A response from the front lines of protest
David Solnit is editor of the new book Globalize Liberation: How to Uproot the System and Build a Better World (City Lights), an anthology of theories and perspectives drawn from many sectors of the global justice, community organizing, and antiwar movements. Senior editor Jon Spayde asked Solnit, a key strategist in the Seattle anti-World Trade Organization protests and a participant in the demonstrations at the Republican National Convention, to respond to the 'Activistism' essay and talk about the role of ideas in today's activism.
Do you agree with Featherstone, Henwood, and Parenti that the 'movement' has been weak on analysis?
In the past five years there has been an exciting upsurge of grassroots thinking and ideas within the diverse movements that Featherstone, Henwood, and Parenti lump together and accuse of shallowness and anti-intellectualism. While the U.S. bombs civilians, they say 'Stop the Bombing' signs and anti-corporate-capitalism speeches are thoughtless, but never say why -- or what their smarter alternative is. Globalize Liberation is one effort to encourage more thinking and discussion by amplifying the voices of thinkers from these new radical movements.
I am a carpenter, an activist, and a puppeteer who thinks. The contributions in the book come from other grassroots intellectuals -- immigrant farmworkers in South Florida, Critical Mass agitators in San Francisco, immigrant rights activists in Toronto, neighborhood assembly participants in Buenos Aires, European anticapitalist performance artists. These thinkers have replaced the professional intellectuals of past eras. Their grassroots intellectualism takes place in many spaces: listserves, discussion groups, independent media sites, and zines. They think on many levels: cultural, spiritual, and interpersonal as well as economic and political.
What is the chief value of having a theory?
We need to understand the systemic roots of our problems, envision a better world, and create strategies to get us there. To do that we have to get our hands dirty, apply ideas, then rethink them and keep applying them. (And the 'we' needs to be lots and lots of us.) Without the doing, and without the willingness to admit mistakes, theories become weak and of little use to anyone.
It is this thinking-doing-rethinking that builds movements. It's responsible for the innovations that have moved us forward, won victories, and inspired even more thinking and doing, from the Zapatista uprising to the Seattle WTO shutdown to the huge marches during the Republican convention. Many movements use the term laboratory of resistance to describe this process of innovation, experimentation, and evaluation. Our actions and organizing are an experiment, and if we evaluate that experiment and learn from it, it's a success.
The era of monolithic ideologies is over. The collapse of the dominant kinds of Marxism -- Marxism-Leninism and state socialism -- with their legacy of brutal dictatorships, movement-wrecking sectarian groups, and leadership by rigid ideologues, has opened up great breathing space for new radical thinking and movements. New movements can't be lumped into a single ideology or theory. The world and the ideas our movements draw on are far more complex -- which is bad for debating grand theories, but good for a better future. The world is a web of different communities, people, identities, and experiences, confronted with a bunch of ugly interlocking oppressive institutions. We need more than one analysis to understand the world and change it. We need to learn from feminism, anarchism, ecology, indigenous thinking, inner-city community organizers, mass movements of the global south, direct action campaigns, and more. It is at times messy, contradictory, and confusing, but also exciting, hopeful, and absolutely necessary.
LEARN MORE: For 'How to Form a Study Group' and 'Five Things Activists/Intellectuals Can Do to Be More Reflective and Effective,' go to: http://globalizeliberation.org.