This is an Uprising


Slow March to Surprising Victories

Book Review: This Is an Uprising, Mark and Paul Engler (Nation Books, 2016)

Movements for change are unpopular. They’re disruptive and discomforting, and they face seemingly impossible odds against the institutions that seem to have all the power. Yet, as Mark and Paul Engler outline in their outstanding and important new book, This Is an Uprising, they often win. So much so, the authors argue, that opportunists often take credit for movements they opposed, while pundits write off hard-won victories as the inevitable result of progress. At the same time, cynics posing as “realists” are quick to declare that the movements won’t be able to or have not changed anything—a charge, the authors point out, that has the advantage of not requiring any evidence. A serious evaluation of success is more difficult, not least because the most notable successes may come years after the headlines have dissipated. This is certainly the case with the Occupy movement: nearly five years after the encampments, the list of taxes on millionaires and minimum-wage increases—once nearly universally deemed “unrealistic”—continues to grow. [Full disclosure: I count Mark Engler as a friend and have shared ideas and contacts over the years with him but have never formally worked with him.]


The authors, brothers who are veterans of the labor, environmental, and immigrant rights movements, bring to the book a compelling mix of practical experience in the day-to-day of organizing, historical knowledge of a range of movements, and feeling for the experience of being a part of struggles for change. They write movingly of formative experiences in the Catholic Worker movement, a tradition that created communities that enabled people to make great personal sacrifices, including extended jail terms, in order to bear witness to the injustice of nuclear weapons. It was a tradition that resisted conventional definitions of success, as reflected in the popular saying “Jesus never told us to be successful, only to be faithful.” Ultimately, however, most participants in movements do care about winning and figuring out the tools to be effective.

For activists just coming into a movement, everything can seem new. Often it feels as if something without precedent is taking place. Yet, nearly all movements for nonviolent change draw on two core traditions outlined in the book. On the one hand, there is the tradition of structure-based organizing embodied in the work of civil rights organizer Ella Baker and community organizer Saul Alinsky. This tradition emphasizes building organizations with deep roots in communities and developing local leadership that can mobilize people for small, achievable demands that demonstrate the capacity to build power.

On the other hand, there is the tradition of mass mobilization and protest, embodied in the iconic marches of the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King, theorized by Francis Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, and carried on in mass uprisings around the world. Because these movements may be under the radar until they mobilize huge numbers, they can look like spontaneous eruptions that come from nowhere. As a result, the lessons they have to teach about what made them possible are often obscured or forgotten. Moreover, activists in structure-based organizations often greet mass mobilizations with indifference or suspicion, arguing that they lack the staying power to make good on their initial promise. Fortunately, the authors argue, the post-Occupy moment benefits from both traditions, as many in unions and established organizations witnessed the movement’s astounding success in changing the conversation and those involved in the occupations looked for ways to sustain their activism after their evictions.

The Englers make arguments based on a range of examples. To those who believe that disruptive tactics are divisive and alienate those who might support the cause, they offer the story of ACT UP (Aids Coalition to Unleash Power), which was hugely unpopular for its confrontational tactics, but also hugely successful in demanding and obtaining research and services for people living with AIDS. They outline strategies for “positive polarization”—ways in which escalation, disruption, and sacrifice can shift the equation in favor of change. And to those who claim that only violent escalation is disruptive or “serious” enough, they make a compelling strategic argument for nonviolence. Setting the debate about the morality of violence aside, they draw on the example of the radical environmental group Earth First!, which became much more effective when it moved from sabotage to nonviolent resistance and local outreach.

Just as I thought about connections to the feminist movement I write about—wherein the mass media give a picture of national disdain for feminism, but a majority of people in the United States support core feminist demands such as equal pay—readers are invited to draw parallels to their own experiences.

Throughout the book, the Englers manage a difficult balance—articulating the differences between the structure-based organizing tradition and the tradition of mass mobilization so as to think constructively about how to bring the two together. In so doing, they also bridge the familiar divide between theory and practice. The book should appeal to activists and organizers who are weary of armchair theorizing but would like to think about the larger frameworks in which they operate. Understanding how structure-based and mass mobilizations can work together is a good antidote against the disillusionment, burnout, and sectarianism that often follows the waning of mass movements. And it offers the thrilling possibility that we can plan, create, and train for mass mobilizations, rather than just wait for them to “erupt.”

This is an optimistic book as well as a practical one, making it particularly timely at a moment when so many people are showing a renewed interested in socialism and in the progressive and radical traditions. If radical thinkers present a vision that the world can be different, organizers offer a vision of how we can bring that time just a little closer. In the final chapter, the Englers look at the difficult example of the Egyptian Revolution, examining how the divide between the structure offered by the Muslim Brotherhood and the mass mobilizations of the protesters in Tahir Square helped pave the way for counterrevolution and a return to military rule. Yet they end this story on a note of cautious optimism, quoting the exiled organizer Ahmed Salah: “what we did before, we can do again.”

