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(en) Canada, Autonomy & Solidarity*, Upping the Anti #2 - Editorial: Breaking the Impasse

Date Sat, 21 Jan 2006 08:54:25 +0200

In this issue of Upping the Anti we continue our attempt to engage
with the radical political currents in Canada and around the world
from which we have taken our name; the politics of anti-capitalism,
anti-imperialism, and anti-oppression. In our first editorial, we took
as our starting point the fact that these "anti"
politics represent the diverse and organic efforts of thousands of
people committed to renewing radical politics in the Canadian state
outside of both sectarian "party building" and
the dead end of social democracy. Though we begin this project with
the very negation espoused by these "many
no's," we recognize that a transformative
political project cannot end with a politics of refusal, and that radical
movements must make their visions of "another
world" concrete. We do not claim to have ready made
answers to the questions raised and contradictions produced by these
movements, but we recognize the importance of developing spaces
within which to expand critical reflection and analysis. As we
remarked in our first editorial:

We are all engaged in a process of theorizing and trying to learn the
lessons of past and present experience when we gather informally to
talk about what in our organizing has worked, and what has failed.
Our biggest challenge is to create common spaces for those of us
dealing with similar problems and questions in different cities and
circles. In the absence of formal, structured and open political spaces
of debate, most of these discussions remain isolated within informal
networks. Political pronouncements tend to come from the mouths
of prominent activists, often chosen for their visibility by the mass
media, and because many of our organizing spaces are so committed
to immediate and specific campaigns, theoretical reflection is
discouraged by the immediate necessity to "do
something." The challenge that currently faces us is how
to get this much needed process of debate, discussion, and
resolution to occur beyond small groups, personal networks, and
prominent individuals, and to have it take place openly and
transparently where it can be critiqued and developed by all who
have a stake in our struggles.

We see Upping the Anti as a modest contribution to this process,
one which we hope others will join us in building. In this editorial,
we begin to clarify our viewpoints on the "three
antis" with a focus on
"anti-oppression" politics. We will make similar
attempts to tackle both "anti-imperialism" and
"anti-capitalism" in future editorials.

Introduction: What Impasse?

Perhaps the biggest and most difficult challenge to radical organizing
over the past several decades has been the inability of those on the
left to articulate and concretize a coherent politic that appeals to the
diverse and differentiated needs of potentially radical social forces. In
considering the rise of anti-oppression politics, it is useful to look at
the process by which the "new left" arose in
Canada in the 1960s and 1970s. During this time, Canadian left
politics were radicalized by international dynamics, particularly the
rise of anti-colonial movements, the US civil rights and Black power
movements, and the impact of the Vietnam war. A host of Third
World revolutionary movements emerged and appeared to signal that
a variety of different "socialisms" were possible.
This radicalization took organizational form in the student
movement, in rank and file trade unionism and the rise of significant
Maoist and Trotskyist organizations, as well as in the influences of
anarchist, indigenous, left-Canadian and Québecois
nationalist currents. The wide ranging struggles of the 1960s and
early 1970s gave birth to a whole series of new social movements
which expressed identities and experiences that were not reflected in
the politics or worldviews of the "old"
communist left. Feminist, youth, indigenous, queer, Black power
and Third World movements came to the forefront of the political
stage with a militancy and urgency that commanded attention and
considerably enriched the left's understanding of its
political tasks.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, however, left radicalism began to fizzle
out as Western ruling classes launched a neoliberal offensive against
the gains made by working class movements in the post-World War
II period, and drove both the labour movement and social democracy
into a defensive position. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989
transformed the international political order and hastened the demise
of existing "old left" groups. Many inspirational
Third World liberation struggles, strangled by neo-colonialism and
isolated by Western imperialism, also lost their way as they turned in
on themselves or became assimilated into the international capitalist
order. In response to the new social movements that were the source
of so much radicalism in the 1960s and 1970s, the Canadian state
developed strategies to contain and recuperate them (for example,
through policies of "multiculturalism" and
institutional funding for women's groups).

