By Beck, Kazm Collective (RAAN Rockville - MD)
This essay originally appeared in the second issue of Praxis, journal of the Red & Anarchist Action Network (Fall, 2003)
I became involved in activism at the beginning of this year in the mainstream anti-war movement with a coalition of high school activists in the "peace and justice" tradition. The group I had joined was drawn together for the purpose of organizing walkouts, permitted rallies in the Washington DC area, and marching together in the large demonstrations occurring almost weekly in the city. Unfamiliar with activism and organizing, but already radical in my ideology, I quickly became frustrated with the pervasive "no protest without permit" attitude of the group and after just a month I transferred my energy to another, Students for Peace and Justice (SPJ). It seemed less stereotypically liberal in activity and membership, but despite the purportedly anti-authoritarian ideals of some its participants and the occasional unpermitted demonstration, the same reformist tendencies thrived in this group and extinguished any radical effort from within, as I discovered was the case with the liberal protest movement in general.
For the purposes of this essay, I'm only going to spend time recounting the problems in the organization that I believe to be mostly a result of its liberal and "inclusive" nature. For the sake of space, I will not be addressing some other important issues, such as the tendency of adult activists (especially those campaigning for statist "youth rights") to develop extremely predatory relationships with self-run student groups, particularly whenever the latter manages to raise any kind of money.
THE LIBERAL DISEASE
Any group that forms in reaction to a war needs to connect that cause and accompanying fervor of immediate opposition to some type of permanent endeavor. Otherwise, the movement will die out as we have seen: at the whim of the corporate media's attention span and the state's tolerance. In SPJ, every time one of the few anti-capitalists in the group made literature about or organized demonstrations to illustrate the obvious connections between the war machine and the class system, we were sure to hear "Don't alienate the moderates!" from those who would rather complain and debate instead of simply making their own literature or just get more involved in the organizing. Exacerbating the reactive quality of anti-war organizing was the "movement's" insistence on limiting our protests to only those avenues allowed by the state. Liberals wade through permit paperwork, ignoring the absurdity of having to ask permission from the entity against which they protest (but do liberals really ever know what they're protesting?).
Liberals are fixated on popular causes-they make no effort to transform their immediate surroundings and their own communities, where they could more easily make a noticeable difference. In the throes of anti-war organizing, the radical elements of SPJ attempted to steer the larger group towards regular food distribution in the "feed the streets" tradition. Such actions would have made the organization and activism in general more relevant to the participants' lives, not to mention it would have been more rewarding and effective in an immediate sense. Even so, SPJ was only able to put together one or two servings before a lack of participation forced us to abandon the idea. Such failures demonstrate the essentially tourist nature of the anti-war movement, which drew in thousands of people who were happy to chant their approved slogans and wave some peace flags, but had no more time to donate when it came to building actual cultures of resistance.
FAILURE TO CONFRONT PATRIARCHY
As often happens in any group, sexually dictated roles surfaced, and in SPJ they began to dominate. One male participant became the informal leader of our purportedly "leaderless" group; meetings would be re-scheduled if he could not attend, decisions wouldn't be considered final without his input, and his frequent and blatant sexist remarks were ignored, tolerated, or encouraged with laughter and passivity. This kind of dynamic can emerge in any group whether liberal or radical, the difference being that many radical groups have strived to develop mechanisms and processes to address and combat such problems, whereas liberal groups will for the most part contentedly deny the existence of oppressive relationships within their ranks (could this be because such relationships do not fundamentally contradict with their agenda?). After months of dealing with his condescending and sexist attitude, I conferred on the issue with some of the more outspoken females of SPJ, along with a few males who I had assumed would be sympathetic. Though not everyone would acknowledge the existence of the problem, everyone I spoke to was in agreement that we should establish a process for dealing with sexism "in the event that it should occur." A tentative meeting to work on such a process was scheduled, but it never happened because the only people radical enough to recognize the problem and want to take action against it were too busy doing all of the work in organizing for SPJ's events (which of course doesn't mean that those events weren't still subject to the same censorship as our attempt to distribute anti-capitalist literature).
