Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Deepening Resistance, Upping the Anti

Upping the Anti is a radical journal, weaving together strands of non-party Marxism and grassroots anti-authoritarian praxis with some very interesting results. Here is how i describe it in my new catalog:

Upping the Anti #3 (November 2006 - 184 pages) The most recent issue of this radical journal from Canada includes interviews with Aijaz Ahmad (“The Anti-Imperialism of our Times”) and William Robinson (“Latin America vs. Global Capitalism”), articles by AK Thompson (“Making Friends With Failure” - thoughts about Richard Day’s book Gramsci Is Dead), Isabel MacDonald (“Haiti: Adventures in Colonialism”), RJ Maccani (“The Zapatistas: Enter the Intergalactic”) and Jen Plyler (“How To Keep On Keeping On” about sustainable modes of long-term community activism). Also, a fascinating roundtable discussion about the struggle at Six Nations and the possibilities and limitations of non-indigenous solidarity. Book reviews of Sociology for Changing the World (Caelie Frampton et al.), Outlaws of America (Dan Berger) and Autobiography of a Blue-Eyed Devil: My life and times in a racist, imperialist society (Inga Muscio).


Like issues one and two, UTA3 contains interviews with movement intellectuals (some “organic,” some academic), articles by activists, and “roundtable discussions” with comrades involved in contemporary radical politics across Canada. It’s a winning combination, with the interviews and roundtables especially providing an accessible format for dealing with some very important issues, ranging from theory to practice and back again. Certainly not an academic publication (that’s a compliment btw), Upping the Anti is well written and touches on complex questions, providing much food for thought.

Issue number three starts off with a thoughtful editorial, Growing Pains: The Anti-Globalization Movement, Anti-Imperialism and the Politics of the United Front – an analysis of the state of the movement and then some. The authors do a good job at summarizing the “anti-globalization moment” of 1997-2001, and examining the differences between politics at that time and the anti-war movement today. More than just a trip down memory lane, this is an ambitious text, one which stakes out positions and tries to define terms.

The most useful part, for me, was how Growing Pains explores the tension between the “pedagogy of confrontation” (associated with the anti-globalization movement) and the politics of “the united front” (associated with the anti-war movement today). To discuss this properly would require a separate post, but to (greatly) summarize, the pedagogy of confrontation involves more aggressive tactics and politics aimed at empowering people and getting results, as “people will be moved to action once it is demonstrated that action is both possible and effective.” (35) The united front, on the other hand, is concerned with not alienating less radical people, pursuing “minimum demands while at the same time arguing against the limitations of the minimal platform.” (34)

It’s a good lens through which to examine movements, more fruitful (at the present time) than either the anarchist/socialist or reformist/revolutionary ones.

That said, Growing Pains seems to stretch a little too far, proposing that we need to transcend the “politics of responsibility to the Other” and use “dialectical images” as a way of moving forwards. While i agree with some of what i understood, it felt like the argument should have either been pared down or else given an extra few pages to fully explain what the authors mean. As it is, the logic seems a bit too fast and some of the examples a bit too easy, leaving this reader unsure if he had understood everything that was being said.

A good beginning nevertheless. Even if - or perhaps especially because – one may have to read it a few times to grasp what is being said. Editorials are often bland little things where the people behind a publication fly their flag and pretend to be important, indulging in their favourite platitudes – Growing Pains is several cuts above that.


In previous issues the best parts of Upping the Anti were the interviews and roundtables, and #3 is no exception.

UTA3 features interviews with Aijaz Ahmad and William I. Robinson, each of whom discuss different questions pertaining to different parts of the world, but nevertheless return to some common concerns. I’m not sure if this was the intention of the UTA crew or just happy happenstance, but they work well side by side.

Ahmad, a leading Marxist academic from the Indian subcontinent, defends the need for a revolutionary party, argues that communists should immerse themselves in practical struggles responding to the needs of the oppressed, and briefly describes the different factions within right-wing anti-imperialist Islam. There is a lot going on here, and this interview could have easily been twice as long – as it stands parts of it feel more like a tease than anything else... (lucky me, i notice a local library has several of Ahmad’s books...)