Today's movements, many of which were formed by the
radicalization of the anti-globalization movement, face a political
context strikingly different from that of both the
"old" and "new" left. While
certain struggles on the international scene are inspiring, they are of
a qualitatively different nature, and taking place in a markedly
different context, than those of the post-World War II national
liberation movements. The Zapatista revolt against neoliberal
capitalism has become an inspiration for anti-capitalist radicals
around the world, but, with the exception of Cuba and important
initiatives now underway in Venezuela, the "actually
existing" threat of socialism has, for the most part,

In Canada, movements for social change remain at a relatively low
level of development. Given the Canadian state's federal
nature and its neoliberal strategy of downloading cuts and the
restructuring of social programs onto provinces and municipalities, it
is not surprising that resistance and radicalism have taken on a
markedly localized and "provincial" character.
Radical activism, for the most part, remains dispersed amongst small
groups whose members organize within specific campuses,
communities and neighborhoods without regularly breaking out into
larger fields of social contestation. Nevertheless, the specter of mass
resistance periodically breaks through. This potential has most
recently been evidenced in the B.C. teachers strike in the fall of
2005, the massive strike of university and college students in Quebec
in the spring of 2005, and the ongoing "special
diet" campaign by the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty
and Common Front groups across the province. As important as
these struggles are, they remain localized experiences of resistance
that exemplify the diversity, isolation and relative weakness of
today's radical movements.

Fighting Identities and the Politics of Oppression

Central to the fragmentation and atomization of the left are current
understandings of how different forms of oppression are constituted
within capitalist social relations in Canadian society. As activists, we
are often initially radicalized through our inductions into
"identities" of class, gender, race, sexuality, or
culture. These identities emerged out of specific struggles against
different forms and instances of oppression: from struggles against
segregation, racism, and colonialism, to feminist struggles for
reproductive rights and against male violence and to queer struggles
against sexual repression and the gender binary. They also emerged
out of a critique of the limitations and silences, both in terms of
political strategy and organizational practice, of
"malestream" socialist politics.

As these various struggles developed they came face to face with the
failures of the "old left" to adequately
conceptualize relations of oppression in capitalist society, and the
failure of mass movements to address their own internal dynamics of
domination and unequal power relations. In the first case, these new
social movements came up against a class reductionist Marxism
which often treated class itself as an undeclared identity for white,
Western and male workers. Although there existed some
marginalized Marxist groups and theorists who continued to analyze
class as a relation and process of social formation, for the most part
Marxism seemed unable to offer a liberatory alternative to either
Western capitalism or Soviet Stalinism. While Marxist movements
continued to be influential during the 1960s, identity politics and
activism emerged both within and outside of Marxist circles as a way
to address patterns of oppression that were too often ignored or

While identity based politics have contributed important insights into
real political problems that have not been addressed within the
Marxist left, they have in many ways dismissed the contributions of
Marxist thought that remain necessary for developing a coherent
response to capitalist exploitation. While being critical of
"capitalism" and
"imperialism" in general terms, those who
organize around anti-oppression politics have rarely developed a
critique of wage labour and a theory of capitalism or imperialism
with which to replace the old Marxist
"metanarratives." Without developing
alternatives to capitalist society and its market imperatives, identity
based politics of anti-oppression can, at best, seek various forms of
redress which leave the capitalist system intact. While these
struggles are important, the fact remains that without a vision for
systemic change these reforms will always remain limited to sectoral
gains that are vulnerable to being rolled back or co-opted.

The critique of the internal operation of leftist movements raised by
anti-oppression politics has resulted in a number of important and
positive changes, as well as some potentially debilitating tendencies.
First, the politics of anti-oppression have made major steps in
changing the underlying politics and interpersonal dynamics of
radical movements. The overt sexism that characterized many new
left groups in the 1960s, in which women were relegated to
organizational or service based tasks, has been significantly
challenged, and the role of women in social activism has
significantly changed over the years. Likewise, activist groups are
increasingly willing to problematize the dynamics of privilege and
oppression within their ranks, try to take on problems of racism and
colonialism, and consider the importance of building broader
coalitions and valorizing the voices and strategies of marginalized
people. Another important development has been the formation of
caucuses and other organizational forms designed to overcome
dynamics of oppression within organizing.

