Members of the Combahee River Collective march to protest the murders of Black women in Boston in 1979. (Tia Cross)
  • Q&A

What the overlooked history of post-1960s organizing can teach activists today

A conversation with the editors of "Remaking Radicalism" — a collection of writings from one of the most underrepresented periods of leftist organizing.
Members of the Combahee River Collective march to protest the murders of Black women in Boston in 1979. (Tia Cross)

Birthed largely out of necessity and shared rage, 2020 was a landmark year in the explosion of bottom-up organizing. While the pandemic only highlighted widening disparities in health care and economic insecurity, the murder of George Floyd by police struck a chord with movements confronting the white supremacist undercurrent of American law enforcement. Mutual aid organizations, tenant unions, mass street protests, occupations and strikes all became daily occurrences — part of an escalation of visible struggle that started with Occupy Wall Street and has moved forward through the years. 

When we are in periods of highly-charged organizing, we often lose the lessons of the past. This is why Emily Hobson and Dan Berger, both historians of activism, started working on a collection of primary documents from social movements during the right’s ascension after the “long ‘60s.” 

Remaking Radicalism” collects hundreds of pieces of writing from one of the most underrepresented periods of left-wing organizing. The depths it probes are profound: speeches from rallies, clippings from movement newspapers, pamphlets that were handed out on the street, and dozens of organizations and social movements from ACT UP to the Clamshell Alliance to the John Brown Anti-Klan Committee. What it offers is a picture of movements both in crisis and managing to persevere, which can teach lessons about how to approach movement building in our present chaotic time.

With that in mind, I interviewed Emily Hobson and Dan Berger about their book, the lasting impacts of some of the social movements it features and the lessons we can learn from them today.

What was the idea behind “Remaking Radicalism,” and how did you approach putting it together?

Hobson: Ten years ago I initially approached Dan with the idea, which came from the fact that I wanted this kind of resource when teaching. I had the sense that it could be useful for ongoing organizing, but also the recent past was very distant to my students, and this period was not represented in the more easily accessible narratives about social movements. Similar anthologies ended with the 1970s and were conceived of as anthologies of the “long ‘60s.” 

Berger: There were a few things already published about the time period, but in general, there was this lacuna — not only in the scholarship, but even in talking to students or to our generation of activists — about what happened between the ‘60s and whenever they got active. Some people were lucky enough to be mentored and come up in a way that connects those dots. But for a lot of people, whatever struggle got them politicized, whatever they are doing now, is reinventing things. I was excited about this project because it seemed like a way to really connect the generations and sort of fill in a lot of the silences that exist because we don’t have a strong inter-generational connection left.

Immediately, we decided we didn’t want to do a linear chronology. It’s like recurring themes that come up, whether it’s about tactics or strategy or even about political ideology. So we wanted to be able to frame a kind of evolving left and series of conversations, and we are approaching the time period thematically rather than chronologically. 

There’s a sense of disagreement in the volume. Some of the people in the book would be opposed to each other’s politics. Some people might even be shocked to see certain ideas included in left spaces. How did you make some of these selections?

Berger: This is where the framework of “usable past” really guided us. We were really motivated by organizing documents that were written in a way that would be conversant with the present — that still spoke to the present, even if the campaign or organization were long defunct. But the particular issues and strategies highlighted are still very much alive. So we looked for documents that highlighted the innovation or ingenuity from the time period, but still resonated with our present.

What are some of the factors that are unique about this period and separated it from earlier and later history?

Berger: There are several things that overshadow the period. The U.S. war in Vietnam and 9/11 bookend the period. Then we have the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. So within that sort of reshuffling of the world system, you have a lot of social movements responding to historical weaknesses in the left. Intersectionality is one attempt, or breakthrough, at that. I would see that as fitting within a larger series of attempts by social movements to figure out a way to fight for change in the context that is heavily out-maneuvered by the right. 

We can look back at things like the civil rights movement as successful, and we encounter them only retrospectively when we think they succeed. And we all know that that’s not the way to think about movements. That’s why we need to take the coup attempt that happened on Jan. 6 so seriously, because the right often wins a lot even if they don’t win the whole pie [such as overthrowing the government]. In this time period we were trying to think about how people are continuing to struggle and what they’re learning and figuring out and experimenting with in the process of that struggle, even if they’re not winning the whole pie. 

There were a lot of world historic challenges and national political and economic shifts that presented different challenges in this time period. I think this has led many people to consider that period as primarily about the right’s ascension, or for the left it’s just a period of falling apart or eating itself. But we knew that this was not the case, and we still have an obligation to learn from the movements even when they aren’t winning. Those are moments of realignment, of reinterpretation, of expansion, of intellectual and strategic experience that sets the terrain for the next period of struggle.

The book discusses the rise of the New Right in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and how movements responded. And now we have just experienced our own kind of rise of the right with Trumpism, national populism and white nationalism. What kind of innovations or lessons from that period can we apply to this current rise of the right?

Berger: The urgency with which Black radicals were calling out incarceration — the conversation that became mass incarceration — was deeply connected with the role that the Klan and Nazis were playing within law enforcement. One thing being explored in this time period is the severity of state violence and how that is a project of, or aligned with, far-right movements that want repressive aspects of the state, even if some of them go to war with that same state.

Hobson: Another place that I see innovations across the book is the kind of repeated engagement with questions of new necessary forms of coalition, and also critiques of unwanted bedfellows. In the first section of the book, “Bodies and Lives,” there is a section on fighting the right that includes critiques around the “sex wars” and a piece from the Feminist Anti-Censorship Task Force. This is a kind of critique of the ways that laws against pornography brought feminists into bed with the Christian right.