Robinson’s interview is less far-ranging, focusing on the “turn to the left” in Latin America and the nature of global capitalism. Like Ahmad, Robinson argues that revolutionaries should not abandon the struggle for State power, while stressing that it is only because of the extra-parliamentary pressure from the masses that even “progressive” governments are enabled (or forced?) to stand up to global capitalism. Particularly interesting was his discussion of capital’s separation from the nation-state, and the strategic importance of indigenous struggles today – though again, each could have been discussed in quite a bit more detail.

If both of these interviews touch upon the question of the State, it would be misleading to pretend that this is a preoccupation of the journal as a whole. UTA is clearly situated within the non-party radical left, and i understand these dialogues as being a positive byproduct of an ongoing openness to the experiences and lessons of intelligent people, regardless of their precise tendency.

While the interviews with Ahmad and Robinson were very interesting, the Six Nations Roundtable is probably the most important part of UTA3, as a document from a struggle actually going on within/against Canada today. As readers of this blog will know, the people of Six Nations have been involved in a historic struggle to reclaim their land along the Grand River, a struggle which has had as its flashpoint the settler town of Caledonia, where this year Six Nations people managed to put a stop to real estate development on their land through a ten-month occupation.

UTA3’s Six Nations section starts out with a summary by Tom Keefer of the situation at the Kanenhstaton (Protected Place) reclamation site, providing an overview of what this struggle is about and what has happened, both during the “hot points” (a massive police raid, racist settler rallies, etc.) and the less dramatic day-to-day.

This is followed by an interview with Degunohdohgae (Brian Skye), a member of the Cayuga Nation who explains the significance of the Reclamation within the struggle against Canadian colonialism. Degunohdohgae also describes the positive role of solidarity from non-indigenous people.

It is this question of solidarity which constitutes the real focus of the entire Roundtable. Which is an honest thing to do, as UTA is a not an indigenous journal, but one mainly written by and directed towards the settler left. So the rest of the Roundtable consists of an interview with Jan Watson, a white woman from Caledonia who has been active in organizing against the rise of racism in the settler community, and with three members of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty.

It is the discussion with OCAP members that is particularly interesting, as these are anti-capitalist, anti-authoritarian activists – people from the same broad tendency as UTA – discussing their own perceived strengths and weaknesses in regards to providing solidarity with Six Nations.

The question of solidarity, what it means and what its limitations are, is one which has been grappled with for years by comrades in North America. It has been of particular saliency to white activists, as so many of the heaviest struggles do not obviously involve us, and so many of us find ourselves more often in the position of “privileged outsider” than actual protagonist. The middle class complexion of the white left combined with the retreat of feminism and queer liberation onto the terrain of cultural politics just exacerbates this situation. And when we have gotten solidarity wrong, we have sometimes done more damage than the State itself...

So while these issues are addressed in relationship to events at Six Nations, there are some lessons here that will be familiar to many.

For instance, i can certainly relate to this observation by A.J. Withers:

It is very challenging as an outsider to negotiate the need for me to be in my place as a supporter and still be myself. In the beginning I acted very differently than I do now as I increasingly feel confident in myself and my actions. My desire to be pleasing when I first started going meant that I actually behaved poorly. Because I was afraid I would offend someone. I wasn’t as honest as I could have been, even when I was being asked for my opinion. That wasn’t fair to anyone. (161)

Many of us have struggled with this racist tendency to tailor ourselves to what we think people want us to be, making ourselves in fact disingenuous allies. Which is no way to be a real ally at all.

The discussion with OCAP folk has a refreshing lack of defensiveness, and participants seem to share a sincere desire to be honest about the racist errors that solidarity activists so often stumble into. Here is another useful observation Withers makes:

It is important to remember that we [non-native supporters] are not and never will be the central players in this movement. Solidarity work is not in itself liberatory, only the struggles of the people directly affected will see their liberation.

I think that it is key that we take leadership from native people and that we ensure that we are taking it from the people, not a few people. It isn’t hard, in a community of a few thousand, to find someone to tell you what you want to hear and call that leadership. It is hard to try and figure out what an actual community wants and do that. (163)

Of course, this in itself is not a perfect response. After all, “the community” is rarely monolithic. Acting on behalf of “the community” can translate into acting on behalf of those who have more power or prestige and have hegemony, rather than those whose struggle bears with it the greatest potential for liberation.

