have found the focus on difference profitable. In the search for ever-expanding consumer markets, understanding differences of race, gender, class, and sexuality helps in identifying segmented consumer markers. “Racial” profiling and market research are two sides of the same coin. (73)

How this impacts within academia itself:

Within this context, people who claim outsider-within identities can become hot commodities in social institutions that want the illusion of difference without the effort needed to change actual power relations. (73)

how we as academics can, and must, use it for social justice. I love that always always Collins brings it back to this:

our scholarship does reveal how ideas about difference and its related constructs matter in both upholding and challenging racism, sexism, class exploitation, and heterosexism as systems of power. But sharpening our focus on power and developing tools that enable us to see how its domains are organized and can be changed, our engaged scholarship creates space for change. (76)

Women around the world are marching today — two of my most treasured possessions came to me yesterday, pictures of my aunt and uncle with placards in front of their Philly home. The times are dark but the struggle seems to be strong. From the marathon hacking to save government data on climate change to the myriad calls to action around Trump’s cabinet of CEOs cutting out the political middleman for pure corporate control. All this as I sit home sick and rather sad at heart…

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