Ultimately, however practical the analysis, the spirit of the Catholic Worker movement still runs through the book. There is an element of faith, whether religious or not, in the work of those who dedicate themselves to social movements. This becomes clear in the authors’ nuanced discussion of the controversial notion of prefiguration—the idea that the movement itself should embody the world it wants to create. As they note, the idea has often been associated with a lifestyle politics that’s easy to mock. At the same time, by offering connection and vision, it is strategically important, sustaining activists to withstand challenges. Labor writer Thomas Geoghegan once called the labor movement “the real counterculture.” In an individualistic capitalist society, it’s considered irrational to spend time at political meetings and rallies instead of on personal pursuits, let alone to make the bigger sacrifices involved in going on strike or engaging in civil resistance. Movements change the equation by offering the promise of change but also by finding community and solidarity in the struggle.

Laura Tanenbaum is an associate professor of English at LaGuardia Community College, City University of New York. Her writing has appeared in a variety of publications including Jacobin, Dissent, Narrative, and Open Letters Monthly.

This article originally appeared in the summer 2016 (early June) issue of the Democratic Left magazine.

Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership. Democratic Left blog post submission guidelines can be found here.



DSA Queer Socialists Conference Call

April 24, 2017
· 36 rsvps

DSA is in the process of forming a Queer Socialists Working Group. This call will cover a discussion of possible activities for the group, its proposed structure, assigning tasks, and reports on the revision of DSA's LGBT statement and on possible political education activities. 9 pm ET/8 pm CT/7 pm MT/6 pm PT.


Introduction to Socialist Feminism Call

April 30, 2017
· 51 rsvps

Join Philadelphia DSA veteran activist Michele Rossi to explore “socialist feminism.” How does it differ from other forms of feminism? How and when did it develop? What does it mean for our activism? 4-5:30pm ET, 3-4:30pm CT, 2-3:30pm MT, 1-2:30pm PT.

DSA Webinar: Talking About Socialism

May 02, 2017
· 6 rsvps

Practice talking about socialism in plain language. Create your own short rap. Prepare for those conversations about socialism that happen when you table in public.

Join us for our latest organizing training for democratic socialist activists: DSA’s (Virtual) Little Red Schoolhouse.

This training is at 9:00pm Eastern, 8:00pm Central, 7:00pm Mountain, 6:00pm Pacific, 5:00pm Alaska, and 3:00pm Hawaii Time. Please RSVP.


Steve Max, DSA Vice Chair and one of the founders of the legendary community organizing school, The Midwest Academy

In Talking About Socialism you will learn to:

  • Have a quick response ready to go next time someone asks you about democratic socialism.
  • Create your own elevator pitch about democratic socialism and DSA.
  • Use your personal experience and story to explain democratic socialism.
  • Think through the most important ideas you want to convey about democratic socialism.
  • Have a concise explanation of what DSA does, for your next DSA table, event or coalition meeting.

Training Details

  • This workshop is for those who have already had an introduction to democratic socialism, whether from DSA's webinar or from other sources.
  • If you have a computer with microphone, speakers and good internet access, you can join via internet for free.
  • If you have questions, contact Theresa Alt <> 607-280-7649.
  • If you have very technical questions, contact Tony Schmitt <> 608-335-6568.
  • Participation requires that you register at least 45 hours in advance, by midnight Sunday.


DSA New Member Orientation Call

May 06, 2017
· 44 rsvps

You've joined DSA - Great. Now register for this New Member Orientation call and find out more about our politics and our vision.  And, most importantly, how you can become involved.  2 pm ET; 1 pm CT; 12 pm MT; 11 am PT.  

Film Discussion: Rosa [Luxemburg]

May 31, 2017
· 69 rsvps

Join DSA member Jason Schulman to discuss the film Rosa, directed by feminist filmmaker Margarethe von Trotta. View it here at no cost before the discussion. Marxist theorist and economist Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919) played a key role in German socialist politics. Jason edited Rosa Luxemburg: Her Life and Legacy and has a chapter in Rosa Remix. 9 ET/8 CT/7 MT/6 PT.

Film Discussion: The Free State of Jones

June 11, 2017
· 18 rsvps

Join Victoria Bynum, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History, Texas State University, San Marcos, to discuss The Free State of Jones. STX Entertainment bought the film rights to Bynum's book of the same title. She also served as a consultant and appears in a cameo scene. What was the Free State of Jones? During the Civil War, an armed band of deserters led by Newt Knight, a non-slaveholding white farmer, took to the swamps of southeastern Mississippi and battled against the Confederacy in an uprising popularly known as “The Free State of Jones.” Joining Newt in this rebellion was Rachel, a slave. From their relationship, there developed a controversial mixed-race community that endured long after the Civil War had ended. View the film here for $6 before the discussion. 8 ET/7 CT/6 MT/5 PT.