In certain situations the correct thing for revolutionaries to do is not to respect the wishes of the majority, but to ally with those people we have the most in common with, even though they may only be a minority.

I am not talking specifically about Six Nations here, nor am i talking about intervening in other people’s societies – in fact regardless of our alliances, i think we definitely should not intervene to boost those we consider the “most revolutionary” – but the basis of our alliance should go beyond simple solidarity. It should be based on a shared position of struggle, and with that grounding it should be with those whose struggles intersect with our own. With an eye to spotting class differences, and pushing against the capitalist grain that keeps our perspective pointed upwards, we must turn our sight to the most oppressed.

This kind of politics, which in bygone days would have been called “internationalism,” is clearly reflected in several things the OCAP comrades had to say. For instance, quoting Withers again:

The obvious connection to OCAP’s anti-poverty work is that a lot of Native people are poor, especially in the cities. [...] More than being about poverty, though, connecting anti-poverty and Native rights movements is about building resistance. Aside from there being a lot of poor Natives, poor people and First Nations people have a great deal in common in regards to our issues, struggles and repression we face. (156)

Or as Josh Zucker recalls:

I remember the first conversation I had with anyone at the reclamation site was about welfare rates. It was the first day I was there and I was talking with a man named John about when he lived on the streets in Toronto. He told me point blank that we should be fighting to get the welfare rates raised in Toronto and so we talked a bit about the OCAP “Raise the Rates” campaign. The connection is obvious. Native people live in extreme poverty unknown in many other communities across the country. (156-7)

As Stefanie Gude explains:

Our relationship to supporting indigenous struggle, as an organization, is centered on our own struggle against the government, for welfare, disability, housing, access to health care – a fight for respect and dignity, against poverty and oppression. (160)

Finally, Gude reminds us that:

Non-native activists need to understand that indigenous struggle will never be won because of the actions of settlers. We need to understand our responsibility to fight the racism and power on the settler side, which may not be the most glamorous or exciting part of the fight, but a part of it only we can and should do. Many people who spent time at the site or who came together to plan support for the reclamation here in Toronto are rooted in struggles of their own. This is one of the reasons why we came together, because we are already fighting. This is also one of the reasons why it is hard, albeit crucial, to support the six Nations peoples. You can’t drop your own fight – because it is exactly that which grounds you and offers one way to understand why indigenous struggle is so crucial and what your role supporting it should be.  (167)

These are all important points, positions which are the product of past generations of struggle. They don’t add up to anything particularly complicated or awe-inspiring, just a basic call to work within one’s own community, wherever that might be, and to use one’s grounding there as a basis for forging alliances with other people in struggle.

My one criticism of the Six Nations section as a whole is that, given its focus on solidarity, it could have benefited from a summary of what forms solidarity has taken. The roundtable format has important strengths, but because of its emphasis on subjective experience it is best tempered with more “objective” informational piece. This would make it easier to see how some of the self-criticisms advanced by the interviewees played out in concrete ways. References are made to spending too much time at the cookhouse, and insufficient ties to First Nations people in Toronto (where OCAP is based, 100km from the Reclamation site), but for people from other communities who have not followed this struggle closely, the relevance of this may not be clear.

Given that this section is a good historical document that comrades could learn from in future struggles, it should be noted that this shortcoming will be only grow in importance as time goes on. In this vein, i would recommend for instance Tom Keefer’s article Caledonia's fifth column: white anti-racism in solidarity with Six Nations which appeared in the August 2006 issue of Briarpatch magazine, which provides a good deal of background information and context to the debates around solidarity with Six Nations.


Upping The Anti continues to be a welcome source of ideas for North American, and specifically Canadian, activists... and i haven’t even mentioned the articles about Canadian imperialism in Haiti, about the Zapatistas, or about sustainable habits of activism – perhaps in a future post!

If you are in Canada you can order Upping the Anti directly from Autonomy & Solidarity, anybody can order it from Kersplebedeb for $13 US postage included:

Wholesale rates available – please contact info@kersplebedeb.com for details!

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