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.
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