At the same time, the practice of anti-oppression politics within
activist groups has had its limitations. Those anti-oppression politics
that are based on confessional and moralistic politics tend to
individualize personal complicity, and can lead to a politics of guilt in
which little concrete action is taken. Radicalism can become
internalized as an identity itself, and those who do not share the
same political language or give the correct answers are often
dismissed, while "unenlightened" movements
such as the mainstream trade union movement are discounted.
While addressing issues of oppression within any movement is
integral to its continued success, there is often so much emphasis
placed on examining individualized relationships that attention is
diverted from political directions that might overcome these
limitations. The process of addressing personal behaviors and
attitudes must be connected to a wider strategy of collective struggle
and social change if it is to be distinguishable from the
"sensitivity training" promoted by state and
corporate structures.

The process of strengthening our critiques and struggles is also
hindered by the expectation that oppressed groups should do all the
work of addressing oppression themselves; for example, it is often
left up to women to overcome sexism, and for people of colour to
combat problems of racism. While the leadership and autonomous
self organization of oppressed groups is key, a politics of
responsibility rather than one of simple representation is necessary in
order to move forward. This politics of responsibility is about more
than solidarity based on learning from and supporting the struggles
of oppressed people. It extends into recognizing and taking
responsibility for our own social locations and our collective
implication in oppression, and understanding how these can inform
our approach to social struggle. At the same time, new practices are
needed so that a politics of responsibility can shape, and be shaped
by, the political direction of an organization. Otherwise, the language
of anti-oppression can provide an "easy way out"
for individuals or organizations, who can attend the obligatory
anti-oppression workshop and adopt a checklist of how to
"be a better ally," while making little more than
rhetorical changes to their political priorities and directions.

Anti-oppression politics have inspired white middle class radicals to
move into supportive roles around the struggles of other
communities and groups. But while it can be important for activists
to "stand back" and "take
leadership" from individuals and groups that have been
systematically disadvantaged or who are at the forefront of specific
struggles, this can lead to an abdication of political judgment and
implication for "privileged" activists. When the
injunction is raised, as it was in the 1960s, for "white
people to organize in your own communities,"
predominantly white middle class activists find themselves with few
tools for actually engaging with white working class communities,
where an anti-oppressive politics based on the "giving up
of privilege" rings hollow.


Part of this inability to work across difference without reducing
one's material standpoint to a fixed mode of being or
consciousness is due to the fact that, in many cases, identity based
"anti-oppression" politics have failed to develop
a clear perspective on capitalism. The totality of class relations is
often reduced to a "classist" attitude held by the
rich or middle class and capitalism is generally thought of as an
abstract, amorphous "thing" whose worst
excesses are opposed on moral grounds. Within this rhetoric,
"class" itself becomes simply one thread woven
into a multi patched fabric of competing identities.

While social relations must not be reduced to political economy,
class must be understood as a pervasive set of historically specific
social relations of property, production, and social power that
implicate everyone, and through which all of our oppressions are
lived. We argue, following the perspective of Himani Bannerji (see
our interview with her in this issue), that a critique of capitalist social
relations and the relations of oppression within which they are
produced and reproduced provides a necessary framework for
realizing the liberatory potential of anti-oppression politics. In
contrast to the narrow "˜class-first' position that
we still hear in parts of the left, we suggest that relations of
exploitation and oppression are organized in and through each other,
and that they have a mutually constructed or mediated social

As activists, we need an approach that speaks to the complexity of
oppression and which seeks to develop a broader class politic that
can tackle this oppression in the context of challenging capitalist
social relations. One of our goals with this journal is to create a space
for dialogue across difference that does not give in to fragmentation,
but which works to come up with strategies for change that are both
context specific, and which have broad appeal. Fragmentation and
difference must not be denied or repressed in the drive for an
artificial unity, but neither should they become self-justifying and
celebrated ends in themselves.
"Anti-oppression" must continue to be engaged,
but not as a static, moralistic and paralyzing analysis and practice. In
order to practice solidarity and realize movement across difference,
we need to replace the abstract language of identity and authenticity
with a materialist understanding of how the social relations of
capitalism are produced and reproduced in all their complexity. To
overcome the impasse at which we currently find ourselves, we must
rejuvenate old, and develop new, critical frameworks for analyzing
capitalism and oppression that speak to the possibilities of common

In solidarity,

The editors.
January 1, 2006.
* A&S - Autonomy & Solidarity is an anticapitalist antiauthoritarian
revolutionary network in Canada.
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