REFUSAL TO BUILD ALTERNATIVES
Around the same time, there was a discussion in the group regarding how we should spend a relatively large sum of money that had been raised at a benefit concert. By then it was already the end of April, and the past anti-war fervor had died down. Despite having loosely united students from several local high schools, SPJ had neglected to make any sort of plan for a long-term existence, and the group did not have any mission statement beyond an affinity for the vague and subjective ends of "peace and justice" (this is representative of the tendency in most liberal organizations to focus on poorly-defined ends without paying enough attention to the means). Almost everyone in the group thought that it would be a good idea to give the money to an organization that was doing humanitarian aid work in Iraq. I suggested that we donate some portion of our funds to a local activist space and community living room that had been struggling to re-open due to the indifference and inaction of the decidedly liberal suburb in which it was located. The idea of supporting this project - or any local project - was widely rejected in favor of giving the money to a well-funded mainstream organization such as Doctors Without Borders. Lost on the membership of SPJ was the fact that donations under $1000 rarely have the kind of "make or break" effect on international aid groups that they can when directed at struggling grassroots projects.
"ACTIVISM" AS A "HOBBY"
Just as liberal activists refuse to act in their own communities, they also fail to make their struggle relevant to their own lives. As youth, we are subject to coercive relationships in school and we are the constant victims of ageism in society. Had SPJ chosen to explore these problems and their connections to an overall authoritarian structure, it could have become an instrument of youth liberation - or at least a prominent forum for such an under-appreciated cause. Near the end of my time with the organization, after much of the membership's participation in the group had dissipated along with the anti-war fad, some of the other anti-authoritarians and I attempted to organize such an instrument in the form of a radical wing within SPJ. We had shared frustration at the anti-war movement's failures, and even agreed to a large extent on the cause of those failures. I outlined some unifying principles for a youth liberation group, and planned to begin focusing my attention on that project. But when it came time to make something happen, even those who I had thought to be more radical, those who had shared my enthusiasm for personal and youth liberation, proved to be reluctant to abandon the directionless, meaningless, and vague banner of Students for Peace and Justice. Or worse, they refused to recognize high school as an oppressive, ageist, and authoritarian institution, and could not commit to something that was interested in true social change. The group planned to meet once, never did, and just like our supposed forum on sexism, the project died before it could even take shape.
The last event I organized with SPJ was its most radical: an unpermitted street party as a counter-celebration to the 4th of July. Dubbed "The [No Government Can Give You Your] Independence Day Street Party", members of the group who had not attended the planning meetings or contributed in any way to the organization of the event began to complain about the name and radical nature of the party. I helped author a call for a radical bloc at the action with the Red & Anarchist Action Network, and we signed it "Disgruntled SPJ anti-authoritarians." When I told a few people that I was planning on disassociating myself from the organization after the event, I was called "selfish" and "irrational." Despite such convincing arguments, I have not involved myself with the group again since that day. As for the rest of Students for Peace & Justice, they have not had an action or meeting since that July 4th street party.
Infuriated by the glaring failures of SPJ and "mass" organizations like it, and hoping to find a way to connect the divide between activism and our immediate surroundings and lives, two friends and I have recently started a collective affiliated with RAAN. The Kazm Collective, which at this writing has met just three times, has already given birth to a Food Not Bombs and a bike collective which will soon host our town's first Critical Mass/Critical Thrash. Participants have been introduced to radical culture via group dumpster diving and wheatpaste campaigns, and we've already established ourselves as a very effective group in the area. In fact, so far the only meeting that hasn't been totally productive was one in which a Leninist showed up (mind you, he was already familiar with the network's anti-Leninist Principles & Direction) and derailed a good chunk of the meeting by insisting that we talk about "politics."
Liberals are not our allies - they will thwart any radical action at every turn. "Uniting" with them means the inevitable dilution of our ideals. It is exhausting for the individual and totally useless to the movement. Uncompromising revolutionaries united can achieve successful actions and build community, while a few lone radicals in a reformist organization will accomplish nothing. Their actions will be infiltrated and their energy will be wasted.