But even more dramatically to me, and sort of a productive innovation, is the effort to build power through unexpected kinds of coalitions. That’s the work I get excited by, and it pushes back on the easy narrative that you can write the history of “X” movement and it will always be easily distinguishable from all the others, as opposed to actually having to respond to the right and the state and to economic and environmental circumstances. I also love the ways that you see a lot of critiques of unwanted bedfellows from inside communities of color, particularly the Asian American documents pushing back on anti-affirmative action and “colorblind” politics.

We saw a sort of “putting down of arms” on the left over the course of the book’s time period, but are we experiencing a type of re-armament?

Hobson: I would say to a degree yes, but I think it goes along with a broader shift from this era to our own, which is the decline of vanguardism and the massive growth of anarchist politics. Across the period of the book you see the decline of armed activity tracks with the decline of vanguardism. In the last 10 years, maybe longer, I don’t see the increased investment in armed activity being expressed in a vanguardist way, but in a decentralized and mutual aid, type of way.

Berger: [It’s] a sort of defensive posture — a Black Panther-style display of weaponry more than their usage. I think the kind of street fights we have had all summer, particularly in Portland but other places as well, happens in Europe and Latin America all the time. There is more of a history of street-fighting politics rather than gun politics around the world. However, instead of a street brawl it is an armed street brawl because we are in the United States, which I think is a terrifying prospect.

Hobson: It’s less acts of sabotage against the state or corporate targets and more about defense against heavily armed white nationalist militias. [This] in part comes out of the clinging to the Second Amendment as a left tool, which has the danger of alignment with the state’s definition of violence. 

How do you think people captured identity as a point of struggle and why did that happen in this period?

Berger: The book starts in 1973 and at that point you have almost two solid decades of not only Black radical organizing, but just Black civic organizing, where there is a profound sense of identity. It’s not narrow, but expansive and holistic. And out of that comes a variety of other moments that similarly tried to project identity outward as a way of organizing an expansive political vision. The Puerto Rican independence movement is increasingly important by 1973. Chicano and Latinx organizing, and Indigenous organizing, and so on. The nature of inequality in the United States is already organized through identity — so it is not surprising that resistance would be politicized in the language of identity. Part of the significance of starting with the Combahee River Collective statement about intersectionality was the way that identity is explicitly linked to a socialist politics, which a number of pieces outline.

There are also other kinds of identity that are an entree to political orientation, like Joel Olson’s “Why the Masses Ain’t Asses,” which is from the punk scene. We often think of it as a subculture rather than identity, but it is still an identity-based orientation to politics. There are lots of debates in the period about the role of subculture, who’s being organized and in what way. 

What are the key disagreements in the book, and what are the bigger disagreements of the period?

Berger: I think the debates in the book are largely around strategy and tactics and the role of certain types of confrontation — certainly around violence, but also there’s a lot of debate around how much the left should appeal to the state versus fight the state. How much should you fight to get control or appeal for some kind of reform versus trying to eliminate the state. And there are debates around whether to engage in electoral politics, such as the debate from the Center for Third World Organizing. 

Hobson: I think there are also some debates in the book around the question of what is the scope, extent and nature of state violence. How is environmental degradation a form of state violence or state-sanctioned violence, for example? Or how is the threat of nuclear war — interwoven with actual “hot” war or prisons — a form of state violence?

Berger: I think the debate is not only about whether the left should engage in violence and what that means, but what kind of nonviolence do we mean. We had a strong emphasis on groups or documents that reflect a pursuit of radical or revolutionary transformation. That debate on the left is usually presented as violence or nonviolence, but in fact a more generative debate is about the divide between revolution and reform. So we have a number of documents from pacifists that are about revolutionary transformation, and are really clear about it being more of a strategic choice than a moral one. But many people in these groups were conversant with groups that had a different take on this and were still able to be in coalition with them. I think there are a number of people on the “diversity of tactics” left today that would benefit from that emphasis — the dynamic being a question of revolution versus reform, rather than violence versus nonviolence.

How do you hope social movements will use this book?

Berger: One thing is being able to recognize all of the issues and documents in the book as part of a shared movement and left. There has been a lot of commentary on Medicare for All and the leading edge of demands in the progressive left are all very national, and stop at the U.S. border. One thing I hope the book can do is be a reminder that issues of colonialism and imperialism and Indigenous sovereignty are and should be a part of what the left is about. And the conversations in the books have corollaries and successors in movements today. They are part of making the left and fashioning radicalism today.

Hobson: I hope that people and organizations can look to the book and find multiple forerunners that they may not have known about before and can trace back their own influences. I hope it can help people think about building inter-generational movements and organizations in new ways.  I hope it not just reminds people of the centrality of anti-imperialism and decolonization and Indigenous politics, but also points towards some ways to resuscitate the internationalist left that has been lost in the post-2008 era.

Berger: Some of our framing is older than we might realize. One thing I learned in doing the book is that prisoners in North Carolina in 1974 used the phrase “prison industrial complex.” So I hope the book can be a source of inspiration for people so they can draw on the deeper past for all the issues we are fighting for today. And that it can be an affirmation of a kind of need for experimentation, or at least the need for solidarity. We can’t be in every single movement or campaign, but we can expand our coalition and our sense of who and what we are in solidarity with.



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